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

Broadening the search

Lately I have been broadening my family history research to include ancestors that I would consider to be 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 our ancestors lived. If you get really lucky, it can also provide additional clues about ancestors that are more directly related to you.

For this blog post I thought it would be interesting to profile one such family from my own family tree.  They were typical of Belfast’s working class in the early years of the 20th century and certainly weren’t famous.  The street they lived on for so many years no longer exists.  What really struck me is how this family all but dissapeared in the ten year span between Ireland’s 1901 and 1911 census.  I’d like to introduce you to William Adams and Elizabeth (Little) of 32 Cullingtree Street, and their four children: Mary, William, Ellen and Edward.

32 Cullingtree Street

There was nothing particularly special about Cullingtree Street.  It was relatively short in length and was connected to a network of streets near the core of Belfast’s city centre.  The people who lived on Cullingtree Street 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

Cullingtree Street, Belfast
Cullingtree Street, Belfast

flanked by Grosvenor Road and Albert Street near a grammar school called the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and was in close proximity to Belfast City Hall.

William Adams and his wife Elizabeth were married on 12 July 1880 at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, and would have raised their children in their home on Culllingtree Street.   Elizabeth’s mother, Ann Jane Cahill, also lived on Cullingtree Street and was listed as being present at the births of all four of William and Elizabeth’s children.

A rough part of town

Ann Jane Cahill was mentioned in the Northern Whig as having been assaulted by a man named William Harmen, the details of which are described 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,

Ann Jane Cahill (assaulted)
Northern Whig – 28 August 1891

indicating that the assault was serious, and that Ann Jane Cahill was still unable to appear in court.

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 has been included below.  It seems that the area where the Cahill and Adams family’s lived in Belfast was a bit of a rough and tumble part of town.

Death of Edward Cahill - Night Watchman
Death of Edward Cahill

When Ann Jane Cahill died in 1900, William Adams and his wife Elizabeth were living with their four children at 32 Cullingtree Street.  William and Elizabeth would have been in their early 40’s, and their children ranged in age 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)

In June of 1908, William’s wife Elizabeth died of cardiac failure and what was recorded on her death record as cerebral softening.  I believe this was a medical term that was used at the time 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 to lose two family members in the space of less than a month.

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’.

Death of William Adams 10 December 1909 Belfast News-Letter p.11
Death of William Adams – 1909

New beginnings

Now 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 less than a year later at the Royal Victoria Hospital, of cardiac failure.  His death record indicates he was only 49 years old.  Ellen and Edward were 21 and 19 years old respectively when their father passed away.

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.

A search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission revealed that Edward had been killed in Northern

Death of Edward Adams
Belfast News-Letter – 16 May 1916

France on the 6 May 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.

Northern Whig, May 16 p. 8 Death of Edward Adams
Northern Whig – 16 May 1916

A third article regarding the death of Edward Adams appeared in the Northern Whig on 20 May 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.

20 May 1916 Northern Whig, p. 8 Death of Edward Adams
Northern Whig – 20 May 1916 Death of Edward Adams

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

Authuile Military Cemetery France
Authuile Military Cemetery – Final Resting Place of Edward Adams

What became of Ellen Adams?

I have not yet been able to learn what became of Ellen Adams.  She was clearly still living at 32 Cullingtree Street in May 1916, as the article above mentions that Captain Monard wrote to her concerning her brother 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!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s