Edited by Adrian Hanna GI0SMU. www.sixgolds.com.
Comber Historical Society


In 1837 Queen Victoria ascended the throne, succeeding her uncle William IV. Trafalgar and Waterloo were now just fading memories, as was the summer of 1798 when the men of Antrim and Down took up arms against the British Crown. The horrors of the Potato Famine were still lurking in the future. This was an age when Roman Catholics were enjoying a recently won emancipation, slavery was abolished in the British Empire and parliament was reformed. Britain took Hong Kong from China, Davy Crockett died at the Alamo and the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported to Australia. Inventions were rapidly changing the world in fields such as electricity and photography. The first passenger railway ran between Liverpool and Manchester and we had the first regular transatlantic steamship service. Charles Darwin set sail in the Beagle, Madame Tussaud's opened in London, Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and the first Grand National took place.

But what was happening in Comber, described by Walter Harris in 1744 as "a mean little village". No longer. Read here all about Comber in this period, as originally presented by Desmond Rainey in a talk to Comber Historical Society in 2005.

It all seems an awful long time ago, doesn’t it? But history is a funny thing. Indeed we are all part of it as time marches relentlessly onward and today’s news and events soon become part of a bygone age. Just think of someone born in, let’s say 1915. As I write this article, that person would be 90 years old, for this is 2005. He or she would have many memories, stretching back to the time of the First World War, and must have known a host of people in the course of their lifetime. It is not unreasonable to assume that our friend would have been acquainted with someone who had lived through the 1830s, a living relic from another era, but still possibly a sprightly 90 year old in 1920. We can soon find ourselves stretching back into the depths of history via such links in an ever lengthening chain. So the 1830s are not really all that far removed from us today.

Let’s just put the 1830s into a timeframe. Great Britain and Ireland had 3 monarchs – George IV, the former Prince Regent, who died in 1830; his brother, William IV, known as the Sailor King because he had been Lord High Admiral; and their niece, Victoria, who became Queen on William’s death in 1837 at the tender age of 18. Andrew Jackson, whose roots are in Carrickfergus, was US President for much of the decade. Among the politicians of the day were Earl Grey, Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, all of whom were British prime ministers.

In 1830 it was only 15 years since Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, and 25 years since Nelson’s great naval victory at Trafalgar. Lurking in the near future was the Potato Famine of the 1840s. This was an age when Roman Catholics were enjoying a recently won emancipation, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire and when Parliament underwent major reform. Yet in such an enlightened age, which also saw a Factory Act banning child labour under the age of 9, there were trade union problems culminating in the deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia. Other events saw Britain take Hong Kong from China and the death of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

It was an age of invention, with advances in the fields of electricity and photography, amongst others. The first passenger railway in the world ran between Liverpool and Manchester, and we had the first regular transatlantic steamship service. Charles Darwin set sail in the Beagle, Madame Tussaud’s opened in London, Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and the first Grand National took place.

In the 1830s many could still remember that glorious summer (in a meteorological sense at any rate) of 1798 when Antrim and Down had risen in rebellion against the Crown. Ireland and Britain were now all one, following the implementation of the Act of Union in 1801. There was no longer an Irish Parliament in Dublin, and 4 members from County Down sat at Westminster. But not everybody could vote in those days, and there was no secret ballot, so those with the franchise had to exercise it with care. Local government was headed by the Lord Lieutenant, and each county had its Grand Jury, largely composed of landlords and their agents. One of its chief functions was to allocate contracts for the roads.

The county was divided into baronies for the purpose of civil administration. Comber lay partly in the Barony of Upper Castlereagh, but mainly in Lower Castlereagh. The parish was also an important administrative, as well as ecclesiastical division, and Comber Parish was a large one, made up of 45 townlands. It was also from 1838 part of the Poor Law Union of Newtownards. There were some 130 of these unions in Ireland, and they gave responsibility to local people for care of the paupers in their area. This included the dreaded workhouse.

There is quite a bit of documentation relating to Comber in the 1830s. To begin with, we have the earliest 6” Ordnance Survey map, dating from 1834, as well as a series of small essays, which go under the collective name of Ordnance Survey Memoirs. There is also Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland dated 1837 and the Poor Law Enquiry of 1836. In Comber we are also fortunate to have the diary of Guy Stone, a local farmer who lived at Barnhill on the Belfast Road. Much information on the town and its personalities can be gleaned from this.

LARGE MAP OF COMBER ∂ 1834 earliest 6” Ordnance Survey map.

Let’s take a look at the map. The town was a much smaller place then, and we see green fields where later on housing estates would be built on Darragh Road, Copelands/Dermott estates, Glen Road etc. In 1831 the population was only 1377, although by 1841 it had risen to 1964. Nowadays it is a little over 9,000. There were 355 houses in 1837. 184 were single storey buildings, but 169 had 2 storeys and 2 had 3 storeys, the Big House in the Square and Uraghamore. They were all slated bar 35, which were thatched. Some of the houses were plastered and whitewashed, but most were not, and this did not help the appearance of the town, as the local greywacke used to build them was unattractive. It was quarried in the town itself. Scrabo stone was becoming fashionable in the newer houses. However, although easier to work, it was not as durable as the greywacke. Some new stone houses of 1 storey had recently been built on the roads to Belfast and Downpatrick.

The street pattern is already familiar, with 4 streets leading into the Square at the centre. Note the names – Mill Street, Hill Street, Barry Street and Newtown Street. No by-pass then, indeed not even the railway whose track it today follows. That was still in the future, reaching Comber in 1850. Likewise there is no Railway Street. Other notable absences from the map are the Andrews spinning mill, which was opened in 1864, the Non-Subscribing and 2nd Comber churches, built later in the decade, and the Roman Catholic Church, where worship commenced in 1872.

Gone is the mercat cross marked in the middle of the Square on a map of 1722. Whatever happened to it? The Square in fact looks rather naked, for the Gillespie Monument is also conspicuous by its absence. It was erected in 1845 at a massive Masonic gathering. But in the 1830s Gillespie was already a Comber hero, struck down in his prime in 1814 outside the fortress of Kalunga in Nepal. The house where he was born in 1766 was still there in those days, a separate dwelling beside the Big House that later became the car showrooms of Kane of Comber. When the Gillespie house was demolished, rumour has it that a hoard of gold was discovered on the site, and the workmen were able to take things easy for the rest of their lives.

In the 1830s the Big House was still owned by the Stitt family, who had built it. In 1808 John Stitt & Co. had erected a spinning mill at the rear of the house. But this venture was not a success and by 1812 the plant was up for sale. William Stitt became insolvent in 1840. Isaac Andrews then bought the Big House.

Many buildings in the Square of the 1830s would be familiar to us. Some of the houses date back to the early Georgian period, so they were already around 100 years old. The original sentry-box doorways and early windowpanes of some houses on the north side of the Square bear testimony to their antiquity. The building today known as the Georgian House, which contains a restaurant, may not have been built until around 1840, at least the front part of it. However, the back part was built sometime between 1760 and 1810, so originally we had a house sitting a little way back from the Square.

Barry’s Hotel was the building that now houses the Northern Bank. Barry Street was named after the hotel. Later on it became Market Street, after a market house had been erected around 1841. Guy Stone records the death of Barry of the hotel in 1836. The Milling family also had a business in the Square. They were one of Comber’s old families, going back to at least the 1730s, and until recent years were publicans, undertakers and grocers, to name but a few of their activities.

The Glebe House sat in a corner of the Square beside St Mary’s parish church. It had been erected in 1738 and was the residence of the rector until Rev Manning moved into a new rectory around the time of the First World War.

Even in 1834 Comber abbey had long since disappeared, although stones from it can still be seen in many old walls and buildings around the Square. The church marked on the 1834 map is not the present St Mary’s but the earlier one set up by the Scots settlers in the 17th century. There is a description of this church in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s. “It has no tower or steeple. It is built like a common house with merely a small arch erected on its southern gable, in which is a bell”. It could hold 300 people, but attendance was only 100. The rector, George Watson Birch, had died in 1830, a young man only in his 30th year, and whose father had been rector before him. He was succeeded in 1831 by an Englishman, the Reverend Robert Ferrier Jex-Blake, who eventually left Comber in 1851 for a church in Norfolk. It was during his time that the church was rebuilt.

The Rev Blake was not averse to making personal visitations to individuals in the search for donations. Guy Stone tells us in his diary of one such visit on 30th August 1837. He felt his subscription of £15 to have been “more than I should have give either from income or in comparison with other subscribers who have a far greater interest in the Parish than I have”. I’m not quite sure why Mr Stone felt such minimal interest. He certainly wasn’t a great churchgoer, yet he attended Vestry meetings in connection with a proposed enlargement of the churchyard, which was assessed at £40.

It seems that considerable money had been spent on repairs to the old building, and the decision to rebuild was taken in 1829. Courtesy dictated that Lord Londonderry’s advice should be sought. After all, he owned the town. This was the 3rd Marquess, in whose memory Scrabo Tower was later erected. The rebuilding took place in 1838 and 1839 on exactly the same site as the old church, using the same foundations and raising the floor. Thus no graves were disturbed. The new church opened for worship in 1840.

Also gone is the school building, which gave way to the Parish Hall in 1954. It opened in 1813 and was originally built jointly by Lady Londonderry and the trustees of the Erasmus Smith Charity. This served as a school until Comber Elementary opened in 1938. It was a single storey 2-roomed building facing the Square with a small garden in front. In 1837 there were 233 pupils – 137 boys and 96 girls. They were all Protestant except for 8, who were Roman Catholics, remarkable toleration only nine years after the Emancipation Act. School attendance was not compulsory. The Master received £30 yearly from the Erasmus Smith Foundation, and one halfpenny weekly from each of the pupils who were able to pay. In 1832 a house was erected for him at the rear of the school. This later became the residence of the sexton, and then was re-modelled as a house for the curate.

St Mary’s was the largest school in the town in 1837. However, there were others. That in Hill Street met in what is now the Minister’s Room of 1st Comber Church. It had been established in 1831. Hill Street is now High Street, and was once the Coo Vennel or Cow Lane of the Scots settlers. The school was under the Hibernian Society, from which the master received 6d quarterly for all his pupils who were qualified to pass an examination. He also received from 2s to 2s 6d per quarter from his pupils. There were 66 of these, all Protestant, of which 34 were males and 32 females.

A third school was in Barry Street. It had 35 pupils, 23 males and 12 females, all Protestant, and had been established in 1827. It was supported entirely by contributions from the pupils. There were other private schools not mentioned in the OS Memoirs. For instance, Guy Stone sent his son to a Mr Reid and his daughter to Miss Mackay, who gave up her school in June 1838 and went to live in Newry. He also mentions a dancing school held in Lowry’s Inn, which seems to have been somewhere about the Square. The dancing master was Mr Fielding. Another school is mentioned in the OS Memoirs as having recently closed due to the indisposition of the master.

The Mound Distillery is marked in Barry Street on the 1834 map. It was so called because there was a mound of earth between it and the River Enler. It is probably better known as the Upper Distillery, and now sadly is no more. Park Way ran beside it. In the 1830s it was known as Waterford Loney, because it went down to the ford over the Enler. An alternative name was Potale Lane. Potale was what was left of the barley at the end of the distilling process. Farmers would buy it to feed their cattle. It seems there was a distillery on this site from around the 1760s.

But the famous Old Comber Whiskey really took off in 1825 when George Johnston and John Miller took over. Miller had been born in Downpatrick in 1796 and for some years held a position in the Customs. He was later described as having the look of a porpoise without flippers. In 1829-30 some 80,000 gallons of whiskey were produced at the Upper Distillery, leading no doubt to many a hangover. Power was provided by a breast wheel on the river, 14’ in diameter. When water was low during the summer, a steam engine was used. George Johnston died in 1837. Guy Stone describes him as “a man universally liked by all classes for his good humour and kindness”. Miller now gained sole control of the Upper Distillery and by 1860 had taken over the Lower Distillery as well.

Miller lived in the Square at Aureen, a house still in existence. But an interesting feature is the pavement outside it. This was originally a private footpath belonging to the house. It displays Miller’s name in white pebble stones, along with several enigmatic figures, including a greyhound chasing a hare. When was it erected? If the greyhound is the famous Master McGra, the pavement cannot be older than the 1870s. But if it is nothing more than an ordinary hunting scene, then it could be much older.

The Lower Distillery was not all that far away from the Upper, on the banks of the Enler. Until recently, the Airsteps factory on the Newtownards Road occupied the site. The building had previously been a paper mill belonging to John Ward, father of Marcus Ward, who founded a well-known printing and publishing firm in Belfast. But in 1834 it was a Distillery under the partnership of Byrne, Stitt and McCance.

The Lower Distillery was completely surrounded by water, hence its alternative name of the Island Distillery. A run-off came from the river into the Distillery dam in front of the Crescent, or Lower Crescent as it is today. The run-off then went alongside the Distillery and into the river again. You can see the run-off on the 1834 map. You can also see how the road to Newtownards went round by the Crescent. And although Newtown Bridge is marked, where exactly is it on the map? It is not the present bridge, which dates from 1843.

Bridge Street was then called Newtown Street. The police station was situated here. However, we are told that there were generally not more than 2 policemen in the town, and from the quiet and peaceable character of the place they had little or nothing to do. The people congregated in groups in the streets after working hours during the summer evenings. Generally speaking they were sober and industrious, with fights or riots scarcely ever heard of, although on Saturday nights, after they got their pay, there was some drunkenness and disturbance, which could go on all night. There was no courthouse to try mischief makers. They went to the Assizes at Newtownards or Downpatrick. However, a manor court to try cases of debt and dispute was held on the 3rd Thursday of the month, or more or less frequently as required, in Barry’s inn by Mr Montgomery, the attorney.

The Methodist Meeting House is marked on the 1834 map. This was a plain stone building erected in 1821 by general subscription and capable of accommodating about 300. In those days it was known as a Mission Station. John Wesley himself had preached in Comber on 3 occasions between 1758 and 1762, and in 1837 the clergyman was Reverend McDowell.

1st Comber Presbyterian Church was at the top of Hill Street. Although the congregation dates from 1645, the first meeting house was probably not erected until around 1670. The church of the 1830s dated from 1740 and could hold nearly 1,000 people. It needed to be big for the Presbyterians were by far the largest denomination in the town. It was described as a plain, whitewashed building in the form of a cross. In those days there were outside steps leading to a balcony. These were removed during the major renovations of 1887. The meeting house underwent more modest repairs in 1836 at a cost of £300. John McCance was the minister until 1836 when he resigned. Guy Stone in his diary tells us that he had suffered a stroke. He had had a long innings since 1790, and was a man of somewhat liberal views, who never subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith. His successor, ordained in 1838, was Isaac Nelson, who later gained some notoriety as a controversialist.

Many Presbyterians had adopted Unitarian views under Mr McCance’s ministry. During 1837 the upper part of a barn was fitted out as a meeting place by these people, who included John Miller and James Andrews. Some of the early meetings were held in Miller’s home at Aureen. And it was he who procured the barn, and arranged for ministers to come and preach there. Guy Stone went to the first meeting on 2nd April 1837, probably more out of curiosity than anything else, for as mentioned previously he seems to have been an irregular church-goer. He gives the location as Barry’s old barn, and some 300 people packed in to hear Dr Montgomery, a well-known New Light minister, preach for 2 hours. James Andrews, now in his 80s, is recorded as officiating as an elder at these early meetings.

And it was he who donated the ground for a new church on Windmill Hill, where he had intended to build a residence. Originally the church was to have been opposite the Upper Distillery, where 2nd Comber is today. But politics intervened, and Lord Londonderry refused to grant the Unitarians a lease of the land. What looks like a windmill is marked on the site of the church on the 1834 map. The windmill is first mentioned in 1778, and was to play a major part in the history of the Unitarian church. For on the night of January 6th-7th 1839 a mighty storm hit Ireland. It has become known as the Night of the Big Wind. Severe damage was recorded to both Distilleries, and the chimney of the Andrews flour mill was blown down. 7,000 new bricks at 35/- per thousand were brought from Scotland to rebuild it.

The top of the windmill blew off on to the roof of the new Unitarian church, which was about to be opened. That opening had to be delayed for over a year, until March 1840. The first minister was William Hugh Doherty. Guy Stone offers an opinion on his preaching. “His style of language and mode of delivery did not please me, although his matter was pretty good”. Doherty was to remain until 1850, when he emigrated to America. Comber must have held sad memories for him, for a headstone in St Mary’s graveyard records the deaths of 2 young sons, Eugene in 1847 and William Hugh in 1849. Perhaps he wanted to leave these memories behind.

Another group broke away from 1st Comber at this time. Some members were unhappy with the new minister, Isaac Nelson, and tried to get rid of him. Apparently, when the voting list had been read out, the minister doing so had failed to mention how much money each voting member had paid into the church. He should apparently have done so. So the election in the eyes of some people was illegal. There was in any case great need for more accommodation for the Presbyterians of the town. And so in 1838 the new congregation of 2nd Comber met for the first time in a loft at the bottom of High Street. There were about 70 families, and in 1839 they ordained Rev John Rogers as minister. He remained until 1869. The new meeting house in Killinchy Street opened for worship in 1840, the third new church to open for worship in that year.

Returning to the 1834 map, we notice that Mill Street also covers what is now Castle Street between the Square and Castle Lane. It was named after the Andrews Flour Mill, also marked on the map. The Old House of the Andrews family and the later house of Uraghamore can be seen with their extensive gardens.

The Old House had been built by John Andrews, called the Great, in 1745. It made way for Comber cinema in 1956 and is now the Supervalu supermarket. Uraghamore, the place of the big yew trees, dates from 1792, the year that John’s son James married Frances Glenny. It took its name from a number of ancient yew trees in the garden, believed to be many hundreds of years old. The garden was on a slope, and was constructed in 3 tiers, giving it the name “Palace Stages”. In the 1830s the Andrews family was by far the biggest employer in Comber. James was head of the family and remained active up until his death in 1841, shortly after chairing a Unitarian meeting in Belfast. He had a large family of 9 sons and 3 daughters. During the 1830s he lost his wife and 3 sons, Thomas, Joseph and George. The death of Thomas, in particular, was a big loss to the firm of James Andrews and Sons, as he had been involved in the family business. John, William Glenny and Isaac were left to carry on.

John was the eldest son, born in 1792. It was he who later built the spinning mill in Comber. He led a very active life, among other things becoming agent for the Londonderry Estate in 1830. He appears to have been popular with the tenants, being seen as a fair, liberal man, with a well-developed social conscience. He was referred to as an authority on farming, and indeed wrote a pamphlet on the subject in the 1830s. Later in life he was to become High Sheriff of County Down. His wife was Sarah, only daughter of the late Dr William Drennan, a leading United Irishman and a recognised poet, who had coined the phrase “Emerald Isle” for Ireland. They married in 1826.

William Glenny Andrews was a year younger than John, and remained a bachelor all his life. He was also an authority on farming, publishing a paper on the treatment of flax. But his practical knowledge did not end here, and he was involved deeply in all aspects of the family business. Isaac had been born in 1799. It was his sons who in the 1880s were to found the Belfast flour mills of Isaac Andrews & Sons. But in the 1830s marriage was still in the future. Indeed his father made part of his inheritance conditional on a marriage – 30 acres of land at Carnesure and £1,000 with which to build a house. He duly married a girl 20 years younger than himself, but elected to live not at Carnesure but at the Big House in the Square.

What exactly did the Andrews business consist of? I have already mentioned their farming activities, and in the 1830s they farmed several hundred acres. But they were also responsible for much of Comber’s industry, the brainchild of James’ father, John ‘the great’. John had started out with a couple of corn mills, and these were still in existence. The Upper Mill was where Comber Christian Centre is today, while the Old Mill sat on the banks of the Enler. I think the Old Mill is the building marked as a bleach mill on the 1834 map. It was demolished not many years ago. There was another corn mill on the Ballygowan Road by the duck pond at the Clattering Ford. That building is still there.

Most of the Andrews’ empire was in the area between the Enler car park and Castle Lane. The Four Seasons Clinic today covers much of the ground. This was where the flour mill stood, founded in 1771 at a cost of £1,400. It was a massive building, 5 storeys high, and remained a landmark in Comber until around 1900, when it was knocked down. Wheat was collected at all the small ports on Strangford Lough and shipped to Ringcreevy at the mouth of the Comber River, before being carted to the mill.

There was a beetling mill nearby, where the linen fabric was flattened. This process added value to the finished product. And there was also a linen wash mill and bleach green on what is now the ground of North Down Cricket Club. The bleach green was where strips of linen would be laid out to dry. During the 1830s a major re-organisation and modernisation of the works took place. For instance, a steam engine now pumped water to either the flour mill or bleach green, as the occasion demanded. New water wheels were erected, and in 1837 the spring dam was completed beside the bleach works. This was described as “a pool of beautiful, pure soft water, superior to any we have seen, which will be of infinite value in finishing the nicer articles”.

The Quarry was at the far end of Mill Street, later to become the site of the Comber Gas Company and later still of the Baptist Church. The stone was used for building and on the roads. John Andrews the Great had built Mill Street and the Pound Bridge. The pound for stray animals is marked on the 1834 map behind the site of what became Thompson’s Hall. Strays were locked up here and could be redeemed from the authorities on payment of a fine. Near the Pound is Downey’s Well. An old ballad contains the lines “Frae Newtown brig to the Meeting House Hill, Frae Downie’s Well to the Ghaist Hole swill”. The Ghaist Hole is, of course, on the Killinchy Road.

Mount Alexander Castle is marked on the 1834 map at the end of Castle Lane. In 1837 Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland describes it as a ruin. Hugh Montgomery had built Mount Alexander in 1622 as a wedding present for his son, and it was not so much a castle as a large manor house. Stones from the abbey were used in its construction. The Earls of Mount Alexander had lived here, but the line had run out by 1760. Nearby was the old Kennel Bridge, so named because the kennels for the castle hounds were close to it. It was replaced in 1995 by a modern award-winning structure.

Apart from the distilleries and the various industries of the Andrews business, how were the people employed? Many were employed in agriculture. The farmers were described as generally respectable men, and the farm buildings were good and commodious. Flax and corn were the chief crops, along with barley for the Distilleries and potatoes. The farmers rented their land from Lord Londonderry at between one and two guineas an acre. Strangely, the ground round the town was not used for grazing or market gardening. According to the 1831 census, Comber parish had 558 agricultural labourers, most of whom were in regular work, at about a shilling per day. Payment was mostly in cash, although part could take the form of provisions. Women were employed during the harvest, while children helped with the planting and gathering of potatoes. Labourers rented their cottages from the farmers at about two pounds per annum, paid half-yearly. Ground for planting potatoes was generally rent-free. John Andrews described the farmers as the ‘most grinding landlords on earth’. The diet of a labourer typically consisted of potatoes, oatmeal and milk, with occasionally meat and herrings during the season. Their clothing was tolerable and no man at work was without shoes and stockings.

You would have thought Comber would have had a market, since it lies in a rich agricultural area. But this had languished and did not re-open until 1838. Guy Stone’s diary allows us to date its establishment. He went to see it for the first time on 13th February, a Tuesday. And in 1841 we read of the town’s new market house. There were also large quarterly fairs held on 5th January, 5th April, 28th June and 19th October. These were tremendous occasions, attracting farmers and traders from all over the county and beyond. Customs were supposed to be paid on each stand at the fair and for each animal sold. However, these were not strictly levied. Guy Stone had a cow called Comber Fair. Entertainers were popular at the fairs and on occasions such as the evening in May 1838 when showmen exhibited in the Square. Guy Stone watched them from John Miller’s window at Aureen. Later there was an exhibition of conjuring tricks in the inn for a shilling’s admittance. He says it was worth all the money.

The OS Memoirs list many occupations. For instance there were 10 grocers, 2 butchers, 2 bakers, 20 masons, 20 carpenters, 15 shoemakers and 10 tailors, amongst others. But the list is headed by19 publicans. Rev McCance attributed all the evils of the day to the public houses. However, spinning was the main occupation. The flax grown around the town was good quality stuff, as described by Peter Bernard in his Tour of Inspection through Ulster in 1823. There were some 250 weavers in Comber Parish, who worked largely in their own homes for the linen and cotton manufacturers in Belfast. Hand spinning was now in decline, however, and small mills were taking over. Young girls earned between 6d and 8d a day in hand sewing and embroidery on muslin.

There was poverty in the town. According to the 1831 census, twenty-four houses were inhabited by more than one family. Bedding was described as ‘frequently poor and scanty’. When Lord Londonderry inspected the town in 1841 he had some scathing comments to make. He found that ‘the sewers in all the streets are little attended to’, special mention being made of houses next to the meeting house that ‘require attention to carry their dunghills and sewers to their rears’. In those days, most houses had no back doors, with the result that slops, filth and rubbish were pitched out on to the street. No wonder diseases such as tuberculosis were rife, and Comber’s 5 doctors must have been kept busy. One of them, Dr Goudy, died in 1837 after catching fever from some of his patients. In an attempt to combat disease, drains leading from the wealthier houses down to the river had been bricked over, creating Comber’s so-called ‘tunnels’. One was found during the construction of the car park, and another when the new Church of Ireland hall was being built. Lord Londonderry also found the school to be ‘neglected’, attributing this to ‘sloth’. He also wanted the inn yard kept clean, and a nasty outbuilding belonging to Mr. Stitt made less unsightly. Even though it was a new building, St. Mary’s needed ‘decent rough-cast or whitewashing’ on the glebe house side. And the glebe house waterspouts were ‘perfectly unaccountable and ridiculous'. His recommendation was for a town committee to be set up to improve the ‘cleanliness and propriety of the town’.

In 1824 or 1826, depending on the source, in an attempt to reduce destitution in the town, Lord Londonderry had founded a ‘house of industry’, in other words a poorhouse, in Poorhouse Lane, off Castle Street. The poorhouse afforded asylum to twelve ‘aged poor’, and distributed potatoes and meal to sixty needy families. The more able inmates made some sort of a living through spinning. There was also a cow kept for their use. Money was raised by voluntary subscription and Sabbath collections, in addition to an annual charity sermon. Lord Londonderry led the list of subscribers with £25 a year, but it seems that support was waning in the 1830s. There were few beggars in the parish; indeed those supported by the poorhouse were forbidden to beg. But in 1836 there were six deserted children on the parish books, and the number of illegitimate children was considerable.

Some chose emigration as a way of improving their circumstances. It was estimated in 1836 that around one hundred persons per year were leaving Comber for North America, chiefly Canada. These were mainly small farmers and their families, and young men who went off to better their position in life.

The ocean was a well used route. But so was the Comber River. It is hard today to think of Comber as a port. Yet, in his Topographical Dictionary of 1837, Lewis lobbied for the erection of a pier near Comber as vessels of two hundred tons might then come in. And there was talk of building a canal from the mouth of the Comber River to Belfast. Coal was brought up to the river in small lighters, but the principal local fuel was peat, drawn from an extensive bog at Moneyreagh. Great quantities were sent to Belfast. Lewis states that coal had been found, but no mines opened. There was also a ford across the Comber River from Island Hill to Castle Espie, which was used at low tide.

Travel was mainly by road, and the local roads were described as numerous but badly laid out. That from Dundonald to Downpatrick was described as being tolerably good. Guy Stone describes a meeting of the Road Sessions held in Comber on 8th May 1838. As a cess payer, he had been given notice to sit with the magistrates and on this occasion decided to attend as an attempt was being made to alter the line of road outside his house at Barnhill and “make a nearly new line to Downpatrick at great expense”. He was opposed to this, and the proposed road was postponed for the time being. Public transport in the form of four-wheeled coaches linked Comber and Belfast, and Comber and Downpatrick, with the mail car passing through Comber at eleven am on its way from Downpatrick to Belfast, returning at half past two. The journey from Comber to Belfast took about an hour and a half. There were road accidents even in those days. In 1832 Guy Stone recorded that “whilst Tom Taggart and I were going in my gig after dark to Knocknagoney, the Comber coach ran against us and he was thrown out of the gig”.

I wonder how our ancestors of the 1830s would have seen the future. Did they envisage Comber as a great port with barges plying to and fro between the town and Belfast? I’m sure they didn’t anticipate the age of the motor car and all the horrendous traffic problems that arrived in its wake. Did they foresee the urban sprawl of Comber as it stretched out towards Newtownards and along the Ballygowan and Glen Roads? Did they think that one day the mills and factories would fall silent and Comber industry would grind to a halt? I don’t think that they would. They were very much creatures of their own time, and probably didn’t envisage any great changes. They didn’t even have Gillespie staring down at them from on high. They lived in a different time from ourselves, but they had this important thing in common – they were Comber men and women, boys and girls. They loved their town and passed on a rich heritage to those generations to come, so that today we can look back with pride in the knowledge that we are descended from these people of the 1830s, an age seemingly so distant, yet not all that far removed from our own time

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