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Brett, Sir Charles Edward Bainbridgefree

  • Robert Carswell

Sir Charles Edward Bainbridge Brett (1928–2005)

by Jill Jennings

Country Life Picture Library

Brett, Sir Charles Edward Bainbridge (1928–2005), solicitor and architectural historian, was born on 30 October 1928 at Glenard, Holywood, co. Down, the eldest son of Charles Anthony Brett (1897–1988), solicitor, and his wife, (Elizabeth) Joyce, née Carter. His father was senior partner of L'Estrange and Brett, an old-established firm of solicitors in Belfast. After schooling at Aysgarth in Yorkshire and at Rugby School Brett went up to New College, Oxford, with a scholarship in history. At Oxford he pursued what became a lifelong interest in literary and artistic matters and people, becoming chairman of the University Poetry Society and enjoying a convivial friendship with Dylan Thomas. He graduated in 1949. Following a gap year working as a journalist in Paris he returned to Belfast to commence his legal career. He qualified as a solicitor in 1953, and in the same year married Joyce Patricia Worley (b. 1927), with whom he had three sons.

Brett became a partner of L'Estrange and Brett in 1954. But he did not confine himself to what he called 'the conventional life of a provincial lawyer' (Long Shadows, 47), though he became in time a distinguished practitioner in company and commercial law, whose advice was highly valued. He immersed himself with enthusiasm in the cultural life of Belfast and plunged into local politics as an active member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. If this caused some raised eyebrows among his firm's more conservative clients, it was only because they failed to appreciate the radical streak in generations of the Brett family. For some twenty years Brett was involved in constituency canvassing and pamphleteering controversy, serving a term as chairman of the party.

In 1956 Brett was invited to join the Northern Ireland committee of the National Trust, and he later (from 1975 to 1989) served as a member of the national council. In the former capacity he was one of the pioneers of the Ulster coastline appeal, which became the model for the trust's wider Enterprise Neptune campaign. On discovering the lack of books on local architecture he proceeded to fill the gap himself. His book The Buildings of Belfast (1967) was followed by a stream of authoritative and attractively written books and monographs, mostly on the buildings of Ulster but also extending to architectural studies in such diverse places as the Channel Islands and the Crimea.

Brett's concern for the preservation of the built heritage led him to play a pivotal role in the foundation in 1968 of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, of which he was the first chairman and then president from 1979 until his death. Architectural preservation in Northern Ireland was then in a critical state, the result of many depredations from developers and later from bomb damage. Over the succeeding years he spearheaded the society's activities, campaigning tirelessly to raise the profile of conservation, institute the listing of buildings and a historic buildings record, and create conservation areas. A signal early achievement of the society was the restoration of Belfast's Grand Opera House after it sustained serious bomb damage, a project that sparked the revival of Belfast's cultural and night life, which had almost disappeared as a result of the civil disturbances. To assist in the preservation of endangered buildings Brett was instrumental in setting up the conservation charity Hearth, a novel concept consisting of a revolving fund and housing association, the latter offering advantages that Brett was quick to seize when the governing legislation came into force. Under his aegis Hearth successfully acquired and restored many historic buildings at risk and made them available as social housing at affordable rents or offered them for resale.

In 1971 Brett was appointed a member of the Northern Ireland housing executive, newly formed to administer the stock of public dwellings. The responsible Unionist minister, Roy Bradford, later said that he was taking a chance politically in making this appointment, but few public appointments can have been more fruitful. Brett served for thirteen years on the executive, the last five as chairman, and made an immense and unique contribution to ensuring quality in design, construction, and layout of public housing and the fairness of its allocation. There followed another public appointment in 1986, as founding chairman of the International Fund for Ireland, financed largely by the United States and the EEC 'to promote economic and social advance and reconciliation'. Brett created the framework and guided it with Robespierrian integrity into its pattern of activity in the application of its funds, refusing to allow its resources to be diverted into the partisan projects of political parties.

All this Brett undertook at the same time as carrying a full working load in his solicitor's practice. He was able to do so by channelling his energy into concentrated and effective work in his practice and other activities. His record of public service was recognized by his appointment as CBE in 1981 and a knighthood in 1990. Queen's University, Belfast, conferred the honorary degree of LLD on him in 1989 and he was made an honorary member of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, and also of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a unique distinction that he valued highly.

Brett was tall, slim, and upright, with a good head of sandy hair. With his questioning mind and a never failing willingness to engage in controversy he was regarded by many as formidable, but that exterior concealed a warmer persona. With wide cultural interests and reading he rejoiced in entertaining conversation, and discussion ranging over a wide field. His literary output in his many publications was idiosyncratic, entertaining, and a trifle iconoclastic, but his writing flowed with deceptive ease. He had a complete lack of interest in all organized sports, amounting to marked disapproval. He reserved his particular spleen for golf, which he called the most wasteful land-use in the world. His marriage to Joyce, a fellow Labour sympathizer and party worker, was a great solidifying factor in his life. Possessed, like her husband, of an independent spirit and an inquiring mind, she gave Brett unfailing support in all his activities during a long and happy marriage. They complemented each other in their multifarious activities and interests, made many enduring friendships, and dispensed much warm hospitality. Brett retired from his solicitor's practice in 1994, but he remained a consultant for four more years, and he continued to serve on various public and civic bodies with distinction. He died on 19 December 2005 at Belfast City Hospital, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and was buried in the old graveyard in Holywood, co. Down. He was survived by his wife, Joyce, and their three sons.


  • C. E. B. Brett, Long shadows cast before (1978)
  • R. Bradford, ‘Expert on city skyline’, Ulster News Letter (11 Jan 1993)
  • Belfast Telegraph (21 Dec 2005)
  • The Times (23 Dec 2005)
  • The Independent (24 Dec 2005)
  • The Times (5 Jan 2006)
  • The Guardian (14 Feb 2006)
  • WW (2005)
  • personal knowledge (2009)
  • private information (2009) [Aden T. G. Brett, son]
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • PRONI, papers relating to National Trust


  • J. Jennings, photograph, Country Life Picture Library, London; repro. in The Times (23 Dec 2005) [see illus.]
  • J. Morgan, oils, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, Belfast
  • photograph, repro. in Ulster Newsletter (11 Jan 1993)

Wealth at Death

£1,398,656: probate, 6 March 2006, CGPLA NIre.

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)