Edited by Adrian Hanna GI0SMU. www.sixgolds.com.
Comber Historical Society
Comber in the 1860s

Comber in the 1860s

By 1860, with an increase in the flour trade, storage of wheat had become a problem for the firm of James Andrews & Sons. Stores rented in Belfast were too costly, so it was decided to build one in Comber. William Glenny Andrews adapted plans used for a store at the Inver Mills in Larne, and the foundation stone was laid in May 1860. The building was situated close to where the Leisure Centre is today and was a plain brick structure, 86 feet long and 36 feet broad, consisting of six floors. It was completed in December 1863, having been built using local talent at a cost of £1,75. Over the years the grain store has had various uses. The Distillery stored barley there, and before the First World War a Dutchman named Stem used it for the manufacture of rice starch. It is probably best remembered to the older generation of Comber folk as the Old Piggery, having been used as such after the Second World War by two retired colonels from the Indian army (one of whom was the father of Paddy Ashdown). Sadly, this imposing building had to be demolished in 1978 after it was destroyed in a fire started by vandals.

The grain store was not the only major Andrews project of the 1860s. For in 1863 the newly formed company of John Andrews & Sons commenced on a new venture, the building of a flax spinning mill on the Ballygowan Road. This venture had been discussed for many years, and as early as 1848 a site had already been decided upon close to the corn mill dam. However, the original plan fell through when the BCDR railway company took possession of the site. Plans for the new mill were prepared by James Combe & Co of the Falls Foundry in Belfast, and they also supplied most of the machinery, although the engine and boiler were supplied by Victor Coates of the Lagan Foundry. John Andrews’ youngest son, Thomas, then only 20 years old, superintended the building operations which were carried out without the employment of a contractor.

Two other sons, James and John, were also involved in the family business, but alas, their father John did not live to see the mill in operation. He died a few weeks before it opened in June 1864. This was the John Andrews who had been land agent for the Londonderry estate, a man who was well thought of by the tenants, so much so that they presented a beautifully illustrated Illuminated Address to his widow.
Unfortunately, accidents happened at the mill despite the safety measures taken, and often the tendency was to put the blame on to the poor victim, such as the doffer who lost a finger in the fencing of a spinning frame in 1865. And in 1869 Eliza Gabbey had to have a hand amputated after it got caught in the machinery. The Andrews family did care for their workers, however, and in 1867 Thomas opened an evening school for any of his young employees who wished to improve their education. This continued until 1878, by which time there was a flourishing day school connected with the Mill.

James Andrews married his cousin Mary Catherine in 1863. Shortly after this he started on another building venture in the form of Carnesure House. And so he has become known as James Andrews of Carnesure. James himself retained control of the actual building operations. In 1870 James became a Justice of the Peace. On the death of John Andrews in 1864, the vacant magistrate position had been offered to his brother Isaac. Isaac had refused to take it, pleading pressure of work and insisting it should have been offered to his elder brother William Glenny. It was William Glenny who had the Andrews Mausoleum erected in 1867 above the original family burial vault at St Mary’s Parish Church. However, there are no burials in the Mausoleum itself. Another brother, Robert, died in 1865.

The first record of a committee meeting at 2nd Comber Presbyterian Church dates from 1860, and shortly afterwards Francis Ritchie and John Cairns were ordained as elders. This was a busy time in the life of the congregation. For in 1860 a new manse was built in the area behind the meeting house. And a school was opened in 1861. This became known as Smyth’s School after John Smyth of New Comber House who subscribed a total of £700 towards the manse and school. The Rev Rogers was also heavily involved in collecting for these projects, travelling for this purpose not only in Ireland but in England and Scotland as well. In 1863 and 1864 this very same Rev John Rogers was elected as Moderator of the General Assembly. In 1869 he was chosen to succeed Dr Henry Cooke as Professor of Sacred Rhetoric in Assembly’s College, Belfast, and was not allowed to remain as minister of 2nd Comber.

In 1865 First Comber Presbyterian Church decided to extend their schoolhouse, and this building was opened in 1869 at right angles to the existing school. The room was divided into two by the use of glass panelled partitions which could be removed if required for concerts and other social functions. The schoolhouse is now the Minor Hall at First Comber, and you can still see an inscription on the outside wall testifying to its erection in 1869 when Rev Killen was pastor.

At the Non-Subscribing Church the burying ground was consecrated in 1863, the same year in which a harmonium was procured. Prior to this singing had been conducted by a precentor. Finance was a problem, however, with income not even meeting the minister’s salary. In 1864, in an attempt to remedy the situation, it was decided to replace the collection box in the vestibule and take up the offering in the pews using long-handled collecting boxes. In 1866 the Rev John Orr was appointed Professor of Church History, Pastoral Theology and Moral Philosophy in succession to Dr Montgomery.

The foundation stone was laid in 1868 of the new Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin. In 1863 Roman Catholics were recorded as meeting for worship at the rear of a house in Lower Crescent, later to become a blacksmith’s shop. At some time shortly after this Father Close, the parish priest of Newtownards (1857-64), celebrated mass each Sunday in the Market House.

St Mary’s Parish Church got a new rector in 1868 in the Rev George Smith, who succeeded Rev Crommelin. Rev Smith would remain until his death in 1911, and today his portrait can be seen on the banner of one of Comber’s Orange lodges, that of LOL 567 (Comber Old Standard).

Comber has a strong Orange tradition, and we know a little of its history from this period. Comber True Blues (LOL 1035) may have come to Comber sometime between 1819 and 1823 and is possibly connected with the former Volunteer Company of the 1770s of the same name. Their present warrant, however, dates from 1860 and was re-issued in 1867 to Patrick Ward of Mill Street. At this time the lodge met in Paddy Ward’s loft in Mill Street. Goldsprings (LOL 1037) got a warrant in 1861. There were originally 10 members with Thomas Drennan as Worshipful Master. By 1868 membership had risen to 44 and they met in John Young’s in Bridge Street. On 12th July 1867 William Johnston of Ballykilbeg organised what was an illegal parade in defiance of the Party Processions Act from Newtownards to Bangor and back. William Woods of Comber was among a number of Orangemen charged with unlawful assembly in Newtownards, parading to music with banners and symbols calculated to arouse animosity. Sub-Constable Mooney testified to seeing him carrying the Comber flag, described as remarkable, being very large and coloured white and blue with an orange fringe. Is this an early reference to Comber White Flag (LOL 244)?

Also in the courts was an elderly lady from Comber called Elizabeth Young. In 1861 she was found guilty of embezzling money entrusted to her by William Gibson for paying into the Holywood Loan Fund.

Comber was becoming increasingly important as a junction on the Belfast & County Down Railway (BCDR), especially when the lines were extended in 1861 to Donaghadee and 1869 to Newcastle. At a meeting of the BCDR held in 1861 it was agreed that a double line was necessary between Belfast and Comber. However, there were no funds in the coffers for this work to be done. Another project which fell through in 1865 was the proposed line from Comber to Greyabbey, across land which was to be reclaimed in Strangford Lough. The proposal of 1870 to take the railway across the mudflats from Comber to Castle Espie also never materialised.

The industrial complex at Castle Espie developed in the 1860s. In 1864 Robert Murland of Castlewellan purchased the townlands of Castle Espie and Tullynakill with the intention of re-opening the limestone quarries. Land was reclaimed by the construction of a massive sea wall and a pier was built to enable boats to unload coal for the two lime-burning kilns constructed in 1865 and to transport the lime to quays and towns around the Lough. This pier carried a narrow-gauge railway. An increased demand for lime led to the problem of how to dispose of the overlying clay. Robert’s solution was to install 24 German patent Hoffman Kilns capable of handling both limestone and the clay for brick production. Each kiln could produce 600 tons of burnt lime per week. The boiler house with its 173 foot tall chimney became a landmark of the countryside. The kilns were officially opened on 18 March 1867.

Unfortunately, Robert Murland died in December 1867, and his father Samuel took over supervision of the works. In 1868 a further development in the usage of the clay saw the manufacture of unglazed flower pots, seed pans and window boxes. Soon a whole range of pottery was being produced, including teapots, jugs, sugar bowls and ornaments. The clay for this glazed ware is, however, believed to have been imported from Cornwall. Sadly, a fatal accident occurred at Castle Espie in 1868 when a quarryman called William Patterson was killed in an explosion when trying to set a charge.

In 1865 the Dufferin Harriers were advertising for a whipper-in, while John Miller won a prize at Newtownards Horticultural Society’s Show for best design of a flower garden. This was his second success in this category. Comber decided to hold their own annual show, and the first of these took place in 1865 in the Market Place. Mr Smith, John Miller’s gardener, exhibited the beautiful device in cut flowers, which had gained 1st prize at Newtownards, but Miss Gillan was awarded 1st prize at Comber. Miss Ritchie sent in a fine specimen of cut paper flowers, while Miss Andrews had a most successful day. There was a very good show of flax, potatoes, swedes and other vegetables. The band of the Antrim Rifles from Belfast supplied the music. At 3 pm the committee entertained the judges and other gentlemen to dinner in Milling’s Hotel.

For the second show in 1866 a large tent was erected at Fair Green and an estimated 5-6,000 visitors attended. The day was fine and the peasantry and farmers appeared in holiday attire. There was a very good display of cauliflowers while the show of fruit was excellent. The large display of bouquets was commented upon. Isaac Andrews and John Miller took most of the prizes in plants. The bands of the Antrim Rifles and the Belfast Lunatic Asylum played a number of spirited airs. At 3 pm about 50 people sat down to dinner when the judges were entertained at Milling’s Hotel, while in the evening there was a ball in the hotel with music from the band of the Antrim Rifles and Dornan’s Quadrille Band. Messrs Robinson and Henderson acted as masters of ceremonies.

The 3rd show in 1867 was in the spacious grounds of the Market House. There was a pretty device of the British coat of arms in cut flowers by Mr Smith, John Miller’s gardener. Miss McDonald took first prize in the artificial paper flowers section for a splendid and beautifully arranged bouquet. The show of farm produce was very good with 11 entries in the flax section.

The Downpatrick Recorder tells us that a new market opened at Comber in 1865, and that a new market house had been erected in Comber Square. It was hoped that Comber market would open up a ready sale for produce of the Killinchy district. But agriculture suffered a setback in 1866 when the cattle plague known as rinderpest was in the Comber area.

John Miller was appointed as a magistrate in 1866. But the following year he was the victim of an assault when he observed two men beating up a drunk. He intervened, whereupon the men turned on him and caused injuries which confined him to his room for a few days.

One former magistrate who died in 1862 was Guy Stone, a prosperous farmer who had lived at Barn Hill (Stones’ Plantin’) on the Belfast Road. He had kept a diary during the 1830s detailing life on the farm and in Comber.

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