“Made of Belfast”- 250 years of the Belfast Poorhouse
Allegedly sketched on the back of a napkin by local newspaper publisher Robert Joy and brought into reality by architects Thomas Cooley and Robert Mylne, Clifton house was built between 1771-1774 on land given to the Belfast Charitable Society by the Marquis of Donegall, Arthur Chichester. Not only did the house offer respite to the poor of Belfast and become a shelter for the sick and infirm, but it also became a home for the Belfast Charitable Society for nearly 250 years. Within its walls, meetings helped shape the course of the bourgeoning city of Belfast, with the Belfast Charitable Society playing a key role in its development. The construction of the Poor House was not just the erection of a building for the poor of Belfast: it was a commitment by the Society to continue to provide for the people of the town and city for the decades (and eventual centuries) to come.
The plot for the Poor House was chosen for a number of reasons. Its topography naturally elevated the house and made it more visible across the growing Georgian town. The site also possessed a large amount of clay which was suitable for the production of bricks. The clay excavated from the plot ahead of the buildings construction made up the bulk of the red bricks now found in the building. The bricks were made on site, with any excess sold to the town, with Dunmurry Stone used in the construction of main features, such as the doorway and accents, whilst other materials from the house included sand dredged from the Lagan. Every effort was made to make the house of local materials, ensuring the house was very much “Made of Belfast”.
With the ground prepared, a ceremony was advertised in the Belfast Newsletter for the 2nd August 1771 for the laying of the foundation stone. The exact location of the stone has been lost over time, the minute books record the location “as near as may be the center of Donegall Street”, likely in acknowledgement of the contribution of the Marquis of Donegall in donating the land upon which the house was built. Ahead of the ceremony, the Society resolved to acknowledge tradition, whilst also setting the charitable tone for which the building would become known for -ordering that 5 guineas would be laid on the foundation stone and then distributed amongst the workmen present. Foundation ceremonies were (and still are) important in the life of a building, with offerings often being made. The fact the founders of the house acknowledged this tradition before giving their offering to the people of the town demonstrates an awareness of old practices but a determination to make changes. The offerings given at these ceremonies were to bless the building, and were buried in the foundations as construction continued, however, at the ceremony for the Poor House, the Charitable Society ensured the offering, and therefore the blessing, were passed on to the people of Belfast.
Whilst the architects helped realise the construction of the building, it is apparent that Robert Joy still held significant sway. The now iconic spire that emerges from the heart of the building was a later addition, suggested by Joy himself. This replaced a dome like feature called a cupola, originally proposed by the architects, and would have been a common feature for a building of this nature and period. The spire itself is an odd addition, somewhat unique to the Poor House, however it is not solely for decoration. The spire ensured that the building visible across the city: a beacon to those in need as far away as the ships arriving in the harbour:
“While the reason for the change was not articulated, it seems clear that the aim of the spire was to make the new building more prominent in the landscape, as achieved by the tower on the Market House and the spire on the parish church. Thus, the vista along Donegall Street from the Exchange and Assembly Rooms was closed not simply by a prominent building but with a spire that clearly marked the building as exceptional… It focused attention on the Poorhouse…By directing attention to the building, it also stressed the virtues that underpinned it, in particular the voluntary nature of the institution and the civic values of the urban elite.” Gillespie in ‘The First Great Charity of this Town pg.97.
There is rumour that the addition of this spire angered Lord Donegall who had just laid down plans for the Parish Church of St Annes to be built, on the present site of St Annes Cathedral. Allegedly, as a result, he was forced to make the tower of St Annes higher however relationships were not soured as he was first President of the Society. It is therefore likely that it is just folk tale told due to the unusual height of the spire at the Parish Church.
Whilst overshadowed by the glass and steel-clad goliaths of modern-day Belfast, in its day the Poor House would have been one of the most stately buildings in the area: a Palace for the Poor. In January as part of the 250th anniversary celebration calendar, Marcus Patton, Architect and Vice Chair of Hearth NI, will be giving a talk about the architecture of the building and its links with its counterparts in early Belfast.
With the spire now complete, attention turned to locating a bell. On the 1st April 1775, Reverand William Bristow wrote to the Vestry to request a loan of the bell and clock from the Old Corporation Church which stood on High Street, (now the site of St George’s.) The church had fallen into disrepair and the opening of St Annes resulted in the building being condemned. As such, loan of the bell was agreed, and it would hang in the spire of the Poor House; its chime regimenting the day, marking when residents got up, meal times and ‘lights out’. The bell now rests in the entry hall, held within a wooden frame: The oldest resident of the poor house.
Whilst a clock was also acquired along with the bell from the Old Corporation Church, it is not the one that now proudly sit above the main entrance. This clock is a later addition, provided by the Johnston family in 1882. Recorded in the minutes of an April meeting William G Johnston stated that “it was the intention of Lady Johnston to present the Belfast Charitable Society with an illuminated clock to be placed in front of the institution, with installation completed by July 1882. The clock was made by local clockmaker Francis Montgomery Moore, best known for creating the clock and mechanism for the Albert Memorial. Whilst the bell is now silent, save for the entertainment of those on guided tours of the building, this clock continues to count the minutes and hours for those who work in the building in the 21st century.
The People who make the Place
After 3 years of construction, it was resolved at a meeting in the Market House (now the Exchange and Assembly buildings on North Street) that the next meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society would be held in their new home; the board room in the Poor House. As such, on the 24th October 1774, the Belfast Charitable Society held its inaugural meeting in its new home; one that would continue to be its home across 3 centuries. With the Society overseeing the finishing touches of the buildings personally, the house was officially ready to receive its first residents on Christmas Eve 1774.
Whilst the house was completed, it quickly felt pressure to expand to facilitate the need of the Poor of Belfast. As the city grew, so too did the need to house the poor and destitute living in the towns growing population. As a result, the house had two small additions constructed in the 1820’s, however it was not until the 1860’s that a significant, purpose-built addition was constructed, thanks to a generous donation by local Flax mill owner John Charters. Born in 1796 on the Crumlin Road, Charters earned his wealth through the textile industry and owned a Flax-dressing mill on the Falls Road. He sold his stake in his company in 1866 before donating substantial amounts of money to various causes like the Poor House and the Working Men’s Institution. The Charters Wing would almost exclusively house the children of the Poor House. This remedied an ongoing issue that had plagued the house since its opening.
The house had not been designed to take in children, nor did the Charitable Society initially intent to offer shelter to them, however, due to continuous pressure and need, concessions were made to allow children to live under the Poor House roof. (The education and apprenticeship of the children will be covered in more depth throughout the month of February.) This wing and its focus on providing for children represents a core focus for Charters and his philanthropic vision, as he gave generously to for the brightest boys from Boys Model to attend Royal Belfast Academical Institution on funded scholarships. The construction of the Charters wing as it would later be known encapsulated John Charters overlapping charitable interests and his desire to give back to his home town in his later years.
The Charters wing was not the only addition made to the building during this period. The 1860’s and 70’s were a period of rapid growth for the House. After the opening of the Charters wing an anonymous letter was be presented to the Society offering to pay for the construction of two new wings, with the stipulation that it cost no more than £3000. It transpired that this offer came from Edward Benn, an established philanthropic figure within the Society and in Belfast. He was also in the progress of redeveloping the adjacent Glenravel Street on which iconic buildings such as the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital would were built.
With the construction of the Benn Wings underway, it was acknowledged by the Society that the generosity of Charters should be better recognized, and it was decided in March 1872 that an inscription recognising John Charters should be erected on the building which his donations paid for, as Benn had incorporated his crest and name on each of the wings under construction.
These two donations encapsulate the philanthropic nature that existed within the society during this period. Benn, a successful businessman who had been plagued by ill health in later life, donated to increase the capacity of the Poor House, whilst simultaneously transforming Glenravel Street into the Medical Hub of Belfast. Charters, on the other hand, had sold his stake in his company, and was wanting to spend his twilight years donating his wealth to causes he was passionate about.
Both additions increased the capacity of the house and allowed for better practices in aspects such as hygiene and personal comfort, which allowed the house to weather rocky periods such as plagues and famines, sheltering its residents from the worst of what these periods in history brought. Both Benn and Charters passed away within a few months of each other in 1874, 100 years after the opening of the house, however their generosity is immortalized in the wings of the Clifton House which still houses residents and are now emblazoned with their name, forever etched into the history of the building.
This article, and indeed the events throughout January 2024 will explore the creation of the Poor House. The subsequent 11 months will breathe life into this historic building and populate it with the characters, faces and stories that made it a home to every person who entered through its doors.
We hope you will join us on this journey through the history of Clifton House, and by extension, a journey through the history of Belfast itself.