September 4th - Clifton House.

A small group of members attended this evening event guided by Rosie Ford-Hutchinson. The Belfast Charitable Society, dating back to 1680, founded a poorhouse and infirmary here with 22 Presbyterian Board members in 1771 and established Clifton Street graveyard to serve it in 1796. It was designed by Robert Joy, on land granted by Lord Donegall and contributions for the development were received from Belfast merchants.

The institution was self-sufficient in food production growing enough on the adjacent land and keeping some farm animals. Various skills were nurtured here, including coffin making, and spinning skills were taught to children by Mary Ann McCracken in the basement.

The society took on a range of wide-reaching work including the certifying of street beggars, laying water pipes in the city and inoculating against smallpox.

The house has been in continuous use since its foundation although only one wing, to the west, remains of the original structure. In 2002 the Society decided to refurbish the house at a cost of £2m and build a new retirement home in Carlisle Circus. When these works were completed the east side of the building resumed use as a retirement home and the west side was given over to HELM housing. The central area, including the original Board Room, remains in public use for visitors, conferences and other events.

A number of interesting pieces of furniture and other items are displayed in the elegant front hall, corridors and stairway including two fine 18th-century sideboards, the original bell of St George’s Church, then in use as the Corporation church and two grandfather clocks.

An exhibition on the history of the house and the people associated with it, is displayed in the back hallway and stairway and includes a sample of a 19th century Belfast water pipe of elm, an iron coffin cage to prevent grave-robbing and a strong box, said to be from the Spanish Armada.

Upstairs we visited the Board Room with its reproduction table and chairs (the originals were sold off before the 2002 refurbishment) and many interesting portraits and documents around the walls. The nearby archive room has a fine display including the original minute books and copies of various maps of Belfast from 1685.

Claire Foley.

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Bust of Mary Ann McCracken

Water pipe made from Elm

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