The Exchange and Assembly Rooms:
Of the many commercial buildings that reflect life
in 18th century Belfast the one that stands out the
most is the Exchange and Assembly Rooms, until recently
the Northern Bank. It stands on the corner of North
St and Waring St.
1769 -- The Earl of Donegall, an absentee
landlord, celebrating the birth of his son George Augustus,
paid £4,000 for the building of a single storey
building called "The Exchange "
1776 --The Earl added a second storey,
designed by the distinguished London architect Sir Robert
Taylor, known as "the Assembly Rooms". This
new addition cost the Earl £7,000, but being one
of the biggest landlords in Ireland and the owner of
the town of Belfast he could well afford it.
1783 -- The Earl of Donegall, as
Colonel of the Belfast Battalion of Volunteers (equal
reserve army) hosted
a reception for 360 guests in the Assembly Rooms.
1785 -- The first meeting of the
"Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port
of Belfast" (now the Harbour Commissioners) was
held in the Assembly Rooms.
1786 -- There was an abortive attempt
to set up a "Belfast Slaveship Company" by
a group of Belfast merchants lead by Waddell Cunningham.
(Cuningham had made his fortune in New York before returning
home to Belfast.) Thomas McCabe, whose premises were
just across the road at 6 North St., denounced this
vile idea and the proposition was defeated.*
*Thomas McCabe was a successful watchmaker and was
also a member of the United Irishmen . His house stood
on what is now St Malachy's College on the present day
Antrim Road. The meetings to plan the attack on Antrim
in the 1798 uprising were held in his house. His shop
in North St was repeatedly attacked by government troops
because of his involvement with the United Irishmen.
1792 -- From the 11th - 14th July
the famous Belfast Harp festival was held in the Assembly
Rooms. Ten harpists, most of them blind, took part in
this celebration of the fall of the Bastille. There
was also a march by the various Belfast Volunteer companies
through the town. Wolfe Tone who was passing through
Belfast on his way to exile in America, attended the
festival with some of his United Irishmen colleagues
and wasn't too impressed with the musicianship of some
of the harpists. The festival has a special place in
the history of Irish music because Edward Bunting, organist
and friend of the McCracken family, transcribed these
old Irish airs for posterity (reprints of this historic
document can be purchased at the Linenhall Library in
Donegall Square North).
1798 -- 17th July -- After the failure
of the "98
rebellion" the Assembly Rooms took on the air
of a military court when Colonel Montgomery presided
over the trial of the famous Henry Joy McCracken.
McCracken had lead the unsuccessful attack on Antrim
in June 1798. Robert Simms was the original commander
but lost his nerve and Henry stepped in. He escaped
the battlefield, hid out on Slemish Mountain and in
the cottage of a man called Bodell on the Cavehill.
He was eventually captured while trying to make his
escape on his way through Carrickfergus.
After being found guilty, and refusing an opportunity
to be released if he informed on Robert Simms, he was
taken and at 5pm hanged at the Market House at the corner
of High St. and Cornmarket (present day Dunnes store).
The normal punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered
and the head placed on a spike on top of the Market
House as an example to others. His equally famous sister
Mary Ann McCracken pleaded to the Colonel and got his
body back intact and the body was taken back to the
McCracken house in Rosemary Street where they made an
abortive attempt to revive him. It was to no avail and,
followed by a small cortege, he was taken to High Street
graveyard (present day St. Georges), and buried. His
remains are now believed to have been re-interred in
his sister's grave in Clifton Street where many of his
United Irishmen comrades are also buried eg Thomas McCabe,
William Drennan, Dr Wm Steele Dickson, the Sinclair
1799 -- The Belfast Charitable Society
met in the Assembly rooms to revive the Belfast Dispensary
and Fever Hospital which had fallen into neglect. The
society had opened a fever hospital in Berry St around
1794. This fever hospital was the forerunner of the
Royal Victoria Hospital. It would remove to West St,
then in 1817 to Frederick St and became known as the
General hospital, then The Royal Hospital before being
superseded when the "Royal " opened on the
Grosvenor Road in 1901.
1820 -- When the larger Commercial
buildings (present day Northern Whig building) opened
across the road the Exchange and Assembly building reverted
back to its use as business premises.
Assembly Rooms, near Bridge Street
Assembly Rooms, now used as a Theatre
2002 -- The old Assembly building
once more resounded to the sounds of entertainment when
the Martin Lynch co-production of "The History
of the Troubles According to My Da" played to packed
houses. Since then there have been more local companies
treading the boards in this piece of Belfast's history.
The " for sale " signs are now up on the building
and wouldn't it be appropriate to bring back into life
the old assembly rooms as a theatre.
Jimmy - Aug '06
Yet again we see the greed of outsiders or local 'nerdowells'
having their own way. Never mind the fact that they
will sell up to the highest bidder at the first chance
of a few bucks. Is it not time those in the planning
service got their nose out of the trough and decide
approval on merit, not brown envelopes.... just look
at the way north belfast is going, hardly a blade of
grass can be seen among the new "apartments"
which by all accounts show no sign of being curtailed.
The top end of the Antrim Road area will soon be a cultural
dessert once the only half decent in "honey club"
is closed and built over.
If only we locals had a say, or is it not too late to
protest to the powers that be?
Anon - July '05
A theatre is a great idea. Everyone knows Belfast
needs another theatre venue close to the centre since
the demise of the Civic Arts Theatre, and the small
Group Theatre which was only used much by amateur groups
Can we have theatre in the city centre (aside from
at the Old Museum A.C theatre venue)?
It is a shame to hear of the intention to get rid of
the lovely, characterful and identity giving recent
building which is the Lyric Theatre. No, it is more
than a shame. It's not to late, is it?Apparently, if
you build it (a new rather than familiar piece on the
site) they will come - from outside the city! The Lyric
is small and should stay that way. This is an assault
on many facets of identities. The city is small.
Much better would be to save this building and have
The Assembly Rooms as another theatre. Aside from the
advantage to the city of keeping the great little Lyric
building, what we need is a venue of a modest to medium
size close to the city centre. Just like this one.
Not a new Lyric building. We don't need someone telling
us that architects have done wrong in the century of
much change and we can't keep it or anything else we
know. It is great to travel up to the Lyric, but to
have the only city theatre there some distance from
the centre and for this to be the plan for many years
to come, is a much worse idea. Anyway the reason why
it is great to travel up to the Lyric, nearly the only
reason, is the great little building, very sympathetic
in this great location a product of more recent architectural
insight and societal and artistic reflection and a super
place to relax beside the river. There isn't a warmer
feeling that sitting in the Lyric Bar, and the unpretentious
auditorium is totally apt, the most apt. Anything else
would be bland, but aside from this it would not be
The Lyric. Not only this, it would not be enticing.
Really it is the building that exists now in this quiet
and shaded location which is the enticing factor of
the ! theatre. Taste is a huge thing in this area.
Not only are people who know nothing content to pull
down most of what has been characterful of Belfast's
early 20th century buildings, for example within the
last decade or a bit more The Curzon and ABC and others,
which has been criminal to say the least, but our pieces
of more recent identity and great empathy are now targeted,
in an ongoing city asset-stripping exercise. Some of
these art-deco buildings and post deco buildings were
some of the finest examples to be found and a very large
part of the character of the city. Perhaps the wars
were not enough. And the 20s are 30s were not enough
now in the asset extraction pursuit.
When will this stop? Jury's Hotel is terrible. What
it replaced can never be found again.
It is much better to make civic use of a nice old building
like The Assembly Rooms and put the need for more theatre
space which exists in Belfast, where it exists, in the
city centre. Here, within orbeside, a central arts cafe-bar
meeting place which opens lateish would make a great,
inspiring and much needed arts focus to the centre of
the city. It just seems to me that some people for around
twenty years, and moreso just now are searching for
what iconoclasm is, in action and provocation, not realising
that it is inappropriate, where maybe it was appropriate
once, but not realising also that it has been done already.
There is nothing more sensible than this suggestion
for very attractive The Assembly Rooms building. A bank
or shop or offices would be a waste here, a potential
spoiling to the public of a slice of the city, as seen
elsewhere, for example the former Linenhall Pub (though
the building at least still remains).
Is this idea feasible? Could someone who knows post?
In any event I have been considering that the large
venues of the Grand Opera House and also across from
this, the Assembly Hall, Fisherwick Place, for the Lyric
Players and other worthy players who perform at the
Lyric, once or twice in each performance schedule would
be most sensible. Certainly better it would be than
a few more seats in the site of the theatre we have
and greatly appreciate in a projected main hall.
For studio theatre, aside from the Waterfront, Old
Museum A.C. and I suppose possibly and inevitably within
the Ulster Hall recital space, can't anyone (anyway)
use the Crescent Arts Theatre? This is just one space
which isn't used. Am I the only one to stand up and
say that the money is direly needed for arts events
and groups. We have spaces. To the Arts Council the
message is PUT THINGS ON.
The most obvious start and wholly relevant here, we
need to see more or much more, often just some, proper
theatre at the Grand Opera House, now that there is
next to no opera and largely musicals in the centre
of the city. Aside from studio theatre in the Old Museum,
and with the exception of quite occasional visiting
London performances, shows from the Andrew Lloyd-Weber
pot is the most the centre of the town has been getting
for years (and not serious arts).
It is more than a shame. The Assembly Hall across the
way is nearly never used, and a great candidate for
larger scale theatre than at the Lyric reasonably often.
And music of course, should there be any performing
groups to encourage.
Though if at all possible, the Waring Street building
has phenomenal potential for theatre and also an arts
focus, a cafe-bar meeting place to encourage artists,
young and older in the city. Among other things a scene
will attract performing artists, certainly beyond the
periodic and bemusing to sporadic to occasionally exceptional
festival life the city lives on. Another good proposal
here is that of small, city historically orientated
I am convinced that the building merits much better
than normal business use as I have said, but moreso,
a theatre here, notwithstanding the call of valid, sensible
and very worthy preservation for within the building
itself (but hardly inspired, not of necessity and perhaps
only ornamental in large part). Though with such an
opportunity, and such a need, and such folly in proposal
in South Belfast, and in most cases I wouldn't even
consider what I am suggesting, this may be left behind
in favour of developing within the overall scheme of
the building frame, retaining characteristic details
Would it be possible to achieve an open ground floor
with a good sized raised theatre, allowing for an opened
first floor descending close to half floor-space gallery?
This way the most beneficial auditorium room with seating
for 250 to 400 persons might easily be designed so to
be built around the building's available boundary space,
keeping cornices and up to half, or slightly more of
the ground floor roof.
Where there are those, and I would be one should the
need and potential not both be as great as it is, and
this is hard to understate, who should even be supportive
of retaining the rooms as they are, should it mean the
facility of the building going over to private offices,
this is one exceptional situation. A great opportunity
which, after some consideration clearly calls for modernisation
within to provide the most beneficial space in terms
of the great building and excellent location, a place
just where it is needed and greatly needed.
I'm an interior design student and I am using this building
for my major project. However I am having problems finding
pictures of the interior... I have been in the building
to photograph it but the light levels meant poor quality
pictures. Would anyone have or know where I could obtain