Mary Jane Brown does not have a statue or monument in Belfast erected in her honour. Ideed few if any would even know or care who Mary Jane was. I do and this is briefly her story although her life was anything but brief for she lived to the ripe old age of 91. A big enough feat in out own era; in 1941 it would have been viewed as a wonder, awe-inspiring.
Mary Jane was born on Antrim in 1850. She was raised in the Presbyterian religion and at some stage in her life moved to Belfast. She became the wife of general labourer John Brown and the mother of eight children, five of whom reached adulthood. They were John, William, Henry, James and Margaret. The latter was already working as a machinist in a warehouse at the age of 17. By 1901, the Brown family was living in 18 Burke Street in the New Lodge area of North Belfast off the Antrim Road.
Burke Street was a narrow street of 20 red-brick and white- trimmed terraced houses built in about 1880 and it ran up between Dawson and Annadale streets with Maralin Street branching off. It was home to both Protestant and Catholic working-class familes, convenient to the York Street Spinning Mill and factories in the area. Victoria Barracks was also situated to the south just beyond Lepper Street. Mary Jane most likely attended the Presbyterian church in the Antrim Road and occupied herself with her family. The 1901 census tells us that she was literate and had her married son, his wife Leanna and baby grandson Henry living with her and the rest of her family at number 18 which was the last house at the top at the Annadale Street end. By 1911 she was a widow, John Brown having died in about 1907, the year of the Dock and Carter strike. He was employed as a carter at the time of his death so he would have been caught up in the turmoil of the strike that caused chaos in the streets of Belfast.
She would have had a harsh gruelling existence with so many people crowed into cramped quarters, the house damp and hard to heat, with money scarce and domestic chores never seeming to end. There would of course have been moments of happiness lighting up the dark rooms in Burke Street like the rare but welcome Belfast sunshine poking its head cheekily from behind sullen grey clouds. We do not not whether she was happy or sad, well or ailing the night of 15 April 1941 when the air raid sirens sounded their wailing warning of approaching doom as up to 200 bombers of the Luftwaffe made their way towards Belfast, the first of two devastating raids. She had just celebrated her 91st birthday. Lord Haw Haw the wartime radio propagandist had laconically announced just days before in a radio broadcast from Hamburg that there would be”Easter eggs for Belfast”. 15 April was Easter Tuesday. The sirens known as “Moaning Minnies” started up at 10.40 PM and by 11.00 the German bombers were flying in from Belfast Lough and unleashing their deadly cargo on the undefended city. The Luftwaffe’s targets were the shipyard, the Waterworks, York Street Spinning Mill, Victoria Barracks, other factories, mills and engineering plants, all located in North Belfast, where Burke Street was situated.
The Luftwaffe’s Georg Deininger of the elite pathfinder squadron Kampfgruppe 100 led the bombers which consisted of Heinkel HE111s, Junkers JU-88s and Dorniers. He would neither have known or cared that among those frightened and bewildered civilians cowering below his aircraft in the red brick sea of modest dwellings that was North Belfast, was an old lady who had survived epidemics, poverty, hardship and numerous sectarian riots; had seen Belfast be granted city status. She would have been concerned as the events of the 1907 Dock strike unfolded and would have likely shed a tear upon hearing of the sinking of the Titanic. A Protestant, she most likely had supported the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 at City Hall. Mary Jane shared her house with Georgina, the widow of her grandson Henry. Also present with her inside the house at number 18 Burke Street was another family member 16-year-old Jean Lynas and her father Richard both of whom lived in nearby Tiger’s Bay. As soon as the flares were dropped and the bombs started falling from the now illuminated skies, the terrified family would have sought shelter beneath the stairs. Although many people fled to the inadequate and smelly air raid shelters, most preferred to remain in their homes hiding under stairs, kitchen tables and in coal bunkers.
After attacking the docks, the bombers flew westwards over the city of Belfast dropping high explosives, incendiaries and parachute landmines which set streets and buildings alight . The raid would last for over five hours. Fires burned out of control in the city centre as proud Victorian edifices took direct hits. Oldpark, the Bone, Greencastle, Percy Street in the Lower Shankill and the top of Blythe Street in Sandy Row were all bombed with numerous casualties. However it was the area between Antrim Road and York Street that bore the brunt of the devastating aerial bombardment as houses and factories alike were reduced to smouldering rubble with flames racing down streets that suddenly resembled ploughed fields. New Lodge off Antrim Road was pummelled by bombs wiping out entire terraces of houses leaving a path of ruin; Annadale Street was almost completely destroyed as was Sheridan Street. As Mary Jane, crouching under the stairs with her family, doubtless offered up prayers for their salvation, wave after wave of explosives rained down on the sad little houses of Burke Street; it being so close to Victoria Barracks it took several direct hits. All the houses in the tiny street were obliterated beneath the onslaught of impersonal death and destruction unleashed from the mechanized predatory birds. Including number 18 where 91- year-old Mary Jane huddled in abject fear.
There were no survivors in Burke Street. All those who were in their homes at the time were pulverised to death. The street ceased to exist as did Mary Jane Brown.
And Belfast has forgotten her, she who was the oldest victim of the Belfast Blitz which resulted in the deaths of over 1000 people in both raids.