Archive of the Month
The Papers of John Farr, Master Builder, Armagh
By Susan Hood
The new Archive of the Month for February 2022 features an unusual and indeed rare set of building specifications and related materials concerning various Church–related properties and other premises in the city and county of Armagh during the mid–19th century. All are associated with a master builder based on The Mall in the city named John Farr. This man and his original building works might otherwise have remained hidden and unknown but for a chance recent find by the Dean of Elphin & Ardagh, and rector of Sligo the Revd Arfon Williams.
The provenance of the collection was not Armagh itself, but St John the Baptist Cathedral in Sligo, in the context of the transfer to the Library of a significant body of records for the cathedral group, including the parish registers for both the cathedral and the parish of Knocknarea by Dean Williams during the summer of 2021. Lists of both these collections may be viewed here and here
Additionally diocesan papers for the dioceses of Elphin and Ardagh were transferred, but it was harder to explain the provenance of one final collection, which did not relate in any way to Sligo or this diocese. After some investigation, it has transpired that all of the materials which relate to properties in Armagh, had inadvertently been moved from Armagh to Sligo by one of Dean Williams’ predecessors, who previously had been rector of the parish in Armagh. Such movement of records does happen at local level from time to time, so it is testament to the care and attention given by clergy to the records in their custody that they have kept them safe through the generations and finally brought them to the permanent custody of the RCB Library.
Given that most of the papers were executed by or for John Farr, Builder, The Mall, Armagh, including estimates and specifications concerning specific named buildings and works that had ecclesiastical connections, or for clients who were clergy or connected with the Church, may explain their subsequent deposit with the church for safe–keeping along the way.
Now that they have come to light they provide a treasure–trove of information about specific buildings such as the new shambles for the city, a school house for St Mark’s parish, and repairs of dilapidations at the Precentory building attached to the cathedral, 1844–1858; as well as other miscellaneous items including a fascinating workman’s account book – detailing workmen’s names, hours and payments per day on works at various locations in the city – the Northern Bank, 1845; the Work House, 1846 and ‘Works Generally’, 1846.
The collection has been assigned the RCB Library reference number Ms 1116/ and is divided into three sections.
The first section contains 14 items concerning specifically named buildings or works each one providing detailed accounts of the instructions given by the master builder to his building workers as to how work was to be executed, the materials to be used and the methods employed. The 14 projects in this section were completed between 1844 and 1858 and there is additionally some undated material.
They include this ecclesiasitical–related commission being the erection of a parapet wall and “pailing” in front of the cottages on the Newtown Hamilton Road, for His Grace the Lord Primate [Lord John George Beresford, Archbishop of Armagh, 1822–62], dated 19 January 1844. The image below shows the opening detail with directions about the excavation of the site, and the masonry to be used. The full document continues for several pages of similar detail revealing attention to detail and craftsmanship entrusted to the building team, even for a relatively straightforward piece of work.
As well as revealing step–by–step building processes, important aspects of social history are also brought to light by several documents. For example from this detailed estimate for repairing a tenement in Barrack Street, Armagh, we learn that it was formerly the property of the late William McWilliams Esq, but transferred for occupation to Henry Clancy, a cabinet maker, in April 1848; when Farr was employed to carry out the upgrade works.
There are additionally quite a few educational commissions in this section. A letter from the architect William Farrell, Dublin, 113 Baggot Street, informs Farr that the Primate is ‘going to get some works down at the Royal School, Armagh and has expressed his intention of employing John Farr to execute them…’ to which Farr provides a detailed response on 29 November 1848 (Ms 1116/1.7). A detailed estimate for works completed for Revd Dr Guillemard [William Henry Guillemard, Headmaster of the Royal School, 1848–69], dated June 1849–23 August 1849, include a set of instructions about moulding and hanging the royal arms, dated 24 June 1849 (Ms 1116/1.7), while the detailed specification for building a school house at St Mark’s in the city of Armagh, signed by ‘William Fullerton, Armagh, Architect’, on 28 March 1850 connects Farr to a specific parish contract.
Significant secular buildings in the city were also worked on by Farr and his builders, as seen in the estimate for works at Armagh Gaol (RCB Library MS 116/1/8) and this very detailed specification for the construction of a new shambles signed by William Fullerton, Armagh, Architect, February 1852.
The most detailed item in the entire collection is the 64–page bound volume containing a breakdown description of dilapidations at the Precentory [the Cathedral Precentor’s residence], Armagh, including ‘the principal residence and all related out–buildings’, dated 11 May 1858, and how they were to be repaired.
The second section in the collection comprises correspondence related to the 14 projects accounted for in section 1/, as well as other miscellaneous contractor–related correspondence, many addressed to John Farr at his premises in Armagh, adding to the colourful social history in the collection, covering the period from August 1842 to November 1856.
Detailed insights to the craftsmanship involved in projects and who supplied materials such as timber, deal, slate and even the wonderfully–termed material ‘scantling’ – such as the yard of John Low in Belfast – fleshes out further architectural information.
The bundle of rough figures, draft letters and other items making up the final item in this section bears multiple copies of John Farr’s signature, as he doodled on his papers!
The final section in the collection is devoted to miscellaneous items, and the first of these is most significant because it takes the form of a workman’s account book – containing the pro–forma printed schedules of named workmen, the hours and days they worked and their daily payments for work on projects executed during the Great Famine period – for works at the Northern Bank, 1845; the Work House, 1846 and ‘Works Generally’, in 1846.
The only drawing in the collection of the front external elevation with ground plan of an unidentified residential quarters, being a divided building with a two porches, parlours, kitchens, partition wall and staircases. The document is undated and may relate to some of the cathedral staff accommodation adjacent to the precentory residence mentioned above.
It is hoped this previously unknown collection will be of interest to architectural and social historians, as well as those interested in the development of Armagh. To view and download the full detailed list of John Farr’s papers in pdf format, click here.