Mary Ann McCracken Bursary Programme continues

Mary Ann McCracken Bursary Programme continues

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News

In the wake of the unveiling of the Mary Ann McCracken statue in the grounds of Belfast City Hall, the Foundation, which continues to build on her legacy, has announced a third and final year of bursaries for post primary schools in North Belfast.

For the past two years the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, in conjunction with Belfast Charitable Society, The James Kane Foundation, Hunter Smyth Fund and Raj Darshna, has supported a bursary programme for all twelve post primary schools in North Belfast. This initiative, first launched in February 2022, has gone from strength to strength, as evidence of the positive impact on pupils has emerged.

Norma Sinte, Chair of the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, explained “Over the course of the last two years, we have grown the funds available for the Mary Ann McCracken Bursaries from £18k in year one to £24k in year two. This year we are delighted to announce that the fund has grown for a third consecutive year to £30,000, and we want to thank our partner funders, including LFT Charitable Trust who have come on board this year. Last year this fund supported 64 pupils who were identified by their schools due to their financial situation. The impact on these pupils is huge, and we have no doubt that the increased funds available this year will allow more and more pupils to benefit.”

The Mary Ann McCracken Bursaries continue to be a flexible fund for pupils aged 16+ who face financial barriers which may prevent them from continuing to AS / A-Level, further or higher education, employment or apprenticeship. Previous years’ funding has allowed pupils to buy smart clothes for interviews; pay for college or university fees; pay for laptops, books and equipment for higher education courses; transport for interviews, jobs or courses…the list goes on.

Chair of the North Belfast Area Learning Community, Mary Montgomery said “On behalf of all the post primary schools in North Belfast, I would like to thank the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation and its partner funders the Belfast Charitable Society, Hunter Smyth Fund, Raj Darshna Fund and LFT Charitable Trust for continuing to support this initiative into its third year. For our schools to have a flexible fund like this to support our pupils is absolutely fantastic. In some cases it is the difference of a child going to University or not; of getting an apprenticeship job or not; of being able to get to a job interview or not. On behalf of every child who gets this chance by receiving a bursary, thank you!”

Norma Sinte concluded, “With the continued effects of the Cost-of-Living Crisis on families in North Belfast we are acutely aware of the financial burdens many young people in this area face. We are determined, as Mary Ann herself would have been, to give every child an equal chance to progress in their life and work, and not to be further disadvantaged due to their financial situation. We look forward to hearing about the impacts this next round of funding .

Pic caption: Principals of North Belfast Post Primary Schools with representatives from the funders officially launch the third year of the Mary Ann McCracken Bursary Programme in the beautiful centre courtyard of Clifton House, which this year is celebrating its 250th anniversary.

The House and the Hospitals – Glenravel Street

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House News

The House and the Hospitals – Glenravel Street

The presence of the Poorhouse, and the wealth and prestige that was present on the board of the Belfast Charitable Society proved to be a catalysing influence for change in the area. Whilst the Charitable Society directly influenced significant changes through the foundation of the New Burying Ground and the provision of water to Belfast, other entrepreneurs and philanthropists identified the area as one in need of development but filled with potential. One such individual was Edward Benn; a familiar name for followers of the history of Clifton House.

The Benn’s history has been well documented on our various websites, with an in-depth biographical piece available here. Both brothers were members of the Society and contributed significantly to the Poorhouse and the wider area. Older brother Edward (1798-1874) was plagued with health issues throughout his lifetime which explains his philanthropic focus on providing hospitals which could help provide for the citizens of the city in a way that was notably absent in treating his own ongoing ailments. He, along with younger brother George (1801-1882) helped fund a number of hospitals in the area, including the Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat hospital in 1874 and the Benn Skin Hospital in 1875 on Glenravel Street: A street named in honour of Benn’s estate near Ballymena.

These hospitals were erected under the patronage of the Benn Brothers, rather than the Charitable Society, however, they were erected on land donated by the Society who likely understood and endorsed Benn’s vision of medical provision for the citizens. Whilst the existing relationship between the Benn Brothers and the Charitable Society would have helped in procuring land to build their hospitals, the location of the hospitals directly to the rear of the Poor House offers another perspective. At this time, Donegall Street and Clifton Street attracted people from all walks of life for religious worship, work, learning and even cleanliness and bathing. Whilst everyone could avail from the medical facilities built on this site, their location adjacent to the Poorhouse, which catered to the city’s most vulnerable is significant. When the hospitals were built, it would have been the poor and destitute who lived in the Poorhouse, before it later transitioned to a home for the elderly and infirm. The close location to such a large body of people who could readily avail of the medical services demonstrates that these hospitals were not exclusive for the upper classes, and would provide medical care to anyone.

Originals plans for the Benn Hospital, 1873 (MS9|2015|009|0308).

These hospitals, along with the Hospital on Frederick Street, established this area of Belfast as the medical centre of the city; a theme that was touched on in last month’s tours and talks of Clifton House. The Benn hospitals remained a constant on Clifton Street until the 1940’s, when the Skin hospital was destroyed during the Blitz. Whilst one hospital was destroyed, the other thrived in the aftermath of the Blitz, offering an important lifeline to wounded and injured citizens. In 1941 alone, the Benn hospital treated 12,777 patients, with donations pouring in to help fund the hospital in a pre-welfare society. The Benn Hospital forms an important part of the story of North Belfast. Many people on tours and open days retell stories of getting treated at the hospital on Glenravel Street.

The Benn Hospital remained an integral part of the Belfast landscape, until it was demolished along with the entirety of Glenravel Street in the 1980’s to make way for the Westlink. All that remains of Glenravel Street is a tiled street sign that now resides in Clifton House, a few-hundred yards away from its original position. As part of the 250th Anniversary Celebration of the house, and in recognition of his contribution to the House and the wider area, the board of the Belfast Charitable Society has taken steps to get the portrait of Edward Benn restored. This portrait hangs in the boardroom of Clifton House and is a reminder of a great philanthropist who helped pioneer medical treatment in the area and went to great lengths to ease the suffering of others, all-the-while battling with his own ailing health. We hope that it will return in time for the Benn Dinner in December which has remained a staple of the Clifton House calendar for over 140 years, thanks to the generosity of George Benn.

We look forward to bringing you more updates as the restoration proceeds.

Cheek by Jowl- The History of The New Burying Ground

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House News

Cheek by Jowl- The History of The New Burying Ground

The Belfast Charitable Society has long been improving the living conditions of the less fortunate of Belfast. Their impact can be seen in landmarks in the local landscape. Whilst some of this history has been eroded as the city has evolved, near the old Poor House, now known as Clifton House, one of the Society’s most enduring ventures still exists just off Clifton Street. The New Burying Ground, or Clifton Street Cemetery as it became known was in use for nearly 200 years since its first burial in 1799 before the last interment in the 1990’s. The story of the city can be read from the names and inscriptions that once ordained the headstones of the cemetery, with many of the most wealthy and influential citizens buried “cheek by jowl” alongside the city’s poor, and hundreds of nameless bodies from various epidemics that gripped the region. The cemetery itself still bears the scars from more recent history, with many headstones showing damage from the 1970’s and 80’s. Recently, a collaborative effort between Belfast City Council and Clifton House and their Volunteers has helped remove encroaching climbers and ivy, preventing them from causing further damage to the old walls and engulfing the headstones set into the cemetery’s boundary, and ensure this historic site can continue to endure.

Clifton Street Cemetery, 2024.

The creation of the New Burying Ground was born out of need. The main burial place for the citizens of Belfast in the 18th century was the graveyard that surrounded the Corporation Church (St Georges Church), however, the church and graveyard were in such a state of disrepair that by 1798 the graveyard was closed and further burials were forbidden. This left the city of Belfast seeking a new place in which they could bury their dead. Fortunately, the board of Charitable Society had identified the closure of the corporation church graveyard as an immanent possibility and had been “preparing the ground” so to speak, for a new burial ground close to the Poor House. This process began as early as 1795:

Requested that it is recommended to the next General Board to consider of appropriating one of the fields up the lane for the purpose of a burying ground…”

The lane in question was Buttle’s Loney, which ran along the south and west side of the Poor House, continuing to the Vicinage (home of Thomas McCabe and present-day site of St Malachy’s College). It was decided that the field which the society had previously rented to Reverend William Bristow would be the land chosen for this new venture. The land itself was in an ideal location, close to the Poor House on the outskirts of the 18th Century city. The decision to make this land into a new Burial Ground also voided the ongoing rent agreement with Rev. Bristow. This would have been seen as a benefit for the Society as although Bristow was a man of reputation and standing in Belfast, he had also proven unreliable in paying rent on the plot.

A new cemetery was seen as a great opportunity to raise funds for the Society’s work through the sale of burial plots. The most prestigious plots were ‘Wall Plots’ which are built into the boundary wall that encircles the cemetery and were often ordained with more ornate headstones and memorials. Many of the most influential individuals of 18th and 19th century Belfast are buried in such wall plots, including Mary Ann McCracken, William Drennan and the Dunville Family. The cemetery was not just reserved for the social elite, as the General Board of the Belfast Charitable Society made the decision that a portion of land would be set aside for “interring such poor persons as may die not having funds for their interment in the same or some other Burial Ground.” This plot of land is still clearly marked today, in the northern part of cemetery close to the Antrim Road.

The stories contained within the New Burial Ground are a veritable encyclopedia of 18th and 19th century Belfast. Businessmen such as Thomas McCabe and Valentine Jones, pioneers and industrialists such as William Ritchie and bookbinders Marcus Ward, and philanthropists such as Edward Benn and John Charters all tell stories of a burgeoning Belfast and the figureheads who helped establish it. Alongside their ordained headstones, the Famine and Cholera memorials stand as reminders of the hardship that claimed the lives of thousands of citizens across the centuries. The burial ground is also testament to the Charitable Society’s ability to take the lead on initiatives that would benefit the people of Belfast. It is also an example of the shrewdness of the Society to identify ways to raise money to continue to fund their philanthropic programmes. With the commitment made by the Society that land would be set aside for the burial of the poor, the Society also continued to honour an important precedent that they set in 1752, that ultimately, the poor of Belfast deserved dignity, decency and respect. In 1774, with the building of the Poor House, it was ensured that those in need would receive these 3 basic rights in life. In 1797,  with the opening of the New Burial Ground, the poor of Belfast were ensured dignity, decency and respect in death as well.

Belfast Charitable Society and the Provision of Water

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House News Uncategorized

Belfast Charitable Society and the Provision of Water

When Clifton House first opened its doors in 1774 the Belfast Charitable Society was incorporated by an Act of Parliament giving it additional responsibilities that would normally be associated with local government. As well as looking after the poor the Society became responsible for things like street paving, planning permissions, street lighting, and the provision of a water supply. Indeed, it is one of the lesser known stories of Clifton House that we brought piped water to Belfast on a large scale.

Since 1682 a water supply had been taken from the Tuck Mill Dam, but the town’s growing population meant that by the beginning of the 18th century demand was outstripping supply. Furthermore, by the late 18th century the water flowing down the Farset and the Blackstaff streams had become so polluted that it could not be used for drinking. The provision of water had, by then, become a matter of pressing importance and in 1795 the Belfast Charitable Society took upon itself the responsibility of augmenting the supply.

The Society sent John Holmes to London to investigate whether elm, lead or iron pipes would be most suitable for use. Holmes ascertained that elm wood pipes would be best and by 1797 the Society had invested £4,000 to progress the work of piping and channelling water to a reservoir which they had leased at Fountain Street. Within a few years the Society had to obtain leases of additional springs at Malone, and between 1807 and 1837 the wooden distribution pipes were gradually abandoned and replaced with metal pipes at a cost of upwards of £30,000.

Old wooden water pipes discovered in Chichester Street whilst erecting new street lights, January 1921. (Image via Belfast telegraph)

By 1817, a further Act of Parliament was necessary to regulate the supply of water and a new body was created – the Spring Water Commissioners – who were subject to the orders and directions of the Belfast Charitable Society. Both demand and quality of water remained lower than the required levels during this period and by 1840 the Belfast Water Act enabled the transfer of the Society’s water property to another new body, the Belfast Water Commissioners. The transfer of water assets was carried out in exchange for an Annuity of £800 for the poor in the Poorhouse and Infirmary and a free supply of water to the grounds of the Poorhouse. Today the Annuity remains payable by Northern Ireland Water to the Belfast Charitable Society as long as the Society occupies any part of Clifton House.

Calling all food and craft traders

Clifton House News

Calling all food and craft traders

On Sunday 1st September, Clifton House, and its grounds, will be open to the public for a Heritage Skills Event.

As part of our 250th anniversary celebrations, this flagship event will host fun interactive heritage skills workshops and demonstrations; a chance to hear more about the history of the house; food and entertainment and an oral history capture.

As part of this event, we will be offering pitches to local crafters and food vendors.

If you are interested in being part of this exciting community event, please apply using the following link:


Medical History of the Poorhouse

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House News

Medical History of the Poorhouse

From the very beginning of the poorhouse, Belfast Charitable Society was a pioneering force for medical innovation in Belfast. As poverty and sickness are inextricably linked, the Society needed to be able to care for the sick poor who would enter the house.  Before the involvement of the Society, medical relief for the poor in Belfast was practically non-existent and extremely limited.

When Clifton House first opened in 1774, it contained seven beds for the sick. These beds mark the beginning of Belfast’s hospitals, and the Society’s first medical report noted the treatment of five patients. In 1776 the Society was advertising outpatient times, encouraging the people of Belfast to visit one of ‘the medical gentlemen’ who would administer medical attention through the Belfast Charitable Society on a rotating basis. This free and accessible medical care for the sick poor of Belfast was revolutionary and revealed the deeply philanthropic nature of the Society and the physicians who donated their time and medicines. Furthermore, the doctor’s work with the poorhouse allowed them to improve their surgical skills and increase their reputation in the medical field. Doctors such as William Drennan and Alexander Haliday offered their time and resources to the Society on a rotating basis.

Medical cases within the poorhouse were varied, as recorded by the minute books. Cases involve a woman named Mary May who was struggling with severe asthma, a gentleman named Patrick McLaghlan who was suffering from cancer in the cheek, examples of lunacy and a woman dealing with a septic skin condition. This only a small sample of the cases seen by poorhouse doctors. The medical gentlemen would also deal with broken bones, crush injuries and torn ligaments caused, in part, by the emerging linen and cotton industries in Belfast.

The demand on the poorhouse for provision of the sick was unprecedented, and the Society quickly realised its own limitations. The Society, therefore, were instrumental in the creation of the Belfast General Dispensary in 1792. The dispensary, which aimed to facilitate medical relief for the poor in their own homes, was a cooperation between the Belfast Charitable Society and a range of local physicians and philanthropists including Dr James McDonnell, founder of the Belfast Medical School. Clifton House provided a venue from which the dispensary originally operated from, in return for the supply of medicine for the residents. Patients could visit the physicians operating out of Clifton House two days a week for medical advice and treatments – not unlike visiting a modern GP.  The dispensary later became part of the Fever Hospital and moved to a premises on West Street, then to Frederick Street and eventually to the site which is now the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Alongside the dispensary, the Society was closely affiliated with other innovative medical organisations in Belfast. The Lying-in Hospital, Belfast’s first maternity hospital, was opened in 1794 and had connections with philanthropists involved in the Charitable Society from whom they rented premises. The Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind also leased property from the Society, as did a dispensary for the treatment of skin diseases ran by a Dr H. S. Purdon. The Purdon family were closely affiliated with the Charitable Society and often volunteered their medical services to the sick poor residing in Clifton House. It seems there were very few charitable and medical endeavours within Belfast that the Charitable Society was not involved with in some respect, including revolutionary inoculation campaigns for the young residents.

Pioneering Medical Research

William Drennan, poet, physician, and co-founder of the United Irishmen was involved in the revolutionary medical work inside Clifton House. In the late eighteenth century, Dr Drennan was attempting to inoculate the children of the poorhouse against smallpox – a disease which was incredibly dangerous in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a 30% mortality rate. This variolation campaign itself was not without any risks. Unlike the safer form of vaccination pioneered by Edward Jenner sixteen years later (which used the milder cowpox as the active strain in the vaccination), Drennan used small amounts of real smallpox in ‘arm-to-arm’ exposure to immunise the patient against further illness – this campaign would decrease the mortality rate to 1-2%.

Drennan’s campaign, although somewhat risky, can only have been a success for the patients residing in the poorhouse, as the 1782 minute books resolve to thank Doctor Drennan for his scheme of inoculation:

1st June 1782

‘Resolved that thanks be returned to Doctor Drennan in the public papers for the scheme of inoculation introduced by him into this house, and that mr Crombie doe waite on him and acquaint him with this Resolution and that He send It to the paper provided that the doctor does not oppose it.’

The Society continued to record its vaccination schemes throughout the beginning of the nineteenth century thanking Doctor Haliday Jr. for his good work in his vaccination programmes, which had developed with the Jenner method using cowpox rather than the riskier smallpox.

Facing Epidemics

In 1847 – known as Black ’47 – the Society notes the loss of a Surgeon James McCleery. James McCleery was a surgeon from Portaferry who began his medical career in Belfast. He was the main attending surgeon to the male side of the poorhouse from 1835. McCleery ‘zealously and benevolently fulfilled the laborious duties of Surgeon to the male of this Charity’ until he succumbed to ‘famine fever’. He is buried in Clifton Street Cemetery and his role was taken over by his son. ‘Famine fever’ was caused by a combination of nutritional deficiencies and a raging typhus epidemic characteristic of the famine years. Over 131 doctors and their pupils across Ireland succumbed to this in 1847 alone. Clifton Street Cemetery is evidence of the many tribulations faced by Belfast during the famine period and the strain faced by the Belfast Charitable Society as they attempted to manage burials and provide coffins for the poorer Belfast communities.

Alongside the hundreds of bodies interred in the cemetery that died from fever in 1847 alone, the cemetery also contains the ‘Cholera Ground’ in which those that died in the great epidemic of 1832-33 are buried. For the safety of the residents of Clifton House, the Society decided to close its doors to new arrivals to prevent further transmission whilst still providing coffins for the Board of Health. Readings of the minute books in this period reveal the Society’s understanding of disease and transmission, as they required the isolation of patients who had potentially been exposed as well as the importance of a nutritious diet to stave off disease. The Poorhouse became one of few places in Belfast to not be completely decimated by the disease, thanks in part to its attending surgeons and healthcare systems.

The Mysterious Medical Chest

Every good attending surgeon in the nineteenth century would have their own medical chest, full of essential supplies ready to go at a moment’s notice. Recently, one such medical chest was discovered inside Queen’s Medical Library which is believed to have belonged to the Surgeon McCleery. The chest contains a range of medical equipment which would have been common to the nineteenth century travelling surgeon and would have been used within Clifton House to treat the sick poor.

Some of the most notable items contained in the chest are the surgeon’s amputation and bloodletting kits. Bloodletting was an essential part of any surgeon’s kit in this period and was used to remove ‘impure’ fluids, or bad humours, that were thought to be making the patient unwell. This procedure was dangerous and could easily result in the death of the patient and decreased massively in usage after the nineteenth century. The Bloodletting equipment was used enthusiastically by medical professionals during the cholera epidemics that ravaged Belfast’s poorest communities in this period.

An amputation kit was essential for the surgeon and a surgeon was distinguished by the speed in which they could operate. Without general anaesthetic the patient would be awake during the procedure – one can only imagine how painful and traumatic this was. To reduce the risks to the patient the surgeon needed to be quick with his saw and cauterisation. However, as antibiotics and proper hygiene in medicine were yet to exist the mortality rate of these surgeries was incredibly high. As our understanding of medicine and anatomy has progressed, both amputations and bloodletting have understandably fallen out of favour in the medical community being replaced by much safer, modern methods of treating sickness.

All of this only touches the surface of the deep and varied medical history of Belfast’s poorhouse. Further research may be warranted on the treatment of mental health – referred to as lunacy cases throughout the 18th and 19th centuries – and the way the poorhouse was, for a long while, the only place in Belfast equipped to deal with such cases. We can also consider the vast number of doctors who walked the halls at Clifton House and their legacies, especially those less famous, with links to the wider Belfast community and the Belfast Medical Society.

As the medical field in Belfast progressed so did Belfast Charitable Society. After the children left the poorhouse in 1882, more work was done to provide the elderly poor with good medical care with nurses being employed after 1892. Clifton House would adapt to the needs of Belfast until it became what it is today, working with the elderly and providing medical care in an assisted living facility.

Elizabeth Irvine (QUB Public History), April 2024

A celebration and send off for Chair David Watters

A celebration and send off for Chair David Watters

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News

This week David Watters stepped down from the board of Belfast Charitable Society following 12 years as Chair. Guided by the Charity’s overall mission since 1752 to help the disadvantaged, and inspired by its long history of innovation and influence, David wanted to do more than just give out grants. David leaves a long legacy of projects and initiatives which will have, and will continue to have, a real impact on people’s lives. He also ensured that Belfast Charitable Society, already one of the oldest charities in Northern Ireland (est 1752), has the stability and structure to continue well into the future.North Belfast Youth Choir and Cairdre Community Choir

On Wednesday 13th March, board members, members, staff and volunteers celebrated David’s achievements with an evening of music and culture in Clifton House. Attendees were wowed with performances from the North Belfast Youth Choir, Caidre Community Choir with Siobhan Brown, ANAKA Women’s Collective and Ursula Burns.


Taking over the reins as Chair, Professor Alastair Adair, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University, commented “It’s a privilege to follow David as Chairman of the society, particularly in this very historic year celebrating the 250th anniversary of Clifton House. I would like to pay tribute to David for his dedication to the Society, applaud the leadership of Sir Ronnie in the role of President and thank my colleagues on the Board and the staff for the continued delivery of the mission to influence philanthropy to address disadvantage.

As has been mentioned this is the 250th anniversary of the opening of Clifton House and there is no better example of sustainability. I have spent 16 years leading the build of the new UU campus in Belfast and that has a life expectancy of 300 years I hope that in that time Clifton House will remain as magnificent then as it is today.”

The catastrophic consequences of cuts in Education discussed at Clifton House

The catastrophic consequences of cuts in Education discussed at Clifton House

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News

“Catastrophic”; “Detrimental”; “Widening attainment gaps”; “Neglect”; “Disrepair”; “Breaking point”.

These words echoed around the historic walls of Clifton House time and time again last Friday, 23rd February, during a stark but informative conference on ‘The immediate and long-term impacts of cuts on North Belfast’s education sector’.

This event, which formed part of Clifton House’s 250th Anniversary programme, looked at the current state of education in North Belfast; how schools are dealing with unprecedented levels of poverty; and the terrifying predictions recent cuts will have, longer-term, on an education system already under pressure.

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, Ulster University, opened the talks and set the tone of the event “The cuts to education have been made at pace… The reductions in resources directed at schools are ferocious, particularly for schools in disadvantaged areas”. Ciara went on to paint a very bleak image of the negative impact the cuts are and will continue to have on our young people including those struggling with mental health; those requiring Special Education Support (SEN); those already living in poverty; those falling behind with attainment; those from ethnic minority communities. The list was long, and according to Dr Fitzpatrick will take a generation to reverse their impact!

Principals representing the primary and post primary sectors of North Belfast provided their insights into what the reality is for schools in what remains one of the most deprived parts of Northern Ireland, and which is struggling under the additional pressure created by the cost-of-living crisis.

Ashleigh Galway, Principal of Currie Primary School commented “Arriving at a school building for the first time our youngest children coming on their first day of school are now met with buildings that have had all maintenance worked stalled for years. Paint flaking on school railings, ours included, toilets closed, playgrounds with old and broken equipment, broken windows boarded up rather than replaced, no painting or refurbishment work completed and generally sad looking places for our next generation to learn.

Ashleigh then focused on just one of her concerns, that of mental health “Counselling support has been impacted significantly with the removal of Happy Healthy Minds. Within our own 21 North Belfast Primary schools we are facing unprecedented need for this support with all schools reporting a waiting list for counselling regardless of context or the colour of uniform or school railings!”. She finished by saying “basic needs have become the business of schools, as well as teaching, in 2024!”

Speaking on behalf of the post primary schools in north Belfast, Martin Moreland, Principal of Mercy College spoke passionately about how the cuts are negatively impacting on families and communities, as well young people. He said “we cannot underestimate the dire impact that underfunding an education system can have not least on the young people currently in it, but their families, school communities and society, as a whole.

Schools need to provide a safe, warm environment with basic needs met, otherwise learning doesn’t take place. Many schools are currently struggling to meet this due to years and years of underinvestment. More and more young people are now living in poverty, coming to school with lack of food, lack of clothing and lack of personal hygiene. Our schools are now providing much more care than ever before, on top of mental health issues and pastoral care. First and foremost, we are educationalists, so, when we are the parent, councillor, psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, friend, that is time not being spent on the formal curriculum.”

The final speaker at the event was Professor Noel Purdy, co-author of The Fair Start Report and contributor to The Consequences of the Cuts report. Professor Purdy gave a brief overview of some of the 47 actions which were outlined in the Fair Start report, including a focus on early years, the whole community approach through a RED Programme (Reducing Educational Disadvantage) to name but a few before focusing on the current challenges facing education. He said “Our education system is facing massive budgetary pressures, including cuts to discretionary programmes. We are still seeing the long lasting impacts of Covid including absenteeism, additional needs like speech and language in early years”. Finishing on more ‘glass half full’ scenario of, Professor Purdy spoke of the optimism he felt due to the restoration of the Executive and closed by calling for NI Executive/ DE “to commit to fully funding and fully implementing the 47 actions contained in ‘A Fair Start’, the final report and action plan of the Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland.”

Hosting the event, Sir Ronnie Weatherup, President of Belfast Charitable Society thanked all the contributors to the discussion. He said “Combatting child poverty and improving the lives of Belfast’s poor children has been, and remains to be, an important aspect of the work of Belfast Charitable Society (BCS). We really wanted to use the event today to raise awareness of the devastating impact cuts to education are having, particularly in deprived areas like north Belfast. We will continue to look at this important issue to see what we, as a Charity, can do to help alleviate some of the pressures schools face. We will continue to look at this important issue to see what we, as a Charity, can do to help alleviate some of the pressures schools face. We will continue to use our funds where possible to support some of the most basic needs, but clearly more needs to be done. We look forward to continuing the conversation with educators and the local community to see what we can and should do to help.”

“Made of Belfast”- 250 years of the Belfast Poorhouse

“Made of Belfast”- 250 years of the Belfast Poorhouse

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News

“Made of Belfast”- 250 years of the Belfast Poorhouse

Allegedly sketched on the back of a napkin by local newspaper publisher Robert Joy and brought into reality by architects Thomas Cooley and Robert Mylne, Clifton house was built between 1771-1774 on land given to the Belfast Charitable Society by the Marquis of Donegall, Arthur Chichester. Not only did the house offer respite to the poor of Belfast and become a shelter for the sick and infirm, but it also became a home for the Belfast Charitable Society for nearly 250 years. Within its walls, meetings helped shape the course of the bourgeoning city of Belfast, with the Belfast Charitable Society playing a key role in its development. The construction of the Poor House was not just the erection of a building for the poor of Belfast: it was a commitment by the Society to continue to provide for the people of the town and city for the decades (and eventual centuries) to come.

The plot for the Poor House was chosen for a number of reasons. Its topography naturally elevated the house and made it more visible across the growing Georgian town. The site also possessed a large amount of clay which was suitable for the production of bricks.  The clay excavated from the plot ahead of the buildings construction made up the bulk of the red bricks now found in the building. The bricks were made on site, with any excess sold to the town, with Dunmurry Stone used in the construction of main features, such as the doorway and accents, whilst other materials from the house included sand dredged from the Lagan. Every effort was made to make the house of local materials, ensuring the house was very much “Made of Belfast”.

Belfast News Letter, 2 August 1771.

With the ground prepared, a ceremony was advertised in the Belfast Newsletter for the 2nd August 1771 for the laying of the foundation stone. The exact location of the stone has been lost over time, the minute books record the location “as near as may be the center of Donegall Street”, likely in acknowledgement of the contribution of the Marquis of Donegall in donating the land upon which the house was built. Ahead of the ceremony, the Society resolved to acknowledge tradition, whilst also setting the charitable tone for which the building would become known for -ordering that 5 guineas would be laid on the foundation stone and then distributed amongst the workmen present. Foundation ceremonies were (and still are) important in the life of a building, with offerings often being made. The fact the founders of the house acknowledged this tradition before giving their offering to the people of the town demonstrates an awareness of old practices but a determination to make changes. The offerings given at these ceremonies were to bless the building, and were buried in the foundations as construction continued, however, at the ceremony for the Poor House, the Charitable Society ensured the offering, and therefore the blessing, were passed on to the people of Belfast.

Whilst the architects helped realise the construction of the building, it is apparent that Robert Joy still held significant sway. The now iconic spire that emerges from the heart of the building was a later addition, suggested by Joy himself. This replaced a dome like feature called a cupola, originally proposed by the architects, and would have been a common feature for a building of this nature and period. The spire itself is an odd addition, somewhat unique to the Poor House, however it is not solely for decoration. The spire ensured that the building visible across the city: a beacon to those in need as far away as the ships arriving in the harbour:

“While the reason for the change was not articulated, it seems clear that the aim of the spire was to make the new building more prominent in the landscape, as achieved by the tower on the Market House and the spire on the parish church. Thus, the vista along Donegall Street from the Exchange and Assembly Rooms was closed not simply by a prominent building but with a spire that clearly marked the building as exceptional… It focused attention on the Poorhouse…By directing attention to the building, it also stressed the virtues that underpinned it, in particular the voluntary nature of the institution and the civic values of the urban elite.” Gillespie in ‘The First Great Charity of this Town pg.97.

There is rumour that the addition of this spire angered Lord Donegall who had just laid down plans for the Parish Church of St Annes to be built, on the present site of St Annes Cathedral. Allegedly, as a result, he was forced to make the tower of St Annes higher however relationships were not soured as he was first President of the Society. It is therefore likely that it is just folk tale told due to the unusual height of the spire at the Parish Church.

Whilst overshadowed by the glass and steel-clad goliaths of modern-day Belfast, in its day the Poor House would have been one of the most stately buildings in the area: a Palace for the Poor. In January as part of the 250th anniversary celebration calendar, Marcus Patton, Architect and Vice Chair of Hearth NI, will be giving a talk about the architecture of the building and its links with its counterparts in early Belfast.

With the spire now complete, attention turned to locating a bell. On the 1st April 1775, Reverand William Bristow wrote to the Vestry to request a loan of the bell and clock from the Old Corporation Church which stood on High Street, (now the site of St George’s.) The church had fallen into disrepair and the opening of St Annes resulted in the building being condemned. As such, loan of the bell was agreed, and it would hang in the spire of the Poor House; its chime regimenting the day, marking when residents got up, meal times and ‘lights out’. The bell now rests in the entry hall, held within a wooden frame: The oldest resident of the poor house.

Whilst a clock was also acquired along with the bell from the Old Corporation Church, it is not the one that now proudly sit above the main entrance. This clock is a later addition, provided by the Johnston family in 1882. Recorded in the minutes of an April meeting William G Johnston stated that “it was the intention of Lady Johnston to present the Belfast Charitable Society with an illuminated clock to be placed in front of the institution, with installation completed by July 1882. The clock was made by local clockmaker Francis Montgomery Moore, best known for creating the clock and mechanism for the Albert Memorial. Whilst the bell is now silent, save for the entertainment of those on guided tours of the building, this clock continues to count the minutes and hours for those who work in the building in the 21st century.

The People who make the Place

After 3 years of construction, it was resolved at a meeting in the Market House (now the Exchange and Assembly buildings on North Street) that the next meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society would be held in their new home; the board room in the Poor House. As such, on the 24th October 1774, the Belfast Charitable Society held its inaugural meeting in  its new home; one that would continue to be  its home across 3 centuries. With the Society overseeing the finishing touches of the buildings personally, the house was officially ready to receive its first residents on Christmas Eve 1774.

John Charters (1796–1874), millowner and philanthropist.

Whilst the house was completed, it quickly felt pressure to expand to facilitate the need of the Poor of Belfast. As the city grew, so too did the need to house the poor and destitute living in the towns growing population. As a result, the house had two small additions constructed in the 1820’s, however it was not until the 1860’s that a significant, purpose-built addition was constructed, thanks to a generous donation by local Flax mill owner John Charters. Born in 1796 on the Crumlin Road, Charters earned his wealth through the textile industry and owned a Flax-dressing mill on the Falls Road. He sold his stake in his company in 1866 before donating substantial amounts of money to various causes like the Poor House and the Working Men’s Institution. The Charters Wing would almost exclusively house the children of the Poor House. This remedied an ongoing issue that had plagued the house since its opening.

The house had not been designed to take in children, nor did the Charitable Society initially intent to offer shelter to them, however, due to continuous pressure and need, concessions were made to allow children to live under the Poor House roof. (The education and apprenticeship of the children will be covered in more depth throughout the month of February.) This wing and  its focus on providing for children represents a core focus for Charters and his philanthropic vision, as he gave generously to for the brightest boys from Boys Model to attend Royal Belfast Academical Institution on funded scholarships. The construction of the Charters wing as it would later be known encapsulated John Charters overlapping charitable interests and his desire to give back to his home town in his later years.

Edward Benn (1798–1874), philanthropist, industrialist, and antiquarian.

The Charters wing was not the only addition made to the building during this period. The 1860’s and 70’s were a period of rapid growth for the House. After the opening of the Charters wing an anonymous letter was be presented to the Society offering to pay for the construction of two new wings, with the stipulation that it cost no more than £3000. It transpired that this offer came from Edward Benn, an established philanthropic figure within the Society and in Belfast. He was also in the progress of redeveloping the adjacent Glenravel Street on which iconic buildings such as the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital would were built.

With the construction of the Benn Wings underway, it was acknowledged by the Society that the generosity of Charters should be better recognized, and it was decided in March 1872 that an inscription recognising John Charters should be erected on the building which his donations paid for, as Benn had incorporated his crest and name on each of the wings under construction.

These two donations encapsulate the philanthropic nature that existed within the society during this period. Benn, a successful businessman who had been plagued by ill health in later life, donated to increase the capacity of the Poor House, whilst simultaneously transforming Glenravel Street into the Medical Hub of Belfast. Charters, on the other hand, had sold his stake in his company, and was wanting to spend his twilight years donating his wealth to causes he was passionate about.

Both additions increased the capacity of the house and allowed for better practices in aspects such as hygiene and personal comfort, which allowed the house to weather rocky periods such as plagues and famines, sheltering its residents from the worst of what these periods in history brought. Both Benn and Charters passed away within a few months of each other in 1874, 100 years after the opening of the house, however their generosity is immortalized in the wings of the Clifton House which still houses residents and are now emblazoned with their name, forever etched into the history of the building.

This article, and indeed the events throughout January 2024 will explore the creation of the Poor House. The subsequent 11 months will breathe life into this historic building and populate it with the characters, faces and stories that made it a home to every person who entered through its doors.

We hope you will join us on this journey through the history of Clifton House, and by extension, a journey through the history of Belfast itself.

President of Belfast Charitable Society officially introduces start of 250th Anniversary

President of Belfast Charitable Society officially introduces start of 250th Anniversary

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News

President of Belfast Charitable Society officially introduces start of 250th Anniversary

2024 is an important year for Clifton House with an exciting 12-month programme of activity, starting in January 2024, which includes a variety of special legacy projects, talks, tours, conferences, exhibitions and social media campaigns which will all help to tell the story of Clifton House throughout its 250 years!

The charity will also use the anniversary to bring others together to talk about the reality of poverty and disadvantage today – with an aim to answer the question ‘What would Belfast Charitable Society need to ‘build’ in 2024 to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, as it did back in 1774?

President of Belfast Charitable Society, Sir Ronnie Weatherup explains more in this short New Year’s address.