Social Enterprise Day 2021: Past & Present

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

What is a social enterprise?

A social enterprise is like any other business in that it works to deliver goods and services to make a profit. The difference is that they are driven by their social and environmental purposes and any profit made is reinvested towards achieving these purposes. Today, the government defines social enterprises as “businesses with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners.”

The term social enterprise was first coined in 1953 and has been widely used since the 1980’s, however the principals recognised today as social enterprise are visible in the work which the Belfast Charitable Society was carrying out in the late 18th century.

                                                                                                                                 Our Past

                                                                                                                                 Water Pipes

The first foray into social enterprise was in 1790 when the Belfast Charitable Society (BCS) thought it should supply the town of Belfast with water. Duties were charged on water supplies at this time, but unsurprisingly not everyone was willing to pay. The Society believed if it took over the water supply there would be two immediate benefits; the health of the town would improve because they would supply clean water and the Society would benefit from the collection of water rates which would allow it to pay for the running of the Poor House. Between 1790 and 1840 the Belfast Charitable Society invested £30,000 in the water supply for the town, yet not everyone paid their dues to the Society! In the end the Society had to approach the government who ultimately set up the Belfast Water Commissioners to look after the water infrastructure of the town.

Clifton Street Cemetery

The Society’s next move into social enterprise was more successful. It decided a graveyard was required. This graveyard was to enable the Poor House to have somewhere to bury the dead from the House, but also to generate an income by selling plots in the cemetery. In 1797 the “New Burying Ground” was opened. Plots were very expensive with “walled plots” being sold for £12 10s. The “New Burying Ground” was so successful it had sold out by the 1820’s and additional ground was made available. Running the cemetery was not without its difficulties including warring families and the dreaded body snatchers, however it did provide an important source of income to the Society to support the Poor House. It also enabled the Society to teach new, but necessary, skills and to provide employment to the men of the Poor House and surrounding areas. Coffin makers, grave diggers, nightwatchmen and caretakers were all required and the Society were able to train and employ many people in these essential skills supporting them to become financially independent.

Our Present

Today Clifton House, the original Poor House, operates as a events and heritage venue. In keeping with our roots, it is run as a social enterprise. The income from our conference hire, tours and talks is one of the revenue streams which enables Belfast Charitable Society to continue the work of promoting philanthropy and addressing disadvantage 269 years after its foundation. Some of the ongoing philanthropic work of the Charitable Society is set out below:


Barbour Fund

This fund was set up through a partnership with the Hilden District Nursing Society, the Barbour family and BCS. Aims to support activities for older people, disadvantaged young people and skills development. To date over £180,000 has been awarded: creating training courses and jobs; providing bursaries; delivering activities and placing hundreds of volunteers with older people.

Great Place North Belfast

A 3-year project (2018-2021) of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This local Heritage Cluster is comprised of 15 organisations responsible for historic buildings and sites stretching across one mile from the City centre into north Belfast. This project, led by co-funder BCS, will use the unique built heritage and authentic character to deliver and support regeneration in this part of north Belfast.

Mary Ann McCracken Foundation

The Foundation was set up by BCS to celebrate the life and works of this remarkable woman, and her legacy and relevance today. Looking at issues around poverty, modern day slavery, human rights and equality, it will raise awareness and promote conversations around these areas.

Family Early Intervention Support

BCS has supported two part-time home visitors and vouchers for local families in need for three years. Since Oct 2020 almost £6,000 of financial aid has been shared with 80 families (inc over 200 children). The need is identified through a multi-disciplinary approach (60+ organisations) considering North Belfast families facing hardship.

Black History Month 2021: Belfast and the Slave Trade

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

As part of Black History Month this article explores the abolitionist and pro-slavery elements within the town of Belfast in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Waddell Cunningham

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].’

Dr William Drennan (© National Museums NI)

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’.

Our next post will look at the visit of Frederick Douglass to Belfast and the abolitionist activities of Mary Ann McCracken.


Belfast Charitable Society & the Belfast Blitz: Return From Garron Tower

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

Following air strikes in April 1941  those in charge of Clifton House set about making arrangements to get the residents and the staff out of Belfast. They ultimately settled on Garron Tower on the North Coast as a safe refuge.

Garron Tower was a quiet, isolated spot compared with life in the city of Belfast. Rationing also had an impact. In Belfast the relatives of the residents could have easily walked there for visits, however with petrol rationed, even those with cars did not have enough fuel to get to Garron Tower. The Matron requested additional games, gramophone records and a wireless to help the residents wile away the days.

The war rumbled on and everyone was keen to return to Clifton House. As 1945 was drawing to a close and it seemed the war had finally ended, the Committee went to the army, who used Clifton House during the war, to seek the return of the building. Five and a half years after leaving the House, the Belfast Charitable Society Board returned on 31st August 1946 and set about the mammoth task of to organising the transportation of our residents, equipment, furniture and staff back to North Belfast. It was an enormous relief to all involved when, on this day (25th October) 1946 the buses brought the last residents back.