Crumlin Road Courthouse – Heritage For Sale £1

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The Ruins of Crumlin Road Courthouse (Extracted from Drone Footage by HoverCamNI. Copyright HoverCam NI)
The Ruins of Crumlin Road Courthouse (Extracted from Drone Footage by HoverCamNI. Copyright HoverCam NI)

The Need for a New Courthouse and Jail

Belfast as the Assize Town

In the mid-19th century, Belfast became the Assize town for County Antrim instead of the long-established coastal town of Carrickfergus. This meant that Belfast heard all the major cases in the county, including murder and treason, and was presided over by a judge of the Court of the King’s Bench.

Sir Charles Lanyon
Sir Charles Lanyon

In order to reflect this prestigious development, it was agreed that Belfast needed a grand new courthouse and jail. The task of designing these was awarded to Belfast’s arguably most accomplished architect Charles Lanyon.

“…Belfast succeeded (after more than a century of unsuccessful attempts) in wresting from Carrickfergus the title of Assize town for the county; and accordingly, a new jail and a new county court house were required”

C E B Brett, Court Houses and Market Houses of the Province of Ulster, 1973

Existing Court Arrangements

Before the development of the new courthouse, court cases were heard in various locations in the town, depending on the severity of the crime. Originally cases were held in the Sovereign’s Court in rooms above the Market House on High Street (see link below to the story of Belfast’s Market House).

Later there was also a Manor Court, which seemed to be of no fixed abode.

“The present wretched accommodation for debtors is well-known; it is also in everyone’s recollection, how the manor court has been dragged from place to place, ever since the old market-house was converted into a provost prison; and it is not a little surprizing, that no public notice has ever been taken of so flagrant an inconvenience”

Belfast Monthly Magazine Correspondence, May 1813

The author of this letter, who signed himself ‘Spectator’, claimed the manor court held sessions in a small pub in Smithfield, then an apartment in Crown Entry, in a room in Ferguson’s Entry and in a shed in Fountain Lane, that had previously served as a blacksmiths.

Subsequently, some cases were heard in the Police Chambers within the Commercial Buildings at Waring Street. Trials were also held in designated rooms in the House of Correction on Howard Street. Subsequently, in 1845, the Parliamentary Gazetteer mentions petty sessions being held in the Police-office on Poultry (now Victoria) Square.

Location of Crumlin Road Courthouse and Crumlin Road Gaol (Source OpenStreetMap, 2024)
Location of Crumlin Road Courthouse and Crumlin Road Gaol (Source OpenStreetMap, 2024)

Proposed Site for the Courthouse and Jail

The chosen site for both the courthouse and the jail, one opposite the other, was on the Crumlin Road. (The buildings are joined by an underground tunnel). At the time this was a semi-rural area to the north of the town.

In the street directories of the early 1840’s the Crumlin Road is not even mentioned. This was a region of “gentlemen’s” residences surrounded by spacious gardens, such as Enfield House, Cherrymount and Fairview House.

The Courthouse Design

In 1847 Charles Lanyon presented his design to Belfast Corporation. This was for a very grand court house, thought to be inspired by Dublin’s Parliament House.

Belfast County Courthouse - Charles Lanyon Original Design (PRONI LA1/1/119; Ulster Museum; Patrick Rossmore)
Belfast County Courthouse – Charles Lanyon Original Design (PRONI LA1/1/119; Ulster Museum; Patrick Rossmore)

It centred on an impressive octastyle Corinthian pedimented portico flanked by six towering columns. The edifice was curved with round-headed windows on ground level. The upper floor had recessed panels and segmental-headed windows. The ground floor would also feature niches for statues and be approached by low-level steps.

The Famine

However, this was during the Famine years, when people were literally dropping dead from hunger and disease on the streets of Belfast. The authorities could not possibly be seen to pass such ostentatious plans.

Reports of Deaths Newsletter 8th June 1847
Reports of Deaths Newsletter 8th June 1847

The failure of the potato crop in 1845-49 had a devastating effect on the whole island of Ireland, including the residents of Belfast. In November of that year the authorities of the town asked the British government to close ports to prevent the export of foodstuffs from Ireland. Their appeal was rejected. The scarcity of food sent prices sky-rocketing beyond the means of the ordinary people of Belfast.

“The second and more serious failure of the potato crop in 1846 coincided with a poor corn (wheat, oats, barley) harvest… the consequences for Belfast were severe and immediate. Large-scale unemployment combined with spiralling food prices left many of the poor, from all religions, without the means to obtain food”

Dr Christine Kinealy The Great Hunger in Belfast 2015

As people grew weaker, diseases such as typhoid, typhus, diarrhoea and dysentery spread rapidly through the town.

A Famine Disease (Newsletter 25th May 1847)
A Famine Disease (Newsletter 25th May 1847)

The Fever Hospital, the General Hospital and the Workhouse Hospital were filled to overflowing with, in some cases, four patients to a bed. The Workhouse was designed to hold 1,000 inmates but in 1847 it was nearly double that. Also, the washing facilities in the Workhouse were faulty so there were no clean clothes or bedding.

Workhouse Overcrowding (Newsletter 7th May 1847)
Workhouse Overcrowding (Newsletter 7th May 1847)

The starving poor from outlying areas flocked to the town, many to die on its streets.

High Street Famine Death (Newsletter 7th May 1847)
High Street Famine Death (Newsletter 7th May 1847)

The state of the local cemeteries reflected the growing death toll. Among others, Friars Bush and the Shankill Graveyard (see link below to Shankill Graveyard – a fascinating History) suffered major over-crowding, with corpses piled on top of each other only inches from the surface. All cemeteries had ‘plaguey pits’ where folk were buried with no shroud, no coffin, no headstone and no ceremony.

Famine - Graveyard Overcrowding (Banner Of Ulster 24th August 1847)
Famine – Graveyard Overcrowding (Banner Of Ulster 24th August 1847)

Crumlin Road Courthouse – The Updated Design

Given the impact of the famine, it is surprising that Belfast Corporation was even considering such ambitious building projects as the courthouse during this distressing time. Perhaps it was seen as a means of employing and providing wages for the labouring poor.

At any rate, Lanyon was given a budget of £16,000 and instructions to design a simpler and less costly structure.

New plans for the court house were subsequently drawn up and construction of the Neoclassical building commenced in 1848. The cost of the building was £16,500.

The County Court House was completed and ready for business in 1850. Although the plans were amended it was still an impressive sight.

“Immediately opposite to the Jail is the Court House – a really magnificent building; one of the finest edifices of the kind in Ireland”

William McComb, Guide to Belfast, 1861
Belfast County Courthouse - Charles Lanyon Revised Design (PRONI LA1/1/119; Ulster Museum; Patrick Rossmore)
Belfast County Courthouse – Charles Lanyon Revised Design (PRONI LA1/1/119; Ulster Museum; Patrick Rossmore)

In the tympanum, at the front of the building, was a relief sculpture of the royal coat of arms in painted cast-iron.

At the apex of the roof stood an imposing female figure representing justice. This was the work of Dublin-born William Boyton Kirk. The larger than life-size stone statue grasped scales in one raised hand while the other rested on the ‘sword of justice’.

Crumlin Road Courthouse Coat of Arms and Justice Statue 12 Feb 2024
Crumlin Road Courthouse Coat of Arms and Justice Statue 12 Feb 2024

William Boyton Kirk

William Boyton Kirk was born in the capital on 29th May 1824. His father Thomas was a sculptor too. Kirk also designed patterns for Belleek porcelain and Worcester china as well as writing and illustrating books. However, his heart was elsewhere and in later life he became a vicar.

“In 1860 he carried out his long-cherished design of entering the Church”

Dictionary of Irish Artists, 1913

Kirk subsequently served as the vicar of Birkenhead and Ashton-under Lyme in England, where he died in 1900.

Inside the new court house three main front doors led into a highly decorated 50ft square Grand Hall. On each side of which were entrances to the light-filled Crown Court and the Records Court. There were also rooms for the solicitors and barristers, county offices and the judge’s chambers.

Growth of the Crumlin Road Area

As Belfast continued to develop, housing spread to this northern region on the outskirts of the town.

The exploitation of rivers for water-power (then steam power), led to the establishment of mills and factories in the area such as Ewart’s Crumlin Road flax-spinning mill (see link to post on Ligoniel – the Village by the River), Mitchells mill and weaving factory, Brookfield Flax-spinning mill and Michael Andrew’s damask manufacturers (see link to Ardoyne, the Story of a Village).

This in turn meant housing a workforce and by the 1860’s and 1870’s the area around the courthouse was busy with the construction of streets and lanes.

In 1868 Bradford Street consisted of 42 houses with 3 more being built. Bedeque Street had 17 houses. These were mostly the homes of working-class folk. Florence Place had 4 houses the residences of William Hunter, a builder, William Wolfe an ironmonger’s assistant, H Morrison a bookkeeper and Mrs Doherty. Another 5 houses were in the course of erection.

The Crumlin Road itself was now lined with houses and businesses. In 1865 there were grocers, carpenters, drapers, shoemakers and publicans among many other trades. At least 5 mill managers lived on the main road, close to their workplaces.

As well as the public institutions of the court house and the jail, there was also orphanages, a Ladies School, a Christian brothers’ School and a Postal & Telegram Office. Some of the ‘better-off’ residents included W H Lynn, the well-known architect, Dan F Spiller, manager of the Belfast Newsletter and W J Ashcroft, proprietor of the Alhambra Music Hall (see link to North Street, Belfast from the Ashes).

In 1854, four nuns from the order of the Sisters of Mercy came to Belfast. They resided at St Paul’s Covent on the Crumlin Road. The Sisters established a day school for children and evening classes in literacy for working women and girls. In 1883 Bedeque House was purchased and subsequently opened as the Mater Infirmorum Hospital for the sick and dying of all creeds.

Extension of the Crumlin Road Courthouse

By the turn of the 20th century, it was decided that the accommodation at the County Court House was no longer fit for purpose. In 1905 after much political ‘discussion’ the architectural firm of Young and Mackenzie were hired to extend the premises.

Debate on Crumlin Courthouse Condition (Irish News 14 April 1905)
Debate on Crumlin Courthouse Condition (Irish News 14 April 1905)

“It has at last been agreed to carry out much needed improvements to the County Court. The long and unseemly wrangle between the County Council and the City Council as to what exact proportion of the cost each was to bear had the effect of inflicting a serious hardship on all those who were compelled to frequent the Courthouse”

Belfast Newsletter, 18th July 1905
Crumlin Road Courthouse Plans for Extension (Belfast Telegraph 31 May 1905)
Crumlin Road Courthouse Plans for Extension (Belfast Telegraph 31 May 1905)

The extension consisted of two wings added on either side of the existing building and took two years to complete. These were adorned with stained-glass windows bearing the circular monogram of Antrim County Council.

“In the additions every care has been taken to preserve the simple dignity of the original structure and to harmonise the new and old work”

Northern Whig, 16th March 1907

Interior improvements included a heating system of low-pressure hot water radiators, electric lighting and new witness and juror rooms.

Crumlin Road Courthouse, 2008 (Photo by Roger Price and shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)
Extended Crumlin Road Courthouse, 2008 (Photo by Roger Price and shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

The Fate of the Crumlin Road Courthouse

The court house remained in use for more than a century. It officially closed in June 1998 with the opening of the Laganside Court Complex.

Since then, the grand old building has been left empty and derelict.

Closure of Crumlin Road Courthouse (Belfast Telegraph 17 June 1988)
Closure of Crumlin Road Courthouse (Belfast Telegraph 17 June 1988)

In 2003 the courthouse was sold to property developer Barry Gilligan for £1. The plan then was for the courthouse to be turned into a hotel, however that never materialised.

Crumlin Road Courthouse Hotel Planning Permission
Crumlin Road Courthouse Hotel Planning Permission

The building subsequently suffered fire damage in 2009 and 2020. Since 2017 it has been owned by the Signature Living Group.

Crumlin Courthouse Fires (Belfast Telegraph 17 August 2009)
Crumlin Courthouse Fires (Belfast Telegraph 17 August 2009)

Crumlin Road Courthouse Today

The sight of this once splendid building now so thoroughly neglected, despite it Grade B status, is a disgrace. Nearly 150 years’ worth of Belfast history that once gone can never be replaced.

Surely our architectural heritage should be respected and safeguarded rather than being allowed to fall into ruins before our eyes!

Crumlin Road Courthouse 12 February 2024
Crumlin Road Courthouse 12 February 2024
Crumlin Road Courthouse ruins 12 February 2024
Crumlin Road Courthouse ruins 12 February 2024
Crumlin Road Courthouse Frontage 12 February 2024
Crumlin Road Courthouse Frontage 12 February 2024

Crumlin Road Courthouse – A Wasteland

We are indebted to HoverCamNI for permitting us to use the drone footage below that displays the state of the courthouse today in a more shocking fashion than any ground-level photographs.

(See Facebook Profile: https://www.facebook.com/HoverCamNI for other drone footage by HoverCamNI)

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