Happy New Year to everyone! We are delighted to announce that our virtual talks and tours for January- April 2021 are now live to book via our website.
The calendar kicks off with the Official Launch of the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation with the BAFTA award winning broadcaster and historian, Professor David Olusoga speaking on the legacies of slavery. For more information and to book click here.
Our virtual Friday talks exploring the multifaceted history of the Poor House, its Board and the residents who sought sanctuary within its walls, will begin on 22nd January and run every Friday at 1pm. There is something for everyone from women and children’s history, to the Chichester, Joy and McCracken families. To see the full list of talks and events click here.
We look forward to seeing you at some of our events!
On New Years Eve 1834 Belfast Charitable Society met, as they did on a weekly basis, to discuss the ongoing running of the Poor House. However, at this meeting they agreed to a request from Dr Drummond, a visiting physician to the Poor House and teacher of Anatomy at the Belfast Academical Institution, to have a single grave in the Strangers Ground.
What was so usual about this request? Well, this was no ‘ordinary’ grave. It was specifically for the burial of dissected remains from Inst which were used for research by the aspiring doctors at the school.
Today (16th December 2020) Clifton House hosted the Benn Dinner, a Christmas Tradition which started 138 years ago and has continued through two world wars, a Spanish Flu Epidemic and throughout the Troubles. And this year it prevailed again, despite Covid-19.
The tradition started in 1882 when George Benn, a generous philanthropist, historian and benefactor of Belfast Charitable Society, died and left in his Will the sum of £1,000 to enable the residents of Clifton House, the original Poor House and Infirmary, to have a dinner in his memory. Since then the Belfast Charitable Society have continued to support a Christmas lunch for the residents of Clifton House, in his name.
This year, with current restrictions, the Charity decided to support Christmas activities in the home instead, with a donation to cover the cost of a series of activities. Many residents have been unable to meet up with families or leave the home in months due to the pandemic, and Belfast Charitable Society hoped to be able to spread some Christmas cheer in a safe but enjoyable way.
Belfast Junior Chamber of Trade also supported the event with the delivery of Christmas gifts for the Residents. Delivered to the Home 72 hours prior to the Benn Dinner, the gifts were stored safely to ensure that they can be delivered to residents on the day.
The Lord Mayor of Belfast has always traditionally attended the event, and this year was no different, bar his meeting and greeting with those in the care home taking place at a distance and through the window! Afterwards he did have the opportunity to join a small number of Belfast Charitable Society Board members for a socially distanced coffee in the grand entrance hall of Clifton House itself.
“This has been an extremely difficult year for a lot of people, but particularly the elderly in care homes. We couldn’t let this Christmas pass without keeping the tradition of the Benn Dinner alive, albeit in a slightly different format. This year, more than ever, the residents of Clifton House have been looking forward to this annual event, and we didn’t want to let them down. We’re delighted that the Lord Mayor joined us on the day too, to help boost spirits and morale”- Paula Reynolds, CEO of Belfast Charitable Society.
On the evening of 20 January 2021, Belfast Charitable Society will launch a new Foundation to raise awareness of the life and legacy of one of our city’s most important, yet least recognised, abolitionists, philanthropists and social reformers – MARY ANN MCCRACKEN.
It is more than fitting that the Society has managed to secure, as the key note, Professor David Olusoga – straight from his ‘Talk with President Obama’.
In what promises to be an excellent event Professor Olusoga will talk about the ‘Legacies of Slavery’ – a subject he has extensively researched, written and broadcasted on for many years.
His passion, knowledge and expertise will be drawn-out by the event’s host, Sir Ronnie Weatherup, the recently retired Lord Justice who has been the Society’s President since 2018.
The calibre and profile of both again reflect the esteem in which Mary Ann should be held 250 years after her birth. Living to the ripe old age of 96 she was a fierce proponent of the poor of Belfast, children, women and workers’ rights, as well as having a keen interest in global matters and fighting for the cause of the slaves in America.
Norma Sinte, Chair of the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, explained “This event is not only the official launch of the Foundation but also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Mary Ann McCracken, a well-known abolitionist, who throughout her life handed out anti-slavery leaflets at the docks in Belfast. We were delighted when Professor Olusoga agreed to speak on some of the issues facing our society today as a legacy of the slave trade, including modern day slavery and racism- issues which the Foundation will continue to raise awareness of locally through the projects and work we hope to support.”
The virtual talk will be hosted by Belfast Charitable Society, which has a long history of supporting those disadvantaged in the city and beyond. And it is no coincidence that ‘Legacies of Slavery’ is being launched today (2nd December), which the United Nations recognises as the ‘International Day of the Abolition of Slavery’. Paula Reynolds, Belfast Charitable Society CEO added “We anticipate a large demand for this event, both locally and further afield, and took the decision to put tickets on sale well in advance to accommodate as many people as possible. We are particularly excited that Professor Olusoga has agreed to spend time at the end to take questions from the virtual audience, a fantastic opportunity for those interested in this subject, and we would like to thank him again for this.”
Tickets for ‘Legacies of Slavery’ are available to book now- click here for more information
The 20th-27th November 2020 marks Maintenance Week and we thought we should share with you some of the ongoing maintenance work we are undertaking at Clifton House to preserve the building for future generations.
Water ingress from the lead lining on the pediment at Clifton House had caused damp to come through the plasterwork in the Boardroom – the historic heart of the building. Work was undertaken via a cherry picker to repair the lead on the pediment, and the plasterwork had to be taken off the wall to allow the brick to dry out. We have had specialists in to test the damp levels in the brick and we are happy to report that there has been no further ingress of water. The exposed brick looks as good as new, especially when you compare it with the exterior which has endured over 245 years of weathering! Lime plaster will be used to bring the Boardroom back to its former glory.
Were women written out of history books, and if so, why? That was the subject discussed at a special panel event on Monday 16th November, organised by the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, a charitable arm of the Belfast Charitable Society, based in Clifton House, North Belfast.
The panel included contributions from Dr Margaret Ward and the Archive and Heritage Development Officer of Clifton House, Aaron McIntyre. Based on their own research and experiences, they highlighted particular aspects of women’s role in Irish history, and the attitude of biographers in recording their contribution to historical events.
Dr Margaret Ward, Honorary Senior Lecturer in History at Queen’s University, Belfast and feminist historian, commented
“I was delighted to be invited onto this panel discussion, and raise awareness of women’s involvement in events such as Irish Independence and the suffrage movement. Adding women to the writing of history ‘complicates the narrative’ and deepens our understanding of the past. By delving into archives, we are provided with new insights, particularly on the gender relations of the time. Most importantly, often for the first time, we let these women’s voices from the past be heard.”
In addition to this wider debate, the panel explored some key female figures including Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866), a local Belfast activist and abolitionist, and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946), a well-known Irish activist and conscious suffragist.
The panel discussion was chaired by Norma Sinte, Mary Ann McCracken Foundation Chair, who stated
“This was a fantastic event for the Foundation, carrying on the ethos of Mary Ann McCracken who throughout her life fought for the rights of women. Through our work with the Belfast Charitable Society archives, we are finding more and more evidence of this remarkable women, and the impact she had, both at the time and which can still be felt today.”
Belfast City Council have unanimously agreed to move forward with a statute of Frederick Douglass who addressed crowds of onlookers in Rosemary Street in 1845. But who was this man?
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and after a failed attempt to escape bondage he successfully fled north to freedom in 1838. Frederick married and became involved in the abolitionist movement in the United States. However, there were some elements who doubted his story. Frederick went on to publish his autobiography in 1845 as a means to tell his full story. This put him at an even greater risk of recapture and so he sailed to the British Isles.
Douglass became one of the most recognisable abolitionists. He spent three months touring Ireland in 1845, speaking in Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Belfast. Douglass returned to Belfast in June 1846 and gave further talks in support of the abolition of the slave trade.
Fredrick Douglass’s visits to Belfast left a lasting impression on those who heard him speak. The Belfast Newsletter of the 29 September 1846 reported that a group of women in Belfast were inspired by his visit to set up an ‘Anti-Slavery Association’ in late 1845. Its purpose was to ‘render the situation of the slave more generally understood’ and to inspire others to stand with the abolitionist movement. The women reminded the public that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire had been brought about by ‘philanthropic labours’, cautioning readers that it was under British law that many of the ancestors of these slaves had been snatched and sold into bondage in the first instance, and as such they have ‘a special claim on our sympathy’.
The Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association were well versed on the laws of the United States and were deeply adverse to those which forbid free people of colour or slaves from preaching or learning to read and write. The Association invited people to contribute items to be sent and sold in America at Anti-Slavery bazaars. These bazaars were one way the abolitionist movement could raise much needed funds.
The article signs off with a list of those women from Belfast and beyond who were members of the new ‘Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association’. Amongst them are a number who served on the Belfast Charitable Society Ladies Committee for the Poor House as well as members of the Society of Friends. Mary Ann McCracken appears amongst the committee members and she arguably was one of the foremost abolitionists in Belfast.
Writing to Dr Madden, the United Irishmen historian, in 1859 Mary Ann wrote about the earlier movement for abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire which was supported with enthusiasm by many in Belfast. She recalls that Thomas Russell was one of the number (alongside herself), who
… abstained from the use of slave labour produce until slavery in the West Indies was abolished, and at the dinner parties to which he was so often invited and when confectionary was so much used he would not taste anything with sugar in it . . .I am both ashamed and sorry to think that Belfast has so far degenerated in regard to the Anti-Slavery cause.
In the same period Mary Ann wrote that America
. . . considered the land of the great, the brave, may more properly be styled the land of the tyrant and the Slave . . . Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates, for the good cause paying 2/6 yearly, not one man, tho’ several Quakers in Belfast, and none to distribute papers to American Emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89.
This is the prevailing image of Mary Ann McCracken, as a lone abolitionist, standing on the docks continuing to campaign for the abolition of slavery at the age of 88. Reflecting on the original article written by the Belfast Ladies Anti-Slavery Association we can see Mary Ann’s influence in its tone and style of campaigning when it stressed
We feel especially anxious that emigrants be prepared, by a thorough acquaintance with the true nature of this [abolitionist] question, to withstand the corrupting exhalations from slavery that have filled even the Northern States with prejudices against the negro and his abolitionist friends. Let us if possible, enlist in this righteous cause the sympathies of childhood as well as age, of poor as well as the rich, and not relax our efforts,
Until immortal mind
Unshackled, walks abroad,
And chains no longer bind
The image of our God!
Until no captive one
Murmurs on land or wave;
And in his course, the sun
Looks down upon no slave.
The Belfast Charitable Society have recently established the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation to promote the life and works of this remarkable individual and her relevance and legacy in the 21st century. The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation will be formally launch in January 2021 with a special event and guest speaker due to be announced later this month. Watch this space for more information!
As part of Black History Month we have previously explored the story of Equiano, the freed slave and abolitionist, and William John Brown , an enslaved man who found freedom in Belfast. This article explores the abolitionist and pro-slavery elements within the town of Belfast in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Belfast had many wealthy merchants who owned land, estates and businesses in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th Centuries. As was the practice at the time, these estates and businesses would have exploited slave labour to harvest crops such as sugar and tobacco. Waddell Cunningham, a member of the Belfast Charitable Society is probably the most infamous advocate of slavery in Belfast as he attempted to open up the town as a slave port. Waddell had gone to America in the 1750s and with a business partner, Thomas Gregg, a founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. Together they established a firm, which by 1775 had become one of the largest shipping companies in New York. Both men made their fortunes and purchased an estate in the Ceded Islands which they called “Belfast.”
Other members of the Belfast Charitable Society were also involved in the slave trade. Dr William Haliday, a physician to the Poor House, owned sugar estates on the island of Dominica. Valentine Jones was another founding member of the Society. He imported rum and sugar into Belfast as well as running a wine merchant business. He had established a thriving agency in Barbados buying and selling to the planters. His eldest son, another Valentine, lived in the Caribbean for some 33 years and was elected a member of the Barbados House of Assembly.
Back in Belfast in 1786, a group of local businessmen considered launching a new Belfast-based slave-shipping venture that, in their eyes, might bring fresh prosperity to the town. Waddell Cunningham was the lead figure in this venture. For one local and radical citizen, this was anathema. On the night the prospectus was presented Belfast Charitable Society member Thomas McCabe attended the meeting and declared – ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man that will sign this document’. The venture never came to pass.
Thomas McCabe was not alone in fighting for the abolitionist cause in the town. The Northern Star, the newspaper of the United Irishmen movement which was operated by some members of Belfast Charitable Society, including Robert Simms and Samuel Neilson, would tell its readers that ‘every individual, as far as he consumes sugar products becomes accessory to the guilt [of slavery].’
William Drennan, visiting physician to the Poor House, and founder of the United Irishmen was responsible for helping to draw up a petition, which was passed around the town, collecting signatures against slavery. He hoped it would be a blow against those Belfast traders who sold such Caribbean products as molasses and rum as well as those who exported foodstuffs and shoes from here to the Caribbean. Not untypical of the toasts offered at Belfast dinners in this era was the one suggested in 1792 by Belfast Charitable Society member and the owner of The Belfast News Letter, Henry Joy – ‘to Mr Wilberforce and a speedy repeal of the infamous traffic in the flesh and bone of man’.
Next week we will look at the visit of Frederick Douglass to Belfast and the abolitionist activities of Mary Ann McCracken.
In August 1830 William John Brown appeared before the magistrate at the Belfast Police Court. Mr Brown, a black American slave, entered the courtroom accompanied by members of the Society of Friends.
Newspaper reports describe him as looking crestfallen and physically frail- the fifty-year-old slowly took the stand and was said to have recounted his story in a feeble voice. William was enslaved as a young man in Virginia, but had worked his way out of bondage and received his papers of freedom. Now a free man he got married and had five children and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. However, in 1826 a band of slave speculators, commonly known as ‘slavers’, arrived at his family home where they manhandled him, placed a blindfold over his eyes, bundled him into a waiting cart and drove off. During the course of the attack, they also took possession of his cherished papers. Arriving soon after at a nearby port the slavers forced him to board a slave ship which set sail from Maryland and arrived in New Orleans. While in New Orleans he was sold numerous times and ultimately he was forced to load bales of cotton onto trading vessels, many of which were bound for Europe. One such vessel was the copper-bottomed brig the Planter owned by John Vance, a cotton and cloth merchant based in Donegall Place, Belfast.
Brown managed to secure the trust of one the Planter’s crew. Buying a dollars’ worth of biscuits from him. Brown told his sympathetic confidante that, once the cargo was loaded, he was going to escape from his captors. Once the last bale was in the ship, Brown made his way into the brig’s hold and hid inside a bale of cotton as the Planter set sail for Belfast. During the voyage, he kept himself alive on his dollars’ worth of biscuits and only ventured out at night for water. As the brig was being unloaded in Belfast, Brown made good his escape but was spotted by a crewmember who informed the police. While in custody, the police contacted the philanthropic Quakers who appeared in court to lend their support to Brown’s testimony and to vouch for his character. Having listened intently to his story the magistrate felt proud to announce that the man who stood before him was no longer a slave and that he would leave his court room a free man.
William John Brown went on to find employment as a labourer in Belfast, living near Smithfield Market. However, the trials and traumas of his life finally exacted their toll. He died in November 1831 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Street Cemetery run by Belfast Charitable Society. A tragic note beside his entry in the burial records that his wife and children were still enslaved in America.
In the first of this series of articles for Black History Month we are looking at Samuel Neilson and Olaudah Equiano, one of the first black abolitionists to visit Ireland.
Equiano himself had been born in Africa and kidnapped into slavery at the age of ten or eleven and was forced to become a sailor. It was said that an Irish man encouraged him to learn to read and write and ultimately he managed to save enough money to purchase his freedom. As a first generation enslaved person, Equiano knew of traditional customs in his homeland and could speak to the cruelty of the passage from Africa to the Americas. After purchasing his freedom, he settled in London and visited the House of Commons to listen to debates around slavery. In 1789, he published his Interesting Narrative, which helped to propel him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement.
In May 1791 Olaudah Equiano journeyed to Dublin to organise the fourth printing of his Interesting Narrative which detailed his experiences and the realities of slavery. He spent the next eight months in Ireland touring and promoting the sale of his book.
Equiano said that he was ‘exceedingly well treated, by persons of all ranks’ in Ireland, and found the people of Belfast to be particularly hospitable. During his time in Belfast Equiano lodged with Samuel Neilson who lived at what is now the site of the Northern Whig building. Neilson was a leading radical and in the same year as Equiano landed in Ireland, Neilson was involved in the establishment of the United Irishmen. The Neilson home was a hub of political activity and it is likely that Equiano met many of the key personalities involved with the early United Irishmen movement. Equiano was still a guest with Samuel when the Northern Star, the newspaper of the United Irishmen, first appeared in January 1792. The paper was abolitionist in outlook and condemned those who supported the slave trade through the purchase of sugar, rum and molasses.
During the time of Equiano’s visit, Samuel Neilson was treasurer of Belfast Charitable Society and on 17 December 1791, Equiano attended a committee meeting in the Boardroom of the Poor House, now Clifton House. Equiano returned to England, but appears to have disappeared from public life, in part due to his connections with radical and revolutionary groups on both sides of the Irish Sea, around 1794. He died in London aged 52 in 1797. Sadly, his place of burial has never been identified.