Home » People » O’Hanlon’s Belfast – Walks Among the Poor 1852
Public Domain - Poor
Public Domain – The Life of the Poor

O’Hanlon’s Background

William Murphy O’Hanlon was born on 9th June 1809 in Newry. His father Patrick was a barrister-at-law and his mother was called Frances Smith. While his parents were in India, the young William was sent to a boarding school in Warrenpoint run by the Creighton family. The Creighton’s were enthusiastic educators and members of the Independent Church, under the pastoral care of the Rev George Hamilton.

William was greatly influenced by these teachings and subsequently studied the classics and sacred scripture in Derry before attending Rotherham College in Yorkshire. While in England he married Alice Southworth of Rochdale. In September 1837 he was ordained a minister of the Congregational Church and pastor of Hollingshead Church, in Chorley Lancashire.

Walks Among the Poor of Belfast

In 1849 William was appointed minister of the Congregational Church in Donegall Street. Although he only spent five years in Belfast his letters, subsequently published as the book ‘Walks Among the Poor of Belfast’, remain a hugely important social document for the times.

Walks Among the Poor of Belfast” makes sad reading. It describes human poverty, disease and hopeless misery in an age when society cared little for its underprivileged members and when all that the unemployed, the aged, sick and disabled could hope for was a bed in the workhouse or, if they wanted to remain independent, slow starvation – starvation in places like the slums of O’Hanlon’s Belfast”

Andrew Boyd 1971
Donegall Street Congregational Church
Donegall Street Congregational Church (rebuilt since 1852)

Lives of the Belfast Poor

William was shocked by the destitution and poverty he encountered in the thriving town of Belfast. He was even more horrified that the governing, intellectual and business classes seemed oblivious to the despair and misery of the poor living just a few streets away from their fancy avenues and squares.

In his first letter written to the Northern Whig in July 1852 O’Hanlon states

“Permit me to call the earnest attention of the more affluent, respectable and especially Christian public of Belfast, to the deplorable condition of the poor who inhabit the back streets, courts and alleys of our rapidly extending and populous town… It has often struck me, how little either the idle or the busy, as they move along the great thoroughfares of our cities and towns, seem to know or think of the social misery, vice, and squalid poverty, which lurk in the obscure dens, within, it may be, a few hundred yards, of these more open ways…”

O’Hanlon Letter, July 1852

O’Hanlon’s Challenge

In an effort to bring this sad situation to an end Rev O’Hanlon with a companion, set out to explore the slums of Belfast, offering immediate help and determined to enlighten the middle and upper class to the plight of the poor.

“… plunging into the alleys and entries of this neighbourhood (Barrack Lane), what indescribable scenes of poverty, filth and wretchedness everywhere meets the eye! ….in truth, no pure breath of heaven ever enters here; it is tainted and loaded by the most noisome, reeking feculence, as it struggles to reach these loathsome hovels. These are, in general, tenanted by two families in each, and truly it is a marvel and a mystery how human beings can, in such a position, escape disease in its most aggravated and pestilential forms”

O’Hanlon Letter, 15th March 1852

Suggestions for Addressing the Plight of the Poor

In an attempt to effect change, both in attitude and in actual terms, Rev O’Hanlon includes a number of ‘Suggestions for their Improvement’ in his letters. He contends that the poor cannot improve inwardly until their outer circumstances change. He advocates a need for public meetings and press involvement to increase public awareness.

The evident neglect of public bodies should be rectified and a Sanitary Association formed. The aim of this Association to be:

the “immediate measures for bettering the existing state of the dwellings of the poor; but should not consider its mission fulfilled until it has by the diffusion of knowledge, and by all other lawful means, effected a satisfactory change in the entire sanitary economy of the town and neighbourhood”

O’Hanlon Letter, 28th October 1852

O'Hanlon Letter II to Northern Whig 15 Sept 1852
O’Hanlon Letter II to Northern Whig 15 Sept 1852

In Brady’s Row off Grattan Street, O’Hanlon describes family circumstances for those lucky enough to have a roof over their heads

In the other house in the same “ row,” we discovered that a family of seven sleep not only in the same room , but in the same bed. This information we had from the poor half -naked mother herself. Here the eldest daughter is nineteen years of age, and the eldest son twelve. The revolting, disgusting, and heart-rending spectacle presented by the interior of this hovel, and by its inmates, it is impossible to forget. It haunts one like a loathsome and odious spectre, from which the eye and the thoughts cannot escape.

O’Hanlon Letter I, July 1852

Public Baths & Sanitation

The poor should not only be educated in the benefits of hygiene but have free facilities at hand, such as public baths and washhouses. With families living in cramped, crowded conditions with no opportunity to bathe, disease could spread rapidly. Epidemics were common and something the authorities dreaded, yet as O’Hanlon states in his fifth Letter “A vast sensation is produced in the public mind when some dread plague sweeps away thousands at once to the grave; but let us not forget the thousands who are dying around us, by no sudden stroke it may be, but nevertheless as victims of filth, foul air and putridity”

He refers to Dr A G Malcolm’s work ‘The Sanitary State of Belfast’ and says it should be widely circulated, not to spread panic, but to alert employers and the business classes of the need of safe healthy homes and workplaces for the poor.

Living Conditions

Rev O’Hanlon also urges employers to pay a reasonable living wage to their employees “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work”.

O’Hanlon makes clear his disgust at the slum landlords who squeeze rent from their tenants but take no action to repair or improve living conditions. Crowding more and more desperate people into hovels just to increase their own profits. Ever the optimist, O’Hanlon feels even these property owners could feel some responsibility for their buildings with the right persuasion:

“And with the public press to plead the cause of humanity, I do not despair of our being able to stir up the proprietors of the squalid and noisome tenements, or rather dens, which breed disease and death, moral and physical, in the midst of us, to put their hand to the work of reformation, and to practice the duties, as they have long enjoyed the rights and emoluments, of property”

O’Hanlon Letter, October 1852

Temperance Reform

One of William O’Hanlon’s main aims was to have temperance reform introduced. Throughout his ‘walks’ the reverend decries the number of drinking establishments in the poorer districts of town. “In that very limited space of North Queen-street, which lies between the head of Great Georges and Frederick Streets, we reckoned about 22 public-houses”.

Not only were people drinking away the little money they had, but they were laying waste to their own physical health and moral behaviour, leading to crime and corruption. In the Smithfield area and Hudson’s Entry in particular there were a high number of “temples of Bacchus

“We penetrated Smithfield Court….the battleground of the whole neighbourhood….How far these explosions of brutality are connected with the drinking habits of the people, may be gathered from the fact that Saturday night and Sunday are the times when these fierce and often bloody struggles take place. The court is somewhat spacious, but very filthy, and the houses filled with as many human beings as can huddle together within their walls”

O’Hanlon Letter 4

Control of Liquor Licences

O’Hanlon implores the local authorities to limit the number of liquor licences granted “With all due respect, then, who can fail to perceive the solemn and great responsibility resting in whose hands is the power to withhold the means of extending these fountains of pollution through every region and nook of the town of Belfast”.

He believes that legally backed officers should inspect all such embellishments and curtail those of a “disorderly character”. The Reverend abhors the fact that spirit-shops are allowed to open on a Sunday “…as to constitute a deep disgrace to this professedly Christian empire…” O’Hanlon applauds the Total Abstinence movement and urges the clergy to use their influence in this cause. He looks to America to states like Maine where “the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors have been rendered wholly illegal” as the ideal situation.

O'Hanlon Letter II 15 Sept 1852
O’Hanlon Letter II 15 Sept 1852

Support for Paupers

On 10th October 1852 O’Hanlon’s Letter regarding Pauper Legislation was published. Before 1838 there was no Poor Law provision in Ireland and the Workhouse was the only recourse for the truly desperate. Even so many would prefer to die in their own homes than to enter those dreaded gates.

“It was some time before our eyes could so adapt themselves to the gloom as to detect any object; but at length we discovered a woman sitting upon a bundle of straw, without a particle of furniture, and amidst a scene of desolation which it would wholly baffle my pen to describe. She has been living here for upwards of two years; yet destitute and miserable as this woman is, she seemed unwilling to go to the workhouse. She thinks liberty a ‘thrice glorious goddess’, though in such a shrine. All we could do was to relieve her immediate wants, for she was starving. I suppose she will still be found in Dickey’s-entry”.

O’Hanlon, 10th October 1852

O’Hanlon refers to schemes in London, where industries offered daily work to even unskilled labourers as a means of self-help. Also he encourages ‘missions’ to be established to train women who have fallen on hard times, a trade to prevent further wretchedness.

O'Hanlon Letter III
O’Hanlon Letter III

Promotion of Education

With regards to education, the Rev O’Hanlon is pleased to see National Board Schools and several “Congregational and other schools for the benefit of the poor”. However, he believes more could be achieved

“…but who can pass through the courts and alleys of the town, without the deep conviction that very much remains to be done? Swarms of children, in all directions, arrest the eye, growing up in filth and ignorance, the future candidates for the honours of jails, penal colonies, and something worse….

From his ‘walks’ and by consulting census material O’Hanlon was convinced “that an immense mass of the youthful lower population of Belfast is destitute of any means of education”. To remedy this, new schools needed to be built in those areas, professional teachers employed and a central registration established to determine the number of children requiring lessons. Also the poor themselves had to be persuaded of the benefits of education. There was no free schooling and money for ‘learning’ was often considered a waste. For this endeavour, O’Hanlon felt the “gentler sex” would be more effective in encouraging mothers “to place their unhappy children under instruction”.

Call for Support from the Clergy

Last but not least, O’Hanlon urges the clergy to act in a Christian manner with compassion and diligence to support their poorer parishioners. He had already mentioned in an earlier Letter that few ministers or priests entered the slums unless summoned. Often poor people were embarrassed to go to Church because of their ragged garments and dubious hygiene. The way to calculate the value and success of a religion of any creed, asserts O’Hanlon, is in how it treats its most vulnerable.

The measure of the religious life and vigour of any community, and not the mere accuracy of its doctrines, will always determine the amount of zeal on behalf particularly of the neglected and destitute portions of the populace…

Impact of O’Hanlon’s Letters

In 1854 Rev William O’Hanlon was recalled to England to become pastor in Barnley. His time in Belfast while brief was certainly not inconsequential. It took time and effort but his Letters did incite some public reforms and charitable works. Throughout his journeys in Belfast, O’Hanlon found the people, while suffering under terrible circumstances, to be friendly and appreciative of his concerns. His social conscience and strong sense of morality never left him, nor did his optimism and the certain belief in mans innate goodness.

“I am bound to say, that in all my recent intercourse with the population of our lanes and alleys, every suggestion was received with thankfulness, and more than this, with an evident willingness to benefit by it, while, in all my ‘Walks’ I never met with the shadow of an insult or rebuff. The people at large will be found ready to respond to our exertions in the spirit in which they are made; and although we all know the force of long-established habits, there are two things more powerful still: – love and labour will conquer all”

O’Hanlon Letter 5, 28th October 1852

Obituary 1855

Unfortunately it is only the following year that we find this obituary in a Belfast newspaper

“July 9th at Barnley, the Rev Wm M O’Hanlon, in his 46th year”

Belfast Newsletter 18th July 1855

In Closing

Many would believe that O’Hanlons’s Belfast Letters, collected in Walks Among the Poor of Belfast, are a critical resource in understanding the lives of the poor in 1852, the absolute destitution that characterised their everyday lives and the lack of efforts to address this. In raising the profile of this debate O’Hanlon’s letters deserve our respect and gratitude. His book is a fascinating read.

O'Hanlon's Walks Among the Poor of Belfast
O’Hanlon’s Walks Among the Poor of Belfast

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