Brett, (Sir) Charles Edward Bainbridge (1928–2005), solicitor, architectural historian and public figure in Northern Ireland, was born 30 October 1928 in Holywood, Co. Down, eldest of three children, two boys and a girl, of Charles Anthony Brett, a Belfast solicitor, and his wife Joyce (née Carter). For two hundred and fifty years the Bretts had been merchants, and latterly solicitors and barristers, in Belfast, and were connected to many prominent individuals and families in the north of Ireland. Young Charles, generally called 'Charlie', had Anthony Traill (qv), provost of Trinity College, Dublin, as a great-grandfather, and another great-grandfather, Sir Charles Henry Brett (1839–1926) was a solicitor and stalwart supporter of Gladstone's Liberal party. At the age of nine Charlie Brett was sent to preparatory school in Aysgarth, Yorkshire, and then to Rugby School, which he disliked. He went on to New College, Oxford, with a history scholarship, in 1946; he read history, was chairman of the university's Poetry Society, and went drinking with Dylan Thomas and other young poets. He graduated BA in 1949, having had a good time in Oxford, but with an unimpressive second-class degree; he was sufficiently well qualified for an equally enjoyable year in Paris, during which he wrote gossip columns for the Continental Daily Mail and broadcast on the English service of Radiodiffusion Française.
In 1950, he rather unenthusiastically came back to Belfast to be apprenticed to his father in the prosperous family solicitors' business, L'Estrange and Brett, and was made a partner in 1954, working with the firm's most important commercial clients. He was pleasantly surprised when he realised that he enjoyed the work, and very soon came to love Belfast; the connections between nine generations of his family and the city became a matter of great pride for Brett. He was however appalled by the sectarian politics which he felt disgraced the protestant community in which he had been born, though he came to dislike all organised religion. Brett committed himself to lifelong efforts to ameliorate the less acceptable elements of life in Northern Ireland. He joined the small and struggling Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) as soon as he got back to Belfast. As chairman of the party's policy committee, he worked hard for fifteen years to develop policy and became well known as a spokesman on radio and television for the party's efforts to challenge the unionist hegemony. Still in his twenties, he was appointed to the Northern Ireland Child Welfare Council in 1956, and was NILP chairman in 1962, at a time when it looked as if the socialist alternative was gaining ground in the province, but in 1964, there was a disastrous split in the NILP over the question of Sunday closing of children's playgrounds in Belfast. NILP councillors on Belfast City Council voted with fellow protestants on the issue, in defiance of NILP policy, and months of acrimonious in-fighting, in which Brett joined enthusiastically, fatally weakened the party and its electoral hopes. In 1969, when Northern Ireland's Troubles further polarised the community, Brett abandoned his overt efforts to establish non-sectarianism in the political life of Northern Ireland, and stepped down from the executive of the NILP. In 1974, after the Ulster Workers' strike, he despaired of ever seeing a socialist solution to the intractably sectarian problems, and ceased to be a member of the NILP.
Long before then, Brett had been working for other projects and in other contexts to improve Northern Ireland. In 1956, after the death in 1955 of his grandfather, Alfred Edward Brett, who was one of the founders of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, he was asked to join the Trust's Northern Ireland committee, on which he served (1956–83; 1985–93). As a member of the Trust's council (1985–93), he was involved with all aspects of its work. His legal expertise and his energetic commitment to the necessary fundraising helped bring about the establishment of a public right-of-way along the north Antrim coast and to provide a scenic footpath on the headlands above the National Trust's Giant's Causeway property.
His lifelong interest in history was of at least equal importance to Ulster's heritage; in 1956, when Brett asked what he could read about architectural history to prepare for serving on the National Trust committee, the earl of Antrim (1911–77) replied that nothing had been written on the subject. The young solicitor set himself the task of rectifying the deficiency, and in his lunch hours, explored the architecture of Belfast in the vicinity of his office. In 1967, as re-development was nonchalantly knocking chunks out of the city and its unprotected heritage, he published the handsome volume, Buildings of Belfast, 1700–1914 (rev. ed., 1985). He was one of the main figures involved in late 1967 in the foundation of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, was its president from 1979 until his death, produced much of the material it published, and became the leading authority on the history of the built environment in the north of Ireland. Brett's contribution was clearly enormous; he is credited with influencing the provision of legislation to list for the first time in Northern Ireland buildings eligible for preservation, such as the famous Crown Bar in Belfast, and with lobbying for the establishment of conservation areas, but he also made a striking individual contribution to knowledge and awareness. Even while working full-time as a solicitor and being active in half a dozen public bodies and voluntary associations, he produced a number of scholarly and entertaining works on other aspects of the province's architecture. Court houses and market houses of Ulster (1973), Buildings of County Antrim (1996); Five big houses of Cushendun (1997), Buildings of County Armagh (1999), and Buildings of north County Down (2002), as well as many articles and published locality inventories, displayed Ulster's building tradition to readers who had never consciously noticed such things before; the production and scholarly apparatus of the volumes were so impressive that many readers were surprised to realise that the author was a solicitor, lacking any formal training in architecture. As Brett was nothing if not opinionated, many of his dryly witty, even acerbic, assessments irresistibly come to mind when one looks at the buildings he described.
In 1975 Brett also produced handlists of distinguished buildings in Guernsey, Alderney and Jersey, and just before his death published Towers of Crim Tartary (2005), an illustrated account of the work of British architects in the Crimea. Several of his lifelong interests, in architecture, the law and in family history came together in Georgian Belfast (2004), in which he provided annotations of Incumbered Estates Court maps for Belfast, adding information from the eighteenth century leases of the earls of Donegall and from his encyclopedic knowledge of Belfast history. Long shadows cast before: nine lives in Ulster, 1625–1977 (1978), likewise links an interesting and adequately detached exploration of his family history with autobiographical record and an insider's assessment of mid-twentieth-century Ulster politics. As Albert Rechts, an anagram of his real name, he wrote Handbook to a hypothetical city (1986), a rather unclassifiable slim volume with a potential to establish a cult following. A handsome facsimile of Twenty one views in Belfast by Philip Dixon Hardy (qv), first published in 1837, appeared very shortly before Brett died.
With such achievements in the spheres of law, politics and architectural history, it is no wonder that Brett's tall elegant patrician figure was easily recognisable in Belfast in the 1950s and 1960s, and he became still better known in the public life of Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He was the first chairman of HEARTH, a charity organisation that he founded in 1978 with the twin aims of restoring historic buildings and of providing good quality housing for the present day. Its pioneering modus operandi involved drawing on government grants, training craftworkers in historical building skills, and developing a revolving fund to enable further work. He was chairman again from 1985 to 2000, and vice-chairman from 2000 until his death. During the time of Brett's involvement, over 150 buildings were restored and either rented as social housing or sold.
Brett would undoubtedly have continued as chairman of HEARTH after 1978, but in October that year was appointed chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. He had been a member of the board of the executive from 1971 and, by the time of his resignation as chairman in 1984, was the sole survivor of the original board. Almost 57,000 houses were built by the executive during his time on the board, and 10,000 renovated; the public housing stock of Northern Ireland was transformed. Brett claimed that the board had done its best to overcome the long-standing grievances over housing which had been one of the major social and political issues for catholics in the years after the foundation of unionist-controlled Northern Ireland. His influence on the design, layout and landscaping of Housing Executive developments is acknowledged to have been considerable, and his years as chairman added to his reputation as a formidable proponent and opponent. He resigned in 1984 to return full-time to his legal practice.
He was a member of the board of the Northern Ireland Arts Council from 1970 to 1976, and a member and vice-chairman 1994 to 1998. He was too a board member of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin (1985–8). In 1986 he became the first chairman of the International Fund for Ireland, which was set up as a result of the Anglo–Irish agreement of 1985 to allocate money to projects intended to improve economic conditions and reconciliation in the community. A budget of millions of pounds was administered within a framework and controls established by Brett, whose knowledge of Northern Ireland's needs, as well as of the possible political and associated pitfalls that might await an unwary funder, was of great importance for the outcomes of the ambitious endeavour. Both republicans and unionists, however, criticised the fund, as being intended to bribe them, and not for the first time, Brett was branded a traitor by some of his co-religionists.
The Troubles brought other problems for Brett and his family; his office in central Belfast was bombed three times, on one occasion in 1972 almost destroyed, and in 1974 his home in the Malone Road area was damaged by another bomb. In 1994 he ceased to act as a partner in L'Estrange and Brett, but remained as a consultant until his death. He was appointed CBE in 1981, and was knighted in 1990 for his service to public housing; other honours included honorary membership of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (1973), honorary FRIBA (1987), honorary MRIAI (1988), and an honorary LLD from Queen's University, Belfast (1989). Friends and colleagues in the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society produced a Festschrift of essays for his 75th birthday in 2003: Avenues to the past, edited by Terence Reeves Smith and Richard Oram.
He married in 1953 Joyce Patricia Worley, who was half English and half Irish, whom he met through their shared interest in socialist politics. They had three sons, who with their mother survived him. Brett died in Belfast City Hospital on 19 December 2005, and was buried in the old graveyard of Holywood, Co. Down. In his family memoir, Long shadows cast before, he recorded a remark made in 1906 by his great-grandfather, which might very well stand as Charlie Brett's own memorial (though in truth the achievements of the descendant were considerably greater than those outlined by the ancestor): 'I have one very strong aspiration, and that is, that my name may be remembered for a while as that of one who desired to be a good citizen of the city where many generations of his ancestors lived and his own life was spent; and who in the larger affairs of that city, strove to render some little service in the culture and refinement of its civic life.'