32 Cullingtree Street: A Snapshot of Life in Early 20th Century Belfast

Broadening the search

Lately I have been broadening my research to include ancestors on the far edges of my family tree.  It’s amazing how this practice can provide rich detail about the places and times in which they lived. Places like Belfast’s Cullingtree Street.  A small street once located near the city’s centre, Cullingtree Street featured prominently in the lives of the Adams family.

The Adams family were typical of Belfast’s working class in the early years of the 20th century. They certainly weren’t famous.  What really struck me is how this family of six all but disappeared in the years between Ireland’s 1901 and 1911 census.

32 Cullingtree Street

There was nothing particularly special about Cullingtree Street.  The people who lived there were employed as general laborers, firemen, factory workers and housekeepers. Cullingtree Street was met by Stanley Street at one end and Durham Street at the other.  It was also flanked by Grosvenor Road and Albert Street near a grammar school called the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

Cullingtree Street
Cullingtree Street, Belfast

William Adams and Elizabeth Little were married on July 12, 1880 at St. Anne’s Parish Church in Belfast. The couple raised their children (William, Mary, Ellen and Edward) at 32 Cullingtree Street.   Elizabeth’s mother, Ann Jane Cahill, also lived on Cullingtree Street and was recorded as being present for the births of all four children.

A rough part of town?

The assault of Ann Jane Cahill by William Harmen was reported in the summer of 1891 and can be seen in the newspaper clipping below.  It seems difficult to imagine something like this happening today.  The Belfast News-Letter reported on the incident again five months later, indicating that Ann Jane Cahill was still unable to appear in court due to the serious nature of her injuries.

Northern Whig – August 28,1891

The following year, Ann Jane’s husband, Edward Cahill, died from an injury he sustained as the result of a physical altercation with a man named James Magee.  The newspaper clipping describing the incident leading to Edward’s death can be seen below.  It seems that the area where the Cahill and Adams family’s lived and worked was a bit of a rough and tumble part of town.

Edward Cahill
Death of Edward Cahill

At the time of Ann Jane Cahill’s death in 1900, William Adams and his wife Elizabeth were still living at 32 Cullingtree Street with their four children.  The couple would have been in their early 40’s, with their children ranging from 9-18 years of age.  William was working as a Ship Smith at the time.  Life would soon change in a significant way for this family of six.

Timeline of events (1908-1916)

William’s wife Elizabeth died in June of 1908.  The cause of death was recorded as being cardiac failure and cerebral softening.  The latter seems to have been a medical term of that period used to describe a stroke.  Less than a month later, William and Elizabeth’s oldest child, Mary, died of tuberculosis after having been sick for about six months.  It must have been incredibly difficult for the family to care for Elizabeth and Mary only to have them pass away within weeks of each other.

Questionable circumstances

In December of 1909, William and Elizabeth’s eldest son, who was also named William, died of what was described as heart failure and exposure to cold.  An inquest was held into William’s death which is referenced in the newspaper clipping below.  The circumstances around Williams’s death must have been considered unusual for an inquest to have been held.  It would be interesting to know more about what caused William to be exposed to the cold when he was already in what the paper described as a ‘low state of health’.

Belfast News-letter – December 10, 1909

New beginnings

As a widower, William Adams continued to live at 32 Cullingtree Street with his two children, Ellen and Edward.  In the summer of 1910, William married a widow named Anna Goldthorpe, who lived on nearby Turin Street.  We don’t know how William’s children felt about the marriage, but it wasn’t destined to last as William died of cardiac failure less than a year later.  His death record indicates he was only 49 years old.  That left 21 year old Ellen and 19 year old Edward as the sole occupants of 32 Cullingtree Street, and the only surviving members of the family.

The Great War

In May of 1916, the Belfast News-Letter and Northern Whig reported on the death of Private Edward Adams of the Royal Irish Rifles, who had been killed at the front.  It is clear from these newspaper articles that Edward was actively involved in his community and held in high regard by his family and peers.

Edward Adams
Northern Whig – May 16,1916

A search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission revealed that Edward had been killed in Northern France on the May 6, 1916.  Edward was subsequently buried at the Authuile Military Cemetery, near Albert and where the 36th Ulster Division distinguished itself at the Somme.  Pictures of that cemetery along with information about its history can be viewed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

A third article regarding the death of Edward Adams appeared in the Northern Whig on May 20, 1916.  It is quite moving in that it provides details of a letter that was written by a Captain Monard to Ellen Adams regarding the circumstances around her brother’s death.  The article can be seen below.

Edward Adams
Northern Whig – May 20, 1916


Edward Adams
Belfast Evening Telegraph

The above picture of Private Edward Adams is courtesy of Great War Belfast Clippings.  A special thank you goes out to Nigel Henderson, Great War Researcher, History Hub Ulster.

May we never forget what young men like Edward Adams sacrificed in the name of freedom.

Final Resting Place of Edward Adams

What became of Ellen Adams?

I have not been able to learn what became of Ellen Adams, the last surviving member of this family.  She was clearly still living at 32 Cullingtree Street in May 1916, as the article above mentions that Captain Monard wrote to her concerning Edward’s death.  Beyond that date, I have not been able to find any further reference to Ellen’s whereabouts.  Did Ellen marry after Edward’s death in 1916?  Could she have immigrated to another country such as Canada or Australia?  When did she pass away?  Maybe you can help me to track down this elusive ancestor!  It’s stories like these that make family history so fascinating.


In summary, don’t hesitate to broaden your family research to include more distantly related ancestors.  Even if you don’t end up learning more about your direct line, it provides context and colour to the lives of our ancestors and the times in which they lived.

Happy hunting!

Subscribe to Elusive Ancestor!

Did you enjoy reading this blog post?  Subscribe to this blog to receive notifications of new blog posts!