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.

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