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


The following article (PRONI Ref. No. T/3023/1) is published on this site by kind permission of the Director, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. It was written in 1915 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 - Comber, its inhabitants and our life there - by Mrs Adam Duffin (née Drennan)

Everything is changed now, but when I first remember it, the remains of the old patriarchal life about The Place still existed. “The Place” consisted of the old flour mill run by a water wheel, the lapping rooms opposite where the linen was got ready for market, and the bleaching house and vats. Round these congregated a host of offices and out-houses, a blacksmith’s and a carpenter’s shop, a saw-mill, cart-sheds, cattle-sheds, rick yards, and all the various departments belonging to the aforesaid businesses and the farm.

It was an ideal playground for children, for we could play for hours in the immense bleach-green and swing round till we were almost sick, in little watch-boxes, which turned on a pivot in order to let the watchman sit whichever way suited him best. I say watchman advisedly, for although there were many boxes, there was in my day only one very old watchman. We used to meet him in the evening, when we were returning for bed, in an immense old coat with many capes and a stick in his hand. He looked as if he might have many pillows under the old coat he was so stuffed out and he filled us with a mysterious awed feeling as he went down to spend the night alone about The Place.

When we got tired of the bleach green we could go to Henry Morrison’s, the smith, for a drink out of a rusty tin mug, and to admire his dahlia planted in a big iron pot in the middle of a little stream, an offshoot of the dam, crossed by a plank which was delightfully hazardous to cross. This plank led to a region behind the circular duckweed-covered dam, and which, at one time, was interesting because a poor fox was immured in one of the kennels and rushed to hide whenever we appeared.

Beside Henry Morrison, a little lower down, was William Lindsey the carpenter, with a white paper cap. He, however, was never so much of a friend, in spite of his having made Fanny’s doll’s house which was afterwards sent to us. It has since passed through the hands of my children, and has only lately been relegated to an outhouse. (It is now in the possession of Mrs Duffin’s great grandchildren).

Behind William Lindsey’s shop were a row of pig-sties facing the river and inhabited by a multitude of rats, as well as their legitimate owners, the pigs. We used to stalk these rats very quietly in order to see them feeding and running about. The baby piglings also were a great attraction.

Then we could be weighed in the mill scales by George Jervis, the big miller, or climb upstairs to the lapping rooms for odds and ends of ribbon and pictures from the boxes meant for the linen webs when put up. There was a delightful variety about it all and we knew all the animals and the gorgeous peacocks with their elegant hens, who escaped to bring out their chicks in some out of the way corner. The farmyard belonging to the Old House was full of friends and we fed the hens and tried to tame half-wild kittens and invented games there to our heart’s content. It was a very large yard belonging partly to The Place and partly to the Old House. There were rows of stables for the farm horses on two sides, on one was the entrance to the Shrubbery at the back of the Old House and opposite to that were Aunt Mary’s hen houses and the entrances to the garden, one being a large white latticed gate, the other a little green door in the wall.

I must leave the delightful garden while I explain a little who were the inhabitants of the Old House. As its name implies it had been the original Andrews family home from which had branched off the other homes as the sons married and settled for themselves. My uncle John, the eldest son, who married ‘Auntmamma’ (Sarah Drennan, my father’s sister), was one of these offshoots and had built himself a house in the village street, which was our second and dearly-loved home, just nearly opposite the Old House. To it I will return. The second son, Isaac, established himself in the Square, while others migrated, one to Belfast, and two to Dublin, and one or two died young. The youngest daughter married a Mr Leslie of Dublin, and when we were children the Old House was inhabited by two old ladies, Margaret and Mary, and their bachelor brother William. They were not really related to us, but we always called them ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ as Fanny did.

Aunt Margaret was completely crippled by rheumatism, and her face was lined with pain, which gave her a rather severe expression. Aunt Mary was kindness and benevolence itself and delighted in dealing out little heart-shaped gingerbread cakes and grapes to us, nearly whenever we met. Uncle William was a fine old gentleman with very white hair, shabby old-fashioned clothes, a white choker, and a diamond stud. He was kind and benevolent, but peppery, and I have seen him in a dreadful passion, shaking his fist at the man in the yard for some fault, real or imagined. He was always kind to us and left us £100 each. Mine was very useful for my trousseau when that time came!

The house was full of nephews and nieces, particularly the Charles Andrews from Dublin who had lost their mother. Kitty, Fanny, Jane (or Daney as she was called), Mammie, Charlie, and little Johnnie. ‘Little Johnnie with the staring eyes’ we called him, for he had great big blue frightened eyes and was not quite ‘all there’ as they say. Poor Johnnie ended in an asylum after he grew up. In summer another inmate was Miss Mercy Glenny, a cousin from Newry, a curious little asthmatic lady with a face like a frog, and large projecting Glenny eyes. The old ladies sat in the sunny drawing-room in summer, and drove out in the afternoon in the old phaeton with James Burns in silver hat-band and cockade, or else Aunt Margaret was wheeled in her bath chair to the garden, and they all sat near the greenhouse. We had tea-parties there with delicious slim cake and gingerbread; and dinners for the elders, where the rising generation, I am afraid, mocked at the currant and gooseberry wine put on the table for their benefit, while Uncle William reserved the port for his own use and that of some esteemed elder guest.

That generation has passed away with its home-made pickles and preserves, feather beds, and wine, clear starching, and shirt-making, and its despotic, kindly rule over the young people, and the young people have in their turn become old people with their old-fashioned beliefs and prejudices, and so we go on. Some are dead, many grandfathers and grandmothers, and Comber is as strange to me now, as if I had never known every nook and cranny, every individual in our circle, as I shall never know any other place or people.

We were younger a good deal than any of the cousins, and they soon grew up above us, but we enjoyed the little dances and parties even more when the young men condescended to dance with the two rather shy little girls. Even Sally did not expand until later. Old Mr Miller lived in the Square, and always made us dance country dances when we went there. He was a fat old man with very short arms which gave him the look of a porpoise with flippers. He was self- made and wealthy from the proceeds of the distillery, and kept a very comfortable establishment.

Tommy Andrews married his wife’s niece, Lizzie Pirrie. He was a widower early in the time we knew him, and Lizzie’s mother kept house for him. The present Lord Pirrie was then an apprentice in Harland and Wolff’s and spent weekends with his uncle and mother. He was a ruddy-faced, black-haired young man of the ‘industrious apprentice’ type. When he laughed his eyebrows ran up into his hair and no one would have guessed at the astuteness hidden under that very commonplace and rather silly exterior.

To return to the garden of the Old House. It was most delightful, laid out by someone who loved a garden well, a taste which had descended to Aunt Mary. We children were never entrusted with the key, but I suppose there was a general understanding that we were allowed in, for when the fancy took us we used to bawl at the white wicket gate for “Dan”, “Dan Morgan”, to open the little green door for us. Dan was an old man with a very Irish face, and no love for children, so he was not very ready to answer our call and often, in the meantime, the bubblycock, trailing his wings and getting blue-white about the wattles, was getting nearer and nearer to white-socked legs, with terrifying gobbles, so that at times our calls for Dan became very insistent. He (Dan, not the bubblycock) always wore a tall silk hat, brown with weather, and moved very deliberately. His satellite, Hugh O’Prey, a long loose-limbed young fellow, never paid us any attention at all, and we never felt welcome guests in their eyes, though on the whole we were good enough children, never touching the wall-fruit, and confining our attention to gooseberries and windfalls, especially delicious little pears which fell from a standard tree into a bed of Solomon’s Seal at its foot.

A straight walk led from the gate to a place where paths met at a round moss-rose bed; to the left lay the grass-garden with green paths converging on a pond full of delicious little frogs and sticklebacks. To the right were ample gooseberry grounds and more grass walks. The centre path from the rose-bed led up under arches to the greenhouse. The front part of this was for Aunt Mary’s flowers, the wings were vineries, and in front was mignonette sown broadcast in the beds with stone jars at each corner. Facing the greenhouse were bee-hives and rows of stiff dahlias, and clumps of sweet pea, then the frames, Dan’s particular standing-place, and side borders filled with tiger lilies, sweet herbs and various flowers. Behind the greenhouse lay another grass pleasure ground, bordered by the river which encircled two sides of the garden.

There were two funny green doors in a side wall with planks leading from them across the water to meadows called “The Lines”. There was an arbour in the pleasure ground with green tables and chairs which made a lovely house and the rooks cawed overhead in some tall elms. You can imagine what a playing-place this all made and how we enjoyed ourselves. We were sometimes hunters with a camp in the big rhododendron, sometimes ladies at home in the arbour, and sometimes just children playing hide-and-seek. Uncle Lennox was often our companion, either playing with us or having a ‘crack’ with Dan, with whom he exchanged bits of news and sage political sayings. The garden seemed always bright and sunny even in winter when the paths rang hard and a glitter lay on everything. There were lovely nests to be found in spring, and hollows in old trees with plum-tree gum and soft touchwood floors for fairies. I shall always love the memory of it.

After the old ladies died, during the minority of my cousin James’s children to whom it went, the garden was let to people who took the Old House and they ruined it for many a year. They cut down all the laurels and planted water lilies in pots in a circle. All the greenness was cut away, and the pretty arched walk destroyed in order to put a tennis court in front of the greenhouse. I believe it has revived under Cousin Cissie, Bertie’s wife, but the charm is gone and I never want to see it again.

Well now, what was the house like which was our second home? Auntmamma’s house? Uncle John died when we were quite small and I only remember a silent white-chokered man, before whom we felt awed. He always said “God bless you, my darling” when we bid him goodnight, and I know now he was the kindest and most hospitable of men, but still we rather feared his “tut, tut” when we were naughty. He seemed to prune the peach trees and to wind the clocks. In reality he was a very busy man, having the agency of the Londonderry estates in addition to his own businesses. He was very conscientious and, I fancy, slow in his work and kept the Estate books in most particular and beautiful order.

Well, the house where we were so happy was a very ugly three-storied one in the village street, facing north, and inconvenient in many ways. It had been added to and altered, but in an unattractive way. The third storey where the nurseries had been was reached by a steep stair like a ladder, an addition had been made by breaking a door through to a small house next door (I never saw a house with so many doors) and the sitting rooms looked out directly on the street, while the bedrooms, many of them, were little cubby holes. It has been altered and improved, but I always see it as we loved it, when the warmest of welcomes and the kindest of greetings met the little motherless children on the threshold. “Child of my heart, how are you?” said Auntmamma and we knew she spoke the truth.

We spent all our summer holidays with her and came again at Christmas and Easter. We were happy there at all seasons. It was our dearly loved home. Auntmamma had a sweet deeply wrinkled face. I never saw such deeply marked furrows all over her face and yet, strange to say, they did not disfigure, as one might have imagined. She had a very delicate skin and her hands were flushed inside with rose pink, and they and her feet were very small. She was a small woman altogether. She had bright blue eyes, and her hair which had been auburn and had still colour waved prettily under her cap. After Uncle John’s death she always wore black. She had lost a dear little daughter at the age of twelve many years before which had nearly broken her heart. Fanny was born the youngest of her large family and they were devoted to each other.

Her sons simply worshipped her. I never saw young men, and elderly men as they became before her death, so full of devotion to another. They came to her with all their joys and their griefs, their jokes and their plans, and poured them into her ever sympathetic ear. When they married, she took her daughters-in-law to her heart without criticism and they also came to her with troubles and worries and always found sympathy and help.

When I first remember my cousins, they were all at home except Willie who was a hard-working barrister in Dublin, married but childless. All the brothers differed the one from the other. James, the eldest, was a Glenny with projecting short-sighted eyes and his mother’s curly hair. He was a very loveable man, strictly honourable, kind-hearted, and charitable in his views. He was fond of literature, revered Herbert Spencer, George Elliot and Tennyson and was a bit of a philosopher. He and Johnnie were in the old businesses of the mill and bleach-green with their uncles William and Isaac. The judge, as he afterwards became, was small and dark-haired, with the plain Irish features of part of the family, and his mother’s blue eyes. He has a good deal of the Drennan or rather Swanwick in him, including their longevity, for he has just (January 1915) recovered from a rather serious operation at the age of eighty three, but this is diverging from old days. We used to stay with him and Eliza in Dublin, in Gardiner’s Place, when we grew older.

Johnnie was a ‘sport’ in the family and a sportsman. He was more of a southern Irishman than a Northern. He loved horses, dogs, hunting and shooting, and had the wildest spirits in his young days. He was up to every prank and every joke. I never met anyone else quite like him and his jokes and laughter kept everyone else in a roar. He kept us children in a state of delicious excitement mixed with terror, chasing us round the tables, grabbing at our ankles on the stairs, and generally upsetting us. He had the kindest heart in the world and the most feather-brained head. He wore old loose frieze clothes with the linings often in rags and the whitest and most polished of linen. After he married Annie Andrews, his cousin, we stayed with them at their house at New Comber and Annie has always been the firmest friend to us all.

Tommy, the youngest brother, was, in character, more like the judge, but was tall and very North of Ireland in appearance, and plodding and persevering by nature. The Spinning Mill was built for him, and he and his sons have made it a most successful business by sheer hard work and attention to every detail. When I knew him first he was a long boy with a lank shaven jaw. He is now an old grey-bearded man.

Fanny made our happiness at Comber. She has always been my dearest cousin and friend. She was just sufficiently older to be our model and guide and she was of such a maternal nature that she never thought of herself and devoted herself to making us good and happy. I worshipped her as a child, being quite happy if I were near her, and I often cried myself to sleep if she forgot to come in and say goodnight. I missed her dreadfully when she went to school at Hampstead and treasured her letters. The school was an old-fashioned one and instilled a very high sense of duty and the old Unitarian piety into its pupils and I have still the little book in which Fanny got us to write out our favourite texts. I fear we all became very emancipated in later days, but the Nonconformist conscience is still troublesome.

Dear Fanny, we had very happy times when she returned ‘finished’, and when Sally and I also grew up without any finishing process. It was Fanny who made little wreaths of holly and berries for our hair at Christmas, and decorated the house, and at Easter dyed our eggs with logwood, pink saucers and whin. Dolly dyes were not then invented. We told her all our troubles, confided all our secrets, and were always cheered and comforted, tidied and taught to keep ourselves nicely and daintily.

She helped to plan our dresses with Miss Morrow, the Comber dressmaker, whose patient face I can still see, with her mouth full of pins, while she tried to give the right set to the ‘behind’. She was a gentle painstaking creature and we were quite pleased with the results which I fear would evoke great laughter nowadays. When one has to dress on £16 a year one cannot go to Paris for clothes! However, we were young and happy and not bad-looking, and I dare say looked nice enough. But this was in later days, when Fanny wore pretty lilac muslins and silks, and lilac in dainty white bonnets, and white evening silks. She had some money of her own and was generosity itself, but we never thought of any difference, or of money at all in those days, though sometimes, when we went to croquet parties at Dalchoolin in all the wrong clothes we felt a little downcast. However, I am wandering again from our childhood pleasures with all of which Fanny was concerned, although being older and a very devoted only daughter, she was a good deal with her mother, while we played in the garden or the fields.

How well I remember the harvest fields in those days. Uncle Lennox would find there was an empty cart going back from the stackyard and we would all perch in it and be rattled back to the field. Uncle Lennox was interested in the crops, and we in the little flowers in the stubble, the nest of the harvest mouse, ripe blackberries, and all the joy of the hedgerow. Then there were days when with Willy in an old perambulator and with baskets slung all round, Uncle Lennox headed a procession for gathering fruit in the Farm garden. This garden lay about half a mile outside the village on what was called the Small Farm, and was a favourite walk of Auntmamma’s, especially a little later when James had married and built a house on Carnesure Hill, just on the other side of the road. Minnie, his wife, and her mother Mrs Robert Andrews, used to join our party in the garden, to sit and chat, while we young people wandered about eating gooseberries and strawberries. ‘Aunt Anne’ was a pretty little woman with silvery white hair and a very charming manner and she and Minnie had Dublin acquaintances and stories which gave a little variety to Comber chat.

In winter, during the Christmas holidays, we had games in the Old Garden, if dry and frosty, or walks to look for sliding places on the Glass Moss, and delightful games of fairies through the house in the evenings. If anyone saw the fairies (ourselves) we had to die on the upper landing, so it was great fun eluding everyone, and we hid behind the crimson curtains in the dining-room and in all sorts of nooks till the danger was past. After the older people went in to dinner we flew to the drawing-room as fairyland and danced about. Still, summer was the best time and I am glad I had so much of real country just when it was of most value. Children can see enchantment in almost everything, even in an ugly old house in an unattractive little Irish town. They want love and security and liberty and can make the rest. When I see Comber now, I wonder at the glamour that youth and love gave it, now that both are gone.

Now and then we had picnics to Scrabo where the fairies lived, very simple outings, with cold meat sandwiches and bread and jam which tasted so delicious among the heather; or we drove down to Island Hill, on the shores of Strangford, and sometimes reached the island itself when the tide was low. I can smell the sea smell and taste the salt water still. Auntmamma, in older days, used to take her children to bathe there, but our bathing was generally done where the Comber river, the Inla, runs into the lough by Cherry Valley, and we used to call for old Miss Mary Birch, daughter of a former rector, who lived in a small house on the Newtownards Road. Miss Mary was a great bather, going on into November, and under her guidance we made our way by lanes and fields to a place where the water became salt when the tide was in. I do not remember enjoying these bathes as much as those at Eden Cottage, but that’s another story.

A great Festival in summer was the Newtownards Flower Show. We all dressed in our best and drove over in the old phaeton. The show was and still is held in the Dickson’s nursery gardens, but the attraction of the horse-jumping did not then exist – only hot tents with the smell of fruit and vegetables and the show of flowers. Sometimes, to our joy, there were on show delightful small houses made of flowers and set in a garden with real gravelled walks, or cottages constructed of turnips and carrots, which we viewed with longing and delight. When I find elaborate functions very dull and boring now, I wish for some of the zest with which I enjoyed the Newtownards Flower Show with its crowds of country people in muslins and flowery hats, or broadcloth and felt, and its hot fruity, flowery, vegetable smell.

As we grew older, we used to boat on Strangford with Thomas and Bobbie Andrews, Willie lending a hand as boy, and had many pleasant days. Thomas was the eldest son of Mr Isaac of the Square, and Bobbie second son of Mr Robert of Dublin who spent holidays with his sister Minnie at Carnesure. We were all young together and very happy, though Thomas was shy and Bobbie a bit of a bore, especially when he began talking about music which never appealed to me, nor indeed to anyone else, I suppose, as his talk was principally of the librettos of the Operas then in vogue and descriptions of the singing of Trebelli, Bettini and other stars. He was a kind fellow all the same, and I am sorry he has remained a rather hypocondriacal bachelor. Thomas was a thoroughly good fellow and we were all fond of him. He never did himself justice. But I must leave later days to say something about the places we stayed in before we grew up, and the friends we had.

Comber villagers remembered by Mrs Adam Duffin
George Jervis – Head miller. A large dusty man.
Henry Conn – Bleacher. Kind to children.
Big Billy Tuft – Harvester and labourer.
John Galway – Sporting. Corduroy breeches. Fed the dogs.
Henry Morrison – Blacksmith. A large kindly man. Grew red dahlias in an iron pot on a drain pipe in the middle of a little stream that passed the smithy. (A Canadian soldier, a descendent, came to Comber in War of 1939-45).
William Lindsey – Carpenter. White paper cap. Owned “Andrews Arms” in Comber.
Burns and another – Sappers of linen. Burns a son of Old House coachman. Reddish and freckled.
Jacob Gibson – Saddler. Sat in shop in large yard.
Dan Morgan – Old House gardener. Irish upper lip. Cutty pipe. Top hat. Grumpy.
Hugh O’Prey – Assistant to Dan. Tall. Loose-limbed.
Hugh Hamilton – Groom in yard. Red-haired. Decent.
David Minnis – Coachman and factotum to my aunt. Kind to little Willy.
James Burns – Coachman to Old House. Silver band, cockade on hat.
William Munn – Coachman at The Square. Grey-bearded.
Matthew (?) – Coachman of Mrs Isaac Andrews from Sea View. Small. Dark. Bandy-legged.
Robert Edgar – Steward at Carnesure. Lived on farm near garden.
Sammy Scott – James Andrews’ foreman on farm near garden.
Old watchman – Went down to bleach green every night in a coat of many capes and a stick.
The little butler – A page in buttons. Old House.
William Simpson – Succeeded Minnis as coachman to my aunt. Sulky and disagreeable. Reddish-haired.
John Coleman – Farm overseer. Had a little dark-eyed granddaughter.
Jimmy McRoberts – Gate-keeper at the Place. Lived at entrance.
Mrs Minnis – David’s wife. A nice-looking dark-eyed woman.
Mary and Jane Dalzell – White workers in village.
Peggy Morrison – Mended carpets and knew old ballads.
Jane Braithwaite – Laundress. A squint. Mother of Donaghadee stationmaster.
Margaret – My aunt’s cook. Decent.
Ellen – Her sister. Old House cook.
Mary Brown (Coey) – My aunt’s parlourmaid. Rosy. Dark eyes.
Ursula – Former parlourmaid. Married. Lived in Mrs Boyd’s lodge.
Sarah Quinn – Parlourmaid Annie Andrews. Very faithful and decent.
Lizzie – A housemaid. Pretty girl.
Nancy Hewitt – Parlourmaid at Chichester Street.
Lizzie Hamilton – Garrett’s nurse. Married Hugh. One eye blind. Very faithful and helpful.
Martha McCroskery - My aunt’s faithful old nurse.
Mrs Hewitt – Sarah and Nancy’s mother. Lived on Meeting House Hill.
Ellen Hynes (or Hyles) – Managed the House of Industry and some old women.
Peggy Nesbitt – A ‘natural’. Sold freestone. Sat in sun on shrubbery steps.
Mrs Gregg and Agnes Gregg – Meeting House Hill. Left hand side near Square. Did beautiful needlework.
Mrs McRoberts and Mary – Wife and adopted daughter of Jimmy McRoberts. Lived in little dark lodge at gate shaded by evergreen oaks.
Miss Morrow – Dressmaker. Grey-haired with soft pink cheeks and infinite patience, and a mouth full of pins.

All these entered into our childish lives. Familiar figures, full of character. They are all gone. The old mill a ruin. The Bleach Green empty. The Place desolate. The lovely old garden a place for training horses. The Old House, Uraghamore, The Square, Carnesure, in the hands of strangers. The old communal life gone.

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