When the Past met the Present

by “The Digger”

I was once told that if you needed to know anything about the Glenavy area “you just had to ring a Bell.” That may be meaningless to those who aren’t familiar with the area, but will make sense to those who have a more intimate knowledge of that district. Bellsgrove, Bellbrook, Bellvale and Bell’s Hill can be found in the surrounding districts on 19th century maps.

David Webber and Edward Bell

David Webber, from Canada and Edward Bell from Dundrod pictured recently at the Bell family burial ground, Killead Presbyterian Church. They are both descendants of Alexander Bell, whose death in 1837 is the first inscription on the Bell headstone.

The Public Record Office for Northern Ireland holds a series of transcripts of a hearth money roll taken across County Antrim in 1666. The hearth rolls were simply a record of the number of hearths that your holding had. You were then taxed 2 shillings per hearth.

A simple analysis of the surnames recorded for County Antrim in the 17th century hearth rolls show that the majority of the Bells were concentrated around the north-east corner of Lough Neagh, encompassing the districts of Drummaul, Antrim and Killead.

The Bell surname is prominent on the headstones and war memorials located in the churches and villages in the area.

One example of a Bell headstone dating from the 19th century can be found at Killead Presbyterian Church. It records the death of Alexander Bell of Tully “who departed this life the 2nd March 1837 aged 74 years.”

The death of Alexander Bell was recorded in the Belfast Newsletter dated 7th March 1837 and it provides an insight into his standing within the local community.

“At his residence, in Tully, Mr. Alexander Bell, aged 74 years. For his urbanity of manners, mildness of temper, and benevolent disposition, he was endeared to all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. He was a kind husband, an affectionate father, and an obliging neighbour … At all times, during his active life, he readily afforded his most zealous services for the public charities of the parish wherein he resided.”

If you have travelled on the A26 from Nutt’s Corner to Belfast International Airport then you will have passed through the townland of Tully. Killead Presbyterian Church is also situated in this townland. According the the Ordnance Survey Memoirs the church building was erected in about the year 1750, thirteen years prior to the birth of Alexander Bell.

Several months ago I had received an email from David Webber, a Canadian who was researching his ancestors. He believed that his grandmother, Maria Bell, had been born on a farm located at Tullyrusk, Glenavy. David was in possession of letters from the early 1930’s indicating that there were other family in the Killead area.

My instinct was of course to “ring a Bell” and after some research it was apparent to me that several of David’s distant relatives were still located in the Dundrod and Killead areas.

David’s great grandmother, Jane (nee Cormican) was the first wife of William Alexander Bell from Tullyrusk. He was in fact the grandson of the Alexander Bell of Tully. Fortunately details of this Bell family are captured in the rare surviving remnants of the 1851 census. This particular Bell family can all be traced back to the townlands of Tully and Ballynageeragh in the Killead area.

David Webber and Edward Bell first met each other with a handshake on Saturday 24th August, 2013 at Edward’s homeplace in Dundrod. They shared a common ancestor – William Alexander Bell.

William Alexander Bell married Jane Cormican from Knockcairn on 25th February 1870 at Glenavy and research has shown that they had eight children. Jane died in 1886 and six years later William married his second wife, Mary Lowry from Tullyrusk. It is known that they had six children.

A daughter from William Alexander Bell’s first marriage, Maria Jane, born in 1884, left Ireland in the early 20th century and emigrated to Canada. She married Samuel James Taylor who hailed from the Donaghadee area. David Webber and extended family members were now piecing together the family history. They discovered that Samuel James Taylor a soldier with the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles died in 1918 in World War I. Maria then married his brother Andrew in 1919.

David informed members of the extended Bell family, who had gathered at Dundrod to meet him, that when Maria’s mother Jane had died in 1886 her older sister Minnie had taken care of her and she always held her sister in great affection. It had taken 127 years for this story to filter down to the descendants of Minnie Bell, later to become Russell. Her grandson, Noel, was present at the Bell family home in Dundrod that morning to hear David’s accounts of the family history and experiences in Canada. David had with him a number of letters, photographs and postcards relating to the area that had been in the possession of his family for many years.

One of the most interesting items was a small notebook that had been kept by David’s late mother, Edith. It contained a number of names and addresses from the local area relating to the Bell family that had been visited by Jack Taylor, son of Samuel, in 1944 whilst he was serving with the forces during World War 2.

David missed an opportunity in 1987 to visit the area, whilst on business in Scotland, and he was determined that one day he would look-up his family history and hopefully locate some of his long lost relatives. His visit surpassed all expectations and he visited a number of the old ancestral homes met a number of relatives from both the Bell and Taylor family.

He had arrived in Ireland a week prior to his arrival in the Dundrod area. Amazingly he had transported his bicycle from Canada and he informed me he had “clocked” up over 500 kilometres during his first week on the ancestral soil.

After a week of extensive research in the Killead and Donaghadee areas David returned to Canada with a rich portfolio of his family history. There is still more work to be carried out this side of the Atlantic, and thanks to modern technology, David can maintain contact with his long-lost connections and progress the family history.

On his first meeting with Edward Bell at Dundrod, David announced – “I’ve never been to Ireland before.”

“You don’t know what you’ve been missing,” was the reply he received!

Research into the Bell family history and the extended family. To date that history links into the Killead and Glenavy family surnames – Bryson, Cormican, Johnston, Kirkpatrick, Lewis, Lowry, McGlade, Palmer, Porter, Robb, Russell, Thompson, Watters and White.

The Digger can be contacted via our Contact page.

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