In the loft, high up behind the organ at Alexandra Presbyterian Church off the York Road in north Belfast, Faye Rice found a mysterious box.
Inside were lantern slide images, the faces of men in military uniforms, all dapper, some smiling, others more serious as they looked out of the vintage black-and-white frames. Who were these men, she wondered, and how had their photos ended up stowed away behind a church organ?
After some investigation, and having enlisted the help of her daughter Karen O’Rawe, a keen genealogist with a passion for local history, it emerged that these were in fact pictures of soldiers and sailors who had served in the First World War, many of whom had paid the highest price for their country, and members or relatives of the church congregation from a century ago. There were 77 slides; 136 pictures of our ancestors in uniform in total.
Faye and Karen did some research and found the minutes for the church’s committee dating from 1918; these images had been prepared by famous Belfast photographer Alex R Hogg (whose work has in the past been displayed at the Ulster Museum) on slides for display to the church congregation at Alexandra, or Castleon Church as it was then known.
The slides were unnamed and Faye, Karen and other members of the church community decided it was important to try and identify these servicemen and tell their stories as a way of honouring their valiant contribution to the freedoms we enjoy today. This act of remembrance and commemoration has particular poignance as we approach the centenary of the First World War next year and Remembrance Sunday in November.
“I suppose I’m just nosy,” laughs Faye, when asked how she came upon the hidden historical treasure trove.
“We have a space behind the organ for storage and I was putting candles up there after a service as I’m a member of the church committee.
“I hadn’t noticed this box before. I opened it and saw all these slides, pictures of men. I knew they were very old and I saw they had been taken by a man named Alex Hogg who I knew was quite famous for his photography.
“I began to research the committee minutes for Castleton Church – as Alexandra used to be known – and there I found a reference to the slides; they were taken to mark the beginning of service of many men from the congregation. They wanted to honour their men at the front.
“My daughter Karen is passionate about genealogy and suggested putting all the pictures up online to see what kind of interest there would be. She put them up on a Friday night and by the Sunday we’d had over 300 hits. These photos are so clear and brilliantly preserved. Here are all these faces looking out at you from 100 years ago.
“I feel like I know these men, maybe because I see them as former members of my congregation – they could be ancestors of some of the people I see in church each Sunday; we have already identified 20 men in the slides, many of them relatives of those who attend our church.”
Karen O’Rawe is now project manager of Castleton Lanterns, which aims to encourage members of the public to view these pictures and research back into their family tree to help identify the Castleton servicemen.
Karen and Faye have managed to identify a great uncle of theirs named Thomas Robinson. Thomas, from Mountcollyer in north Belfast, came home on leave and married a girl from the Shankill named Edith. When he returned he died in battle six weeks later on August 16, 1917, aged 32.
“Being able to see pictures of these men and matching them to names on the Roll of Honour has just made it all so real to me,” says Karen.
“Finding Thomas has just been wonderful and has given me a real sense of living history, of how we are all connected to the people who have gone before us.”
Faye explained: “I had always had three campaign medals that I knew belonged to my granny’s uncle; there was also a large medal which would have been sent to the families of all those whose loved ones died in the war. Thomas’s name and number was on this.
“As soon as I saw the photograph of this man I could see my mother and brother in his features. We worked out who he was from a picture we found in an edition of the Belfast Telegraph from 100 years ago.
“Every year on Remembrance Day in our church we have the two minutes silence for the fallen. You think about an abstract number of men, a list of names, who died in the war. But now I think about the faces of men who were once part of the congregation I am part of today. And I think about Thomas and remember him and the other young men like him.”
“I think it’s very important to identify and remember these men and tell their stories,” said Karen, who has uploaded many of the images from the slides to a specially dedicated website at castletonlanterns.co.uk.
“In order to allow people to view the slides we are holding an exhibition at the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast which opens on October 3 and runs until November 15, which will be in time to mark Remembrance Sunday.
“With no remaining veterans of the Great War, it is especially important that these faces do not become numbers or statistics.
“We are asking everyone who had relatives around the York Road at the time to visit the exhibition, and to log on to our website. We have a list of all the men on the Roll of Honour for Castleton listed and you may find that your family member is pictured. We’d love to hear people’s stories and see their family photos.”
To date 20 servicemen have been identified. Included here is Francis Ernest McCann and James McCann. Francis served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and James served in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. On July 1, 1916 (known as The Somme), Lance Corporal James McCann was killed. James is commemorated at Thiepval Memorial and his photo was listed in a local newspaper when he died; this enabled identification of James as Slide Number 58.
Clerk of session at Alexandra Prebysterian, Mervyn McCormick, was able to identify a relative of his wife’s from the slides. He is also enthusiastic about the project and thinks it’s important to get responses from the wider community.
“It’s incredible that these slides were in a tin in the organ loft for decades,” said Mervyn. “It’s one of those surprising antique in the attic occasions.
“It’s fascinating to think that many of these men are connected to people in the area today, 100 years on.
“But this isn’t just something for the congregation at Alexandra, we want to get the word out there to the wider community so that people can appreciate how we are so connected by our shared history.
“My wife has been able to identify a great uncle, John Palmer, among the men featured in these slides. He was a sergeant in the First Battalion the Royal Irish Rifles and he died in France on October 28, 1915 at the age of 30.
“We were able to trace his place of burial at Sailly-sur-la-Lys.
“Remembrance Day would be one of the biggest services we have in our church each year. Ex-servicemen join us, people come from outside the usual congregation to mark Remembrance Day with us; it is a big annual event.
“It gives an added poignance to know more about the men in our congregation who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“You think about how these young men answered the call from their country to serve in the Great War. They would have seen this as a moral duty – that the battle involved trying to rectify a wrong. And perhaps their faith helped sustain them when they arrived at the Front.
“With next year being the centenary of the First World War there is a lot of interest in honouring the memory of these brave men.
“We hope the exhibition and website will help people join in trying to help us identify these men and let the stories of their bravery and heroism be told.”
The Castleton Lanterns exhibition runs at the Red Barn Gallery, Rosemary Street, Belfast October 3 - November 15. You View images of the Castleton servicemen at www.castletonlanterns.co.uk.