When people think of the Belfast Poor House, one of the first things that comes to mind is the children who came through our doors. 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. The Poor House became known as the Belfast Charitable Institution and primarily became a nursing home and hospital for older people. The care for older people is still the main function of the house today, alongside the heritage and conference centre.
In the early days of the Belfast Charitable Society, there was some apprehension of admitting children into the Poor House. The Society were very aware that in order to care for the children in the best manner possible they would need to hire more staff and provide education and training. The care of children would be expensive but necessary to ensure they would be both financially and emotionally independent. However, this reluctance changed due to an inmate called Ann Curran. Ann was a hospital patient admitted on 19th March 1775 who was still in the house by 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 and thus the first child was admitted. 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 to house the children, separating them from the ageing population in the main house.
Care for the children included the basics of food, clothing and shelter but also included education and skills training. The Poor House Committee were acutely aware that a child born into poverty was most likely to remain there. The care given was to try to break the cycle of poverty. Education in the Poor House covered the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic and bible studies which was a huge benefit to the children as many of the labouring classes within Belfast and further afield would have been illiterate. When Mary Ann McCracken and the Ladies Committee became involved, other subjects such as art, music, languages and technical drawing were introduced to children who showed a natural aptitude for the subjects.
From the 1870s the children gradually began to leave the Poor House. Some returned to their families, some to the Presbyterian Orphan Society, others were apprenticed, and at least 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, provision had been made for the last children of the Poor House, and the ‘Old Poor House’ became known as the Belfast Charitable Institution.
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 it’s [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].”
It may not have been the initial intention of the Belfast Charitable Society to offer care to children, but when faced with the reality for many of the impoverished children of Belfast they adapted and delivered progressive, practical and enlightened protection to their young charges and undoubtedly positively impacted many lives as a result.