Roamer: In the beginning was a grandfather’s signature on a WWII New Testament

Ballinamallard Methodist Primary School, late 1920s. George and Olive Coalter each side in back row
Ballinamallard Methodist Primary School, late 1920s. George and Olive Coalter each side in back row

Several months ago in March a letter and a photograph were shared here, sent to Roamer by Ballymena-reader W.J. Graham.

Several months ago in March a letter and a photograph were shared here, sent to Roamer by Ballymena-reader W.J. Graham.

The letter began “I have an R.A.F. New Testament which was signed ‘from grandfather, Beulah Hill’.”

It was one of hundreds of thousands of Bibles that were published for free during WWII by His Majesty King George VI.

The bulk of the Testaments were distributed amongst British servicemen and W.J. Graham’s copy, one of the earliest off the Royal printing press, was dated September 15, 1939.

A profound message from the King was inscribed at the beginning of each volume - “To all serving in my forces by sea or land, or in the air, and indeed, to all my people engaged in the defence of the Realm, I commend the reading of this

book.

“For centuries the Bible has been a wholesome and strengthening influence in our national life, and it behoves us in these momentous days to turn with renewed faith to this Divine source of comfort and inspiration.”

W.J. Graham wondered if News Letter readers might know anything more about his New Testament, with its additional inscription from Beulah Hill - probably an address - or about the grandfather’s missing name.

Bangor-reader Arthur Darragh thinks he can put a name on the space!

He reckons “the New Testament may have been signed by the late George Coalter, former headmaster of the Methodist Primary School in Ballinamallard” and several old newspaper cuttings enclosed with Arthur’s letter endorse his thinking.

There’s a late-1920s photograph on one of the cuttings, of headmaster George Coalter and his pupils outside Ballinamallard schoolhouse, and several mentions of the headmaster’s home address - Beulah Hill, Enniskillen!

“I was a pupil of Master Coalter’s for a short time before he retired,” explained Mr Darragh in his letter, “and I have happy memories of my schooldays and of Master Coalter’s faithful witness and example.”

Another of Arthur’s old cuttings further suggests that his childhood headmaster probably signed W.J. Graham’s New Testament.

A pertinent paragraph headlined “Soldier’s Bible Returns” recounts “a pocket sized New Testament given to a soldier based in County Fermanagh during WWII has been returned to Beulah Hill.”

The New Testament, exactly the same as W.J. Graham’s, bears King George VI’s identical inscription, and an additional handwritten notation – “From G. Coalter, ASR (Army Scripture Reader) Beulah Hill, Enniskillen, to Private Finch, July 1940.”

An official note, in small print below Mr Coalter’s signature, warned ominously “do not insert name of unit or station” presumably in case the Testament should fall into enemy hands on the battlefield!

There is no indication in the newspaper cuttings of when George Coalter died, but his youngest daughter Miriam was still residing in her late father’s home when Private Finch’s Bible was returned to Beulah Hill sometime after WWII.

Miriam passed away some years ago, but not before she’d told the press about Private Finch’s New Testament, which had been discovered in a charity shop and forwarded to her father’s address.

She also spoke of her father’s evangelical zeal in Fermanagh and further afield, and about the numerous New Testaments that he distributed in the local army camps when he was an officially appointed Army Scripture Reader.

Attempts were made to discover the whereabouts of Private Finch but the charity organisation that forwarded his Bible would only reveal “his effects were some of the many that are donated to the shop without any indication of where they

came from. We trust the Testament will give pleasure to those who use it.”

Arthur Darragh’s old newspaper cuttings about George Coalter are packed with intriguing information about the Ballinamallard headmaster.

He taught the senior pupils in a village school heated by “a big iron stove. Men from Coa (an adjacent town land) brought turf, and there were firewood blocks.”

His wife Olive taught the juniors whist her husband also “initiated religious work in the school in Mary Street which became a religious rendezvous for young people working in the shops and offices in the village, and for ordinary people of the streets around.”

The godly headmaster preached and organised Bible meetings far beyond his Ballinamallard school grounds - in tents, in churches, in halls and in peoples’ homes - and his ‘open air’ services in town centres became part of Fermanagh’s

landscape!

Following a series of packed tent-meetings Mr Coalter noted in his diary “When the tent was taken down we got a barn. Two rich brothers were givers of the barn. Then one of the brothers said to me ‘I’m thinking of building a hall because

the barn is too cold.’ I told the brother that I was thinking the same and that he ought to build it. So he did! He put up a splendid hall to hold 100 people.”

If, as it seems, W.J. Graham’s New Testament inscribed ‘from grandfather, Beulah Hill’ was signed by George Coalter, it therefore belonged to the headmaster’s grandson.

Roamer has searched through Arthur Darragh’s old newspaper articles, which don’t necessarily outline the whole family, and as well as daughter Miriam, the fading cuttings record four other Coalter children - Beulah, Beryl, Olive and Wesley.

Maybe someone, somewhere, with knowledge of the Coalter family tree, will contact Roamer at the News Letter and help Mr Graham trace the original ownership of his wartime New Testament.