Edward Benn was born at Tandragee , County Armagh in the year 1798. His father was John Benn.
As a boy Edward was educated at Belfast Academy, along with his younger brother George. The brothers moved to Downpatrick and set up a brewing business. Subsequently they bought an estate called Glenravel, near Ballymena.
Edward wanted to develop and cultivate the surrounding land and built many new roads to improve communications in the area. The Benn brothers started a distilling business using potatoes. This, however, was unsuccessful due to excise regulations and the potato blights of the 1840’s.
Business & Philanthropy
The Benn brothers moved to Liverpool but returned when iron ore was
(accidentally) discovered at Glenravel. Edward smelted the first ore in 1851. In 1866 he made a commercial deal with Mr James Fisher of Barrow-in-Furness, England and this became a very profitable business.
Edward Benn’s Interests & Charitable Works
Edward, as a keen historian, wrote articles for various periodicals such as The Journal of Kilkenny Archaeological Society and The Irish Penny Journal. In 1837 he was a member of The Belfast Natural Historical and Philosophical Society.
Edward Benn was also a very charitable man and a generous benefactor. His donations to the Belfast Poor House enabled Clifton House to add two new wings. He also contributed funds to Belfast Academical Institution, which enabled the school to open a department of mathematics.
Glenravel Street Hospital
With his brother George, Edward established a hospital in Glenravel Street in 1875 – The Belfast Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. The Belfast Charitable Society had donated land directly behind the Poor House for this venture. Professor Dr J.F. Hodges was elected the first President of the Benn Hospital.
The hospital cost £4,000 – it had 30 beds, operating rooms, pathology labs and its own pharmacy. The ‘Skin Hospital’ as it was known, was unfortunately, completely destroyed at Easter 1941 during the Belfast Blitz.
Great Patrick Street/ Clifton Street Hospital
In the late 1860’s, Edward Benn became aware of the voluntary work being carried out by Dr William McKeown. Dr McKeown provided free treatment of eye diseases among the poor of Belfast. Edward was so impressed that he built a small hospital for the good doctor to continue his work. This hospital opened on 21st January 1871 in Great Patrick Street. Edward was greatly involved with the institution and decided to build larger premises so more patients could receive medical attention. At his own expense he founded the Benn Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in May 1874 in Clifton Street. In
the first year alone 1,528 people were treated.
Edward also funded the Samaritan Hospital for Women on the Lisburn Road. At a public meeting to discuss the need for such a hospital David Cunningham announced that Edward Benn Esq. of Glenravel, proposed to erect, at his sole cost, a suitable building for the Samaritan Hospital.
A plaque at the hospital reads
Recognition for his Philanthropy
Edward had been suffering from ill-health for years and he died on 3rd August 1874 at 1 Craigdunloof, Dunagy, County Antrim. He was 76. His sister Harriet was with him at his passing.
Edward Benn is buried in Clifton Street Cemetery. Though barely remembered now, Edward Benn was one of Belfast’s greatest philanthropists and deserves our admiration and gratitude for his contributions to the city.
Mr Benn’s large contributions to charitable institutions in Belfast are well known. For many years his own life was nothing but suffering, and he considered the direction which his charities took the most effective for relieving the sufferings of others….he always looked fondly upon it (Belfast) as his native home, and was one of the many Belfast men whom for talent and usefulness the town has reason to remember with respect– Belfast Newsletter 5th August 1874
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