The steps of the Custom House became the an unofficial ‘speakers corner’ of Belfast. They became a location where religious, political and trade union speakers would speak, preach and lecture to open air crowds.[1]

The Custom House was built in 1857 as the administration building for HM Customs and Exercise. It was designed by English architect Sir Charles Lanyon. It is not clear why the steps became the centre of public debate but it was a tradition that started shortly after their construction.

As a consequence, the steps frequently became the centre of public disorder. In 1895, the Independent Labour Party was trying to public meetings on the steps and met with opposition and protest; RIC protection was necessary. They fought what was known as the ‘Battle of the Steps’ against those trying to prevent the ILP meeting. In September of that year, disturbances took place at Queen’s Square and Victoria Street; many were prosecuted such as Patrick Scullion who was summoned for riotous conduct at the local court when the Trades Union Procession was passing through Gt. George’s Street. He was fined 40 shillings plus costs.

In 1899, it was noted by Daniel MacAleese, MP in Monaghan North, that ‘the Custom House steps in Belfast are being used as a platform by itinerant preachers and others on Sundays for haranguing gatherings of disorderly persons, to the prejudice of the public peace…as…a platform for their mischievous addresses’. He asked whether anything could be done about this problem. George Wyndham, Chief Secretary for Ireland , replied that ‘the question has been previously considered by me. The expediency of enclosing the steps of the Custom House in Belfast, with the object of prohibiting, or otherwise regulating meetings, is, as I have already stated, very doubtful.’[2]

Three years later, Joe Devlin, MP for West Belfast, warned that ‘meetings held every Sunday on the Custom House steps at Belfast lead to riot and disorder, and the statements of Protestant clergymen that they are the direct cause of drunkenness amongst the Protestant working class’. He asked ‘instructions…be given to have the Custom House railed in’. Wyndam gave the same answer as was given to MacAleese.[3]

The steps remained the centre of agitation during trade union strikes and protests. Jim Larkin used the steps during the 1907 Dock Strike. In the 1920s, the ILP rallied trade unionists during the 1919 ‘Engineering’ or ‘General Strike’.

To mark the tradition of this location as a place of free speech, a life-size sculpture was erected by Gareth Knowles, on the Custom House steps, depicting a speaker addressing an audience in Custom House Square.

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[1] Brian M. Walker, A History of St George’s Church (Belfast: Ulster History Foundation, 2016), p.56.

[2] BELFAST CUSTOM HOUSE STEPS. (Hansard, 9 March 1899) (parliament.uk) https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1899/mar/09/belfast-custom-house-steps?msclkid=6abd4303cf9a11ecb7a91a41154f681a Accessed 9.5.22.

[3] Preaching on the Custom House Steps at Belfast. (Hansard, 23 October 1902) (parliament.uk) https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1902/oct/23/preaching-on-the-custom-house-steps-at?msclkid=e3fd804fcf9a11ecb1f7187ad6d60157 Accessed 9.5.22.