Clifton Street Cemetery: ‘A veritable Westminster Abbey in miniature’

Clifton Street Cemetery occupies a small plot of land adjacent to Clifton Street, hemmed in by the Westlink to the south and Antrim Road to the north. The cemetery – then known as the ‘New Burying Ground’ – opened in 1797 to ease the pressure on the town’s existing parish church burial sites. The site, then a mere ‘open field’ on the north-western extremity of Belfast, became ‘for generations the fashionable cemetery’ for interring the town’s political, mercantile and industrial elite.[1] This blog post examines the origins of Clifton Street Cemetery and some historically important Belfast families buried therein.

Clifton Street Cemetery

An 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’.[2] 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.[3] Burials declined considerably by the 1890s and ceased altogether in 1995.

Writing in the 1950s, R.W.M. Strain, a local doctor and historian, described Clifton Street Cemetery as ‘a veritable Westminster Abbey in miniature’.[4] ‘Here’, Strain continued, ‘can be epitomised the history of the town from its beginnings … industry, philanthropy, medicine, politics, and the church – all are represented’.[5] Three graves at Clifton Street Cemetery capture this cross-section of Victorian Belfast.

Dunville family vault, Clifton Street Cemetery

A ‘small simple wedge-shaped block of red granite’ marks the grave of Mary Ann McCracken.[6] The McCrackens were prominent members of Belfast’s emerging industrial class and noted ‘philanthropic employers’.[7] The family – Mary Ann included – were also distinctive for their radical politics. Mary Ann, a well-known social reformer in the city, was a ‘strong advocate of women’s rights’ and forthright anti-slavery campaigner.[8] By the 1850s, Mary Ann had become frustrated at the loss of the radical political atmosphere evident in Belfast during her younger years:

I am sorry to say that Belfast once celebrated for its love of liberty is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are now but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates for the good cause … not one man … and none to distribute papers to American emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89.[9]

Mary Ann was the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, a United Irishman hanged in Belfast for his participation in the 1798 Rebellion. The bones ‘believed to be those of Henry Joy himself’ were exhumed and re-interred along with Mary Ann following her death, aged ninety-six, in 1866.[10] Their headstone reads ‘she wept by her brother’s scaffold, 17th July, 1798’.

The Dunville family vault (pictured above) 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.[11] The Dunvilles were whiskey distillers and amassed considerable wealth producing a popular brand of whisky called ‘V.R.’ – named after Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina).[12] John Dunville came from a humble background and started his working life as an apprentice at a local tea and whiskey merchants. Dunville, who was interred in the family vault in 1851, bought out this firm which passed through five generations until the company was liquidated in 1936.[13] Dunville Park was donated by the family to Belfast Corporation in 1891. The Dunville whiskey brand was revived by Echlinville Distillery, Kirkcubbin, in 2013.[14]

Mitchell’s (now demolished) screw-pile lighthouse was ‘placed in Belfast Lough, Carrickfergus Bay, on the tail of the Holywood Bank, about a mile from the coast of Down’[18]

Dublin-born engineer Alexander Mitchell was interred at Clifton Street Cemetery in 1868. Mitchell suffered from poor eyesight and became blind at the age of twenty-two. Despite this impairment, Mitchell established and managed a brickworks in Belfast for over thirty years. The family home was in Ballymacarrett, then a small village on the eastern bank of Belfast Lough. Mitchell, observing shipping and tidal patterns from his house, ‘thought that many lives could be saved if a method could be devised of building lighthouses on shoals or sandbanks’. Mitchell designed the submarine screw pile, allegedly inspired by corkscrew and ‘the force necessary to open a bottle of wine’. Mitchell successfully tested his invention, with the aid of his son and a rowing boat, in Belfast Lough.[15] Mitchell patented his design and was commissioned to build several lighthouses across the British Isles. Dundalk lighthouse, erected in 1849, is still in use.[16] Mitchell was awarded the Telford Medal for his contribution to engineering advancement.[17]

It should be noted that Clifton Street Cemetery, whilst known for its status as the burial site of Belfast’s nineteenth-century elite, was, from its opening, also the resting place of Belfast’s poorer citizens. The cemetery contains mass graves dug in response to the 1832-3 cholera outbreak and the 1845-6 potato famine. These unmarked graves tell a different story of a Victorian city struggling with dramatic population growth, unsanitary housing conditions and inadequate medical provision.

Footnotes:

[1] R.W.M. Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society: a story of urban social development (Oxford, 1961), p. 243.

[2] Strain, Belfast, p. 245.

[3] Strain, Belfast, p. 247.

[4] Strain, Belfast, p. 249.

[5] Strain, Belfast, p. 249.

[6] Strain, Belfast, p. 251.

[7] Mary McNeill, The life and times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1770–1866: a Belfast panorama (Dublin, 2019), p. v.

[8] Priscilla Metscher, ‘Mary Ann McCracken: a critical Ulsterwoman within the context of her times’ in Etudes Irlandaises, vol 14, no. 2 (1989), p. 144.

[9] Mary Ann McCracken to Madden, Belfast, 3 September 1858, cited in Metscher, ‘Mary Ann McCracken’, p. 143.

[10] Strain, Belfast, p. 251.

[11] https://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/community/cemeteries/cliftonstreetcemetery.aspx

[12] http://www.dumville.org/whisky.html

[13] http://www.dumville.org/whisky.html#:~:text=as%20an%20apprentice.-,Dunville%20%26%20Co.,was%20still%20a%20going%20concern.

[14] https://dunvilleswhiskey.com/story/

[15] Jim Blaney, ‘Alexander Mitchell (1780-1868): Belfast’s blind engineer’ in History Ireland, vol 14, no. 3 (2006).

[16] https://www.irishlights.ie/safety-navigation/our-lighthouses/dundalk.aspx

[17] Strain, Belfast, p. 258.

[18] Alexander Mitchell, ‘On submarine foundations; particularly the screw pile and moorings’ in Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. 7 (1848) pp. 108-32.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1797

Location: Clifton Street