The Belfast Charitable Society holds a vast archive covering its activities from its foundation in 1752 to the present day. This year we will be continuing to use a variety of material from our archives to give you a sense of what the Poor House and Belfast were like 200 years ago in 1818.
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. 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 carry them anywhere in the world. The impact of the crop failures of 1816 were compounded by poor harvests in 1817, which again lead to pressures on the Poor House and the Belfast Charitable Society in 1818. In one incident, a schoolmaster in County Londonderry recorded that “many lowland farmers were obliged to home their cattle from the mountain pastures, lest they should be bleed to death by the herds, who boil and ate the blood.”
The fever epidemic of the previous year continued unabated in 1818. In January 1818 the Poor House had defer the admission of children and many were sent directly to the ’Fever Hospital’ in Fredrick Street. In 1817 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 they were no longer infectious. However, by 1818 the Belfast Charitable Society had set up a Convalescent House in the town specifically for their residents who had been in the Fever Hospital. The Poor House provided all general hospital care to the town in 1818, from broken limbs to joint problems. This was in order to free up space in the other hospitals so that they could exclusively treat fever victims. 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 becoming dangerously full. It was not for another two years in 1820 that the decision was finally taken to expand Clifton Street Cemetery.
The poor of Belfast and the surrounding areas were starving, and local outdoor relief was set up in some areas. The Poor House in 1818 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 luxuries such as meat. The archives show that the Poor House gave the inmates one fleshmeat meal per week, had exotic items including pepper, and provisions were made for tea and sugar, as well as tobacco and snuff. 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.
However it was not all doom and gloom in the Poor House in 1818. A special dinner was held to mark the coming of age of Lord Donegall and the Grand Duke of Russia paid a visit to the house. The Belfast Charitable Society continued to use their influence to press for a ‘Lunatic Asylum’ for the proper provision of treatment for mental health issues. The education of the children remained paramount, and the Society ordered ‘as many copies of Sanford and Merton’, a book for children based on Enlightenment values, to be purchased as required.
The year 1818 opened with a Committee meeting on 3rd January with 365 residences in the Poor House and thus began another year in the history of the Belfast Charitable Society. Now that you have a feel for the period, join us on our Facebook and Twitter pages for regular updates as we take you through the events, stories and individuals associated with the Poor House 200 years ago in 1818.