Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Harry's birthday

Today would have been the real Henry Nelson-Heron's 109th birthday. He was born in Downpatrick at 11 Saul Street and rather inconveniently while his mother was doing the family laundry. His father had departed only two months earlier with his Regiment, the Royal Irish Rifles in which he held the rank of Colour Sergeant (Regimental Sergeant-Major), for the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. His sister, then aged two years, was encouraged to go to the nuns across the road - something she was not usually allowed to do - and the nuns baptised her new brother as they did not think he would survive.

HNH had other ideas and clung on with a determination that was to be his trade mark. He was a born survivor, a man who seemed to be able to take the hardest knocks and yet keep going. The picture here shows him aged around 6 at the Infants School in Newtownards.

At 15 he ran away to join up for the Great War and had to walk to Enniskillen in order to be beyond the area in which he or his father were known to join. Had he tried to join anywhere near his home he'd have been given a wallop round the head and sent home for his father to deal with - but instead he managed to get signed on the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers with which Regiment he went to Flanders and went "over the top" on the first day of the Somme. It was to be his first and last battle as an infantryman - he and his best friend (also by then just 16) were wounded within minutes of each other and lay in a shell crater for the next two days. Their wounds were so bad they could not move and , when rescued, were not considered likely to survive. They did, thanks to maggots having got into the wounds, and were eventually reassigned to the Royal Garrison Artillery.

At 17 he was a Sergeant. At 19 he returned to civvie street and found work in Belfast and at 21 found himself taking shelter in a gutter in Belfast while an IRA gunman machine gunned a bus queue. There and then he and his best friend (still at his side despite everything) decided they would emmigrate to South Africa, a move inspired by a poster advertising the Union Castle Line's regular sailings from Southampton. And so, at the age of 21 he stepped ashore in Cape Town and carved out a little place for himself there. In 1925 he married Hector Mary Hopkins (And yes, it IS Hector - another story) and their one and only child, my mother, was born the same year.

He died in 1977, not a man of wealth, but one whose generosity was astonishing and an inspiration to me. Funny thing is that I never really got to know him properly until after his death, when I had to sort out a lot of his affairs. One day perhaps I will be able to tell him how much I have missed him.

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