Friday, May 12, 2023

“The new harbour is practically useless" - 3 years to build, and then 6 years to fix - The story of Portavogie’s first harbour

This is an article I assembled during the various lockdowns and slowdowns, and was published in the most recent edition of the Portavogie Culture and Heritage Society booklet, entitled Rocks of Ages.


Below: a postcard from my collection showing Portavogie (postmark on the reverse is dated 1902) with some small boats visible at McCammon Rocks in the background.

“During the past week there was a large number of Scotch and other craft engaged on this part of the coast … those engaged in the fishing trade on this part of the Ards coast feel keenly the want of a harbour at Portavogie, both for the accommodation of fishermen and others”.
– Newtownards Chronicle 18 June 1881

Portavogie developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from a scattered collection of cottage homes to a thriving fishing port. Originally, the natural shelter of McCammon Rocks was ideal for small boats and was a major reason for a community to settle on our coast. But as time passed, the number of boats increased and the usefulness of McCammon was limited. There was a need for a proper harbour.

However, the government of the day, perhaps caught up in the ‘big politics’ of Home Rule for Ireland, charged ahead with a construction project without consulting any experienced local fishermen about what they actually needed, or what type of harbour was suitable.

The result was a “practically useless” harbour that local boats refused to use, which wasn’t fit for purpose, and which was severely damaged in its first storm. This is some of the story.

Below: Portavogie near 'Stable Hole', circa 1900


In September 1884, a delegation of Her Majesty’s Irish Fisheries Piers and Harbours Commissioners, comprised of Colonel John Philip Nolan (MP for Galway North), Sir Samuel Hercules Hayes (High Sheriff of Donegal), Sir Thomas Francis Brady and William Johnston (both of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fisheries) – toured the coastal towns of Ireland to assess the needs of the industry.

They visited the Ards Peninsula to investigate the potential for “a pier and harbour on this dangerous part of the coast, where so many wrecks are annually reported”. They held public meetings at Ballyhalbert and Cloughey where they met with local community leaders and fishermen.

Newspapers of the time paint a helpful picture of our village back then. On 25 July 1885 The Belfast Weekly News published an anonymous letter by ‘An Experienced Fisherman’ stating that there were “forty boats with seven men and a boy in each” at Portavogie, but that there was no harbour “save the lee of a rock”. He also said that 20 years before, both Ballywalter and Portavogie had tried to have the government build suitable harbours, but these efforts were unsuccessful. 

A few months later, on 26 October 1885, a special correspondent for the Belfast News-Letter visited Portavogie. He interviewed a local fisherman called Jemmy Hughes who said “there were twenty first class boats and from thirty to forty luggers … giving employment during the summer season to upwards of 400 men, all belonging to the village or its neighbourhood”, fishing as far north as the Shetland Islands and as far south as Kinsale. Their only shelter was at “M’Cammon’s Rock”. The village “contains a population of considerably over one thousand” but “the great want, likely soon to be remedied, is harbour accommodation. Had fishermen shelter for their boats they could fish and even trade during the winter”.

The need for a harbour was a constant factor in community life. In 1896, the Twelfth demonstration was held in Portavogie, on Monday 13th July, in a field provided by James Palmer, in which 14 local lodges participated. Rev A W Whitley, the minister of Cloughey Presbyterian Church, used his platform address “to call upon the Government to push forward the work of constructing fishery piers where needed along our coasts”. Having been minister to the fishermen of the area for 19 years, he said he “would also like to see a harbour at Portavogie”. 


After years of lobbying, work eventually began on a pier at Portavogie in spring 1901, paid for by the government’s Board of Works in Dublin. However there were problems from the outset – the budget and tender of £7500 did not allow for the removal of some large rocks, and proposed to build the pier around them instead. To make things worse, the Board and their contractors didn’t consult with any local fishermen.

Soon, cracks between central government in Dublin and local government in County Down started to appear.

Concern over this led to the setting up in August 1901 of a new Portavogie Harbour Committee of Down County Council, chaired by General William Montgomery of Greyabbey, with members Henry McGrath of Portaferry, Robert B. Caughey of Portaferry and George Dickson of Newtownards. They wrote to the Board of Works in Dublin to insist on the problem rocks being taken away. The Board refused. In November 1901 and February 1902 General Montgomery tried again, but still with no success. The Board of Works carried on with construction regardless, and in early 1904 they handed the new harbour, and responsibility for it, over to Down County Council.

No locals had been consulted and so in June 1904 when the work was complete, a report by Down County Council "condemned the structure, the best proof of its inutility being the fact that it was not being used by the fishermen of Portavogie".

The ‘blame game’ then began. On 29 July 1904 the Northern Whig published a lengthy, devastating, report by General Montgomery’s Committee, saying that when the Board of Works transferred responsibility to the Council, the Board had failed to follow “bylaws, rules or regulations respecting this work”. The rocks which had not been removed meant that the fleet was not using the new harbour. There were:

“some 50 or 60 sail at anchor at some distance to the north of the pier … the fishing fleet did not use the new pier … as it would be dangerous for them … grave objections have been made by the owners of fishing boats in consequence of the absence of a projecting arm to prevent swell in the harbour, as the strength of the incoming tide renders its use by small boats very dangerous to both boats and fishermen … the fishermen will not avail themselves of the use of the harbour until these defects are remedied, and they cannot advise the Council to undertake responsibility for its use as it at present exists”

The report got worse. The harbour was too small, a boat had already been damaged on the rocks, the top surface was too low and already disintegrating, and no access road or footpaths had been provided:

“the Committee found two trading vessels discharging cargoes at the harbour … the space at present available for berths was barely sufficient for the two vessels lying there, and, as above stated, there were about 60 boats outside in the roadstead”

“injury appears to have already occurred to a boat by grounding on a projecting spur of rock, opposite the pier face”

“the Committee found the state of the roadway on the pier to be very unsatisfactory, the concrete breaking up even under such traffic as has occurred during the short time the pier has been in use”.

“the roadway on the upper surface of the pier had not been carried to a sufficient height, and that the high water spring tides flow over it … the difficulty of using the pier is also accentuated by the absence of approaches from the pier entrance to the public roads”

The issue attracted more and more attention. Glasgow-born Thomas Lorimer Corbett had been the MP for North Down since 1900, and retained the seat in the elections of 1906 and 1910. He became involved in the stand-off between the Council and the Board of Works. In August 1904 he reported that: 

"the new harbour works at Portavogie are practically useless for the fishermen for whom they are intended ... during the construction of the harbour the attention of the Commissioners of Works was repeatedly called to the defects in their plans".

The very next spring, nature put an end to the speculation about the unsuitability of the harbour. On 15th March 1905, a “terrible south-east gale” hit Portavogie and "the new pier was absolutely covered with the sea, nothing but the wooden bridge was visible".

The storm smashed up nine boats of the local fleet which had been lying at anchor inside McCammon Rocks. A newspaper report said that

"had these boats been inside the pier, nothing would have been left of them but the moorings. This is another example (if one were needed) of how public money is wasted, owing to the refusal to consult local opinion on matters of this kind”.

In a debate in Parliament two weeks later, Scotland-born Thomas Wallace Russell MP for Tyrone South spoke on behalf of his party colleague James Wood MP for East Down. Russell raised the Portavogie harbour issue with Victor Cavendish, the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland:

“is he aware that the new pier at Portavogie, County Down, erected by the Board of Works in Ireland, has been destroyed by the recent storm; what steps he proposes to take to rectify the injury done, and will he consult and be guided by the advice of local opinion as to what should be done”.

Cavendish shrewdly dodged the issue, and replied that “The Board of Works have no advice of any damage to Portavogie Pier, which is not in their charge, but in that of the county authority”.

It was now time for the government to hear directly from the fishing community. On 25 April 1905 a delegation of two local fishermen, Mr Cully and Mr Mahood, and two members of Newtownards Rural District Council, Mr William Gowan (Ballyhalbert) and Robert B. Caughey J.P. (Portaferry), met with the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Walter Long

Long was in Ulster on a trip to Mount Stewart, to stay with the 6th Marquess of Londonderry, and the delegation met him there to tell him in person about what had happened. Mr Gowan said that “the new pier had been found of little value to the local fishermen. It was frequently submerged and afforded very little shelter to fishing boats. It had been computed that it would require upwards of £800 to repair the damaged boats”.

Mr Caughey advised that the Council proposed to meet with the County Surveyor and the engineer for the Board of Works, which the Chief Secretary agreed with. In return, the Chief Secretary also said he would make contact with the Department of Agriculture and Fishing.

After the meeting the Chief Secretary for Ireland wrote to Thomas Lorimer Corbett MP and said that he was

“greatly impressed with the businesslike, moderate, dignified way in which they presented their case. Nothing could possibly have been better done. I am very hopeful I shall be able to do something for them, they have done their best to help themselves”.

The public embarrassment, and the grassroots community pressure, paid off. By July 1905, the government had allocated a further £6216 for the improvement of Portavogie harbour.

However, the procurement and paperwork was slow, but thanks to the intervention of prominent Comber businessman Thomas Andrews, who was then the Chairman of Down County Council, it was approved in November 1907.

In the Northern Whig of 10 June 1908, the Council congratulated itself that it had secured a total of almost £15,000 for Portavogie harbour (which was the original inadequate cost, and the subsequent improvement cost added on top).

By May 1909 the work was well advanced, to the satisfaction of the locals and the Council, with the expectation that it would be finished by the end of the summer. In the end, it was summer 1910 before it was complete.

Portavogie’s first harbour took 3 years to build, and then 6 years to fix. The harbour has had many upgrades over the years, especially for the major three year project from 1952–55, and again in 1978. 

More improvements are planned for the coming years. The big lesson from the story of the village’s very first harbour is that it is essential for government agencies to always consult with the community and residents.


Here's a YouTube video of someone's cine film of the 1955 reopening of the harbour. Bowler-hatted gents, 'dunchered' men and Sunday best women – celebrating and signalling the end of the previous age, and the start of something new. For them it was a bright new era, but which itself is now long gone.


Timothy Belmont said...

That’s a very interesting article, Mark. Essential reading for anyone who’s eager to learn about the village’s maritime history.