The First Thirteen Curlers of Belfast

Author: Andrew Steven

Date: 1997

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 5 Simmer1997

In the last edition of Ullans (Nummer 4, Spring 1996 pp 8-11), I outlined something of my researches on the sport of curling in Ulster. As some members of the Society are aware, this article (including the illustration) was copied in another publication, for which an apology was printed acknowledging that I was the original author.

Since the time I wrote the article in 1995, I have discovered something more about Belfast’s first recorded curlers in the early 1840s — thirteen in number — unless curling did take place in Ulster in the 17th century, as some claimed though without quoting any evidence. There seems to have been a radical, merchant, Presbyterian, “Instonian”, and Scots background to a majority of these 1840s curlers, whose names were kindly supplied to me by the curling historian, Sheriff David Smith of Kilmarnock, through extracts from the relevant Annuals of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Sheriff Smith’s research was also of considerable assistance to me during the preparation of my earlier article. These early curlers were well-known persons in the commercial or intellectual life of Belfast, and several of them had a close working relationship with James Boomer, who, under Dr John Cairnie’s patronage and encouragement, was the Belfast Curling Club’s President in the 1840s.

James Boomer, in partnership with James Campbell, a prominent Liberal, owned the Falls Road Flax Mill, and, following Dr Cairnie’s advice, constructed the curling pond, already described in my last article, in the grounds of his residence “Seaview” on the Shore Road, Belfast. An illustration of Seaview [though unfortunately not including the curling pond, which was made some seven years later] appeared as Plate XXIX in Belfast Scenery in Thirty Views (1832), reissued by the Linenhall Library in 1983, with a modern commentary by Fred Heatley and Hugh Dixon. Boomer’s father, also called James, was a cotton spinner and manufacturer, who lived in a house “of great size” in Mill Street, near the centre of Belfast, with extensive gardens running to the river at Millfield [Mill Street ran between the modern Castle Street and the modern Divis Street and included a part of both]. Boomer’s house at 18 Mill Street, with adjoining business premises, was exactly opposite King Street. It was formerly the home of the Sinclaires, a Presbyterian family important in the history of Belfast, who came from Scotland to Newtownards at the beginning of the 18th century. Certain members of the Sinclaire family took a great interest in the Irish political affairs, especially the Volunteer movement of the 1790s and the United Irishmen (unlike the Boomers, who seem to have avoided any political attachment). As noted above, the Boomers’ Company later turned from cotton to flax spinning. Its office was in Warehouse Lane, off Waring Street, and several of James Boomer’s curling worthies had business addresses in the central part of Belfast. James Boomer senior died, aged 53 years, in 1820, and his curling son, who was a member of the Second Presbyterian Congregation in Rosemary Street, died, aged 54 years, in 1852 [not 1846, the date I gave in my last Ullans article, which was the date stated in curling literature from last century]. Boomer’s sudden death in November, 1852, received comparatively little notice in the press, as the newspaper columns were largely dominated by the funeral, that same week, of the Duke of Wellington.

The Vice-President of the Belfast Curling Club on its creation in 1839 was Robert J Tennent J.P., a Petty Sessions magistrate, Deputy Lieutenant for Co Antrim, and holder of numerous other positions in the public life of the city. Subsequently, he became Liberal MP for Belfast from 1847 to 1852. During his five years in Parliament he tried, not always successfully, to please his supporters, mixed both by social class and by religion (Roman Catholics and some Presbyterians). He stood unsuccessfully in an election in 1832 (the first after the Reform Act), and also in a by-election in 1835. The former was a particularly rowdy affair, both before and after the poll, and four people (two elderly men and two boys) died when the police and military fired on a riotous crowd which had attempted to prevent the Conservative victory procession from entering the mainly Catholic Hercules Street (where Tennent lived). After Tennent lost his seat at the election held on 12 July 1852, serious rioting again occurred, and citizens from both communities fled their homes.

Robert Tennent’s uncle, William Tennent (whose Presbyterian minister father came from Edinburgh to north Antrim in the mid-18th century), was initially prominent in the sugar trade in Belfast, but later developed other business interests, including insurance, distilling, and, most notably, banking. He achieved this prominence in business despite being interned at Fort George, near Inverness, for almost four years following the rebellion of 1798, on suspicion of belonging to the Belfast Directory of the United Irishmen. In 1791, he had been one of the founders of the radical Northern Star newspaper. He was not the only son of the manse and merchant to follow, initially, a similar radical line in politics. Despite his enforced absence from the city at the turn of the century, he returned to play the prominent part in business mentioned above, even being appointed to the Police Commissioners. He was a member of the First Presbyterian Congregation in Rosemary Street. On his death from cholera in 1832, Robert, his nephew, the son of a doctor, succeeded to his large house at 2 Hercules Place, and was living there during his curling days.

The Secretary of the Curling Club was Edward Lindsay junior, a seedsman, who lived near the extensive nurseries owned by father and son at Lennoxvale, Malone. [Lennoxvale took its name from the Lindsay family connection with Robert Lennox, a merchant, and active member of the First Presbyterian Congregation in Rosemary Street, who died in 1733]. The office of the Lindsay nursery business was originally in Donegall Street, then, in the early 1840s, in Waring Street, near Boomer’s office. Edward junior died in 1852.

The Club’s Treasurer was Edmund Getty, who had a remarkably wide range of interests. He was the Belfast Ballast Master, and, later, the Secretary and chief executive official of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Many improvements were carried out during his time in office, including the reclamation of land on the Co Down side of Belfast Lough, and the construction of a pleasure park and a crystal palace on the site, which later came to be occupied by the shipyards of Messrs Harland and Wolff. Outside his work, he was much involved in the intellectual life of the city, including the Natural History and Philosophical Society, the Literary Society, the Statistical Society of Ulster, the Botanic Gardens (of which a fellow-curler was Curator), the building of the Museum in College Square North, and the publication of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. His writings covered an immense range, including an historical novel, The Last King of Ulster (1841), Chinese Seals Found in Ireland (1850), and a History of Belfast Harbour (1852), and articles on topics such as round towers; Tory Island; and the old Ford of Belfast. He was also noted as a linguist, and was much interested in many aspects of education in the city. He was a Liberal in politics. Edmund was the notable son of a notable father. His father, Robert, was a merchant in North Street, with an added business interest in insurance. He was also well-known, over a lengthy period, as a radical campaigner, especially in the cause of Catholic emancipation. He was arrested for a time in 1798 on suspicion of involvement in the United Irishmen. He was one of those instrumental in the setting up of the Belfast Academical Institution [later the Royal Belfast Academical Institution — RBAI], and Edmund was a pupil there from 1819. Indeed, an examination of the School Album of RBAI shows many of the names of the original curlers, or of their close relations.

George C Hyndman was another “well-kent” figure in the city. His paternal ancestors came from Renfrewshire to Co Antrim in the 17th century (the reign of Charles II), and on his mother’s side there were Scottish links through marriage. George’s father, James Hyndman, had interests as a merchant in the wool trade, and was also an auctioneer in Donegall Street. He was a notary public, and, for a time, Town Clerk. He was one of the more radical Volunteers of the early 1790s. His son, George, the curler, a Liberal in politics, and a Unitarian in religion, also earned his living as an auctioneer, with several associated side lines, now based in Castle Place. Much of his leisure time was spent pursuing his interests as a naturalist, especially on Irish marine life. He was involved in the foundation of the Botanic Gardens, and the Museum in College Square North to which he presented many items, including a unique collection of shells, and his former pets, a young crocodile and a chameleon! He was a foundation member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, holding various offices in that body, and, at different times, held the posts of President of the Belfast Literary Society and President of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club. He was prominent in the management of the Belfast Academical Institution (later RBAI), as was later his nephew, Hugh.

Richard Connery was a merchant of Castle Place, and a mercantile and land agent. He was a member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. J Ramsey Newsam was employed by Edward Shaw & Company, linen and linen yarn merchants and commission agents, in Waring Street. Like Hyndman, he was interested in natural history, and gave papers on this topic to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. He died in England aged 46 years. David Ferguson was Curator of the Belfast Botanic Gardens. James Gamble was a general merchant in North Street, residing at ‘Consbrook’, Co Down. James F McCaw was a merchant of College Square North, residing three doors away from James Campbell, Boomer’s partner. Robert M Reid was a commission agent in Waring Street, from a family connected to trade in linen and cotton yarn.

Another with a business address in Waring Street was George K Smith, of Whitehouse, Co Antrim, a solicitor with an office in Dublin as well as in Belfast. He was honorary secretary of the First Presbyterian Congregation for over forty years. He provided a memorial window in the meeting-house in Rosemary Street commemorating the service of his family — they occupied the same pew there for almost 100 years. The family is said to have settled in Co Antrim in the mid-17th century — a member was Sovereign of Belfast in the closing years of that century. George Smith’s paternal grandfather was an active Volunteer in the 1790s, being also a foundation member of the Northern Whig Club. He subsequently turned against what he saw as developing extremism, and expressed his abhorrence of the United Irishmen.

Henry J Campbell served his apprenticeship in James Boomer’s Falls Road Mill, and, at the time of the foundation of the Belfast Curling Club, was listed as a flax and linen yarn merchant and general commission agent of James’s Street; his home residence at that time was next door to George Hyndman in Howard Street. He later became the director of two firms of flax and tow spinners, one at Mossley, and the other in North Howard Street, both providing the raw materials for the linen trade. Unlike the families of certain other of the early curlers, the Campbell family is not recorded as having any political interests. Henry Campbell, a Presbyterian, died in 1889, and a substantial legacy led to the establishment, five years later, of Campbell College, Belfast, a boarding and day school for boys.

The Belfast Curling Club went out of existence for a time in the late 1840s, or early 1850s, but reaffiliated itself to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, as the Belfast Union Club, in 1855. Something of its later history is recorded in my last article in Ullans, and, at some future date, I may attempt to ascertain something of the background of the members up to the turn of the century. It seems that some skilled curlers came to Ulster from Scotland in the second half of last century, and must have raised the standard of the game here.

In 1880, Thomas Thorburn of Beith (whose Curling Stone Works provided the first stones for the Kiltonga Club the year before), presented a prize to be competed for by and between the Belfast, the Clandeboye, and the Kiltonga Curling Clubs. This prize was a pair of very handsome and valuable curling stones with silver-mounted handles. The whereabouts of these stones is, unfortunately, not now known. I wonder if they are in the possession of a reader of Ullans, with a former family involvement in Ulster curling?

Andrew Steven



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