COMBER WALKING TOUR
A WALKING TOUR OF COMBER |
This is Comber, or ‘Comar’ - the place where the waters meet - perhaps a reference to the confluence of the Enler and Glen, which merge at the bottom of Park Way to form the Comber River. Equally possible is the meeting of the Comber River with Strangford Lough – the ‘strang fjord of the Vikings’
Points of interest:
Proceed across the Square to the Gillespie Monument, remembering that this area is an ancient graveyard belonging to the monastery. Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie (1766-1814) is Comber’s famous general, whose statue stands on top of a 55-foot high Grecian column. His birthplace, approximately where the entrance to Gillespie Court is today, was demolished in the 1840s and rumour has it that the workmen discovered a hoard of gold. Gillespie fought against the French and their allies in the West Indies, India and Indonesia. His ride from Arcot to Vellore in 1806 was the subject of a poem by Sir Henry Newbolt. Gillespie was killed outside the fortress of Kalunga in Nepal in 1814. His reputed, but doubtful, last words (recorded on the Monument) were “One shot more for the honour of Down”. He is buried at Meerut in India.
The south side of the Square has been re-constructed in recent years. The building containing Tescos replaces what was formerly the Big House built by the Stitt family and taken over by Isaac Andrews in the 1840s. It was Isaac’s sons who founded the Belfast flour mills of Isaac Andrews and Sons. The Stitt family once had a small spinning mill at the rear of the building. For many years the Big House was the car showroom of Kanes of Comber. The glebe house or rectory, built 1738, once sat between the Big House and St Mary’s. It was demolished in 1958.
Much of the east side of the Square has also been re-constructed. This was where the Milling family, one of the oldest traders in Comber, established a business in 1731. A plaque on the wall once stated this. The house called Aureen was the home of John Miller (1796-1883), owner of Comber Distilleries.
Note the cobbled pavement which once belonged to the house. You will see John Miller’s name picked out in white stone; also a dog chasing a hare, along with the figure of a man. Some surmise the dog to be the champion greyhound Master McGra, owned by Lord Brownlow. (His cousin James Brownlow was agent for Lord Londonderry, and in Comber we have Brownlow Street and the Brownlow Arms pub). It may, however, simply be a hunting scene.
Return to Killinchy Street and turn left past the police station (opened 1931). Behind this was Comber’s Market House, demolished in the 1950s. The Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin opened for worship in 1872. Prior to this, mass had been celebrated in the Market House and earlier still in Lower Crescent. The present school dates from 1955, but the original building of 1904 still stands.
Retrace your steps to the Square. Hugh Mawhinney’s butcher’s shop on the corner of High Street and Castle Street is well worth a visit to see the old photographs of Comber which line the walls. Also note the plaque on the wall outside, commemorating the Ards Tourist Trophy (TT) Races, held over 30 laps of the 13½ mile circuit from Dundonald through Newtownards and Comber in the years 1928 to 1936, after which it was abandoned following a fatal accident in Newtownards. Comber had its moments, and this was the renowned Butcher’s Shop Corner where many a car came to grief.
Proceed up High Street, the Coo Vennel or Cow Lane of the Scots settlers. Note the following points of interest:
The Lightning Tree occupies the site of the Paragon Pub, opened by John W Ritchie in 1900. In 1837 a total of 19 pubs is recorded in Comber. John McCance, the Presbyterian minister, attributed to them “almost all the wickedness and misery that surround us”.
High Street Court contains a large house, which was once Dr Henry’s surgery and later became the Blades Restaurant.
Many of the houses on the left hand side in the upper part of the street belong to the Hearth Housing Association and were built around 1820 for the Distillery. Later they were taken over by the Andrews family for their workers. Many of the houses you will see in Braeside, Carnesure Terrace, Railway Street and Brownlow Street were built as mill houses by the Andrews family.
At the top of the hill is First Comber Presbyterian Church. A look at the noticeboard will tell you that the congregation was founded in 1645, but there was probably no church building here until around 1670. The date of 1645 coincides with the arrival of a Presbyterian minister called James Gordon in Comber, but Gordon was minister at St Mary’s Parish Church! Until, that is, he was ejected and imprisoned. A crowd of women attacked his replacement, William Dowdall, in the church and pulled off his robes.
Just beyond First Comber is Windmill Lane, leading to Windmill Hill, so called because there was once a windmill there. Make your way down the lane and though the gates of the Non-Subscribing Church. This was another breakaway group from First Comber in 1837 and it is known as a Remonstrant congregation, because they remonstrated against compulsion to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. James Andrews donated the land on which the church was built. John Miller the distiller was another great benefactor and in 1871 had the church finished in Portland cement all at his own expense. Today the original stonework has been restored. The church was due to open in 1839, but in January of that year disaster struck on the night of the Big Wind. The top blew off the windmill on to the roof of the newly-built church causing severe damage. The church was unable to open for worship until 1840,making it the third church in Comber to open in that year. The first minister was William Hugh Doherty who emigrated to America in 1850. The graves of his two young sons can be found at St Mary’s. The manse dates from 1859 and the schoolhouse from 1878. The unusual tree outside the church is a monkey-puzzle tree.
Normally the church is closed, and if you would like to see the interior you should contact the Rev Ian Gilpin (Tel. 02891 872265). Note the following:
When you enter into the vestibule, look up the stairs to each side and you will see the portraits of John Miller and his wife Agnes.
Inside the church is a tablet sculpted by Rosamund Praegar and erected in 1944 by Eva Andrews. It depicts several figures moving forward and is inscribed “We press on” listing the names of James Andrews, founder of the congregation, John Andrews JP and Annie, Eva’s parents, and John and Mary Ann, her brother and sister.
The stained glass windows are of interest. “Peace” was erected by the congregation in memory of Thomas Andrews of Ardara (1843-1916). “Charity” was the gift of Thomas’ wife Eliza Pirrie (sister of Lord Pirrie, head of Harland & Wolff shipyard), as a memorial to her mother, also Eliza, and her uncle John Miller. “Love” was erected in 1963 by Willie Andrews in memory of Eliza, who was his mother. It portrays his mother and her children, with the family home Ardara House in the background. The children were a talented lot. The eldest, John Miller Andrews (1871-1956) became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1940 and guided the Province through the difficult days of the Second World War. His brother Thomas (1873-1912) was a shipbuilder and designed the ill-fated Titanic. He was one of those who didn’t survive after the Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The third son James (1877-1951) was Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, while Willie (1886-1966) was well known in cricketing circles. That is why a cricket bat and ball appear on the window. There was also a daughter Eliza Montgomery Andrews (1874-1930), known as Nina. She married an Englishman, Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence A Hind, who was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and whose name appears on the War Memorial in the Square. But note a sixth child on the window, the baby in the mother’s arms. This represents the infant son who died in 1884 aged only one month.
Proceed outside to the graveyard which was consecrated in 1863. Here you will find the graves of John Miller and of Thomas Andrews of Ardara and his family, including John Miller Andrews the Prime Minister and his son John Lawson Ormrod (JLO) Andrews (1903-86). If you walk down as far as the gate out to Mill Street you will notice how worn the steps have become over the years. Look out also for the date 1879 on the gable of the house on your right as you approach the gates.
Retrace your steps to High Street and proceed past Raspberry Row (named after its colour), across the bypass and down Braeside.
Stop at the former flax-spinning mill of John Andrews & Sons. This was the brainchild of John Andrews (1792-1864), who was also agent for Lord Londonderry, who owned the town. It opened in June 1864, but John had died a few weeks before and it was left to his sons to carry on, especially Thomas (of Ardara) who had supervised the building work. Not all parts of the mill date from 1864; the earliest bit is the 4-storey Preparing and Spinning Rooms with a date stone of 1863. There are other date stones around the building e.g. 1907. The mill once employed over 500 people, but closed in 1997. Today the buildings form the centre of a mill village with luxury apartments.
Note the inscription over one of the doorways – “Comber Spinning Mill National School” and the date 1877. This was the entrance to the mill school which closed in 1938.
Across the road from the mill is the Andrews Memorial Hall, opened in 1915 to the memory of Thomas Andrews Junior, shipbuilder, designer of the Titanic. Thomas was brought up at Ardara House, a short distance along the Ballygowan Road. Today it has been converted into apartments. Note the inscriptions at the front of the Andrews Hall. Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews (known as Elba), who laid the first sod in 1913, was the young daughter of Thomas Andrews. She tragically died in a car crash in 1973. Note also the cherubs on either side of the main door, the work of Rosamund Praegar.
Just behind the Andrews Hall, at 26 Carnesure Terrace, is a blue plaque marking the birthplace of Ottilie Patterson, famous jazz and blues singer, in 1932. Ottilie sang with the Chris Barber Band in the 1950s/1960s and married Barber in 1959.
The main line of the Belfast & County Down Railway crossed the Ballygowan Road on a level crossing. Turn into Railway Street. The railway line once ran along the right-hand side and housing now covers what was the track bed. The houses on the left-hand side were built by the Andrews family for their workers. Also on the left-hand side is Comber Orange Hall, a modern building erected 2010 replacing the structure of 1875. You can still see the date stone of the old building in the grounds. A picture of the old hall is etched on the glass above the doorway. A little further along are the headquarters of Comber Cadets and the Rifle Club. A house called Inla once occupied this spot. Another short distance and you will see the Masonic Hall, opened 1870.
Proceed to the end of the street and note the greyhound above the doorway at the Brownlow Arms pub. Thomas Patton, who once owned the pub, raced greyhounds – is it a dog called Inla, or could it be Master McGra? Remember the pavement in the Square.
The former goods shed has been tastefully converted into Comber fire station. The structure also incorporates part of the original station platform, at 832 feet the longest on the entire BCDR system.
Turn back and go through the bridge beneath the bypass. The North Down Arms went under the name Railway Tavern in 1925. A visit to the TT Lounge would be of interest, with pictures of the famous race around the walls. Note the ornamental Apollo-like heads and fountain across the street from the pub.
Proceed into Mill Street. Apartments on your right occupy the site of the Thompson Hall, a dance hall which also housed Comber Technical College. Nearby is the Pound Bridge, so called because it was beside the Pound for stray animals. Close to Comber Christian Centre in Laureldale was the Upper Corn Mill, taken over by Thomas Andrews the miller in 1722. It was demolished around 1900.
Further along the street you will come to the Baptist Church, built in 1975 on the site of Comber Gasworks, which in turn was once a quarry belonging to John Andrews. The gasworks operated from 1847 to 1957, providing gas for many houses and other buildings in Comber, as well as street lighting. It reached its peak in 1925, but had to close as more and more people switched to electricity.
A little way past the gates to the Non-Subscribing Church is the former shop of J.A. Macdonald, with the date stone above of 1913. Today it is an Indian takeaway, but the façade is retained, describing Mr Macdonald as cartage contractor, funeral furnisher, posting master and general merchant. J.A. Macdonald was the father of James Macdonald, a noted cricketer and hockey player for North Down who later became headmaster of Regent House School, Newtownards.
The cricket club was formed in 1857 and a book was brought out in 2007 to mark its 150th anniversary. They are 32 times senior cup winners and 21 times league champions. The pavilion was opened in 1909 but has been much extended. Notice the two boulders at the entrance to the ground. These once sat at the corner of Castle Lane with Castle Street to prevent traffic banging into the houses. This was also where teams met before travelling to away matches.
Return along Castle Lane to its junction with Mill/Castle Street and turn left. Immediately across the street is a building containing the Joshua Tree. This was once the House of Industry (an early workhouse), established in 1826 for 30 inmates. It also supported 70 outdoor families with meat and potatoes. Poor House Lane runs alongside the building. Barrack Row is the name for the line of houses beginning with Express Pizza. The police station was here from 1861 to the 1920s.
Make your way to the Supervalu store, opened in 1986 on the site of Comber Cinema (1957-85). There was also an older picture house beside it dating from 1934 in what were formerly the stables belonging to the Old House of John Andrews (built 1745 and demolished in 1956 to make way for the Cinema).
Across the road from Supervalu is the site of a 3-storey building which was also an Andrews house built by James in 1792 – Uraghmore, the place of the big yew trees, named after large trees in the garden believed to be several hundred years old. The garden is now occupied by apartments, but was once laid out in tiers behind iron railings and was nicknamed the Palace Stages.
Demolished 16th January 2011
Uraghmore or Uraghamore
This was a historic building unfortunately unlisted.
Go down the lane beside Supervalu to the car park which dates from the 1980s. This was once the gardens of the Old House, but was growing wild for many years. Some of the garden walls have been incorporated in the tennis courts, and several trees in the centre of the car park were originally in the garden.
The Four Seasons Home for the elderly covers much of what was once an industrial complex belonging to the Andrews family. This included an impressive 5-storey flour mill dating from 1771, which closed in 1883 and was demolished around 1900. Across the hockey pitch on the banks of the Enler was the Old Mill from the 17th century, while a huge 6-storey grain store was demolished in 1978 following a fire caused by vandals. This was close to the site of the leisure centre and was sometimes known as the Piggery because it was used as such after the Second World War by two ex-Indian army colonels, one of whom was the father of ex-Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who spent part of his boyhood in Comber. The so called tunnels running under the car park are actually drains leading from some of the larger houses down to the river.
Turn into Darragh Road and immediately right into Lower Crescent, sometimes called Hen Dung Row because of the number of hens kept by the inhabitants and the inevitable consequences. This was originally the route taken by the main road to Newtownards. Circle round Lower Crescent and back on to the Newtownards Road. Turn right, and immediately on your left is a new housing development replacing the former Upper Crescent built in 1928 but demolished recently. An alternative name was Hill 60, the name of a battle in the First World War, and many of the occupants had taken part in the fighting. We conclude the tour by retracing our steps to the Square.
You may not wish to do all of this historical trip around Comber at the one go, but rather to take it in gentle stages. However you decide to do it, I do hope that you enjoy it. There is certainly a lot to be seen, although there is no doubt that much has disappeared under the name of progress. If you wish to learn more about the history of the town, may I recommend that you read “A Taste of Old Comber” by Len Ball and Desmond Rainey and "A Chronicle of Comber, The Town of Thomas Andrews, Shipbuilder 1873-1912" by Desmond Rainey and Laura Spence.
You may wish to come along to meetings of Comber Historical Society. We meet on the second Monday of the month (September to April) in Comber Learning Centre, Park Way. For more details speak to Kathleen Coulter, telephone 02891 872621.
Thank you for your interest.
Modern View of Comber Square 2010
Comber Square as it used to be. This painting by kind permission of the artist Jean Hadden.
Painted sometime during 1988 and 1990.
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