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


The following article (PRONI Ref. No. T/3023/2) is published on this site by kind permission of the Director, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. It was written in 1948 by Mrs Adam Duffin (formerly Molly Drennan) about the time she spent in Comber during her holidays from 1860-76. She was a niece of John and Sarah Andrews (née Drennan). In her reminiscences she recalls many of the people and places from that time, including pen portraits of several of her Andrews family relatives.

Reminiscences of Old Comber by M. Duffin (née Drennan)

“The Place”, Comber 1860-76

Towards the end of the war of 1939, a young Canadian soldier came to a little Northern Irish town and was entertained at a country house. Talking to his hostess (Eva Andrews) he said: “My ancestor came from here. He worked as a blacksmith for some firm whose name I have forgotten. Morrison was his name”. “Come with me,” she said, “and I will show you where he worked”. So they went to the village, down the lane to the Mill Walk where the rooks still cawed in the elms, to The Place, deserted and desolate, to the Forge, now cold and empty, by the little stream. “Here your ancestor worked”, she said.

When this story was told to me, who was a little girl in the far away days of prosperity and industry at The Place, time turned backward and she saw the forge, red and glowing, Henry Morrison and his helper raising their hammers, and the sparks flying from the anvil. Outside in the summer air, the red quilled dahlia bloomed in an iron pot, mounted on a drain-pipe in the middle of a little stream. Not only was the forge active, for next door was the carpenter’s shop where William Lindsey, in his white paper cap, worked amidst shavings, saw-dust, and the smell of cut wood. Opposite was the long cart-shed with the red-painted carts tipped up. At the other side was a dark mysterious building with great vats where the webs of linen were drawn to lie on the wooden verandah until they were taken to the bleach green to whiten in the sun.

What a lovely play place the Bleach Green was, full of various grasses, ladies’ bed straw, shepherd’s purse, clover, and speedwell. It was very large, surrounded by trees, and bounded on one side by the river, edged with meadow-sweet and “codlins and cream”. It was guarded by a curious barrel-shaped shelter, painted white and turning on pivots placed round it at intervals. They had seats inside for the watchmen. When the children were young, these had been reduced to one very old man. He was a weird figure as they met him in the evening, as they were returning to bed. He wore a many-caped coat, and seemed stuffed out underneath it with blankets or wraps of some sort. How soundly he slept, I cannot tell, nor how he guarded the safety of the long white webs on the grass.

On the left of the Bleach Green was the Stack Yard, where the children played see-saw on the planks laid across the stone supports for the stacks. Here marigolds grew and little lavender pea-shaped flowers on twisted stems, and one could rest on the hay-stacks and plait rush cages for butterflies. To the left of the smithy across the little stream, lay a large pond or reservoir, covered with duckweed, and bordered by rounded stone coping. Surrounding it was a narrow shrubbery where the peacock displayed his lovely tail, and the more sober hen with her emerald jewelled back, led her little crested chicks through the jungle.

On the way home the children passed through a little open space, the nucleus of The Place. Here stood the flour-mill and opposite it the lapping rooms, where the finished linen was prepared for the American market. Here lovely pictures and scraps of multi-coloured ribbon could be had for the asking from two friendly ‘lappers’. One, Burns, was the son of the coachman at the Old House. The flour mill machinery was driven by a large water-wheel, green and dripping. The mill was presided over by George Jervis, a portly figure powdered with flour. Here one could be weighed on the big scales. The office, where the Principals sat, was a long low room, very unluxurious, looking out, I trust not symbolically, on a little triangular space and a grindstone. It opened off the mill. The wheat ground was, I fancy, of home growth. The great American trade had not yet reached this backwater.

Going up the Mill Walk one passed the gate into the great yard, before turning up the lane to the village. Here were hens and geese and the gobbling turkey-cock. It was with mixed feelings one entered. Was the great white gander hissing at one’s socks, or the turkey-cock getting white at the gills and gobbling as he advanced, the greater terror? But, through the yard was the entrance to the old garden which was paradise, guarded by old Dan Morgan in his rusty top hat, very slow and unwilling to move to the gate in answer to the agonised cries of ‘Dan! Dan!’ as the enemies drew nearer and nearer.

The yard was very large and bordered on two sides by stables. At one side, the farm horses came home to rest, and opposite them lived the brougham and phaeton horses, and a couple or so of hunters. Sounds of whistling and hissing were constant here and restless horses stamped the stones. A shrubbery full of trees abutted on the yard from which it was divided by a low wall and iron railings. Two little green gates opened from it. Here the peacocks roosted. It lay at the back of the Old House which faced the village street. Jacob Gibson sat in a kind of coach-house near the stables, making and mending harness for the farm horses.

Opposite the shrubbery were the hen-houses, each with its little yard. Then the ivy-covered wall, then the gates, large and small. A little green one in the ivy, and a large white wicket one, large enough to admit a horse and cart. For the small one, Dan held the key, and so was omnipotent about the entrance to this Eden. On entering, one saw first little box beds in a pattern, then the broad avenue leading to a round central bed of moss roses. From this, other paths diverged, the central one leading through a row of arches to the greenhouse with its domed roof and gay flower bed. On each side extended the vineries, and the beds in front which held the roots of the vines were broadcast with mignonette. There was a perpetual humming of bees from the hives opposite among rows of red and yellow stiffly quilled dahlias.

Follow up a low flight of steps at the right hand vinery door and descend again into the grass garden, reaching to the river and with groups of rhododendrons, and a sumach tree with lovely colours in autumn. Here an arbour with little green painted tables and chairs made a lovely ‘house’ for the children. A colony of rooks from the Mill Walk cawed over their nest-building in spring, and broken eggshells and unfortunate little squabs were found in the walk beneath. The two parts of the garden lay at right angles.

Entering by the little gate again, grass paths to the left centred in a round pond full of weeds, lilies and stickle-backs, while tiny frogs leaped from the edges into the water when disturbed. Near the pond an old standard pear-tree dropped sweet little pears into a bed of Solomon seal. Wasps abounded. The walls bordering other grass paths were patterned with fruit trees, but these were taboo to the children.

Outside these walls an overflow from the mill dam joined the river. There was great variety in the low garden. The standard fruit trees were old. One plum had a cavity low down like a fairies’ parlour, carpeted with fine touchwood and decked with transparent lumps of gum. Another had been chosen as a nesting-place and a bird and a child had a mutual fright, when a face peered in, and a flurry of feathers dashed out. All this large extent of grass walks, flower beds, and greenhouses were kept in order by old Dan Morgan and a long loose-limbed Hughie O’Prey. I do not know how it was done. No lawn mowers, nor modern helps to tidiness.

It is hard to assess happiness. In these old days, a man was his own master in his shop, or worked at his forge, or cultivated his garden, doing his own job and teaching his helpers. He would never be dismissed unless for some serious fault. He had his own house, quite devoid of all conveniences now thought necessary. No inside sanitation. A common pump at some distance! A mud floor, and white-washed walls. They brought up healthy children and it was their own home, not shared with others. No old-age pensions – no maternity benefit – no doles for children. The only insurance, I think, was for burial. Then, as to amusements – no cinemas! Sometimes a circus – holidays – a Mill one, always the Twelfth, and the Fair-Day.

There was more drunkenness in those days than one sees now. The people were more independent, hardier, and harder workers. I cannot judge if there was more content, but there was less restlessness, and more small interests in their surroundings. No general ill-feeling about those better off than themselves with whom there was a great deal of neighbourliness. The old order is always changing for better or for worse in different ways, but, I think, this Age too much mechanised for happiness. The pride in skill and attainment cannot exist while only tending machines, or making some small part of an unknown design.

One thing I do know, these past days with their infinite variety and human intercourse were happy days for the children who ran in and out following their fancy. Let us leave them with kind Henry Morrison at his forge and grumpy old Dan in his garden. All have vanished and belong to a world of dreams and remembrances, brighter and more vivid than the present. M. Duffin. June 16th 1948.

Extract from Mrs Duffin’s diary – August 3rd 1947

I had a lovely drive and saw Scrabo and Strangford Lough. A sadder sight at Comber. The Square House empty and blinded with creepers. The Old House neglected and a cinema next door. Uraghamore turned into two shops. The front garden a grassy desert. Well, changes must come and I shall see them always as they were. The present is no matter. I had the happy days there. They cannot change. I can hear the creak of the garden gate as my father opens it, see old Peggy Nesbitt with her bag of freestone sitting on the shrubbery steps in the sun, and old Grouse at the Old House gate, and Aunt-Mama pouring out tea from the big silver tea-pot while morning chat goes on.

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