Sunday, 25 August 2013

Poverty and Stormont - 1920s Belfast

I was in Belfast once again last week for another visit to PRONI ( to carry out some client work. As on previous occasions, I was also able to squeeze in a bit of personal research time, and as a part of this I decided to play around a bit more with PRONI's catalogue, the version within the building being very different to that found online via the PRONI website at On this visit I searched for details for a particular branch of my family, and found an amazing set of letters and documents concerning the brother of my two times great grandfather. I'll not post the name, as I don't want to embarrass any potential descendants (a few of whom I have met), but instead I want to flag up the following story from 1920s Belfast, as an example of the treatment of poverty in the city due to unemployment, and to illustrate the kind of detail that can be found if you go looking for it.

The correspondence opened in late 1922, with a letter from my relative's wife to C. H. Blackmore, the Northern Irish Prime Minister James Craig's Private Secretary in Belfast. This was as follows:

Dear Sir

I take plivelage of writing to you as I am in very poor state owing to the want of work as my husband is out of work over 2 years and their is 6 children all young and I am just watting to get put out of my house owing to my rent been behind as I owe over 6 pounds in arearres in my book so I would be never so much thankful to you if you could help me in any way as the children is almost nacked for clothing and my beds is in a poor state. I even havent got a ticket for this relief coal. The only work my Husband got was a spell on the specials owing to him being ex service man. It is very hard to serve your king and country and not get a help from any one. I do not like the thoughts ap begging but when you have young children crying for food it would put you nearly astray in the mind. So Sir I hope you will see your way of helping me out of my trubles as I am a fit case for the hospital only I have no friends or anyone that would mind my children. It is deserving case.  

I am your Abdadent servant

Mrs [...]

The Stormont based secretary sent a note to Mary M. McCrea, secretary of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare, to enquire as to the family's circumstances. The following was her reply:

Belfast, Dec. 22nd 1922.

Dear Mr Blackmore,

re [...] and [...]

We have made enquiries in this case and find that [...] commenced work seven weeks ago on the Relief Works and is earning £2.4.11 weekly and out of this they pay 7/4 weekly rent. There are six children the youngest aged 1 1/2 years and they all look very delicate. The house was clean and fairly comfortable but Mrs. [...] stated she had pawned almost everything during the time her husband was idle.

All the reports say they are very decent quiet people who have had a hard time owing to unemployment.
Yours faithfully

Mary M. McCrea

Convinced that the need was genuine, Blackmore sent the following response to my relative:

19th January 1923

Dear Madam, 

The Prime Minister has asked me to forward you the enclosed donation and desires me to say that he trusts your husband will now remain in constant employment. He is very sorry indeed to hear of your sad circumstances and would have sent a larger amount but this is impossible owing to the many demands that are being made upon the purse at the present time.

Yours faithfully,

C. Blackmore

Private Secretary

Another subsequent letter from my relative to Stormont, which does not appear to have survived, was equally successful in obtaining a donation:

24th August, 1924.

Dear Madam,

I am sorry to say that the Prime Minister is away from home. I know that I should be acting in accordance with his desire in sending you the enclosed postal order for 5/-. I return your enclosure.

Yours faithfully,

W. B. Spender

Lieutenant Secretary to the Cabinet

The arrears in rent became such a serious problem for my relative's family that on 1 SEP 1924 an eviction notice was served for him and his family to quit their house on Belfast's Earl Street. It is not known yet if this eviction was carried out, but in early 1925, my three times great uncle's wife again wrote to Stormont:

[Jan 29 1925]

Dear Sir, 

I hope I am not taking advantage in writing you those few lines witch I hope you will eknoladge as I have 4 children down with the flu 3 school children the are school ages and a little boy at home. You will think I am in good cercimstances because my Husband is working but I am not that is why I am writing this little note. It is to ask you to help me a little to try and get the children to school again as I want to try and get them some warm clothing and the money is so small that it is hard to get everything. I had to get a school line and medisin. Would Toady Craig have any clothing that I could cut down for the children as their is 7 children and me and my Husband and only one wadge coming in. My eldest is 15 years old but I cannot find him any work and he is to young for barou. I hope I am not intruding hoping to hear from you at the arliest date.

I am your obedeant serant

Mrs [...]

("Barou" = "broo", Belfast slang for "bureau", the office for claiming unemployment benefits).

The PM's Private Secretary again wrote to Mary McCrea of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare, via a Colonel Spender at Stormont Castle, asking her to provide any information on the applicant, "to whom the Prime Minister has sent a little assistance in the past". This time, McCrea took a much sterner opinion of the applicant:

Belfast, Feb. 9 1925.

Dear Col. Spender

This case has been known to us for some time. We reported about this family to Mr Blackmore in December 1922. At that time {...} was working for the Corporation and earning £2 4.11 weekly. Circumstances are just the same now except that a son who is of working age makes, I understand, a good sum weekly by selling firewood. We made a fresh enquiry on receipt of your letter and we are more satisfied than before that Mrs [...] is a begging letter writer and should not be encouraged as there is no distress in this case. We do not recommend that any help should be given.

Yours faithfully,

Mary McCrea


The following note was then sent to my relative from the PM's Private Secretary:

12th February 1925

Dear Madam,

The Prime Minister has asked me to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 30th ultimo and to say that, owing to the numerous calls that are being made upon the purse at the present time, he regrets that he cannot see his way to forwarding you further help. 

Yours faithfully,

Private Secretary

A year later, undeterred from the previous response, my three times great aunt again tried to secure money from Stormont:

[12 FEB 1926]

Dear Sir,

I take the operchunity of writing you those few lines I would not write only we are nearly ready for the union. My husband is still out of work yet he is out over a year and 7 children to support. I want to ask you could you help us in any way. My husband put in for help at the British legin but his applaction was turned down I think it is a shame as I think we are a deserving case as my Husband joinid up when men was wanted and volentared for the front if wanted and also on the specials. It seems in those funds when you are not on actvice service or not getting a pension that you cannot get any help. We get 33 shilling a week out of barou and out of that I pay 14/6 rent 3/- 5 coal and 1/4 ensurance so you can count food after that. People that has only 1 child and 2 can get funds and a man with a family cannot get anything turned down when he applys for anything. I have a boy 16 1/2 years old I get nothing for him as he has not stamps. Hoping you will put our case forward and get the boy a job and also his father or some kind of help as I am attending the Royal Hospital and I am ordered emolsion and I cannot get it as it is 5 shilling a bottle. I wish you would do something and I have a child ill home from school. I got 3 weeks treatment out of the units ex service mens acco[?]ation for my health and I put in a nother form. I got out of Hospital and the turned it down and said my case was a cronic. I have only took ill lately. I do not think my case is cronic as the told me that I needed nurishing food. Please Sir will you look into my case and try and get me some help or work for the boy and his father. I cannot get any clothing for the children. 

I am your obadent servant

Mrs [...]

No reply to this note was included in her file at PRONI, and so it not known how she fared with this application. Nevertheless, the above shows that with a little digging, some extraordinary insight can be gained into an ancestor's story - but for this level of detail you do need to visit an archive!

NB: Before you get to that stage, however, you also need to identify who your ancestors were! My latest book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet can certainly help you to understand how to do so - a free 13 page preview is available at, and the book itself can be purchased from that site either in print or e-edition, including for Kindle.

Hope it helps!


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