So, who the heck was Gordon?

Gobbins suspension bridge
Tourists at Gordon’s Leap, sometime after 1902

The Gobbins Cliff Path is open again for the 2019 season and hoping to build on last year’s visitor numbers of 30,000.

The guided tours take visitors along an amazing route beside the North Channel, sometimes a metre from the sea, other times much higher.

And one of the locations they pass, at the very end of the path, is Gordon’s Leap. The question is, however, who was Gordon?

Local wisdom has it that the area – which became home a suspension bridge linking one part of the path to another – was named after a local councillor who signed off on the proposal for the path.

Another is that during the massacre of Roman Catholic families in 1642, brought about as a consequence of a massacre of Protestants further north in the county a short time before, a man named Gordon was dragged off the cliff there by one of the victims. This story seems to have little foundation. The massacre, which was a nasty, horrible event in itself, did not occur at the Gobbins but at Carnspindal, now known as Millbay, further to the north west on the island.

There is a councillor named Gordon, however. John F. Gordon was a prominent labour representative within the Unionist Party in the 1920s. And he clearly had connection with Islandmagee: an old poster of a swimming gala at the Cove near the Gobbins in August 1920 has him listed as handicapper at the event.

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The name of Cllr. John F. Gordon appears on this 1920 poster for the Cove Regetta near the Gobbins

There are Gordon families in north Islandmagee and the name appears in 1669 as Goardon on the island, when the family paid a hearth tax to the government. In the 1830s 25 year-old David Gordon was listed in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs – a sort of Irish Doomsday book – as migrating annually to Glasgow for work. We know that he was a labourer and a member of the Established Church.

And among the schoolteachers in Islandmagee in the past were James Trail Gordon, who lived at Bernabeg.

In 1911 there is a Gordon family at Temple Effin, which is close to the town of Whitehead, the head of the family being a Robert, who is 46. There are nine family members, one of them John, who is 6 years old and seems a little young to be the Cllr. J. F. Gordon mentioned in 1920. These Gordons were Presbyterians.

However there is clearly a Gordon connection with Islandmagee and John F. Gordon may well be part of it.

He is well documented in Northern Ireland history. He was son of William James Gordon and Margaret Fawcett and was sent to live with relatives in the United States after his father died. He returned from Falls River, Massachusetts and was a member of Belfast Corporation from 1920 to 1923. He represented Antrim and then Carrickfergus in the Northern Ireland Parliament from the formation of the state in 1921 until 1943.  Partner in the firm of Fryar and Gordon Solicitors of Bridge Street in Belfast, John F Gordon served as Minister of Labour in Northern Ireland from 1938 to 1943. He resigned as MP for Carrick to take up a post as chairman of the National Assistance Board of Northern Ireland.

Gordon was a strong support of more left-wing politics, and was a strong supporter of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association, formed within the Unionist Party at the insistence of Sir Edward Carson to ensure that the voice of the working class was heard – and did not drift off to Independents or the Northern Ireland Labour Party at elections. In 1950 he was one of the Vice Presidents of the UULA.

John F. Gordon died at the age of 87 in June 1965 at his home, Innisfoyle Park, Belfast.

So was he the man after whom Gordon’s Leap was named. It is tempting to think so, not least on account of his high profile in the area as a politician.

But there are problems too.

Gobbins map
Gordon’s Leap clearly marked in the early years of the Gobbins Path

The Gobbins Path was opened by the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company in 1902.  John F. Gordon was 24 years old. Had the council on which Gordon sat any say on the path at that time? It was a private enterprise by the railway company and it is unlikely that councils had grant powers to assist.

The area across is too wide for anyone – not even a high ranking Belfast politician – to leap across, so was the ‘leap’ more symbolic: a leap of faith in some way, perhaps? Prior to the suspension bridge across Gordon’s Leap, the path stopped on the south side of the cave that dominates the landscape at that point. Berkeley Dean Wise, the genius who proposed the further extension was intent on going much further along the face of the cliffs, so was there a ‘leap of faith’ in some manner by someone called Gordon.

Or was John F. Gordon, who was clearly a familiar visitor to regettas on the island, the type of person to take a leap into the waters at the mouth of the first of the Seven Sisters caves?

To add to matters, the name Gordon may not even be a surname. Maybe someone working for the railway company has the given name Gordon and maybe he had something to say or do about the location of the suspension bridge.

One thing is clear. No one seems to know the full story, so a little bit of mystery remains, adding to the drama that is the Gobbins Cliff Walk.

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Modern visitors at Gordon’s Leap, part of the Gobbins Cliff Walk
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The day an American actress dropped by an Ulster town to see her ancestral home

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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.

Billy_Gilbert_1954. WikipediaBy 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.

DSCN0046 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.

Riders of the Dawn 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.