Clifton House and Clifton Street Cemetery

Assembling outside Clifton House at the start of the tour

On Friday, 21st April we had a wonderful congregational visit to Clifton House. Reputedly one of the oldest buildings in Belfast, having been built in 1774, it is actually only five years older than our own church in Dunmurry. But it is a very impressive building featuring its unusual spire which must have towered over Belfast when it was first built and certainly angered the Earl of Donegall who gave the land not expecting a building that would dominate the skyline and overshadow St Anne’s parish church.

Jason Burke, one of our guides, in front of a bust of Mary Ann McCracken

Right from the start it was a much more enlightened institution than its usual name of ‘Poor House’ would indicate. Even the ‘punishment room’ was equipped with a bed, something ordinary inmates of institutions such as the workhouse might not expect in the nineteenth century. Curiously the mostly Presbyterian founders had no hesitation in employing a lottery to set up Clifton House but through that scheme were able to build a Poor House and an infirmary.

I hadn’t realised either that the Belfast Charitable Society (to give it its full name) was set up by Act of Parliament and also had responsibility for the provision of water in Belfast as well as street lighting.

Water pipe made from elm dating from 1809
Early lamp bracket in use in Belfast in the 1770s

Examples of the English Elm which were used as water pipes were on show and such was the importance of this function the Water Commissioners had to make an annual payment of £800 in perpetuity to the Belfast Charitable Society. This still continues to this day with NI Water having taken the place of the Water Commissioners and still being obliged to pay £800 per annum to the Charitable Society.

Cross-section of water pipe

The Society played its part in the development of cotton spinning and weaving in Belfast when machinery was established in the basement of the building for children to work on.

It is an impressive and dignified building, beautifully restored in recent decades and still fulfilling its original function of caring for those in need.

View from the staircase

At the heart of the building is the boardroom, a room which also has a key place in so many aspects of the history of Belfast:

Charity board in the Boardroom

The extensive tour also took us round the Clifton Street graveyard. Another repository of Belfast history.

Sadly the graveyard suffered greatly from vandalism at the start of the Troubles, although its existence was threatened fairly dramatically in its early days when it was frequently targeted by grave robbers and we were told many tales of their nefarious activities over the years.

Vandalised grave of Robert Haliday

But there is still a great deal there that connects us with Belfast’s past, many of the people buried there being Non-Subscribers. Indeed throughout the tour many of the names we heard who had been associated with Clifton House were members of our denomination.

Grave of Mary Ann McCracken and possible resting place of Henry Joy McCracken

But in the graveyard we saw the graves of such notables as Dr William Drennan (poet, doctor, educationalist, United Irishman), John Ritchie (who established ship building in Belfast), and Thomas McCabe (who successfully opposed the establishment of a Belfast slave ship company) who were all Non-Subscribers, as indeed was Waddell Cunningham who it was who proposed establishing a slave ship company in Belfast (but who isn’t buried in Clifton Street).

Grave of William Drennan
Grave of John Ritchie
Grave of Thomas McCabe

It was a fascinating tour and we are grateful to our guides for such an interesting and illuminating morning.

Killyleagh and the Hincks family

Click on the video to follow the story

Killyleagh, county Down is a town remarkable for its history, much of this related to the Non-Subscribing tradition in Irish Presbyterianism. In this video we look at some of this history, including Sir Hans Sloane and local rector Rev Edward Hincks, Egyptologist and son of Rev Thomas Dix Hincks who is buried in the parsh graveyard.

Thomas Dix Hincks was born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the dissenting academy of Hackney New College, London. He became minister of the Old Presbyterian Church, Princes Street, Cork in 1790 and the following year married Anne Boult. In Cork he kept a school and helped to establish the Royal Cork Institution. He later moved to Fermoy where he ran the Fermoy Academy before coming to Belfast as Professor of Oriental Languages at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution which was then also a training college for ministers as well as a school. A pioneering educationalist and teacher he published widely over the years, he was awarded the degree of LLD in 1834 by Glasgow University and was a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

He and his wife are buried in Killyleagh alongside their eldest son but together they established a significant Unitarian/Non-Subscribing dynasty which was influential in England, Ireland and Canada.

The grave of Thomas Dix Hincks and Anne Hincks in Killyleagh

They had seven children, two girls and five boys:

Hannah Hincks (d.c1873)

Anne Hincks (d.1877)

Rev Edward Hincks (1792-1866)

Rev William Hincks c.1793-1871

Rev Thomas Hincks (1796-1882)

Rev John Hincks (1804-1831)

Sir Francis Hincks (1807-1885)

Two of the brothers became ministers of Renshaw Street Chapel in Liverpool, amongst other things.

To hear the full story and hear more about Killyleagh click on the video at the top of the page.

Memorial window to Thomas Dix Hincks, Anne Hincks and Hannah Hincks in the First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast.

A previous video explores something of the life of Rev Thoms Hincks (1818-1899) the son of Rev William Hincks (c.1793-1871). It can be seen here:

Easter Reflections from Dunmurry

Click on the video to see the Reflections

Easter Reflections for 2023 from First Dunmurry (NS) Presbyterian Church with the minister Rev Dr David Steers and the organist Allen Yarr who plays ‘Ride on, ride on, in majesty’, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’, and ‘The Day of Resurrection’ on the piano.

First Presbyterian (NS) Church photographed on the morning of Palm Sunday 2023

William Sunderland Smith and Antrim

The 2023 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society includes Ian Wood’s article on his great great grandfather William Sunderland Smith, minister at Antrim from 1872 to 1912 and a figure of some note in the town at the time because of his writings on history, including the 1798 Rebellion, natural history, geology and theology.

W.S. Smith’s son William Ivan Smith was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and he took a number of pictures in Antrim in 1902 which are a main feature of this video which introduces the 2023 Transactions:

Click on the video above to find out about the Transactions and W.S. Smith

Prior to coming to Antrim in 1872 and after leaving the Unitarian Home Missionary Board in 1859 W.S.Smith had ministered successively at Aberdeen, Rawtenstall, Doncaster, Tavistock and Crediton. So he had a series of short ministries all over the country before crossing the Irish Sea and finding, one assumes, a deep sense of fulfilment in his last charge at Antrim. W.I. Smith’s visit to Antrim in 1902 produced a number of photographs which give us a splendid picture of his ministry and I am grateful to Ian Wood and his family for digitising them and for making them available.

So here is W.I. Smith’s portrait of his father:

W.S. Smith’s first wife died in 1868 but the following year, having moved from Doncaster to Tavistock , he met and married Clara Ann Clark. Ian Wood has found this cutting from the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard which gives an engaging account of the wedding between the Cirencester Sunday School teacher and the Tavistock Unitarian minister on 9th November 1869:

In 1902 when William Ivan Smith visited Antrim he took this picture of his step-mother:

William Sunderland Smith arrived in Antrim, after a short ministry in Crediton, Devon, in 1872. He must have established a prominent name for himself in the town with publications such as Historical Gleanings in Antrim and Neighbourhood and Memories of ’98 as well as regular contributions to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology and the provision of ‘Nature Notes’ to the Northern Whig, including this account of toads in 1906:

W.I. Smith’s photograph of his father astride his preferred method of transport in Antrim suggests that he must have been a very familiar figure on the local roads at the time:

The Antrim meeting-house had been built in 1700 but under his ministry the interior was completetly refurbished in 1891. Ian Wood has found the following cutting from the Northern Whig seeking tenders to undertake this work:

This was a major undertaking which seems to have been successfully completed but images of the interior, either in its original form or in the remodelled layout created by W.S. Smith, are hard to come by. If you would like to see the interior as it looks today – denuded of its ecclesiastical furniture – click here. One postcard which I have acquired features the interior of the Antrim meeting-house as it originally looked. It is a strange picture that has been very amateurishly doctored with Rev John Abernethy’s portrait cut out from somewhere and stuck over the pulpit:

But when he came to Antrim in 1902 William Ivan Smith also took a picture of the interior of the church as it looked by this time. This is it:

Now, at first glance, this may not look like such an interesting image, but as the only surviving picture of the inside of Antrim complete with its pews it is not without importance. However, on top of that W.I. Smith was quite a skilled photographer and there is more detail in this high resolution image of a 1902 print than you might initially notice. If you click on the video above you can discover some more of what this picture contains.

Thank you to Ian Wood for researching his ancestor and for discovering these fascinating pictures and making them available.

You can find out more about the Unitarian Historical Society and the Transactions by visiting its website here.

You can see a bit more about the manse in Antrim on this website via this link.

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