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The history of Belfast's Exchange & Assembly Rooms

Article contributed by Raymond O'Regan.

(June 2004)

Greater Belfast

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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 to today's 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 brothers.

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.

left side of belfast's assembly rooms
front side of belfast's assembly rooms
 Belfast's Assembly Rooms, near Bridge Street
 The 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 anyway.

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 museum rooms.

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 wherever possible.

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.

Chris Beattie
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 these?

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