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Sir Charles Brett (1928 - 2005):
Solicitor; public servant; architectural historian

Sir Charles Brett was a major figure in Ulster public, professional, and cultural and artistic affairs. He was Senior Partner with the family firm of solicitors, L'Estrange & Brett, one of the most distinguished firms in Northern Ireland; he was involved in politics including a spell of time as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party; he served on numerous public bodies; however, probably he is best remembered for being dedicated to the conservation, restoration and re-use of the built heritage throughout Ulster; and as an architectural historian, an expert on that heritage.

Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett came from a family which could trace itself back nine generations, and included a great-grandfather, also a solicitor, who was a keen supporter of Gladstone's Irish policy in the nineteenth century; another great-grandfather was Anthony Traill, a graduate in experimental science of the University of Dublin who later achieved doctorates in both law and medicine from the University, a Fellow of Trinity College and later its Provost, who with others constructed the first hydro-electric passenger tramway in the British Isles, a line running from Bushmills to Portrush in Co Antrim.

Charlie Brett, as he was known, was born in Holywood, County Down, and educated in England, at Aysgarth preparatory school in Yorkshire, Rugby School, and New College, Oxford, where he graduated in history in 1949, having had an interesting extracurricular time; he was President of the University Poetry Society, one of his activities being socialising with poet Dylan Thomas. After graduation he spent a year in Paris as a journalist, for the English service of La Radiodiffusion Française and for the Continental Daily Mail. He also made some acquaintances in rather hard left-wing circles. He returned to Belfast to join the family firm in 1950. He was soon (1954) made a partner, his father estimating it preferable to deal with his son as more of, not less than, an equal. Brett was involved largely in commercial law, and came to find it more interesting and enjoyable than he would have thought.

After his European sojourn, he found Belfast superficially grey and pedestrian, but soon came to discover beneath this, a city "bursting with a stimulating life of its own" and his various interests soon manifested themselves. One was politics. In his partly autobiographical Long Shadows Cast Before, he explained how he was opposed to the complacency of a conservative-leaning Ulster Unionist party comfortably ensconced in what was effectively a one-party system of regional government; he preferred to be throwing bricks from the outside. Describing his political outlook as practical, European and internationalist, he became attracted to those local politics reflecting his stance as "overwhelmingly on the side of those less privileged" (though previous Bretts had demonstrated similar leanings). A meeting of the East Belfast branch of the Labour Party, where he was introduced to David and Winnie Bleakley, leading figures in Northern Ireland Labour politics, helped lead him to his political niche as he saw it. However, the sectarian tensions inherent in Northern Ireland - which Brett sought to combat - surfaced in 1964, by which time Brett was party chairman. At this time of relative peace (an IRA campaign, thoroughly unsuccessful from its point of view, had just ended and Northern Ireland was on the brink of a period of relative stability and economic prosperity), what seemed a trivial matter rent the party just at a time when it seemed on an upwards trajectory.

The issue in question became known as the "Sunday swings" affair. Succinctly, public parks under Unionist (Protestant) municipal control in a city with a substantial non-Protestant population were closed on Sundays, the children's swings locked, Unionist-Protestants being sabbatarian to this degree. The Northern Ireland Labour Party adopted as policy, that municipal facilities be available on Sundays. However, when the issue was voted on in City Hall, the NILP Protestant members resiled from party policy and voted to keep the parks closed, demonstrating that their politico-religious affiliation took precedence over their allegiance to the non-sectarian party of which they were members. The beginning of the Troubles brought further polarisation, and Brett relinquished his membership of the executive committee of the party. The success of the Ulster Workers' Council strike of 1974, which brought to an end the "power-sharing" system agreed the previous year, also brought to an end Brett's interest in active politics.

In 1954, apparently to the distaste of the BBC establishment, Brett was able with others to launch a series of radio programmes on the local network, based on the national network "Any Questions" format: a panel answering topical question from members of the public. The regular participants constituted a distinguished group: Desmond Neill, a sociologist from Queen's University; Jack Sayers, a prominent local newspaper editor; JJ Campbell of St Mary's College, Belfast; the leading Irish historian JC Beckett; and Brett himself. There would be occasional guest panellists (one such was Professor Jacob Bronowski, the internationally acclaimed scientist and broadcaster). The programmes ran until 1965, covering 160 editions, but the arrival of television rather superseded their medium.

In 1955, his grandfather Alfred Edward Brett, one of the founders of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, deceased, and the following year Brett was invited by Randal John Somerled McDonnell (8th Earl of Antrim and husband of the sculptor Angela Sykes) to join the Northern Ireland Committee of the National Trust. Brett assented, and asking what material existed for him to read himself into the rôle, he was told that there was virtually none. Brett then set himself to provide some, and almost at once began to apprise himself of Belfast architecturally, at first spending his lunch hours walking around the city centre (the firm's offices could hardly have been more centrally situated) taking notes on buildings of architectural interest, of which he found many. He later would remark that he entered on this assignment not a minute too soon, as 1960s "redevelopment" (architectural) and 1970s "redevelopment" (bombing campaigns) served to bring radical changes to Belfast's architectural profile - in fact this process had already begun: important thought the new Medical Biology Centre at Queen's University was, for example, it nevertheless was built on the site of the resplendent 1845 Belfast Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, one of the notable buildings by Charles Lanyon, one of Northern Ireland's most prominent architects (though the building had not been well kept). Of the demolition of the Belfast District Hospital for the Insane Poor, Brett quipped that the building, known usually as the Falls Road Lunatic Asylum, had been demolished by "the lunatics of Belfast." Brett's Buildings of Belfast 1700-1914, his "labour of love", was published in 1967. Brett wrote later that it had been published in the nick of time: that is, just before the outbreak of the Troubles.

The same year, he was one of the founders of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, along with the architectural historian Alistair Rowan, the architect Desmond Hodges,  and Dorinda, Lady Dunleath, of Ballywalter, whose residence was itself an object of architectural preservation: an Italianate palazzo designed by Lanyon, its owner, Henry, Lord Dunleath was considering its demolition or substantial rebuilding, until Sir John Betjeman, the poet and frequent visitor to Ulster, recommended its retention and preservation; the Dunleaths acted on his advice. The UAHS, which was interested in all nine counties of Ulster, was founded at a time when there was virtually no public or government provision for such activity in Northern Ireland. Brett was chairman for a decade, thereafter President from 1979 until his death. The Society published prodigiously on the built environment throughout the north of Ireland, and few would question that Brett was its most dynamic member, becoming the leading authority in this field, as well as in the practical sphere of protection of buildings: he was influential behind the initiation of listed buildings legislation: the first such was the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, under which buildings are listed for their special architectural or historic interest, thus restricting what their owners can do to or with them - alterations, for example. In perhaps a neat historical symmetry, the original listing system in England and Wales was largely prompted by extensive bomb damage during the Second World War and the need to preserve what was left of architectural importance; by 1972 it was Northern Ireland which was suffering bomb damage, and not England and Wales.

An address in Chichester Street, right in the centre of Belfast, was bombed three times during the Troubles. This building contained the offices of the family law firm, where Brett, despite his considerable external commitments, continued to practise full time, retiring as a partner in 1994 (though he remained as a consultant). Other external commitments included membership of the board of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1970 until 1976, rejoining as vice-chairman from 1994 until 1998, and membership of the board of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin.

His publications list is of no short length: it is of course dominated by though not entirely confined to architectural matters and themes. He could cover whole counties, such as in Buildings of County Antrim or Buildings of County Armagh; on a more micro level can be found such titles as Five Big Houses of Cushendun and some Literary Associations or Historic Buildings, Groups of Buildings, Areas of Architectural Importance in the Island of Rathlin. His knowledge in this area produced Housing a Divided Community; forays abroad included studies of buildings in the Channel Islands, and a study of the influence of English and Scottish architects in Crimea, Towers of Crim Tartary; his political experience prompted The Lessons of Devolution. Perhaps his most curious publication was published, under a pseudonym, Albert Rechts: Handbook to a Hypothetical City, is a kind of allegory, at first glance describing a fictional city located somewhere along the Golden Road to Samarkand, though the reader soon detects that the "Mongols" and "Tartars" he describes reflect all too recognisably the Protestants and Catholics of Ulster, and his transcriptions of personal names are written by someone who knows Ulster and especially Belfast well. Brett's acute ear for accent is displayed by his wry observation that the name "Bare-Knees" is spelt "Berenice", along with other apparent disjunctions between orthography and pronunciation which are instantly recognisable to those who know Belfast and the region.

Brett, as a leading figure both in architectural conservation and provision of housing, came up against a dilemma. In a lecture he titled "Architectural Schizophrenia", delivered in November 1981, Brett addressed the question which he posed in this way: is there an essential conflict between the concerns of an architectural conservationist and a provider and administrator of publicly-provided housing? In other words, is there a conflict between concern for aesthetics and the environment, on the one hand, and practicality, efficiency and economy, on the other? He decided that the answer was Yes and No. Though he emphasised his view that it is one of the functions of any housing authority to be concerned with good architecture and good design, "with the conservation of what is best from the stock of the past; with architectural good manners towards its neighbours; and with general respect for the qualities of both the built and the natural environment." He cited Lord Clark, the art historian and broadcaster, who stated that if he had to say which was telling the truth between a Housing Minister's speech and the buildings put up under his watch, he would believe the buildings; Brett added that, to date, the Housing Executive had brought into being over 50,000 monuments, "good, bad or indifferent, by which posterity will judge it."

Brett as public servant operated in a number of roles, most especially in the area of housing. He was first chairman of HEARTH, a charitable organisation which had two linked aims: to restore historic buildings, and also to use them as social housing, or for re-sale. He served two terms as chairman and one as vice-chairman. In a similar area, he was appointed chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which had been founded in 1971. Housing had been one of the most contentious issues in Northern Ireland; quite apart from the sheer physical condition of the housing stock, some commentators even trace the origin of the Troubles to the issue of discrimination in housing allocation, and some even to one single instance in Caledon, County Tyrone, in 1968 when the Unionist-controlled body responsible allocated a house to a single Protestant occupier ahead of a Catholic family. The case generated a lot of publicity when leading local politicians and others occupied the house themselves in protest. Later, in 1986, he was appointed the first chairman of the International Fund for Ireland. This was established following the controversial Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, which had been heavily criticised by unionists for being too nationalist, and by republicans for being too unionist. Brett had to supervise the allocation of considerable sums of money, money which was seen as tainted by those opposed to the Agreement itself - quite possibly an absolute majority of voters.

His awards and honours included being an honorary member of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, and an honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by Queen's University, Belfast in 1989.  He was appointed CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1990.

Brett wrote, in Long Shadows Cast Before: Nine Lives in Ulster, that he regarded himself as "a committed and devoted conservationist. My interest has been in the artifacts of man, the modest but delightful buildings with which previous generations have endowed the towns, villages and countryside of Ireland." In a lecture delivered in November 1978, Brett laid out the criteria of what he described (in the lecture's title) as "The Ulsterness of Ulster Architecture". These included the long tradition of using local building materials and especially stone (he lamented the almost complete demise of the craft of stonemasonry); the great number of remains and reminders of the early history and the prehistory of Ulster, such as raths, cashels, crannogs, cairns and dolmens, adding that the incomplete or even ruinous state of many of these rendered them, for him, even more moving and evocative; the many buildings of the style called "Georgian", that is, mostly dating from between 1714 and the Famine (1845), which he describes as "a treasury of sober but distinguished architecture which many other countries my envy"; the impact of individual architects of distinction, as well as generations of master stone-builders; the High Victorian buildings, principally of Charles Lanyon; a rich legacy of wood and stone carvings; and the distinctive Edwardian buildings, which Brett described as the "corporate expression of embattled Unionism" and erected especially to show Belfast as essentially different to Dublin.

Thus did he lay out what he saw as distinctive and treasurable in Ulster Architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect, once stated: "Without architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization." No-one worked harder to preserve Ulster's architectural heritage than Charles Brett.

Born: 30 November 1928
Died: 19 December 2005
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Obituaries: The Times, 23.12.05, The Independent, 23.12.05, Arts Council of Northern Ireland; J Bardon: A History of Ulster; J.V. Luce, Trinity College Dublin, The First 400 Years (Dublin, 1992); Dictionary of Irish Biography; Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (;; CEB Brett: Long Shadows Cast Before: Nine Lives in Ulster; CEB Brett: “The Ulsterness of Ulster Architecture”, Canon Rogers Memorial Lecture, 14 November 1978