During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as is well known, the town of Belfast experienced growth and development. One obvious indication of this growth was the expansion of its population. Following a visit to the town in 1812, the writer John Gamble estimated that Belfast's population stood at 30,000, which number included some 4,000 Catholics. ‘A few years ago’, he remarked, emphasising the significance of this latter figure, ‘there was scarcely a Catholic in the place’. If Gamble's estimate of 30,000 was correct, then Belfast had grown by over 11,000 since 1791, when its population had stood at just 18,320, and in the decades that followed it continued to grow, rising to 37,277 in 1821 and 75,308 in 1841. But it was not just in terms of the expansion and diversification of its population that the changing nature of Belfast could be measured. Transformation could also be seen in the shape and appearance of the town. Between c.1760 and 1790, as Sean Connolly has recently noted, ‘an extensive programme of urban improvement pushed the town well beyond its historic boundaries and gave it both a new appearance and a much-extended range of urban amenities’. During this period Belfast acquired ‘some of its most significant older buildings’, including the Exchange and Assembly Rooms, First Belfast Presbyterian Church, the Poor House and the White Linen Hall, and in the years that followed more were to come. The Belfast Academical Institution, an impressive building based on a plan by Sir John Soane, opened in 1814, and a General Hospital was erected the following year in Frederick Street. In 1816, St George's Church appeared on High Street and the Commercial Buildings, combining ‘an excellent commercial hotel, a spacious and handsome news-room, and behind these an area with a piazza for the use of merchants’, were constructed on Waring Street in 1822.
These interrelated processes of demographic growth and urban development were to have significant impacts on the lives of Belfast’s inhabitants. Population growth, for instance, altered the nature of sociability and personal relations in the town. Prior to 1750, as Raymond Gillespie has noted, ‘Belfast remained an intimate town … a place still based on face-to-face encounters in which people knew the genealogical matrix within which they operated’.