A Street Through Time: Clifton House
Clifton House on map of Clifton Street

In 1752, 19 leading members of the emerging Belfast mercantile class formed the Belfast Charitable Society. The gentlemen were concerned for the welfare of Belfast’s poor, with little-to-no existing framework for their care. The charity aimed to provide the necessary provisions to alleviate some of the worst poverty in Belfast. After a fundraising campaign from the charity and a generous donation of land by Lord Donegall, building work for the Belfast Poor House and Infirmary began in 1771. The stately, Georgian building was completed and officially opened in 1774.

Plans for the building’s designs were originally submitted by acclaimed architects Thomas Cooley and Robert Mylne, but it was philanthropist Robert Joy’s designs that were implemented.[1] Joy’s personal influence in the society did not end there as he, in 1777, convinced other members to invest in a spinning wheel in the building, which the Poor House children were trained and paid to use, giving them a worthwhile skill.[2] In 1779 he was given approval to expanded the number of machines into rooms in the basement of the building . As proprietary of the Belfast News-Letter, Robert Joy was a busy man. However the Poor House was his real passion, visiting everyday despite illness; ‘My uncle Robert paid his last visit to it, when unable to walk, in a sedan chair…it had been the constant to promote the comfort of the inmates in every respect’, Mary Ann McCracken[3]

Early Sketch of Clifton House

During the 18th century, the Poor House was witness to considerable health and political advances in Northern Ireland. In March 1782 Dr William Drennan presented his paper on smallpox inoculations there, which he had been experimenting within Clifton House on willing inmates.[4] Drennan’s research was a precursor to that of Dr Edward Jenner, who is now widely accredited as the pioneer of the smallpox inoculation. Drennan was a member of the United Irishmen. Originating from the Presbyterian mercantile classes, United Irishmen were inspired by the contemporary revolutions of France and America in their aspirations for political change.[5] Their aims were for Irishmen of all classes and religious denomination to be involved in democratic Irish governance. This movement was perceived as so threatening that membership to the society became illegal in 1796.[6] The Poor House had well known links to the United Irishmen not least through Robert Joy, but also his nephew Henry Joy McCracken who was a leading member of the United Irishmen as well as the Belfast Charitable Society. The Society were given 48 hours to rid the Poor House of these controversial influences in 1798, the same year as the United Irishmen’s ill-fated rebellion.[7]

Plan for Benn extension wing, 1872|MS13|2015|002|0019

In 1800 custody of the Poor House was returned to the Society following the rebellion, where it resumed its role of helping the Belfast poor. In 1868 millowner and philanthropist John Charter financed a child’s wing at the back of the building, at the personal cost of £2.500. Fellow wealthy philanthropist Edward Benn competitively funded another wing in 1872, where the comparable size to Charter’s contribution was stressed (fig8). In 1882 the last child left the Poor House, with focus turning once again to the old and infirm. The building was renamed as the ‘Belfast Charitable Institution’ the same year, from which the charity’s residential and nursing home was run for over a century.

In more recent years, the building has been known as Clifton House. It was renamed this in 1948 as a reflection of its physical site at the junction between North Queen Street and Clifton Street.[8] Today, over 250 years later the nursing and residential homes remain, in keeping with the building’s original care giving function. At the heart of the building lies Clifton House Centre, a heritage and conference venue, and the offices of Belfast Charitable Society, making it the city’s oldest working building. Its continued presence throughout centuries of turbulence see the building act as a pillar of stability and continuity. Its contemporary renovations and functions however, ensure that the building remains a place of preserved heritage for future generations. A feat made easier by its dedicated staff and volunteers, who run regular tours and talks on its history.

Clifton House as it appears today

[1] ‘Clifton House, Belfast, Co. Antrim’, https://www.archiseek.com/2012/1774-clifton-house-belfast-co-antrim/.

[2] Lunney, Lindie., ‘Robert Joy’ in Dictionary of Irish Biography, https://www.dib.ie/biography/joy-robert-a4358, (2009).

[3] Mary Ann McCracken, The Belfast News-Letter, https://twitter.com/cliftonbelfast/status/1505491840971141125, 20th March 1785.

[4] Higginbotham, P., ‘The Belfast Charitable Society’, https://www.workhouses.org.uk/Belfast/.

[5] ‘The Society of United Irishmen’, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council https://www.causewaycoastandglens.gov.uk/see-do/arts_museums/museums-services/ballymoney-museum/conflict-and-ballymoney/1798-united-irish-rebellion/the-society-of-united-irishmen.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Our Past’, Belfast Charitable Society, https://belfastcharitablesociety.org/our-past/.

[8] Ibid.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1774

Location: Clifton Street