Today marks the 247th anniversary of the laying of the Poor House foundation stone in 1771, nineteen years after the Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752.  On 1st August 1771 Stewart Banks, Sovereign (Mayor) of Belfast, laid the foundation stone of the new Poor House. He lived next door to the Donegal Arms Hotel in Castle Place, a place where the Belfast Charitable Society regularly met prior to the opening of the Poor House. The Belfast Newsletter reported the momentous occasion in the following days paper:
“Yesterday; a large Body of the principal Inhabitants of this Town assembled at the Market-House, from whence they proceeded to the Ground allotted for the Poor-House and Infirmary; where Stewart Banks, Esq,; Sovereign of Belfast, laid the first stone of the Ediface; on which is the following inscription:
This Foundation-Stone of a Poor-House and Infirmary for the Town and Parish of Belfast was laid on the first Day of August A.D. 1771 and in the Eleventh Year of the Reign of His Majesty George III. The Right Honourable Arthur, Earl of Donegall, and the Principal Inhabitants of Belfast Founded this Charity; And his Lordship Granted to it, In Perpetuity, Eight Acres of Land, On Part of which this Building is Erected.
On this occasion every demonstration of Joy was express. And in the evening there was a numerous Meeting of Gentlemen at the Market-House, to celebrate the memorable first of August.”
Stewart Banks was the son of Thomas Banks, from Hampshire, and Elizabeth Montgomery. The family were active in both the social and political life of Belfast. Thomas Banks was elected as a Burgess (Councillor) in 1711; serving as Constable of the Castle in 1723 and as Sovereign. Catherine, his daughter, and sister to Stewart Banks, married William Macartney, son of Isaac Macartney MP. Stewart Banks was a prosperous linen merchant and Free Mason, but following the death of his father, Stewart was elected as a burgess in 1746. Stewart held the position of Sovereign of in 1755, 1758, 1762, 1766, 1771, and 1778.
Stewart Banks was appointed Captain of the Guard of the Young Volunteer Company of Belfast in the 1750s and was the Captain Banks who, with his Volunteers, went to Carrickfergus in 1760 defending the line of the Three Mile Water when a French ship entered Belfast Lough. Stewart Banks raised the 1st Belfast Company of the Volunteers, with Waddell Cunningham, a merchant and member of the Belfast Charitable Society, as second-in-command in 1778. The 1778 Volunteers were militias raised by local initiative in Ireland. They were originally intended to guard against invasion and to preserve law and order at a time when British soldiers were withdrawn from Ireland to fight abroad during the American Revolutionary War. Eventually given the power vacuum that was created, they used their role to pressure Westminster into conceding social and political reforms.
Some members of the 1st Belfast Volunteer Company laid the foundations for the establishment of the United Irishmen organisation. The majority of Volunteer members however were inclined towards the yeomanry, which fought and helped defeat the United Irishmen in the Irish rebellion of 1798. Following the Battle of Ballynahinch the Belfast Volunteers declared their loyalty to the King and promised to crush any seditious group. This declaration was signed by Stewart Banks, but also some leading figures associated with the Belfast Charitable Society who had sided with the Yeomanry including James Bristow, Valentine Jones, John Holmes, John Galt Smith and Nicholas Grimshaw. Nonetheless, a number of gentlemen on the Belfast Charitable Society’s Committee were members of the United Irishmen, but from our archives politics never entered into the running of the Poor House.
Stewart Banks died aged 77 in April 1802, the same year the Charitable Society regained the Poor House after it was occupied as a military barracks by the British Army during the 1798 Rebellion. Following the death of Stewart Banks it was not until 1806 that his successor as Sovereign was appointed by the Belfast Corporation.