Philanthropy: Past & Present

Many (if not all) of the fifteen organisations comprising the North Belfast Heritage Cluster (NBHC) have engaged in philanthropic activity during their lifespan. Acts of philanthropy – defined as the desire to promote the welfare of others – were, and remain, especially pronounced around the Christmas season. This blog explores how cluster members have worked to benefit the lives and welfare of local communities in North Belfast.

Poverty and its relief ‘have always gone hand in hand’.[1] Philanthropic activities became widespread during the Victorian era – described as ‘the century of philanthropy’ – as Belfast’s population swelled dramatically and the city’s infrastructure strained under the pressure.[2] Charitable work also provided a means for members of Belfast’s civic elite to demonstrate their altruistic instincts – a vital trait for those seeking election to municipal bodies. The activities of Belfast’s philanthropic community were extensively reported in local newspapers. The sheer range of events hints at the extent of voluntary relief provision in the nineteenth-century, ranging from groups to ‘assist injured workmen, orphans, distressed gentlewomen, widows, the handicapped [and] the elderly of both sexes’.[3] Cumulatively, these voluntary organisations ‘could sometimes keep families off the union’ and from entering the much-feared Belfast Workhouse.[4]

Middle-class women were heavily involved in local philanthropic activity. Charitable work gave Victorian women, living under the strictures of a patriarchal cultural environment, the ability to ‘justify their entrance into society’ without ‘any great tension’.[5] Serving on charitable boards and philanthropic committees gave middle-class women a ‘sense of purpose and achievement’ and the rare opportunity to exercise societal power.[6] The Ladies’ Committee at Clifton House, chaired by Mary Ann McCracken, 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.

The Belfast Charitable Society (based at Clifton House) and North Belfast Working Men’s Club have philanthropic principles encoded in their constitutions. Both were established (in 1752 and 1894 respectively) to attend to the welfare of Belfast’s poorer citizens. The Danube Street club offered library facilities, evening educational classes and a holiday savings club for its working-class members. The Belfast Charitable Society was founded to alleviate the worst effects of poverty and distress in the city. Clifton House hosted ‘Philanthropy Fortnight’ in 2017 and the society continues its work addressing disadvantage across Northern Ireland.[7] The Oldpark Library was constructed using funds donated by the most well-known Victorian philanthropist – Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. In more recent times Dunlewey Addiction Services, formerly based at 36 Cliftonville Road, have offered free and confidential support and advice to those battling addition since 1987.[8]

Philanthropic activity was (and remains) especially pronounced around the festive season. ‘Christmas Day of 1883’, described a rather jaunty News-Letter editorial, ‘is now a matter of history, a question of memories of broken dolls, impaired digestions, and the reluctance to work which always follows a holiday’.[9] The Christmas Day activities of a wide cross-section of Belfast charitable organisations, including the Belfast Royal Hospital and the Home for Destitute Boys and Girls, were detailed. In the Royal, the Board of Management organised a carol service and donated ‘pipes and tobacco’ for patients ‘who wished to enjoy the fragrant weed’ in bed.[10] The editorial reminded readers that ‘we who never knew what it was like to want a meal; we with our friends, our homes, our hopes for the future’ should ‘do what we can for the poor little waifs and strays we see so numerously about our streets’.[11] At the Home for Destitute Boys and Girls, Crumlin Road, thirty-six children were treated to ‘roast beef and plum pudding, followed by apples and oranges’ funded by the ‘Christian energy’ of the home’s local benefactors.[12] The Belfast Charitable Society provided a Christmas dinner for the elderly using funds bequeathed by Edward and George Benn – a tradition which continues to this day.[13]

Philanthropic acts are not always financial or material in nature. Many of the NBHC members function as past or present places of worship and have catered to meeting the spiritual welfare of North Belfast’s citizens. The diversity of religious offerings – ranging from Annesley Street Synagogue, the Indian Community Centre, St Patrick’s Church and Redeemer Central – speaks to the levels of diversity, both culturally and spiritually, in this small corner of North Belfast.

The philanthropic services offered by members of the NBHC have been rendered more visible by the ongoing pandemic. Early on in the crisis, the Belfast Charitable Society organised an initiative to provide refurbished laptops to 225 schoolchildren across North Belfast.[14] Places of worship in North Belfast, including St Anne’s Cathedral and Frederick Street Meeting House, closed overnight and quickly adapted to remote means of pastoral care – telephoning and video-calling those in need of support. The vital work of the Quaker Service in supporting vulnerable families has continued unabated. As the frontiers of the welfare state are gradually rolled back, with the state often ‘advising the needy to turn to charity’ North Belfast’s network of charitable organisations, from food banks to churches, are once again filling the vacuum of responsibility.[15]


[1] Laurence M. Geary and Oonagh Walsh, ‘Introduction’ in Laurence M. Geary and Oonagh Walsh (eds) Philanthropy in nineteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2015), p. 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alison Jordan, Who cared? Charity in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast (Antrim, 1999), p. 13.

[5] Maria Luddy, Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Ireland (Cambridge, 1995), pp 1-2.

[6] Ibid., p. 215.



[9] Belfast News-Letter, 27 December 1883.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.



[15] Jordan, Who cared?, p. 237.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1904

Location: Donegall Street

YEAR: 1774

Location: Clifton Street

YEAR: 1889

Location: Clifton Street

YEAR: 1840

Location: Frederick Street

YEAR: 1887

Location: Clifton Street