David Dunbar: Son of Ulster

 A Life Cut Short

David Dunbar was my Great Grandfather.  He was only thirty-nine years old when he died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and five young children.  The date was October 6, 1929, less than two weeks before David and his family were to leave Belfast and immigrate to Australia.  Had the family made that trip, the Dunbar story would have turned out much differently, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog post!

David Dunbar Obit - Northern Whig (Oct 6, 1929)

Obituary of David Dunbar – Northern Whig

David Dunbar

David Dunbar was born at 28 Blythe Street, Belfast on February 27, 1890.  He was the youngest of four children born to a linen lapper named Robert Dunbar and his wife Martha (Kidd).

David was only five years old when his mother died, and a couple of years later David’s father married a woman by the name of Ellen Spencer.  The 1901 census records David and his two sisters in the household of their three spinster aunts, where I suspect they were sent to live following the death of their mother.

The years that followed couldn’t have been easy for David.  His aunt Ellen died in 1903, and his older brother, William James, who had been apprenticing to be a printer died the year following.  David’s older sister Margaret would die of tuberculosis in the fall of 1911.

Aunts of David Dunbar
David’s aunts – Broomhedge


Sister of David Dunbar
Thought to be a picture of David’s sister, Minnie Dunbar

Ulster Volunteer Force, South Belfast Volunteers

By the age of 21, David was apprenticing to be a coach builder and was boarding at the home of Robert Mahood at 28 City Street in Belfast.  His life would be forever changed when Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.  Only a month later, David enlisted with the Ulster Volunteer Force, South Belfast Volunteers.  David would serve with the 36th Ulster Division, 107th Brigade, 10th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.  His regimental number was 10/14366.

Lois 12 front

David Dunbar (left, on ground) abt. 1914

Marriage to Ellen Cresswell

On June 13, 1915 David Dunbar married Ellen Cresswell in the Christ Church of Ireland in Belfast.  The couple must have gotten married knowing that David would soon be sent to France.

Lois 4 front

David & Ellen Dunbar abt. 1915



Co. Qtr. Master Sgt. David Dunbar & Ellen Cresswell abt. 1916

For God and Ulster

In the fall of 1915, just a few months after his wedding to Ellen Cresswell, David and the men of the 36th Ulster Division were sent to France to complete their training.  By March 1916 the 36th Ulster Division had taken over its own section of the front line, near Thiepval Wood.

On July 1, 2016 the men of the 36th Ulster division distinguished themselves at the Somme by accomplishing most of their objectives.  While they were one of the most successful British divisions at the Somme that day, they suffered over 5,000 casualties.  Certainly many of these men would have been known to David Dunbar.

The video below provides some important historical context as to the 36th Ulster Division’s involvement at the Somme.

Video – 36th Ulster Division and the Somme (1.5 mins)

Belfast Murals Great War
Belfast Mural (Picture by Extramuralactivity.com)
Belfast Mural Great War
Picture by Extramuralactivity.com

Casualty of war

At some point during David’s war service, he was wounded by shrapnel in his left shoulder.  Given that the 36th Ulster Division was involved in the battle of Langemarck during August 16-18, 1917 and that David wrote to his wife on August 25 while recovering in hospital in England, it’s possible he may have sustained the injury at that time.

The postcard below is postmarked Maidstone, Kent (England) and is addressed to Mrs. D. Dunbar 87 Palestine Street, Agincourt Avenue, Ormeau Road, Belfast, Ireland.  The words, now faded with the passing of time, read as follows:

My Dear Ellen Just a P.C. to let you know I am getting along fairly well.  This is a photo of our hospital or front I should say.  Hope you are in the best of health.  Write soon (underlined).  Love from Davie xx.

Lois 15 front

VAD 26 WW1


David Dunbar (second from right) wearing hospital blues – 1917

Discharge From the Army

David would survive the war and was discharged from the army on March 25, 1918.  His discharge papers indicate that he was entitled to wear one gold braid and a distinction star.  Some of David’s physical characteristics were also recorded, including that he was 5’7″ tall with blue eyes and brown hair.

A New Chapter

Upon discharge from the army, David was provided with a letter of reference which can be seen below.

David sought light employment following the war

Years Following the War

In the years that followed the war, David and Ellen had five children together.  During this time, David’s older sister Mary Jane (Minnie) died of tuberculosis in 1922, and his aunt Jane passed away in 1924.  Their obituaries were reported in the Belfast Newsletter, and can be seen below.

Minnie Dunbar Obit 6 Nov 1922 p.1 Belfast News-LetterObit of Jane Dunbar 16 Feb 1924 Belfast News-Letter p.1

Coachbuilder by Trade

It’s not clear whether David was successful in finding the light employment he desired following the war.  The news clipping below seems to suggest that David still had some involvement in his trade as a coachbuilder.

Fire in Grosvenor Road 1928
Northern Whig – 1928

An Unexpected Change in Plans

David’s brother in law, Henry Cresswell had successfully emigrated from Ireland to Australia, and David and Ellen had planned to move their family there as well.  They were scheduled to leave the port of London, England on the S.S. Ballarat with their five children on October 15, 1929.

Family members tell me that the Dunbars had already sold their goods in preparation for the trip.  The crossed out names on the passenger list below gives a sense of just how quickly the lives of the Dunbar family were altered when David died suddenly of a heart attack on October 6, 1929.

David Dunbar Australia
The Dunbar family did not move to Australia due to David’s sudden passing


Dunbar headstone Broomhedge

Gone Too Soon

It struck me as unusual that one would die of a heart attack at only forty years of age.  Perhaps David’s early death was related to the injury he sustained during the war.  The stresses that came with moving his family half way across the world likely didn’t help matters.  Whatever the reason, it must have been an incredibly difficult time for Ellen, who was left to raise five young children on her own.  Their oldest child, also named David, would only have been about 11 years old at the time.

Sadly, history would repeat itself when David’s son Robert died in 1956 at the age of thirty-two.  Robert would also leave behind his own young family and another generation of Dunbar children would grow up without knowing their father.

David Dunbar was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Matthew’s, Broomhedge where he is buried with his wife Ellen and their son, Robert. Thanks to generous and thoughtful family members who live close by, a new headstone was erected in 2016 to mark David and Ellen’s final resting place which can be seen above.


In closing I will leave you with a very moving video that was created to commemorate the Somme Centenary in 2016.

Subscribe to Elusive Ancestor!

Did you enjoy reading this blog post?  Subscribe to this blog to receive notifications of new blog posts!