Captain John McCracken, father of Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken, was a seafarer by trade. It was said that the Belfast skyline of those days was broken only by the spire of the Poor House, the cupola of St Anne’s Church, the Market House belfry and when Captain McCracken’s ship was in port her masts, alongside other vessels, which were clearly visible from the opposite end of High Street.
Captain McCracken operated in an age when most ship captains and crewmembers would have supplemented their income by smuggling. However, Capt McCracken took his ‘Custom House Oath’ very seriously, and would not allow his crew to smuggle goods, considering it unfair to the honest trader. Capt McCracken established a rope works on the County Antrim side of Belfast Lough but he was also interested in social welfare, establishing the Marine Charitable Society; a charity into which sailors could pay regular contributions and receive benefits in sickness and old age. Through this scheme, and his involvement in the Poor House with his brothers-in-law Robert and Henry Joy, the Belfast Charitable Society gave sailors refuge.
The archives of Clifton House are peppered with references to seafarers. In May 1776 John Reben, aged 14 years;
‘a Swede who ran away from the Brig Catharina Magdalene, six months since, vessel belongs to Stockholm, Gustavus Magnus Helman Master, for bad usage- is now brought to this House in a very reduced state of Health by sickness, his Body being much broken out- and was found begging in the Street.’
The Society admitted him into the House for medical care and ordered he be ‘clothed & washed’. John remained in the house for two months before he ‘eloped’.
‘John Debutt, Drummer, of Castle Street, appeared, & informed the Committee, that ten days Since, a Sea Faring Danish Subject; came to his House for Lodging, on his way to Newry, where his Ship lay: having landed out of the Glourious Memory in this Port- and that he fell sick the same night; & still continues- Praying the means of support for the Stranger’.
It was Captain John McCracken who investigated the case and the Charitable Society ‘advanced Debutt 11/ 4.5d for subsisting the Swede’, before he was well enough to catch the next ship with his country’s flag on it.
Captain John McCracken died in 1803, but his family continued to operate the Marine Charitable Society. His son, Francis McCracken formally handed over the funds and consequent obligations to the Belfast Charitable Society in September 1817.