On 13th March 1826 a meeting was called by Elizabeth Fry to encourage the women of Belfast to take an active role in the various charitable institutions within the town of Belfast. The women of Belfast agreed to write to the Poor House Committee for permission to set up a ‘Ladies Committee’ for ‘superintending the female department’ of the Poor House. The initial Minutes made the following statement;

“The Ladies forming this Committee respectfully submit this proposal, to the Committee of Gentlemen, in the hope of obtaining their approbation and support to enable them to effect their object; And beg most earnestly to assure them, that there shall be no interference whatever with any of their managements and regulations.”

The men agreed to their proposal and so became the work of the Ladies Committee. The ladies worked diligently and assisted the Men’s Committee in areas such as finding apprenticeships for the girls and obtaining instruction for them in how to make and repair their own clothes. Mary Ann McCracken, an early member of the Ladies Committee, taught these children in the same way as her mother had skilled her in the practical and domestic chores. However, Mary Ann had bigger dreams for these children. The idea of infant education was very new, with the first one opening in Belfast in the 1820s. Mary Ann was determined that one should open in the Poor House. Her first proposal was denied by the Men’s Committee, they claimed it was premature to be thinking of such a facility. Mary Ann said nothing more for a few months when the Ladies Committee went back to the men and suggested that it was inappropriate for one old woman to be minding 19 babies under the age of three. But the gentlemen came back and told the Ladies that upon mature deliberation that the opening of an infant school was not advisable. In June 1830 the following statement was given to the Gentlemen;

“The Ladies beg to inform the Gentlemen’s committee that an exertion has been made, in the midst of many difficulties, to establish an Infant School in the House. This has been practically effected for more than a fortnight and even in its present imperfect state, has given much satisfaction to many who have the opportunity of seeing it. They now respectfully call on the Gentlemen to aid them in completing what they have commenced…”

It seems that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and the Gentlemen agreed to the additional requests made by Mary Ann and her very determined Committee. The Ladies Committee took particular interest in all the children, especially those in the infant school. There are numerous requests to the men’s committee for money for toys and educational equipment. The ladies would go into the school and make observations and report back to the Men’s Committee with their findings;

“The Ladies who attended the Infant school discovering a remarkable deficiency in information upon common objects, among the children of the Poor House, compared with others of the same age in the schools in the town and ascribing this to a total confinement within the walls of the establishment, which prevents them from seeing anything save what the House presents, request that the Gentlemen will authorize them to send these children out to walk one day per week under the Superintendence of their teacher Hannah Murray….”

Hannah had herself been a child in the Poor House and Mary Ann had seen potential in her to take on more responsibility. She knew Hannah was able to grow and develop into the role of a school mistress.

Within two weeks the Ladies Committee were back, lamenting at the unhealthy appearance of the children and this time asking for the “erection of a pole and some other wooden structures in the playground for the purpose of exercising and giving robustness to the frame…” This was surely the forerunner to modern playground equipment that we see today. In fact, Mary Ann and her colleagues were able to secure a swing for the children in time which would have been a huge source of fun for them.

Mary Ann was a stickler for cleanliness. She was an ardent supporter of soap and water and the Ladies Committee book is full of notes about the allocating of pounds and pounds of soap. Overcrowding, lack of funding and a lack of knowledge nearly drove Mary Ann mad!

“And the Ladies request the gentlemen to take into consideration how very essential cleanliness is to the health and comfort and beg they may consult with the ladies of their own families and enquire if two pounds of soap per month, that is half a pound per week, be sufficient to wash the wearing apparel, sheets, blankets etc. for 27 children…”

Mary Ann was certain the Gentlemen hadn’t the first idea of what was needed to keep the House clean and free from the dreaded itch. She pleaded with the men for some encouragement to be given to the women who were responsible for the washing within the House.

“The Ladies beg to refer the Gentlemen to those who understand housekeeping and know something of the labouriousness of washing whether seven or eight old women who are past their labour (the head washerwoman being above eighty) are sufficient to wash for upwards of four hundred people…and might we remind them that parsimony and economy are widely different!”

She was scathing in the most polite manner.

The diet within the Poor House was plain and unadventurous. The basis of the meals were oatmeal, potatoes and buttermilk, with meat served about once a week. The fare was typical of most labourers of the time and indeed the residents of the Poor House received more meals and larger quantities than many of those outside. Creations called Stirabout and Lobscouse were developed to provide reasonably nourishing, but bland meals. The diet did not escape comment by Mary Ann and the Ladies Committee.

“The Ladies Committee take the liberty to recommend that the Nursey children be allowed half a pint of sweet milk per day as conducive to health and strength. The gentlemen are no doubt aware that there is but little nourishment in buttermilk…the health and consequent comfort and well being thro’ life depend in a great measure on proper nourishment and treatment during the period of infancy.”

The half pint was granted, and once Mary Ann saw the opening she appealed for sweet milk for the children in the infirmary and once that was granted he requested the children receive more bread. She was a constant friend to the children, fighting their corner and never being satisfied with the status quo.

The infant school was only one element of the education the children received in the Poor House. There was also a junior school which was separated into boys and girls. The Ladies Committee took particular interest in the girls and worked hard to ensure they had similar opportunities as the boys. They wanted the children to have a broad knowledge and Mary Ann was instrumental in bringing in art and music teachers. She was also given permission to buy story books for the girl’s library so they would have access to a wide range of reading materials.

Mary Ann and the Ladies Committee knew these children had no one to look out for them and protect them. They were also well aware of the dangers faced by the children outside the confines of the Poor House. Mary Ann was determined to give ‘her children’ as many benefits as possible to give them the best start in their lives. She was a friend and worthy advocate for the Poor House children and ‘the female department’.