From rebel town to right-wing bastion

Two histories of the city emphasise the need for a new general account of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Belfast

Navigating the city: a map of Belfast from around 1855, illustrated by J O’Hagan. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty

Navigating the city: a map of Belfast from around 1855, illustrated by J O’Hagan. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty


The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, 1801-1832
By Jonathon Jeffrey Wright
Liverpool University Press, 284pp, £75

Belfast: The Emerging City 1850-1914
Edited by Olwen Purdue
Irish Academic Press, 322pp, £18.99

During the final decade of the 18th century, when Ireland was inflamed by radical fever and then soaked in blood, the Presbyterians of the northeast appeared to be the leading firebrands, the prime movers of conspiracy.

After humiliating defeats in June 1798, that northern radical zeal seemed to evaporate with unseemly haste. Just a few decades later Belfast had become, apparently, a right-wing bastion where municipal leaders intolerantly and inflexibly resisted the legitimate demands of the island’s majority.

That is a widely held view, and those holding it have long been baffled by this perceived seismic change. Many years ago ATQ Stewart did attempt to point out that Presbyterian radicalism did not suffer instant death after 1798, but not many paid heed to him.

Now, at last, we have a rigorous, painstaking study by Jonathan Wright that authoritatively skewers myth after myth. It shines a revealing light on the political, cultural and social life of Belfast in the early 19th century, years during which so many historians have concluded that nothing very much happened in the town.

Some northern United Irishmen were hanged, and others sought refuge on the other side of the Atlantic. But what about those who stayed put? The assumption that they all buried their heads in their ledgers and kept them there is a false one. Wright starts out on his journey of revelation by examining the careers of members of the Tennent family.

Wright not only proves that William Tennent, a prosperous Belfast businessman, was a United Irishman but also that he was a key leader, an advocate of violent revolution. Fortunate not to have shared Henry Joy McCracken’s fate at the end of a rope, he spent more than three years in a Scottish prison. Returning to Belfast in November 1801, Tennent soon afterwards became the town’s richest merchant and banker.

Root and branch reform
Making no attempt to deny his revolutionary past or the fact that he had fathered no fewer than 13 illegitimate children (all of whom he provided for), Tennent publicly led a 30-year campaign to seek root-and- branch reform in the town.

Joined by other former United Irishmen, including his brother Robert, the gifted naturalist John Templeton and the obstetrician Dr William Drennan, he headed a vibrant Presbyterian elite, men who regarded themselves as natural leaders – hence the title of Wright’s book. Dominating the intellectual and cultural life of the town, these reformers strove energetically to supplant the autocratic, corrupt and indolent Belfast Corporation with a body that represented the people.

Wright chronicles in absorbing detail how these bourgeois Presbyterians campaigned with relentless energy for Catholic emancipation (probably against the wishes of most of the town’s inhabitants) and parliamentary and municipal reform. For them violent action no longer had any appeal; instead they pressed their case unceasingly in print and by every other means open to them, including the hosting of public dinners (100 between 1816 and 1826).

Actually, they were preparing the ground for their own political demise: the citizens of Belfast, newly enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act, rejected their candidates comprehensively. The Protestant majority, alarmed as Catholics poured into the fast-growing town, found the views of this Presbyterian elite increasingly unpalatable.

Belfast: The Emerging City 1850-1914, edited by Olwen Purdue, handsomely illustrated with 30 well-chosen colour plates, is the outcome of a conference organised by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Northumbria in 2010. Publishing the papers of a conference can be a perilous business: key developments can be overlooked.

Hardly a heated rivet is hammered home, barely a ship slips down the ways, no cigarettes are leaping out of elaborate machines in York Street, no artesian well is sunk at Cromac in search of pure water for the world’s largest fizzy-drinks manufacturer and no mention is made of huge powered fans made at Bridge End (German warships were fitted with them, for example). In short, there is very little here to describe and explain the industrial prowess that for several decades made Belfast the fastest-growing urban centre in the United Kingdom.

The first chapter, “Markets and Messages: Linenopolis Meets the World”, by Edwin James Aiken and Stephen Royle, should have helped to fill this gap. Unfortunately this does not even adequately answer the question asked by the authors: How did the linen industry become such a dominant feature of Belfast’s economy?

Most of the chapter is dominated by a tedious survey of rather dry annual reports published by the Linen Merchants’ Association, formed in 1872. This is a pity: linen manufacturers and traders wrote a great deal about themselves and their business, much of it very lively reading, and this rich material is overlooked.

Other chapters are more engaging and enlightening. “Belfast: The Rise and Fall of a Civic Culture”, by Sean Connolly, overlapping a little with the final part of Wright’s study, provides a vivid picture of the way in which Belfast was governed in the wake of parliamentary and municipal reform.

He reinforces Wright’s conclusion that the Presbyterian elite rather arrogantly misjudged the new electorate in 1832.

Connolly also demonstrates how shrewdly the Conservatives adapted to the changed circumstances. They were no diehards: followers of Sir Robert Peel’s progressive interventionism, they were imaginative and dynamic in the way they embarked on ambitious civic building programmes as Belfast grew with breakneck speed to become a booming city. However, the Conservative political machine, operated by John Bates, adopting “a petty and spiteful sectarianism”, Connolly explains, worked unceasingly “to ensure that neither Catholics nor Protestant Liberals played any part in the management of the town”.

The generation game
What is the quickest way to arouse in nerdy googlers an interest in Irish history? Get them to search for forebears by looking at the 1911 census online. (It’s free.) “Edwardian Belfast: Marriage, Fertility and Religion in 1911”, by Liam Kennedy, Lucia Pozzi and Matteo Manfredi, should keep the appetite whetted. Their chapter is packed with absorbing social detail, some of it from their BelFam database, consisting of 40,000 individuals, just over 10 per cent of those enumerated.

This book is exceptionally strong on demographics. “The Family Wage: A Factor in Migration?”, by Lesley Donaldson, shows that it was frequently worthwhile for English and Scottish shipwrights to cross over to settle in Belfast. In “Migration in Belfast History: Trajectories, Letters, Voices”, Brian Lambkin, Patrick Fitzgerald and Johanne Devlin Trew triple-distil the maturing mash in their vat containing decades of dedicated research material to produce a limpid and highly quaffable liquor. After providing a helpful survey of the movements of people over 400 years, 1613-2013, the authors draw on another recently developed resource, the online archive Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People and Migration, to illustrate their overall conclusions.

Our knowledge about Belfast’s history is being augmented all the time. Every little helps. This book contains some interesting microstudies, including the story of the Belfast Society, founded in 1821 by the “natural leaders” and still meeting today, by Ruth Bayles; Pamela Emerson’s chapter on a tiny book-reading club for middle-class Protestants; and Caroline McGee’s on the drama surrounding the building of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Clonard, in west Belfast.

This last casts intriguing light on the domineering Bishop Henry Henry (what were his parents thinking of?), going for Gothic Revival if only to distance the project from the unprepossessing romanesque Church of Ireland cathedral of St Anne’s.

By extending our knowledge, all these specialist studies, fast becoming a torrent, signal the urgent need for a fresh synthesis. A new general history of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Belfast is surely overdue.

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