H.T. Barrie—the forgotten man of Ulster politics?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Volume 27

The Right Honourable Senator Hugh Thom Barrie JP, DL, MP was at the heart of Ulster Unionist politics at a time of great campaigning and political battles. But who was he?

By Aaron Callan

Above: The Coleraine premises of H.T. Barrie Ltd, a grain, hay and potato export business, established in 1879 on his arrival from Glasgow.

H.T. Barrie is not as well known as Carson or Craig, even in his adoptive town of Coleraine. In most books covering the period Barrie merits only a brief mention. Though not an Ulsterman by birth, he became one of its most enthusiastic defenders and advocates. As MP for North Londonderry for sixteen years (1906–18 and 1919–22), he was heavily involved in the campaign against Home Rule, playing a key role as a trusted lieutenant to Sir Edward Carson. Barrie’s public career started in local government in Coleraine when he became a town commissioner in 1889 and an urban councillor ten years later. His zeal for local politics was reflected in the number of positions he held: chairman of Coleraine Urban Council, member of the town’s harbour board and board of guardians, Londonderry County Council and its district asylum committee, and trustee of Coleraine Savings Bank.

Background in local government

Barrie was born in Glasgow in 1860. When he first came to Coleraine in 1879 his primary focus was on business, as he quickly set up a grain, hay and potato export business with £100 that he borrowed from his father. The firm of H.T. Barrie Ltd would have major depots in Coleraine and Belfast, with several smaller outlets across the province. It was in Coleraine that he built up his base in both business and politics. The former would become so successful that it enabled him to pursue public office. As an urban councillor Barrie threw himself into sanitary reform and urban enterprise, helping to redevelop Coleraine town hall and establishing in the town the first technical college in Ireland outside Belfast. He would be involved in the setting up of further colleges in Limavady, Magherafelt and Londonderry. It was in his role as chairman of the urban council that he coordinated the welcome for Sir George White VC, local hero of Ladysmith, hosting a banquet and demonstration.

Following the Redistribution Act of 1884, the parliamentary constituency of North Londonderry was created and would continue to exist until 1922, during which time it was represented by five Unionist members. Barrie would have the opportunity to become MP after John Atkinson resigned to become a law lord, but first he had to compete for selection with the Honourable E.C. M’Naghten KC, a member of a prominent Londonderry family. At the constituency association selection meeting the local connections that Barrie had built up over twenty years helped him to beat M’Naghten by 54 to 44 votes.

Above: Coleraine town hall c. 1900. Barrie’s public career started in local government when he became a town commissioner in 1889 and an urban councillor ten years later. (Cúil Rathain Historical & Cultural Centre)

His opponent in the 1906 election was Independent Unionist and London journalist Arnold White, whom he beat quite comfortably, gaining 64% of the vote with a majority of 2,107. After this great first victory Barrie took the train from Londonderry, where a band had led him to the station; stopping first in Limavady, where he was met by a large crowd to which he boasted that ‘North Londonderry had stood firm for the Union’, he travelled on to Coleraine, where again he was met by huge crowds and scenes of great jubilation. Similar scenes would be witnessed at his 1910 victory over the Liberal William H. Brown, when he was carried shoulder-high through Limavady with an accompanying Orange band and cannon fire from the Orange Hall.

Supported votes for women

During his time as MP Barrie faced a challenge in three out of four elections, but his support never fell below 60%, although at every contest the threat of a nationalist win was used. One opponent was Patrick McGilligan, who stood for Sinn Féin in a 1919 by-election. McGilligan would later become a successful Fine Gael politician in the Irish Free State, holding the office of attorney general and the ministries of Finance, External Affairs and Industry and Commerce in a Dáil career that lasted from 1923 to 1965. Barrie represented a largely rural constituency, with its two main towns of commerce in Coleraine and Limavady. His main interests were agriculture and fishing, but he also took a keen interest in education, finance and housing. By all accounts Barrie was an engaged MP both at constituency level and in the House of Commons. Another issue that was gaining traction was the right of women to vote, which Barrie supported, stating at a meeting in 1910 in Portrush town hall that he was in favour of the vote for women who were owners or occupiers of property, a position that was not taken by many MPs at the time. Barrie would go on to vote for the measure on 19 June 1917.

Above: The Right Honourable Senator Hugh Thom Barrie JP, DL, MP. (NPG)

As Alvin Jackson has highlighted, Barrie represented a new generation of public representatives who, unlike previous generations, were drawn from the commercial and legal world rather than the landed classes. This new generation comprised highly active local politicians such as Barrie and reflected the need for Unionist politics to evolve. Barrie was also a prominent Freemason and Orangeman—not unusual affiliations among Unionist MPs at this time. He appeared on numerous Twelfth of July platforms and supported the building of a new Orange Hall in Coleraine by acquiring the land on which it would be built and contributing towards the building funds. His firebrand rhetoric went down well at local Orange and Unionist gatherings. A number of large demonstrations took place in North Londonderry during his tenure, including one described by the local press as a ‘monster demonstration’ in Portrush, at which the Unionist leader Carson was introduced by Barrie with the declaration, ‘Thank God for Sir Edward Carson and the Ulster Rising of 1913!’

Above: An Orange parade in Coleraine c. 1910. Barrie appeared on numerous Twelfth of July platforms and his firebrand rhetoric went down well at local Orange and Unionist gatherings. (Cúil Rathain Historical & Cultural Centre)

Opposition to Home Rule

Barrie became noted as a straight-talking populist speaker, both in the House of Commons and at public meetings that he would attend locally and further afield in Great Britain. At a meeting in Edinburgh he stated that ‘Irish Protestants desired no ascendancy but they were equally resolved that they would submit to none’. He was a staunch Presbyterian and an elder for eighteen years in the First Coleraine Presbyterian Church. His language could be very robust at times, and his style was emphatically that of ‘No Surrender’ politics. As the campaign against the third Home Rule Bill ramped up, Barrie placed himself at the centre of the theatre pieces, including Ulster Day and the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). He also hosted the UVF at his residence and attended a number of meetings to support the cause, including one in September 1913 at Myroe Orange Hall outside Limavady, where a local unit had recently been set up. Speaking at the meeting, Barrie stated that he ‘strongly commended the object of the UVF. The movement was rapidly growing all over the province, and by the end of the year there would be a mighty army of trained men, fired by the most robust of all purposes, protection of their homes, preservation of their religion and maintenance of the Union!’

The years before the Great War witnessed massive opposition from Ulster Unionists to Home Rule, and Barrie was heavily involved in this campaign. His signature was the first at the Coleraine signing of the Ulster Covenant, setting an example followed by other leading figures from the locality, including the chairman of the urban council and great educationalist T.G. Houston. Barrie’s chairmanship of the Ulster Unionist group at the 1917 Irish Convention received plaudits from senior Unionist members, including Ronald McNeill MP, who said that Barrie discharged his difficult role with unfailing tact and duty. Barrie would win the admiration and respect of David Lloyd-George. Kyle Hughes has described his style and approach to the Convention as inflexible and blunt and as one of the reasons for its lack of progress. Barrie, however, went to the Convention to safeguard the Ulster Unionist position—namely that partition had already been agreed in the 1914 Act (albeit for a ‘temporary’ six-year period)—and this was the outcome that he would reaffirm.

During the First World War Barrie again threw himself into action to support the war effort, becoming the County Londonderry controller of recruitment and secretary of the prisoner-of-war fund in Coleraine. The war would come to his door when his eldest son, Lt Frank Barrie of the Royal Flying Corps, was posted as missing, but thankfully he would return home at the end of the war.

1918 general election

Above: Coleraine Orange Hall today—opened on 17 April 1911 on land acquired by Barrie.

In the general election of 1918 Barrie was again selected to contest North Londonderry. Earlier in the year, however, he had been appointed high sheriff of County Londonderry, causing concern that his candidacy could be challenged under the Representation of the People Act by his Sinn Féin opponent. Accordingly, it was decided to guard against this by having his election agent, Dr Hugh Anderson, stand instead. It was agreed that Anderson would step down once Barrie’s term as high sheriff came to an end in February 1919; Barrie won the ensuing by-election. The Barrie home, Manor House (formerly Jackson Hall and now County Hall), situated on the banks of the Bann, would be a key venue for many of the leading figures during this time, playing host to many illustrious visitors, including the leader of Ulster Unionism Sir Edward Carson, Andrew Bonar Law (Law’s brother was also a GP in the Coleraine area and his son would later take the title Lord Coleraine), Walter Long MP, William F. Massey, prime minister of New Zealand, and F.E. Smith MP (later Lord Birkenhead).

Barrie would become the chief whip and secretary of the Ulster Unionist group when Sir Jon Lonsdale was elevated to the peerage. With the creation of Northern Ireland, Barrie resigned his post as vice-president of the Agriculture and Technical Department following the government’s ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He became a senator in the new Northern Ireland parliament and in 1920 was appointed a member of the privy council in the king’s birthday honours list.

Above: Barrie’s signature was the first at the Coleraine signing of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912. (Cúil Rathain Historical & Cultural Centre)

After a long illness, Barrie passed away on 18 April 1922, at the relatively young age of 62, at his residence surrounded by his family. A number of newspapers called him a statesman and the Belfast News Letter stated that ‘Ulster Unionism [had] lost one of its sturdiest champions’. A fulsome obituary was also carried in The Times. His long public career and his business success were highlighted, and his estate was valued at £32,780 (£1.3 million in today’s values). He left £2,000 to Coleraine Urban Council to provide an open space for the enjoyment of local children. Carson stated that Barrie’s death was ‘a personal loss to myself of a most valued friend and comrade’. His funeral, at First Coleraine Presbyterian Church, was attended by many prominent public figures, including the moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Orange grand master of County Londonderry, Captain Frederick H. Watt, the deputy speaker of the Northern Ireland parliament, Thomas Moles MP and Minister for Agriculture Sir Edward Archdale, as well as several other MPs, senators and local councillors.

The unsung and hardworking Barrie was part of the backbone of the Ulster Unionist campaign against Home Rule and represented the new class of Ulster politician. Though not a noted orator on the level of Carson, his industrious nature, popular touch and work ethic, coupled with his Scottish connections, enabled Barrie to play a vital role. As the centenary of his death draws closer, it is worth reflecting on his impact, both locally and nationally, and the role he played in the creation of Northern Ireland.

Aaron Callan is vice-chairman and secretary of the Roe Valley Historical Society.


J. Harbinson, The Ulster Unionist Party 1882–1973: its development and organization (Belfast, 1973).

K. Hughes, ‘The Scots in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast: a study in elite migration’, Scottish Historical Review 97 (2) (2013).

A. Jackson, The Ulster Party: Irish Unionists in the House of Commons, 1884–1911 (Oxford, 1989).

G. Walker, ‘The Ulster Covenant and the pulse of Protestant Ulster’, National Identities 18 (3) (2016).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568