AN AMERICAN actress and her famous husband played a visit to Northern Ireland in the winter of 1943 to entertain US troops in the province.
Ella Baxter McKenzie arrived at an air force base with her husband, comedy star Bill Gilbert on a tour of GI camps, which included Londonderry.
American troops arrived in Ulster in January 1942, within a short time of US entry into the Second World War following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 by the Japanese.
Some 3,600 men of the Vth Army arrived to be welcomed by the band of the Royal Ulster Rifles playing the Star Spangled Banner on the quayside in Belfast.
At the end of February another large contingent of troops arrived, this time to less fanfare and publicity.
The troops were spread in camps across Northern Ireland, with a major air force base developed at Langford Lodge near Crumlin and a major naval base at Londonderry on the Foyle.
Carrickfergus, another home to General Infantry troops, was also the location where the US Rangers regiment was formed, the only American regiment which was formed outside the United States.
It is estimated that the US population of Northern Ireland reached 10% of the overall total at its height before the Normandy Landings in June 1944.
By the time Billy Gilbert, a famous star of screen and stage arrived in winter 1943, the numbers would have been impressive.
Known as the “sneezing” comedian, Gilbert was the son of singers with the Metropolitan Opera and had been born in a dressing room at the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1894. His real name was William Gilbert Barron.
He began working in vaudeville at the age of 12 and in 1929 was talent spotted by Stan Laurel, who had been in the audience of Gilbert’s show Sensations of 1929 and introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. The up and coming star was employed as a gag writer, actor and director and appeared in his first film that same year, at the age of 35.
Gilbert appeared with other comedians including Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, the Three Stooges and Our Gang.
By 1934 Big Billy Gilbert had become one of the most familiar faces on screen, and he developed his own routine of getting progressively excited or nervous and breaking down into speech spasms culminating in a loud sneeze.
This attracted attention from Walt Disney who immediately cast him as the voice of Sneezy in the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
A few years before arriving in Northern Ireland, he had featured prominently in the 1940 film Seven Sinners with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. He also appeared during his career with stars such as W. C. Fields, Ben Turpin, Susan Fleming, and Betty Grable.
Not surprisingly he was the subject of media attention when he and his wife Ella Gilbert arrived in County Antrim in 1943.
The couple stayed at the Grand Central Hotel, where they were interviewed by the Weekly Telegraph, and described Northern Ireland as “the most beautiful place they had ever seen.”
During their stay they not only entertained the troops but were also able to sightsee and there is a newspaper report of them attending the Ulster Stadium Boxing Tournament on Saturday evening, December 18.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that the pair had been cordially welcomed to the event and had ringside seats.
But the first stop after their arrival in Ulster had been to Ballymena, where Ella Gilbert was on the trail of her ancestors.
The pair were accompanied by Mr. A. Dalzell, chairman of ENSA in Northern Ireland, who acted as their guide.
Ballymena had been the birthplace of Robert Baxter McKenzie around 50 years before, the son of a leading Ballymena Orangeman of his day, John McKenzie.
The family had left their home at 12 King Street when Robert was nine years old, and there was much excitement when Bill Gilbert and his wife arrived there in 1943.
The couple were able to identity the house where Ella’s father had grew up, and they had photographs taken, a large placard recording the connection was placed above the front door as they had cinematographic film taken.
“The pictures will go to the states to gladden the heart of Mr. McKenzie and other ‘exiles’ from the north,” the Larne Times and Weekly Telegraph informed readers.
A large crowd, particularly of children gathered to see the special visitors, it was also reported.
Mrs. Gilbert’s grandmother was Mary Baxter from Ballymena and she believed that Baxter relations were also living in Ballymena, but the actress was unable to learn any more on her visit.
In relation to the Orange connection, it was reported that “The Ulster tradition has been kept up in Oregon, where they settled, and over the fire of nights the talk was often of Ballymena and the “Twelfth” and when the old man passed the son carried on the customs and on the “Twelfth” wore an Orange marigold and defied anyone to remove it,” the newspaper said.
Ella McKenzie was born in Oregon in April 1911 and was married firstly to Edward C. Sweeney and then to Bill Gilbert.
Her best-known films were, as a child actor, in Jane Goes A Wooin (1919), The Last Warning in 1928, and Riders of the Dawn in 1937.
As a child actress she appeared in over 100 films, appearing with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Rogers.
Acting was in the family, clearly, for Ella was the niece of actors Eva McKenzie and Robert McKenzie and her cousins Fay and Ida Mae McKenzie were also actresses.
Ella passed away in 1987 in Los Angeles, surviving her husband by some years; he retired from the screen in 1962 and died in North Holywood in September 1971 and is buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Bill Gilbert is also recognised with a star on Holywood Boulevard. His acting career spanned the decades from the 1920s to the 1960s and he appeared in an exhausting list of films, four of them in the same year as he visited Ulster; Shantytown as Papa Ferrili, Spotlight Scandals as himself, Always a Bridesmaid as Nicholas ‘Nick’ Neopolitan and Crazy House as Sid Drake.
Sadly King Street in Ballymena, where the Gilberts visited in 1943, is no longer standing and the site of the houses there is a car park.
I first picked up Ian Adamson’s book ‘The Identity of Ulster’ (1982) when I was a student at university. There were not too many books on the shelves which dealt with Ulster history from a unionist perspective, and this one was refreshing. It explained in layman’s terms the course of history as the author saw it and it provided a perspective which was new and made sense.
Adamson outlined a Protestant history which included the Battle of the Boyne, but in the context of a wider progression. For many his espousal of the Cruthin people, the ancient settlers of Ulster, as a community which, essentially, had migrated to Scotland under pressure from Gaelic incursion in the north, was new.
The Adamson thesis was that when the Plantation of Ulster took place in the 17th century, the new ‘Planters’ were actually the descendants of the old Cruthin returning to their ancestral heartland.
His thesis was challenging to nationalists, who argued that the Protestant settlement was a land grab with religous connotations. It was equally challenging for unionists whose history often started at the Plantation and the Battle of the Boyne.
The County Down born medical doctor quickly found that his thesis was not being accepted with open arms by academics, some of whom railed against it vociferously. But while there may have been disagreements over his presentation and conclusions, Adamson’s essential arguments remained intact and were actually much older; cross-channel heritage was espoused by others in the 19th century and in the early 20th James B. Woodburn’s The Ulster Scot was a seminal work in this regard.
For me, Ian Adamson’s work on the Cruthin and the identity of Ulster gave a new sense of identity, a wider sense of belonging. Suddenly my history did not start with the arrival of Planters who took the lands of the native Irish and continued to thrawt the destiny of the Irish nation by being thrang Scots and unionists.
This viewpoint that here was a new interpretation of history came to be shared with others too. When I was a student undertaking research for a dissertation on the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, it was clear from observation that Adamson’s work was well-read and was being absorbed at the Gawn Street headquarters of the organisation. The New Ulster Political Research Group (the political wing of the UDA) eventually came to a place where it sought ‘Common Sense’ – the name of its policy document of 1987 – and a common sense of identity too: one which sought to include Ulster’s Catholics in future political arrangements, and as such ground-breaking for its time.
The trend within loyalism of a desire for an independent Ulster was not something which Adamson overtly suggested, but the thought-process of some easily went onto that path whether he intended it or not. His work, in fact, provided a basis for that sense of national identity which would have been required if an independent state had ever come about.
As it was, however, Adamson saw the need for a unity which was never politically defined in a structural sense. Writing in The Identity of Ulster in 1982, he said “Today we must evolve in Ulster a cultural consensus, irrespective of political conviction, religion or ethnic origin, using a broader perspective of our past to create a deeper sense of belonging to the country of our ancestors.”
“Let us therefore develop the vision of a new and united Ulster to which all can give their allegiance,” he added in the conclusion of the book.
Within a few years, however, the Anglo-Irish Agreement had come about and division was again the order of the day, unionism circled wagons once again as it viewed the Agreement as putting them on the edge of the union politically.
Much political water has flowed under the bridge since then, but Ian Adamson never changed his thesis. Over the years in politics and public life, he was in a position to espouse it with sincerity and also to build relationships with others. The fact that tributes would come after his death from all political shades, including another former Lord Mayor of Belfast and senior Sinn Fein politican, Mairtin O’ Muilleoir says a lot about him.
Anyone who had the good fortune to meet Ian Adamson found him a learned and soft spoken soul. He also had a fantastic humour and a wicked wit. I remember once while attending an international conference in Boston at which he was a delegate, we went out for an evening meal and were regaled our table with his version of Address to the Haggis, on that occasion modified to praise the lobster which he had ordered and which duly arrived in time for his oration.
On another occasion, while giving a speech and outlining how when he first published his work on the Cruthin, some people said that he had made it up. Without any hint of a smile he surveyed everyone in front of him and declared, “They were right, I made it up…” For a brief second or two a few jaws dropped before everyone saw the slight smile and realised the dry wit at play.
Last year I had the pleasure of being with him at a Burns Night dinner during which he talked of his own personal family background. One of his ancestors had taken part in the United Irish Rebellion and been hanged in County Down. Adamson said as a young boy he talked to his granny about the incident and asked her what she thought about it: “Served him right for getting involved in politics,” he recalled her saying. He often brought the house down with these and other examples of his fun and wit.
Behind the wit, was a fantastic intellect, of course. Dr. Ian Adamson OBE was, as I said in the obituary for the News Letter on Thursday, a towering unionist intellectual who helped build bridges that crossed the traditional divides while remaining true to his cultural roots and his political principles.
He described himself as “a British Unionist, an Irish Royalist and an Ulster Loyalist”.
The County Down man was behind the restoration of the Ulster Tower in France, which commemorates the province’s First World War fallen, and his efforts in bringing the remembrance of the sacrifice of the war to mind also helped build bridges in the modern community which he loved.
The 74 year was born at Conlig in County Down and educated at Queen’s University, graduating to a career as a highly respected paediatrician.
Dr. Adamson was a Specialist in Community Child Health (Community Paediatrics) and was awarded the fellowship of the Royal Institute of Public Health for his services to the health of young people in 1998. He was awarded a special commendation by His Royal Highness Prince Charles Prince of Wales.
He was also an Executive Board Member of the London-based Association of Port Health Authorities, 2005–11 (Chairman of the Border Inspection Post Committee, 2005–06 and Imported Food Committee, 2006–11).
But it was his contribution to culture and historical debate for which he will long be remembered.
His historical thesis expounded in his early publication The Cruthin was not readily accepted by academics, but it found a ready home in working-class Protestant communities in Belfast and undoubtedly influenced thinking within those communities, which ultimately assisted on the road to a more peaceful future.
Aware of the complexities of history, he could rest secure on his own unionist credentials while also recounting past generations of the family who had been involved in the 1798 Rebellion.
It is a measure of his ability to reach beyond divides and social strata that he could count international figures such as Van Morrison and Eddie Irvine among his friends as well as working-class men from Monkstown or the Newtownards Road.
The attendance at his funeral at Conlig Presbyterian Church last week was a similar testimony to the respect in which he was held.
His book The Cruthin sought to explore a common heritage shared by people in Northern Ireland beyond the traditional divide and led to initiatives such as the foundation of the Farset Youth Project and other community organisations.
Farset was the catalyst for the establishment of the Somme Association and Ian Adamson was a driving force in proposing the purchase of areas close to the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Wood in France so they could be developed as a memorial site.
He had found that the Tower was in a dilapidated condition and gathered support for the initiative to re-open it, including from the-then Belfast Mayoress, Rhonda Paisley. This was duly announced in June 1988, with assistance from Dr. Ian Paisley, the European Parliament, the French Embassy and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Commenting on his death on social media, unionist academic Dr. Andrew Charles said that “If Ian had stuck to medicine, the Ulster Tower may never have been preserved and instead have been covered in weeds and by trees”.
In 1989 he had become the founder Chairman of the Somme Association, out of which came the Somme Heritage Centre at Conlig in 1994.
Dr. Adamson was a Vice President of the Somme Association.
His many other initiatives included obtaining the co-operation of Cardinal Tomas O’ Fiaich to organise a group visit by teenagers from the Shankill, Falls, Tallaght and Inchicore to follow the footsteps to Europe of St. Columbanus of Bangor.
Adamson was deeply impressed by the history of the abbey at Bangor, founded by another Ulster saint, St. Comgall of Magheramorne, and the influence it had on western Europe. His book ‘Bangor. Light of the World’, was first printed in 1979, the second edition in 1987 having a foreword from Cardinal O’Fiaich.
A passionate supporter of the Ulster Scots linguistic tradition, he was also conversant in 14 other languages, including Lakota Sioux, Dutch, Turkish, Welsh, Irish, French and German.
A regular guest at the annual Aisling Irish Language awards in Belfast, he was a past recipient of the top Roll of Honour Award at the event.
In 1992 he helped found the Ullans Academy, an eclectic mix of unionists and nationalists whom their founder said were seeking to identify what united as opposed to divided them.
Among the group were former UDA leader Andy Tyrie, and in his later years Ian Adamson was patron of the Dalaradia Group, comprising working-class loyalists in County Antrim working to assist transformation of their communities after the Troubles.
An advocate of shared understanding, he said that while not encouraging bi-lingualism or even tri-lingualism, he thought Ulster-Scots should be part of the curriculum for young people to understand their backgrounds and what language in general was all about.
Ian Adamson’s political career started in 1989 when he sat as an Ulster Unionist member of Belfast City Council. He served as the Deputy Lord Mayor in 1994-95 and then Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1996-97. He was an MLA for East Belfast from 1998 until 2003 and became the UUP’s first Honorary Historian from 1989 until his retirement in 2011. He served as High Sheriff of Belfast in 2011.
He was personal physician and advisor on history and culture to Ian Paisley, DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, until Dr. Paisley’s death in 2014.
In 1998 Dr. Ian Adamson received an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen in the New Year Honours for his services to local government.
At an earlier garden party at Buckingham Palace, he proposed to his future wife, Kerry Carson, and the couple were married in April 1998.
His work as a medical practitioner on the Falls Road was recognised in July 1978 when he was appointed as a Member of the International Medical Association of Lourdes for his services to disabled children and young people of the Falls Parish.
At one time he lived on the Falls Road for a short period, and his interest in the long-term unemployed drove his work with the Farset Youth and Community initiative and other groups over the years.
His many other involvements included founding the Ullans Academy, the Ulster Scots Language Society in 1992 and the Ulster Scots Academy in 1994.
He was also a founder member of the Cultural Traditions Group, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the Ultach Trust. He served as a member of the Board of the Ulster-Scots Agency, 2003-12, and was President of the Belfast Civic Trust at the time of his death.
His published books include The Cruthin (1974), Bangor, Light of the World (1979), The Battle of Moira (1980), The Ulster People: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, (1991), William and the Boyne, (1995), Dalaradia, Kingdom of the Cruthin, (1998), Bombs on Belfast. The Blitz 1941 (1984), and The Bangor Book (2016), for which he provided translations from Medieval Latin.
The funeral at Conlig saw figures including the Irish President Michael D. Higgins in attendance. He said of Dr. Adamson that he “never ceased to remind us that we are all but migrants in time and his scholarship highlighted our shared history, shared identities, shared vulnerabilities and migratory roots.”
Also there was former Formula One racing driver Eddie Irvine, who also grew up in Conlig and who was sponsored by Dr. Adamson at the start of his career. His sister Sonia was a close friend of Ian Adamson and has recounted how he gave her his university medical books when money was tight. She described him as “an inspirational man”.
Among the mourners at the funeral was music legend and personal friend Van Morrison, who sang Ian Adamson’s favourite song Into the Mystic at the service.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann led his party’s tributes to Dr. Adamson, saying he had made a huge contribution to cultural and political life in Northern Ireland and would be greatly missed.
Lord Alderdice, former Speaker of the Assembly, said his death was “a genuine intellectual, healthcare and political loss.”
Among those who also paid tribute to him was former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor MLA Mairtin O’ Muilleoir, who described Dr. Adamson as an “exceptional ambassador for a shared society and a united community here”.
He added that “Ian went places that other people would never go. I saw him like a traditional Irish matchmaker who brought people together who thought they would never be united.”
“He worked through some of the worst times of the Troubles. And he was also Lord Mayor during difficult days in the City Hall but I always found him to be a very genuine and a very kind man.”
His lasting legacy may yet be that sense of unity which he outlined historically and which his work, particularly among working-class communities, may help bring about. Although he is gone, it is important that legacy is built on if the type of future he strived to encourage is to become our reality…
I GREW up on the edge of the Redhall estate in Ballycarry, whose first owners were the Edmonstone family of Duntreath in Stirlingshire.
Several members of the family settled from 1609 and they brought with them other tenants and families from Stirlingshire.
The neighbours of the Edmonstones were the Dobbs and Dalway families, who were to the south west nearer Carrickfergus.
I had them in my mind as I prepared for a unique talk at the end of November in the Siege Museum in Londonderry.
Having presented four series to date of The Long and the Short of It with comedian Tim McGarry on BBC Radio Ulster, we were invited to bring our thoughts on the significance of the Siege of Derry to an audience in the city.
The format of coming at history from our different perspectives has earned much positive comment from radio listeners in the past, and the talk was also a successful venture for the Siege Museum.
It was good to see and hear from members of the Protestant Apprentice Boys as well as nationalist visitors from Creggan and Donegal who all said they had greatly enjoyed the evening. There were laughs as well as the more serious history, and our audience numbered over 150 people, which was fantastic.
My thoughts on the journey to the north-west included those on Archibald Edmonstone, who also made the journey from Ballycarry to Londonderry, but in very different circumstances.
In 1688, when Protestants raised militia against James, Archibald Edmonstone was in charge of a regiment of 300 foot from among his tenants, later augmented by men from Adair’s Regiment from Ballymena.
Following the Break of Dromore in March 1689, Edmonstone like many others moved towards the north-west of the province, and saw action at Portglenone in trying to prevent the Jacobites crossing the River Bann.
Family history states that he had fought in a muddy trench in water up to his knees and caught a very bad cold as a consequence.
Moving westward, he tried to enter Londonderry, only to find that the garrison had closed the gates and refused admittance to any newcomers who would have added to the pressure on supplies and living conditions.
Edmonstone and his men went to the fort at Culmore, where he died as a result not of the fighting but of his exertions at the Bann. He was 51 years of age.
One of his neighbours at Redhall, Richard Dobbs, had also been part of the Antrim Association which opposed James II and he too fought in the Williamite forces.
His son Arthur was born at Girvan in Scotland, where his mother had been sent for refuge, like many other women and children of the east Ulster settlements.
Sir Arthur Dobbs would later become famous as a writer and botanist as well as being Royal Governor of North Carolina.
To men such as these, the events of the Siege of Derry would have been of more than academic interest.
And at the time those who fought around the city or were within its walls would have had little doubt of how high the personal and religious stakes were.
The Siege started because of concerns about allowing a Jacobite garrison into the city. News of the famous Comber Letter, which foretold plans for a 1641-type massacre of Protestants in Ireland, had arrived in the city a few days before.
The letter has remained anonymous throughout history but whatever its provenance and whether or not it was an elaborate hoax, the impact of it was that the gates of the city were closed on Lord Antrim’s Redshanks in December 1688, signalling Williamite resistance to James II and his right to rule.
The Siege is the stuff of legend, the material of which blockbuster movies are made.
It has all the elements of drama.
The initial deliberations on whether to allow the Redshanks into the city, culminating in a last minute rush by young apprentices to close the gates in the face of the military being among them.
Then there is the question of Robert Lundy, the Governor accused of being prepared to sell the city. Was Lundy really a traitor? His effigy continues to be burned in this surety, but there are serious questions surrounding his competence and whether he had always intended the handover of the city in as orderly a fashion as possible.
There is the drama of the relief ships appearing off the Foyle, but their commander being informed that the city was about to surrender and no purpose could be served by bringing men and supplies ashore.
There is the sense of suffering inside the walled city, with over 7,000 soldiers and the civilians who had flocked there for safety. Many thousands died of starvation and disease – entire families wiped out – and the famous shopping list of prices for horse meat, dog meat and even rats and mice testifying to the courage and tenacity of those inside the walls.
There are stories of spies, emissaries, deserters, and approaches to encourage the surrender of the city and rumours of duplicity.
All of these are events which surrounded the 105 day siege, the longest in British military history.
And in terms of the significance of this event, the failure to capture the city meant that James’ plan to embark for Scotland to raise the Highland Clans did not happen.
Patrick McCrory (The Siege of Derry, Oxford, 1980) noted that “The result of the successful defence of Derry, as stated by King James’s friends, was that he was not able to send an army into Scotland to reinforce Dundee, who was to raise the Highland clans in his favour, and still less to carry the war into England. The immediate effect was that Scotland and England were protected from invasion, and what remained of the struggle between the two kings was localised in Ireland. The fall of Derry was waited for during the summer months of 1689 by the King at Dublin with great impatience, for he knew well the interests at stake; and it seems the long delay did not raise his Irish and French soldiers in his estimation.”
The last attempt by the Stuarts to regain the throne was by Bonnie Prince Charlie, James’ grandson. He crossed the Tweed and marched on London, reaching Derby, while there was a panic in the south of England, planned evacuation of the King and a run on the banks.
Had James II succeeded in marching south from Scotland at the head of a Highland army, the whole course of history may have been changed.
But the siege also helped to undermine James in another way. His decision to go to the city was one which divided opinion among his advisors.
On one side, he would have been closer to Scotland and able to get across quicker if the area was open to his troops to sail across.
But what happened was an embarrassing situation where he appeared outside the walls to find his rebellious subjects prepared to fire on him and to hear the first shout of the battle cry “No Surrender”.
Having to leave the city and go south again was a bad signal for his prospects in regaining the throne and it was undermining.
At the time there had been wide rumours that he was still actually in France, and he said he wanted to go to the city “to disabuse those unhappy rebels of the obstinate belief which they had entertained.”
If he had expected his appearance to stun those inside into opening the gates, he was to be sadly mistaken – although at that point the city authorities had been close to seeking terms of surrender.
When a group was selected to meet with the enemy and discuss terms, it was what were called “the common people” who intervened, threatening anyone who would attempt to leave for such a purpose.
Thus, while desertions did occur, the city remained a symbol of resistance and this sense of a beleaguered garrison standing firm against the odds implanted itself in the Protestant population of Ulster.
Even in 1912 it was summoned by Bonar Law, the Conservative Leader, when he was supporting unionist opposition to the Third Home Rule bill. Speaking directly to unionists, he said “You are a besieged city. The timid have left you; your Lundys have betrayed you; but you have closed your gates.”
The short-term implications of the failure by the Jacobites to subdue Londonderry included a major psychological boost being given to the Williamite forces in Ireland; at Enniskillen there had been solid resistance to James, which would have been strengthened had Lundy not ordered garrisons removed in Sligo and Cavan. However the relief of the city came at the same time as the Williamite victory at Newtownbutler, which was another grievous blow to James II.
The way was clear, not for James to go to Scotland and thence south to try and claim his throne back, but for his adversary to come to Ireland and seek him out instead.
That all ended badly for James at the Boyne, although his generals would continue the struggle for another year.
The departure of James from Kinsale, however, would signal the flow of the historical tide. The Stuarts would not give up hope to reclaiming the throne, but it was at best a forlorn one and it ended on the battlefield of Culloden with defeat for Charles Edward Stuart and his Highlanders.
The victory of Londonderry was not, however, without long-term implications in another way.
The iconography of the siege and being besieged has remained with Ulster Protestants.
So too has the memory of Lundy. Whether a traitor, an incompetent, an opportunist or a realist, the impact of Lundy continues even to the present.
During the siege, author Thomas Witherow notes, “one of the difficulties of the garrison was that they did not rely with sufficient confidence on the wisdom and loyalty of some of their leaders. The experience which they had of Lundy made them, perhaps, over suspicious”
At one point they even suspected that George Walker was about to sell them out, and as much material exists for this prospect as does for Lundy almost.
The figure of Lundy may be burned each year as ‘the end to all traitors’ but just around the corner, unionists always seem to be awaiting the arrival of another…
Letitia Henderson’s name will not be recognised among the millions who were lost in the First World War, whose centenary we have marked this year.
In total there were in the region of 20 million casualties in the war, approximately half of whom were civilians.
Among the civilians was a young Larne woman named Letitia Henderson.
Before the war came along, Letitia was well-known in the small town as pianist at local dances.
And in the era of silent movies, her role at Larne Electric Theatre was to provide music to accompany the action on the big screen.
She was the third daughter of Mary Jane Henderson of Mill Street, which was the old part of the town, an area of mixed shops and houses, and a mission hall called the Getty Mission.
Eventually Mill Street was levelled for development, later in the century.
But in 1901 the street provided a home for Robert Henderson (50) and his wife Mary Jane (45) and their five children.
Letitia, who appears on the census as Etta, was the eldest child, aged 21 in 1911, and her siblings were James (15), Margaret (10), Charles (8) and William (1 years old).
We do not know what occupations her parents had, but apart from William all the family could read and write and they belonged to the Church of Ireland.
In 1917, when Letitia dies, she is described in the local newspaper as daughter of Mary Jane Henderson, when it was typical to refer to a child through the name of the father rather than the mother, so it may be assumed that Robert Henderson was no longer at Mill Street and probably deceased.
In January 1917 the young Larne woman left the town, boarding a ferry which would take her on the first stage of her journey to the Morecombe and Heysham area.
It was there that she had obtained employment in a munitions factory.
It was also there that she would die.
There were over 8,700 companies and factories producing various sorts of munitions during the First World War in the United Kingdom.
A typical chain of operation was for a factory to manufacture empty shell cases and then send them on to another ‘filling factory’, where the explosives were added and a fuse fitted.
The factories had many women working in them, the war having resulted in many men going off to the front or otherwise being in service.
Generally fewer women were employed in the manufacturing sites, as shell forging was seen as being a man’s work. But in October 1918 of the 8,656 employees at the National Projectile Factory in Lancaster, for example, 47% were women.
The factory had been built in September 1915 and it supplied shells for the National Filling Factory at Morecombe, which a much higher proportion of women were employed.
This is probably the factory where Letitia Henderson was employed.
While working in the factory, Letitia and another work colleague contacted what was described as “an industrial disease” which was respiratory in nature.
When she was in the factory, employees were supposed to keep their masks on, suggesting perhaps a chemical aspect to the munitions which were being prepared.
At some point the girls had been eating sweets and it appeared that two of them briefly took off their respirators to get a new supply.
This looks to have been the simplest of actions that caused them to lose their lives.
A coroner’s inquest heard from the forewomen involved, a lady named Elsie Boddington, that Letitia Henderson had been a good worker and had observed the rules about not eating anything when amongst “the powder” which was being handled in the factory.
Another work colleague, Eunice Jones, said that she had seen some girls eating sweets but had not seen anyone taking off their masks to get a fresh supply.
Conditions of the factory were alluded to in that we learn from the inquest that there had been a plentiful supply of respirators, soap, towels and other things, with cocoa being available regularly for the women.
Jones told the inquest that she had never felt any ill effects when amongst the power concerned in the munitions.
A female medical officer at the factory had been called and she gave evidence that Letitia Henderson had been found to be suffering from jaundice and immediately sent to hospital, where she died on April 14, 1917.
In relation to the respirators she voiced her opinion that they were not very effective, saying that the girls laughed and talked, but she did not see how that could be helped.
The jury returned a verdict that death was due to poisoning accidentally contacted.
Letitia was just one of the forgotten casualties of the war, civilians who died serving in the war effort.
The Morecombe and Heysham War Memorial only has names of the men from the area who died in two world wars.
The war memorial for Larne and District used to sit at the far end of the town from Mill Street.
But it was moved in the 1970s to a quieter and safer location near St. Cedma’s Church, at Inver.
The old Mill Street would have been just across the river from it.
The names on the memorial do not include Letitia Henderson, a young woman whose death was every bit as connected to the War as the men from Larne who went to sea or joined the army.
A review of the names on the memorial is underway, however, and I have sent her name forward.
Maybe she will finally be recognised for her service in the Great War and remembered among the Fallen…
ON THE edge of County Antrim, close to the lapping waters of the North Channel at Islandmagee, stands a small war memorial dating back to the First World War.
Located on a small hill overlooking the sea, the memorial commemorates two young men from Belfast and is the only public war memorial on Islandmagee.
Nowadays thousands of people pass and pause at their memorial each year, as tourists make their way to and from the Gobbins Cliff Path. This tourist season around 30,000 visitors have, as part of the guided tours there, been told of the story of the two men and how they joined up; Billy Edwards and Walter Newell both lost their lives in the First World War, one in France and the other in Palestine.
The memorial was erected in 1917 and the story behind it, and their connection to Islandmagee, is an intriguing one, the full details of which many who pass by will be unaware of.
Both Edwards and Newell were members of the Belfast Naturalist Field Society and are believed to have been introduced to Islandmagee through the Society, which often visited the area to explore the flora, fauna, geology and archaeology so abundantly available there.
There also appear to have been a group of them who came to the area in the summers to camp out, fish and generally enjoy the landscape.
In September 1912 a number of them were staying at the Gobbins Farm.
This is part of a deeper story that surrounds the little memorial.
For on September 28, 1912, ten young men went from the Gobbins Farm the few miles to the Parochial Hall in Whitehead to sign their names to the Ulster Covenant.
The Covenant was devised by unionists to pledge their opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, and to having a Dublin parliament governing over them as was proposed by the Third Home Rule Bill. Unionist concerns surrounded being a religious minority in an Irish parliament which they believed would be dominated by the majority Roman Catholic Church and church laws.
They in turn were reverting back to a Scottish religious tradition of Covenants, which originated in the 16th century and sought to establish the contractual relationship between government (or governor) and people as well as between faith and the monarch. The 1912 Covenant, drawn up by Liberal Unionist Thomas Sinclair was intended to serve as as a binding contract of loyalty to each other and to their community in the tradition of earlier covenants.
The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant was signed by 471,717 men and women, not only in Ulster but by Ulstermen and women across the British Isles and beyond.
Around 575 signatures were collected from residents of the popular seaside town of Whitehead, which had many middle class unionist families. The only venue in the town was the Parochial Hall, with a small scattering of others signing at nearby venues such as Kilroot Orange Hall and Magheramorne Presbyterian Church.
The group from the Gobbins Farm who went to sign were headed on the sheet by Billy Edwards, suggesting that he was a leader among the group.
He was followed by Brown Sproule Campbell, Nugent Crawford, Robert Thompson, Ennes McWilliam, Walter Newell, Robert Ross, Charles Thompson, Herbert H. Allen and James P. Wood.
All gave their address as “The Gobbins Farm, Islandmagee”.
We know little about the others on the list apart from Edwards and Newell.
Walter Newell was a close friend of Edwards, and his family owned the firm of H. A. Newell which had premises on Royal Avenue.
Walter and two other brothers were killed in the war. One of them, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant George F. Newell, was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force in North Belfast and a former member of the Boy’s Brigade in St. James’s Church. He was killed in August 1917. David Newell was a private in the public schools battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and died in 1916.
Walter was a Lance Corporal in the Black Watch, which recruited in Belfast and surrounding area at that time, and was killed in July 1915 at the age of 26.
A letter to his father from the commanding officer detailed that “He was out in charge of a patrol last night when they were attacked a superior number of Germans, your son being severely wounded, and passing away before he could brought down to the dressing station. It was while engaged on important and daring piece of work that Lance-Corporal Newell and his friend, Lance-Corporal Willis, were both mortally wounded – it is only men of special courage and resource that are chosen for the work in which they were engaged, and your son had always proved particularly plucky.”
The weight of the loss the First World War brought to the Newell family is hard to imagine: four Newell boys went off to war, but only one came home.
The memorial at the Gobbins is mentioned in the News Letter in August 1917 as having been recently erected.
The memorial stated that it was erected “To the memory of Lance-Corporal Walter Newell, 6th Battalion Black Watch, who fell in action in France, 10th July 1915. Erected by his friends, with whom he spent many happy days at the Gobbins Farm.”
Billy Edwards was to join the fallen at the end of 1917 and his name is on the panel below that of his friend.
Edwards was a higher profile figure and details appear in respect of him in Stephen Walker’s excellent book “Ireland’s Call”, published in 2015 and looking at Irish sportsmen in service in the First World War.
Edwards, who was 30 when he was killed, was a keen rugby player, an accomplished water polo player and a strong sea swimmer.
He was educated at Thanet College in Kent, Coleraine Academical Institution and Campbell College.
On August 16, 1913, he made history by becoming the first man to swim across Belfast Lough, swimming from Whitehead to Bangor in four hours. Walter Newell was among those who spent time in the water with him to support him.
His father was a partner in Maguire and Edwards, furniture makers of Upper Arthur Street in Belfast and Billy (William Victor) attended Queens University in Belfast, where he qualified as an accountant.
He was a rugby player for Malone Rugby Club and also an Irish rugby international.
Home Rule was clearly something he felt strongly about and in addition to signing the Covenant he also joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was effectively a unionist army, and established in January 1913. Despite being opposed to the Liberal government policy of Home Rule, the Ulster Volunteers had a strong sense of loyalty to the UK and the British Empire, which resulted in many of them volunteering for war service, most through the ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division.
In September 1914 Edwards lost little time in volunteering for army service in the Great War and joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers, seeing service and almost being killed at Ginchy.
After a period back in Dublin for medical treatment and recuperation, Captain Edwards was sent to Salonika and then Palestine with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was killed on December 28 while in charge of a company defending Jerusalem and he is buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery there.
What became of the other eight men who signed the Covenant with Edwards and Newell would require much more detailed research.
Did they all join the Ulster Volunteers after they were formed in January 1913? Did they all join up during the war?
And were they among the friends with whom Newell and Edwards “spent many happy days at the Gobbins Farm” who helped to erect their memorial?
Some of the answers may be lost to history.
But one thing is for sure.
Set on the edge of County Antrim, a small memorial is a reminder of a poignant time in our past, when unionists prepared for the worst over Home Rule in Ireland, but ended up serving – and in many cases dying – in a different war and for a different cause.
On the Wiarton Peninsula in Ontario is a definite outpost of the British Empire and the last reminder of a unique link between Ulster and Canada.
Now a parkland, the 17 room stone mansion built by Alexander McNeill in the latter years of the 19th century was once home to a fierce defender of the British Empire.
McNeill was born at the Corran in Larne in May 1842, and was educated at Wimbledon in Surrey and Trinity College in Dublin. His uncle was Duncan McNeill, 1st Baron Colonsay in Scotland.
Alexander McNeill trained as a lawyer and in June 1868 he was called to the bar of the Middle Temple in London. After practicing law for a number of years, he emigrated with his new bride (and second cousin) Hester Law Howard to Canada. Initially settling on a farm near Paisley, Ontario, bought by his grandfather Sir John McNeill of Colonsay, the couple would later move to Wiarton on the North Bruce peninsula and McNeill would develop an interest – and a career – in politics.
Alexander McNeill was one-time Liberal Conservative Member of Parliament for North Bruce, Ontario. He was first elected the House of Commons of Canada for Bruce North in 1882, then 1887, 1891, 1896 and 1900.
In one of his speeches in the House of Commons, reported in February 1896, he said “We want the people of the world to know that, come what may, in whatever part of the Empire they reside, the British people are one people, animated by one spirit, and determined to stand as one man in defence of their common rights and in maintenance of their common interests.”
The following year, on a visit home to his brother Colonel Duncan McNeill, he addressed a public meeting in Larne, where he described himself as “a humble worker in the great cause of Imperial unity.”
“The whole world round British hearts are yearning for some means to draw our great kindred communities closer together. The whole world round jealous eyes are watching and hostile hearts are hoping for the failure of our efforts,” he warned.
McNeill reminded his audience, gathering in the old town hall in Larne, that many empires had failed in the past, but he ventured to suggest that “the world never before saw such an empire as ours.”
The presence of men such as McNeill undoubtedly helped boost morale in Ulster during the Home Rule debates, with Home Rule bills in 1886, 1893 and 1912.
Biographer Allan Bartley (Alexander McNeill: A Political Life, Bruce County, 1990) says “As an ardent Conservative, he was caught up in the strife between the moderate faction of the party led by Sir John A. Macdonald and the extreme Protestant elements supported by the Orange Lodge. The emphasis the latter group placed on ties with Britain, the Mother Country, was consistent with McNeill’s own Imperialist beliefs and personal background,”
McNeill was also a member of the Imperial Federation League, which was established in 1884 in Montreal. In fact he served as Vice President at that time, under the lawyer Dalton McCarthy of Barrie, Ontario.
It is also believed he was a member of the Orange Order, and he did on one occasion receive a medal from the Institution along with 12 other parliamentarians who voted against compensation being given to the Jesuit Order for lands taken over by the Crown in 1800 and transferred to the government of Lower Canada in 1831.
The MP for North Bruce received acclaim from newspapers in his political heyday.
The Toronto News described him as “courteous, scholarly and honourable” while the Mail and Empire said he was “a courteous Irish gentleman, a finished scholar, an ardent patriot, and an orator of no mean order.”
However, in 1900 his election was contested and in the subsequent by-election McNeill lost out “abruptly removed from Dominion politics at the age of 59” as his biographer notes. Although he tried to re-win the seat in 1908, he was decisively defeated and lost by 339 votes to his opponent John Tolmie.
For the rest of his life he seems to have largely concentrated on personal affairs
After the election defeat he retreated to his home on the peninsula – named The Corran after his home in Larne. He was rarely heard of on the national political scene from that point.
There is also little doubt that he paid a heavy personal price for his political involvement.
Family tragedy struck in 1890 when his wife Hester died, leaving him alone to raise their son Malcolm. McNeill’s political engagements and life as an MP meant many separations from his son and the relationship between the son and his father suffered as a result.
In turn, Malcolm would become a disappointment to his father.
He returned from service with the Royal Irish Rifles in the First World War and although the son of quite a rich man, proved incapable of managing the affairs of the farm and estate. Prior to Alexander’s death in 1932, the family fortunes were dwindling away and the trend was to continue.
Malcolm McNeill was unmarried and after he died in 1956 the Corran fell victim to neglect and was finally destroyed by fire. Today this little reminder of Ulster on the Bruce Peninsula is a parkland administered by the Sauble Valley Conservation Authority.
As far as the epitaph of its original owner is concerned, biographer Allan Bartley says “His Protestant, Orange and Imperialist orientations were perfectly suited to his time and place. The representative of constituents only a few years removed from Britain, he was a reassuring symbol of stability.”
CARROWDORE in County Down is hardly the most remarkable of places, although in past years it would have been well-known in the motorcycle world for the Carrowdore 100 motorcycle road race, which started in 1927. The poet Louis MacNeice was not born there but is buried there.
Another equally significant literary figure, almost forgotten today, was conversely born there but is not buried in her birthplace.
Maria Henrietta Delacherois-Crommelin, who wrote under the name of May Crommelin, was born in 1849 and grew up at Carrowdore Castle, which had been built by her grandfather in 1819. She died in England in 1930. She was a well-known figure among the literati of Victorian London, where her sister was married to the poet laurate John Masefield.
The Crommelin family were French Huguenots who had fled from religious persecution in France and were living in Holland in the late 17th century. In common with the Duke of Schomberg and most of the Huguenots in the Netherlands at the time, Louis Crommelin pledged support to William of Orange during the religious wars in Europe of which the Glorious Revolution and Williamite Wars were a part.
After the victory in Ireland, Louis Crommelin was personally invited by William III to lead a Huguenot colony of 70 French-speaking families in establishing the linen industry in Lisburn in 1698. Included in the colony were two of Louis’ brothers, three sisters and a number of his cousins. This was a major enterprise and more than 1,000 looms and Dutch spinning wheels were imported from Holland to ensure success, while Louis invested £10,000 in the venture.
The De la Cherois family also enter the family story through the Huguenot colony at Lisburn, two members of this family having married into the Crommelin family; Nicholas and Daniel. This name became Delacherois in time. Both the De la Cherois brothers fought for William at the Boyne in 1690, having arrived at Groomsport with the Williamite army in 1689.
The daughter of Samuel Hill Delacherois-Crommelin, May Crommelin was very well aware of this ancestry and the connections right back to the Glorious Revolution. She was author of a history of Louis Crommelin which was unpublished, but she was also author of numerous published books, short stories and magazine articles. She wrote over 45 books, many of them novels and several connected to Ulster.
One of these novels was Orange Lily, an impressively woven plot set around Carrowdore but extending in its storytelling to the United States. The novel draws on her experiences of the Orange and Ulster-Scots tradition in the locality, although the Orange Lily of the novel earns her name not only from her father being Worshipful Master of the local Orange Lodge but also from the colour of her hair.
Orange Lily was published in 1879 in New York, bringing the Carrowdore area to the attention of a much wider audience. In 1880 an edition printed in London included other short stories from the area, and two of these are also featured in this new edition published by the Ulster Scots Academy.
This new volume will revive the name of May Crommelin to a modern audience. It is an attractively presented book, which is greatly added to by editor Dr. Philip Robinson’s excellent introduction, highlighting the history behind the authoress and the novel and an equally fascinating appendix by Mark Thompson, including photographs, and detailing some of the locations relevant to the novel. These additions assist in setting the novel in context and the Ulster Scots glossary is also a very helpful aspect of the 2017 edition.
The novel itself, of course, is able to stand up for itself. For those who think that 19th century novels are dry and rather dull and boring, this will confound perceptions. Although the dialogue is of its time period, and modern authors would probably be more direct, this is nevertheless an engaging story. Writers would suggest there are really only a very small number of plot lines for all novels, and this one follows themes of jealousy, coming of age, rags-to-riches, and ultimate happy resolutions. The villain gets his come-uppance, which is only as it should be.
The story centres around Lily Keag (the Orange Lily of the title) and Tom Coulter, as they grow up together in the parish of Ballyboley (Carrowdore). Thrown into the mix are a cast which includes Daniel Gilhorn, for whom the central characters retain an aversion from the start, and who plays the villain in the novel, as well as others including Miss Alice and Miss Edith, who live at the castle, and are benevolent if somewhat eccentric figures. John Gilhorn, who aspires to provide a home for Orange Lily and settle down with her, gives us a little tension, for he is a likeable character yet one who appears to offer something of the prospect of a loveless marriage for Lily. She is pledged to Tom Coulter, but he has gone to America with the intention of doing well enough to come home and marry, his status altered from that of the servant boy on the farm.
Crommelin has clearly drawn on characters from the era of her writing, although there is a quite a mixture of characterisation going on; Lily Keag’s father is Master of the Ballyboley Orange Lodge, when in fact May’s own grandfather, Nicholas Delacherois-Crommelin was a prominent Orange leader in the area, as subsequently was her uncle. Her experiences at Carrowdore Castle no doubt found their way into the pages, as did some of the individuals she would have known, under different names and perhaps with several characters amalgamated together.
The book has also two additional short stories, The Witch of Windy Hill and An Old Maid’s Marriage, both of them charming in their own right.
I have to confess to being more attuned to reading American thrillers and modern historical fiction, so I approached Orange Lily with an open – if somewhat wary – mind, in anticipation that it would be rather tame in contrast. What I found was a fantastic story, well characterised, with engaging events and dialogue and a plot which had me gripped at the end of each chapter. Crommelin’s short stories were the same. This is a fantastic book, which opens an inviting door to the world of May Crommelin and her work.
This book deserves to sell well in its new edition not only in the hills of Carrowdore made famous by the 19th century Orange song which mentions “Mr. Crommelin” and his benevolence to the Orange tradition in the area, but also to a much wider audience in Northern Ireland.
Orange Lily by May Crommelin, edited and with an introduction by Philip Robinson is published by Ullans Press for the Ulster Scots Language Society, 329pps paperback, ISBN 9781905281312. On sale from Amazon for £11.50 plus P&P, and also in Ards and Bangor visitor centres and in North Down museum.