A Ballymena Coachbuilder

Hugh and Lizzie Mc Williams were my paternal grandparents. They were born in Ballymena about 1879. I recall little of them or their lives; they are in shadow, I am unable to see them. Working on this series of stories has thrown up regular surprises and no less so here where I discovered another family that faced financial ruin in times of change.

My grandfather and namesake Hugh McWilliams died when I was a toddler. With his wife Lizzie they lived in a 2-up-2-down terrace house on the hill on Princess Street in Ballymena. The house, near the train station, became my second home where my Aunts, Lily and Martha doted on us children. To my mother, a stranger to the town, this came as welcome family support. These regular visits to 45 Princess Street established an order that would run into my teenage years.

Lily and May with their parents Lizzie and Hugh McWilliams in 1950.

Although my grandmother Lizzie died when I was ten, I have little sense of her, my memory unyielding. If pressed, she is a ghost-like figure, standing at the return on the stairs, dark in her long blue pinafore over a woollen skirt, her grey hair tied back in a bun, an aged face masked behind large round glasses. She looks at me without expression, yet stern, comes down towards me, heavy black shoes ring hollow on the lino-covered treads. At the bottom of the stairs she turns and goes into the back room and scullery. I’m on my own in the dark hallway.

Hugh was born in 8 Alexander Street one of 5 children. When I was running about the town the street was ready for demolition to make way for a new road, a few occupants left. We thought it a slum, called it Clabber Street.

All his siblings had a trade; he was a coachbuilder, James a shoemaker, Elizabeth a spinner, Catherine a dress maker, James a cabinet maker, while his father Robert was a labourer.

Hugh and Lizzie Logan and were married in Kells Presbyterian Church in 1908, five miles from their home church on Wellington Street in Ballymena. They were strongly religious, enforcing regular bible study, believing in strict Sunday observance and regular church attendance. Hugh was an active Orangeman in the Galgorm Parks Lodge; its Lambeg drums often beating their practice rhythms across the green countryside on a warm June evening.

This Kells Church had been at the epicentre of the Ulster Revival with the first convert in late 1857. The following two years it spread to Ahoghill, Ballymena and beyond claiming over 10,000 converts; those who with deep personal conviction, repented their former sins, claimed Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and were “born again”.

At the Revival’s height prayer meetings and bible studies, taken mostly by lay preachers were running from morning to night. The conversions were marked by prostrations, visions, and speaking in tongues – scenes not typical of the dour Ulster stereotype – and resulted in disruptions to ordinary work and business, frowned upon by some traditional Calvinists. Hugh’s parents, certainly influenced by the Ulster Revival, were likely converts at one of these meetings. The influence of the Revival was felt for decades to come and is still viewed as a highwater mark of Christian renewal; in Ulster most converts swelled the Presbyterian congregations.

The Pentagon, Ballymena, reputedly with its first motor car circa 1900.
Hugh’s workshop is about 200 yards from here.
(Old Photos of Ballymena on Facebook)

By the age of thirty Hugh had a successful business and the couple had their first two children, Mary called May and Lizzie called Lily. He had an established coach building enterprise with several employees, operating out of a workshop behind his home in Albert Place.

Misfortune befell him with the introduction of the motor car. Challenged by a reduced demand for coaches and carts his business collapsed. With his employees gone he took whatever work he could get, maintaining a small workshop until he retired. By 1915 the family had moved to a rented house in Princess Street where my father was born. These events may have affected Hugh’s health; in his later life he was a very shy man, uncomfortable in company, particularly female company.

Hugh and Lizzie were at my parents’ wedding in Manorhamilton Parish Church and after in Sligo Town in 1950. In an informal wedding picture outside the church they look frail and slightly out of place.  Hugh died a few years later in 1954. His coffin was appropriately placed in a carriage drawn by two black horses. In his honour the Galgorm Parks Orange Lodge with its Lambeg drums and band would, for some years, stop in respect outside his Princess Street home, on their way to the annual 12th of July celebrations.  My Grandmother, Lizzie died in February 1961 and they are buried together in Ballymena Cemetery.


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