Londonderry’s richimmigrant history

THE Ulster History Circle intend, later this year, to erect a blue plaque in honour of Dr Raphael Armattoe.

Saturday, 28th July 2012, 12:40 pm

Within the walled part of our city, among a number similar plaques, three commemorate the achievements of Cecil Francis Alexander, Sir William McArthur and Henry Bettesworth Phillips.

Although all three are strongly associated with our city, and have contributed positively to our city during their lifetimes, all possess one thing in common – they could be categorized as ‘outsiders’ or ‘migrants.’

Cecil Francis Alexander was born in Dublin, and penned some of the most famous hymns in the English language – ‘Once in Royal David’s City,’ ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful,’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away.’

Her plaque is located outside the former Bishop’s Palace in Bishop Street within.

Sir William McArthur was born at Malin, in County Donegal. In 1831 he entered into a partnership and opened a woollen drapery shop in the Diamond of Londonderry.

The partnership dissolved and William later extended the business into Australia with his brother, Alexander. Both prospered as a consequence. William McArthur was a man of religious zeal, and his exertions, along with Alex Lindsay, later Mayor of Derry, led to the creation of the Methodist church on East Wall. In 1857, McArthur moved his business to London.

He became involved in politics and at the 1868 general election was elected MP for Lambeth. Twelve years later he became Lord Mayor of London. He returned to Derry in August of the following year, as part of a deputation of the Hon. the Irish Society.

He returned again in 1887, and was present at the laying of the foundation stone of the new Town Hall. Sir William McArthur’s plaque is located outside Wetherspoon’s in the Diamond.

Henry Bettesworth Phillips was born at County Kildare. In 1877 he won a scholarship as a boy soloist in St Columb’s Cathedral, and later attended Foyle College. In the 1930’s, Phillips was responsible for bringing to this city three musical giants of the age – John McCormack, Fritz Kriesler, and Paul Robeson. His plaque is located outside the site of his former music shop known as ‘Beethoven House’ in Shipquay Street.

The above individuals are only three examples of the numerous ‘migrants’ or ‘outsiders’ who have, over the centuries, enriched this region in the areas of education, commerce, sport, religion, politics and the arts.

Other notable examples include nineteenth-century Scotsmen such as William Tillie, Adam Hogg and Peter McIntyre, and the Englishman, Joseph James Welch, whose efforts expanded a hand-manufactured shirt trade into a thriving mechanized industry – often referred to at its pinnacle as Derry’s ‘staple industry.’

In the same nineteenth-century period, the creative and inventive southern Irishman, William Coppin, employed 500 men in this city in building new ships, ship repairs and salvage work.

Another ‘outsider’ largely involved in the shipping industry was Hull-born, William Mitchell, who established a line of sailing ships, and was responsible for fine premises in Foyle Street known as Commercial Buildings.

Originating from Coleraine, the Misses McKillip founded the Londonderry High School for Girls in 1877. Also from Coleraine came Charles Wesley Gordon. He was not only to establish the first Slate Club in Ireland in our city, but was also one of the founders in Derry of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and later a branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Austin family came from Newtownstewart and established ‘The Great Clothiers’ firm in The Diamond, which became famous for their linens and tweeds.

Philanthropist, John Gwyn, was born at Drumskellan, near Muff, in County Donegal. He arrived in this city with his mother and began a grocery business in Bishop Street. By his will, dated May 1818, he left the bulk of his large property, amounting to over £40,000, as a provision for ‘as many male children of the poor or lowest class of society resident in and belonging to the city of Londonderry and the precincts around the same…’

Travelling back further in time, we see that the Derry/Londonderry area has been a magnet for ‘migrants’ for many centuries. Indeed, the great sixth century Saint Columba, ostensible founder of a Christian monastic settlement here that would last for a thousand years, could be classed as a ‘migrant,’ originating from Gartan in Donegal.

In the late tenth century, Derry was plundered by the ‘migrant’ Vikings. Although some historians have noted the success of the kings of Aileach in wiping out the Viking settlements in the north-west, the presence of the MacLochlainns (meaning ‘son of the Viking’) as a powerful family in the Derry area during the Middle Ages shows that Scandinavian influences did survive in some fashion. The surname is still one of the most common in the city.

In the 1560’s, hostilities between the forces of Queen Elizabeth I, and those of O’Neill, Chief of Tyrone, was the occasion for the first English garrison in Derry. Colonel Edward Randoll (or Randolph) with seven companies of foot and a troop of horse were dispatched by sea to Derry, which was occupied without opposition. In a battle fought at Muff (five miles north of Derry) O’Neill was defeated, but Randoll was slain.

English forces evacuated Derry in consequence of pestilence and the explosion of the powder magazine, which destroyed the greater part of the town. These events marked Derry’s end as a monastic settlement.

In 1600, Sir Henry Docwra, with an English force of 4,000 foot and 200 horse reached the harbour of Lough Foyle, effected a landing at Culmore, and in six days afterwards entered into occupation of Derry without opposition. Thus began the transformation from decayed monastic site to new town.

Throughout the seventeenth century, there were a series of migrations from the Lowlands and Borders of Scotland and, to a lesser extent, from various parts of England. Substantial numbers of Scottish families entered Ulster through Derry and settled in the Foyle Valley.

In the nineteenth century, migration of people from Donegal, led to a quadrupling of Derry’s population (approximately 10,000 to over 40,000), and a growth in industrial and commercial development. The end of the century also witnessed an influx of Scots workers who settled in the Rosemount area. Employed largely in the shipbuilding industry, their presence led not only to the naming of Glasgow Street, Glasgow Terrace, Argyle Street, and Argyle Terrace, but to the creation of Bethany Hall, and Claremont Presbyterian Church.

Further afield, the German Klophel family of musicians arrived in the 1850’s, and twenty years later came the Faller family of jewellers, originating from a small village in the Black Forest in Germany. German and Austrian refugees appeared much later, in the 1930’s. Amongst these refugees were the Schenkel family from Vienna, who settled in Derry in 1938, and set up business in Foyle Street.

In the early 1900’s came the Italians. With surnames such as Fiorentini (originating in Latina, 40 miles south of Rome), and Marchini (originating from the province of Tuscany, in northern Italy), these families established mostly ice cream shops or restaurants.

The arrival of the Jews took place around the 1880’s/1890’s. The Robinson, Edstein, Wellshy, Spain, Fieldman, Gordons, and Danker families were among the first Jewish families to arrive in Derry. They were mainly tailors, pedlars and picture framers by trade, and worshipped in a synagogue at the top of Lower Fountain Street and later nearby Kennedy Place.

Arriving in Derry in 1930, the Chadas were the first Indians to settle in Ireland. The original bearer of the name came to Derry via Kenya, where he was a self-taught mechanic.

He arrived in Derry on board a ship, which had sailed from Mombasa to Marseilles. Settling in Derry, the Chadas built up a thriving footwear and drapery business, which by 1957 was employing 25 people. In that year, the Indian community in the city stood at 50, and included the Vij, Vig, and Singh families, who originated from the state of Punjab in northern India.

Studying the hitherto neglected endeavours, and stressing the positive achievements of ‘migrant’ communities and individuals, over the centuries, can perhaps play a major role in diluting both xenophobia and sectarianism.

Scrutinizing our city and district’s past association with migration makes us also realise that none of us has a ‘pure’ pedigree. There has been so much inter-marriage between diverse peoples, or the descendants of diverse peoples, over time that our backgrounds have become interwoven, blurred, and extremely convoluted. We are practically all the descendants of erstwhile ‘outsiders’ or ‘migrants.’

In the words of the great late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Dissenter, Daniel Defoe, when satirising the myth of English racial homogeneity in his The True Born Englishman, we ‘ought not to despise foreigners as such…since what they are to-day we were yesterday, and to-morrow they will be like us…ab origine, we are really all foreigners ourselves.’