The summer of 1752 was damp and cool in Belfast. On 28th August 1752 a group of nineteen leading merchants, burgesses (councillors) and one minister, the Rev James Saurin, left their businesses and homes and walked the short distance to the George Inn at the corner of North Street and John Street (now Royal Avenue). It was in this pub that the Belfast Charitable Society, Belfast’s oldest charity, was founded. The names of the men were recorded in the first minute book, which is held in the archive of Clifton House:

Margetson Saunders Esqr. Sovrn [Mayor] in the Chair

Revd. Mr. Saurin Valentine Jones William Stewart
Mr Jas. Adair Geo: Black Thomas Bateson
James Getty Samuel Smith John Hyde
Geo: Ferguson James Hamilton Saml. Hyde
Chas Hamilton George Macartney
Willm. Wilson James Ross
Robt. Wilson Thomas Gregg

The population of Belfast was expanding at a great pace. In the 1750s the population was approximately 8,500 people and would rise closer to 20,000 by the end of the 18th century. Belfast port was also growing, encouraging rural labourers to come into the town in the hope of work and a more prosperous life. The population growth put huge strain on the infrastructure of the town. The founders of the Belfast Charitable Society had witnessed first-hand the growing problems of destitution and poverty as the population and port expanded. The living conditions in Belfast for the poor were appalling and the diet limited at best. The houses of the Belfast poor were described as ‘ill-ventilated hovels’ with little or no sanitation. There was very little provision or support for the poor in the town, and the men who founded the Belfast Charitable Society set about providing assistance to alleviate the worst of the poverty prevalent in Belfast.
They decided that Belfast needed a Poor House and Infirmary. During the meeting, they considered that a proper way to raise the funds was through a lottery scheme. They resolved that 100,000 tickets at half a Guinea each would be sold, with £50,000 set aside for prizes. Ultimately, this scheme would fail, as did a second lottery in 1753. However, learning from their previous mistakes, the third lottery scheme was handed to Henry Joy, of the Newsletter family, to manage. If people pledged to buy a ticket, he would have sent a messenger boy to their home twice a day, every day until they paid. In this way, and with land grants from the Donegall family, the Poor House was built, opening its doors in 1774.
The majority of the original members of the Belfast Charitable Society were Presbyterian merchants who were influenced by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment championed rational investigation, tolerance, political liberty, and the belief in the essential goodness of human nature. Presbyterians, as well as Roman Catholics, suffered under the Penal Laws of the period and at least one of the founding members was descended from French Huguenot stock; the Huguenots had fled France in the previous century due to religious persecution. The Penal Laws impacted on all aspects of Presbyterian and Roman Catholic lives. The only university in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, refused to admit Catholics and would not grant degrees to ‘Dissenters’ (Presbyterians). The Penal Laws also impacted on the right to stand for political office, vote in elections, worship freely and own land.
Therefore, the ideals of the Enlightenment fed directly into the management of the Society, and later to the Poor House itself. The whole enterprise was non-denominational and assistance through out-door relief, or admittance to the Poor House, was based purely on need and the ‘good moral character’ of those seeking help.
Two hundred and sixty five years later, we remember these philanthropic individuals for planting the seed of what would ultimately become a Belfast institution. The story of the Belfast Charitable Society and its founders is not simply the story of one institution, but one of the wider history and development of Belfast from a small provincial town, to the city we know today. Many of these men did not live to see the project completed, but it was their drive and enthusiasm that led to the erection of the Poor House and Infirmary, which would provide relief for thousands of men, women and children through the years.