More memories from 80 years ago of 21st birthday during WWII Blitz

On Wednesday’s page we joined in celebrating the 101st birthday of Helen White (née Robb).

Friday, 7th May 2021, 6:00 am
Northern Bank, Victoria Street

She vividly recalled, 80 years ago on 5th May 1941, spending the early hours of her 21st birthday under the stairs of her mother’s family-home in Ballybeen, Dundonald - sheltering from the third Luftwaffe attack on Belfast.

Their own house, 2 Evelyn Gardens, off the Antrim Road, had been damaged in the Easter blitz.

A typist in the Northern Bank in Waring Street at the time, Helen shared some of her memories on Wednesday’s page, compiled by son Brian and his sister Katie Griffiths.

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Helen White has celebrated her 101st birthday

She went to work in the morning, passing wrecked and burning buildings, and returned to Ballybeen by tram.

A birthday gift awaited from fiancé Stuart, who was serving with the army in Chatham - “a string of pearls, which I still have.”

“We just had a tea,” Helen recalls, “and that was my birthday.”

Her father was staying with his sister, Lilla, in Ulsterville Avenue, “so that he could walk to work in the centre of Belfast. He spent the weekends with us at Ballybeen.”

Helen’s family home, 2 Evelyn Gardens, damaged twice in during blitz and demolished

Their Evelyn Gardens home was bomb-damaged a second time so her father walked there “and got stuff for Mother - bank books and things from the drawer of the desk. ‘How did you get those?’ Mother wondered, because she had the house key and he didn’t. He said that he had walked into the house over the remains of the front door.”

Helen and her sister Kathleen went to see their home.

“It was in a dreadful state. I was most upset when I went upstairs and saw a stuffed bird which I had been given by one of my uncles, lying on the floor, almost decapitated. We were able to rescue some of the furniture.”

They stored their salvaged belongings in Ballybeen.

“Mother didn’t go to see the house after it had been damaged a second time. If she had, she might have been more aware how lucky we were to save what we did.”

There was bomb damage in Dundonald, but Helen reckons “we were lucky. A German bomb fell in our field, the one beside Ballybeen House on what is now Robbs Road. It could have hit Esker where my future in-laws lived, it could have hit Ballybeen, it could have hit what was the Moat Farm. It missed all three of those and there was this great hole in the field. It was eventually filled back in but you could tell the mark for ages.

“Something hit near the Central Bar and I think that there were people killed there. The Central Bar was where the road to Dundonald and Comber divide and where the buses used to turn in the days before the hospital at Dundonald.

“And there was a bomb on the golf course. It must have been the same time that Campbell College was also hit. It was being used as a hospital, because the school had been evacuated to Portrush. This was the last big blitz.”

There was a small raid the next night (5th/6th May) - the last of four Luftwaffe attacks during April and May 1941 in which almost 1,000 people died and huge areas of the city were devastated.

Helen shares her memories of the blitz here after reading about the damage to the Victoria Street branch on a previous Roamer-page.

A German incendiary left a huge hole in the stationery store’s floor - details noted by former Bank Manager, the late Ned Dyas, in his bank’s in-house magazine and shared here by Gavin Bamford, Chair of History Hub Ulster.

Along with its seven or eight Foreign Department staff - “kept at full stretch” dealing with Belfast’s huge influx of U.S. Navy Personnel - Mr Dyas mentioned Bank Secretary Hugh Murphy.

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!”

Helen encountered Hugh after resigning from the bank in September 1941 to marry Stuart.

The newly-married couple moved to England and then Scotland, and when her husband was posted to North Africa Helen returned to stay here with her family.

Seeking work, she approached Mr Murphy.

“Are you taking married women?” she asked him.

“He looked at me as much as if I had the plague,” Helen recalls “and I didn’t get back in. At that time, in 1943, if you got married and you were serving, they kept you, but they wouldn’t let you back in again.”

Thank you so much, Helen and family, for allowing us the privilege of reading these evocative memoirs.

And co-incidentally, Gavin Bamford’s History Hub Ulster is hosting a free, live, Zoom presentation tonight at 7pm.

Today marks the 106th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania by the German Imperial Navy.

History Hub researcher Nigel Henderson will focus on some of the local folk who perished.

Details of the how to access the talk are included in an event page of History Hub Ulster’s Facebook page - www.facebook.com/events/1025501634647947/

The talk will be recorded and posted afterwards to the History Hub Ulster YouTube channel. Extracts will also be included shortly here.

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