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Historic Building Details

HB Ref No:

Extent of Listing:

Date of Construction:
1880 - 1899

Address :
Central Library 126 Royal Avenue Belfast Co Antrim BT1 1EA

Town Parks

Survey 2:

Date of Listing:
26/06/1979 00:00:00

Date of De-listing:

Current Use:

Former Use

Conservation Area:

Industrial Archaeology:





OS Map No:
130-13 NE

IG Ref:
J3374 7470

Owner Category

Exterior Description And Setting

Detached symmetrical three-bay three-storey red sandstone classically styled public library with advanced end bays, dated 1888, to the designs of W.H.Lynn, extended to the rear as a seven-storey block built c.1962 and a two-storey extension built c.1980. Square on plan and facing southeast onto Royal Avenue. Slate roofs with glazed sections hidden behind balustraded parapet wall with moulded coping. No rainwater goods visible. Coursed red sandstone ashlar walling, band rusticated to the ground floor with a flush granite course below sill level and a stepped polished black granite plinth course. Ground floor topped by a dentilled cornice. Corinthian colonnaded first floor and balcony. First floor topped by continuous entablature and crown cornice enriched with dentils and modillions. Second floor has a series of semi-circular attic windows and further dentilled entablature over. Square-headed window openings with timber casement windows. Symmetrical front elevation is seven windows wide with advanced end bays and an arcade to the ground floor having a recessed entrance portico to the central three arches. The second floor takes the form of an attic storey with swags and large console brackets framing the Diocletian openings and raised-and-fielded stone panels to the end bays framed by piers. The crown cornice has raised lettering to the frieze stating ’18 BELFAST PUBLIC LIBRARY 88’. The colonnaded first floor has square-headed window openings with architrave surrounds set in round-headed recesses having fluted frieze, decoratively carved overpanels, scrolled keystones and festoons over. Balustraded balcony spans entire central bay supported on paired console brackets. To the end bays each window is framed by paired Corinthian pilasters. Square-headed window openings to the ground floor with stepped surrounds and splayed flush sills. Five arches to the ground floor with scrolled keystones and flanked by rusticated piers having stone steps to the recessed portico. The arches to either end have bipartite windows with stone mullion and decoratively carved overpanel, shouldered fixed-pane timber windows and a granite balustrade. Groin-vaulted portico with round-headed openings having fixed-pane timber windows and a central swivel door set in a polished black granite surround. South side elevation is six windows wide, largely detailed as per front elevation with Corinthian pilasters to the first floor and an advanced end bay. Redbrick rear elevation abutted by a seven-storey extension to the south end, built c.1960 and a further two-storey rendered extension to the north end, built c.1980. North side elevation as per south side elevation. Setting: Facing southeast onto Royal Avenue with Kent Street to the south side elevation and Library Street to the north side elevation. Roof : Slate with lanterns RWG: Not visible Walling: Red sandstone ashlar Windows: Original timber casement


Lynn, William Henry

Historical Information

Belfast Public Library was constructed between 1884 and 1888 (building work being delayed by the loss of a cargo of granite from Scotland) to designs by William Henry Lynn and still fulfills the purpose for which it was first built, as a free library open to all. The day the library was opened in 1888 was also the day that Belfast was ceremonially granted city status and the library as a civic institution is thus symbolic of the beginning of a new era in the history of Belfast. The building is first shown on the fourth edition OS map of 1901-2 on the west side of Royal Avenue. This part of Royal Avenue was formerly known as John Street and was first laid out in the course of the eighteenth century. John Street and Hercules Street to the south formed an area almost entirely populated by butchers and seen as an unhealthy and unsavoury part of the town. (Patton) The area was demolished in 1880-1 by the Town Council and the new Royal Avenue was laid out as a ‘spectacular boulevard’ from Donegall Square to York Street. Cornice heights were strictly regulated leading to a streetscape that is particularly cohesive, especially as regards the surviving Victorian/Edwardian buildings. (Patton) In 1882 Belfast Town Council adopted the terms of the Libraries Acts of 1855 and 1877, allowing the town to establish a free public library supported by a levy on the rates. There had been considerable opposition from ratepayers across Ireland to the establishment of free libraries and by 1880 only two public libraries had been built under the Acts, in Dundalk (1858) and Sligo (1880). Many towns did not gain a public library until they had received a large donation from Andrew Carnegie. In Belfast, however, a vote on adoption of the Act was passed with a very large majority and the library was built without outside financial assistance. (Grimes) The existing libraries in the town, the People’s Library, Donegall Street, the Linen Hall Library (est. 1788), which was fee-paying, and the Working Men’s Institute (1872), had been outstripped by both the availability and demand for books among ordinary people and the large rise in population of the town. (Belfast Newsletter) A competition was held in 1883 and William Henry Lynn was the winner of the first premium of £100. However, after Lynn’s design was selected the council yielded to pressure and increased the size of the site entailing alterations to Lynn’s plans. Considerable pride was expressed in the building once constructed which was stated to be ‘unequalled by any building in Ireland’. (Belfast Newsletter) The foundation stone was laid on Wednesday 18th June 1884 by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer. A Mr A G Massey of High Street took a photograph which was presented to the Lord Lieutenant the same day leading to his ‘rapid despatch in photography’ being commended in the Belfast Newsletter. (Belfast Newsletter) The contractors were Messrs H & J Martin who had begun work in May of that year. Sir Edward Porter Cowan commented on the numbers of working men who were present at the ceremony and thought it of the ‘utmost importance that those engaged in our many industries, and in our places of business, should have every facility in acquiring that knowledge and information which our library will afford, and find within it a common ground where men of all classes and all creeds can meet, free from sectarian prejudices and political strife, aiming only at their own intellectual culture and improvement’. (Belfast Newsletter) The plinth is of black polished granite obtained from the quarries of Ballachulish, Argyllshire. The blocks were cut, polished and shipped from Glasgow, but the first cargo was lost on the way to Belfast and the same quantity of granite had to be requarried, cut and polished once again which caused building operations to be delayed for a year and nine months. The remainder of the building is of red Dumfries sandstone from Annan which was diagonally tooled in the workshops of H & J Martin in the Ormeau Road. Swags of fabric over the windows at attic level are intended to represent the folds of linen drapery, the prosperity of the city at this period being very much dependent on the linen industry. The entrance steps are of Castlewellan granite and the entrance hall is covered with granite flags. The main stairs leading to the libraries and reading rooms are of Yorkshire granite. (Belfast Newsletter) Early photographs of the library show that it originally had prominent chimneys which were visible at the front elevation. ( The room on the left on the ground floor was originally a reading room with a floor set with Sutherland tiles of two colours. On the right hand side was a lending library with a ‘patent oak’ floor. The pillars of cast iron were painted to resemble polished marble and there was a counter of Spanish mahogany. Five swing doors were hung with ‘Steven’s and Major’s patent hydraulic springs’. A boiler house at the back fed hot water pipes extending under the floors. The pillars in the hall have polished granite bases and were originally finished in ‘Keen’s cement’ to resemble marble. The contract for the plastering was initially given to a Scottish firm but a deputation of Belfast artisans persuaded the council to employ local labour and the contract was eventually awarded to H & J Martin who carried out the work in a ‘style which cannot be surpassed’. (Belfast Newsletter) On the first floor were a students’ room, library and ladies’ room, reference library and reading room. The second floor housed the picture gallery in two rooms, one of which could also be used as a lecture room. The balustrading of the staircase was completed in wrought iron by Brawn of Birmingham (Patton) and cost about £260. A patent hydraulic lift served all floors. The library received many donations: over four thousand volumes from the late Sir James Hamilton, Isaac Pitman of Bath, the inventor of the phonograph, presented over 2,000 volumes, Mr Dunville presented several marble figures and Lady Harland a bust of Queen Victoria. (Belfast Newsletter 20th January 1888) Controversy again came to the library when the Town Council decided to appoint a non-resident in Ulster as the Librarian, GH Elliott from Gateshead, but on this occasion the Council were not for turning and Elliott’s appointment was confirmed. He remained in the position until at least 1910. (Belfast Newsletter) The library was opened on Saturday 13th October 1888 by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquess of Londonderry, who, on behalf of Queen Victoria, ceremonially granted city status to Belfast on the same occasion. (Belfast Newsletter) The lending department opened a few weeks later on 15th November. The library had capacity for 20,000 books but opened with a collection of 8,000. Borrowers purchased a form ‘for the modest sum of a penny’ which was to be signed by ‘two burgesses [householders] of Belfast’. Credentials having been checked, the borrower was issued with a cardboard ticket which was renewed annually. The books were all listed in an apparatus known as ‘Cotgreave’s patent indicator’ which showed red if the book was ‘in’ and blue if it was ‘out’, the book being brought to the borrower at the counter. Only one book could be borrowed at a time and a fine of a penny per week was charged for overdue volumes. There was a penalty of £5 for borrowing a book while suffering from an infectious disease. (Belfast Newsletter) A number of prominent people including Sir Charles Lanyon had pressed for the building to contain an art gallery and museum as well as a library and when it first opened the library exhibited a large number of works of art on loan from prominent local people. A catalogue of the art has survived and lists works by Constable, Gainsborough, Caravaggio, Breughel and Van Eyck amongst others. (Belfast Newsletter; Catalogue) Valuation records of 1900 set out the costs entailed in building and maintaining the library: £15,430 was paid to the building contractors, £2,057 for plastering, plumbing cost £661 and ‘extras’ £605, while the cost of maintaining the library was £4,000 per annum. The valuation was £1,290. By 1900 the library also housed the ‘Grainger museum’ a collection of scientific and natural ‘curiosities’ presented by the late Rev Canon Grainger. (Street Directories; Valuation records) The library, museum and art gallery were a popular attraction and the valuer noted that on Easter Monday and Tuesday 1900, 7,180 visitors passed through the doors. Towards the rear of the library were ‘artists’ workrooms’, perhaps intended as a stimulus to the artisans of Belfast whose skills in sculpting, plastering and painting were much in demand at this period. (Valuation records) In 1929 when the new museum and art gallery was opened in the Stranmillis Road, the art and other collections were transferred from the library. (Specify) The library was damaged by bombs in the Belfast blitz and repairs were undertaken in 1956, followed by what was later to be seen as a ‘catastrophic’ decision to sandblast the building in the early 1970s in an attempt to clean it, with consequent loss of carved detail. (; Specify) Further bomb damage was sustained by the building in 1976. To the rear of the site, storage facilities were added in the 70s and 80s and this portion of the building has been earmarked for redevelopment. (Specify) In 2009-2011 a full-scale restoration of the building was undertaken under the supervision of architects Knox and Markwell using sandstone from the Locharbriggs quarry in Dumfries which supplied the original building stone. Defective stonework and inappropriate repairs were replaced and the roofs and leadwork restored. At upper levels, Jahn restoration mortar was used, a substance which could be hand-tooled, cast or moulded as appropriate. (Specify) Internal restoration and redecoration also took place at this period. Larmour finds the library, ‘a very refined classical composition…very French in style’, while Brett draws attention to the ‘rather splendid domed reference library’. (Brett; Larmour) References: Primary Sources 1. PRONI OS/6/1/61/4 – Fourth Edition OS Map 1901-2 2. PRONI OS/6/1/61/6 – Sixth Edition OS Map 1931 3. PRONI VAL/7/B/9/24 Belfast Revaluation 1900 4. Belfast Newsletter 19th May 1882 5. Belfast Newsletter 1st May 1883 6. Belfast Newsletter 4th December 1883 7. Belfast Newsletter 1st January 1884 8. Belfast Newsletter 19th June 1884 9. Belfast Newsletter 1st September 1885 10. Belfast Newsletter 20th January 1888 11. Belfast Newsletter 1st March 1888 12. Belfast Newsletter 2nd March 1888 13. Belfast Newsletter 13th October 1888 14. Belfast Newsletter 14th November 1888 15. Free Public Library Belfast – Catalogue of works of art 16. Specify Mar/Apr 2011 p46-9 17. Photographic collection - Secondary Sources 1. Brett, C.E.B. “Buildings of Belfast 1700-1914” Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, revised edition 1985 2. Grimes, B “Irish Carnegie Libraries” Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998 3. Larmour, P “Belfast, An Illustrated Architectural Guide” Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1987 4. Patton, M “Central Belfast: An Historical Gazetteer” Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 1993 5. – Dictionary of Irish Architects online

Criteria for Listing

Architectural Interest

A. Style B. Proportion C. Ornamentation D. Plan Form I. Quality and survival of Interior J. Setting

Historic Interest

V. Authorship W. Northern Ireland/International Interest


Detached symmetrical three-bay three-storey red sandstone classically public library with advanced end bays, dated 1888, to the designs of W.H.Lynn. One of Belfast’s more notable late Victorian buildings presenting a formal classical exterior with fine stone detailing. Still in use as a library, an equally fine interior survives with colonnaded and top-lit rooms accessed by the grand iron and stone staircase. The scale and colour of the building are prominent in the locale and it represents the development of civic amenity among the late Victorian commercial properties built hereabouts. It is also a significant work by a prominent local architect.

General Comments

Date of Survey

01 October 2012