Children were admitted for a variety of reasons to the Poor House, but we have records of a number that were abandoned by their families. Two years prior to Mary West’s admission to the Poor House a volcanic eruption had caused what was known as the ‘Year of No Summer’, which decimated crops and led to the spread of disease. Even in 1818 the effects of famine, fever and poverty were still rife in Belfast. The Poor House was under pressure to cope with demand, and the conditions in the town drove many people to desperate actions in order to survive. Mr Mills, the local Church Warden, reported to the Belfast Charitable Society about an usual occurrence that had befallen him a few days before in October 1818. The minutes record:
“a rap came to his door and it being opened by his servant a child of about 2 years of age walked in with her name pinned to her back, Mary West. He states that he applied to the gentlemen appointed by the Parish to take care of foundling children but they refused as it appeared she be older than they are permitted to take. Resolved that she be admitted at present into the Convalescent House and after that into the Poor House.”
You may wonder why she was not admitted directly to the Poor House, and was instead placed in the Convalescent Home. This was due to the risk of fever in the already overcrowded Poor House. After a period of time in the Convalescent Home, to make sure Mary did not have relapsing fever, she was admitted to the Poor House. One wonders what personal struggles the parents of Mary West were going through to place them in a position where they felt it was better to leave their daughter with the Church.
What happened to Mary West? Well, a recently discovered early admissions book shows that she was apprenticed twice. Firstly, to David Fee of Upper Ballysillan as a servant 10 years after her admission to the Poor House. She returned to the institution the following year and was ultimately apprenticed to Robert Hamilton from Carrickfergus. Sadly, as is the case with a lot of early admissions to the Poor House, it had been impossible to trace Mary West outside of our walls.