Apprenticeship Week runs from 26 to 30 April 2021 and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to highlight some of the work of Belfast Charitable Society, both past and present.

From the late 1770s children from the Poor House were apprenticed to various industries. These apprenticeships were viewed as a mechanism by which the children could learn a trade or skill which would help them find employment after leaving the Poor House. This, in turn, would allow former residents to support their own families as adults.  The first boy to be apprenticed from the Poor House went to learn the trade of a barber for five years, and the first girl was apprenticed to a dress maker.

Advertisements frequently appeared in the Belfast Newsletter, owned by Henry Joy Junior, a member of Belfast Charitable Society and the Poor House Committee. The Society were strict in who they sent the children to, and absolutely refused to allow an apprentice to go to any person who sold alcohol on their premises, regardless of their standing in the community.

The Ladies Committee, formed by Mary Ann McCracken and a number of other women in the 1820s, encouraged stricter measures to protect the children. These included visiting each apprentice at least twice a year, allowing them to return for holiday periods or for medical treatment, as well as tightening conditions in their contracts.

Domestic servant roles were the most common for the girls of the Poor House, but Mary Ann was keen to expand the avenues open to the girls by introducing a variety of other occupations to broaden their options including tambour work, straw plaiting and bonnet making. Mary Ann was a keen believer in individualism and made strong arguments in the case of one young girl, Emily McBurney. Mary Ann argued that she should only be apprenticed as a dressmaker or a similar sedentary occupation as she was lame and it would be cruel to try and place her as a domestic servant.

The children of the Poor House were also taught music as part of the curriculum and  a Poor House band was formed in 1848. Some of the boys from the Poor House band were able to make a career out of their skills. A number of them were apprenticed band boys to the Militia including :

  • John Beggs, Band of the Antrim Militia in 1862
  • Samuel Chambers who joined the Armagh Militia in 1863 as a bugler
  • Hamilton Leebody joined the Royal South Down Militia in 1873

With the onset of the industrial revolution other opportunities opened up in Belfast, particularly for the boys, John Simpson aged 16 was apprenticed to Harland & Wolf Shipbuilders in 1864, others like the 12 year old William Henry Alexander was apprenticed to the Newsletter. Some also found work with the Magnetic Telegraph Office and Marcus Ward, the famous stationer and printer.

Today, Belfast Charitable Society, through the Barbour Fund continues to support opportunities which enhance employability for younger people through access to training programmes and by providing bursaries. For more details on the current work of Belfast Charitable Society, including the Barbour Fund, please click here.