George Robinson Obituary by Ian B McQuiston

I first met George Robinson in 1980 when I was appointed Administrative Head of Historic Monuments and Buildings Branch (now Built Heritage within Environment and Heritage Service). At that time we were based in Connsbrook Avenue in East Belfast with the Archaeologists sharing accommodation with the Public Record Office in Balmoral Avenue and the Works Unit under George, as Superintendent of Works, in the former station yard at Moira. There were in turn a number of local depots around the country in Enniskillen, Derry, Dunluce and Greyabbey coming within George's empire which he ran with himself in the role of benevolent dictator.

I soon learned, and appreciated, George's outlook on work and the management of staff. He believed firmly in the principle of self sufficiency and hated to see what he saw as extravagance or waste. At Moira it was a matter of considerable pride for George to keep ageing mowers and vehicles working smoothly - these were in the days before accountants and straight line depreciation leading to replacing vehicles and equipment when the ash trays were full, so to speak.

George Robinson at Narrow Water Castle
George Robinson at Narrow Water Castle

As part of his striving for self sufficiency he needed extra space at Moira and I well remember his request that we buy the Station Master's house and surrounding yard which had come on the market. His powers of persuasion were such that the property was acquired more than doubling his operational base.

With his extra space George was able to expand and experiment. He built a lime kiln and lime is still burnt at Moira, and he did some archaeological reconstruction by building a full size 'Early Christian' circular building using only original materials and techniques. At Moira George had assembled an impressive team of specialists - stone masons, joiners, blacksmiths, mechanics, scaffolders, painters - capable of taking on any challenge thrown up by the wide range of State Care historic monuments he cared for. But it was not only State Care monuments, George also worked on Scheduled monuments and even listed buildings.

Newtownards Town Hall

When I joined HM&BB George was already on site at Newtownards Town Hall where he had contracted to reface the main facades. The problem was that the Scrabo sandstone was spalling, an inevitable consequence of the original masons having to face bed the stone probably because they could not get enough good stone at the time. George was determined not to repeat the mistake. "Ian", he said, "we need to source good Scrabo stone even if we reopen a quarry of our own".

I did a little homework and one day George and I set off to walk around all the old Scrabo quarries, but we were particularly interested in one at Ballyalton, which happened to be owned by the Water Service. When George saw the stone and the thick bedding he enthused, "This is the one, Ian, when can I start?" It took a little time to get Planning Approval for a 3 year reopening but, once approved, George worked enthusiastically, carefully prising out the rock rather than shattering it with explosives, removing large pieces to Moira where the stone saw and the masons expertly prepared each stone to fit its place on the Town Hall.

Ballyalton Stone was pretty uniform in colour being pale grey to white and at the end George's efforts resulted in a Town Hall which looked better, and still does, than when it was first built. To this day if you travel the back road behind Scrabo Hill you will see the entrance to this quarry defined by two fine round pillars of Scrabo stone with steel gate, a testament to George's attention to detail.

George was the master scavenger who always had his ear to the ground and a visit to Moira at any time would see another pile of stone or slate or pine beams. Several square open shelters with conical roofs from the Ulster 71 exhibition in the Botanic Gardens are still in use at Moira.

Tully Castle

George had an interesting approach to management; he was not against paper qualifications but he certainly believed in practical experience and for him a really good manager should be able to do the jobs of those he managed. I saw this in action one miserable wet day at Tully Castle in Fermanagh. A young apprentice walling mason was apparently ready to get his "pointing money", a supplement payable once you had demonstrated that you had mastered the skill of pointing old masonry monuments correctly. Two young guys with the rain running out of them were working along a wall and George approached. "So, you think you are ready for your pointing money; let's see", at which juncture George took his knife and started to probe the pointing which began to fall out over the ground. "Look at that", said George, "show me your trowel and I'll show you what I want". George then deftly completed a run of pointing and concluded, "there you are, that's what I want - I'll be back in 6 months".

I felt quite embarrassed, but needn't have, because I realised later that while this approach might not appear in any book on management, it suited George and as far as the workers were concerned they knew what standards were expected, and he enjoyed their respect accordingly, even though they might have grumbled (under their breath ) at the time.

I remember an interviewing panel for joiners. Today a joiner is someone who has qualified by spending 3 years nailing on skirting boards and of absolutely no use to George. Just think of a fine heavy panelled Gothic door with its intricate joints and mouldings; George welcomes a candidate, probably of the skirting board variety, and he says, "Right, starting with this oak tree, take me through the stages you would follow to make a Gothic door". George was a very special person!

I have already referred to George's suspicion of paper qualifications, and this certainly extended to structural engineers. He felt that they generally complicated matters and that all you needed was common sense together with a lifetime of experience; there was nothing George liked more than an engineer to say that it cannot be done without taking the structure down and starting again! I recall 3 schemes which fall into this category and which illustrate George's ability to improvise.

Derryloran Church

At Derryloran Old Church near Cookstown the end gable wall had begun to separate from the adjacent long walls and was slowly tilting so that eventually it would collapse. The safe answer was to carefully dismantle the wall and rebuild keying it into the long walls.

George wanted to save the original fabric and he carefully and quietly devised a system of hydraulic jacks which slowly raised the wall as a foundation was placed underneath. The wall did not come back completely vertical but it was tied to the long walls on a secure foundation with barely a stone lost.

Up until the mid 1980s anyone passing Clough Castle will remember two Y shaped cracks in the wall facing the main road. The large wedge of wall between was sinking and progressively forcing the side walls outwards and ultimate collapse was inevitable. It had to be taken down and rebuilt.

Clough Castle

"No way", says George, and he set about an ingenious scheme to erect a crane with a sling to hold and hoist the falling wedge while it was stitched back to the side walls. No archaeological damage was done because the crane was set on a series of railway sleepers which spread the loads and protected the ground. Inside Newtownards Priory a tall wing wall was unstable and would either have to come down or be rebuilt. George's solution on this occasion was to insert an L shaped needle within the wall which gives the wall support but is not visible to visitors.

Ballycopeland Windmill

George and I shared a particular interest in industrial archaeology and George was always proud of what he had achieved at Ballycopeland Windmill. It once suffered severe damage after some storms and I remember the efforts George made to get a piece of timber large enough to replace the broken spar; I believe it came from Dublin in the end.

George thoroughly deserved his MBE, his contribution to the conservation of our built heritage is immense, and I for one learnt from him and enjoyed not only the satisfaction of working with a remarkable professional colleague but of being privileged to call him a friend. I remember the twinkle in his eye, his chuckle and of course the pipe!

Ian B McQuiston

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