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Obituary: William Martin, construction firm boss who made lasting contribution to architecture of Belfast

Obituary

Grand designs: Billy Martin
Grand designs: Billy Martin
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

William Martin, the former managing director and chairman of the family construction firm H&J Martin who has died at the age of 86, was the grandson of John Martin, the then head of the firm who completed the construction of Belfast City Hall in 1906.

William George Martin, known to everyone as Billy, was born in Dublin in 1933 and was educated at the well-known Fettes College in Edinburgh.

When his father Herbert died, his mother Sheelagh married a former Royal Navy officer, Commander Maurice Church, who was the managing director of Cadbury’s in Ireland.

Billy started his career with a job in the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham, but when he began working in the Belfast office of the family firm, he studied building construction and quantity surveying at Belfast Technical College.

The Martin firm was founded in Belfast in 1839 by Henry Martin, and in 1887 he and his son John formed H&J Martin Ltd.

During the 176 years from 1839, the Martins ran a very successful family building and civil engineering business, until its takeover in 2015 by the Lagan Specialist Contracting Group.

During that time, Martins built some of the most iconic buildings in Ireland.

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In Northern Ireland, these included the Elmwood Church and the Robinson and Cleaver’s department store in Belfast, as well as the Belfast Evening Telegraph, the former Grand Central Hotel, and the Belfast Central Library, all in Royal Avenue.

Martins also built St George’s Market and the Grand Opera House in the city, as well as the large extension to the Belfast Harbour Office, and the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle.

They also built many distinctive buildings in the Republic of Ireland including the extension of Queenstown — now Cobh — Harbour, the Metropole Hotel in O’Connell Street in Dublin, and the massive Main Drainage and Pumping Station designed to upgrade Dublin’s water supply and sewage works.

However, the jewel in the Martins’ crown is still considered to be Belfast City Hall, the design of which was based on a cathedral in Venice, and which remains one of the most beautiful municipal city buildings in the world.

Billy Martin spent much of his career running contracts on site.

He said: “Each was different and I particularly remember building Netherleigh House, and the Ulster Independent Clinic, as well as major contracts at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

“It was demanding but also exciting.”

Near the end of his life he reflected: “It was an incredible achievement for a small company started in rural Ulster, and Martins made their mark in so many parts of Ireland, and survived through so many turbulent decades of Irish history.”

Billy Martin was well known throughout the construction business as a man of great affability and integrity. He was regarded widely as “a gentleman, and one of the old school.”

He was appointed MBE in 2009 “for services to the construction industry”.

In April 1989 he received the Freedom of the City of London which enabled him to be invested as a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Paviors.

He was an accomplished sailor and a lifetime member of the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club. He kept sailing until a couple of years ago.

He was also keen on outdoor pursuits, including walking and beagling.

Billy Martin, who died on December 2, is survived by his wife Gina, daughter Joanna, sons Timothy and Geoffrey, by a number of grandchildren, and the wider family circle.

Belfast Telegraph

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