A History of Belfast

By Tim Lambert


The city of Belfast began in the early 17th century. The name Belfast is a corruption of the Gaelic words Beal Feirste meaning mouth of the sandy ford. The town of Belfast grew after 1609 when King James began his policy of settling Englishmen and Scots in Ulster. Sir Arthur Chichester was granted land in Ulster including Belfast Castle, which he rebuilt in 1611. A small town soon grew up in its shadow. By 1611 there were Englishmen, Scots, and Manxmen living in the thriving community of Belfast.

In 1613 Belfast was made a corporation and afterwards, it sent 2 MPs to parliament. However, the corporation was partly controlled by the Chichester family, the lords of the manor. Belfast was run by an official called a sovereign assisted by 12 burgesses (merchants). Each year the burgesses drew up a shortlist of 3 of themselves and Chichester chose one to be the sovereign. Chichester’s consent was required for new bylaws. Ordinary people had no part in the government of Belfast.

In the early 17th century Belfast was a small town with a population of only about 1,000 but it was busy. Wool, hides, grain, butter, and salted meat were exported from Belfast to England, Scotland, and France. Wine and fruit were imported into Belfast from France and Spain. Later in the 17th century, Belfast traded with the North American colonies. Tobacco was imported from there. Sugar was imported from the West Indies and refined in Belfast.

By the late 17th century Belfast probably had a population of about 1,500-2,000. It was swelled by French Protestants, fleeing religious persecution in their own country, who introduced linen weaving to Belfast. Other industries in Belfast were brewing, rope making, and sail making.

In 1680 Belfast gained a piped water supply (using wooden pipes). After 1686 each householder was supposed to hang a lantern outside his house at night during the winter months. The first bridge over the Lagan was erected after 1682.


Belfast Castle burned down in 1708. However, in the 18th century, Belfast grew rapidly. The population of Belfast was only about 2,500 in 1700 but it grew to about 8,000 in 1750 and about 13,000 by 1780. By 1800 Belfast had a population of around 20,000. In the late 18th century a new suburb grew up across the Lagan.

Meanwhile, Belfast gained its first newspaper in 1737. Belfast gained its first bank in 1752 and its first theatre by 1768.

During the 18th century, increasing amounts of linen were exported from Belfast. (The linen was woven in people’s homes in the surrounding countryside not woven in factories). In 1701 less than 200,000 yards of linen were exported from Belfast. By 1773 the figure had risen to 17 million yards. The White Linen Hall was built in 1788. Cotton spinning was introduced in Belfast in 1777. However, it never had the same importance as linen.

In 1785 a Harbour Board was formed with responsibility for the upkeep of the harbour. Shipbuilding in Belfast began in 1791.


Belfast continued to grow rapidly in the 19th century. Belfast was made a borough in 1842 and it was made a city in 1888. Meanwhile, in 1800 a Paving Board was formed to pave the streets of Belfast and The Royal Academic Institution was built in 1810. The first hospital in Belfast was built in 1815 in Frederick Street. A lunatic asylum was built in Belfast in 1829. Meanwhile, St George’s Church was built in 1819.

Queens Bridge was built in 1843 and Queens University was formed in 1845. Sinclair Seamen’s Church was built in 1853 and St Malachy’s Church was built in 1844. The Harbour Commissioners Office was built in 1854. The Custom House was built in 1857. Ulster Hall was built in 1862. Albert Memorial Clock was erected in 1869.

Belfast Castle was built by the Marquis of Donegal in 1870. Belfast Public Library was built in 1890. The Grand Opera House was built in 1895. St Georges Market was built in 1896. St Anne’s Anglican Cathedral was built in the years 1899-1927.

Ulster Museum dates from 1833. Meanwhile, a Botanic and Horticultural Society was formed in Belfast in 1827. They created a private botanic garden and the Palm House was built in 1840. The Botanic Garden became a public park in 1895. From 1823 Belfast had gaslight and a railway was built from Belfast to Lisburn in 1839. From 1872 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Belfast.

However, as in all early 19th century cities conditions in Belfast in the years, 1800-1850 were appalling. The streets were dirty and houses were overcrowded. The Lagan was used as a sewer. Not surprisingly in 1847, there was an outbreak of typhus (a disease spread by lice). In 1848 cholera struck Belfast.


In the late 19th century conditions improved. New by-laws meant all new houses were much better. Unfortunately, the old ones remained. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Belfast Council built a network of sewers. Albert Bridge was built in 1890. Meanwhile, the shipbuilding industry in Belfast boomed. The Harland and Wolff shipyard was founded in 1862.

The port of Belfast also boomed. The River Lagan was shallow and winding so in 1841 a channel was dug to bypass one of its curves. In this way, Queens Island was formed. The channel was extended in 1849 and the extension was named Victoria Channel. (Both it and Queens Island were named after the visit of Queen Victoria to Belfast in 1849). Clarendon Dock was built in 1851. Dufferin and Spencer Docks followed in 1872. York Dock was built in 1897.

The rope-making industry flourished during the 19th century. However, linen was the dominant industry in Belfast. In the early years of the 19th century, linen was woven by hand in people’s homes in Belfast and surrounding villages.

From the mid 19th century the linen industry was industrialized and it was woven in factories. However, the cotton industry declined severely in the mid-19th century. There were several iron foundries in Belfast in the mid 19th century and in the late 19th century a large engineering industry grew up. Also in the late 19th century, there was a whiskey distilling industry in Belfast and a tobacco industry.


By 1901 Belfast had a population of 349,000. By 1939 it had risen to 438,000. City Hall was built in 1906 and Belfast was made the capital of Northern Ireland in 1920.

Meanwhile from 1904 electric trams replaced the horse-drawn ones and Belfast airport was built in 1933. In 1911 The Titanic was launched in Belfast.

In the early years of the 20th century, the traditional industries and the port continued to flourish. Musgrave Channel was dug in 1903. Herdman Channel was dug in 1933. The same year Pollock Dock opened.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Belfast suffered from mass unemployment. However, during the Second World War shipbuilding and engineering boomed. These essential industries made Belfast a target for German bombing and the city suffered severely during the blitz. There were 3 raids, on 7 April 1941, 15-16 April 1941, and 4 May 1941. A total of 955 people were killed. Some 3,200 houses were destroyed. There was also much damage to industry in Belfast.

In the late 20th century Belfast again suffered from high unemployment. The old industries of linen, engineering, and shipbuilding declined and many workers were laid off. However, service industries such as education, local government, and retail grew rapidly. At the end of the 20th century, there was a flourishing industry in Belfast making aircraft.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Belfast also suffered from crowded and sub-standard housing, although the situation had improved by the end of the century, partly because many people moved to satellite communities. Kings Hall Conference Centre was built in 1965 and Queen Elizabeth II Bridge opened in 1966. Crescent Arts Centre opened in 1980 and Belfast City Tours began in 1985.

At the end of the century, Belfast began to reinvent itself. Smithfield Market was rebuilt in 1986. In 1988 an old gasworks in Belfast was demolished and the area was redeveloped. Cromac Industrial Estate was built on part of the site.

In 1989 Laganside Corporation was formed to regenerate land on both sides of the river Lagan. Waterfront Hall opened in 1997. Furthermore, new shopping centres were built. Castle Court Centre opened in 1990. So did Westwood Centre. Forestside Shopping Centre opened in 1998.


In the early 21st century Belfast is a thriving city. At the beginning of the century, the Odyssey entertainment centre was built. It includes an arena, a cinema, bars and restaurants. Odyssey Arena opened in December 2000 when the Belfast Giants played their first home game. A new terminal building was opened at Belfast Airport in 2001 and Victoria Square opened in March 2008.

Today industries in Belfast include shipbuilding, computers, and whiskey. In 2024 the population of Belfast was 295,000.

Last revised 2024