Chapter Two

The Trouble with Belfast

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On 5th October 1925, with all his worldly goods packed into a single valise, Tom, aged 29, arrived in New York City. The 10 day voyage gave him time to consider his future and reflect on the Belfast he was leaving behind. A troubled city, still licking its wounds from recent years of fierce violence. Though these wounds would only heal long after his death, Tom had deeper scars, inflicted by family divisions, that he would take to his grave.

The glamour and pretension of the Edwardian era in Belfast had only managed to paper over the cracks of the city’s poverty and old communal divisions. The working people of Sandy Row, the hallowed protestant territory where Tom grew up, had suffered a severe drop in living standards. Its poverty was prevalent, but common to many other inner city districts whose people were oblivious to the bigger picture.

The 20th century had started with a wave of commercial depression in Belfast, whist local industries were expanding. The city was busily engaged in furthering many schemes of improvement which included sewage purification, extension of the tramway system, as well as the completion of the new City Hall and the Royal Victoria Hospital. Construction of a graving dock had started which became the largest in the world, while the city’s new water supply had just been turned on.

Tom’s generation had been the first to benefit from the Education Act passed by the Government in 1892, stating all children in urban areas between the age of 6 and 14 must attend school. While he attended Blackstaff National School, his two sisters and many of his friends attended the close by Linfield Mill of the Ulster Spinning Company. The mill combined education and labour. In comparison to his siblings who were drawn into working early, along with the routine chores of family life, Tom had been allowed to become a free spirit and would prove to be an excellent scholar. When this newly educated generation matured, politics interfered and Belfast would suffer the consequences.

Born in 1896 on Blythe Street, Sandy Row, Thomas Frederick Smith was the eldest son of Robert and Annie (nee Hendry) who had moved to the city from Donaghadee County Down to find work. His father was employed by the Great Northern Railway from the age of 14, firstly as a cleaner before becoming a fireman.

Tom's Parents - 1901
Tom’s Parents – 1901

Working for the railway company was considered a secure and much valued form of employment, but its great curse was the length of working hours at almost every level. Tom’s father had little formal education; however in his occupation, he was considered a master craftsman who had developed his own unique technical expertise.

Housing rents were fixed at 4 shillings in the area. From early on, his father, earning a meagre 12 shillings a week, often dodged the rent collector, which meant moving around. By the age of 10, Tom had lived in no less than 6 houses, all within a few streets of each other. An improvement in living standards came in 1907 when his father became a locomotive driver now earning 45 shillings for a 60 hour week.

Located directly behind Egmont Street, where the family finally settled, was the Great Northern Railway shunting depot with its 3 large warehouse sheds. Every day, Tom’s father would disappear through a gap in the wall, scramble down a steep grassy bank and walk along the tracks on his way to work.

The gap also presented young Tom the opportunity to watch and marvel at the flurry of activity. Cleaners with oily rags in hand, taking great pride in seeing the engines and footplate fittings of steel, brass and copper, bright and shining. The firemen making sure the sandboxes were filled and working correctly, checking the smoke box door was a good tight fit before gradually building up the fire. The dominant sound of whistles blasting could be heard for miles as the steam pressure peaked in the engines boilers. This was a paradise for any young boy.

Sandy Row, Belfast, 1910
Sandy Row, Belfast, 1910

At the top of the Egmont Street was Blythe Street providing direct access to Sandy Row while at the bottom was Matilda Street that linked to the Donegal Road. The streets population was predominantly labourers, and flax weavers who worked at Linfield Mill close by. Tom’s house was small, with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, and scullery with no bathroom or toilet. A single tap drew water from a reservoir close by on railway land between the tracks and the River Blackstaff.

Tom’s mother’s daily routine meant an early rise and going to bed late with relentless chores in between. Cooking and baking on a coal fire, washing and mending clothes only became easier when Tom’s younger sisters Florrie and Maud were old enough to help. Driving a locomotive was a dirty occupation and the condition of overalls was a topic of daily discussion, with protests when oil stains were not removed.

Sunday mornings were always reserved for washing and that meant baths. All available receptacles were gathered and filled with water before being boiled at the coal fire stove. The tin bath was brought in from the small backyard and emptied of the coal and firewood it held on week days. Turns were determined by age, Tom first, followed by Florrie then Maud. Any water left over was used to wash under garments and it was the job of Tom’s two sisters to wring them out on the mangle in the backyard.

Despite hardships the Smiths never felt deprived, simply because they didn’t know any better. Everyone in the Sandy Row and Donegal Road district during these Edwardian times shared the same impoverished lifestyle. In fact, by all accounts, the Smiths considered themselves a cut above others.

Gt Victoria St Station Belfast
Gt Victoria St Station Belfast

From a young age, Tom ran errands bringing food to his father in the large mess room at Great Victoria Street Station. This place of great camaraderie amongst the men was never empty and adding to the humour the foreman would assign them nicknames that would stick. A driver called King was known as ,His Majesty, Madden was known as Major and for reasons unknown, Tom’s father was tagged the Boxer.

Boxer Smith, a teetotaler and non-smoker, was a popular character amongst his colleagues and liked to be the centre of attention. He often boasted of his superior chest measurements. In the event of a challenge, a piece of string kept in his pocket would emerge as means of measurement to validate his claim. His insistence on immaculate attire often provoked the tease, “Are you here to work or go to church?” His extravagant language, using large words when only small ones were necessary would often confuse his supervisor.

A shady deal was not beyond Tom’s father and his house and lifestyle began to reflect a living beyond his income. He had inherited the entrepreneurial skills from his own father John, a Commercial Traveller and ship owner from Donaghadee, County Down. Young Tom learned quickly not to ask where something came from after feeling the back of his father’s hand too many times.

The house became a treasure trove of unusual trinkets that included a large collection of clocks and watches. A recently installed fireplace was extraordinary for a working class house, made of ornate Italian marble with the mentioned trinkets housed neatly in the drawers of a black ebony cabinet. Young Tom was always wary of his father’s fiery temper. His growls and grunts punctuated by expletives’ were common when mending a clock or repairing a watch. On one occasion, filled with rage, he picked up a fine Queen Anne clock then smashed it against the wall.

The accession of King George V in 1910, brought an intensified political atmosphere in the city, and the turmoil of political strife soon surfaced. The Home Rule Bill crisis brought the country to the point of civil war in 1912, only to be postponed by the total war in Europe. Even the Great War had failed to ease the deep communal divide.

Even after the Great War, the 1918 election revealed that Belfast’s population was more polarised than ever and sectarian violence erupted again with unprecedented ferocity. The failure by the British Government to implement Home Rule was brought about by the threat of Unionist violence according to Nationalists, and to counteract they created a new volunteer force. Initially formed to ensure the successful passage of Home Rule, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret revolutionary organisation, infiltrated their ranks and imposed their policies. The result was birth of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the failed military rebellion of Easter 1916.

To Britain’s disgust, the Irish, by cleverly making martyrs out of the rebellion leaders, had succeeded to turn military failure into political success. Until the truce in 1921, the Anglo-Irish war had grown in both extent and intensity and nowhere was this more visible than on the streets of Belfast. The new arrangement saw Belfast becoming the capital of a new Northern Ireland state, within its boundaries, six of the nine counties of the Ulster province. The consequential partitioning of Ireland would split nationalist opinion that lead to a civil war. While a far cry from the Dublin metropolis of the 1940’s and 50’s where Tom would finally settle, this was the city and milieu of his formative years. In later life, outside family circles, Tom spoke very little of his Belfast origins. The indistinct accent he developed over the years fooled many to perceive he was Canadian, something he was never quick to correct.

Early in 1912, with previous attempts impeded by Ulster Unionism, a third Home Rule Bill was introduced which granted a limited form of self-government in Ireland. In protest, Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force UVF), a military organisation which vowed to fight rather than submit to Irish legislature. In opposition, and to help bolster the British determination to implement the bill, Irish volunteers formed the IRA. In September an anti-Home Rule petition, known as the Ulster Covenant was signed by just under half a million Ulster men and women including Tom, who had just turned 16.

Significantly, Tom’s uncle, Arthur Hendry, did not sign the Ulster Covenant. Arthur, a widower and baker lived on the Crumlin Road where he met and married his second wife, Martha Tobin in 1903. She had two sons Patrick and Eneas, and was employed as a cake packer at the same bakery. The Smith’s could not tolerate a Catholic in the family and Tom’s mother would never speak to her brother again.

Tom’s joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and was involved in an audacious incident on April 1914. With the police powerless to interfere and coast-guards imprisoned at their stations, approximately 900 Ulster volunteers assembled at Larne, Bangor, County Down and Donaghadee, County Down as two ships pulled in laden with cargoes of rifles and ammunition. The cargo was swiftly packed into the many waiting cars before being driven to unknown destinations. Tom like others made his way home by train and as a result was reported to his father by a railway worker colleague who had recognised him.


In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.Ken Nerburn

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