I was recently asked to see if I could find anything on William Falconer who, as a 46 year old, had fought with the International Brigade in Spain in support of the Spanish Republic. He was at Jarama and Brunette then, due to ill health, was repatriated from Spain (this, as with the image below, are courtesy of @hullbhoy).
Falconer’s name appears on lists of Irish volunteers in the International Brigade (eg see information compiled by Ciaran Crossey). It was also believed that, although Falconer had left from Hull in England, that he was from Belfast. Electoral records show that William Falconer was already in Hull in early 1920 and was enlisted in the Labour Corps having formerly served, during the first world war, in the East Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Given Falconer’s age, the only real potential match in the census and birth records for Belfast was born on 27th June 1891 to Samuel and Eliza Falconer in Westmoreland Street off the Shankill Road (roughly where Dover Place is today). The family used the spellings Falconer and Faulkner making them difficult to track through various records. Samuel and Eliza Hamilton had been married in Templepatrick in 1888 when he was 30 and she was 23, his family appear to have been from Ballyrobin while the Hamilton’s were from nearby Ballynabarnish. The couple then moved to Belfast where Samuel found work as a carter and they lived in the area to the north of the River Farset. While other carters and general labourers lived in Westmoreland Street there were also skilled workers and oher better off residents. The family then moved across the Shankill Road to Hopeton Street. Samuel and Eliza had a big family with Samuel (1888), William (1891), Mary (1893), Annie (1894), Maggie (1896), Lizzie (1899), James (1900) and Ruby (1905).
No name survives for a ninth child that likely died very young. Child mortality was high in city districts like the Shankill, Millfield and the Dock Ward due to tuberculosis and respiratory diseases. This reflected endemic poverty, poor diets and housing and sanitary conditions. The same tragedically poor life expectancy haunted the Falconers. Their eldest son, Samuel, died in April 1903, aged only 14. His youngest brother, James, died at the age of 3 in 1904. Eliza herself died of tuberculosis in November 1908. After Eliza’s death the family moved to Charleville Street Upper (off Crimea Street).
When William reached the age of 14 he went to work in the Ulster Spinning Company at the corner of North Howard Street and the Falls Road. There he apprenticed as a fitter and was later described by the factory manager, Richard Gribben, as sober and quiet. Then, in July 1908, he left the Ulster Spinning Company and enlisted in the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers at their depot in Omagh. He was first attached to the Iniskillings 3rd Battalion then, from October 1908, to the 2nd Battalion (his regimental number was 9449). His mother Eliza had already contracted her fatal dose of tuberculosis when he had enlisted.
Despite the setback of his mother’s death, William had progressed himself within the regiment. He had completed second- and third-class army certificates of education. He had passed the third-class certificate at the Iniskillings depot in Omagh in September 1908, before his mother’s death, and the second while posted in Dublin in May 1909. These certificates had been introduced by the army in 1861 (see Skelley’s The Victorian Army At Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899.). The third-class certificate was required for promotion to the rank of corporal. To be awarded the certificate, a candidate had to read aloud and to write from dictation passages and to demonstrate he could complete examples of the four compound rules of arithmetic and the reduction of money. To be awarded a second-class certificate, a soldier had to complete writing and dictation from a more difficult text (than third-class) and show familiarity with all forms of regimental accounting including proportions, interest, fractions and averages. The second-class certificate was a requirement to progress to the rank of sergeant. Continuing on to completion of a first-class certificate meant the possibility of being commissioned from the ranks.
But tragedy was to strike again in the Falconer family as William. His sister Annie had contracted tuberculosis and had been moved to the sanatorium in Whiteabbey, where she died in July 1909 (see death notice above).
Two months after Annie’s death, William was promoted to Lance Corporal having already completed the necessary army certificates that would allow him to advance as far as sergeant in the future. Yet William’s own army career was also cut short by illness. After attending an assessment in Dublin on 19th March 1910 he was deemed medically unfit and formally discharged from the army on 11th April 1910. He then moved back to the Falconer family home to Charleville Street Upper.
The army files give no hint as to the reasons but, by the summer of 1911, William himself had been certified with tuberculosis. It was to be the scourge of the Falconer family. William’s younger sister Mary died in March 1912 and Maggie in December 1912. Two years later, in 1914, one of his two remaining sisters, Eliza, also died. His youngest sister, Ruby, only five years old when he was discharged from the army, was also to die from tuberculosis in May 1917 having moved from Belfast to Ballynabarnish near Templepatrick to live with her late mother’s family, the Hamiltons. Her father, Samuel, had remained in Charleville Street Upper. But by 1920 Samuel had been moved to a lodging house, Carrick House, run by Belfast Corporation (on Lower Regent Street). Samuel then was hospitalised in the former union workhouse on the Lisburn Road where he died from heart problems in April 1920.
At 62 years of age he had been predeceased by his wife and all nine of his children, including William, who had succumbed to tuberculosis on 6th April 1912, only weeks after the death of his sister (and Samuel’s daughter) Mary. William had been brought to the Abbey hospital (in Whiteabbey) after being diagnosed in the summer of 1911. Samuel himself was present at his son’s death. Samuel had to mark an ‘x’ rather than sign his name as witness to his son’s death. While this may be age related, Samuel had recorded that he could read and write in the census of 1901 and 1911. But had Samuel did that out of shame to hide his own illiteracy (in the 1901 census less than 10% of carters recorded that they couldn’t read or write). Noticeably, Samuel only used the spelling ‘Falconer’ consistently from when his children were of school age, prior to that and in his last years he used both ‘Faulkner’ and ‘Falkner’. He may even have hidden his own lack of literacy from his children.
Clearly though, this William Falconer wasn’t the William Falconer who lived in Hull and joined the International Brigades in Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic (seems more likely he was from Scotland). But this William Falconer’s own family’s story of poverty and disease was all to familiar to those who travelled from Belfast, including those from the Shankill Road and what the brigadiers witnessed there in their own childhoods undoubtedly inspired many of them to fight in Spain.