Queen’s University Belfast – Take a Tour

Queen’s University Belfast – Take a Tour

If you are visiting Belfast City, then your visit will not be complete unless you visit Queen’s University. It was founded back in 1845 and has survived and flourished as an institution of learning, with a great reputation throughout the world.

The Queen’s University has a coat of arms which contains a crown in its centre after its founder Queen Victoria. Above that is the book of learning, to the left the red hand which symbolises the Province of Ulster, to the right is the seahorse representing the city of Belfast and in the bottom quadrant is the harp representing Ireland.

It has been known as:

  • Queen’s College 1845-1881
  • Royal University 1881-1908
  • Queen’s University 1908 onwards

Queen’s University is situated just a ten minute walk from Belfast City Centre on University Road and is close to Botanic Gardens. It is well sign posted from the City Centre so should be easy to find. If you prefer a taxi, then it is only a few minute’s drive to get there. When you arrive go to the front of the university which I have shown in the picture above. On your right you will see a small terrace of brown brick houses which back in 1845, marked the end of Belfast City boundary.

Still looking to your right you will see the terrace of University Square which was built in a Georgian style as a speculative venture between 1849 and 1872. The staff could not afford these houses except for one person, the first College Bursar, Alexander Dickey, who as it happened was also a greengrocer. The University owns all of these now and is in my opinion the best example of terrace housing from Georgian Belfast.

If you turn around from here and look across the road you will see the Student’s Union which was opened in 1966, just three years before The Troubles started, and it has all the architectural features (or lack of) from that era. To the left of that is Elmwood Hall, which was once a church and at its front is a War Memorial to the Queens men and women who died in both World Wars. This was unveiled by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1924.

To the left again is the Sir William Whitla Hall, designed by John McCreagh which started to be built in 1939 and was completed in 1946. It breaks with the tradition of Tudor Gothic which the rest of the University is based on. It is time to turn back around now and once again view the front of the University. Look directly through the gates and you will see the original college, designed by Sir Charles Lanyon in 1849. Lanyon is probably the most famous architect in Belfast and also designed, 38 churches, Custom’s House, the Queen’s Bridge and the Antrim Coast Road. Quite a pedigree!

He was a property speculator and also became the Lord Mayor of Belfast. In my opinion Queen’s University is his crowning glory and if you look closely, you will notice the spires, the gargoyles, the flattened arches all done in red brick. This was a popular style in the mid 19th Century and was made popular by Barry and Pugin who completed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Lanyon, supposedly used the Founder’s Tower at Magdalen College in Oxford as his inspiration to build Queens. Originally there were classrooms to the left, the President’s Office was in the actual tower, the Great Hall is on your right and the tower beyond was the house of the Vice-President of the College.

Walk through the gates and now move into the University where you will be greeted by the Entrance Hall. You should now be standing on a mosaic floor which shows the arms of the Province of Ulster, quartered with the Royal Arms of Queen Victoria.. This red hand theme, the symbol of the Province of Ulster is a trend that persists throughout the University. Go through the doors and directly in front of you, you will see a statue of Galileo designed by Pio Fedi. Sir William Whitla brought this statue back from Italy and gave it to the University.

On the picture on the left, look above the statue of Galileo and you will see a beautiful stained glass window. This was designed in 1939 by J.E.Nuttgens but was not erected until after the second world war. Yet again the red hand is present here as well as the other symbols of Queen’s University.

To your left where you have just entered is the Queen’s Visitor Centre and at its entrance you will find a plaque in honour of Edwin Godkin. He left Queens without a degree and became a war correspondent in the Crimean War. He eventually emigrated to the United States and founded “The Nation” which he edited for 35 years. Go through this door and turn right and follow the stairs to the landing. To your right is the Canada Room which was once used for lectures and as Zoology museum, before becoming offices and then being redesigned by Robert McKinstry in 1986. The room is panelled in Canadian Maple and decorated with the coats of arms of Canada.

You can now go through the double doors into the Academic Council Chamber and into what was once a lecture room. This gives you an idea of the full height of the building and you can see the famous Lanyon roof trusses. Go back out to the landing now and through the double doors which should be facing you. This is the Art Gallery, where there should be a Curator present to explain the latest exhibition. Go back downstairs and once again into the Entrance Hall. Follow the signs now to the Great Hall.

Please watch the video above which gives you some interesting information about the Great Hall. This hall was used as a refectory and examination hall. Before leaving, note the portrait of the man in the overcoat, red scarf and hat who is known as “Dickie Hunter.” He was a lecturer in anatomy and secretary of the University and his hobby was to arrange Christmas Circuses in Belfast City and act as the ringmaster. His strange pose is probably best explained as he studied art in Paris. Now go back through the entrance doors and turn left going outside and into a quadrangle. Here you can see the back of the original college with some later additions.

You are standing in the cloisters and right behind you, up on the chimney breast, you can see the cipher “VR” (Victoria Regina) with the date 1848. Opposite you can see the famous window in the chimney, which is where Thomas Andrews and a distinguished chemist had his fume cupboard. In the middle of the cloistered facade is the clock. It was not Lanyon’s intention to create a quadrangle and this only came about during a rebuilding programme from 1910-1912.. Look to your right and you will see the School of Physics, whit another fine tower which was designed by William Henry Lynn in 1911. Directly opposite is the Library Tower erected in 1952 and next to that is the Peter Froggatt teaching centre. If you now walk across the quadrangle and through the 1952 Arch, directly in front of you is the University Library also designed by Lynn. You will notice here a change in architectural style and this influence is down to John Ruskin and the “Ruskinesque Gothic” style.

The library was extended in 1911 and it has indeed been re-modelled several times. The once open spaces of the library have now given way to book stacks. The library as you can imagine is constantly in use and a guide is required if you wish to visit. Go through the archway between the library buildings and you will see the full scale of the University Square with its huge bay windows. Return back through the arches and when you turn left you will come to the School of Music. Going back as far as 1895 was a medical school with a university bolted on. The then medical students raised money and built the original male Student Union, which is the central part of this magnificent block. It has been extended twice in 1911 and then in 1933. It is now known as the Harty Room and in my opinion has the finest hammer beam roof in Ireland.

Go inside and enjoy by turning right and walking up to the McMordie Hall, which was once a debating chamber with stained glass windows. This is not always open and you may have to ask at reception for access. Once finished there walk down the ramp and you can then visit the Seamus Heaney Library which stands on the site of what was the old drill hall. Turn right there and go up the steps and you can visit the old Physic’s Tower on your left. It is an unusual piece of architecture and you will see above the arch the old Royal University coat of arms, which was carved by Morris Harding in 1948, along with the shamrocks, leeks roses and thistles carved on the vaults. You will also see the arms of Lord Kelvin and the Earl of Rosse and on the far side of the archway the arms of Sir Isaac Newton and the Earls of Cork and Orrey.

Your tour ends here as you return back to the University entrance. Hopefully this tour will have given you a sense of those who have passed through its halls, and a sense of the knowledge that has been created and learned over the years. We at the Belfast City Blog, would thoroughly recommend this tour.