Exiles Forum

Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

“A Short History of Railway Street Presbyterian Church,
Lisburn 1930 - 1956.”

by the Rev. Dr. John Knox Elliott.

Rev. John Knox Elliott

Rev. Dr. John Knox Elliott
Minister of Railway Street Presbyterian Church - 1939 to 1961

In the year 1930 the Kirk Session of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, Lisburn, consisted of seven members: The Very Rev. R. W. Hamilton, M.A., D.D., and the ruling elders: James Boyd, (Clerk), David Kirkpatrick, James Madden, Samuel B. McCleery, Dr. J. W. Peatt, and James Shortt, J.P. Secretary of the Congregational Committee was Fred W. Duncan; Treasurer, R. P. Alexander. In charge of Freewill Offering was Donald Anderson and the sexton was Robert McCausland. Jack Kearney (Captain) and E. Erwin (Lieutenant) had charge of the Boys’ Brigade and the Sabbath School Superintendents were Mr. Jonathan Graham (Morning) and James Boyd (afternoon) and at Hilden David Erwin. James Howard and Thomas Warwick (Treasurer)

Dr. Hamilton had sought leave to retire from the active duties of the pastorate and the congregation made out a call to the Rev. Thomas Henry Robinson, M.A., B.D. then minister in First Cookstown and he was ordained as assistant and successor to Dr. Hamilton on Wednesday 10th September 1930. A native of Ballyclare district, Mr. Robinson had spent some years in business before entering the ministry and came to Lisburn with a reputation for scholarship and learning. In this last annual report in (1929) Dr. Hamilton had written: - “This is a great day abounding in advantages for the young people of our church, in Sabbath Schools and Bible Classes, in Girls Auxiliary, Boys’ Brigade, Life Boys, in Band of Hope and Music Classes their highest interests are being eagerly sought by numbers of earnest workers.” This was a tradition which Mr. Robinson did his best to maintain and, though some of the organisations mentioned by Dr. Hamilton have ceased, their place has been taken by others.

During the next nine years Mr. Robinson proved himself to be a scholarly preacher and a fine pastor. His thoughtful expositions in the pulpit and his kindly and cheery good nature, won him the high regard and esteem of the congregation.

The following year (1931) Mr. Caldwell Gillespie was appointed to assist in pastoral work and continued to do so for the next four years when he received a call from the congregations of Mountmellick and Drogheda and later went to England. His place as assistant was taken in 1935 by Mr. R. S. Moreland Kennedy who three years later went to 1st and 2nd Ray and afterwards emmigrated to Canada. There was a change also in the position of organist in that year (1938). Mr. Donald Anderson going to take up an appointment in his native Lurgan and his place being taken by Mr. Robert Moorehead. Another change was that in April 1935 Mr. Fred W. Duncan resigned and Mr. William Bowden was elected to the position of Congregational Secretary.

During these years the congregation was bereaved of a number of outstanding men. In 1933 occurred the death of Mr. Jonathan Graham. “He was (as is recorded in the Session Minute Book) a most worthy man, a member of Kirk Session for a considerable time, Superintendent of the Morning Sabbath School. He was more than ordinarily generous in his contributions to every good cause and particularly to the poor of the congregation. After a long and painful illness God gave him rest from his labours. His works do follow him.”

Then on 12th October 1935 came the death of the Senior Minister. To quote again from the Minutes of Kirk Session: On Tuesday 8th October last (four days before his death) Dr. Hamilton completed his fiftieth year as minister of Railway Street, and during all these years he gave himself, body, mind and soul, devotion and unflagging zeal to the work of God in this congregation. His outstanding ability in business organisation and leadership has a lasting memorial in the Brownlee School, the Lecture Hall and the Manse, all of which were erected during his ministry and largely by his effort. The flourishing state of the congregation – in numbers, finance and spiritual life – when he retired from active duty in the eightieth year of his age was, and is, a striking testimony to the hold he had upon the affection and loyalty of the people to whom he had ministered for so long a period. His whole-hearted devotion to his entire ministry has, we are confident, won him the Great Master’s, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

A portrait of Dr. Hamilton was presented to his son, Mr. Robert Victor Hamilton, L.L.B., and now hangs in the Lecture Hall. Another painted portrait of the late pastor in his Moderatorial Robes was commissioned by the Dromore Presbytery and hung in the upper room.

Following shortly after the demise of Dr. Hamilton came the death in December of another member of Session, James Wesley Peatt, M.D. Dr. Peatt had been an elder since May 1923 and it is recorded of him that “his visits to the homes of the families in his district were highly appreciated. His Christian example remains a fragment memory and he was diligent in his attendance at meetings of Presbytery and General Assembly.”

The work of the church went steadily on. The first 2 weeks of 1936 saw a big Evangelistic Mission and also in that year the Girl Guide Company was formed. It was reported that in the three Sabbath Schools there were 370 children and 42 teachers besides five Bible Classes. But the congregation finances were causing some anxiety. The Treasurer, in the 1937 report gave this warning: “Since 1935 there has been a gradual falling off in givings to Church funds, mainly due to deaths of individual members rather than to any decrease in the amounts of contributions. The alarming point is that the loss is not being made good and unless there is a rise in the general level of contributions that decrease will continue with disastrous results to our financial position.” The previous year (1936) £718 had to be spent on Manse Renovation and now contributions to Missions had to be cut to £237 with only £90 to Foreign Mission the lowest recorded figure for this item in the history of the congregation. But times were hard and it was not till 1941 that congregational givings showed any real increase.

During 1937 some of the ladies of the congregation, led by Mrs. Robinson were instrumental in creating a Lecture Hall Repairs Fund and soon over £500 was in hand. The Lecture Hall needed renovation and it was proposed to extend the platform, build a new porch and provide kitchen facilities and add a new heating stove. Nothing was done at the time and later unforeseen events were to upset many plans.

In May 1938, the Rev. T. H. Robinson accepted a call to Magee University College, Londonderry where he was appointed to the chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy and Logic. Oddly enough he was the second minister of our congregation to become a Professor at Magee College.

The congregation set about finding a new minister and eventually made a unanimous call to Rev. John Knox Elliott B.A. who like his predecessor was a native of East Antrim and came to us from the congregation of Islandmagee. The installation took place in the afternoon of Wednesday 11th January 1939 in Railway Street Church.

Thereafter events moved quickly. In August Messrs Alex Boyd & Co. Ltd. tendered for the year’s supply of coke and coal “Subject to the usual war, strike and lockout clauses.” Estimates for repairs to Lecture Hall were given “provided there was no worsening in the international situation.” Three weeks later the international situation had worsened. We were at war. Like every other social institution the Church activities were affected by wartime regulations. The Lecture Hall was immediately commandeered by the Military Authorities and later the old Girls’ Schoolroom was taken over. Blackout material for the church windows cost £35.5.3 and fire-fighting precautions had to be provided in the roof-space and the church building. It was discussed whether the evening service should be held at 3o’clock in the afternoon or discontinued altogether in the dark nights. But the congregation, like the people of these islands, battled through and carried on in faith that a new and brighter day would dawn. One of the unfortunate economies forced on the committee during the war years was the cutting down of the Annual Reports so that the records are less complete than they might otherwise have been.

In June 1941 Mr E. R. B. McCluggage succeeded Mr. Alexander as treasurer. In September Mr. D. G. Leinster was appointed organist in place on Mr. Moorhead and in May of the following year Mr Samuel Kennedy B.A., was appointed Assistant Minister.

In October the Committee passed a vote of thanks to the Leaders of the Youth Organisations, “who were carrying on under difficult circumstances. Their bearing at the Armistice Day Service had provided considerable admiration.” So with all the regular congregational services during the war years they never ceased “under difficult circumstances.”

In 1945 the war was over, the regulations were lifted, the military vacated the Lecture Hall and, it having being redecorated, the Sabbath Services were held there for a time while the Church itself was being spring-cleaned and electric heating installed. Commenting on the services in the Lecture Hall Mr. Elliott referred to the greater degree of friendliness apparent among the members of the congregation consequent upon the informal nature of the meetings in the Hall.

In his statement at the Annual Meeting he spoke of the cessation of hostilities as providing a great opportunity to mankind to build a more Christian civilisation. He appealed for a fuller use of the Church.
Human nature (he said) needs to be developed and changed by the receiving of those resources of God which we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

In May 1946 Mr. Edward Lockhart was appointed sexton in place of Robert McCausland who had served faithfully for 19 years.

Then the congregation suffered another great loss in the death of Mr. James Boyd M.A., LB., who had been Clerk of Session since 1923. “He rendered faithful service and set a high standard of church membership. He had his own clear and definite opinions, but he was ever ready to help, according to his ability, in any work which was for the good of the church and for the advancement of God’s Kingdom on earth. He was undoubtedly an intellectual and cultural force in the congregation and in the community. Above all he showed by his own manner of life what an active faith means.” (Minutes of Session 31/7/46) The life, influence and service of James Boyd will long remain a source of inspiration to members of our congregation. As Clerk of Session he carried out the duties of that office with vision, and thoroughness and with a graciousness which endeared him to all who knew him.

Here a word of praise is due to the work of the repairs committee who were constantly being asked to see to minor jobs needing to be done to the Lecture Hall, at the Manse, in the Sexton’s house, in the various rooms and passageways, as well as in and around the church building itself. But overshadowing all these repair jobs was one big job so long standing. The old Girl’s Schoolroom was in a state bordering on dangerous. The roof was unsound and the back wall showed ominous bulges and the ceiling threatened to come down.

Expert opinion was sought and the advice was that though some patching-up work might be successful the only real solution was to re-build the whole structure. The problem was the cost. At least £7,000 would be required and the electric heating installation was not yet paid for. The matter was referred to the Finance Committee and an appeal made to the congregation. With characteristic thoroughness Mr. George Duncan undertook to visit every home in the congregation and succeeded in collecting over £1,000 for the Renovation Fund. This meant that the work of re-building could be put in hand and by November 1952 both the Minor Hall and the Sexton’s house were completely renovated. It was also suggested that the furnishings of the Minor Hall should be donated as a War Memorial and this was accomplished by means of subscriptions from church members to a War Memorial Fund, which realised some £400.

All this expense left the congregation heavily in debt and in 1953 there was launched the Five Years Scheme where by an effort was to be made to clear the deficit by annual, monthly, or weekly subscriptions from each family, the final target being £7,000.

In 1953 the Women’s Missionary Association gave the sum of £850 to the Renovation Fund in addition to £350 worth of 3½% War Stock. This represented the accumulated assets of the fund started by the ladies in 1937. The renovation Fund was greatly helped, also, by the introduction, in 1949, of the Inland Revenue Covenant Scheme which enabled the church to benefit from Tax Rebate to the extent of nearly £400 each year.

On 14th November 1948 the BBC Sunday Evening Community Hymn Singing was broadcast from Railway Street and on Sunday 5th February 1950, the Rev. J. K. Elliott conducted the Morning Service at 9.30am, which was relayed from the Church.

The death of Mr. David McKee in June 1947 must be recorded. He was devoted to the Boys’ Brigade and had taken an active interest and a leading part in the Company in connection with our congregation since the year 1909 when it was first formed. He was succeeded in the captaincy of the company by his son, James, who also died tragically four years later. Another death which occurred in 1952 was that of Mr. Jack Kearney who was also a devoted member of the B.B. Company in its early days. Also about that time occurred with tragic suddenness the death of another faithful B.B. leader, Mr. Ernest Erwin. All these and others had given generously of their time and talents towards the Brigade ideal – “the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom among boys”, and departing, they “leave behind them footprints in the sands of time.”

In December of the same year occurred the death of Mr. Joseph Fraser who for very many years had been a regular member of both the choir and of the Congregational Committee.

In 1949 the congregation suffered another great loss in the sudden death of Mr. George Duncan. He died as he would have wished “ in active service.” And leaves a fragrant memory of his kind and friendly personality and an example of devoted service to the church he loved. George Duncan was a member of Committee in 1905 and its secretary in 1907. Thereby he served faithfully and well as Secretary, Church Treasurer, Convenor of the Finance Committee and since its inception in 1920 had charge of the Free Will Offering Envelopes Scheme. For almost half a century he had served his church faithfully and constantly. A memorial Service was held in the Church on 26th February 1949. A substantial and well-deserved presentation had been made to him about a year previously.

About this time, the Rev. J. K. Elliott was involved in a serious motor accident in which he was severely injured and his car badly smashed. For some months he was laid aside and recovered slowly but by March 1949 he was able to appear at the Congregational Meeting and accept the gift of a new car, which the members were happy to provide for him as an expression of their affection and satisfaction at his recovery. In accepting it Mr. Elliott said, “It is like beginning my ministry among you all over again. I have discovered such warm friendship and goodwill amongst you that it seems like the time, ten years ago, that you gave me such a warm and cheery welcome to Railway Street. My first word must be of gratitude to the goodness of God in sparing my life in great danger. I hope I have still some contribution to make to the service of His church and the work of His Kingdom. I am grateful for the overwhelming proof of your loyalty and affection especially in these latter days.”

During the following year the Upper Room and Minister’s Room and Choir Room were completely re-decorated and the Manse re-wired. It is worth recording that the Brownie Pack presented the electric clock for the upper room and also that Mr. Burns's Bible Class provided the electric clock for the minor hall. It was about this time that flowers were first placed on the organ console, a rose bowl being provided for flowers during Communion Services. Since then flowers have been provided every Sunday by a rota of ladies.

For seven years Rev. Samuel Kennedy had acted efficiently as Assistant Minister but now he left to take the charge of another congregation of St. Andrews, Cregagh. Our congregation were sorry to lose him but welcomed Rev. Harold R. Burns, M.A., H. Dip Ed., as his successor.

Another innovation was the formation, in 1952, of a Children’s Choir with the idea of training young people to be able to take their place in the praise service of the church. It was fortunate that Mrs. Edna Anderson was able to undertake the task of training, which she did with excellent results.

The year 1954 saw the death of one of the oldest members Mr. James Shortt. He had done a tremendous amount of invaluable work on the Repairs Committee and had been an elder for 38 years. Mr. Shortt formed one very interesting link with the past. He was ordained an elder on 26th January 1916 and on that occasion one of the Session to give him the right hand of fellowship was Mr. John McClung then aged 90 who had himself been a member of the original committee of Railway Street Church which first met in November 1860.

Attendances at both morning and evening Services were being well maintained but it was felt that many Presbyterians living in Lisburn had a very loose or almost non-existent connection with any congregation and so a week of mission was held with a view to contacting people who did not attend regular Sunday Services.

At the following Congregational Meeting Mr. Elliott said that he was pleased and encouraged not only by increased attendances at all services but by the friendly spirit which prevailed in the congregation. Many new members had spoken to him in the warmest terms about this. It seemed to him that it was one of the things which mattered most in a church.

At the Armistice Day Service 1955, Mrs. D. C. Lindsay unveiled a War Memorial Tablet showing the names of the four members of the congregation killed during the 1939-45 war among them Mrs. Lindsay’s own son Edward.

One of the most important departments of a Church’s work is the Sabbath School, and Railway Street congregation has always laid great stress on its importance. No praise is too high for the band of loyal teachers who endeavour to instil into our young members the principles and ideals of Presbyterianism. There are nineteen classes at present in the morning Sabbath School each of about 8 to 10 boys or girls according to age groups. The Primary School is held in the Minor Hall where about 20 infants have their own little service. For those above school age a Bible Class is conducted on Sunday mornings in the Upper Room. Every year some 70 to 80 pupils sit the Dromore Presbytery Examinations and always a goodly number receive Presbytery prizes for attaining 90% or over, and on several occasions a medal has been obtained for 1st, 2nd or 3rd place. Much of the credit for this good work in Railway Street School in recent years has been due to Mr. James Monteith, who for 25 years until his retirement in 1955 had been superintendent of the Morning School.

The Afternoon School is held in the E.M.B. Hall at Hilden and has been carried on equally faithfully ever since the Hall was erected in 1912. Before that date a Sunday School was conducted in the dining hall of the Hilden Mill. The Hall itself was donated by the late Sir Milne Barbour, M.A., D.L. M.P., as a memorial to his wife Elizabeth Milne Barbour. In accepting the vesting of the Hall the Mission recorded, “ Our Church owes almost its existence to the liberality of Mr Barbour’s grandfather, Mr. William Barbour J.P., of Hilden, and throughout most of its history his father, Mr. J. D. Barbour, D.L., of Conway was one of its most generous friends.” Sir Milne helped greatly with the upkeep of the Hall and now we have a roomy, well-equipped meeting-place for the work in the Hilden area. The Sabbath School comprises about 80 children and ten teachers and a superintendent.

The Women’s Missionary Association grew out of the former Girls’ Auxiliary, which it replaced about 1940. They meet every month and take an interest in our missionaries to the Foreign Field. Each year about £100 is forwarded for Mission work both at home and abroad and in 1953 £850 was handed over to the congregation Renovation Fund. Their chief annual activity is the Zenana Sale of Work which has been held annually since prior to 1905, then under the aegis of the Dorcas Society, and which over the years has been instrumental in raising very substantial sums to aid the Zenana Mission in India.

The choir meets regularly for practice and the Church music is of a very high standard. Some delightful anthems are rendered and the congregational singing is led very sympathetically. The organ voluntaries are exceptionally pleasing.

Each evening of the week during the winter months the Church Hall is occupied by various congregational organisations. The Boys’ Brigade and the Life Boys, the Girl Guides and the Brownies and the Badminton Club each serve to combine recreation with good fellowship and a certain amount of education for numbers of young people of all ages. In the Church itself there is the League of Church Loyalty to stimulate the attendances of young people at the Church Services and a Branch of the International Bible Reading Association whose object is to help in the private reading and study of the Bible. The spiritual and temporal activities of the congregation are guided by the Kirk Session of 20 members together with the Congregational Committee comprising a further 30 members. Special mention should be made of the work of the sub-committees particularly the hard-working Repairs Committee and the Finance Committee who together with the Treasurer, the Treasurer of Covenants and Debt Extinction Fund, the Treasurers of Endowment and those in charge of the Freewill Offering Envelope Scheme and the Sabbath collections, are often hard put to it to find the money necessary for all the various Church appointments and upkeep of the premises.

Nothing has so far been said of the Divine Services which are the central ordinance and mainspring of all church vitality. The preaching of the Word has always been of the highest order in Railway Street and the present time is no exception. All services, and particularly the Services of Sacrament, are conducted with a deep feeling of spiritual reverence and helpfulness which make church attendance an essential in the lives of each individual member of our worshipping community. It is this more than anything that holds together and inspires that Christian Fellowship of members, one of another, which is Railway Street Presbyterian Church, Lisburn.

History in Glass and Stone
Six stained glass windows add beauty and colour to the interior of Railway Street Church. They were erected at various times over the past thirty years and commemorate different people who were members of the congregation.

Memorial to:
The Very Rev. Robert Wilson Hamilton, M.A. D.D. who died 12th October 1935, for 50 years minister of this congregation. Depicting: Jesus saying to Peter “Feed my Sheep.”

Memorial to:
Bequest of Thomas George McNally who died 26th May 1925. Depicting: The Good Samaritan tending the stricken traveller while two others who passed by go on their way into the distance.

Memorial to:
War Memorial 1914 - 1919 showing the names of twenty-one men who died in the Great War.
Depicting: “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a Crown of Life.”

Memorial to:
Frederick and Margretta Duncan, Sunnyside, Lisburn. Erected by their grateful children December 1919. Depicting: The Good Shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. With (above) Three Heavenly Musicians and two angelic figures and (below) the safely forded sheep.

Memorial to:
Martha Lilian Hamilton erected by the congregation 1928.
Depicting: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

The oriel windows show different designs of the burning bush “Nec Consumabatur” and “Ardens Sed Virens” representing the symbol of Presbyterianism.

Memorial tablets to:
William Barbour, J.P. of Hilden. Died 1875. Aged 78 years (one of the first members of Railway Street Congregation

Hugh Graham Larmor who died in 1925. During 40 years he filled almost every position of importance in connection with the life and work of our church. By his gentle, kindly manner he endeared himself to young and old and gained the warm affection and respect of the whole congregation.

Organ presented by James Crossin, J.P., Massereene Villa, Lisburn. January 1914.

James Edgar Sloan, U.C., Plantation House, Lisburn. Died 1910. He had been for many years a prominent member of Committee and a generous supporter of the Congregation.

Rev. David J. Clarke. First Pastor who ministered to the newly formed congregation for 17 years and died in 1878.

Miss Isabella Brownlee, Alpha Lodge, Lisburn, the last of a highly respected family. Her name is also perpetuated in the Brownlee School and in various trust funds.

In the vestibule:
Frederic Duncan, Died 1905. A good citizen, a kind friend, a sincere and loyal follower of his redeemer.

1914 - 1919 War Memorial Roll of Honour showing names of 134 persons who served.

Rev. James Lyle Bigger, M.A., B.D., Second Pastor who died 1890. For almost six years he laboured in the Gospel here.

War Memorial Tablet 1939 -1945 showing names of: Squadron Leader Edward Workman Lindsay, R.A.F.V.R., Flight Lieutenant George Frederick Alderdice, Sergeant John McAfee and Leading Signalman James Jackson Boyd.