Context 140 - July 2015

24 C O N T E X T 1 4 0 : J U LY 2 0 1 5 MARCUS PATTON Restoring Belfast’s warehouses People who live in Belfast know how many of the city’s historic buildings have been lost. Visitors from outside are often surprised at how much of the heritage has actually survived. There are certain types of building you associate with certain places – Georgian jewellers’ houses with Birmingham, chateaux with the Loire and skyscrapers with NewYork. For Belfast, it is warehouses, and specifi- cally linen warehouses. Today Belfast is probably best associated with ship- building, which was certainly a major industry for the city at the end of the 19th century, but what really made Belfast wealthy, and made its population mushroom from 20,000 in 1801 to 350,000 by 1900, was linen. By the end of the 19th century Belfast was Linenopolis, the largest producer of linen in the world. In 1887 the largest linen warehouse in the city, Robinson and Cleaver, was responsible for a third of all parcels leaving the city. Such an industry inevitably made its mark on the city and the surrounding countryside. From the retting ponds, scutching and beetling mills out in the country to the spinning and weaving mills more often located near water power on the outskirts of the city, to the warehouses that displayed the finished product, and the ships that exported it around the world, linen was very much in the making of Belfast.The entire industry has now all but disappeared, with one of the last great mills, at Sion Mills near Strabane, closing as recently as 2004. A few of the great mills survive, but many were demolished or burnt out in the Troubles. Conway Mill survives as a community-run workspace inWest Belfast, as does Jennymount Mill with its great factory chimney on the motorway north out of the city. But most of the weaving sheds, which tended to be single-storey, were demolished to make way for new development. The Brown Linen Hall, where unbleached cotton was sold in Donegall Street in the early 19th century, was in ruins by 1883. Its grander successor the White Linen Hall, where merchants traded finished linen through the 19th century, was demolished to make way for the new City Hall at the end of the 19th century. What has survived is a myriad of red-brick linen warehouses, usually three or four storeys high, Italianate in style and comprising offices and counting-houses on the ground floor with imposing high-ceilinged displays on the first or second floors.Typical among themwould be the substantial no-nonsense warehouses in Adelaide Street and Ormeau Avenue, built at the height of the industry’s power, perhaps five storeys high with dormers and red sandstone detailing around the doorcases and windows. One example that survives, now housing the Linen Hall Library, was Moore andWeinberg’s warehouse of 1864, with three storeys of grey brick, linen swags in the stone of the front entrance, and a stunning broad curving staircase taking customers from the first floor up to the second. One that lies empty awaiting a new use is the sandstone Ewart’s warehouse in Bedford Street, designed by Glasgow architect James Hamilton in 1869, which has shades of his compatriot GreekThompson in its acroterion detailing. The biggest linen warehouses were the forerunners of our department stores. Robinson and Cleaver’s Royal Irish Linen Warehouse of 1888 soon sold every kind of clothing jewellery and perfume, and Anderson and McAuley was also still a great department store within living memory. Both occupied four- or five-storey stone buildings covered with sculptured heads of their best- known customers, fromQueenVictoria to the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. Sadly both buildings now house multiple shops and offices. But they have at least survived, unlike Robb’s warehouse in Castle Place, demolished within six months of an application being put forward to replace it with a modern shopping arcade. There were of course warehouses of other kinds.The most eccentric and lavish is the McCausland warehouse, actually the combined work of two rival seed firms using the same architect,William Hastings, in 1867. It is a large sandstone warehouse covered in imaginative sculpture, including a row of germinating seeds carved into the cornice. In the early 20th century the warehouses became less grandiose, and James Hanna’s warehouse of 1912, advertising ‘Pure Flax’, restricts its ornaments to squabbling birds and a winged hippopotamus around its ground floor columns. Another Hanna warehouse of similar date, for Glendinning McLeish and Co, has six storeys of brick and sandstone without any organic ornament, just baroque pediments and portholes. A cartoon showing a birdseye view of converted warehouses on Bedford Street, either side of the Ulster Hall (Copyright: Marcus Patton)