Report by Sandra Millsopp
It was a very special occasion, when Bangor Historical Society met on 12 November. Our chairman, Bob McKinley, paid tribute to the speaker, Jackson McCormick who has served the society faithfully for over thirty years. Jackson has long been a member of the committee and held such offices as President. His most important contribution, however, has been writing the excellent reports of the Historical Society’s talks and outings which have appeared in the Spectator for over thirty years. The chairman reckoned that Jackson had written over 240 reports and probably 250,000 words which have kept members and the Spectator readers informed about our activities.
The chairman called Jackson “fastidious, meticulous, precise” and described seven key qualities he had. First of all he was a journalist reporting the activities of the Society. He was accurate and thirdly a composer and creator of words. He was a keen member and the keeper of our records for over thirty years. He was scrupulous in everything. Sixthly he provided an outlet for our news and lastly he is noteworthy in all he does. The initial letters of all these qualities spelled JACKSON. In order to mark his retirement as our “reporter” and to express the thanks of the society for all he has done for us, the chairman presented him with a silver pen on behalf of the committee and members. Jackson then thanked everyone for his present, but said he could not have done his work without the support of the committee and the members of the society.
Jackson then began his talk on roads in Ulster. Jackson was born in east Tyrone and qualified as an engineer at Queen’s University in the 1940s. He worked on projects such as the Sydenham By-pass and the M2 and by the time he retired he was Director of the Roads Service in Northern Ireland.
Then he outlined the general history of roads and road builders. The wheel is supposed to have been invented in the Middle East 4,000 years ago. The greatest early road builders were the Romans and their achievements were not surpassed until the Americans began to build their interstate highways in the 1950s and 1960s. We were shown a slide of the layout of the Roman road network in England and Jackson pointed out famous roads such as Watling Street. Sometimes the Romans based their routes on older roads. The Romans did not come to Ireland, but there are traces of early roads here. In County Longford, remains of a road have been dated to 148BC. It was formed of cross timber laid on longitudinal timbers. The earliest road found dates to 2599 BC. We were shown a map of early Irish roads and Jackson pointed out how they linked important Irish sites: one road led from Dublin to Tara, then through the Moyry Pass to Derry and Donegal.
Then we moved forward in time and Jackson explained the duties of the surveyors. These were men appointed from the parish to look after local roads. Their work involved six days in the year and they had to ensure that local farmers carried out their duties of producing material for mending the roads. A map of 1692 showed the road system in Ireland. Many of the ones shown are still important today e.g. the road to the north coast which led to Dunseverick, then an important port.
As well as looking at how road maintenance was organised, Jackson told us about some of the noted road builders, both past and present. We were shown a picture of General Wade who was responsible for building roads in the highlands of Scotland after the 1745 rebellion. The roads were very well made, but there was little traffic on them in the years after they were built. Blind Jack Metcalf was one of the pioneers of road building in the north of England.
One of the great early nineteenth century road projects was the Antrim Coast Road built between 1832 and 1834. The man responsible was the County Surveyor, William Bald from Burntisland in Fife. Jackson considers this road to be one of the great assets of Northern Ireland.
We were then shown pictures of two other great road builders. Thomas Telford was the first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and was responsible for roads, canals and even some houses. John Loudon Macadam was a great road builder in the north of England and gives his name to a type of road surface: tar macadam. Jackson also highlighted the importance of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an Irishman who wrote a book on road construction. It has been argued that some of the methods he devised are still relevant today.
By the eighteenth century responsibility for road maintenance and even building had passed to the County Grand Juries. The earliest county surveyors worked to the Grand Juries. Municipal roads were dealt with separately. Another body with an interest in roads was the post office. They provided supplementary grants for the improvement in the quality of roads and set the standard for road design in Ireland. Good roads were also important for ordinary travellers. Jackson showed a map of the Bianconi routes from 1815 to 1877. Bianconi came to Ireland from Italy and began a coach service. It carried people between towns, but had few routes in the north except in the western part. One of the most famous engineers in nineteenth century Ireland was William Dargan who built both roads and canals.
The invention of the car made a big difference to road quality, although cyclists had already been demanding dust-free roads. The first car was the three wheeler Benz of 1886. This was closely followed by the Daimler. These two firms merged in the 1920s. Initially the speed of cars was limited and a man with a red flag had to go in front of them. In the budget of 1909 the road fund was first introduced.
Jackson then turned to the development of roads in Northern Ireland and especially to those engineers he had known personally. In 1946 he joined the roads branch of the Ministry of Commerce and worked there for the rest of his career with the exception of three years. When Jackson first started work, the chief engineer was Robert Dundas Duncan. Duncan had commanded a railway construction group in World War One. After the war he worked on projects such as Leith harbour. He came to Northern Ireland to work on grain silos in Belfast harbour and then on other jobs.
In 1936 Duncan was asked to find a way of relieving traffic pressure in east Belfast. His plan was submitted in 1938, but postponed on the outbreak of war. After the war the plan was taken up again and the relief road for east Belfast was eventually built – the Sydenham By-pass. Jackson’s colleagues at this time included Ronnie Ross and the late Fred Chambers. The latter was well known to historical society members as he was a regular attender at meetings and a former committee member.
Motorways have made a great difference to road travel. As early as 1937 Duncan was part of a delegation from the British Isles which went to Germany to look at their autobahn system. About 1944 a planning commission was set up to look at things which should be included in post-war planning for motorways and other roads. Eventually the first motorway was built in Northern Ireland.
The last part of Jackson’s talk consisted of a series of slides of prominent engineers and former colleagues and significant events in the development of Northern Ireland’s roads. One picture was taken at the opening of the Sydenham By-pass in November 1959 and included such noted figures as Lord Wakehurst and Lord Glentoran. Another scene showed a machine putting stone into a bog during work on the M1, Northern Ireland’s first motorway. Other pictures included the opening of a section of this motorway, opening day on the M2 in 1967 and the opening of the West Bridge over the Erne at Enniskillen. The people in the scenes amounted to a who’s who of engineering in Northern Ireland over the last fifty years. Among the people featured were Ronnie Ross, Fred Chambers, R.D.Duncan, Harold Scott, County Surveyor of Londonderry, Noel Prescott, George Allen and Bailie Russell. After these men retired they continued to meet informally and some pictures showed them on these occasions. Paul McKay, the Historical Society secretary, proposed the vote of thanks to Jackson for a most interesting and informative talk. He recalled first meeting Jackson in the course of work in the early 1960s and paid tribute to his work on Northern Ireland roads and also recording their history.