Sir Charles Brett

Solicitor and journalist who became Northern Ireland's premier architectural historian


Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett, solicitor, architectural historian, writer and public administrator: born Holywood, Co Down 30 October 1928; Partner, L'Estrange & Brett, Solicitors 1954-94, Consultant 1994-98; Chairman, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society 1968-78, President 1979-2005; CBE 1981; Kt 1990; Vice-Chairman, Arts Council of Northern Ireland 1994-98; married 1953 Joyce Worley (three sons); died Belfast 19 December 2005.

A key moment in Charles Brett's life occurred in 1956 when, at the age of 27, he was invited to join the Northern Ireland committee of the National Trust. Innocently enquiring what books he should read to fit himself for the task, he was told there were none to be had - an assertion he later found to be "substantially true". In that instant a resolve was formed in his mind to make good the deficiency himself, a resolve he carried out with the utmost thoroughness and virtuosity.

He wasted no time in getting to grips with the enterprise. People going about their business in Belfast's city centre during the late 1950s might have wondered at the occupation of a tall, fair-haired young man with a notebook and pencil, and the attention he seemed to be bestowing on buildings which everyone else either took for granted or mildly disparaged, according to the fashion of the day. In this manner - noting, recording and appreciating - Brett's great work as Northern Ireland's premier architectural historian got under way.

He started, as he said himself, just in the nick of time, as the Victorian city with its Georgian underlay fell victim to the rage for redevelopment which overtook the whole of the United Kingdom in the 1960s; and then to the additional, local depredations of "politically motivated" arsonists and bombers, once "the Troubles" had taken root. Brett's Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914 when it was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1967, already contained much to lament, including Charles Lanyon's School for the Deaf and Dumb, and the old Lunatic Asylum on the Falls Road, demolished, as Brett has it, in 1924, "by the lunatics of Belfast".

There were three main strands to Charles Brett's working life at the time. In 1950, he had joined the family firm of solicitors, L'Estrange and Brett, and his initial architectural scrutiny of Belfast was carried out during his lunch hour. He was also a keen member of the rocky Northern Ireland Labour Party, a would-be non-sectarian organisation caught between clashing factions, and destined to fade out of Northern Irish politics (though not before Brett had successfully chaired it for a number of years). By opting for socialism, rather than Unionism, he was subscribing to a view of the world not readily attributable to someone of his background (though among his ancestors, it's true, were those of a similarly radical, anti-Unionist and even anti-clerical cast of mind).

He was born in 1928 in Holywood, Co Down, into a prominent legal family, and educated in England, at Rugby and Oxford, where he read History at New College, Oxford and was president of the Poetry Society. Then he spent a year in Paris, working as a broadcaster and journalist, and savouring the mildly bohemian pleasures of an unencumbered life abroad, before returning in 1950 to Ireland and all its provocations. Belfast, however - which he'd lumbered in his mind with a dismal backwaterish quality - he found bristling with an indigenous camaraderie and vitality. The worlds of the arts, and of trade unionism, gave him an outlet for all his gregarious, cultural and reformist tendencies.

As for the other kind of Unionism: as he says in his autobiography-cum-family-history, Long Shadows Cast Before (1978), in the face of Unionist smugness and self-satisfaction, and in view of the overbearing way the one-party state was run, there was nothing for it but to "stand outside and bung bricks at them: a duty that I performed to the best of my ability, and with relish, for the next 20 years".

In that assertion, you catch the unmistakable tones of the independent-minded, witty and forthright campaigner for social justice and improvement in every area of life with which he came in contact: someone whose raison d'être was to uphold the values of reason, tolerance and civilisation, even if it meant (as a Labour activist) getting up on a cart, or climbing the Custom House steps (Belfast's version of Speakers' Corner) to cry up the necessity for change before a sometimes unenthralled audience. He did this in order not to shirk any aspect of the socialist agenda; but (he says) "I was more at home in a committee room than on the back of . . . a lorry".

Committee rooms come into the picture, in abundance. The year 1967 saw the founding of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, mostly at the instigation of Charles Brett - an organisation he was still serving, as President, at the time of his death. Chairman of Hearth Housing Association, of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Vice-Chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. . . the list is formidable.

But the preservation of Ulster's dwindling store of architectural treasures became Brett's most cherished preoccupation, "the modest but delightful buildings with which previous generations have endowed the towns, villages and countryside"; and to the listing and evaluation of these he brought a poet's eye and a solicitor's discipline, allied to a kind of benign despotism which came into play whenever he considered that others were dragging their heels.

The last part of the 20th century was not, he noted wryly, an auspicious era for a Northern Irish conservationist. His own solicitors' office, in one of Belfast's few remaining Georgian terraces, suffered severe damage from a massive car-bomb which exploded nearby in 1972; and Brett himself was quickly among the teams of helpers, "filthy and often bleeding from scratches made by slivers of broken glass", who worked day and night to clear up the mess. The office continued in use (it is still there, under different ownership), and during the subsequent bomb scares which plagued the city, causing mass evacuation of workplaces, Brett would carry his papers out to a traffic bollard near the City Hall - a makeshift solicitor's desk.

With so much destruction taking place, the necessity to conserve what remained became even more urgent. Throughout the entire period of disruption, Charles Brett - who'd made himself into a connoisseur of the cobweb fanlight and the fluted wooden column - went on providing invaluable guides to the existing building heritage of the north. These culminated in the splendidly produced, vividly informative trio of volumes, Buildings of County Antrim (1996), Buildings of County Armagh (1999), and Buildings of North County Down (2002), in which scholarship and idiosyncrasy combine to make a sparkling effect.

Going his own way, with elegance and aplomb, Brett stood in his lifetime as an antidote to the madness, complacency and inertia which bedevilled his birthplace; and if his impatience with diehards and ditherers alike sometimes got people's backs up, the vast and eclectic nature of his circle of friends is a testament to his kindness, generosity, originality and verve. He was a delight to know.

Patricia Craig

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
TVSPOILER ALERT: It's all coming together as series returns to form
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine