Clocks, Towers and Titans: A Rivalry in Stone

The North Belfast Heritage Cluster is made up of some of the most storied and architecturally significant buildings from Georgian and Victorian Ireland. These historic buildings, along with others across Belfast were designed by some of the foremost minds of their day, with architects such as Thomas Jackson, and William Henry Lynn. They laid the foundation upon which the entire city was built. Whilst many of their works have been lost to conflict and decay, or torn down in the name of urban development, the warehouses, factories, churches, and halls were the backdrop for Belfast as the city entered the 20th century, and beyond.

This piece of research looks at two architects whose unique styles and contrasting paths through life culminated with competition to design some of the regions most prominent landmarks. One, whose name is widely recognized in the public sphere to this day. The other, who is celebrated within architectural circles but is otherwise largely forgotten.

The Victorian Era represented a time of significant development and change in Belfast. The city’s industries were booming, with Linen Manufacturing, Rope Making and Shipbuilding establishing Belfast as an industrial hub and a cornerstone of the Victorian economy. As the industries grew, so too did the population of the city as the promise of employment and a new, more modern way of life attracted individuals of all walks of life. The population growth was also influenced by rural to urban migration as a result of the Famine in Ireland in 1845-49 as people came to towns and cities in search of food, employment, aid and shelter. Consequentially, the population grew tenfold in the 7 decades from 1840-1910, growing from 20,000 in 1831 to 250,000 by 1901. Whilst much of this increase was driven by the influx of people from rural areas migrating in to the city, others came from urban centres further afield.  The needs of the burgeoning city caught the eyes of entrepreneurs and businessmen, as the industries now synonymous with Belfast began to take root. With this came increased wealth within the city, and a desire for prestigious buildings to house these new industries and entertain the growing middle and upper classes. Consequently, performance venues such as the Ulster Hall (1859) and bastions of education such as Queen’s University (1845) were erected, and many of the Belfast’s iconic buildings began to dot the skyline.

For 2024, we will be examining these individuals who built the North Belfast Heritage Cluster, and examining their impact across Belfast. We will take the opportunity profile the architects and connect them with their surviving works whilst examining how they impacted the city as a whole.

Many of the most prominent buildings built in Belfast were designed in the mid-19th century. As such, many of the architects that are credited with being ‘founding figures’ in the fledgling city would have been in direct competition with one another, albeit at different stages of their professional career. This is encapsulated in the competitive rivalry between William Joseph Barre and Sir Charles Lanyon.

The young prodigy- William Joseph Barre

Unitarian Presbyterian Church, Newry

William Joseph Barre was a Newry man born in 1826 and became known as a prolific architect and was greatly respected for his ability and tireless hard work. Whilst Barre never hid his ambition from his friends or peers, he was well liked and respected in social and professional circles in Belfast. His first design was for the Unitarian Presbyterian Church in Newry, a commission he received in his early 20’s. His design was a daring Gothic Revival style church, which was a far cry from the building which the new church was to replace. Undeterred, Barre delivered this striking building on budget and received widespread praise. Whilst Barre does not have the extensive resume when compared to some of his compatriots such as Lanyon or Young & MacKenzie, his distinct style and passion for flair and ornamentation means that his building are often prominent amongst the regions historic buildings, and arguably more so amongst the more modern buildings. Notably, he designed the methodist church that now stands derelict on University Road and the former Provincial Bank building (now 2 Royal Avenue), which remain some of the most striking examples of Victorian architecture in the area.

In North Belfast he was the architect commissioned to build Duncairn Presbyterian Church in 1861-62 and the Edenderry Mill situated on the Crumlin Road in 1865, as well as new wings for both the Frederick Street Hospital and Belfast Poor House in 1865 and 1866 respectively; both extensions paid for by charitable donations from local mill owner and philanthropist, John Charters.

William Joseph Barre. (1830-1867)

Barre demonstrated that he could learn from his shortcomings and compete with the more seasoned and venerable architects of his period. In 1852 he submitted an entry to design the building for William Dargan’s International Exhibition in Dublin. In his early 20’s, and against 90 other entrants, his design placed seventh. Learning from those who placed ahead of him, he was constantly improving his designs. This desire to improve, coupled with his ambition and dedication to his work saw him submit designs for a number of landmarks across Ireland, including Scrabo Tower, the Albert Memorial Clock and the Francis Crozier Memorial, in memory of the Polar Explorer and Naval Officer, who went missing in 1848. This same relentless work ethic would be Barre’s undoing, as he would die at the young age of 37. His reluctance to rest and take time away from his work, even after contracting tuberculosis, resulted in his health declining in the Autumn and Winter of 1866. Whilst a winter in France and a visit to a hydropathic establishment in Cork brought some relief, it was unable to prevent further decline, and passed away in September of that year. Barre is buried in St Patrick’s Churchyard, Newry: the memorial he had originally designed for his father was erected in his memory by his mother. The memorial has been badly damaged over the years and little of its former grandeur remains after a century and a half of weathering.

Barre’s untimely death meant that he was unable to complete a body of work that would put him on power with the more readily recognisable architects of Victorian Belfast, such as Lanyon, Lynn or Young & MacKenzie. Whilst his portfolio may be lighter in comparison, his remaining works are nonetheless important, with his crowning achievement being the Albert Memorial Clock which at one point represented the centre of Belfast before the construction of the City Hall. Barre’s design would be implemented above 75 others, and narrowly pip the design submitted by a venerable and well-respected architect who had been shaping Belfast’s architecture for decade, and the controversial winner of the Scrabo Tower commission- Sir Charles Lanyon.

Initial design of the Barre Memorial
Current state of the Barre Memorial

The venerable incumbent- Sir Charles Lanyon

When examining architects of renown from Victorian Belfast, it would be difficult to find two individuals more different than Willam J Barre and Charles Lanyon: Contemporaries and Counterpoints.

Charles Lanyon was born in Eastbourne Sussex on 6th January 1813 to a socialite family. The Lanyon’s had pedigree as a military family; Sir Charles was the exception. His father, John Jenkinson Lanyon (1772-1835) was a Royal Navy Purser, whilst brother William was an officer in the East India Trading company. Lanyon’s own son Sir William Owen Lanyon (1842-1887) continued this family tradition and was a highly decorated Colonel. A number of his grandsons also served in various military branches. Charles was the exception, choosing a career path outside of the military, and moved to Dublin in 1832 when the architect he was apprenticed to, Jacob Owen, took up a position there. Lanyon took up the position of county surveyor in Antrim from 1836 and began establishing a name for himself in the region.

Charles Lanyon (1813-1889)

Lanyon excelled as an architect, and in a career that spanned over five decades he, alongside his former pupil William Henry Lynn and son John, would design hundreds of buildings across Ireland, many of which survive today. His professional skills were evident from an early stage:

“[W]hile resident in the metropolis [Lanyon’s] close attention to business and the ability he displayed marked him out as a man who was likely to come to the front of his profession, while his courteous and obliging manner and consistent life secured for him respect of those who were associated with him in his profession, and, indeed, of all who were brought into contact with him”

However, it was not just his professional credentials that would see him thrive in Ireland; his skill was evident. It was his all-around presence in multiple different societal spheres and his amicable demeanour that would see him trusted and connected with a number of the building projects across Ireland:

“A testament to a man who undertook business in all spheres of life. French, Walker and Dixon (1988) saw Lanyon as “an energetic, industrious, efficient and endowed with ample charm… established the [authority] of the architect in Ulster as a professional man” (1988).”

It was Lanyon’s social connections, and the ‘benefits’ such connections can bring that saw him clash with Barre over the construction of Scrabo Tower and the Albert Memorial Clock, as it was an aspect of Victorian life that Barre would not be able to fully realise. In comparison, Lanyon would be seen as one of Irelands foremost architects until his death in 1889. He was elected president of the RIAI in 1863, a role he held until 1868. He was then knighted in recognition of his contributions and services to architecture.[1] He died on the 31st May 1889 at his home in Whiteabbey.

Scrabo Tower- A Victorian Folly.

Whilst Lanyon and Barre will have undoubtably competed for other public works prior to the commission for the memorial for the Marquis of Londonderry in 1856, it was this competition (and its echoes in the competition for the Albert Memorial Clock) which would bring Barre and Lanyon in direct competition.

The Londonderry Memorial was erected in memory of Charles Vane, 3rd Marquis of Londonderry upon his passing in 1854. A divisive figure due to his uncompromising and unyielding attitude towards the poor and destitute, none-the-less £2000 was raised for the construction of a monument, to be situated on Scrabo Hill.

On the 7th March 1856, William Barre was announced as the winner with John Boyd coming second, however, the winning entry had to be completed within the £2000 budget that had been raised. It was argued that the submissions by Barre and Boyd could not be completed within this budget and were therefore disqualified. The prize was eventually handed to Lanyon & Lynn, who submitted the Scots- Baronial watchtower that now rises above Newtownards.

Supporters of Barre criticised the decision, given that Barre had proven his reliability in operating to a cost. This was further exacerbated by Lanyon’s design costing over £3000, bankrupting the contractor and remaining incomplete relative to Lanyon’s initial designs to this day.

Whilst a high profile ‘folly’, such practices were commonplace in Victorian society. This was something that would plague Barre throughout his short career, as others attempted to discredit his work and persuade committees to side with more established architects or businesses. When Barre was awarded the commission for the Ulster Hall, a London firm that placed second suggested to the committee that Barre was too young and inexperienced and that the project would be hampered by his offices being located in Newry: In this instance however, the committee stood their ground.

The centre of Belfast-The Albert Clock

Albert Memorial Clock

A decade on from the Londonderry Memorial competition, a new opportunity arose to design a memorial for the late Prince Consort. A total of 76 designs were submitted in 1865. Barre’s design was initially selected for First Prize, with Lanyon being selected second; however, two members of the 8-person panel changed their vote in favour of Lanyon. This caused outrage, and the minutes of resultant meetings were published in full in newspapers such as the Belfast Newsletter. These minutes allow us an insight in to the rationale behind the decisions of the committee. Lanyon’s design could have been created within the allotted budget of £1800, however, that did not include the cost of 4 statues that would have adorned the base. This would have resulted in the project going over budget, similar to what had occurred on Scrabo Tower. Some committee members altered their decision based on their interpretation of the statues being a separate cost from the monument itself, as they would have been the domain of a sculpture, rather than an architect. What is clear however, is how far Lanyon’s influence stretched throughout Belfast, as a member of the Committee, Mr Girdwood, described Lanyon as one of his ‘best friends’, however, Mr Girdwood had cast his vote in favour of Barre.

It is unclear if Lanyon’s influence and standing within Belfast society played any role in the overturning of the decision for the Londonderry Memorial or the Albert Memorial. Rather, it appears that such competitions were somewhat chaotic during this time. This is perhaps more understandable given it was often judged by people with little architectural experience. In the case of the Albert Memorial Clock the decision was made to have the designs judged by the Society of British Architects. Ultimately, Barre’s design would be victorious. It would be his Magnum Opus: He would die before it was completed.


The competition between Barre and Lanyon was short lived, and from the evidence available, largely circumstantial. Both men were beloved by their peers and their works respected by the public. Lanyon was every bit the Victorian gentleman and was helped imbue Belfast with a pedigree and prestige that linked Belfast with the other industrial hubs of the day. His work acted as inspiration for others and his influence can be seen throughout the city a century later.

Barre’s untimely death at a young age deprived Belfast of one of its keenest and remarkable young minds, who still had so much to give to the city. He remains an under-appreciated individual in the city’s history, and even his impact on Newry, much like his monument in the churchyard of St Patrick’s, is being lost over time. 

Whilst Barre contributed directly to the built assets of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster, acting as the architect for the Duncairn Presbyterian and the Charters Wing of the Poor House, the work of both men set the standard for architecture across the island for decades.

This glimpse into the lives of two of Victorian Ireland’s foremost architects has taken examples from across Belfast and further afield. It is important to note that whilst the regions that subdivide the city seem well established along ‘peace walls’ and electoral wards, in the 1800’s the city was rapidly changing and these regions were much more fluid. An OS map from the time (1846) shows that North Belfast was mainly comprised of large estates and farmland, and whilst historic buildings such as the Poor House and Crumlin Road Gaol and Courthouse are present, many other buildings such as St Malachy’s College have yet to be built, yet, we feel like these buildings have been there forever.

[1] It is important to note that Lanyon was also an engineer and was involved in railway and road work. He was involved in the Belfast and Ballymena Railway among others. His involvement with the railways contributed to the recent decision to rename of Belfast Central to Lanyon Place in September 2018.

About the archivist:

James Cromey is the Archive Coordinator for the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. He has a background in Victorian, Industrial and Medical History and has received degrees from the University of Glasgow and Queens University Belfast. All research has been conducted to a high academic standard and has been fully referenced. If you would like to know more about a story or piece of research, or if you wish to tell us about your own story, email us at:

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