Everybody loves the Georgian Houses
It seems like certain styles never go out of fashion. Last year Georgian-style houses topped a poll of the most popular home styles. I suspect that people like scale of the house as well as the the pillars and generous sized windows. Nothing says lord of the manor like a couple of pillars!
Some of the best examples of Georgian architecture can be found in the biggest cities of 18th century such as Edinburgh, Bath and Dublin and London, and to a lesser extent York and Bristol. Dublin in particular is famous for its very grand Georgian doorways and square. There are plenty of examples of Georgian buildings in other Irish cities such as Limerick, Cork, Galway, Derry and Belfast.
I have been delighted to discover that Derry has plenty of its own Geogian-style doorways, if you know where to look for them. Like many cities, Derry has been rebuilt and remodelled by successive generations but it’s Georgian architectural past survives in several places.
Not sure what Georgian era is? Think Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” with the ladies wearing Empire Line dresses and Gentlemen in breaches in tall hats. There were four kings called George who lived and reigned from 1714-1837. Its is also sometimes known as Regency era, after George Prince Regent, who took over the crown from his father George III, who expereience prolonged bouts of madness.
Derry’s Georgian-style building fall into two groups. The first were built within the walled city in the 18th century, in the Georgian era. There was also a later burst of building in the first half of the 19th century, outside the city walls, that continued in the Georgian style of building.
Generally speaking the Georgian-style of architecture is marked by symmetry and proportions based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome, as revived in Renaissance architecture. They were designed using the “golden ratio,” a mathematical ratio that’s commonly found in nature and fine art. Buildings designed with the golden ratio in mind have graceful proportions, balance, and symmetry.
Ornament is also normally in the classical tradition, but typically restrained, and sometimes almost completely absent on the exterior; hence an unfussy appearance.
Georgian Buildings within the Walled City
Derry-Londonderry is the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest in Europe. The buildings within the walled city were largely rebuilt in the 18th century and many of its fine Georgian-style houses still survive there. The population of the city was growing fast, from about 2,850 in to 1706 to over 9,000 at the end of the century. This area, when first built, would have been for houses of the well-to-do Protestant merchants of the city. These men would have been involved in the export and import of goods such as linen and agricultural produce in the city through the nearby area of the quay. In 1699 the English parliament banned the export of woollen goods from Ireland. This was to protect to English woollen trade and so farmers and the merchants of Ulster concentrated instead on Linen. Thus, from about 1750 a thriving linen industry grew up in Derry.
Derry was quite an important port in Ireland at that time (it was the 5th biggest in Ireland). Derry’s trade with Britain was growing fast at this time. It also traded linen cloth with North America (principally to Pennslyvannia) and the West Indies. Derry was also one of the most important emirgration ports to North America. Yet, until the end of the 18th century, there was only a ferry across the River Foyle. In 1789-91 a wooden bridge was built, largely at the behest of Bishop Hervey (Church of Ireland). Contrary to the claims of the bishop’s critics, who said the widely-travelled Hervey only wanted a bridge for his own covenience; the new bridge greatly boosted trade and industry in Derry.
Broadly speaking, the surviving Georgian houses within the walled city are located in two areas; along Shipquay Street, which leads down from the Diamond towards the Foyle and the old quayside, and also in the area around St Columb’s Cathedral.
The defining characteristic of a Georgian house is symmetry. I like the style of these spacious terrace houses. I find the clean lines of the tall buildings very pleasing. I particularly enjoy the columns either side of the doorways, echoing the Greek and Roman temples that inspired their design. I also like the generously wide panelled wooden doorways, sometimes painted in bright colours; but usually in black or red. The original door knockers and bell-pulls some time survive too.
A Geogian doorway on Shipquay Street built c. 1760 – 1779 (with steps)
There were cellars and attics for servants to live in. The family usually lived on the first and second floors, with perhaps a business office on the ground floor.
A special treat are the arched fanlight windows above the doors – many houses have lost them but these on London Street, opposite the Cathedral still have theirs.
Some of the doorways are relatively simple, with plaster or precast concrete or stone surround and steps.
Georgian Doors of Derry, London Street built c. 1800 – 1819
Some of the doors are very grand even if they have fallen in disrepair. This one is in Pump Street. For a city with a housing shortage there is a surprising number of vacant properties in the city.
Georgian-style buildings outside the walled city
In the early-Victorian Derry’s economic and population boom went from strength to strength. In 1821, at the time of the first Irish census, Derry had a population of 9,313. It grew rapidly during the 19th century and had reached a population of 40,000 by its end. This population boom resulted a Catholic ghetto outside the city walls in an area that wouls later become known as the Bogside. Its also lead to a more formal expansion of the city with the laying out of new streets along a geometric pattern, to the north-west of the walled city. This grid pattern echoed the layout of the streets within the walls.
These new streets included Queen Street, Great James Street and Clarendon Street. Although this was the Victorain era, these town houses were built in the Georgian style. A Gazetteer of 1844 noted that there were several “good streets, which contain merchants residences” and the newly built Great James Street which included a Presbyterian meeting house. This new part of town was now deemed “respectable”!
Clarendon Street was street was originally known as Ponsonby Street; named after the Rt. Rev. Richard Ponsonby (1772-1853), Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, however by the 1850s the street had been renamed Clarendon Street in honour of the Fourth Earl of Clarendon, George Villiers (1800-1870), Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1847 and 1852. Throughout its history the occupants of Clarendon Street were of the city’s merchant and professional classes. Several grand terraces were built within relatively dense, urban street patterns, many with rear mews and yards accessed by back alleys.
It should be noted that these fine “gentleman’s” houses were for the Protestant business (largely Presbyterian) community. The Catholic inhabitants of the city were largely confined to the overcrowded Bogside. Many of the worst houses they loved in have gone now. Piecemeal slum clearance was followed by largescale urban redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of that development has gone now too.
A greater degree of ornamentation is found on the gentleman’s houses on Clarendon Street which have a lot of detail on their wooden surrounds, some on Queen Street have inset stone pillars. The impressive nature of these wealthier houses is enhanced by the steps up to the front doors and the decorative railings (see above photo).
The city and its surrounding area is choc-a-block with heritage and history – both ancient and very recent. It’s what I love about the place; the that fact there is so much history here and that its preserved and commenorated. Derry as it exists today is an interesting hybrid of very old and modern buildings. Ideas about Conservation seem to have evolved slowly. Concerns of the city planners in the early 1970s seem to focused on preserving the character the walled city alone. In 1974 part of the walled city was chosen as one of four schemes for European Architectural Heritage Year and a co-ordinated repainting scheme for London Street was been carried out. However, some old buildings were demolished to build new shopping centres in the walled city. It is also noticeable that some of the buildings that feature in a report of 1977, namely the Old Convent of Mercy (see photo above) and the more modern Austin’s Department store are both vacant and have fallen into disrepair. It is probably testament to the lack of investment in the city.
In the follow year, 1978, Clarendon Street was included in to conservation area and many of its buildings were listed and this was extended in 2006. This has been a great success. Clarendon Street is well-preserved and a thriving business distict; home to many dentists, solictors and other professionals. There are only a few empty properties here. I would argue that more buildings in the Conservation Area should be listed to give legal protect architectural features such as windows frames proportions, wooden doors and pillars their surrounds. There are a few houses in the surrounding streets that have had their door replaced with white PVC doors, with original features lost forever. This piece-meal destruction of the character of this unique part of the city needs to be halted and reversed. The heritage of the city is both vibrant and unique and deserved to be cherished and protected. After all it is everyone’s favourite type of architecture.
Find out More
Find out More about the buildings of Georgian/Victorian era Derry
Historical Map Viewer (for all NI) https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/services/search-proni-historical-maps-viewer
Database of Historic Buildings https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/services/buildings-database
Stay in Geogrian Derry https://www.thesaddlershouse.com/
Out of Town – Hampstead Hall, Culmore http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com/2017/02/hampstead-hall.html
Books on the History of Derry
Discover Derry, Brian Lacey, 2011
Hume, J., ‘Derry beyond the walls: Social and economic aspects of the growth of Derry 1825-1850’ , 2002.
Brain Mitchell, The Making of Derry: An Economic History, 1992
T.H. Mullin, Ulster’s Historic City, Derry Londoderry, 1986
The building and rebuilding of Derry
‘City of Derry: An historical gazetteer to the buildings of Londonderry’ Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 2013.
Photographs of Derry now gone https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/melaugh/portfolio1/f1p18.htm