In December 1900 a handful of mourners passed down Sandy Row, a simple funeral cortege of an old man who had died in poor circumstances in a Belfast garret. Few observers would have realised that this was the final journey of Vere Foster (1819 -1900), one of the most remarkable and unifying figures in the history of Victorian Ireland.
Born in Copenhagen into a privileged anglo-irish landed family with estates in both England and Ireland, Foster began his career as a British Diplomat in Rio de Janiero. He visited Ireland during the Great Famine of 1847 and was so moved by the poverty and hunger he encountered that he determined to devote his life to the social betterment of the Irish poor
Foster personally travelled with fleeing emigrants on the dreaded "coffin ships" - unseaworthy vessels where passengeres were abused and exploited - and his evidence to Parliament shocked MPs and helped secure much needed reforms.
Vere Foster used his vast personal wealth to pay the fares of 25 000 emigrants and sought to secure for them work and accommodation in the New World. His efforts convinced him of the urgent need to raise educational standards in Victorian Ireland. He paid for the building and equipping of schools, both catholic and protestant, designing his own Vere Foster Copy Books to improve literacy among the poor. Printed in Belfast, his Copy Books remained in use until the 1950s.
In 1870, he moved to Belfast, living in humble circumstances in an attic at 115 Great Victoria Street not far from the Sandy Row Medical Centre.
Vere Foster was also a founder of the RVH. THis selfless and generous man died on December 21st 1900 and there was scarcely a dozen people at his funeral to the City Cemetary on teh Falls Road. Vere Foster was a remarkable man - a social reformer whose life was a "record of unselfish devotion to humanity". He is a unifying symbol for society and will be remembered in the name of your Medical Centre.