SMITHFIELD is arguably one of Belfast’s most historic districts. It was the site of Belfast’s first prison which was located in what was then known as Ferguson’s Entry and a market has operated within the area from as early as the 1700s.
However, the Smithfield that we know today is a far cry from what it was then and even a different one from that of 20 or 30 years ago.
Brenda and Angel Torley, along with their eight cats, seven dogs and three tortoises are the last remaining residents living in the area, and many of us pass their Winetavern Street home without realising that it is there.
Taking a walk down memory lane, Angel told us: “The family have been living in Winetavern Street since the 1800s. Our great granny and her sister Sarah were Magees.
“We were told by older residents who lived in the area that our great granny and her sister were the first residents to live in Smithfield. Sarah lived in this house and our great granny lived up the street in number 13. When Sarah moved to Gresham Street, our great granny moved in here.
“Our great granny Jane was the cook in the Police Station. But we only remember the street when Smithfield Bus Station was here.
“We can trace our family history back to Armagh, although our granda on my daddy’s side was from Massachusetts and came here during World War One. The funny thing is that his father was a circuit judge and his family had emigrated to the United States from Armagh.” Like most districts, the Torley’s remember Smithfield as being a hive of community.
A CLOSE-KNIT COMMUNITY
“It was a very close knit community and we were the only family with kids in Winetavern Street,” Angel told us. “When we were growing up all our friends were living in Samuel Street, Millfield and Brown Square.
“In the heart of the Troubles there was no youth clubs or play parks that we could go to so kids of all ages played together and that community has stayed strong until this day.
“Growing up in the Troubles we didn’t know any different. There were controlled explosions at least once a week over at Smithfield Market and there was one of the days where we were taken by surprise.
“I was here in the house and my Dobermans’ leads were in the car. A cop ran in and shouted for everyone to leave as a bomb was about to go off but I wouldn’t leave without the dogs.
“He had left the door open and the dogs got out and started to attack the robot. I was in a panic but all I could think to do was to run towards the bomb and grab the dogs by the collars. By that stage the cop had grabbed me by the scruff and run us out of the street.
“We then had to leave the dogs round in St Patrick’s Boxing Hall while we were evacuated. Nine times out of ten, when we came back there was no windows and the door was blown off.
“It was something that we just got on with and the danger didn’t really impact upon us. The community here all helped each other out and I feel that we had a bond during the Troubles that you just don’t see now within communities” she added.
Recounting some of the horrors of the conflict, Angel said: “There was another time where we had been told to leave and my mother thought it was just another hoax. She went out for a nosey and it exploded.
“One of the bars on the railings came through the window and went right through her hair. She ended up with a perforated eardrum but at the time we were searching the area and couldn’t find her.
“One of the guys at the top of the street shouted to us that she was round in the sex shop in Gresham Street.
“In normal times we would question it but we went round and found her in the sex shop and they were giving her toilet roll to clear the blood.
“We took these things as normality but looking back I’m thinking did we really walk into a sex shop and say ‘mummy come on there is an ambulance here for you’; there was some really fun times and there was some sad times but we took it in our stride.
“We also had some of the victims who had survived the Shankill Butchers brought to our house for help. Some of those sights were horrific.”
Teenagers in the ruins of Smithfield Market in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1974— YourWullie (@YourWullie) January 26, 2021
Photograph: Frank Tewkesbury pic.twitter.com/EdY17MNcG5
She added: “Our mummy would have been close friends with the late Kathleen Largey and she was in our house every day when we got in from school.
“While she would have been bringing my mummy Flying Column or Green Cross tapes straight from the recording studio, we were always buying Words and the Disco 45 magazine so we could learn the lyrics of the latest pop hits and Kathleen would take the magazines and sing The Carpenters for us.”
Although their mother Annie was a Torley through marriage, she was known to many by her maiden name, Fields. Like most in the Smithfield area, Annie was a trader.
“Our mummy had a shop here and it started way before any of us were born,” Angel said. “It was a grocery store then gradually it became a second hand clothes shop. Growing up it was great as we got to play in the high heels and try on these long flowing dresses.
“We were spoilt rotten by the customers, particularly on a Saturday. We would have got 50p here and there or the more well-to-do customers would have given you two or three pounds.
“As we got older we were out at work or away to Omeath at the weekends but when mummy retired we found it odd as we now had another room. When we went out to work, between her and Mary Flood we didn’t know what the stock was going to be.”
CASTLECOURT KILLED OFF BUSINESSES
Discussing the closure of the business, Angel said: “Castlecourt really killed off any business that we had around here. Andy closed his butchers, O’Hara’s closed and we even had Dunnes for a while.
“Castlecourt cut everything off and it meant that particularly the people from West Belfast weren’t coming through the street. Primark then done a lot of harm to the smaller clothes shops as you couldn’t compete with their prices.
“By that stage my mummy needed a triple bypass and we told her it was time to call it a day.”
The site where Smithfield Market is currently located was the former bus station. The original market that dated back to the 1700s was situated where Castlecourt is now. Angel said: “When the original Smithfield Market burnt down, we slept through it. Then we were wondering why the next day all the traders were asking if they could keep any stock they had salvaged here.”
For many of us, we can’t comprehend the loneliness associated with being the only residents left in an area. Angel says: “It is terrible when you have no neighbours.
“If our electricity goes out we have no neighbours to ask if it is a problem in the street and we have to phone someone in Carrick Hill to see if they’re affected.
“Really we would love to see the area built up to what it used to be. But it seems that all they are interested in building is flats and more cafes and possibly bars.”
Throughout history, the Smithfield area has been no stranger to a pub and at one stage there were 27 bars in the area.
“We lived right next to the Bus Bar and we used to play in it as kids.” Angel added.
“If my granny or mummy needed change we would have been able to go in and get it from the till ourselves. We would still be close to some of the Trainors who are still living. They’re living in Carlingford and Dundalk and still call to visit us if they are in Belfast.
“A couple of days after the explosion at the bar they left any soft drinks that they could salvage in our house for the kids in the area and we then played our own bar at the side gate.”
Back in 2006 the Andersonstown News reported that Castlecourt was attempting to buy the Torley family home along with the rest of Winetavern Street. This had been a long running battle dating back to before the centre had opened in 1990. Their plan was to knock it down to extend their loading bays and create a new car park.
HELP FROM CHRIS McGIMPSEY
Discussing this, Angel said: “We had a visit from one of the Castlecourt management who told us of their plans and asked us to name our price. Mummy told him we had no intentions of leaving and my daddy said to him that we wouldn’t be going anywhere.
“Chris McGimpsey was one of our local representatives at the time and over the years he had become a very close family friend. He advised us and supported us through it and we are still here today.
“We first got to know Chris when our house was destroyed by an incendiary device in 1993. We had bought a new sofa at the time and unbeknown to us, there had been an incendiary device in it. Myself and Brenda were in Spain at the time. My daddy had got up off it and went out the door to have a cigarette when it went off and sadly one of our cats and dogs died due to smoke inhalation. Despite our political differences, Chris couldn’t have done enough for our family and we are forever thankful to him for that.
“Following the fire Castlecourt approached us again to buy the house without us having to rebuild but we said no as there were too many memories here for us. It is where we have been all our lives although I do have to be honest, since our mummy has gone it is just not the same.”