Belfast was once famous the world over for its linen production, but this was not the first textile to be industrialised in Belfast.
Robert Joy was a paper producer and proprietor of the Belfast Newsletter, as well as the designer and project manager of the Poor House. Robert Joy, his brother-in-law Captain John McCracken and Thomas McCabe, all of whom sat on the Poor House Board, set out to discover the next ‘big thing’ in manufacturing. Although generous individuals, they were merchants and set sail to Britain to investigate the developing industries there. On their travels they discovered pioneering cotton spinning and carding technology.
They imported the cotton machinery they had discovered in Great Britain to the Poor House, where, with permission of the Belfast Charitable Society they opened up a small factory in the basement of the building. This basement factory did not just supplement the income of the Society to run the Poor House, but it had the added benefit of training up residents in skilled employment. This sowed the seeds of what became the apprenticeship program within the house for children of school leaving age.
The small cotton factory proved to be such a success that Joy and his partners opened their own mill in the town of Belfast. Slowly other mills and factories opened, including John Hazlett’s factory in Waring Street and a mill in Millfield powered by horse.
By 1791 in the town of Belfast alone, there were 229 cotton Spinning Jennies and nine years later in 1800, Nicholas Grimshaw estimated that in a 16km radius the cotton spinning industry was employing 13,500 people. So, in essence the Belfast Charitable Society were the spark that started Belfast’s industrial expansion in the textile industry, as cotton was spun for the first time in Ireland in the basement of the Poor House.