First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Northern Ireland

10th November 1942 marked the arrival of US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Northern Ireland. She carried out a whirlwind 2-day tour of Belfast and Derry.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited Northern Ireland in November 1942. The wife of the United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived on 10th November 1942. Known by her "nomme de guerre" Rover, this was the first time the wife of a serving American President had set foot on Ulster soil.

The trip was a high profile affair with around 25 journalists from the United States of America and the United Kingdom following the First Lady. Also accompanying the high profile visitor was a United States Army Jeep and a large fleet of official cars. Among the entourage was Mrs. Roosevelt’s Private Secretary Miss Malvina Thompson. The First Lady’s bodyguard for the duration of the visit was Sergeant Ted Cross of Covington, Virginia. At 6’4, he was the tallest member of the US Marine Corps serving in Northern Ireland.

Eleanor Roosevelt in Northern Ireland

First Lady of the United States of America Eleanor Roosevelt disembarks a military plane at RNAS Eglinton, Co. Londonderry on 11th November 1942 during her short tour of US Forces in Northern Ireland. Copyright unknown.

Tuesday 10th November 1942

Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the most travelled civilians in wartime. The team of journalists following the cavalcade struggled to keep up with the whirlwind tour. At 1215hrs arriving at Langford Lodge Airfield, Co. Antrim, she met with Prime Minister John Miller Andrews and Commander Oscar Henderson.

We in Ulster are delighted and honoured by having among us so distinguished a lady and the bearer of so great a name. It is almost a year since the first contingent of United States Forces came to our shores. Between the American troops and the people of Ulster, the friendliest relationship exists. We have all been trilled by the gallantry of the American fighting forces, first in the Pacific and now in North Africa, and we are confident that the comradeship of the two nations in arms will lead to still closer co-operation in dealing with world problems when the war has passed into history.

John Miller Andrews – 10th November 1942

Her first visit was the Government House, Hillsborough, Co. Down. Among the next stops was the American Red Cross Club on Chichester Street, Belfast, Co. Antrim. There, she spent exactly 3 minutes before taking off for her next engagement. In that short time, she met Mr. Thomas Irving (Club Director), Mrs. James Mackie (Assistant Director), “Lefty” Martin (Programme Director), and Miss Mary Rice Anderson (Assistant Programme Director). She also found time to enjoy a famous mural by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather and receive a gift of Ulster damask from Mrs. SJ Hughes on behalf of the club volunteers.

A longer stay was given to her visit to a General Hospital in Belfast, Co. Antrim, where the entourage arrived at around 1500hrs. The hospital has passed from British to American control and the First Lady chatted to many of the men there including Private Joseph Morahan of Boston, Massachusetts. She inspected the dental clinic, X-Ray theatre, recreation room, and the wards. There, staff and able patients stood to attention. The staff wore a mix of US maroon uniforms and British blue uniforms. Another patient to receive a visit from Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was 2 and a half-year-old Sally Patterson of Belfast, Co. Antrim. She was knocked down by a US Army lorry and had become something of a mascot to the troops in her 6 weeks at the hospital.

At just after 1700hrs on Tuesday 10th November 1942, the First Lady arrived at RNAS Eglinton, Derry/Londonderry. Having flown in from Belfast, Co. Antrim, she journeyed by car onwards to Springtown House. During her time in The Maiden City, her driver was 22 year old Mr. Robert McCarter or Newlyn Terrace, Derry/Londonderry. He was a former lorry driver for All Cash Stores in the city.

A reception party for Mrs. Roosevelt consisted of Commodore Ross Stewart (Royal Navy), Captain Van Leer Kirkman (US Navy), Colonel Lucian W Burnham (US Marine Corps), Captain T Thebaud (US Naval Corps), and Captain BP Davis (US Naval Medical Corps). Records suggest that Colonel Burnham’s grandfather hailed from Newry, Co. Down.

Among Roosevelt’s first visits were the US Naval Repair Base and the US Navy Administration Building in Derry/Londonderry. At the US Naval Repair Base, Yeoman First Class John Fred Winter of Portland, Oregon presented her with a pair of ashtrays made to mark the occasion. They carried the inscriptions “To Rover” and “To the Bossman”. She went on to inspect members of the US Navy and their ships.

I have been very pleased to see how happy the US Forces have been made in Northern Ireland, and I wish to express our gratitude to the people here who have been so hospitable to our men.

During the evening, she visited the American Red Cross Club on Waterloo Place for entertainment by a band of musicians from the United States Army. There, she signed the visitors’ book. She also paid a visit to the British Naval Hall in Society Street, Derry/Londonderry. This was the venue for a dance celebrating the 167th anniversary of the founding of the US Marine Corps. The First Lady cut a birthday cake in the crimson and gold of the US Marines and gave a short speech.

Eleanor Roosevelt in Derry/Londonderry

Londonderry Sentinel Photo: A candid photo of US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt engaged in conversation with a US Naval officer outside Springtown House, Derry/Londonderry. Copyright unknown.

Wednesday 11th November 1942

Mrs. Roosevelt concluded her tour in Derry/Londonderry. That morning, she posed for photographs for more than 20 minutes before beginning her engagements. By her request, she enjoyed breakfast at Springtown House with 6 serving members of the women’s services. They were:

  • Corporal Mollie Dundee (ATS) of Ballyclare Road, Glengormley, Co. Antrim.
  • Corporal Dorothy Smith (ATS) of Ranleagh, Dublin, Ireland.
  • Petty Officer Gladys Berkeley (WRN) of Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.
  • Telegraphist Lily M Hill (WRN) of London, England.
  • Corporal Olive Penfold (WAAF) of Kinross, Scotland.
  • Aircraftwoman Barbara Soltan (WAAF) of Bristol, England.

This occasion was even more special for Corporal Mollie Dundee who was celebrating her 21st birthday. It was the first birthday she had spent away from her twin sister but she enjoyed hearty wishes from the First Lady. Also in attendance was Mrs. Olive McLaughlin, Central Organiser of the Women’s Voluntary Services in the city and daughter of the Mayor, and Mrs. Edith F Easton.

Mrs. Roosevelt attended a ceremony at the Derry War Memorial at The Diamond where she laid a wreath. On the way to this event, the official convoy paused briefly by the historic Derry’s Walls. The stopping point was the Mall Wall overlooking the city’s Bogside area. RUC District Inspector Dobbin presented a short history of the Siege of Derry and the Walker Memorial.

Also in attendance at the city war memorial was Lady Montgomery, mother of General Bernard Law Montgomery. Mrs. Roosevelt and Lady Montgomery shook hands.

I am proud to meet General Montgomery’s mother. I congratulate you on having such a son as I am very proud of my menfolk.

Others at the memorial service included the Mayor of Derry, Unionist Corporators, and Sergeants at Arms in historic dress.

  • Senator FJ Simmons JP (Mayor of Derry).
  • Mr. JJ Buchanon JP (High Sheriff).
  • Mr. JC Donnell (Town Clerk).
  • Colonel GAH Buxton.
  • Wing Commander J McLaren.
  • Major James Colhoun MC.
  • Reverend S McVicker.
  • Mr. Mitchell W Gordon.
  • Captain Sir James Wilton MC.

After the ceremony at the cenotaph, Mrs. Roosevelt met Commander Ross Stewart’s 7-year-old daughter Christina. The young girl was so-called because she was born at Christmas. Another unusual moment was the presentation of a shillelagh and a blackthorn stick by Major William Baird, Managing Proprietor of the Belfast Telegraph.

The early afternoon, saw Roosevelt visit the Guildhall and the Naval Hospital at Creevagh. The final visit of the day was fittingly to “The White House”, a large private residence on Northland Road, Derry/Londonderry.