Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Belfast Grave Robbing and Clifton Poor House

I just returned from Halloween in Edinburgh, an amazing city and one that really seems to relish its darker side.  Home of the notorious Scottish grave robbers “Burke and Hare”, ironically it turns out they were neither Scottish nor grave robbers. William Burke was in fact born in Urney, near Strabane and William Hare was from either Newry or Derry. Far from being grave robbers they were in fact serial killers would murder people by suffocating them in a manner that came to be known as "burkeing" then sell the bodies to Dr Robert Knox who dissected the bodies as part of human anatomy lectures

Here’s a bit of background to how grave robbing came about as a practice

“Before 1832, there were insufficient cadavers legitimately available for the study and teaching of anatomy in British medical schools. The University of Edinburgh was an institution universally renowned for medical sciences. As medical science began to flourish in the early 19th century, demand rose sharply, but at the same time, the only legal supply of cadavers—the bodies of executed criminals—had fallen due to a sharp reduction in the execution rate Only about 2 or 3 corpses per year were available for a large number of students, as compared with the 18th century. This situation attracted criminal elements who were willing to obtain specimens by any means.” (Wikipedia)

Now what does all this have to do with Belfast I hear you cry, well grave robbing wasn’t just a Scottish phenomenon such was the demand for bodies that many came from Belfast. I recently visited the former Clifton Street Poor House and Cemetery. You could write a book about this place such is the amount of local history involved, It never fails to surprise me how things link up in Belfast. We see donations from Belfast’s early Masonic Lodges to the poor house and the McCracken family appear again. Henry Joy McCracken who I talked about last time is actually buried in the Clifton Street Cemetery with his sister Mary Ann McCracken who devoted her life to helping the poor of Belfast via the poor house is buried with him. The Graveyard itself was not just for the poor of belfast it was set up as a fundraising mechanism as plots could be sold and the money then used by the poor house. For instance the Dunville family are buried there a hugely wealthy family of the time and whose name lives on in Dunville park on the Falls Road.

I was watching the programme made by Joe Baker of the Glenravel History Project (attached below) and he talks about the practice of grave robbing in Belfast as well as the measures taken against it.
The grave robbers would not dig up the whole coffin instead they would dig down using the quieter wooden shovels to the top half of the torso, smash open the lid and then pull out the body with a rope round the neck. With little local demand, the bodies were then placed in a barrel and sent off via sea to Scotland (which commanded the best prices) or London, or by coach to Dublin
The well off of Belfast Built vaults or placed huge granite slabs on top of the grave in order to prevent the removal of bodies,the less well off would often stand guard over a relatives freshly buried body for a number of days until it would be of no use to the grave robbers. Metal cages were also placed round the coffin to prevent the bodies removal you can still see one of these cages in Clifton houses reception, these actually were of little use as the robbers pulled the body out via the holes. A greater deterrent was provided when Clifton cemetery employed armed watchmen, you can see the musket issued to the watchman in the board room of Clifton house today.

The days however of the body snatchers were brought to an end with parliament passing the Anatomy Act of 1832. People could now leave their bodies to medical science thus providing the bodies needed by the schools of anatomy, a practice that continues today with medical students at Queens University dissecting cadavers as part of their studies.

William Burke was hung for his part in the murders while William Hare was able to escape after agreeing to tesify against burke.His hanging was a huge spectacle with over 25,000 attending to watch. 

Burkes body ironically was then given over to science. Pieces of his skin were tanned and made into a pocket book by students and his skeleton and death mask remain in edinburghs surgeons hall to this day.

You can view Joe Bakers programme here:

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Freemasons Hall (Arthur Square)

Belfast’s Masonic buildings have long been on my wanted list for this blog. They seem to be the very definition of ‘Hidden Belfast’. Buildings in plain sight but also places of ritual, mystery and wonder to all but the initiated. 

Belfast has a long Masonic tradition, it’s earliest lodge was the “True Blue” Lodge No.182, which was originally warranted on the 5th October 1748. The Arthur Square Masonic Hall and was built in 1868-1870 and designed by Sir Charles Lanyon (himself a provincial grand master mason) Lanyon is responsible for many of Belfast’s finest and most unique buildings from Queen’s University, Crumlin Road Courthouse/Gaol to the Linenhall Library and Customs House. It would be no exaggeration to say that Lanyon’s buildings (this being one) continue to define the character of modern Belfast.

This strangely shaped building with an almost venetian design is today right at the very heart of modern Belfast’s shopping centre being right at the entrance of Victoria centre Today it is home to not one but over 100 different Masonic lodges.

The First floor has the two standard blue “Craft lodges” used in Masonic ritual, These are standard lodges used by all masons. Containing the common symbolic items of Masonic ritual of Candles, holy books ,Gauges, squares , gavel and trowel reflecting freemasonarys historic evolution from the medieval craft guilds. I am told the goals of freemasonary are that of personal growth and charity work.

Upstairs is a Royal Arch Freemasonary Room featuring much in the way of symbolism related to the templar knights as well as two large Egyptian mummy caskets, which I was told following a question that they serve no practical or symbolic purpose?

Here is a video detailing much of the goings on in the Arthur Square building (prior to refurb)

The building was extensively renovated in past few years you can see some pictures of the renovation itself here.

Today the hall continues to host the Donegal club as it has since 1878 named after the George Hamiliton the 3rd Marquis of Donegal (Provincial grand master) now called the Donegal Masonic Club. 

The top floor houses function and dining rooms containing some fabulous oil paintings of various masons of note. The building appears to have been home to a caretaker in the past as well, who lived in a flat contained inside the building. 

Incidentally, I have often wondered why there is a plaque to Henry Joy Mc Cracken one of the founding members of the United Irishmen and a leader of the 1798 rebellion is on the front of the Rosemary Street Masonic hall. On the Arthur Square Hall Website it states that Henry Joy was also a Mason.  

 I suppose this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, Mc Cracken was also a prominent industrialist, a Presbyterian, and a man instrumental in the Belfast Poor house to which the Masons also donated. It seems ironic that today that this Freemasons hall stands so close to where Henry Joy was executed July 17 1798 in “Cornmarket”. Interestingly a number of other men were executed with Henry Joy being the only one spared the spectacle of his head being removed and mounted on a spike for public display.

A big thanks to the Masons of Arthur Square who were generous hosts and were surprisingly happy to answer our questions. A really fabulous building too.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

European Heritage Open Day - Preview.

This Saturday ( 11th) is “European Heritage Open Day”.  It aims to provide access to many of the buildings we walk past everyday in Belfast but rarely get a chance to explore.
It promises to be a very special weekend indeed.
The buildings range from Historic private homes, to the BBC studios, Pump houses, Gate Lodges and Churches.  Personally I’ll be focusing on some of the buildings that are more difficult to gain access too throughout the course of the year. From the Lanyon designed Arthur Street Masonic Hall to the Victorian splendour of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office (and maybe sinclair seamans chruch if I have time!) and Custom house. 

I’ll also be paying a visit to Clifton House originally Belfast’s Poor House an amazing building in its own right but also full of history and trying to find out a bit more about the many of the ordinary citizens of Belfast who ended up within its wallls
You can find out more details here about the buildings involved, opening times etc. It's not just Belfast, buildings will be open all over Northern Ireland
There will also be “Hidden History” walking tours of Belfast, starting at the City Hall, these guided walking tours will include insights into the archaeology and development of the city, historic buildings, exciting episodes, characters and anything else of interest. Led by expert guide and author, Ruairi O’Baoill.
The best part? It’s all on your doorstep and everything is free of charge. So get involved this Saturday and see a bit of Hidden Belfast! It promises to be a busy day!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Belfast Prison/Crumlin Road Jail

As with the Crumlin Road Courthouse and many other Belfast buildings of note Crumlin Road Jail was built by Sir Charles Lanyon. The prison was built between 1843 and 1845 and cost £60,000. As a replacement for the county gaol on Antrim street in Carrickfergus Partly based on HMP Pentonville, it was one of the most advanced prisons of its day.

Built within a five-sided wall, the four wings are up to four storeys in height and fan off from the central area which was known as The Circle. The prison was originally built to hold between 500 and 550 prisoners in cells that measured 12 x 7 feet, these were without class and prisoners slept on straw. It was also the first prison in Ireland to be built according to "The Separate System", intended to separate prisoners from each other with no communication between them. Later, especially in the early 1970s, as many as three prisoners were placed in each cell.

It is connected by the passageway shown in the picture to crumlin road courthouse across the road.

The first 106 inmates, who were forced to walk from Carrickfergus Prison in chains, arrived in 1846. These inmates, who were men, women and children, completed the changeover of the two prisons. Children from impoverished working-class families were often imprisoned at the Jail in the early years for offences such as stealing food or clothing and routinely flogged with a cat o’nine tails as part of their sentence. Women inmates were kept in the prison block house until the early 1900s. Ten year old Patrick Magee, who had been sentenced to three months in prison hanged himself in his cell in 1858.

When originally designed by Lanyon, the prison did not contain a gallows and the executions were carried out in public view until 1901, when an execution chamber was constructed and used until the last of the hangings in 1961.

Seventeen prisoners were executed in the prison, the last being Robert McGladdery who was hanged in 1961 for the murder of Pearl Gamble.The condemned would live in a large cell (large enough for two guards to live in as well), unknowingly living next to the gallows, which were concealed by a bookcase. The bodies of the executed were buried inside the prison in unconsecrated ground and the graves were marked only with their initials and year of execution on the prison wall.

The execution of TomWilliams took place on 2 September 1942. Williams, nineteen years old, was hanged for the murder of an RUC officer.

The hangman in charge was hangman famous Thomas Pierrepoint (he was also the gaol's most regular hangman, he carried out six executionthe gaol between 1928 and 1942) the gaol between 1928 and 1942)
Even with the heavy security in place, there were several escapes from the prison over the years. In 1943, three prisoners including the IRA's chief of staff, escaped from Crumlin Road Gaol and were not recaptured despite a £3,000 reward being offered. Several other escapes by IRA prisoners were carried out in 1971.

For the last thirty years of its working life until it closed on 31 March 1996, Crumlin Road prison served as a remand centre for suspected Terrorist prisoners awaiting trial.

Its recently been opened to tours for the public with 27,000 visiting in 2009 sadly at the time of writing it is under renovation so again I have had to use pics from the 28 days later forum.

A film “ghost machine” was recently filmed in the jail it has also benn used for film screenings and some theatre pieces.

Check out the trailer for “ghost machine here”


(huge thanks to wikipedia for this post)

Theres a very extensive tour of the jail by two local men from the “Belfast History Project”

Crumlin Road Courthouse.

The Crumlin Road Courthouse was designed by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon and completed in 1850 at a cost of £16,500 and is situated facing Crumlin Road Gaol.

Sir Charles Lanyon was the architect behind a large number of well-known buildings in Belfast, including Queens University’s main building, Belfast Central Library, the Customs House, the Theological College in Botanic Avenue (which was used for Northern Ireland's first parliament before Stormont was built), the Palm House in Botanic Gardens (the first in the world and built 10 years before Kew Gardens famous palm house) and Belfast Castle. He later went on to become Belfast Lord Mayor and an MP.

Northern Ireland still has some beautiful working courthouses of this era, Downpatrick, Armagh (which resembles a smaller “Crum”) and Enniskillen are of particular note.

The Courthouse served as the main “Crown Court” for Belfast as such many of the most signifigant trials in Nothern Irish s history took place in this building and it remains a huge part of our Legal History. The last execution in N.Ireland was ordered from these very benches, its important to remember for the first 50 years of this Courthouses history these were public hanging’s. It’s dock has had some vistors of note such as NI Politicians Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and the late David Ervine as well as the infamous Lenny Murphy the leader of the so called Shankill Butchers.

Whilst Prisoners today appear in Court via video link or are brought by bus from HMP Maghaberry in Lisburn. Crumlin Road Courthouse prisoners were quite literally “sent down” as the courthouse was linked to Crumlin Road jail by an underground passage that was used to bring prisoners to and from the jail.

The Courthouse closed in June 1998, much of the work of “The Crum” was transferred to the new Laganside Court buildings which face the Royal Courts of Justice on Chichester Street in the city centre. Which, while a leap forward in modernisation, “Laganside” lacks a great deal of the athmosphere and grandeur of this old building and to me has a bit of a Travelodge feel.

It was sold to local investor Barry Gilligan in September 2003 for £1. His plans for the courthouse include redeveloping it as a tourist attraction and a hotel. The courthouse had a series of fires in 2009 causing further massive damage to the structure.

Sadly the future of the building remains in question and with inaction, further damage seems inevitable. A very sad end to this once great and historic building.

To quote one of Belfast’s defence QC’s “bring back the crum”

The Photos for this post were taken from the 28 days later forum and more can be found there.


There is an excellent video guide of the courthouse at present by I guidez, 6mins long and well worth checking out.


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ross's Auctioneers

Ross’s Auctions has occupied this slightly strange Grade B listed building for the past 75 years in the centre of Belfast, I’m not sure of the buildings original purpose.

I was introduced to Ross’s auctions by Dan, a former colleague a few years ago and ended up coming home with a brass library lamp. I've been hooked since then.

Ross’s conduct antique auctions monthly and sales of Irish Art quarterly. However my favourite is the more humble general furniture and house contents sale which happens every week.

Viewing takes place eac

h Wednesday and the auction itself from 10.00am on the Thursday.

Upstairs has the more fancy stuff, the pieces verging on the antique and downstairs is more your general house clearance/vintage/general bric-a-brac I’ve shown in the pictures.

My folks used to visit the collection of antique shops on Donegall pass (a community sadly now gone), in particular the old Saturday morning market held upstairs in “Alexander the Grates”. I loved the thousands of weird and wonderful things on sale, better than the museum as you often got to touch and play with swords and strange travelling chests or old comics.

Downstairs in Ross’s still gives me that same excitement, that smell as you walk in. This isn’t a shop you don’t know what’s going to be here week to week; there isn’t a price on anything.

As its largely from house clearances you’ll find anything from replica roman swords to deactivated shooting canes, old furniture and a 1000 items of weird bric a brac you never you knew you needed or wanted until now.

It’s a bit like a cross between Lovejoy and Steptoe and Sons house. If you’re into vintage things it’s an Aladdin’s cave.

Your only seconds from the city hall, give it ago, once you go in once you’ll be hooked.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Friday Morning Market - St Georges,

I love a Friday morning nosey round the market, I used to work next door to St Georges so it still gives me that feeling you had during a sick day at school.

First things first, SD Bells stall for a coffee then go for a wander.

Many of the stall holders can trace trading at St Georges back across 3 or 4 generation of family. You can get everything here from picture hooks to langoustines, a packet of dusters or Belgian chocolates. I love the weird bric-a-brac, stuff especially.

Whilst the market has changed with the times, you still have the sense of the original Victorian market. The noise, clatter, the smell of fish as you near the counter, the harsh edged accent of a bit of Belfast banter in the air. I’ve often wondered has the Friday morning market developed from the traditional Irish catholic habit of eating fish on a Friday? Regardless the market now has the largest fish counter in Ireland.

As someone recently put it the Saturday market is “a bit more middle class” focusing primarily on food and has a feel of a slightly upmarket ‘continental’ market, with the addition of music and entertainers. It’s a great resource for small local producers to have a retail outlet to the public for minimal cost and you find a selection of food that’s far and above anything you get at the woeful city hall market. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday morning but it’s the original Friday market I love most.

There has been a Friday market on the St. George’s site since 1604, Originally St George’s Market was an open market with stalls and included a meat market and slaughter house. Its name may have come from St George’s Church in High Street. The current St George’s Market was commissioned by the Belfast Corporation (now Belfast City Council). It was built in three phases between 1890 and 1896.

Interestingly following heavy German bombing during the Belfast blitz 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.

By the end of the 1980’s the market faced the threat of closure. Public pressure lead to investment being made and refurbishment began. The renovated St George’s Market opened on 14 May 1999.

Today it’s used to Conferences, Concerts, Product launches and a Market every Fri and Sat. During the summer they are also trying Sunday opening. Give it a go, it really is great crack.