On this day, 3 July 1792 a number of Belfast Charitable Society, the medical profession and members of the general public sought to expand medical provision in the town of Belfast. A plan for a General Dispensary for the ‘labourers and artists’ of Belfast reduced to poverty through by sickness ‘who face speedy ruin’ was put forward, and passed.
The Belfast Charitable Society provided a venue for the General Dispensary in the Poor House. It gave medicine out to the labouring classes as well as supplying the Poor House in return for the use of the premises. The medical professionals involved with the Poor House also agreed to allow people from outside its walls to attend on two days in the week at 12noon and 3pm to been seen by a doctor, arguably the first GP surgery in Belfast, with prescriptions for treatment provided by the Dispensary. In essence this became a one stop shop for health care for the poor in Belfast, catering for all their needs.
Clifton House Centre has been awarded £74,500 to help recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Known to many as the original Poor House, Clifton House is a unique conference venue and historic heritage attraction located in the north of Belfast.
Pre-COVID, it would have accommodated hundreds of small conferences and events over the course of a year, and hosted weekly tours, talks and presentations on the history of the Society and the Poor House. As of March this year, Clifton House will have been closed to the public for a full year, resulting in significant loss of income. Not only that, but the likelihood of income from tours and conference hire returning to pre-COVID levels within the next 12 months is exceptionally low.
Clifton House is among many arts and heritage venues who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. As a response, the National Lottery Heritage Fund announced grants to help 91 organisations and individuals adapt, recover and re-open following the impact of COVID-19. The Heritage Recovery Fund is being distributed by The National Lottery Heritage Fund on behalf of the Department for Communities. The fund is part of the £29million Executive allocation to support the arts, culture, heritage and language sectors in Northern Ireland, which have been severely impacted by COVID-19.
“We are delighted to receive this grant. COVID-19 has brought huge challenges for Clifton House, like many heritage tourism buildings. However, this money will allow us to re-model our service delivery to cope better with the ongoing pandemic, including investing in new ways to engage with online audiences, researching and reaching new markets including the local family market and international markets. This resource will also be vital for helping us plan for the future, post COVID”, Paula Reynolds, Chief Executive of Clifton House.
Paula continued, “we plan to use the grant to convert a number of our meeting spaces into rentable office and research space, as well as to develop a concept proposal on the heritage space itself. With staff still working predominantly from home, the grant will also be used to upgrade our equipment and systems to better support remote working.”
This is the latest package of support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to support the heritage sector across the UK throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Last year, the organisation committed over £600million of National Lottery and Government funding to more than 1,500 heritage organisations, along with expertise and advice on adapting to the pandemic.
Paul Mullan, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said “We are grateful to the Department for Communities for providing this funding and enabling us to help a wide range of organisations and individuals in Northern Ireland’s heritage sector to recover from the current crisis.
“The risks to heritage sites, attractions and organisations from a sudden and dramatic loss of income as a result of the pandemic, have put the heritage and visitor economy in crisis, and this funding will play a vital role in their recovery.
“Heritage has an essential role to play in making communities better places to live, creating economic prosperity and supporting personal wellbeing. All of these are going to be vitally important as we emerge from the current pandemic.”
To find out more about The National Lottery Heritage Fund, go to: www.heritagefund.org.uk. To find out more about Clifton House, visit www.cliftonbelfast.com
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.”
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.