Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society concluded its season of evening meetings with a visit to Bangor Castle on 8th April. The evening began in the magnificent council chamber with a welcome by the Mayor, Tony Hill. He stressed the long history of this beautiful building which now houses the North Down council offices. Ian Wilson of the North Down Museum then talked about the castle. It was constructed in 1852 by Robert Edward Ward, a descendant of the third son of the first Viscount Bangor. His only child, Maud, married Lord Clanmorris and inherited the estate. His surname was Bingham.
Mr. Wilson pointed out that people often get confused between the two branches of the Ward family. The present Viscount Bangor is descended from the second son of the first Viscount Bangor and is thus a distant cousin of the present Lord Clanmorris. In 2002 a dinner was held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the building of the castle. Both lords attended and made speeches.
Many landed families faced difficult times after the First World War, but the Binghams continued to live in the Castle. Finally in 1941 they sold the building and 150 acres of park land to Bangor Borough Council for £35,000. A letter in the Spectator of the time criticised the decision and wondered why the council was spending so much money during war time. The purchase was indeed a bargain and if the council had not stepped in the building might have been demolished. The Ward family found the move difficult and went first to a hotel in the south of England. At that time the council offices were housed in the building in Main Street which is now the Northern Bank. It took time for the castle to be prepared for its new role. Finally it was opened in 1952.
The castle is costly to maintain as it is a listed building. The construction of a disability ramp at the main entrance will be very expensive as the stone work has to be in keeping with the building. It is not easy to upgrade an old building for such things as IT. The merger of councils in the future raises the question of what will become of the castle. The council is very proud to own such a place and it provides an excellent setting for civic events, dinners, weddings etc.
Mr. Wilson then pointed out some of the features of the council chamber. It had once been the music saloon and still houses paintings from that time. There was a portrait of Robert Edward Ward. Another showed his sister Mrs. Kennedy with her children. The magnificent stained glass window has portraits of Edward III and his wife from whom the Wards claimed descent. It also includes the shields of many family connections. There are modern pictures of freemen and of James Milliken, town clerk from 1902 to 1932.
The castle is in the Jacobethan style and the architect was William Burn.
Before we left, the Mayor reminded us of the monastic heritage of the town and the influence of its saints Gaul and Columbanus in mainland Europe. The chairman of the society thanked both the Mayor and Ian Wilson. Members were then able to look at the Humbert Craig room and the pictures of old Bangor on the corridor walls before proceeding to the restaurant of the North Down Museum.
There members enjoyed tea and biscuits before the start of the AGM. The chairman, Bob McKinley, used the letters of the word Bangor to review the past season. He thanked the committee members for their work behind the scenes, in particular the secretary Paul McKay and the treasurer Barbara Minnis. He also referred to the great programme with its outings and talks. Paul McKay and Barbara Minnis presented their respective reports. Finally elections took place and the officers and committee were re-elected. Longstanding committee member Jackson McCormick did not seek re-election and Rodney Jones joined the committee for the first time. The chairman thanked members for their support during the year.
The final part of the evening brought a very enjoyable talk about the Wards by Ian Wilson. He stressed how important it was for the museum to have links with local groups such as Bangor Historical Society. The museum also helped Mark Thompson who is compiling a booklet on Sir Thomas Smith and the Ards.
Robert Edward Ward’s daughter Maud married Lord Clanmorris in 1878. They had ten children, the most famous of whom was Barry Bingham who won a VC at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Last autumn the Mayor hosted a ceremony at the gun in Ward Park. This was attended by three of Barry Bingham’s grandsons, including Rory Campbell from Bray. A plaque was unveiled to explain the presence of the gun and its connection with Mr. Bingham. The council bought his Victoria Cross at Sothebys and it is now on display in the museum. The council intends to place other plaques around the borough, including some along the coastal path. One in Groomsport will commemorate the 200 Hungarian refugees who fled after the failure of the uprising in 1956. They were housed in an old wartime camp at Ballymacormick Point and in the Crofton Hotel. After a few months they travelled to Canada.
Mr. Wilson then returned to the story of the Wards. Maud Ward and her husband Lord Clanmorris had ten children. The girls were educated at home by governesses, but the boys were sent away to boarding school. One of the girls married into the Dixon family whose head was Lord Glentoran. Some years ago a lady visited the Museum and explained that her mother, Diana, had stayed at Bangor Castle as a young girl. It turned out that the latter’s mother, Ierne, had been one of the Bingham girls. She had married a surgeon and died young. Diana was asked to record her memories of visiting the Castle. Mr. Wilson read from these stories of 1917 when she was 5 years old and staying with her grandmother Maud. The place seemed like fairyland to a child of 5. Her favourite walk was to the walled garden and she recalled the glasshouses, the grapes, peaches and nectarines here. In the castle grounds there was also a hideous rockery and a dogs’ cemetery. The workers would touch their caps to the young child as she skipped by. She recalled the cobbled stableyard and the area where the museum now is. Among the vehicles was a black landau with blue upholstery and a coronet on the doors.
She would go out in this vehicle with her grandmother and Emily at the lodge house would curtsy as they went past. When Barry Bingham returned from the war, a massive crowd met him at the station and local men pulled the carriage up to the house. She also recalled servants such as George and the butler Barney.
Another family relation is the writer Charlotte Bingham, whose grandfather was one of the ten children of Lord and Lady Clanmorris. She has visited the castle and the burial place of her great grandparents in the grounds. She wrote “Coronet among the Weeds” a lively account of her days as a debutant. She has also spoken at the Aspects literary festival.
Charlotte’s mother also wrote an account of her life called “Peers and Plebs”. Mr. Wilson quoted extensively from this book, in which she described visits to Bangor Castle. She first came in the 1930s as a young bride, when Maud, Lady Clanmorris was living in the castle with only a few servants. When the new bride arrived she was met at Belfast docks by the family Daimler and taken to Bangor Castle. Breakfast was a formal meal and Maud came at nine. She was by now an old lady and wearing a chestnut wig. She seemed tall by comparison with her son Barry Bingham, then a retired Rear Admiral. Breakfast was an ordeal in the heavy Victorian dining room. If Maud was not in a good mood there was a family saying that the “wind was in the east”. She slept in a room on the ground floor with a bath in one corner. Evening meals were formal. Two gongs were sounded, the first to warn people to get dressed. Everyone assembled in the library before going in to dinner. The kitchens were about 200 yards away so food was not always very hot. Maud died in 1941. The family did not want to keep the estate and so it was sold to Bangor Borough Council.
This was a very interesting evening to round off our 2009-2010 season and thanks were conveyed to the Mayor and to Ian Wilson for making it such a success. The society will resume meetings in September, but meanwhile there is an all day outing in May to places of interest in County Antrim.