Time Leans for No Man

The story of how the Albert Clock was saved from toppling over

Almost as soon as it was built between 1865 and 1870, the Albert Memorial Clock started to lean. By 2000 the problem was so serious that the future of Belfast’s most famous landmark was under threat. In an interview with CultureNorthernIreland, celebrated architect Dawson Stelfox, who has been involved in many restoration and conservation projects throughout Ireland, explains how the 141 foot high clock tower was saved.

Built on mud

‘Within 20 years of the Albert Clock being built it was leaning. In 1901 it was recorded as being “seriously out of plumb” and concern was being expressed. And that lean got progressively worse.

‘For the last ten years or so there’d been a monitoring programme, with electric tilt levels being put up in the top of the tower to monitor what it was doing. The outcome was that there was some seasonal movement, and even tidal movement, depending on the water underneath. But generally the lean was getting worse. The tower was progressively leaning, which prompted a decision that something had to be done.

‘That part of the work was effectively underpinning the clock, putting in new foundations. It wasn’t the case that the foundations – big timber piles – had rotted away or anything like that. They simply weren’t good enough to start with, they weren’t long enough. Albert is a relatively big tower and they used a relatively short section of pile, not enough to stabilise the thing, because that whole area of Belfast is effectively mud. You’re just going down into bottomless mud. So, the original design was flawed. They were using the biggest tree trunks they could get, but they weren’t big enough.’

Soft Scrabo stone

‘The second main problem was the fact that the stonework was nearly all Scrabo stonework, from Newtownards. Over the years, Scrabo stone has proved to be very susceptible to pollution, from, in particular, the industrial heritage of Belfast – the shipyards and ropeworks and all the big factories belching out terrible things.
‘This isn’t confined to the Albert Clock – a lot of the buildings of Belfast have suffered heavily from industrial pollution. But the Albert Clock was worse because firstly it’s exposed on all four sides, and secondly it’s very decorative, with lots of pinnacles and details and so on.

‘What happened over the years was, rather than repair the stone or replace the stone if a bit of stonework got damaged, they just cut it off, took off the detail. So what we’d been looking at for the last 20 or 30 years was really only a pale shadow of what was originally built. If a pinnacle started to erode they just took the pinnacle off. When the big canopy over Albert started to erode, they just took it off and scrapped it. If holes started to appear, they just filled them with sand and cement render. It was butchery.

‘So the combination of those two factors – the weak foundations and deteriorating
stonework – led the council to decide to fix and restore the building. The council applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund, who said “we’ll support you, but only if you do it right”. By “right”, they meant put back all the detail that was there originally. That obviously put the cost of the project up to somewhere in the region of two million, of which more or less half came from the Heritage Lottery Fund. So it’s been put back now exactly as it was intended to be built.’

A dramatic transformation

‘There were no original working drawings, but the clock was the result of a competition and the original competition sketch survived. Photographs started coming in around the 1880s and 1890s and there were a huge number of photographs taken over the years. There was obviously the surviving detail even though it had changed a lot.

‘Then there were other buildings that we knew that the same sculptors and same architect worked on. From those buildings we could get ideas of exactly what the detail on the tower looked like. Then there’s the skill of the masons. Modern masons instinctively understand the way that a carver would have carved a wreath, that sort of thing. So we’re pretty sure that it’s now close to how it was intended to be.

‘The feedback has been huge. Like a lot of buildings when they’re dirty and run down, worn out, or even derelict, nobody notices them at all. But once they’re repaired and cleaned and put to new use, then people actually see how wonderful they are.

‘I still smile when I go past the clock because it looks so well. It’s so dramatic. There’s no comparison to how it was before we cleaned and repaired it. Back in 1870, when it was one of the tallest buildings in the city, it must have been incredibly dramatic.’

The restoration project was finished in spring 2002.

Further reading:
The Albert Memorial Clock (2004) by Lyn Gallagher.