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The life and work of Norman Nevin MBE

The following article is taken from a talk delivered on Monday 11th May 2009 by local historian Desmond Rainey.

The talk was given to a packed hall in Comber Primary School.

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“I have, in common with all who know him, a warm admiration for his ability, his industry, his character, and his skill as a teacher. He has a lively and abiding interest in young people, and his life and work is characterised by an understanding and sympathy with them”.

“I know Mr Nevin to be a man of impeccable character and lofty ideals. He takes a serious view of his duty, manifests a high degree of professional zeal, is completely dependable, and has proved himself loyal and co-operative in all school affairs”.

“He was a well-known character in the Comber community for nearly half a century. He was a man of wisdom and integrity, a big hearted man who was kind and generous”.

“He was a true professional in everything he did. He was a great principal and a great man, who will be remembered as a considerate, thoughtful and understanding person”.

“Mr Nevin was a real professional, a great man with the highest morals and integrity. He was very hard-working and some pupils found him tough because he always expected from them the best they could produce – but praise was given wholeheartedly and he had a good sense of humour”.

Worthy epitaphs to a great man. So what do we know about Norman Nevin and his life?

Norman Nevin was born on 3rd May 1909 in Court Street, Newtownards. Strangely, the name given was originally Samuel, as noted on the birth certificate above, but he was baptised Norman McDowell Nevin. His father was Robert, a shoemaker by trade; his mother was Sarah, whose maiden name was Munce, but she had been married previously and her name then had been Smith. In fact, both Norman’s parents were widowed and re-married.

This is a transcript of the Census taken on 2nd April 1911 when 7 residents are listed at 32 Court Street. Robert (father) aged 55, Sarah (mother) aged 40, Willie aged 22, Robena aged 15, George aged 13, Mary (known as Minnie)aged 5 and Norman aged 1. Willie, Robena and George were Robert’s by his previous marriage; we are told Robert and Sarah were married 8 years at the time, so they must have been married c.1903. We are also told that 3 children had been born to the present marriage, but only 2 were alive (Mary and Norman). A younger sister Sarah (known as Sadie) was born in 1914. So Norman had 2 full sisters. Here we see him with them in 1916 at the age of 7.

In 1913 Norman went to school at Castle Gardens, Newtownards. He remained there right through to 1927, gaining a Higher Certificate with Honours in 1923. He was a monitor in the school from 1924-7, supervising the younger children, keeping the roll books and school registers. In 1927 his father died. Also in that year Norman gained the King’s Scholarship exam with a First Division pass, and was accepted into Stranmillis Training College, Belfast. He attended from 1927-9, special subjects being science, art, nature study, mathematics, and physical training.

In 1913 Norman went to school at Castle Gardens, Newtownards. He remained there right through to 1927, gaining a Higher Certificate with Honours in 1923. He was a monitor in the school from 1924-7, supervising the younger children, keeping the roll books and school registers. In 1927 his father died. Also in that year Norman gained the King’s Scholarship exam with a First Division pass, and was accepted into Stranmillis Training College, Belfast. He attended from 1927-9, special subjects being science, art, nature study, mathematics, and physical training.

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This is Norman in 1931 at the age of 22. At this time he was gaining his first teaching experience. His first post in 1929 was in County Fermanagh at Maguiresbridge. Here he was actually designated as temporary principal, and duties included sweeping out the schoolroom every afternoon and lighting two turf fires every morning. He also taught at Derryharney (Fermanagh) and Ballytrea (Stewartstown). Then he came nearer home to Ballymeglaff.
In 1931 Norman missed out on a teaching post in a small country school and decided to join the Army. But Mr Bates, the school attendance officer, called with him and told him that the minister of 1st Comber wanted to see him. This was Dr McKean. Norman agreed to do so and describes how he timidly knocked on the door of the manse. A very tall man came out and put his arm around him. “Come thee in my friend and sit thee down”, he said. Norman was very impressed by this friendly greeting, but better was to come. Dr McKean asked him if he would like a permanent teaching job in 1st Comber School. Norman accepted, but it was 30th June and the pupils were about to go on six weeks holiday. Norman wouldn’t get paid for the holiday period, unless he had worked for at least one day. Dr Mc Kean and Mr Pollock, the headmaster, arranged to keep the school open for one extra day so that Norman would get paid. Norman never forgot this.

Here we see a class at 1st Comber around 1930. The well-known horticulturalist Crosbie Cochrane sent in an article to the Newtownards Chronicle, reminiscing about his time at 1st Comber School. He describes being elevated into fifth class and being taken over by a tall ginger-haired teacher (Mr Nevin). He recalls how Norman encouraged his pupils to enter the Belfast Telegraph drawing competition at Christmas time. Norman was always very interested in art. He also attended a woodwork class at Newtownards Tech from 1934-6.


This is part of a poem written in 1938 by one of his pupils at 1st Comber –

This teacher, I say, is very big, and he has ginger hair,
He mostly wears a navy blue rig, and of canes he keeps a spare!
This is the teacher I like best of all, a man who is full of fun,
Who referees when you’re playing football,
and who knows all the jokes ‘neath the sun.

In 1938 four Comber schools closed their doors for the last time. They were St Mary’s, 1st Comber, 2nd Comber and the Spinning Mill School. They all amalgamated into Comber Elementary School on the Back Loanin’ or Darragh Road. Norman moved to the new school. His former pupils at 1st Comber School presented him with a clock.   This has now been presented to Comber Primary.
Norman wasn’t to remain for long at Comber Elementary. The problem was that there were more teachers than required, and Norman was the junior assistant. So in 1940 he was moved to Newtownards Model, and didn’t return to Comber until 1943.

There was a war on at this time, and Norman was involved with the Newtownards Home Guard. There is a story of a training exercise whereby his troops had to defend Scrabo against their rivals from Comber. The Newtownards men blocked all the main roads and thought they had done a good job. But for once Norman was outmanoeuvred. The Comber men took a short cut up through the trees and gained the summit to Norman’s great embarrassment.


Still on a military theme, in 1944 Norman formed the Comber Platoon of the Army Cadet Force. This, along with teaching, was to become a major part of Norman’s life. In 1945 he was appointed Company Commander and promoted Captain, in 1947 he became Battalion Sports Officer, in 1949 he was promoted to Major as second-in-command of the Battalion.

Back to teaching, and here we have two pictures from 1947. The first shows Norman with the 5th Standard. The second is Norman with his fellow teachers. Mr Harold Cameron was headmaster at this time. Teachers 1947 – Back row: Mr Nevin, Miss Hayes, Mrs Johnston, Mr Northmore. Front row: Mrs Norris, Mrs Crowe, Mr Cameron, Miss Proctor, Miss Murray.

From 1952 Norman was the Senior Male Assistant, preparing senior standard pupils for the Technical Entrance Exam. He was also responsible for the School football league and the Girls badminton team, as well as being secretary of the School Savings Group. Who can remember the well-known remark – “Wouldst thou like to be a bloodstain against yonder wall”?


In 1953, at the time of the Coronation, Norman received the MBE (Military Division) in recognition of his services to the Cadets. His modest remark was, “I always seemed to have the knack of getting a reputation I didn’t deserve”. In 1954 he commanded the 3rd Battalion (Cadets) Royal Ulster Rifles, and in 1955 was appointed Training Officer for Armagh and Down. The platoon won numerous cups and medals over the years for rifle shooting, drill, football and athletics, and was described by the Northern Ireland Commandant as the outstanding unit in the Province. They also pioneered the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Here we see Norman in a relaxed pose at Camp. Norman never married, and he was said to have regarded the school as his family. He became headmaster of Comber Primary School in 1957 after Harold Cameron transferred to the new Secondary Intermediate School, and was to remain until 1974. He was very conscientious in his duties, and on Saturday mornings would give extra coaching to pupils for the Eleven Plus, all in his free time.

The picture is of Norman with his teachers in the late 1950s. It was not until 1961 that Norman came to live in Comber out the Killinchy Road. At some stage he had also moved churches from Regent Street, Newtownards to 1st Comber Presbyterian Church. He was elected to the Committee of 1st Comber in 1960, subsequently becoming Secretary. He was ordained an elder in 1975. This beautiful stained glass window in 1st Comber was dedicated to his memory in 1997.


When Norman retired in 1974, his pupils put together a fitting tribute, which showed how much they loved him. It was based on his love of clocks – he had a collection of about 30.
At this time Norman also gave up the cadets, of which he was now Lieutenant-Colonel. To offset this he became a JP. And he was also involved with the freemasons, being a member of the Wright Memorial Masonic Lodge No 448, Newtownards. But he was at a loss for something to occupy his mind. Should he shut himself away with clocks or take his camera out on to the streets to record the town for posterity? This was something he had been doing for a number of years, both still photography and movies.
He could often be seen about the school and the town with his movie camera, and some of that old film has been put together by the school in a DVD. I remember he also had an interest in old coins.

It was to local history that Norman turned. He set about collecting a mass of information on Comber’s past. He was keen to share his findings with others, giving numerous talks and organising an exhibition in 1975 in one of the church halls. He also put together a book on the history of Comber, although this was never published. A few copies were distributed, however, and it was presented to Comber Library in 1994 along with his collection of photos put into an album by Len Ball.

This picture shows Norman at the Library in 1992 along with his successors as headmaster of Comber Primary School – Mr Johnston and Mr Halliday. I wonder how appropriate is the label of Adult Fiction...


Norman passed away in Downpatrick on 19th February 1996, aged 86, after a lengthy illness. In his obituary he is described as brother of Sadie and the late Minnie. Minnie had died in 1976. Norman is buried in Movilla Cemetery, Newtownards, in the grave he erected for his mother who died in 1940.

Comber Historical Society is grateful to Norman’s half-niece, Anna Russell, for providing much of the information and pictures in this article. Norman’s work on local history pioneered the way for all others interested in the history of Comber. It is a monumental work of detailed research, a very useful tool for those studying the past, and thanks to Erskine Willis can now be found on this website.

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