In 1911, Arthur Hamilton Norway, a senior British career civil servant, and father of Nevil Shute, was appointed General Secretary of the Irish Postal Service and was sent to Dublin where his principal office was located in the stone built General Post Office on Sackville Street. He was not overly happy with his new appointment. It was not a promotion and came without any increase in his civil service salary. Dublin was considered a bit of backwater for an ambitious, talented senior civil servant of the calibre of Arthur Hamilton Norway. And there was a degree of resentment in the Irish civil service that such a senior post had gone to an Englishman.
But there were compensations. The first must have been the enormous and grand Georgian property he was able move into as his new family home. So much more elegant, so much finer and bigger than the modest London dwelling in Putney that the family had been accustomed to. And in Ireland he was able to afford servants, three to help in the house as well as a full time gardener and an assistant gardener.
The house, known as South Hill House, came with thirteen acres of walled grounds. It was located in Blackrock, a few miles south of the city, at that time deep in the countryside. And it was close to the sea with sweeping sea views. The grand house, after all these years, still stands, divided now into very upmarket apartments with Blackrock having become an integral part of the densely populated urban sprawl of Greater Dublin. The gardens and grounds have long gone to the developers and South Hill is now just another upmarket property albeit in a most desirable and superior suburb of the city.
Nevil Shute recalled the house with great affection in his autobiography “Slide Rule”. There was hay to harvest; a pony to ride or to set into a trap and trot around the country lanes. He recalled his elder brother Frederick, having a .22 seven chamber pistol with which they would take pot-shots at the weather vane on the chimneys of the house, as boys would. Frederick he recalled was having a tough time boarding at his English public school. Rugby – which given Shute’s penchant for understatement probably means a very very tough time indeed, for English public schools of that pre-war era enjoyed a fairly brutal reputation. Nevil too had a rather difficult time at his own public school, Shrewsbury, mostly on account of his stammer.
His father took Frederick out of Rugby School and brought him home to the new house at South Hill. He was enrolled, at 16 years of age, into Trinity College and was still at Trinity a few years later when the Great War broke out. Frederick immediately joined the army, taking a commission in the Duke of Cornwall’s light Infantry. Cornwall being the family’s home county. Nevil recalls going with his father and mother to visit Frederick at his regiment’s barracks in Falmouth and admiring Frederick in his new uniform with his polished Sam Browne belt and “large Webley revolver.” He was deeply in awe of his elder brother and was anxious himself to be able take a commission and join the war before it was all over. By now Nevil was in the schools Officer Training Corps and much time at school was spent training, with the senior boys all going off to commissions as they came of age. Public Schools of that time became little more than officer factories for the front and Nevil was anxious to play his part.
The Norway’s were still residing at South Hill, in 1915 when the newly commissioned Frederick was mortally wounded in the trenches of France.
The young subaltern, aged just 19, had only been with his regiment a matter of months. They were occupying trenches beneath which German soldiers had tunnelled their way under the English lines and packed the tunnels with high explosive. On detonation some 27 soldiers of the regiment were buried in and beneath the cratered trenches. Frederick had escaped the blast. But such detonations were inevitably followed by calibrated artillery barrages designed to catch survivors and rescuers, and they were routinely followed by infantry assaults. Frederick was caught in the open by German shelling as he desperately sought to dig survivors from the mud and earth of the destroyed trenches. He suffered serious wounds and was taken to Wimereux, on the French coast where there was a military hospital.
His parents traveled from South Hill to be with him at Wimereux and were beside his bed when he died of the wounds. They buried him in the local cemetery with full military honours, his grave stone, like those of his comrades who also died in the hospital, lying flat upon the earth rather than standing in rows, made necessary because of the sandy coastal soil of the area. They took home to South Hill his blood stained uniform, his Sam Browne belt, his Webley revolver and his books and letters, together with a lock of his fair hair.
South Hill now became a place of sadness and was redolent with painful memories of their dear Frederick. There was no joy in living there and soon after returning from France they gave up the lease and moved to live in a suite of rooms at the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street in the very centre of Dublin. Some of their furniture and possessions, including the treasured memorials of Frederick were moved into the GPO where Arthur Hamilton had a set of rooms as Secretary to the Irish Postal Service.
They were living at the Royal Hibernian when Nevil came home from his English Public School at Shrewsbury for the Easter Holidays in 1916. He was now 17 year of age.
Easter Monday 1916 was a working day at the GPO and his so his father went off to his office in the early morning. He arranged for Nevil and his mother to come up to the GPO and collect him for lunch, for what could be nicer than Easter lunch with their only son, in a fine Dublin Hotel.
During his mornings work at the GPO Arthur Hamilton Norway was summoned to attend an urgent meeting at Dublin Castle. He was to meet with the Irish Under Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan and with the head of the Royal Irish Constabulary Intelligence, Major Ivor Price. They were to discuss the security situation in the light of the arrest of Roger Casement, who had landed in County Kerry from a German submarine. Casement was being moved across Ireland en-route to the Tower of London and it was important to secure communications so that his journey remained secret. So urgent was the meeting that he failed to telephone his wife to cancel their planned lunch.
So when Nevil and his mother strolled down to the GPO to meet for lunch they would not have known he was up at the castle.
They walked into Irish History, they walked into the Irish Rebellion.
They witnessed, Nevil and his mother the Sinn Fieners taking military control of the Post Office and declaring it the headquarter of a free provisional government of Ireland. They saw young volunteer rebels firing revolvers into the air. Mrs. Hamilton Norway was outraged and knocked on the door of the General Post Office and demanded to see her husband who she feared was been held captive. She was assured by a rebel officer, possibly Pearce himself, that he was not there and even taken up to his rooms so she could see for herself and receive the rebel assurances that they would not damage their property while the GPO was held for Ireland. An assurance of some importance as in the rooms was all the family jewellery in the wall safe, and more importantly, in a cabinet, the precious mementos brought back from France, of dear Frederick.
Mrs Hamilton Norway hurried back to the Royal Hibernian as armed rebellion and panic began to grip the streets of Dublin. Nevil stayed on in Sackville Street to watch events unfold and witnessed a British cavalry unit of lancers trot up Sackville Street and come under sustained fire from the GPO, horses and men falling in the unexpected violence. Sackville Street was wet with English blood. On his return to the Hibernian hotel he volunteered to work on the ambulances being organised by the Royal Automobile Club and spent the next six days, aged just 17, traveling the streets of the rebel city picking up wounded civilians, soldiers and rebel volunteers, taking them to local hospitals and first aid posts. And collecting the bodies of the dead.
He was back at Shrewsbury school by early May where he was to write up his adventures in rebel Dublin, possibly his first venture into published writing. He wrote a piece entitled “Easter Week in Dublin” for the May edition of the school magazine, the Salopian. In it he claimed to have witnessed soldiers carrying out a summary execution (effectively a murder) of a postman caught smuggling ammunition. The story has never been verified and does not appear in any other accounts of the Rising and may perhaps be the young stammering seventeen year old seeking to impress the Shrewsbury boys. You may read his Salopian essay here.
He never wrote of it in any detail ever again and although it is mentioned in his autobiography “The Slide Rule” it is but a brief and passing mention. Even more surprisingly he fails to mention in the autobiography the book on the Rising written and published by his mother “The Sinn Fein Rising as I saw it” a book considered by most historians of the Rising to be an important contemporary account of what was happening in Rebellion locked Dublin during those historic days. One may reasonably have thought he might have been quite proud of his mother’s book.
The assurances that his mother had received from the rebels occupying the GPO were not possible to keep. Recorded in the Military Bureau of History archives are statements by two rebel volunteers, Patrick Colgan and Joseph O’Duffy, who were directed to search the rooms of the General Secretary to the Post Office for any materials to add to the barricading of the building and for any weapons they might find. They discovered the blood stained English uniform of Frederick Hamilton Norway. His Webley revolver was taken by volunteer O’Duffy and used in the ferocious fighting against the Crown forces besieging the GPO. The revolver was never recovered and the uniform tunic and the other treasured memorials of 2nd lt. Fredrick Hamilton Norway would have been consumed in the great fires which followed the British shelling of the GPO with incendiary ammunition which reduced the temporary headquarters of the provisional Irish Republic, to a shattered burnt out shell
In the days that followed the end of the Rising the burnt remains within the GPO were carefully excavated. Some silver spoons and a fork, together with a number of broaches and jewellery from the untouched safe were recovered but no traces of Frederick’s tunic, his letters from the front, his lock of hair or his other possessions were ever found. All that remains of him is his grave at Wimereux.
Nevil, searching the ruined shell of the GPO picked up a bomb and part of a Morse apparatus from the ashes of the rebellion. He donated the items to his School museum and their existence, kindly brought to my attention by Dr. Robin Brooke Smith, the School’s librarian and archivist, is quite unknown and quite important.
It is really quite remarkable. One of the principal reason the rebels chose to occupy the GPO as their temporary headquarters was the existence, on the top floor of the building of the “instrument room” which was effectively the centre of Ireland’s communications with the outside world. Today they would probably occupy a radio or TV station but in 1916 it was the GPO that became their target. A message was transmitted from the captured instrument room, in Morse, telling the world how the Rising was in place and a free Ireland declared.
Nothing was left of the instrument room after the British bombardment, or of its equipment and it is poignant that the son of the General Secretary of the Post Office should rescue from the ashes, this piece of Morse apparatus. Might it be part of the machine that signalled to the world the start of the Irish Rebellion?