The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) is hosting an online afternoon conference on November 19, exploring how and why Belfast developed into an industrial city of exceptional and unique importance during the 19th century.

The conference will also mark the publication of Middle Class Life in Victorian Belfast by Alice Johnson, and will last from 2pm to 4pm. It is a free event.

Entitled Exploring Victorian Belfast: People, Place and History, the speakers include Sean Connolly, Olwen Purdue, Robert Heslip and Alice Johnson.

In terms of topics, speakers will cover issues such as the movement from some historians to shift from a narrow focus on sectarian and political divisions to a more broader social and cultural perspective.

Sean Connolly’s talk is entitled Seeing Belfast as a Victorian City. He said: “They [historians] have increasingly emphasised how much Belfast had in common with other industrial cities of the period.

“What are the advantages of this new approach? And is there a danger that in viewing Belfast as a typical Victorian city we will lose sight of the things that did in fact make it distinctive?”

Surviving the industrial city: women, welfare and the workhouse in Victorian Belfast will be delivered by Olwen Purdue
“This will explore the development of welfare in late-Victorian Belfast, asking to what extent it mirrored welfare practices in other Victorian cities, or was shaped by its uniquely Irish industrial context,” he explained.

“It will focus, in particular, on women both as administrators and recipients of welfare, examining how Belfast’s workhouse, that most Victorian of institutions, operated as a space of control and resistance, power and agency.”

Civic Investment in the Victorian Past is from Robert Heslip is the Tourism, Culture, Heritage and Arts Development Officer, Belfast City Council.

His presentation will look at the move from private, middle class-led provision to local government services during the Victorian period through the lens of three very different institutions, the current value of which is recognised by substantial investment in restoration and process of reinvention.

Middle-class life in Ireland’s bourgeois capital will be presented by Alice Johnson.

The book provides a portrait of the social world of upper middle-class Belfast from the 1830s to the 1880s.

This group has often been overlooked by social historians. It looks at the day-to-day lives and cultural world of the ordinary commercial, business and professional classes, and paints a detailed picture of this social elite and its world.

Her talk will describe her research journey as she recounts her efforts to explore this community and uncover a semi-forgotten world. It will provide an overview of her findings on the Belfast bourgeoisie – a distinct middle-class elite in a town that was neither truly Irish nor truly British.

This event is taking place on Zoom. Sign-up closes 24 hours before the event and an invite will be sent to everyone registered 24 hours before the beginning of the event.

Register here:

About the speakers

Sean Connolly is Professor (Emeritus) of Irish History at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies. He is the editor of Belfast 400: People, Place and History, published in 2012 by Liverpool University Press, and has recently published, with Dominic Bryan, Civic Identity and Public Space: Belfast since 17890 (Manchester University Press).

Olwen Purdue is Senior Lecturer in Irish Social History at Queen’s University Belfast, working on poverty, power and social class in the nineteenth and twentieth-century Irish city. She is editor of Belfast, the emerging city 1850-1914 (Dublin, 2012) and Irish Urban Landscapes (Liverpool, 2019) and is currently working on a book, Belfast child: families, poverty and the poor law in the Irish industrial city, to be published by Liverpool University Press in 2021. She is founding Director of the Centre for Public History at Queen’s, was historical advisor to Titanic Belfast and works closely with a number of museums and heritage organisations across the city.

Alice Johnson is a lecturer in history at Belfast Metropolitan College and Visiting Scholar in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She recently authored Middle-Class Life in Victorian Belfast (published 2020, Liverpool University Press).