The historic Belfast house that was turned into a hospital for wartime

UVF Hospital
UVF Hospital

Belfast reader Aidan Campbell has published nine local history books about areas in East Belfast over recent years to raise funds for charities there. Each book tells of local people who volunteered to fight for ‘King and Country’ during the First World War.

As part of the city’s WW1 Centenary Commemorations Aidan gave a talk on Monday - ‘War Heroes of East Belfast’ - to the residents and invited guests at the Somme Nursing Home, Circular Road in East Belfast. Today he shares a potted history and background of the Nursing Home, ending with a short selection of local WWI heroes.

“The Somme Nursing Home was an appropriate venue for the talk, given its historical background. ‘Craigavon House’ is a grand mansion located on Circular Road overlooking Belfast Lough which was built in 1870 for wealthy businessman James Craig, a director in the Belfast-based Dunville Whiskey Distillery.

“James married Eleanor Browne and they had a family of eight sons and one daughter. Their seventh child, born in 1871, also called James, (later Captain James Craig) who was to become the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1921.

“In 1910 the prospect of the third Home Rule Bill for Ireland unsettled those opposed to the likelihood of a Dublin government, particularly the Ulster Unionists. Their leaders became Sir Edward Carson and the then Captain James Craig.

“In 1911 a huge demonstration was held at James Craig’s home, Craigavon House, and more than 50,000 men from Orange Lodges and Unionist Clubs marched there from Belfast. Sir Edward Carson was introduced to his Ulster supporters.

“In 1912, opposition to Home Rule was formalised when over 237,00 men and 234,000 women signed the Solemn League and Covenant and in 1913 Loyalists, who had been drilling in secret, came together in a single body which became known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

“By Spring 1914 the UVF prepared their defences by landing approximately 25,000 guns and James Craig had transferred the headquarters staff of the UVF from the Old Town Hall at Victoria Street, Belfast, to his home at Craigavon. A contemporary report explained ‘There was a tent at each gate (of Craigavon House) with a number of men on guard in plain clothes except for puttees, bandoliers and greatcoats; in a field by the house was a large tent with a small hospital tent beside it.’

Shortly after Great Britain declared war against Germany, Carson and Craig offered the support of the UVF to the British Army and it would become the ‘36th Ulster Division’.”

In July 1915 the Division was moved to Seaford in Sussex and finally to France in October 1915.

“At this time James Craig offered to make Craigavon House available as a hospital for wounded soldiers and a hospital wing was opened on July21, 1917. The house became known as the ‘UVF Hospital’.

“By the late 1980s the UVF Hospital was in need of modernisation and in 1992 the patients moved into a neighbouring new building which assumed its current name, ‘Somme Nursing Home’. Craigavon House was then purchased by the Somme Association who in turn relocated to the Somme Heritage Centre at Conlig. The house now lies empty.

“Just a very few (of many) of East Belfast’s WWI heroes are Major J.H. McCormick DSO, (Winnepeg Regiment); Private Herbert Hall, (North Irish Horse); John Forsythe Harvey and Lieutenant Thomas Hugh Morrow (North Irish Horse). In 1914 James McCormick was living in Canada where he raised a band of men who joined the Winnepeg Regiment to come and fight in the war.

“As a Lieutenant (later Major) in the First World War with the Canadian Infantry he won the DSO for bravery at the battle of Vimy Ridge. He had been recommended for the VC and was wounded several times.

After the War he became a Stormont MP and named his home on Gilnahirk Road ‘Vimy’ after the battle.

“Herbert Hall from Ballyhackamore joined the North Irish Horse and went to the front on November 17, 1915. Herbert had a copy of the New Testament in his breast pocket on the battlefront and when he was hit by a piece of shrapnel it pierced Revelation and but stopped at Luke’s Gospel. His life was saved by the New Testament!

“John Forsythe Harvey lived at a house called ‘Beechmount’ on Ballygowan Road, Castlereagh. He entered service in France during 1916 and was killed by a German sniper in 1918 during the evacuation of a village. As he died he told a comdrade ‘You had better go now. Tell mother.’

“Thomas Hugh Morrow, from Gilnahirk, joined up in 1914 and survived the war. He became a farmer and worked with an uncle called Richard Morrow. Unfortunately he came to an untimely death in 1946. One Sunday morning, while checking cattle in a field, a greyhound injured his leg which led to complications and he developed a clot and septicaemia from which he died.”