Our Heritage

The Early Days

Harmoni, previously known as the Northern Ireland Institute for the Disabled, has a deep and rich history. The 144-year-old organisation was founded as the Cripples Institute in 1878 by Lord Mayor John Browne and his brother Thomas. In the early days the brothers provided coal distributions and relief works to working class citizens of Belfast during a time of economic hardship compounded by a severe winter. Another brother, L.A. Browne, later opened a mission hall in Felt Street that was used as a National School, bringing education, religion and other activities under the same roof. From these roots the organisation grew and branched out offering support to individuals facing disadvantages.

Time Line

Lord Mayor John Browne
The Lord Mayor John Browne, together with his brother Thomas Browne, started a relief fund for coal distribution, a soup kitchen and relief works during the harsh winter of 1878 in Belfast.
The Felt Street Mission
LA Browne, opened Felt Street Mission Hall on the Donegall Road behind Sandy Row. The hall brought together education, religion, gym classes under the same roof for those most in need. Soon after, two further missions followed at Sandy Row and Grosvener Road.
The Wylie Street Mission Hall
The Bethal Mission
A.W Vance
Alfred Vance, son in law of L.A. Browne, obtained Grove Hill Cottage on the Donaghadee Road in Bangor. Later, land was bought at Strickland's Glen and the Home of Rest for Women was built and opened in 1890.
The Homes of Rest Strickland’s Bangor
In 1898 another home was rented in Bangor for the men of the city to holiday during July and August. Eventually another Home of Rest for Men and Boys was built at Strickland’s. It was open all year round and used for nursing soldiers returning from the Boer War.
Stewart Memorial House
Following the success of the holiday homes another home was opened at Stricklands for people living with physical disability. Stewart Memorial House had many functions over the years from a school for individuals with disability to a nursing care home.
Drawing of The People’s Palace
In 1904, The People's Palace was built and opened, bringing together a range of services for the citizens of Belfast.
The Patterson Museum and Gallery – The People’s Palace
The Prison Gate Ministry – Tudor Lodge
Other work of the charity included the Prison Gate 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 the Old Park area.
Old Park Road Workshop – Boot Repairs
Old Park Road Workshop provided employment for the men leaving prison.
Houses for Homeless Men
In the Donegall Road area of Belfast, 14 adjacent houses in the Matilda Street area were bought and made available for homeless men. They were demolished in the early 1980s and a new 60 bed hostel for men was built in Utility Street to house men experiencing homelessness. The hostel, known as Utility Street Men’s Hostel, is still in operation today.
Derryvolgie Women's Home
A similar home was in operation for women in Belfast, it was known as Derryvolgie Women's Home.
Utility Street Hostel Belfast
The charity today, now known as Harmoni, operate a homeless hostel for men. The building is situated on the site the People’s Palace once occupied.
Strickland’s Care Village Bangor
Harmoni also still operates their services for people with disability in Bangor. A modern village with 33 apartments and bungalows for people living with support needs is situated where the original Homes of Rest once stood.
Late 1800's
Late 1800's
Late 1800's

The Next Generation

The children of Browne were involved with his work from a young age and carried on his mission. Browne’s daughter married A.W Vance, a banker, who later bought land at Stricklands and the Home of Rest for Women and Girls was opened in 1890. For many years over 3000 women and girls passed through the home and benefited from a break from cramped and busy city life. Following the success of the Home for Rest for Women and Girls, soon a Home for Men and Boy’s was built on site at Stricklands also. The home was open all year round and was used as a nursing home for soldiers returning from the Boer War.

Stewart Memorial House

The family did not stop there. They identified another need, people living with disability in Belfast was a common sight yet there was little help and support at this time. Fund raising activities saw the opening of Stewart Memorial Home for the disabled at Stricklands. Over the years the home was used for many functions from an infirmary and workshop in the 1950’s to a school for people with disabilities in the mid 1980’s. Most recently, around the year 2000, Stewart Memorial House became a Nursing Care Home, it sadly closed in early 2016. 

The People's Palace

Following the success of the three homes at Stricklands, the Vance’s next venture was tackle the lure of the gin palace. On the Donegall Road, where today sits Utility Street Men’s Hostel, land was bought and the People’s Palace was built. The Palace offered a training home, orphanage, residential home, medical facilities and a care home for the citizens of Belfast. There was also a gymnasium and swimming pool as well as a day nursery, museum and art gallery. The People’s Palace was a great success and many people benefited from the support offered over the years. Sadly, the last vestiges of the building known as the People’s Palace was demolished some 21 years ago and no longer stands today but many people still alive remember it fondly as a place of support and care when nothing else could be found.

The Story Today

Today Harmoni operates two main sites, Strickland’s Care Village – a supported living service for individuals with disabilities – and Utility Street Men’s Hostel. Although services today have changed somewhat significantly to those in previous generations, our mission and drive remains the same: to help individuals with disability and societal disadvantage thrive and live independent, quality lives.

As part the organisations celebration of 140 years of service, historian Phillip Orr authored a book on the history of the Harmoni. To request a copy and find out more about our heritage please do not hesitate to contact us.

What's Happening at Harmoni

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Homelessness Awareness Week 2023! #turnthetide
To mark homelessness awareness week HarmonI hosted a discussion event bringing together a range of stakeholder and those with lived experience to find common ground on how we can #turnthetide of homelessness in NI.
Call for Particpants
Participants Wanted for Research
HarmonI in collaboration with Queens University Belfast Business School are conducting some market research into day services for adults with disabilities in the Bangor and surrounding areas.
HAW 22
Mark's Story
Reads about Mark's lived experience of homelessness.