By the close of play on this day (29th April) 78 years ago, Clifton House was quiet and deserted. Only once prior to this time had the house been completely empty – that was in 1798. The army had cleared it in a rush in 1798 in a bid to flush out the radicals in Belfast at the time, however, this time the decision to empty the house had been much more considered.
When World War II broke out, the guardians of Clifton House thought the basement area would serve as the perfect air-raid shelters. There were approximately 130 elderly, frail and infirm residents in the house at the time. It did not seem feasible to move them any further should the air-raid siren sound. However, air strikes in April 1941 terrified and traumatised the whole of Belfast. Although Clifton House remained unscathed in the attacks of April 1941, those in charge of Clifton House set about making arrangements to get the residents and the staff out of Belfast.
Two locations had been considered for the evacuation, The Causeway Hotel and Garron Tower. When it came to booking a venue, only Garron Tower was available which was not the Board’s first choice. It was cold, draughty and quite small for the needs of the residents, but there was very little choice and it was definitely safer than staying in Belfast.
The 1941 Annual Report records the move;
“On the 29th April all the residents and necessary staff with furniture, bedding, food, equipment etc were safely moved in Northern Ireland Road Transport buses.
Professor Gregg Wilson very kindly arranged with the St. John’s Ambulance to transport all the bed patients in ambulances attended by a trained staff and the Committee are most grateful to this Society for the great help it afforded and to Prof Gregg Wilson for his personal care and attention in the whole matter.
The Committee also wish to compliment the Matron, Miss Howie, Captain Gray and all members of staff for the capable way in which this very difficult move was carried out and they are to be gratified to learn that the change has been of benefit to the residents from every point of view.”
Space continued to be a problem after the move, even though the Society lowered numbers by almost one third and suspended any further elections of new residents. The rented an additional room and a cottage on the grounds of Garron Tower in an effort to accommodate everyone.
Garron Tower was a quiet, isolated spot after life in the city of Belfast. Rationing also had an impact. In Belfast the relatives of the residents could have easily walked for visits, however with petrol rationed, even those with cars did not have enough fuel to get to Garron Tower. Matron requested additional games, gramophone records and a wireless to help the residents wile away the days.
Dr Purdon, whose family had decades of association with the Belfast Charitable Society was struggling to get to Antrim to visit the patients due to petrol shortages. The Committee decided to appoint Dr Brennan from Carnlough to take some of the pressure off Dr Purdon. Dr Purdon was delighted with the positive effect the move to Garron Tower had on the residents. He wrote in the 1942 Annual Report;
“The number of deaths was the lowest for many years and this is partly due to the more healthy surroundings and peaceful nights at Garron Tower. A number of the residents who were confined to bed, some for months in Belfast, are now able to go out for daily walks.”
The move to Garron Tower also had unexpected outcomes. Two residents, 82 year old John Bloomer and 64 year old Frances Ash requested permission to marry. They were married in Carnlough and had their reception at Garron Tower. After a short honeymoon in Larne, they returned to Garron Tower to live in the married quarters.
The war rumbled on and everyone was keen to return to Clifton House. As 1945 was drawing to a close and it seemed the war had finally ended, the Committee went to the army to seek the return of Clifton House. Five and a half years after leaving the House, it was returned on 31st August 1946. Another mammoth planning session ensued to get all the residents, equipment, furniture and staff back to North Belfast. It was an enormous relief to all involved when on the 25th October 1946 the buses began to bring the residents back.