A First World War tale with a difference

Romain Willman, back row, second from left, with his fellow internees at a party in Feltham Prison.
Romain Willman, back row, second from left, with his fellow internees at a party in Feltham Prison.

This is a First World War tale with a difference.

Most of the stories we’re hearing these days, in this 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, are about the actual war effort. Less is known about the fate of “aliens” and especially German nationals who happened to be living here when hostilities began.

Romain Willmann (later Willman) from the village of Molsheim in Alsace, then under German control, was living in Derry in 1914. Six years earlier, he had revolutionised the experience of going to the barber or hairdressers when he set up his business here. He had learned his trade in Paris and London and brought a touch of Bond Street chic to the north-west. When war came he found himself back in the British capital, this time in an internment camp.

He was an inmate of Feltham Prison in London. Although he was officially German, Monsieur Willmann considered himself to be French and spoke a mixture of French and German. (The province of Alsace was transferred several times between the two great European powers.) Whereas most Germans were interned on the Isle of Man, being from Alsace, Romain was taken to Feltham.

Romain, like so many people who’ve come to Derry quickly fell in love with the city. He returned here after the war and went on to make a great success of his business. He was an exceptionally handsome, cosmopolitan and dashing man who was ahead of his time.

His salon at Strand Road was the last word in luxury. It had an art deco black glass front specially designed in London. Inside, there was a ladies’ perfumery with the barbers to the rear. Upstairs were the ladies’ hairdressers and the floor above had a workshop where Willman’s own range of shampoos and hair care products were made.

Older people will remember the marvellous salon at Strand Road. My father sometimes came to Derry from Coleraine to have his hair cut at there. It was such a different experience. Although Romain died in 1956, his son Arthur carried the business on until the early 1970s when the troubles made it so very difficult for so many businesses to keep going.

Romain Willman married Charlotte Ellis and they had five boys and three girls. Charlotte died in 1936 and Romain later married Una O’Doherty and had two more daughters.

Romain and Una’s daughter Terry, a retired nurse who lives in the city, contacted me recently after finding the photograph, reproduced here of her father with his fellow internees. It’s thought it was taken at a New Year’s Eve party as some of the Feltham ‘residents’ are in fancy dress.

The photograph was inside a fine wooden ‘marquetry’ box which Terry believes was made for her father by some of his fellow prisoners. Being from many different backgrounds they would have had an impressive range of skills.

Romain Willman was a truly remarkable man. He made a huge contribution to life in Derry. Around 40 years after his business came to an end the city still doesn’t have hairdressers or barbers in anything like his opulent art deco premises on Strand Road.

Incidentally, Romain’s third son, Noel went on to become a famous actor playing opposite Alec Guiness and Peggy Ashcroft, but that’s a story for another day.