Clifton House celebrates 250th anniversary

Clifton House celebrates 250th anniversary

News

Today (August 4, 2021) Belfast Charitable Society celebrated the 250th anniversary of the laying of the Poor House foundation stone – now Clifton House. Established by local merchants to help the poor of the city, the building works took another three years to complete, finally opening its doors to the destitute in 1774.

The foundation stone was laid by Stewart Banks, Sovereign (Mayor) of Belfast, who lived close by, and watched with interest as the building emerged. News of the laying of the foundation stone spread across the city, with the Belfast Newsletter reporting: Yesterday; a large Body of the principal Inhabitants of this Town assembled at the Market-House, from whence they proceeded to the Ground allotted for the Poor-House and Infirmary; where Stewart Banks, Esq,; Sovereign of Belfast, laid the first stone of the Ediface.

On this occasion every demonstration of Joy was express. And in the evening there was a numerous Meeting of Gentlemen at the Market-House, to celebrate the memorable first of August.”

Two hundred and fifty years later, the occasion was celebrated today by a small gathering of key stakeholders and staff.  As in 1771, the Lord Mayor of Belfast was part of the proceedings. Councillor Kate Nicholl joined President of the Belfast Charitable Society, Sir Ronnie Weatherup and Chair, David Watters.

Belfast Lord Mayor, Councillor Kate Nicholl commented: “This is an historic event for Belfast, celebrating 250 years of the laying of the foundation stone for Clifton House. One of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in Belfast, it’s a significant heritage site and one that’s very close to my heart, as it was established to address disadvantage and continues to do so to this day.”

Sir Ronnie Weatherup explained: “This anniversary is significant, as it reminds us of the great philanthropic effort that must have preceded the laying of the first foundation stone for the Poor House by members of the Belfast Charitable Society. It also symbolises the ethos of the Society, reflecting its ongoing work. Work based on ‘Empowerment’, ‘Influence’, ‘Innovation’ and ‘Education’ – addressing disadvantage since 1752.  This beautiful building, set in the heart of the city, is a fantastic reminder to the outside world of this ongoing philanthropic work.

David Watters, Chair of the Belfast Charitable Society expanded: “Our purpose and ongoing mission, vision and values of the Society are rooted in the past, from the first laying of the foundation stone, which was inscribed with This Foundation-Stone of a Poor-House and Infirmary for the Town and Parish of Belfast was laid on the first Day of August A.D. Today we continue to evolve and innovate, using technology to bring the stories and history of the Poor House to life. Our new immersive tours, using augmented reality, are a perfect example of that, allowing us to show what life was like in the Poor House in the late 18th century.”

Like most venues, Clifton House closed during the pandemic. But thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Emergency Fund, this downtime was used to carry out major refurbishment and to introduce state of the art immersive technology to enhance its visitor experience – normally the preserve of major heritage sites across the globe.  Clifton House is open for tours every Saturday and Sunday at 11am and 1.30pm.

Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866): Faithful Until Death

Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866): Faithful Until Death

News

On 26th July 1866 the people of Belfast learnt of the death of Mary Ann McCracken. She had lived through some of the most turbulent years of Irish history including the 1798 rebellion, the Great Famine and the Industrial Revolution. Passing away aged 96, Mary Ann lived into a period where photography was becoming popular. We have one photograph of her but this image of an older lady masks the strong willed and determined character that she possessed throughout her life.

Mary Ann never married, or had any children of her own. However, after the execution of her brother Henry Joy McCracken for his role in the 1798 rebellion, Mary Ann took in his illegitimate daughter Maria. Not all members of the McCracken and Joy families were supportive of Mary Ann’s actions. Her brother John McCracken wrote to his sibling Frank, “We have got an addition to the family since you were here, it is a little Girl said to be a daughter of poor Harry’s, it was bro’[ught], against my inclinations.” However, over time the family appear to have accepted Henry Joy McCracken’s daughter; and Mary Ann and Maria lived together for the rest of Mary Ann’s life.

Mary Ann in letters

Through her long life, Mary Ann remained committed to the same principles that had driven Harry, as she called him, to the scaffold. It was the drive for social justice that motivated the McCracken siblings, not nationalism as we know it today. Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to Repeal the Union was, in her eyes, misjudged. In a letter, reflecting on these events she believed his focus should have been on the abolition of tithes, a fee paid by people to the Church of Ireland as an early form of income tax. This once again illustrates her predominant interest in the welfare of the poor.

Mary Ann and her sister Margaret were strong characters and set up their own muslin business. The sister’s enterprise appears in the 1809 Holden’s Directory as Margaret McCracken & Co. Muslin Manufacturers, 37 Waring Street. During times of hardship and economic instability the sisters continued to employ their staff, whilst other companies were letting people go to cut costs. The sisters took the burden of losses themselves, as Mary Ann “…could not think of dismissing our workers, because nobody would give them employment.”

Mary Ann McCracken was 57 years old when the Ladies’ Committee was formed in 1827. The first matter they considered was a method to instruct the girls of the Poor House in crafts that would provide a livelihood for them. The Gentleman provided a grant of 30 shillings which Mary Ann was to use to purchase tambour frames, piercers and muslin so they could do white embroidery work. Nothing escaped the attention of Ladies Committee and their projects included getting blinds fitted in the hospital, straw mats to protect the mattresses from wearing on the iron bedframes and fireguards in the children’s rooms. Mary Ann served as Treasurer, Secretary and Chair of the Ladies’ Committee at various points.

As well as her interest in the Poor House, Mary Ann was also intimately connected with the Ladies Industrial School from its inception in 1847. Mary Ann’s name is recorded as a committee member in each of the school’s annual reports from its foundation. She was given the position of President of the school which she held until her death. No correspondence survived from her during the Great Famine, but it is clear that she would have felt heartbroken at the destitution, death and famine during the period, and would have witnessed the poor from rural areas flooding into Belfast seeking some form of relief. She was also a member of the committee set up in Belfast to abolish the use of climbing boys in chimney sweeping and was involved in early women suffrage campaigns and prison reform schemes.

Mary Ann McCracken was not parochial in her social reform activities. She was very active in anti-slavery circles in Belfast and practised what she preached in abstaining from eating sugar, a product of the slave trade and the West Indies plantations. In her 89th year she was still standing by the gangway of ships in Belfast harbour, bound for America, handing out abolitionist leaflets to Irish emigrants.

Mary Ann McCracken was buried in the McCracken family plot in Clifton Street Cemetery. When her friend, Thomas Russell, a United Irishman was executed for his role in the 1803 rebellion, her last act of service to him was to cover his grave with a plain tombstone engraved with his name in the Parish Graveyard in Downpatrick. She did the same of her friend, Jemmy Hope another United Irishmen who fell into poverty after the rebellion. Sadly, the same service was not provided for Mary Ann upon her death. Mary Ann outlived her generation and her grave remained unmarked for 43 years until Francis Joseph Bigger erected a headstone to commemorate her in May 1909. The inscription ‘wept by her brother’s scaffold’ frames the narrative of this remarkable woman in terms of her brother’s role in 1798.

Mary Ann lived for another 68 years after the execution of her brother, involving herself in many worthy causes. Here at Clifton House we are trying to reclaim her place in Belfast and Irish history. The Gaelic inscription on her headstone reads ‘Dileas go h-Eag’ (Loyal/Faithful until Death), and we like to think of those words as a reference to her loyalty and faithfulness to social reform and the poor of Belfast and further afield. The motto of this remarkable woman, which accurately sums up her character, was that it is better ‘to wear out than to rust out’.
Today Clifton House are fortunate to retain the Ladies Committee Books as part of our extensive archive which gives us a tremendous insight into this stalwart of Belfast Society.

The execution of Henry Joy McCracken through the eyes of his sister, Mary Ann

The execution of Henry Joy McCracken through the eyes of his sister, Mary Ann

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On the 17th July 1798 Henry Joy McCracken was executed for his role as commander of the County Antrim forces of the United Irishmen. After the United Irish defeat in Antrim in June of 1798, Henry Joy fled to the Belfast Hills, whilst Mary Ann arranged his escape to America. However, he was seized on the way to the ship and tried by court martial. During his trial Harry, as he was affectionately known by his family, was given the option to save his life and go into exile if he informed on the other leaders. He refused and was subsequently hanged at the Market House on High Street. The land on which it was built had been donated by an ancestor of Henry Joy McCracken to the people of Belfast.

In her letters to Madden, the United Irishmen historian, in the 1840s Mary Ann McCracken, Harry’s younger sister, described that fateful afternoon in her own words:

I took his arm, and we walked together to the place of
execution, where I was told it was the General’s orders that I should
leave him, which I peremptorily refused. Harry begged I would go.
Clasping my hands around him, (I did not weep till then) I said I
could bear anything but leaving him. Three times he kissed me and
entreated I would go; and, looking round to recognise some friend
to put me in charge of he beckoned to a Mr. Boyd, and said ‘He will
take charge of you.’ … and fearing any further refusal would disturb
the last moments of my dearest brother, I suffered myself to be led
away.

Mary Ann, reflecting all those years later on Harry and his role in 1798, informed Madden:

Notwithstanding the grief that overcame every feeling for a time,
and still lingers in my breast, connecting every passing event with
the remembrance of former circumstances which recall some act or
thought of his, I never once wished that my beloved brother had
taken any other part than that which he did take.

Want to read more about Mary Ann and Henry Joy McCracken’s lives? Why not order a copy of our revised edition of The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken: A Belfast Panorama from Irish Academic Press tinyurl.com/MAM1770

Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866): Faithful Until Death

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized

On this day in 1866 the people of Belfast learnt of the death of Mary Ann McCracken. She had lived through some of the most turbulent years of Irish history including the 1798 rebellion, the Great Famine and the Industrial Revolution. Passing away aged 96, Mary Ann lived into a period where photography was becoming popular. We have one photograph of her but this image of an older lady masks the strong willed and determined character that she possessed throughout her life.

Mary Ann never married, or had any children of her own. However, after the execution of her brother Henry Joy McCracken for his role in the 1798 rebellion, Mary Ann took in his illegitimate daughter Maria. Not all members of the McCracken and Joy families were supportive of Mary Ann’s actions. Her brother John McCracken wrote to his sibling Frank, “We have got an addition to the family since you were here, it is a little Girl said to be a daughter of poor Harry’s, it was bro’[ught], against my inclinations.” However, over time the family appear to have accepted Henry Joy McCracken’s daughter; and Mary Ann and Maria lived together for the rest of Mary Ann’s life.

Through her long life, Mary Ann remained committed to the same principles that had driven Harry, as she called him, to the scaffold. It was the drive for social justice that motivated the McCracken siblings, not nationalism as we know it today. Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to Repeal the Union was, in her eyes, misjudged. In a letter, reflecting on these events she believed his focus should have been on the abolition of tithes, a fee paid by people to the Church of Ireland as an early form of income tax. This once again illustrates her predominant interest in the welfare of the poor.

Mary Ann and her sister Margaret were strong characters and set up their own muslin business. The sister’s enterprise appears in the 1809 Holden’s Directory as Margaret McCracken & Co. Muslin Manufacturers, 37 Waring Street. During times of hardship and economic instability the sisters continued to employ their staff, whilst other companies were letting people go to cut costs. The sisters took the burden of losses themselves, as Mary Ann “…could not think of dismissing our workers, because nobody would give them employment.”

Mary Ann McCracken was 57 years old when the Ladies’ Committee was formed in 1827. The first matter they considered was a method to instruct the girls of the Poor House in crafts that would provide a livelihood for them. The Gentleman provided a grant of 30 shillings which Mary Ann was to use to purchase tambour frames, piercers and muslin so they could do white embroidery work. Nothing escaped the attention of Ladies Committee and their projects included getting blinds fitted in the hospital, straw mats to protect the mattresses from wearing on the iron bedframes and fireguards in the children’s rooms. Mary Ann served as Treasurer, Secretary and Chair of the Ladies’ Committee at various points.

As well as her interest in the Poor House, Mary Ann was also intimately connected with the Ladies Industrial School from its inception in 1847. Mary Ann’s name is recorded as a committee member in each of the school’s annual reports from its foundation. She was given the position of President of the school which she held until her death. No correspondence survived from her during the Great Famine, but it is clear that she would have felt heartbroken at the destitution, death and famine during the period, and would have witnessed the poor from rural areas flooding into Belfast seeking some form of relief. She was also a member of the committee set up in Belfast to abolish the use of climbing boys in chimney sweeping and was involved in early women suffrage campaigns and prison reform schemes.

Mary Ann McCracken was not parochial in her social reform activities. She was very active in anti-slavery circles in Belfast and practised what she preached in abstaining from eating sugar, a product of the slave trade and the West Indies plantations. In her 89th year she was still standing by the gangway of ships in Belfast harbour, bound for America, handing out abolitionist leaflets to Irish emigrants.

Mary Ann McCracken was buried in the McCracken family plot in Clifton Street Cemetery. When her friend, Thomas Russell, a United Irishman was executed for his role in the 1803 rebellion, her last act of service to him was to cover his grave with a plain tombstone engraved with his name in the Parish Graveyard in Downpatrick. She did the same of her friend, Jemmy Hope another United Irishmen who fell into poverty after the rebellion. Sadly, the same service was not provided for Mary Ann upon her death. Mary Ann outlived her generation and her grave remained unmarked for 43 years until Francis Joseph Bigger erected a headstone to commemorate her in May 1909. The inscription ‘wept by her brother’s scaffold’ frames the narrative of this remarkable woman in terms of her brother’s role in 1798.

Mary Ann lived for another 68 years after the execution of her brother, involving herself in many worthy causes. Here at Clifton House we are trying to reclaim her place in Belfast and Irish history. The Gaelic inscription on her headstone reads ‘Dileas go h-Eag’ (Loyal/Faithful until Death), and we like to think of those words as a reference to her loyalty and faithfulness to social reform and the poor of Belfast and further afield. The motto of this remarkable woman, which accurately sums up her character, was that it is better ‘to wear out than to rust out’.
Today Clifton House are fortunate to retain the Ladies Committee Books as part of our extensive archive which gives us a tremendous insight into this stalwart of Belfast Society.

Job Opportunity: Foundation Manager

News

The James Kane Foundation are looking for a Foundation Manager to assist the Trustees in developing the strategy, structures, processes and relationships to ensure that it meets its aims.

James Kane, the owner of JM Kane Precision Engineering Limited, bequeathed his shareholding to a charitable foundation – ‘The James Kane Foundation’.

Set up in 2016, its key purpose is to advance education for people living in the Portadown area and across Northern Ireland. This is to be achieved through the provision of grants to enable access to training and skills to develop learning and improve employment prospects.

The Foundation has a board of Trustees which requires a Foundation Manager to provide daily management including operational and Foundation governance management to enable the charity to deliver its objectives.

The Foundation is registered with both Companies House and the Charity Commission for NI, as required.

It is anticipated that the Foundation will allocate in the region of £500,000 each year and have a lifespan of approximately ten years by which time it will have spent down the entirety of the bequest.

The job will be based pre-dominantly out of Clifton House in Belfast.

Find out more or download an application pack here:

On this day 1770 the abolitionist, philanthropist & reformer Mary Ann McCracken was born

News
On this day, 8 July 1770, Mary Ann McCracken was born to Captain John McCracken and his wife, Anne McCracken, née Joy.
Mary Ann McCracken would go on to led one of the most remarkable lives in the history of Belfast. She was an abolitionist, social reformer and activist who fought for the rights of women and championed Belfast’s poor throughout a long life that encompassed the most turbulent years of Irish history.
A key figure in the Poor House Ladies Committee, where she helped educate and secure apprenticeships for hundreds of children; she was a teacher at the Lancastrian School for decades and later served as President of the Ladies Industrial School.
Mary Ann as a life-long abolitionist, founded the Belfast Women’s Anti-Slavery League and even in her late eighties, she could still be found on the docks, handing out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants embarking for the slave-owning United States.
Tonight at 7pm, on the anniversary of her birth, we are holding a special free event ‘A Tale of Two Women: Mary Ann McCracken & Baroness May Blood’ to mark the occasion as part of #MaryAnn250. Spaces are still available via our website.
Belfast Charitable Society launched the Mary Ann McCracken in January 2021 to not only increase awareness of Mary Ann’s life and legacy, but to explore her relevance in the 21st century. For more information on the Foundation and it’s work click here.

The General Dispensary: Belfast’s First Chemist

News

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.

Day of the Seafarer: Captain John McCracken & the Poor House

News

Captain John McCracken, father of Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken, was a seafarer by trade. It was said that the Belfast skyline of those days was broken only by the spire of the Poor House, the cupola of St Anne’s Church, the Market House belfry and when Captain McCracken’s ship was in port her masts, alongside other vessels, which were clearly visible from the opposite end of High Street.

Captain McCracken operated in an age when most ship captains and crew members would have supplemented their income by smuggling. However, Capt McCracken took his ‘Custom House Oath’ very seriously, and would not allow his crew to smuggle goods, considering it unfair to the honest trader. Capt McCracken established a rope works on the County Antrim side of Belfast Lough but he was also interested in social welfare, establishing the Marine Charitable Society; a charity into which sailors could pay regular contributions and receive benefits in sickness and old age. Through this scheme, and his involvement in the Poor House with his brothers-in-law Robert and Henry Joy, the Belfast Charitable Society gave sailors refuge.

The archives of Clifton House are peppered with references to seafarers. In May 1776 John Reben, aged 14 years;

‘a Swede who ran away from the Brig Catharina Magdalene, six months since, vessel belongs to Stockholm, Gustavus Magnus Helman Master, for bad usage- is now brought to this House in a very reduced state of Health by sickness, his Body being much broken out- and was found begging in the Street.’

The Society admitted him into the House for medical care and ordered he be ‘clothed & washed’. John remained in the house for two months before he ‘eloped’.

In 1792;

‘John Debutt, Drummer, of Castle Street, appeared, & informed the Committee, that ten days Since, a Sea Faring Danish Subject; came to his House for Lodging, on his way to Newry, where his Ship lay: having landed out of the Glourious Memory in this Port- and that he fell sick the same night; & still continues- Praying the means of support for the Stranger’.

It was Captain John McCracken who investigated the case and the Charitable Society ‘advanced Debutt 11/ 4.5d for subsisting the Swede’, before he was well enough to catch the next ship with his country’s flag on it.

Captain John McCracken died in 1803, but his family continued to operate the Marine Charitable Society. His son, Francis McCracken formally handed over the funds and consequent obligations to the Belfast Charitable Society in September 1817. The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation is currently hosting a series of events to celebrate and remember another of Captain McCracken’s children, the abolitionist, philanthropist and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken click here for full details.

Baroness May Blood announced as key note speaker for Mary Ann McCracken 250

News

The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation is delighted to announce an extra special addition to its Mary Ann birthday event on 8 July at 7pm. Now featuring Baroness May Blood – ‘a current day Mary Ann’ – attendees will hear how she too has committed her life to fighting for the needs and rights of the people of Belfast and further afield.

In addition to hearing about Baroness Blood’s achievements, the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation will also highlight who and what Mary Ann championed in her 96 years including education, abolitionism, women’s and workers’ rights. Then you, the audience, will be encouraged to interact sharing your thoughts on how we as the citizens of Belfast and the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation can ensure the work of these remarkable women is remembered, and where necessary, continued today.

Tickets are free but registration is essential. Please click here to secure your place.

Physician, Poet & Patriot: Dr William Drennan born on this day 1754

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.