Over the last few months, Seaside Revival has been working with local historians and NI Water to create a unique display of old photographs and postcards for the hoardings at Brompton and Stricklands Glen. Each image also reflects a snippet of some of the history of the local area.

Researched and written by Robin Masefield, Ian Wilson and Betty Armstrong, you can find out more about the history of sea-swimming in Bangor, the steamboats and boat yards, along with a beautiful poem written by Brian Meharg, author of ‘The Legend of Jenny Watt’ and a lovely story of the life of Marie Marguerite Absolom, an amazing Bangorian, written by her son, John McMurray.

*Seaside Revival is a vintage festival celebrating Bangor’s past as a busy seaside town. Click here to find out more about Seaside Revival

Bangor, the sea & swimming

Written by Robin Masefield

Before the railway arrived in 1865, the sea was a vital link for the town. The recorded development of Bangor Harbour began as early as 1757, when a pier some 300 feet long was constructed near the bottom of what is now Victoria Road, with a grant from the Irish Parliament. The Harbour thus formed was however reported in the Parliamentary Gazetteer of 1844 to be ‘very turbulent’ in North East gales, and was also dry at low water. Coal was then the main import at the harbour, beside which was the 17th century Custom House.


From early times, Bangor, like Holywood, was known for its summer sea-bathing. An advertisement in the Northern Star in May 1792 announced:

To be let for the bathing season. A large and commodious house in the town of Bangor, adjoining the quay.’

And in 1816 the Bangor Corporation ordered a place to be prepared for bathing in the harbour.

It was not until 1863 that a provisional order of the Board of Trade set in motion the granting of powers to Robert Ward to widen the pier and build an extension to it.

The entry for Bangor in Henderson’s Belfast Directory records that the population in 1851 was 2,850. (This was a drop from 3,116 ten years before, reflecting in part the effects of the famine and emigration. The population reduced still further to around 2,500 in 1861.) The Directory noted in 1852 that:

Near the beach are many neat furnished houses and villas, built for the accommodation of parties visiting this favourite bathing shore…’.

In Victorian Bangor, many road names were different, for example Sandy Row for Queen’s Parade. One rhyme of the day ran as follows:

            ‘Ballymagee for drinking tea,

            Fisher Hill for brandy,

            But Sandy Row can beat them all

            For playing cock-a-dandy.’

James Crosby provided hot salt water baths at the corner of Queen’s Parade and Southwell Road. He pumped the water from the sea and charged 5/- for six baths. There were at this time quite a number of hotels, mostly down beside the harbour and the beach – and a rather larger number of public houses.

McComb’s 1861 Guide to Belfast noted the attractions of Bangor in the summer, but added that it was ‘not well adapted for a winter residence, owing to the exposed nature of its situation’.

In August 1864, a gala of swimming matches took place at Bangor. Mr Henry McFall of the Royal Hotel had altruistically erected a bathing box for the community on the Pickie Rock, although a contemporary account regretted the absence of a similar facility for lady visitors. (Mr McFall was also the harbour master and agent for the Belfast Lough steamers, secretary to the Gas Company, and himself a keen swimmer.) The Ulster Yacht Club which had for a while earlier in the century had its headquarters in Bangor, was revived in 1866. (Four years later it received its Royal Charter.)

Bassett’s Guide to County Down for 1881 stated that:

After the line of the railway to Belfast had been opened, Bangor’s attractions as a watering place brought it into the first rank. It is now also connected with Belfast by steamer … The bathing facilities are favourable for both sexes’.

There was a short lived steamer service between Bangor and Peel on the west coast of the Isle of Man in the summer of 1889, but the following year Belfast superseded Bangor, largely on account of the unsatisfactory pier facilities at the latter.

As the Belfast Directory of 1897 put it, the smoky and dirty appearance of the sea front had given way to:

‘A fine promenade for pedestrians faces the bay and a handsome esplanade, comfortably seated, and provided with a band-stand has been constructed, and it is a great boon as a resting place for visitors.’

Bangor Steamers

The original Bangor boat was an eighty feet long paddle steamship called Greenock which on 19 April 1816 became the first steamer to cross to Ireland from Scotland. The News Letter published a notice that the Greenock would ply daily between Belfast, Carrickfergus and Bangor. The first service only lasted the one summer, but for three years from 1825 the Bangor Castle sailed every morning from Bangor and returned from Belfast each evening. (The Bangor Castle advertised as ‘touching only at Cultra’ for passengers at a deep water quay there built a few years earlier.)

Nevertheless, trippers were determined to enjoy the Lough and the delights of Bangor. The News Letter of 23 April 1851 reported a trip by the Young Men’s Total Abstinence Society which had hired the steam tug Belfast and “the deck of the little steamer was completely filled with well-dressed tradesmen, and their wives and daughters decked in their holiday finery… And well pleased with a day’s enjoyment in prospect… Arrived at Bangor, the gay crowd was immediately dispersed, to perambulate the town… A feeling of jealousy was, however, perceptible and the Bangor boys asserted that “their toon was a place whar nae insults wad be taken frae strangers”

It was not until 1853 that Mr Henderson’s steamer, Pilot, provided a more regular service. She remained on the Lough for a decade, benefitting from the new pier at Bangor which enabled passengers to land at all stages of the tide. She was skippered by a Captain Richardson, and did four trips up and four trips down daily leaving Belfast at 7am, though there was competition from the Petrel which left Belfast at the same time and raced to see which would get to Bangor first.

In 1861 Captain Brown of Bangor (whose capital derived from the muslin business) put the Heroine on the Lough and a fare war started; the fare was reduced to three pence. (Subsequently the Heroine was sold to the Confederate forces in America as a blockade runner.) Brown’s next ship was the Erin which had an oak belt round the iron hull to save damage to pier and ship while berthing. She, together with a sister ship, from 1877, the Bangor Castle, both with two funnels, stayed on the Lough until the arrival of the railway steamers in the 1890s. (In 1890, the Erin collided with a rival, the Victoria, when both were racing, with full passenger loads, from Belfast to Bangor. No great damage was done, but both captains had to appear in the dock – at Belfast Petty Sessions.)

At Bangor:

Luggage porters, with hand-carts, carted the luggage to and from the steamer. They had a badge strapped on their left arms with name and number on it.’

Charlie Scott still acted as a ship’s pilot though he was about 84 years of age. The Bangor steamers were usually laid up in the Long Hole for the winter.

One strange case was recorded in the local press in September 1870. This was an account of attempted suicide by a wife who jumped overboard from the steamer Erin because of her husband’s dancing on board to the tune of a fiddler!

In 1872 the steamer Racoon crossed to Bangor from Scotland on the 11 July, bringing in a number of ‘Scotch visitors… this being the week of the great Glasgow fair’, according to the News Letter.

In 1875 Brown’s vessels were bought by Moore Brothers and in turn they morphed into the Belfast, Bangor and Larne Steamboat Company in 1887. In the same year, the Clandeboye, built by Workman Clark for the Bangor service, joined them, though she was sold after two years. It was found that three steamers were needed to ensure a daily service of eight round trips to Bangor and two to Larne. Thus the company acquired the Bonnie Doon; alas she acquired so bad a reputation for reliability that she became known as the ‘Bonnie Breakdown’.

The Belfast, Holywood and Bangor Railway Act of 1881 provided for that company to operate steam vessels ‘for the purpose of establishing an improved and efficient communication between Belfast, Holywood and Bangor’, In 1891 the Belfast and County Down Railway decided to put their own steamers on the Lough, starting with the 300 ton Slieve Donard which operated the service for five years from 1893. In the following year, came the Slieve Bearnagh. The Bearnagh was certified to carry over 950 passengers between Belfast and Bangor, at a maximum speed of 17 knots with a journey time of 50 minutes. She served for nearly twenty years before being replaced by the paddle-steamer Erin’s Isle in whose design Thomas Andrews (of Titanic fame) was involved. Her maiden trip was on 12 July 1912. The ships were used by the Navy as mine-sweepers in the Great War, and the Erin’s Isle was sunk in early 1919.

After the end of the First World War, the ‘Bangor Boat’ service did not resume until 1923, and it only lasted a year. On the other hand Lough cruises did continue. In 1931, the former Lough Foyle paddle steamer Cynthia offered ‘tea dansant’ cruises from Bangor, for an inclusive fare of 2/6.

The fare was not dear – for 50 years up to 1915, nine pence return tickets were available most afternoons. Certainly Bangor and back for a bob was a reality, not just a slogan.

Marie Marguerite Absolom

Written by her son, John McMurray

Marie Marguerite Absolom was born in Bangor in 1901. She came from a “nice” family and never worked. She married Thomas McMurray in 1935. She was quite well educated and went to the Misses Weirs school Collegiate on Pickie Terrace. She also attended a school in Harrogate. This, it must be supposed, would have been quite a dangerous activity travelling back and forth across the Irish Sea in time of war. She spoke passable French and was capable of reasonable maths.

In her lifetime Marguerite did a great deal of charity work: The British Legion, The Girl Guides and the Abbey Church and choir. She had many pursuits as well as swimming. A keen golfer being First Ladies’ Captain of Carnalea Golf Club. But the activity she succeeded at and loved the most was diving. In the 1920’s she was All Ireland Diving Champion a few times.

She would do a pier swim each day for fun. She was fearless. Having known her all my life I can’t envisage her doing much training or taking instruction. I believe her success was through sheer determination and her fearlessness and self believe. Women were strong in those days as well

Her favourite place naturally was The Ladies’ Pool which in those days, was known as Skipperstone. Her home, eventually, in Princetown Rd was the house just above the pool.  This gave her great contentment as it had the most beautiful views of the bay and lough. She died in Bangor Hospital on the 23rd September 1984 and is buried in the Abbey Churchyard.

The Legend of Jenny Watt

Written by Brian Meharg

Standing in the dimness above the cave

Still and calm, no wind, no wave.

“Jenny Watt”, did I hear them say?

Rumour was, no revenue, she would pay.

Folklore said, she dodged those soldiers.

Slid past them watchers Quiet as a mouse to the ones with the ears.

Just a hint of her beauty as the moon caught her face

Only a glimpse in the darkness, she disappeared

Should I follow? – Peering into the night.

Too late, for not a sound, nor not a sight.

You’re the first to know this tale

Now I’m old, I wonder?

Did I dream that moment way back in time?

Did my heart skip a beat, as her eyes met mine?

In the presence of a legend called Jenny Watt

I’m pretty sure, that this was true?

Please, keep this secret, between me, and you!

If you are on the shore and see a boat at dark

Do not draw attention or let your doggie bark.

Do not look or listen, — and never say I seen

Walk away as if that boat, – HAD NEVER BEEN.

If you’re in a field at dawn and you see a cart

Do not ask who or why, — that is being very smart

For if you do not know, you cannot tell a lie.

Look down at your feet, LET IT PASS YOU BY.

History of Stricklands Glen

Written by Ian Wilson, Bangor Historial Society

In 1789 Robert Ward granted a lease for lives to John Strickland of land already in his possession: 8 acres at Bryansburn with the flax mill on it (1858 OS map shows an old flax mill south of Bryansburn Bridge). It stated that the 8 acres did not include the road leading to the smelt mill and the land about the mill containing 1ac – 1r – 39p. The measurements are in Cunningham measure. This, it is assumed, is the origin of the name Strickland’s. When Bangor Urban District Council bought the glen from Col. Sharman – Crawford in 1913, they laid out the paths and bridges which are still there today.

The History of Carnalea Station

Written by Robin Masefield

Carnalea was not a station by the time the original line to Bangor was opened by the Belfast, Holywood and Bangor Railway in May 1865. The News Letter on 12 October 1869 recorded that:

The Holywood and Bangor Railway have selected a site for a station in the townland of Carnalea, on Mr Ker’s property, midway between Bangor and Crawfordsburn stations.’


Carnalea station was opened in 1873; the earliest station building was just an old railway wagon.

In 1884, the Belfast and County Down Railway Manager recorded that Carnalea was ‘the smallest of small stations… The whole accommodation being an old railway carriage, but it seems to serve the purpose of the place’.

The main station buildings at Carnalea were probably built in the late 1890s.

An early stationmaster at Carnalea was William McDade. For some years, every Tuesday evening, he and his wife Annie organised Methodist meetings. They were held in the Ladies Waiting Room, but were often so popular that people sat all the way up the main staircase.

The County Down Spectator recorded that at the start of the First World War in August 1914, two men of foreign appearance were spotted by local lads, making sketches in the vicinity of Carnalea. They told the stationmaster who alerted the police with the result that the men, who were German spies, were arrested at Sydenham.

In 1946, the station at Carnalea was reduced to the status of a halt, though it continued to be manned.

There was for many years a private footbridge over the line, from Bridge House toward the shore, also known as Lepper’s Bridge. Freeman Wills Crofts, the NCC railway engineer turned crime-writer set one of his novels ‘Man Overboard!’ in the vicinity of Carnalea station.

The History of Carnalea Golf Club

Written by Robin Masefield

The Carnalea Golf Course and Club have played an important role in the early development of both men’s and women’s Golf in Ireland.


It was in 1892 that the first Golf Club in Ireland, Royal Belfast, moved from its original home at Kinnegar beside Holywood to Carnalea.

A year later, Catherine McGee who was the inaugural secretary of Royal Belfast Ladies (and the daughter of the man who popularised the Ulster overcoat) wrote to her counterpart at Royal Portrush:

‘Dear Mrs. Mann, At a meeting of our Committee held some time ago, it was proposed to form an ‘Irish Ladies Golfing Union’ embracing all Irish lady golfers and to have as its objective an annual championship competition on different links in Ireland, the first to take place at Carnalea, Co. Down.’

The first competition at Carnalea was won by Clara Mulligan.

In 1926, the Royal Belfast Club moved to their present Craigavad site. The following year, after a second nine holes had been constructed, Carnalea became Ireland’s first municipal golf course. The famous Harry Vardon played the opening round and the Irish Times noted ‘It was an epoch making event in Irish Golf and once more the North showed the way’.

 Later that year the Carnalea Golf Club was formed, to which members were elected by secret ballot, with a Ladies Branch also established then. Carnalea continues to be one of the most scenic courses in Northern Ireland, with views out to Ayrshire and Ailsa Craig.


The History of Shipbuilding at Ballyholme

Written by Betty Armstrong

Did you know that before Enrico Caproni built his famous ‘Palais de Dance’ in 1928 on Seacliff Road that there was a shipyard on that site on the corner of Seaforth Road? 

In fact, there were two businesses carrying out shipbuilding and associated work in Ballyholme.


In March 1919 Chesney McCormick and Francis J B Connolly together applied for permission to build a ‘Workshop or shed of brick, roofed with slates’ on the west side of Seacliff Road. Connolly was an architect and civil engineer and the 1911 Census shows he lived on Bryansburn Road when he was 23.  There are also reports of him being elected as a student member of the Ulster Society of Architects in 1906. In December 1919 McCormick lodged plans for a temporary ‘Boat house and Spar shed’ on Seacliff Road near College Gardens, a terrace part of which became the Ballyholme Hotel. 

In 1920 and 1921 Connolly was advertising under the name Bangor Boat Building Works and in April 1923 McCormick and the Bangor Boat Building Works applied to build a ‘Wooden shop and dwelling’ on the south side of Seaforth Road. The launching slip for the yard was opposite and can still be seen today beside Ballyholme Yacht Club. 

Pictorial records show that McCormick & Co had a shed where Kingsland Nursing Home is today, and this appears to be the location where the Shipyard business carried on into the future. It provided winter storage for the local racing yachts such as Dancers and Rivers and for yachts and motorboats up to 20 tons and built a launching slip opposite. It had a distinctive curve and is still there today. McCormick & Co didn’t last long and on 30th October 1924 the business was advertised for sale. The reason for the demise can be seen in a letter of reference from McCormick & Co in the Public Record Office in respect of a Robert Eddys of Ballymagee Street (High Street) Bangor, which shows that he was an ex-seaman and a rigger and was dismissed owing to shortage of work. The date is 24th October 1924. 

Enrico Caproni may have foreseen the demise of the business on the corner of Seaforth Road for in June 1923 he submitted plans for ‘Refreshment Rooms and a temporary shop’. The Bangor Boat Building Works faded from record, but it is known that the slip was transferred to the sailing club at Ballyholme which at the time met in the clubhouse on Kingsland which is now the Table Tennis club. The slip can still be seen today at low tide.

The McCormick business was bought by a Mr. W J Lovett, who was one of the Senior Naval Architects and a Director in the Workman Clark & Co shipyard in Belfast.  He called the business The Shipyard Company Ltd and in 1925 added a store. By this time Caproni had his café which he called the Mirimar. 

Over the years, sophisticated slips were built at Kilkeel and Portavogie, wooden construction was diminishing, and grants were cut, all making boatbuilding difficult. Then came Bangor Marina. As a result boatbuilding at Ballyholme was no longer viable, and the yard closed in 1991.


Betty Armstrong

I would like to acknowledge the help in gathering this information of Ronnie Slater, son of one of the owners and Frank Smyth, the last owner of the yard. Also, of Leanne Briggs of North Down Museum, and of the Public Record Office. 

Seaside Revival

Why Are We Doing It?

In recent decades local people have become increasingly disconnected from the town’s heritage. With very little cultural infrastructure and a failed retail sector, Bangor has suffered a downward social and economic spiral symptomatic of many British and Irish seaside towns.

Older people in Bangor look back with fondness to its heyday, but with a sense of regret for all that has been lost, while many of the younger generation who know little of the town’s past condemn it as a boring place to live. But we believe that Bangor has so much to offer everyone who lives here.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook Page

Our Aims

Through this new vintage festival we want to revive positive memories and use them to create new ones. We hope to reposition Bangor as a modern seaside town, drawing on its unique assets of the seafront, a thriving community of artists and creatives, Victorian architecture, its closeness to Belfast – and most importantly, an appetite among residents for regeneration.

We believe that if local people can connect with their past, they will start talking the town up – a key part of the next chapter.


Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund Great Place Scheme, Seaside Revival aims to re-position Bangor as a modern seaside town – the Brighton of Northern Ireland – with a distinctive cultural offer. Additional support is provided by Ards & North Down Borough Council.



Led by Open House Festival, the Project brings together six organisations representing different businesses and community interests in the town: Bangor Chamber of Commerce, North Down Community Network, North Down Development Corporation, Boom! Studios, and Main Street My Street.

Translink have played a historic role in linking Bangor to the rest of Northern Ireland and we’re proud to have their support for another Seaside Revival.