Owing to the exposed nature of Newcastle harbour it was never a favourite port for larger sailing vessels, and the inshore boats which did use it were generally smaller than those of Kilkeel or Annalong.
Exactly when and by whom the first pier was built at Newcastle is unclear. If is known to have been in disrepair in the mid-1820s when John Lynn opened up a granite quarry on Thomas mountain. A longer second pier was built to the south of the original one in the late 1820s. Samuel Lewis reports in his Topographical Dictionary of lreland (1837): “A commodious pier has been erected on an excessive scale at an expense of £30,000; it is accessible at high water to vessels of large burden, and has been very beneficial to the trade of the town”.
Lord Annesley apparently contributed £2,000 towards its cost and the Fisheries Board a further £1,500. The harbour served a three-fold purpose:
- as a base for fishermen,
- as a base for the Coastguards,
- and as a port of call for coasting schooners engaged in the export of oats, barley, potatoes and granite:
It was also home to luggers, nickeys and nobbies engaged in fishing.
In 1838, the pier was severely damaged in a storm. Despite a petition from Rev J. Moore (agent to the Annesley estate) to the Board of Works in 1841, no official action was forthcoming until 1847 when it approved rebuilding and extending the ‘new’ pier and the construction of a breakwater-cum-quay to the north of the ‘old’ pier.
It is also on record that the policy of providing public funds to assist in the building of such harbours as Portavogie and Ardglass began in 1846, and with the authority of Parliament harbours were also constructed at Annalong, Ballywalter, Newcastle and Kilkeel The 1847 scheme is shown in a BoW map reproduced in Guide to the Archives of the Office of Public Works (OPW,1994). This work got underway in 1848, but was curtailed by future storm damage and poor workmanship.
It was finally completed in 1850 at a cost of £10,000. Unfortunately, Newcastle’s southern pier was breached yet again in 1852 and 1854. Such damage seems to have been a recurrent theme in the harbour’s history; George Bassett, writing in 1888, noted that about 100 foot of the pier was washed away in 1874. Repairs were eventually effected. Reverting to the year 1850. this period saw further investment in Newcastle with the building of a lifeboat house, a coastguard station and a bathing house – the last named heralding the town’s beginning as a holiday resort.
THE SOUTHERN PIER
To continue with work at the harbour, a major contract on the large pier was completed in 1905, the work taking place around the same time as the building of the Slieve Donard Hotel. A resident of the harbour area, Jim Murphy of King Street, interviewed in 1995, remembered his father saying that he worked as a nipper (a young lad) at the building of the new pier.
Former Harbour-Master Hugh Paul described how the quarried stones were transported from Millstone mountain. ‘The stones’ he said, ‘were loaded on to buggies which were operated on a railroad system. A full buggy when released pulled up an empty one. and when the empty one was filled and released it pulled up another empty one, and so on. ‘When the full buggies came down to Forge Row above the harbour. their loads were transferred by crane on to flat carts which were drawn down to the harbour by horses working ‘fore and aft’.’ The stones were shipped mainly to Liverpool,’ said Hugh ‘or taken by railway to Downpatrick, or to Belfast for the erection of big buildings including Stormont. ‘The men who quarried stone on the mountain,’ he added, ‘were paid fourteen shillings per fortnight’.
Coming to the latter part of the twentieth century, Down District Council in 1974 decided to spend up to £10,000 to protect the big pier from being undermined. It was reported that approximately 1,000 tons of huge boulders which had been tipped over the seaward side of the pier in 1972 had been moved by severe gales in January and February of 1974. Subsequent measures by the Council affected the entrance to the harbour to the extent that the lifeboat could leave and enter at only limited states of the tide. But, the building of the new lifeboat house outside the harbour in 1993 solved that particular problem. (considerable silting still occurs around the entrance to the harbour and requires the council to hire contractors to remove the sand deposits and does to a certain extent have an effect on the lifeboat launching)
Fishing itself at Newcastle was at a low ebb ever since the fishing disaster of 1843, when 46 fishermen from Newcastle and 27 from Annalong lost their lives in the greatest fishing tragedy these shores have ever known. (separate article).
Mr Paul, however, recalled that in his boyhood days some 40 to 50 skiffs would assemble in the bay and set out to fish mainly along the Mourne coast. A few of the skiffs which came readily to his mind included Bonny Jane, Primrose, Golden Bough, St. Patrick, St. Mary, Shooting Star, Express and John Francis (an ex-marine lifeboat). Robert and Jack Orr, he said, owned a schooner. Speaking of the long-line fishermen, Hugh said they often fished for whiting in Strangford Lough. The boats were mostly 16 ft. or 1 7ft. and a notable one was the Jane owned by James Smith.
He also recalled that James and William Gould built open skiffs and punts for sailing, and also dinghies, in Castle Park. ‘Their sister Jeannie’, he added, ‘helped in the softening of the timber, and in driving and clinching the nails’. ‘But there’s no skiff fishing and no boat building now’ added Hugh, wistfully.