Bernard Helferty 1884-1916

There are some branches of the family that I have researched way less than others.  I recently realised that I knew very little about the family of my great, great grandfather Arthur Helferty.  He was my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather.  I have never found a birth record for Arthur but I know that he was born around 1825 in County Antrim in Ireland.  I knew that he had a sister Ann who was born in 1835 and she looked after his children after their mother died.  Ancestry started throwing up some hints for names similar to Helferty in the Greenock area.  I know that Ann died in Greenock so I figured there might be a connection.  It turns out that Arthur also had two brothers, Thomas and William. Bernard Helferty was William’s son by his second wife, Jane McGill.

Jane and William were married in Greenock on 30 July 1880.  Their first son William was born in 1883 followed by Bernard in January 1884.  William was a sugar house labourer. You can read more about the Greenock sugar houses by clicking  here.

Bernard was just 9 months old when his father died in the family home at 16 Market Street in Greenock. The 1891 census shows Bernard and his brother living with his maternal grandparents.  Their mother is recorded as a Wardsmaid at Greenock Hospital and Infirmary.  I am assuming that was not her permanent residence and that it is where she was on the night of the census.

With no father and a mother who was working long hours to feed her family there was nobody to keep young Bernard in check and it wasn’t long before he was on the wrong side of the law.  To be fair, he may not have had the best role models.  In September 1881 his mother appeared before Baillie Shankland on a charge of disorderly conduct.  In 1885 she was convicted of assault having punched her sister in the face.

At just 9 years of age Bernard had a criminal record.  Along with some school friends from St Mary’s School in Greenock he was responsible for a spate of thefts.  The below newspaper report gives details of the stolen goods.



A place was sought for him in a Roman Catholic Industrial School but there were no vacancies and it appears from the newspaper report that his mother would prefer he face the birch than attend a Protestant institution!


The birch did not prove a deterrant for young Bernard and later the same month he was back in court and again sentenced to “six stripes of the birch rod”. On this occasion the crime was malicious mischief.  I can’t imagine a child so young receiving such a punishment.


Over the years Bernard appears in court on a number of occasions for crimes of dishonesty and disorder and he spent time in prison. He did at times find work.  The 1901 census records him as a news vendor.  By that time he is independent of his family and living in boardings.  His mother remarried in 1901 and it may be that there was no place for him at home. In later reports Bernard is described as a labourer and sugar porter.

In 1913 he married Catherine Hanna and it may be hoped that this helped to settle him down.  His marriage may have been seen as a fresh start with hopes of a family of his own.  The world as he knew it changed, of course, with the outbreak of war in 1914. From criminal/labourer Bernard became a soldier in the 16th Batallion of the Highland Light Infantry.  Private Hilferty (as his name is recorded in army records) 19727 went to war and fought in France and Flanders. On 18 November 1916 Bernard was killed in action.  Click here to find out more about that day. His name commemorated at Thiepval Memorial in France.


I found this photograph on Bernard’s memorial page on the Find A Grave website.  It’s great to be able to put a face to the story.  I am sure the photograph would have been precious to his widow along with the posthumous medals he was awarded. I have no way of knowing what kind of life Bernard and Catherine would have had if the war had not come along.  I like to think that with the right influence in life he would have turned out well.

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