David Dunbar: Son of Ulster

A life cut short

As I approach my fortieth birthday, I have found myself thinking about my Great Grandfather, David Dunbar.  He was 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 their new home in Australia.  Had they made that trip, the story of the Dunbars would look much different, and I wouldn’t be here 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).  Martha died when David was only five years old, and a couple of years

3 Spinster Dunbar Sisters
David’s Aunts: Ellen (L), Margaret (C), Jane (R) – Broomhedge

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 located in the townland of Gortnacor.  Perhaps the children were sent to live there 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.

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.  Less than a month later, David enlisted with the Ulster Volunteer Force, South Belfast Volunteers.  David would serve with

Lois 12 front
David Dunbar (left, on ground) abt. 1914

the 36th Ulster Division, 107th Brigade, 10th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.


On June 13, 1915 David Dunbar married Ellen Cresswell in the Christ Church of Ireland in Belfast.  The couple must have decided to get married before David was to be sent to the front lines.

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 as the only British division to accomplish their objectives on the first day of battle.  It came at a terrible cost though, as some 5,500 men were killed, injured or missing during the first day of fighting.  Certainly, some of these would have been David’s family and neighbours.

One such example would be David’s younger cousin, Francis Dunbar, who was mentioned in the Northern Whig on 1 July 1916 as having been seriously wounded.  Was Francis injured at the Somme or at some point leading up to that battle?  It would certainly have been very fast for the papers to have reported on Francis being inured the same day the injury occurred.  Did he survive the war?  It is challenging questions like these that make family history so fascinating and engaging!      Francis Dunbar - Injured (Northern Whig, July 1, 1916, p.8, BNA Cropped)

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

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

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 indicating that he had served his country well and had been wounded in its defense.  It went on to say that he was unable to resume his occupation as coach builder and desired light employment in Belfast as a canvasser, overseer or doing clerical work.  Employers were asked to extend a preference to him in appreciation for David’s service to his country.

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

It appears that David was unsuccessful in finding the light employment that he desired, as this news clipping from the Northern Whig in 1928 indicates he was still involved in his trade as a coach builder.

Fire in Grosvenor Road 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 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.

Dunbar on ships list to australia

Dunbar headstone Broomhedge

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 and the stresses that would come with relocating his family halfway across the world.  Whatever the reason, it must have been an incredibly difficult time for Ellen, who was left behind to raise five young children on her own.

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

David Dunbar was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Matthew’sBroomhedge 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.

Lest We Forget 2


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