Lest we forget

Despite having served for more than six years during WW2, my father almost never spoke of his war experiences, at least not in my presence. He never seemed to look back, nor did he ever seem to worry about what the future might hold. He took each day as it came, did his very best, and at the end of the day he turned the page. I remember him as being a very contented man. His has been a hard act to follow.

It was not until my early attempts to write my family history that I realised how little I knew of my father’s wartime experiences. He had long passed on and it was through his best friend, Roy Bishop, that some of the blank pages were partially filled. It was in 20o7, in response to my many questions, that Roy, through emails, documented his memories. Where appropriate, I will quote Roy’s exact words.

Royston Bishop was born in Barnet, North London, on 29 November 1918.  He had an older brother, Thomas and two younger sisters, Gladys and Gwendoline. His parents, Thomas Bishop and Lilian Lawson, were both from large families; his father was one of eight siblings and his mother one of sixteen.

In late 1939, after the breakout of WW2, Roy was called up for military service. At that time, he was a trainee manager with Hector Powe, the chain of luxury menswear shops, with headquarters in Regent Street, London. At the same time, at Potter’s Bar in North London, my father had a trainee manager position with Sainsburys, which was a rather up-market family grocer in that era. Their paths were destined to cross. They were not yet turned twenty-one, with my father’s birthday on November 11 and Roy’s on November 29.

We met on the first day of being called up in September 1939 at Chelmsford, Essex and we were transported together to the Recruit Training Centre at Northolt and we shared the same hut and even had beds (on the floor) next to each other.   After the 4 weeks training we were posted to the same Company, HQ;2nd/8th. battalion The Middlesex Regiment, Harry to the Band and I was posted to the Regimental Police.   We remained friends througout our 6 plus years together and even finished up in the same platon in D Company Heavy Mortars; Harry as MPOack and I was the Platoon Sergeant.

In the early days of the war, they were assigned to guard duty at various installations in and around London, eventually being transferred to Portrush, in Northern Ireland, where they spend much of the next three years in training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe..

Ron Warner and Roy Bishop were in the Regimental Police

My father always described Roy as ‘a bit of a character’ and more that once described how Roy had decided to ignore military rules and swam outside the harbour, not realizing how strong were the prevailing North Sea currents. Despite being a strong swimmer, Roy was not able to swim back to the harbour and had to be rescued.

When I was researching for my family history, I came across an account of the Middlesex regiment by a Leslie Dyer and I asked Roy if he ever had come across him:

Les Dyer, known as "Deadly" was in the transport section as a driver and was quite a wild character. I remember escorting him to Carrickfergus Detention barracks as he had overstayed his leave. We had a laugh over this episode recently and he told me that his wife told him to get an education and having no family he took an education course and finished up overseas teaching. 

And who was Harry Ellison, for I recalled him being mentioned more than once by my parents?

Harry Ellison I knew very well as he was in the same (HQ) Company as Harry and myself.  He was a magnificent drummer; professional standard.   He was engaged to a Portrush girl but sadly he was killed in action in Normandy, having been posted to a machine gun company. 

It was in Portrush that my father met Ernie Mann, who was then the leader of the dance band that played in Barry’s Ballroom. My father often used to play piano with the band and it was a relationship from which he was able to profit, when he eventually returned from the war in 1946.

It was also in Portrush where my father met my mother. They were married in October 1942.

My parents marriage photo, with Harry Wells and E. Gillespie

In response to my question, Roy explained how my parents, once married, could have been able to be together, given wartime restrictions.

 In Portrush, sleeping out passes were required but in those  days it was an easy going attitude as long as one was on parade in time in the morning. 

But shortly after my parents were married, the Middlesex regiment was moved to England.

Harry and I were in Northern Ireland together for about 2.5 years and then went to Yorkshire, Southend and then Amersham.    I was away on a number of Army Courses; Gas Warfare Recognition at Winterbourne Gunner, Dorset,  Small Arms Cadre at Dorking, Surrey, Regimental Provost Duties at Carrickfergus,Co.Antrim, Light A/Ack at Clacton on Sea, Essex and Heavy Mortor Instructor's Course at Netheravon with Bob Richardson and Frank Godfrey.  It was on this course that I met  my future wife as Gwyn was in the WAAF stationed nearby at Amesbury, Wiltshire and we were married the following May on a short leave from Germany.   

My mother gave birth to a little girl, June Mary, in May 1943, but sadly she died a few months later, in January 1944. I don’t know if my father ever saw his daughter.

It was tragic for Harry at the time to lose a daughter of 8 months.The battalion were in transit at that period from Amersham to East Sussex  and I was on a Small Arms course at Dorking and I think Harry had compassionate leave and we met up again at Kemp Town, Brighton on his return.  
We then moved to Worthing and we were billeted in the Clear View Hotel, opposite the pier, with all equipment and weapons at hand.  We slept on the bare floor boards and awaited orders to proceed into action and were awaiting suitable transit for our Universal Carriers and heavy mortars.  All the hotels on the Worthing front were empty and taken over by most of the battalion. 

The Middlesex regiment were attached to the 15th Scottish Division for the duration of the war, and the following map, with dates, documents their path through France, Belgium, Netherlands and finally Germany.

For Roy, the earlier days after the invasion were particularly poignant:

Tormaville was without question a terrible battle area, firing most of the night. I buried Corp. Symonds in the early hours and whilst I was digging, a Pte. Peter Benson-Cooper came over from the next field where 15 Platoon were firing. He helped me dig the trench but we dug it too deeply, and the body was never recovered. However, Corp. Symonds is mentioned on the memorial stele in Normandy.
My father is the soldier with his back to the mortar, adjusting the sights.

Many times, Roy has spoken to me of passing through battlefields in Northern France in the early days after the invasion. He said that he could never forget the stench of rotting animals and the remains of German soldiers and the mass destruction of the villages and countryside.

Roy and my father were not to be without mishap:

In France we had many shared experiences and we shared a German Personnel Mine when Harry's Universal Carrier with Lt.Bob.Richardson and Private Amelan and Harry on board and with me driving my motor bike alongside were blown up by the mine.  I flew up in the air and come down in black smoke, with the engine still running, thinking that was the end!    Private Amelan had perforated ear drums and was evacuated along with Bob Richardson who had shock and minute metal pieces in his chest.  Harry and I both suffered hearing loss and we were deaf for three days but fortunately we recovered but not back to our normal hearing. 
Where they were blown up by a mine. It looks rather peaceful today.

I can vouch for my father’s loss of hearing. It was impossible to have a conversation with him without repeating everything at least twice. In his twilight years, Roy purchased a hearing aid, but I recall that his experience with it was less than satisfactory.

Old soldiers have a language of their own and I once asked Roy to write about his role and my father’s wartime role as an MPOack:

The MPOack was an assistant to the platoon 2i/c and sat next to him in a lloyd tracked infantry carrier.  Driving the carrier was Amelan and they operated a No18 radio set and messages vis the OP (observation post) were relayed to the mortar line giving bearing and bombs to be fired. I was on the mortar line and it was my job to liaise with the information of number of bombs fired daily and this information was sent to Coy. HQ, so that replacement bombs were supplied. I usually went to a rendezvous on a cross roads map reference on my motor bike with  a Universal  carrier to bring back the replacement bombs to the platoon position.

Many years after a battle in Belgium, Roy had a remarkable experience:

Mol in Belgium was the area where we were heavily shelled and Corp. Crowhurst DCM was killed and Pte. Baker was also killed. Pte. Owen Collins was seriously injured and I managed to get him onto a medical truck and he was evacuated to England. Very many years later by a terrific coincidence I was visiting the war graves of these soldiers when a lady and gentleman approached at the sametime. It turned out to be Pte. Owen Collins and his wife, who had travelled from Bovey Tracey in Devon. In fact I paid a visit to them the following year. He told me that he had never fully recovered from nerves and had to leave the police force after a year. He settled for an agricultural job without tension.

He told his wife that I was the man who saved his life because of the quick action of getting him evacuated medically.

One of the few memories of my father speaking of the war was his description of driving for hours through the night from Tilburg to the Ardennes in Belgium. They had no lights and had to follow at tiny light under the vehicle ahead.

Yes, Harry remembered the incident well as it was a horrible all-night drive to support the Americans due to a breakthrough in the Ardennes, due to the German breakthrough in the American sector.The 15th.Scottish Infantry Division had only just liberated TILBURG, North Brabant and Harry and some of the platoon were having a celebrating drink in the Burgomaster's house when an immediate recall came through to the Platoon to start-up, for an all night drive in readiness for a crash-action.   You could imagine our tiredness having just entered Tilburg as the liberators.  I was riding my motorbike half asleep, every now and again being bought back to alertness by my front wheel hitting the Lloyd Carrier in front and after hours of driving in poor weather we eventually went in to a crash action in support. It was a period of battle that always stays in the mind as it was a test of endurance.  I will always remember the large number of young American soldiers who were killed in action lying dead on the road on our route.

What happened after Tilburg?

 In answer to your query re the target after Tilburg was to MEIJEL when we supported 44 Brigade and which all platoons took part. Bad weather, boggy ground and a very strong resistance ensured heavy fighting for 4 to 5 days until the 6th November when a lull ensued.  All were engaged by the 15th Nov when casualities increased. I lost a friend from Finchley, Lt.Cross, who was killed in 12 platoon and also Sgt Wood from the same platoon.  
After the end of the fighting, when we had arrived in Lubeck, our platoon were employed in looking after German prisoners of war in the Hamburg area. They were housed in "Nissan type huts", around a dozen to each building. The looking after the  Belsen prisoners was dealt mainly by the Royal Army Medical Corps with  assistance in transport by the Royal Army Service Corps. We soon reverted to Regimental duties at the end of 1945 with guard duties as we were very close to the Russian Infantry who had their guard room a few hundred yards to the  east of Lubeck.
The Army photograph of the WO’s and Sgts. Mess at LUBECK directly after the war was taken by a local German photographer.  My father is on the extreme left of tne photograph and Roy sixth from the left
A page of Roy’s wartime notebook, with my father and Roy’s records
Rensburg was the next town where the Battalion was stationed in 1946, after Lubeck, so it was peace time soldiering.  Harry and I were on demobilisation number 26 and left at Lubeck as our age was then 27 years and two months and had served throughout the war years and nearly 6.5 years war service. 
You enquired re Normandy landing date and route and amongst my memorablia I found a note of the platoon travels. It is in pencil and written on my motor bike travels, so it is not in my usual script, so some villages and towns may be misspelt. Gosport 7.7.44. St Crois sur mer, Tourville, Evrecy, Caumont, Sutain, ESTRY, Bernay, Theelt, Londerzeel, Gheel, Eindhoven, BEST, Helmond, Venlo, Mol, TILBURG, Bletrick, Neer, Sevenum, Helden, Riel, Nijemen, CLEVE, Goch, Moglands (Schloss), Boxtel, BourgLeopold, Zanten, RIVER RHINE CROSSING, Mehrbou, Leven, Brennhorst, Hazenburg, CELLE, Uelzen, Neetze, Bleclede,  RIVER VELBE CROSSING, Hammour, Bolhsdorf,Trenemunde, Wilsted, Carlow,  LUBECK, (Late 45,early 46).

Harry and I were then demobbed. Both rather tired after that lot!. 

Roy often spoke to me of a young German boy, who was ‘adopted’ by the Middlesex regiment. His name was Heinz Johannsen, but the soldiers called him Jimmy. In later life, Heinz collected Middlesex memorabilia. Heinz maintained contact with many of the Middlesex soldiers, including Roy. A few years ago I was also in contact with him.

With the war over, Roy and my father were released from military service, Roy to restart to his managerial career with Hector Powe, and my father to start a poultry farm in Portrush, subsidized by his musical talent. They remained firm friends ever after.

And nine months after my father returned to Portrush, I came on the scene.

Roy, my father and most, if not all, of their friends have passed on, but we must never ever forget their sacrifice of their time, and in many cases their lives, to keep Europe free and at peace.

Twelve plus Twelve

It was twenty-four years ago, on 24 June 1995, that the little private primary school of Lyndhurst, in Camberley, celebrated its centenary. The school is close to the centre of the town, about 40 kilometers south-west of London. On that day, I already had two sons enrolled in the school, a third son about to start in September and a fourth son who would have to wait to join his brothers; he was only twenty days old.

Lyndhurst primary school

The school was managed by the headmaster, Robert Cunliffe, and his wife, Jenny. Until very recently, I never knew the their actual first names; I had always assumed that they were Mister and Missus!

The couple´s ambition for the school was to create a family atmosphere for the children and impart a grounding in a wide range of subjects and skills. In my opinion, they far exceeded their goal.

For the centenary celebrations, they had organized marquees, booths, demonstrations of skills by the children, competitions etc. But when the headmaster had selected the date for the celebration, he was possibly not aware that on that very afternoon was scheduled the World Rugby Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa, the latter being the host country and their first participation in the World Cup since the abolition of apartheid. For a rugby fan, such as I, it was a not-to-be missed event.

But having told my sons that I would be at their school celebrations, with heavy heart I made my way to Lyndhurst. But when I got there, I found two South African members of the staff, adamant that they were going to see the game, and setting up a little television in one of the classrooms. So for the next two hours I perched on a child’s chair and watched an incredible game, won 15-12 in extra time by South Africa, with a drop goal. And who could ever forget the scene of a jubilant Nelson Mandela in a South African shirt, presenting the trophy to Francois Pinaar and dancing for the cameras. It is a magic memory.

Nelson Mandela

Twelve years later, on 20 October 2007, the final was between South Africa and England. I was in Sweden, where rugby has little or no interest for the vast majority of Swedes. It was not covered on public television but I managed to see the Irish pool games by subscribing $9.99 per game. I failed to get access to the final which South Africa won 15-6.

At that time I did not realize that a further twelve years later I would be living in South Africa and witness the South Africans once again winning the World Cup, beating England 32-12, confounding the ‘experts’, who had England as the odds-on favourites. Having thoroughly beaten New Zealand, the tournament favorites , in the semi-final, it seemed as if the English thought that South Africa would be a ‘walk in the park’. They must have forgotten that unlike English parks, South African parks are populated with dangerous animals…

After the game, Prince Harry went to the Springboks dressing room to congratulate the team

When the final whistle ended the game, South Africa erupted and has been celebrating ever since.

A building in central Cape Town decorated with the flag

It took a few days to get the complete team and staff back to Johannesburg and then they set off on a four day tour of the major cities, arriving yesterday in Cape town. I will leave the photos to speak for themselves…

In front of the Mandela statue
Everywhere they went, there were crowds

In each city, it was not just to the well-off parts they went, but they also toured many of the poor and deprived townships, from which many of the team originated, including the captain, Siya Kolesi.

In Siya’s own words ‘ Look at how we are all different. Different races, different backgrounds, and we can prove that South Africa can be united. We came together for South Africa and made it happen.’

There is hope and Nelson Mandela would very much approve. His spirit lives on…

Ard Rua

I had not long turned six, when my mother bought a rather large chair. It had an arm around three sides and my mother said it was for my grandmother, when she arrived from Harpley in England. She had had a stroke and was an invalid; she needed to have support when sitting down or getting up. Of course I understood nothing of her medical condition.

Nor did I understand what was happening soon after, when my mother was taken away. I could remember the previous time when she was taken away for many months. I was distressed and hid for a long time behind a bedroom door. I don’t remember what happened after.

Of course my mother was not ill; she was about to give birth to my little brother, but nobody explained that to me. In that era children were well hidden from ‘the facts of life’, at least I certainly was.

One of only two photographs that I have of my English grandmother . My father is the one with the ‘dodgy’ haircut. The background is not familiar to me, so perhaps the photo was taken in Harpley

My grandparents were Norfolk, through and through. As far as I have been able to trace their ancestors, to at least the 1600s, they all were born, married and died in Norfolk.

My grandfather was a classical musician and my grandmother was a primary school teacher, one of the first in her area. They were not long retired, when my father settled in Ireland after WW2 and started his poultry farm. When my brother eventually came along in 1953, my grandparents decided to relocate to Portrush, to be closer to their son; my father was an only child, as was also my mother.

At that time, across the road from our farm, there was a large house available for rent. It was owned by Joe Collins and the house was at the end of the lane past the Collins farm. It was to that house my grandparents moved.

The house was known as Ard Rua. In the Irish language, Ard meaning high and Rua meaning red. The house is timber-framed, based on a Swedish design, and was at one time owned by a member of the Stormont parliament. It was perhaps he who originally built it.

Behind the house, on the northern side, there was a Nissen hut. I suspect that the house was sequestered by the military during WW2. My grandfather used to raise chickens in that hut.

To the right of the entrance to the house was a long veranda in which my grandfather grew geraniums and similar flowers. It was south-facing and perfect for raising house plants.

On entering the house there was a reception area with comfortable chairs and a fireplace. To the left was a large dining room, to the right a drawing room, straight ahead were the stairs and in the rear left, the kitchen, that led to the scullery and the toilet.

Under the stairs was my paradise. It was there that my grandparents kept the games that had survived my father’s youth.

From the landing on the staircase, one could see far north across Portrush and the Skerries, the small islands off the coast. It was my grandfather who introduced me to ‘the white horses‘. On a stormy day, the North Atlantic was a stampede.

On the upper floor there were five bedrooms. In one of the bedrooms I discovered a violin, with a few strings still intact and a bow. I never did know that my grandfather used to play the violin.

But my grandmother never slept upstairs. Her recurrent strokes left her an invalid and she was bed-ridden downstairs in the drawing room. My grandfather’s piano was in her room. I would like to believe that he used to play for her. In the dining room was his organ. He played several hours every day.

There was a garage to the right of the house and there my grandfather kept his car, a Sunbeam Talbot, with licence plate of DYZ 638. I can’t remember my telephone number from yesterday, but I can remember my grandfather’s car registration from 1953! It was Tommy Tinkler who drove the car over from Norfolk and serviced it until both my grandfather and the car passed on.

My grandfather’s car parked across from our farm

My grandmother died of one stroke too many in 1958. My father built an extension to our house and soon after my grandfather moved in. Ard Rua was again available to rent.

Recently, I received a mail from a lady, who lived for a time in Ard Rua in 1962, as a child. She had stumbled upon the name in one of my articles. Sometimes it’s a very small world.

Ard Rua, renamed and repainted as The Pink House, as it is today, extended, and marketed as a B&B

Of course, in my time, the telecoms tower did not exist, nor the houses in the background. There were only the gorse bushes in which I used to hide and act out the adventure stories that I used to read.

I don’t know what ever happened to the chair; my grandparents and my parents have long passed on, but my vivid memories are still with me.

And Ard Rua still stands in all its pink glory

A bit of water

Gertrude Mary Blackwood was born in Hapton, south-western Norfolk, the third of seven children of William Blackwood and Lucy Ann English and was one of the elder sisters of my paternal grandfather, Leonard Clive Blackwood.  By 1876, when her sister Rosa Lillian was born, the family had already moved from Hapton to Jay’s Green, Redenhall, on the Sussex border.  Her father worked as a miller and he eventually acquired his own windmill.

Gertrude died on 24 July 1942. An inquest was held the next day and the verdict of Donald Flackson, the coroner for the Kings Lynn District, was that ’The deceased threw herself into a bit of water and drowned herself – the balance of her mind being at the time disturbed’.  The death certificate was issued by the coroner and there was no indication of who discovered the body or where she was buried. Her address was given as 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich, her marital status was that of spinster and her occupation was that of Housekeeper (Domestic).

What caught my attention about the apparent suicide was that it did not occur in or near Ipswich, where she lived, but in Harpley, where my grandparents lived.  I have been several times to Harpley and I have never noticed a pond.  There are a couple of large ponds in the centre of Massingham about two miles away, but Harpley has no village pond.  On checking a map of Harpley, I found that there is a pond in a secluded area called Lake Wood, about 300m from the centre of Harpley and my grandparent’s house, and close to the Kings Lynn to Fakenham Road that bypasses Harpley.  Could that have been where Gertrude drowned herself?  Or was it in one of the small livestock ponds that farms tended to have.  And where had she been staying at the time? With my grandparents or was she just visiting?  Her home in Ipswich was not exactly around the corner – it was about 70 miles by the most direct route, and considerably more by public transportation.

Did my father know of the suicide?  It was wartime and he would have been stationed in Northern Ireland during that pre-invasion era.  I find it hard to believe that he was not informed of the death by his parents, either by mail or during a leave to visit them in Harpley.  If he did know, he certainly never mentioned it to me, and he was quite aware of my interest and active involvement in researching my family history.   If he had never been told, what was the reason?

My curiosity was very much aroused and I decided to see if any information regarding Gertrude resided in the public domain. I was not disappointed.

Gertrude was born in Hapton, Norfolk, in the third quarter of 1872. The family moved to Harlesdon and in the census of 1881, Gertrude was listed as eight years old.

  • In 1891 she was employed as a Draper’s assistant, living in the house of William Munford (a Draper) at 21 High Street, Haverhill Essex.
  • On 6 October 1897 she gave birth to Hubert Wilde Blackwood in Kirby Bedon, south-east of Norwich. No father’s name was given on the birth certificate. At the time her address was recorded as 13 Greyfriar’s Road, Norwich, which is close to the Norwich Castle.
  • In 1901 she was living at 51 Grove Road in Lakenham, SE Norwich, and was listed as a visitor and ‘living on her own means’.  The head of the household was Algernon Wilde, a fire insurance clerk.  Also in the same house were his three sons – Frederic (14), Ernest (13) and Hubert (3), the latter who must have been Gertrude’s son. Algernon Wilde was listed as being married, but there was no mention of his wife.
  • On 28 September 1901 at Falkland House, Grove Road, Lakenham, Hubert Wilde Blackwood died of membranous croup. He was only 3 years old. Present at the death was G. M. Blackwood, by occupation a housekeeper.
  • In the 1911 census she was listed as a maternity nurse and living as a ‘boarder’ in the house of Algernon Sidney Wilde, at Ellesmere, Cavendish Road, Felixstowe. Algernon Wilde was now recorded as a house agent and widower.
  • Algernon Wilde died on 10 January 1942 at 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich and the Ipswich probate dated 7 April 1942 stated that his estate of £908 10s 2d was left to Gertrude Blackwood.
  • When Gertrude died six months later, in 1942, her home address was also given as 451 Norwich Road, Ipswich.
  • On 29 September 1942 the probate granted £1724 14s to Leonard Clive Blackwood, organist and Ernest Norman Wilde, electricity show-room assistant.

In 1901 Algernon Wilde was married and most likely separated from his wife, possibly as a result of having had a son with Gertrude. In 1884 he had married Edna Anne Allard in Norwich, and they had two sons – Frederick and Ernest.  In 1896 they had a third son, Leslie Arthur. In 1901 she and her young son were visitors staying with Richard Sharrod in Southreppes Road, Antingham. He was a widower with two teenage daughters aged 21 and 14.

In the 1911 census Algernon Wilde claimed that he was a widower, but that was not true. Edna Wilde was by then living in Acle to the east of Norwich. She was head of the household and in addition to her youngest son she also now had an eight year old daughter, Mary, and two boarders. She was still married and perhaps she refused to give Algernon a divorce, which could explain why he never married Gertrude.  Edna died in Acle in the first quarter of 1942.

When I started this investigation I felt certain that Gertrude was left destitute after the death of Algernon, and that she had gone to my grandfather seeking financial help.  I imagined that he had refused or was unable to help, and in desperation, she committed suicide.  But given her inheritance from Algernon and her own resources, that seemed to have been unlikely. 

It is not likely that I will ever discover the reason for Gertrude’s despair on that summer day in 1942 and it will remain with her in her grave.

Sometimes, all that separates life from death is a bit of water.

A Difficult Decade

My mother only rarely ever spoke to me of the war years and I never formed the relevant questions that would have aided me in writing this rather superficial account of her life during that era. I am relying on supplementing my sparse knowledge with some photos that have come into my possession and records that are in the public domain.

She went to Mark’s Street school in Portrush and left when she was 15, to assist her parents on the farm at Glenmanus.

My mother in 1940 when she was 15, possibly when she finished school
A local bathing beauty, but I suspect that not more than her feet ever entered the cold North Atlantic waters

In the early years of World War II, Portrush and much of the north Ulster coast experienced an influx of soldiers and airmen. With its extensive beaches and hinterland, the area was ideal for training for the possible invasion of mainland Europe. And with a large number of military personnel, the local single girls were very much in demand. My mother had a close relationship with an airman called Harvey. Sadly he was killed in action shortly after their photo was taken. His death was the start of several difficult years for my mother.

With Harvey

Later that year, on 26 November, her mother died at home of a heart attack, caused by mitral valve disease. She was only 41 and my mother 17. According to my mother, my grandfather would not let her in to see her, as her skin had started to turn blue.

A photo probably taken in 1942

In 1942, she met my father, who was stationed in Portrush with the Middlesex Regiment. They were married in October in Ballywillan Church

My parents marriage on 17 October 1942

On 26 May 1943, my older sister, June Mary, was born. Less than three months later, my mother’s grandmother died, on 9 August. And in January of the following year, my sister died of meningitis and bronchial pneumonia.

The death certificate of June Mary Blackwood, aged eight months

Shortly after, the Middlesex started their transition, stage by stage, to the English Channel coast, preparing for the imminent invasion. My mother did not see my father again until early 1946. Their only communication was by heavily censored letters.

In July 1944, my grandfather remarried to Florence Stocks (née McDonnell), a widow. The marriage took place in the Catholic Church of St. Malachy in Coleraine. I cannot imagine that the Douglas and McCloskey families were enthusiastic about this new marriage. To get married in a Catholic Church, my grandfather must have had to go some form of initiation. And after the marriage, Florence would have moved into the Douglas farm at Seaview. Indeed, this sequence of events might explain why my mother never spoke fondly of her step-mother.

In late January 1946, after a long separation from my mother, my father was finally released from military duties and arrived back in Portrush from Lübeck, in northern Germany, where he ended up after hostilities ended . I was born nine months later.

I was never a photogenic child

I almost did not survive my first year. My mother left me sleeping in the pram in the shade, to later find me in full sun and unconscious with heat stroke. I don’t know what happened next, but I obviously recovered and to this day, I have had a high tolerance to heat.

In July 1948, when trans-Atlantic transportation had become more or less back to normal, my grandfather and Florence left Ireland from Cobh on the Marine Tiger, bound for New York and eventually Brampton in Canada. When I knew them in the late 1960’s, my grandfather was nearing retirement, driving a truck delivering lumber, and Florence was a nurse at the local hospital. My grandfather died in 1977 and Florence in 1984.

My grandfather and step-grandmother in their Brampton house in the mid-1960s

Before the Glenmanus farm was sold, my parents moved into a little wooden hut on the Glenmanus Road and my father rented a field opposite for his fledgling poultry farm. It was then around 1950, that my mother fell seriously ill with tuberculosis and was transferred to a sanatorium in Derry. She remained there for several months before being finally released. In the meantime, I was looked after by the Wilson family next door.

To say that my mother had a tough decade would be an understatement; she lost her fiancé, she witnessed the death of her mother, grandmother and daughter, she suffered the long absence of my father at war, she nearly lost me, she lived through the inter-denomination tension of her father’s remarriage and subsequent migration, and had her own serious illness.

My mother did not have an easy life.

My mother’s early years

On my mother´s side, I am descended from the Douglas family of Glenmanus, a small farming village about one mile south of Portrush, on the north Irish coast.  Until the completion of the harbour in 1835 and the arrival of the railway in 1855, Portrush was but a tiny insignificant fishing village, with but a few families huddled under the headland, separated from the mainland by a range of sand dunes.  In contrast Glenmanus was a thriving rural community.

But the new harbour and the railway brought new business opportunities to Portrush, especially in the field of tourism.  Over the next 150 years, the town expanded relentlessly, and Glenmanus was swallowed up.  Today little remains of the original village, save for a few renovated houses and the name on a street sign.

According to my ‘family legend’, the first Douglas arrived with General Munro’s Scottish army during the 1641-49 conflict, after which he remained, settling in Glenmanus, possibly with a small grant of land.  I have no evidence of this claim, but certainly a John Douglas (c1734-1771) and Eliza (c1731-1800) lived and died there.  I have succeeded in tracing my own ancestral line back as far as my third great grandfather, John Douglas (1811-1876).  My maternal grandfather was Adam Douglas (1900-1977)

Glenmanus
Obituary of Adam Douglas, my 2nd great grandfather, who died on Thursday, 3 May 1917

My maternal grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Wilson McCloskey.  Her father, James McCloskey (1853-1933), and his father before him, James McCloskey (1808-1890), had a farm at Bannbrook, between Coleraine and Castlerock.  Mary was the fifth of seven sisters and one brother.  She married my grandfather on 14 February 1924.  My mother, Beatrice Elizabeth Stewart Douglas, was born four months later on 15 June

Kilcranny House
Kilcranny House, the McCloskey farmhouse at Bannbrook, near Coleraine

I know nothing of my grandparents lives during that era, but I suspect that life was not easy for the young family.  I cannot imagine that their parents were thrilled with the premature arrival of a granddaughter; their strict Protestant religion has never been renowned for its tolerance of human weakness.  And how the self-righteous neighbours must have talked about the young couple!  Despite my grandfather being the eldest son and the logical inheritor of the Glenmanus farm, in 1927, when my mother was two, he took his family and migrated to Canada. They left Belfast during late March on the Aurania and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 3 April 1927.

Enlarge the passenger list to see my grandparents at the bottom of the left hand page
01aura3-cun

They then travelled across Canada to Saskatchewan, most likely by train, and settled in Simpson, a small town situated about 150 k northwest of Regina and 140 k southeast of Saskatoon.  The nearest rail station was at Watrous, some 25 k to the north of Simpson.

Simpson

Why did they decide to leave Ireland?  Perhaps there was an unbearable relationship with his parents or with his siblings or perhaps with other villagers.  Or maybe the family farmhouse became intolerably crowded with an eight adults and a baby.  Or like me, he just wanted to see something of the world and have a better life.  It is most unlikely that we shall ever know the real reason. In those days life in Ireland was not easy.  The standard of living was poor and mainly based on the farming of small holdings, like that of my ancestors.  It was not unusual for young people to migrate to the industrial towns of the UK, or further afield to Canada, Australia or New Zealand, the latter countries willing to pay the cost of transportation.

The little I know about my grandparents in Simpson was provided to me by Mrs. Beatrice Crew (née Allen) of New Westminster, Canada.  She was a childhood friend of my mother and despite their having been separated at a young age, they corresponded until my mother’s death in 1985.

I recall my mother telling me that her father had once been fired from his job. The farmer for whom he was working at the time was being cruel to a horse and my grandfather hit him. I have always felt proud of him for having done that.  I don’t know who the farmer was. I like to think that I would have reacted in the same way.

Mrs. Crew told me that initially my grandfather worked on ‘little’ Fred Wilson’s farm outside Simpson, then for a summer for Frank Witley, before moving to a cottage in Simpson.  Adam worked for farmers and my grandmother did house cleaning.  She also provided full board to Bill Libby, who ran the Simpson Trading Company.

In August 1932, my grandfather’s father died, but it was not until the end of 1933 that the family returned to Ireland.  They arrived in Liverpool on 17 December on the Duchess of Atholl, from St. John, New Brunswick, giving Kilcranny House as their proposed address.  They may have initially stayed there, but must have eventually moved into Seaview Farm, where Adam’s mother was still living, as my mother never mentioned them as having lived elsewhere.

My maternal grandparents outside Seaview farm in Glenmanus

Why did they decide to return to Ireland?  Until recently I had assumed that there was something outstanding or in dispute, resulting from his father’s death. It was one of my mother’s cousins who recently shed new light on the question. He said that my grandfather’s mother wanted my grandfather to inherit the farm after she died and had come to an agreement with the other siblings to accept her wishes and not make a claim.

So my grandparents and my mother moved back to Seaview Farm in Glenmanus and worked the land. My mother went to Mark’s Street primary school and left at the earliest opportunity to help her parents at home and on the farm. As she never mentioned that era of her life to me, I assume that it was uneventful.

My mother with the farm horsepower, in the late 1930s

It was when World War Two broke out, that my mother´s life changed dramatically. But that is a story for another day.

The Bicycle

I was seven years old when I had my first bicycle. It was a sturdy, very old-fashioned heavy tricycle that had been my father’s. My paternal grandparents brought it with them when they moved from Harpley in Norfolk, to live opposite us in a large house, then known as Ard Rua. I used to ride up and down the lane that led to their house, past the farm of Old Joe Collins and do skidding turns on the gravel slope outside their my grandparent’s front door.

When I was twelve, my father bought me a second-hand bicycle. It has no gears, but then I never ever knew anybody who had any. My great uncle Bill Douglas used to visit our farm almost every week day. He used to push his bicycle up the hill and freewheel the one mile back down to Glenmanus. If you have ever ridden a bicycle with no gears, you will know that going uphill is no picnic.

I used to sit on my bicycle on the road outside our house at Islandflackey, and without making any effort, see how far I could go into Portrush. I used to sail down the first hill past Carnalridge school, slow down to a crawl before the crossroads at Magherabuoy, and fly down the hill past Glenmanus, past Glenvale Avenue, until slowly grinding to a stop shortly after. No matter what I did to lower air resistance and in spite of the weather, I always ended up within spittle distance of the house of Reverend Perrin, just before the Metropole.

Shortly after the limits of Portrush, was the house of David Hunter. We had both gone to Carnalridge Primary School and then on to CAI. In our summer holidays I used to glide down on my bicycle and we played cricket against his parent’s garage door, using a tennis ball. We were usually joined by a combination of Dennis Green, Derek Aiken, Martyn Lewis, Michael Moore and Nicholas Stevens-Hoare, all of then living within a short distance.

One summer, Derek Aiken’s father bought a rowing boat, and berthed it in the harbour. What fun it was to row around the harbour. Once, on a sea-calm day, we decided to row to Portstewart, a rather long way across the bay. After we exited the harbour mouth, we had not gone far before sight of land disappeared with the swell in the trough of a wave, to reappear on the peak of the next. We did not go very far until we decided that it might not be such a good idea and returned.

Portrush with its harbour and the West Strand, circa 1960

On other occasions we use to ride our bicycles to the parking area beside the East Strand. There we would race around the marked course that was used for occasional Go-Kart races. Or we played football on the packed sand of the beach. Afterwards, I had the gear-less struggle back up the hill to our farm. But the memories of that era are fond.

After I dropped out of grammar school in 1963, I lost touch with my summer friends. David Hunter went on to Oxford to study law and ended up as a QC in Belfast and Dennis Green studied dentistry. I was once told that his practice was in Derry. After university, Derek Aiken joined his father’s timber business in Coleraine, but sadly died in 1991, at the much too early age of 44. I always visit his grave on my infrequent visits to the area. Martyn Lewis became a household celebrity, reading the BBC evening news for many years and later hosting his own television programs. Michael Moore qualified from Queens University with a PhD in Marine Biology and later became Professor Moore. I don’t know what ever happened to Nicholas Stevens-Hoare. I seem to remember that his father was in the military, so perhaps he relocated.

Derek’s grave in the Ballywillan cemetery

And I don’t know what happened to my old bicycle. In the unlikely event that I should ever have another, I will insist on its having adequate gears, sufficient to enable a relatively easy ascent from Portrush up the hill to Islandflackey or the equivalent.

Or perhaps I will just stick to my lifetime habit of walking.