The archive at Clifton House is unique, vast and covers the activities of the Belfast Charitable Society from its foundation in 1752 to the present day. This year we will be using a variety of material from our archives to give you a sense of what the Poor House and Belfast were like 200 years ago.
By the 19th century Ulster was one of the most industrialised and prosperous provinces in Ireland, in part due to the development of the domestic textile industry. It was in the basement of the Poor House that the spinning of cotton first took place in Belfast in 1778. By 1811, 150 000 spindles were operating in Belfast employing 2000 spinners and 11 000 weavers. The port of Belfast benefited from the boom created by the Napoleonic Wars, but all was not to last and the town was badly hit by the post-war economic slump after 1815.
Following Napoleon’s defeat prices fell and rents increased. This led to a decline in the local cottage industries which pushed people into urban areas. In 1815 Mount Tambora, in modern day Indonesia, erupted throwing plumes of ash and gas into the atmosphere which encircled the globe. The following year, 1816, became known as the ‘Year of No Summer’ due to the environmental impacts of the volcanic eruption. In Ireland crops failed and fever spread leaving death and destitution in its wake. For those who could afford to emigrate ships in Belfast port would could take them anywhere in the world. Each edition of the Belfast Commerce Chronicle in 1817 lists ships travelling to Quebec, Montreal, New Brunswick, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Jamaica and Lisbon. For those left behind food and health were major issues.
The fever epidemic in 1817 was exacerbated by the unsanitary conditions in Belfast at the time. The tides were not regulated and the daily high tides saw sea water forced up the main sewers of the town in Victoria Street, High Street, North Street and Great St. George’s Street. Many of these streets became channels for a mixture of both human and animal excrement further endangering public health. The Poor House had to refuse additional admissions at the height of the crisis, and many were sent directly to the ‘Fever Hospital’ in Fredrick Street. Those from the Poor House who survived their stay in the Fever Hospital had to be put up in temporary lodgings in the town before their return to the Poor House, in order to ensure that their fever was completely cleared. Many, however, did not survive and the Poor House faced another crisis of where to bury the poor as the Stranger’s Plot in Clifton Street Cemetery was dangerously full.
The poor of Belfast and the surrounding areas were starving, and local outdoor relief was set up in some areas. In Ballymacarett, the ‘Soup Kitchen Committee’ distributed rations of soup, meal, potatoes and coal. Between December 1816 and March 1817 they had provide for upwards of 190 families, totally approximately 900 in one townland alone. This form of relief was used for short term emergencies, but the Poor House was put under a huge strain due to the large numbers requesting admission. The Poor House in 1817 provided a rich diet compared to what the poor could afford outside its walls. During this period potatoes and oatmeal were the staple diet for the majority of the poorest in society, with many not able to afford such luxuries as meat. The archives show that the Poor House gave the inmates one fleshmeat meal per week, had exotic items such as pepper, and provisions were made for tea and sugar. The Poor House was also attractive to the poor as they provided beds, night caps and bed gowns during a period where most people would have slept in their everyday clothes on bedding often composed of nothing more than damp straw.
Now that you have a feel for the period, join us on our Facebook @CliftonHouseBelfast and Twitter @CliftonBelfast pages for weekly updates as we take you through the events, stories and individuals associated with the Poor House 200 years ago.