This week marks ‘National Apprenticeship Week’ and we thought it would be fitting to look back at the activities of the Belfast Charitable Society, who were earlier pioneers of apprenticeship schemes in the Belfast area.
Between 1841 and 1846 there was never less than 100 children in the Poor House with a peak of 242 at one point. The question of how best to care for them and prepare them for life outside the confines of the house was constantly on the minds of the Poor House guardians. It was known that children who came from impoverished backgrounds were likely to remain poor in adulthood. The children needed to be able to earn a living and the most practical way of giving them the opportunity was to use the apprentice system.
Apprenticeship schemes had a dubious reputation with employers being accused of slave labour. However, the Belfast Charitable Society wanted to take all the best elements of the concept of apprenticeships and make it work for the children in their care. The children were taught many skills within the house, making brushes being the first. This progressed on to linen and cotton spinning, gardening and farm work, as well as art and music. They were being trained in occupations which would allow them to live independently and support a family when the time came.
As early as 1783 and advert was placed in the Newsletter to let people know that apprentices were available. However, the conditions the apprentices were sent out on were very strict. They were not permitted be placed in any establishment were alcohol was sold and their employer was given instructions on what living standards and levels of pay they should provide. One example is that of Rose McCracken:
“The committee have apprenticed Rose McCracken to Mrs Margaret Rogers in Ballynure for three years upon the following terms – Her Mistress is to furnish her with meat, drink, washing and lodging, & towards clothing her said mistress is to allow thirty shill[ing]s the first year, forty shillings the second & at the end of three years, four pounds provided she behaves herself well during the term of her service…She is to be provided with the following articles of clothing before she leaves the house: vis a Peticoat [sic]; a shift; a pair of Stockings; a Blue and White Handkerchief; a pair of shoes…”
The measure of concern for the welfare of the children who had taken up apprenticeships was reflected in the demand by the Ladies Committee for the apprentices to undertake a probationary period to ensure that they were happy with their new situation outside the Poor House. Throughout the history of the Ladies Committee, their concern for the children’s welfare dominates their minutes. In a recommendation to the Men’s Committee they state that girls should not be apprenticed to weavers;
“…. as the sedentary occupation of winding pirns from noon till night in close damp weaving shop is highly injurious to health and spirits….”
The apprentices from the Poor House became much sought after, especially as the Industrial Revolution advanced in Belfast. They went to work in the mills, the ship yards, as domestic servants and some even went to join military bands because of the musical instruction received at the Poor House. Not all apprentices stayed on the island of Ireland though. John Delany, who was admitted into the Poorhouse in December 1815, was later apprenticed in May 1822 for 6 years in “Canada, America” to learn the ‘trade’ of farmer. The last of the children were apprenticed from the Poor House in the 1880s, and it subsequently became the ‘Belfast Charitable Institution’ – a home for older people.