Easter has always been considered one of the most important Christian celebrations. Throughout the years, it would have been a time for families to come together and take part in the religious rituals associated with the Christian calendar. Preparations for Easter would have included spring-cleaning as well as a hearty meal on Easter Sunday to welcome the end of Lent. We have been searching through the vast archive of the Belfast Charitable Society to find out how Easter was celebrated at the Poor House and how it has changed since the 18th century.
As with all religious holidays, public worship featured heavily in the celebrations. Ministers usually came to the Poor House to preach, however for holy days of note, residents would be permitted to attend their respective churches. Permission to attend Easter services was given from 1776. By 1791 the Belfast Charitable Society had declared “Easter Monday” as a holiday and the children were give the day off school. The children were also permitted to visit family and friends. Leave from the house was always difficult to manage. In 1815 two boys absconded when out of leave for Easter and were not granted re-entry, however this was not always the case a few years later two children did not return from Easter break but were readmitted later “due to their age.” In Easter 1827 the Poor House quarantined itself as there was fever in the town of Belfast. The board of the Belfast Charitable Society took the decision when disease was rampant in the town to isolate itself to prevent the disease from coming into the Poor House. It can only be assumed Easter 1827 was very quiet and uneventful for the residents.
One Easter tradition which was embraced in the Poor House was the idea of the “Spring Clean.” Over-crowding and a general lack of understanding in how health and hygiene were related meant the Orderly (a member of the board given oversight of the house for two-week periods) spent a lot of his time imploring staff and residents to keep the house in better order. In accordance with Easter tradition each year a spring clean would be undertaken and repair works would have been carried out. The whitewashing of rooms was also completed. At Easter 1822, the Orderly, Henry Rowan, describes the house as, “sweet and well cleaned.” In 1896 the Orderly, Edward Grey remarked, “Spring cleaning was progressing very satisfactorily” high praise indeed for the Victorian era!
In 1882 George Benn, renowned historian of Belfast, passed away and bequeathed to the Society a sum of £1000 to provide a special dinner for residents of the Poor House at Easter and Christmas. Thereby George Benn, became part of the history of the town and Society he worked so hard to promote. Newspaper reports from the 1920s and 1930s give us a rare glimpse into the life of Clifton House at Easter between the two world wars. These newspaper clippings were carefully put together by staff to form a number of scrapbooks which Clifton House hold in their archive.
A dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and peas with sweets and fruit for after was the typical fare. Miss Hoey, the matron of Clifton House in the 1930s was renowned for procuring unusual food. In 1937 instead of the usual roast beef, she managed to source stuffed veal for 130 residents. One tradition that lasted for over 150 years was the giving out of snuff and tobacco. First recorded at Easter 1776, this custom continued until at least 1936, when it was referenced in the Newsletter. It was also a tradition that members of the Board would attend the Easter Benn dinner, helping to carve the meat or serve residents. After-dinner entertainment was a big part of the day and a variety of acts donated their time for the benefit of the elderly residents. Belfast was famous for variety and theatre shows. Typically, one of these travelling companies would be invited to provide the post-dinner entertainment for the Easter Benn Dinner. In 1931 it was the Radio Company, who were preforming at the Belfast Hippodrome, while in 1936 it was a tour company who were staging a production at the Empire Theatre. Sometimes the residents even provided their own entertainment with music in the grounds!
The Christmas Benn Dinner continues to this day although the Benn Easter dinner is no longer necessary. The tradition of celebrating Easter continues at Clifton House with the residents. This year they will have a craft making day trip as well as another outing for a religious service, and on the Saturday of Easter week, they will be entertained, as of old, by live music.