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This is a true story of a woman's remarkable achievement of love, strength and compassion in the face of adversity. A story of a wonderful woman who was born in 1874 and died in 1952 (aged 78).
Bella was born in County Kildare in Southern Ireland. At the age of fifteen, she went to live in Scotland and worked as a cook plus other duties in the kitchen at the Balmoral House. Whilst working there, she met her future husband James Robertson who was a gamekeeper on the Balmoral Estate. James was born in Scotland.
At the age of eighteen, Bella married James who was nineteen and she had her first baby who was stillborn when she was twenty. Bella and James moved to Southern Ireland, where James continued to work as a gamekeeper. James was a heavy drinker and a bully who would beat Bella when he had been drinking. In Bella's own words "the only time he didn't hit me was when I was pregnant." Bella went on to have four more children in Southern Ireland, Hermione, Allan, Tynan and Jessie. Tynan died aged eight. When he died, James was in the pub all day and didn't even attend his own son's funeral.
They moved to Northern Ireland, where they had four more children, James, Agnes, Ethel and Eric. James' work as a gamekeeper was on a large country estate in Downpatrick, County Down and the relationship between Bella and James continued to deteriorate.
Subsequently, the children grew up and left home:
Agnes went to England, married and live in Berkshire.
James married and live in Belfast.
Ethel married and lived in Hollywood, Northern Ireland. Allan emigrated to America as did Jessie and Eric stayed at home.
James eventually left Bella and went off with another woman. Bella could no longer stay in the house in Downpatrick as it was a tied house (attached to James' job) so she relocated to a small cottage in Killinchy, County Down with her youngest son Eric and an adopted daughter Veronica. Eric and Vera were both still at school. To pay the rent, Bella worked for the owners of the cottage who were farmers and did household duties and odd jobs on the farm (the rent was two shillings a week).
Her daughter Agnes, who lived in England, sent her money regularly, which was a great help but she was still quite poor. After a while, she decided that since she was always so happy around children, she would become a foster mother. At that time there appeared no rules or regulations on fostering. Babies were advertised in the Belfast papers daily with a caption such as "home wanted for baby boy" or "home needed for baby girl". Bella would answer the advertisements and the mother would bring the baby to Bella and no official person was involved.
The first baby was a boy named Jackie. The mother brought him to Bella and paid her the first month's money but then never paid her again. Bella discovered that she had emigrated to Australia. However, as Bella was such a caring person, she kept the baby and brought him up.
The second baby was a boy named Alfred (Alfie) who was paid for monthly as agreed. He died at the age of 15 and the reason was unknown to them.
The third baby was a boy called Herbert whose mother paid the initial payment, then disappeared. As usual, Bella kept him.
The fourth baby was a girl called June whose mother and father were in the armed forces. They paid monthly as agreed and visited when they could.
The fifth baby was Florence (Rona) who was Veronica's baby and the sixth baby was Derek.
Bella was a fantastic parent to all the children and they all called her "Granny".
The foster children that Bella had were all loved and cared for. They all called "Granny" and she taught them to respect other people and would not tolerate any rudeness. She had a large garden which she tended herself and the children were allowed to have friends to play in the garden but never in the house and none of the children was allowed to go into anyone else's house.
The older children were often sent to run errands for other elderly people but were told by Granny, that they must never, ever, accept money for this. They were also taught to never take money from strangers.
On Christmas Day, June and Rona were walking home from church and a local Publican was standing outside. He came over to wish them a "Very Happy Christmas" and gave them each a florin (two-shilling piece) but they dare not take them home, so they threw both coins in the pond on the way home!
Bella although very poor was always dressed smartly when she went out. She always wore a hat, with smart boots which had laces and buttons on them and a double-breasted coat. The children all had smart clothes and shoes to go to church and school and Bella kept a spotless home although her furniture was old and shabby.
When Bella decided to foster children her own family were very hostile towards them and rarely came to visit. The daughter and son who still lived in Northern Ireland came occasionally but obviously, those who had emigrated were rarely involved. Her daughter Agnes who lived in Maidenhead, Berkshire realised that the house her mother lived in with the children was too small for all of them and bought her a much bigger house in Lisbane, County Down.
This house had quite a large garden and a field containing a small lake. There was pike in the lake and men would come and pay Bella to fish there. The fish was inedible but the men used to enjoy fishing recreationally nevertheless. Agnes always sent money to Bella but remained hostile towards the children she fostered and only ever spoke to them when she had to. She only stayed for a short time when she visited, usually a week and would constantly undermine and criticise them. The other daughter and son rarely visited as they disapproved of the children being there.
On leaving school, Jackie worked at a garage and trained to be a mechanic eventually renting his own garage and working for himself.
Herbert works on a farm before joining the army and eventually settling in Zimbabwe for a while. In later years he worked in the antique trade.
June went to work at a company called Crepe Weavers in Newtownards but as Bella was concerned about the dangers of her cycling to and from work in the dark, Agnes sold the house in Lisbane and bought Bella a house in Comber, County Down and June went to work at the mill there.
Rona first went to Comber school and then went on to the Technical College in Comber studying commercial subjects such as shorthand typing, bookkeeping and also normal "o" level subjects.
Bella always went to Belfast on a Friday and bought books to read from the market. When she had read them, she would take them on the "workhouse" with the people who are "down on their luck" were housed. She would then go to the café for a drink before catching the bus home.
When Bella was seventy years old, she was sitting in the café when a lady joined her at the table. The lady, who was very well dressed and well-spoken, started to converse with Bella and asked if she knew anyone who would be willing to take over the care of a newborn baby. Her daughter was a nurse and unmarried and did not want anyone to know that she had given birth. The baby was born while she was on duty and no one had even suspected that she had been pregnant until the birth, as she had kept herself well corseted to hide the bump. None of her family knew including her mother, and her mother was the only one in the family who knew afterwards.
To keep it all secret, she said that she was willing to pay well, so Bella said, "I foster children and would be willing to care for your baby." The baby boy, called Derek was brought to Bella the following week and arrangements were made for payment. The lady agreed to pay Bella forty-five pounds a month (a huge amount of money at the time.)
Derek had an umbilical hernia and had an operation soon after his arrival. Bella was always concerned the something was not "quite right" with Derek and despite him being a bright and happy baby he just didn't appear to be progressing as he should in some aspects. With her vast experience with children, Bella was well qualified to spot any defects.
Bella travels to several hospitals in Northern Ireland carrying Derek on her back, trying to get answers as to what it was that may be wrong with him. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and Bella was always convinced it had been caused by the tight corsets his mother had worn during her pregnancy to disguise the bump. Derek was bright and responsive but one side of his body did not function properly. Bella as usual, however, was determined to keep him and care for him to the best of capability. He had great difficulty learning to walk and would regularly fall over but he was a delightful little boy.
When he started school he went to Comber Primary school and had to be taken and collected after school as he was too unsteady on his feet to get to and from school without help. Rona who was at the technical college would take him to school in the morning before college and leave early to collect him from school. And also June who would carry Derek on her back wherever she goes, people even thought that he is her son.
Sadly, when Derek was eight and June was eighteen, Bella died. Derek's mother arranged for him to be collected and taken to a "cripples home" (as they called them in those days). He was just collected from school and taken to Newtownards by a care worker and left in the home. June was married and pregnant and said that she would happily have taken him in but the authorities said she was too young.
He was eventually taken to a foster home in Lisburn and then sent to a boarding school (Friends School in Lisburn). His foster mother rang June when she found out how distressed Derek was at not seeing her as she had visited him every week when he was in the "cripples home". Derek was extremely clever at school and obtain a place at Manchester University which led to a very successful career in Computer Technology. He married a lovely lady and has a family of his own. He is now retired.
And this is the story of Bella and her fostered children who she took care of as her own. For not because of her determination and loving nature, the children would never have become the close family that they were and still are.