The Ulster Hall, Belfast

View of the Ulster Hall from Bedford Street, after refurbishment in 2009.

View of the Ulster Hall from Bedford Street, after refurbishment in 2009.

The Ulster Hall opened in May 1862 on Bedford Street, in the shadow of Belfast’s White Linen Hall – now the City Hall. The architect WJ Barre had beaten forty-one competitors to win the commission, despite his relative youth and inexperience. Barre’s design for the Hall included a simple exterior framed by a modest portico, and the apex of the building supported a coat of arms that included an Irish deer and wolfhound. However, the Ulster Hall Company faced a severe shortage of funds during construction and Barre’s plans for an ‘opulent interior’ were replaced by a single coast of whitewash. Nevertheless, the ornamental was not totally neglected and the windows were adorned by small figurines of shamrocks, harps and other ‘emblems of Erin’.

The Hall was a source of civic celebration, and the ‘pride of the Hall’ was the grand organ, built by William Hill and presented to the city by former mayor Andrew Mulholland. Over 200 performers could entertain 2000 audience members in the ‘airy and dignified’ auditorium. And, in this famous Linen town:

The monotonous hum of the spinning-jenny and the continuous clack of the power-loom can be hushed into silence, in order that the rich and poor, the manufacturer and the sons and daughters of toil, may meet-together beneath the arched roof…to spend there a few short hours of relaxation, pleasure and excitement.

– ‘The Ulster Hall’, Belfast News Letter, May 13th 1862.

Although designed for concerts and ‘grand balls’ the Ulster Hall frequently hosted banquets, itinerant speakers, sports events and exhibitions. For example, Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield in 1869, while the evangelical preachers Moody and Sankey packed the auditorium in the 1870s, and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt thrilled a half-filled Ulster Hall in 1881. In 1909 the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso entertained a large crowd, of mostly Harland and Wolffe shipbuilders, and the Hall hosted regular boxing bouts and dances for American Soldiers in the 1940s.

However more notably, throughout its 150-year history the Hall has been indelibly linked to Ulster’s political struggles. For example, Lord Randolph Churchill used the Hall to rally the Belfast public and members of the Orange Order against Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill in 1886, urging that ‘Ulster will fight; Ulster will be right.’ Similarly, Ulster men and women led a ‘massive demonstration’ objecting to the third Home Rule Bill in the Hall prior to signing – some in their own blood – the Ulster Covenant in 1912. Also, from the 1960s onwards, a number of controversial political and paramilitary rallies were hosted in the Hall. However, what is less known in the Ulster Hall’s history is its role as the site of one of the most prominent encounters of Victorian science and religion – John Tyndall’s infamous ‘Belfast Address’.

Lord Salisbury denouncing the second Home Rule Bill in the Ulster Hall, 1893.

Lord Salisbury denouncing the second Home Rule Bill in the Ulster Hall, 1893. Image available in Public Domain.

Tyndall, the Carlow-born physicist and Royal Institution lecturer was President of the fifty-fourth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which met in Belfast in mid-September 1874. The Association’s annual presidential addresses were likened to ‘Queen’s speeches’, providing overviews of the year in science, and were eagerly anticipated. Tyndall, however, used his presidential address to deliver what was ‘widely interpreted as perhaps the chief pronouncement of scientific materialism in the nineteenth century’.

Tyndall’s ’s magnificent two-hour address was delivered with ‘evangelical fever’ in a packed Ulster Hall draped in Association scarlet. His argument was complex. Beginning by covering the birth of science in ancient Greece to its decline in the Middle Ages under the influence of Aristotelian thought, Tyndall touched on the struggles of Copernicus and Galileo against the tyranny of the Church. He also celebrated the advances in evolutionary theory and physics, after a brief interlude involving the eighteenth-century theologian Bishop Butler. In the final section of the address Tyndall outlined a ‘higher materialism’ that rejected the simplistic materialism of Democritus, before commenting on the boundaries between science and religion. Few grasped the nuances in Tyndall’s address. What most remembered, however, was his suggestion that all ‘religious theories, schemes and systems which embrace notions of cosmogony … must … submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.’

John Tyndall, Vanity Fair, 1872

John Tyndall, Vanity Fair, 1872. Image available in Public Domain.

Almost immediately, Tyndall’s ‘speculative materialism’ provoked an outcry. In Belfast, Presbyterian pulpits thundered replies to Tyndall’s ‘materialist manifesto’. The Rev. Robert Watts, whose own paper ‘An Irenicum: Or, a Plea for peace and Co-operation between Science and Theology’ had been refused a hearing at the British Association’s Biology Section, led the charge at his Fisherwick Place Church, close to the Ulster Hall. Similarly, at Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church the Rev. John MacNaughtan attacked both Tyndall’s materialism, and his abuse of the British Association’s presidential chair in making his remarks. Such was the outrage that a whole series of winter lectures were planned to allay the damage done by Tyndall’s ‘frontal assault’ on Christianity. Ireland’s Catholic bishops, too, issued a pastoral letter attacking the blasphemous ‘professors of Materialism’, and there was widespread denunciation of Tyndall in the British periodical press.

Belfast’s Ulster Hall was ‘metaphysically filled with the smell of Brimstone’ by Tyndall’s Address. But more than that, the historian of science Frank Turner has suggested that Tyndall’s address was a catalyst in sparking ‘perhaps the most intense debate of the Victorian conflict of science and religion’.

Further information

For more information on the Ulster Hall see Fisherwick Place Church relocated to the Malone Road in the 1890s, although the site is still occupied by the Presbyterian Church. Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church is in central Belfast.

Further Reading

C Brett, Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914, Second Edition, Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1985.

Ruth Barton, ‘John Tyndall, Pantheist: A Rereading of the Belfast Address,’ Osiris 3 (1987), pp. 111-134.

Bernard Lightman, ‘Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address,’ in Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (eds.), Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, Cambridge: MIT Press, (2004), pp. 199-237.

David N. Livingstone, ‘Darwinism and Calvinism: The Belfast-Princeton Connection, ‘ Isis 83, (1992): 408-428.

David N. Livingstone, ‘Darwin in Belfast’, in Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, John Foster (ed.), Dublin: Lilliput Press, pp. 387-408.

Frank Miller Turner, Contesting cultural authority, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1993): 270.

Poltimore House, Exeter, England

West Front, Poltimore House

West Front, Poltimore House, by Derek Harper. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Part of the west front of the house, with the badly-damaged early C20 ballroom on the right.

Poltimore House, near Exeter, is one of the most fascinating historic estates in the South West of England and is of particular interest for visitors keen to learn more about medical history. The site on which Poltimore House stands has been populated since the 1000s. The original Tudor mansion – elements of which are still visible in Poltimore House today – was first erected in the 1550s and belonged to the Bampfylde family for five centuries. In 1921, after the house had been extended and modernised repeatedly, the private residence was turned into a girl’s school, Poltimore College. During the Second World War, it housed the boys of Dover College, Kent, who had been evacuated to Devon.

Even though Jocelyne Hemmings describes this period in one of the chapters of her book A Devon House: The Story of Poltimore House (2005), a lot is still unknown about Poltimore House’s history as a hospital. Visitors with an interest in the history of medicine will therefore be keen to know that the Poltimore House Trust is hoping to start a research initiative to understand better this aspect of the estate’s past. According to the Secretary of the Poltimore House Trust, Dr Claire Donovan, the project will include a substantial oral history element.

The Saloon, Poltimore House

The Saloon, Poltimore House, by Derek Harper. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Early C18 Rococo plasterwork, with the ceiling reflected in a smashed mirror. The cherub might be modelled on Queen Anne's son, the Duke of Gloucester - but might not.

Researching Poltimore House’s medical history is part of a much larger series of projects, events and initiatives run by the Trust. The primary goal is to raise sufficient funds to restore Poltimore House, as the building had been neglected since the NHS sold it in the 1970s. By the time the Trust acquired the estate in 2000, the mansion had become derelict and was in dire need of repair. With the support of the East Devon District Council, English Heritage and a number of dedicated volunteers, the Trust has started to restore Poltimore House and hopes to establish it as a new landmark in Devon.

Poltimore House is located in Poltimore, Exeter, Devon, EX4 0AU. It is open to visits by the public. For more information on the history of Poltimore House and the different activities offered by the Poltimore House Trust, please visit their website at To find out more about any aspect of the Trust’s work, please get in touch with [email protected].


Hemmings, Jocelyne. A Devon House: The Story of Poltimore House. Bristol: University of Plymouth Press, 2005.

Poltimore House Website. (May 2011)

Ciudad Universitaria (University City), Mexico City

Biblioteca Central (Central Library)

Fig 1. Biblioteca Central (Central Library) by sancho_panza. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Ciudad Universitaria (University City) is the main campus of UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), erected over a volcanic ground, is located at the south of the country’s capital, a coarse place called El Pedregal (the Rockyland), covered by the lava resulted from the eruptions of several volcanoes more than six thousand years ago (the most important, the Xitle volcano around 100 AD), and since then it invited everyone the contemplation of its exotic landscape.

Constructed between the years of 1950 and 1954, University City exemplifies the cultural and political life of Mexico since its construction. The buildings of the Campus clearly show the interpretation of the Modern International Architecture postulates, rationalist, technical, and objective, but at the same time, also of the traditional Mexican architecture. The University City is a true fusion, the result of the union without precedents of the Modern Mexican architects, more than sixty architects interacted to give origin to one of the most emblematic complexes of the Modern Mexico.

The stone used as raw material in the construction of the complex evokes directly the tectonics strength of the volcanic mantle, the rooting with the site, and the millenarian past, reflected in the Olympic Stadium and in the Handball Courts: the latter acquire their shape from the pre-Hispanic traditional Ball Game. Both pieces achieve a forceful abstraction and geometric rigor. The modernity and technological innovation the country was experimenting at that time are represented with the use of steel, glass and shown concrete, and synthesize the influence form international models of the 20th century.

University City it is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List since July 2nd, 2007, due a significant exceptionally values:


It is the physic concretion of many University members longings to unite the University facilities that were spread around the Historical Center of Mexico City since its origin during the Hispanic time, as it represents the Mexico National Autonomous University presence in the country for more than 450 years.

Main Administration building

Fig 2.1. Main Administration building by Thelmadatter. Image available in the Public Domain and licensed via Wikimedia Commons.


The open space, the setting and the spatial relation appear as a tribute to the pre-Hispanic Mexico, and also, as a promise towards its future.

The Campus has architectural exceptionality value due to the syncretism presented by its buildings, where the Mexican architectural tradition its harmonically combined with the most demanding postulates of the Modern Architecture, generating through reflection and integration an identity of its own.


University City is in itself an evocation of the modern man, of the site, and its history. Its creation is the same as for the Modern Mexican, it reflects the continuity of the post-Revolutionary Process; the Nationalist Modernity melts with the ideals of the Modern World and the Universal Man.

University City stands as a universal symbol for the transmission of culture through time. Its particular case is about an institution created during the cultural cross-breeding between Europe and America initiated in 16th century and formalized since 1554, year of the Royal and Pontifical University founding, predecessor of the today Mexico National Autonomous University.

Main Administration building (2)

Fig 2.2. Main Administration building by Thelmadatter. Image available in the Public Domain and licensed via Wikimedia Commons.


The aesthetic and social relevance are revealed through the plastic integration on the Campus architecture. The merge of architecture and plastic placed the complex into an ancestral and modern space of time, represented on its murals; Muralism is an integral element of architecture. The same way that in the antique Mexican times the codices were used, murals in modern Mexico represent graphically a cultural and didactic message; Architecture and art in the Campus are a metaphor for life and knowledge.


University City is directly linked to the work of outstanding individuals internationally recognized by their contributions into several knowledge fields; scientists and humanists have received the highest level prizes, as the Nobel; artists that have left an invaluable artistic heritage for mankind, and promoted the Mexican culture by using original and expressive languages from the 20th century, such as Muralism.


More than fifty years after its creation, the Campus continues as an example of the interdisciplinary collaboration that prevailed among the consulters and specialists in different knowledge fields, with the architects in charge of the translation of the programs into buildings where the majority of Mexican professionals’ generations had studied since.


The outstanding environmental value of the Campus refers to the University validity as an example of sustainability and ecological development before the city, by maintaining the vastest Pedregal Ecological Reserve within all Mexico City.

University City maintains and preserves within its limits a unique Ecological Reserve that has already been declared under protection.

The central space of the Campus central allows to the meeting and coexistence of the University community and the original natural conditions of the site.

For all these characteristics, University City became an obligate place to visit, for being the main venue of the science and culture in Mexico since the 1950s.