As part of Philanthropy Fortnight, we have been exploring ‘giving circles’. We thought that this was an opportunity to focus in on the founding members of Belfast Charitable Society, who gave their own time, money and skills to help create the charity and build the Belfast Poor House and the town’s first hospital to relieve the sick and the poor. The work of this early incarnation of what would arguably become known as a ‘giving circle’ continues today through the work of the Belfast Charitable Society.

Friday August 28th 1752 was a cool evening in Belfast. After closing up their business and houses, a group of nineteen merchants, burgesses (councillors) and the Reverend James Saurin, made their way 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 was formed, with the aim to construct a Poor House and Infirmary. The Belfast Charitable Society is believed to be the oldest charity in Belfast. The names of the founders were recorded in the first minute book of the new society, which is now held in the Clifton House archives:

At the George, Friday 28th August, 1752

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, with the growth of its port and the textile industry attracting rural labourers into the town. The men who founded the Charitable Society witnessed the growing poverty and destitution that was gripping Belfast, and in the absences of proactive government intervention, they took matters into their own hands. The men at the inaugural meeting set about raising the money required to begin construction of the Poor House and Infirmary through a lottery scheme. The Society opened the doors of the new Poor House in 1774 and the institution would go on to help thousands of men, women and children.

The majority of the names of our founding members have largely been forgotten in the telling of the history of Belfast. However, these men form an important part of the story of not just the development of the Belfast Charitable Society, but of the growth Belfast. The Archive & Heritage Development Officer has brought together biographical information relating to these men, and their role in 18th century Belfast and beyond.

Margetson Saunders was the first chair of the Belfast Charitable Society. Margetson was Sovereign (Mayor) in 1752, but he had previously held the position three times in the 1730s, and then again in 1754. His daughter Ann married David Conyngham, who was associated with Springhill House, County Londonderry.

Rev James Saurin was the grandson of the French Huguenot Jean Saurin. James’s grandfather fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which led to the destruction of Protestant churches and schools, and the persecution of French Protestants. James Saurin was born in London in 1719 and married Jane Duff. He became Vicar of Belfast in 1747, a position he held for 26 years. Rev Saurin used his position to lobby the Lord Donegall for the land required for the Poor House. James Saurin lived to see the laying of the foundation stone of the Poor House, but passed away two years before the building opened in 1774. His grave is now suited under the communion table of St George’s Church, High Street, Belfast.

James Adair was a partner in the first private bank in Belfast with Daniel Mussenden and Thomas Bateson, a fellow founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. Their bank opened in the early 1750s, but was dissolved by 1757. This bank was involved in the second lottery scheme run by the Belfast Charitable Society.

James Getty was the son of Rev James Getty of Inverarary, Scotland. James Getty Jnr was a Belfast merchant and his signature appears on a number of petitions to notable figures in relation to Irish trade, the American War and the impact of British legislation. Many other founding members also signed these petitions including Thomas Gregg, George Ferguson, William Wilson, Robert Wilson and Valentine Jones.

William Wilson was a merchant with interests including coal, tobacco and textiles imported from Glasgow. He was also amongst the signatories of a minority report on financing Belfast’s first police force.

Robert Wilson is believed to be the same Robert Wilson who sold carpets and fabrics in Belfast. Robert was the sole proprietor of the business, asfter the dissolution of a partnership with one B. Wilson. He may be the same Robert Wilson who owned a bleach green at Castlereagh during the same period.

Charles Hamilton was a Scottish merchant who came to Ireland to expand his business ventures. Unfortunately, he was not successful and his businesses failed. When he died of typhus in 1759 he left his widow and three children with a large amount of debt. His widow sent one of her daughters, Elizabeth, to live with a prosperous Scottish aunt and uncle. Elizabeth Hamilton would grow up to become a well-known novelist, satirist, educationalist and essayist.

Valentine Jones was a merchant with West Indian interests – Belfast’s trade with the West Indies was more important than its trade with continental Europe. The Valentine Jones dynasty, which had premises at Winecellar Entry off High Street, Belfast, were wine merchants and rum and sugar importers who had established a thriving agency in Barbados where they bought goods from the planters and also sold goods to them. Thomas Bateson, another founding member, was Valentine Jones’s partner. Valentine was deeply involved in a number of projects in Belfast including the Lagan Navigation proposal, the Brown Linen Hall and of course, the Belfast Charitable Society, the latter two he helped to finance.

George Black held the position of Sovereign on five occasions (1775, 1776, 1782, 1783 and 1785) and was later appointed Vice-President of the Belfast Charitable Society. George was the brother of Dr Joseph Black, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, who was famous for his work on carbon dioxide and latent heat.

Samuel Smith, born 1693, was a leading Presbyterian in Belfast and a member of the First Congregation in Rosemary Street. He resided in High Street with gardens extending to Ann Street. He passed away in 1760 aged 67 years.

James Hamilton was appointed as an ‘Overseer of the Poor’ in 1757 and went on to serve at least two terms as Sovereign of Belfast in 1761 and 1769.

George Macartney served as a Sovereign of Belfast. His family line had a proud tradition of serving as burgesses and as Sovereigns. Members of his family, all named George Macartney, served at various points as Sovereign; the first recorded in 1662 and the last to serve was in 1768. It is likely that the George Macartney who was present at the first meeting of the Belfast Charitable Society was the Sovereign of the same name who donated the ‘Poores Money’ to the Society in 1768.

James Ross was a merchant who owned a number of vessels in Belfast including the brig Koulikan and Ross. The ship registers show the Ross travelling between Belfast, the West Indies and New York. He is a kinsman of Waddell Cunningham, another merchant, who was involved in the Belfast Charitable Society.

Thomas Gregg was the son of John, a Scottish blacksmith. Thomas was a general merchant and involved in public enterprises in Belfast. In the 1740s he set up a shop in North Street selling provisions including French wine, Spanish fruit, London porter, coal and blue powder for bleaching linen. Thomas bought a small ship and renamed her The Greg which he used to trade with the West Indies, and he had his crew purchase flaxseed in New York where he acquired a merchant partner in the United States in Waddell Cunningham. Thomas invested in Plantations in the West Indies, and his brother John purchased slaves for the Greg and Cunningham ‘Belfast’ Sugar Plantation in Dominica. He spent much money searching for coal and mineral deposits in the northern counties of Ireland and bought land in America. Thomas invested in the Lagan Navigation, glass manufacturing in Belfast, and founded the Downshire Pottery. When Waddell Cunningham returned to Ireland, the two partnered again to establish a vitriol works for bleaching linen, on an island at Lisburn on the Lagan in 1766. In 1783 Thomas was a founding member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and in the same year, for reasons unknown, he refused a Baronetcy.

William Stewart built his family seat at Wilmont (now Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park), about 1765, which included an extensive farm, with a sizeable bleach green. William was a merchant with numerous interests including a partnership in the Newry Flour Mill Company and shares in the Belfast Discount Company. The Belfast News-Letter of 4 March 1766 records him selling Bristol Crown glass, Welsh slates, lignum-vitae and various kinds of forest trees from premises at Drumbridge. He also donated £300 to the building of the Linen Hall in Belfast in 1782. William Stewart is commemorated by a tablet in the porch of Drumbeg Parish Church.

Thomas Bateson was a business partner of Valentine Jones and his name frequently appeared in advertisements offering for sale large quantities of West Indian produce. Thomas was also a partner in the firm Mussenden, Bateson and Co, wine merchants, in Winecellar Court, Belfast. Bateson and Mussenden also collaborated with James Adair to open Belfast’s first bank. Thomas resided at Orangefield House, Knockbreda and Thomas’ son Robert resided at Belvoir Estate. Robert continued his father’s philanthropy during his time as landlord giving each of the poor in Knockbreda a bed to help alleviate their poor living conditions.

John Hyde was active in all manners of public life in 18th century Belfast. His main business venture was in partnership with on Mr Legg in the Rosemary Street Sugar House.

Samuel Hyde, of Hydepark, was the second name on a list of subscribers in 1740 to a petition from the merchants of Belfast to the Government respecting the conditions of the town’s docks.  Samuel was a founding member not only of the Belfast Charitable Society, but also the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, He died at his house in Castle Place, Belfast. His daughter Elizabeth Hyde married another founding member Thomas Greg

Prior to the construction of the Poor House, members of the Belfast Charitable Society were officially appointed as ‘Overseers of the Poor’ in December 1757. Of the founding members appointed there was Rev James Saurin, James Getty, Samuel Smith, Valentine Jones, James Adair, John Hyde, and George Ferguson.

Today, nearly 267 years since the original giving circle, Clifton House is still home to the Belfast Charitable Society who share the building with Radius Housing. Radius provides sheltered accommodation on one side, and a 27 bed residential home for mild to moderate dementia patients. Belfast Charitable Society continues in the philanthropic tradition of its founders to tackle poverty and disadvantage in the myriad ways it presents itself in society today- from working with UCIT and Building Change Trust to give out over £1m in unsecured loans to local groups, to partnering with NI Hospice to improve their end of life care facilities.