History of Belfast's markets
Trading and market selling has played a significant role in the growth of Belfast since the 1613 Charter was awarded by James I. The Charter granted Belfast Borough status.
From the late 17th century, Belfast became the main port in the area taking over from Carrickfergus. The range and quantity of imports and exports grew throughout the 18th century and Belfast's market tradition began to develop alongside Belfast's growing commercial prosperity.
By the 1900s, Belfast had around a dozen markets which sold everything from potatoes, pork, fowl, fish and vegetables to hay, straw, flax and poultry.
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Belfast's first market house of 1664 was located at the corner of High Street next to Cornmarket. The second market house, known then as an exchange, was a single-storey, arcaded building built by Lord Donegall. A second storey was added in 1776. The building, which later became the Northern Bank on Waring Street, was eventually refaced and converted to a bank by Sir Charles Lanyon in 1845.
Chief markets in the 18th century flourished at High Street, Cornmarket, Ann Street and Poultry Square (now Victoria Square).
May's Market, built on reclaimed land at the Oxford Street end of Chichester Street, opened in 1813. By 1823 it was the "principal place for sale of butter, meal, eggs, potatoes and vegetables". In the same year, Smithfield Market produce included cattle, pedlars' goods, grains and hides.
Following an 1845 Act, Belfast Corporation (now Belfast City Council) purchased all the existing markets in the city with the aim of improving their conditions and hygiene standards.
At around the same time in 1848, the much loved variety market at Smithfield was built on the site of the old corn and hide market. Smithfield is best remembered for its stalls packed full of old books, pictures, records and sundry junk. Unfortunately, the old building was destroyed by firebombs in 1974.
The Markets is one of the oldest communities, taking its name from the many and varied Belfast markets. Today it is one of the few parts of Belfast city centre that remains in residential use.
In the early 19th century, as Belfast progressed commercially, opportunities for employment grew. Houses were built in the Lower and Upper markets, housing labourers and working people in the lower part near the River Lagan whilst the merchants and commercial classes lived city-side in the new built Georgian terraces of the Upper Market.
There has been an open market on the St George's site dating back to the 17th century. The present St George's Market was built in three stages between 1890 and 1896.
Pre-1890, St George’s Market was an open market with stalls similar in style to May’s Market and certainly included a meat market and slaughter house. Its name may have come from St George’s Church in High Street.
The original open St George’s Market would have been smaller than the 1890 structure. It was designed by the then city surveyor JC Bretland - architect of the 1896 Fish Market and the new Albert Bridge following its collapse in the 1880s.
Built in red brick with sandstone dressings, external features of St George’s include Roman pedimented arches with Latin and Irish mottos. The Latin motto, pro tanto quid retribuamus, means for so much what shall we give in return? And the Irish motto, lámh dearg na hÉireann, means Red Hand of Ireland.
The central portico contains the Belfast Coat of Arms.
Light and spacious interiors with glazed roofs are supported by 70 cast iron columns made by Ritchie, Hart and Co of Belfast and Glasgow based company Brownlie S Murray.
The covered St George’s Market was open to the public on 20 June 1890 for the sale of butter and eggs.
Following heavy German bombing of Belfast on Easter Tuesday 1941, St George’s Market was used as an emergency mortuary. Some 700 people were killed during the raids with 255 bodies brought to the market for identification.
Not all of the dead were identified and a public funeral of the unclaimed dead took place on 21 April 1941. After separate Catholic and Protestant services were held at the market, thousands lined the streets as the cortege passed by on its way to both Milltown and the City cemeteries.
Many of St George’s current stall holders have had close connections with the Markets area down the years. Some have lived there and their families have traded at St George's and other markets for at least three generations.
St George’s Market was originally built for the sale of butter, eggs, poultry and fruit. But by the 1980s, it had developed into a general market. It was the last of Belfast's thriving Victorian markets.
Increasing maintenance costs, changes to hygiene regulations and its once-a-week usage prompted us to consider other uses for the listed building. We led a campaign, backed by traders and the general public, which resulted in a £3.5 million refurbishment programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Environment and Heritage Agency.
During the two-year restoration period, we aimed to reinstate St George’s elegant, yet practical Victorian character. As the brick and stonework had deteriorated badly, we used the original drawings to plan the restoration programme.
The unusually sized bricks were specially produced in England. We used Blaxter stone to complement the original Glasgow made Giffnock stonework, and reinstated the Bangor Blue slate and glass roof. We also sandblasted and painted the cast iron columns and exterior gates in the original holly green.
Inside, we have maintained the painted white brickwork and while the flooring was probably cobbled, today's concrete version retains St George's utilitarian design. We designed and installed exact replicas of the original Victorian shops on the Oxford Street frontage using architectural drawings.