Christmas in the Poor House

Today’s blog post will explore the history of Clifton House, its occupants and how Christmas celebrations changed throughout the years both within and outside the walls!

Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752 with the aim to open a Poor House and Infirmary. After a long period of raising funds, groundwork started on the site in 1768. On Boxing Day 1768, as was tradition, Robert Joy gave his servants their ‘Christmas-box’, which was an employer’s gift to the staff since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day. The servants were allowed the next day after Christmas to visit their own families. These Christmas boxes were taken home and contained gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food. After partaking in this custom Robert did not spend the rest of the day with his family, instead, he could be at the Poor House, on what would have been a building site, making calculations and ensuring the Charitable Society had procured enough sand, stone, lime and timber for the workmen starting back after the Christmas break. The Poor House itself formally opened on Christmas Eve 1774.

Clifton House in the snow.

A Georgian Christmas:

To many of us, it seems that Christmas is now all about shopping, eating, drinking and, of course, Santa Claus. Christmas seems to begin in September and continue right through to the January sales. However, this was not always the case. The Georgian Christmas began on 6th December and ran right through to 6th January, also known as 12th Night. King George III was on the throne when the Poor House opened in 1774 and Christmas was not the celebration it is today – the main festival in those days in those days was Hallowe’en! Christmas was very much a religious time and centred around church services. People may have had a special meal or a rare treat at Christmas and some might have been able to afford to give each other a gift, but religion was essentially the focus. The start of the Christmas season on the 6th of December was known as St. Nicholas’s day!

In the Georgian era, the House was decorated throughout in what the Charity termed ‘appropriate greenery’ with garlands and wreaths made of holly, pines, firs and ivy. The Poor House residents would also collect their own foliage from the grounds to decorate their rooms. The use of greenery indoors was typical of homes throughout Ireland in this period.

Outdoor Relief:

Outdoor relief was a key aspect of the charity’s work alongside providing shelter and accommodation in the Poor House. During the Georgian and early Victorian period rent was paid at a time called Michaelmas at the end of September, so money was tight for many of the labouring class in Belfast in the run-up to the end of the year and the Christmas period. The outdoor relief could include a range of assistance measures but in the run-up to Christmas two important things stand out in Belfast Charitable Society’s minute books: many poor sought help in the form of coal to keep their families warm over the Christmas period and around this time demand for food also increased.

The Early Years:

In the early years of the Poor House, Christmas Day was fairly unexceptional. Christmas Day fell on a Monday in 1775, the day the committee usually met, and they did not seem to mind coming up to the Poor House on Christmas Day itself. Christmas is first mentioned in the Clifton House archives three years after the Poor House opened in 1774. In 1777 the Belfast Charitable Society committee decided that Anglican residents of the Poor House could attend the Christmas Day Service in St Anne’s Parish Church, pictured here. This church continued in service until the current Cathedral was constructed, and even then, the cathedral was built around the original church which was then deconstructed from the inside allowing worship on the site to continue uninterrupted. Those who attended the service in St Anne’s where only allowed to do so on the condition that they had to be back in the Poor House by dinner time. In 1792, the inmates of the Poor House were given an extra meat dinner on Christmas Day for the first time. This is described in the minutes as a “flesh meat dinner”. This ‘flesh meat’ was in contrast to some of the more unusual forms of meat that the Poor House offered including cow’s head and ‘brawn’.

Sadly Christmas 1817 was one of widespread hunger and malnutrition which caused illness and fever and many of the Poor House children spent Christmas Day in the Fever Hospital. However, for those residents still in the Poor House, they had one of their best Christmas dinners to date. Mr Ferrar sent 8 ducks as a gift and the Committee ordered “shins, necks and haughes” of beef for the flesh meat dinner instead of the usual cow head mentioned previously. Additional luxuries included beer for the ‘moderate use’ of the residents. This was the only time alcohol was permitted to be consumed in the Poor House. At any other point, you would have been confined in the black hole for such an offence! In the years following this, more little treats and new foods were added to the Christmas fare.

Mary Ann McCracken & the Ladies’ Committee:

In the 1820s Christmas was still a normal working day for most people, and children still went to school! The Ladies’ Committee went to great lengths to ensure the children had an enjoyable time at Christmas and helped to ensure the children were given small gifts including ribbons, nuts, apples and oranges- very exotic and expensive for the time! Christmas began to become the celebration we know today by the 1830s when the children of the house were asking the committee to recognize Christmas Day as a “holyday” and by 1836 the committee had declared Christmas Day a holiday for the residents of the Poor House. They even allowed the schoolmaster to go home for Christmas Day! Mary Ann also ensured that the children and the infirm received a sweet bun alongside tea and bread for supper on Christmas Day before retiring to bed.

Those children apprenticed out of the House to learn a trade or a craft did not escape the attention of Mary Ann and the Ladies Committee. In the early days of the apprenticeships, children would have lived in accommodation provided by the employer.  When the child was given holiday leave the Ladies ensured that they were permitted to return to the Poor House.  This is a very small thing, but many of these children were orphaned and had nowhere else to call home, so it was important that the Poor House remained a steadfast presence in their lives and gave them a proper Christmas.

Christmas during The Great Hunger:

During The Great Hunger, the festive period was a very sombre affair, as hunger and disease stalked the town and the Hospital on Frederick Street had to erect tents on its front lawn for some 700 patients. During the Christmas period, conditions were so bad that it was decided to prevent anyone from leaving the Poor House and to ban visitors in an attempt to prevent the diseases from getting into the Poor House. However, given the spiritual focus of Christmas celebrations at the time special arrangements were made with local churches to allow the poor to attend worship on Christmas Day but to be kept isolated from the rest of the congregation to prevent contagious disease.

Christmas in the Victorian Era:

The ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne led to many traditions we associate with Christmas today! In 1841, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began a tradition of decorating a tree in Windsor Castle each Christmas and people began to copy the idea. This was originally a Germanic tradition that Victoria grew up with. Around this time the tradition of Christmas stockings also began. Children of wealthier families would hang a stocking on Christmas Eve and it would be filled with sweet treats when they woke on Christmas Day. There is no record of when a tree first appeared in the Poor House, but there is evidence that the tradition of garlands of appropriate greenery was carried on throughout our history.

Christmas has always been a time of giving, however, when we think of the term philanthropy, it tends to conjure images of wealthy individuals donating money, but it can take many forms. As Christmas became the main holiday during the Victorian period, the focus was not just on religion but on other festivities too. Wealthy merchants paid for the residents of the Poor House to receive a proper Christmas Dinner similar to that which we all know and love today. In 1851, there was a write up on the Belfast Newsletter on the ‘Christmas Fair at the Old Poor House’ which recorded that the residents were “the happy sharers of Christmas festivity on a large and liberal scale’. The Christmas dinner was composed of Irish roast beef with plum pudding for afters. The residents ate Christmas dinner together with the exception of 50 infirm patients who were served dinner in bed. The feast was so numerous the Newsletter tells us that the children “regaled themselves until they were compelled to acknowledge they could eat no more”. The dinner itself was “washed down with liberal draughts of excellent ale”. 

By November 1882 the last child had left the Poor House, and we became one of the earliest Old People’s Homes in the city, christened the Belfast Charitable Institution. Philanthropy at Christmas time had continued to develop throughout the Victorian period as evident by this 1883 advertisement by McHugh and Co., Belfast, calling on people to ‘Remember the Poor ’during the festive season’ offering wholesale rates for large purchases of blankets, quilts and material for making clothes.

Christmas Visitors (1940):

In 1940 the Matron organised a collection amongst the staff and residents raising £12 9s to support the Spitfire Fund during the Second World War. As a way of thanking the residents for their generous contributions, members of the Royal Air Force attended the Benn Christmas Dinner in Clifton House in 1940. This was the last Christmas Dinner in the House until the residents returned in 1946, after their evacuation to Garron Tower on the North Coast due to the Belfast Blitz. Once again, we can see the ‘liberal draughts of good beer’ provided for the residents, and their special visitors.

Renamed Clifton House in 1948, today the building is home to Clifton House Heritage Centre! To find out more about the building and see what’s on, visit

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YEAR: 1774

Location: Clifton Street