Lots of towns now have heritage trails and in many places in Northern Ireland Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches feature on the itinerary. Not so long ago I was interested to pick up a copy of the Antrim Town Heritage Trail published by Antrim Borough Council. Here I found a reference to the original Antrim congregation. Although the building closed for worship in the 1970s it dates back to the year 1700 and so it was no surprise to see it featuring as part of the town’s heritage. What was surprising though was the building that featured next to it on the list. You could be forgiven for overlooking this because it is known locally, and named in the text, as ‘Castle Puff’. Yet this was apparently, at one time at least, the manse for the NSP church. The blurb went on:
This is an imposing three-storey building which was built as the manse for the nearby Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Guests who were not quite elegant enough to stay at Antrim Castle were lodged at the manse. In the opinion of the townsfolk, they were sufficiently puffed-up to lodge at the ostentatious Castle Puff.
There was no picture in the printed trail and so I went to have a look at the building. It certainly is one of the most imposing buildings in the whole area. But despite being the only three storey building in the locality it is still quite easy to miss because of the horrendous modern frontages that occupy street level. It is also unusual because it is not often that you see a manse that is actually bigger than the church but this building towers over the low rise meeting house. What one is to make of the claim that surplus guests at Antrim Castle were housed in the manse is anyone’s guess. It is not obvious why Lord Masserene should need to use the manse, even for the most pretentious of his potential house guests, nor why the unfortunate minister should be saddled with them! But it is fascinating to think of such a place being home to the minister and his family.
I don’t know when it was built or when it ceased to be used as the manse. A bit of searching on the internet reveals an undated but probably late nineteenth-century picture of the house being used for commercial purposes. The main entrance was situated under a porch supported by two substantial columns. These seem to have gone now but if you peer through the door of the taxi office you can see through to a light and airy hall and a substantial staircase.
The building has fallen on hard times now. The glory has long since departed. But here, once upon a time, erudite sermons were penned by the thoughtful minister in his well-stocked study; the staircase clattered with the sounds of the children of the manse; respectful servants moved about the building doing the bidding of the minister and his lady and – apparently – pretentious but insufficiently elegant surplus guests from Antrim Castle turned up for the weekend from time to time. If you are so minded you can still hear echoes of a Non-Subscribing past when you go in search of them.
8 thoughts on “A Vestige of Protestant Dissent – in Antrim town”
I think I have a clue concerning the need for a manse to house guests for the castle. One 19th century (French) tourist of Ireland complained that the schedule for his trip had been wrecked by the custom not to accept strangers into the grand houses right away, even if they sent word in advance and were the bearers of letters of introduction. At each stage of his trip, he had to wait for at least three days until the lord of the mansion would issue an invitation. This was apparently not according to customs on the continent (or in France).
Fascinating. I have not come across this before
I have been looking at the 1901 and 1911 census for my great great grandfacther, William S Smith, who was apparently the minister to the non-subscribed presbyterian church from the mid 1870’s to his death in 1912. I think he would have lived in this manse. The census states the number of windows in the front elevation of the house (numbered 34 at the time) as 14. That corresponds with the number that would have been present before the shop fronts were added (what an act of achitectural vandalism!).
Maybe the manse was sold after he died.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I am very glad to hear from you. I think you are right, the census shows he lived there. Up to now I had assumed it had been sold before he went to Antrim. He was a very significant minister there, He was a regular writer in the local press and wrote a short book about memories of the 1798 Rebellion. He was well known in the town (where he had his longest ministry) and was widely appreciated in his denomination.
I noticed Charles Burrowes was living in Church St at no 12 in 1911, (a family of 10!) so I guess he didn’t have far to move, and would have appreciated the larger house.
I have a picture of William Sunderland Smith and his wife, Clara, if you are interested. I also think he may have officiated at his daughter, Kathleen’s wedding in 1907.
I’ll follow up the local newspaper and book suggestion. Is the 1798 rebellion the one involving the United Irishmen?
Thanks for your original interesting post, without which I wouldn’t have been able to wok out where he lived and preached.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes I would be interested in your picture. I have a picture of him from about 1912 if you are interested in that. Your ancestor is quite a neglected figure but was quite significant in his own way. He wrote a weekly column in the ‘Northern Whig’ (probably the main Belfast paper at the time) on ‘Nature Notes’. He published a number of books, some of them about Lough Neagh and the local flora and fauna, although I have never seen any of these. His other interests were historical and antiquarian and he published books and articles on these topics. The only one I have seen (which may have been reprinted from newspaper articles) is ‘Memories of’ 98′, an account of people’s memories of the United Irishmen as you say. This booklet was reprinted in the 1990s and if you search hard you might find a copy.
I might put something on the blog about him. Recently I acquired a postcard of the interior of the meeting house from his time, not a great example but still it is interesting. You might have seen elsewhere on my blog the Antrim meeting house as it currently is features:
and I mentioned your ancestor in a recent post:
All the best,
Would you mind if I emailed you directly with the photos?
If you don’t want to post your email address here mine is email@example.com.
All the best