Belfast Blitz 80 – Wartime in the Foreign Department

As part of our #BelfastBlitz80 series, we publish an article by the late Ned Dyas, retired manager of the Northern Bank, Foreign Department, Victoria Street, Belfast. ‘Wartime in the Foreign Department’ was first published in the Northern Bank Staff Magazine ‘The Link’ in June 1993. Ned Dyas died on 14th October 2019.

Setting the scene

Northern Bank, Head Office, Victoria Street, Belfast

If you transfer your gaze momentarily to the left of the main door of the old Northern Bank, Head Office in Victoria Street you will see nearest the corner a tall window. This, double glazed and pretty sturdy, was the window to the world of the wartime Foreign Department of the Bank. A second window looked out, as it still does, onto Ulster Street and the building of G. Heyn & Sons Ltd. In the third wall stood a fireplace where a bright, richly burning fire greeted you each morning and the remaining wall was in fact an oak partition separating the room from the Bank’s main waiting room. Apart from the Manager’s large and imposing desk and those for the typists, a high solid desk stretched round two of the windowed walls. The staff either sat on high stools at this desk or more often than not stood and leaned! The high desk was essential to carry and spread the huge ledgers recording the transactions. The old-style telephones with separate earpieces were still in use. I well remember too that one of the cupboards held bundles and bundles of Reichsmark Notes dating from the collapse of the mark in the twenties. This was 1943 – fifty years ago.

Extract from a wartime fire prevention document completed
for Northern Bank, 110 Victoria Street branch.

Fire-watching at Head Office

Belfast had been the subject of its main air attack in 1941 and while our Head Office, like the Belfast, Ulster and National Banks, was very much in the target area being so near the shipyard it escaped any major damage. The other banks were similarly fortunate. A solitary incendiary bomb had left a hole in the floor of the Stationery Store and I remember having to step over this hole to get at our supplies. Fire-watching was at once a chore and a source of much needed extra remuneration as far as ‘juniors’ were concerned, so those of us in digs did as many nights as possible. Pay was at the rate of 3/= (three shillings) per night, in modern terms 15p but in real value more like £5 to-day [1993]. If you were lucky enough to be asked to do an extra night for a Director or Chief Cashier or other senior member of staff you could earn as much as 7/6d for the night. This as you may well imagine was regarded as a plum! When I tell you that our annual starting salary was £100 per annum plus a 16% War Bonus out of which in my case £78 went on digs you will see that the fire-watching shillings were valuable indeed. Many’s a nice-looking girl would not have been asked out without them. You cycled from your digs to the office, arrived for fire-watching about 10 pm, slept the night in the main waiting room or Foreign Department where the beds were assembled and cycled back for breakfast making sure that you would be back in good time for your day’s work. If you were going to arrive late for fire-watching you made a prior arrangement with a fellow watcher to let you in at the side door. Quite often the pulley bell on the great front door would clang out in the darkness to announce a late comer and I can remember on occasions seeing the face of the Albert showing midnight as I made my way down to the side door. We had an almost permanent firewatcher in Mick the porter. You would find him doing his football pools when you arrived in for duty. Almost completely deaf, he was nevertheless bright of eye, beaming smile and a loyal servant of the Bank. His favourite comment when you handed him a letter or parcel for delivery was “Thank you kind Sir, your kindness exceeds your personal beauty by far; your face I may forget but your kindness never.”

Dealing with the U.S. Forces

Northern Bank was first to operate a Foreign Department and was appointed by the Government as its Agent to deal with the U.S. Forces and authorised to deal with all foreign currency notes and coin on behalf of the Bank of England. This resulted not only in all the other Banks clearing their purchases of U.S. Dollar Bills, etc. to us on a weekly basis but also meant that we were in the front line for dealing with the U.S. Forces Finance Officers. Such sights as our Head Office Cash Office packed with U.S. Navy Personnel when a U.S. Cruiser or Destroyer docked in Belfast and the boys needed cash for the weekend were not infrequent. At such times we all became cashiers for an hour or so! On Pay Days when U.S. Finance Officers were drawing sterling cash for their Forces pay the steps on either side to the Main Door at Head Office would be lined by troops with rifles at the ready, all the way indeed from their bullion van in the street below to the very counter inside. There was an unofficial arrangement that the Bank would try to oblige Officers and Men of the Forces who were here for a longer spell and wanted cheques cashed.

Sailors queuing at the Belfast Banking Company, Bangor branch

It was, and probably still is, a very serious offence for U.S. service personnel to issue a dud cheque so the risk was not perhaps regarded as a major one. Nevertheless, we and the other Banks did have occasional trouble with unpaid cheques. I can recall cheques written out on ordinary sheets of paper shaped like a cheque being returned by our Agents not with “Refer to Drawer” or “Insufficient Funds” but with the ultimate answer “No such Bank”.

 

Glimpses of the Daily Routine

To outline the daily routine in the Foreign Department would be a bore but a couple of features I recall may be of interest. We received dozens of cables each day from the States asking us to make payments to individual U.S. Army personnel at Camps all over Northern Ireland and these were domiciled at our local Branches or with another Bank if we hadn’t a Branch in the nearest town. As many as 150-200 “Advices to Beneficiary” were despatched daily to these personnel. How’s that for a postage book! [Editor: every outgoing letter had to be detailed in a hand written ledger]. Not only that but happily the Linen Industry kept its flag flying right through the war. Linen was still in great demand in the U.S.A., Mexico, the Latin American countries, Cuba and the Caribbean Islands and in all the countries of South America. We might have had a dozen Registered Airmail letters a day containing Shipping Documents for Havana, Rio de Janeiro, etc. Despite the risks of war, I cannot recall us losing an original set of Shipping Documents, though duplicate documents were always sent on by surface mail (even more hazardous).

The Bank as a Family

Nostalgia has a habit of painting one’s memories in a rosy glow but I’m sure I’m not mistaken in saying that Banks of those days, not alone ours, were very much large families. And as in all families there were the lighter moments! I could tell you of duets in the Letter Department in the morning interrupted by our Bank Secretary, Hugh Murphy, a man of imposing stature but gentle in manner, asking with a broad smile when the Opera was beginning. Incidentally it was Mr. Murphy’s dictum that if you walked round the Office with a bundle of papers under your arm no one would ever ask you to do anything. To conclude, our small staff of eight or nine in the Foreign Department was kept at full stretch during this time but there was very much a family feel about all we did and to someone like myself (and, if I may include him, John Tunstead) coming from Dublin to Belfast and not knowing a soul it was good to find oneself among so many friends and so soon.

Tragic Second World War Accidents in Northern Ireland

Tragic Second World War Accidents in Northern Ireland By Nigel Henderson

Whilst the vast proportion of the civilian deaths attributable to the Second World War in Northern Ireland occurred during the German Air Raids on Belfast, Newtownards and Londonderry in April/May 1941, there are other deaths recorded on the Civilian War Dead section of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) database, which lists 906 civilian fatalities.

Accidents Insert Moulds - Home Guard killed imageThe first fatality on the CWGC list is Special Constable William Mould (Local Defence Volunteer, forerunner of the Ulster Home Guard) of Dunmurry who died at 4:30am on 8th September 1940 when he was struck by a vehicle with no lights when walking home whilst on duty. The car was driven by Lieutenant Ernest John Bloom, Corps of Royal Signals and reports on the inquest were carried by the Lisburn Standard and Lisburn Herald (on 13th and 14th September respectively). William Moulds had served with the Canadian Infantry during the Great War and is commemorated on the War Memorial in Derriaghy Church of Ireland. To date I have been unable to locate the burial location.

Several people, mainly teenaged boys, died when they picked up explosive devices but there were also tragedies involving the sea and gas leaks … and a few deaths involving British and American military personnel.

Accidents Larne Times

Thomas Barr Murray of Magheramorne in County Antrim was out playing with some friends in a disused quarry on his eleventh birthday on 17th April 1946. The quarry had been used by a rifle range during the war and Tommy picked up an object, which turned out to be a No 68 Anti-Tank Grenade, and he was hitting in with a stone when it exploded, killing him instantly and badly wounding his best friend, John McBroom. The Larne Times (25th March 1946) reported on the inquest and Tommy was laid to rest in St John’s Church of Ireland Graveyard in Glynn.

Tragedy struck Cookstown on Sunday 14th February 1943. Whilst playing in Killymoon Demesne, some local lads discovered an anti-tank grenade which they took to two soldiers, who declared that it was safe. Daniel Donnelly (13) grabbed the grenade from John Woods and ran off with his friend, John Creggan (11), and the grenade exploded a short while later. The two boys were transported to the County Hospital in Omagh, but Daniel died en-route at Mountfield and John died of his injuries in hospital. On Tuesday 16th February, a Solemn Requiem was said by the local parish priest Father Teggart CC and the boys were buried in the Derryloran Chapel Hill Roman Catholic Graveyard in Cookstown. Whilst Daniel’s name is recorded on the CWGC Civilian War Dead list, John’s name is not … one of several anomalies that I have detected. The inquest was reported in the Mid Ulster Mail on 20th February 1943.

The inquest into the circumstances of the death on 14th November 1945 of Thomas Molloy (16) of Terla, Tassagh, at the military range on Corran Mountain took place on 23rd November and was reported in the Armagh Guardian on 30th November 1945. According to Mrs Jane Cassells of Corran, the lad was driving a herd of cattle towards the Clady. Mr Murphy, the owner of the field, expressed the view that the cattle might have detonated an explosive device. The story of a distressing tragedy was unfurled at an Inquest in Limavady under Dr John Acheson, Deputy Coroner. Albert Rodden (28), a driver with the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board was killed by a short burst of machine gun fire on the evening of 17th April 1942 on the Dungiven-Limavady Road. 

Rodden, accompanied by Frederick McMichael, was returning the bus to the depot in Ballyclare. In giving evidence, Frederick McMichael said that Albert had allowed several vehicles to pass the bus in Main Street, Dungiven before pulling out behind them – there was a further, but different car, behind the bus and the driver of the car sounded the horn and tried to overtake. At Farloe Lane, there was a wide place and Albert pulled in to let the car pass and, as the other car came along at a fast rate, McMichael heard a shot and the bus crashed into a wall. Driver De Felice said that when he tried to pass the bus, the car struck the kerb and his passenger, Sergeant Clipsham swayed with the sudden jerk and appeared to be dumbfounded as if he did not know what had happened. In giving evidence, Sergeant Clipsham reported that he was standing in the car and fell against the machine gun, which started to fire. The funeral at Ballykelly Presbyterian Church was a major affair, including representatives from the “B” Constabulary and the Ulster Home Guard, which would imply that he was providing part-time war service, yet his name is not recorded in the Books of Remembrance for civilian fatalities in the Second World War. The inquest was reported in the Derry Standard and the Derry Journal on 20th April 1942 and in the Londonderry Sentinel on 21st April 1942.

 

Joseph Herbert Withers (11) died at the Armagh County Infirmary on 22nd October 1941 following an explosion on Aughnagurgan Mountain – an elderly man, Nathaniel Weir was injured and taken to hospital. William Russell, farmer of Aughnagurgan, said he saw Weir working in a corn field and there was a child carrying corn when he saw a plume of smoke and heard an explosion. Joseph Withers, who was still conscious, said that he got the bomb on the mountain and it exploded when he threw it down. Archibald Withers, the lad’s father was working in a nearby field and heard the explosion. The inquest was reported in the Ulster Gazette & Armagh Standard on 31st October 1941.

Robert John Dodds, a 40-year-old farmer from Dysert and a member of the “B” Specials Constabulary since 1921, found a bomb or grenade whilst ploughing a field on Tuesday 26th January 1943 and showed it to his brother, Aaron Dodds. At 8:20 on Wednesday evening, Robert John Dodd left the family home to walk to the “B” Specials Drill Hall – he had the bomb in his coat pocket as he would have to take it to Mr Noble, the Instructor. When he was 50 yards from the house, the bomb exploded and Robert John Dodd was taked to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, where he later died. The inquest was reported in the Newry Reporter on 30th January 1943.

Frederick Strutt (31), a civilian worker from Dublin was working on the runway lighting at Ballyhalbert Airfield on 4th November 1942 and died when a Beaufort aircraft piloted by Sergeant G.B. Swift of 153 Squadron Royal Air Force ran off the runway and struck him – Frederick Strutt is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery at Drumcondra in Dublin. Seven days later, Sergeant Swift (Aus 406552) and his Crewman Sgt D.J. Blanchard were transferred to 29 Squadron. (Additional information from Andy Greenfield, www.ww2ni.com). The inquest was reported in the Newtownards Chronicle on 14th November 1942.

At the outbreak of war, the pilot launch Miss Betty was requisitioned by the Admiralty from Jim Davidson of Donaghadee and was crewed by civilians under naval direction. On Saturday 8 May 1943, Miss Betty left Bangor in moderate weather conditions at 8.55 am to respond to a call from a ship entering Belfast Lough. At 11.40 am, Miss Betty was returning to Bangor harbour, contending with a strong north-easterly gale and heavy breaking seas, when disaster struck 60 to 70 yards from the safety. The boat had successfully negotiated several strong waves before being overwhelmed by a broadside hit on the port side. Miss Betty capsized, turned over in the water and remained upside down. Four North Down men drowned in the incident. Harry Aiken (21), William George Nelson (28, and a crew member of the Donaghadee Lifeboat) and William White (29) from Donaghadee are commemorated on the Donaghadee War Memorial and buried in the Donaghadee Church of Ireland graveyard. The body of William Sloan Anderson (28) from Bangor was washed ashore at Portpatrick in Scotland 38 days after the disaster and he is buried in the Bangor Cemetery and is commemorated on the Bangor War Memorial and on the War Memorial in the Wesley Centenary Methodist Church in Bangor. Although these men lost their lives whilst working under the direction of the Admiralty, they are not recorded as civilian war fatalities on the CWGC database. (additional material provided by Barry Niblock)

Messrs Redmond, Sons & Company, a manufacturer of packing cases, employed a night-watchman and fire-watchers at its premises on the corner of Connaught Street and Milner Street in the Village district of South Belfast. When William Elliott arrived at the works at 7:30am on the morning of 2nd December 1942, he found the night-watchman, Alexander Watson of Coolderry Street, lying on the floor in front of a gas fire and later found the four fire-watchers in their beds – two men, William Dowling of Donegall Avenue and James Campbell of Norfolk Drive, were already dead and the other two men were taken to the near-by Royal Victoria Hospital. George Leslie of Olympic Drive died in hospital but Henry Kavanagh (18) of Ross Street survived. The gas fire and the radiator in the sleeping quarters had been installed only ten days previously and, whilst William Elliott reported that he had noticed a strong smell of gas, a Corporation expert examined the radiator and reported that it was in perfect order and that there was no sign of an escape of gas. James Campbell (18) was buried in Milltown Roman Catholic Cemetery, William John Dowling (49) was buried in Dundonald Cemetery, George Leslie (37) was buried in Belfast City Cemetery and Alexander Watson (63) was buried in Lurgan Cemetery.