A Short History of an old family firm
Records and Recollections of Alexander Boyd & Co. Ltd.
Castle Buildings, Lisburn.
Hugh G. Bass. 1977
I decided to write this short, sketchy history of Alexander Boyd and
Company, Ltd. for a variety of reasons. It seemed sad that the
considerable part Boyd's had played in the affairs of Lisburn for over a
century should go unrecorded and it seemed unlikely that anyone else
would have the knowledge, the time and the inclination to undertake such
a task. I do not pretend to have any ability as a historian or as a
writer but I do have an intimate knowledge of the affairs of the Company
gained in the near thirty years I have been a director. All of this may
well be forgotten even before I die.
So here it is for what it is worth. A story essentially of a shop
that survived the changing fortunes of commercial life for over a
hundred years, and of its customers and of all those people who worked
in it over the years and made it all possible. It is not, I know, well
done ‑whether it was worth doing, I leave to the reader to decide.
I wish to acknowledge with many thanks the help and advice given by
Mr. Tony Croley of Nicholson and Bass Ltd., in the production of this
book and by the Lisburn Historical Society in its distribution.
Alexander Boyd and the Early Years.
I have not been able to find out exactly when
this story begins. According to the firm's notepaper it was established
in 1860 but other evidence suggests that Alexander Boyd opened his first
shop in Lisburn at No. 9 Cross Row in 1861. He was of farming stock and
came from the Bailiesmills district; in 1861 he was just twenty years
old. At that time Lisburn had a population of 7,400 and there were 1,200
houses. The only bank was the Northern Bank in Castle Street and the
town was run by the Town Commissioners who met in the Court House in
Castle Street by permission of the Marquis of Hertford who owned most of
the town and the country round it. Not that be lived in Lisburn or had
any love for it except as a source of income. On his one and only visit
he said "If I ever see this place again it will be too soon". During
1871 progress was being made in the town, a proper piped water supply
was being laid on, enquiries were being made by the Town Commissioners
for the purchase of two urinals to be placed in the public streets and
the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland visited Lisburn and graciously received a
Alexander Boyd was a druggist but, as was customary in
those days, his business ranged over a much wider field. Druggist,
grocer, wine merchant, spirit dealer, insurance agent, his varied
business grew and prospered. So much so that in 1871 he opened a second
shop at No. 19 Market Square, Lisburn which, according to the opening
announcement had been "fitted up in the most approved manner". Also in
the announcement he begged to thank his friends for the large share of
favours he has received since commencing business and solicits a
continuance while he pledges himself to unabated efforts to merit same.
He continued to prosper and, although no figures
are available, there is evidence to suggest that his annual profits were
around £1,000. Of course labour was cheap in those days and for the
first ten years the business was run mainly with the aid of apprentices
whose terms of service-five years and £5O -would these days hardly be
termed princely. In 1871 when he opened his second shop Alexander Boyd
employed six apprentices and three assistants whose wages were in the
region of £50 per annum.
One of his 1871 apprentices was James McKeown who left two years
later and founded the present firm of James McKeown & Co., Ltd., Bakers
and Grocers. Alex Brown, another of the 1871 vintage, left at the end of
his term in 1876 to commence his own business and shortly afterwards was
the recipient of a typically acid letter from Alexander Boyd, his late
"I have heard that yon are looking after my customers in a pretty
general way lately. Well, I don't deny the right of any one to do the
best for themselves but they should first do honest themselves .I will
be obliged to you for the amount due by you to me. In the event of it
not being paid within one week I shall think it my duty to protect
myself in a manner perhaps not agreeable to you.
On 21st September, 1872 an event of great significance to the
future of the firm occurred in the appointment of James Andrew Hanna as
an assistant. James A. Hanna also came of farming stock and was born in
1852 in Ballydougherty, Co. Armagh. He served his apprenticeship to the
grocery trade in Henry's of Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan. Although he was
only twenty years old when he came to Lisburn he was soon to become more
of a manager than an assistant and Alexander Boyd gradually came to rely
more and more on the young man. Indeed by 1878 James A. Hanna was
virtually running the business. Alexander Boyd, a popular and convivial
resident of Lisburn, had other things to do. The merchants of Lisburn,
had a more leisurely life in those days.
Although hours were long the normal practice was to spend the afternoon
discussing the affairs of the day with one's cronies in one of the local
hostelries or the News Room.
In 1867Alexaner joined St. John's Masonic
Lodge No. 178 of which a John McBride was Secretary and John
Reid, Worshipful Master. The Lodge was favoured by the merchants of
Lisburn and no doubt Alexander Boyd found himself among friends. Indeed
he was to become Worshipful Master on two occasions,
in 1872 and 1877.
On 1st November, 1874 Alexander Boyd bought "Thornhill" from John
McBride, presumably the Secretary of the Masonic Lodge, for £810 held
forever at a yearly rent of £6.10.0 payable to Sir Richard Wallace, the
Marquis of Hertford's successor.
"Thornhill", an imposing villa on the Magheralave Road beside the Ulster
Provincial School, now Friends School, was, in 1858, occupied by Mr.
Pennington and prior to Alexander Boyd's purchase, was called Prospect
Cottage. A century later it was acquired by Friends School for use as a
Preparatory Department. It is now, appropriately enough called "Prospect
House". In 1876 a sharp controversy arose between the School Committee
and Alexander Boyd over an angle of ground taken by the school for a new
entrance without Mr. Boyd's knowledge or consent. Finally Alexander Boyd
wrote on 9th November 1876:
"I see you admit a responsibility-which had you done sometime ago 'The
Friends' might have taken advantage of until things settled themselves.
l have been treated to too much 'craft' and too little candour.
All in Lisburn know I am incapable of an act of unkindness …. One
of the gentlemen of your committee calling upon me can settle the matter
in five minutes".
Presumably this is what happened because there is no more mention of the
Early in 1877 Henry Major, Alexander Boyd's friend and business
associate died. As well as being a dealer in wines and spirits he was
agent for a number of Insurance Companies and Alexander Boyd from then
on appeared to become more concerned with this side of his business. In
June 1879 he negotiated insurance cover for the Railway Hotel, Railway
Street, Lisburn. This was to be expected because, although Alexander
Boyd owned "Thornhill" he lived most of the time in the Railway Hotel,
finding it no doubt a convenient place in which to indulge his ever
increasing desire for alcoholic refreshment.
It was there on a Sunday morning in July the following year that he died
in the arms of his friend and colleague, James A. Hanna. He was buried
in the graveyard at Bailiesmills Reformed Presbyterian Church outside
The Alister Connection and the Partnership
In his will Alexander Boyd left 'Thornhill' and his business to his
sister Jane. Jane was married to James Alister who owned a hem-stitching
business at 25 King Street in Belfast. After his marriage James came to
reside in Lisburn, first in Stannus Place, then in Bachelors Walk and
eventually in 'Thornhill'.
So in July 1880 the situation was that Alexander's business was owned by
his sister Jane but run by James A. Hanna. James Alister had his own
business in Belfast and in any event knew little about the drug, wine
and grocery trade. So, to ensure that the very profitable business would
continue, a partnership was formed between James Alister and James A..
Hanna to continue the business, at this time in Market Square, under the
style and title of Alexander Boyd & Co. The Cross Row shop was
presumably let and presumably became the property of Jane Alister.
Certainly it was let in 1876 to a Mr. Parkinson at £24 per annum.
James A. Hanna, Chairman 1907 - 1920
At the time of his death. Alexander Boyd had in his business stock
valued at £4,234.6.0 and debts due to him of £2,200.18.0. On the other
hand he had accounts amounting to £5,433.7.9, leaving a balance due to
his estate £1,001.16.3 The partnership therefore acquired the goodwill
of the business, stock-in-trade an the debts due to Alexander Boyd and
took over responsibility for the accounts due. The balance of
£1,001.16.8 became the capital of the partnership. This was allocated
between the partners, James A. Hanna's share being £54.10.0 the amount
of salary due to him at Alexander Boyd's death and the balance £947.6.8
being James Alister's share, left presumably by Alexander to his sister
Although these are the figures which formed the base for subsequent
calculations they are not in accordance with the partnership agreement
made on 26th March, 1881 but dated 1880. According to the agreement the
capital of the partnership was £1,500 all provided by James Alister. The
difference is probably accounted for by an agreement between the
partners to set off the value of fixtures, etc. against any loss in the
collection of debts due. The three most important provisions in the
agreement were, first, that the profits were to be divided equally
between the partners without reference to the capital provided, second,
that each partner was to be paid a salary of £200 per annum in exchange
for giving his exclusive time and attention to the business and, third,
that the capital of the partnership could by agreement be added to at
any time by either of the partners. Subsequent events were to show just
how important these provisions were. The partnership was to last
initially for ten years.
The new venture was a great success. Profits for the year to 31st July
1881 amounted to £1,164.9.1. James Hanna's drawings for the year, an
impecunious young bachelor, were £65.10.0 while James Alister drew
£198.0.1, both men adding considerable sums to their capital accounts.
This pattern continued throughout the decade. Surplus funds were put on
deposit in the Northern Bank and, oddly enough, in the Standard Bank of
South Africa. Money was lent to Andrew Millar and Co. Ltd., Jam
Manufacturers of Belfast and a number of houses were bought in various
parts of Lisburn. One of these was Castle View, a villa on the North
Circular Road purchased in 1883 for £525. In 1886 this house was bought
from the partnership by James A. Hanna who in 1885 had married Isabella
McComb, the daughter of an Antrim doctor. They lived in this house for
all their married life and, indeed, their elder son lived in it
afterwards until 1948 when he went to live in Donaghadee.
During this period a branch shop was opened at No. 35 Market Square,
Lisburn. An advertisement in an Ulster Directory published in the
eighties lists the occupations of the firm as Grocers, Tea and Coffee
Dealers, Druggists and Wine & Foreign Produce Importers. The tea was
strong, pungent and rich flavoured, the family medicines strictly pure
and full strength and the old Douro port wines of choice bouquet and
fine flavour, eminently suitable for invalids.
The acquisition of more commodious premises was
the next aim of the flourishing partnership and in July 1888 tentative
offers were made for the purchase of two other shops in Market Square.
These negotiations were unsuccessful but in June the following year Dr.
Samuel Musgrave's house and dispensary at the corner of Railway Street
and Castle Street together with three houses in Castle Street were
bought for £700 and a yearly rent for ever of £100.
This was a long established dispensary. It is referred to in the
reminiscences of Mrs. George Wilson, an observant lady with a vivid and
fairly accurate memory who lived all her life in Lisburn. She remembered
it as, in 1858, having two bow windows with black glass in the lower
half and coloured bottles above. At that time, she recalled, Dr.
Musgrave had a house-keeper and an old manservant who was known as 'Dr.
Ten years after this purchase the offices next door in Railway Street
occupied by R. H. Berryhill were acquired from the Musgraves for a rent
of £40 per annum. This was from Sir James Musgrave, Baronet, brother of
the doctor, who lived at Drumglass House, Belfast.
The Musgraves were very successful businessmen. James became the moving
spirit behind a firm of iron founders and engineers. Samuel followed in
the footsteps of his father, also Samuel, in becoming dispensary doctor
in Lisburn. Dr. Samuel, Senior, first set up shop as a doctor in Bridge
Street, Lisburn in June 1790. He was a supporter of the United Irishmen
and was in due course arrested for high treason and brought to Dublin.
It is said that he was treated leniently because he used his medical
skills to save the life of the jailer's wife –poetic justice? He died in
1884 and Dr. Samuel, junior, died in 1893.
Two other sons, Henry and Edgar, founded the tea and sugar importing
firm of H. and E. Musgrave. The author, Forrest Reid, was an apprentice
in the firm and had this to say of them:-"Though generosity was not a
Musgrave characteristic I liked Henry: towards his brother, Edgar, when
I watched him saving the backs of envelopes and lifting little bits of
string from the floor, my feeling was more of curiosity". However they
were generous in other directions, presenting Musgrave Park, Musgrave
Clinic and Riddel Hall to Belfast and the. statue of Brigadier General
John Nicholson to Lisburn. The last of the Musgrave, Henry, died on 2nd
January 1922. Five years earlier he was made an Honorary Burgess of the
City of Belfast Of more immediate interest, in January, 1919, he
transferred the remainder of the Musgrave property in Railway Street to
Boyd's for a rent in perpetuity of £125 per annum, and to bring this
story back to its place in the scale of time-more or less-in 1891 Boyd's
owed Musgrave's for tea and sugar £820, in those days a sizeable sum.
Reverting to Dr. Musgrave's house and dispensary, steps were soon to be
taken to make use of the newly acquired property. In May 1889, George
Sands, a local architect was commissioned to draw up plans and estimate
the cost of a new building. The contract was given to Messrs. D. and P.
MacHenry and the erection of Castle Buildings, in the words of a
contemporary reporter "One of the must complete, extensive and ornate
establishments to be found in any provincial town in Ireland" was soon
In November 1890 the new premises were opened to the public. Castle
Buildings was truly a magnificent achievement. The shops were finished
in pitch-pine, the elaborate fittings being of oak, walnut, mahogany and
ebony with mirror panels. Electric lighting was used-quite an
innovation; eight arc lamps of 1,000 candlepower, six of them outside
the building, were supplied with current from a generator driven by a
Crossley gas engine.
Interior lighting was from wrought iron gas brackets, there were
speaking tubes in the shops to the stores upstairs and a hand-operated
hoist was used for the movement of goods to and from the two large
stores on the first and second floors. The goods entrance was from
Railway Street, using part of the present Pharmacy and there was a
stable on the first floor in a store in the yard, access being by a
wooden ramp. The gas engine had a heavy stone wheel which was started by
hand. Hector Hanna, elder son of James A. Hanna, recalls that his father
used to start the wheel himself and came home with his veins swollen by
the strain. The old wheel is still to be seen in Castle Buildings yard.
The fine carved wood fittings, alas, are no more but the building
itself, nearly ninety years later is as impressive as ever. It is
doubtful if ever again will be seen such quality of workmanship in a
commercial building or the erection of a similar building in such
startlingly short time, about twelve months.