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Birth of a city

Published 06/12/2012

In the space of 65 years Belfast went from a regional backwater to an industrial powerhouse. AP Maginness talks to the editor of a new book about Belfast's 'Belle Epoque' and discovers a frontier town in the style of the American west A LMOST 400 hundred years ago the small settlement of Belfast, with a population of about 1,000 people, was granted its royal charter as a borough.

Three hundred years later, Belfast emerged as an industrial powerhouse of international importance.

With one of the world's largest ports, it enjoyed a brief spell as Ireland's largest urban centre and was a major player in the British industrial scene.

How did this happen in such a relatively short period and why?

Social and economic history lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast, Dr Olwen Purdue has the answer, having recently published a study of Belfast's rise as an industrial power from 1850 to 1914.

Belfast: The Emerging City 1850-1914, which Dr Purdue edited, celebrates and explores Belfast's own Belle Epoque through the essays of 17 contributors including the novelist Glenn Patterson.

"The origins of the book began with a chance conversation about five years ago," Dr Purdue says.

"Myself and a few PhD students were talking about governance among the elites of Belfast's early history.

"We soon realised that there was a lot of research that could be done and probably needed to be done."

Dr Purdue then organised a conference to discuss Belfast's early social and economic history as an emerging city and such was the level of interest that the decision was made to collate the ideas into a book.

Dr Purdue believes that historians due to the "overwhelming" nature of Belfast's political history have neglected the period.

However, along with her colleagues at Queen's, she is adamant that the period of Belfast's expansion is equally fascinating - even comparing Belfast of the 1850s to the 'wild west' of America.

"I think that one of the best ways of describing what happened in Belfast during this period is as a frontier town," Purdue says.

"There was an economic explosion and with it came an explosion of wealth and population - a kind of gold rush - and everything that comes with that."

Like the American west, not everything was gilded.

"Poverty and disease would have come with this massive movement of people from the countryside - the lucky ones would have found work but for those that didn't there was no real social network to help them.

"A lot of people who arrived in Belfast would have had nothing and so many around this period ended up in the workhouse for long periods."

The physical city, set on the muddy and marshy banks of the River Lagan, would not have made a pretty sight or site to live in those early days.

"There was poor sanitation, overcrowding, a lack of housing - there was a lot of pressure on the population in the city.

"For example, High Street was still the Blackstaff River and was referred to as the Blackstaff Nuisance.

"There was a lot of pressure put on the city's administrators to get the river closed over and eventually they did.

"They did something similar with Hercules Street [now Royal Avenue]. It was a slum area where a lot of butchers traded.

"Eventually they razed Hercules Street and built Royal Avenue and along with that came Anderson McCauley and so on - this was the city's elite merchant class looking to make a statement about where they lived."

Many of those linen merchants had a keen eye on international markets and how their vagaries affected their city.

"The elites of Belfast had a very definite sense of themselves in the world - it wasn't a parochial view that they had," Dr Purdue says.

"With that came a desire to make a statement to the world, to Dublin and to the other emerging industrial cities.

"They had a very self-conscious pride and wanted prominence for the city and for themselves.

"I think because Belfast was a late developer it meant that they were playing catch-up with other industrial cities and wanted to prove that they could compete. "They were also quite sophisticated in the way that they furthered their own ends. Belfast is described as a 'Linenopolis' and those entrepreneurs involved in the linen trade were remarkable for the networks that they set up across the world to further their own interests. The had diplomatic relationships as far a field as Brazil."

Dr Purdue admits that her favourite chapter in the book is the first one, Markets and Messages: Linenopolis Meets the World, by Edwin James Aiken and Stephen A Royle.

"It encapsulates Belfast's story quite neatly, the rapid rise of the city, its linen industry and its connection with world markets. Everything else in the book grew out of that chapter," she says.

Belfast: The Emerging City also shows that the city's dual identity is not a modern phenomenon.

"In many ways it was typical Victorian city of the era but in other ways it was very unique," Dr Purdue says.

"It became the biggest city in Ireland and developed into the economic industrial power house that overtook Dublin - the merchant elite of Belfast were very proud of that."

Belfast: The Emerging City - 1850-1914 edited by Olwen Purdue published by Irish Academic Press and out now priced £19.99.