To what extent was Belfast a typical Georgian town and Victorian city?

By Alison Martin

The word typical is not necessarily one which would be instantly attributed to Belfast, given the complexities surrounding its history. On further observation however, it cannot be denied that there were numerous features of Belfast that would have made it possible to be categorised as a typical Georgian town and Victorian city.

This article will therefore examine the ways in which Belfast could have been regarded as a typical Georgian town and Victorian city. It will explore the ways in which Belfast was typical in the British context such as the industrialization that it experienced, the civic pride that it built up and the improvements that were made to its landscape.  Furthermore, it will also examine some of Belfast’s characteristics that make it unique, such as its deep religious tensions and its complex identity.

There were certainly many features of Georgian and Victorian Belfast that would have enabled it to be regarded as typical. Like many British Georgian towns, Belfast produced a number of significant buildings during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. While Belfast was erecting new buildings like Inst (1810) and the Assembly Rooms (1776), several British towns also underwent building frenzies. Like Belfast, these often included buildings of public and cultural significance. Leeds for example, erected a town hall, library and concert hall between 1767 and 1771.

Therefore, there are indeed parallels. With regards to architecture, it is also noticeable that the austerity and regularity which were typical of the architecture of Georgian Belfast would have been quite similar not only to British towns like Bath but also to Irish towns. Indeed, the simple, symmetrical Georgian houses that dominated Belfast’s May Street would not have looked out of place in comparison to the Georgian houses in Limerick’s Richmond Place.

When it came to Victorian times however, Belfast had better housing standards than other British cities and did not possess any of the tenement houses that were seen in Glasgow or Dublin. By the time of Belfast’s largest growth, there were already minimum standards. Therefore, Belfast’s Georgian and Victorian architecture were only typical to an extent.

Belfast’s urban growth would have made it a relatively typical Georgian town and Victorian city. Belfast’s population expanded rapidly over the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Its population rose from around 20,000 in 1800 to 349,180 in 1901. Admittedly Belfast had particularly vast growth, which continued past the Georgian and Victorian eras.

However, there were also signs of expansion in Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds whose populations all expanded three times over between the 1770s and the first decades of the 1800s. The Leeds Mercury for example, remarked in 1852 that a street plan ‘looked as if the town had used an earthquake as an architect.’ This demonstrates that Belfast’s sprawling expansion was fairly typical.

Yet, it was not just expansion that linked Belfast to these British towns. W.A. Maguire underlined their similar appearances by observing how one visitor wrote of Belfast in 1834 that ‘The spirit of commercial enterprise appears to be reflected from the opposite shores.’ These similarities continued into the Victorian era as visitors increasingly commented on Belfast’s contrast with other Irish towns.  Consequently, with regards to urban expansion and appearances Belfast was quite typical of British towns.

The Corporation’s tight control over Georgian Belfast before the municipal reform of the 1800s, was fairly unique, although that is not to say that there were no parallels.  Georgian Belfast was similar to Colchester, because they both had a closed corporation. However, compared to most English towns, Belfast was not typical because of the level of control that the Donegall family had. The 1840 Irish Municipal Corporations Act removed Donegall and his burgesses in favour of a Town Council.

Admittedly, many corporations had problems, hence the need for reform.  However, J.L. McCracken noted that ‘a five year delay ensued in the case of Ireland.’ This demonstrates that Belfast and other Irish towns were distinct from English towns because it took them until the Victorian era to bring in reforms.

The kind of religious divisions that Belfast experienced during the Georgian era were not unique. Indeed, the division in Belfast between the Church of England and the Dissenters was not unparalleled as Colchester experienced similar issues. Most British towns were subjected to some kind of diversity, especially given the amount of immigrants that were converging on the emerging Victorian industrial cities.

Indeed, the historian W.A. Maquire accurately observed that ‘even the tensions created by the sudden influx of large numbers of Irish Catholics into a hitherto Protestant town were not untypical.’ He added however that in the case of Belfast ‘these tensions were to prove in every way sharper.’ Furthermore, Belfast was distinct in that it became the centre of Irish radicalism in the late eighteenth century.

In 1791 the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was formed and 1798 saw the United Irishmen rebellion, although not in Belfast itself.  This level of radicalism wouldn’t have been as concentrated in British or Irish Georgian towns. Therefore, Belfast was unique both because of its reputation for radicalism and depth of religious divisions.

Another way in which Belfast could be regarded as a typical Georgian town and Victorian city, was that it experienced the need to develop and to create a healthier landscape. Belfast like Liverpool and Glasgow suffered from the drawbacks of urban growth, namely sanitation problems, diseases, prostitution and poverty. These problems were evident in the Georgian era but also extended to Victorian times.

Like Belfast, many British Georgian towns adopted improvements such as street widening, paving and building restoration. By the 1820s, there were various improvements noticeable in Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. However, Scotland was distinct from both Belfast and the English towns as historian Geoffrey Best accurately noted that ‘for Scotland it took some years before the inapplicability of English framed public health legislation was recognised.’

Belfast’s progression into an industrial Victorian city made it typical in the British context. The linen industry provided Belfast with the bases for success and by the 1880s shipbuilding was really taking off. Harland and Wolff soon increased Belfast’s reputation and the shipbuilding expansion provided opportunities for engineering.

Admittedly, Belfast was later to industrialize than the English towns and had different areas of focus but it progressed none the less. Furthermore, transportation advancements also made Belfast a typical emerging city. In 1839 the Ulster Railway opened, initially between Belfast and Lisburn. Such transportation advancements were also seen for example in Leeds, with the opening of the Leeds and Selby Railway in 1834.

Belfast’s eagerness to develop into a Victorian city with an engaged community and a sense of identity, was typical. Tristram Hunt stated that ‘the pioneers of Victorian Britain saw cities as places for generating ideas, with active citizenship.’ Therefore, these ideas were not unique to Belfast as most people, particularly the middle-class would have seen their city’s development as crucial to their own identity.

Belfast was also typical in experiencing expansion into the suburbs, mostly by the middle-class who had a desire to escape from the realities of city life. By the mid nineteenth century, people in Belfast had already begun to move outwards but at this particular time people like factory managers moved out into the east, north and south of the city. This suburbanisation was typical, as many English cities were developing suburban areas in the nineteenth century, such as Headingley in Leeds.

The development of a level of competitiveness and civic pride would have linked Belfast with other cities, particularly in the Victorian era. Belfast did have insecurities.  However, a clear growth in civic pride was evident in the opening of the city hall in 1906. Parallels can be seen here between British cities like Manchester who erected a grand town hall in 1877 and also possessed an increasing opinion of self-worth. Yet, there was a distinction between Belfast and the other British cities. This distinction was embodied in the fact that there were tensions created by some of Belfast’s civic ceremonies. The Twelfth of July, for example, was a Protestant celebration in a city where some of the population identified as Catholic.

There was civic pride and ceremony in other cities, for example the oyster festival in Colchester. However, such events were not as divisive. Furthermore, the controversy regarding Belfast’s national and ethnic identity was becoming more prominent in the Victorian era, as Belfast was still regarded as Irish but was subjected to visits from the British monarchy. Queen Victoria for example, visited in 1849. Therefore, Belfast was typical in its increasing civic pride in the Victorian era, yet the depth of controversy caused by its main ceremony made it unique.

In conclusion, it has become apparent that there were various ways in which Belfast could be regarded as typical in the British context. Certainly, Belfast did possess many stereotypical features of a Georgian town and Victorian city. It experienced the urban expansion, population increase and growing sense of civic pride that many British towns and cities did throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras.

On the other hand however, Belfast was in some ways distinct. Its sharp religious divisions and the depth of controversy surrounding ceremonies like the Twelfth of July created were unique, as was its reputation for radicalism in the late eighteenth century. Therefore, it can only be regarded as typical to a certain extent.

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