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Historic Building Details

HB Ref No:

Extent of Listing:
Custom House, railings, steps & lamp standards

Date of Construction:
1840 - 1859

Address :
Custom House Custom House Square Belfast Co Antrim BT1 3ET

Town Parks

Survey 2:

Date of Listing:
26/04/1978 00:00:00

Date of De-listing:

Current Use:

Former Use

Conservation Area:

Industrial Archaeology:





OS Map No:

IG Ref:
J3429 7458

Owner Category


Exterior Description And Setting

A freestanding symmetrical two-storey +attic over basement Custom House in Italianate Palazzo style, built c.1855 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. E-shaped on plan over deep battered plinth with raised terrace over basement spanning between projecting wings to west. Replacement hipped natural slate roof with leaded ridges and hips, replacement ashlar sandstone chimneystacks with corniced caps surmounted by semi-circular stone terminals. Modern rooflight strips to all pitches. Lead-lined stone gutters with cast-iron downpipes. Walling is ashlar Giffnock sandstone throughout with string courses between floors; basement plinth is battered with tooled feather-edged finish, terminated by a single course of diamond pointed stone framed by plain and rope moulded string courses; piano nobile is rusticated with diamond pointed quoins; first floor is plain ashlar with rusticated quoins. Modillioned cornice over dentilled frieze. Windows to piano nobile are round-headed having diamond pointed jambs and moulded heads, step-jointed voussoirs and string course at impost level; first floor windows are rectangular over panelled aprons with Corinthian aediculed surrounds (unless otherwise stated); attic windows have generally been replaced with plain horizontal rectangular openings, with a small number of original oeil-de-boeuf windows retained to west wing. Basement windows in shouldered segmental openings with deep chamfered and moulded reveals. Exceptions are stated with each elevation. Fine 6/6 sash windows with heavy secondary casements to inner face, except where otherwise stated. Symmetrical west elevation has central pedimented breakfront and projecting wings, all accessed from the raised terrace which is enclosed by a balustraded parapet and accessed via sixteen granite steps. The breakfront has a triple arcade of round-headed openings to each floor; from terrace, three granite steps rise to twin entrances flanking a central alcoved niche with ornate scalloped head and moulded shelf on which rests a heraldic carving (HONIT SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE) in deep relief (modern window opening inserted to niche); openings divided by rusticated piers, richly carved panels to tympana over entrances; modern glazed doors. Windows over have secondary glazing behind cast-iron tracery (rope-moulded to central glazing bar; each window is flanked by two Corinthian columns supporting enriched archivolts over panelled soffits; aprons enriched with stone carving bearing ‘VR’. Pediment has central carved heraldic panel (as before, twinned with a second shield bearing the Belfast Coat of Arms ‘PRO TANTO QUID RETRIBUTAMUS’. Roundel to each cheek and flanked to either side by three openings to each floor (original oeil-de-boeuf to north side). Projecting wings are not identical: north wing is four openings deep to each floor including a round-headed panelled timber door addressed from terrace via eleven balustraded granite steps; south wing has seven unequally spaced openings to facing onto terrace; balustraded basement channel to either side of terrace. Single richly carved tympanum to right side of north wing, carved with ‘INLAND REVENUE’. Oeil de boeuf windows to north wing (inner cheek only). Projecting wings are three windows wide to each floor, with exception of basement at north wing, which has a single opening. Basement beneath terrace has a segmental-headed timber door and similarly profiled blind niche to either side of main steps. North elevation is nine windows wide to each floor, with exception of basement, which has three openings fronted by iron security grilles. East (river fronted) elevation has six openings flanking central pedimented breakfront, three windows wide. Breakfront windows have iron tracery as west. The pediment is richly detailed with carvings depicting Brittania flanked by Neptune and Mercury. The spandrels of the upper windows contain richly carved angels and there are bearded figurative keyblocks to lower windows. The basement has two windows to either side of the breakfront, and a timber sheeted door to right side only. South elevation is detailed as north, with figurative keyblocks depicting Brittania, Neptune and Mercury. Setting: The building is set immediately west of the former quayside to Belfast Lough, now separated from it by a four-lane carriageway. To south and west are public realm works comprising Custom House Square. Recent multi-storey development immediately to south. Roof: Slate Walling: Sandstone Windows: Timber RWG: Lead-lined gutters, iron downpipes


Lanyon, Charles

Historical Information

Belfast’s Custom House was constructed between 1854 and 1857 but was designed as early as 1847; the building was first depicted (along its current E-shaped layout) on the second edition of the Ordnance Survey maps in 1858 at which time the Builder states it was ‘in the progress of completion.’ The Builder states that the Custom House was designed by Charles Lanyon (1813-1889) and cost £30,000 to construct. Victorian Belfast’s most distinguished and prolific architect, Lanyon produced many of Belfast’s important public and civic buildings between 1840 and 1870, favouring a variety of styles from Renaissance Italianate to Scottish Baronial design (Builder, p. 591). A number of commentators attribute Custom House’s design to Lanyon & Lynn as the building was constructed during Lanyon’s affiliation with William Henry Lynn (1829-1915), however Lanyon’s original design of 1847 predates the partnership which formed in 1854 or 1855; it is possible that, as Custom House was constructed during the early years of their partnership, Lynn may have contributed to Lanyon’s earlier design (Dictionary of Irish Architects). Upon completion of the Custom House, Griffith’s Valuation (1860) valued the structure at £2,000. In the following year a number of alterations were carried out on the newly completed building including the raising of the forecourt area between the North and South wings in order to provide additional storage space to the basement level and to create a new entrance to the west side of the Central Block. The changes were carried out by an unknown architect; the Dublin Builder states that the alterations were carried out ‘under the direction of persons appointed by the Board of Works’ (Dublin Builder, p. 520). The Annual Revisions give a more detailed valuation of the building subdividing it into sections occupied by different companies and civil service organisations; in 1862 the central block was valued at £650 whilst offices occupied by the Inland Revenue, Income Tax, Post Office, and Mercantile Marine (to name a few) were valued between £70 and £480; the total value of the building in 1862 had been slightly lowered to £1,870 as a result of subdivision. Between 1862 and 1930 the Custom House, administered by the Belfast Board of Works, continued to accommodate the above organisations which were valued individually; however in 1930 the valuer reorganised the record resulting in a single valuation of the building at £2,841 (the only office that continued to be valued separately was the Stationary Office, located on the lower ground floor, which was valued at £264, giving a total rating of £3,105 for the building. By the First General Revaluation of property in Northern Ireland in 1935 the value of Custom House had slightly increased to £3,280 (the Stationary Office’s value was subsequently raised to £300). The Second General revaluation took place between the 1950s and 1970s; by the end of the revaluation in 1972 the Custom House’s value stood at £3,652, whilst the ground floor office, then occupied by the Northern Ireland Ministry of Finance, had further increased in value to £592. The area that now contains Custom House Square was reclaimed from the River Lagan in 1757 and a decade later was utilised as an early shipyard; it was not until the mid-19th century when the surrounding docks were filled in that enough land became available to construct the current Custom House. Lanyon’s Palladian design was aided by the addition of detailed carvings by Samuel Ferres Lynn (the architect’s brother) and Thomas Fitzpatrick; their carving on the seaward facade of the building includes three figures symbolising Neptune, Mercury and Britannia, whilst below the pediment were carved spandrel figures representing Manufacture, Peace, Commerce and Industry (Patton, pp 94-95). Later changes to the building included the removal of a triple-arched stepped entrance to the post office (located on the southern elevation of the south wing) in 1872. This was replaced with a more modest entrance to the west of the south wing; in 1886 this new entrance was in turn removed. In 1926 major structural renovation was required due to the settlement of the Central Block and South Wing; the interiors of these sections were taken out and many original features removed. As part of the renovations, all the original chimneys were removed, a new Second Floor level was added and the main entrance portico on the seaside face was built up; the interior, having been completely removed, was reinstated resulting in the loss of much original fabric and character. Only 14 years later a further major renovation project was carried out when a new staircase was installed in the north wing of the building. Belfast’s Custom House was listed category A in 1978; in recent decades the exterior was cleaned and repaired in 1983; in 1987 a security pavilion was installed at the central bay of the west approach to the central block and in 1989 most of the original roof was retiled and modern uPVC glazing was installed (NIEA HB File – HB26/50/062). Brett states that the Custom House ‘is Belfast’s finest public building and the peak of Lanyon’s achievement ... The whole thing has the lazy grandeur that characterises Victorian’s masons work at its very best; not an affair of muscle, still less of bone or structure, but of mass’ (Brett, pp 29-30). The Custom House is now located at the centre of Belfast’s main outdoor event space; a £4 million investment by the Laganside Corporation included the redevelopment of the square and the installation of features such as ‘The Speaker,’ a bronze statue of an orator at the foot of Custom House’s west entrance steps, reflects the original use of the square as Belfast’s ‘speakers corner’ (Laganside Website). References Primary Sources 1. PRONI OS/6/1/61/2 – Second Edition Ordnance Survey Map 1858 2. PRONI OS/6/1/61/3 – Third Edition Ordnance Survey Map 1901-02 3. PRONI OS/6/1/61/4 – Fourth Edition Ordnance Survey Map 1931 4. PRONI OS/6/1/61/5 – Fifth Edition Ordnance Survey Map 1938 5. PRONI VAL/2/B/7/2A – Griffith’s Valuation 1860 6. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/B/4 – Annual Revisions 1862-1881 7. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/B/11 – Annual Revisions 1882-1896 8. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/C/17-31A – Annual Revisions 1897-1905 9. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/C/35 – Annual Revisions 1906-1914 10. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/C/39 – Annual Revisions 1913-1925 11. PRONI VAL/12/B/43/C/44 – Annual Revisions 1924-1930 12. PRONI VAL/3/B/3/14 – First General Revaluation of Northern Ireland 1935 13. PRONI VAL/4/B/7/42 – Second General Revaluation of Northern Ireland 1956-1972 14. Builder, Vol. 16 (28 Aug 1858) 15. Dublin Builder, Vol. 3 (15 May 1861) 16. Ordnance Survey Map – 130-13SE (1959) 17. First Survey Record – HB26/50/062 (1970) Secondary Sources 1. NIEA HB File – HB26/50/062 2. Brett, C. E. B., ‘Buildings of Belfast: 1700-1914’ Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1985. 3. Dixon, H; Walker, B., ‘In Belfast Town: 1864-1880’ Belfast: The Friar’s Bush Press, 1996. 4. Larmour, P., ‘Belfast: An illustrated architectural guide’ Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 1987. 5. Patton, M., ‘Central Belfast: An historical gazetteer’ Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 1993 Online Resources 1. Dictionary of Irish Architects - 2. Laganside Website -

Criteria for Listing

Architectural Interest

A. Style B. Proportion C. Ornamentation D. Plan Form H-. Alterations detracting from building I. Quality and survival of Interior J. Setting

Historic Interest

W. Northern Ireland/International Interest V. Authorship


A freestanding symmetrical two-storey +attic over basement Custom House in Italianate Palazzo style, built c.1855 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. Although it has undergone several phases of remodelling over the years a civic presence survives and it represents the prosperity and confidence of the era in which it was conceived, at the height of Belfast's industrial success. Stonework is notably good, and the building is adorned by a number of sculptures by Thomas Fitzpatrick, representing the defining ideals of the industrial city (Manufacture, Peace, Commerce and Industry). Minor modern features detract from its character and detailing but the original design has been maintained. Its original setting has been compromised by its separation from Belfast's historic quays, which are now separated from it by a busy road, although the modern landscaping on the west side maintains the view of the main façade. The Custom House is a fine example of the type by a noteworthy architect.

General Comments

Date of Survey

08 August 2012