Comber in the 1850s
Comber in the 1850s1850 was an important year in Comber’s history, because that was when the railway arrived. The Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR) opened from Belfast to Comber and Newtownards on 6th May. The opening was described as a gala occasion when thousands took advantage of the beautiful weather to take a trip on the new line. The station at Queen’s Quay was suitably decorated with flags, while crowds gathered at all the stations along the line, including Comber, to watch the trains. Carriages were described as comfortable, set on easy springs, moving along with great steadiness. The trains were very long and because of this there were lengthy delays. Fares were said to be extremely moderate. In the early days a journey from Comber to Belfast would have set you back the princely sum of 9d (3½p) first class or 6d (2½p) second class. There were five trains a day, reaching Belfast in 25 minutes, although in later days the express would complete the journey in 12 minutes flat! You would have sat in a flat-sided four-wheeled carriage with oil lighting, and the locomotive would have been very basic with no protection from the elements for the driver and fireman. Things didn't always run smoothly, however, as for instance the occasion in 1851 when the train was thrown off the rails on its approach to Comber from Belfast.
Work didn’t begin on the extension of the line from Comber to Downpatrick until the winter of 1855-6. This included the blasting of rock cuttings through the Gullet just south of Comber. Despite a workers’ strike for higher wages in 1856, good progress was made with the line to Ballynahinch opened in 1858 and that to Downpatrick in 1859. Comber thus became an important junction station, and the building was replaced with a more elaborate structure in 1858 to reflect its new status. The old station was removed to Ballynahinch Junction. Accidents did occur, and unfortunately 1859 saw the death of Thomas Burns, who was a servant of the Rev McCaw of Killinchy. He wandered along the line at Comber station to watch wagons being shunted, only to be crushed between the engine and a wagon.
The advent of the railway meant more business for Comber. The Andrews firm could transport foreign wheat shipped into Belfast down to Comber much cheaper than by road. Indeed, after the Repeal of the Corn Laws, cheap foreign wheat was imported freely and farmers at home had to either match the lower price or stop growing wheat. Most stopped growing it. The damp climate was a large contributing factor in this as the grain had to be kiln dried at great expense. This also resulted in a weight loss of 3-6% which decreased its value. But in 1854 at the time of the Crimean War the price of wheat shot through the roof. Farmers were inclined to hold on to it in the hope that they might get even more money for their produce.
Mention of the Crimean War recalls great celebrations in Comber at the time of the surrender of Sebastopol by the Russians in 1855 and again when the peace treaty was signed the following year. It is also notable that fast days were observed in Comber during both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
The Non-Subscribing Church got a new minister in 1850. William Hugh Doherty, minister since the formation of the congregation, emigrated to the USA where he took over a church in Rochester, New York. Comber must have held sad memories for him, as two sons are buried in the graveyard at St Mary’s – Eugene, died 1847, and William Hugh, died 1849. The new minister was John Orr, installed on 20th June.
St Mary’s also lost their rector when the Rev Jex-Blake returned to his native Norfolk. He was succeeded by William Thomas Delacherois Crommelin. Rev Crommelin was rector when a harmonium was purchased in 1852. We also read in the Downpatrick Recorder of the annual Sunday School fete in 1855. Over 160 children assembled in the schoolroom for an address by the Rev Edmondson of Saintfield, after which they feasted on tea and currant bread, sang hymns and played games in a nearby field. A large bonfire was lit in the Square. At a similar occasion in 1859 the Marchioness of Londonderry was present. The children were addressed by the Rev Flood of Kilmood and Mr Shaw of New York who told them all about the Sunday School system in the United States.
A memorial tablet was placed in St Mary's in 1855 by Guy Stone of Barnhill (Stones's Plantin'), just outside Comber on the road leading to Belfast. Guy was a gentleman farmer, a justice of the peace, and a well known figure in the neighbourhood. He kept a diary during the 1830s and 1850s which gives quite an insight into life at the time. The memorial in St Mary's was in memory of his immediate ancestors and the work was carried out by a stonemason called Robinson who had his business in York Street, Belfast. Incidentally we read of a burglary at Barnhill in 1857 although nothing of importance was stolen.
The accounts of First Comber for 1855-6 show an income of £116. £85 of this came from the renting of seats, while a further £25 was from Sabbath collections. By far the main item of expenditure was the £80 annual stipend to the minister, Rev Killen. The precentor got a salary of 10 guineas. Rev Killen was the author of a book called "Our Friends in Heaven, or The Mutual Recognition of the Redeemed in Glory Demonstrated". Meanwhile at Second Comber a soiree was held in 1855 in honour of Mr Alexander Reid, musical instructor, on the occasion of the termination of his musical engagement with the congregation.
In 1852 the house of Thomas McLeroth at Killynether was set on fire by incendiaries. Also in that year Mary Ann Andrews, wife of Isaac, died shortly after the birth of their younger daughter Frances. Ten years later Isaac would remarry, to his cousin Jane, but this marriage was childless. The firm of James Andrews was at the peak of their prosperity in 1853 with a profit of over £9,000, much of which was invested in land in various parts of Ireland. John Andrews was referred to as an authority on farming, and was on the committee of the North-East Agricultural Association, forerunner of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society. In 1857 he was appointed as High Sheriff of County Down. William Glenny Andrews started up a sewed muslin business in Comber in 1858. However, this was a failure and ended in 1860.
Comber was hard hit by a cholera outbreak in 1854. This mainly affected the area known as the Coo Vennel (High Street). Additional medical help was sought from Belfast, and a Dr Gibson arrived to assist Dr Kennedy. However, for all their valiant efforts, they could not prevent several deaths. Deaths also occurred from accidents, such as that of Thomas Hanna who got caught up in the machinery at the Andrews Flour Mill in 1856, and the unnamed unfortunate killed at the Distillery in 1858.
In 1852 Samuel Mills was master at the Erasmus Smith School in the Square, with Betty Gilmore mistress of the infants’ school. By 1856 James Taylor was master and Jane Dalzell mistress. An infants’ school is also recorded in Downpatrick Street at this time. I believe that this was held in the Market House. Emily de Winter was mistress. Other schools listed in 1856 were that of Richard McGouran in Mill Street, the National School in Cow Lane (master William Sturgeon) and one in The Square run by Rev John Orr. Comber got its first bank with the Northern Bank in the building now occupied by the Georgian House restaurant, while Joseph Shean was postmaster in The Square. There was a variety of shopkeepers and trades, including bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, ironmongers, linen drapers and haberdashers, grocers, milliners and dressmakers, saddlers and harness makers, tailors and watch and clock makers. James Andrews & Sons are listed as linen merchants and bleachers in Mill Street, and also as millers. John Anderson ran the Maxwell Court mill. There were a number of agents for sewed muslin manufacture, such as Robert Lindsay & Co of The Square and Jane Withers of Mill Street. George Allen owned a tannery in The Square, John Miller was in charge of the Distilleries in Downpatrick Street and Bridge Street, Agnes Barry kept a hotel in The Square (this was sold in 1858)and Jane Carse of Mill Street was a straw bonnet maker. William Gilmore was constable in the police barracks in Bridge Street. There were 15 spirit and porter dealers – James Anderson, Jane Harris, Wm John Lindsay, Charles Rea and Michael Todd (all of Mill Street); John Caughey, Agnes Duncan, John Hogg and Henry Douglas Ritchie (all of Cow Lane, today’s High Street); Henry Hendricks of Bridge Street; James Jefferey, James Milling and Wm Murphy (all of The Square); and Wm Robinson and Robert Simpson (both of Downpatrick Street, now Killinchy Street). A mail car left from the Post Office for Belfast every morning at 9 am, and for Downpatrick at a quarter past three. Another left for Dromore at a quarter to six. Alexander Stewart’s omnibus left the railway station for Killyleagh every afternoon at twenty minutes before five.
It was in 1856 that Comber Gas Works was built. This was formed by the tradesmen of the town for the advancement of industry and social amenities. The shops in the town were first lit by gas on 10 January 1857, while the first gas street lamps were lit on 14 March of the same year. Some privileged people even had gas installed in their homes. The Baptist Church occupies the site of the former gas works, which was forced to close in 1957 due to the success of the cleaner and cheaper electricity.
This was also a time when some of Comber’s ancient past was rediscovered. In 1850 Bronze Age burial urns were dug up on Andrews Bleach Green, and more remains were found close to the River Enler in 1858.
1857 saw the formation of North Down Cricket Club by two Inland Revenue men called Braithwaite and Knowles. The original ground was on a meadow known as “The Lines”, on the other side of the river from the present ground, which was still the bleach green and remained so until 1872. The Northern Whig records a match played between Newtownards and Comber at Mountstewart in September 1858, a return encounter of a match between the two sides which Comber had won. The Ards men got their revenge on this occasion. Other sporting events in the town were the steeplechases held in 1851 and 1853. On the former occasion it was estimated that 7,000 passengers arrived on the trains from Belfast. And farmers from all over County Down gathered in 1857 for the Down County Ploughing Match in the field of George McMorran close to Comber Railway Station. The 3rd Marquis of Londonderry had died in 1854, and in 1857 an impressive monument was erected to his memory. This was Scrabo Tower, built on the summit of a hill in a commanding position overlooking the North Down countryside. The design of the 135 feet high tower was by Charles Lanyon and cost £3,010. The foundation stone was laid at a ceremony on 6th March 1857. Cemented into the foundations was a jar containing an inscribed scroll to the late Marquis, copies of national and local newspapers of the day, an Ordnance Survey map of County Down, coins of the realm and a list of subscribers. John Andrews of Comber played an active part in the building of Scrabo Tower.
The end of the decade is dominated by religious affairs. 1859 saw the Non-Subscribing Church manse built by James Bell, a member of the congregation. The final cost was £559, much of which was borne by the Andrews family and John Miller. But more serious matters saw a visitation to Comber of the great Religious Revival. A number of converts are reported at 2nd Comber, but the greatest effect seems to have been at 1st Comber following a visit by converts from County Antrim. A few days later, when the Rev Killen was addressing a crowded prayer meeting, the Revival struck with power. Many were reduced to tears, several cried out, others had to be removed after fainting. On the ensuing Sunday the scene is described as overwhelming with scores smitten by the power of the Holy Spirit. Rev Killen describes how many people couldn’t sleep but devoted themselves constantly to singing, prayer and the study of Scripture. He tells us that “drunkards have been reformed, prostitutes reclaimed, thieves have become honest”. Converts included children of seven and old men and women of seventy and over. It was all too much for Elizabeth Munn. She took ill while attending one of the Revival meetings and died.
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