Loss, Hope and Humility: Forster Green

We begin this theme focusing on Medical History by looking at a man whose name may be familiar to many of you. Forster Green was a local tea merchant who, motivated by personal loss, donated generously to help ease the suffering of others. Many may recognise him from the hospital that still bears his name on the Saintfield Road.

Born in Annahilt, Co. Down in 1815, Forster Green was the 8th son of William and Harriet Green. Born into the Quaker Tradition, he attended the Frederick Street Meeting House and was educated at Friend’s School Lisburn. He then apprenticed at his brother’s grocery business in Waring Street before completing his training in Liverpool.

Whilst Belfast would remember him as a prominent and successful businessman, his initial efforts in establishing his own business would prove difficult. After completing his training in Liverpool, he returned to Belfast and established his own business on High Street: Golden Cannister Tea and Coffee Establishment.  The business struggled, and Forster would spend much of the 1840’s paying off his debts. His inability to pay his debtors led to his temporary disownment from the Meeting on Frederick Street, but in the 1850’s his business began to thrive.

This period would see an improvement on a business front, however, ill health would claim the lives of many of his loved ones over the coming decades. In 1840 he married Mary Boadle and together they had 6 children: 5 daughters and 1 son. As with many families during the 19th century, illness and disease were a constant concern, and Tuberculosis heavily affected the Green family. 4 of his five daughters succumbed to the disease: Harriet, aged 18, Elizabeth, aged 21, Jane aged 15 and Anna Mary aged 24. His only son, Henry Forster Green also died as a result of TB. He had travelled to Egypt as the only effective treatments for Tuberculosis before antibiotics were rest and fresh air. It was thought the warmer climate free from the industrial smoke of Belfast would aid his condition, however, he died in Cairo in 1874, aged 25. Only one daughter survived: Emily. She would marry a linen merchant, Henry Uprichard and have 5 children of her own before passing away of Scarlet Fever in 1887, aged 34. All of Forster’s children died comparatively young and predeceased him.

Despite these many tragedies, Forster’s business would thrive, and at one point, he owned multiple premises in prominent areas of Belfast, including High Street, Royal Avenue and Cornmarket. The building on Royal Avenue was built in 1884 by Thomas Jackson. During the laying of the foundations of this building, a number of archaeological discoveries were found. It was reported in the Northern Whig (2nd March 1883) that “a number of human skulls and bones” were discovered, along with “what [was] evidently the remains of the wall of the old garrison.” They also discovered hollowed-out tree trunks that would have, at one stage, carried water to the garrison. These water pipes would have been similar to those pictured that were laid by the Charitable Society in the 19th century.

After Tuberculosis claimed so many of his children, Forster made a concerted effort to improve the lives and treatment of those suffering from the disease. In 1885, he donated £5000 (around £535,000 today) to the Throne Hospital, which stood on Whitewell Road, on the outskirts of North Belfast. The Hospital was a specialist Children’s Hospital which was opened in 1874 and designed by Timothy Hevey, who also designed St Patrick’s Church. Forster’s donation helped establish a specialist unit at the hospital to treat children with Tuberculosis. It provided valuable nursing care to a then uncurable disease and offered patients a degree of isolation from the rest of the hospital inpatients which helped limit the spread of the disease to different wards. He later purchased land and donated money to establish a new hospital at Fortbreda, which specialised in the treatment of Consumption and other chest diseases. It was named after him, and though the original building is now closed and derelict, the site continued to expand, with the Beechcroft Child and Adolescent Mental Health unit opening in 2010. The complex is still known as Forster Green Hospital.

Forster Green Hospital. Credit: Belfast Live

Establishing a new hospital is not an easy feat, especially as Forster would have been into his 80’s when the hospital opened in 1896. He utilised the experience he had gained during his time associated with the Frederick Street Hospital which sat beside the Society of Friends Meeting house. Many Quaker members served inside the hospital, with the Marsh Brothers also providing important assistance in the running of what became known as the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Forster died in 1903 at his home at Derryvolgie House on the Malone Road, where he had lived since 1861. He was survived by his second wife, Jane and his grandchildren. Derryvolgie house, another creation of Thomas Jackson, is still standing today. In his will he left further money to those less fortunate than himself. It is estimated that he donated around £200,000 to various charitable causes over the course of his life. Today, that is over £20 million. His death was keenly felt across the city:

“…the city has benefitted so largely through his magnificent generosity that one cannot adequately express the magnitude of the loss occasioned by his demise. It is no exaggeration to say that Belfast, by the close of this notable career, sustains one of the heaviest bereavements that has ever befallen it…”

Belfast Newsletter, 22nd October 1903

His company continued to operate into the 1960’s from a premises on Academy Street, after which their presence disappears from newspaper advertising. He contributed immensely through his charitable and philanthropic outreach, and it is fitting that the site which still bears his name continues to provide medical care to people, over a century after his death.

About the archivist:

James Cromey is the Archive Coordinator for the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. He has a background in Victorian, Industrial and Medical History and has received degrees from the University of Glasgow and Queens University Belfast. All research has been conducted to a high academic standard and has been fully referenced. If you would like to know more about a story or piece of research, or if you wish to tell us about your own story, email us at: archiveproject@nbheritagecluster.org

Members Involved

YEAR: 1830

Location: Frederick Street