Edward Benn was born in County Armagh in 1798 but attended school in the Belfast Academy on Cliftonville Road. After moving to Downpatrick, Co Down, himself and his brother George operated a successful brewing business in the town. Testament to the success of the business was their later moving to the expansive Glenravel Estate outside Ballymena, Co Antrim. This move proved unintentionally lucrative, with iron ore having been found on the site, the brothers moved into the iron casting business. Here, their fortune was made.
The brothers shared their wealth generously amongst various philanthropic ventures in the region, including their active membership in the Belfast Charitable Society. In 1870, the Society received a generous donation from an anonymous benefactor who offered financial support to allow the Poor House to grow alongside ‘the growth of the town and the consequent demands of it’. Later, the letter’s author was revealed to be Edward Benn. Consequently, in 1872, a new sizeable wing was extended to Clifton House, with Benn’s name and family crest attached. Benn later made contributions towards the Belfast Academical Institution (Inst) which enabled the school to build a brand new Maths department!
It is perhaps in the medical field that Benn’s contributions were most keenly felt. Benn was inspired by the work of Dr William McKeown, who was experimentally operating on eye diseases in Belfast. The Ulster Ear, Eye and Throat Hospital, which began building on Clifton Street in 1873, intended to provide a permanent place in which Dr McKeown and his colleagues could work. The hospital served the local community faithfully, including continuing to provide care as German bombs fell around it during the Belfast Blitz. Notwithstanding its incredible caring capacity, the hospital was demolished in the late 20th century to make way for the Westlink development. Later, in 1875, Benn funded ‘The Belfast Hospital for Diseases of the Skin’ on Glenravel Street (a street named after his family estate), on land behind Clifton House that was gifted by the Belfast Charitable Society. The specialist hospital offered experimental treatments for the skin such as baths with different properties including alkaline, creolin and iodine. The hospital attracted custom from across the world, until its destruction in May 1941 by a Luftwaffe bomb. The Street it once was situated on has also since been destroyed, claimed by the WestLink Motorway.
Edward Benn died in August 1874, before he could truly see the fruits of his charitable bequeaths in action on Clifton Street. The projects he funded, however, proved an invaluable source of medical care for decades and shaped the subsequent development of Clifton Street as an area of medical excellence. Edward Benn is buried in the Clifton Street Cemetery, as testament to the depth of his great local contributions.