In search of their roots

EARLIER this month an unassuming couple strolled the aisles of St Columb’s Cathedral on an overcast afternoon admiring the artefacts.

Thursday, 28th June 2012, 5:24 pm

Far from being just plain ‘tourists’ to the ancient building the pair were in fact Ralph and Patricia Riber, a brother and sister in their early 50’s, who had arrived in Londonderry on June 14 to spend a long weekend researching their roots. They were particularly interested in their relatives on their mother’s side of the family, but they were also planning to celebrate Patricia’s birthday.

Ralph now lives in Stockholm with his wife and has three grown up girls in their early 20’s, while Patricia has been living in London for many years and it fell to their cousin, Bill Lowry, who grew up in Londonderry, to show them what they had been missing since their last visit, 43 years ago.

The siblings have a family story to tell that is as interesting as the building in which they had sought shelter last week where their parents Meta and Curt Riber are concerned.

This is what Patricia was able to say about her family history, and she hopes it will ring a bell with Sentinel reads who might be able to fill a few gaps: “Meta Lowry was born in Londonderry on February 3, 1921. She was one of six children born to Florence Rosborough, known later as Flossy, who married David Lowry in 1918.

“The family lived at 46 Spencer Road and Meta Lowry spent many happy childhood years there. The family did not have much money and Meta started working in a factory at the age of 14. Later she joined the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, became a Navy nurse and was able to travel the world as a nurse during the Second World War,” said Patricia, adding: “She went to Australia on the Mauretania ship. Onboard were 5,000 men and just 25 women. She worked in Australia and then later was posted as a nurse at the Peak Hospital in Hong Kong and it was there she met her Swedish husband Curt Riber.”

However, it took a further seven years before she became Meta Riber, during which time she had another posting abroad, this time to Malay, to the east coast and the town of Kuantan.

“She was posted there for two years by Lady Mountbatten and served as a social worker/nurse in the area. She had to take her jeep into the jungle, which was bandit territory and had dangerous roads, to reach villages where she would inoculate babies. She was even asked to find a woman who had strayed from her husband and absconded with her lover. Her tasks were certainly varied.

“Meta spoke fondly of her time as a navy nurse and her time in Malaya, now Malaysia. She had a long distance relationship with Curt and finally they married back in Hong Kong in 1957 and moved to Tokyo, Japan where Curt Riber had another assignment to set up a trading office for a Swedish trading company called Ekmans & Co. He brought Swedish wood goods into Japan and had the agency to export Panasonic electric products and Seiko watches back to Sweden.

“Curt Riber had a similar role in Hong Kong when he met Meta, but had also been working in Japan during the second worldwar and was in Tokyo when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. There were many fires during the war in Tokyo and two of his houses burned down. Trade was virtually impossible and Curt was locked in. He married his first wife there who was Japanese and they later had two girls, the first was born in Seattle when they arrived as the first refugees onboard a ship from Japan to the US. Curt and his first wife lived later in Sweden for a bit, but then separated shortly after they got there and he was once again posted abroad, this time to Hong Kong by another Swedish trading company,” said Patricia.

According to Patricia he met Meta at a party at the Hong Kong Club, where she had been invited by a couple of navy officers. She was in the company of a fellow nurse friend from the Peak hospital, and apparently told her daughter ‘I saw your father across a crowded room, before anybody introduced us’ which, Patricia revealed, was later that evening when the Chinese host brought Curt over to their table.

Apparently Meta told her nurse and friend that this was the man she would marry.

“So her destiny was to marry a foreigner and not a fellow Irishman. This is a true story, as I verified this with her nurse friend, Timmy, later. Curt and Meta married in Hong Kong in 1957. They threw a wild party onboard a boat in Hong Kong harbor with Chinese musicians playing Swedish music and everyone got drunk and many jumped into the bay,” said Patricia.

Meta and Curt Riber moved to Japan after they were married and in 1958 Ralph was born and in 1959 Patricia was born. They stayed in Japan until 1970.

“Ralph and I were sent to a Swedish boarding school in 1969 to become Swedes after having started our lives at international schools in Tokyo: St Mary’s for Ralph and Sacred Heart for me. By then, we had visited our grandmother, Florence Lowry at Spencer Road. We never met our grandfather, David Lowry, who had served during the First World War and survived and came back to Florence (Flossy) but sadly, he did not make it past 63 years of age.

“After the troubles started, Flossie continued to live on Spencer Road without her husband and eventually she was just about the only resident on this commercial road. Flossy took it all in and was a pretty feisty woman. There were so many times the police would come and fetch her during the night because a suspected car bomb was parked near her door and snipers at her front door were becoming an everyday occurrence, but Flossy took it all in her stride,” said Patricia.

Ralph and Patricia were no longer allowed to go and see their grandmother in Londonderry, but Flossy did get to Sweden to see the Ribers, and Meta had a telephone installed at 46 Spencer Road when Flossy was in her mid 80’s.

“Meta thought she should not be without a phone during the Troubles. She said she didn’t need a phone, but once it was installed, she was dialling Sweden asking about me and my boyfriends. She stayed in Londonderry until she was 90, when her daughter Gladys moved her to Newcastle, County Down, for the last couple of years of her life, but my grandmother missed the action in Londonderry.”

Now Ralph and Patricia would like to know more about their grandmother’s home on Spencer Road.

“Bill Lowry, our cousin now lives in Castlerock and gave us a wonderful trip down memory lane and showed us the beautiful north coast. He grew up in Londonderry and spent quite a lot of time with my grandmother,” said Patricia.

The siblings have established that they have family links with the Rosborough and Lowry families in the district and are keen to find out not only more about that connection, but also where exactly 46 Spencer Road was. There is a 46a and a 46b on Spencer Road and there is a gap in the row of buildings which might be their grandmother’s home, but they are not sure, and have appealed to Sentinel readers for help in solving the mystery.

Anyone with information can email [email protected] with any details they have about the family or about the house on Spencer Road.