28 January 2012

Searching for Private Daniel Commerford of Dundela

Private Daniel Commerford's letter from the trenches in France to his Rector at home in Belfast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

My friend and colleague, Dr Susan Hood of the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin, is trying to find any descendants of a Daniel Commerford who was a parishioner of Saint Mark’s, Dundela, in east Belfast during World War I, and who served on the Western Front.

She recently unearthed a letter from Daniel Commerford from the Western Front to his rector in East Belfast. And the search for Daniel Commerford is tantalising for anyone interested in Church history, military history, family history and the history of English literature.

In 1918, this Daniel Commerford wrote from the Western Front to the Rector of Dundela, the Revd Arthur Barton, thanking him and the parish for a Christmas parcel they had sent to him in France. [1]

Saint Mark’s, Dundela … the parish church of Daniel Commerford and CS Lewis

The letter from France, dated 2 February 1918, does not give Daniel Commerford’s regiment. But it provides telling evidence of Arthur Barton’s pastoral care to the families left at home by officers serving at the front. In that letter, Private Commerford, who signs himself “one of your parishioners,” refers to Barton’s “visit to my house,” and expresses his regret that he missed seeing his rector before leaving for the front.

Commerford explains that he had to leave “a day earlier than I thought I would have too [sic],” and so did not get to say goodbye.

The letter reads:



Rev Sir,

Just a few words to thank you and the Parishioners of St Mark’s for your comforts.

Parcel which I received quite safe on 30th Jan. It is very good of you indeed to think of us all out here and we so deeply appreciate it. I was so very sorry to have missed seen you on your visit to my home as I left a day earlier than I thought I would have too, again thanking you. I remain,

Rev Sir,

One of your parishioners,

Pte D. Commerford

Private Daniel Commerford’s signature on his letter from France to the Revd Arthur Barton in Belfast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The parish registers in Dundela record that Daniel Commerford was living in New Street and a coachman, while a search of the 1911 Census online found only one possible D. Commerford living in Belfast. That Daniel Commerford was living in House No 37, Ballymacanallen (Tullylish), Co Down.

The census indicates this Daniel Commerford was a coachman. He was born in Oxford and was aged 31 years in 1911, making him 38 by 1918. He was married to Edith (then aged 29, and born in Co Down), and in 1911 they had three children, from the ages of six down to one: Arthur (6), Habert [? recteHerbert] (4), and Margaret (1), all members of the Church of Ireland.

The Revd Arthur Barton of Saint Mark’s, Dundela … later became Bishop of Kilmore and Archbishop of Dublin

Daniel Commerford’s letter is one among a collection of letters sent by ten soldiers who were parishioners in Dundela that came to light and has been catalogued in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin, the principal repository for the Church of Ireland’s written heritage. “While other letters that were written from the Front are found in other repositories and in private custody, the survival of a collection in a parish context is rare,” says Dr Hood.

The parish of Dundela was formed in 1876, the first “modern” parish to be created in the growing suburbs of rapidly expanding east Belfast in the second half of the 19th century. Saint Mark’s Church was built in a prominent position on the crest of Bunker’s Hill, on the main Holywood Road going towards the Bangor Road.

The church was designed by the English Tractarian architect, William Butterfield, and was consecrated on 22 August 1878. The church’s distinctive sandstone bell-tower could once seen all over Belfast and whilst continues to be a conspicuous landmark.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Dundela parish had a varied and interesting social profile, representative of Belfast’s diverse and growing population. Carved originally from the wealthy parish of Holywood, where many prominent Belfast families had their houses and villas, Dundela had its share of leading merchant and manufacturing families, a growing number of professional lawyers and doctors who tended to run the business side of parochial life through the select vestry and parish committee.

The social diversity of Dundela was enriched by numerous working class families linked with Belfast’s factories, mills and shipyards, and many of them lived in the village of Strandtown, nearer to Knockbreda parish from which the parish of Dundela had been carved. In the history of the parish, St Mark’s, Dundela, 1878–1978 (Newtownards, 1978), Professor JC Beckett says the parish origins lie in meeting the spiritual needs and religious teaching of these families.

By 1914, on the eve of the World War I, Dundela parish about 450 families, many of them living in Strandtown. The Revd Arthur Barton was appointed to Dundela just four months before the outbreak of World War I. During the war, he cut a dashing figure In Dundela as he cycled around the parish, visiting and supporting families missing their loved ones and trying to encourage a wider spirit of community among those left behind.

In March 1918, the parish magazine recorded that “several letters have been received from parishioners in France, thanking the congregation for the New Year presents and saying how useful they were in the winter weather.”

The letters provide poignant descriptions of the realities of World War I and its impact on the lives of families in one Belfast parish. All ten letters were written between the end of January and late February 1918, and probably relate to parcels sent before Christmas.

The Rector of Dundela, the Revd Arthur Barton (1881-1962) had been a curate in Saint George’s, Hardwick Place, and Howth, Co Dublin, before moving to Belfast in 1912 as head of the TCD Mission (1912-1914), working in the working class areas of Crumlin and the Shankill. He was Rector of Dundela from 1914 to 1925, and later served as Rector of Bangor (1925-1930), when he was also Archdeacon of Down, and then became Bishop of Kilmore (1930-1939) and Archbishop of Dublin (1939-1956).

The file of his personal papers from his time as rector reveals many of his activities, including a parcel scheme of comforts sent to soldiers from the parish fighting at the Front in late 1917. The details of this scheme are revealed in the letters of thanks sent back to the rector and parishioners from ten of those soldiers. Each letter reveals that the men deeply appreciated their comfort parcels and the thoughts of people at home. Barton felt the letters important enough to keep together in an envelope marked simply “Soldiers’ Presents.”

Dr Hood says it is remarkable that the letters have survived. They were found in the basement of Kilmore See House, outside Cavan town, as part of a much larger volume of diocesan papers. Barton had lived in the house when he was Bishop of Kilmore (1930-1939). He had taken the papers with him from Belfast, but it is not clear why he did not take them with him again when he moved to Dublin as archbishop in 1939. The letters remained buried in a cupboard in Kilmore See House until the archives in the house were transferred to the RCB Library in Dublin in 2007.

Commerford was older than the other nine letter writers. Taken together, these letters provide poignant descriptions of the realities of World War I and its impact on the lives of families in one Belfast parish. All ten letters were written between the end of January and late February 1918, and probably relate to parcels sent before Christmas.

CS Lewis … also a parishioner of Saint Mark’s Church

Dundela is also of interest as the home parish of CS Lewis (1898-1963), who is best remembered today for the Screwtape Letters. CS Lewis had been baptised in Saint Mark’s Church in 1899 by his maternal grandfather, the Revd Thomas Hamilton, then rector of the parish; his father, Albert Lewis, a solicitor, was originally from Cork.

By 1911, when Daniel Commerford was living in Dundela, Lewis had been sent to school in England, and was a pupil at Barton’s old school in Watford, Wynyard School, from 1908. He returned to Dundela after Barton became Rector of Saint Mark’s in 1914, and refers affectionately to Barton in his autobiography.

In 1917, Lewis left University College Oxford to volunteer in the British army and was commissioned in the Somerset Light Infantry. He arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley in France on 19th birthday, and experienced trench warfare.

On 15 April 1918, two months after Daniel Commerford wrote to Barton, Lewis was wounded and two of his colleagues were killed by a British shell falling short of its target. On his recovery in October, he was sent to Andover. He was discharged in December 1918, and soon returned to Oxford, receiving a first in Greats in 1922 and a first in English in 1923.

Oxford, described by Matthew Arnold as the “city of dreaming spires” … Daniel Commerford and CS Lewis had very different experiences of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Did Daniel Commerford and CS Lewis ever know one another?

Did they ever share their reminiscences of Arthur Barton?

Did they ever talk about their very divergent experiences of Oxford?

Did they ever meet in France?

Do Daniel Commerford’s children have any living descendants?

Dr Hood’s research shows that Commerford and the nine other letter writers appear to have survived World War I, although the year in which they wrote, 1918, was the most costly in terms of British and Irish casualties. The names of 31 men from the parish who died during World War I are recorded on the 1914-1918 memorial in St Mark’s, but none of the letter writers is among them. Further research by Dr Hood at the Somme Heritage Centre in Newtownards, Co Down, shows that none of the ten Dundela soldiers was killed in the war.

“We must conclude that all the letter writers made it safely back from the Front to reconstruct their lives. It may yet be possible to trace their story thereafter using other archival sources – a story to be continued.”

Dr Hood first told the full story of the letters in Irish Archives, the Journal of the Irish Society for Archives vol 17 (2009). But all these questions remain unanswered. She would like to find any living relatives of Daniel Commerford, adding: “I would be very grateful, as we would like to share with them the content of the letter.”

[1] Letter No 4, from Daniel Commerford, RCB Library, D3/11/9.3.3.

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