The Belfast Charitable Society was founded on a Friday afternoon in August 1752 in a tavern called The George Inn on the corner of North Street and John Street, Belfast. The newly formed Society was made up of a group of leading Belfast citizens who played a key role in the development of Belfast and were at the forefront of providing welfare for its people.
At the time, the care for the poor of Belfast was left to public-spirited citizens to do what they could and the Society was the driving force behind the Belfast Poor House.
The Poor House, which became known as Clifton House in 1948, was formed with the aim of providing a refuge for the poor of Belfast.
The members of the Society amazingly sold lottery tickets to raise the money for the development of the Poor House and after twenty years fundraising the £7,000 required to complete the construction was eventually generated.
The Society went to great lengths to get a suitable design for the Poor House and sought applications from many architects but in the end it was board member Robert Joy who was asked to produce his own design. These were unanimously accepted, leading to a complete amateur designing what is today the finest surviving piece of Georgian Belfast.
The Poor House opened in 1774 and provision was made at first for about 50 inmates, as they were know, but the numbers grew so rapidly that by 1820, there were 330 in the House, many of whom were destitute or deserted children. The deserving poor who could not be taken in were given licence to beg and identification badges to commend them to the charity of the citizens of Belfast.
The Poor House clothed and educated the inmates and endeavoured to provide them with a trade or a skill to take into their future lives.
One such scheme was the introduction of cotton manufacture and the Society agreed to allow experimental machinery to operate in the basement of the Poor House and the children to be instructed in its operation. These machines were the first in Ireland & they represented the spark that led to the subsequent industrialisation and growth of Belfast. The Poor House could not accommodate all the machines and eventually a cotton mill was built nearby where the majority of workers where children from the Poor House.
The Belfast Charitable Society would go on to be responsible for the origins of social welfare, funeral services and municipal burial grounds, Belfast’s first hospital, the provision of clean water and the creation of a fledgling police service.
Today Clifton House is one of the finest surviving pieces of Georgian Belfast.