Thomas McCabe – Champion of the Poor & the enslaved

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Spinning Jennys - Families at work (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
Spinning Jennys – Families at work (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)


Thomas McCabe was born in Lurgan in 1739. He was the son of Patrick McCabe, a watch-maker, and Mary Maziere. Mary was born of French parents Samuel de la Maziere and Jeanne Vallee. Samuel was a jeweller.

Thomas was the eldest of four boys Thomas, William, John and James. In 1762 Thomas and William Mc Cabe arrived in Belfast and established a watch-making and jewellery business. William later moved to Lisburn and then to Newry with his own jewellery business.

The Four Corners in 1841
The Four Corners in 1841

Thomas McCabe in Business at the Four Corners

The original store was in Donegall Street but subsequently the firm relocated to 6 North Street, near the Four Corners. The Four Corners was the site of the Exchange and Public Assembly Rooms, the centre of Belfast’s commercial and political life. The four corners being the junction of Donegall Street, North Street, Rosemary Street and Waring Street.

The business seems to have prospered and Thomas was so confident in his product that he advertised –

“Thomas McCabe, lately settled near the Four Corners in Belfast, proposes that gentlemen who please to deal with him may have a trial for a year before payment on any kind of watches, at the price of eight guineas and upwards”

Belfast Newsletter 26th July 1762
View towards the Exchange/ Assembly Rooms and the Four Corners
View towards the Exchange/ Assembly Rooms and the Four Corners

Involvement with Belfast Charitable Society

Charitable Works

Thomas McCabe, a Presbyterian, was active in the commercial and industrial development of the town. However, he was also involved in various charitable enterprises including energetically supporting the First Sunday School established in Belfast, set up by Henry Joy McCracken and being an original trustee of the Lancastrian School on Frederick Street. He was also a founding member and one of the principal subscribers of the Belfast Charitable Society.

Clifton House Entrance Gate
Clifton House Today

With the opening of the Poor House, known as Clifton House, in 1774, the destitute poor and infirm were given food, shelter and clothing.

It was also the aim of the Society to provide inmates with a skill or trade to enable them to escape the cycle of poverty.

Spinning Jennys

With this in mind McCabe and his colleague Robert Joy travelled to Lancashire in England, to discover the workings of the cotton industry.

On their return the men financed at considerable expense the setting up of handlooms ‘spinning jennys’ in the Poor House for spinning cotton. They were aided in their endeavours by the technical knowledge of Nicholas Grimshaw of Whitehouse.  Women and children were trained in this skill and so the cotton industry was begun in Belfast.

“Robert Joy inspired his friend Thomas McCabe and together, at their own expense, they installed in the Poorhouse the machinery necessary to teach children in the House to spin and weave cotton, so that they could later be employed, without further apprenticeship, in the mills that he hoped would soon be started in the town”

Mary McNeill,  The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1960
Using the the spinning jennys (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
Using the the spinning jennys (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)

Belfast Cotton Mills

Success of the Mills

The enterprise proved so successful that McCabe, Joy and Captain McCracken established their own mill in Rosemary Lane in 1784. In 1787 they added further premises on the Falls and built the first water-powered cotton mill in Ireland.

“Young Mr Nicholas Grimshaw was also interested, and though the mill that he built at Whitehouse in 1779 was actually the first in the country, it was followed in 1784 by that of Messrs Joy, McCabe & McCracken which included weaving also and was the first mill in Ireland to be operated by water power”

Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1960

McCabe in conjunction with Englishman William Pearce, actually invented an improved loom for spinning cotton and linen, but had insufficient funds to put it into production. An application for finance to the Irish Parliament was rejected in 1791 and the device was abandoned.

“In 1800 a total of 27,000 people were employed, directly or indirectly, in the cotton industry in Belfast and within a 10 mile radius, including Lisburn. Of this number 13,000 were directly employed in the cotton industry. Sadly even today no monument commemorates the cotton manufacturers Robert Joy, Thomas McCabe and John McCracken”

John McCabe,  A United Irish Family: The McCabes of Belfast, Familia 1997
Spinning cotton (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
Spinning cotton (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)

The United Irishmen

Thomas was also a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen. He took the chair at its inaugural meeting on 18th October 1791. He believed very strongly that all men are equal and should be treated as such. The aim of the United Irishmen was an Ireland free from English interference and where people of all faiths should be respected and treated fairly and justly.

When the organisation of United Irishmen was proscribed in February 1793, the members of the Society felt that as political methods had been ignored and undermined by the government they had no option but to turn to force.

While Thomas himself was not involved in any military action, the leaders of the Society frequently met at the McCabe home. This 2-storied house named The Vicinage, due to its vicinity to the town, was situated on the Antrim Road. It is also thought that McCabe helped ‘reassign’ for United Irishmen use, six field cannons from the Belfast Volunteers, of which organisation he was a member.

Thomas’s liberal and radical views were well known in the city and his property and business were frequently attacked and raided by the military. On 9th March 1793, a mob of drunken soldiers who were barracked at the George Inn, on the corner of John Street and North Street, went on the rampage. McCabe’s shop, among others, was again attacked and looted.

“McCabe, in addition to being a successful trader and craftsman of reputation, was also very advanced in his political views, so it came to pass that when a military riot occurred in Belfast in the month of March 1793, and all those suspected of disloyalty or Republican opinions had their hanging signs torn down, windows smashed, and property injured, the windows and sign of McCabe received particular attention”

Northern Whig 7th February 1924
McCabe article in the Northern Whig 7 February 1924
McCabe article in the Northern Whig 7 February 1924

‘An Irish Slave’

Thomas fed up with the continual harassment refused to have the shop windows repaired and left them in their shattered state. Instead he put up a sign reading

‘Thomas McCabe, an Irish Slave

Licensed to sell Gold and Silver’

Thomas McCable

There is however, another version of why McCabe posted his ‘Irish Slave’ sign. This claims it was an act of defiance against the Gold Assay Act of 1783. This required all gold and silversmiths to register at Goldsmiths Hall in Dublin. Apparently Thomas felt this was an infringement of his civil liberties.

Campaign Against Slavery

McCabe’s Anti-Slavery Stance

McCabe’s strong moral conscience made him a vociferous campaigner against slavery. The United Irishmen to a man (and woman – see Mary Ann McCracken) were vehemently anti-slavery. Many of them refused to eat sugar, molasses, rum or any product associated with the slave trade.

Chains image
Chains image courtesy of

Opposition to Belfast Company for Slave-Ship Trading

Early in 1786 a group of Belfast merchants led by Waddell Cunningham and his brother-in-law Thomas Gregg met at the Public Assembly Rooms. These were men who had prospered from the West India Trade company.

With Waddell presiding, the meeting was to discuss the proposal for setting up a Belfast Company for Slave-Ship Trading. It was envisaged that local ships would export goods to Africa; here they would pick up a ‘cargo’ of slaves. The journey would continue to the West Indies where the slaves would be sold and luxury merchandise, such as sugar and rum bought from the plantations, would be brought back to Ireland.

A Prospectus had been drawn up and interested investors were invited to sign.

At this point Thomas McCabe stood up and fiercely denounced the project. He declared –

“May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document!”

Thomas McCabe, 1786

Thomas shamed the gathered merchants and businessmen and the Belfast Slave Ship Company was never formed.

Thomas McCabe denounces slave ship proposals
Thomas McCabe denounces slave ship proposals

“They saw the opportunity to acquire vast wealth from this trade, similar to what had been achieved by the merchants of Bristol and Liverpool. What they hadn’t taken into account was the attitude of many of the radical Presbyterians of Belfast. The intervention of Thomas McCabe, a member of the First Presbyterian Church, meant that the company never saw the light of day”

Raymond O’Regan,  Hidden Belfast, 2010


Waddell Cunningham

Waddell Cunningham was one of the foremost Belfast merchants of the late eighteenth century. He was well known in commercial, civic and political life. He was the first President of the Chamber of Commerce and on the board of the Harbour Corporation. It took a brave man to stand up against him.

Cunningham started his career as a vitriol manufacturer. At this time vitriol or sulphuric acid was used to make washing soda and in the textile bleaching process. A talented entrepreneur he quickly invested in ship owning and other businesses and also became involved in banking.

Waddell Cunningham
Waddell Cunningham portrait from Sidelights on Belfast History, S. Shannon Millin, 1932

Waddell was responsible for the construction of the first Bank Buildings on the Royal Ave – Castle Street Corner. It was originally known as Cunningham’s Bank. Waddell Cunningham was described as the “richest man in Belfast”. He made huge profits from his Dominican plantation, which he named Belfast.

Like McCabe, Cunningham was a founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. He was also a captain in the First Volunteer Company 1780-1793 and of the 4th Company of the Belfast Yeoman Infantry. He led his Volunteer Company to St Mary’s on 30th May 1784 for the opening of the first Catholic Church in Belfast.

Waddell died on 15th December 1797 and was buried in Knockbreda Churchyard with full military honours and a guard of the Belfast and Castlereagh Yeoman Cavalry and Infantry.

Assessment of Thomas McCabe’s Anti-Slavery Contribution

“As we confront the ramifications of the practice of slavery, we can look back at our own history with some pride in recounting the story of Thomas McCabe, the Irishman who was on the right side of slavery….

While the United Irishmen is an organisation now well-known, the name of Thomas McCabe may not be as publicised, but he is certainly a figure we can admire; a man who took a stand against slavery and ensured his city did not profiteer from it”

Dan O’Muirigh, June 2020

Thomas McCabe Family Life & Home

Thomas McCabe married Jean Woolsey, the daughter of John Woolsey, a Portadown merchant. The couple had four children Thomas, James, William Putnam and Jean Maria. His wife Jean died in 1790. 

In October 1793 Thomas married again. His second wife was Isabella Read. Her parents were Thomas Read a malster (prepared grain for brewing) and Anne Bradshaw from Lurgan.

On 22nd January 1819 McCabe bought a plot in the New Burying Ground for £2 5s 6d. This graveyard belonged to the Belfast Charitable Society, an organisation that had benefitted so greatly from Thomas’s compassion and generosity. Thomas McCabe died on 5th March 1820 aged 80.

Clifton Street Cemetery Sign
Clifton Street Cemetery Sign
Clifton Street Cemetery central grave
Clifton Street Cemetery headstones
Inscription on McCabes Gravestone
Inscription on McCabes Gravestone from Old Belfast Families – The New Burying Ground

In 1832 the McCabe’s sold their Vicinage property and adjoining small farm at Cross Loanings, to the Catholic bishop the Rev William Crolly. A seminary was opened in the Vicinage house.

Now St Malachy’s College sits on the land. The original McCabe family home stood at the top of today’s Avenue leading to the school. The lower Antrim Road at the time was known as Duncairn Street.

St Malachy's in Belfast Street Directory 1903
St Malachy’s in Belfast Street Directory 1903
St Malachy's Gate Post
St Malachy’s Gate Post
St Malachy's College
St Malachy’s College

Importance of Thomas McCabe

“An intensely liberal and humane man, Thomas McCabe successfully opposed the coming of the slave trade to Belfast in 1786. He and his son William Putnam McCabe were both United Irishmen and many of the meetings prior to the ’98 Rebellion took place at their home the Vicinage. Thomas was an early and active member of the Belfast Charitable Society and the Belfast Philosophical Society”

A C W Merrick, Old Belfast Families and the New Burying Ground, 1991

“So when Wilberforce started in England the great crusade for the Abolition of Slavery, his efforts were supported with enthusiasm by the strong opinion already vocal in Belfast”

Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, 1960

Raymond O’Regan in his book Hidden Belfast published 2010, records how, in 2007, a descendant of William Wilberforce, leader of the anti-slavery campaign in England which resulted in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, paid a visit to the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street.

Wilberforce’s great-great-great-great- grandson had come to celebrate the bi-centenary of the abolition of slavery and to honour the actions taken by Church member, Thomas McCabe in 1786.

“He brought with him a heavy metal casket given to William Wilberforce by some slaves in thanks for his efforts in abolishing the slave trade. The casket was made from the shackles that the slaves wore on the plantations”

Raymond O’Regan


Thomas McCabe – A Forgotten Hero

The name of Thomas McCabe is not well-known in Belfast today, but it should be remembered with pride and respect given the impact of his support for the poorest and those enslaved.

“Thomas McCabe ‘The Irish Slave’, leader in many of the political and social movements in the Belfast of that day; the same, who, by his vigorous and courageous action was the means of preventing Belfast having any public share in the iniquitous slave trade”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out,   1946 

Addendum: McCabe Timepieces

James McCabe apprenticed under his brother Thomas before moving and opening his business in London in 1775.

James McCabe and his descendants would continue to produce timepieces becoming one of Britain’s most prolific watchmakers with over 50,000 watches, 7000 clocks and 500 marine chronometers produced in its 100 year history.

Among notable owners of McCabe timepieces were Lord Horatio Nelson, and the first President of the United States – George Washington who purchased his McCabe pocket watch in Philadelphia in 1793.

The House of McCabe was renowned for the sheer variety of its designs and the creativity and prestige of their manufacture was celebrated and revered by owners worldwide. These pieces remain highly collectable today and fetch increasingly higher prices at auction houses worldwide.

McCabe Watches December 30th 2016

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