Londonderry, Lundy and the significance of the famous siege

LondonderryI 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.

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Billy Moore of the Apprentice Boys shows Tim McGarry and I the effigy of Lundy, which is burned each December in the city

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.

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St. Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry

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.

Orange Lodge banner depicting the relief ships breaking the boom. This banner is on display at Limavady Orange Heritage Centre, Co. Londonderry

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 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…