leads the world
Young, brash and with lots of cash to flash, that was Belfast 100 years
ago when the city hall was nearing completion.
This confection in Portland stone and Italian marble was intended to
show that this dynamic industrial and commercial powerhouse was no mean
city, in spite of having had city status for less than 20 years at this
This was a city, already known as Linenopolis, leading the world not
only in the production of linen but of huge ships, ropes, tea-drying
machinery and aerated water. It was a city of innovation, inventing,
among many other things, milk of magnesia, air-conditioning and barbed
This had been a massive building site since sine 1896 when the White
Linen Hall was demolished to make way for a symbol of the city’s
new status and confidence in itself.
The winner of the competition to design the city hall was a young London
architect Alfred Brumwell Thomas. The final cost of building it was
£360,000, twice the original estimate and the Local Government
Board in Dublin Castle ordered a special inquiry.
By 1906 Belfast had its grand hub and the city hall was to play a central
role in the century that followed, the setting for the Signing of the
Covenant in 1912, the seat of the first parliament of Northern Ireland,
after partition in 1921, the focus of huge rallies and demonstration
like the VE Day celebrations in 1945, homecoming welcomes for Olympic
gold medallist Mary Peters and world boxing champion Barry McGuigan
and the visit of United States President Bill Clinton.
Across the street from city hall, on the corner of Donegall Square North
and Donegall Place, is the imposing façade of what was, until
the late 20th century, Robinson and Cleaver’s department store.
Robinson and Cleaver had opened for business in 1888 and established
itself as one of the city’s landmarks not just with its size and
the luxury goods that were despatched to all corners of the world (an
estimated third of all parcels leaving the city came from here) but
with its use of polished Aberdeen granite, thousands of square feet
of mirrors and polished wood.
The big ‘wow factor’ in the store was its sweeping staircase
of Australian jarrah wood.
You can still see, on the outside of the building, the busts of some
of Robinson and Cleaver’s grander customers, Queen Victoria, Prince
Albert, the Emperor and Empress of Germany and the Maharajah of Cooch
At the time the city hall was being finished the store was thriving
and so were the city’s flourishing middle classes who were leaving
the inner city for newly-created suburbs served by a newly-extended
and electrified tram service.
For those who laboured, or hoped to labour, in the mills, docks, factories
and shipyards it was a different story.
The rapid growth of the city drew in the rural poor in their thousands
and the over-supply of labour led to suppressed wages and poor working
conditions for many.
In spite of the wealth being generated thousands lived in poverty in
overcrowded and unsanitary conditions so the boast of being ‘no
mean city’ was hollow one for a great many of those looking on
as the city hall rose to its domed 173 foot height.
On to the corner of Lombard Street and High Street where Sherlock Holmes
got his coats and a rebel leader went to his death.