In 1776 the original St Anne’s Parish Church opened for worship, sitting were Belfast Cathedral now stands, however burials in the town continued to take place at the old Corporation Church (now St George’s Church, High Street). However, the Corporation Graveyard was nearing capacity and so the innovative member of the Belfast Charitable Society decided to use a portion of its ground to create a new cemetery. Preparation began in 1795, with the ‘New Burying Ground’ opening its gates for burials in March 1797.
Three years later, a clause in an Act of Parliament in 1800 stated “no dead bodies whatsoever shall be interred in the said old church-yard” and instead the “piece of ground above the poor-house” would become the main graveyard under this Act of Parliament. Burials continued to take place at other sites in Belfast including Knock, Friar’s Bush and the Shankill.
With the passing of the Act of Parliament, what became known as Clifton Street Cemetery, was for generations the ‘fashionable place’ to be buried. Then owned by the Belfast Charitable Society the Cemetery provided an important revenue stream to help run the Poor House (Clifton House). Headstones often became more and more elaborate across the graveyard, carved with the names of politicians, rich merchants and industrialist, as well as radical and reformers.
The Dunville family vault (pictured) for example is marked by a sizeable mausoleum, reflecting the affluence and power of this local family. The vault, decorated with ornate neo-Gothic features, once contained ceramic ‘photographs’ of the family. The Dunvilles were whiskey distillers and amassed considerable wealth producing a popular brand of whisky called ‘V.R.’ – named after Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina). However in contrast to that was the grave of philanthropist and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken, whose grave is marked by a ‘small simple wedge-shaped block of red granite’.
Those not lucky enough to have a headstone or marking included the thousands of citizens who were laid to rest in unmarked graves, some the victims of Cholera outbreaks as well as famine. A estimated total of 14,000 individuals have been interred at Clifton Street Cemetery. A register of burials was only kept from 1831, so precise numbers buried before that date ‘is a matter of conjecture’. This period in the cemetery’s history was also marked by a spate of grave robbing for the purposes of anatomical dissection. The employment of night watchmen and the use of locally invented wrought-iron coffin guards was required.
To find out more about Clifton Street Cemetery, join Clifton House’s ‘In Life and Death’ guided tours, which run every Saturday and Sunday at 11am, and includes a visit to the graveyard. Find out more and book: https://cliftonbelfast.com/whats-on/tours/
 Strain, Belfast, p. 251
 Strain, Belfast, p. 245.
 Strain, Belfast, p. 247.