Easter has always been an important holiday, and it marked a time for family to come together and take part in the religious rituals surrounding the holiday. In preparation for Easter families would have had a ‘spring clean’ and a hearty meal was prepared for Easter Sunday, marking the end of Lent. Aspects of these Easter traditions are reflected in the Belfast Charitable Society’s archive, housed in Clifton House.
Easter 1775 was the first with residents in the Poor House, although it is not mentioned directly. On Easter Monday the bell and clock from the old Corporation Church were requested to be brought to the Poor House. Although no longer in the spire, the bell is now house in the entrance hall of Clifton House, alongside the original grandfather clock.
As with any religious holiday public worship figured heavily in the celebrations. Ministers normally preached on rotation at the Poor House itself, but residents were granted leave to attend public worship, especially for major holy days. Permission to leave for Easter services was granted from 1776. The Orderly recorded who could attend church but you could be refused leave if you had abused it in the past, especially those who came back ‘with drink on them’. However, for religious festivals it was unusual to refuse leave for any individual. The Orderly report for Easter 1819 stated
permitted the Protestant & Catholic inmates who intend to communicate [take communion] to go to church on Good Friday.
By 1791 the Belfast Charitable Society gave permission for the children to have the day off school on Easter Monday, and they were also allowed to visit family and friends. At times this caused headaches for the Committee as in 1815 two boys absconded when out on Easter leave. The Orderly refused to readmit them when they returned. However, they were not always so hard on the children, with younger children given more leeway. On another occasion, two children who did not come back on time were readmitted ‘due to their age’. In the 1840s our archives record that in additional to having the day off school, the Poor House children were given eggs as a special treat.
In 1827 the Poor House was shut over Easter due to the presence of ‘the fever’ in Belfast. Fever and disease were an ever-present threat in 19th century Belfast. The Charitable Society took all steps it deemed necessary to protect the residents of the Poor House, including isolating the Poor House from the rest of the town to stop diseases spreading.
Cleanliness and hygiene featured heavily on the Belfast Charitable Society’s agenda as evident by the appointment of an ‘Inspectress of Cleanliness’. Countless Orderlies complained about the conditions in the house, from dirt through to damp and vermin. In accordance with Easter traditions each year a spring clean was undertaken when repair works, cleaning and white-washing of rooms was completed. At Easter 1822 Orderly Henry Rowan, after inspecting the house, described it as “sweet and well cleaned” and in 1896, Orderly Edward Grey wrote “spring cleaning…progressing very satisfactorily”- high praise indeed in the Victorian period!
In 1882 George Benn, renowned historian of Belfast, passed away and bequeathed to the Society a sum of £1000 to provide a special dinner for residents, of what was by then an old people’s home, at Easter and Christmas. Thereby George Benn, became part of the history of the town and Society he worked so hard to promote. Newspaper reports from the 1920s and 1930s give us a rare glimpse into the life of Clifton House at Easter between the two world wars. These newspaper clippings were carefully put together by staff to form a number of scrapbooks and are held in our archive. A dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and peas with sweets and fruit for after was the typical fare. Miss Hoey, the matron of Clifton House in the 1930s was renowned for procuring unusual food. In 1937 instead of the usual roast beef, she managed to source stuffed veal for 130 residents.
One tradition that lasted for over 150 years was the giving out of snuff and tobacco. First recorded at Easter 1776, this custom continued until at least 1936, when it was referenced in the Newsletter. It was also a tradition that members of the Board would attend the Easter Benn dinner, helping to carve the meat or serve residents. After dinner entertainment was a big part of the day and a variety of acts donated their time for the benefit of the elderly residents. Belfast was famous for variety and theatre shows. Typically, one of these travelling companies would be invited to provide the post-dinner entertainment for the Easter Benn Dinner. In 1931 it was the Radio Company, who were preforming at the Belfast Hippodrome, while in 1936 it was a tour company who were staging a production at the Empire Theatre. Sometimes the residents even provided their own entertainment with music in the grounds!
The Benn Christmas Dinner continues to this day although the Easter dinner is no longer observed. However, the tradition of celebrating Easter continues today at Clifton House with the residential home residents.