Memories of the picture house and the swimming pool in war time

My sister May married Joe Milne from Scotland, who first came to Gilford with the advance party of 582 Company Royal Engineers in 1941. Joe had already fought with the British Expeditionary Forces on the Belgian side of France and had been evacuated from Dunkirk. He came from Cowie in Scotland and was eighteen months underage when he joined the army. I remember him telling me how when arriving in Gilford, the first thing he saw was the huge spinning mill, as the men marched over Whinney Hill from Madden Station to their camp on the Wall Road. At this stage they had no idea where they were. After the war Joe and May set up home in Cowie, but returned each summer to holiday in Gilford.

Personally, I remember watching the army buglers practising at the bottom of the ‘forty acre field’ close to Keady Row, where I lived. I can also remember being at many military swimming displays at the swimming pool. On one particular occasion I recall the military police escorting away a rather drunken soldier who had climbed onto the high diving board.

I also remember the troops using the old picture house, now the Presbyterian Church Hall. Initially it was used by the British Army, where it was turned into a canteen to provide cheap tea for the soldiers. They showed films from time to time for the army. In the hall below, the billiard room ceiling bowed down with the weight of the soldiers above. It was necessary on the days the films were being shown to put steel supports under the floor to prop it up. They were only used when there was a big crowd and afterwards the props were removed. The picture house was also used by the Americans and Belgians. I remember Ivan King and myself being asked the way to the picture house. The Belgian soldier was unable to speak any English, and signed to Ivan and myself.

The Americans too used the cinema. The Americans treated the black soldiers badly, and one occasion tried to have one of the black soldiers removed from the picture house. Sam Livingstone, managed the cinema and refused to have the man removed, saying that they were now in Northern Ireland, and here colour was not significant. All were equal and welcome. After that audiences were mixed, and there was no further incident. Nevertheless the black American soldiers were given the task of cleaning up the camp at the old Legion, Stramore Road for the other white soldiers.

We had two young Belgian soldiers Peter and Harry, who regularly visited our Keady Row home for tea. I remember one of them showing me false documents he carried – passes stamped with false Gestapo signatures. I remember Peter was very well educated and Harry always seemed to be getting into some kind of trouble. They often talked of how good fighters the Germans were.

I remember at Christmas time the soldiers called at houses, to ask if there were children under fifteen years old. If so they were given tickets to go to the parties or pictures they were showing at Bannvale or Elmfield. I remember one of the films at Bannvale was about American Hurricanes.

All the Churches were packed with soldiers. Gilford Mill too was working to capacity with late night working for linen thread was in great demand. At night the soldiers bought cigarettes in local shops, and chips in Geoghegan’s chip shop (currently the bookmakers.) Cromie’s fish and chip shop too was another favourite, where Sadie and Annie Hamill worked. It was situated on the site of the current Post Office at Mill Street.

My older brother Bobby worked for Kinley’s butcher’s shop who delivered meat to the British army camps at Gilford Castle and also to the Prisoner of War camp at the Portadown Road. When my brother was ill, Kinley’s asked me to deliver the meat. I had to present the relevant documentation at the camps, and was then escorted under guard into the camps. I was particularly impressed with how well the German prisoners kept their camp. Many of the prisoners gardened and even whitewashed the stones around their huts.