Comber in the 1840s
In 1841 the population of the town of Comber was 1,964. Slater’s Directory (1846) quotes much of what was contained in the Topographical Dictionary of County Down (1837) by Samuel Lewis. For instance, if a pier were erected near the town vessels of 200 tons could come in at high tide. The two distilleries are mentioned, that of Cairns and Miller (the Upper) in Downpatrick Street and that of Byrne and Gaffikin (the Lower) in Bridge Street. In 1846 a boy called Robert Smith was unfortunately killed at the Lower Distillery when he fell into a reservoir of hot wash. The Lower Distillery was in fact put up for sale in 1849, to be purchased by John Miller, who now owned both distilleries. The Excise Office, supervised by James Lennox Nixon, was in The Square, while James Hugh McConnell of Mill Street is described as a rectifier who was also a wholesale wine and spirit merchant with premises in Belfast.
There were two large corn mills – that of James Andrews & Sons in Mill Street and that of James Cairns at Maxwell Court. James Andrews & Sons also had a large bleach green, while George Allen’s tannery was in The Square. The constabulary station was in Bridge Street under Acting Constable James Walsh. Schools listed include the Erasmus Smith School in The Square (master George Lewis Mills), a National School in Downpatrick Street (master George Moore) and an Infants’ School in The Square (mistress Betty Gilmore). Inns and hotels included the Bradshaw Arms and Bowman’s Commercial, both in Bridge Street, and Saunderson’s Commercial and the Londonderry Arms, both in The Square. Saunderson’s was where the various mail cars and coaches called. A van also called at James Milling’s in The Square, one of the many spirit and porter dealers listed. Trades listed include three watch and clock makers, all in Mill Street (Adam Browne, John Corbett and Samuel Warnock). There were five surgeons (James O’Neill of Mill Street and John Allen, James Frame, William Kennedy and James Patterson, all of The Square; the latter moved to Belfast in 1847). There was a Farming Society in existence, which encouraged agriculture and awarded premiums to the industrious. The Post Office was in Cow Lane (now High Street), and Joseph Shean was postmaster.
1840 saw the opening of not one, but no fewer than three, new churches in Comber. One of these was the Parish Church of St Mary’s, rebuilt during the ministry of the Rev Robert Ferrier Jex-Blake. The decision to rebuild had in fact been taken as early as 1829, after taking advice from Lord Londonderry, who owned most of Comber. The new church was apparently on exactly the same site as the old, using the existing foundations and raising the floor so as not to disturb any graves. The bell in the tower was made by Thomas Mears of London, while the clock made by Robert Neill of Belfast has a pendulum 90 inches long. There is an inscription down its length – “Be on time. Time at best is very short”. This clock and a large chandelier (long since gone) were presented to the church in 1841 by Viscount Castlereagh.
The Non-Subscribing Church also opened on Windmill Hill following the disaster on the Night of the Big Wind (January 6th/7th 1839). This was a great storm which hit Ireland causing terrible damage all over the island. In Comber the top had blown off the windmill on to the roof of the new church which was almost ready for opening. Damage was so severe that the opening had to be postponed for over a year, and didn’t take place until 1st March 1840. Rev Dr Montgomery preached on the occasion. William Hugh Doherty was the first minister.
Second Comber Presbyterian opened for worship in what was then called Barry Street (now Killinchy Street) on 3rd October 1840. This was a new congregation formed by some 70 families who had broken away in 1838 from the old congregation which had now become First Comber. They had been holding their meetings up until this time in a loft in Milling’s Yard at the bottom of High Street. The foundation stone of the new church had been laid on 27th March 1839, the same day on which the Rev John Rogers was ordained as the first minister. The church was built by James Patterson of Ballyrush at a cost of £523 1s 6½d. Local farmers helped to transport stones, sand, timber and lime from John McKee’s kiln at Castle Espie. In 1848 we read of the Rev John Rogers being presented with an Address and a gold watch and chain. More disturbingly, in 1844 there was a break-in when a pulpit gown and some other articles were stolen, including a carpet and looking glass. From 1847 we have the record of a meeting dealing with the appointment of Alex Murphy as precentor. But it was not until October 1849 that the congregation formed its first Kirk Session. James Montgomery of Ballyrush, John McKee of Ballykeigle, William Malcolm Orr and John McKee of Drumhirk had served as elders since the formation of the congregation. They were now joined by John Wightman, William Smylie and Hugh Murphy.
Rev Isaac Nelson resigned as minister of 1st Comber in 1842, and was installed in Donegall Street, Belfast. Rev Nelson was an intellectual, scholarly man, but he was to gain notoriety as a controversialist, crossing swords with most of his fellow ministers. He was a fearless critic, and in 1859 would write a sketch of the religious Revival of that year entitled “The Year of Delusion”. He retired from what was described as a not very fruitful ministry in 1880 to become Nationalist MP for Co Mayo, and died in 1888. Perhaps there were already rumblings of discontent with Rev Nelson during his time in Comber. It had been his appointment in 1838 that led to the congregation of 2nd Comber splitting away from the original church. James Miller Killen, a licentiate of the Ballymena presbytery, was ordained as Nelson’s successor at 1st Comber on 9 May 1843. You can still see his name on the outside wall of 1st Comber’s Minor Hall, erected as the schoolhouse in 1866. Also in 1843 a former minister of 1st Comber died – the Rev John McCance – and was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard. He had ministered from 1790 to 1837 when he resigned following a stroke. During his time many of the congregation adopted Unitarian views. This led to the formation of the Non-Subscribing congregation in Comber shortly afterwards.
James Andrews was the head of the Comber branch of that well-known family in 1840. He had built on the foundations of his father’s industrial empire, modernising the whole complex in the 1830s. He had also donated the land on Windmill Hill for the Non-Subscribers to build their church. It was while chairing a meeting of Non-Subscribers in 1st Rosemary Street Church, Belfast, in 1841 that James was taken ill. He died a few weeks later, in his 80th year.
James Andrews left behind a large family, including John who had become land agent for Lord Londonderry in 1828 and William Glenny, master of all sections of the family business, who wrote a pamphlet on the treatment of flax. In James’ will he left his house “Uraghamore” (the place of the big yew trees) to John and the “Old House” just across the road in Castle Street to William Glenny and his two sisters Margaret and Mary. The will is interesting in respect of another son Isaac, whose sons in due course would found the Belfast Flour Mills of Isaac Andrews & Sons. He was left an extra £1,000 and 30 acres at Carnesure in order to build a house when he married. Isaac would have been 42 at the time. He did eventually marry in 1844, when his bride was Mary Anne Drew, the daughter of a Glasgow merchant 20 years his junior. But he didn’t build at Carnesure. Instead he bought the Big House in Comber Square, put up for auction by the insolvent William Stitt. He wished to extend this property, and so also bought the old Gillespie house, where the general had been born in 1766. He had this demolished and there are stories of how a hoard of gold was discovered during the demolition work.
John Andrews did not get on very well with Rev John Rogers, who was a champion of the tenant right movement, on which he spoke at meetings all over Ireland, including one at Comber in 1849. They came into direct conflict when the government sent out an inspector to examine the condition of tenant farms. Rogers accused John Andrews, who accompanied the inspector, of only showing him what he wanted him to see. Andrews accused Rogers of libel, and the case went to the courts of the Presbyterian Church. However, the matter was dropped. Tenant right was indeed a major issue. An earlier meeting had been called in Comber in 1846 by the farmers and landowners of the baronies of Upper and Lower Castlereagh. On that occasion a petition was drawn up that the Landlord and Tenant Bill then before Parliament should be abandoned, and that another be introduced which allowed adequate compensation for improvements made by tenants forced out of their farms.
Lord Londonderry returned to his County Down estates in 1841 after a considerable absence, and found it necessary to address his tenants on various important matters. Many leases were coming up for renewal, and he was determined to grant new leases only to those tenants who were clearly seen to be making improvements to their farms. A register would be held of such tenants, who would also be required to attend meetings of the Farming Society, subscribe to their agricultural library and display cattle at their shows. Rents should also be paid on time.
Lord Londonderry was also critical of the state of Comber town. The school (built 1813) was the first object of his wrath, being neglected both inside and out, the garden and premises indicating sloth and filth. Even the newly-built St Mary’s was not up to scratch and the Glebe House side needed rough-cast or whitewashed. Spouts on the side of the Glebe House were described as ridiculous. The sewers in the streets were not being attended to, and houses next to the Meeting House were singled out as needing their dunghills and sewers carried to the rear. The Inn Yard must be kept clean and bad fences taken down, while a nasty outbuilding belonging to Mr Stitt should be made less unsightly. Thanks were expressed to Dr Allen for improvements he had made in the town, and the recommendation was that a town committee be formed to carry new arrangements for the cleanliness of Comber. Lord Londonderry also makes passing reference to a market being established in the new market house, which must therefore date from this time. It was behind the present police station in Killinchy Street, and was demolished in the 1950s.
We read of a further visit by Lord Londonderry to Comber in 1844 when he was accompanied by his wife and his son, Lord Castlereagh. They examined all the improvements made in the town, and one hopes that this time he was more impressed with what he saw.
One of these improvements was the new bridge over the River Enler in Newtown (Bridge) Street, completed in 1843. But the visitors also saw another noteworthy work of construction, the monument to Comber’s famous general, Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie. The foundation stone had been laid on 24th June 1844, St John’s Day, a day of significance among the freemasons, of whom Gillespie was a member. By August it had reached a height of 19 feet, and eventually this Grecian column rose to 55 feet, with a statue of the general on top. When Lord Londonderry visited in October all was complete bar the statue. The unveiling ceremony was exactly one year after the laying of the foundation stone, 24th June 1845. On that day it is reported that some 25-30,000 people poured into Comber Square to witness the impressive ceremony. Many of these were members of Masonic lodges who paraded through the streets of the town to the foot of the monument. There had been torrential rain in the morning, but by the time of the ceremony in the afternoon the sun was shining. There were the usual speeches, by Colonel Cairnes and others, culminating in the Rev Jex-Blake of St Mary’s cautioning the crowd against indulgence in strong spirits.
The freemasons were not the only body to parade in Comber. In 1846 about 50 Orange lodges assembled for the Twelfth on a hill belonging to Mr Bowman on the Newtownards Road. The town was decorated with flags and several beautiful arches were erected.
There was an assembly of a different kind on 5th March 1845 when large crowds gathered for the Comber steeplechase. Star of the show was Mr Byrne's "Ten-and-Sixpence" who won two races. It seems that there was some objection to the race in certain quarters on religious grounds.
A major project was in the planning in 1845. Meetings had taken place to discuss the feasibility of a railway from Belfast to Holywood, Comber and Newtownards. The plan was later extended to include a main line as far as Downpatrick and branch lines to Bangor and Donaghadee. By 1846 an Act had been passed incorporating the Belfast and County Down Railway Company (BCDR). Three Comber men had been on the committee to promote the railway in Parliament – John Miller, Guy Stone and John Andrews. By 1847 200 men were at work on construction of the railway at Comber. Unfortunately there were several accidents, including fatalities. In 1848 two labourers were badly injured when a portion of an earthwork collapsed on them. Another man named McCartney was killed when a truck passed over his body. And in 1849 John Ferguson was accidentally run over and killed by two full trucks of earth on the railway between Comber and Newtownards.
In 1843 a fourth son was born to John Andrews. This was Thomas, later known as Thomas of Ardara, himself the father of several notable sons including a future prime minister (John Miller Andrews) and the builder of the White Star Line’s giant ship Titanic (Thomas Andrews Junior). It was also in 1843 that the Andrews family lost a cargo of wheat when the vessel Mary Ann of Arbroath was lost at sea. Food was soon to become a scarce commodity in Ireland with the coming Potato Famine of 1845-7.
The potato crop was badly damaged in 1845, and in 1846 almost totally destroyed over the whole of Ireland. To make matters worse the yield of wheat, barley and oats was exceedingly poor. The great famine of 1847 will long be remembered, when many people were to die of starvation. It has been suggested that County Down was not so greatly affected as other places. But the situation was probably a lot worse than we imagine, and there was great distress. Exports of potatoes had to be halted in 1845 as there weren’t enough to feed the labourers at home. But with total failure of the crop in 1846 food prices rose and farmers couldn’t afford to employ labour. This resulted in many people out of work with resulting destitution. Quite a few landlords tried to alleviate the situation by announcing rent reductions. But not Comber’s landlord, Lord Londonderry, who was opposed to sweeping rent reductions as “dangerous and fatal”, although he was open to make exceptions in individual cases.
Numbers entering the workhouse in Newtownards doubled between October 1846 and January 1847, and doubled again between January and July. This workhouse was relatively new, having been set up in 1841 for the Newtownards Poor Law Union which included Comber. The Poor House (or House of Industry) in Comber possibly closed at this time, although Slater’s Directories of 1846 and 1856 state that it “continues to be sustained by the liberality of the inhabitants”. Perhaps the text was not updated.
In Comber some ladies set up a committee in January 1847, selling meal and coal at reduced prices, and paying women and girls for knitting and sewing. On 4th February a soup kitchen was set up, supplying 230 families each day with bread and soup, and selling soup to another 100 families at a halfpenny a quart. The soup kitchen cost over £30 per month, of which Lord Londonderry contributed £10. The Andrews family were prominent in subscribing to the various relief funds set up, and members were active on the committees for distributing relief to the poor. Since wheat was too expensive, James Andrews & Sons (as the firm was still known) imported direct to Comber large quantities of Indian corn. Buckwheat, peas and beans were obtained from France, and there was a direct shipment of wheat from Egypt, the first of that variety ever seen in Comber. The buckwheat, peas and beans were apparently inedible and not even the starving poor would eat the meal made from them. It had to be fed to cattle and pigs. Measures taken in Comber would seem to have been effective, and by Spring 1848 the crisis had passed.
In September 1847 an accident is reported when the Killyleagh, Comber and Belfast Day Coach overturned at the hill opposite Mr Adair’s, about a mile and a half out of Comber. The coach was apparently overloaded, both with passengers and luggage, and all were pitched on to the side of the road. Several persons were injured, including the Rev Gault who had a dislocated shoulder and a severe tear to the right leg. Mr Breakey suffered shock, Mr Moore received a nasty wound in the leg, while an unnamed girl had head injuries and a sprained wrist. Dr Fullerton was promptly on the scene. The Northern Whig called for the dangerous practice of overcrowding on coaches to be discontinued.
Hamilton Milliken of Comber owned an omnibus, which he left in the yard of Mrs Robinson, an innkeeper. It seems that someone removed the front wheels of this vehicle, and later it was alleged that a man named Hill of Newtownbridge, Comber, had them.
A meeting held in Comber on 17th May 1848 resolved to maintain the Union with Great Britain. Troops had been poured into Ireland during this Year of Revolutions when Government after Government had fallen in Europe. The meeting praised the firm stance taken by the Lord Lieutenant during recent events, but it seems that the starving people of Ireland really had no interest in revolution. There were, however, grievances to be addressed and, although the meeting asserted their attachment to constitutional principle and order, attention was drawn to the unsettled relationship between landlord and tenant, and the Government was urged to put this right by legalising the Ulster tenant-right. The Chairman, the Rev Jex Blake, refused to put this last resolution and another chairman had to be voted in after he left the meeting.
Comber was affected by the cholera outbreak of 1849, and a temporary hospital was set up in the Market House. Also in 1849 George Allen purchased Unicarvil House from Alexander Montgomery, who in turn had bought it in 1841 from the Cumming family. Mr Allen was to build up the best herd of pedigree shorthorn cattle in Ireland. I don’t notice his name among the prizewinners, however, at the cattle show of the Newtownards and Comber Farming Society held in Comber Square in August 1849. Thomas McCracken of Ballyrickard won the Landlord’s Challenge Cup, given by Lord Londonderry to the member who exhibited the best stock of cattle. For the third year in a row Robert Boyd of Ballywilliam won the Castlereagh Challenge Cup for the best cultivated farm.
The Square was also the scene in 1849 for a protest meeting by ratepayers against the Rate-in-Aid – a national rate to be imposed on all Poor Law Unions in aid of 23 bankrupt unions, all in Connaught and Munster. Opposition in Ulster was triggered by the view that Ulster Unions had managed the famine crisis well, whereas it had been mismanaged in other areas. There was much criticism of Lord Londonderry who supported the Rate-in-Aid.
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