Interviewee of the Month – Betty McIlwaine
Once a month, we highlight a person who has contributed an important wartime story to our oral history collection.
Our first interviewee of the month is Elizabeth (Betty) McIlwaine who we met in 2017. Betty was born in London in 1923, and at the age of five was sent to live with her great aunt & uncle in Belfast. In September 1939, when the Second World War began, she was sixteen and living on Orby Drive in Castlereagh. Betty recalled that when she heard that war had been declared, she was ‘in the sitting room in Orby Drive, looking out. A storm had come up and it occurred to me how ominous that was on such a day.’
On the night of the first heavy air raid on Belfast in 1941, Betty sheltered under the stairs with her great aunt and uncle. She recalled the constant whining of bombs and how relieved she was when the all-clear sounded. Betty visited a friend who lived nearby and whose house had been hit by a bomb. Fortunately, the bomb didn’t go off until the next day when everyone had been safely evacuated. Betty recalled ‘her mummy had purchased a piano to teach her children how to play. The bomb exploded and of course the house and three others beside where blown up. The piano keys, I remember seeing them in the field opposite, there was nothing left but everyone’s life was saved, a very horrible time because they’d lost everything.’
Betty loved singing and dancing, attending many classes, and joining the Ulster Opera in her youth. Her talents were recognised when a local branch of the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) recruited her. ENSA was set up in 1939 to provide entertainment for the British armed forces during the Second World War. Betty explained ‘They used the local people because the bone fide ENSA people were being used abroad and kept in England and nobody was coming here to entertain the services, the troops here, so we were all recruited… This was in about 1942 by the time things were set up and we went all over the North of Ireland, in the camouflage bus painted green and black.’ She recalled fondly travelling all over Northern Ireland entertaining the troops with the band of entertainers. There was Mr Millar, the compére and his daughter who was a Shirley Temple impersonator, a number of singers, a dancing couple Sammy & Jean as well as the local magician Billy McComb. Billy later found international fame, performing on the Royal Variety Show and in many films in the United States.
Sadly, Betty passed away in December 2018. Her recollections of ENSA all her talented friends have contributed greatly to our collection and our understanding of entertainment for the forces, cinemas, venues and businesses in Belfast in the 1940s.
We began interviewing people in 2016 and it is always a privilege to meet people who lived through the war years, and to hear and record their stories for future generations. Our aim is to record, while it is still possible, as many of these vivid stories of the Second World War as possible. Do you have memories of the Second World War in Northern Ireland? Please get in touch with us via email at email@example.com or you can give us a call on 07588634847.