Cheek by Jowl- The History of The New Burying Ground

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 Belfast Poor House Clifton House News