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A history of Lisburn Chamber of Commerce 1961 – 2021

by Evan Morton

 

THE EARLY YEARS

A Merchants Association had existed in Lisburn for many years, however a desire arose to re-establish a Chamber of Commerce in the town. Arrangements were made for a foundation meeting, which was held in the Assembly Rooms in March 1961 and was well attended by members of the local business community. With a groundswell of enthusiasm, officers were elected and Lisburn Chamber of Commerce held its first meeting of Council on Tuesday 11th April 1961 at 8.00pm in the Temperance Institute on Railway Street.

The first president of Lisburn Chamber was Mr Hugh G Bass, vice-president was T Warwick, Hon. Treasurer was J Brown and Secretary was Samuel Semple.

In attendance also were:

F Allen, J Booth, F Boyle, ST Hopkins, WA Long, F McMahon, J Madden, F Petticrew, RS Rutherford, A Smart and TH Walker. Mr JD Black sent an apology.

The initial membership was an impressive 79 members and it was agreed the secretary would be paid £50 per annum plus £25 expenses. A draft constitution would be drafted up for approval and it was also agreed an Annual Dinner should be held each year. Two topics arose during general business, problems regarding car parking and business crime. The secretary was instructed to write to the Urban Council to request the markets carpark remained open to 7.30pm. A deputation of five committee men were also delegated to meet with the local district police inspector to discuss the high number of burglaries in recent months. Over the early period of the Chamber’s existence, members of committee were encouraged to stand in council elections and a number were successful in getting elected. The 60’s were a time of change for Lisburn with the construction of the South Approach road, later to become the M1. This was the first motorway to be built outside England. Lisburn would be by-passed and businesses were concerned they would be adversely impacted. It may seem strange today, but Lisburn had its own public holiday. This general holiday took place on June 21stand the chamber advertised in the two local newspapers, the Ulster Star and Lisburn Herald that all shops would be closed that day. Plans were made for the first Annual Dinner to be held in November 1961 in the Woodbourne House Hotel. Guest speaker would be the Minister of Commerce, JLO Andrews MP.

It was agreed the chamber should establish a ‘Brighter Lisburn’ sub-committee, tasked with the need to provide Christmas decorations for the town. That year, seven 10ft Christmas trees with lights were erected at key locations across the town at a cost of £350, funded by traders. The Urban Council made a donation of £150 to the costs. The meeting in November 1961 was noteworthy in that 35 letters of correspondence were read by the secretary. The first Annual Dinner took place on November 28th at the Conway Hotel in Dunmurry due to a change in date. The first AGM of the chamber took place on March 20th 1962 in the Temperance Hall and Mr HG Bass was elected president for a second term. Eighteen candidates stood for the 10 committee seats and an election took place to determine the council members. Of note at the meeting was a proposal for the Lisburn Grocers Association to come under the umbrella of the chamber and to change the general holiday from June to Whit Monday. This was later changed to the first Monday in August at an extraordinary general meeting.

The following years’ AGM took place in the Lombard café, a regular venue throughout the 1960s and Mr F Petticrew took over the role of president. It was agreed that the chamber should pursue Borough status for Lisburn and this was achieved in 1964. To commemorate the occasion, the chamber presented the new Borough Councillors with a set of robes. The traditional closure of shops on a Wednesday was supported by the chamber to maintain a 5 day working week for its retail members and the national chain stores were asked to follow suit. The Association of Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce was also consulted on the matter.

 In 1966 it was agreed to purchase a presidential chain of office and this was paid for by members of the chamber council and past presidents. Mr AD Gamble was the first president to wear the new symbol of office.

Over the years, issues of the day included street parking, street lighting, repair of local roads and pavements etc. Complaints were even made about the poor standard of the telephone service between Lisburn and Belfast and other areas. The electricity service in Lisburn also came in for criticism in the 1960s, as did the postal service. The perceived unfairness of the rating system also caused debate within the chamber and a deputation met with the Minister of Finance.

 

Chamber president 1961-1963, Mr Hugh (Jamsie) Bass JP

INTO THE 1970s

The 1970 AGM took place in the Woodlands Hotel and Mr JL Boyle was the first president of the new decade. The introduction of decimalisation saw the chamber organise training courses for members, while the arrival of traffic wardens in the town and proposals for carpark charges caused considerable debate. The Christmas decoration campaign unfortunately had to be aborted in 1970 due to strike action by electricity workers. On a brighter note it was agreed that the Ladies Night organised by the chamber should become an annual event.

In September 1971 a Lisburn Civic Festival was organised by the chamber, culminating in a fireworks display in Wallace Park. Annual membership fees were increased in 1972 to £3 per annum.

The onset of the ‘troubles’ had a major impact on commercial life, not just in Lisburn,, but across Northern Ireland. Frequent discussions took place on security issues aiming to protect the town from bomb attacks, the provision of security barriers and a desire for a ‘business as usual’ mentality to persevere. Serious bomb damage was caused to buildings in many streets in Lisburn in 1971 and again in 1981.

1972 also saw the first patron of Lisburn Chamber of Commerce, when the Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Grey of Naunton was installed as Honorary President at the annual dinner that year. It was interesting to note, that was the first year lady members attended the dinner.

The Chamber president in 1977-1978 was Alderman Samuel Semple OBE JP and notably, the deputy mayor of the Borough Council. Mr Semple was a founder member of the chamber, having been secretary since 1961, a role he would continue to undertake until his retirement from the position in 1996.

Mr Ian Lamb held the chamber presidency as the 1980s arrived and the new decade saw the chamber continue to prosper and play a vital role in the business life of Lisburn. The pedestrianisation of Bow Street saw a major change to the town centre and initial works caused disruption to business. The chamber, through its retailers committee, organised a Christmas advertising campaign and this became a regular initiative.

INTO THE 1980s

The 1980s also saw Mr Henry Coggins elected president for a second successive year, (1984-1986), an honour that had not occurred since the inaugural president, Hugh Bass. In 1986, the Hon Treasurer, Mr James Maxwell appealed to members to pay their annual subscription of £10 promptly. Civil disturbances had flared up in the mid 80s and in 1987, Castle Street was closed to through traffic for security reasons. The chamber lobbied on behalf of local traders who had seen a downturn in business. In 1989, the Chamber President, Mr Raymond Warwick welcomed the opening and capital investment of the new Sprucefield Shopping Centre, however he made it clear that tradition shopping in the town centre must be protected.

INTO THE 1990s

Mr Reginald Keys was the incumbent president in 1990 when the new decade commenced. Traffic management, a lack of car parks and charges for refuse disposal were debated, with various agencies invited to meet with the chamber. Members said local and central government decisions were hindering the commercial expansion of Lisburn. Mr David Ferguson was elected president in 1992 and was to oversee the opening of the chamber’s first office in the Town Hall on Castle Street. The establishment of a new body, the Lisburn Borough Partnership was welcomed and strong chamber representation would focus on planning and developing economic projects for the town and borough.

April 1993 was a key date in the history of the chamber when Mrs Jean McQuitty was elected as the first ever female president. Another development that year was the employment of a full time secretarial liaison officer, Mrs G Heanen. A new system of tiered membership fees was also implemented.

In 1995 Mrs Barbara Williamson took over the role of secretarial liaison officer and worked diligently for the chamber until 1998. Her replacement in 1999 was Mrs Barbara Martin who’s employment with the chamber was to last 21 years, until her retirement in June 2020. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Chamber organised a Ladies Dinner each springtime. A popular venue for many years was the Forte Crest Hotel in Dunmurry. The event then became the President’s charity ball before it was agreed to concentrate on one formal dinner each year. Interestingly, tickets for the annual dinner in 1995 cost £18.50 per person.

An annual golf day became a regular event on the chamber calendar and past-president Jean McQuitty donated a silver cup for the overall winner. Representatives from Balbriggan Chamber of Commerce visited Lisburn in 1996 and the chamber made representation to the borough council that the proposed new civic centre should be in a central area of Lisburn. 1996 was also the year that Alderman Samuel Semple stood down as chamber secretary after an incredible 34 years in the role and one year as president. Mr Semple was headmaster at Lisnagarvey High School and had an immense impact with Lisburn chamber, in giving such dedicated service since the first council meeting in 1961. Mr Robert Millar was elected as the new secretary for the ensuing year, with the treasurer also reporting 123 paid up members on the books. Graham Street multi-storey car park was opened in 1996 and in the same year, the chamber secretary requested a fax machine and a photocopier. Only a fax machine was approved! It was 2003 before the office got its first computer!

Following Lord Grey’s resignation as honorary president, it was agreed that from April 1997, Sir James Molyneaux would become the new honorary patron. December 1997 also saw the Chamber relocate it’s office out of Lisburn Town Hall in Castle Street, to new accommodation at the Sidings Business Park, shared with Lisburn Development Ltd. In the 90s, fact-finding trips were organised by the chamber to East Kilbride in Scotland and to Balbriggan Chamber of Commerce in Dublin.

An initiative that had been running for many years was the annual ‘Service With A Smile’ competition. Nominations were received from various businesses in Lisburn, Dunmurry, Moira, Hillsborough etc and certificates were presented to each winner along with various prizes donated by local businesses.

In 1999, the American Consulate, Mrs Ki-Ford was a guest at a Lisburn Chamber of Commerce lunch.

INTO THE NEW MILLENNIUM

The new millennium arrived with Mr Ernie Knox as president for a second term. The chamber was going from strength to strength with 141 members in the organisation. With unanimous support, the chamber put forward a proposal that Lisburn should apply for city status and the chamber was to play a leading role, in partnership with the council, to drive this forward. When Billy Rogan was elected president for 2000-2001 the momentum towards city status for Lisburn continued.

A feature of the chamber’s role in the community over many years, was the number of bodies and organisations representatives were appointed to. These included the Lisburn Borough Council Partnership, Lisburn Development, Lisburn Access Group, Business Education Partnership, Lisburn College Board of Governors , Road Safety Committee, Lisburn Home Accident Prevention Group, Business Development Project, NI Peace & Reconciliation Partnership, Lisburn Safer Neighbourhoods, Council Tourism Project and the Hospice Business Club.

Another office move for the Chamber took place in March 2000 with new accommodation at 3a Bridge Street. Later, Rawdon House at Market Square was the home of the Chamber, before a move in 2015 to its current address at 11-13 Market Square. In 2000, the Chamber executive council decided to mark the new millennium by organising a visit to London. Jeffrey Donaldson MP was the group’s host at the Houses of Parliament and a visit to the millennium dome also featured on the trip.

In October 2001, a significant development saw the Lisburn Retailers Association merge with the Chamber. The retailers were keen to maintain a sustainable town centre and planning applications and developments at Sprucefield were subject of debate for many years. Also debated was the closure of the railway line from Knockmore to Antrim with representation made to NIR.November 2001 saw the Chamber accept an invitation to visit Dublin Chamber of Commerce and during the trip, President Mary McAleese arranged a reception for the Lisburn visitors.

In 2002, Lisburn finally achieved city status and the chamber took part in the celebrations alongside the council with whom it had worked closely to achieve this goal. Also in 2002, Dr Samuel Semple, still an active member of the chamber council, was awarded Freedom of the City of Lisburn. 2004 saw a second lady president for the chamber, with Ellen Hillen taking up the chain of office for what would be a two year term. Elllen was manager of the recently opened, Lisburn Square development. In 2005, Lisburn Chamber of Commerce set up a partnership with Drogheda Chamber of Commerce to promote cross-border e-commerce. In 2006, there was a council organised trade delegation to Georgia, USA which the President attended.

2007 saw Mr Ivan Conner elected president and for the first time in the chamber’s history, a three year term was served by Mr Conner. In 2008, Rebecca Pasini. the American Consul attended the Chamber’s Christmas lunch. Also in 2008, a business trip was organised to the European parliament in Brussels and Jim Nicholson MEP hosted the chamber members.

The 50th AGM of the chamber took place in November 2011 with Richard Knox from Translink in the chair as president. A successful 50th Anniversary dinner had been held at the Tannery restaurant with guest speaker, international rugby star, Stephen Ferris. March 2012 saw the chamber launch its new website and in 2013 another lady president took up the president’s chain of office, Belinda O’Neill from Bank of Ireland, who also served a two year term in office.

The chamber continued to deliver a full programme of events throughout the year with a mixture of social and business events. Study visits to local businesses were popular and in 2013, visits were made to Johnsons Coffee, Tata Steel and Draynes Farm. In subsequent years, the Christmas lunch and annual toy appeal became a popular event on the chamber calendar while successful annual dinners were held at Larchfield Estate. Oct 2017 saw a visit hosted by Lisburn chamber of Lord Dunlop, Under Secretary of State. Following a walkabout to see the new public realm scheme, members held useful discussions with the Minister on the potential impact of Brexit, skills shortages and rate revaluations.

The last few years has seen Lisburn Chamber of Commerce rise to the many challenges facing the business community. Under the leadership of presidents, Stephen Houston, Evan Morton and Garry MacDonald, the chamber has continued to be the Voice of Business in Lisburn. Concerns over Brexit, difficulties for high street retailing, increased rates, a shortage of skilled staff and more recently, the impact of the covid19 pandemic have tested businesses in every sector. The chamber has continued to grow its membership, delivering a programme of business and social events, raising its profile and increasing its lobbying activity across all levels.

A core principal continues to drive the chamber as it did in 1961, a desire to work for Lisburn and to make Lisburn work. The future is bright…

 

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