When it comes to the stories from the Poor House, the experience of the children are some of the most emotive. Some children came in with their families, others were orphaned and deserted, and a few knew only of life in the Poor House itself. In the 107 years from the first child entered until the last child left the younger occupants of the house took priority.
The month of November was a significant month for the children in the care of the Belfast Charitable Society. In November 1775, the first child arrived at the Poor House and in November 1882, the last child left, laying the foundations for the Old Peoples Home that still operates in a section of Clifton House today.
In the early days of the Belfast Charitable Society there was some apprehension of admitting children into the Poor House due to the expense and services they required. However, this all changed due to Ann Curran. Ann was a hospital patient admitted on 19th March 1775 who was still in the house in November. Ann was the mother of a large family and requested that her youngest, a two-year-old girl, join her in the Poor House. The Society agreed to the request ‘on account of her extraordinary good behaviour, diligence and usefulness in the house’. Thus the first child was admitted and the care of the young became a central feature of the Society’s work for over a century.
In February 1776 the Board resolved to admit ‘a number of poor children, not exceeding twenty’. However, they were forced to increase this in August 1778 to fifty children due to the severe levels of poverty and destitution in Belfast. 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.
The Charter’s Building behind the original Poor House was constructed in 1867 to house the children, separating them from the aging population in the main house. This was privately financed by John Charters (pictured). This extract from a letter sent to the Charitable Society in 1878 is a fitting testament to the work it undertook for the impoverished children:
“…having spent 6 years of my boyhood under its [the Poor House] roof… I cannot express the gratitude I feel… to those gentlemen who sacrificed time and money to the good purpose of educating and supporting the orphan who would probably be led into a life of vagrancy, pauperism and may be crime [otherwise].”
Gradually the children began to leave the Poor House. Some went to their families, some to the Protestant Orphan Society, others were apprenticed at a small premium, and one went to the Industrial School. The school equipment was sold; the musical instruments went to the Malone Reformatory and the surplus clothing went to Mr Henderson’s Boys’ House with one of the male children. The school mistress was given £80 and some articles of furniture for her services to the children. By November 1882 provisions had been made for the last children of the Poor House, and the ‘Old Poor House’ became an Old Peoples Home.