George Emmett Whelan of Cork, Ireland, and Norley, Cheshire, Born 1898 – Died 1979
By Wendy Bawn (nee Whelan)
My father was born in Cork, Ireland in December 1898 to Katherine and John Whelan, the second of ten children. The family was quite prosperous at the beginning of the 20th century; my grandfather John Whelan was a dealer in cattle and pigs, mainly exporting to England. Dad’s grandparents on both sides of the family were active in the Fenian movement which strove to free Ireland from Britain’s rule to become an independent republic. Indeed, his mother was born in New Jersey, USA, as her father, Michael Egar, had to disappear for a period in the 1870s, being wanted by the British authorities at that time.
By the time the First World War began, life in Ireland had become a big struggle for the family, with his father having contracted tuberculosis, and his health rapidly declining. Sadly, he died in 1919 aged only 48 years of age. Dad and his brother James had both begun work as clerks in a department store in Cork sometime around 1915. But Dad soon grew bored with this work and when he saw the many billboards encouraging young men to join the British Army, he decided this would be far more exciting! Some of the hoardings, he told me, described “The Hun” ie the Germans, as sub-human – “they were eating little children in Belgium”. So Dad joined the Cheshire Regiment in June 1916 (see Short Service Record). He had given his age as 19, but he wasn’t: he was 17 years and two months.
Dad’s family was “mortified”. On visiting his grandfather to show off his smart new uniform, his reaction was “I never thought I would see a grandson of mine dressed in that terrible uniform!” (Michael Egar had been a member of the Fenian Army.) From that day on Dad was known as The Black Sheep to his family and it was some years before they were all reconciled.
He and other new recruits were soon shipped over to England where they had their preliminary training, mainly “square bashing” in the forecourt of Chester Castle. Fortunately my Dad was not called upon to fight at the Front. His skills with handwriting (a beautiful ‘copperplate’ style) and his general standard of education meant that he was again consigned to clerical work behind the lines. His unit was eventually posted to France, and on arrival there he recalled being amazed to hear the children all speaking French – thinking how clever they were. I don’t think it had dawned on him that he had actually arrived in France!
One day, his sergeant told him to guard the place while he took a group of soldiers off for the day. So, being left alone in charge of the munitions dump he thought this would be the perfect time for a bit of target practice. And why not? He was still having a great time with his rifle that afternoon when his sergeant returned and saw him firing his gun over the munitions. It is perhaps best not to dwell on the sergeant’s reactions. Not my Dad’s finest hour.
The work he was involved in intensified with the war, and this meant long hours working through the night writing and typing reports. Eventually he succumbed to a particularly nasty infection in both his eyes and he had to be invalided out. In 1918 he was sent back to England to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, Southampton and was later transferred to Birkenhead, which was part of Cheshire at the time. There was no antibiotic treatment for his infection of course, and his recovery took a full three months.
Part of his recuperation time was spent in one of the Birkenhead Hospital’s annexes, which were located in Palm Grove, Shrewsbury Road and Hemingford Street, all near the Park. Fortunately I have one photograph to illustrate this period. It was taken on New Year’s Day 1918 outside the Baptist Church in Laird Street, Birkenhead. My father is the one at the end of the front row on the right hand side (his eyes still looking bleary). All are wearing hospital uniform: a light blue jacket with white lapels, white shirt and red tie, they were allowed to keep their caps and badges. Convalescent soldiers were issued with this uniform on arrival at hospital mainly for reasons of hygiene – their military uniforms often being very dirty and bloodied. Also the uniforms meant they could be identified when out and about and not be mistaken for ‘malingerers’.
The ladies in the photograph were members of the Church who had put on an “entertainment” for the soldiers that day. An item in the Birkenhead News on 9th January described them as being members of Mr W Poston’s Young Ladies’ Class, who regaled their audience with:
“excellent musical and other items, encores were quite common. Songs were sung by Mrs Bennett and a Birkenhead soldier home on leave after hospital treatment, namely D Lloyd, R.F.A. A talented young girl, Miss Leslie Booth, also contributed by a series of dances and songs.
After a generous tea, Christmas crackers were served and plenty of cigarettes and fruit, each man receiving a New Year gift of some appropriate kind. At the end of the musical items ‘sitting’ games were played.”
A close friendship had formed between Dad and another soldier, William Lightfoot of Norley, Cheshire. William, who suffered from gas poisoning, can be seen in the photograph behind Dad, third from the end, looking rather gloomy. When on leave, William kindly invited Dad to stay with his family from time to time. On one of these visits to Norley, I remember him telling me how he walked with William from Cuddington Station and saw for the first time damson trees and sampled his first Cheshire damson plum.
One letter, which was sent by George’s mother to Mrs Lightfoot, and dated 23rd December 1917, has survived:
“Dear Mrs Lightfoot,
Please let me introduce myself to you so that I may have the opportunity of thanking you for your kindness. I am Georgie Whelan’s Mother and his account to me of all the kind things you and your family have done for him makes me desirous at this festive season to wish you and family all the compliments, and a bright and happy New Year.
We were expecting George home for Christmas but unfortunately he cannot get leave at present as he is not quite well enough to leave Hospital yet. He is very lonely since your lad went away and may God bring your Boy home safe to you is the earnest wish of
My Dad recovered sufficiently to be transferred to the Royal Engineers where he rose to the dizzy heights of Lance Corporal. He was eventually discharged from the army in June 1920, again suffering from a chronic eye infection. This was to be the end of his army career.
However, returning to Ireland at this time would not have been a good idea. Ireland was in a turmoil, there had been a rebellion against British rule in 1916 and a civil war was about to break out. Besides, he had fallen in love with William Lightfoot’s younger sister, Amy, and they were married (rather hastily) in September 1919. His marriage certificate confirms that he had stretched his age to 21 years – he was actually not quite 20 years old! By doing this he did not have to seek his parents’ permission, as he was under the age of 21. They lived for awhile with the Lightfoot family at School Bank, Norley.
So, instead of returning home (to an uncertain welcome) Dad and his new wife settled down to life in Norley. At first he helped his father-in-law with his small farm and later went on to become a successful fruit and vegetable merchant. He loved Norley, his adopted village, and its people, and only reluctantly left to live in Chester in 1970 where he died aged 80 years (his actual age!) in January 1979.