Philanthropy Fortnight 2022: Belfast Charitable Society- Philanthropy Past & Present

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

This year (2022) marks 270 years since the foundation of Belfast Charitable Society. Throughout the centuries, the Society has been at the heart of philanthropy, working collaboratively with others since its earliest years.

The Charitable Society initially set in motion the creation of a Poor House and Infirmary for the town to provide a safety net to those in distress and to relieve the pressures of paying for medical care. After a number of fundraising campaigns, the Poor House formally opened its doors in 1774. Throughout the years thousands of people, from young and old, to local citizens and passing sailors all sought refuge within its walls. Many notable figures in the history of Belfast gave their services including the abolitionist, philanthropist and social reformer, Mary Ann McCracken and her cousins, the Joy family, amongst many others.

In 1882, the last children left the Poor House, and the building became known as the Belfast Charitable Institution, an early care home for the elderly. Today, Clifton House operates as the social enterprise of Belfast Charitable Society, with the building continuing to house a residential home and sheltered accommodation apartments.

Since 1752 Belfast Charitable Society has sought to address disadvantage in the various forms it can take. Historically, it oversaw the introduction of a large-scale public water supply, the first free prescription service and supported other charities including the Lying-In (Maternity) Hospital to highlight just a few examples. Across Philanthropy Fortnight, we will be sharing the Belfast Charitable Society’s ongoing work today. From our projects working with young people, to tackling isolation in the older population, the Charitable Society can continue to support those most in need thanks to your continued support.

So, keep an eyed peeled on our social media over the coming two weeks as we highlight some of our recent, and ongoing, projects.

From the Archive: Mary Ann McCracken & the Case of Ellen Murray

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House News

Ellen Murray first entered the Poor House as an 18 year old on 7th December 1816, as her mother was struggling to support her at home. Unusually for a person of her age Ellen was placed in Class Three during her time in the institution to improve her reading and writing abilities. However, this changed after nearly two years in the Poor House, when, on 31st October 1818,  the Committee decided that:

“Ellen Murray… to assist in the Wash House and not to go anymore to School; nor to sleep with the other girls but in another part of the house”.

Ellen was now 20 years old, and was no longer to be treated as a child. Through her employment as a washerwoman for the Poor House, it was hoped that she would gain the skills to support herself once she left its care.

We do not hear of Ellen Murray again in the archive until she is dismissed from the Poor House on 6th March 1819. Although no official reason for her dismissal is given, a few weeks prior, on 20th February 1819, the Board recorded that they were not in a position to admit any more residents to the Poor House until the number of occupants was reduced to 300. It seems likely that Ellen Murray as an adult who had been provided with an education and a job was in a better position to return to her life at home with her mother, than some of the poor seeking help after the ‘year of no summer’ famine. Unfortunately, Ellen Murray’s situation did not improve. The Committee suspected, on 29th May 1819, that Mary Robinson was selling potatoes to Ellen Murray which shows she was struggling to provide for her herself. Consequently, due to her unfortunate circumstances, Ellen Murray sought the help of Miss Mary Ann McCracken, who would later become a renowned social reformer.

It was reported on 29th May 1819, that Dr Hanna and Mr Joy were asked to wait upon Miss McCracken to explain to her why Ellen Murray could not be admitted. However, Miss McCracken, unsatisfied with their answers, did not let this matter go so easily, and wrote again to the Committee. She expressed that Ellen Murray should be allowed to be re-admitted but on a trial basis. The Committee agreed with this idea and admitted her to wash room once more. It was also decided that she would be quartered in the Convalescent Home until the Committee re-examined her case.

For the month of June 1819, the Committee seemed unsure of what to do with Ellen Murray, and pushed her case back two weeks. Then, on the 19th June 1819, they again dismissed her, stating that she had been “irregularly admitted”. However, Ellen proved to be quite persistent and requested to be re-admitted into the Poorhouse on 6th May 1820. The orderly granted her wish until the next meeting of the committee and stated:

“There have been so many representations made about Ellen Murray…that I have permitted (her) to remain until to-day- when I hope the committee will decide finally whether the wash-room can be supplied without them or if they shall remain permanently to assist the washerwomen”.

The Committee finally decided to re-admit Ellen Murray to the washroom on the very same day.

This was only the beginning of Mary Ann McCracken’s involvement with the Belfast Charitable Society as an adult (she had previously made clothes for the children in the Poor House when only a child herself). Mary Ann would later go on to help found the Ladies Committee which fought many wars of attrition with the men!

On This Day 1754: Dr William Drennan- Physician, Poet & Patriot – was born

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

On 23 May 1754 Anne Drennan née Lennox gave birth to her youngest son, William Drennan. Anne was the wife of the Rev Thomas Drennan, minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast, and William was born in its manse. William Drennan would grow up to become a renowned physician, poet and patriot. Due to the Penal Codes limiting access to third level education in Ireland, many Presbyterian ‘sons of the manse’, such as William, attended university in Scotland. He 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 earlier Volunteer movement. Drennan was arrested in 1794 and was acquitted of the charges against him but subsequently he distanced himself (at least publicly) from the United Irishmen, but continued to write for the organisation under a pseudonym and authored nationalistic poetry. Following his retirement in 1807 he moved back to Belfast and was involved in the foundation of ‘Inst’.

Dr William Drennan passed away on 5  February 1820,  and 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.

The spark that started Belfast’s Industrial expansion

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

Belfast was once famous the world over for its linen production, but this was not the first textile to be industrialised in Belfast.

Robert Joy was a paper producer and proprietor of the Belfast Newsletter, as well as the designer and project manager of the Poor House. Robert Joy, his brother-in-law Captain John McCracken and Thomas McCabe, all of whom sat on the Poor House Board, set out to discover the next ‘big thing’ in manufacturing. Although generous individuals, they were merchants and set sail to Britain to investigate the developing industries there. On their travels they discovered pioneering cotton spinning and carding technology.

They imported the cotton machinery they had discovered in Great Britain to the Poor House, where, with permission of the Belfast Charitable Society they opened up a small factory in the basement of the building. This basement factory did not just supplement the income of the Society to run the Poor House, but it had the added benefit of training up residents in skilled employment. This sowed the seeds of what became the apprenticeship program within the house for children of school leaving age.

The small cotton factory proved to be such a success that Joy and his partners opened their own mill in the town of Belfast. Slowly other mills and factories opened, including John Hazlett’s factory in Waring Street and a mill in Millfield powered by horse.

By 1791 in the town of Belfast alone, there were 229 cotton Spinning Jennies and nine years later in 1800, Nicholas Grimshaw estimated that in a 16km radius the cotton spinning industry was employing 13,500 people. So, in essence the Belfast Charitable Society were the spark that started Belfast’s industrial expansion in the textile industry, as cotton was spun for the first time in Ireland in the basement of the Poor House.

National Numeracy Day: Mary Ann McCracken and her gift for numbers

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

Today marks National Numeracy Day and who better to highlight than the remarkable Mary Ann McCracken! Throughout her life she was an ardent educationalist, inspired by her childhood teacher, David Manson.

David Manson was born at Cairn Castle on the Antrim Coast and settled in Belfast in 1752, the same year that Belfast Charitable Society was founded. He’d been sick as a child and was schooled by his mother, who based his learning around ‘play’, and not as was the wisdom of the time ‘discipline and punishment’. He developed a love of learning from his mother and experimented with his own teaching methods before setting up a school in Belfast.

Mary Ann joined the school when Manson was at the height of his fame. Young ladies like Mary Ann received the same extensive education as boys. At an early age Mary Ann developed a great accuracy with figures and this love of numeracy held her in good stead throughout the rest of her life. Mary Ann went on to set up a Muslin business with her older sister Margaret, and did the bookkeeping herself. During her time on the Ladies Committee of the Poor House she served in various roles including treasurer, and ensured the girls were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Mary also put her numeracy skills to go use calculating the amount of soap provision for each resident based on the quantity received from suppliers. Ever the championed of the poor, Mary Ann often wrote to the Men’s Committee to chastise then for the limited amount of soap ordered.

Today Belfast Charitable Society and the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation continue the proud legacy of individuals like Mary Ann, to address educational disadvantage in Belfast and beyond in the 21st century. Click here for more information on our current philanthropic activities.

You too can help support our work by booking on to one of our tours. From Mary Ann’s Belfast Walking Tour to Clifton House and Clifton Street Cemetery there is something for everyone! Click here for more information.


Children of the Poor House: Transportation

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

This week we are taking a thematic approach to our Children of the Poor House series by looking at one of the more unusual reasons that led to some of the children being admitted to the Poor House.

Transportation was a common form of punishment in the past, particularly for the crime of theft. The first ships to ‘transport’ convicted criminals to Australia from Britain occurred in 1787. By 1868 it is estimated that some 162,000 people had been transported.

The Poor House records illustrate the impact that having a parent transported could have on a family, with many seeing the Poor House as the only safety net they had left. Interestingly, as demonstrated by the table below, the majority of children who entered our institution in this particular circumstances were female.

Child’s Name Date Information 
William Daly Sept 1822 His mother, Sarah Crampsee [sic], was transported after a conviction for theft
Susanna Hill Nov 1834 Discharged to her mother who was recorded as a ‘transport’
Leta Mattear Sept 1835 Her father George was a Whitesmith and their mother Margaret was transported
Isabella Mattear Aug 1836 Sister of Isabella, admitted a year after Leta
Matilda Hanagan Apr 1837 Mother was ‘transported’, most likely to Australia. Prior to transportation she had worked  in Lepper’s Cotton Mill
Margaret Bloomfield June 1855 Removed from the Poor House by her mother to emigrate to Australia


From our research we know that William Daly’s mother wrote home to request that he be sent to Australia once she completed her sentence. Sadly, it is not known whether or not William was able to re-join his mother, who had remarried by this time. In the case of Leta Mattear we know that she secured an apprenticeship with John Foreman of Clogher, Lisburn and her sister Isabella left the Poor House a few years later in 1841. Then there is the case of Margaret Bloomfield, who was removed from the Poor House by her mother to emigrate to Australia, not as a transportee, but as an economic migrant looking for a better life for her and her child.

As part of our ongoing research we will be trying to unearth more about these individuals and their families. If you can help please email

Children of the Poor House: Mary Lawn & Mount Stewart

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News

Mary Lawn was born c.1824 during a time of massive growth in Belfast, both in terms of population and industry. The population of Belfast had grown by approximately 16,000 in the decade before she entered the Poor House! Her father was employed as a bricklayer but tragically lost his life on the job following a fall from a chimney.

Mary subsequently entered the Poor House in June 1830, following her father’s early death. Mary followed the path of many children who, once they had been given a new set of clothes and assigned a room, were given a well rounded education before being apprenticed. Her first apprenticeship to John Heslip of York Lane ended early when Mary was forced to return to the Poor House as she had a ‘rose’ on her hands, most likely a sporotrichosis infection.

Once Mary had recovered, she left the Poor House for the final time to be a servant at Mount Stewart, the country seat of Charles William Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. Perhaps there is still more to be uncovered of Mary Lawn’s story in other archives?

Children of the Poor House: The Gilroy Brothers & the Belfast News Letter

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Management News Uncategorized

Peppered throughout our records are groups of siblings who entered the Poor House due to changing circumstances at home. One such set of siblings were William Gilroy (aged 11) and his older brother, James (aged 12) who entered our walls within a week of each other in October 1850. William and James were the children of James Gilroy Senior and his wife, Isabella. The Gilroy family were of the Anglican faith, as recorded in our admission book.

What is particularly unusual about the Gilroy brothers is the fact that after living in the Poor House for just over four years, the brothers were both apprenticed to the Belfast News Letter under the care of James Alexander Henderson. The News Letter, originally set up by Francis Joy in 1737, was sold by the family in 1795. By 1853 J.A. Henderson had gained proprietorial control of the paper and set about a process of expansion.

The expansion of the Belfast News Letter operations meant that there was an increased demand for skilled workers and the Gilroy brothers were officially apprenticed to the News Letter Office on 11th December 1854. That was the last connection between the brothers and the Poor House, and our records suggest that they went on to complete their apprenticeships under Mr Henderson. The brothers would have worked in Bridge Street, the site on which the News Letter was founded nearly 120 years prior to them stepping through its doors.


From Merchant to Pauper: The burial of John Blackwood, Dromara

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

John Blackwood was born in Dromara, County Down sometime around 1763. John was a provision merchant by trade and lived most of his life in his home town. It is not known why his circumstances changed but in November 1833, at the age of 70, he arrived in Belfast and was admitted to the Poor House.

John spent the remainder of his days in the institution, passing away on 26 April 1847. He was recorded as a pauper in the Clifton Street Cemetery burial register  but unlike most who passed away in the Poor House he was buried in a private family grave (Platform 18 Grave 29). From our records he appears to be the only Blackwood in the plot, and following his death the grave was sold to Henry Greer, who already owned the adjacent plot.  By 1850 Henry Greer sold Grave 29 to Luke Eagle of Chichester Street and it subsequently became the Eagle family’s burial ground.

From other research we known that members of the Blackwood family continued to live in the townlands around Dromara and are recorded in Griffith’s Valuation– a valuable resource for those researching their family trees.

Learn more about life in the Poor House and of the stories of those who are buried in Clifton Street Cemetery on our weekend tours (Saturday and Sunday at 11am). Click here for more information and to book.