Marking the significant contribution of The Barbour Fund

Marking the significant contribution of The Barbour Fund

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News Uncategorised

Today, Monday 30th October 2023, Belfast Charitable Society marked the end of The Barbour Fund with a special event held in Clifton House. The celebration event brought together members of the Barbour family; Board and staff of Belfast Charitable Society; and representatives of those organisations who, over the last nine years of the Fund, have received grants to carry out projects and activities in north Belfast and Lisburn.

The Hilden Society and the Belfast Charitable Society came together to create ‘The Barbour Fund’ in March 2014. Both organisations shared a long and successful history of caring for older people and working to improve the lives of those who were disadvantaged, making the philanthropic partnership a perfect fit.

Over the last nine years, The Barbour Fund, distributed by Belfast Charitable Society, has provided just under £200,000 of funding to a wide variety of projects including further and higher education bursaries; job linked training programmes for those furthest from the labour market; an array of resources to help young people outside of mainstream education; and a variety of projects for older people.

Sir Ronnie Weatherup, President of Belfast Charitable Society, commented “Through a targeted and focused approach, The Barbour Fund has made such a difference to people’s lives. Over 1,000 older people have benefitted from activities and outings; a further 240 older people benefitted from improvements in their environment via art and horticulture; while another 265 enjoyed volunteering opportunities. For younger people, the Fund supported the development of four new training courses, training 110 individuals in work-based courses, while a further 40 developed new skills. The Fund also supported 14 students at Belfast Met and Queens Universities, to name but a few highlights”.Barbour Celebration event


During Covid, the Belfast Charitable Society continued to distribute funds to those who needed it most, including providing must needed PPE to allow activities to continue to vulnerable children and adults and by providing sensory boxes to 12 families with children with emotional regulation and challenging behaviour during lock down.

Elise Coburn, a member of the Barbour Family, said “On behalf of the Barbour family, we want to thank Belfast Charitable Society for all their efforts in distributing these funds in such a targeted way, and really providing a lasting legacy of philanthropy for our family. When we first started working together in 2014, we couldn’t have anticipated the extent of the impact the funds would have on people’s lives. It has been such a privilege to meet some of the recipients today, and hear about this impact first-hand.”

The Belfast Charitable Society is the oldest charity in Ireland, and in addition to distributing grants on its own behalf, continues to manage and distribute the funds of a number of families, trusts and societies.

Sir Ronnie explains “Although we are sad that The Barbour Fund has come to a natural end, the Belfast Charitable Society continues to target disadvantage through its various initiatives, which includes offering advice and guidance to other wealthy families and trusts on establishing philanthropic activities, ensuring that funds address real need in the most efficient way possible.

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

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

A Woman of Our Times: Mary Ann McCracken at 250

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News Uncategorised

A number of the city’s key heritage and cultural institutions have come together to mark 250 years since the birth of one of Belfast’s most important citizens the abolitionist, philanthropist and reformer, Mary Ann McCracken.

Mary Ann 250 BustThe Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, in partnership with Clifton House, National Museums Northern Ireland, Linen Hall Library, Reclaim the Enlightenment and the Frances Hutcheson Institute, has created a unique series of events to mark the occasion. The diverse programme will tell the story of Mary Ann McCracken – who she was and what she achieved. The series will also link her legacy to current issues including slavery, poverty and women’s rights, some of the many issues that she campaigned for during her lifetime.

Norma Sinte, Chair of the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, commented, “Two hundred and fifty years after her birth, the legacy of Mary Ann McCracken’s achievement and what she stood for is alive and well today. Her fight for the rights and welfare of workers, the poor, women and children continues to influence the work not only of the Belfast Charitable Society but also the Foundation, which was established in her name.

Norma continued “we are delighted to be working with so many diverse organisations to provide such a wide range of events to mark Mary Ann’s 250th Birthday. To honour Mary Ann, all those involved have given their time and resource free of charge. Details of all events can be found on the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation website”.

Mary Ann McCracken 250 will launch on the 10th June with guest speaker Cathryn McWilliams presenting her doctoral research into Mary Ann’s life. Other events include a discussion on ‘The Spirit of Inquiry and Age of Enlightenment’ organised by Reclaim the Enlightenment and the Frances Hutcheson Institute, and Mary Ann’s cultural endeavours are explored in talks hosted by Linen Hall Library. On her birthday, 8th July, there is a special event exploring ‘Who and what did Mary Ann fight for?’ examining the causes closest to her heart and their relevance today.

Events will run until 14th July 2021. To find out more, or to book, visit

Apprenticeship Week 2021: Belfast Charitable Society Past & Present

Belfast Charitable Society Clifton House News Uncategorised

Apprenticeship Week runs from 26 to 30 April 2021 and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to highlight some of the work of Belfast Charitable Society, both past and present.

From the late 1770s children from the Poor House were apprenticed to various industries. These apprenticeships were viewed as a mechanism by which the children could learn a trade or skill which would help them find employment after leaving the Poor House. This, in turn, would allow former residents to support their own families as adults.  The first boy to be apprenticed from the Poor House went to learn the trade of a barber for five years, and the first girl was apprenticed to a dress maker.

Advertisements frequently appeared in the Belfast Newsletter, owned by Henry Joy Junior, a member of Belfast Charitable Society and the Poor House Committee. The Society were strict in who they sent the children to, and absolutely refused to allow an apprentice to go to any person who sold alcohol on their premises, regardless of their standing in the community.

List of Apprentices

The Ladies Committee, formed by Mary Ann McCracken and a number of other women in the 1820s, encouraged stricter measures to protect the children. These included visiting each apprentice at least twice a year, allowing them to return for holiday periods or for medical treatment, as well as tightening conditions in their contracts.

Domestic servant roles were the most common for the girls of the Poor House, but Mary Ann was keen to expand the avenues open to the girls by introducing a variety of other occupations to broaden their options including tambour work, straw plaiting and bonnet making. Mary Ann was a keen believer in individualism and made strong arguments in the case of one young girl, Emily McBurney. Mary Ann argued that she should only be apprenticed as a dressmaker or a similar sedentary occupation as she was lame and it would be cruel to try and place her as a domestic servant.

The children of the Poor House were also taught music as part of the curriculum and  a Poor House band was formed in 1848. Some of the boys from the Poor House band were able to make a career out of their skills. A number of them were apprenticed band boys to the Militia including :

  • John Beggs, Band of the Antrim Militia in 1862
  • Samuel Chambers who joined the Armagh Militia in 1863 as a bugler
  • Hamilton Leebody joined the Royal South Down Militia in 1873

With the onset of the industrial revolution other opportunities opened up in Belfast, particularly for the boys, John Simpson aged 16 was apprenticed to Harland & Wolf Shipbuilders in 1864, others like the 12 year old William Henry Alexander was apprenticed to the Newsletter. Some also found work with the Magnetic Telegraph Office and Marcus Ward, the famous stationer and printer.

Today, Belfast Charitable Society, through the Barbour Fund continues to support opportunities which enhance employability for younger people through access to training programmes and by providing bursaries. For more details on the current work of Belfast Charitable Society, including the Barbour Fund, please click here.

Easter at the Poor House Through the Years

Belfast Charitable Society News Uncategorised

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

Easter 1775 was the first with residents in the Poor House, although it is not mentioned directly. On Easter Monday the bell and clock from the old Corporation Church were requested to be brought to the Poor House. Although no longer in the spire, the bell is now house in the entrance hall of Clifton House, alongside the original grandfather clock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benn Christmas Dinner continues to this day although the Easter dinner is no longer observed. However, the tradition of celebrating Easter continues today at Clifton House with the residential home residents.