Report by Sandra Millsopp
The November 2019 meeting of Bangor Historical Society was held on 14th. Unfortunately the scheduled speaker was unavailable at the last minute and two of the committee members stepped in to the breach.
Dr Sandra Millsopp spoke about Bangor's cotton mills, part of a project on industrial and commercial history in the North Down and Ards area being carried out by various local groups. The cotton industry had developed in Ireland from the mid eighteenth century, initially in the south. Spinning became mechanized while weaving and finishing were mainly carried out in the home. Steam powered spinning mills were established in Bangor by the firm of Hannay and McWilliam. The first or Old Mill was built in lower Ballymagee Street (now High Street) about 1800. The second or New Mill was established by the same firm about 1806 in the area on the sea side of Bridge Street. The mills used Samuel Crompton's “Mule” to produce thread. Over 200 men, women and children were employed. The buildings were about four storeys high and dominated the seafront, giving a manufacturing, dirty appearance to the town centre.
The mills subsequently passed through various ownerships, including the McCullough family of Rathgael and Col. Robert Ward of Bangor Castle.
The processes carried out in spinning mills were a fire risk and in 1856 two fires hastened the permanent closure of the mills. The Glasgow firm of Wallace which leased them went bankrupt in 1858. Competition from the rise of the linen industry in Belfast and cotton industries in places such as Lancashire undermined the local cotton industry. Moreover local opinion was beginning to recognize that the smoky atmosphere was not helping the development of the tourist trade in Bangor.
Accounts of the fires which appeared in the Belfast News-Letter were read out by the speaker. These praised the efforts of the local police, coastguards, mill workers and townsfolk in controlling the fires. Even Lord Dufferin from Clandeboye House assisted in extinguishing the second fire. The danger of the fires spreading throughout the town led to demands for a local fire engine.
No traces remain of the buildings except in pictures from the 1840s. George Hannay and members of the McCullough family are buried in Bangor Abbey graveyard. Indeed on the former's gravestone it states that he was “one of the first who introduced the manufacture of cotton, in all its branches, into the North of Ireland”.
The society's treasurer, Adrianne Brown, then gave an illustrated talk on the Chambers Motor Company 1904-1929. It built the first motor car in Ireland. She began by explaining the nineteenth century background. The development of the railways and bicycles enabled people to travel more for work and pleasure. John Boyd Dunlop's pneumatic tyres made cycling a more pleasant experience. Machine repair shops developed for these and other inventions such as the sewing machine. These skills would be useful in building and repairing the new motor cars. International motor races also fostered interest in cars. In Ireland there was no speed limit or red flag as in England.
The Chambers brothers came from the Downpatrick area: Robert Martin, Charles Edward and John Henry(Jack). They drew inspiration from local industries. They were related to the Davidson family of the Sirocco Engineering works and admired the high standards set there.
Their cars were versatile, custom built and dedicated to quality. Robert and Charles founded the company in 1897. Their brother Jack had co-designed the first Vauxhall cars, but had then joined his brothers in 1907. The firm started in Cuba Street in Belfast making machinery for wiring for aerated water bottles. This water came from the springs at Cromac.
In 1905 the first Chambers car was made. Like all their cars it was hand built. The model was popular with doctors because it was solid, strong and reliable. In 1913 they moved to University Street to the site now occupied by the Holiday Inn. Ball bearings were imported from Germany, but when the war prevented this, they began to make their own: the first company in Ireland to do so. The war also meant that many male employees joined up and were replaced by women workers. The company moved over to munitions production, but did not retool despite the availability of government money. In addition six ambulances were produced for the Ulster Division.
The post-war Irish market for cars was very small. Inflation hit their fixed-contract sales and they could not compete with other firms which used mass production methods. In all they produced about 500 cars before they closed. Only four of these are known today: in the Ulster Museum, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and in Australia. The fourth one is in the possession of the Chambers family who bought it about nine years ago when the Kilkenny Museum closed. Some employees of the firm went on to greater things, such as Charles Hurst.