Letitia Henderson and a forgotten story from the First World War…

Larne war memorial

You will not have heard of her.

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.

Women munitions workers in the canteen of the National Projectile Factory, Lancaster.
Women Munition Workers in their canteen at the National Projectile Factory, Lancaster. Photo from the archives of the Lancaster City Museum.

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…



Poignant memorial on the edge of County Antrim…


Gobbins sun at monument
At the rising of the sun, and in the morning…

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.

Gobbins Farm Covenant Billy Edwards
Billy Edwards signature on the Ulster Covenant, with his address as Gobbins Farm. Image from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland Covenant online.

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.

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The Newell family plot at Belfast City Cemetery.

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.

William Victor Edwards
Captain Billy Edwards

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.

The Gobbins from Blackhead, north of Whitehead on the Antrim coast

A little piece of Ulster in North Bruce, Ontario

The Corran Wiarton Tourism
The Corran in North Bruce, Ontario. Photo: Wiarton Tourism

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 MP North Bruce
Alexander McNeill MP

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.

Hester McNeill, wife of Alexander
Hester McNeill, whose death was a family tragedy in 1890

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.”

A timeless story from the Hills of Carrowdore…


Orange lily book coverCARROWDORE 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.

Old postcards give an interesting insight into the past

postcard antrim coastNOWADAYS it is more likely that tourists visiting these shores will send social media messages and post up digital photos on facebook for their family and friends.

Local people travelling abroad certainly appear to do the same in reverse.

But in the early decades of the 20th century the common means of communicating the holiday spirit was through the postcard, and there were literally hundreds of thousands sent.

The postcard is a relatively new phenomenon and the modern colour card owes its lineage to cards which were produced to send messages.

postcard scot
A postcard used to send a Christmas greeting in 1920; it was sent to “Mr. John Howard, Blacksmith, Magheramorne, by Belfast”

These early cards were not so focused on scenery; when they first appeared in the 1860s they were popular because they were cheaper to post and it saved people having to buy writing paper. Within a short space of time new printing processes made it possible for the colour postcard to become a mass produced souvenir. Postcards also developed beyond scenic views to provide birthday greetings and studies of ships, royalty, and the work of leading artists.

From 1900 until the end of the First World War there was a commercial boom in postcards and in the 1920s the industry received a boost through the publication of photos of film stars, reflecting the rise of the motion picture industry. The industry continued in the 20th century but its heyday was in the earlier decades, within a major revival of interest from the 1960s being due to an interest in collecting old cards.

Postcard historian Martin Willoughby says “it is fairly certain that we will never again reach the stage where, as in those few years either side of 1900, the craze for collecting postcards took over the world”.

auction miriam cooper
An old postcard of silent screen star Miriam Cooper; there was a considerable demand for such cards from moviegoers.

Among the big postcard names in the early 1900s was Raphael Tuck and Sons, while others included Valentines of Dublin, London and Edinburgh, Lawrence’s of Dublin, the Signal Series, published by Eason and Sons of Dublin and Belfast, and John Hinde of Dublin.

Often local businesses, usually newsagents, would publish postcards and in my local area these included Apsleys in Larne, J. H. Hawkins in Islandmagee, J. W. Hill in Ballynure, J. Mann, Barnhill Post Office, Larne, and John McKee of Ballycarry.

Many postcards were photographed by the Lawrence company in Dublin, while other photographers active in the local area included Coon of Moira, who produced a series of cards for local newsagents. Alan Daniel Coon (1867-1938) was an interesting figure born in Buffalo, New York, and was an attorney-at-law before coming to Ulster in 1902 and opening photographic businesses in Londonderry, Donegal and Moira.

He travelled around in a caravan which contained a photographic studio and a darkroom.

Orr cottage postcard
A Coon postcard showing the home of weaver poet James Orr, Bard of Ballycarry (1770-1816)
postcard omagh
An old postcard from Omagh in County Tyrone

Postcards are a fascinating social history of an area; many of the cards show townscapes and landscapes which have dramatically changed since they were posted by earlier visitors and tourists.

Cards were also used to convey messages in the knowledge that the post office delivered very promptly. Thus they can mention meeting up in a day or so after the card is dated, for example.

They also provide an interesting insight through the personal messages which were written. One, showing a jaunting car at the Red Arch on the Coast Road, and postmarked Cushendall, 1909, says “This is how we drove through today on a jaunting car, Bob”

Another, sent from Whitehead before the First World War to an address in Ormeau Avenue in Belfast, details that the sender had walked from Islandmagee to do some shopping; “We walked to Whitehead yesterday to do some shopping but were glad to get back to the Island again, for we felt like fish out of water amongst so many people” the card says, suggesting the scale of tourist and visitor numbers in the seaside town.

One card which I picked up recently showing Gleno and published by Apsleys Stationers in Larne had a rather unexpected message on the back. The card was postmarked Larne, 28 March, 1907, and was sent to an address in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The card simply says “Dear Brother, Just a P. C. to let you know I was married this morning. I am here for the day am enjoying myself well. T. Richardson.”

Whether this news was a surprise or not for Mr. A. Wilkinson in Bloemfontein, we will never know.

gleno postcard955
An old colour postcard of Gleno in County Antrim

The secret history of early Orangeism…


THIS MONTH in 1795 saw high tensions in Armagh and the event known in history as the Battle of the Diamond.

This skirmish has long-lasting impact on Irish history, not because of the outcome of the battle but of what came out of the event itself.

After the battle, local Protestants, who had been in the centre of a tense and volatile area where retaliations were the norm, decided to band together in mutual protection. But after the battle, what really happened next?

orange medal
An early Orange medal

Who was involved in the early Orange Order, what influenced the new organisation, and how, within a few short years, had its headquarters moved from James Sloan’s Inn at Loughgall to the metropolitan setting of Dublin?

The Battle of the Diamond, it is worth saying, did not occur in isolation. And the focus on the Orange story after the Diamond was not an accident of history or of random inspiration. To begin with, the Orange tradition had been a long-standing one in Irish Protestant society.  In the years after the Glorious Revolution, Protestants had celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in July, or William III’s birthday in November. William had been seen as the deliverer of Protestantism and Protestants in Ireland and at the higher level of society banquets were held to mark these occasions. In Dublin an organisation called the Aldermen of Skinners Alley was comprised initially of Protestant alderman who had been thrown off the city corporation during the Jacobite Ascendancy, and had immediate reason to celebrate the legacy of William. At the other end of the social spectrum were the Boyne Societies, initially formed of men who had fought for William at the Boyne and elsewhere. We know little of the structure or activities of these societies but we do know that they were widespread and that after the Orange Institution was formed they continued to function, amalgamating in most if not all cases with the new structure.

A sense of the importance to the Protestant community of the Boyne societies is that they may have crossed the Atlantic with 18th century emigration movement. There is a long-standing historical tradition that Ulster Protestant emigrants in the Appalachians were called King Billy’s Men because of their adherence to the folk history of William of Orange. I found that this certainly pertained to a music tradition in the 1990s when I met a folksinger from Edneyville, North Carolina, called Robbie Gilbert. We were at a re-enactment weekend at the Elijah Clarke State Park in Lincolnton, Georgia, and discussion centred on the folk culture which emigrants might have taken with them. Robbie played a tune on his guitar which had come down the generations among the mountain people. He did not know what the tune was called or anything other than its basic provenance. He played Lillieburlero, the William march, the tune which was said to have chased James II from three kingdoms. But there was perhaps more than the music by way of historical legacy. During the Revolutionary War, General Cornwallis attempted to capture the south as part of a pincer against Washington in the north. But he stirred up a hornets nest in the Appalachian states. At Sycamore Shoal’s in Tennessee, the Over Mountain Men assembled to take on the British and Tory force moving north from Georgia. Rev. Samuel Doak, a Presbyterian minister from the Sixmilewater Valley in County Antrim, delivered a fiery sermon to the crowds that were gathered and there were rousing cheers at the instruction to go forward “by the sword of the lord and of Gideon”. These specifically chosen words and their connection to Orange Order ritual are either an outstanding coincidence or they hint at the deeper reason for the term King Billy’s Men from the Mountains.

Am Revolution
A marker in North Carolina highlights the route of the Over Mountain Men to battle in 1780; were they Orangemen in all but name?

If that is the case, there is a parallel with the formation of the Orange Institution just 15 years after the Ulster American victory at Kings Mountain in October 1780. The parallel is that in times of trouble, the Protestant community looked to a sense of security. The motto from the Revolution to ‘trust in God but keep your powder dry’ was highly apt.

There were at least two other groups who are important players on the stage of Irish history relating to the Orange tradition. One is, again, at the upper end of the social scale. The Masonic Order was widespread in Ireland and an extremely important fraternity with strongly ritualistic overtones. Interestingly it is in the Masonic Order that we find the strongest connections to the Orange Institution of the 1790s, both in terms of terminology and also in relation to the structure, ritual and symbolism of the new organisation formed in 1795. George Benn in his detailed History of Belfast from the 19th century mentions an Orange Lodge in the city in 1784, noting that the members processed through the city to publicly donate towards creation of a Market House in the city.  The significance of William III as a bringer of civil and religious liberty was an important factor in Masonic attachment, and the Masonic Order played an important role in the structure of Orangeism.

trowbridge ontario
Orangemen in Trowbridge, Ontario; the organisation quickly spread to Protestant settlements across the world, and with Protestant emigrants

The second grouping which was significant in terms of the development period of early Orangeism was the organisation known as the Peep o’ Day Boys. This was a group which was dedicated to depriving Catholics of weaponry, hence the title accorded to the fact that they raided homes at break of day. Most historians would detail the economic background to these raids and the fact that looms were often broken up suggests an ulterior reason for the activities. The discovery of what are believed to be temporary settlements of refugees from this ‘linen war’ in Galway recently lends credence to the displacement which occurred due to the activities of the Peep o’ Day Boys.[1] Historians disagree as to whether the Peep o’ Day Boys became the Orange Order or not. What we do know from contemporary documents is that some certainly made their way elsewhere; the diary of John Blair’s voyage from Larne to South Carolina in 1796, for example, notes the presence on the Sally of Savannah of both members of the Catholic Defenders and Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys; Blair tells us that the argument between the groups continued on the high seas, for around 6am on June 19, 1796, there was “a general scuffle between the parties we have on board, namely Defenders, or Roman Catholics, and Break of Day Boys, or Protestants. It was occasioned by the former accusing the latter of a murder committed in Ireland; they intend going to law as soon as we arrive in America.”

The Peep o’ Day Boys, whether some of them joined the Orange Order, certainly informed the progress of the new Order: most likely in the direction of ensuring that it was more controlled and structured.

The Peep o’ Day Boys were certainly what appears to have been a reason for the battle ground being determined for the Diamond outside Loughgall in September 1795. Armagh was a place of considerable tensions and often deadly attacks.  The rise of the Defenders is clearly charted through the 1790s and the most notorious, brutal and murderous attack was that at Forkhill on the schoolmaster Alexander Barclay, who opened his door at night on the voice of his neighbour Terence Byrne, to be violently assaulted, his tongue and fingers cut off, his wife similarly brutally assaulted and subsequently dying, and her 13 year-old brother also savagely attacked. This 1791 outrage resulted in one man being hanged. But while it was the most brutal it was not isolated.

Prior to the Diamond attack there had been many other incidents, including in June 1795 when two large bodies believed to be Peep o’ Day Boys and Defenders were prevented from attacking each other by a party of militia. During the summer there had been several small affrays in the vicinity of the Diamond crossroads and Defenders came from farther afield to join these.  In September 1795 explanations as to why the Defenders emerged at the Diamond include;

  1. As already related, the area had become a cockpit of intermittent conflict
  2. It has been suggested that it was believed by the Defenders that the Peep o’ Day Boys met at Dan Winter’s inn,
  3. and/or that Dan Winter was a member of the organisation.
  4. that the location was strategically important owing to its location and could have been a significant ‘bridgehead’ for the Defenders in continuing attrition, leading to the flight of Protestants from the area
Memorial at the Diamond in County Armagh commemorating the battle in September 1795

This makes rational sense of the assembly of Defenders to attack the Diamond in September 1795. Herewood Senior outlines that there was serious trouble in the Spring of 1795, when a Defender was beaten by Peep o’ Day Boys during a cock-fight at Dan Winter’s Inn at the Diamond, and that retaliations had continued in the interim, despite efforts by the authorities to curb them.  The Battle of the Diamond was therefore another aspect of ongoing troubles. We know that the Defenders came into the area from September 14 and that there were attacks on Protestants and their houses in the Tentaraghan area, with some Defenders houses then being attacked in retaliation.  On 18th September a gravel pit at Annaghmore was taken possession of by around 500 Defenders, while local Protestants, greatly alarmed, assembled on Cranagill Hill opposite.  One of the Defenders was killed that morning in a skirmish near Teaguy or Teague nearby.

Defenders from as far away as Monaghan, Lough and Tyrone, appear to have assembled on a hilltop overlooking the Diamond and this was soon responded to by Protestants assembling on the adjacent hill. The Diamond was a strategic area and consisted of around 14 cottages, four or five of which were inhabited by members of the Winter family. Despite efforts at negotiation by landlords and Roman Catholic clergy, which resulted in a short-lived truce, on September 21, 1795, the skirmish at the Diamond took place, with considerable loss to the Defenders. It has been suggested that almost 50 of them were killed and only one Protestant wounded.

And in the aftermath of the Battle, history tells us that the Orange Institution was formed.

The story as to how it was formed offers options;

  1. the Institution was formed in the back garden of Dan Winter’s cottage after the end of the battle
  2. The Institution was formed at James Sloan’s Inn in the aftermath of the Battle

On the face of it an incompatibility exists between the Order being formed in Winter’s garden and at Sloan’s public house.  Rev. John Brown suggests that

“It is very probable that a meeting of some kind was held at the Diamond on the day of the fight, and that a decision was taken to form an organised society to counteract the existing organisation of the Defenders…It is not so likely that what finally seems to have been a fairly elaborate ritual and secret system of signs and passwords was devised at such a meeting under such circumstances. A more accurate guess may be that this was done either that same evening, or very shortly afterwards, in James Sloan’s inn at Loughgall, according to a decision already made at the Diamond.”[2]

Brown makes the point that the Peep o’ Day Boys do not appear to have had any systematic method of recognition or assembling. Another possibility for the meeting at Winter’s (at a bush beside a spring well, we are told) could be that it involved existing Peep o’ Day Boys and that discussion was about a more structured approach suggested by someone such as James Wilson of the Dyan, who was present at the Diamond with his Orange Club members.

Brown may be accurate in what he suggests about the meeting in Dan Winter’s garden (his house was by that stage roofless after a concerted attack):

“May we suggest that, if any form of initiation took place that day at or near Dan Winter’s house, it was James Wilson and his men who admitted certain people, whom they thought they could trust, to the secret means of recognition belonging to their own society? These were already devised. The idea would have been to extend the existing organisation to cover County Armagh, and the meeting at James Sloan’s Inn in Loughgall on the same evening falls naturally enough into place. It would have been a meeting of those already initiated, for the purpose of initiating others and for making preliminary plans for the fuller extension of the society.”[3]

A weapon in the Orange museum in Loughgall, believed to have been used at the Battle of the Diamond

Wilson was the man who received the first Orange warrant from James Sloan, while the Diamond men received No. 118 eventually, suggesting some form of disagreement or schism initially. The first several warrants of the new organisation all went to Orange Clubs, including Derryscallop, Derryaughill and Knocknacloy, something which Rev. Brown did not see as a matter of chance as was suggested by R. M. Sibbett in 1939. The traditional story of how the first warrant was issued was now the men from the Diamond arrived at Sloan’s and sought it, but were sent out for paper and ink by Sloan, who was working in his garden. While they were away, Wilson arrived on the same mission and when told that ink was being sought, he is supposed to have broken a twig of hyssop from a tree in the garden and asked Sloan to write with it (possibly in Wilson’s blood). When this was done the Loughgall party was so upset they did not seek a warrant until 117 others had been issued. This story seems almost allegorical, especially considering that hyssop was symbolically a tree of eternal truth from Biblical times, so perhaps this reference was ritualistic and clear to the initiated. What the truth of the story, the first warrant went to the Orange Boys.

The Orange Club or Orange Boys of Dyan had been formed by James Wilson after an incident in Benburb in which Defenders had been abusive to local Protestants after a funeral and he had sought support from fellow members of the Masonic Order. It was St. John’s Day, June 24, 1794. Protestants who had gone to Benburb to defend their co-religionists had often ended up fighting each other, so Wilson’s motive appears to have been a uniform structure and response.  The Masonic Order members were reluctant to accede to his request and as a consequence he supposedly stormed from their meeting saying that he would light a star in Dyan that would eclipse them forever. He found a more ready response in men including Isaac Jeffs and bothers John and Abraham Dilly, who lived near Moy, and they devised a constitution, signs and passwords for the Orange Clubs. These Clubs would have provided a strength to the fledgling Orange body, to which was added a more detailed ritual. The fact that the first warrants went to them suggests a deal between Wilson and the others and Sloan.

An early Orange seal on a member’s certificate

Interestingly, the founders of the Orange Order were Freemasons; Wilson, Sloan and Winter were all members of the fraternity. Wilson was a member of Caledon Lodge No. 333, Sloan and the Winters members of Loughgall Lodge No. 603. Other Masons are recorded as having helped set down the ritual; Captain John Gifford is said to have helped devise the ritual and he was a Freemason and an officer of the Royal Dublin Militia. He is placed at Loughgall when the first meeting takes place. Another Freemason, John Templeton, is said to have helped introduce a higher degree at a meeting at which Dan Winter was present the following year, this being the Marksman or Plain Purple degree.

The prevalence of early degrees resulted in considerable debate within the early Orange movement. Aiken McClelland, Orange historian, notes that for the next 30 years the Orange Order, under the influence of brethren who were also members of the Knights of Malta, “formed the basis for an amazing number of degrees.”[6] The debate of degrees would lead to much discussion for a number of years and it is clear that the structure involved had borrowed from the Knights of Malta and Masonic Orders. Ironically, early Orangeism shared at least the influence of structural ancestry with the Defenders organisation;

 “Like the Defenders and nearly all contemporary fraternal societies, the new Orange Society took the Masonic Lodges as its model, and many early Orangemen were also Masons. Meetings and initiation ceremonies were held behind hedges and in ruined buildings, attended by armed members…”[7]

 As time went on, the system changed to ensure greater control; the introduction of the Purple or Marksman degree required members to swear not to initiate members into the Order ‘on roads or behind hedges’.[8] 

 This change happened quite quickly; within a year, it would seem. Another change which seems to have occurred quite rapidly also involved the leadership of the organisation. Some local gentry, such as the Blackers of Carrickblacker, William Brownlow of Lurgan, and the Verners of Churchill were involved with the early Order. Others were opposed but in the turbulent era of the 1790s it became clear that the existence of a body of men who foreswore loyalty to Crown and Constitution could be useful.  Thomas Knox MP of Dungannon was reflective;

“As to the Orange Men we have a rather difficult card to play, they must not either be entirely discountanced, on the contrary, we must, in a certain degree, uphold them, for, with all their licentiousness, on them we must rely for the preservation of our lives and properties, should critical times occur. We do not suffer them to parade, but at the same time, applaud them for their loyal professions. I hope I shall be able to manage it with our Tyrone people that they shall not be lost to the cause of their King and Country and at the same time, be kept within due bounds.”[9]

Orangemen were viewed with potential fear by the gentry, because they represented an independent and potentially volatile force in society. The much stated ethos of equality within the lodges, mentioned in subsequent generations, may not have been or be seen as such a virtue in Protestant Establishment Ireland, where the fabric of society seemed under considerable onslaught. Efforts were quickly made to ensure that the early Orange Order was controlled and channelled.

Orangemen were soon to be found in the ranks of the local yeomanry, and often whole lodges formed yeomanry units.  But that was not without concerns to the authorities: Thus, when two local Orange societies were encouraged to form yeomanry corps near Saintfield and Downpatrick in 1798, John Waring Maxwell, who entered into an arrangement with the societies, had to accept their electing their own leaders from the lodges as yeomanry officers. The fear of the authorities over loss of control was also revealed in a comment from Alexander Knox to Sir George Fitzgerald Hill in County Londonderry; “I hear of an Orange lodge in Derry. I trust you and your connection will keep clear…”

However, local gentry became increasingly involved in the organisation – historian Allan Blackstock suggests as a means of controlling the new combinations that were being formed among tenants.  The newly formed Orange Order, while professing loyalty, was a body which caused concern because it came from lower social roots; the founders of the Order included a Presbyterian farmer from Tyrone and an innkeeper from Armagh, for example, while many of the members were undoubtedly tenant farmers and labourers. Historians would see little coincidence in the fact that within three years of its foundation, the balance of power had been shifted from Sloan’s Inn at Loughgall to Dawson Street in the centre of Dublin.

By 1797 Thomas and David Verner had formed an Orange Lodge in Dublin, No. 176, which was to prove extremely influential, attracting some of the prominent of the Protestant nobility. A Grand Lodge was formed in Portadown in July 1797 but probably due to the influence of LOL 176 in attracting members of the nobility and gentry the Grand Lodge of Ireland was formed in April 1798 in or near Verner’s house at Dawson Street in the city. This signified a new chapter in the history of the development of Orangeism and to some extent the closing chapter of the early formative period. The founding fathers, Wilson, Sloan, Winter, all move off the centre stage and are replaced by others whose social standing is greater. Brown reminds us of this;

“On the occasion of a great Orange demonstration on the 12th of July, 1797, a Grand Lodge had been formed in Portadown. James Sloan, Dan Winter, James Wilson and their like retired from notice, and William Blacker, Thomas Verner, David Verner, and Thomas Seaver of Armagh, Dr. William Atkinson and William Hart of Antrim, and John Crossle of Tyrone, with Wolsey Atkinson as acting Grand Secretary, took over the direction of Orangeism.”[10]

Interesting questions remain and may never be fully answered. There were other organisations in existence prior to the Battle of the Diamond; the Orange Clubs, the Peep o’ Day Boys, Boyne Societies and others. The exact balance of their early involvement remains unclear. The influence of the Masonic Order in terms of the ritual, structure and influence of the early Orange Order also remains unquantifiable. There is debate as to the decision to form the new organisation and the issuing of the warrants is a grey area.  One thing is very clear, however, which is the potential of the new organisation to be more appealing, more structured and more durable than any of its predecessors.

The Battle of the Diamond was really only a skirmish in the context of numbers involved and fatalities. The ‘whinny hill’ where the men of Dyan are supposed to have taken their oath as Orange Boys was hardly an icon historical site. But those places are landmarks in the evolution and development of an organisation which would become an institution and would spread and be known in many parts of the English speaking world.

The motive was very clear in the Armagh of the 1790s: quite literal protection of Protestants and their property. The means was through establishment of a structured network of defensive bodies, to be known as lodges, and brought together under a centralised control. Some historians argue that this structure in itself was enough to counter the Defenders and prevent further outrages. And the opportunity was to a large extent the events of September 1795, because they focused in a very real way the dangers which had to be overcome – about which people were “encompassed” to quote Orange ritual. Opportunities also existed in terms of connections with the Orange Clubs and the Masonic structures which the founders were familiar with. Out of that was created a new structure with signs and passwords which were then much more than speculative, as lives could have depended on them.

It is generally accepted that the Orange Order was born following the Battle of the Diamond. But there are many intriguing questions surrounding those few days in September 1795 and what followed on from them. The subsequent history of Orangeism is well documented but perhaps that little less intriguing.

An old Orange certificate; the early structure, ritual and symbols of the organisation owed much to the Masonic Order and the chief founding fathers of the Institution were all Freemasons
[1] Archaeology Magazine, 2017; 220 Year old refugee camp found near Galway
[2] Rev. John Brown in Orangeism a new historical appreciation, Belfast, 1967
[3] Brown, op cit, p99
[4] Quoted in Sibbett, History of Orangeism in Ireland and throughout the Empire
[5] Sibbett, op cit, p290. Underline emphasis mine.
[6] Aiken McClelland, ‘The Origin of the Imperial Black Chapter of the British Commonwealth’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland, 1968, Vol. 98
[7] Hereward Senior, The Early Orange Order, 1795-1870, in Williams, ed, Secret Societies in Ireland, Dublin, 1973
[8] Op cit, p39
[9] An Ascendancy Army. The Irish Yeomanry 1796 – 1834, Allan Blackstock, Four Courts Press, 1998
[10] Brown, p107

Tornados that carried away crops and damaged houses in bygone Ulster


WHILE summer sunshine may not have been with us to date for as long as we would like, the weather is still a far cry from the Carrick tornado of 1775.

The remarkable phenomenon occurred on September 2, 1775, when an ominous black cloud appeared above Divis Mountain in Belfast.

A short time later, it separated into two distinct parts, one moving on the northern side of the mountain and the one which was to cause severe damage locally coming down towards the Shankill district of the city.

The account is detailed by Samuel McSkimin in his history of Carrickfergus, published originally in 1811.

McSkimin highlights that the tornado carried up ten cocks or stooks of hay, resulted in terrified reapers fleeing from its path.

It then caused damage near Whitehouse and when it arrived at Carrick carried away hay and corn which had been cut in the fields “having twirled them in the air in a most singular manner.”

Several trees were uprooted near Woodburn Bridge, while at Windmill Hill on the outskirt of Carrick several people were physically lifted from the ground and ended up in a nearby ditch.

More corn and hay including several hayricks were carried away by the devastating whirlwind, but at Duff’s Hill the wind entered a house through an open door and knocked down the rear of the property, leaving only the front standing.

The tornado then moved across Kilroot and Broadisland with similar effect in the hay fields, but at Larne Lough it became even more dramatic; McSkimin says that “it lifted up the waters till they appeared like floating white clouds, and transported them to a considerable distance”

It also touched more landfall on part of Islandmagee, causing more damage, before it disappeared over the North Channel.

The land which the tornado travelled across was about half a mile in breadth, according to the historian’s estimate.

It was then succeeded in its wake by lightning, heavy peals of thunder and then rain or hail.

“The hail, or rather masses of ice, fell in a great variety of irregular shapes: several pieces measured upwards of six inches in circumference,” McSkimin related.

An account in the Belfast News Letter, meanwhile, reveals that there was a second tornado in Carrick in June 1834.

The report details that around 4pm “a cloud of singularly black and ominous appearance was seen floating towards the northern part of Kilroot, two miles from Carrickfergus. Presently a vivid flash of forked lightning was observed to issue from the cloud, and followed by deep roll of thunder, during which the cloud advanced with singular rapidity in the direction of a farm house,”

It detailed that two young persons became greatly alarmed by the thunder, which was followed by a loud whirring noise.

They ran away and tried to find some shelter in a nearby house, but were lifted by “a sudden jerk from the ground” and ended up over a hedge in the next field, thankfully unharmed.

But an unfortunate hen near them was taken up in the wind and thrown down some distance away dead.

The house was then struck by the wind, which, having damaged a fence at the front, carried the thatch from the roof and part of the scraws or sods underneath and, according to the newspaper report, carried them off like an enormous bale.

Inside the house, the wind broke Delph on a dresser and exited through the roof of the building.

Cattle in the fields also fled as the winds approached, but the incident was over in less than a minute, it seemed.

“On the 2d September, 1775, similar tornado passed over in nearly the same direction, and with nearly similar awful effect” the paper informed its readers.

Although tornadoes are regarded as unusual weather phenomenon, British has been hit on other occasions by them in the past; the most damaging were believed to be in England in 1810, while several people died when a tornado struck Chester and Barry in Wales in October 1913.

In December 1954 six tornadoes were confirmed over England on one day and in 2014 a tornado was also recorded in England.

Tornadoes usually occur in particularly violent thunderstorms.

Nothing quite as devastating as the 1775 and 1834 tornados have been recorded since, although in the summer of 1893, on a cloudless, warm sunny day a whirlwind was observed in the Ballycarry area, raising hay in a hayfield in a spiral column which was said to have extended upwards of 30 feet into the air