Helena Blunden 1896-1912|
Gentle reader, help us solve the mystery of Helena Blunden - we are convinced the truth is in here.
Helena Blunden was 16 when she began working in the
spinning room of the linen mill in the old markets area of Belfast.
The eldest daughter of a Tyrone woman and a Kilkenny man, Helena had been born in Ireland but brought up in England.
In 1911, the Blundens returned to Ireland and
settled in Belfast. They returned to Ireland at a time when the Parliament in Westminster seemed likely to placate one group of Irish politicians only to provoke the wrath of another. With the reform of the House of Lords in 1911, the Lords' power of veto over Home Rule was limited to a delaying tactic. The passage of a Home Rule Bill through Westminster was assured, which would grant Ireland a domestic parliament and allow a degree of political independence from England. An ardent Home Ruler, Helena's father would have preferred to settle in Dublin but Helena's uncles on her mother's side had already arranged jobs for the Blundens in Belfast. The Blundens moved into a small terraced house in Raphael Street which was only a few hundred yards from the linen mill.
Helena was a diligent, popular worker in the linen mill.
A loud, cheerful, young woman, her head was full
of the romanticism of Yeats' poetry, the wit of Shaw's plays and the raucous songs of the London music halls. Her grand uncle had been a wandering Irish dancing master in Kilkenny. Helena had inherited his talent for dance but she was more interested in singing than dancing. As a child, she had sung in a school choir in England. Since returning to Ireland she had danced at Feiseanna in Dublin. Her father encouraged her aspirations to the stage but Helena's mother frowned upon the notion. Helena had grown up among the immigrant Irish in London but invented a peculiar English accent which impressed her fellow workers. Her aspirations and songs, her accent and memories of London always guaranteed her a captivated audience and she enjoyed the attention.
The work in the spinning room was arduous
and repetitive. On warm days in summer when the heat
reached boiling point, children and women often fainted. The atmosphere was always damp with stale air, condensation settled on the walls and floors of the mill. Margaret Maxwell was a tough woman who in her youth had brawled with men and women in the street. No longer
fit to fight or work in the flax room, Margaret
was employed in the afternoons to mop and clean the
condensation from the stairs.
Pride made her resent the
work but necessity made her stay. She was content to complain
fiercely and scold anyone who dared to walk on the stairs while she mopped. She frightened the young children, but the adults only scorned her threats She clashed often with Helena, deriding the young woman's songs and hope.
Helena worked 60 hours a week. On Saturday, the working day was supposed to finish at 12 noon but the workers always stayed late if an important order needed to be prepared. The linen company's first order had been to produce double damask linen tablecloths. These tablecloths were laid on the tables in the first class dining
room on the Titanic.
The newly established company sometimes brought the
workers in on Sundays to ensure orders were ready on time.
On Sunday 14 April 1912, the workers including
the half timers in all departments came
in to finish an order for Argentina. Helena was preoccupied with a concert she was due to attend in the Grand Opera house that evening.
She sang her way through the morning and into the
afternoon and evening. At 2 pm, Helena realised that
her work would not be complete by 6 pm and that there would
be hardly any time between finishing
in the mill and going to the concert. She kept
her shoes on all day, ready to leave the minute her work was complete.
Margaret was tired before she even began. She stooped over the mop and half heartedly dabbled it along the top flight. She stopped to chastise a young half-timer who had only started and had not been warned about Margaret's stairs.
At 7 pm, Helena was finished. Already exhausted
by excitement, heat and fasting, Helena went down the first flight. She tripped on the discarded mop, fell over
the banister and down to the ground floor.
Margaret heard the shrieking Helena and looked up to
watch Helena falling. Margaret released her grip
on the young boy and staggered down to the ground floor to discover that Helena was already dead.
Helena's intention had been to leave the linen mill forever and establish herself as a singer. Of course she may never have succeeded as a singer and may have been destined to stay in the spinning room for years, reminiscing about the times she had sung on stage. Her death at 16 dashed those aspirations. There are reasonable, sensible men and women who say that Helena did not escape from the mill, that she still walks in that building.