Harp Society House, Cromac Street, Belfast

The Irish Harp Society in Belfast was based at a few different addresses from the beginning of the first Harp School in 1808 until the finish of the second Harp School in 1840. I have references to the Harp Society House being in three different Belfast streets at different dates: Pottinger’s Entry, Cromac Street, and Talbot Street.

This post is to collate as many references as I can, to try and work out where the house in Cromac Street was.

The Harp Society was in Cromac Street for pretty much 19 years, from the start of the second Harp School in 1820, through to about the end of 1838. The Harp Society House is where the teacher and the boarding pupils lived, and where the Harp School was run. The house is long gone and the entire area has changed beyond recognition, with most buildings cleared away in the 1970s and new housing developments built.

First we will try to work out where the Harp Society house was. I am going to deal with this in two main parts, in backwards order. First of all we will look at the Harp Society House in the 1830s, when we have a lot more information. And then after we have finished that, we will work backwards through the 1820s.

Then after we have dealt with where the Harp Society house was, we can try to describe the house, we can think about the neighbours, and we can discuss what happened afterwards down to the present day.

The Cromac Street area in the early 1830s

The first edition of the Ordinance Survey maps at 6 inches to 1 mile scale were done for this area in 1832. You can view the 1832 6″ OS map of Cromac Street online either at the Historic Environment Viewer or at the PRONI Historical maps viewer.

There is an undated map on LennonWylie, which I have put a detail of below. We can try to date this map roughly by comparing it to the OS map. This undated map is very close to the OS map, with just a few extra buildings in a darker colour. However I have seen a map from 1838 (see UAHS pamphlet) which has a lot more buildings, and so I am guessing this map may date from perhaps 1833 to 1835.

Undated map (I think c.1833-5) via Lennonwylie (North is slightly left of top)

At the top left you can see the White Linen Hall, which is where City Hall now stands on Donegall Square. The dotted area in the centre, labelled “R.C. Cathedral”, is where St Malachy’s church was eventually built. You can see May’s Market in the top right, which gives our whole area its name – to the right of Cromac Street is the Low Markets, and the Upper Markets are to the left.

You can also see that there are open fields and countryside just a few hundred metres from the main part of Cromac Street, and the end of Cromac Street runs south to the bridge and paper mill at the bottom of the map. This is now about at the junction of Cromac Street, Ormeau Avenue and Ormeau Road.

We will return to this map in a bit.

Listings in Smyth’s Belfast Almanac

Thomas Smyth published The Belfast Almanac every year through this period. Aiken McClelland referenced them in his article ‘The Irish Harp Society’ in Ulster Folklife 21, 1975, and I went to the Linen Hall Library to check them. Smyth’s Almanac each year includes a lot of very diverse information as well as the calendar information, such as calculating tables for interest, mathematical puzzles, hints for gardners, trivia, lists of gentry and aristocracy, lists of towns and postage rates and roads and fairs. For us the important thing is a listing of institutions in Belfast. Each institution has a paragraph describing it. Here is an example:

Irish Harp Society, 43, Cromac-street, supported by donations, and the annual subscriptions of British and Irish gentlemen resident in India. The object is to revive the harp and music of Ireland, and to enable poor blind pupils to earn a livelihood. Mr. Valentine Rennie, master. Managed by a committee; Secretary, Mr. John M’Adam; Treasurer, Mr. Sam. Bruce. Society meet twice a year, May and November; committee more frequently.

The Belfast Almanac for the year 1833… (Belfast: Joseph Smyth, printer and publisher)

The exact same text was repeated in 1834, 1835, 1836, and 1837. Valentine Rennie died on Saturday 23 September 1837, and so for the 1838 Smyth’s Almanac the text is changed to read “Mr. ______________________ Master” but is otherwise the same.

Listing in street directories

Street directories were not published as regularly, and I have struggled a bit to find out what directories exist. The earliest directories in the 1810s and 1820s tend to be just alphabetical lists of peoples names, with their street address given next to them. From 1839 we start to see directories that have, as well as the alphabetical list of names, a second list of names arranged street-by-street which is very useful to us. From 1852 on these lists of street numbers also indicate where the side streets intersect, which allow us to pinpoint exactly where each address is on the street.

The street numbers were changed every so often, as more houses were squeezed in to the space. There was a big renumbering some time around 1830 or so, and there was another big numbering in the 1850s.

What I have done is made a spreadsheet, and for each year I have entered all the addresses on Cromac Street. Then it is easy to see some of the occupants staying at the same place for more than one directory; and this allows the positions of the houses to be calculated back to 1831.

The Harp Society house was at no.43 Cromac Street. This was part of a block of six houses which occupied the north-west side of Cromac Street, between Henrietta Street and Russell Street. Here we can see this block in close-up on the untitled c.1833-5 map I showed above. I have turned it to the right so that North is to the right of the map:

Undated map (I think c.1833-5) via Lennonwylie (North a bit above right)

Cromac Street is along the bottom of the map; Russell Street runs up the right, Henrietta Street runs up the left; and you can see Grace Street running along the top. You can see that there is a terrace of houses facing onto Cromac Street. There is a seperate building at the back of the right hand end of the terrace; the middle of the terrace seems to go right back to Grace Street; and there is a big yard behind the left hand end of the terrace.

We can collate this map against the 1830s street directories by drawing little diagrams to show what is going on.

Matier published a directory in 1835 which is available online at PRONI. I imagine this information being current towards the end of 1834. Even though Matier only lists names alphabetically, and does not give us a street-by-street listing, and does not tell us where the side streets intersect, we can be very confident that we know where we are, because Archibald Kirker had his bakery at this address right through until the late 1860s.

John Abernethy is not given an occupation. It is not always clear whether the business was running from the premises, or if this was just the residence of a person who ran their business somewhere else. Sometimes we are told this but other times we have no idea. I don’t know if Aspinell ran a carpenter’s shop out of no.41 (which would have been noisy for the harp pupils) or if he just lived in the house and worked somewhere else.

I find it interesting that in 1835, Joseph Fenton is listed as a teacher at no.45. We have advertisements from 1832 and 1834 from George Alex Noble who ran the Cromac Street Boarding and Day Seminary at no.45, “next door to the Irish Harp Society” (see below). I wonder if Fenton took over the school from Noble?

An 1839 street directory was published by Martin and is online at PRONI. The Preface of this directory is dated January 1839, and so I imagine that the information for these listings was gathered in the final few months of 1838.

Martin’s 1839 directory does not list anyone at no.45 or 41; perhaps they were vacant, or simply did not provide information to Martin. We see Crea’s grocery shop still going (did Joseph die and his wife carried on the business?) And we see John Abernethy as an engraver as well as running a lodging house.

Flitting from Cromac Street

I think the Irish Harp Society vacated the house at 43 Cromac Street near to the end of 1838. We have near-simultaneous listings that give us either the Cromac Street address or the new address in Talbot Street.

As I said above, Martin’s 1839 directory shows the Harp Society at 43 Cromac Street probably in October or November or perhaps even December 1838.

We can wonder how the information was provided to the Almanac publishers; how far in advance the information was gathered; and whether information was recycled from one year to the next. I think the street directory people may have gone door-to-door in the months before publication, gathering information from the residents and business owners to compile the directory. but the Almanac publishers presumably relied on the institutions sending in their text for the forthcoming Almanac.

We have two different Almanacs for 1839, and they have different information. Sims and McIntyre’s Northern or Belfast Almanac for 1839 has a completely new text that the Secretary has set in, mentioning the late Rennie:

Instituted for the support and musical education of destitute blind boys. Supported for many years past from a fund raised by the exertions of several patriotic Irishmen resident in the East Indies, but which is now nearly exhausted. Since the decease of the late teacher, Mr. Rennie, a number of young gentlemen have volunteered to undertake the management, to collect subscriptions, and increase the number of pupils.
Mr John M’Adam, Secretary.

Simms & McIntyre’s Northern or Belfast Almanac for the year 1839

I would understand therefore that John McAdam sent this new notice in earlier in 1838, perhaps before Jackson had been appointed master. Perhaps it was sent in late in 1837, but Simms & McIntyre held it over for the next year’s Almanac (their 1838 Almanac had no institutional listings).

Smyth’s 1839 Almanac has the same text as it had carried for the previous decade; the only changes are that it lists the master as “Mr. Jack” (an error for Jackson) and it gives the address as Talbot Street, indicating that the Harp Society House on Cromac Street had been vacated before the end of 1838. How late could the Secretary write in to Smyth with the new information? Can we imagine the Harp Society flitting in November or December 1838?

Why did they flit? Many of the premises on Cromac Street seem to have been held as leasehold on fairly short leases. Was there only 19 years left on the lease when they took the house in the beginning of 1820? I don’t know.

So far so good, we can be pretty confident about the Harp Society House at no.43 Cromac Street, in the terrace of six houses between Henrietta Street and Russell Street, from about 1832 through to the big move across the city to Talbot Street near the end of 1838.

But once we start to think about what was going on before 1832 it all gets a bit complicated.

The house from 1820 to 1830: Removal or re-numbering?

Let’s work backwards from what we know about the Harp Society House in the mid 1830s, at no.43.

We have a street directory for 1831, published by Donaldson, which is online at PRONI. This publication has two sections, a street directory and a listing of institutions. The street directory section seems unproblematical, and we can even draw our usual little diagram showing the Harp Society at no.43, in the terrace of six houses between Henrietta Street and Russell Street. I imagine this is information current in the last months of 1830.

Actually I have far fewer “signposts” to help us collate this diagram against the next from 1835. The occupants of nos. 1, 7, and 17 are the same in 1831 as they are in 1835. So I am seeing no reason here to think that these are not the same houses, and that 43 is the same house as we find the Harp Society in in 1835.

The street directory is only alphabetical; there is no street-by-street listing, and Rennie is listed alphabetically under “R” as “Rainey, Val. professor of the harp, 43 Cromac street.” I checked under “I”, but there is no listing for the Irish Harp Society.

However Donaldson’s listing of institutions in the same book gives us pause for thought, because the Irish Harp Society is listed there at a different number:

Irish Harp Society – 23, Cromac-street, supported by donations, and the annual subscriptions of British and Irish gentlemen resident in India. The object is to revive the harp and music of Ireland, and to enable poor blind pupils to earn a livelihood; Mr. Valentine Rennie, master. Managed by a committee. Secretary, Mr. John M’Adam; Treasurer, Mr. Sam. Bruce. Society meet twice in the year, May and November; committee more frequently.

Belfast Directory for 1831-2… (Belfast: Robert Donaldson) p77-78

This is the same standard text that we see in Smyth’s Almanac all the way through. We can check the address given in the listings each year. We have seen that in 1833, the address is given as no.43. But in the 1832 Smyth’s Almanac, the address is no.23. The 1831 Smyth’s also has 23; and then every year back to 1821 has no.21. And the Harp Society advertisement from Jan 1820 says “Candidates are … to Attend on MONDAY, 21st February next, at the hour of TEN, at the Society’s House, No. 21 CROMAC-STREET” (Belfast News Letter, 11 Jan 1820, p3). The first couple of entries in Smyth’s Almanac are slightly different text; the 1821 entry is very brief, gives the address as 21, and says Edward McBride is the teacher. The 1822 entry gives our standard text, but does not name the teacher (perhaps because late in ’21 McBride had left but Rennie had not yet been appointed?)

I don’t believe that Rennie had a separate house, along the street from Harp Society House; we know that Rennie was living in the Harp Society House in the early 30s; his wife is listed as giving birth to their two sons in the Harp Society House in April 1831 and in December 1832, and in November 1832 Rennie is involved in the legal case about having the right to vote based on his living in the Harp Society House. but what was happening in late 1830?

I can think of two obvious scenarios. One is that the Harp Society moved along the road to a new house. The other, and in my opinion the most likely explanation, is that they stayed put and that all of the houses in the street were re-numbered in about 1830.

The way we can try to work it out is, as before, collating the street directories. The difficulty is that I don’t know of any other street directories that give the house numbers for this period. There is a directory published by Pigot in 1824 ( online at John Hayes website) but it does not give street numbers, and does not list the Harp Society, so it is kind of useless for us. And then there are two directories from 1820, compiled in 1819 (Bradshaws online at LennonWylie and at PRONI, and Smyth’s which I checked at the Linen Hall library). They don’t mention the Harp Society because it had not taken the lease on its house by that stage. So my spreadsheet method of finding continuities to try and triangulate the location of Harp Society House is not really working for the 1820s.

We only have a couple of landmarks for this period, apart from the Harp Society House at no.21. We have John Hamilton, Gentleman, who was at no.11 in 1819, and who was at no.17 in the 1831 directory and right through to 1843, when he was on the corner of Hamilton Street. We also have John Murphy’s timber yard away at the head of the street, at no.1 in 1819, and at no.3 in 1835 and 1839. Both Murphy and Hamilton are to the north of the Harp Society.

My personal feeling is that the renumbering makes most sense; if Murphy’s yard was re-numbered from no.1 to no.2, and John Hamilton’s house went from 11 to 17, then it makes sense that the Harp Society House would be re-numbered from 21 (briefly to 23) to 43.

Let us look at a map from 1822.

1822 map of Belfast (Benn’s) via The British Library

The first thing we can see is how little of the area has been built on at this date, compared with ten years later. Cromac Street almost runs through fields; there are big yards, paddocks and open spaces all around. You would be able to stand on the corner of Donegall Square (where City Hall is now) and look across the fields to the backs of the few houses on Cromac Street. A list of streets in Benn’s 1823 History of Belfast (p294) says that there were 34 houses on Cromac Street, 4 on Henrietta Street, and 2 on Russell Street.

We have another issue with this map. We can see Henrietta Street, and we can see Russell Street, but the next street up is called Hamilton Place, which continues as Mary’s Street. But Hamilton Place and Mary’s Street don’t seem to be in the same place as the later Cromac Place (later Hamilton Street). It looks to me like Hamilton Place and Mary’s street were built over in the late 20s, and Cromac Place (later Hamilton Street) laid out new over open ground a little further to the north.

Anyway all this makes sense to me if we assume that the Harp Society House remained where it was, and the street was re-numbered around it. Here is a comparison of the 1822 map with the 1833-5 map. As before with the close-up I have rotated it so that North is to the upper right. I think John Hamilton’s house may be the big L shaped building right of centre in 1822 (no.11) and incorporated into the right hand end of the big block between Cromac Place and Russell Street in 1833 (no.17).

To me this idea of the Harp Society House remaining and being re-numbered makes sense, because we can kind of count houses from the far right hand corner, we can imagine how many houses were on each block and the infill kind of makes sense.

I don’t know how much we can rely on the building outlines shown on these maps, how accurate they are. But the 1822 map seems to show a slightly different layout of our block. There is a shorter terrace and a single building, and an extension to the rear of the end house on the corner of Henrietta Street, and perhaps a terrace of houses running along the back of the plot (Benn’s says there were 12 houses on Grace Street). If the Harp Society House was in the same building all the way through, it is hard to imagine how these redevelopments of the block around it may have affected it.

1822 map of Belfast (Benn’s) via The British Library (North to the right)

It is interesting to me how the buildings on this block seem different from 10 years later. The right hand end of the terrace looks like a separate building with an alley between. We see more open space to the rear of the terrace, and the row of houses on Grace Street. If the Harp Society House was in the same location from 1820 through to 1838, then there must have been building works going on around it in the late 20s or early 30s, with the Grace Street cottages demolished, a big rear extension to the house in the centre of the terrace, and the rebuilding of the house on the corner of Russell Street to attach it to the terrace.

And I also want to say that I may be wrong here and the harp Society House at no.21 and then no.23 may have been somewhere else on the street. I really don’t know. But I suspect it was right there the whole time.

Describing the Harp Society House

We have this amazingly evocative drawing of the front of the Harp Society House. It comes from an article by Francis Joseph Bigger, ‘Arthur O’Neill, the Irish Harper’, in the Ulster journal of Archaeology vol VII no. 1, 1901. Bigger was a very important scholar and cultural revivalist but sometimes he could be a bit wayward. He segues seamlessly from Arthur O’Neil at the first harp society school (which I think was in Pottinger’s Entry), to a discussion of Valentine Rennie and the second school on Cromac Street.

Bigger has got information from the engraver Thomas Smyth, but he doesn’t really make it clear how or when he got this information. I don’t know if there is a connection with the Joseph Smyth who had published the Belfast Almanac back in the 1820s and 30s. I am guessing that Bigger’s informant was Thomas Smyth, Engraver, who died on 30th March 1907 aged 87. If this is right, then Smyth was born in 1819 or 1820. He would have been aged about 18 when Rennie died, and about 19 when the Harp Society school moved out of Cromac Street. It looks like his portait of Rennie, and his drawing of the Harp Society House, as well as his engraved portrait of Arthur O’Neil, may have all been done from memory for Bigger in about 1900.

Anyway Bigger says:

Thomas Smyth lived for sixteen years in Cromac Street, at first next door but one to the Society, and afterwards directly opposite, and so had the full benefit of their practices. Valentine Rennie… was often in his father’s house…
The last pupil he remembers was Samuel Patrick, whose brother was an engraver, a shopmate of his own…

F. J. Bigger, in Ulster journal of Archaeology vol VII no. 1, 1901 p.5-6

Next door but one to the Society may have been no.39 where first John Spratt (in 1831) and later John Abernethy (1835 to 1843) had engraving businesses. It is much harder to try and work out what was “directly opposite” at that time; I have tried to collate the even-numbered houses on the opposite side of the road but there are not so many side-streets and less continuity so I have not managed to work out where this was. I wonder if Thomas Smyth’s father might have been James Smith, coachmaker, who was at no.70 (subsequently 72) from 1835 through to 1841?

What was the Harp Society house like?

We can use Thomas Smyth’s drawing to start getting a picture of the Harp Society house. We know from the maps that it was part of a terrace which were built in the fields in the 1810s as Cromac Street was first laid out. Our terrace was between Henietta Street and Russell Street. There were other buildings nearby but it was very much surrounded by open areas. The Harp Society House was in the middle of this little terrace of six houses. Thomas Smyth’s drawing shows us a three storey house, double fronted (with two sets of windows). But it doesn’t look particularly wide.

Let us take a closer look at Smyth’s drawing, and take an imaginary tour of what the interior of the house might have looked like. This is my speculation based on similar old houses I have been in. We should also bear in mind that Smyth’s drawing was probably done from memory over sixty years later. So this following description is a dangerous combination of Smyth’s memory and my imagination.

The door is on the left of the house, and the chimney stack is on the right, so we can imagine that each room would have a fireplace on that North side, and be entered from a hall or passage on the south side of the house. After scraping the mud and dirt of the street off your boots using the built-in boot-scraper to the right of the door, you would enter the front door of the house off the street, and you would probably find yourself in an entrance hall running back towards the stairs. This hall would be lit by the glass fanlight window above the door. There would likely be a door on the right off the entrance hall into the front room. I assume this front room was where the Gentlemen would have their meetings, and where visitors could come – we have a couple of references to new harps being exhibited in the Harp Society House. I imagine a bookcase to hold the Harp Society records, and a table and chairs like a dining table for the Gentlemen to sit around for their meetings. The entrance hall would lead to a wooden staircase, which would probably run straight ahead from the front door, to a landing on the first floor; there would be a second staircase probably directly above the first one, leading from the first floor to the second floor. On the first floor there may have been a large room at the front of the house, which may have been used as the school room. I would expect this first floor front room to be the biggest room in the house, running the full width of the house including over the front door and entrance hall, with two windows to the street. There may also have been one or two rooms at the back of the house. Then on the second (top) floor there were probably a few smaller rooms with lower ceilings (you can see they have smaller windows). Some of these small rooms on the first and second floors may have been dormitory rooms for the boarding pupils; others may have been private rooms for the tutor and the housekeeper (who was probably Rennie’s wife after they married in September 1823). There would likely be a kitchen or similar room at the back on the ground floor, and there would have been a back door which would open onto the yard (perhaps shared with next door) which would contain the outside WC and perhaps a scullery or other washing facilities.

We have a number of estate agent advertisements for houses on Cromac Street during the 1820s and 30s, but as usual nowadays they often don’t give the house number. They talk about how spacious the houses are, how they are decorated by being painted in the hallways or staircases, and wallpapered in the rooms. They often talk about how healthy the area is, and how good the spring water is. For example, the estate agent Henry Murney advertised a house to let:

A LARGE HOUSE IN CROMAC-STREET, finished in the best manner, and fit for the accommodation of a genteel Family. This being a healthy situation, with the purest Water (free of Tax), makes it suitable for a Private Family, or a Person having an Office in Town…

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 27 Oct 1827 p3

The advert is illustrated with a charming woodcut of a 3 storey 5 bay house, but I imagine this is a stock woodcut and not an actual drawing of the house in question.

We also have mentions of the Harp Society House from the newspapers and minutes. These are extremely terse. The advert placed by the Society to recruit a teacher says “a convenient Dwelling-House, with School-Rooms” will be provided for the new teacher (Belfast Newsletter, 8 Oct 1819 p3). I think this was before they had started renting the house, but it shows what they had in mind. in 1820 we have the house described as “A commodious house” (Irish Farmers Journal Sat 4 Mar 1820) and “a neat Dwelling House, at as low a rent as £15 per annum, free of Taxes” (Calcutta Journal, 1 Mar 1821). The minutes of 20th August 1821 include accounts which list “One year’s rent of House, due Feb. 1, 1821, £15”, (IHS Calcutta p7) and the budget (p8) includes the teacher’s salary of £40 per year, and the rent of the house at £15 per year (my rule of thumb is that £1 in 1820 compares to a few hundred nowadays). The minutes of 24th August 1826 include accounts which record that £50 had been spent since 1820 on furniture for the house; this compares with £40 per year salary for the teacher. The letter written to subscribers by the Secretary after Rennie’s death mentions “the House, Furniture and Harps”.

Describing the neighbours and the area

The house next door (to the left of) the Harp Society House was run as a school. I have a feeling the school may have kept running even though different people are listed there. In 1829 and 1830, the Harp Society was still listed at no.21:

THE FRENCH and ITALIAN LANGUAGES, and the MATHEMATICS, taught by an experienced Professor, well acquainted with the ENGLISH and LATIN. Respectable references with respect to abilities and probity can be given. Terms moderate.
Apply to M. T. B. No. 23, CROMAC-STREET.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 27 Jun 1829 p2

By 1832, I think the street had been re-numbered, and the Harp Society is listed at no.43:

GEORGE A. NOBLE respectfully solicits the attention of Parents and Guardians to his CLASSICAL and ENGLISH SEMINARY, which he has lately opened in the house, No. 45, CROMAC-STREET, next door to the Irish Harp Society. The House is lofty and spacious, and fitted up in the best manner for the comfort and convenience of the Pupils. The neighbourhood is open and healthy; there is also a portion of Play Ground, to which they have access. – G. A. N. pledges himself that to the moral and intellectual improvement of such as may be committed to his care, his attention shall be unremitting – LOGIC and BELLES LETTRES carefully taught from Eight until Ten o’clock, five Evenings in the week.
TWO BOARDERS would be taken at 30 Guineas per Annum. They would receive the kindest attention, and be prepared for entering College.

Belfast News Letter, Fri 27 Jul 1832 p3

An editorial describes Mr. Noble’s school house, next to the Harp Society house:

…The situation is airy and healthful, having a large space enclosed in the rear for playground..

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 28 July 1832

George Noble advertises again two years later (Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Sat 3 May 1834 p2). In the 1835 street directory, no. 45 is occupied by Joseph Fenton, teacher; in 1840 and 1841 (after the Harp Society had left no.43) we see John Owens and Miss Owens teaching at no.45.

Further down the street out of town, the other side of Henrietta Street, there seem to have been two large business yards. John Gaffikin occupied the square yard on the southern corner of Henrietta Street; but the street directories don’t really give us much information about what was going on there. I think this might be the same John Gaffikin (or perhaps a relative) who gave a lecture in 1875 which was published as Belfast fifty years ago. His description of the people and places gives a great sense of what Belfast was like in the 1820s.

Next out from John Gaffikin’s house and yard was Andrew McKibbon’s yard, which was pretty big. We have an advertisement from 1839 which nicely describes these new buildings and yards, a few doors down from the Harp Society. Andrew McKibbin was at no.51 running a starch and linen business in the street directories for 1835 and 1839, and he sold up in 1839.

TO be LET or SOLD, that extensive Concern in CROMAC-STREET. consisting of a DWELLING-HOUSE, OFFICES, Large STORES, YARD, and all the necessary UTENSILS for carrying on the STARCH Trade, with an abundant supply of the purest Spring Water; and containing, in front to Cromac-street, 114⅓ feet, and extending backwards 63⅓ feet; on which there have been expended, in substantial Buildings, upwards of £1,000, within a few years.
The above would answer either the Starch, Potato Farina, Grain, or Provision Trade, or indeed any Business that requires much room; and will either be Let or Sold, on moderate terms, and Possession given immediately, if required. For terms apply to the Propreitor.
Belfast, 12th March, 1839

Belfast Commercial Chronicle, Mon 20 May 1839 p3

By the time the 2nd edition OS map was prepared in 1846, both Gaffikin’s and McKibbon’s yards had been almost completely built over, and there were hardly any open fields north of the Blackstaff river.

I get the impression that by the time the Harp Society vacated the house on Cromac Street probably at the end of 1838, the area was getting more and more built up and busy, that there were more people, more noise, more things happening, and the fields and paddocks were starting to disappear under newly built houses, shops and business premises.

Through the Victorian period to the 1970s

We can track the history of the former Harp Society House onwards after the Harp Society had moved out of Cromac Street. In Martin’s 1840 directory, John Brown, builder, is listed at no.43. In Martin’s 1842 directory, Jane Wilson, milliner, is at no.43. By 1852, Samuel Kelly, grocer and commission coal merchant is living there.

In the 1850s there was a re-numbering of the houses on Cromac Street. We can track the numbers by checking the new numbers of old businesses; Kirker’s bakery on the corner of Russell Street becomes no.53 Cromac Street, and the grocery shop on the corner of Henrietta Street (now run by Jones) becomes no.63; so we can calculate that the former Harp Society House must now be no.59.

Perhaps most interestingly, the Griffiths Valuation from 1860 tells us not only who was at each house, but also who they leased it from, and what its rateable value was. I have not dug deep into all this; unfortunately for us we don’t get to see who the ultimate owner of the old Harp Society house was, since the house (no.59) was occupied by Samuel McClure, who was a manager in Kirker’s bakery. He held it from Kirker and so we are not told who Kirker let it from – the other houses in the terrace are let from different people. It is described as “House and yard” and there is a “shed” behind; the rateable value is £11 for the house and yard, and £1 10s for the shed. I think this shows the kind of house it was – suitable for the managerial classes to live in. By 1868, William Irvine, a mill manager, was living there.

There was another re-numbering in the 1870s, and I wonder if the old Georgian houses on our block were demolished and re-built at this point as Victorian shops, or if that had already happened earlier. The site of the old Harp Society House would have been nos. 71 & 73, occupied in 1877 by Michael Agar, hardware merchant and wire worker. Three years later in 1880, the proprietor is still M Agar but the business is now fruiterer. In 1890, M. Agar at 71-73 is listed as “wire worker and fruiterer”. From 1901 all through to 1918, no.73 is listed as Samuel Gibson, grocer. by 1924, the grocer’s shop had been taken over by D. Nichol. In 1932, he is again listing his address as 71-73. I don’t really understand this difference; are they the numbers for the shop downstairs, and a residential apartment upstairs? In 1943, no.71 is listed as “vacant” and no.73 is “General Trades Supply”. They are still there in 1947 and 1951, listed as “General Trades Supply, Electrical Engineers”. In 1955 and 1960, no.73 is “C.B.S., Radio and Television Dealers”.

I found a couple of aerial photographs of the Upper Markets area from 1947. This one is the clearest for us:

We are looking North-West. Cromac Street runs at an angle across the bottom of this image. Henrietta Street runs back on the left, Russell Street runs back on the right. You can see the big houses on the corners: on the corner of Henrietta Street is no.79, which was Thomas Ward’s pub. On the right, on the corner of Russell Street, is no.63-65, which at this point was J. Gamble, draper and outfitter. And then between those two big paler houses is the terrace of four tall thin buildings; no. 71-3 is the second of these four houses from the left.

It seems clear to me that this is a Victorian rebuild; the top floor has a single window in a gable end, rather than being a full three storeys high like we see on the drawing of the Harp Society House. You can see similar Victorian shops still standing further along towards the bottom of Cromac Street

The other aerial photo is less clear, it shows more of a slanting angle looking North along Cromac Street. But it gives a good impression of the whole area and has better angles on some of the other streets.

Clearance and rebuild

The entire Markets area was re-developed in the 1970s. Almost all of the remaining Georgian houses on the back streets of the Upper Markets area, and most of the Victorian shops lining Cromac Street, were demolished, and replaced with new houses which are a kind of pleasant pseudo-Georgian pastiche.

In July 1970 and March 1971, C Brett and R McKinstry wrote the Ulster Architechtural Heritage Society Survey and Recommendations for the Joy Street and Hamilton Street district of Belfast. This report is both a fascinating history of the Upper Markets area, and also a poignant record of the surviving Georgian houses in the back streets of the Upper Markets area before most of them were pulled down. The report does not really care about the Victorian shops on Cromac Street, and focusses on the older houses in the back streets. But I was especially interested to see photo “a” on page 11, showing houses on Little May Street, closer in to the centre of town. These three storey brick houses look to me to be very similar to the Harp Society House as shown in Smyth’s drawing, with their square headed front doors and single windows on the ground floor. Unfortunately they were all demolished in the 70s or 80s. The only Georgian houses that seem to have been saved were the ones on the corner of Hamilton Street and Joy Street. These are wider and later than the Harp Society House, having two downstairs windows and being built apparently in the mid 1830s. But they give a hint of what the area was like.

I think that in the 70s and 80s, Cromac Street may have been widened; it now has two lanes of traffic in each direction, as a main route through the East side of central Belfast. Russell Street has been shortened and possibly shifted sideways, and no longer comes out onto Cromac Street. The block between Henrietta Street and where Russell Street used to be now has a single line of houses set back from the road. My guess is that the Harp Society House might have originally stood about in the front garden and perhaps the pavement in front of the present day number 89. But it is very hard to know when everything has been re-aligned so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.