NMI Burial Excavation Records


Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: AE/05/033

Author: Paul McCooey, Northern Archaeological Consultancy Ltd, 638 Springfield Road, Belfast, BT12 7DY.

Site type: Post-medieval, industrial

ITM: E 734773m, N 874286m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.598846, -5.914211

Archaeological investigations began in May 2005 in the area of the former Sirocco Works, Ballymacarrett, Belfast. The purpose of these investigations was not to fully excavate the site, but rather to quantify and qualify the extent of archaeological survival. It was agreed with the Department of Environment, Built Heritage, that a total of fourteen trenches would be opened across the site. It was further agreed that the number of these trenches could rise or fall depending on the nature and extent of the archaeology encountered. For operational reasons, the trenches were not opened in numerical sequence.
Although Ballymacarrett had been linked to Belfast since the erection of the Long Bridge in the 1680s, it was not until the end of the 18th century that the area began to be developed. In 1776, Benjamin Edwards, a Dublin glassmaker, was granted title to any land that he could reclaim on the banks of the River Lagan at the east end of the Long Bridge. Over the following five years, he reclaimed the area around what is now Bridge End. In 1781, he built the glassworks at the north end of what was to become the Short Strand. It was with this kiln, the small kiln that was uncovered in Trench 13 North, that he was to become Ireland’s leading manufacturer of bottle and table glass.
In 1786, John Smylie erected a second glassworks on the adjoining site to the west of Benjamin Edwards’ kiln. It was said at the time that his kiln, the large kiln uncovered in Trenches 3 and 7, was the biggest glass cone in Britain and Ireland, being c. 120 feet tall and almost 60 feet in diameter.
It would be hard to over-emphasise the importance of the discoveries made over the course of the investigations undertaken from May to October 2005. To uncover a glass kiln is a rare thing, but to uncover two of them on the one site has probably not happened before in an archaeological context. The quality and extent of the surviving remains is surprising, given the intensity of the industrial activities and development over the two and a quarter centuries since the 1780s.
The smaller of the two kilns would appear to be that built by Benjamin Edwards around 1781 (Westropp 1923, 101), as its dimensions are closest to those historically accepted (Westropp 1923, 107). Westropp gives the diameter as 40ft (12.192m), while the excavated diameter (external) was found to be 12.8m. It was engaged in the manufacture of glasses and fine glassware. This is borne out by the artefacts recovered from Trench 13. The larger of the two would appear to be that built by John Smylie around 1786 (Westropp 1923, 106), although the excavated diameters differ from those in Westropp. As excavated, the kiln has an external diameter of c. 29.4m. Westropp records it as 180ft (54.864m) (Westropp 1923, 109) and in the Belfast News Letter of 19 August 1785 it is stated that ‘its diameter in the clear is sixty feet (18.288m), and in the height about one hundred and twenty feet (36.576m), being the largest of any in Great Britain or Ireland’ (Westropp 1923, 106). The kiln commenced making glass on 17 April 1786 (Westropp 1923, 106) and seems to have produced crown glass, bottles and later cut glass.
Smylie’s second kiln (i.e. the third to have been built on this site) was built in 1792, the foundation stone being laid in June of that year (Westropp 1923, 107). No dimensions seem to have survived for this kiln. The kiln was built solely for the production of bottles. It seems to have been demolished by 1823, as no mention is made of it in an inventory drawn up that year prior to the whole glassworks being put out to let (Westropp 1923, 107).
Benjamin Edwards’ son John went on to build clay-pipe kilns adjacent to the glassworks (Westropp 1915, 34). It is most likely that the clay-pipe kilns uncovered in Trench 6 are the kilns in question. While clay pipes are common artefacts found on archaeological sites, it is very rare to find a clay-pipe kiln, rarer still to find two. The importance of these kilns and their associated clay pipes goes beyond Belfast. Clay pipes in archaeology have long been useful dating tools. Clay pipes from a known kiln with such distinct designs and accurate manufacturing dates are invaluable tools. They enable archaeologists who may uncover a pipe to date the layer from whence it came (and thus possibly the whole excavation) and to better understand trading links between Belfast and wherever these pipes may be discovered.
As can be seen from this overview of the industrial activity on the site, it is central to the origins of industrial Belfast. This is a period when Belfast begins to evolve from being the market town of the late 18th century to the heavy industry giant of the late 19th century. On this level alone the kilns are an important find, but they are extremely important in the context of Irish glass production, and glass production in general in these islands. These kilns belong to a period between the older, almost cottage industry of the early to mid-18th century and the heavily mechanised glassmaking of the mid- to late 19th century. Very little is known about the glassmaking processes at the time when these kilns were in operation. The kilns should be viewed as a unique opportunity to study glassmaking in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Nowhere else in the archaeological record are two such different kilns found on the same site. At present, due to the limited nature of the archaeological work undertaken, more questions have been raised about glassmaking than have been answered.
Having found two of the three kilns known to have been on the site begs the question: where is the third? Preliminary research suggests that it is ‘near their other one’ (Westropp 1923, 107). This narrows down the area in which it may be found. Trenches 1 and 2 have shown that it is not there, Trench 1 possibly showing that it could not have been built in that area as the ground was not fully reclaimed. This would mean that the third kiln is to be found, if the sources are correct, either between Trenches 2 and 3 or in the present carpark area north of Trench 7 and west of Trench 13. Any future work in these areas would have to be closely monitored.
Westropp, M.S. Dudley 1915 Irish Glass. Report and proceedings of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, Session 1914–1915. Belfast.
Westropp, M.S. Dudley 1923 Irish Glass: An Account of Glass-making in Ireland from the XVIth Century to the Present. London.
Westropp, M.S. Dudley 1978 Irish Glass: A History of Glass Making in Ireland from the Sixteenth Century. Revised edition, ed. Mary Boydell. Dublin.