Happy 101st birthday to Helen whose 21st was disrupted by Blitz

Northern Ireland is marking the ongoing 80th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz.

Wednesday, 5th May 2021, 6:00 am
Helen's Family House, 2 Evelyn Gardens after 5th May Blitz. It was demolished, but next door still there today

During April and May 1941 almost 1,000 people died and huge areas of the city were devastated in four Luftwaffe air-raids.

In a recent account of the 7th/8th April attack, Gavin Bamford, Chair of History Hub Ulster, mentioned a German incendiary which hit the Northern Bank in Victoria Street.

Brian White e-mailed Roamer about his mother, who worked for the Northern.

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Helen on her 100th birthday, May 5, 2020

“Last 5th May when family celebrations of her 100th birthday had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus, my mother, Helen White (née Robb) of Helen’s Bay, pointed out that this was not the first time that a ‘significant’ birthday had been spoiled by outside events. Her 21st birthday coincided with the Luftwaffe raid 80 years ago which did so much damage to central Belfast.”

Brian explained that his mother was a typist in the Waring Street Northern Bank at the time, and after reading Gavin Bamford’s article here Mrs White reminded her family that “a few years ago she had given us accounts of her memories of the 5 May 1941.”

Mrs White gets the News Letter every day and we all wish her a very happy 101st birthday today!

The family will celebrate “as best we can within current restrictions,” Brian hopes, adding, “good weather, if it happens, would be a blessing.”

Helen in 1941, wearing her 21st birthday pearls

On the night of the air-raid Helen was staying with her mother’s family in Ballybeen House, Dundonald, because their own home, 2 Evelyn Gardens off the Antrim Road, had been damaged in the Easter blitz.

Next morning she went to work.

Brian’s e-mail continued: “I am attaching, with her agreement, a narrative of the events surrounding that day” which he and his younger sister Katie Griffiths “have drawn together from the information she provided.”

Mrs White’s amazing story begins here today, with more on Friday’s page.

‘We could see smoke in the direction of the Albert Clock’

“I always call it the 5th of May blitz because it was after midnight when we heard the sirens. We came down and got in under the stairs (in Ballybeen House), Mother clutching the small packet which was my special 21st present from Stuart (Helen’s fiancé) which he had left with her because he had just gone back to Chatham after his leave.”

Helen married Stuart, a soldier, in September 1941.

She resigned from the bank and went with him to England and then Scotland.

When his Division went to North Africa as part of Operation Torch, she returned to live with her family in Northern Ireland and hoped to get her job back.

The Northern Bank didn’t re-employ women who’d left to get married, but more about that on Friday.

Meanwhile, back to Ballybeen and the blitz, with Helen and her mother “under the stairs - one of the places that one was advised to go, under tables and under the stairs. It was quite a big space. There were shoes in there and so on, but we managed.”

They finally got to bed around 2 am, and got up next morning.

“With my sister, Kathleen, the two of us just set off and luckily got a bus, one of the buses from Newtownards, at the corner of what is now Robbs Road and the Newtownards Road.

“As we approached the Sand Quay area where the buses were parked (along the river from where the Waterfront Hall now is), we could see smoke and it was sort of in the direction of the Albert Clock and I was wondering, my gosh, what’s happened to my building?

“We got out of the bus and walked toward the end of Queen’s bridge, down what I call Upper Anne Street. When we got to the corner of Anne Street and Victoria Street, there was a huge hole in the road and very few people about.

“Across the corner was where S. D. Bell’s shop was, where we used to buy our coffee. That was the end of that shop and they never went back to that location.

“We turned right there and walked along Victoria Street.

St George’s church was okay and the smoke was sort of going around the Albert Clock which was still standing.

“Just as we got across - it must have been almost beside the Clock - the whole terrace on the left hand side of the road collapsed and a woman approaching us grabbed on to us. Kathleen was going to take the cut through to the Belfast Technical College which was quite a good route to go but I chased her back to Ballybeen.

“There were very few people in the Northern Bank. (It is still there on Waring Street. A lovely old building.) I don’t really remember any business being done.

“One of the chaps took me upstairs to where you could see out over Waring Street. I could see across to what was the Ulster Bank, which is now the Merchant Hotel. There, parading around it, were firemen keeping an eye because the place was still burning in spots. They saved it that day.”

Having seen the bomb damage, Helen left work and got a tram to Ballybeen for her birthday tea, and to open her present from Stuart - “a string of pearls, which I still have.”

More of Helen’s memories of the blitz, here on Friday.

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