Achesons of Portadown

Vol. 10. No. 3 - 2017

The Achesons of Portadown

by David Llewellyn

David Llewellyn is author of the book ‘The First Lady of Mulberry Walk, the life and times of the Irish sculptress Anne Acheson’

There are few families of any era who could match the achievements of one particular one from County Armagh. From the 19th century, through the 20th and into the 21st, the influence of the Achesons of Portadown has been far-reaching, asserting itself in diverse ways as far afield as India and the North West Frontier, while also manifesting itself in Ulster and London.

The Achesons in this case were John and his wife Harriet. John was the fourth of the eight children of the Reverend Joseph Acheson, the minister of Castlecaulfield Presbyterian Church, and his wife Amelia Brown. John Acheson was educated at an illustrious Ulster school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, known as ‘Inst’. At the time of his engagement to Harriet Glasgow John was in partnership with his brother, Joseph, and a brother-in-law, Joseph Beatty (husband of their sister Bella) in a druggists’ business in Portadown. But the enterprising trio, always on the look-out for openings and opportunities, were also involved in the grain trade and general provisions.

By the time of his wedding in December 1877, John had entered the linen industry with his brother, setting up J & J Acheson in the Bann View works on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. When Joseph died prematurely a few years later John’s cousin Robert Brown took up the vacant partnership.

Gladstone Liberal

John Acheson was a liberal, eventually becoming a member of the executive council of the Ulster Liberal Association, and his new wife espoused the liberal cause with equal fervour. John might be described as a pragmatic supporter of the idea of a parliament in Dublin to deal with Irish affairs, and so might be labelled as a Gladstone Liberal. Of course the concept of Home Rule caused consternation among most of the Protestant population in Northern Ireland, many of them until then supporters of the Ulster Liberal Party. John, however, remained a member of the Ulster Liberal Party, not as a hard-line adherent to Home Rule, but supporting it for practical reasons; he simply felt that much of the government of Ireland could be dealt with locally, saying that it would be ludicrous for MPs at Westminster to be debating the positioning of a pillar box on the Carrickblacker Road.

So John did not join the rush of many Ulster liberals into ‘liberal unionism’. However, this division among Ulster liberals did prompt him to resign his membership of Belfast’s recently opened Ulster Reform Club, of which he had been a founder supporter. He was also opposed to the Boer War, a stance which made him unpopular with business colleagues in Portadown who were strong supporters of the British Empire.

But John Acheson was an enlightened man, happy, for example, to employ from the Roman Catholic community of the Garvaghy Road, despite some criticism from Unionists. And he was most definitely a supporter of women’s education. Five of his seven children were daughters, four of whom went into tertiary education, which was most unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Harriet Acheson
Harriet Acheson

John’s wife Harriet Glasgow was the daughter of the first Missionary for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to travel to India; the Reverend Dr James Glasgow sailed for Gujarat in 1840, arriving in Rajkot in the spring of 1841. While there this distinguished scholar, who was proficient in many languages, translated the Bible into Gujarati. All the time he and his wife were busy there, their daughter Harriet attended a boarding school in East London: Walthamstow Hall, in East London had been established by the London Missionary Society and was open to the daughters of missionaries of all societies.

Harriet Glasgow, who was born in Belfast in 1851, grew into a gifted and literate woman, and was an advocate of political and social reform such as Ulster Tenant Right for land law reform, as well as espousing the Temperance movement. She also displayed an aptitude for verse from an early age. A couple of years after her parents’ return from India she had a poem published in McComb’s Almanack in 1867, when she was still only 15 ; she worked as an assistant to William McComb, a well known Belfast bookseller who published annually the Almanack containing his own and other people’s poetry. McComb’s encouragement and literary advice was repaid by Harriet in his declining years, when she helped him with the editing and publication of his Almanack. Later several of her poems appeared in an anthology entitled ‘Modern Irish Poets’, and in the introduction to her works the editor wrote: “Mrs Acheson is a fluent, vigorous and graceful writer, both in prose and in poetry. She is a warm advocate of Temperance, and makes herself acquainted with the current public questions of the day, including Land Reform, on which she has written a series of ballads that have enjoyed much popularity.” She also edited ‘Echoes of Erin’, the magazine of the Irish women’s Temperance Union.

On leaving Walthamstow Hall, Harriet had returned to Belfast, where she attended the Ladies’ Collegiate School, which some twenty years later in the Golden Jubilee year was renamed, by Royal Command, Victoria College and School. It was here that she graduated with a first class degree from the Royal University of Ireland in History, English language and literature, Latin, French, German and Geometry. Harriet then took up a teaching post at Victoria College, thus beginning a long family connection with one of the most prestigious educational establishments in Ulster, which saw one of her daughters (Grace) becoming headmistress, and a grand-daughter, Katharine Faris, teaching modern languages and becoming careers mistress there in the 1960s and 1970s.

Harriet Glasgow married John Acheson in 1877, at the age of 26. Their first child was Emily, born in 1878, followed by Mary (known as Molly) two years later, then Anne. Grace arrived three years later, followed by James (Jimmy or Jim) in 1889; two years later came John Edgar (Edgar), before finally in 1896 came the youngest Harriet Elizabeth (known as Harrie in childhood and Hazel as an adult).

As a measure of how well business was at J & J Acheson, in 1885, the year of Grace’s birth, John had decided to have a house built, for which the initial cost saw him stump up the then enormous sum of £1,070, excluding architect’s fees. This was ‘Dunavon’ on the Carrickblacker Road in Portadown, a house with a commanding view of the River Bann, on which John had a fleet of half a dozen barges. It was a happy family home; in the evenings John and Harriet would be seen strolling around the gardens surveying the work of their team of gardeners, while the river became a playground paradise for the children and their friends.

Alexandra School, Portadown
Alexandra School , Portadown Grace Acheson sitted with back to stove c.1895 courtesy of Neil Faris

Initially all the children attended Alexandra School in Portadown. It was run by two sisters, the Misses Kinkead, in a converted hay loft at the top of a building housing a branch of the Bank of Ireland. The girls then went on to Victoria College.

Anne Acheson had an extremely fulfilling and interesting life, crammed with academic, professional and civic achievement, albeit she remained unmarried. She distinguished herself first in Alexandra School - she was third in all Ireland in the preparatory grade of the Education Board of Ireland’s Intermediate Examinations - then at Victoria College where she graduated from its University department in 1904 with a degree in modern languages from the Royal University of Ireland.

Initially she took up an assistantship at Victoria College, teaching modern languages, before enrolling at Belfast Municipal Technical Institute - later Belfast School of Art - emerging three years later with a first class degree in three subjects (drawing in light and shade, modelling, and painting still life; and a second class in modelling design; she was awarded the Fitzpatrick prize for drawing and painting. Most importantly though, Anne Acheson won a studentship to the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, where she enrolled in the autumn of 1906. This studentship was worth 25 shillings (£1.25) per week, a sum not to be sneezed at more than a hundred years ago.

Anne sculpting
Anne C. Acheson putting finishing touches to sculpture October in late 1920s. courtesy of Neil Faris

Her course at the RCA began with Architecture and Modelling, where she came under the tutelage of Edouard Lanteri, the France-born Professor of Modelling, who had studied under Auguste Rodin; she proved a quick and able pupil. After distinguishing herself at the RCA Anne began her professional life as an artist in a teaching post at the County Secondary School for Girls in Putney, South London. Her first task was to draw up an art syllabus for the whole school, and a visit from a schools inspector during her first year praised her teaching and the syllabus. Although she remained in her post until 1913, during those years she pursued her art, having two bronze sculptures accepted for the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition - The Pixie (1911) and Will o’ the Wisp (1912). In those days there would have been around 13,000 submissions, of which just 1,500 were selected, so her success persuaded Anne that she should become a full-time artist and sculptress.

Outbreak of First World War

There were further RA successes over the next four years, although her joy was tempered by the loss of her father and her mother within three months of each other in 1914. But the outbreak of the First World War forced Anne to suspend her career in order to volunteer for a wartime charity. In 1915 she and a number of other artists in the Kensington and Chelsea area of London signed up with The Surgical Requisites Association (SRA), based at 17 Mulberry Walk in Chelsea. This organisation had been set up by Mrs Edith Stokes, under the auspices of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, to help with the supply of medical equipment. Initially volunteers were required to roll up bandages and to create antiseptic swabs and dressings, some of which employed sphagnum moss; very soon the demands made on the volunteers grew exponentially.

Anne fixes eye patch
Anne Crawford Acheson fixes and eye patch on a serving soldier as a member of the Surgical Requiste Association. Courtesy of Neil Faris

Anne linked up with two other artists, Eleanor Hallé, also a sculptress, and Mrs Sannyer Atkins, a wood carver. Shrapnel injuries saw more and more Tommies being transported home with their arms, shoulders or legs strapped in crude splints, and so the trio found themselves designing and creating arm cradles, made from papier mâché and designed by Miss Hallé. It was Anne who realised that the cradles’ use was limited, and that it would be anatomically better for patient comfort and would aid the healing process if, instead of cradles, the trio constructed whole splints made from papier mâché. At first they formed the splints around the site of the fracture, but after they were shown how to make a mould with plaster of Paris the process became far less painful for the patients. Still it was a tedious procedure, to take a mould, make a cast, then apply papier mâché around the mould, and render that waterproof, before finally applying the finished article to the fractured limb. So there was great relief when, in 1917, Anne learned that plaster of Paris was not radio-opaque and that X-rays could be taken of a limb encased in it. This meant that the papier mâché versions, and the long process involved in making them, could be dropped in preference for the far simpler and speedier plaster of Paris cast, which lasted into the late 20th and early 21st century. This was one of many breakthroughs in the treatment of the injured, and in 1919 Anne was appointed CBE for her work with the SRA. (Eleanor Hallé, who had designed the insignia for the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1917, had been awarded the same rank the year before for her work at Chelsea). It was a remarkable achievement by the two young women and the rest of their selfless team.

As the world roared into the 1920s Anne resumed her artistic career, enjoying a great deal of success and no little acclaim. She specialised in figures of children in bronze and lead. These figures were chiefly garden sculptures, either simple statues or fountains; among her more popular ones were ‘Sally’, ‘The Thief’ (a child taking an apple from a bag) and ‘Harriet Emily’ for which one of her nieces had been the model. She was also commissioned to produce a portrait bust of Gertrude Bell, the explorer and Arabist, the original of which is incarcerated in Baghdad’s National Museum, while a replica is to be found in the entrance to the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore.

Outbreak of Second World War

The outbreak of the Second World War saw Anne volunteering her services again, first with the Red Cross; then, after training as a precision engineer, she worked for a short and unhappy time at a factory in Essex helping to produce bomb sights. After the war she eventually returned home to live in semi-retirement with two of her sisters at Glede House, Glenavy, where she had a studio and continued with some painting and sculpture, exhibiting at the Royal Ulster Academy. She died on 16 March1962.

Anne’s brother James Acheson was another high achiever. A talented sportsman, he was also a gifted linguist, which stood him in good stead in his hugely successful career with the Indian Civil Service, where he became, eventually, the Governor of the North West Frontier Province and was knighted in 1945, dubbed by Lord Wavell, the Governor General (and, as it turned out, the penultimate Viceroy of India). Sir James and his wife Vio suffered a double tragedy, losing one of their sons Jimmy early in the war, then their youngest child Kitty, who died from a brain tumour. Sir James and Lady Acheson returned to England, setting up home on a farm in Herefordshire; however his country had not quite finished with him: he was called to serve as Regional Governmental Officer in Kiel as the post-war clear-up began.

Hazel becomes a professor of obstetrics

The youngest of Anne’s siblings, Hazel, also achieved distinction in her professional life. She trained at the Royal Free Hospital in London before emigrating to India, where she became professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Lady Hardinge Medical College and Hospital in New Delhi, an establishment open only to women. She retired in 1949, by which time she was Principal. Two years earlier she had experienced the terrifying rioting that had accompanied Partition. And although mindful of the nature of the hospital, Hazel made the courageous decision to open its doors to injured men when the violence flared up. She took in hundreds of casualties, victims of the riots on the streets of New Delhi. It was her life’s work in medicine, coupled with her act of mercy during the troubles of 1947, that saw her appointed OBE.

Grace Acheson was a distinguished mathematician, and an accomplished musician; she was also adventurous, undertaking a prolonged tour of Italy with her older sister Anne in 1910. She too attended Victoria College after enjoying academic success at Alexandra School. She obtained a degree in maths from the Royal University of Ireland after attending Queen’s College Belfast, the predecessor of Queen’s University. Grace then returned to Victoria College to teach mathematics, before marrying the Reverend George Faris of Caledon, Co Tyrone - her sister Molly was later to marry his brother Samuel. After her husband’s early death in 1925 Grace returned to Belfast with her four children, and went on to become a distinguished headmistress of Victoria College. She also served on the Senate of Queen’s University, where her elder son John later became Professor of Logic and Metaphysics.

Emily, the eldest of John Acheson’s children, was loved by all her siblings and was a great comfort and support to Grace on the death of George Faris. Emily did not go on to further education; instead, at the age of 29, she caused quite a stir when she accepted a proposal of marriage from the Reverend John Irwin, who was a shocking (for those times) 25 years her senior. The Rev Irwin was a prominent clergyman, eventually becoming Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Molly Acheson was also a scholar of mathematics, studying at Newnham College Cambridge. Unfortunately, because of the policy of the University towards women at that time, she was unable to be awarded a degree there: she returned to Ireland instead and took her degree at Trinity College, Dublin. She married Samuel Faris, a tea merchant and pillar of the Presbyterian Church in the City of Cork.

Edgar Acheson had a hard time on the Western Front in the First World War. It caused the family great worry when he was reported missing in action, though it was later confirmed that he had been taken prisoner of war. He survived though, and married Nora Brodie; they raised their family in Portadown, where Edgar took over the running of the Bann View linen mill until his death in the 1970s.

The Achesons of Portadown have proved over the centuries to be true to their liberal beliefs, staunch supporters of the Irish Presbyterian Church, and high achievers in many walks of life. John and Harriet Acheson would take great pride in the subsequent generations who have maintained the family tradition of high academic excellence as well as service to the community, church and tolerance of their fellow men. A distinguished legacy by any standards.

Acheson family
The Acheson family