Robert Joy – “one of the greatest men in the history of the charity”

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Donegall Street & Clifton House 1823 (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)
Donegall Street & Clifton House 1823 (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)

Robert Joy – Introduction

Not many people remember the name of Robert Joy, yet he was one of Belfast’s most philanthropic and upright citizens. A businessman whose endeavours created new economic pathways for the town and a tireless advocate for the poor. His story deserves to be remembered and his contributions towards a better society should be recognised and applauded.

Robert Joy’s Family Background

The Joys, were a well-known Presbyterian family in Belfast. They were descended from French Huguenot stock, their original surname being Joyeuse.

Robert, born in 1722, was the second son of Francis Joy and Margaret Martin. Both the Joys and the Martins were successful business families. Francis, a qualified attorney, was also a paper manufacturer and printer. In 1737 he established the town’s first newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter. This newspaper continues today and is the oldest, continuously printed, English language newspaper in the world!

Robert was very close to his elder brother Henry, his senior by only a year, and their histories are intertwined. Their only sister Ann Joy married fellow Presbyterian, Captain John McCracken. Henry Joy McCracken (1767-1798) and Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866) were Robert’s nephew and niece.

The Parents of Mary Ann McCracken
The Parents of Mary Ann McCracken

Henry and Robert Joy

In 1745 Francis Joy moved to Randalstown and set up a large paper mill. His sons Henry and Robert, took over his business interests in Belfast. Henry ran the notary office and Robert continued with the twice-weekly printing of the Belfast Newsletter. The brothers also printed books and sold hardware. In 1767 they established a papermill at Cromac which was then outside the town’s boundary.

View of Belfast and the Blackstaff River from Joy's Paper Mill, 1803
View of Belfast and the Blackstaff River from Joy’s Paper Mill, 1803

“Taking the Blackstaff as our boundary, we soon come to Mr Joy’s paper mill and the row of workers houses, which, till recently, stood between the mill and Cromac bridge. On the opposite, or town side, Joy’s dam covered the space now occupied by Joy Street (the arches communicating between the river and the dam are still visible)”

Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast Fifty Years Ago, 1875
Watercolour on paper, Joy's Paper Mill, Belfast, 1805 by J. W. Cary (fl.1805)
Watercolour on paper, Joy’s Paper Mill, Belfast, 1805 by J. W. Cary (fl.1805)

Support for Liberal/ Progressive Causes

The Joy family were noted for their liberal and progressive views and this was reflected in their newspaper. In 1775 during the American War of Independence, the Joys firmly supported the American colonists.

The Town Book of Belfast records for 1775

“Belfast News-Letter attacked by Dublin Press for its support of American Independence”.

Town Book of Belfast, 1775

The newspapers stance was celebrated

“….through it all ran the serious purpose of Francis Joy and his sons – the provision of reliable information and the dissemination of the new and liberal ideas in political thought”

Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken (1960 edition)

Belfast Charitable Society

Robert and Henry were both deeply involved with the Belfast Charitable Society, founded in 1752. They stinted neither money nor effort to establish a Poor House to help the needy and destitute of the town.

The mammoth task of funding such a construction dependant only on voluntary contributions was both time-consuming and frustrating. One money-raising effort was the establishment of a Lottery, the tickets were printed by the Joys.

Clifton House Lottery Ticket 1753
Clifton House Lottery Ticket 1753

In 1769, the Vicar of Belfast, the Rev James Saurin, who was also on the Board of the Charitable Society, wrote directly to the 5th Earl Donegall, requesting land on which to build the Poor House. Previous missives to the Earl’s agents had met with delays and obstructions. Accordingly, a plot of land to the north of the town was granted at an annual rent of £9 and 1shilling. The lease was made out in the name of Henry Joy as the representative of the Charitable Society.

“Resolved. That it is the Opinion of this Board that the Ground on the North West side of the Road leading to Carrickfergus fronting the New Street is the most convenient Place for erecting the intended Buildings, and where they will be most ornamental to the Town of Belfast”

Belfast Charitable Society Minutes

Plans for the design of the new Poorhouse were procured from all over Ireland and England. These were put on public display in the Market House in Cornmarket. However, no decision was taken and further architects from Dublin and London were consulted.

Finally, it was the drawings compiled by Robert Joy, who had no architectural experience, which were the ones to be accepted by the committee and put into effect.

Donegall Street & Clifton House 1823 (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)
Donegall Street & Clifton House 1823 (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)
The Belfast Charitable Society (Photo The Builder 19 Nov 1899)
The Belfast Charitable Society (Photo The Builder 19 Nov 1899)

“Might one approve – the work of choosing past;

His was the plan they voted best at last.

Though the whole business, still the active man; –

Here stands the Poorhouse built on Robert’s plan”

Clifton House Drawing
Clifton House Drawing
David Boyd 1806 [Mr Boyd was employed as a schoolmaster in the Poor House]
Clifton House Entrance Gate
Clifton House Entrance Gate Today
Clifton House Belfast
Clifton House Belfast Today

Robert took a great interest in the construction of the Poor House (now known as Clifton House) and was recorded as being on site every day to witness the progress of the building work. And indeed, the resultant building did (and still does) add greatly to the beauty of Belfast. On one of his visits to the town, the Methodist preacher John Wesley, wrote in his journal

“The Poorhouse stands on an eminence, fronting the main street, and having a beautiful prospect on every side, over the whole country. The old men, the old women, the male and female children are all employed according to their strength, and all their apartments are airy, sweet, and clean, equal to anything of the kind I have seen in England”

John Wesley, 9th June 1778
Clifton House - The Poor House, Belfast
Clifton House Today – The Poor House, Belfast

Robert Joy – Involvement with the Poor House

Robert’s enthusiasm continued as the Poorhouse opened and began to receive its first residents. He was said to be a daily visitor and was much involved with the day to day running of the facility. This concern for those less fortunate was maintained throughout his life, and even when elderly and infirm himself, he made sure to check on the welfare of the inhabitants of the Poor House.

“My uncle Robert paid his last visit it (the Poor House) when unable to walk, in a sedan chair. From its erection, as long as health spared him, it had been his constant study to promote the comfort of the inmates in every respect”

Mary Ann McCracken, Narratives

Poorhouse Enterprise

One of the aims of the Charitable Society was to provide the residents of the Poor House with a skill or trade. This would enable them to gain worthwhile employment when they left and provide a livelihood for themselves and their families. To this end, at the suggestion of Robert Joy, it was decided to introduce cotton spinning into the House.

The first cotton manufacturing mill had been established at Whitehouse by Englishman Nicholas Grimshaw, and it was his technical knowledge that provided the basis for the Poorhouse enterprise.

Nicholas Grimshaw 1747-1805 (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)
Nicholas Grimshaw 1747-1805 (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)

“It is probably incorrect to say that any one person was the father of the cotton manufacture in the North of Ireland, but it is easy to state where it began. It began in the Poor House. The two outstanding figures in this most interesting part of the history of the Charitable Society are Nicholas Grimshaw and Robert Joy, the one a cotton printer by occupation and well versed in all aspects of the manufacture; the other one of the proprietors of the News-Letter and a paper manufacturer, and a man who had at all times shown the utmost energy in promoting the welfare of the Society in every way”

R W M Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society, 1961
Spinning Wheel on display in Clifton House
Spinning Wheel on display in Clifton House
Clifton House Entrance
Clifton House Entrance

Cotton Spinning – Robert Joy and Thomas McCabe

Robert Joy and Thomas McCabe (see post Thomas McCabe – Champion of the Poor and the Enslaved) travelled to Lancashire to see the cotton industry in full production.

Thomas McCabe Headstone in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street
Thomas McCabe Headstone in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street

On return they procured spinning, weaving and carding machines, which were set up in the basement of the Poor House. A Mary Rogers was employed at 4s 4d a week to teach the children the skill. The children were paid the reasonable wage of 2d per hank and an additional halfpenny for reeling.

“A Proposal is made by R Joy and T McCabe – to employ a large Number of Children in the Poorhouse, in the Cotton manufacture – at such rates as their respective Services shall be deserving of”

Belfast Charitable Society Minutes
Basement premises of the north-east wing of the house used by Joy and McCabe for the manufacture of cotton (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)
Basement premises of the north-east wing of the house used by Joy and McCabe for the manufacture of cotton (Belfast and its Charitable Society, R.W.M. Strain, 1961)

The experiment proved a success and within a couple of years cotton-spinning was a well-established concern in the Poorhouse.

“For sale at the Poor House, some pieces of Plain White Cotton Cloth for ladies garments, also dimities being the first of the Manufacture of the House. They will be sold in less quantities than a Piece. Also cotton yarns of various fineness. Their Marseilles Quilting (the first manufactured in the Kingdom) for Ladies’ Petticoats is in good forwardness, and some pieces will be ready for sale in a short time”

Belfast Newsletter 12th May 1780
Clifton House Board Room
Clifton House Board Room Today

Subsequently, the cotton industry spread, with mills being erected throughout the town.

“With this small beginning the cotton industry obtained a foothold in Belfast, and it soon spread in the town and adjoining country. Innumerable spinning mills were opened, and many linen looms converted into the weaving of cotton….”

D J Owen History of Belfast 1921

The Joys set up a mill in Smithfield and in 1783 they employed 150 people and had 100 looms. The following year they opened a Cotton Warehouse on Rosemary Lane (now Rosemary Street).

In 1787 they established a mill on the Falls Road, 2 miles outside of Belfast, in partnership with Thomas McCabe and brother-in-law, John McCracken. This was the first water-powered mill for spinning twist in Ireland.

By 1790 there were as many as 500 cotton looms operating in the town. By the turn of the century cotton production employed more than 13,500 folk in and around Belfast. This laid the framework for Ireland’s textile manufacturing success.

Robert Joy and the Volunteers

Robert Joy was also one of the prime instigators of the Volunteer movement in Belfast. Indeed, the Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast 1613-1816 states

1778 January 10. The raising of the Volunteers suggested at a family party by Robert Joy.

Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast 1613-1816

At this time England had withdrawn most of its troops from Ireland in order to concentrate their efforts against the revolutionary forces in America. Little provision was made for the welfare of Irish citizens who feared the threat of foreign invasion especially when France and Spain entered the war in the late 1770’s. This was not an idle concern for on 13th April 1778, American John Paul Jones sailed into Belfast Lough and captured the British warship HMS Drake and ‘confiscated’ its cargo.

The Volunteers were an independent militia raised by the Protestant gentry to protect their lands and interests. The volunteer soldiers were Protestant, for at this time Catholics were legally forbidden to bear arms.

“The Volunteers, drawing upon the eighteenth century ideal of the citizen-soldier, affirmed their civic identity and patriotism by taking up arms to fend off potential foreign aggression”

M O’Connor, ‘Ears stunned with the din of arms’: Belfast, Volunteer sermons and James Magee, 1779-1781 (2011)

The Volunteers wore uniforms made of home-spun cloth to signal support for Irish industries. They were armed with muskets and trained and drilled like regular military units.

“The 1st Belfast Volunteer Company paraded, and marched to church in their uniform, which is scarlet turned up with black velvet, white waistcoat and breeches.

Henry Joy [son of Robert], Historical Collections Relative to the Town of Belfast 1817

The Volunteers were very popular being regarded as heroes and defenders. Their numerous parades and reviews were attended by the cheering populace. Many of these military reviews took place on the front lawn of the Poorhouse. The Volunteers also held balls in the House to raise funds for the establishment. The movement was celebrated in the newspapers, poetry, paintings and political pamphlets.

The Belfast 1st Volunteer Company were formed on St Patrick’s Day 1778. Four more companies were subsequently enlisted. The Belfast battalions were more politically minded and liberal than their rural counterparts.

In 1783, in defiance of the Penal Laws, they admitted some Catholics into their ranks. (As each Volunteer had to pay for his own uniform and equipment, roughly £10, not many Catholics could afford this outlay).

“In Belfast the First Company opened its ranks on 13 May to people of every religious persuasion ‘firmly convinced that a general Union of all the inhabitants of Ireland is necessary to the freedom and prosperity of this kingdom’”

A T Q Stewart, A Deeper Silence, 1993

The 1st Volunteers also contributed generously to the building of the first Catholic church in Belfast, forming a guard of honour at the opening ceremony in May 1784 (see post Saint Mary’s Church Belfast – an Inspirational Story).

Scotty at St Mary's Church
Scotty at St Mary’s Church

In 1791, the Belfast 1st Volunteer Company passed a resolution in favour of Catholic emancipation.

“A new day for the Catholics dawned above Divis Mountain, for when the Volunteers assembled on July 14th, 1791, to celebrate the commemoration of the French Revolution, one of the toasts was ‘An abolition of Popery laws and an extension of privileges to Catholics’. And the toast was received with resounding cheers”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

When the American War ended, the need for the Volunteers lessened. However, the Volunteers, particularly in Belfast who had a more political agenda, continued.

Spurred on by the French Revolution they espoused the cause of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. By 1793, the English government were becoming concerned by the public demonstrations demanding political reform. On 11th March a proclamation, issued by the Lord Lieutenant and the Privy Council, forbade “the assembling of all armed associations under severe penalties

The more radical elements of the movement had already, in 1791, established the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast. Their aim was to fight for political and religious equality by any means necessary.

The majority of Volunteers however, formed the local Yeomanry units who fought against the United Irishmen in the Rebellion of 1798. (Hence proving that there is no more implacable hatred than that found between former comrades).

In November 1751, Robert had married his second cousin Grizzel Rainey from Magherafelt. Grizzel seems to have been an old family name, it is sometimes referred to as Grace. The couple had two sons, Henry and Robert and three daughters who died as babies. Grizzell died in 1762 aged 32.

Joy Family Plot in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street
Joy Family Plot in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street

After a highly productive life, Robert passed away on Sunday 20th March 1785, aged 62. He is buried in the family plot in the New Burying Ground at Clifton Street near the Poorhouse.

“Sunday night last died Mr Robert Joy, one of the proprietors of the Belfast News-Letter. His character was uniformly marked with striking characteristics of unaffected Piety, and extensive Goodness”

Rev J T Bryson, Minister of the 2nd Presbyterian Congregation and Chaplain to the Belfast Volunteers
Joy Family Headstone in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street
Joy Family Headstone in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street

Remembering Robert Joy

Robert Joy was a man of indefatigable energy and moral courage. His frequent mentions in the minutes of the Belfast Charitable Society, show his willingness to take on any task. Yet he never seems to have sought out public recognition.

“Robert Joy is without doubt one of the greatest men in the whole history of the charity”

R W M Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society, 1961

The contribution of the Joy brothers to the welfare of Belfast, both in social and economic terms, cannot be over-estimated. Yet like many of our philanthropic citizens, they are sadly forgotten.

“There were no men in Belfast esteemed more highly than my two uncles, and I believe they were very deserving of the high opinion the public entertained of them. They were both very charitable….he (Robert) projected our ‘Old Poorhouse’, the first in Belfast, for a shelter for the poor…”

Mary Ann McCracken

Related Posts

Thomas McCabe – Champion of the Poor & the enslaved

Spinning cotton (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
Thomas McCabe – Champion of the Poor & the enslaved – Spinning cotton Image (© Microsoft Bing Image Creator)

Saint Mary’s Church, Belfast – An inspirational story

St Mary's Church, Belfast - Altar view from left
The construction of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Belfast in 1784 with widespread Protestant support reflected the end of the Penal Laws

Clifton House – Belfast’s Poor House

Clifton House - The Poor House, Belfast
A brief history of Clifton House (Belfast’s Poor House) which was opened on 17th September 1774 by the Belfast Charitable Society.

Clifton Street Cemetery – The New Burying Ground

Clifton Street Cemetery graves
Clifton Street Cemetery – a historic burying ground with tales of the great and the good, of cholera and famine, poverty and rebellion.

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