Black History Month 2021: William John Brown and his escape from slavery

Black History Month 2021: William John Brown and his escape from slavery

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized University News

In August 1830 William John Brown appeared before the magistrate at the Belfast Police Court. Mr Brown, an enslaved man from America, entered the courtroom accompanied by members of the Society of Friends.

Newspaper reports describe him as looking crestfallen and physically frail- the fifty-year-old slowly took the stand and was said to have recounted his story in a feeble voice. William was enslaved as a young man in Virginia, but had worked his way out of bondage and received his papers of freedom. Now a free man he got married and had five children and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. However, in 1826 a band of slave speculators, commonly known as ‘slavers’, arrived at his family home where they manhandled him, placed a blindfold over his eyes, bundling him into a waiting cart and drove off. During the course of the attack, they also took possession of his cherished papers. Arriving soon after at a nearby port the slavers forced him to board a slave ship which set sail from Maryland and arrived in New Orleans. While in New Orleans he was sold numerous times and ultimately he was forced to load bales of cotton onto trading vessels, many of which were bound for Europe. One such vessel was the copper-bottomed brig the Planter owned by John Vance, a cotton and cloth merchant based in Donegall Place, Belfast.

Brown managed to secure the trust of one the Planter’s crew. Buying a dollars’ worth of biscuits from him. Brown told his sympathetic confidante that, once the cargo was loaded, he was going to escape from his captors. Once the last bale was in the ship, Brown made his way into the brig’s hold and hid inside a bale of cotton as the Planter set sail for Belfast. During the voyage, he kept himself alive on his dollars’ worth of biscuits and only ventured out at night for water. As the brig was being unloaded in Belfast, Brown made good his escape but was spotted by a crewmember who informed the police. While in custody, the police contacted the philanthropic Quakers who appeared in court to lend their support to Brown’s testimony and to vouch for his character. Having listened intently to his story the Magistrate felt proud to announce that the man who stood before him was no longer a slave and that he would leave his court room a free man.

William John Brown went on to find employment as a labourer in Belfast, living near Smithfield Market. However, the trials and traumas of his life finally exacted their toll. He died in November 1831 and was buried  in an unmarked grave in Clifton Street Cemetery run by Belfast Charitable Society. A tragic note beside his entry in the burial records that his wife and children were still enslaved in America.


138-Year-Old Christmas Tradition continues at Clifton House

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized University News
George Benn (1801-1882) (National Museums Northern Ireland)

Today (16th December 2020) Clifton House hosted the Benn Dinner, a Christmas Tradition which started 138 years ago and has continued through two world wars, a Spanish Flu Epidemic and throughout the Troubles. And this year it prevailed again, despite Covid-19.

The tradition started in 1882 when George Benn, a generous philanthropist, historian and benefactor of Belfast Charitable Society, died and left in his Will the sum of £1,000 to enable the residents of Clifton House, the original Poor House and Infirmary, to have a dinner in his memory. Since then the Belfast Charitable Society have continued to support a Christmas lunch for the residents of Clifton House, in his name.

This year, with current restrictions, the Charity decided to support Christmas activities in the home instead, with a donation to cover the cost of a series of activities. Many residents have been unable to meet up with families or leave the home in months due to the pandemic, and Belfast Charitable Society hoped to be able to spread some Christmas cheer in a safe but enjoyable way.

Belfast Junior Chamber of Trade also supported the event with the delivery of Christmas gifts for the Residents. Delivered to the Home 72 hours prior to the Benn Dinner, the gifts were stored safely to ensure that they can be delivered to residents on the day.

Lord Mayor, Frank McCoubrey, greats residents through the window at Clifton Residential Home

The Lord Mayor of Belfast has always traditionally attended the event, and this year was no different, bar his meeting and greeting with those in the care home taking place at a distance and through the window! Afterwards he did have the opportunity to join a small number of Belfast Charitable Society Board members for a socially distanced coffee in the grand entrance hall of Clifton House itself.

“This has been an extremely difficult year for a lot of people, but particularly the elderly in care homes. We couldn’t let this Christmas pass without keeping the tradition of the Benn Dinner alive, albeit in a slightly different format. This year, more than ever, the residents of Clifton House have been looking forward to this annual event, and we didn’t want to let them down. We’re delighted that the Lord Mayor joined us on the day too, to help boost spirits and morale”- Paula Reynolds, CEO of Belfast Charitable Society.




Maintenance Week 2020

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized University News

The 20th-27th November 2020 marks Maintenance Week and we thought we should share with you some of the ongoing maintenance work we are undertaking at Clifton House to preserve the building for future generations.

Water ingress from the lead lining on the pediment at Clifton House had caused damp to come through the plasterwork in the Boardroom – the historic heart of the building. Work was undertaken via a cherry picker to repair the lead on the pediment, and the plasterwork had to be taken off the wall to allow the brick to dry out. We have had specialists in to test the damp levels in the brick and we are happy to report that there has been no further ingress of water. The exposed brick looks as good as new, especially when you compare it with the exterior which has endured over 245 years of weathering! Lime plaster will be used to bring the Boardroom back to its former glory.


Were women written out of History?

Belfast Charitable Society Belfast Poor House Clifton House Management News Uncategorized University News

Were women written out of history books, and if so, why? That was the subject discussed at a special panel event on Monday 16th November, organised by the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation, a charitable arm of the Belfast Charitable Society, based in Clifton House, North Belfast.

The panel included contributions from Dr Margaret Ward and the Archive and Heritage Development Officer of Clifton House, Aaron McIntyre. Based on their own research and experiences, they highlighted particular aspects of women’s role in Irish history, and the attitude of biographers in recording their contribution to historical events.

Dr Margaret Ward, Honorary Senior Lecturer in History at Queen’s University, Belfast and feminist historian, commented

“I was delighted to be invited onto this panel discussion, and raise awareness of women’s involvement in events such as Irish Independence and the suffrage movement. Adding women to the writing of history ‘complicates the narrative’ and deepens our understanding of the past. By delving into archives, we are provided with new insights, particularly on the gender relations of the time. Most importantly, often for the first time, we let these women’s voices from the past be heard.”

In addition to this wider debate, the panel explored some key female figures including Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866), a local Belfast activist and abolitionist, and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946), a well-known Irish activist and conscious suffragist.

The panel discussion was chaired by Norma Sinte, Mary Ann McCracken Foundation Chair, who stated

“This was a fantastic event for the Foundation, carrying on the ethos of Mary Ann McCracken who throughout her life fought for the rights of women. Through our work with the Belfast Charitable Society archives, we are finding more and more evidence of this remarkable women, and the impact she had, both at the time and which can still be felt today.”