Today, 19th December 2018, marks the 136th annual Benn Christmas Dinner. But who were the Benn family and what was their association with the Belfast Charitable Society?
Edward (1798-1874) and George Benn (1801-1882), like many who supported the Belfast Poor House combined their keen business sense with a philanthropic spirit. The brothers originally came from Tandragee, County Armagh, and worked in the brewing trade in Downpatrick, County Down. However, it was in the iron ore mining business on their estate at Glenravell, County Antrim, that the brothers made their fortune.
Edward and George were both active members of the Belfast Charitable Society and were generous with their time and money. In 1870 the Charitable Society received an anonymous letter offering to extend the “old Poor House” to allow it to cope with “the growth of the town and the consequent demands on it.” The offer turned out to be from Edward Benn, and the letter resulted in the construction of two wings to Clifton House in 1872 which bare his name and family crest. The Benn’s were of such influence in Belfast that the street behind the Poor House was named Glenravel Street after their Antrim estate.
Edward had suffered with poor health throughout his life and along with George, established the Benn Skin Hospital in Glenravel Street in 1875; the Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital; and funded a new building for the Samaritan Hospital. The Skin Hospital was later destroyed in the Belfast Blitz in 1941. Many locals who come on our tours of Clifton House recall having their tonsils out in the Benn Hospital but it was demolished to make way for the Westlink! Edward’s generous donation also allowed Royal Belfast Academical Institution to open a school of mathematics, and his collection of antiquities was bequeathed to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and now form part of the collections in the Ulster Museum.
Edward was tremendously generous throughout his life and was regarded highly in Belfast and further afield. Unfortunately, his poor health meant that he was unable to travel from the Glens to Belfast for several years before his death. Edward never viewed the ‘Benn Wing’ additions to Clifton House, and he passed away at Glenravel House on 3rd August 1874.
His obituary in the Belfast Newsletter read:
“Mr Benn has left tangible proofs of his interest in the welfare of this town and its inhabitants. Amongst other tokens of this kind we point with gratifying pride to his munificence, out of which has been built two wings to that valuable institution administered by the Belfast Charitable Society; the splendid hospital for diseases of the eye, ear and throat; the Samaritan Hospital on the Lisburn Road; and kindred institutions, which will long preserve his memory and fame.”
Edward was laid to rest in the family plot in Clifton Street Cemetery, operated by the Belfast Charitable Society.
George Benn, one of the early historians of Belfast, outlived his brother and saw the transition of the Belfast Poor House into an Older People’s Home. On his death in 1882 George left £1,000 in his will to the Belfast Charitable Society to provide Christmas and Easter dinners for the residents of the Old People’s Home and for the upkeep of his beloved brother Edward’s grave. Although the Benn Easter Dinner no longer takes place, the Belfast Charitable Society continue to celebrate the Benn Christmas Dinner with the residents of the Residential Home attached to the Heritage & Conference Centre at Clifton House.
Extract from the Last Will & Testament of George Benn:
I bequeath the sum of £1000 (one thousand) to the treasurer for the time being of the said Belfast Charitable Society (or old Poor House) whose receipt shall be a sufficient discharge for same and I direct that the sum shall be invested in like manner as is herein before directed in relation to the other charitable legacies herein before contained and the said last mentioned bequest shall be called “The Benn Charity” and out of the sum of one thousand pounds the sum of £32 annually shall forever to be applied to providing for the poor inmates of the said Poor House with a dinner or other entertainment at every Easter and Christmas and I hereby earnestly request the managing committee of the said Charitable Society though I do not impose it on them as an obligation to apply the surplus income of the said interest (if any) in the first place towards keeping the burial place of my said late brother Edward Benn in the Poor House graveyard in proper repair and condition by painting from time to time as may be required the railings of said burial place and keeping it in neat and proper order and free from dirt or rubbish and if after providing said entertainment and keeping the said Burial Place in order and repair as aforesaid there should be any surplus income from the interest of the said £1000 as aforesaid I direct that the surplus income shall be applied in providing for the use of aged inmates of the said Poor House a few newspapers such as Illustrated London Times, The Graphic or such illustrated papers to amuse them as shall be provided by the managing committee of the said Poor House and as such surplus income will admit of.