The House and the Hospitals – Glenravel Street

The House and the Hospitals – Glenravel Street

The presence of the Poorhouse, and the wealth and prestige that was present on the board of the Belfast Charitable Society proved to be a catalysing influence for change in the area. Whilst the Charitable Society directly influenced significant changes through the foundation of the New Burying Ground and the provision of water to Belfast, other entrepreneurs and philanthropists identified the area as one in need of development but filled with potential. One such individual was Edward Benn; a familiar name for followers of the history of Clifton House.

The Benn’s history has been well documented on our various websites, with an in-depth biographical piece available here. Both brothers were members of the Society and contributed significantly to the Poorhouse and the wider area. Older brother Edward (1798-1874) was plagued with health issues throughout his lifetime which explains his philanthropic focus on providing hospitals which could help provide for the citizens of the city in a way that was notably absent in treating his own ongoing ailments. He, along with younger brother George (1801-1882) helped fund a number of hospitals in the area, including the Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat hospital in 1874 and the Benn Skin Hospital in 1875 on Glenravel Street: A street named in honour of Benn’s estate near Ballymena.

These hospitals were erected under the patronage of the Benn Brothers, rather than the Charitable Society, however, they were erected on land donated by the Society who likely understood and endorsed Benn’s vision of medical provision for the citizens. Whilst the existing relationship between the Benn Brothers and the Charitable Society would have helped in procuring land to build their hospitals, the location of the hospitals directly to the rear of the Poor House offers another perspective. At this time, Donegall Street and Clifton Street attracted people from all walks of life for religious worship, work, learning and even cleanliness and bathing. Whilst everyone could avail from the medical facilities built on this site, their location adjacent to the Poorhouse, which catered to the city’s most vulnerable is significant. When the hospitals were built, it would have been the poor and destitute who lived in the Poorhouse, before it later transitioned to a home for the elderly and infirm. The close location to such a large body of people who could readily avail of the medical services demonstrates that these hospitals were not exclusive for the upper classes, and would provide medical care to anyone.

Originals plans for the Benn Hospital, 1873 (MS9|2015|009|0308).

These hospitals, along with the Hospital on Frederick Street, established this area of Belfast as the medical centre of the city; a theme that was touched on in last month’s tours and talks of Clifton House. The Benn hospitals remained a constant on Clifton Street until the 1940’s, when the Skin hospital was destroyed during the Blitz. Whilst one hospital was destroyed, the other thrived in the aftermath of the Blitz, offering an important lifeline to wounded and injured citizens. In 1941 alone, the Benn hospital treated 12,777 patients, with donations pouring in to help fund the hospital in a pre-welfare society. The Benn Hospital forms an important part of the story of North Belfast. Many people on tours and open days retell stories of getting treated at the hospital on Glenravel Street.

The Benn Hospital remained an integral part of the Belfast landscape, until it was demolished along with the entirety of Glenravel Street in the 1980’s to make way for the Westlink. All that remains of Glenravel Street is a tiled street sign that now resides in Clifton House, a few-hundred yards away from its original position. As part of the 250th Anniversary Celebration of the house, and in recognition of his contribution to the House and the wider area, the board of the Belfast Charitable Society has taken steps to get the portrait of Edward Benn restored. This portrait hangs in the boardroom of Clifton House and is a reminder of a great philanthropist who helped pioneer medical treatment in the area and went to great lengths to ease the suffering of others, all-the-while battling with his own ailing health. We hope that it will return in time for the Benn Dinner in December which has remained a staple of the Clifton House calendar for over 140 years, thanks to the generosity of George Benn.

We look forward to bringing you more updates as the restoration proceeds.

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