The evening of Friday 28th August 1752 was cool in Belfast. After closing up their businesses and homes, a group of nineteen merchants, burgesses (councillors) and a vicar, made their way to the George Inn at the corner of North Street and John Street (now Royal Avenue). It was there in the George Inn that these gentlemen formed the Belfast Charitable Society, to tackle poverty and help the poor. The names of the founders were recorded in the first minute book of the new society, which is now held in the Clifton House archives:
Margetson Saunders was the first chair of the Belfast Charitable Society. Margetson was Sovereign (Mayor) in 1752, but he had previously held the position three times in the 1730s, and then again in 1754. Margetson Saunders advertised in 1739 – “Dutch and English seeds for sale”. He was a wholesale grocer and his shop was opposite the ‘Four Corners’, afterward the Old Exchange. His daughter Ann married David Conyngham, who was associated with Springhill House, County Londonderry. He died April 1757.
Rev James Saurin was the grandson of the French Huguenot Jean Saurin. James’s grandfather fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which led to the destruction of Protestant churches and schools, and the persecution of French Protestants. James, born in London in 1719, became Vicar of Belfast, where he married Jane Duff. He was the Vicar of Belfast for 25 years. Rev Saurin used his position to lobby the Lord Donegall for the land required for the Poor House. James Saurin lived to see the laying of the foundation stone of the Poor House, but passed away two years before the building opened in 1774. Rev Saurin died at Mount Collyer 1772. His son was Attorney-General Saurin and Bishop of Dromore
James Adair – A James Adair owned a bleach green at White House in 1756. He was probably the same James Adair who was a bill discounter in 1741 in High Street and Pottinger’s Entry, who became a partner in the first private bank in Belfast with Daniel Mussenden and Thomas Bateson, a fellow founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. The offices were in Bridge Street, opposite High Street, 1752-1757. Their bank opened in the early 1750s, but was dissolved by 1757. This bank was involved in the second lottery scheme run by the Belfast Charitable Society.
James Getty was the son of Rev James Getty of Inverarary, Scotland. James Getty Jnr was a Belfast merchant and his signature appears on a number of petitions to notable figures in relation to Irish trade, the American War and the impact of British legislation. Many other founding members also signed these petitions including Thomas Gregg, George Ferguson, William Wilson, Robert Wilson and Valentine Jones. The Getty’s were a well known Belfast family who advertised Egyptian potatoes for sale in 1755, and were operating in North Street in 1798.
George Ferguson was a merchant and in 1764 advertised for sale Barilla and wood ashes, Dutch blue flax, & c.
Charles Hamilton was a Scottish merchant who came to Ireland to expand his business ventures. In 1750 he was secretary of the Belfast Society for Awarding Premiums on Linens. He advertised pease and cheese for sale in 1756. Unfortunately, he was not successful and his businesses failed. When he died of typhus in 1759 (1757 according to the BCS Acts of Parliament) he left his widow and three children with a large amount of debt. His widow sent one of her daughters, Elizabeth, to live with a prosperous Scottish aunt and uncle. Elizabeth Hamilton, born 1758, would grow up to become a well-known novelist, satirist, educationalist and essayist.
William Wilson & John Wilson were merchants in Belfast in 1750.
Robert Wilson In June 1753 Robert Wilson and James Getty advertised that two of their apprentices had ran away from the Linen Factory in Belfast. In 1756 Robert Wilson had premises next door to the Post Office in High Street, and sold cane for reed makers.
Valentine Jones was a merchant with West Indian interests – Belfast’s trade with the West Indies was more important than its trade with continental Europe. The Valentine Jones dynasty, which had premises at Winecellar Entry off High Street, Belfast, were wine merchants and rum and sugar importers who had established a thriving agency in Barbados where they bought goods from the planters and also sold goods to them. Thomas Bateson, another founding member, was Valentine Jones’s partner. Valentine was deeply involved in a number of projects in Belfast including the Lagan Navigation proposal, the Brown Linen Hall and of course, the Belfast Charitable Society, the latter two he helped to finance.
George Black held the position of Sovereign on five occasions (1775, 1776, 1782, 1783 and 1785) and was later appointed Vice-President of the Belfast Charitable Society. He lived at Strandmillis and the water course ran through his landGeorge was the brother of Dr Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, who was famous for his work on carbon dioxide and latent heat.
Samuel Smith was a leading Presbyterian in Belfast and a member of the First Congregation in Rosemary Street. He resided in High Street and passed away in 1760 aged 67 years.
James Hamilton was appointed as an ‘Overseer of the Poor’ in 1757 and went on to serve at least two terms as Sovereign of Belfast in 1761 and 1769. He was part of the firm of Hamilton & Black, wine merchants, in Waring Street. They dissolved the partnership in 1764.
George Macartney served as a Sovereign of Belfast. His family line had a proud tradition of serving as burgesses and as Sovereigns. Members of his family, all named George Macartney, served at various points as Sovereign; the first recorded in 1662 and the last to serve was in 1768. It is likely that the George Macartney who was present at the first meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society was the Sovereign of the same name who donated the ‘Poores Money’ to the Society in 1768.
James Ross was a merchant who owned a number of vessels in Belfast including the brig Koulikan and Ross. The ship registers show the Ross travelling between Belfast, the West Indies and New York. He is a kinsman of Waddell Cunningham, another merchant, who was involved in the Belfast Charitable Society. There was a merchant of this name who, in 1739, sold flax and timber by auction. In 1756 there was a firm, Mussenden, Ross & Co., in Ann Street at the foot of Joy’s Entry. From the name in other minutes the gentleman in question would appear to be a medical man.
Thomas Gregg was a merchant and involved in public enterprises in Belfast. He was a wholesale merchant in 1752 in North Street. In 1772 the name changed to Thomas & John Greg at the back of the Green, Ann Street. In 1783 he refused a Baronetcy. He spent much money searching for coal and mineral deposits in the northern counties of Ireland and bought land in America. He partnered with Waddell Cunningham, and established a vitriol works for bleaching linen, on an island at Lisburn on the Lagan in 1766. He married a daughter of Samuel Hyde.
William Stewart built his family seat at Wilmont (now Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park), about 1765, which included an extensive farm, with a sizeable bleach green. William was a merchant with numerous interests including a partnership in the Newry Flour Mill Company and shares in the Belfast Discount Company. The Belfast News-Letter of 4 March 1766 records him selling Bristol Crown glass, Welsh slates, lignum-vitae and various kinds of forest trees from premises at Drumbridge. He also donated £300 to the building of the Linen Hall in Belfast in 1782. He was conncted to the Biggers in the 17th century and was buried in Drumbeg.
Thomas Bateson was a business partner of Valentine Jones and his name frequently appeared in advertisements offering for sale large quantities of West Indian produce. Thomas was also a partner in the firm Mussenden, Bateson and Co, wine merchants, in Winecellar Court, Belfast. Bateson and Mussenden also collaborated with James Adair to open Belfast’s first bank. Thomas resided at Orangefield House, Knockbreda and Thomas’ son Robert resided at Belvoir Estate. Robert continued his father’s philanthropy during his time as landlord giving each of the poor in Knockbreda a bed to help alleviate their poor living conditions.
John Hyde was active in all manners of public life in 18th century Belfast. His main business venture was in partnership with on Mr Legg in the Rosemary Street Sugar House; in 1754 Leggs, Hyde & Co., of Rosemary Lane. Sold Jamaica Rum at 5/6 per gallon as advertised.
Samuel Hyde was born in 1727, and was the second name on a list of subscribers in 1740 to a petition from the merchants of Belfast to the Government respecting the conditions of the town’s docks. He died at his house in Castle Place, Belfast, in 1764. He was the great-grandfather to the Rev Narcissus Batt, and his daughters married other BCS members, Captain Batt, Thomas Greg & Waddell Cunningham
Prior to the construction of the Poor House, members of the Belfast Charitable Society were officially appointed as ‘Overseers of the Poor’ in December 1757. Of the founding members appointed there was Rev James Saurin, James Getty, Samuel Smith, Valentine Jones, James Adair, John Hyde, and George Ferguson.
At this time the population of Belfast was expanding at a great pace due to the growth of its port and the textile industry. The poor lived in ‘ill-ventilated hovels’ with little or no sanitation, and the town’s inhabitants had a limited diet. There was very little provision or support for the poor and so the Belfast Charitable Society set about providing assistance to alleviate the worst of the poverty prevalent in Belfast, mainly through the construction of a Poor House and Infirmary. It raised the money through a lottery scheme and donations, with the Poor House and Infirmary opening its doors in 1774.