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The Parishes of Kilrea and Tamlaght O'Crilly

By J.W. Kernohan, M.A.


Part III. Kilrea in the Ninetenth Century

Before proceeding to some details of the improvements that began on the resumption of the estate by the Mercers' Company,Pg44 we may look at the condition of the town at the beginning of last century. There were 110 tenements in the town in 1814, but in 1840 these had increased to 195. The population of the town, which was reckoned at 973 in 1824, had reached the highest point in 1831, when it was 1,215. In the whole parish of Kilrea the inhabitants were classed in 1834 as -

The population was chiefly agricultural, and the holdings on the estate ranged from five to thirty acres. The rents were on an average at twenty-three shillings an acre in 1802. An interesting list of 1824 shows the professional gentlemen in the town to have been Arch. Adams, John Ferrier, and Daniel Mooney, all "surgeons;" and Charles Stewart, land surveyor. The publicans number thirteen, and the general shopkeepers and traders were as follows:- and

Travelling Facilities

The mails went by Portglenone to Belfast and Dublin, and by Donaghadee for Scotland. There was also a mail that went to Coleraine at five o'clock in the morning. There was at this time no coach calling at Kilrea, the nearest being that which passed through Ballymoney from Belfast, and another through Garvagh. But in 1836 by the aid of the Company an outside car to hold twelve passengers, called the "Enterprise," was started, and ran thrice weekly to Belfast. About the year 1854 a Railway Act was passed to unite Belfast, Coleraine, and Derry by a line which would have opened up the estates of the Mercers and the Ironmongers, but not receiving the necessary encouragement or facilities, a line was made on the Antrim side of the Bann.

In 1836 the merchants of Kilrea werePg45 classed as six haberdashers, twenty-four dressmakers, twelve grocers, nineteen publicans; and there were five schoolmasters.

The Historic Pump.

To a town situated on an eminence like Kilrea the water supply was a difficulty. In the old days before the erection of the pumping works to Toberdoney, when as yet there was no Engineer McFadden to look after the supply, the townsmen had to resort to the well at Toberdoney, which some people still remember. It was formerly a holy well, and its sacred thorn so venerated by superstitious persons and adorned with rags remained till some years ago. To remedy the defect a pump was sunk at the expense of the inhabitants in 1829 right in the centre of the Diamond-a construction whose ornamental top has since become quite historic, and at times was regarded as an object of devoted attention on the part of rival parties. The well was fifty-four feet deep, and cost 90. A man was employed to keep the cistern full, and householders paid in proportion to the quantity of water consumed. Publicans and grocers paid 1s 3d per quarter, private houses 1s and hotel-keepers 5s.

The trade of the town and district was in agricultural produce and linen weaving chiefly, and the Bann being navigable, merchandise was conveyed in vessels of fifty or sixty tons from Belfast and other towns. At Portna was a very old ferry much used before the bridge was built further down in 1783 by both counties at a cost of 2,000. The stones for the bridge were brought from Portna. The fisheries on the Bann have always been an important feature, the letting of which varied greatly. The eel fishery at Portna was worth from 500 to 700 a year, and in the best month, October, as many as 30,000 were caught in a single night, it was said.

Law and Order.

The chief offences which the officers of the law had to deal with were assaults arising generally from drunken quarrels on fair and market days. Drink was the curse of the whole district, and was responsible Pg46 for much of the poverty and distress. Party riots were a recurring trouble. A curious account of a riot in Kilrea is preserved. A mob calling themselves Freemasons assembled in a very tumultuous manner, armed with large sticks or quarter poles, and offering every provocation, called for any Orangeman or Protestant. Some Orangemen suffered the affront without retaliation, until being attacked severely they were obliged to find refuge in a house, from which the assailants were driven off only after recourse to firearms, and when two men were killed and several badly wounded. The originators of the outrage were from Co. Antrim. Again in 1835 there were riots in which several men were sabred by the military. The only magistrates then were the rector and the agent of the estate. One constable and five sub-constables were responsible for the peace. The Revenue police numbered ten men, with a lieutenant and a sergeant. The Petty Sessions were held in a house in Coleraine Street. The earlier Manor Courts sat for the recovery of small debts, and were presided over by the Seneschal of the Manor. Mr. John Henderson, Seneschal of the Manor of Mercers, was appointed first in 1802, and received a new appointment by the Mercers' Company. He was the assistant agent of the estate. Major David Stark was Mr. Stewart's agent. This gentleman had a summary way of dealing with offenders. When the streets were long of clearing on a fair evening the gallant Major would step out, and with a liberal use of a horse whip make his presence felt and the offenders scarce.

The consumption of drink in Kilrea and district was so great that praiseworthy efforts were made by the Company's agent to mitigate the evil. Rewards were held out to induce traders to give up the sale of liquor. In one year 3,357 gallons were received by permit and consumed in the spirit shops of Kilrea, the customers being drawn from a district of several miles round. It was calculated that in a year 6,934 was spent on drink, and 1,000 more if beer, ale, rum, and "fruit-wines for promised men" were included. Pg47 The whole rent of the estate was not much greater.


We have learned that when the Company took over the management of the estate in 1831, they began a period of improvement which worked wonders both in the appearance of the town and the material condition of the district. Between 1830 and 1890 the Company claimed to have spent 300,000 on the estate. A few of the improvements out of a long list may be mentioned. Nothing, of course, was spent on private individuals, as farmers and others made their own improvements. The expenditure on drainage in fifty years amounted to 6,300, while there was an outlay of 523 on the Garvagh new road, of 3,227 on planting and fencing, of 7,605 on roads and footpaths, of 400 a year on schools, of 211 on a wharf at Portna, and of various amounts on cottages, emigration, loans, purchase of tenant right, poor relief, seed, deputations and on the Derry Central Railway. Assistance was given in various buildings of a more or less public order. The new inn in Bridge Street cost 400, and the police barrack was built at an initial cost of 350, the total expenditure on it being over 1,000. The corn-mill cost originally over 1,500. In accordance with the original charter to the Companies religion was to get support, and so the Company gave assistance in the erection of churches. The Parish Church, perhaps the finest architectural feature of the town, was erected about 1840 at a cost 6,000. Liberal financial support was also given to the new Presbyterian Churches. About 3,000 was spent on the building of the Markets. A new hotel (800) beside the Market-house replaced a building which had been long before the residence of the agent, while under the same roof was the Estate Office, over which the bailiff had an apartment.. It had been used as a barrack in 1798. The agent's residence, the Manor House, which was built in 1835, cost about 4,000, and a new suite of Estate Offices cost 1,300. There has been expended on the Waterworks Pg48 over 2,000 in all. These items of expenditure are gathered from evidence given before a Committee of the House of Commons, and were furnished by the Company's witness.

Were the Companies Trustees?

It was elicited also that about half of the total rent received was expended on the Estate. The tenants, it is well known, made their own improvements at their own expense, and the public improvements undertaken by the Company not only contributed to the benefit of their property, but to the comfort and advancement of the tenantry. For long there was a controversy about the propriety of the Company spending as absentee landlords half of the income of the estate in England, and an action-at-law promoted by some individuals representing the tenants of the whole county was unsuccessful in determining how far the Companies were trustees for public purposes. Before the Company took over the estate in 1831 the tenants were rack-rented, so that rents were reduced about 18 per cent., but under a new valuation in 1854 they were again raised by the same amount. Again in 1874 the rental rose to over 11,769, which had the effect of causing a refusal on the part of some tenants to pay their rents, and as a consequence a number of test cases were evicted. The Land Act of 1881 came with vengeful hand, and reduced rents again 20 per cent.

The Staple Trade.

In what some would call the good old times Kilrea enjoyed its fair share of the principal industry of the county, the manufacture of linen. And it was regrettable that the decline in the trade came about, because it had certain advantages in respect of the amount of labour it brought to farming districts. On a farm the flax grower, the spinner, weaver, and seller might be found in one family, women and girls finding suitable employment, while the men could also work the farm. The merchant purchased the web, and after bleaching and finishing exported it. Gradually this system was altered. The pleasant whirr Pg49 of the wheel and click of the loom in the cottages grew less and less. The introduction of the factory and machinery both centralized the above operations and reduced the pay to be earned by hand power. The introduction of cottons was also blamed, as well as the increase of the trade in Scotland. On the other hand, it was urged that the devotion of energy to divided occupations was a bar to the effective employment of capital on a single vocation or industry. Be that as it may, the busy scene on market days when there were many buyers and hundreds of weavers doing business, was pleasant to behold; and the long queue of carts laden with flax "reaching away down the Moneygran road" is spoken of with wistful regret. On two days in the month there was a market for linen, and in good times it is said there would be as much as 1,200 worth sold in a day.

An Agricultural Dinner.

As this industry declined, trade in agriculture, horses, and cattle progressed. In former times cattle dealers had to be content with a field off the Garvagh road, and horses were disposed of in the open space opposite the Church. Later the fine Fair Hill was provided more in Keeping with the fame of Kilrea for its horse fairs. Agriculture also received much attention, and we shall close this account by a description of an agricultural dinner, held under the auspices of the Kilrea Farming and Flax Improvement Society in 1845. The occasion was the first annual Cattle Show held in the new cattle market. The agent, Mr. Bicknell, was in the chair, and among those that sat down to dinner were Mr. Alex. Clarke, Mr. R. McChlery, and the judges-Mr. James Johnston, Mr. Henry Wallace, and Mr. P. Maguire. The chairman's remarks were well-timed and appropriate to the position of an estate agent conscious of the duties of his office. His aim, He said, was to secure more productive farming, and more comfortable homes for the tenantry; and by making them take a proportionate interest in their homes and their occupation to educe more Pg50 peaceable and contented living. Mr. Alex. Clarke, in responding, alluded to the kindness of their "paternal landlords." The judges confined themselves to a criticism of the quality of the exhibits of the day.

The Company's Responsibility.

The agents of the Mercers' Company have been, on the whole, men of distinction, animated, as far as was possible, under the land system of their time, by a sincere desire for the elevation of the people in their material and moral condition, and ever strove to extinguish the unfortunate party spirit which occasionally broke out with such disastrous results to all concerned. Whether the companies did all they were legally entitled to do for the material progress of the people under their supervision need not now be discussed. It was scandalous that one of these great guilds should use any of the profits of its Irish estate for lavishing vast sums on a London philanthropical institution. The Mercers had a regard for the sick and poor on the estate, and exerted themselves, though at a late hour, to improve their chief town. But did they or their fellowguildsmen make the most of the natural resources of the country, say, the valuable water power of the great river that skirts their territory? The mill sites erected by the Board of Works at Portna, if utilized, might have made Kilrea a manufacturing town, drawing to it some of the wealth of the outside world. Had the Companies withdrawn less from their estate for expenditure in London, the County of Londonderry might be now the model county of Ireland, and the old inscription on the wall of Derry Cathedral would receive a most forcible and modern application--

"If stones could speake Then London's prayse should sounde."

With the passing of the local Government Act and the Land Acts, and the transference of the land to the occupier, the people are thrown upon their own resources, and it remains to speculate on what the beginning of a new century may bring. Pg51

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First published: 28th Nov, 2001.
© 2001-2024 Richard Torrens.
Page's Author: Richard Torrens
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