Location and Name
Banbridge is a small, bustling town in County Down about 25 miles south west of Belfast. Situated on the main Belfast to Dublin road, previously known as the King’s Road, it got its name literally from the bridge crossing the River Bann.
It is in the historic barony of Iveagh Upper and the civil parish of Seapatrick. The town arose from a few cottages that had grown up around a fording place on the Bann. The townland name Ballyvally (Baile an Bhealaigh) means ‘the place on the road’.
Banbridge in the History Books
The first written reference to Banbridge appears in 1691. William III from the Netherlands had defeated James II and had thus gained the English throne. He established an Outlawry Court here to punish those who had fought for or supported his rival. Over 100 men were summoned to this court.
In 1712 the old wooden bridge was replaced with a new bridge. This stone bridge was subsequently replaced in 1819 and again in 1832.
In the 18th century, Lord Hillsborough laid out a plan for the town. To encourage people to take up residence, he granted areas at nominal rents in perpetuity in return for building houses. That these new inhabitants were mostly from Planter stock can be seen from the Seapatrick Parish Householders records of 1766. Protestant citizens numbered 2,507 while Catholics numbered 276.
It was also noted that
“There is neither Popish Priest nor Friar in this parish, but the Papists here, go to Mass in a neighbouring Parish”.
Growth of the Banbridge
The Linen Industry
Banbridge expanded and thrived due to the linen industry, with mills powered by the waters of the Bann.
By the 18th century this region of County Down was the principal linen producing district in Ireland. In 1772 there were 26 bleach greens along the banks of the Bann. These were fields where the wet linen cloth was laid out to dry and bleach in the sunlight.
“…Banbridge awoke to the activities of a new commercial and manufacturing life. Weaving and bleaching linen, for which the River Bann afforded great facilities …the few stone houses one-and-a-half stories high were superseded by houses larger and more commodious; the town burst its limits in every direction; the population augmented threefold; rural people flocked into the markets and fairs”Captain Richard Linn, A History of Banbridge 1935
Trade and Commerce
As the Marquis of Downshire owned the land on which Banbridge sat, it was in his interests to promote trade and commerce.
“The tolls and customs levied belonged to the Marquis of Downshire. They are as follows: for every carcass of beef sold and so in proportion for a less quantity 4d; for every cask of butter sold here 2d; for every sack of meal 2d; for every sack of oats or other grain 2d; for every sack of potatoes [7 bushels] 2d; for every half-sack of potatoes 1d; for every car or cart laden with potatoes 4d; for every carcass of pork sold 3d; for every carcass of sheep or lamb 2d; for every stone weight of flax a ha’penny”
From Stewart Craig, weightmaster.Ordnance Survey Memoirs, 1824
In the 19th century, Banbridge became a staging post for the mail between Belfast and Dublin, another factor which gained the town prominence. The mail coaches would stop in the town for refreshments and to change horses. The first post office had been established in the town in 1784, with Robert Harrison the first postmaster, remaining in that position until 1801.
The Downsire Arms
In 1816 the Marquis of Downshire commissioned a new hotel at the southern end of the town. This was named the Downshire Arms and would facilitate travellers passing through Banbridge.
There had previously been an old inn on the site but it had fallen into dereliction. This new 2-storey Georgian building featured 2 projecting bays with recessed arches. A balcony, supported by 4 fluted Doric columns, sheltered the large doorway with its nine-barred fanlight. The façade was of painted plaster and it had a hipped roof. Stables and coach houses were to the rear.
The Downshire Arms is still open today as a hotel and restaurant and is proud of its many original features such as the open fireplace and moulded ceilings.
Making ‘The Cut’
By the 1850’s the Royal mail car to Dublin stopped at Banbridge at 9:00 every morning and 11:30 every night. There were also regular daily conveyances to Belfast, Lurgan and Newry.
However, the town’s location on a hill caused some difficulties. The main street had a steep incline and this proved very difficult for the horses pulling the heavy carriages and its occupants. Indeed, the poor animals were known to faint from exertion during the climb. Post Office officials threatened to by-pass the town altogether.
To alleviate the problem and maintain the financially lucrative postal route, an underpass was excavated through the hill. In 1834 The Cut was constructed which allowed the horses to travel along a much lesser slope. This was 200 yards long and 15 ft deep. The Marquis of Downshire donated £500 towards the project. The work was designed by William Dargan.
A bridge was constructed over the top for pedestrians to cross from one side of the hill to the other, linking Scarva Street with Rathfriland Street. This was subsequently widened in 1885 with a bridge composed of hard granite and blue stone. Mr Michael McCartan from Lisnaree was the builder. The parapet walls were surmounted with four gaslights.
It was officially named the Downshire Bridge but was known to locals as Jingler’s Bridge. This referred to an apple seller from Lurgan who had a habit of jingling the coins in her pocket to attract potential customers. This bridge in the little town of Banbridge is reputed to be the world’s first flyover!
The Town Hall
The original Town Hall had stood at the top of the hill and had to be demolished when The Cut and bridge were erected. It had been built on the site of a popular hostelry known as the Bunch of Grapes.
The new Town Hall, constructed in 1832 was paid for by the Marquis of Downshire. When designed, the ground floor was open to the street and acted as a covered market.
The upper level was composed of rooms where local dignitaries met to discuss town business. The roof was adorned with a square cupola. The four sides has a clock face, each of a slightly different design.
“The market-house, erected at the cost of the Marquis of Downshire, is a handsome building. The spacious apartments over it are occupied as news and reading rooms, and afford accommodation to the magistrates, who assemble here in Petty Sessions every alternate Thursday”Belfast and Ulster Directory 1852
The Banbridge Reading Society
A Banbridge Reading Society had been established in 1798. Subscribers paid one shilling a month and had access to a variety of books including travelogues, biographies and fiction. The News Room in the new Town Hall held a wide range of newspapers and magazines. These included local publications such as the Belfast Commercial Chronicle, the Belfast Newsletter and the Newry Examiner as well as English and Scottish papers –the London Times, the Liverpool Standard and the Glasgow Herald.
“Banbridge, which derives its name from the bridge there, is rather a good inland town, having several very excellent houses, the residences of persons of respectability”Philip Dixon Hardy, The Northern Tourist 1830
By the 1850’s Banbridge was a flourishing town boasting a town-hall, a police station, 2 banks, a dispensary, 8 churches and 5 schools including a Ladies Boarding School in Dromore Street run by the Misses Godfrey.
The town also had 3 hotels – The Downshire Arms, the Victoria Hotel and the Albert Hotel. The streets had gas lighting and markets on a Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. A large horse fair was held every 12th January with other fairs taking place on June 9th and August 26th.
“From its situation on the side of the hill, overlooking the fertile and picturesque valley of the Bann, the first view impresses a stranger most favourably; particularly if he enters by way of Laurencestown, and has an opportunity to glance in passing at the many splendid mills and bleach works lining the river banks”George Henry Bassett, County Down 100 Years Ago, 1886
Life in the Workhouse
However, while Banbridge continued to be a commercial success, not everyone enjoyed the benefits. In 1841 a Workhouse was opened for the destitute poor of the town and the surrounding rural districts.
Run by the Irish Poor Law Commission, these institutions were designed to be harsh to prevent the poor ‘taking advantage’ of state amenities. Conditions were so bad that only the truly despairing arrived at the forbidding gates. In truth many preferred to die in their own homes than submit to the severe regime within the dreaded walls.
“Workhouses were cruel places, the last resort of the starving. On arrival inmates were stripped naked, bathed, scrubbed with harsh carbolic soap, had their hair cut off, and were dressed in ugly workhouse clothes. Families were split with men in one section, women in another. Children never saw their parents and brothers were separated from sisters. Men, women and children had to do hard work, picking oakum (rope covered in tar; the individual fibres had to be separated and the tar removed), scrubbing floors, spinning, weaving, milling corn, sewing rough sack cloth and splitting rocks. Even the women were expected to split rocks. Unsatisfactory work resulted in eviction, and that meant starvation”.Doreen McBride Banbridge the Star of County Down 2020
Each workhouse was laid out to a plan designed by the Poor Law Commission’s architect, George Wilkinson. The entrance had a waiting room and porter’s room on each side with the Guardians boardroom above on the first floor. Male and female wings branched off to either side.
The main accommodation block also housed the Master’s quarters. Single-storey buildings for utilities, the infirmary and the ‘idiot’ wards were to the rear. There was also a dining room and a chapel. The building, including fittings, cost £7,580. Its first inmates were admitted on 22nd June 1841.
The Famine Years
During the years of the Great Famine, an Gorta Mor, Banbridge Workhouse was full to overflowing. Additional accommodation was needed, with the Board of Guardians renting any available barn or shed.
Whooping cough, flu and dysentery spread like wildfire through the crowded wards. A separate Fever Hospital for folk suffering from smallpox and cholera had more patients than beds. More than 300 people were turned away from the gates by the Master Mr Sheridan.
On 13th March 1847 police were summoned to disperse the crowd of starving people desperate for admission, many just begging for their children to be saved.
The bodies were buried in the workhouse grounds without marker or ceremony, many in mass graves. Much of the land was subsequently built over. The Banbridge Workhouse Memorial on Linenhall Street, features a poignant sculpture by Darren Sutton. It is titled ‘First Day at the Workhouse’ and reflects the terrible heartache of a family being torn asunder.
By 1881 the population of Banbridge had risen to 5,609. The railway now passed through the town. There were 4 scheduled trains to Belfast and 4 to Dublin every day.
In 1884 the station master was Mr J H McElnay. The town also had its own newspaper the Banbridge Chronicle and Downshire Standard established in 1870.
Residents were engaged in a range of trades, professions and businesses, for example
- James Austin – cabinetmaker Dromore Street
- John Gill – clogmaker Rathfriland Street
- John Hawthorn – surgeon Church Square
- Hugh McMullan – coachbuilder Dromore Street
- Isaiah Whitten – fancy bread establishment Bridge Street
There were also drapers, tea merchants, saddlers, tinsmiths, watchmakers, ropers and pawnbrokers. At this time the directory also lists 30 publicans or spirit dealers, including 12 premises in Newry Street and 8 in Scarva Street.
Importance of the River Bann
The Banbridge coat of arms reflects the importance of its early industries. As well as the traditional armorial symbols, it features the River Bann and its bridge and a shuttle and spindle referring to the linen weaving and spinning carried out by people in their own cottages.
It also displays mussels which were farmed along the banks of the river. The fresh water mussel (unio margaritifera) was known to produce pearls and these were highly sought after.
“The existence of Pearls in the River Bann is alluded to by several writers of the 18th century; and particular mention is made of the fishery at Banbridge by a number of them…. The River Bann was much noted for its fine pearls – some of them have realised large sums”Captain Richard Linn, A History of Banbridge, 1935
The mussels themselves were not regarded as a fit foodstuff.
“At a period when the Bann was not utilised for power purposes, it was famous throughout Ireland for its pearl fisheries. A species of mussel, very large in size, throve well in its waters, especially in the vicinity of Banbridge, and produced pearls abundantly. As an article of food it gained popularity only among the peasantry, for the reason that it required very high flavoring to make it palatable”George Henry Bassett, County Down 100 Years Ago, 1886
Captain Francis Crozier
Banbridge holds some interesting memorials to its more notable sons (women were regarded as having lesser roles). The most impressive is the Crozier statue in Church Square. We have written about Francis Crozier’s amazing adventures in an earlier post (see The Disappearance of Francis Crozier – Frozen in Time)
Joseph Medicott Scriven
Another memorial honours Banbridge man Joseph Medicott Scriven. He was born in Balmoral Lodge, Banbridge on 10th September 1819, to Captain John Scriven of the Royal Marines and Jane Medicott, a minister’s daughter. As a young man he studied at Trinity College, Dublin.
After the tragic drowning of his fiancée in the River Bann the night before their wedding, Joseph embraced the Plymouth Brethren faith.
In 1845 he emigrated to Canada. In Port Hope, Ontario, he found employment as a tutor to the Pengelly family. Here he met and became engaged to Elizabeth Catherine Roche. However, fate was to deal him another blow. Elizabeth was eager to convert to her betrothed’s faith and agreed to an ‘immersion’ baptism in the icy waters of Rice Lake. Unfortunately, she caught a chill and died of pneumonia.
Scriven as well as teaching wrote poetry and hymns. He is mostly remembered for penning the popular hymn ‘What a Friend I Have in Jesus’. He was deeply religious and gave away everything he had to the poor and needy. In his later years he spent his spare time preaching at street corners often suffering ridicule and sometimes physical assault.
Joseph Scriven died on the night of 10th August 1886 aged 66. He had been unwell for some time and was residing in the home of a friend, when, in a feverish state, he left the house and stumbled into a deep sluice-way of a millrace and drowned.
The black stone monument to Joseph Medicott Scriven is situated at Downshire Place. In 2002 the Scriven Memorial Window was unveiled in Seapatrick Parish Church. The dedication service was conducted by Joseph’s great-great nephew, the Right Rev Henry Scriven. A Scriven memorial was also erected in Port Hope.
“Joseph Scriven lived the Christian life of service to his fellows humbly and with great unselfishness. He became poor through his benefice of others and actually lived as a labourer until the end of his life. He sold all he had and gave it to the poor; he had nothing left to give”Ven. W J Scott MBE 2019
Dr Robert Brown McClelland
At the site of the New Civic Building in Downshire Place is a memorial drinking fountain in honour of Dr Robert Brown McClelland. He also served as a Justice of the Peace. This was originally placed on the Downshire Bridge in 1906 and subsequently in Reilly Street, before its current location.
In 1847 a school was built in Banbridge named the Dunbar Memorial School, in memory of philanthropist Hugh Dunbar. Dunbar was a Unitarian, and owner of a linen mill at Huntley Glen. He was renowned for his generosity and donated money for the building of a Presbyterian and a Catholic Church in the town.
Frederick Edward McWilliams
Another noted son of Banbridge was the sculptor Frederick Edward McWilliams. Born on 30th April 1909, his father was the local doctor. He was educated at Campbell College and Belfast School of Art before attending the Slade School of Art in London.
He is known for his surrealist works based on the human form, mainly composed of wood, stone or bronze. Some of his most well-known pieces are Women of Belfast and Princess Macha.
In 2009 Banbridge District Council opened a studio and gallery dedicated to McWilliams work at 200 Newry Road, Banbridge.
A very noteworthy person, although we do not know if there is a memorial in his hometown, was William Kennedy. William was born near Banbridge in 1796.
At the age of 4 he lost his sight. In order to secure for their son a means of making a living, 13-year-old William was sent to Armagh to learn the fiddle. He lodged with a cabinet maker and by the time he returned home William was not only a musician but was able to construct furniture by touch alone. He also earned money by repairing clocks and watches.
As a hobby Kennedy bought himself an old set of Uillean bagpipes. He taught himself to play and became interested in the mechanics of the instrument itself. Before long he was able to repair broken pipes and even to construct musical instruments. He even added keys to the pipes chanter to increase its range of notes. It takes amazing skill for anyone to accomplish these tasks but for a blind person it is totally amazing! William died in 1834 aged 38.
“Died, at Tandragee on the morning of the 29th October, Mr William Kennedy, one of the most extraordinary men who have appeared in these latter times. Though totally deprived of sight, he was enabled through his industry, his perseverance and his genius to execute with precision, taste and judgement, various elaborate works of nature which have required the utmost exertions of well-trained artists… Add to this he was a kindly, industrious, moral and religious man, an affectionate husband, and in all respects, a useful and justly esteemed member of society”Newry Telegraph, 11th November 1834
Others of Note
Other notable folk born in Banbridge include James Moore (1818) who became a millionaire iron master in Philadelphia and Ernest Sinton Walton (1903), who with his colleague John Cockcroft, was awarded the Noble Peace prize in 1951 for splitting the atom.
Though the linen industry has long since faded, Banbridge continues to thrive as a busy, rural, market town with a population of 16,637 (2011 census). Bridge Street with The Cut and its flyover, give the town a distinctive aspect and its many Georgian buildings reflect its history.
“…Banbridge still retains something of the homely affluence of the period when it was an important textile trading market. There are very many terraces of the late 18th century and early 19th century, mostly modest, but they nevertheless give the town a decided and agreeable character of its own”.C E B Brett and Lady Dunleath Ulster Architectural Heritage Society 1969
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