Above is a photograph of the "Old Market House Bell," taken from an online brochure of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, detailing but a few of the artistic treasures to be found within the halls of their hallowed building on Corporation Square, Belfast. The caption reads, "Now resting on the first floor of the Harbour Office, having been presented to the Harbour Commissioners by the Marquis of Donegall in 1857, the Old Market House Bell was originally located in what was Market House in Lower High Street. The bell tolled to tell the public of any significant events - one of the most notable of which was the hanging in nearby Corn Market of Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen."
The only relic remaining of the old Market House, the bell is constructed of "bell metal" (I kid you not) "with a rough iron clapper capable, however, of bringing out a fine ringing tone. On an ornamental band is the date 1761 in raised figures. The extreme width and height are the same, viz., twenty-two inches." (Source: The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast 1613 - 1816 by Robert Magill.)
The Market House was built in 1639 on the corner of High Street and Cornmarket where, today, Dunnes Stores enjoys a huge premium site. For well over 100 years, it was the hub of the city.
Original painting by Thomas Wakeman in 1780 currently in the Belfast Art Gallery
It is said that a peal of bells sounded from the Market House, which also doubled, or trebled, as a courtroom and a town hall. Public hangings often occurred from the beam holding the clock and skeletons were often to be seen hanging there to act as a deterrent to others. The tower often sported the heads of various miscreants, the last three being insurgents in the 1798 Rebellion.
The bells were also rung to signify the beginning and end of market day and for the funerals of members of the town's hierarchy. Incidentally, the dial of the clock fell in 1739, breaking a man's thigh. I bet his wife was suspicious when he arrived home.
The house, like much of Belfast at the time, was owned by the Donegall family and it appears that the 2nd Marquis got into a bit of financial difficulty and leased the building to a local draper, Adam McClean, who promptly pulled the building down and built two new houses on the site, but not before the bell above had been transferred to the Marquis' stately pile at Ormeau.
After the 2nd Marquis died, the bell was inherited by the 3rd Marquis who, in 1857, donated it to the Harbour Commissioners, for whom the Chairman of the Commissioners, John Clarke, replied -
It appears that the Commissioners did indeed take great care of the bell. In 1894, a member of the Harbour Commissioners, William Gaffikin, made a reference to "the old bell" and the Secretary of the Board made the following report, detailing the "great care" they had taken of the priceless artefact. -
It appears that the bell had led a charmed life. The Holywood Light had been swept away by the Paddle Steamer Earl of Ulster in 1889 and the No.3 Lighthouse, where the bell was located at the time of Mr. Gaffikin's intervention was similarly mowed down in January 1897. Fortunately, the Board acted promptly on its own resolution to have the bell relocated in the Harbour Commissioner's Building where it remains to this day.