early 1900s by Matt Neill
The name means a little hill, as many of you will know. It is a village 6 miles from Belfast city centre and 3 from Lisburn. The old coach road from Belfast followed the Malone ridge through Drumbeg and on to Dublin.
From early times it was a thoroughfare for the movement of goods and supplies for farmers and the linen industry, which flourished along the banks of the Lagan. The stagecoach called at the Bell Inn near where the Lych Gate of Drumbeg Parish Church stands today. In some of the old references the area was known as Drumbridge or even further back as Drom. One gruesome notoriety is cited in history about Drumbridge. It was the site of the gallows on which the last person was hanged for stealing linen. see Gordon’s execution
In the advent of transport change, the bus services begun by Lawthers of Drumbeg and Crothers of Ballyskeagh were the forerunners of great social upheaval that would totally revolutionise the way of life in the future. It is only with hindsight that we are aware of these changes.
The school years were much as they had been for a hundred years since the beginning of group education, and the pace of life was little changed since the settlement of Ulster. The horse was the motive power that pulled the barge along the Lagan towpath from Belfast to Lisburn and beyond, and back again. Daily the narrow roads without footpaths that forked at Drumbeg corner to Ballyaughlis and to Ballyskeagh from Belfast were busy with the equestrian traffic that kept the countryside supplied with bread, coal, oil, fish, and goods of all kinds. Packmen traversed the rural areas bringing the opportunity to housebound housewives to buy the latest fashions on tick, or replenish depleted household linens. These itinerant visitors enlivened the daily grind of poor folks who were dependent on paraffin oil for their lamps, coal and firewood for cooking and-heating. They also brought the latest news, local and national. They had the most up to date information on a host of current events.
The daily visit of Geordie the postman was eagerly looked forward to. Mr Irwin the oilman was a personal friend to the community. Billy Richardson, the baker, not only brought the latest news, he was also a mine of information on the best way to deal with a host of illnesses and his advise was sought on delicate personal matters; all this he cheerfully dispensed as he whistled his way around the countryside seated behind the strong brown mare which drew his big box cart.
Once a week the fish man could be heard long before he arrived shouting his distinctive cry "Herns alay" repeated at frequent intervals along the highways so that the housewife could take out her plate for half-a-dozen Ardglass herrings or Lough Neagh pollan. The packman carried his wares wrapped up in his oilcloth parcel about 3ft x 2ft strapped on his back like a schoolbag. It would surprise most of us how he managed to carry sheets, towels, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, aprons, and underwear for men and for women, and special orders for miles from village to village. Starting off with his purchases from the drapery shop in Lisburn his pack would weight about 801bs. At least one more enterprising packman had a bicycle to tie his pack on. These men aimed to get round their area once a month covering a 10-mile radius or thereabouts, and everywhere they were mostly welcomed as old friends. Some of them augmented their earnings by carrying simple remedies in a pouch in their packs; Venos cough cure, Beechams pills, Andrews liver salts, Virol, Bovril, lint and bandages etc. But they also performed another very useful function; they were the news vendors of the countryside. Families kept in touch with their relatives, friends sent messages to friends; the progress of the ill, aged or ailing was faithfully reported on the visit of the packman.
As indeed to a lesser extent was the case of the baker's twice or thrice weekly visits but he had not as much time to gossip. The baker's van also often carried the latest copies of the Lisburn Herald or the Lisburn Standard. Both these weekly papers were eagerly perused by those who could read or read aloud to those who could not. And what a compendium of information they were. As well as the latest news, they had articles on pigeons, darts, cycling, fishing, operatics, and reports of happenings abroad, contributions on health matters, on astrology and astronomy; so many interesting items week after week, and the great thing is that we who live in the twenty first century may turn them up in the Linen Library in Lisburn or the library at Ballynahinch, where copies of the Belfast Telegraph for those years are stored.
So it was that the catastrophic news of the sinking of the ill-fated Titantic flew round the countryside, received with unbelief at first by thousands who simply could not acknowledge that the worlds greatest liner build by Harland and Wolff in Belfast could ever have been sunk by an iceberg.
During The Great War (1914-1918) the papers carried obituary notices of those whose lives had been cut short by the insane frenzy of modern warfare on land, in the air, and on the sea; and as a requiem the thousands of people young and old; rich and poor alike who perished in their own homes or in hospitals from the Asian Flu epidemic in 1918 and 1919.
To those who lived through these cataclysmic days it seemed that there would never be a time again when the world would be safe, secure, peaceful, and children could grow up without fear of what tomorrow would bring. Although it is true that the children did grow up without too much dread of the future since much of the turmoil of the times did not really affect the day to day living and was not understood when so much remained the same. People still went to church on Sunday, the clatter of footsteps resounded along the roads from early on till morning service, with a break for a midday meal and then resumed for the afternoon's promenade when the young and those who could, walked from the corner to Ballyaughlis along the Hillhall Road back to Drumbeg by the Quarterlands. A time to eye up the opposite sex and display the best clothes which, after all, would mostly only be seen on the Sabbath.
On week days the sound of footsteps on the road would be augmented by the rhythmic beating of the belts battering the dust from carpets and mats at Thompson's Dyeworks, the ringing clang of metal on metal at George Hanna’s blacksmith's shop, where sometimes three or four horses queued up to be shod, and nearly always the clip clop of horses carrying, pulling and fetching manure, hay, straw, turnips or flax from place to place. In between these interruptions the road was a great place to play. Games of marbles, spinning tops, hopscotch, chasing and just chumming along and "acting the lig" as our mothers used to say.
Geordie Hanna’s Blacksmith's shop at the tip of Back Lane was a fascinating stop on the way home from school. The constant clangour, the flaming sparks from within lighting up the dark interior; mostly a large horse standing patiently having its shoes changed, the reek of burning hoof as a new one was fitted, Geordie himself looking like a gnome, shrouded in old sacks black as a blacksmith should be; ready to chase away any child too adventurous or getting in the way of the work with frightful gestures and threats.
Fascinating and frightening at the same time but often as they passed by, children would be drawn to the smoky dark door for at least a peep.
Rarely did children visit the market garden just behind Jimmy Stewart’s shoemakers shop and on the left going up the lane to Dunlop’s farm. Situated right in the middle of the village most of its produce went directly to market. In the autumn or sometimes for a special occasion an adventurous child would be sent to get a bunch of flowers mostly chrysanthemums from ‘Bushy’ Gilliland; as his name implies he sprouted a huge beard, growing whiter with the passing years. Some children were a bit afraid of him although he was really a kind man.
Another great play area was Thompson,s dam, although the smaller children were timorous about walking along the path on the bank when the swans were out of the water on the bank. Billy and Nelly nested on the island in the middle of the dam and they were usually glad to be fed by the children who brought crusts, but when the cygnets arrived Billy could be quite fierce, disputing the right of way with anyone daring to challenge his privacy, fearful for the safety of his new family. In the long summer evening four or five fishermen would be stationed along the dam and up the river towards Sandy Gray's farmstead. Here a few large brown trout had their hidey holes but were very difficult to catch. Fishermen brave enough to run the gauntlet of the thousands of ferocious midges that swarmed along the hedgerows might have managed to catch one on a good worm.
For the girls, jumping the river risking a fall-in or a wet foot was great fun. Happy hours passed like minutes when the competition was at its best. Later when the girls had become young ladies, round the dam was a romantic place for courting couples. Today, the area is an upmarket housing development named The Hermitage. The river has been confined to a large culvert and pours out near the Drumbeg road racing on as it has done for centuries to the river Lagan. Prior to the coming of Thompson's Dyeworks the dam provided the motive power for the machinery used by James Hamilton Maxwell in his bleachworks at Drumbeg, set up with Linen Board approval in August 1725.
Although the Lagan Navigation towpath and barges were an attraction for many of the young people, some cadged a lift from Drumbeg locks to Edenderry on a Belfast-bound barge and then got another back to Drumbeg. The horse was unloosed and taken to the other side of the bridge and hooked on again.
Indeed, a female of any age would never have been in the pub or been welcome in it. It was strictly a male preserve except for the landlord's wife. Mrs Stewart came and went and was even known to provide sandwiches for the men on special occasions. The pub still stands where it has been for at least one hundred and fifty years although it bears little resemblance to the village pub of those days. With a large car park to the rear, modern dining area, vaunted cuisine, it is a perimeter country eating place, principally catering for city folks with leisure and plenty of money. At the other end of the village street one of the main attractions for children was the sweetie shop. The Miss Maxwells were the proprietors in the early years of the last century, and manys a child recalls how one of those wonderful moments was watching Miss Maxwell pour a penny's worth of sweets into a poke made by screwing a page of newsprint and folding over the top. Old school exercise books were readily used by the shopkeepers to serve as sweetie bags and were very acceptable to the junior customer when a penny's worth of gobstoppers was enclosed. The going rate was usually 6 gobstoppers for a penny. In addition to the sweets the shop held other magical sensations; the uniquely mingled smell of paraffin oil, bags of flour, bags of corn, fresh bread, chewing and pipe tobacco, a side of bacon and a cheese on a board. Lingering as long as they dared the children watched fascinated as Miss Maxwell pared off portions of these goodies with her huge sharp knife and wrapped them up for the customers.
With a visit to Jimmy Stewart's the shoemaker the round of the village was almost complete. The church, the Dyeworks, the dam, the forge, the pub, the school, the shoemaker's and the sweetie shop; these were the pivots round which daily life revolved in peaceful serenity. Of course, underneath were the tensions that are universal, but when one is still a child none of this is apparent. Rarely did violence intrude. Petty jealousies there were from time to time, and sometimes a child might be suspected of lying or stealing, but these heinous crimes were very rare indeed in the early years of the 1900s in Drumbeg.
Only the church, the school, the pub and the Orange hall remain. The
Dyeworks, the dam, the forge, the shoemaker and the sweetie shop are gone.
Where the Dyeworks and the dam were is a modern housing development, the
sweetie shop is demolished and the area covered by a very modern dormitory
housing development called "Drumbeg Cottages". On the site where
the shoemaker’s house stood a new villa has been erected. Further
housing development is proposed for an area behind the Quarterlands road
adjoining the Drumbeg cottages and suspicious activity has been noted
along the roadside boundary of the "big field". Previously part
of Ballydrain estate the future of this large parcel of land has been
the subject of much speculation. During the year 1959 planning permission
was sought by Belfast Corporation to erect up to 500 houses here to re
house people from the slum areas of East Belfast. Luckily for Drumbeg
the scheme fell through and the rehousing took place near Dundonald. If
this large area in the centre of the village is ever allowed to become
a sea of houses the whole character of Drumbeg will be altered forever.
Protected by the two large estates of Wilmont and Ballydrain from the
encroachments of Belfast city, Drumbeg is one of the last unspoilt villages
in the Lagan Valley. May it long remain as it is!