From the Archive: Mary Ann McCracken & the Case of Ellen Murray

Ellen Murray first entered the Poor House as an 18 year old on 7th December 1816, as her mother was struggling to support her at home. Unusually for a person of her age Ellen was placed in Class Three during her time in the institution to improve her reading and writing abilities. However, this changed after nearly two years in the Poor House, when, on 31st October 1818,  the Committee decided that:

“Ellen Murray… to assist in the Wash House and not to go anymore to School; nor to sleep with the other girls but in another part of the house”.

Ellen was now 20 years old, and was no longer to be treated as a child. Through her employment as a washerwoman for the Poor House, it was hoped that she would gain the skills to support herself once she left its care.

We do not hear of Ellen Murray again in the archive until she is dismissed from the Poor House on 6th March 1819. Although no official reason for her dismissal is given, a few weeks prior, on 20th February 1819, the Board recorded that they were not in a position to admit any more residents to the Poor House until the number of occupants was reduced to 300. It seems likely that Ellen Murray as an adult who had been provided with an education and a job was in a better position to return to her life at home with her mother, than some of the poor seeking help after the ‘year of no summer’ famine. Unfortunately, Ellen Murray’s situation did not improve. The Committee suspected, on 29th May 1819, that Mary Robinson was selling potatoes to Ellen Murray which shows she was struggling to provide for her herself. Consequently, due to her unfortunate circumstances, Ellen Murray sought the help of Miss Mary Ann McCracken, who would later become a renowned social reformer.

It was reported on 29th May 1819, that Dr Hanna and Mr Joy were asked to wait upon Miss McCracken to explain to her why Ellen Murray could not be admitted. However, Miss McCracken, unsatisfied with their answers, did not let this matter go so easily, and wrote again to the Committee. She expressed that Ellen Murray should be allowed to be re-admitted but on a trial basis. The Committee agreed with this idea and admitted her to wash room once more. It was also decided that she would be quartered in the Convalescent Home until the Committee re-examined her case.

For the month of June 1819, the Committee seemed unsure of what to do with Ellen Murray, and pushed her case back two weeks. Then, on the 19th June 1819, they again dismissed her, stating that she had been “irregularly admitted”. However, Ellen proved to be quite persistent and requested to be re-admitted into the Poorhouse on 6th May 1820. The orderly granted her wish until the next meeting of the committee and stated:

“There have been so many representations made about Ellen Murray…that I have permitted (her) to remain until to-day- when I hope the committee will decide finally whether the wash-room can be supplied without them or if they shall remain permanently to assist the washerwomen”.

The Committee finally decided to re-admit Ellen Murray to the washroom on the very same day.

This was only the beginning of Mary Ann McCracken’s involvement with the Belfast Charitable Society as an adult (she had previously made clothes for the children in the Poor House when only a child herself). Mary Ann would later go on to help found the Ladies Committee which fought many wars of attrition with the men!

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