Belfast – From the Falls Road to the Russian Revolution
Claire Melvin, UK
My great grandmother’s sister, Annie Molloy was born in the Falls Road area of Belfast. Her father William Henry Molloy was from Gifford, County Down but his family, including uncles and aunts on both his mother and father’s side had moved to Belfast in the early 1860s to work in the linen mills. William Henry had followed the rest of the family into the mills working as a hackler preparing the flax before it was spun and it was through his work he had met Annie’s mother Roseann Britton who was a Belfast born weaver.
Life was hard and Annie’s grandfather Michael who was a rougher in the mills had died in the Belfast workhouse shortly before she was born. William Henry had decided to take the family to live in Kilburnie in Ayrshire, Scotland but according to family legend while on the boat he got sick and never recovered. It is more likely he had caught TB which was particularly rife among mill workers because of the damp atmosphere they worked in and a practice known as ‘kissing the shuttle’ which required weavers to use their mouth’s to thread the looms which increased the spread of the disease.
By 1886, the family was back in Belfast and William Henry was dead, leaving Annie’s mother Roseanne, a widow with the two small girls to bring up. Unable to work and look after them, the two sisters were sent to the nuns in Whitefield (outside the city) where they received a good education but they never felt like they had a home after that. When their mother remarried in 1893, the girls were able to return to Belfast but things never seemed the same as she now had a new husband and three younger children to look after. It was this that made the girls determined to leave home.
Annie trained as a seamstress and her mother Roseanne started taking in lodgers. In 1901 a young man called Joseph Kerr came to stay with Roseanne. He was a committed Marxist, heavily into nationalist politics and was working in the mills as a flax dresser. By 1905, Annie’s sister had fallen for him and the two had married, and Annie had lost her only ally in her mother’s house. She had always wanted to see the world and her ambition was to go to Canada. Her first step towards that was to head to England, where her grandmother was living. There in order to raise the money for her passage she got a job as a servant with a rich family, and it was while doing this she met a young rich Canadian, called George Perkins who was related to her employers. George Perkins had been born in Petrolia, Ontario, one of the first places in North America for oil to be discovered. His grandparents were one of the original local farmers who had found oil on their own land and as a result his father and uncles had gained a lot of experience in drilling for oil. As the oil had run out in Petrolia, George’s family and others from the area had been recruited to help drill for oil in other parts of the world. As a result, George had not been brought up in Canada but had grown up in Galicia (an area which now straddles Poland and the Ukraine but at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) where his father and uncles owned very successful oil and drilling companies. George was fluent in German, French, Polish and Ukrainian. He had lived in Paris and had worked in Russia and Romania.
Annie and George fell in love and despite the disapproval of both their families married. Annie’s family disliked the fact, she was marrying a man who wasn’t a Catholic and George’s family were unhappy about him marrying “an uneducated Irish girl”. However, Annie moved to Galicia to be with him, where he and his cousin Karl were running the Polish end of the family oil business, while his brother and father ran a branch in England.
Annie’s new life was very different than her old one. Galicia was described by Austrians as the end of the earth. Not only had she Polish customs, language and traditions to learn about. Overnight she found herself with a houseful of servants and the possibility to buy whatever she wished from London, Paris, Vienna or St Petersburg. George gave her a car and she learnt to drive. Money meant nothing to her new family when George’s cousin Karl lost a cheque for £1,000 in a boating accident, no one was particularly worried. They always travelled first class and holidayed in fashionable spa towns like Karlsbad (now in the Czech republic). She socialised with German, Austrian and Polish nobility, went on hunts and to endless parties and balls, where the women wore the latest Parisian fashions and the men wore tail coats. She and George lived in a town called Strji (which is now in the Ukraine) and they would socialise in the cosmopolitan city of Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine) where they would go to the opera, listen to bands playing in the park and be invited to visit the amazing homes of polish nobles.
On the outbreak of war, overnight everything had changed for Annie in Galicia. Suddenly, she (as she was Irish) and George (as he was Canadian) who both had British passports, living as they did in what was then Austria-Hungary were enemy aliens. It was particularly hard for George who having lived in Galicia since he was a small child considered it home, and what made it worse was that some of the Perkins family had been born in Canada and some had been born in Galicia, so they now found themselves on opposing sides.
Annie and George’s home in Galicia was right in the Middle of the Eastern Front, directly in the path of the invading Russian army. Not only did they not have the right papers to flee but the military had requisitioned all trains so there was no easy way of escaping. The Russian army broke through, George’s uncle hid his paintings and valuables in one of his oil wells, while Annie, George, Karl and his family went up into the hills with the company money to hide with some other Canadians in a hut they had used in happier times for hunting. They later found out that Russian soldiers having heard there were rich oil people hiding in the hills had gone looking for them, hoping to get the money.
As the fighting subsided they decided to go back to their homes. The surrounding countryside had been destroyed, crops were ruined and there was almost no food, everything had been blown to smithereens and their homes had been completely looted first by the Austrian army and then by the Russians. However, as the Russians were now in charge, technically they were no longer enemy aliens. By 1915, however, the tide turned again on the Eastern front and the Russians were this time retreating, not wishing to find themselves enemy aliens again, Annie, George, Karl and his family decided to head for Russia. They didn’t know anyone there and caught up in the Second Battle of Lemberg, with the station and the railway being bombed, took the first train they could get on which took them to Kiev.
In Kiev, for the first time in George’s life, he was faced with something which Annie was all too familiar with having to live on a budget. They had no access to the money in their Austrian bank accounts now. Although they did have 15,000 Austrian Crowns which they had brought with them in a trunk from Galicia which George and Karl decided as it was company money to send back to England. They lived in a flat and for Annie life was relatively comfortable as they still had a servant and didn’t have to work but the others found it intolerable. The growing shortages, military defeats, threats of invasion and social unrest which would in the end trigger the Russian revolution were also becoming increasingly obvious, although conditions were better in Kiev than in St Petersburg. Here too there were no obvious routes home – boats were being sunk in the Baltic by U-boats and fighting in Turkey prevented any escape via the Dardanelles, so they stayed put, continuing to worry that their money would run out.
In 1917 however, everything changed. With the overthrowing of the tsar, overnight the rich, particularly rich foreigners became the enemy and a target – and despite her humble origins that was what Annie now was, the wife of a rich man. George and others in their apartment block would stand guard with weapons to make sure their homes were not raided. They also had to be careful in the street they didn’t stand out for what they were.
Finally, they decided to take what was the only remaining route home to travel the length of Russia on the Trans Siberian railway, and try to get the Pacific route out to Canada. By this point the Bolsheviks had taken over and the Russian civil war was starting to erupt in pockets all over the country. They were travelling through countryside and could hear fighting but had no idea who was in charge or who was winning. They got as far as Moscow, where fighting had been heavy and foreigners were no longer welcome. They found themselves holed up in an expensive hotel next to the ruined Kremlin, one of the few places foreigners could still go. By the time they had managed to get a ticket for the Trans Siberian, their money had almost run out and Annie can up with the plan of them doing a ‘midnight flit’ out of the hotel as they could not pay the bill. The journey on the Trans Siberian railway was terrifying, the civil war was now raging around them but they did finally reach Vladivostok, from where in the distance they could see Japan.
It was a strange place, more oriental than Russian with Korean and Chinese inhabitants and ‘white’ tsarist sympathisers from all over the country who had fled there. French, Czech, British, Canadian and America soldiers and sailors whose governments had decided to support the ‘whites’ on the pretext of preventing military equipment from falling into German hands, after the Bolshevik surrender soon joined them there. George was able to get a job as a journalist on a local paper writing an English language column as a result of the many languages he could speak. It was not until 1919, however, that they were finally able to get that boat across the Pacific and Annie finally got her wish to see Canada, on their way back to her family in Ireland.
After the war, Annie and George had returned to Strji. However, everything had changed. Their old home was even now in a different country, the newly independent Poland. The company was forced to take a Polish partner, and after George’s father and brother died, he and Karl decided to sell up. Karl and his family went to live in America, and by 1929 Annie and George were living in Kensington, the exclusive area of London. Their life was more low key than it had been. They lived in a small mansion flat and although George again felt he was living on reduced means, Annie was able to shop at Harrods and they didn’t need to work.
In 1939, Annie was suddenly found herself living with her sister Mary, who had moved to Scotland during the Belfast Pogroms of 1921. Annie Molloy had been living in Kensington with her husband George Perkins when war broke out. He hadn’t needed to work for years but with the advent of the war he felt he needed to do something and with his language skills, and past journalist experience from Vladivostok he got a job in London with Reuters News Agency. However, he didn’t want Annie to suffer in the way she had done on the Eastern Front in Galicia and felt it would be safer for her to leave London which was expected to be heavily bombed. It was also expected the same would happen in Glasgow, where Annie’s sister lived because it was a base for the ship building, so Annie, her sister Mary, Mary’s daughter Molly, younger son Denis and Mary’s granddaughter (my mother) were evacuated back to Saltcoats, where they again lived with their cousin John McHenry. The two sisters whose lives had taken very different paths were finally reunited.
After the War, Annie returned to Kensington, where she died and is buried in the Brompton Cemetery.