To mark Student Volunteering Week (7th-13th February) we asked Louise Mailey, who is currently an MA Public History student at Queen’s University, to write about her thoughts and experience of volunteering at Clifton House. Here is what Louise had to say about her internship:
Volunteering at Clifton House
Clifton House is a striking building in Belfast’s landscape, nestled just outside of the city centre. From the entrance of the grounds, the building sits atop a hill, surrounded by gardens with the symmetrical characteristics of Georgian architecture. One of the oldest buildings in Belfast, its history is just as rich. Clifton House was built by the Belfast Charitable Society as the Poor House to offer welfare to the poor citizens of Belfast. I recently learnt about Belfast’s history in the 19th Century, and it sparked my interest in the origins and function of the Belfast Charitable Society. When the opportunity arose to conduct my internship here, it was my first choice.
A Day in the Life
The internship provides a behind the scenes look at the archives held at Clifton House. I have been focusing on transcribing an admission book from c1805-1830s. Like a lot of heritage sites and museums, transcription helps to make the past more accessible and increase the lifespan of documents. The admission book that I am working on is over 200 years old. At first, handling a book this old can be daunting because it requires a lot of care, especially when turning the pages, as well as keeping workspaces clear to ensure the book won’t get damaged. That daunting feeling is soon replaced with a certain excitement and nostalgia when reading the calligraphy.
When I was transcribing my first page, I was overwhelmed with the cursive writing and abbreviated forenames, at times it felt like a different language with William written as ‘Wm’ or James as ‘Jas’. However, after a couple of pages, I got into a flow of reading the cursive writing and was able to focus more on the names of people and their own stories.
The admission book provides a timeline of the journey people took through the Poor House from their admittance, to their apprenticeship or when they left the institution. Although mainly date based, the book offers more information than what you may think. They provide the milestones of personal stories but also create an image of those who needed the services of the Poor House. For me, seeing who offered the apprenticeships is especially interesting. I have recently found the Joy and Mulholland families offered apprenticeships to the Poor House in the 1800s. Both these families were integral in Belfast’s history through the industrialisation of the city and in civic affairs.
The internship provides an opportunity to see the day to day running of Clifton House. It’s a fast-paced environment with a team that focuses on conducting tours, talks, outreach and hire of the venue. The philanthropic ideals of Belfast Charitable Society have been integral to its existence, and I did not realise the extent of their support to the community today. From donating money to Age NI to help expand their ‘Check-in and Chat’ and Immediate Access Learning which provided students with laptops for remote learning during the pandemic.
Volunteering week is a time to reflect on the act of volunteering within our communities. I have been lucky enough to conduct my internship in a beautiful building with a history of helping the disadvantaged in Belfast. I have always had an interest in 19th century Belfast and my internship has allowed me to explore this period even more. Through delving deeper into the archives and gaining a sense of the people who relied on the Poor house and the apprenticeships they were given.
I would recommend anyone who has an interest in Belfast’s history to volunteer at Clifton House.