Downpatrick is one of the finest 18th-century T-shaped meeting-houses in Ireland. Built in 1711 at the start of the ministry of the Rev Thomas Nevin, a pioneer Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister who became a founder member of the Presbytery of Antrim, the church is one of the most notable buildings in this part of county Down.
It is not a new thing but it is worth flagging up the 360 degree virtual tour of the interior which was put online courtesy of VirtualVisitTours. The panoramic view can be explored here:
The congregations of Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough held their joint Candlelight Carol Service on Wednesday, 6th December at Downpatrick at 7.30 pm. The church was attractively decorated and as well as Alfie McClelland on the organ we were delighted to have the Laganvale Ensemble accompanying the carols and playing some other pieces. The mellow sound of the band filled the eighteenth-century meeting-house magnificently.
Underneath the pulpit
We had readers from all three congregations, including one passage read first in German by Eleanor to commemorate Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, begun 500 years ago. The readers were Amanda Ramsey, Thomas Rooney, Eleanor Baha, Tierna Kelly, Megan Neill, Elsie Nelson, Robert Neill, Doreen Chambers, Roy Kelly, and Charles Stewart.
The view from the Squire’s Gallery earlier in the day
It is hard not to imagine that every feature of dissenting meeting-houses has been subject to some serious scrutiny at one time or another. The regular publication of surveys of non-conformist churches and the work of the Chapels Society are testimony to the ongoing interest that there is in these types of buildings. But I was led to reflect on one aspect of the history of old meeting-houses that may not have had too much attention over the years by the ‘discovery’ recently of a long discarded pew number in my church at Ballee.
It wasn’t really a discovery since I and many people knew it was there all along but, for the first time, I took a close look at it and realised that it is a work of art in its own right. When the Ballee meeting-house was refurbished in 1912 they replaced the old box pews with ‘modern’ open ones. They may have re-used the timber from the old pews to make the new ones, they certainly used the old pews to make partitions and features in the rooms they created in both ends of the long arm of the ‘T’ of the church.
This number 12 is in the inside of a cupboard in the vestry. When you look at it, a lot of the wood which was used there and in the library and in the store room at the other end of the church, must clearly have once formed the original box pews, probably dating back as far as the early eighteenth century. Much of it has been stained a very dark colour but in some places the original colouring can be seen and there are two places where the pew numbers are visible. One is a slightly faded number 22 but the other is this one inside the vestry cupboard.
Inside the cupboard
It has been protected from the sun for over a hundred years and it is clear that at some point after it was painted on the door of the pew when in situ someone had carefully left it untouched when re-varnishing the rest of the door. An expert could probably date this number more or less exactly. I would guess it dates from the end of the eighteenth or the start of the nineteenth century. It is certainly very carefully done. It must have been an important project for the congregation at that time to see that their pews were so clearly labelled, and done in such an attractive manner.
A panel high in the corner of a store room – number 22
For most types of dissenting congregations pew numbers and pew rents were a central feature of the finance and management of a church or chapel. Who owned which pew and who sat where were important questions so their clear numbering was an important thing. For the historian financial records of pew rents are an important source but I can’t remember much discussion of the way numbers were added to pews.
In the nineteenth century, and probably before, it was possible to buy ceramic or brass numbers to fix on pew ends or doors. But very often the numbers were painted on. The pews in Ballee today are all unnumbered, as they are in Clough. In Downpatrick, which still has its original box pews, the numbers have all been removed downstairs but they survive in the galleries. These are very neatly done and to me look like eighteenth-century adornments.
Some of the Downpatrick numbers
But the now almost completely vanished pew numbers from Ballee must have looked very impressive. I will look out for more examples of historical pew numbering from now on.
At the annual service of harvest thanksgiving at Downpatrick on Sunday, 2nd October we also launched a colour leaflet that commemorates the sacrifice of the three members of the congregation who were killed in the First World War. This has been carefully put together by Mary Stewart, the church secretary, and includes pictures of two of the men as well photographs of the various graveyards and memorials in which they are commemorated.
Of the three who were killed one – Captain Craig Nelson – was a professional soldier from long before the war. Craig Nelson was the grandson of the minister of the church, the Rev S.C. Nelson, and had joined the Royal Irish Rifles and served in the Boer War before transferring to the Indian Army. He was an officer of the 3rd Brahman regiment and attached to the 69th Punjabis when he was killed on the western front on 25th September 1915.
Rifleman John Hayes had joined the 1st battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles at the start of the war and was killed at the battle of the Somme on 31st October 1916. Sergeant Francis McMurray served with the 7th battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was killed in France on 9th March 1916.
All three men are recorded on the church war memorial, however, the name only of Captain Nelson is inscribed on the town memorial and it seems very strange that the names of the other two were never added since they were both born and lived in Downpatrick before their war service.
At the harvest service two windows were decorated to commemorate those who served in the First World War with memorabilia being provided by members of the congregation and also including the commemorative certificates issued by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the three members who were killed. Most of the men who joined up in the locality would have served in the 36th (Ulster) Division, but in this case of those who died in the congregation one soldier (John Hayes) was with the Ulster Division, one (Craig Nelson) with the 7th (Meerut) Division of the Indian Expeditionary Force and one (Francis McMurray) was with the 16th (Irish) Division.
John Hayes’s niece Thelma Lowry is a member of the church and she kindly provided the photograph of her uncle for the leaflet and loaned a ceramic poppy which had been part of the notable art installation at the Tower of London in 2014 – Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.
After the service with the leaflets: Rev Dr David Steers (minister), Mrs Thelma Lowry and Mrs Lorna Thompson (nieces of Private John Hayes), Miss Mary Stewart (church secretary) and Rev Dr John Nelson visiting preacher at the church harvest.
We don’t have a picture of Sergeant McMurray and would be very pleased to hear from anyone who is related to him or who has a picture of him.
The Downpatrick leaflet will also be uploaded to the Faith and Freedom Great War Project which can be seen here:
Another resource that will be added to the Faith and Freedom Great War Project in the near future is the Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland – or at least as much of this that was printed in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine at the time.
Not surprisingly that magazine carries a great deal of information about the impact of the war on the denomination. The war brings about much comment and theological reflection from ministers and lay people but the extent of the impact only gradually comes to be realised as more and more members take up arms. The magazine decided to compile a Roll of Honour and in December 1914, four or so months after the outbreak, this was printed for the first time. Already it contained 141 names, all of them obviously volunteers, and representing 24 congregations. The list includes two who have been wounded and already the first loss – a member of the Dromore congregation – David Prentice who was lost in action on HMS Monmouth in a naval engagement off the coast of Chile. HMS Monmouth was an armoured cruiser that was built in 1901 and used mostly around Chinese waters. At the start of the First World War it was sent to the West Indies fleet and was part of the battle of Coronel, here it was sunk by the Germans with the loss of all hands.
In the next year the Roll of Honour was reprinted in March 1915, when it had been expanded to include 27 congregations. In January 1916 the list is updated when 360 names (including some women involved in nursing and other war work in some congregations) were listed in 29 congregations (out of a notional total of about 35). To this denominational list an additional three names were added in February. For the denomination as a whole of these 363 names eleven were listed as killed, missing or lost.
Having kept this Roll of Honour up until February 1916, strangely, it is not updated in the pages of the magazine again. At one point mention is made of an intention to publish on card the full Roll of Honour for the congregations but it is not clear if this was ever done. Why the Roll was never updated is hard to tell. The editor, the Rev Alfred Turner, was now working in France with the YMCA but the responsibility for providing this information lay with the individual congregations. Having begun keeping the record it seems strange that it stops.
A result of the Roll never being completed is that we do not know the exact numbers of those who served in the First World War. But both the total number on the Roll of Honour and the number of those killed in the war are likely to be far greater than the numbers published between 1914 and 1916. There are, for instance, 16 obituaries of men killed in action (in two cases died of war wounds) in the magazine. Of these only three died before the publication of the January 1916 list and they do appear on the Roll of Honour but of the other thirteen only seven are listed and six are not, possibly because they had not joined up until after that date. The number of fatal casualties is likely to be much higher and a perusal of each church’s war memorial would give the true figure. If we look at the example of the Dublin congregation, for instance, on the January 1916 list there are eleven names included as having joined the armed forces. Yet the war memorial in the Church lists only those who were killed (all of them in 1917 and 1918) and of the five names preserved there three do not appear on the January 1916 list. To take another example in the case of Clough there are seven names on the published Roll of Honour, and no fatalities. However, on the Roll of Honour in the Church there are ten names, three of whom were killed in the war.
But taking the denomination as a whole the Roll of Honour plus the additional obituaries makes a total of 24 killed in the First World War noted in the magazine in this way although clearly this cannot be the final total.
Of the 16 obituaries in the magazine 14 are of officers and most include a photograph of the deceased. Four obituaries appear in the August 1916 issue, all of them of soldiers apparently killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Whether an obituary appeared or not seemed to be entirely due to chance but was very unlikely for those who weren’t commissioned. There are in addition three brief notices, one of them of one of the sons of the Rev Alexander Gordon, and one mention of a death in a Rademon ‘News of the Churches’ report. This would make a total of 28 names of men killed in the war mentioned in the magazine, again certainly not the final total.
But a careful comparison of all the church memorials plus the obituaries found in the magazine plus the names on the Roll of Honour would at least give us a working total for those from the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches in Ireland who served and lost their lives in the First World War.
Although so many of those who died did not receive an obituary in the magazine some of the obituaries in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian are quite informative. Most of the casualties were people who joined up at the start of the war but some had been career soldiers. One such was Captain Craig Nelson of Downpatrick who was killed in action on 26th September 1915. He was an officer in the 3rd Brahman regiment, part of the Indian army and a grandson of Rev S.C. Nelson, minister of Downpatrick. His father was Dr Edwin Field Nelson, the fifth son of Samuel Craig Nelson, a senior surgeon in the locality who had himself attained the rank of Surgeon-Major in the local Militia and continued as medical officer for soldiers in the Downpatrick district during the war up to his death in May 1916. But his son, Craig Nelson, was killed the year before, his other two sons both serving officers in the navy or the army. Craig Nelson was a career officer who had been commissioned into the Royal Irish Rifles and served throughout the South African war. He subsequently transferred to the Indian Army and served first in Egypt and then on the Western Front.
The Downpatrick minister, Rev M.S. Dunbar, said of him:
We cannot help our feelings being moved when we think of the thousands of our countrymen who have fallen in this titanic struggle, but our feelings are still more acute when we suddenly learn of the fate of one who we knew, with whom we conversed not so long ago, and who, when we bade him good-bye, was in perfect health and the best of spirits. The War, with all its dread consequences, comes home to us as it never did before. Captain Nelson was brought up amongst us, and when on furlough from India, was always pleased to join in our service here, and to recall his associations with the church and the people connected with it.
The Faith and Freedom Great War Project can be seen here:
On Saturday, 25th July around 125 people took part in the Treasure Hunt organised by the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick. It was a fantastic night helped by good weather and the great venue that is the Lakeside Inn, Ballydugan, where church member and recent NI Bar Person of the Year Margaret Ferguson is the licensee. Those taking part went on a fifteen mile journey around the local countryside, answering clues along the way and coming back to a magnificent Hog Roast. As well as being a great night it also raised a very good sum for church funds.
The meeting house of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church in Downpatrick was opened in 1711 at the start of the ministry of the Rev Thomas Nevin. Recognised as one of the most significant architectural examples of the T-shaped meeting-house in Ireland the building celebrated 300 years of continuous worship and witness in 2011.
To mark the tercentenary of the church building the congregation published the History of the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church Downpatrick. Written and compiled by Mary Stewart, the church secretary, the book is a remarkable record of three centuries of church life in the historic building. The book details the history of the congregation in the context of Downpatrick and Irish Presbyterianism, the conflict between subscribers and non-subscribers in the 18th century, the history of the building, the congregation’s engagement with education and much more. The book includes biographies of all the ministers of the congregation going back to the 17th century, extracts from the records of the Synod of Ulster, accounts of services, special events and financial matters, and contains details of committee and session members over the centuries, lists of members going back to the 1860s, and a complete record of all the graveyard inscriptions. It will be valued by all those with an interest in Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church history, local history, and genealogy.
In the first of the two Forewords the Very Rev William McMillan says:
Miss Stewart is to be congratulated on a truly comprehensive publication. She not only presents us with a history of the Downpatrick congregation but has collated a remarkable number of newspaper accounts, together with other printed material which will be of considerable help to future historians.
Her commitment to the congregation is evident from the immense research that she has done and I am delighted to recommend this valuable contribution to the Denomination’s Historical Record in which Downpatrick congregation has played such an important role.
and in the second Foreword the Rev Dr JohnNelson says:
The congregation of Downpatrick has a long and notable history, reflected in the lives of the ministers and lay people who have been part of that church. A congregation which has held a significant place both within Non-Subscribing Presbyterian circles and the wider Presbyterian community.
Perhaps the most outstanding theme of that history is the fact that for the last 300 years the congregation have worshiped in the wonderful building that is Stream Street Meeting House. While that building has always been well maintained, the interior has never been substantially altered, leaving it to-day essentially as built and evoking a sense of history, of presence, and of worship in all who enter there. It is highly appropriate that this book is published as part of the celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of that meeting house.
Mary Stewart is to be congratulated in producing such a thorough and detailed history of the congregation. Not only does she give the story of the church, but her painstaking researches have produced a wealth of source material which will be a delight to historians, church members, and everyone interested in the heritage of Downpatrick town and community.
This book both opens a door on the past and links it with the living present.
The book contains 408 pages and over 150 illustrations. It is bound in a full colour hard-back cover the book and is excellent value at only £15.
A sense of what it contains can be seen from the list of contents:
Chapter 1 Background History of Downpatrick
Chapter 2 Arrival and Settlement of Presbyterians
Chapter 3 Subscribers and Non-Subscribers, the Faith of the Non-Subscribers
Chapter 4 Presbytery Records from 1691 including Thomas Nevin’s Trial and Consequences
Chapter 5 List of Ministers of Downpatrick, Details of Ministers
Chapter 6 The Church Building
Chapter 7 Church Site and Schools
Chapter 8 Life and Times of Samuel Craig Nelson
Chapter 9 Special Services
Chapter 10 Special Events and Reports
Chapter 11 Church Excursions from 1881
Chapter 12 Social Evenings and Gatherings
Chapter 13 Harvest Services from 1908
Chapter 14 Financial Matters (Inc. Committee Record from 1886)
Appendix I Rules and Regulations of the Downpatrick Congregation
Appendix II Church Elders, Committee and Sunday School Teachers (From 1861-2007)
Appendix III The Church Graveyard and Inscriptions
Appendix IV Sermon by Alexander Colvill A.M. M.D. on the Death of Thomas Nevin 24th March 1744
The cost of the book is just £15. Postage within the UK is £5. If you are interested in having a copy posted abroad please enquire for postal rates. Details of how to purchase the book can be found on the Church’s website: http://www.downpatricknsp.org.uk/History.html