Thus the young Robert Neill began his involvement in the coal trade in a town that naturally looked to the sea for supply and export. The harbour of the 1830's, some 300 feet square and dating from 1757, was often filled' with vessels exporting live cattle to Portpatrick, while grain, flax and horses were also exported, but Bangor was much more than just a convenient outlet for the agricultural hinterland - importantly for coal merchants. Two modern cotton mills with their smoking chimneys, which provided 'A manufacturing, crowded and dirty appearance,' dominated the seafront in a way difficult to imagine now, employing up to 300 workers. The 'Old Mill,' dating from the 1780's, stood near the foot of Ballymagee Street (the present High Street), while the 'New Mill' of 18Q6, five storeys high, occupied the site of the McKee Clock. Fulfilling the steam engines which drove the machinery was obviously a staple source of revenue for the coal importers, as there cannot have been a great demand for coal from the population of some 2800 housed in straggling streets, some, near the Abbey, entirely of thatched houses,., Conditions for the poorer classes in the town and parish of Bangor compared favourably with their counterparts in, say, Connaught, but, still, around this time a survey found 146 cases of two or more families sharing one cabin in the parish of Bangor! Main Street, Sandy Row, Quay Street, and Ballymagee Street were the main arteries with the principal shops and churches, plus a couple of schools and inns.
The 1830s and 1840s witness the beginnings of Robert Neill's fleet of sailing ships, and from the evidence available, generally seems to have been the period when the sound foundations for a very prominent business were laid. Good fortune, too, attended the family of Robert and Agnes, as all five survived childhood. Two daughters, Jane and Isabella were born, followed in 1832 by Charles. Of him and his younger brothers John (b.1837) and James (b.1841) we will hear much more later. Jane married a Mr. Cochrane, of Belfast and evidence points to this being James Cochrane of Gt. George's Street, quite a prominent coal merchant and shipowner - a suitable match!
Robert Neill had become a ship owner himself in the 18308, but from the rather scanty records of the time it is difficult to pinpoint his first vessel. By 1838 he is listed as owning the John Metcalf, 50 net registered tons, and the Hazard, 117 tons, the latter in partnership with one J. Bell. Sea transport of this time had more in common with the 1580s than the 1980s, and to our eyes the John Metcalf would appear a curious craft, short and broad, a little single-masted sloop built at Workington in 1825 and measuring a few inches over 50 feet but with a beam of more than 14 feet. Weathering the Irish Sea in all its moods to deliver cargoes of perhaps 60 tons to Bangor, the sloop survived many winter gales, but none worse than the legendary 'Big Wind' of January 1839, a westerly hurricane quite unique in the experience of contemporary people, which is credited with blowing all the fairies away from Ireland! This hurled her ashore at Troon, one of the main Ayrshire coal exporting harbours, along with two other Down coasters, the Irvine of Strangford and the Commodore of Portaferry. The Metcalf she was familiarly known, was refloated and served Robert Neill until December 1866 when she was finally lost, according to her registry document in Belfast Custom House, but the circumstances have defeated inquiry.
Among the skippers of the John Metcalf were Alexander McVicker (1812-1860), who is buried in Bangor Abbey graveyard, and Andrew Campbell who later progressed to a half share in the brigantine Mary with Belfast coal merchant James Stitt. Neills’ vessels provided a first sampling of life afloat for many Bangor boys over the generations. A great local character, Charlie Scott, who in later years owned the fishing smack Sarah and was in demand as a Belfast Lough pilot for the huge racing yachts of Sir Thomas Lipton and the German Kaiser, went to sea as a young man in the schooner Slaney, 99 tons. This was a particularly interesting member of the growing fleet, as. Robert Neill employed her in foreign voyages, indication that he was already looking beyond the Irish Sea coal trade for profit. But nearer home, too, the 1840s saw expansion of his livelihood.
The grimy cotton mills were not the only industrial enterprise in the Bangor area. Up on the escarpment south of Conlig, mining for lead ore had been started by a Manx consortium in 1827. Gradually economic tonnages were raised laboriously. Mines needed steam engines for winding and pumping work, and Robert Neill obtained the contract to supply coal. Luckily; the 1847 mine cost book kept by the mine captain, Cornishman Richard Rickard, has survived the years, and it mentions the agreement made with Neill to supply the best Swansea steam coal at nineteen shillings per ton. At this date there were two great beam engines burning nine or ten tons of coal each week, carted from the mine company's store at the junction of Ballymagee Street and Quay Street - a building that had once housed First Bangor Presbyterian Church! During the peak production period of 1849-54 up to five engines are believed to have been working. Obviously, therefore, the mines were a thoroughly valuable customer for Neill’s coal and is likely that their output had an added significance as the lead ore was shipped from Bangor to North Wales for smelting. Neill’s colliers could therefore earn fright on return cargo instead of crossing again in ballast. Rickard’s papers include a Bill of adding dated 24th July 1841 for 65 tons of lead ore loaded at Bangor on the sloop Louisa and destined for the River Dee, discharged at Bagilt, Greenfield or Mostyn Quay at the consignee’s option. The Louisa, which later passed into Robert Neill’s ownership, was one of the very few cargo vessels to have been built at Bangor, by Arthur Seay in 1838.
The 1850s witnessed the end of the industrial era in Bangor and district. Both cotton mills closed, the 'New' mill at the seafront after a disastrous fire in 1856, and the nearby lead mines failed to raise a profitable tonnage after 1857, production eventually petering out in 1865. With declining employment, there was a steady drop in Bangor’s population from 3115 in 1841 at 2531 in 1861. A more positive development, however, was the formation of the Bangor Gas Light Company in 1854, Robert Neill being among the first directors, along with R. E. Ward of Bangor Castle - still the dominant force in the town - John Brawn, sewed muslin manufacturer and John McNabb,. manager .of the 'Old' cotton mill in Ballymagee Street.
Neill was obviously now a figure of importance in the town. Later he also purchased shares in the Newtownards Gas Light Company. The import of limestone and the export of bricks by Bangor vessels helped to offset the loss to the coal trade brought about by the decline of local industries, but it is probably no coincidence that at this time, 1855 to be exact Neill's largest vessel to date left the Ayrshire coal trade far foreign trading. This was the schooner Triton and a legacy of the ill-fated venture exists as a fascinating relic of family history - a letter home from Russia from Charles Neill, her shipwrecked master.