The Albert Memorial Clock- Belfast’s ‘Big Ben’ and Ireland’s leaning tower. Queen’s Square, Belfast Photo © William Murphy (cc-by-sa/2.0)

In 1865, to honour Prince Albert, Prince Consort an open competition was held to construct a memorial of him in Belfast.

Prince Albert was the late husband of Queen Victoria, who was only 42 when he died in 1862.

Designing the Clock Tower

76 entries were submitted for this prestigious architectural competition. With outstanding favourites such as the young Newry architect, William J. Barre.

He designed the Ulster Hall in Bedford Street and the ornate Crozier Memorial. Erected in Banbridge to the memory of the great Arctic explorer and discoverer of the Northwest Passage, Captain Crozier.  Designed to symbolize his exploratory work.

Barre’s fame as an architect does not rest on the few examples I have chosen. His versatile pencil was capable of designing a cathedral [in Newry he gleaned the first essential of his profession from the celebrated ecclesiastical architect, T.J.Duff, the original designer of St.Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in Armagh].  Spinning mills, hospitals, schools or a courthouse.  He was highly successful as a designer of Bank premises; the former Provincial Bank [now Tesco’s] is a fine example.

The better known, Sir. Charles Lanyon figured prominently in designing some of Northern Ireland’s finest buildings.  This noted architect who created Belfast, architecturally speaking. Having designed most of its prominent early Victorian buildings like The Custom House, The Courthouse and the Tudor revivalist red brick building of Queen’s University. He was the designer also of the renowned Antrim Coast road.

Lanyon was favoured for the ‘Albert job’ but Barre unexpectedly won. Accredited by his design mixture of early French-Italian-German  – Gothic style under the pseudonym “Veritas”.

William J. Barre

Building commenced in Queen’s Square in 1864. However, it was discovered that the town’s principal sewer passed directly beneath the site and had to be diverted.  It wasn’t until 1870 ’till ‘ Our Albert’   started to ‘tick’, well behind schedule.

Alas architect and designer Mr Barre never lived to see his creation completed. He had died the previous year, aged only 37 of Tuberculosis, at his home in Fisherwick Place. The Albert Clock was the first memorial to be erected to the late Prince Consort in the British Isles.

It was a fitting memorial; it alone has kept his memory green among Belfast men. Which no other structure in the city has so endeared itself to its citizens.

The two-ton bell of ‘Albert’ could be heard 8 miles away on quiet days and the clockwork is to the same design of the famous ‘Big Ben’ in Westminster. In fact, ‘Albert’ has been described as a High Victorian version of The Westminster Tower Clock.

Slight Mishaps

The clock’s central position at the foot of High Street meant diverting the underground River Farset [from which the city is called after  Beal Farset [the mouth of the Farset] and later shortened to Belfast.

One famous incident back in 1966. Starlings and pigeons in their search for warmth roosted on the giant hands of the clock causing it to ‘lose’ five minutes in a couple of days. A plastic bird repellent painted on to the hands solved that particular problem.

Another occasion, the council had to install a heating system due to cold weather affecting the timing mechanism of the clock.

Ironically in February 1977 the famous clock stopped suddenly, just an hour after master clock craftsman, Tom Carragher died. Tom was a jewellery shop owner and custodian of other City Council’s clocks for over 20 years.

The city hall clocks were no bothered to him as they were electric. It was the three big outdoor ones that were troublesome. Namely the Gasworks on the Lower Ormeau Road and St. George’s Market.

The Building Blocks

The Albert Clock tower was constructed almost entirely of Scrabo sandstone. With a base of Cookstown freestone and Scotch freestone on some of the larger carved blocks.  As it was built in reclaimed swampland, the original foundations did not quite meet the early problems.

By the turn of the century, this 147 feet high lofty memorial clock tower was beginning to tilt which is simply due to the inadequate depth of the original timber piles.

From the beginning, It was always a highly distinctive monument. With many interesting details such as the ‘Europe’ group of figures by Patrick McDowell, the Belfast born sculptor.

The actual statue of Prince Albert was sculpted by S.F. Lynn and stands 30 ft above the ground in a niche overlooking High Street.  He is portrayed in the robes of a Knight of the Garter.

The cost of £2,500 was raised by public subscription and by the generosity of Mr John Lytle M.P. Who for two years donated all his salary as Lord Mayor of Belfast towards the cost.

Old Albert

Albert Clock Belfast
Taken in the 1890s. The Albert Memorial Clock Tower

The Albert Clock was the Mecca of a great hooley every New Year’s Eve when the old year was being ‘rung out’ with fireworks display combined with ships in the busy port close by blaring in their hooters, whilst lovers held hands professing to each other their undying love. and many a marriage proposal was made thereby moonlight under ‘ Old Albert  ’, as it is affectionately called.

When the great clock finished chiming those around the clock crashed hundreds of bottles against its base, a long-established token of welcome to the New Year.

It was featured strongly in Carrol Reed’s 1953 Film ‘Odd Man Out’. Starring James Mason and a host of Abbey actors.  Around the corner Customs House Square in the 19th and early 20th century was the site of Belfast’s Speaker’s Corner, a new development has been created there with a public square, fountains and children’s facilities and this will go a long way to recapture those vibrant days of yesterday year.

Challenges over the years

‘Old Albert’  has suffered greatly over the years mainly by atmospheric pollution and a variety of sources, including 2nd World War bomb damage [Easter Tuesday 1941] and 13 terrorist bombs, air pollution, the ageing process and of course the local pigeon community have done nothing to enhance its good looks.   Bearing in mind the dreadful condition ‘Albert’ was in, a major restoration job was required.

After two and a half years, and expenditure of 2.4 million pounds. In spring 2002  ‘Albert job’ restoration project completed.   The specialized building restorers have now stabilized the 43-metre high tower’s slant, confident that the leaning has been halted.

Albert’s standing had deteriorated over the years, due to the failure of the original timber piles [it has been revealed that when the original foundations were excavated, 36 tree trunks, still in good condition were discovered down there, under piles of rubble which in turn were covered by a latticework of more timber.

The Restoration Team

Professor John Burland, the celebrated engineer and saviour of the leaning tower of Pisa advised the Albert Clock team, which included Dawson Stelfox [the first Irishman to climb Mt. Everest] from conversation architects Consarc who supervised the architectural side of the project.

It was a relation of his, James Stelfox who devised the original system of illumination. It was also he who suggested that the numerals on the ten-foot dias should be neither Roman nor Arabic. But singe bars in order to make a clear observation at an instance by day as well by night.

Restoration

The restoration work involved the installation of permanent steel sheeting around the base of the clock tower. Followed by the installation of 36 concrete pilings reinforced with steel, each going down to a depth of 100 ft.  A concrete ring beam was cast to form a shoulder on which the base of the tower will be supported.

Ninety per cent of Albert’s sandstone had to be replaced from the ground with tons of stone shipped from Derbyshire and shaped in Kilkeel. Originally the original stone came from a quarry at Scrabo, along with secondhand stonework from demolished old buildings in the city.

New dog gargoyles at the top of the tower replaced the crumbling old ones. And a new eight feet weather vane was made. The previous was so badly damaged by the wind and rain down the years that, I was told, if you were relying on it to travel north, you were actually heading east.  The clock face was also repaired along with the clock’s internal workings.

In order to protect the mechanism of the clock, it had to be stopped in accordance with traditional practice, the hands were set at 12 o’clock. We have been told that the restoring of ‘Albert’ was the largest stone restoration project in Irish history.   “Albert is finally stabilized and looking handsome once again but ‘the leaning tower tilt’ will always be there to see for it is still two and a half feet of the vertical.   One can still say that ‘Albert has both the time and the inclination’.

Current Affair

Over the past 130 years and more, old ‘Albert’ has played a central role in the civic life of Belfast.  Down through the years, it has been the centre of many historic events and today it still serves as a symbol of the city’s enduring faith in itself, its people and now after its wonderful restoration, its future.

Prince Albert and his Christmas Trees

Prince Albert, who was briefly in Belfast only once and that, was when he accompanied the Queen on one of her state visits.  He was the love of her life, but he was constantly in poor health and the Queen knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up to the exhausting Royal rounds of engagements, so she dispatched him as soon as they arrived in the city to a large mansion in the Inishowen peninsula, County Donegal. Now better known as the Red Castle Hotel, but then the family home of the Dohertys where she joined him later.

Prince Albert initiated and supported many worthy causes for the poor people of the country of his adoption. Today, he is remembered as the man to introduce the Christmas Tree to Britain.

Although the Christmas tree is a comparatively recent addition to the Christmas festivities. There is no doubt that its origins are deep in the past. Like many other customs, it rests on a quite simple and human instinct.  What more natural, that in this dark period of the year, our remote ancestors should kindle a great and cheerful fire to honour the Gods of light and to remind the people that the darkness and the cold were but a temporary affliction.

From these joyous bonfires of our pagan past, came two natural developments. First the transfer of the open fire to the interior by means of the symbolic Yule log which blazed and crackled on the great hearth. Second, the reproduction of the great trees, from which the logs were originally taken, to the graceful miniature which could be erected in the home.

Belfast Clocks

There are two other large clocks in the city.   One stands at the southern end of the office block of the restored Belfast Gas Works, lower Ormeau Road.

This small tower clock [compared with ‘Albert’] was designed in 1887 by Robert Watt and it was one of the first in Britain and began operation in 1823 when oil lamps gave way to gas in the streets of our fast-growing city.

The final city clock is the historic ‘Fish Clock’, which hung above the old fish market at Cromac Street, 180 years ago.  The City’s markets have been going since 1620 when James first granted a charter to the Baron of Belfast, Lord Chichester.  In 1874, the old Belfast Corporation bought up the rights.  The vintage chronometer, which lay in the basement of the Belfast City Hall for decades before being rediscovered, is believed to have been manufactured around 1821.

The pendulums, gears and hammer complete with its original bell which for a while adorned the tower of the Smithfield clock in the 1980s, however, was brought down to be installed again into the reconditioned timepiece. All now encased in a glass surround for all to see inside the beautifully restored St. George’s market. The original mechanism would have been hand-wound on a weekly basis and a giant winder handle was used to lift the weights, each around 125 Kg.

A modern system has been installed preserving the mechanical integrity of the original piece.

Final Considerations

Lady St. George built St. Georges Market 120 years ago to which she left clear instructions in her will that it was never to be used to be anything else. However, this was broken on  Easter Tuesday 1941 during the Second World War, when it was used as a morgue after the heavy bombing on the city.

Ar 1806-7, St. Annes’s was the first illuminated clock in the city.

In 1899 the first electrically driven clock appeared in Belfast on the beautiful Scottish Provident building constructed by Sharmon D.Neill. Greatly adorned for its beauty and for the ingenuity of its mechanism. It had a time ball regulated from Greenwich.

In 1905  came our most wonderful modern ecclesiastical clock with its attractive Skelton dial, Cambridge chimes and a wonderful carillon of 12 bells. Presented as a gift from Sir Hugh Smiley of Larne and can be seen on the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings in Howard Street.

J.J.Tohill

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