Reverend William Bristow was born in 1736 in Wiltshire, England but later made his name in Belfast. Bristow was an Anglican minister and the Vicar of St Anne’s Cathedral between 1772-1808. He was also elected as the Lord Mayor of Belfast between 1786–88, 1790–96, and 1798. As a result of these roles, Bristow became one of the most important men in 18thcentury Belfast.
Bristow was particularly active in the Belfast Charitable Society during his life. For example, he bequeathed a portion of his land behind Clifton House to the Society in 1795 for use as the new burying Ground. This is now what we would recognize as the Clifton Street Cemetery and the resting place of between 14,000-16,000 people! Further evidence of his support of the society is on view on the foyer of Clifton House today. In 1775 Bristow paid the equivalent of £28 to restore an impressive, historic grandfather clock to once again chime.
Despite his importance in Belfast and the Belfast Charitable Society specifically, Bristow proved a divisive figure. He was instrumental in shutting down a Presbyterian Sunday School opened by political radicals such as Henry Joy McCracken. Later, Bristow actively pursued the arrest of McCracken in 1796 following the failed United Irishmen movement. Sympathiser of the United Irishmen and renowned social critic Martha McTier also disliked Bristow greatly and described him as a ‘Pomposo’. This is thought to be on account of his instance on wearing his mayoral chains on regular, non-state occasions.
Despite considerable ill-feeling towards Bristow, following his death on 22ndDecember 1808 a large turned crowd turned out for his grand funeral. He is, however, now a largely forgotten figure of Belfast’s past with no photographs and little writing about him in circulation today. It is important his contributions to the Belfast Charitable Society and wider Belfast are recognized today.