12 Aug 2022

Derry City Cemetery Series: Matthew Alexander Robinson-the architect of a beautiful building that Derry never saw

Robinson 3
Matthew Alexander Robinson was born in the village of Ballykelly, Co Derry in March 1872 and was the eldest son of the Rev William C Robinson, the local Presbyterian minister. It is known that he had at least one brother-James Moore Caldwell Robinson. Educated firstly at Ballykelly National School, Matthew moved onto Limavady Intermediate School and later Foyle College in Derry. On completing his training as an architect and civil enginner at Queen’s University, Robinson was apprenticed to the renowned firm of Messrs Young and Mackenzie in Belfast where he worked as an assistant to the famed John Lanyon, the designer of the spectacular main building at Queen’s University. Robinson’s talent was obviously spotted early on because he was appointed to the highly responsible post as the clerk of works during the construction of the Slieve Donard Hotel in Co Down which had been designed by James Joseph Farrall, a noted Dublin architect of the Victorian era. In 1899 it was Farrall who proposed Robinson’s successful election to the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. He would also become a member of the Surveyor’s Institute, the Royal Sanitary Institute and a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. With his credentials as an architect and engineer having now being firmly established, Matthew Robinson settled in Derry and set up his own practice at Richmond Street in the city in 1898. In the same year he married Isabella McClurg of Downpatrick, daughter of merchant Charles McClurg at Crossgar Presbyterian Church on September 28. The couple had two daughters and a son. Professional success quickly followed for Mr Robinson and he benefited from a number of public appointments granted by Londonderry Corporation. He was made architect to the Derry Board of Guardians and also to the District Asylum and the Temperance Council as well as engineer to the Derry No 1 Rural District Council. Then on February 23, 1909 he was elected as the city surveyor as well as engineer and architect for the city of Derry from amongst 50 interviewed candidates. His capabilities were again recognised in 1915 when his salary for the post of city surveyor was increased by the sum of £200 per year-the equivalent of a £22,000 pay rise in today’s terms. The decision to appoint Matthew Robinson to these public offices may well have been influenced by the fact when Derry’s old Town Hall, situated in the city’s Diamond accidentally burned down, it was he who was chosen to erect a new one. A town hall had existed inside Derry’s walled city since the 17 th Century. The ‘Guildhall’ reflected its status of the city having been founded by the City and Guilds of London. But, after the original one was razed to the ground the city’s fathers decided to turn that site into a municipal square. Therefore, a new site was required and land the other side of Shipquay Gate outside the walls was settled on. Work on the new building began in 1887 and was completed three years later in 1890. In recent years, during extensive restoration work on the building, foundation stones were found bearing the name Victoria Hall. The fact that the town hall was due to be named after the reigning monarch of the era reflects the fashion to name major buildings after Queen Victoria at that time. Why the original name of Guildhall was retained however currently remains a mystery. The cost of the new Guildhall, a total of £19,000, was covered by the purse of The Honorable the Irish Society. On July 28, 1903 King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the Guildhall as part of their trip to Ireland as part of a tour marking their coronation following the death of Queen Victoria the previous year. The king and queen came ashore at Buncrana after a specially constructed jetty allowed their yacht to dock close to the Inishowen towns shoreline. When they arrived in Derry, they became the first English monarchs to visit the city and were greeted at the railway station by the Mayor and the Corporation. Shipquay Gate, facing the Guildhall was bedecked with Union flags and an arch was erected bearing the words ‘God Save The King’. A newspaper report recording the visit said: "The usual number of addresses were presented, replying to which the King expressed his pleasure at the references to the spirit of good feeling and harmony pervading all classes in Ireland, adding that if his visit helped consolidate this feeling he would be richly rewarded. "Their Majesties subsequently lunched at the Guildhall and attended a variety of functions. Among the pleasant incidents was the presentation of a special address to the queen from the women of Londonderry, drawing attention to the fact that Londonderry is an important centre of industrial work for women and of the higher education of women. The King replying in behalf of Queen Alexandra expressed the opinion that "the higher education of women is one of the happiest features of our time." “After the King had laid the foundation of Brooke Park, their Majesties, who received an enthusiastic farewell, they left Londonderry for Buncrana, where they embarked on the royal yacht Victoria and Albert for a cruise along the coast." Five years later however at Easter 1908, the Guildhall was extensively damaged by a fire with only the clock tower surviving intact. The rest of the building was however completely renovated and the Guildhall re-opened its doors again in 1912. However Matthew Robinson’s greatest professional undertaking employed his skills as an engineer. And, it was 17-year long project that was not completed until six years after his death. The bid to upgrade Derry’s water supply began with the start of the Banagher reservoir project in 1918 and Robinson was instrumental in this. The project was vast and involved the impounding of water in a five hundred million gallons of water in a mountain range 22 miles away the city of Derry itself and carrying that water across hills, valley’s and peat bog to its intended urban destination. On its completion the project totally modernised both the domestic and industrial water supply in the city. Robinson also designed the Craigavon Bridge linking the eastern and western banks of the River Foyle. Construction began in the late 1920s, was finished in 1933 and remains one of the few double-decker bridges in Europe. The lower deck of the bridge was originally a railway line for freight carriages, but as the rail connections between the city and the rest of the island began to close down, it was replaced by a road in 1968. In 1862 an iceberg had struck and destroyed the wooden Carlisle Bridge and was replaced by a steel structure of the same name the following year in 1863. However, not all of Matthew Robinson’s many architectural or engineering projects came to fruition. When Derry’s old town hall fell prey to fire, he had proposed the building of a Carnegie Library to fill the void in the city’s Diamond. These libraries were institutions built with money donated by Scottish American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929 a total of 2,500 of the libraries were built across the globe including 660 in Britain and Ireland. However, Matthew Robinson’s proposal and beautiful design were rejected by Londonderry Corporation. The space was eventually filled by the city’s cenotaph containing the names of some of those who lost their lives in World War I. The rejected project was possibly the most beautiful building that Derry never saw built. On February 16, 1929 Matthew Alexander Robinson, architect and engineer died from heart failure at his home at Crawford Square in Derry. He had been ill for just a few days and was just 57-years-old. An obituary in the periodical the ‘Irish Builder’ said: “It was the generally expressed opinion of the citizens that the deceased had over spent his strength in a tireless devotion to the excessively burdensome duties of his duties of his dual office.” Upon his death, the Corporation granted his wife Isabella a gratuity of £2,200-the equivalent of two years salary and which would be worth £135,000 today. Mr Robinson was buried in Derry City Cemetery. The inscription on the headstone reads: “In Memory of M.A. Robinson M.INST. C.E.M. I. MECH.E who died 16 th February 1919; Also his wife Isabella who doed on 16 th March 1934, And of our son Who died in infancy-‘Thy Will Be Done.’ CAPTION: M.A. Robinson's design for a Carnegie Library in Derry's Diamond rejected by Londonderry Corporation.

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