Irish History Live

The Belfast Lying-in Hospital (1794-1903) by Lisa Lavery

Admission Ticket to the Belfast Lying-In Hospital. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the Deputy Keeper of the Records, PRONI

Belfast’s first maternity hospital was established in 1794 due to the efforts of a small group of philanthropists. The aim of the hospital was to aid labouring ‘indigent females’ by providing accommodation, food and medical supervision during childbirth.[1] Rev. John Clark, curate of St. Anne’s Belfast, and Mrs Martha McTier, the wife of Samuel McTier and sister of Dr William Drennan, have been attributed as the founders of this institution.[2] During a visit to his parish Rev. Clark was ‘struck’ by the inadequate provision for labouring women as there was ‘scanty accommodations and provision’ and subsequently discussed the issue with Martha McTier.[3] A meeting was held on 23 December 1793 and the charity entitled the Humane Female Society for the Relief of Lying-In Women (later the B.L.I.H) was founded.[4] The first patroness of the hospital’s Ladies’ Committee was Lady Harriet Skeffington, Viscountess of Massereene and Martha McTier was elected as the first Secretary ‘to her surprise’.[5] McTier also called on the aid of Barbara Chichester, Lady Donegall in the early days of the charity.[6] McTier stated in a letter to her brother, Drennan, that at this time the committee had one hundred female members.[7] The Ladies’ Committee of the Lying-in Hospital was crucial not only in its establishment but to the day-to-day running and organisation of the hospital.

The first endeavour of the committee was to find a suitable house for the Hospital. In January 1794, the committee applied to rent accommodation from the Belfast Charitable Society(1752) but the request was rejected on the grounds of the house being too crowded.[8] However, McTier’s husband was a member of the Poorhouse Committee and R.W.M Strain argued that ‘Sam’s word at home must have been enough, for on 4 January 1794 the ladies had already rented a house in Donegall Street’.[9] The hospital was thus initially established at 25 Donegall Street, Belfast.[10] Later the ladies became dissatisfied with the standard of accommodation and in 1828 made the decision to find a new property more suited to the needs of the hospital. This minute book documents this important period in the history of the Lying-in Hospital as the women began a search for a new building to rent and eventually resolved to embark on the construction of a purpose-built hospital. Though not stated in the committee’s minutes, Strain claims that the Ladies’ initially applied to the Marquis of Donegall for a site of land which was unsuccessful (January 1829). [11] However, it was the Charitable Society that granted a building site following an application submitted by the Ladies’ Committee on 18 April 1829. During the building of the new hospital the charity moved premises to a temporary rented building, 11 Lancaster Street, in January 1830 until the hospital was completed later in the year.[12]

The new hospital, ‘a commodious building’, was built ‘at the upper-end of Donegall Street’ in 1830 where it remained an active maternity hospital until the early twentieth century.[13] Strain maintained that relations turned sour and tensions endured between the Lying-in Hospital and the Charitable Society in subsequent years. A contributing factor to this was the Ladies’ Committee’s eventual consent in 1852, after much reluctance, to allow medical students from the new Queen’s College to attend patients and gain experience in the Lying-in Hospital under the tutelage of Dr. William Burden, a Professor of Midwifery at the College.[14] The women themselves were uncomfortable with this new development as the concept of students attending labouring women was completely new and innovative to them, though it had been adopted at the Rotunda Hospital in 1773, and they ‘could not see that the teaching of obstetrics must be part of any maternity hospital which served the same area as a medical school’.[15] Interestingly, the Ladies’ Committee proposed relinquishing their control over the running of the hospital to be replaced by a male committee, a suggestion which was initially rejected by the Charitable Society. However, Strain argued that the ladies were determined to hand over control and as a result the Charitable Society officially took possession of the premises in August 1855 whilst reinstating the Ladies’ Committee to oversee the hospital’s management and charging them rent.[16] The Ladies’ Committee had lost the autonomy that they had previously had as a result of this incident and in 1900 the Charitable Society was concerned that the business relationship between itself and the hospital was not sound and on two occasions served the committee with a notice to quit.[17] Disagreements remained until a final compromise was reached in 1903. It was agreed that the Ladies’ Committee would give up possession of the house and move to new premises in Townsend Street and the Charitable Society was to pay the hospital £1,050 and would be permitted to nominate five patients annually to be treated at the new hospital.[18]  This new Maternity Hospital in Townsend Street opened in 1904 and was replaced by the Royal Maternity Hospital in 1933.[19]

It is notable that the BLIH was run almost exclusively by women; the Ladies’ Committee was entirely responsible for the charity’ formal management, though it occasionally enlisted the help of male non-members such as clergymen, husbands of committee members or doctors. The Ladies’ Committee was structured as follows, Patroness, Vice-Patroness, Treasurer, Secretary and the committee members. Even the position of treasurer was held by women, which appears to have been exceptional in nineteenth-century charitable organisations. Luddy argues that often female societies invited male participation as a means of ‘legitimising their purposes’ and due to their ‘experience with financial affairs’ and as a result ‘in most societies men acted as treasurers’.[20] The committee of the BLIH was unusual in this respect and illustrates the extent some women of this period participated in professional and business activities. An official format for committee meetings was outlined in July 1828. This structure was to be adopted in all subsequent meetings. Stipulations noted that a total of three members had to be present to constitute a quorum, in the absence of the patroness the third lady to enter the room would take the chair and the previous minutes were to be read followed by reports of the weekly visitors given.[21]

The committee hired only three employees to work in the hospital overseeing its daily running and attending to the patients, in order of authority, a housekeeper, midwife and a maidservant. Three doctors, namely Dr. Robert Stephenson, Dr. McCluney and Dr. Thompson, also provided their services to the hospital but seem to have been reserved for complicated cases. Patients were required to produce a ticket on admission which could only be distributed by committee members though subscribers who donated five shillings or more had the authority to recommend patients. On 4 June 1832 it was ruled that only married women were to be admitted to the hospital, a condition that was prevalent in many maternity hospitals during this period and resulted in the exclusion of ‘those most in need of its services’.[22]

[1] Belfast Street Directory, 1831, p. 76.

[2] R.W.M. Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society: A story of urban and social development (London, 1961), p. 161.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Strain, Belfast and its Charitable Society, p. 161.

[6] J. Agnew (ed.) The Drennan-McTier letters Vol. 1 1776-1793 (Dublin, 1998), p. 586.

[7] Ibid.

[8] R.M.W. Strain, The history and associations of the Belfast Charitable Society (Belfast, 1967), p. 44.

[9] Strain, Belfast and its charitable society, pp 163-4.

[10] Strain, The history and associations of the Belfast Charitable Society, p. 44.

[11] Strain, Belfast and its charitable society, p. 164.

[12] L. Lavery, Calendar of the minute book of the Belfast Lying-in Hospital, 1828-1836 (M.A. Calendar, Queen’s University Belfast, 2013), p. 13, entry 22.

[13] Belfast Street Directory, 1831, p. 76.

[14] Strain, Belfast and its charitable society, p. 165.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 166.

[17] Ibid., p. 168.

[18] Ibid., p. 169.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Luddy, Women and philanthropy, p. 177.

[21] L. Lavery, Calendar of the minute book entries of the Ladies’ Committee of the Belfast Lying-in Hospital, 1828-1836 (M.A. Calendar, Queen’s University Belfast, 2013), pp 2-3, Entry 3.

[22] Campbell Ross (ed.), Public Virtue, Public Love, p. 33.


For more by this author see Institutionalisation and Philanthropy by Lisa Lavery 


Lisa Lavery is a graduate of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests include gender and women’s history, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her MA dissertation focused on childbirth and pregnancy in Ireland and was entitled, ‘From the time of conception to the delivery of the patient’: pregnancy, childbearing, labour and lying-in in Ireland 1730-1850'. She intends to complete a PhD on a related topic.

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