Where charity in Belfast began

13 Aug 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 13 Aug 2021

Clifton House. Pic: Belfast Charitable Society

This month Belfast’s oldest charity the Belfast Charitable Society celebrates the 250th anniversary of the building of its home, Clifton House.

Here chief executive Paula Reynolds reflects on the legacy and future of this great pioneer of philanthropy, innovation and social justice.

On Wednesday 4th August 2021, Belfast Charitable Society celebrated the 250th anniversary of the laying of the first foundation stone of the Poor House – now Clifton House.

The stone was laid by Stewart Banks, Sovereign (Mayor) of Belfast, who lived close by, and had a keen interest in the plans for the building and the work of the organisation. This work closely resembled what the council would or should have done – an early example of how charities have stepped in to fill gaps in statutory delivery.

The laying of the foundation stone was a big news story, with huge public interest. The Belfast News Letter reported: “Yesterday; a large Body of the principal Inhabitants of this Town assembled at the Market-House, from whence they proceeded to the Ground allotted for the Poor-House and Infirmary; where Stewart Banks, Esq,; Sovereign of Belfast, laid the first stone of the Edifice.

“On this occasion every demonstration of Joy was express. And in the evening there was a numerous Meeting of Gentlemen at the Market-House, to celebrate the memorable first of August.”

It took a further three years before the Belfast Charitable Society opened the doors of the Poor House and Belfast’s first hospital, in 1774. The same year the charity was also incorporated by an Act of Parliament of Ireland, giving it the mandate to look after the poor and destitute, but also to administer the city’s water supply, street lighting, policing and even town planning.

The house was also home to the first mechanised cotton spinning and weaving factory. The basement was filled with looms, and female and child residents were taught to weave and sew in order that they could earn a living when it was time to move on from Poor House, empowering them to break their cycle of poverty through an initiative that is arguably the start of Belfast’s industrialisation.

When the Poor House first opened its doors, it initially had facility for:

7 beds for the sick
4 double beds for sturdy beggars
22 double beds for the poor
4 single beds for vagrants.

Local physicians agreed to visit sick patients in the house, marking the beginnings of a hospital and a community pharmacy that was opened to all. Care for vagrants and ‘unbadged beggars’ was  not so kind, with records of a ‘black hole’ being used for their short-term accommodation and solitary confinement.  Those with severe mental health problems were detained, some with accommodation located in the steeple where it is likely they were restrained by chains to prevent them hurting themselves or others. Others with less severe diagnosis were supported by what we recognise today as ‘wrap around services’.  

Over the years that followed, Clifton House continued to take in the poor, with numbers far outstretching its capacity.  And although it never intended to take in children, in 1776, due to growing pressures of the poor in the city, the Society agreed to take in twenty children between the ages of 7 and 12 for support and education.  This increased two years later to 50 children and between 1821 and 1846 there were never less than 100 children in the house and as many as 242 at one time, more than half the population of the Poor House.

As well as being schooled in Clifton House, an initiative set up by Mary Ann McCracken, the children were also set to work, helping to learn trades. In 1868 new premises were built to help ease the pressure of overcrowding and to segregate the young and the old. However in 1879 it was decided that the Poor House focus on ‘the infirm and elderly only’, and so in 1882 the last child was discharged from its care.

Clifton House, from the outside, has remained unchanged since the 1880s. It is one of the oldest buildings in Belfast, and a brilliant example of Georgian architecture. Its symmetry is remarkable, and the spire, although unusual for a non-religious building of its era, makes it stand out against its now busy surroundings.

Inside, the building has undergone a large number changes and re-configurations. However its purpose since 1879 as a home for the care of older people has remained unchanged for 140 years. In 2003 the central historic block was officially opened as a heritage centre; operating as a social enterprise, reflecting the Society’s almost 270 year approach - it offers tours and talks (and event hire) which detail the stories of this extraordinary organisation.

The stories include those of philanthropy and human generosity of the people who genuinely believed and lived for equality hundreds of years ago, and of those who cared for the less well-off in ways that enabled and empowered people to break free from poverty. Stories of local and global influence as the Society worked to develop Belfast and support its inhabitants.  Stories of those who lobbied for change both here and in America - leading on anti-slavery campaigning. And stories that highlight how one organisation can survive a history of complexity and contradiction – with slave traders and the abolitionist United Irishmen sharing the same space working to ‘address disadvantage in Belfast’ while clearly holding extremely different views on the care and value of human beings beyond its shores. In effect stories of an organisation that may be considered as a microcosm of our entire sector.  

And what of the Belfast Charitable Society and Clifton House today?  Due to Covid, doors were closed to the public in March 2020 but in the true spirit of Clifton House, this created space and time to innovate, influence and improve while continuing to address disadvantage.

Within two weeks of the initial lockdown the Society has spearheaded and part funded a project which delivered 225 laptops to students from less well-off backgrounds in North Belfast; bringing with it the funds of four other funders . This was additional to the programme of grants (and until recently loans) it has being making in recent years including a sizeable capital and revenue grant to NI Hospice and a three year grant to support an Early Intervention project in North Belfast which helps families in crisis in a range of ways including direct financial assistance.

The Society encourages philanthropy and manages funds on behalf of others for example its seven year programme of support for older peoples activities and employability projects in Lisburn and North Belfast through the Barbour Fund; and its work with the recently established James Kane Foundation that will support work to link education and employment opportunities.

It uses its built assets to facilitate the care and housing needs of older people, whilst sharing its heritage with others. It leads on a strategic heritage-led project which aims to catalyse regeneration in its local area, working with a diverse range of organisations which represent much of the social, historic, cultural and religious past and present. Collectively working to improve the physical, economic and soil environment and make connections for real change. 

It has set up the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation to raise the profile of one of Belfast’s most important social reformers and to breathe new life into the causes she would have fought for today such as slavery, education and the role of women.

In terms of recent innovation it has introduced state of the art immersive technology to enhance its visitor experience – normally the preserve of major heritage sites across the globe.

So although Clifton House’s purpose and ongoing mission, vision and values are rooted in the past, from the first laying of the foundation stone, which was inscribed with This Foundation-Stone of a Poor-House and Infirmary for the Town and Parish of Belfast was laid on the first Day of August A.D”, it was always at the centre of innovation and progression. The society has always looked for ways to utilise Clifton House, and its status, to generate income for its philanthropic work, and today is no different.

To find out more, visit www.cliftonbelfast.com or email [email protected]
Follow us on Facebook (@CliftonHouseBelfast) and Twitter (@cliftonbelfast)


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