Children of the Poor House: Helena Kelly and her search for employment

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

The third in our Children of the Poor House Series is Helena Kelly- no relation to last week’s Barney Kelly as far as we can tell!

Helena Kelly was born around 1805 and lived in Belfast with her family until the age of eight. The Kelly family’s circumstances must have changed as Helena was admitted to the Poor House in August 1813. Unfortunately, the admission book does not provide an insight in to why she was admitted.

It would appear from our archive that Helena was a well-behaved child, as she had no transgressions recorded against her name. Helena’s case was one in which Mary Ann McCracken and the Ladies Committee took an active interest as Helena was described as lame. It was felt that if she was not apprenticed she would remain in the Poor House for the rest of her life.

So, in 1822, Helena secured an apprenticeship at the rather late age of 16. She went to Jane Dickson to learn the trade of dress making for a term of three years. This was one of the shortest apprenticeship periods recorded for any child in our care and it likely reflects the fact that she was five years older than the average apprentice was.

Helena completed her apprentice but her condition continued to impact on her ability to get meaningful employment. In August 1827 the Ladies Committee were granted permission for Helena to remain in the Poor House to teach the children needlework. By September 1828 Helena had returned to the Poor House after having her leg amputated at the Fever Hospital in Belfast. The Ladies Committee realised by this stage that any form of career in dressmaking was now out of reach for Helena, so they proposed that she would be instructed by the Mistress of the Lancastrian School with a view to preparing her to teach the Lancastrian system of sewing to girls in the Poor House.

Helena continued to live and teach in the Poor House until 8 April 1830 when, at the age of 25 she went on to find her own path.

Easter Traditions in the Poor House

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

Easter has always been an important holiday. It marked a time for family to come together and take part in the religious rituals surrounding the holiday. In preparation for Easter families would have had a ‘spring clean’ and a hearty meal was prepared for Easter Sunday, marking the end of Lent. Aspects of these Easter traditions can be found peppered through the Belfast Charitable Society’s Archive, held in Clifton House.

Although it was now explicitly mentioned in the Minute Books, Easter 1775 was the first with residents in the Poor House. On Easter Monday 1775 the bell and clock from the old Corporation Church were requested to be brought to the Poor House. Although no longer in the spire, the bell is now house in the entrance hall of Clifton House, alongside the original grandfather clock.

As with any religious holiday public worship figured heavily in the celebrations. Ministers normally preached on rotation at the Poor House itself, but residents were granted leave to attend public worship, especially for major holy days. Permission to leave for Easter services was granted from 1776. The Orderly recorded who could attend church but you could be refused if you had abused the privilege in the past. However, for religious festivals it was unusual to refuse leave for any individual. The Orderly report for Easter 1819 stated

permitted the Protestant & Catholic inmates who intend to communicate [take communion] to go to church on Good Friday.

By 1791 the Belfast Charitable Society gave permission for the children to have the day off school on Easter Monday, and they were also allowed to visit family and friends. Times like this caused headaches for the Committee as in 1815 two boys absconded when out on Easter leave. The Orderly refused to readmit them when they returned. However, they were not always so hard on the children, with younger children given more leeway. On another occasion, two children who did not come back on time were readmitted ‘due to their age’. In the 1840s our archives record that in additional to having the day off school, the Poor House children were given eggs as a special treat.

In 1827 the Poor House was shut over Easter due to the presence of ‘the fever’ in Belfast. Fever and disease were an ever-present threat in 19th century Belfast. The Charitable Society took all steps it deemed necessary to protect the residents of the Poor House, including isolating the Poor House from the rest of the town to stop diseases spreading.

Cleanliness and hygiene featured heavily on the Belfast Charitable Society’s agenda as evident by the appointment of an ‘Inspectress of Cleanliness’. Countless Orderlies complained about the conditions in the house, from dirt through to damp and vermin. In accordance with Easter traditions each year a spring clean was undertaken when repair works, cleaning and white-washing of rooms was completed. At Easter 1822 Orderly Henry Rowan, after inspecting the house, described it as “sweet and well cleaned” and in 1896, Orderly Edward Grey wrote “spring cleaning…progressing very satisfactorily”- high praise indeed in the Victorian period!

In 1882 George Benn, renowned historian of Belfast, passed away and bequeathed to the Society a sum of £1000 to provide a special dinner for residents, of what was then an old people’s home, at Easter and Christmas. Thereby George Benn, became part of the history of the town and Society he worked so hard to promote. Newspaper reports from the 1920s and 1930s give us a rare glimpse into the life of Clifton House at Easter between the two world wars. These newspaper clippings were carefully put together by staff to form a number of scrapbooks and are held in our archive. A dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and peas with sweets and fruit for after was the typical fare. Miss Hoey, the matron of Clifton House in the 1930s was renowned for procuring unusual food. In 1937 instead of the usual roast beef, she managed to source stuffed veal for 130 residents.

One tradition that lasted for over 150 years was the giving out of snuff and tobacco. First recorded at Easter 1776, this custom continued until at least 1936, when it was referenced in the Newsletter. It was also a tradition that members of the Board would attend the Easter Benn dinner, helping to carve the meat or serve residents. After dinner entertainment was a big part of the day and a variety of acts donated their time for the benefit of the elderly residents. Belfast was famous for variety and theatre shows. Typically, one of these travelling companies would be invited to provide the post-dinner entertainment for the Easter Benn Dinner. In 1931 it was the Radio Company, who were preforming at the Belfast Hippodrome, while in 1936 it was a tour company who were staging a production at the Empire Theatre. Sometimes the residents even provided their own entertainment with music in the grounds!

Children of the Poor House: The Troublesome Barney Kelly (admitted 1776)

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

When Belfast Charitable Society opened the Poor House in 1774 it did not originally envisage children being admitted to the institution. However, due to growing pressures and the fact that the Poor House was the only institution that could support destitute children, it agreed to allow up to twenty children in 1776. These children were to be between the ages of 7 and 12 and would be educated and supported by the Society. Barney Kelly, the second in our series exploring the lives of the children, was part of this original twenty.

Barney was found on the streets of Belfast and was admitted to the Poor House on 4 May 1774 aged 11. Mr Mawhinney, the school master, was tasked with looking after Barney when he first came into the building. Barney was provided with soap to wash himself and, once clean, he was given a new set of fresh clothes to wear. Mrs Mawhinney, the school mistress and wife to the school master, prepared a bed for Barney in the children’s quarters.

Every child was different, and its appears from our archives that Barney was not happy at being admitted to the Poor House. He eloped after only three days, slipping out of the upper windows with another child. Barney was brought back by his mother, who lived in the town, the following morning. The orderly was going to punish him for the offence, but on his promise of good behaviour he pardoned him. Some though were less lucky, like William Bickerstaff, who, nearly 100 years later, was fed on bread and water as a punishment for absconding twice from the Poor House.

It was behaviour like this from Barney and other children in the care of the charity which forced them to put bars on the windows of the children’s rooms only a  month after allowing children to be admitted in order to safeguard them.

Want to learn more? Come along on our tours and hear more about the children and the history of the Poor House. With our augmented reality, visitors can now fully immerse themselves in the past as it comes to life right before your eyes. See can how the children learned in the nursery school and experience the ‘Black Hole’ – the punishment room for those who misbehaved. For more information and to book, please click here to visit the tours section of our website.

Children of the Poor House: Johnathan Bryans (admitted 1804)

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Management News

Thousands of individuals, from the young and old, to local citizens and passing sailors all sought sanctuary within the walls of the Poor House, today known as Clifton House. However, it is the stories of the children (some were orphans, others deserted and many who came from families struggling to make ends meet) which still continue to fascinate visitors to Clifton House.

In this new series we will be highlighting the stories of those children who were admitted to the Poor House, using the unique Belfast Charitable Society archive held at Clifton House to explore what we can about the their lives.

The first child whose story we are highlighting is that of young Jonathan Bryans. Johnathan was born in Belfast c.1794 during which time the town was known as the ‘Athens of the North’. We know little about his early years, but in July 1804, at the tender age of 10, he was admitted to the Poor House. Our archive offers no information on his parents which leads us to to believe that he may have been orphaned.

Advertisement from the Belfast Commercial Chronicle illustrating Francis McCracken’s other occupation as a merchant

Johnathan was a resident in the Poor House for just under four years when he was apprenticed at the age of 14 to learn the trade of sail making for seven years. Johnathan was apprenticed to Francis McCracken, an older brother of the famed abolitionist, reformer and philanthropist Mary Ann McCracken. Jonathan would have been working at the rope and sail making establishment run by Francis McCracken at 1 James’ Street in the town. Francis was also a merchant importing goods to Belfast for general sale.

Although we do not know about Jonathan’s latter life, our archive shows that he did not return to the Poor House during or after his apprenticeship.

Elizabeth Fry & the Foundation of the Poor House Ladies Committee

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

On 13th March 1826 a meeting was called by Elizabeth Fry to encourage the women of Belfast to take an active role in the various charitable institutions within the town of Belfast. The women of Belfast agreed to write to the Poor House Committee for permission to set up a ‘Ladies Committee’ for ‘superintending the female department’ of the Poor House. The initial Minutes made the following statement;

“The Ladies forming this Committee respectfully submit this proposal, to the Committee of Gentlemen, in the hope of obtaining their approbation and support to enable them to effect their object; And beg most earnestly to assure them, that there shall be no interference whatever with any of their managements and regulations.”

The men agreed to their proposal and so became the work of the Ladies Committee. The ladies worked diligently and assisted the Men’s Committee in areas such as finding apprenticeships for the girls and obtaining instruction for them in how to make and repair their own clothes. Mary Ann McCracken, an early member of the Ladies Committee, taught these children in the same way as her mother had skilled her in the practical and domestic chores. However, Mary Ann had bigger dreams for these children. The idea of infant education was very new, with the first one opening in Belfast in the 1820s. Mary Ann was determined that one should open in the Poor House. Her first proposal was denied by the Men’s Committee, they claimed it was premature to be thinking of such a facility. Mary Ann said nothing more for a few months when the Ladies Committee went back to the men and suggested that it was inappropriate for one old woman to be minding 19 babies under the age of three. But the gentlemen came back and told the Ladies that upon mature deliberation that the opening of an infant school was not advisable. In June 1830 the following statement was given to the Gentlemen;

“The Ladies beg to inform the Gentlemen’s committee that an exertion has been made, in the midst of many difficulties, to establish an Infant School in the House. This has been practically effected for more than a fortnight and even in its present imperfect state, has given much satisfaction to many who have the opportunity of seeing it. They now respectfully call on the Gentlemen to aid them in completing what they have commenced…”

It seems that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and the Gentlemen agreed to the additional requests made by Mary Ann and her very determined Committee. The Ladies Committee took particular interest in all the children, especially those in the infant school. There are numerous requests to the men’s committee for money for toys and educational equipment. The ladies would go into the school and make observations and report back to the Men’s Committee with their findings;

“The Ladies who attended the Infant school discovering a remarkable deficiency in information upon common objects, among the children of the Poor House, compared with others of the same age in the schools in the town and ascribing this to a total confinement within the walls of the establishment, which prevents them from seeing anything save what the House presents, request that the Gentlemen will authorize them to send these children out to walk one day per week under the Superintendence of their teacher Hannah Murray….”

Hannah had herself been a child in the Poor House and Mary Ann had seen potential in her to take on more responsibility. She knew Hannah was able to grow and develop into the role of a school mistress.

Within two weeks the Ladies Committee were back, lamenting at the unhealthy appearance of the children and this time asking for the “erection of a pole and some other wooden structures in the playground for the purpose of exercising and giving robustness to the frame…” This was surely the forerunner to modern playground equipment that we see today. In fact, Mary Ann and her colleagues were able to secure a swing for the children in time which would have been a huge source of fun for them.

Mary Ann was a stickler for cleanliness. She was an ardent supporter of soap and water and the Ladies Committee book is full of notes about the allocating of pounds and pounds of soap. Overcrowding, lack of funding and a lack of knowledge nearly drove Mary Ann mad!

“And the Ladies request the gentlemen to take into consideration how very essential cleanliness is to the health and comfort and beg they may consult with the ladies of their own families and enquire if two pounds of soap per month, that is half a pound per week, be sufficient to wash the wearing apparel, sheets, blankets etc. for 27 children…”

Mary Ann was certain the Gentlemen hadn’t the first idea of what was needed to keep the House clean and free from the dreaded itch. She pleaded with the men for some encouragement to be given to the women who were responsible for the washing within the House.

“The Ladies beg to refer the Gentlemen to those who understand housekeeping and know something of the labouriousness of washing whether seven or eight old women who are past their labour (the head washerwoman being above eighty) are sufficient to wash for upwards of four hundred people…and might we remind them that parsimony and economy are widely different!”

She was scathing in the most polite manner.

The diet within the Poor House was plain and unadventurous. The basis of the meals were oatmeal, potatoes and buttermilk, with meat served about once a week. The fare was typical of most labourers of the time and indeed the residents of the Poor House received more meals and larger quantities than many of those outside. Creations called Stirabout and Lobscouse were developed to provide reasonably nourishing, but bland meals. The diet did not escape comment by Mary Ann and the Ladies Committee.

“The Ladies Committee take the liberty to recommend that the Nursey children be allowed half a pint of sweet milk per day as conducive to health and strength. The gentlemen are no doubt aware that there is but little nourishment in buttermilk…the health and consequent comfort and well being thro’ life depend in a great measure on proper nourishment and treatment during the period of infancy.”

The half pint was granted, and once Mary Ann saw the opening she appealed for sweet milk for the children in the infirmary and once that was granted he requested the children receive more bread. She was a constant friend to the children, fighting their corner and never being satisfied with the status quo.

The infant school was only one element of the education the children received in the Poor House. There was also a junior school which was separated into boys and girls. The Ladies Committee took particular interest in the girls and worked hard to ensure they had similar opportunities as the boys. They wanted the children to have a broad knowledge and Mary Ann was instrumental in bringing in art and music teachers. She was also given permission to buy story books for the girl’s library so they would have access to a wide range of reading materials.

Mary Ann and the Ladies Committee knew these children had no one to look out for them and protect them. They were also well aware of the dangers faced by the children outside the confines of the Poor House. Mary Ann was determined to give ‘her children’ as many benefits as possible to give them the best start in their lives. She was a friend and worthy advocate for the Poor House children and ‘the female department’.

Cosmopolitan Clifton Street Cemetery: Vincenzo Guerini

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

The Belfast Charitable Society’s graveyard, today known as Clifton Street Cemetery, provided an important revenue stream to help run the Poor House. Whilst some plots were set aside for the burial of the poor, the majority of burial sites were sold to individuals as private graves.

On This Day (20 February) 1819 Vincenzo Guerini bought the 9th lot on the 5th platform of the ‘New Burying Ground’ as his burial place. Guerini had arrived in Belfast from Naples, first docking in  Dublin back in 1806. Guerini advertised in the Belfast Newsletter that he would teach Italian, piano, singing and ‘instruct gentlemen in the art of violin playing’. He continued to develop his business interest in the town, and by 1823 he had added selling pianos. Guerini was also active in the social life of Belfast and with the formation of the Anacreontic Society in 1814 he became the leader of their band. He was involved with the Anacreontic Society for a number of years, and he lead the Society’s orchestra, when it played for the French pianist Kalkbrenner’s visit to the Exchange Rooms in 1824.

Happy Valentine’s Day! A Love Story from the Archive

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

Happy Valentine’s Day from the team at Clifton House! We all love a good love story, and it is very apt to share this particular one between two residents of Clifton House.

During the Second World War, the residents of Clifton House- then known as the Belfast Charitable Institution- were evacuated from Belfast to Garron Tower on the North Coast due to the threat of air raids on the city.  It was during the stay there that the Belfast Charitable Society had the first recorded marriage between two residents in its long history.

A bachelor called John Bloomer, aged 83, requested permission to marry another resident, Frances Ash, aged 65. The request was duly granted and the couple were married at Largy Road Parish Church, a short distance from Garron Tower in August 1944. The ceremony was attended by residents, nurses and other staff. The couple were granted permission by the Belfast Charitable Society Board to honeymoon for a week in Larne before coming back to Garron Tower- on their return the newly weds were given a room in the married couples’ quarters.

Student Volunteering Week 2022: Louise Mailey and her MA Public History Internship

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

To mark Student Volunteering Week (7th-13th February) we asked Louise Mailey, who is currently an MA Public History student at Queen’s University, to write about her thoughts and experience of volunteering at Clifton House. Here is what Louise had to say about her internship:

Volunteering at Clifton House
Clifton House is a striking building in Belfast’s landscape, nestled just outside of the city centre. From the entrance of the grounds, the building sits atop a hill, surrounded by gardens with the symmetrical characteristics of Georgian architecture. One of the oldest buildings in Belfast, its history is just as rich. Clifton House was built by the Belfast Charitable Society as the Poor House to offer welfare to the poor citizens of Belfast. I recently learnt about Belfast’s history in the 19th Century, and it sparked my interest in the origins and function of the Belfast Charitable Society. When the opportunity arose to conduct my internship here, it was my first choice.

A Day in the Life
The internship provides a behind the scenes look at the archives held at Clifton House. I have been focusing on transcribing an admission book from c1805-1830s. Like a lot of heritage sites and museums, transcription helps to make the past more accessible and increase the lifespan of documents. The admission book that I am working on is over 200 years old. At first, handling a book this old can be daunting because it requires a lot of care, especially when turning the pages, as well as keeping workspaces clear to ensure the book won’t get damaged. That daunting feeling is soon replaced with a certain excitement and nostalgia when reading the calligraphy.
When I was transcribing my first page, I was overwhelmed with the cursive writing and abbreviated forenames, at times it felt like a different language with William written as ‘Wm’ or James as ‘Jas’. However, after a couple of pages, I got into a flow of reading the cursive writing and was able to focus more on the names of people and their own stories.
The admission book provides a timeline of the journey people took through the Poor House from their admittance, to their apprenticeship or when they left the institution. Although mainly date based, the book offers more information than what you may think. They provide the milestones of personal stories but also create an image of those who needed the services of the Poor House. For me, seeing who offered the apprenticeships is especially interesting. I have recently found the Joy and Mulholland families offered apprenticeships to the Poor House in the 1800s. Both these families were integral in Belfast’s history through the industrialisation of the city and in civic affairs.

The internship provides an opportunity to see the day to day running of Clifton House. It’s a fast-paced environment with a team that focuses on conducting tours, talks, outreach and hire of the venue. The philanthropic ideals of Belfast Charitable Society have been integral to its existence, and I did not realise the extent of their support to the community today. From donating money to Age NI to help expand their ‘Check-in and Chat’ and Immediate Access Learning which provided students with laptops for remote learning during the pandemic.
Volunteering week is a time to reflect on the act of volunteering within our communities. I have been lucky enough to conduct my internship in a beautiful building with a history of helping the disadvantaged in Belfast. I have always had an interest in 19th century Belfast and my internship has allowed me to explore this period even more. Through delving deeper into the archives and gaining a sense of the people who relied on the Poor house and the apprenticeships they were given.
I would recommend anyone who has an interest in Belfast’s history to volunteer at Clifton House.

Patriot, Poet & Physician: Dr William Drennan M.A. M.D.

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized
Dr William Drennan (NMNI)

Dr William Drennan was the youngest son of Rev Thomas Drennan, minister of the First Presbyterian Church Belfast, and Anne Lennox. During this period Presbyterians were impacted by the Penal Codes, and as such many ‘sons of the manse’ attended university in Scotland. William Drennan studied arts in Glasgow (1772) and completed his medical studies in Edinburgh (1778). Dr Drennan was heavily influenced by enlightenment ideas and thinking.

On his return to Ireland he practised in Belfast, Newry and Dublin. Dr Drennan was the originator of the concept of what would become the United Irishmen (1791) and he had been active in the Volunteer movement in the years before he founded the United Irishmen. Arrested in 1793, he moved away for the increasingly separatist organisation, at least publicly, but continued to pen nationalistic poetry. Following his retirement in 1807 he moved back to Belfast and was involved in the foundation of ‘Inst’.

On this day, 5th February 1820, Dr William Drennan passed away. His final journey through his native town took him past Inst and onto the ‘New Burying Ground’ (today Clifton Street Cemetery), in the shadow of the Poor House he had served during his days practising medicine in Belfast, including pioneering small pox inoculations. There he rests today under the headstone inscribed with an epitaph written by his son.