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Lots of information about and images of Newtownards on Derek Beatties site.
Newtownards 'new town of the Ards' is situated at the head of Strangford Lough ten miles east of Belfast. The town dates from the 13th century when Walter de Burgh founded a Dominican Priory here. The ruins in Court square incorporate the nave of the original church with a 17th century square tower. At the east end of High street is an attractive market cross which was broken in 1653 and partly repaired in 1666. The town hall which dates from 1765 was the original market house and stands in Conway square.
The United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798 had considerable support in the town, however their ranks were infiltrated by informers, organized by Rev John Cleland a land agent for the Londonderry's of Mount Stewart, who is said to have amassed a considerable fortune during this period. At one stage the insurgents gained control of the whole of north Down and the Ards peninsula, but after the battle of Ballynahinch the cause was lost. The authorities wasted no time in exacting revenge on the leaders, many were hanged, while others were transported for varying terms ranging from fifteen years to life.
Many of these were members of the Presbyterian clergy, the most famous of which was Rev. James Porter rector of Greyabbey, who was hanged on a temporary scaffold in front of his home and in view of his church, his wife had previously made unsuccessful representations to Lord Londonderry, begging clemency.
She and their seven children were left destitute and emigrated to America where two of the sons attained high office in the legal system. One informer whos name was linked with the Rev Porter's case was Saintfield man Nicholas Magin. The above information seems at odds with the inscription on Rev Porters gravestone, shown below, perhaps Mrs Porter returnrd to Ireland in later years.
The Rev Porter was not the only minister from the Ards area to suffer the death penalty for involvment in the 1798 rebellion The Rev. Archibald Warick from Kircubbin were tried, found guilty and executed and a minister from near Ballywalter, Rev. Robert Goudy of Dunover, suffered the same fate.
Below is part of a letter from Colonel Atherton to General Nugent, commanding officer of the government forces.
have had tolerable success today. We have burned Johnston's house at Crawfordsburn
mills at Bangor, destroyed the furniture of Par Agnew, James Francis and
Gibson and Cambell's (Not finished yet) at Ballyhome burnt the house of
Johnston at the demesnes near Bangor, the house of James Richardson and
John Scott at Ballymaconnell mills, burned the houses of McConnell, Miller
and James Martin, a captain and a friend of McCullough hanged at Ballynahinch.
We hope you will think we have done tolerably well. Tomorrow we go to
Portaferry or rather to its neighborhood.
The famine of 1845-47 did not effect Newtownards as severely as in other parts of Ireland. Employment in the cotton weaving industry served to shield some of the inhabitants from the worst effects, also local farmers grew other crops wheat, oats and barley and were not as heavily reliant on the potato as those in other parts of the country. Having said that admissions to the workhouse increased substantially to a peak of 426 in July 1847 and did not return to a normal level until April 1848. County Down lost about 7% of its population as a result of the famine, the figure was probably a little less than that in the Newtownards area.
Today Newtownards is a bustling modern town with shops catering for every need, on the outskirts are several modern shopping centre's where most of the names prominent in retailing are represented. In the past many industries were set up and flourished in the town, weaving of both linen and cotton once employed large numbers of people, both in factory's and in the home where the weaving of cotton damask employed many people, weaver's houses were built for this purpose . In 1819 one John Johnston set up a brewery which in its heyday produced seven thousand barrels of beer annually, it was he who built Regent House in Greek revival style, in Regent street about 1820. At the nearby village of Conlig lead was mined, the oar was exported to Flint in Wales for smelting. The town received an economic boost in 1850 when a rail link with Belfast was established, and on Saturday 3rd February 1900 a motor car was seen on the streets of Newtownards for the first time.
On the Millisle road are the remains of the 13th century church of the 6th century Augustinian Abbey of Movilla. The church contains some interesting Anglo Norman grave slabs carved with foliate crosses and a sword or pair of shears, signifying whether a man or woman was being commemorated.
Market gardening is widespread on the fertile farmland surrounding the town.
There is a small airport on the Comber side of the town where it is possible to train for a pilots license, or to take plane or helicopter sightseeing flights, in the 1930's this was the most important airport in Ulster.
Overlooking Newtownards on a hill beside the Comber road is Scrabo Tower, built in 1857 in memory of the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry. A plaque on the tower states that it was erected by the Marquis's grateful tenants, but as Trevor McCavery points out in his excellent book 'Newtown' 'A History of Newtownards' the Marquis had some 1,200 tenant farmers on his estate, and the combined populations of Comber and Newtownards must have amounted to many thousands more. 450 of the 600 named subscribers had connections with the estate which is hardly indicative of overwhelming support, especially when you consider that two thirds of the cost was raised by 98 individuals, the most notable of which was Napoleon III of France who headed the list.
The tower is now a visitor centre explaining the natural history of the area, the tower has 122 steps with fine views of the surrounding country side Strangford Lough and Scotland. The tower stands in Scrabo Country Park which extends to about 130 acre's.
The famous Scrabo stone a type of sandstone was quarried here in Norman times, although it must have been put to use in earlier times, some of it is to be found in the 6th century monastery of Movilla, several Norman grave slabs are to be seen there, quantities of it were used in the building of Greyabbey founded in 1193.
The so called Great War 1914-18 deprived Newtownards and district of three hundred of its men, those who survived came back to face hardship and unemployment, it was 1934 before the council seen fit to mark their sacrifice with a memorial. After the war in an effort to give employment to returned servicemen Lady Edith Londonderry, began a scheme to remodel the gardens at Mountstewart.
The railway in Newtownards
One of Newtownards most famous sons was Blair Mayne, he was educated at Queens University in Belfast studying law. He was a keen sportsman being involved in both boxing and rugby, he played on the Irish rugby team and was a familiar figure in pre-war Dublin.
At the outbreak of the second world war he joined the British army, serving in different regiments he was often in conflict with his officers. He was involved in setting up the SAS (Special Air Services) and took part in many of its operations, when he left the army after the war he was the most decorated British soldier of the conflict.
After years of living on the edge, the boredom of civilian life preyed upon him, he began drinking excessively and was killed when he drove into the back of a parked lorry. His funeral was the largest Newtownards had ever seen.