Heritage

The Northern Ireland Institute for the Disabled has its heritage in the Donegal Road area of Belfast. City life in 1878 was difficult for working class people, the city was suffering economic hardship compounded by a severe winter causing the life for the working class citizens to be badly affected.

The Lord Mayor, John Brown, together with his brother Thomas started a Relief Fund for coal distribution, a soup kitchen and relief works. Another brother, L.A.Brown, a devout Methodist opened a mission hall at Felt Street on the Donegall Road behind Sandy Row. With the opening of a National School in the hall, education, religion, gym classes all the activities were brought under the same roof, delivering services to those most in need in the Belfast society. Other missions followed at Sandy Row and the Grosvenor Road.

Brown’s son and daughter were also involved in the work. His daughter married A.W.Vance of Mornington, Bangor, a former banker. Brown’s son became the Unionist MP for West Belfast in 1931.
 
The family were a compassionate, Christian family. Caring members of the Victorian middle class seeking to alleviate distress and provide social welfare in a time when the only other option was the workhouse.

 
In order to meet the material needs of the poor, in particular the mill girls working 60 hours a week or more, the Vances obtained Grove Hill Cottage on the Donaghadee Road in Bangor.  Later, land was bought at Stricklands and the Home of Rest for Women and Girls was opened in 1890, the foundation stone being laid by Mrs Forster Green, tea merchants wife and devout Quaker. For many years 3000 woman and girls passed through the Home, and the records show dramatic improvements in the health of woman and girls as a result of good food and fresh air.
 
In 1898 a home was rented in Dufferin Avenue, Bangor for the men and lads to holiday during July and August. Eventually a further Home of Rest for Men and Boys was built at Stricklands. It was open all the year round and was used as a nursing home for soldiers returning from the Boer War.
 
There was considerable support for the holiday homes. However, there was another need. What we would term people living with physical disability were a common sight on the streets. Their Victorian language referred to these individuals as Cripples, and it was from that foundation the Cripples Institute as NIID was first known had its beginnings.
Fund raising activities resulted in the opening of the Stewart Memorial Home for cripples at Stricklands. It has had many functions over the years from an infirmary and workshop to the mid 50’s becoming a school for people with physical disability to the mid 80’s when it started to deliver Social Care to when around the year 2000 it became a Nursing Care Home.
 
The Stewart Memorial Home was free, and holidays carried a small charge to those who could afford to pay. The Vance’s next venue was to tackle the lure of the gin palace. On the Donegall Road land was bought bounding on Utility Street, Eureka Street and Felt Street. The People’s Palace was built which included a training home and orphanage for crippled children, a residential home for factory girls, medical facilities, and an old people’s home. There was also a gymnasium and a swimming pool. There was a day nursery, museum and art gallery.
 
It was opened in 1904 by the Earl and Countess of Dudley and for the large crowds there was a zoo, with lions, alligators and monkeys, and a display of dolls dressed by Queen Alexandra.
 
Sadly the People’s palace was demolished some 15 years ago to make way for an apartment block. But many people still alive today, remember it fondly as a place of support and care when nothing else could be found.
During a visit to Belfast by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Mrs Vance carried Nellie a young disabled child, who presented a bouquet to the Queen at a ceremony in Shaftsbury Square.
Also in the Donegall Road area 14 adjacent houses in the Utility street area were available for homeless men and several for women. These were demolished in the early 1980’s and a new 60 bed hostel built for men. It is interesting and yet sad to note that many of the incidents in the hostels of the 1900’s are the same as we are meeting in our hostel today.
 
Other work included Prison Ministry. Tudor Lodge, a large dwelling on the Crumlin Road near the prison was taken up to provide a home and employment for women leaving prison. A parallel ministry for men was based in substantial premises in the Oldpark area.
 
Day nurseries were opened. In the Sandy Row Nursery mothers left their babies at 6:00 am. All the nurseries were closed after 1911 due to funding problems.
 
The trustees believed that “Ragged and poverty stricken children were in danger of ending up as criminals”. The response was to open a children’s home in the Crumlin road area. In response to demand another home was opened. Many here will know the blue cut stone building in Ballygowan with the inscription on the clock tower Tempus fugit (Time Flies). This was built and handed over by Mr Reid a partner in Robbs’ Store and ended up as the main children’s home. The building was eventually sold to the local Presbyterian congregation.
 
 
Public Relations activities were undertaken. To encourage donations a cripple’s choir was formed. Engagements included the Keswick Christian Convention in the Lake District, and Dublin Castle where they sang for the Lord Lieutenant.
 
In 1912 The Boys’ Brigade started the annual collection for the Institute, something they still do today.  An operating theatre for limb surgery was established in the Stewart Memorial Home for Cripples that was used until the National Health facilities developed.
 
A school was opened and functioned until 1983.
 
The breadth of activities was wide. It has been said that there is no record of any other Victorian or Edwardian charity in the UK or Ireland with such a diverse range of activities.
 
The story is a comment on the social structures of our times. The roll call of trustees includes those who made a major impact on the business and professional life of Belfast and beyond.
 
 Sir James Musgrave, engineer
 
 Lord Pirrie of H&W fame from Conlig
 
 Forster Green, tea merchant
 
 The Corry family, timber merchants
 
 William Ewart MP
 
 Lord O’Neill of Shane’s Castle
 

What was their motive?

A big factor was the belief that Christianity and schemes to help the poor to help themselves, were of benefit to the recipients and to society. However, the combined efforts of the charities could not by themselves make a coordinated approach or supply the funds for the major problems society was facing.
 
It was the Liberal government of 1906 that began the process of wholesale state involvement in aid to the underprivileged classes. This was eventually developed into the Welfare State starting in 1946.
 
The death of A W Vance in 1907 at the age of 47 who was the major fund raiser and the increasing pace of social reform resulted in a drastic reduction in the Institute’s activities due to lack of funds and increasing state involvement in the supply of services.
 

The Situation Today

Today the charity is known as The Northern Ireland Institute for the Disabled. It is a company limited by guarantee with charitable status under the Charity Commission for NI. The organisation employs some 100 people, the majority of whom are Social Care providers. Occupying two key sites, the first at Strickland’s Glen, the organisation has 25 independent living apartment and bungalows for people living with support needs. This service delivery is known as Strickland’s Care Village.
 
Sadly, in early 2016 the organisation had to effect the closure of Stewart Memorial House as a Nursing care home due to funding issues, so today the board and Executive team are actively seeking to follow the organisation's heritage and identify the most prominent societal needs they can to ensure that the legacy of NIID continues on and Stewart Memorial has a new fulfilling purpose going forward.
 
The Belfast men’s hostel is nearly always full to capacity of 59 beds. Hostels used to be seen as night shelters, but today there is an increasing requirement for us to be involved in counselling and helping people to transition from the trap of homelessness into independent living. To achieve this our specialist service delivers capacity building to our clients, signposting them to a multitude of other statutory and Social, Voluntary and Community organisations who can deliver specific support to assist the men on their personal journey.