Irish Studies

Middle-Class Life in Victorian Belfast – In Conversation with Alice Johnson

Middle-Class Life in Victorian Belfast, the latest addition to the Reappraisals in Irish History series, is a vivid reconstruction of Belfast’s middle classes c.1830 to c.1890, exploring society, culture and lifestyle. We spoke to author Alice Johnson to learn more.

Could you tell us a bit about Middle-Class Life in Victorian Belfast and what drew you to focus your research in this area?

My book is the first to examine a unique social group and culture – the Belfast bourgeoisie – a middle class elite in a town that was neither truly Irish nor truly British. It looks at the day-to-day lives and cultural world of the ordinary commercial and business classes and paints a picture of this social elite and its world.

During my PhD I compiled a database of members of this mid-nineteenth century ‘civic elite’ – 800 individuals who, between 1843 and 1870, held office and membership of bodies such as the Belfast Council, the Harbour Commissioners, and the Chamber of Commerce. These were the people who controlled the affairs of Belfast and who shaped its growth. I examined this group forensically, looking at their origins, family background, where they came from, where they were educated, their wealth, religious denomination, what parties they voted for. 

For my book, I broadened my research parameters to look at the period from the 1830s to the 1880s, and studied a few families more closely. Here, like any historian, I was dependent upon what archives are available and I drew on what personal diaries, letters and memoirs I could find.

The book provides a portrait of the social world of upper middle-class Belfast. Do you think this topic has been overlooked by social historians and, if so, why?

The middle classes of Victorian Belfast were a wealthy and powerful group, controlling the affairs of one of the United Kingdom’s great industrial cities. Yet historians have shown little interest in understanding their world. Until fairly recently, Irish historians have focused mainly on national questions of politics and – when attention has been turned to the north of Ireland – religious, sectarian and political divisions. This approach has ultimately obscured the ‘other Belfast’: the successful, commercial, industrial town which formed an integral part of the British and imperial economy and which traded on a global scale. 

The importance of Belfast as a Victorian urban centre has, therefore, often been overlooked. This could also be partly due to the fact that Belfast was not Ireland’s capital city, and partly due to the subsequent partition of Ireland, which led to the contextual framework of much modern Irish history being 26 counties, rather than 32. Cork has for many years claimed the title of ‘Ireland’s second city’. This may have been technically true in the nineteenth century before Belfast was awarded city status in 1888, and subsequently true after the partition of the island in 1921, but the appellation obscures the significance of Belfast – a city whose economy, industry and population far outstripped that of Cork. For their part, British historians often erroneously cite Glasgow, rather than Belfast, as the fastest-growing city in nineteenth-century Britain. 

Could you introduce us to what life was like in Belfast during the ‘Linenopolis’ era?  

During the nineteenth century, Belfast experienced extraordinary economic and demographic growth, based on the manufacture of linen. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse and the largest port in Ireland. By the end of the century Belfast was Ireland’s biggest city and the world’s largest linen producer. Its shipyard rivalled the great shipyards of the world, and it had a huge engineering sector. Queen Victoria called Victorian Belfast the ‘Irish Manchester and Liverpool’. 

In many ways, ‘Linenopolis’ was to Ireland what ‘Cottonopolis’ (Manchester) or ‘the wool capital of the world’ (Bradford) were to England: an industrial centre to which thousands flocked from rural areas to find work, an urban centre where town affairs were led by an elite group of businessmen and professionals who took pride in their locale and invested their time and money in improving it. Yet the rapid population growth which accompanied its economic growth led to religious, sectarian and class divisions. Belfast represented a troubled but also a dynamic urban world.

Drawing on papers from three local families who ran their own businesses, I studied the lives of the Victorian Belfast elite – a class of hard-working, self-made entrepreneurs, civic leaders who oversaw the growth and shaped the development of their city. They were an upwardly mobile group: many of them had moved to Belfast at the very beginning of the century when it was an up-and-coming town. Although textile industrialists were the wealthiest members of society, these entrepreneurs often had to work ten to twelve-hour days acting as day-to-day managers of businesses. No company felt safe from bankruptcy. This, combined with a serious work ethic and heavy involvement in municipal life at both a local authority and voluntary level, meant Belfast’s elite were at risk of burn-out at certain times in their lives.

An important aspect of Victorian Belfast’s identity was its cultural credentials. Mid-Victorian Belfast referred to itself as the Northern Athens. Although, by the century’s end Belfast was known more for its hard-headed business character than for its culture, I discovered that these people were educated, spoke several languages, travelled widely, and took an interest in the wider world. Several of them were part of intellectual networks at national or even international level, and achieved eminence and legacy in a range of cultural pursuits from antiquarianism to natural history.

The book is based on extensive primary material, including personal correspondence and memoirs. Do any of these sources stand out as being of particular interest to readers?

One valuable find was the diary of a young middle-class Belfast woman, Mary Watts, published by her husband in 1915, which I stumbled across in Queen’s library. She was a serious and studious young woman who was one the first women to sit exams at Queen’s University, and she worked hard in philanthropic work including teaching in Sunday Schools and managing a mission society. 

A substantial part of the book is based on family archives. I found a lot of material on the Workman family, in particular, at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The Workman archive is one of the few existing archives from a middle-class family. I found series of correspondence between Robert and Sarah Workman, a Presbyterian minister and his wife, which covered the period of their courtship, engagement and early marriage. I also found letters from married couple Tom and Meg Workman who lived in a big house at Helen’s Bay. These letters were fascinating – intimate and detailed, they gave an insight into personal relationships and family life. I also met some descendants of the Workman family still living in Belfast, and last year I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit Tom Workman’s great-granddaughter, Jane Badcock, who was able to show me lots of family photos she had in a private collection. Jane is in her eighties but remembers growing up in Northern Ireland, living in the big house at Craigdarragh, and she knew a lot of family folklore about her great grandparents. 

What will you be working on next?

I am turning my attention to the working class in nineteenth-century Belfast. In the industrial city, the vast majority of inhabitants were from the working class, yet civic and economic affairs were led by a middle-class elite. I am interested in the relationships between classes, which were shifting, complex and often uneasy.

When the Belfast working class has been examined more closely, the focus has largely been on politics or sectarianism. Very little has been written about general, day-to-day experience of the men, women and children who lived and worked in nineteenth-century Belfast. More has been written about Belfast’s shipyard workers, but not about life on the factory floor – the daily reality of thousands who spent up to 14 hours there day after day. 

For more information on Middle-Class Life in Victorian Belfast, visit our website.

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