When the Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752, there were no public banks in Belfast. The money for the construction of the Poor House was raised through a lottery scheme, and so some other form of security for the money was required. The Society procured an iron chest from Holland, fitted with three locks, at the cost of £8 17s 6d. The Spanish Armada Chest, as it became known, now sits in Clifton House, but was originally placed “at Henry Joy’s in the small closet opposite his Dining Room’. Henry Joy, John Callwell and John Galt Smith were appointed key carriers by the Belfast Charitable Society: all three were required to be in the room for the chest to be opened, providing additional security.
Prior to the purchase of this chest, the Society had been using the Custom House iron chest, under the care of James Gault Smith. Following the opening of the Poor House the chest was used to hold the money for the daily upkeep of the house and the residents. During the early years of the Poor House, people associated with the Charitable Society were heavily involved in setting up and running banks in Belfast. John Holmes, the man who went to London to negotiate water rights with Lord Donegall, was one of the ‘Four Johns’ who set up the Belfast Bank in 1787. In 1789, Belfast Charitable Society Board member Waddell Cunningham, set up a rival banking partnership in Belfast. While no members of our board today are involved in banking, the Society have joined in partnership with the Ulster Community Investment Fund and the Building Change Trust to open a £1m fund for community-based groups making a positive difference to society across Northern Ireland.