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16 October 2014
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point one: city hall
Belfast city hall

Linenopolis 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.

Listen to an audio guide to this section of the walk

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 stage.

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 wire.

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 Behar.

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.

  The Walk

Map of Belfast Belfast City Hall Cornmarket
intro part 1 part 2

St Georges
Donegal Quay
Queen's Bridge
PART 3 part 4 part 5

Customs House
Four Corners
Writer's Square
part 6 part 7 part 8

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