Colourful past of Admiral of the Blue, singing red Sister, and big black bear

Some interesting News Letter readers’ letters and photographs have been awaiting attention for some time.

At the beginning of April a Ballymoney hero’s many sea-going adventures were recounted here.

John MacBride, born in 1735, son of the town’s Presbyterian minister, went to sea as a teenager with the Merchant Navy and then joined the Royal Navy around 1761.

He rose quickly through the ranks.

When he was appointed Admiral in 1799, the acclaimed explorer, cartographer, author and politician was probably best known for securing the Falkland Islands as a British possession in 1766.

But it was his talent for capturing enemy ships - often whole fleets of them, along with their crews! - that most intrigued some readers.

“That was a fantastic article on MacBride,” commented a Ballymoney reader.

“A brilliant tale,” wrote another reader, “is there a book about him?”

There are excellent archives about MacBride in Ballymoney’s museum, and he is recorded in numerous naval reference books.

The Naval Chronicle, written in 1808, recounts on pages 265 to 352 ‘the biographical memoir of the late John MacBride, Admiral of the Blue Squadron.’

In MacBride’s era the Royal Navy was organised into squadrons. - the squadron’s admiral wore a red ensign, the vice admiral wore white, and the rear admiral’s was blue.

“This gentleman, whose professional gallantry has often been the theme of praise,” the Naval Chronicle introduced MacBride and continued “the first instance in which he particularly distinguished himself was in the month of August, 1761.”

The 26-year-old Ballymoney swashbuckler, then commanding an armed cutter, led four rowing boats through the dark and dangerous seas off Dunkirk and captured an enemy battleship and its crew.

The Naval Chronicle commended MacBride’s “abilities and resolution.”

“There is a pub in Plymouth,” the Ballymoney reader informed Roamer “that to this day is named The Admiral MacBride.”

Billed as the oldest pub in the famous naval city, The Admiral MacBride not only commemorates one of Ballymoney’s most famous sons, but it was probably built on a flight of historic, stone steps that commemorated the Pilgrim Fathers, who departed from there on the Mayflower in 1620.

The flight of steps, known as the Mayflower Steps, were built about a century after the pilgrims left for America.

The place where they stepped off English soil is thought to be below one of the cellars in the pub, where the waterfront would then have been.

Last February Roamer shared Belfast-reader Lily Foster’s letter about St. Phillip’s Drew Memorial Church, opposite the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Lily and her husband Sam attended Drew Memorial.

They were married there in 1950 and three of their children were christened in the church.

Their home was opposite the R.V.H, with a view over the church, and Lily fondly remembers some of the hospital staff, the nurses in their uniforms and the doctors in their coats, crossing Grosvenor Road to attend the Christmas Morning service.

Lily told us that the festive R.V.H. “parade was a lovely sight which we enjoyed from our front window on Christmas Day.”

She still has an old long-player record of the hospital choir that was recorded 1966.

It was called Let’s Go To Church, and Lily shared a colour photo with us, on the record’s cardboard sleeve.

The lovely picture of the R.V.H’s medical staff in their coats and uniforms was even more striking because amidst the flurry of blue and white was a single, vividly contrasting, bright-red uniform of a ward sister!

A few days after Lily’s story was printed here a letter arrived in Roamer’s mailbox - “I was the Sister in the red uniform. I sang in the choir for many years but I have been living in the south of England since 1976. It is very nice to have these memories and can you please pass on my thanks and best wishes to Lily Foster. I also still have my record of the R.V.H choir. Noelle Gormley, nee Gibson.”

The main picture on today’s page is remarkable, captioned in old-fashioned pen and ink handwriting - “27th Inniskillings and Depot 108th Regiment Enniskillen. 1875.”

Sent to me by Belfast-reader and regular contributor Selwyn Johnston - an Enniskillen man himself - it shows some soldiers in battle dress, two bowler hatted civilians - and a big black bear!

What’s it all about?!

With the historic Portora Royal School as the backdrop to the immaculately uniformed soldiers with their swords, and the (presumably?) stuffed bear holding some sort of container, Mr Johnston is keen for more information about the old picture and the curious event that was photographed almost a century and a half ago.

Please send your suggestions - and any other interesting stories or pictures - to Roamer at the News Letter.