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A day in Larne Town, circa 1900

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My name is Jenna Fox and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.

My placement involves transcribing a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals in the late 1950s and 1960s. These notebooks were essential for the development of the Folk Museum as they record by county and locality anecdotes and information on truly diverse topics. The notebook that I will be discussing was written by a teacher from Larne who covered all manner of topics including local country cures for ailments, superstitions and folklore, the role of the town blacksmith, as well as her favourite confectionery that she enjoyed as a child.

Having lived in Larne town for much of her life, the author recalls how bustling the town was when she was a child, around 1900. From jovial fiddlers performing on street corners, to the hustle and bustle of market day; Larne was a town with much to see. 

Image: Larne Main St. was a bustling thoroughfare, BELUM.Y.W.01.67.6.
Larne Main St. was a bustling thoroughfare, BELUM.Y.W.01.67.6.

Live Entertainment

Much like visitors to Belfast today would enjoy the music of local street buskers, so too did the author in Larne town around 1900. She recalls the music performed by street fiddlers who came around ‘very often, mostly on market days’ and played ‘popular ballads and dance-tunes’. The author does note that she did not consider these fiddlers to be ‘real musicians’, although they were sometimes accompanied by ‘a wife or daughter’ who sang. Perhaps more popular however, were the ‘ballad-singers’ who brought great entertainment in ‘those days when there was no radio, or cinema’. Very little popular music could be bought, and so these ballad singers would have ‘taught the tunes’ of the current songs to the children, selling ‘sheets of words’ for 1d each.

Image: Street fiddlers delighted children and adults alike, BELUM.Y12189.
Street fiddlers delighted children and adults alike, BELUM.Y12189.

The author tells us that the most popular songs at that time were quite militaristic as ‘the Boer War created a lot of interest in Ireland’. And so, children often sang “We’re The Soldiers of the Queen.”, as well as “Rule Britannia” and “Good-bye, my Blue-bell”. Indeed, the author felt that the ‘far-away war’ had impacted upon the lives of Ulster people greatly.

Street dancers proved popular too. The author recalls how clearly she could remember the ‘splendid rhythmic clatters that we nowadays associate with tap-dancing’, that were produced by the ‘large folded board’ laid out on the ‘muddy street’ for dancers to perform on. One dancer may have also performed some acrobatics while the other went around the gathered crowds ‘with a bag’ to collect money.

Image: Dancers performed on large wooden boards for an interested crowd, BELUM.Y12194.
Dancers performed on large wooden boards for an interested crowd, BELUM.Y12194.

The Strange and Startling

The author also recalls some rather unique street shows that were performed in Larne around 1900. One of which was the ‘Russian Jew’ who came to town with his ‘big brown bear’ that he would lead along on a piece of rope. The author described the character as being a ‘melancholy looking man’ with a ‘long coat and fur cap’ who would chant a ‘melancholy rhyme’. The children were delighted by the performance of the bear who would ‘dance round on its hind legs’, guided by a long pole attached to the rope. What a startling sight this performance would be today.

Another character was the ‘barrel organ grinder’, described by the author as ‘more common’ at the time. Usually the organ grinder would have simply played songs for the children, but occasionally he was accompanied by a ‘little monkey’ that would climb up ‘for his cap which it took round to collect money’. Sometimes, the organ grinder would bring a bird cage which carried a fortune telling canary bird! When someone wished to learn their fortune, the bird would ‘obligingly’ pick up a ‘card from its tray-drawer on payment of a coin’. Quite the spectacle!

While the author has not commented on how much money these performers would make, she does tell the story of one organ grinder, called ‘Wandering Willie’. Willie went around the towns close to Larne playing the song “O Where is my wandering boy tonight?”. It seemed this was quite the hit, as it ‘touched the sympathies of his listeners up and down the land’, and it was said that Willie was able to die ‘quite rich’!

Vibrant Market Days

The author recalls how when her mother was a girl in around 1865, Carrickfergus was considered the ‘better market town’ as she often made the trek from Glenoe to Carrickfergus, even though Larne market was much closer. By 1900, this had changed, and Larne was ‘the centre for a large rural area’ in its own right. The author remembers how packed and busy the streets were, ‘as those were still the days of the horse, and carts, spring-carts, traps, gigs…’, and so accommodations had to be made in Larne town on market day to squeeze in all the horses and carts. Horses could be stabled in the blacksmiths’ yards for free, or in yards attached to public houses for a couple of pence.

Image: Accommodation for stabling horses was in high demand, BELUM.Y8555.
Accommodation for stabling horses was in high demand, BELUM.Y8555.

‘Market days were every second Thursday in the month’ and seemed to be quite the undertaking for the town. Livestock was driven in on foot, and stalls spread across the town. One could find almost anything at these stalls, comments the author, including ‘all kinds of wooden utensils’, ‘crockery, trinkets and finery’, as well as the ever popular ‘Hard Nuts and Yellowman’ which were sold by ‘Ballymena Jean and her son’. Jean and her stall were very popular with the children of Larne, especially the ‘country boys’ who ‘filled their pickets with the hard nuts and ‘let that do them until they reached home’.

Image: A lady inspecting some linen for sale on market day in Belfast, BELUM.Y8554.
A lady inspecting some linen for sale on market day in Belfast, BELUM.Y8554.

Those who were not content with a pocket of candy for lunch could find themselves refreshment elsewhere. ‘Country people’ who travelled long distances to Larne centre on market days often did without food until they reached home. But for those fortunate enough to have a ‘town house-wife’ as a friend, they could find refreshment at their table in the form of  ‘an extra-large pot of broth’, accompanied by ‘plenty of bread and butter’. Otherwise, those willing to pay ‘for a simple meal’ could rest in an ‘eating house’, which provided simple meals like bowls of broth, tea or a fry.

The Journey Home

The country folk who came into town for market day often faced a long journey home with a cart heavily laden with all manner of necessities. The author recalls how ‘long strings of farm carts’ would line the streets outside ‘meal and bran stores’ or grocers shops for ‘feeding-stuff and the groceries’. The cart and the country couple would then begin the journey home, ‘with the wife sitting on top of the piled-up bags’ on board the cart. The author recalls a story her mother had told her about an elderly lady who claimed ‘she never had to take medicine’ in her life as the journey from her country home to Larne on top of the cart was ‘good for the inside’!

Image: Preparing for the long journey to Larne town centre from Islandmagee, BELUM.Y19333.
Preparing for the long journey to Larne town centre from Islandmagee, BELUM.Y19333.

For those who only had a short journey home, a basket was often enough to carry home their groceries from market. The author recalls how baskets were used frequently and how they were often covered up from ‘dust, wind, rain and prying eyes’ by a sheet of paper or some hay. The author is uncertain why this tradition began but suggests perhaps these ‘were more frugal days or maybe housewives were more modest’.

From the authors recollections, Larne was always a lively town with much to see and do. From boisterous street performances, to the hustle and bustle of market day; Larne was a town centre with a lively atmosphere.