The area around Newtownards was first inhabited by Stone Age hunter-gatherers. They survived by fishing from the shores of the lough and hunting for pigs, small animals and birds in the surrounding dense forests. They used flint to make arrow heads, spears, axes, and cutting tools.
Gradually hunting gave way to farming in the Neolithic period, between 3500 and 2000BC. The land was worked to grow crops and they domesticated animals, possibly pigs, sheep and goats.
Scrabo Hill, overlooking Newtownards town, was first occupied by people during the Bronze Age, between 2000 and 300BC. The remains of a late Bronze Age settlement can still be seen in the area currently occupied by Scrabo Golf Club.
Ted Griffiths, the founder of the Ards Historical Society, studied this site. His investigations revealed four huts grouped together in a circular enclosure 30.5m in diameter. At the northern end of the site was a second enclosure containing a single large hut. Further huts were located outside the enclosure.
Scrabo Tower, built in 1857, stands in the centre of the site of an Iron Age fort. The fort was oval in shape, 91m long and 37m wide, surrounded by a ditch. When lightning conductors were being added to the tower in the 1980s, animal bones and pottery were found. These finds were used to date the fort to about AD500.
The first town was built when the Norman adventurer John de Courcy arrived in the Ards area in 1177. Following Norman practice, the conquered area was divided into small counties, one of which was the ‘County of Blaethwyc of the Ardes’, and it was in this county that the New Town of the Ardes was built.
The extent and perimeter of the medieval town has never been conclusively ascertained. However, the location of pottery and other finds from this period would suggest that the town wall, probably an earth bank, may have run from the tide bank at the Ards Bowling Club, across the present Court Street and High Street, to the vicinity of the Market Cross along the north side of Greenwell Street.
A great Dominican priory was built in the centre of the town in 1244. About the same time, the Abbey church at Movilla was rebuilt. Its ruins can still be seen on the eastern outskirts of the town.
The medieval town declined along with the Norman colony, and was reduced to nothing more that a few mud walled cabins and roofless buildings by the time Hugh Montgomery and other Scottish settlers arrived in the spring of 1606. Montgomery used the old priory as a temporary residence and started to build a typical Jacobean market town. One of the principal streets was High Street, with merchants and traders, houses and shops. By the end of the seventeenth century this street was extended into the present Mill Street. Other streets constructed at this time were Greenwell Street, Movilla Street and Market Street.
During this period, Scrabo stone became widely used in both public and private buildings, and predominated as the town expanded into the eighteenth century. The Market Cross, erected where the main streets met in 1636, was built using Scrabo stone, as was the Market House in the 1770s.
In the late eighteenth century, the town was redesigned with a new centre based around Conway Square, named after Alexander Stewart’s daughter-in-law, Lady Sarah Frances Seymour-Conway. New streets radiated north, south, east and west, and were named after these compass points. Early in the nineteenth century, Regent Street was constructed and Frances Street widened to provide a coach route through the town from Belfast to Donaghadee. These two streets provide the town’s main thoroughfares to this day.
The town continued to expand throughout the nineteenth century. Commercial premises such as factories, shops and banks were built, serving the needs of the townspeople and those in the surrounding countryside. New streets were also laid out to house handloom weavers and other mill workers.
The twentieth century saw continued suburban expansion, and the role of Newtownards has changed from that of a market town to a dormitory town for Belfast.
© Ards Historical Society