Nelson Street: the street that is gone but lives on

1960s... Nelson Street at its junction with Lecky Road.
1960s... Nelson Street at its junction with Lecky Road.

In this article, first published a decade ago, Derry-born priest REV. BERNARD CANNING reflects on how NELSON STREET - the street he grew up in - fitted into the grand scheme of things in Derry’s multi-layered history.

Many of the streets in what is now called the Bogside were given British names by the unionist powers of the past. Nelson, Wellington and Blucher, for instance, were linked together. Nelson and Wellington Street exist no more.

Nelson Street, built in the late 19th century, had a varied and mixed history. James A. Fulton was the builder of 24 houses in Nelson Street approved in November 1892 by Derry Corporation.

Fulton got additional approvals in June 1894 to build another 20 houses and, in 1896, for a further 15. Architects mentioned with Nelson Street were T. Johnston, JP McGrath, E McLaughlin and WJ Doherty.

The house with the highest number was 71 - although there were only 69 houses. There were five shops and Ferguson’s Yard which had stables, lorries, carts, four piggeries and a few with poultry. The 1880s were grim years in Derry with people struggling to surive after the Famine years of 1845-1849. The Derry Workhouse owed its existence to the Irish Law Act (1838) which introduced the first piece of government welfare legislation for the relief of poverty in Ireland.

It was built on land known as Friars’ Ground at Glendermott Road and was originally owned by Franciscans or Dominicans before the Reformation. In the mid-1940s, a mass grave was discovered in Abbey Street, suggesting, as its name implies, the remains of Franciscans in a community plot of preReformation times. The remains were re-interred in Long Tower graveyard.

Gerrymander was used wherever possible in Derry to drive Catholics elsewhere and, preferably, abroad to safeguard the unionist vote in a city that was two thirds Catholic. Such was the position until the civil rights campaign of the lates 1960s successfully challenged and defeated this system. Nelson Street was no exception. The municipal vote also ensured that many people in the street had no vote at all. One family houses were few in Nelson Street - it was the norm for two, three or, even, four families to be given one house between them.

Nelson Street had great poverty and some residents had to have recourse to the Derry Workhouse which opened in 1840 for 800 inmates. Several people from Nelson Street died there and were buried as paupers in the “Poor Ground” of Derry City Cemetery. There are still unmarked sections in the City Cemetery in which the poor of Derry are buried - some for Catholics and a number for Protestants. An estimated 7,500 adults were interred there with many stillborn infants.

In December 1993, a Celtic Cross of St Columba was erected opposite the Mortuary Chapel at the entrance to the City Cemetery in memory of the Poor of Derry so long forgotten but, now, at last remembered. For this, thanks are due to three SDLP councillors headed by the then Mayor of Derry, Annie Courtney, and her party colleagues, Mary Bradley and Margaret McCartney.

Recently, elsewhere in the Cemetery, ground was provided and reserved for the burial of stillborn infants. Foralong time, markings of any kind were forbidden rather harshly over the poor and stillborns. It was painful for mothers not to know where their stillborn children were buried. This was expressed anonymously in a letter to the Derry Journal in May 1994: “May I, through your paper, express my grateful app r e c i a t i o n to all those concerned in erecting the beautiful Celtic Cross to the memory of all our dearly departed loved ones buried in unmarked graves. My personal experience of my baby son dying hours after he was born, not even having the privilege of either seeing him or holding him, was always a great sorrow to me, and not having a grave adds to the grief. This monument is welcome and brings peace to us all.”

In the Cemetery, there is an estimated total of almost 70,000 burials, an average of 400 per year or more than 7 per week. Thanks to the welfare state legislation there are now no pauper funerals. The Poor Law Act was passed in Britain in 1834 and became law in Ireland in 1838. Outdoor Relief benefit came to Derry and several people in Nelson Street were forced to avail themselves of it to save themselves from utter starvation. In 1883, serious riots took place in Derry when Catholics asserted themselves and their civic rights for a week after a nationalist parade was fired on in the Diamond. Over the years, trouble in the Diamond is nothing new. To this day, the Diamond remains a place of contention and bitterness. A theory holds that it has been impossible to grow trees in that area because of the hangings there of Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, secular priests and other Catholics at the Reformation. Some were hanged in Lower Magazine Street where a marker shows the spot of the hangman’s tree which existed there until the mid-1940s. There was some hope in 1899 with the introduction of ship building in the city which brought employment to some men in Nelson Street - but it was short lived. The shipyard was resurrected after World War II, mainly engaged in salvaging ships but it, too, was short lived.

Nationalism was beginning to come to life in the city in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In the period preceding 1886, Nationalism increased its base and seemed on the verge of triump. To Gladstone, Parnellism seemed unstoppable. Charles Stewart Parnell was reputed to have said: I would prefer rather to hold Derry than hold 40 seats [in Westminster].” Parnell’s divorce did irreparable damage to Nationalism and Derry was the second lowest - with just over £208 - in a national appeal for Parnell’s legal case. Nelson Street had a slight mix of politics with most residents keen on the freedom of Ireland. There were Irish Volunteers, Sinn Fein members, IRA and Nationalists. A few others were West Britons. The residents were subjected to various raids by the Dorsets or Crown Forces in the 1920s or, thereafter, the RUC. House arrests, internment and the Special Powers Act were commonplace. There was undoubtedly much poverty in Derry but its people also had their pride and nationalism. They followed the sentiment of Robert Emmett (1778-1803) expressed before Nelson, Wellington or Blucher streets were formed: “Let no man write my epitaph... Let me rest in obscurity and peace; and my tomb remain uninscribed... When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not until then, let my epitaph be written.’