Built Heritage

The City’s Architectural History

Early Monastic Settlement

Early Monastic Settlement

According to legend, the monastery of Derry was founded by St Colmcille in an oak grove (Daire) beside the River Foyle in 546. By the 12th century, the small township of ‘Doire Columcille’ had developed into a thriving monastic settlement under the patronage of the Mac Lochlainn kings and the Abbot Flaithbertach O’Brolcháin who made Derry the headquarters of the federation of Columban churches in Ireland. We find numerous references to the vitality and wealth of the area as both a secular and ecclesiastical settlement. New buildings were erected, in particular the great church or Tempull Mór, and later in the 13th century, a Cistercian nunnery, a Dominican abbey and a Franciscan friary. A small towerhouse castle was built in Derry for the lords of the neighbouring territory of Tir Conaill – the O’Donnells. The castle was built by the O’Doherty family of Inishowen for their O’Donnell overlords. The O’Doherty Fort was built on the site of the 16th-century towerhouse in 1986, and is now part of the Tower Museum.

In 1566 English troops, under the command of Colonel Edward Randolph, were sent to Derry to take in hand the rebellious leader of Gaelic Ulster, Shane O Neill. When they left, Derry was in ruins. In 1600 the English made another attempt to take control of Derry with Sir Henry Docwra at the helm. Docwra tells us that most of the hill, or island of Derry as he called it, was sown with corn. To obtain materials to fortify the city, Docwra demolished the ruins of its medieval buildings. He left only the tall round tower to the cathedral belfry that was to give its name to the Long Tower district of the town. Only two of these structures would survive into the new city: the church of the ancient Augustinian monastery and the old O’Donnell towerhouse castle.

The city’s walls and gates were completed in 1618 and between 1628 and 1633 a new cathedral was built, in Planter’s Gothic style, in the south east corner of the town. In 1688 the city’s gates were shut by ‘apprentice boys’ against the troops of King James II leading to the Great Siege of 1689 which sheltered 30,000 people for 105 days, before the city was relieved by Williamite forces.

Post siege, the next public building of note was the New Market House, which stood in what is today known as the Diamond. Built in 1692, meal and potatoes were bought and exchanged within its open arcades and it continued as an exchange for the next 130 years.

The city’s quays in the 18th century were much closer to the city. An irregular pattern of wharves, jetties and the shipquay itself, stuck out into the river. For most of the 18th century, Silver Street, the steep hill leading from the quays up to the town square, was the town’s main thoroughfare of trade. Today, this street, now known as Shipquay Street, retains some of the character and sense of mercantile enterprise that was the mid-Georgian town. Bishop Street, leading to the high south end of the walled city, was less concerned with trade. Its development was less compact, with haphazard openings behind the street frontages to the Bishop’s house and garden, the free school and St Augustine’s Chapel of Ease on the west, and to the cathedral and church yard on the east. By 1788 the cathedral side of the street, from the Diamond to Bishop’s Gate, had been filled in completely.

In 1768 Frederick Augustus Hervey assumed the Bishopric of Derry. He brought a new conception of the role of architecture to the city. He restored the cathedral, redesigned the Bishop’s Palace and erected many new churches throughout the diocese. But perhaps his most influential gift to the city was the first bridge across the River Foyle, built in 1789. By the late 1790s Bridge Street had become the centre of the town’s skilled trades, with printers, cutlers, glaziers and cabinetmakers working there.

As the 19th century began Derry was laying the foundations of its present plan. The waterfront, too, was changing. Derry had pushed the river away from its walls to gain an extra strip of land about 150 yards wide.

The early 1800s saw major changes in the city’s architecture. The density of buildings within the walls increased. Every street was fully built up and the back gardens between blocks disappeared under new wings and extensions. This period also saw a spate of public works. Between 1805 and 1808 Shipquay Gate and Butcher’s Gate were both rebuilt. A new free school (Foyle College), a new Greek Revival court house, extensions to the jail outside the walls, and a new cathedral spire were constructed at this time. In 1826 the Exchange in the town square (now the Diamond) had its open arches built up to accommodate a Public Reading Room.

This flurry of building activity at the end of the Georgian era set the pattern for Victorian development. Housing for the merchant and professional classes developed to the north along Strand Road by the bank of the river, with a criss-cross of regular streets running uphill to the infirmary: Great James Street, Princes Street, Queen Street and Clarendon Street. Asylum Road and Crawford Square, completed in the 1870s by Samuel L Crawford, marked the end of this expansion. Large Victorian houses in their own grounds – Aberfoyle, Dill House and others – extended the suburbs of the town further north, where the Gothic style Magee College was built in 1856.

Shirt factories, rope works, and a brewery were grouped round William Street, with flour mills and warehouses on Prince Arthur Street. The city’s new gas works, replacing an earlier building on Foyle Street in 1829, was constructed in the Bogside in 1866. The area’s housing conditions were relatively drab, but in places such as St Columb’s Walk, Fountain Street and Albert Street the development achieved a picturesque miniature scale.

The most significant addition to Derry’s street pattern in Victorian times was the building of a new steel bridge 200 yards upstream from the original timber one. The new Carlisle Bridge was declared open in 1863. This opened up the area at the foot of Wapping Lane, just below the cathedral precinct, and led to the construction of two new roads on the Waterside – Duke Street and Spencer Road. On the Cityside, Carlisle Road replaced the older Bridge Street as the thoroughfare into the town. In the same year, 1863, a new line of quays was completed, extending from the old bridge to the Strand.

The period from 1863 to the end of the century was one of the most prosperous for Derry. As a brisk commercial city, it enjoyed an extensive coastal trade and there were weekly sailings carrying emigrants to America and Canada. As the economy of the city expanded, three new building types came to express its commercial buoyancy: warehouses, banks and factories. Shirt factories in particular began to dominate. Tillie & Henderson’s, the city’s largest and most famous shirt factory, was demolished in 2003, but many are still standing. Derry’s churches, too, began to multiply at this time. Its second cathedral, St Eugene’s, was completed in 1873. In the Waterside, All Saints Church was built at the apex of Bond’s Hill with its solid broach spire rearing high above the road. St Columb’s Church in the Long Tower more than doubled its size in the early 20th century, to become perhaps the most sumptuous church in Derry. The Presbyterian Church in Magazine Street was revamped in 1903 with an Imperial Roman portico. Additionally, the city’s local Council moved from its home at the Diamond to the newly erected Guildhall in 1890.

Derry in the 1960s

Derry in the 1960s


The City’s Architectural History

It has been said that in the second-half of the 19th century Derry became ‘a formidable example of Victorian commercial and industrial development’. This confidence was reflected in her architecture and in the contributions made by Derry-based architects such as: William Alexander Barker, Robert Eccles Buchanan, Croom & Toye, John Guy Ferguson, Alfred A. Forman, Matthew Alexander Robinson and Edward Joseph Toye.

John Guy Ferguson – son of John Ferguson. He was a practising architect in 1861 when he was a member of FRAZER, FERGUSON & FRAZER. In 1868 he was appointed architect to the Church of Ireland diocese of Derry and Raphoe. He set up his practice on Shipquay Street before moving to East Wall in 1875 and Pump Street in 1891. He died in 1901 of ‘advanced age’ and was noted in the ‘Irish Builder’ as a ‘prominent Freemason and Orangeman’. A mural tablet was erected to his memory in the year after his death in the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, a building he had himself designed.

Robert Eccles Buchanan – born in either 1864 or 1865 in County Tyrone. He is first mentioned in the ‘Irish Builder’ as a member of the firm HUME BABINGTON. He made alterations to St Columb’s Church in Rathmullan and the ‘Derry Almanac’ records that he practised at Pump Street from 1888-1892, at 35 Shipquay Street from 1894-1895, and 33 Shipquay Street from 1896-1899. From 1900 his practice was at Castle Street and was sometimes referred to as R.E BUCHANAN AND CO. Around 1923 he partnered with James Reid, and BUCHANAN & REID operated from 6 Shipquay Street until 1934. He was married to Ethel Maud and had three children.

Alfred Arthur Forman – the son of a Dundee shipmaster, Forman was born at sea three days sail from Yokohama on 31 December 1865. After spending much of his early life at sea he settled in Melbourne, Australia, where he established a practice and operated for several years. He travelled the world, visiting South Africa, the United States, England and Scotland, before arriving in Belfast where he established a practice, FORMAN & ASTON. He stayed in Derry for five years, lodging at Hawkin Street and working on many buildings including the Northern Counties Hotel and Tillie & Henderson’s Factory on Foyle Road. He returned to Melbourne, then worked in Sydney for over twenty years, and died in England in 1937.

Matthew Alexander Robinson – born in Ballykelly, County Derry, on 26 March 1872. Robinson established his Derry practice in 1898. He was Architect for the Derry Board of Guardians, the District Asylum and the Temperance Council. On 23 February 1909 he was elected City Surveyor, Engineer and Architect for Derry City. He died in early 1929.

Edward Joseph Toye – born in Aghadowey, County Derry, in 1857. Toye was educated at Christian Brothers Schools and privately. Between 1877 and 1883 he served as an assistant and pupil to John Guy Ferguson. He went independent in 1885 and partnered with James Croom in CROOM & TOYE. He did a lot of work for regional Catholic churches and was a member of the Londonderry Corporation from 1897-1902. He died in November 1932.