Memories of Belfast Department Stores…

Mayo Walters is originally from Belfast but now lives in England  

I have just been listening to Radio 4 and a girl describing the department store which has just closed in her hometown of Hull. It all sounded so familiar to me, and then I realised that I had lived through the 50’s and 60’s in Belfast, and even saw the final closure of Anderson and McAuley Ltd in the 1980’s, which was the end of an era of shopping experiences, and so much better than the online era you are all in now.

My earliest memories are of being driven up to Belfast by my parents to visit Granny and stay in her house at No1 Shrewsbury Park Belfast. Usually, we would go up on a Thursday, so my father could go to his meeting with the Milk Marketing Board in their offices on the Antrim Road on Friday. That meant that Granny, mother and I could go to Anderson and McAuley’s for shopping and then to join Granny in the restaurant on the fourth floor for coffee and scones at her reserved table (Mrs. Gibson’s table) which was always reserved for her on a Friday morning. Other ladies from the smart side of town would also have reserved tables, and it was a social event to join one of the tables. My Grandmother was originally from Bristol and always beautifully dressed and elegant. No trousers or jeans in her day! I always remember she had the most beautiful skin which never needed moisturiser but was always protected from the sun with a variety of hats.

Anyway, to set the scene for the coffee—the time was 11 am, and no earlier, and we had to take the lift to the 4th floor. It was one of those elaborate ironwork lifts and there was always a lift operator, dressed in the brown and gold uniform of Andy Macs (as we used to call the store.) The lift operator was female and always greeted Granny who would enquire about her family. The lift girl wore white gloves and took us up to the restaurant on the fourth floor. I remember being so impressed with the round tables covered with white linen cloths, special embossed china and silver tea and coffee pots. Of course, everything was brought to the table by waitresses in the uniform of the store with white gloves!! I remember there were managerial males who were in black suits and hovered around the customers’ tables looking pretty useless.

Coffee mornings lasted about an hour and then we went off to look at the various departments. This was before the days of concessions, so everything was ordered in by the department heads. A variety of older battle-axe type women, many of whom had a grey bun and large bosom! The lingerie department was fascinating, with corsets of various shapes and sizes and large one piece swimsuits. No sign of thongs and plunge bras there.

There was a floor devoted to the furniture department and the basement was all kitchen ware and appliances. It was only after Robert became the Company Secretary that I heard about the river floods which caused frequent mopping up in the basement. Belfast city centre is actually built upon the banks of three or four rivers, and the pile driving for the Victorian building in Donegall Street was quite an expensive exercise which worked for most of the time, but trouble ensued when there were high tides in the Lagan.

There were other department stores in Belfast when I grew up, Brands, Brands and Norman, Robinson Cleaver (Used to be solely for selling linen and had branches in Great Britain) the Bank Buildings, and they all had a kind of magic about them. Shopping was more relaxed and pleasurable and of course the customers knew the staff and their favourites, and vice versa. Sadly, they folded one by one and their buildings were taken over by the cheap and cheerful shops like Primark and New Look.

One of the highlights for me was when I went with Granny to Sawyers in Castle Place It was the Fortnum and Mason of Belfast with every kind of food delight you could imagine. It was tiled in cold white ceramic tiles, and there was a long counter with a number of men in white coats, white hats and aprons, waiting to serve the customers. I can still remember the smell as one entered the shop, a mixture of cheese, raw meat and coffee grinds, a bit nauseating until you adjusted your nose! Granny would place her order and she waited while the cheese was cut with a wire on a marble slab, then beautiful cuts of meat, and she chose from the fresh fish which were displayed on piles of ice. I can remember a lady at the till by the exit, and it was an enormous machine which she rattled noisily. Needless to say, my grandmother did not have to lug all the produce home in bags or a trolley. It came by Sawyer’s van in the afternoon, and the housekeeper at the time had to put the goods all away in the pantry or fridge. Granny had a wonderful little cold room, which faced north and had marble shelves, so it was always cold and was used as a larder for storing vegetables and fruit.

What became of the department stores in Belfast then? They were hit by many things, lack of city parking, the arrival of out-of-town supermarkets with plenty of free parking, and of course the “troubles” which put many people off going into Belfast because of the bombs going off and the frequent scares and hoaxes.

Anderson McAuley was the last one to go and it was a cruel end. The Government wanted to rehouse a number of civil servants and they built a large shopping mall called Castle Court, and secured an anchor tenant, namely Debenhams (just about to become extinct). This was greeted with enthusiasm by NI shoppers as it was a large UK chain of department stores. However, as the troubles intensified, Debenhams decided to pull out of Belfast. The Government were desperate and wooed them back with a 10 year rent and rates freeze. This was grossly unfair on Andy Macs as they were having to pay annual rates of £300,000 when trading was not good. There were still Anderson family members involved, and they also owned Supermac, a shopping centre out of town. They realised the future and sold both premises for a considerable sum of money, because of the sites, if nothing else. The staff were made redundant and the people of Belfast were so sad as Andy Macs was a treasured part of the city, and as someone remarked to me…”if you are looking for anything you will find it in Anderson and McAuley”.

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