Migration & the role of Woolworths in my family history

On my recent trip to PRONI in Belfast, I took some time to do some personal family genealogy. I knew my grandmother’s family had lived in Belfast and possibly also Ballymena for a time in her childhood. They came originally from Limerick city and moved north because my great-grandfather, Thomas Henry Guerins, worked for Woolworths and he was promoted. He always used his middle name in day to day exchanges. We were not sure of the timeline at all, but here’s what I started with.

  • My grandmother and her next 2 siblings were born in Limerick. The last of these was born in October 1925.
  • The 2 youngest siblings were born in Belfast in 1930 and 1932.
  • My grandmother made her First Communion in Belfast and she looks about 8 in the photo.

GRONI (the General Register of Northern Ireland) places online restrictions which meant even though I knew their dates of birth, I couldn’t actually access their birth certificates unless I was either in GRONI or PRONI, or I paid someone to go for me. Well, I got the records in PRONI. Even though you pay per view, you can’t print or screenshot, so I transcribed the addresses, which was the main information I wanted.

Once I had those addresses, I turned to street directories for Belfast. Lennon Wylie has a great collection online but PRONI has a full run of directories for the city. My great-grandfather is listed at several addresses between 1929 & 1933.

  1. 1929 Thomas H. Guerins, assistant manager, 31 Willowfield St.
  2. 1930 Thomas H. Guerins, assistant manager, 9 Lothair Avenue. They must have moved before August when my great-uncle was born, at the next address.
  3. 1931 Thomas H. Guerins, assistant manager, 20 Hillsborough Parade.
  4. 1932 & 1933 TH Guerins, manager, 179 Castlereagh Road.

I used the PRONI map viewer to look at these locations on a period map. Then Google maps to see what the houses look like in these locations today. Most of them look like they’d be the actual house my family lived in.

Belfast Store in 1928 Source: Historic England

I looked at 1926-28 and 1934-35, but the Guerins are not listed. Directories were prepared some time in advance, so it’s reasonable to presume the family moved in 1928, but was it from Limerick or Ballymena?

Underlining the importance of not just using the internet for research, I got a book out from the library called When the Shopping was good: Woolworths and the Irish Main Street by Barbara Walsh. This is a super piece of academic research with great sourcing. The section on the Ballymena shop notes that it opened on 19th February 1926 to great fanfare. It referenced an article in the Ballymena Observer a week later. The British Newspaper Archive, which I accessed via Findmypast, has digitised this paper. Imagine my excitement when I read the last line of the article.

There was a lovely proof that the family were first in Ballymena and then moved into Belfast.

A few titbits on what it would have been like to work for Woolworths as a manager also comes from Walsh’s book. Managers had an allowance for staff social activities. They also attended court when relevant (usually in cases of theft). I found a reference to Henry in the Belfast Newsletter giving evidence in a case in 1928. Walsh notes that:

“a great number of the earliest employees were ex-army personnel who were accustomed to the regimentation and respect for higher authority the Woolworth hierarchy insisted upon.”1

Henry had fought with the Royal Munster Fusiliers in World War I.

“It was not unheard-of for favours to be called up from leading politicians when an extra push was needed to persuade a local Woolworth store manager to take on a likely lad as a learner.”2

Henry’s father-in-law was Michael Joyce, a prominent Limerick politician.

“..there was a belief, doubtlessly an apocryphal exaggeration, that the only way to get continuous promotion from some of the more influential executives in this district office was to be not only Irish, but a Catholic and born in Limerick.”3

Check, check and check.

Walsh also mentions that transfers happened with short notice, even if it involved relocating to a new town. The employee would get little in the way of support for the move and had to find his own new accommodation. Imagine what that was like moving a family with a tiny baby, without phones or the internet to coordinate.4 Woolworths had a ‘corporate family’ attitude. The branches acted like mini-embassies. Employees’ children could into one, explain who their parent was and which branch they worked in and be given assistance, whether lost, hurt or in trouble.5

The family moved to Dublin after Belfast, again for Henry’s work. My grandmother and her siblings attended an all-Irish speaking school on Marlborough St and were teased for having Belfast accents. They didn’t speak a word of Irish – it must have been tough. There were two branches of Woolworths in Dublin, on Grafton St and Henry St. I don’t know in which Henry worked, but the school on the north side inclines me towards the Henry St branch, which is very nearby. If Henry’s work hadn’t led them to Dublin, my grandparents would never have met, and I wouldn’t be writing this story now.

  1. Walsh, Barbara, When the Shopping was Good (Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2011), p. 25.
  2. Ibid, p. 29.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, p. 54.
  5. Ibid, p. 123.

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