Skillen

County Down


James Skillen

Strangford County Down
Strangford County Down

In 1854 my Great great grandfather James Skillen married Eliza Lowry. He was 19 and she was 17. They went on to have 12 children together, the 12th being my Great Grandfather Robert.

  1. Ellen b: 1854
  2. John b: 1856
  3. Anne b: 1857
  4. James b: 1859
  5. William b: 1861
  6. Charles b: 1864
  7. Elizabeth b: 1866
  8. Maria b: 1868
  9. Joseph T. b: 1869
  10. Samuel b: 1874
  11. Carolina b: 1877
  12. Robert b: 1878

James and Eliza worked for Colonel Wallace and his family at Myra Castle, the neighbouring Estate to Castleward near Strangford in County Down. He was a Coachman and she was a domestic servant. During the 19th and early 20th centuries estates like Castle Ward and Myra Castle were an important source of employment to the local community and generations of families including the Skillen’s followed each other into the service of these households.

Robert Skillen

Sarah Jane Gain and Robert Skillen were married in Christchurch, Ballyculter on 15th September 1910. They had both found work at Castle Ward during the time of Henry Ward, fifth Viscount Bangor. He and his wife Mary King employed a huge staff on a scale never to be known again on the estate. It consisted of a butler, 2 footmen, a personal valet, 4 housemaids, a personal maid, a cook, a kitchen maid, a scullery maid, laundry maids, a boot boy, a coachman, 2 grooms, a land steward and about 40 workmen who were mainly farm workers, gardeners, gamekeepers and a boatman.

Robert Skillen was employed as a gardener and was in charge of the “Little Garden” (about 4 acres), which he had helped create. It included the triangular and round beds between the stone flags of the sunken rose garden as well as the upper terraces of the rose beds with clipped box edges. Also a sloped rockery filled with perennials, agapanthus, large poppies and all the surrounding shrubs and lawns. When Maxwell Ward (the 6th Viscount of Bangor) inherited the estate after the death of his father in 1911, Robert was one of the gardeners kept on. He remained in employment there until the National trust took it over in 1950. My grandfather Albert also began his career as the gamekeeper at Castleward. My family gave almost 100 years of service to these houses

Castleward Today
Castleward Today

 

Robert and Sarah lived in the Downpatrick Gate Lodge, one of 20 properties on the estate and while the wages were low, Lord Bangor’s employees paid him no rent. The lodge consisted of 2 bedrooms, a hall, kitchen and a scullery and was situated in the clearing of the woods at the main entrance gate of the estate. The family earned themselves an extra half crown per week by opening a shutting the gate when Lord Bangor swept in and out. Robert and Sarah had 4 children together

  1. Hester (b: 1911),
  2. Ida (b: 1915),
  3. Albert (b: 1917) my grandfather
  4. Agnes (b: 1921).
Left: Albert and Agnes - Right: Robert Skillen
Left: Albert and Agnes – Right: Robert Skillen

 

He remained in employment there until the National trust took it over in 1950. My grandfather Albert also began his career as the gamekeeper at Castleward. My family gave almost 100 years of service to these houses.

Sarahs father, James Gain was an Iron Moulder from Glasgow (Scotland). He moved to Ireland in 1891 with his wife Sarah (nee Coates) and children Edward and Sarah Jane. Although they were married in Scotland Sarah was originally from Welshestown near Downpatick. I have managed to trace the Coates family who are strongly linked with Coulter’s back to the 18th Century and will add their history to this site in the near future.

James found work at the County Down foundries and settled a stone’s throw from Castle Ward on a little plot of land (17 acres) just beyond the estate walls on the Audleystown Road. Their home, known as “The Mallard” was a two roomed cottage and when he was old enough their son Edward farmed the surrounding land.

James Gain died before the 1901 census as Sarah was described as a widow. Edward joined the 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles in 1914 and was killed in the Battle of the Somme, 18th January 1918, leaving his mother Sarah to live in the cottage alone and let the land out to local farmers for grazing.

Growing up in Castleward

The position of the Downpatrick Gate Lodge was relatively isolated and there were not many children the same age as Albert living on the estate. He enjoyed the camaraderie school brought and with his younger sister he walked the 4 miles to the nearest school at Ballyculter clasping bread, jam and milk for his lunch. Albert and Agnes collected the son of the chauffeur from the stable yard at Castle Ward on their way to school and sometimes when they returned home the boy’s mother would give them cake. The school itself was distinct by being an integrated school with both a Catholic and Protestant teacher. About two-thirds of the children were Catholic and were given their religious instruction separately before going to class.

As a boy Albert enjoyed clambering up trees in the woods and going to visit his widowed grandmother at the Mallard. His mother would send him with food parcels and he would lend a hand by gathering wood for the fire. I recall visiting this house in the 1970’s and it had no electricity even then.

It was a happy but simple life and in the evening Albert helped his father with his woodwork hobby, making walking sticks and boats which they took down to play with at the bay near Strangford. Another passion of Robert’s was his music and although untrained, he learned by ear and I am told he was a talented musician. He taught all his children to play the fiddle by putting his thumb on the strings as they played.

When they left school all of Robert and Sarah’s children found employment at Castle Ward, Hester and Ida as servants and my grandfather as a Gamekeeper and they continued to live with their parents until they got married. As World War 2 broke out in 1939, my grandfather joined the Royal Ulster Rifles were he learned to drive and for a time during the war became Colonel Panner’s personal driver. He married my grandmother Florence Elizabeth Mary Major in 1941 and they had three children together

  1. Brian (b: 1942)
  2. Molly Patricia (my mother b: 1944)
  3. Peter (b: 1957).

After the war my grandfather moved to Belfast and became a lorry driver, a job he stayed with until he retired. Although he lived in the Whitewell housing estate for most of his married life, Albert kept in touch with his country roots. Never without his highly trained Springer spaniels, he maintained his hobby of shooting game when he could. He died in 2005 at the age of 88.

me, 18th January 1918, leaving his mother Sarah to live in the cottage alone and let the land out to local farmers for grazing.

National Trust takes over Castleward

In the autumn of 1950 Lord Bangor died leaving the estate to his son Edward who immediately found himself faced with the enormous death duty of £80,000. While Edward now the 7th Viscount Bangor sat in the family church at Ballyculter for his father’s funeral, he was weighed down by responsibilities he would rather not face. Eventually he moved back to London and handed the house and estate over to the National Trust. Unlike the majority of the estate staff, my great grandfather, Robert was relieved to find himself still employed when the National Trust took over and continued to work in the gardens until he retired. Even then he was reluctant to leave and he was well into his eighties when he stopped work. Robert died in 1961 and Sarah died some 14 years later at Lecale House, Downpatrick. Of all my great grandparents, Sarah is the only one I ever met. I have fond memories of visiting her as a boy at the little cottage on the Audleystown Road.

County Down Village Disappears

Nestled between the Castleward and Myra Castle Estates on the shores of Strangford Lough there was a village called Audleystown. In 1852, according to the last rent book available, the village had 25 families living there (201) inhabitants in total. They paid rent and in fact were employed Lord and Lady Bangor, who owned the Castleward Estate. 10 of these inhabitants were Skillens and 17 were Lowrys. Given the close proximity of all these locations I have every reason to believe they were related to my great great grandparents.

In October 1852 (2 years before my great grandparents were married) there is a story that all the residents of this village were unwillingly evicted and their homes were destroyed. The belief is they were herded on a ship called the Rose and sent to America. It remains my quest to discover their fate.

Visit Rosemary Marr’s website for more on the Disappearance of Audleystown.

On April 2012, BBC Northern Ireland also covered this story as a news feature (reporter: Claire Savage) The text and video can be viewed by clicking Mystery of the vanishing County Down village Audleystown

Parallel Lives by Davina Jones (published 2005)

Credit for some of the details on this page must go to Davina Jones and her book named “Parallel Lives”. The book is a remarkable biography of Colonel William Brownlow, `The Major’, and Agnes White (nee Skillen) my grandfathers sister.

The book chronicles two very different lives. One was well known in Northern Ireland society, becoming Lord Lieutenant for County Down – a World War II veteran who campaigned for local issues and championed horse-racing and country sports. The other life, was lived more quietly behind the scenes as a working mother and wife, chorister and talented amateur artist, but both were the faces of working lives well spent.

Click here to view/buy Parallel Lives

RTE Genealogy Roadshow

In the show originally aired in 2013 on Sunday 11th May at 7pm on RTE One, I made an appearance to get answers about Audleystown. Here is the short video.


In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.Ken Nerburn

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