Prince Albert visited Belfast just once during his lifetime, but in death he paved the way for one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The Albert Memorial Clock stands in the elegant Queen’s Square, near the regenerated River Lagan and historic Custom House. The Italian-style tower features a life-sized statue of the prince. Dressed in the robes of the Order of the Garter, he gazes out above Belfast High Street. Famously the clock tilts by about four feet, leading locals to say that it ‘has the time and the inclination’.
With its ornate carving and gold-leaf details, the clock is a symbol of Victorian confidence. When it was completed in 1869 (by public subscription), Belfast was rapidly expanding through its shipbuilding and linen-making industries. By 1900, the town had grown into a thriving city proudly nicknamed ‘Linenopolis’ and home to one of the world’s most famous shipyards, Harland and Wolff. But the clock also records an earlier time. It points almost literally towards Belfast’s birthplace.
The tower began subsiding towards the River Lagan soon after it was unveiled. Queen’s Square was developed on reclaimed marshland. The clock’s wooden foundations weren’t large or strong enough to support the tower’s 2,000-tonne weight. By the 1920s, the Albert Clock leaned so severely that decorative stonework was removed before it fell off. Neglected by decades of bodged structural repairs, it had become a notorious haunt for visiting sailors and local prostitutes.
Today, pedestrianised Queen’s Square is lined with trees and a group of water fountains. The Albert Clock keeps watch over the scene, its shadow sweeping over shoppers and commuters waiting at nearby bus stops. In 2002, the clock was thoroughly restored. The foundations were stabilised and missing features replaced. The stonework was cleaned, including Albert’s statue. Surveys had revealed the clock wasn’t just sinking. The local Scrabo sandstone was eroding and the whole structure was moving with the tide.
Belfast’s name comes from the Gaelic béal feirste which means ‘sandy mouth of the ford’. The city originated from a small settlement near a shallow river crossing. Yet this wasn’t by the River Lagan. Belfast grew beside another river, the Farset. Its sandy banks were Belfast’s first docks, but over time the river became a filthy, open sewer so, in 1804, the Farset was covered up. It still flows into the Lagan via a tunnel under the High Street, very close to the clock. Belfast’s foundation site may be out of sight, but ‘the leaning tower of Belfast’ offers a timely reminder of its past.
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