Clifton House, located at the corner of Clifton Street and North Queen Street, is one of Belfast’s oldest buildings. This week’s blog post examines the functions of Clifton House, the philanthropic efforts of the Belfast Charitable Society, and the influential – though under-recognised – role of female industrial workers in Belfast from the 1770s.
The Belfast Charitable Society was formed in August 1752 ‘following a meeting of the town’s leading inhabitants’ at the George Inn, North Street. Their aim was to provide a Poor House and infirmary capable of providing shelter and medical assistance for the town’s poorest inhabitants. Efforts to raise the £3,000 necessary to construct a building took almost twenty years and was achieved through ‘members’ subscriptions and a nationwide lottery’. The foundation stone for Clifton House was laid in 1771 and the building opened for use in 1774. The building’s front elevation, dominated by a spire of ‘Scottish stone’, remains substantially unaltered and represents one of the ‘finest examples of Georgian architecture in Belfast’.
The activities of the Ladies’ Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society are of particular interest. This committee was formed in 1827 to ‘devote attention to women and children’ in Belfast and the prominent anti-slavery campaigner Mary Ann McCracken assumed a leadership role. Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry had visited Belfast the previous year and had encouraged the women of the town to become actively involved in the various charitable institutions within the town. Among the objectives of the Ladies’ Committee was vocational tuition for younger female inhabitants of the Poor House. Arrangements were made for young women ‘to go to private houses for a few hours a day, to assist in any household occupation’. If a suitable permanent employer was found, the women were encouraged into work (usually in domestic service, hand-weaving or dress-making) and were supported through monthly ‘after-care visits’ by members of the Ladies’ Committee.
The Ladies’ Committee was also involved in public hygiene initiatives. Public health and sanitary conditions were of particular concern in Victorian conurbations due to rapid population growth and overcrowding. ‘Mary Ann McCracken’, wrote historian R.M.W. Strain, ‘had the highest regard for soap and water’ and the Committee ‘secured an allocation for soap distribution’ for those admitted to Clifton House in an attempt to control infectious disease. The Committee successfully lobbied for the construction of an infant school in 1831 where ‘training for employment’ in ‘domestic work, needlework and shoemaking’ was provided. The new Belfast Union Workhouse, opened in 1841, significantly reduced admittances to Clifton House and the Ladies’ Committee folded in 1851.
Opportunities for women’s paid work outside of the home (or those of others) expanded significantly during the nineteenth century. Belfast – and, to an even greater extent, Derry/Londonderry – had unusually high levels of female participation in the industrial labour market. Belfast women made up over 40% of the workforce in 1911, compared with 30% in England. Although women were effectively barred from manual work in Belfast’s foundries and shipyards, female workers were over-represented in certain ‘light’ industries such as textiles and tobacco manufacturing. The largest of these factories were located in North Belfast and included Gallaher’s and the York Street Mill. Female participation in the industrial economy, however, ‘did little to increase women’s power within the home’. Married women’s employment was often seen as ancillary to their domestic and child-rearing responsibilities. For single working women, earnings were ‘in some cases as much as two-thirds less than what a man would receive for work of comparable value’ – a situation defended by most employers and trade unions alike until the 1960s.
The closure and social memory of these female industrial workplaces has been largely ignored in Belfast where, like other deindustrialised places, women are rendered almost invisible in industrial heritage. One former Belfast millworker interviewed in 2016 argued that ‘the linen trade was allowed to disappear because it was mainly women’. The aggressive re-branding of the city using Titanic-themed heritage has also served to obscure alternative narratives and reinforce male-centred perspectives of the industrial past.
The work of the Clifton House Ladies’ Committee in the early nineteenth century was both radical and forward-thinking. The Committee helped Belfast’s poorest female citizens gain a degree of economic autonomy and foothold in the local labour market. Although employment prospects were limited by the gender constraints of the period, the Committee lifted many women out of poverty by providing shelter, education and apprenticeship opportunities. This ethos still informs the philanthropic work of the Belfast Charitable Society which continues to this day.
 R.M.W. Strain, ‘The history and associations of the Belfast Charitable Society’ in Ulster Medical Journal, vol 22, no. 1 (1953), p. 33.
 Strain, ‘The history and associations’, p. 56.
 Mary McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770-1866: a Belfast panorama (Dublin, 2019), p. 247.
 McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, p. 249.
 Ibid., p. 250.
 Ibid., p. 269.
 Leanne McCormick, ‘The dangers and temptations of the street: managing female behaviour in Belfast during the First World War’ in Women’s History Review, vol 27, no. 3 (2018), p. 415.
 Margaret Williamson, ‘“I’m going to get a job in the factory”: attitudes to women’s employment in a mining community, 1945-65’ in Women’s History Review, vol 12, no. 3 (2003), p. 409.
 Olwen Purdue, ‘Surviving the industrial city: the female poor and the workhouse in late nineteenth-century Belfast’ in Urban History, vol 44, no. 1 (2017), p. 5.
 Jackie Clarke, ‘Afterlives of a factory: memory, place and space in Alençon’ in Steven High, Lachlan MacKinnon and Andrew Perchard (eds), The deindustrialized world: confronting ruination in post-industrial places (Toronto, 2017), p. 113.
 Pete Hodson, ‘Titanic struggle: memory, heritage and shipyard deindustrialisation in Belfast’ in History Workshop Journal, vol 87 (2019).