The Rise & Fall of the ‘House of Industry’ – Belfast in the 1800s

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Lives of the poorest - AI Image © Microsoft Bing
Lives of the poorest – AI Image © Microsoft Bing

Desperate Times

The turn of the 19th century was a desperate time for the poor of Belfast. The political upheavals of the 1790’s and a series of bad harvests drove hundreds into the town in search of employment and sustenance. Scarcity of food sent prices too high for ordinary folk to afford.

“Many persons have heard their fathers speak of the two bad seasons immediately following the Rebellion. They were the two most calamitous years Belfast ever endured. Cold was complained of in April 1799, and in that month a heavy snow-storm happened, a most unusual occurrence. Incessant rain followed…. The crops were utterly destroyed. At this period the people had to depend for their food entirely on home-grown produce; and in October, the inhabitants of Belfast foresaw a dear and scarce winter, and famine at their very doors”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast Vol 2, 1880
Begging in Belfast (© Bing Image Creator)
Begging in Belfast (© Bing Image Creator)

Attempts to Address the “Rising Tide of Human Misery”

The River Lagan flooded to an extent never before recorded.

The export of corn and meal was forbidden and only brown bread was allowed to be baked. An unusual rule was enacted in that the hair-powder commonly supplied to soldiers, was suspended and the powder added to the flour to make it go further.

A long missive named ‘Petition of Beggars from the Purlieus of Belfast’ sought to remind the well-off, of their duty to those less fortunate.

The letter was signed J Rags President, and Billy Tatters, Treasurer

“We wish that the rich and luxurious would consider our situation, and, in order to relieve our wants, that they would live on more moderate meals, and draw fewer corks”

J Rags President, and Billy Tatters, Treasurer
Clifton House - The Poor House, Belfast
Clifton House – The Poor House, Belfast

Belfast charities were pushed to their limits.

“Even this, with the relief afforded by the Charitable Society and the Fever Hospital, could not stem this rising tide of human misery. Some form of help was needed for the lower classes who, while willing and able to work, could not make enough even for subsistence”

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

Various philanthropic individuals and groups attempted to ease the situation but it was obvious a more comprehensive plan of action was required. In 1800 a public kitchen was opened, funded by voluntary donations, but this proved to be too costly for a permanent solution.

“The distresses of the poor have been for many months very severe and still continue. The benevolence of the rich has been manifested in a very eminent degree, and it is pleasant to learn that the objects of their bounty have tasted of its fruits with a becoming spirit of gratitude. It is, however, manifestly true that further aid must be had, and that speedily, to alleviate the heavy calamity that still presses upon them”

Belfast Newsletter 1st July 1800

Worlds Apart

However, while some of the upper classes were aware of the dire situation, many appear to have been oblivious to the distress of the poor and continued with their own amusements. Benn tells us the “townspeople were very nearly at their wits end” when they issued these suggestions

“It was recommended that gentlemen and ladies religiously dedicate their winnings at cards to the benefit of the poor; to abstain from all second courses, the price thereof to be given to the poor; that invitations to dinner and evening parties be less frequent than usual, and that all saddle and carriage horses be put upon half their allowance of oats”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast Vol 2, 1880
Different Worlds (© Bing Image Creator)
Different Worlds (© Bing Image Creator)

Formation of the ‘House of Industry’

One suggested solution was to form an institution whereby “Industry go Hand-in-Hand with Charity”. Thus a ‘House of Industry’ was proposed for Belfast in the early 19th century. Its aim was to provide the means of employment for the poor to enable them to provide for themselves and their families without having to resort to begging. This was a novel idea in Ireland at the time.

“The result of the experiment hitherto untried in Ireland, is about to be laid before the public. The committee about to carry into immediate effect the plan for the abolition of mendacity (begging) in Belfast”

Belfast Monthly Magazine Vol 4, 1810

On 30th April 1801, the Sovereign (Mayor), John Brown, summoned a meeting in the Exchange Rooms. A committee of seven members, was charged with formulating a plan to set up such an establishment.

The result was the formation of the Society for the Employment and Relief of the Poor in the Town of Belfast. This body was to secure funds by public donation to supply the new House of Industry with equipment and raw goods to set up the charity. Members of the Charitable Society and the clergy were appointed honorary committee members.

On 29th June 1809 a public meeting was held to discuss the establishment of such a place of work “…for use during the day by such poor people as had no other convenient place in which to work, together with a storehouse for raw materials and a warehouse for completed goods”

That funds were limited is shown by their first notice when they asked if anyone could lend them spinning wheels until they were able to purchase their own, then these would be “returned in good order”.

“It was instituted in the year 1809, for the purpose of abolishing pauperism, and supplying the really necessitous with the means of support”.

George Benn History of the Town of Belfast 1823
A Badged Beggar (© Bing Image Creator)
A Badged Beggar (© Bing Image Creator)

The Hierarchy of Beggars

In the 18th century an Act had been passed in the Dublin Parliament defining two types of beggars. The poor, elderly, infirm and destitute children were the responsibility of the parish in which they resided. They could apply for a licence to beg and worn emblems which designated them ‘badged beggars’.

However, those who were known as ‘sturdy beggars’ were a different category. In many of the towns of Ireland the problem of drifting vagrants who passed from town to town seeking alms was a real drain on people’s goodwill and finances. These beggars, men and women, while able to work, made a living by begging.

“An Act for Badging such Poor as shall be found unable to support themselves by Labour, and otherwise providing for them, and restraining such as shall be found able to support themselves by labour of Industry from begging”

Irish Commons 20th November 1771

Although none of these Belfast ‘badges’ are still in existence today, we have a record of them from George Benn, who describes them as oval in shape and made of pewter. They were inscribed with a number, the seal of the Charitable Society and the motto “He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord

The House of Industry sought to alleviate this situation of ‘strolling vagrants’. Anyone who was fit to work was able to apply to the House of Industry. It was argued that the expense of maintaining the House would be less than constantly paying out to piteous beggars.

“That we have every reason to expect that this intended Institution (when once established and properly regulated) will, in a great degree, be adequate to its own support; and it is to be considered that any Sums to be at present subscribed for that purpose will be a smaller expense to the Inhabitants at large, than what is actually extorted from them, at their Doors and Shops, by the present system of begging; a system extravagant in itself, subversive of morals, and injurious to Society”

Belfast Newsletter 7th May 1801
House of Industry Location 1819
House of Industry Location 1819

Location of the House of Industry

At first the work of the House of Industry was carried out in allocated rooms in the Poor House. After considering various locations in Waring Street and North Street, the new charity was established at Smithfield – on the south side of the square at the junction with Marquis Street.

“…in Smithfield, in which place, and in the streets and lanes immediately adjoining, the poorer classes of the town then chiefly dwelt”

George Benn A History of the Town of Belfast 1880 Vol 2

The rented premises, described by Benn as “an inconsiderable building” produced “incalculable benefits”.

Staffing the House of Industry

A gate-keeper signed in the workers every morning.

The summer hours were 6am – 6pm and in winter 7am till 5pm. Breakfast was from 9am-10am and dinner 2pm-3pm.

A Steward to supervise the House and maintain written records was employed. He worked daily from 6am till 9pm.

A Cook was also hired to provide the workers with daily meals, usually soup, potatoes and fish if available.

Employing the Poor

The poor were employed in spinning, weaving and net-making. They were paid for their finished products. This was seen as a way of promoting the benefits of hard work, spurring ambition and breaking the cycle of poverty. This would also prevent the workers feeling as if they were objects of charity or pity. In addition, hundreds of women were supplied with spinning wheels and flax in their own homes and were paid for their produce.

Spinning Wheels in the House of Industry (© Bing Image Creator)
Spinning Wheels in the House of Industry (© Bing Image Creator)

Working in the House of Industry

The extreme poverty in Belfast, meant that the House of Industry had no shortage of willing workers. In 1810 there were 309 spinning wheels busy in the House producing around 550 hanks of linen yard per week.

There were also, according to the historian George Benn, 1 spinner of woollen yard, 18 women knitting stockings and 9 women weaving calico. Other items made by the workers were men’s and women’s mitts without fingers, men’s nightcaps, petticoats and gaiters.

At this time there were also 20-40 children picking oakum. This last job was a tedious occupation usually reserved for the young, elderly and infirm. Oakum was tarred rope used to pack between the timbers of ships to seal them. Picking oakum was the painstaking job of unravelling the rough fibres and picking out the tar. The workers sat in one room with an overseer “appointed to prevent noise, and preserve order and regularity”.

Picking Oakum (© Bing Image Creator)
Picking Oakum (© Bing Image Creator)

Supporting the Needy

The House of Industry also provided rations of food such as potatoes, soup and meal to needy families. Fuel in the form of coal was also donated.

In 1810, 376 families were receiving weekly food parcels of soup, potatoes and herrings. By 1817, this charitable body spent £5,000 on the relief of 1,200 Belfast families. Appointed ‘visitors’ called on the families. Only those who had been resident in Belfast for at least a year were eligible. Also, no help was to be given to a family if the father was fit but idle. Daily portions were recommended but could be amended in special circumstances

“…at the discretion of visitors, who should bear in mind that the grand object of the institution is to introduce habits of industry, order and cleanliness among the lower classes”

Belfast Monthly Magazine Vol 4 1810

Working in Partnership with the Belfast Charitable Society

The House of Industry worked closely with the ‘Poor House’ established in 1774. The two committees met regularly to discuss how best to distribute public money given for the relief of the poor. If food was short in one establishment the other would help out.

Those talented in a particular craft in the Poor House were sent to the House of Industry to teach their skills. In 1819 Mary Ann McCracken sent a number of young girls from the Poor House to the House of Industry to learn straw plaiting.

Educating the Poor

Another recommendation suggested was the provision of basic education and moral instruction. Not only to provide food for the body but nourishment for the soul.

“Those to whom the House of Industry directs its attention, are, in a manner, the outcasts of society – neglected, almost disowned by all others, their children grow up in the habits of vice and profligacy exhibited by their parents”

What was advocated was

“….a system of plain, wholesome education, suited to the wants of the lower orders”

Belfast Monthly Magazine Vol 4 1810

Funding the House of Industry

It must be remembered that the work and maintenance of the House of Industry was funded solely by voluntary contributions, donations and bequests from the Belfast public. These seem to have been provided mainly by the middle-class business sector of the town “gentlemen, mostly conversant in Manufactures”.

While the system may seem harsh and judgemental to our eyes today it provided a very valuable service to the poor folk at the time.

“It is noteworthy that it was the growing middle class, the merchant and the professional man, who were to evolve all this machinery for the service of their less fortunate fellow citizens”

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

Maintaining Standards

While dependent on the largesse of Belfast’s growing affluent bourgeoisie class, the committee felt they had to maintain some standards. In 1812 the House of Industry refused contributions raised by an amateur theatrical production, as they deemed money procured in such a manner “sinful”.

The ‘Charity Sermon’

One way of raising funds for such institutions was the ‘charity sermon’.

A respected minister would preach to an assembled audience and a collection taken up afterwards. Depending on the persuasiveness of the orator, large sums of money could be raised in this way. However, this method could only be used sparingly or it lost its appeal to a jaded audience. Charity Sermons usually took place once a quarter with each charity benefitting in turn.

The Charity Sermon (© Bing Image Creator)
The Charity Sermon (© Bing Image Creator)

The Impact of the House of Industry

The 19th century historian and geographer, Samuel Lewis, has high praise for the House of Industry for supplying food and clothes to the needy, for assisting strangers “and forwards them to their destination”, while providing small grants to industrious families.

“…it has diffused great benefit over this populous town in which it has entirely abolished mendacity”

Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837
House of Industry Listing in Belfast Street Directory
House of Industry Listing in Belfast Street Directory

Closure of the House of Industry

On 1st June 1839 the Belfast Poor Law Union was officially enacted. An elected board of 22 officials with John Rowan as Chairman, now had the responsibility for the poor of the town and the district. The previous March a 12-acre site had been purchased near the Lisburn Road for the construction of a Work House. Within a few years the House of Industry was no more.

“The House of Industry, which during its short life had done so much to help the needy especially those most deserving people who their own best effort had failed to support themselves, had closed its doors by 1843”

R W M Strain Belfast and its Charitable Society 1961
The House of Industry Closed (© Bing Image Creator)
The House of Industry Closed (© Bing Image Creator)

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