The Rev. Thomas Millar
By Ken Austin

1st Presbyterian Church

As the clock struck midday on Tuesday 8th June 1858 a very special public meeting was brought to order in the Lurgan Town Courthouse, by the Seneschal, John Hancock Esq J.P. Present were Lord Lurgan, James Armstrong, T. Cuppage and many of the gentry, clergy and ordinary folk of Lurgan and the surrounding area. The meeting was called to discuss the possibilities of a fitting tribute to the recently deceased Rev. Thomas Millar, a man who had only resided in Lurgan for eleven short years. So who was this man who had garnered such support from all factions of the community, a man so well respected that it was felt proper to raise a monument to him?

Thomas Millar was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1819 to the Rev. Thomas Millar, the local Presbyterian minister, and his second wife, a Miss Lyttle. Thomas Millar Snr served as a minister in Cookstown for forty-eight years. He was a great proponent of education for every man, woman and child in the country and ran an Academy in Cookstown from 1806 -1840. Growing up in the strict regime of a Presbyterian household – the manse in Loy Street, Cookstown - suited the young Thomas Millar Jnr. A natural Scholar and Sportsman, he excelled at everything he set his mind to. He attended his father's Academy in Cookstown which put great emphasis on the Classics and by all accounts gave a very high standard of education. Sadly no school records from that time have survived. Suffice it to say that when the time came Thomas Jnr moved to the precursor of the Belfast Institute, the Old Belfast College where he attained his General Certificate of Education in 1841. From the outset there was no doubt Thomas Jnr would follow his father into the Presbyterian ministry. A passionate orator he would spellbind his listeners wherever he went. He was licensed by the Tyrone Presbytery on November 2nd 1841 and in an unprecedented move was ordained as a missionary third class into the Home Mission in Bandon near Cork on 24th May 1842 at the age of 23, a full six years ahead of his contemporaries. He was sent to Tralee in South West Ireland where his tireless work among the poor and needy is still remembered to this day. He laboured there for two years, until one day in late August 1844 he received “The Call” from the Presbyterian Directorate and was sent to the First Presbyterian Church in the town of Lurgan in County Armagh.

The town of Lurgan in the mid 19th century was abuzz with activity. The Linen Trade had opened up markets all over the world and the new power loom factories brought prosperity to the town and a means of feeding the families of many. In the ten short years from 1831 to 1841 the population had doubled to some 4,677 inhabitants. The "Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland" for 1844-45 describe the social state of the town as follows:

  • Houses 670
  • Families employed chiefly in agriculture, 250
  • Families employed in manufactures and trade, 524
  • Families employed in other pursuits, 118
  • Families dependent chiefly on property and professions 46
  • On the directing of labour, 497
  • On their own manual labour, 329
  • On means not specified, 20.
  • Males at and above the age of five who could read and write, 431
  • Who could neither read nor write. 538
  • Females at and above the age of five years who could read and write, 603
  • Who could read but not write, 756
  • Who could neither read nor write. 785

Rev. Thomas MillarThomas Millar was to take over from the Rev. Hamilton Dobbin who had presided over the building of the present church in 1827-28. The Rev. Dobbin who had suffered bad health for a number of years found the everyday duties of tending to an ever expanding flock, harder and harder to execute and so on 1st October 1844 he retired. From the outset the Rev. Millar threw himself into his work among the poor and needy of the town regardless of their religious leanings. At all hours of the day and night, this tall young man could be seen, not only striding along the streets of the town, but also on the roads to Portadown, Derrytrasna and other villages in the area, sometimes walking 20 or 30 miles per day. It's remarkable that during this time, he also managed to find love, in the shape of Isabella Girdwood a local girl, the daughter of John Girdwood one of the ministries elders and a member of the church committee. They were married just thirteen short months after his arrival and took up residence in Silverwood House, the manse in the High Street still being occupied by the Rev. Dobbin, who baptised their first child, a daughter Diana McCoubrey Millar on 10th November 1847.

By 1847 the whole of Ireland was in the grip of one of the greatest famines the world had ever known. A letter dated 23rd February 1847 written by a clergyman of the Church of England to the Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, paints a grim picture of life.

'The population of this parish has been hitherto chiefly supported by weaving, carried on in their own houses. The weaver at present can only earn, by weaving a web of sixty yards, two shillings and sixpence to four shillings and sixpence, which employs him nearly a whole week in preparation, while at present prices such wages will not support the mere weaver without a family. Even with such wages, I can state it as a fact having come under my own immediate observation, that weavers are sitting up three nights per week in order by any means to procure food for their families. There is scarcely a family in the parish in which there is not some one or more members of the family sitting up nightly. I have seen them in returning to my home, (from visiting the sick) at 2 am working as busily as in the daytime. In several cases I hove relieved individuals in their own houses who from exhaustion had been compelled to lie down, and could no longer continue to work on the loom. This has been, and is now, the only means of employment. There are no private or public works carrying on, or about to be carried on in the district and even this mode of scanty and insufficient employment is now rapidly ceasing.

The distress has been greatly augmented of late by the turnip crop, on which numbers were subsiding, having become exhausted, it has been greatly increased by the fact, that the poor having now almost entirely sold or pawned all their clothes, even in many cases their Bibles, they have no further resources from whence to draw.

I have myself witnessed the living lying on straw by the side of the unburied dead, who had died three days before. Many cases from actual starvation have occurred amongst the able-bodied, without reckoning the aged and infirm, who have been cut off by the effect of starvation, or the many many unnumbered children who have died from the same cause. I have been called to see a girl of four years old, a few weeks ago a strong healthy girl, who then was so emaciated as to be unable to stand or move a limb. I hove visited houses where there was no article of food or clothing, nothing but straw to lie upon, not even a stool to sit upon, and some of whose inmates, I fear at the moment I write, must have perished. One of the poor-houses of the district, Lurgan is shut for egress or ingress; seventy-five died in one day.

In Armagh poor-house forty-five die weekly. Before Lurgan poor-house was closed, it emitted pestilence info our parish, already full of dysentery and fever. Last year, to have been buried without a hearse would have been a lasting stigma to a family, now hearses are almost laid aside; even the Roman Catholic priest ceases, (I have it from his own lips) to attend funerals in his grave-yard. His congregation, he has told me, has been reduced to almost nothing; while the congregation of the church of which I am clergyman has been reduced to forty from fifty or sixty persons. I saw with my own eyes on Sunday February 7th, the Presbyterian Meeting house emptying its contents - a congregation of four.

We are, in short, rapidly approaching, and if unassisted must arrive at the worst of the pictures that have been presented to the public from the County of Cork.

Millar Memorial PanelThe Rev. Millar believed that education was the key to deliver people from poverty and with the help of the Church committee, he, like his father before him, laid plans to open a school at the back of the Presbyterian Church in the High Street at a cost of £235. The Rev. Millar was determined to raise the social standing of not only his own flock but intended that all the people of the town should benefit from his efforts. Over the following years he became the President of the Lurgan Literary Society, taking over from local brewer Samuel Watts, who had died the previous month and who's endowment paid for the building of Lurgan College. He published a periodical known as, 'The Lurgan Monthly Messenger' whose circulation would soon be spread across the whole island or Ireland. His oratory skills filled the church every week and the continually growing population of the town saw many of the congregation forced to listen to him preach from the street outside. It was decided that a second church was needed to accommodate the congregation and a site was purchased in nearby Hill Street.

The Rev. Millar was admired and respected by all member of the community and his tireless work on behalf of Catholic, Quaker and Jew, as well as his own congregation knew no bounds. Eventually this took a toll on his health and in 1856 he was forced to give up the editorship of 'The Messenger.' His refusal to slow down and delegate some of his duties to others, further deteriorated his health and in February 1858 the suggestion of an assistant was noted in the church minutes. In May he was persuaded to take a two week break from his labours and set off for England in the hopes that the rest would restore the health of this dynamic preacher. On Saturday 8th May 1858 he wrote to his wife informing her he would be home on Tuesday morning. Sadly this was not to be.

Slowly news trickled back to Lurgan that some mishap had befallen the respected Reverend. Details were scarce, but then on 13 May the Belfast Morning News reported:

We deeply regret to learn by telegraph, that by an accident on the railway, in England, the Rev. Mr. Millar, of Lurgan, has, with others, lost his life. The only particulars that have, for so far, reached the press, are these: A dreadful accident occurred Monday morning, on the Trent Valley Railway, one mile from Nuneaton, on the nine am train. Three persons were killed, whose names are: the Rev. T. Millar, of Lurgan, Ireland, Mr. Morgan of Shrewsbury and Mr. Richmond, of New Maryport, Cumberland. Among the injured passengers are Mr. Juce, a barrister, Miss Richmond, daughter of the above deceased, Mr. Boyan, of Glasgow; and a Mr. Dellas.

From the official account in the Daily News, a cow had strayed onto the line, and was struck by the engine, throwing several of the carriages of the metals, killing three passengers, and injuring some others. The engine itself did not leave the rails. The Rev. gentleman was, we learn, accompanied by his daughter, and it is hoped that she has not sustained any serious injury, for being in the same carriage with her father, it is not to be expected that she can have entirely escaped. The greatest sympathy was manifested in Belfast, yesterday, among the Presbyterian clergymen attending the Synod, at the loss of Mr. Millar; and in Lurgan, Portadown, Lisburn, Moira, Tandragee, and other places where he was well known, the anxiety of the people to learn the particulars, and the forcible manner in which they gave expression to their grief, supplied unequivocal evidences of the high position which Mr. Millar has risen in their estimation. In Lurgan he was popular with every one; performing his duties as a minister most unostentatiously; and making a friend of all who were brought in contact with him. He was for some time the editor of the Monthly Messenger, little serial for circulation among the Presbyterian community, and resigned the responsibility when the state of his health required him to do so. His remains will, we presume, be removed to this country for internment.

We expected that the London papers of Tuesday would have contained a detailed report of the accident; but they do not supply anything beyond what is given above. We learn that the remains of the Rev. gentleman are expected to arrive in Belfast tomorrow morning via Fleetwood; and at one o'clock will be removed from the Lurgan station of the Ulster Railway for interment in the burying-ground attached to the Lurgan Presbyterian Church. The deceased was in his 41st year; and having been labouring under indisposition, was making a short tour in England to recruit his health, when his death took place under the distressing circumstances above narrated.

As the train pulled into Lurgan Station it was met by a crowd, described as being between four and five thousand people. Among those forming the solemn procession were the Right Honourable Lord Lurgan, John Hancock, Rev. Thomas Knox, the rector of the parish church and many clergy from the Dromore and Armagh Presbyteries. On Sunday 30th May the Rev John Barnett of Moneymore conducted a funeral service in the church, which was filled to capacity with many more spilling into the street. His periodical, 'The Monthly Messenger', paid a solumn tribute. "In Mr Millar's removal, the Church to which he belonged has lost a faithful pastor from her ranks. His holy ingenuity in devising means of good, his gentleness, his devotedness, his mild and conciliating spirit, will not soon be forgotten. The congregation to which he ministered will miss the gentle voice that used to come when sorrow came, and the hand that used to come when the waters of affliction were not yet assuaged, to bring the leaves of promise gathered from Him, whose name is "the Branch". Many tributes were made, none more fitting than that from the Board of Guardians of the Lurgan Union workhouse where Rev. Millar had been a chaplain for ten years. "His zeal was so great that he thought it little to sacrifice his health in the service of his Heavenly Master".

The Millar MemorialAnd so at that special meeting on 8th June it was proposed and seconded that a monument be erected in honour of the Reverend Minister. Lord Lurgan was invited to take the chair and said.

“He was sure that they would all agree with him, when he stated that whenever any public meeting had been called in Lurgan for any philanthropic purposes, they would always find Rev. Millar present, taking an active and prominent part in it, and during the last winter he had endeavoured to mitigate the distress of the poor, who had suffered considerably, owing to the temporary reverse in the staple trade of the country. He (Lord Lurgan) knew also how Mr. Millar had endeavoured to establish a proper system of education, which he was well aware was the true root and origin of a countries improvement. A few days before his departure for England, he had called at Brownlow House in company with Mr. Bell to discuss the best means of establishing a school in the Moyntaghs a district very much improved. The fact that there were very few Presbyterians in the area did not deter him from wanting to help educate those from other religions.”
The motion to build a monument, to be paid for by subscription was proposed by Mr. Francis Fford and seconded by James Armstrong Esq and was carried unanimously. Dr. Shaw was asked to act as Secretary of the Monument Committee.

Surprisingly no words of regret or remorse came from The London and North Western Railway Company who ran the Trent Valley Railway and they categorically denied that the fences on the line were in disrepair. The widow of the late Rev. Millar had no course of action open to her but to take them to court. And this she did on 5 February 1859 in the Court of the Queens Bench, Westminster, before Lord Campbell and a special jury. The court found that the fences along the line were insufficient to stop animals, in this case a cow, from wandering onto the line from the adjacent fields. The London and North Western Railway Company were ordered to pay damages to the plaintiff in the sum of £2,300. The Foreman also commented that the jury were outraged to learn from the evidence, that so many of the railway fences throughout the country were in such a sorry state of repair.

So the next time you walk along William Street and get to the junction with Charles Street, give a nod to the man that did so much for every one of our ancestors regardless of creed, faith or standing in the community.

Our grateful thanks to D B Cassells and the Craigavon Historical Society for some of the information used in this article.

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