At the George, 28th August 1752
The evening of Friday 28th August 1752 was cool in Belfast. After closing up their businesses and homes, a group of nineteen merchants, burgesses [councillors] and the local vicar, made their way to the George Inn at the corner of North Street and John Street (now Royal Avenue). It was there in the George Inn that these gentlemen formed the Belfast Charitable Society, to address poverty and help the poor. The names of the founders were recorded in the first minute book of the new society, which is now held in the Clifton House archives:
Margetson Saunders Esqr. Sovrn [Mayor] in the Chair
|Revd. Mr. Saurin||Valentine Jones||William Stewart|
|Mr Jas. Adair||Geo: Black||Thomas Bateson|
|James Getty||Samuel Smith||John Hyde|
|Geo: Ferguson||James Hamilton||Saml. Hyde|
|Chas Hamilton||George Macartney|
|Willm. Wilson||James Ross|
|Robt. Wilson||Thomas Gregg|
At this time the population of Belfast was expanding at a great pace due to the growth of its port and the textile industry. The poor lived in ‘ill-ventilated hovels’ with little or no sanitation, and the town’s inhabitants had a limited diet. There was very little provision or support for the poor and so the Belfast Charitable Society set about providing assistance to alleviate the worst of the poverty prevalent in Belfast, mainly through the construction of a Poor House and Infirmary. It raised the money through a lottery scheme and donations, with the Poor House and Infirmary opening its doors in 1774.
Two hundred and sixty nine years later, we remember these philanthropic individuals for planting the seed of what would ultimately become a Belfast institution. Many of these men did not live to see the project completed. However, their drive and enthusiasm led to the construction of a home for the poor and sick, which would provide relief for thousands of men, women and children through the years.
The Founding Members Biographical Notes
Prior to the construction of the Poor House, members of the Belfast Charitable Society were officially appointed as ‘Overseers of the Poor’ in December 1757. Those appointed included the Rev James Saurin, James Getty, Samuel Smith, Valentine Jones, James Adair, John Hyde, and George Ferguson.
Margetson Saunders was the first chair of the Belfast Charitable Society. Margetson was Sovereign (Mayor) in 1752, but he had previously held the position three times in the 1730s, and then again in 1754.
Rev James Saurin was the grandson of the French Huguenot Jean Saurin. James’s grandfather fled France due to religious persecution. James Saurin was born in London in 1719 and married Jane Duff. He became Vicar of Belfast in 1747, a position he held for 26 years. The Rev Saurin used his position to lobby Lord Donegall for the land required for the Poor House. He lived to see the laying of the foundation stone of the Poor House, but passed away two years before the building opened in 1774.
James Adair was a partner in the first private bank in Belfast with Daniel Mussenden and Thomas Bateson, a fellow founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. Their bank opened in 1752, but was dissolved by 1757. This bank was involved in the second unsuccessful lottery scheme run by the Belfast Charitable Society.
James Getty was the son of the Rev James Getty of Inveraray, Scotland. James Getty Jnr was a Belfast merchant and his signature appears on a number of petitions to notable figures in relation to Irish free trade and the impact of the American War on the merchants of Belfast. Many other founding members also signed these petitions including Thomas Greg, George Ferguson, William Wilson, Robert Wilson and Valentine Jones.
William Wilson was a merchant with interests including coal, tobacco and textiles imported from Glasgow. He was also amongst the signatories of a minority report on financing Belfast’s first police force.
Robert Wilson is believed to be the same Robert Wilson who sold carpets and fabrics in Belfast and who also owned a bleach green at Castlereagh during this period.
Charles Hamilton was a Scottish merchant who came to Ireland to expand his business ventures. Unfortunately, he was not successful and his businesses failed. When he died of typhus in 1759 he left his widow and three children with a large amount of debt. His widow sent one of her daughters, Elizabeth, to live with a prosperous Scottish aunt and uncle. Elizabeth Hamilton would grow up to become a well-known novelist, satirist, educationalist and essayist.
Valentine Jones was a merchant with West Indian interests. The Valentine Jones dynasty, which had premises at Winecellar Entry off High Street, Belfast, were wine merchants and rum and sugar importers. They had established a thriving agency in Barbados where they bought goods from the planters and also sold goods to them. Thomas Bateson, another founding member, was Valentine’s partner. Valentine was involved in a number of public projects in Belfast including the Lagan Navigation proposal, the Brown Linen Hall and of course, the Belfast Charitable Society. The money from his West Indies trade provided substantial finance for these projects.
George Black held the position of Sovereign on five occasions (1775, 1776, 1782, 1783 and 1785) and was later appointed Vice-President of the Belfast Charitable Society. George was the brother of Dr Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, who was famous for his work on carbon dioxide and latent heat.
Samuel Smith, born 1693, was a leading Presbyterian in Belfast and a member of the First Congregation in Rosemary Street. He resided in High Street with gardens extending to Ann Street. He passed away in 1760 aged 67 years.
James Hamilton was appointed as an ‘Overseer of the Poor’ in 1757 and went on to serve at least two terms as Sovereign of Belfast in 1761 and 1769.
George Macartney served as a Sovereign of Belfast. His family line had a proud tradition of serving as burgesses and as Sovereigns. It is likely that the George Macartney who was present at the first meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society was the Sovereign of the same name who donated the ‘Poores Money’ to the Society in 1768.
James Ross was a merchant who owned a number of vessels in Belfast including the brig Koulikan and Ross. The ship registers show the Ross travelling between Belfast, the West Indies and New York. He is a kinsman of Waddell Cunningham, another merchant, who was involved in the Belfast Charitable Society.
Thomas Greg set up a shop in North Street in the 1740s selling provisions including French wine, Spanish fruit, London porter, coal and blue powder for bleaching linen.
Thomas bought a small ship and renamed her The Greg which he used to trade with the West Indies. Through his American trade he acquired a merchant partner in the United States, Waddell Cunningham. Thomas invested in Plantations in the West Indies, and his brother John purchased slaves for the Greg and Cunningham ‘Belfast’ Sugar Plantation in Dominica. He spent much money searching for coal and mineral deposits in the northern counties of Ireland. Thomas invested in the Lagan Navigation; glass manufacturing in Belfast; and founded the Downshire Pottery. When Waddell Cunningham returned to Ireland, the two partnered again to establish a vitriol works for bleaching linen at Lisburn in 1766. In 1783 Thomas was a founding member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and in the same year, for reasons unknown, he refused a Baronetcy.
William Stewart built his family seat at Wilmont (now Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park), about 1765, which included an extensive farm, with a sizeable bleach green. William was a merchant with numerous interests including a partnership in the Newry Flour Mill Company and shares in the Belfast Discount Company. The Belfast News-Letter of 4 March 1766 records him selling Bristol Crown glass, Welsh slates, lignum-vitae and various kinds of forest trees from premises at Drumbridge. He also donated £300 to the building of the Linen Hall in Belfast in 1782. William Stewart is commemorated by a tablet in the porch of Drumbeg Parish Church.
Thomas Bateson was a business partner of Valentine Jones and his name frequently appeared in advertisements offering for sale large quantities of West Indian produce. Thomas was also a partner in the firm Mussenden, Bateson and Co, wine merchants, in Winecellar Entry, Belfast. Bateson and Mussenden also collaborated with James Adair to open Belfast’s first bank. Thomas resided at Orangefield House, Knockbreda and Thomas’s grandson Robert resided at Belvoir Estate. Robert continued his grandfather’s philanthropy during his time as landlord giving each of the poor in Knockbreda a bed to help alleviate their poor living conditions.
John Hyde was active in all manners of public life in 18th century Belfast. His main business venture was in partnership with Mr Legg in the Rosemary Street Sugar House.
Samuel Hyde, of Hydepark, was the second name on a list of subscribers in 1740 to a petition from the merchants of Belfast to the Government respecting the conditions of the town’s docks. Samuel was a founding member not only of the Belfast Charitable Society, but also the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, He died at his house in Castle Place, Belfast. His daughter Elizabeth Hyde married another founding member Thomas Greg.
Belfast Charitable Society Today
To mark this important milestone in the charity’s history we are publishing a new book entitled The First Great Charity of This Town: Belfast Charitable Society and its Role in the Developing City. This publication, featuring well known academics and historians and a foreword by President Mary McAleese, charts the history of the charity and its role in creating the Belfast we see today. It is available to pre-order from the Irish Academic Press by clicking here.
Two hundred and seventy years after its foundation Belfast Charitable Society continues to benefit the people of Belfast by supporting various charities and philanthropic causes. For more information on its philanthropic projects please click here.