First World War

Vol. 9 No. 1 - 2007

The First World War remembered

by Brenda Thompson

During the early 1980s Harold Thompson had the idea of recording for the Historical Society some oral history from people living locally, with the help of a small team of volunteers. Tom Morrow interviewed Bob McCarter who was a skilled French polisher working in Portadown for over 40 years. One of his jobs was to polish all the mahogany in Thomas Street Methodist Church.

This is a transcript of a recording in which Tom asks Bob about his experiences around the time of the 1914-18 war, starting from the time he was refused entry to the army because he was too young and ran away to a job instead. His memories are transcribed just as he recounted them.

Bob runs away with a travelling fair

I was born in 1899 and I joined up when I was 16. I was big for my age, you see, and if you were asked your age you just said “I’m 20.” In the First World War at the last they were taking oul men of 60, they were getting that hard pushed. But all my mates, some of my age and some even younger, had all joined and were away.

I went first to join when I was 15, but they wouldn’t take me. They wouldn’t even look at me. In them days there was one of them shows with hobbyhorses and stalls and things. I couldn’t get in the army or navy or anywhere at all so I was around one night at the show. I knew they were going away the next morning and I asked the oul fella, Bill Sharp, if there was any chance of a job. He says, “Certainly. We’re pulling out of here the morrow morning,” telling me the time.

So I came home and the mother, she’s sitting at the sewing machine – she used to sew and make shirts for shops and that sort of thing. I think I see her yet sitting at her machine and there’s a row of my wee collars all sticking on the window blind [I don’t understand this , but it is on the tape] just where she was sewing, and I says to her “I’m going away.”

So away I went round to the markets where those people were, and they were pulling the hobby horses out. I knew the road they were going and I cut through –a near cut – and met them on the main road.

They travelled with a steamroller you would call it, that pulled the hobbyhorses and everything. When the boys seen me coming they pulled me up on the oul motor and the vans followed with the horses and all that, you know. One of them boys was an oul fella called Dan – I never knew his name rightly.

Sleeping under the stars

You don’t get decent digs travelling with that sort of person. But me an this oul Dan, we lay in a field all night at Limavady. In the morning we got our faces washed and got a cup of tea in a café. The next night we pulled out again and the next stop was Derry.

After we’d been in Derry a week or two we run a Red Cross night for the war – you know, all the profits giv that night for the war. I had a sister up in Derry but I wasn’t even thinking of her, but here, this Red Cross night, her and a couple of pals had come down for the night and I was on the horses. The oul doll, what’s her name? Aye Bella. Oul Bella she sat in her van, you see, waiting for us boys coming with the money we’d lifted on the horses. [The Bella bit is tied up with another story of how some of the boys on the horses cheated Bella – Bob didn’t] Well here, the night I got to lift the money wasn’t my sister sitting on the horse with one of her pals. I nearly dropped – and she nearly dropped too when she seen me. She came back the next morning and it seems the police were looking for me, so oul Bill Sharp says, “The police have been up looking for you with your sister and she says you’ll have to go home.” Well he giv me the whole pay for the week [although Bob had only worked a couple of days of that week] and toul me if I ever wanted the job again I’d nothing to do only find where they were and come. The money wasn’t bad. I think I had about a pound a week.

Brought home again, he gets a job making shells at Mackie’s

Well I come home in the daylight and I was ashamed nearly to come up. I took the back road up home at the back of the houses through the fields, and my mother – well you would have thought I was the Prodigal Son.

I was still wanting to get away somewhere. Somebody told me that they were making eighteen-pounder shells at Mackie’s foundry, so I cleaned myself up and put my best foot forward. When I got there, there was six to be interviewed for the job. I got it. The man that was doing the job before I went to it was a man called Andrews, connected to those whiskey people, a man that didn’t need the money. I went in to him. He said I had a week to learn the job. He was gonna learn me the job.

In the job there were two shifts. They were nearly all girls working these shifts, big bugs, you know, doing a service. Now my job was to supply all these girls with the things they needed for the job from the store. First there was the shell itself – I had nothing to do with that. Then there were the components. There was the cup, the tube and then the copper bands. Then there was wee bullets – just like some of those wee marbles of the youngsters. Those copper bands had a brave weight of copper in them. They put them in the machine and they turned them. Tom McGredy, a terrible nice man, he would have turned the nose on the shells.

When I had any spare time I went down to where he worked and they had all these great heaters and they each held one of these shells. There was no nose on the shell so they put it into one of the heaters – I think it was wrought by gas. Tom had a pair of tongs on him and a big pair of heavy gloves – there was two or three of them working at it and when these shells got red hot they caught them with the tongs and then you pulled the wee handle and there was a sort of steam hammer put the pointy shape on them.

Sinn Fein rally broken up by men from the shipyard

Me and Tom used to have a drink coming home at night. We would call at the Coliseum Picture House. There was a bar and you could have a drink and watch the pictures – silent pictures. One night he says, “Do you know what I’m thinking of doing, Bob? I’m thinking of joining the navy.” I was thinking the same as him and we took the day off. So here we were walking about with a drink or two. And there was a big Sinn Fein meeting at Robinson Cleavers, right opposite the City Hall. That was early 1916, and the crowds were round the meeting. They had it on this big four-wheeler van. We were quite a bit from where the speaker was but here coming right down Chichester Street, coming from the shipyard, were I don’t know how many four-wheeler vans, all getting pulled by the shipyard men.

These men all had bags of rivets and all sorts of weapons, coming down to break this meeting up, you see. We were watching them and the crowd was just heaving and one of these Sinn Fein boys got up, one of the speakers, and they were clapping him and all that. In them days your cement come in ordinary oul cement bags, not these paper bags they have now, and they held the cement more than the paper ones. As soon as he got up to speak someone knocked him off his perch with a cement bag. This is God’s truth I’m telling you. So the crowds started and the police come on the job and they were all running next Peter’s Hill and me and Tom run too and chased up Peter’s Hill.

Aged 17, Bob joins the Flying Corps

In the end him and me got down to what we went out for - joining up. So we went to the navy and they wouldn’t take me at all. They took him. So my next move, I seen the recruiting sergeant and asked him could I join the services. “What age are you?” he says, and I says, “Eighteen.” So he says, “Come on” and I got into the Flying Corps although I was only 17.

I come home and was telling the oul woman I was going away. By this time my father was killed in the war. My father was a quartermaster’s sergeant but he was killed at the battle of the “Sum”. He was in the Boer War but he come out of the Boer War the year that I was born. He was at the relief of Ladysmith. I used to hear the oul fella talking about it.

Do you know the Grand Central Hotel? That’s where they done all the recruiting. And the day I was sworn in there was about 300 of us and they had us all sitting on seats. He read out the oath to the whole lot. We answered the questions and then you got your shilling. You’ve heard of the King’s shilling? Then we were to go to Salisbury Plain. A band played us over to York Street station although we were in civvies. My sister, she come to see me off and she gave me a wee paper bag with 10 Woodbine in it.

I was glad to get away, man! We went to Salisbury Plain. There’s some big stones there – I think some cult’s at it now – we were near it –could have walked down till it - the station was at a wee place called Tring. We were under canvas an’ we had to march three miles from the station up to this camp about 2 o’clock in the morning. When we got there they giv us a big mug of coul cocoa and then they had what they called dog biscuits – they’d have been about three inches square. If you ate one of them you wouldn’t need a feed for a week after it. Well we got in there and we had candles and you had to have the lights out at a certain time. They had a lot of what you call Buckshee Corporals – fellows with two stripes on their arm and getting no money for them. We got to know these fellows. We’d have come out at night and maybe got a drink or two. This corporal, I mind it well, he come in shouting about getting the lights out. They knew his voice [and they hit him over the head with the mallet they used for driving the tent pegs in.]

After Salisbury Plain we done this square bashing. They learned you how to walk right and how to salute. Well in the First World War you weren’t properly dressed going out if you didn’t carry a stick with you, see? These were nice sticks with a nice silver head on them - the RAF crests on them. They only cost about a shilling apiece – lovely sticks. Whenever they were looking spud peelers or anything like that – fellas to do any dirty work there was – they’d wait till you’d be out at night at the guard room you see, and if you weren’t properly dressed, you see, if you hadn’t a stick, instead of giving you any punishment they’d say, “Report to the cookhouse”, and you’d be there maybe peeling spuds for three or four hours. Any sort of dirty jobs there was to do that’s the way they got you. Or if you had a button undone, anything at all just to get a catch at you. But I really enjoyed those early months in the war. If I had my life to live over I’d do the same again.

The war was nearly over by the time I went overseas. When I got there all the killing and all the murdering and all the hard work was done.

Bob goes back to French polishing

After the war I had my French polishing job to come home to. You see, in 1914 I had begun to serve my time in Duff’s of Lisburn. In those days I wanted a trade and it could have been anything for my part. Duff’s had only really started then. Nearly all the furniture that Duff’s made was going to the South of Ireland. All this stuff was packed with shavings and one thing and another into hessian bags, all sewed and a label on them and they were took to the passenger railway and put away up to the South of Ireland. There were hardly any motor cars at all then. Duff hadn’t even a lorry or a car or nothing else about his place.

Just after the First World War was over a suit of clothes cost you nearly £30. After it was over about two or three years you could have got a Burton suit or a suit made to measure for 30 bob. But I got a suit after I come out. A fellow called Williamson in Railway Street in Lisburn made mine and I got a bit of leather on the arms. It was blue whipcord – £29. Dear for a suit of clothes!

On the Burroo [Labour Exchange/Jobcentre/unemployment benefit] I had 29 bob a week. It was good money, for I was single and my mother never took anything off me after I come out of the services. I told them on the Burroo I was a labourer so I got a job with a builder’s yard making hard plaster for ceilings and that. There was a big pit of lime and you got lime and sand – I was like a whitewashed man with this oul lime pit. So I said “I’m not going to that ….. work again.” So I went back to the Burroo. They told me they had a job in the shipyards, but the shipyards wouldn’t give me the job because I wasn’t in the union.

Back again to the Burroo

To cut a long story short I went back again to the Burroo and told them I was a French polisher so I got back to Duff’s at £3 a week and I brought my mate - he had a Military Cross from the war. They needed someone to drive the lorry and I said, “I’ve a chap here. He’s just out of the services and he has won the Military Medal. I know he’s a good scholar.” With all the stuff going to the Free State they wanted someone to write labels and I knowed he was a terrible good writer. So he got a job too.