Now aged 73, Alistair Simpson, community activist and former Governor of the Apprentice Boys tells EAMONN BAKER about family, the Fountain, his working-life, his time as Governor of the Apprentice Boys and his love of the city where he was born and raised.
I was born in 1939. We moved from Creggan Road to Spencer Road in 1940. I lived in the Waterside from when I was three until I was twenty three. We lived at King Street first, then in Spencer Road.
I went to Model PS from 1943 to 1953, then went to Technical College to study Business. Brooke Park was the place to go at dinner time from the Model and later, when older, at holiday time to play tennis, walking all the way from Spencer Road. Distance meant nothing. I remember the pond, the lily pads, the immaculate state of the park, the park ranger’s whistle, Thursdays, on summers’ evenings bands playing in front of Gwyn’s Institute, the summer seats.
We were brought up to look after property, to treat Brooke Park, to treat every place with respect. This is my city. Years later, when I was involved as Governor of the Apprentice Boys, I would be saying to the bands coming to our city to behave as if the city was their own town or village. First and foremost, I love this city and care about this place.
Back then too I attended the Boys’ Brigade in Great James Street Presbyterian Church just down the street from the Park. At that time streets like North Street, Creggan Road, Rosemount Terrace were mainly Protestant, or certainly very mixed. It was a different city then.
I remember the Queen’s Coronation visit in July 1953. There were street parties the whole length of the Fountain. I was up in Belfast too on July 2nd so I got to see the Queen twice at that time. Olive Simpson has cine-film of the Queen’s visit at that time. Jeanette Warke has now got it transferred onto digital.
My background is mixed. I am cousins with Myra Simpson and Leo Simpson. Their father, David was my father Alex’s brother. I remember attending my cousin Sammy Simpson’s funeral and being asked what was I doing there. Someone recognized me as being involved with the Apprentice Boys. I said: “You see the surname there, well Sammy and I were first cousins”.
When I was governor, especially during the negotiations, I would often get a call from Myra Simpson wishing me well for the 12th. Years before that when the Troubles were raging, I was involved in community discussions which brought together my cousin, George Simpson, a British Army major and myself. The major didn’t realise the connection and congratulated both of us that we “could talk to the other side of the house”. For me we are human beings first before religion or politics comes into it. So much is about perception.
Believer in talking
I am a great believer in talking - for the more you talk the more you learn.
Both my sister Anne and my cousin, Myra worked originally at the Education Offices in Brooke Park. Myra went on to work at Magee where she became College Administrative Officer She is retired now and lives in the Waterside.
Currently I attend Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church, just down from the Fountain. I have been living in the Fountain for fifty years now and yet I’m still classed as an interloper, still called “a blow-in”.
My wife Kathleen is originally from Limavady, then she lived in Ferguson Street, then in Albert Place in the Fountain.
Our home has been petrol- bombed three times.
Two RUC friends and one friend of mine were killed during the Troubles. But we won’t move. Would Kathleen move? She’ll never leave the Fountain now. We feel the sadness at the fact that so many have moved, 16,000, some people say 20,000.
When the Troubles were becoming more intense in 1971, I was involved with Willie Temple in helping families to move from in around Windmill Terrace and the Dark Lane. The People’s Hall, a Methodist run hall got attacked. Some we brought to the pre-fabs at Academy Road, some over to Lincoln Court.
It was heart-breaking to see people leave with only a couple of things on a lorry. Those situations led to the growth of bitterness. I remember the RUC who lived down at Greenhaw Road leaving. Greenhaw Road used to have the nickname “Baton Row”.
My father was knocked down one time by a two ton army truck in Duke Street and he was trailed along and there wasn’t a word about it from the army. He was never the same again afterwards. This situation taught me to have sympathy with Catholics who have suffered at the hands of the security forces.
I worked in Bible and Simmons from 1956 to 1969, collecting rents, including ground rents, looking after the sales of houses. I tramped all around the Bogside and got to know the people there. Many’s a wet day someone would have invited me in and gave me a cup of tea.
This knowledge all stood to me when it came to negotiations on behalf of the Apprentice Boys with Donncha Mac Niallais and the Bogside Residents’ Group years later.
I had joined the Apprentice Boys as a teenager in 1955. I was sixteen then. I was motivated to join because I wanted to learn about the history of my own community. I eventually become governor in 1993 and served in that position until 2002.
I was one of the first governors to come from a working class background. For years before I was also involved in community work as chair of the Wapping Community Association.
Come to agreement
The fact that we were eventually able to come to an agreement with the Bogside Residents’ Group is a source of satisfaction to me. It was tough at the time because maybe only about 20% of our membership supported the negotiations. Some of our members would have thought of me as a “Lundy”.
Maybe now only a minority are opposed to what happened. In my opinion we have reached a stage where there’s a much greater acceptance of what happened back then.
After Bible and Simmons, I worked in Lloyds shirt factory, Great James Street from 1969 to 1972, then Milanda Bakery from 1972 to 1990 and I was with the St Brendan’s crème liqueur people from 1990 to 1996. I was their Custom and Excise co-ordinator.
From 1996-2006 I worked with the Churches Trust and the Churches Training Company. I was assistant manager there and worked with Jean Mc Daid.
Even though I was governor of the Apprentice Boys during a lot of this period and even though I lost people close to me during the Troubles, I continued to work with the Churches and that work brought me all over the city.
I was no hero. I worked with disabled people and older people. I got some lovely cards when I left there.
When I was a teenager, you could “have a life”. The community was a real community then. We were brought up to respect.
Now I think, if we are not careful “the foundations” are set for future trouble and social problems.
Sadly some young people have lost respect.
They need to recover that respect if we are to get on.