Today for Philanthropy Fortnight we are looking at corporate giving. Corporate giving has grown in recent years as businesses increasingly are seeking to give back to the communities in which they operate. However, the concept of corporate giving has a longer history than many imagine! One of our donation boards for the old Poor House show that the Belfast Bread & Flour Company was donating money to the Charitable Society in 1803!

One of the lesser known stories of the Belfast Charitable Society is the fact that it brought piped water to Belfast on a large scale. From very early days the Poor House had its own water supply. In fact in times of drought the Belfast Charitable Society would have taken two of the fittest residents and given them a horse and cart from which they would sell the extra water from the House in the streets of Belfast.

In 1700s Belfast, duties were to be paid on the water supply. The Belfast Charitable Society believed if they supplied the water they could collect the duties and therefore create a stable income for the Poor House. If any of you have worked in the community and voluntary sector you will understand that donations is not a stable way to run an organisation. It is usually a feast or famine, and more often than not famine! They brought a gentleman over from Edinburgh to map the water courses in Belfast. He discovered an ample supply of water in the Belfast Hills and at Stranmillis. They purchased thousands of yards of English Elm which was considered to be the straightest tree and the best to use for water pipes. The centre was hollowed out and the pipes were laid. The Charitable Society began the process of laying the pipes and bringing water to businesses and homes.

Belfast was growing a phenomenal rate in the later 1700s and early 1800s and therefore they found it very hard to keep pace. They were not improving the water service fast enough and therefore people were still unwilling to pay their water duties. And as people refused to pay their water duties the Charitable Society could not improve the supply. By 1840 it had reached breaking point. Further investment in the water system was likely to put the very existence of the Poor House in jeopardy.  So, the Government step in and formed the Belfast Water Commissioners – or as many of you will know them today, Northern Ireland Water – to take over the water  infrastructure.

In recognition for the huge investment the Belfast Charitable Society had made in water infrastructure, about £30,000 by 1840, it was agreed that the Belfast Water Commissioners would pay an annuity of £800. Now both sets of individuals in this transaction were very bright businessmen. However, the Belfast Charitable Society didn’t link the £800 to inflation, but the Belfast Water Commissioners never put an end date on the payment- so this payment continues today at £800 per year. This may be the oldest continuous corporate donation to a charity on these islands!

Through research in our archive we have also discovered a number of other corporate donors over the years, Workman, Clark and Co., various linen mills and Barbour Threads, which is very appropriate given our administration of the Barbour Fund, which was formed by ourselves and the Hilden District Nursing Society.