Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society began the New Year with a very interesting talk on Bangor in the 1960s by Terence Bowman. Although he now edits the Mourne Observer, his roots lie in Bangor where he was born and educated. He left the town in 1976, but he still retains a very strong affection for it and this inspired his recent book “Bangor in the Sixties”.
The first part of his talk was about the genesis of the book. He began by referring to the letter he received last March from the society secretary, Paul McKay, asking him to give a talk during the 2009-2010 session. The book was then in the early planning stages, but the letter spurred him on. As a former pupil of Bangor Grammar school he had attended school reunions, when talk turned to childhood and the vivid and fond memories of growing up in Bangor in the 1960s. Another reason which encouraged him was the fact that it was now 50 years since the start of the 1960s and he felt that it was an appropriate time to record the history of the decade. He pointed out that when he started work at the Mourne Observer in 1976, events of 50 years earlier such as the General Strike of 1926 seemed very historical. Another factor which inspired him was some old family photographs. His brother copied some, including a photo taken on a family holiday to Switzerland in 1968 when Terence was 11. It was a time of great change in his life when he moved from Connor House to Bangor Grammar School and he now wondered what his thoughts had been at the time. He decided to write about his childhood memories and we were privileged to see a prototype of his book called “A Boy’s Life”.
He then decided to change the focus of the book and began reading the Spectators of the 196os so that he could form a complete picture of the town during that decade. It took him six months from September 2008 to March 2009 to complete this task. He found it hard going to look at so many issues, but it was very interesting and easy to be distracted by the various stories. It was like a journey through his own life, reminding him of many things he had forgotten. He also found tiny details which were insignificant at the time, but were now very interesting.
While carrying out this reading he also noted young people who appeared in the paper in the 1960s and made a contribution to the town. Certain names stood out and he contacted these people and asked them to contribute to his book. People were very willing to become involved and write their impressions of growing up in the town. He tried to get a wide cross-section of people from various areas of Bangor, different social backgrounds, religions, education and interests. He also wanted the Spectator to become involved and he contacted the surviving staff from that era, including the editor Annie Roycroft. Some were at the beginning of their careers in the 1960s and spoke of the marvellous grounding which they had received as Spectator reporters. Mr. Bowman called himself a facilitator and paid tribute to all his contributors who made the book a success. The book is filled with photos of the era. Mr. Bowman was able to track down the photographic archive of the Spectator for the era which survived in negative form.
By the summer of 2009 the book had taken shape. He now had to decide about publication. He thought of publishing it himself and spoke to various people including Stephen Millar of Stewart Miller’s who urged him to get it published. Then he talked to Tim Johnston of Cottage Publications who was willing to publish it. Things now moved quickly. The material was put together and sent to Malta to be printed. When he first saw the book Mr. Bowman was flabbergasted and delighted with it. A small number of copies had been sent by airmail, while the rest travelled by sea. The books were in the shops in plenty of time for Christmas: indeed it was the best selling book over the Christmas period in Bangor and has sold two and a half thousand copies. He paid tribute to the publisher and to the Spectator which had given it a marvellous endorsement.
In the second part of the talk he looked at the social changes and the big issues of the era, which all did so much so shape the future of the town. One interesting change was the redevelopment of Castle Street and Castle Square. The houses were demolished and the fire station was built. Some of the residents who moved out had lived there many years, but they looked forward to new and better homes. Another legacy of the sixties was the ring road. By 1964 the first section between the Newtownards Road and the Bloomfield Road was ready and it was officially opened by the Health and Local Government Minister William Craig on 23 October 1964. Then, as now, Queen’s Parade was in the news. Bill O’Hara suggested a major scheme to transform the area, which had become dilapidated, but nothing was done. In 1968 he proposed a marina, but it was not until 1989 that work actually started. Another proposed scheme was an indoor swimming pool and locations such as the sea front were suggested. In 1968 children even marched to the Town Hall to demand one.
In 1962 the new telephone exchange was opened and it was possible to dial areas in North Down directly. Mayor Charles Valentine made the first call to Mrs. Haddow of Seacourt. Seacourt had been the first house with a telephone in Bangor in 1903 and its phone number was 1. Another technical innovation of the 1960s was the introduction of traffic lights in 1968. Among the first sites was that at Warden’s Corner where it was possible to turn from Main Street into Hamilton Road or Castle Street.
To many of those growing up in the town, Bangor seemed a peaceful place, but politics and the Troubles did intrude. In 1968 the boys of Bangor Grammar School debated whether they would emigrate to escape the situation in Northern Ireland. A sign of liberal opinion in Bangor was the election of Bertie McConnell as Bangor’s first MP at Stormont. In 1969 Michael Wolsey predicted that the British government would take over and there would be rioting and death. In 1970 Jim Kilfedder became the MP for North Down at Westminster.
Mr. Bowman then referred to some of the big stories of the decade which he recalled. In 1961 the Queen visited the town on 9th August. It was the first royal visit since 1903. The only bank robbery of the decade in Bangor took place in Ballyholme in 1962 at the Belfast Bank on the Groomsport Road. In 1963 there was very bad snow. The first blizzard began in the early hours of the 20th January. Power cuts followed, shops and schools were closed and the roads became impassable.
Two Bangor characters died in the 1960s. Frank Russell worked for the council and looked after Ward Park for many years. Andy Johnston worked at Pickie Pool for 46 years and helped many young people to swim.
In December 1965 fire destroyed Bangor’s leading department store – Simon’s in upper Main Street. Mr. Bowman feels that it was one of the factors in the downfall of Bangor town centre as nothing ever really replaced it. Another significant moment occurred when a Roman Catholic priest took part in the Remembrance Day service in the town for the first time in 1967.
Some interesting social questions were raised such as the smoking ban for visitors to the hospital in 1963. Another was the campaign against long hair waged by Bangor Grammar headmaster Randal Clarke. A source of amusement was the regulations for the traffic in Seacliff Road. Only one way traffic was allowed during the summer, but during the rest of the year two-way traffic was permitted between midnight and 10am. Not surprisingly there was a high number of accidents and from 1966 traffic became one-way at all times throughout the year.
Mr. Bowman then quoted extensively from some of the contributors to the book such as David Montgomery. He would like to do another book. The 1950s would be an interesting era, but the Spectator picture archive from the period does not survive so a book on the 1970s seems more possible. Throughout his talk Mr. Bowman paid tribute to the help he received from the contributors, the Spectator, the North Down Museum and the publisher. Society members enjoyed the talk very much and would definitely appreciate another book of memories of Bangor.