Clifton House – Belfast’s Poor House

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Clifton House Entrance Gate
Clifton House Entrance Gate


Clifton House was opened on 17th September 1774 by the Belfast Charitable Society. It is Belfast’s oldest public building. The Society itself was established in August 1752 with the purpose of raising funds and building a poor house and infirmary for the poor of the area. The Society was financed by subscriptions donated by the leading citizens of the town and the building was funded by a nationwide lottery.

After 20 years the 1st Marquess of Donegall, Arthur Chichester, granted the Society 8 acres of land to the north of the town for the proposed poor house, at a yearly rent of £9 + 1 shilling. The foundation stone was laid on 7th August 1771 by Stewart Banks, the Sovereign of Belfast.

Clifton House - The Poor House, Belfast
Clifton House – The Poor House, Belfast 

The Role of the ‘Poor House’

Once opened the 36 bed Poor House and the 24 bed Hospital were quickly filled. By 1833 the occupants numbered 400. The building was extended in the nineteenth century. This fact alone shows the absolute necessity for such an institution in the growing city of Belfast.

The Society was not only concerned with the immediate needs of the poor but also in providing them with the means of escaping destitution. Hence basic education and training was part of a resident’s day, for girls as well as boys. Weaving, spinning, knitting and net-making were introduced so that people could leave the Poor House with a trade.

Robert Joy and Thomas McCabe travelled to Lancashire to discover the workings of the cotton business. On their return they set up a cotton loom in the North Wing. By 1780, 90 children were learning this skill, the foundation of Belfast’s cotton industry.

In March 1880, the Society agreed to allow Dr William Haliday to start a series of vaccinations. This was the first trial of inoculations and vaccinations in Ireland. With parental consent, the children of Clifton House were vaccinated against the more common diseases of the day. Dr William Drennan advised the Board on the benefits of inoculation against smallpox.

Poor House Benefactors

Many of Belfast’s eminent families were supporters and benefactors of Clifton House, in particular the Joys and the McCrackens. The brothers Henry and Robert Joy, proprietors of the Belfast Newsletter, were early members of the Belfast Charitable Society. The family also owned a paper mill and provided the paper for the lottery tickets and the minute books. Indeed it was Robert who designed Clifton House. Although only an amateur, it was Robert Joy’s plans which were chosen by the appointed architect Thomas Cooley, for the construction. Robert took a great interest in the Poor House and visited it almost daily until his death in 1785.

The Volunteer Regiment, of whom William McCracken, Henry Joy McCracken and Wolfe Tone were members, held annual balls to raise money for this charity. Edward Bunting, noted Irish musician and folk music collector, applied to the Belfast Charitable Society to hold a music festival in 1813, all the proceeds went to help the poor of Clifton House.

A history of Clifton House, however brief, would not be complete without honouring Mary Ann McCracken. A reformer of the highest calibre, Mary Ann’s steadfast campaigning for social justice, anti slavery and the rights of women, has been surpassed by none. She dedicated her life to good and noble causes and is a true Belfast heroine!

The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation was launched on 20th January 2021.

In the spirit of the legacy and work of Mary Ann McCracken; to advance education, to prevent or relieve poverty, to advance human rights and promote equality

The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation
Clifton House Belfast - The  Gatehouse
Clifton House Belfast – The Gatehouse

Clifton House Today

The building itself has a beautiful Georgian facade of weathered red brick. Sweeping stone steps lead up to the central pedimented entrance door, flanked by Doric columns. It sits in a walled garden with mature trees.

Originally the site was on the northern outskirts of Belfast “healthfully situated at the north end of Donegall Street” but now, with the expansion of the city, it is in a busy location.

Today Clifton House still provides residential accommodation for older people. It is also a meeting venue, offering an inspiring and historic space for a wide range of events. The House is a Heritage Centre, telling the story not only of the Belfast Charitable Society, but also of the social development and history of Belfast. The building has a vast archive of books, papers and artefacts dating back to the 1700’s,

Contact Details

For tours, talks or venue hire contact:

Clifton House, 2 North Queen Street, Belfast BT15 1ES – Monday to Friday 9.00am – 4:30pm

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