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)

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

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.


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 became a local headmaster, as his father before him. 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.

Cape Town Winter

It is often said that Cape Town winters are similar to Northern European summers. Indeed, there are many days in June through August, when the temperature is higher in Cape Town.

Of course there are periods when cold fronts move across Cape Town, bringing fog, storms and rain, but they do not last for more than a few days, before the temperate climate returns, with its clear blue skies and sunshine.

Yesterday was a warm sunshine day, and after a walk around Green Park and along the coast, we stopped at the Radisson Blu hotel, one of our favourite ‘watering holes’. As we walked through the lobby to the outdoor bar, we were greeted by four of the staff that we had not seen for several weeks. When we finally emerged from their embraces and warmth, the world felt so very good. Despite the tough lives that most lead, and regardless of colour or religion, Cape South Africans are the most wonderfully friendly and genuine people.

We took one of our usual tables near the pool and watched the antics of the seagulls that have taken possession of the pool for as long as we have been going there. The gulls drink the relatively salt-free water and wash in it. The management have tried different ways of encouraging them to stay away, but to no avail. The first attempt was to float a couple of blown-up pool toys that moved with the wind, but the birds ignored them.†

Then they planted two battery-powered artificial hawks at each end of the pool, with heads that rotated. They had no effect. Yesterday, we watched as one seagull sat on the wobbly head of one of the ‘hawks’, while it tried to eat whatever it had picked up . Unable to balance comfortably, it flopped down to the edge of the pool and continued to gorge on its finding.

The latest scare attempt is a hawk-like kite that floats high above the pool, similarly ignored by the seagulls.

For three years now, we have witnessed the antics of a pair of red-winged starlings at the Radisson Blu. They are birds that mate for life and if you see one, the other will be very close by, one constantly calling to the other. We also have a pair at our apartment, that sit on our two balconies and who loosen their bowels whenever the urge hits them. They also regurgitate the stones of fruit after they have digested the flesh.

One afternoon at the Radisson Blu, we heard a strange sound, nearly overhead. It was a red-winged starling perched beside a speaker, head cocked to one side, and singing to the music. It was almost human in its behavior.

A red-wing starling enjoying the winter sunshine, undeterred by the ‘hawk’ in the background

One of our favourite birds is a tiny Cape Wagtail, with only one foot. Without fear, it wanders under the tables and in and out of the bar, feeding on miniscule crumbs. After three years it has become like a familiar friend.

There is always something going on in the ocean, with massive cargo ships, passenger liners, yachts, motorboats, and in season, pods of dolphins and the occasional whales.

And beside the Radisson is the peaceful Granger Bay harbour, with the magnificent Table Mountain in the background.

To paraphrase the great Samuel Johnson, if I ever grow tired of Cape Town, I will be tired of life.

The Dreamer

The boy dreamed of having two polish cans and racing them down the burn, but he had only one, until one day his father surprised him with a second empty can.

Holding one in each hand, he ran down the hill from the house, skirting the pig sties, and sprinting the length of the pig run, dodging from side to side to avoid imaginary enemy fire, leaping over pig wallows that resembled bomb craters, until, like a commando, vaulting over a barbed wire fence to the relative safety of the flax dams.

He loved that corner of the farm. Nobody ever went there. It was secluded and out of view of the house. There he had only the constant croaking of the frogs and the chirping of unseen birds for company. The dams had not been used for very many years and were silted and choked with reeds. Willow trees dangled the tips of their branches over the stagnant water. But on that day, he was on a mission.

He clambered over the bank and jumped into Taylor’s field. He was not allowed to leave their farm, but nobody could have seen him. There had been a lot of summer rain in the previous week and the burn was still quite full. He carefully placed the two cans in the water, side by side, holding them back with a long stick, before releasing them into the strong current. The race was on.

He ran across the field to where the burn entered the tunnel under the school. If he missed them there, they would be on their way to the sea. He waited patiently, but the cans did not come. He walked up the banks of the burn and found one can trapped in reeds and a little further, the other stuck in still water, sheltered behind a rock. He retrieved them and started the race again. He repeated the race several times. Sometimes one of them reached the tunnel, usually they both got stuck and he had to retrieve them.

It was a warm day and he grew tired of his game. He returned to the flax dams and sat on the bank in the afternoon sun, looking out across the fields, past the church to the slopes of Islandmore. He wondered where the source of the stream was. When he grew a little older, he would set off on an expedition to find it. At school he had learned of Livingstone and later, Stanley, searching for the source of the River Nile in Africa. He knew that there were two big rivers near his home – the rivers Bann and Bush. He would find their sources too. He wanted to be an explorer when he grew up.

He also wanted to be a mountaineer, like Edmund Hillary, and climb Islandmore and find out what was on the other side. And his teacher had recently told them of how the Vikings had struggled to herd their stolen cattle through the marshy land above Portrush, past where their schoolhouse now stood, and how they had been defeated at the nearby battle of The War Hollow. He wanted to search for swords and coins and other Viking evidence in the area around their farm. There was so much to think about.

But he was not always an all-action boy. His grandmother had showed him how to find, press and exhibit flowers and leaves. He was constantly on the look-out for a new addition to his collection.

Even though the boy had no friends to play with – his younger brother was still a baby, and there was no television, he had his imagination for company. And it accompanied him day and night.

He was a most contented child.

Of course the boy grew older, eventually went away, and when he returned, he realized that the burn beside the farm was just a shallow drain beside a field, that Islandmore was only a slight undulation on the North Antrim coast, and that the story of the Vikings and the War Hollow was likely just a legend. But his childhood dreams had been replaced by those of an adult and his imagination continued to be his constant companion.

He had become a most contented man.

First Taste of Freedom

I never much enjoyed my grammar school days, and when the opportunity came to escape the drudgery, I grabbed it with both hands; I was like a thirsty man being offered a cold pint of Guinness on a hot summer day. My new-found freedom was delicious.

Before long, I started to study towards an initial Quantity Surveyor qualification, via a correspondence course with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). I was enthusiastic about the subjects and I was free to proceed at my own pace. If I was not ready to take the exam the next year, then the year after or whenever. And in the meantime, I was supporting myself and contributing something to my parent’s household. I was quite content.

And my evenings and weekends were filled with sports, music and girls.

At work, my colleagues rented the gymnasium at the Intermediate School in Coleraine for one night a week, to play indoor football. And in the summer months, we participated in a team in the local works league. Through the winter months, I played rugby with the Coleraine II team, and in my last summer, with the Coleraine Cricket Club.

Soon after finishing school, I joined Bill McKeown’s group, playing drums. We were five – piano, saxophone, guitar, drums and singer. We played at hotels around the north Antrim coast and even had a six week summer season at the Lismara hotel in Portrush, playing six nights a week. I earned much more drumming than at Quantity Surveying, but unless one has real talent, music was not steady work.

When I could, I used to go to one of the local dance halls on a Saturday night: to the Arcadia in Portrush, the Strand in Portstewart, the Boat House in Coleraine and sometimes further afield. If a girl let me walk her back to her house, I almost always managed to miss the last bus, and had a long walk home, often in diabolic weather. It once happened to me in Ballymena, some thirty miles away. I walked several miles before I managed to thumb a lift home.

The last time I saw my mother, not long before she died, she told me that she had never fallen asleep until she knew that I was safely home. I was never aware of my having caused her sleepless nights.

It was Raymond de Zeeuw who had given me the idea of a career in Quantity Surveying. Knowing that he was the leader of the Ballywillan Lifeboys, I offered to help him in any way that I could. They met every Saturday morning. The Lifeboys were the junior branch of the Boy’s Brigade, as the Cub Scouts were the junior branch of the Boy Scouts.

So I taught the boys much of the military discipline that I had learned at Army Cadets. And at the end of the year, they demonstrated their coordinated marching capability in front of their parents and friends at the annual ‘demonstration’. They were brilliant.

I organized football games outside the Church Hall, before and after the formal Lifeboy agenda. We even had a ‘match’ with Portrush Primary School. We lost, but it was great fun.

Raymond once organized an early-summer cruise on Lough Neagh and many of the boys came along.

The Lifeboys, later to be known as the Junior Boys Brigade, on the outing to Lough Neagh in the summer of 1963. In the back row – Yours truly, Rev. Jim Frazer, Brigadier W. W. Boggs, Mrs. T. Stewart (pianist) and Josephine Dallas
And the boys. In the back row – Ian King, Stephen Wilson, Colin Stewart, Nigel Stewart, Victor Sinclair, Alan Cunningham, Ivan Adams. Trevor Martin, Milton Stewart. And in the front row- Archie McNeill, Raymond McNeill, Brian Caldwell, John McNeill, Norman Adams, Peter Stewart and Norman Brewster

The photographs were taken by Raymond de Zeeuw, the leader, and it was Josephine Dallas who recently sent them to me, along with the names of the boys.

By now, most, if not all of the boys will be collecting their pensions, some with families and some perhaps with grandchildren. Sadly, two of them have passed on: Alan Cunningham some years ago, and Archie McNeill, within the past two weeks. They have passed much too soon.

In a field beside Ballywillan Church, one beautiful mid-summer evening, I organized an extra-curricular football game. As usual, Raymond led one side and I led the other. Somehow, I managed to slice my knee open on a sharp stone or a piece of glass and ended up needing several stitches. I still have the scar.

That proved to be my last involvement with the Lifeboys, for soon after, I left for Canada on what has turned out to be the first stage of a journey without end.

I have never lost my taste of freedom.

Dalzell & Campbell

In my fifth year of grammar school, 1962-3, I felt quite lost. Having abandoned my ambition of a military career, I had no plan ‘B’. The school assumed that I would go on to a university, but I knew that there was no way my father could have contributed to my support, even if I were to obtain some form of scholarship.

In that era, there was no career advice available at my grammar school. Perhaps some of the teachers took their successful pupils under their wing and coached them. More likely, the parents were the guides. In my ‘A’ class, most, if not all, of the parents fitted into three categories – professional, businessmen or farmers. My parents were not able to advise me and I had no uncles or aunts to lean on.

After the ‘O’ level exams in June 1963, a good friend, Raymond de Zeeuw, suggested that I might want to consider his career of Quantity Surveying, for which GCE ‘O’ levels would suffice. It was a form of professional apprenticeship, with part-time study and culminating in a qualification – R.I.C.S. (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). As he always seemed enthusiastic about his work, I decided to get an interview with Crofton Dalzell, the principal of Dalzell & Campbell, Raymond’s employer.

I confess to having been taken aback with Crofton’s first question – ‘What religion are you?’. Perhaps it was just a standard statistic required for governmental reporting, but I suspect that if my answer had been ‘Catholic’, the interview would have been soon terminated. Is the situation different today? I would like to hope so.

In any case, I appeared to have impressed him sufficiently, and soon after, I received a job offer of £8 per month, subject to my passing the GCE exams. I started work the following Monday. And my mother informed me that I would have to contribute £2 a month for my board!

Dalzell & Campbell was a partnership between Crofton Dalzell and his son-in-law, the architect, Noel Campbell. Crofton was a dapper little man, he looked very fit, and reputedly walked along the beach from Portrush to the White Rocks, some four miles in total, every morning before work. I know little about Noel Campbell, except that he drove a Jaguar, at one time was a drummer, was married to Crofton’s daughter, and designed my parent’s house at Carnalridge.

If you know little about a Quantity Surveyor’s work, I will attempt to give you a very brief description.

A Quantity Surveyor stands between an architect and the client. The Quantity Surveyor’s ‘bible’ is the Bill of Quantities (BOQ), which contains the specification, the quantity and the unit cost of all the items involved in the contract. It is the basis for any variations or dispute regarding the original contract.

My first year as a Junior Quantity Surveyor was spent extending and summing the measurements of other more senior staff and producing physical Bills of Quantities (BOQ). We had no calculators in that era, so all calculations had to be made by hand. And don’t forget that it was before monetary decimalization and metric measurement. Try calculating by hand an area of 9 feet 7 inches by 21 feet 4 inches or 1279 cubic yards at £2-17-11 per yard!

For Bills of Quantities, we had no copy machines or printers as we know them today; they were not yet available. We had stencils that were thin sheets of paper, coated with wax. The Bills of Quantities were typed on the stencils. I wrapped the stencil around a Gestetner roller and produced as many copies as were required. I then had to collate the pages, drill holes and bind the final product with ribbons.

It was not so long before I progressed to measuring earthworks, landscaping, asphalt, kerbs etc. And most weeks, there were visits to sites to measure actual versus the BOQ, and calculating progress payments. I was quite happy in my work.

And there was a great camaraderie in the office. In particular I remember John Dalzell, George Darragh, Stuart Barnes, Jim Morrison, Tom Clarke, Raymond De Zeeuw and our Chief Quantity Surveyor- Brian Watson, a little Scot. I wish that I could recall all the other names.

Sooner, rather than later, I moved on, in my case to Canada. But I learned an important lesson at Dalzell & Campbell, that I have never forgotten, and that is, no matter how lowly the job, do it well.

As in this recording of Charley Pride…