Belfast 1932

Belfast In The 1930s

The Unionist Party had dominated Northern Irish politics since partition in 1921. Sectarianism was overt.

Women were paid a fraction of what men earned. Often they were responsible for everything in the home too. Middle-class women were expected to stay at home once they married.

There was no Welfare State. Healthcare was expensive, and quite basic. Without antibiotics, tuberculosis was a big killer.

Concerts and dances were popular, and sometimes people went to political meetings for entertainment. People who could afford it went to the cinema, and took day trips to Bangor or Whitehead.

I am an Orangeman first and a Member of Parliament afterwards.

Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister James Craig, speaking in 1933

Image: Belfast Corporation workers clearing the streets of leaves (pictured in Belfast Telegraph, 11th October 1932, p12).

There were 28 in my class in school and when I was about 25, I would say that more than half of those girls were dead, mostly from tuberculosis… It seemed as if every week blue baby-coffins were coming out of every street.

Anne Boyle


In 1932, the Unionist Party held 37 seats out of 52 in the Northern Ireland Parliament. That was 71% of seats, with just 51% of the vote. Most politicians were landed gentry or middle-class professionals.

Businessmen and politicians were close. Unionist employers often preferred to hire Protestants. The Special Powers Act, in force since 1922, was used by the government to clamp down on people perceived to be republican or socialist.

Image: The new Ulster Parliament in Belfast City Hall in 1921. James Craig, Richard Dawson Bates, J.M. Andrews and Lord Archdale are pictured here. Craig and Dawson Bates were two of the key figures in the events of 1932 (© Belfast Telegraph).

A children’s ward in Belfast workhouse in around 1906.

In Belfast you get labour conditions the like of which you get in no other town, no other city of equal commercial prosperity from John O’Groats to Land’s End or from the Atlantic to the North Sea. It is maintained by an exceedingly simple device… Whenever there is an attempt to root out sweating in Belfast the Orange big drum is beaten.

Parliamentary Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald, speaking at Westminster in 1912


Children being fed milk at Belfast Central Mission during the Outdoor Relief Workers’ Strike.

Image: Children in Mitchell’s Court, off the lower Shankill Road, in 1912 (© National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum).

Working-class people laboured long hours for low pay in Belfast’s shipyards, mills and factories. Houses were damp and crumbling and furniture was rented. Every crumb of soap and coal was precious. Usually people had one set of clothes. Those who had two could swap the spare set for a while for a cash loan, known as pawning. Children typically went barefoot and meat was an Easter or Christmas treat.

Women tended to feed husbands and children first, and often suffered from malnutrition. Many babies and mothers died from preventable causes.

On her last day at work [my mother] worked to 6pm and died [in childbirth] 4 hours later.

Saidie Patterson

In 1929 an American stock market crash caused a worldwide recession. It quickly became known as the Great Depression. By 1932 there were 50,000 unemployed in Belfast.

Quotes from Celebrating Belfast Women: A City Guide Through Women’s Eyes, Women’s Resource and Development Agency, and Ronnie Munck and Bill Rolston, Belfast In The Thirties: An Oral History, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1987 and Paddy Devlin, Yes We Have No Bananas: Outdoor Relief in Belfast 1920-39, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1981.