As we come to the end of the academic year, it is the perfect time to look back on the children of the Poor House and education offered to them.
The first child was admitted to the Poor House in 1775 almost by accident. Ann Curran entered the infirmary and stayed for five months. She sought permission to leave and return to Richhill, but appears to have had a change of heart and applied to the Poor House to return but also take her two and a half year old daughter. Permission was granted, though it was noted in the minutes that it was not to be considered setting a “precedence” The experience must have went well and because the problem of orphan and destitute children was growing in Belfast and by 1776 the board had resolved to admit poor children not exceeding 20 in number.
The board agreed not only to feed, clothe and take care of the children, but more importantly to educate them. There are many elements of the Poor House which can be said indicate the forward thinking and ingenuity of the Board members at the time. However, it could be argued that educating the children was the single most important contribution the Society made to the children that came into their care.
Teaching the children of the Poor House was not easy. It was difficult to maintain discipline and the children came from all types of troubled and abandoned backgrounds which caused many different problems. However, the Society were not easily dissuaded. In addition to a teacher they decided to appoint an independent schools inspector to continue to improve the levels of education they provided. Rev. Edward C. Roe reported in 1866, “From what I know of this school, considering the training and education it gives I should be surprised to hear if many passed through it without having reached a high standard of moral character and general intelligence.”
The Ladies Committee formed in 1827 and took particular interest in the wellbeing and education of the children. Mary Ann McCracken along with Elizabeth Fry and others inspected every element of a child’s day within the Poor House and gave regular feedback to the Committee on how to improve the lives of the children. It is well know the tenacity demonstrated my Mary Ann McCracken when she perceived the Men’s committee were not taking her recommendations on board. The Minute books have many letters written by Mary Ann imploring the men to make the changes she wanted. Increasingly impatient and terse comments are entered into the record to force the men to act faster. The Ladies Committee recommended a broad education for this children, with specialist teachers brought in to instruct the children in music, languages, art and technical drawing. This was an extraordinary move, given that most of the labouring classes within Belfast would have been illiterate.
From the initial 20 that were first permitted entry to the Poor House, the numbers continued to climb. Between 1821 and 1846 there were never less than 100 children in the Poor House with a peak of 242 at one point in time. Overcrowding was a real concern. In the children’s rooms in 1827 a count was made of the number of occupants there was to each bed. 12 beds contained 2 children, 26 has three children, 11 had four children, 3 beds contained 5 children and remarkably 2 beds held six children. It was unsustainable and the members of the Society were unhappy at the situation. However, they were constantly torn between increasing the numbers of the Poor House even if it created problems within the walls rather than leaving people outside and unable to sustain themselves. The Belfast Board of Guardians was not formed until 1839 with the Workhouse not opening until 1841. It was a bleak situation for those who found themselves destitute; there were very few avenues of assistance to which they could go. Therefore, the pressure on the Poor House must have been immense.
Within the archive we have a letter from a man who simply signed it J.T. but it tells us all we need to know about the profound impact growing up and receiving such a comprehensive education in the Poor House could have, “Permit me to express my gratitude to those gentlemen who sacrificed time and money to the good purpose of educating and supporting an orphan who would very probably be led into a life of vagrancy, pauperism or maybe crime…I cannot forget, the kindness and sympathy of the Matron even after leaving”
While the children might cheer this week as they break up for their holidays, there is no doubt the importance of education has not diminished throughout the years. It won’t be long before the uniforms and school bags are required again.