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Groundbreakers: Belfast’s Richest Radical

Date Posted: May 25, 2016

Discover the life of William Tennent in Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund documentary Belfast’s Richest Radical. Tennent was “nothing if not extraordinary,” according to Belfast-born historian Dr John Bew.

Rising from humble Presbyterian roots in Ballymoney, County Antrim, Tennent became the richest man in Belfast during the early 19th century.

Along the way, his private life was cloaked in scandal (he fathered 13 children – 12 out of wedlock) and spent almost three years in prison accused of high treason.

“Tennent’s life offers not only a dramatic story but also an insight into Belfast at an important time in its development,” added Bew, who explores the life of the charismatic merchant in Groundbreakers: Belfast’s Richest Radical on BBC Two Northern Ireland, Sunday 29 May at 10.05pm.

Born in 1759, Tennent was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who moved to Ireland eight years previously.

Although Tennent’s parents held traditional Calvinist views, they were vocal about challenging those in power and supported Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform.

A lust for adventure took the young William to Glasgow and then in 1781, to Belfast – a town full of money and excitement – where he started working as an apprentice with John Campbell, a Belfast merchant and banker.

He joined the Belfast Chamber of Commerce in 1783 and became junior manager in the New Sugar House in Waring Street. He eventually became a partner in this business and also held partnerships in the distilling firm of John Porter & Co and the Belfast Insurance Co.

At the time, Belfast was a place where hard work could bring untold riches, and before long Tennent was a hugely successful businessman and one of its most well-known and influential citizens.

However, he jeopardised this status by joining and financially supporting the Society of the United Irishmen, and after the 1798 rising he was arrested on the charge of high treason.

Unlike fellow United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken, Tennent escaped the gallows and was imprisoned, firstly on prison ship moored on Belfast Lough, then in a remote fortress in the Scottish Highlands.

In November 1801, he was released and returned to Belfast where under the newly-established Act of Union, the city was flourishing.

Making no attempt to deny his revolutionary past or his many subsequent illegitimate children (all of whom he provided for), Tennent began creating a new image as a philanthropist and pillar of respectability.

He used his considerable business acumen to great effect, becoming the city’s richest man and founding the Commercial Bank in 1809.

In 1814, he was one of the founders of Belfast Academical Institution (Inst) and throughout the early 19th century, was among a group of ‘bourgeois’ Presbyterians who campaigned relentlessly for the replacement of the autocratic and corrupt Belfast Corporation with a body that represented the people.

When the 1832 Reform Act was introduced, Tennent was selected to stand as a candidate, but ironically he was rejected in favour of his less secular son-in-law.

Cholera hit Belfast later that year and although he had purchased the picturesque village and demesne of Tempo, County Fermanagh in 1814, Tennent refused to bolt to his country idyll and remained in the city, where he died of the disease in 1832.

Despite being such an important figure in the formation of Belfast as we know it, Tennent’s exact resting place is unknown. All that remains is his legacy and a memorial in the First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street.

Groundbreakers: Belfast’s Richest Radical is a DoubleBand production for BBC Northern Ireland with funding from Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.

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