Belfast's first charity

20 Oct 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Oct 2022

Clifton House, Belfast. Image: Cliff Downer,

The Belfast Charitable Society is a very special organisation.

It is not just because it is has survived since 1752, outlasting insurrection, communal conflict and devastating famine; but also because of the pivotal role it has played in the development of Belfast and of its innovative approach to welfare, health care, segregation in education, even to the way we bury our dead. 

The First Great Charity Of this Town marks the first attempt to place the work of the Society in that broader context. It is published by the Irish Academic Press and edited by Professor Olwen Purdue.

Although it is published to commemorate the 270th anniversary of the Society’s foundation this is no routine lick-spittle valedictory, destined to remain unread on the board room coffee table.

It is a really important work, full of sharp, insightful ground-breaking essays and should be read not just by historians but by anyone interested in social change and the forces that have shaped it.

Social and urban history have traditionally been neglected in Ireland in favour of the drama of politics and of war. Whilst this is understandable it has come at a cost it has led to a general lack of understanding of what life was like for those who struggled to get by and of early experiences of health and welfare care.

We also know comparatively little of the experience of those living in urban areas and of how they were affected by the rapid expansion of their localities.

To take just one example compare what has been written about Henry Joy McCracken leader of the defeated United Irish army at the Battle of Antrim in 1798 and executed aged 30, with his sister Mary Anne McCracken who is only recently emerging from obscurity after a lifetime devoted to social justice. She lived to 96.

Back in 1752 Belfast would be both unrecognizable, and, to modern eyes, frightening.

It had a population of about 8,000 and was predominantly Presbyterian. That church was heavily influenced by Scottish theological schools who, in turn , were influenced by the Enlightenment. The town was growing rapidly reaching 17,000 by the end of the century and 350,000 by the dawn of the 20th Century.

But it was leaderless - its landlord Arthur Chichester, Lord Donegall was an absentee: the largest landowner in Ireland chose to live in Fisherwick, Staffordshire.

And whilst the town embarked on its long period of growth there was no health service and no welfare system and, as Belfast started to grow, no support for the wandering poor, drifting in from the countryside in search of opportunities.

On top of that there wasn’t even a service that provided running water and no organised system of education for all.

To compound all that Belfast was just a borough, with none of the powers granted to cities and county towns “for the relief of the poor and for punishing vagabonds and sturdy beggars.”

With no state support forthcoming Belfast citizens were going to have to fill the void themselves.  Hence the setting up of the Society to tackle poverty and help the poor which led to the completion of the poorhouse in 1774.

Ronnie Weatherup’s fascinating essay covers the legislation that was necessary to enable the Society. The first was from the old Irish parliament in 1772. Unlike corporations in counties, cities and county towns it had no power to levy rates, it remained dependent on donations but it was given the power to badge the poor and licence the “deserving poor” to beg. The underserving poor ie vagabonds, sturdy beggars and prostitutes could be arrested and detained by the Society.

And begging without a licence meant a spell in the stocks.

Contemporary attitudes to the poor are explored by other contributors, notably Ciaran McCabe and Raymond Gillespie.

By 1795 the  Society had acquired the lease of lands with springs and fountains which enabled it to create a source for piped water for the growing town which by this stage had a population of 19,000. The necessary legislation was passed in 1800, the last act of the Irish parliament before its dissolution. The Society remained Belfast’s water authority until 1840.

Before then it had survived the Rising of 1798 and as Kevin Dawson explains that’s all the more remarkable given the radical sentiments of many in the Society. The poorhouse itself was taken over and run as a barracks during the insurrection but despite the divisions and disagreements of members there was never a split. Their joint interest in addressing poverty remained, and the charity survived.

Gillespie’s essay on poverty places the alleviation of poverty as a religious imperative to 18th and early 19th Century minds so that the rich had a duty to relieve but not eliminate poverty and society was unequally divided but ordered by God’s providence.

On the other hand material wealth was a gift from God and thus to be shared, hence the importance of wealthy people contributing to famine relief.  

The establishment of the poor house thus was a Christian act, but it was also much more than that, Gillespie describes it as an “an important social experiment making a statement about the values of the emerging Belfast.”

It’s location on Clifton Street which overlooks Donegall Street was significant. William Drennan may have described Donegall Street “as the bleakest situation of the bleakest Street in the bleak north” but it was intended as the main thoroughfare of the emerging city and so the poor house was a symbol of the new Belfast’s civic pride.

The preacher John Wesley approved. He wrote “the Poorhouse stands on an eminence fronting the main street and having a beautiful prospect on every side over the whole country”

In the early days Clifton House was a magnet for polite society too, holding regular balls and even having a card room.  

Clifton House has an extraordinarily deep archive which is mined in Aaron McIntyre’s study of its Outdoor Relief Scheme. It shows how that scheme worked so that for example, in 1778 when Grace Sheals asked for extra help, she was given a spinning wheel plus a pound of dressed flax plus 12lbs of meal per fortnight . It also documents the removal of beggars  like Sabella Goofigan to Portaferry “from whence she came”. In those days the poor were considered the responsibility of their home community. 

It is important to stress the widespread hostility to beggars throughout this period, as Ciaran McCabe explains in his essay. Whilst Belfast was glorying in its new found status as “the Athens of the North” it experienced all the same challenges of other industrialising urban areas “overcrowding in working class housing, outbreaks of contagious disease, public intoxication and street begging.”

He quotes Henry Cooke the Presbyterian Minister who believed that a cross generational aversion to labour and self-reliance within many poor families bred idleness, dependence and other social and moral ills.

The remedy, he said in 1814, was inspection of poor people and their homes to detect and prevent fraud.  

“This system of visitation,” he said,” is a matter of the utmost importance it is a kind of domestic police”.

So relief of poverty ran hand in hand with the suppression and arrest of beggars, and when the Poor Law was introduced  in 1838 many charities went under as responsibility for dealing with poverty shifted from the individual to the state.

The Society survived by adapting so that “idle but able-bodied” poor were now sent to the new work house whilst it assisted the “honest, elderly poor”

Children were looked after too and pauper education was provided to help them get work but the regime was harsh: moral behaviour was important and deviancy was crushed. Miscreants were liable to be flogged and sent to the “Black Hole”.  In one important respect however the Society was far ahead of its time, it allowed Catholics to learn religion from their own denomination at a time when the only other providers of Catholic education were hedge schools.

The Society’s influence was wider and deeper still. For 20 years the poor house’s infirmary was the only form of accessible medical relief for the poor of Belfast for 20 years. And once again poverty, together with unsafe working conditions were major factors records show skin conditions were major problems as were asthma, dropsy and bloody flux along with injuries from industrial accidents.

As the town grew and grew its citizens soon found that they were fast running out of space to bury the dead. Once again the Society stepped in: in 1799 it opened a new graveyard.

This was rather different from the traditional church yard. Non consecrated graves were not laid out east to west as in the Christian tradition, instead there was a highly innovative landscaped cemetery.

JJ O’Neill’s chapter explaining this is riveting, especially his account of the city’s forgotten burial grounds including the “Felon’s Plot” believed to be somewhere to the east of May Street.

The essay on the famine in Belfast by Christine Kinealy and Gerard MacAtasney is extraordinary and will be the subject of a separate review.

There is so much to this incredible book which bears witness to the longevity of a truly great organisation which remains faithful to the aims of its founders all those years ago when a great city was no bigger than a village.

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