Architectural scholar proud of his Belfast heritage


Sir Charles Brett: The architectural historian and campaigner Sir Charles Brett, who died in Belfast before Christmas aged 77, was the best-known scholar and advocate of the North's built heritage.

A gently reared member of an affluent family, he was also recalled by many from the doldrums of pre-Troubles local television as a feisty debater for the briefly successful Northern Ireland Labour Party against unionist government figures.

Colleagues and fellow-campaigners admired the humorous committee man who also produced more than 30 books while running one of Belfast's biggest law practices. The family firm, L'Estrange and Brett, occupied a fine Georgian house near the City Hall, lovingly restored and maintained despite the IRA bombings which repeatedly forced evacuation of the premises and those around them.

The lanky Brett liked to lean pen and papers on a nearby bollard and work until the all-clear, though he wrote of being filthy and "bleeding from scratches made by slivers of broken glass" after helping to clear up the mess caused by a bomb in 1972. He cut a distinctive figure in dowdy downtown Belfast with his public-school accent and forceful manner, perpetual cigarette, handkerchief foaming from a breast-pocket and suede shoes.

Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett was born in 1928, sent to prep school in Yorkshire, then to Rugby, and won a history scholarship to Oxford, where he was president of the Poetry Society and once wheeled a comatose Dylan Thomas home in a barrow. He loved to reminisce about his year as a journalist in Paris, particularly about writing gossip columns for the Continental Daily Mail. He came home in 1950, was made a partner in the family firm soon afterwards and, at 28, began working on the first comprehensive account of Belfast's buildings, published 11 years later.

In the meantime "Charlie" Brett had also become deeply involved in the ill-fated Northern Ireland Labour Party. A major contributor to policy papers on discrimination and the need for legal and other reforms, he became steadily disheartened as the party lost ground, but never regretted his NILP days.

He was proud that his ancestors as radical members of the city's merchant class had been part of Belfast's 18th-century Enlightenment. In Long Shadows Cast Before, a family history published in 1978, he declared his sympathies as "overwhelmingly on the side of those less privileged".

Membership of the "tiny and feeble NILP, almost quixotic in practical terms" was honourable, straightforward and challenging. Irish nationalism and republicanism did not attract him: he felt himself to be a European and internationalist and believed "the working people of Ulster would benefit from fuller parity with the welfare state". The choice was between the NILP and joining the unionist party to "lever it leftward from inside".

He was very funny, said a longtime fellow campaigner, "sometimes slightly cruel, but more often just funny". His insider's account of the downfall of the NILP after a brief upsurge is a particular loss. Throughout the 1960s the party plugged away at many of the issues taken up by the civil rights movement.

Within a month of the British Labour victory of 1964, a delegation including Brett petitioned Harold Wilson in Downing Street for swift reform. Brett noted the welcome but lack of promises, and blamed officials who he also believed fed reports back to Stormont on the NILP case.

In the same year three of its six Belfast councillors, including one of its MPs and supported by another, David Bleakley, voted with the unionist majority to keep children's playgrounds closed on Sundays. A split was averted only by expelling the councillors and then readmitting them. Brett said the executive was afraid "to give a ruling on the interpretation of an entirely unambiguous sentence in the party's policy statement".

As violence engulfed politics he poured energy into studying buildings in Belfast and beyond. In 1968 he founded and became first chair of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (remit including Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) and remained its president until his death. In 1972, the year of the highest Troubles death toll, he helped launch the charity Hearth to provide housing for rent or sale in restored historic buildings: it has saved more than 100.

"His interest was always a combination of aesthetics and his left-wing politics," a Hearth co-founder says. "He cared about the people who go with the buildings. The past for Charlie was not something to be cleaned and dusted." His Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914 was published in 1967 and followed by many others: Court Houses and Market Houses of the Province of Ulster, Architectural Schizophrenia, Buildings of County Antrim, County Armagh and North County Down, the last published in 2002.

He was a great enthusiast for "the modest but delightful buildings with which previous generations have endowed the towns, villages and countryside" and an equally vivid scourge, bewailing the demolition of the old lunatic asylum on the Falls Road "by the lunatics of Belfast". He also spent many hours in committee meetings as vice-chairman of the Arts Council, board member of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin and many others.

In the teeth of unionist suspicion his time as first chairman of the post-Anglo-Irish agreement enterprise, the International Fund for Ireland, (from 1986-89) cannot have been easy. Unionists called it a machine to bribe them out of opposing the agreement. The first list of projects funded included refurbishment of a historic bank frontage in Strabane, and was much mocked.

But Brett won lasting praise for his earlier stint from 1971 to 1984 on the board of the Housing Executive, set up to build and allocate public housing and so redress one of the sharpest civil rights grievances. His expertise helped the retention of traditional shapes, use of red brick, pitched roofs and attention to landscaping. He was appointed CBE for his conservation work in 1981 and knighted for services to public housing in 1990.

He is survived by his wife, Joyce, and sons, Charles, Adam and Roger Charles.

Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett: born Holywood, Co Down, October 30th, 1928; died Belfast, December 19th, 2005