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Life on Meeting Street

In 1981 a terrace of four houses opened at the Ulster Folk Museum. Originally from Meeting Street in Dromore, Co. Down, the houses were acquired by the museum prior to their planned demolishment to make way for new housing.

Side angle photo of the meeting street houses at the Ulster Folk Museum

Design and construction 

The houses were built around 1870-1880 of local handmade brick. Exactly who the builder was remains unknown. Three of the four houses are hearth-lobby houses, meaning that the front door is line with the hearth in the (only) ground floor room. A jamb wall, a feature seen in rural houses around the same time, serves as a form of protection between the front door and the fire in this room, creating a small entrance lobby. It was this feature, as seen in an urban setting, that particularly appealed to the museum. 

Conditions were relatively basic in these houses. Each had a fire which was used for cooking and heating, one bedroom and a small back yard and dry privy which could only be accessed through the house. 

House interior showing the jamb wall between the front door and the hearth, HOYFM.L2686.13
House interior showing the jamb wall between the front door and the hearth, HOYFM.L2686.13 

Inhabitants of Meeting Street 

Valuation records and census records from the late 1800s and early 1900s show that people living in Meeting Street didn’t tend to stay in the same house for long. The houses were generally occupied by one family at a time. Some families had domestic help in the form of a servant or a nurse, whilst others housed boarders or lodgers. The religion of inhabitants was mixed – Presbyterian mostly, but also (in order of prevalence) Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Unitarian and Methodist. The professions of those who lived in Meeting Street were varied and included labourers, weavers, carpenters and milliners. 

Around the time that the houses were moved to Cultra, a number of former inhabitants of Meeting Street were invited to share their memories of living there, which they did through interviews and correspondence now held in the museum’s archives. 

The Magill family 

The Magill family lived in the largest of the four houses at the lower end of the terrace. Joseph Robert (J R) Magill, head of the family, was a shoemaker and the house was fitted out as the family’s home and shop premises. In the early 1980s J R’s daughter Mabel provided some fascinating insights into her late father’s line of work: 

“Large sides of leather were kept from which soles were measured and cut out. Father also kept soft leather from which he made the upper part of the boots and sewed the ‘uppers’ on a machine. He used wooden shoe forms to build the boots on, first the insoles and uppers were nailed in place then the welt (a narrow strip of leather) and finally the soles. 

The welt was a weather strip placed between the inner and outer sole to prevent dampness from getting inside. Father kept a ball of hemp from which he made waxed ends for sewing the soles to the uppers. These waxed ends were made by using five or six strands of hemp, about three or four feet long, and were twisted into a thread then waxed with cobbler’s wax made from solid pitch or tar, to make the thread waterproof. 

Needles made from whalebone were attached to each end of the thread. A hole was pierced through the upper welt and sole with an awl and the whalebone needles were pushed through in the opposite direction, namely, one needle was pointing towards the right, and the second needle was pushed in towards the left, to form a locked stitch and pulled very tightly to make sure no dampness could get inside. Heavy machines are now used to do this work.” 

With the shoemaking business failing to turn a big enough profit, J R later acquired the house next door in order to branch out into the bicycle repair business. By the time of the 1911 census, the family had moved to Princes Street in Dromore and J R decided to focus solely on the bicycle business. 

The business has passed down through the family for more than 100 years; first with J R's son David, then with J R’s grandson, the late Mr Howard Coulter. Today the business is owned by J R's great-granddaughter, Mrs Alison Smith, niece of the late Mr Howard Coulter.

The Magill family outside their premises on Princes Street, early 1900s, courtesy of Mrs. Alison Smith
The Magill family outside their premises on Princes Street, early 1900s, courtesy of Mrs. Alison Smith 

The Arbuthnot family 

The Arbuthnot family lived in Meeting Street at the time of the 1901 and 1911 census. Joseph Arbuthnot, head of the family, was a poultry dealer. By the time of the 1911 census Joseph and his wife Isabella had eight children. Their daughter Florence provided this recollection of her and her siblings’ upbringing in 1980: 

“I never remember being poor now, really poor…we never went hungry nor never went with broken footwear or broken clothes thank God none of us did…[My mother] always had something to give away…and she drummed that into us all the time, ‘children, no matter how little you have yourself always share, you can only share with somebody less fortunate.’ My mother…sent us round poor women that were left widows with children to rear and nothing to rear them on, she’d make a big pot of broth to send to them and a good piece of meat, make a big pot of stew another day…there never was anybody could make soup like her.” 

Florence interviewed in 1980, HOYFM.R1980.24
Meeting street houses re-erected at Cultra, black and white photograph
The houses re-erected at Cultra, HOYFM.L1549.10 

The Watson family 

The Watson family also lived in Meeting Street at the time of the 1901 and 1911 census. James Watson, head of the family, was a stone mason. Two of James’ children were interviewed by the museum in 1980. Edith recalled aspects of the family’s home life: 

“When we were youngsters we used to have a big bowl of rain water you know, and my mother kept that for washing…We had to go out and break the ice on the bowl, no warm water then. 

Edith interviewed in 1980, HOYFM.R1980.18

"My mother had [drying] lines out in the entry…the entry was closed over…and you always got your clothes dried…If you came in wet at night or anything all you had to do was put them out and they were dry and all.” 

Edith interviewed in 1980, HOYFM.R1980.18

Edith’s brother Thomas, meanwhile, recounted how waste was disposed of in the street: 

“There was an ash pit in the yard, along with the toilet. [My parents and neighbours] carried it through the house and put it onto the street…Everything was thrown, even tin boxes or anything, they were all threw in too. There was no bins in them days you know. There was no collection. The man came round with a horse and cart and he filled his load there…and he took it away to the pit.” 

Thomas interviewed in 1980, HOYFM.R1980.34