Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society held its second meeting of the 2009-2010 season on8th October. Peter Stark gave a most interesting talk on the Sharman Crawford family.
The Crawford family first came to Bangor in the early seventeenth century. William Crawford rented the area which became known as Crawfordsburn from Sir James Hamilton. In 1670 the family purchased the estate from the Earl of Clanbrasil. Eventually the estate passed to the Sharman family by marriage in the early nineteenth century.
William Sharman was born in 1781. He was brought up at Moira Castle which his father rented. This house no longer exists. William’s father was a collector of revenue and customs in the Lisburn area, but also owned land in various places, including Rathfriland. William later wrote about his youth, explaining that he was considered a delicate child. He did not go to school and was taught by his father. He was not sent to college either, lest his morals should be corrupted!
In 1805 William married Mabel Crawford of Crawfordsburn. They lived for a time on the family estate in Meath and also in Dublin. In 1826 they were called to Crawfordsburn. Mabel’s father was in his 80s and her brother had been badly injured. It was decided to break the male entail on the estate. When Mr. Crawford died in 1827, William and Mabel became the owners of the Crawfordsburn estate. William adopted the name of Crawford by royal license.
William Sharman Crawford, aged 47, was now the owner of 5,748 acres in County Down at Crawfordsburn, Rademon, Banbridge and Rathfriland as well as 754 acres at Stalleen in County Meath. He had a substantial income of £8,000 a year. Mabel and William now resided at Crawfordsburn. We were shown a picture of the house from a book by Proctor and Malloy, published in the early 1830s. The house had been built about 1780 and modified about 1820. The gate house on the Crawfordsburn Road is quite sophisticated when compared to the original house. The reason is probably genealogical. One of his sisters married the first Earl of Caledon and their son employed the famous architect John Nash to remodel his house. The Crawfords probably met Nash when staying at Caledon and got plans for the gate lodge.
William Sharman Crawford took an active interest in politics. He is best known for his advocacy of Tenant Right – the Ulster Custom which gave a tenant greater security through the three “f”s: fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale of goodwill. Crawford called this “The darling object of my heart”. This idea was not popular with other landlords, but Crawford remained a strong advocate of it for the rest of his life. He may have been influenced by one of his tenants from the Banbridge area – Hugh Bronte, the grandfather of the Bronte sisters of Haworth.
In 1831 Crawford contested the election for County Down. Two families had for some time dominated the two seats available for the county in the House of Commons – the Hills of Hillsborough and the Stewarts of Mount Stewart. Two sons of these families also contested the 1831 election. Voting took place over four days in Downpatrick and there were allegations of bribery. Crawford was supported by Mr. Johnston who owned a brewery in Newtownards. He also held 50 acres from the Stewart family which he lost after the election. Sharman Crawford failed to win a seat, but did not give up his political ambitions.
In 1832 he stood for Belfast against Lord Arthur Chichester, the son of the Marquis of Donegall. He lost support because of his views on scripture and education. A new education scheme included the spending of half a day on scripture. Crawford approved the reading of scripture, but not as something to be enforced in schools. He endorsed the sign on Crawfordsburn school which said “No Bible Read Here”. Finally he entered parliament as M.P. for Dundalk in 1834. His tenants and the local Bangor liberals welcomed him home with celebrations and bonfires. His success at Dundalk was probably due to several factors. There were only 200 men in the town qualified to vote and he had the backing of the famous Irish politician Daniel O’Connell. Lord Castlereagh called him O’Connell’s slave but they later fell out as Crawford favoured reform and a federal system in Ireland, while O’Connell went further and advocated the end of the Union. Crawford held the Dundalk seat until 1837.
Now he was in parliament, Crawford came to the attention of the English radicals. He was offered a seat in Rochdale as a supporter of free trade and was the M.P. for the town for 11 years. In 1852 he once more contested the County Down seat. It was a hotly contested election with rioting in Downpatrick where the election was held. Local papers condemned his radical views.
William Sharman Crawford died in 1861 aged 81. His funeral took place from Rademon to the family vault at Kilmore Church.
Mr. Stark then talked about his descendants. His daughter Mabel, one of eleven children, became a great traveller, writer and feminist. She wrote three books, including one on Life in Tuscany, from which Mr. Stark read an extract. The estate was inherited by Major John Sharman Crawford who had been born in 1809. He faced difficult times due to famine, crop prices and land acts. It was during his time that the railway was extended from Holywood to Bangor in 1865. He made improvements to the estate, including the gate lodge on the Helen’s Bay road.
On his death the estate passed to his brother Arthur, a barrister. The latter restored the family fortunes by his marriage to a distant cousin Alicia, whose family owned a brewery in Cork. The brewery was inherited by her son, Colonel Robert Gordon Sharman Crawford in 1889. On the death of his father in 1891, he also inherited the Crawfordsburn estate. He built the model farm and land steward’s house. Then in 1904 he began building the present Crawfordsburn house which was designed by Vincent Craig, brother of the politician Sir James Craig. It was a substantial house in the Victorian style and had 25 bedrooms, including those for the servants. Vincent Craig also built a house for himself in Helen’s Bay and designed the Royal Ulster Yacht Club headquarters about 1899.
Colonel Crawford became deeply involved in unionist politics at the time of the Home Rule Crisis, before the First World War. He became an M.P. and later a member of the Northern Ireland Senate. His son was killed in a motorbike accident at Aldershot in July 1913. Terence Sharman Crawford is commemorated by a plaque in St. John’s Church in Helen’s Bay. His father also built a memorial hall in Crawfordsburn in 1914. The inscription “RGSC 1914” is still visible on the corner of the building. Edward Carson was staying with Crawford at the time of Terence’s death. Carson was due to address a meeting of Volunteers on the afternoon of the day when the telegram arrived, but Crawford insisted that the meeting went ahead. Crawford became commander of the North Down battalion of the Ulster Volunteers. When Northern Ireland was set up in 1921 he became M.P. for mid-Down.
Crawford’s other great passion was sailing and he became Vice Commodore of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club. He was involved with some of Sir Thomas Lipton’s challenges for the America’s Cup. He died in 1934 of pneumonia while on a trip to New York. The Crawfordsburn estate passed to his grandson who was a minor. Finally in 1947 the estate was sold to the Northern Ireland Hospitals’ Authority. The house became a children’s TB hospital. More recently it was sold and converted into flats. Mr. Stark concluded his fascinating talk by answering some questions. Mr. Bill MacDonald proposed a vote of thanks.
The next meeting of the Society will be held on Thursday the 12th November at 8 o’clock in the Good Templar Hall on Hamilton Road, Bangor. The speaker will be Society Committee member Jackson McCormick and his subject is “The History of Ulster Roads”.