A Street Though Time: Lying-in-Hospital

   Conditions for delivering children were notably poor for 18th century Irish women, child birth in Belfast was no exception. Medicine was, at this time, an almost entirely male profession, so doctors often saw the exclusively female focused practice of midwifery as being less honourable than other forms of medicine. As such, there was little formal infrastructure in place to protect women during child birth, leading to high mortality rates. In 1793 ‘The Humane Female Society for the Relief of Lying-In Women’ sought reform.[1] The group wanted to professionalise the practice of child delivery, with the safety of mother and child in mind. A house at 25 Donegall Street with a six bed capacity was opened in the following year to advance these aims. Here, women could give birth under the dedicated supervision of midwives. This was the first maternity hospital in Belfast, following closely behind Dublin’s lead where the first Irish Lying-In hospital was created in 1742.[2] In the modern day, this premises served as Printer’s Café until the Covid-19 Pandemic forced its closure.

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Former lying-in-hospital at 25 Donegall Street

  The Belfast Maternity Hospital, seeking to expand their capacity, moved premises in 1830 to land rented from the Belfast Charitable Society. The building had an 18 bed capacity. During it’s stewardship on Clifton Street, its landlord (the Belfast Charitable Society) benevolently provided free water to the hospital. Likewise, deceased mothers and children were able to be buried in the Clifton Street Cemetery free of charge, largely in unmarked graves. Despite the considerable expansion to the Clifton Street premises and the goodwill of the Charitable Society, considerable demand for its service once again prompted the hospital’s further expansion; new premises were sought again in 1904. The maternity hospital then moved to Townsend Street, West Belfast which was a 28 bed alternative.

These Belfast maternity hospitals were a precursor to the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in West Belfast. The building opened to great acclaim in June 1935 with both state of the art facilities and a grand scale that made ‘the hospital one of the finest in the United Kingdom’.[3] The hospital remains to the modern day, as the legacy of the Humane Female Society’s 18th century demands for safe and professionalised child delivery.

In the aftermath of this move the Clifton Street premises was acquired by Millar and Co. confectioners. The building was irrevocably damaged in an 1922 attack by the IRA. It was demolished soon after in 1924. For a number of years the demolition ground lay dormant, as wasteground, until the 1930s when a series of shops were built on the site. Long term sellers on this site include Abrahams Tailors and Quigley’s hairdressers.[4] Currently, though the plot has returned to wasteground, the land is partially obscured from public view by a series of advertising billboards. We will have to wait a bit longer to find out who its next occupant will be.

The Site of the lying-in-hospital as it appears today

[1] O’Sullivan, J.F., ‘Two hundred years of midwifery 1806-2006’ in Ulster Medical Society Vol LXXV (2006).

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Opening of Belfast’s Jubilee Maternity Hospital’, Northern Whig, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0002318/19381214/105/0004, 1st June 1935.

[4] Lennon-Wylie, Belfast Street Directory 1943-1960.

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