Rare images of Belfast in 1912, through the lens of the Trinity College Mission
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Re–connecting to the story of the Revd Arthur Barton (1881–1962) and the letters he received from soldiers at the Western Front when rector of St Mark’s Dundela (which we told as December 2012’s Archive of the Month) this month we return to Belfast to focus on Barton’s previous appointment as Head of the Trinity College Mission in the city.
The images are preserved in the form of 33 black and white photographs which show aspects of the Mission in action in the densely–populated streets of Belfast over 100 years ago. The images are gummed into in a single album and appear to date from the single year of 1912 – judging by the annotation on the first page: ‘May 1912 J.H [or E?] Browne, T.C.D. Mission Residence’.
They have never been released in digital format before and hopefully will bear testimony to the vision of the founders of the Mission, and also provide more general interest to those interested in the visual history of Belfast. They provide a rare insight to living conditions in the poorest part of the city, and the Church of Ireland’s positive response in this context.
The Trinity College Mission in Belfast was established in St Mary’s parish in 1912. Located on the Crumlin Road, and consecrated in 1868, the parish church of St Mary had been the first church to be built under the auspices of the Belfast Church Extension and Endowment Society (founded in 1863 to fund–raise and build churches in response to the exploding growth of the city’s population). By the early 20th century, however, the densely–populated area in the labyrinth of streets between the Shankill and Crumlin Road within this parish had been identified as a district of particular need – housing as it did some of the poorest families in the city, with unemployment rife, properties derelict and health and sanitation needs high. In this context, the already stretched clergy in existing parishes, including St Mary’s, appealed for assistance to make better provision for the spiritual and pastoral needs of working–class Belfast which, they stressed, was particularly badly staffed in terms of clergy numbers.
The response came from a group of concerned academics from Trinity College Dublin, led by the Revd Dr R.M. Gwynn, Lecturer in Divinity and a Tutor at the College, who also became the University Chaplain in 1911, remaining so until 1919 (when he was appointed Senior Fellow). A commemoration of Gwynn’s life was recently celebrated in Whitechurch parish in Dublin (where he and his medical doctor wife Eileen are buried) see Whitechurch Seminar). Gwynn was passionately committed to social justice and as Canon Patrick Commerford revealed during the commemorative event, it was Gwynn who ‘instigated a meeting in his rooms of a small committee of the Divinity School to sponsor the formation of the Trinity Mission in what was then a slum area of Belfast. Those involved in the committee alongside Gwynn included two future Archbishops of Dublin, John Allen Fitzgerald Gregg and Arthur William Barton … who became the first head of the Trinity Mission in Belfast’.
By 1912, Dublin University had well–established missions in China and North India – the latter having been the feature of a previous Archive of the Month see this link www.ireland.anglican.org/about/135 so there was already a mindset to respond to ‘the need for Christianity in a dense population and to link together men of various occupations who are in danger of mutual estrangement’ as a published report of the mission’s progress put it in 1920. In the same publication, Gwynn outlined in retrospect how the mission ideal had appealed to the University on three important grounds:
- Filling the disproportionate number of people to clergy ‘in Northern towns’ by supplying more clergy from the South and specifically those who had been trained at Trinity.
- Providing ‘a link between North and South’ which he regarded as a ‘quiet but practical assertion of faith in the unity of one church and of Ireland…the common brotherhood of North and South finds in our Mission a witness not unworthy of a University whose sons came from homes in every part of Ireland, a University proud to think that she serves all Ireland’.
- To provide a place of residence not just for clergy serving in Belfast parishes, but ‘men from all professions’ who were encouraged to visit and ‘reside for a while to learn the lesson which today should teach us that only a close relation and more friendly intercourse between men of every trade and walk in life can save civilisation from calamities worse than those of foreign war’.
In Bootle Street, a large–roomed mansion that had been spared from destruction to make way for the rows of red–bricked terraced houses that multiplied in tandem with Belfast’s growth, together with its extensive gardens, was purchased by the University to serve as the new ‘College Mission’ and once the Revd Arthur Barton, then curate–in–charge of Howth (described by Gwynn as ‘possessed of the very gifts required’) had returned from a term to study the progress of university mission settlements in English cities he was despatched to Belfast as first Head of Mission.
Barton’s reflective four–page essay “First Difficulties and How They Were Overcome” (which appeared in the 1920 publication and is reproduced on this link in full) reveals much of his vision for building up the mission, as well as his skills to encourage people and galvanise them into action. The essay is worth reading for the insight it reveals both of Barton’s realism and also pastoral empathy to meet people where they were – adapting the ideals behind the mission to make them relevant to those who would become its stakeholders.
This realism shines through when he humorously recounts how the first service ever held at the mission hall (situated adjacent to the residence in Riga Street) went – or rather didn’t go, because not one person from the community turned up! Having visited each house in the district and identified potential families of interest, he and Henry Gerald Studdart Kennedy (1888–1978) who served as Assistant Head of the Mission between 1912 and 1914, had invited hundreds of families to attend the opening evening service. However, on the night in question rather than the 200 families who had promised to come, they were faced with ‘a large empty space in front of them’. Rather than be defeated, Barton regarded the failure as ‘a healthy initiation into the difficulties that lay before us’. He changed tack, and began to meet the people where they were – literally in the streets, soon realising that one of the difficulties to be overcome was that people felt uncomfortable coming to a church service badly dressed and barefoot as so many of them were.
So he organised ‘lantern services’ for children pursuing their ‘usual pastimes of swinging on lamp posts or playing peggy’. He held a Thursday night service to which men and women felt more comfortable attending. Instead of Bible classes, he linked events to local culture so the mission participated in helping men to build an arch for the Twelfth, started up a band, brought in guests to lecture on music, established a darts club, a billiards club which eventually evolved into a Men’s Club. Simultaneously Barton’s colleague Kennedy along with a woman worker were busy encouraging local children as several of the photographs in the collection demonstrate.
Two boys’ clubs were started out in local streets, and gradually these evolved into more formalised scout troops. Endeavouring to ‘foster a sense of self–respect’ a fund–raising bazaar was held to enable locals to make a few pennies and so buy themselves boots for their feet and uniforms for their children.
A willingness to engage with the local culture is underlined by the photographic record presented here which includes one small photograph taken from within the crowd of Edward Carson addressing an anti–Home Rule rally.
Although Barton and Kennedy both moved on to other appointments in 1914 – Barton to become rector of St Mark’s Dundela, and Kennedy to continue his missionary skills further afield at the Dublin University Mission in Chota Nagpur in North India – the strong community–outreach and engagement that they had undertaken from the beginning was to continue under their successors, while Trinity College Dublin continue to administer and fund–raise to support the work of the mission until its closure in the late 1960s.
The most extensive period of the Mission’s growth appears to have been the late 1930s when a trust was established. The chapel within the Mission Hall became licensed for baptisms and marriages, and registers of baptism between 1938 and 1962, and marriages between 1947 and 1968 are kept safe in the RCB Library as this list reveals. (Download Pdf)
For the wider parochial context in which the Mission operated, and for those conducting genealogical research on the general area of this part of Belfast, the parish registers of St Mary’s which are also kept safe in the RCB Library may be of additional interest, as the list for this parish outlines. (Download pdf)
There is also a small manuscript collection of administrative papers covering the period from 1937 to 1969, including minute books, files relating to bequests, covenants, as well as an array of printed material including annual reports, the magazine, and various attempts at fund–raising, catalogued as RCB Library MS 478. Collectively, these might make an excellent case study for researchers interested in the Church of Ireland’s contribution to charity, outreach and social justice in early 20th–century Ireland.
Turning to the images presented online for the first time here, collectively they reveal the stark realities of working–class Belfast in 1912, and the spiritual void into which the Trinity College made its positive contribution. We see children barefoot and playing swings on lampposts. We see workers clocking out of Ewarts linen mill for the breakfast break, in the streets adjacent to the Mission buildings. We also see pastoral interaction – there is football in the street, band practice, scouting activities, trips to the picture house on the Shankhill Road and the seaside – presumably treats that without the vision and financial support from its founders, the young participants would otherwise likely never have had the chance to enjoy.
The contents of MS 295 being photographs of the premises, staff and activities of the Trinity College Mission in Belfast in 1912, were deposited in the RCB Library by the Revd John James Armstrong, who was Head of the Mission between 1955 and 1957. Viewed online for the first time here, they may also be consulted in their original format, together with the related printed and manuscript materials mentioned above.
To view the images of Belfast in 1912 online click here.
For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood