The History of Belfast Harbour

The origins of Belfast Port can be traced back to 1613, when, during the reign of James I, the town was incorporated as a borough by royal charter, with provision for the establishment of a wharf or quay.

As a result, a quay was constructed at the confluence of the Rivers Fearset (Farset) and Lagan and the development of Belfast as a Port began.

Records show that by 1663 there were 29 vessels owned in the town with a total tonnage of 1,100 tonnes. Trade continued to expand throughout the century, to the extent that the original quay was enlarged, to accommodate the increasing number of ships.


View of Sydenham, Belmont and Glenmachan 1864 by J.H. Connop

By the early 18th century the town had replaced Carrickfergus as the most important port in Ulster and additional accommodation was necessary. A number of privately-owned wharves were subsequently constructed on reclaimed land.

Throughout the century trade continued to expand as Belfast assumed a greater role in the trading activities of the country as a whole. In 1785 the Irish Parliament passed an act to deal with the town’s burgeoning port.

As a result, a new body was constituted: The Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port and Harbour of Belfast, commonly called ‘the Ballast Board’.

Although already well established by this stage, the Port remained disadvantaged by the natural restrictions of shallow water, bends in the channel approach and inadequate quays. These problems, together with an increasing volume of trade, led to a new government act of 1837.

This reconstituted the Board and gave it powers to improve the port, through the formation of a new channel. Initial work on straightening the river commenced in 1839 and by 1841 the first bend had been eliminated. Thus beginning the creation of what was to become known as the Victoria Channel.

In 1847 the Belfast Harbour Act repealed previous acts and led to the formation of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. This new body, with much wider powers, completed the second stage of the new channel two years later.

From that time the Commissioners have developed and improved the Port, reclaiming land to accommodate new quays, new trades and changes in shipping and cargo-handling technology.

The efficient, modern port of today is evidence of the foresight and commitment of successive generations of Harbour Commissioners.


View of Sydenham, Belmont and Glenmachan 1864 by J.H. Connop


Clarendon Dock and Harbour Office, Belfast, 1859

History of the Harbour Office

Since 1847, the Harbour Office has been the headquarters of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

The first section of the building, designed by the Commissioners’ engineer George Smith was opened in 1854 and erected at a cost of £8,000. A subsequent extension, by the celebrated Belfast architect William Henry Lynn, was completed in 1895 at a cost of £14,349. The style of architecture reflects that of an Italian palazzo.

Of particular interest, on entering the building, are the marble mosaic floors in the ground floor reception area and in the first floor lobby. Also noteworthy are the impressive stained glass windows depicting industry, commerce and enterprise, together with the coats of arms of the many ports and cities with which Belfast traded in the past.

Current Use

As regards day-to-day life within the building, the ground floor is currently used as office accommodation, whilst the grandiose rooms on the upper floor are reserved for business meetings, including the Commissioners’ monthly board meeting and various special functions related to Belfast Harbour’s Corporate Responsibility Programme.  These rooms, heavily ornate in typical Victorian fashion, also provide an appropriate setting for the Commissioners’ impressive fine art collection. Belfast Harbour remains committed to maintaining the building’s historic fabric in its original glory.


Belfast Harbour

Fine Art

Built up since the mid-nineteenth century by numerous Harbour Commissioners, the fine art collection includes seventeenth and eighteenth century portraits by unknown artists, nineteenth century French and Italian sculptures and bronzes, nineteenth century Irish paintings and sculptures and an assortment of paintings by twentieth century Northern Irish artists such as Joseph W Carey, William Conor, Frank McKelvey and Maurice Wilks

Titanic Port

History - Muddied Initiatives

About The Book

RMS Titanic, one of the most famous vessels in maritime history, was built by Harland and Wolff Ltd at the beginning of the turbulent 20th century, when the Belfast shipyard was one of the greatest in the world. Provision for shipbuilding, as well as trade and commerce, had been provided throughout many decades by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Without the investment made by the Harbour, it’s unlikely that the Titanic would have even been built in Belfast. The history of Belfast Harbour from 1613 is an adventure story about visionaries and tough-minded merchants, business barons, entrepreneurs, as well as skilled craftsmen and the hard labour of generations of workers of all kinds.

It is a story of great vessels and tremendous achievements, of engineering brilliance and also of steadfast courage in keeping open the Harbour throughout two World Wars, and the resourcefulness of its people during the recurring upheavals of local history and politics.

In recent years a new vibrancy has led to the development of the Titanic Quarter and the exciting £97m Titanic visitor attraction – Titanic Belfast, as Belfast Harbour and the city itself pay tribute to the technological talent that made the Titanic an engineering world-beater in its day.

The story is told in detail for the first time by award-winning journalist and author, Alf McCreary, who has been given exclusive access to the voluminous historical archives of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. This book contains many hitherto unpublished facts as well as the unique art collection and rare photographs and paintings in the Harbour Office.

About The Author

Alf McCreary is an award winning journalist and author who writes extensively on Irish affairs. He is an honours graduate in Modern History from the Queen’s University of Belfast, and for more than two decades he was a reporter, columnist and senior feature writer on the Belfast Telegraph, where he is currently the Religion Correspondent.

More Information & Where To Buy

Titanic Port is priced £25.00 and available to buy in most good book shops. 

Changing Landscapes