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William Johnson was a prominent local solicitor who lived in Warrenpoint with his legal practice, Johnson & Rutherford, at 6 Marcus Square in Newry. During the First World War, Johnston was particularly associated with recruitment and was Chairman of the Newry Recruiting Committee; Alex Fisher, another prominent local solicitor was its Hon. Secretary. 

Newspaper photograph from William Johnston’s scrapbook showing the decorations in Hill Street for Newry Shopping Week in July 1928.
Newspaper photograph from William Johnston’s scrapbook showing the decorations in Hill Street for Newry Shopping Week in July 1928.

William Johnson also sat on several local recruitment committees and was a member of the Executive Council at the Organisation of Recruiting in Ireland (CCORI) during the war years. His brother, Captain A. E. Johnson, was an internee at Ruhleben Camp in Germany. His sister, Miss C. Johnson, worked at the Grange Street Military Hospital in Manchester. Another sibling, Miss Margaret Johnson, resigned her position as principal teacher of the Domestic Science School in Lewes, Sussex to volunteer as a Navy and Army Canteen Inspector under the War Office. 

One of a number of Boundary Commission documents in Newry and Mourne Museum Collection bearing the name of William and Johnson, Solicitors. This example, which is dated 24 December 1924, is for The Bessbrook & Newry Tramway Company. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
One of a number of Boundary Commission documents in Newry and Mourne Museum Collection bearing the name of William and Johnson, Solicitors. This example, which is dated 24 December 1924, is for The Bessbrook & Newry Tramway Company. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In a letter reprinted in The Newry Reporter after the end of hostilities, William Johnson was thanked by the secretary of the Irish Recruiting Council, who wrote:

“I am directed by the Irish Recruiting Council to convey to you their special thanks for the most valuable assistance which you gave in the recruiting campaign. …. In all parts of Ireland the Irish Recruiting Council received much assistance, but to very few are they more deeply indebted than to you”.  

On 23 April 1919 William Johnson organised a home-coming celebration in Newry Town Hall which was attended by over 600 discharged and demobilised soldiers and sailors from the district.  In 1920 he was given a CBE in recognition of his recruitment work.  

After the Partition of Ireland in 1921, Johnson provided evidence and submissions on the pro-partition side to the Irish Boundary Commission in 1925 for several interested parties including Warrenpoint Harbour Authority and The Principal Property Owners, Traders, Lodging House Keepers and Residents in Warrenpoint. In his evidence as the First Witness for the Property Owners which took place in Newry 12 March 1925 he said:

“ … If I thought it would be to the economic interest of Warrenpoint, as a seaside resort, to be transferred to the Irish Free State, believe me I would say so, as long as we have in Ireland two states, the North of Ireland and the Irish Free State, I am firmly convinced – much as I would like to see a United Ireland; – but that is an ideal that will take years to bring about, but until that comes about – Warrenpoint’s economic interests, in my opinion, are as a part of Northern Ireland.”

Postcard showing the sea front at Warrenpoint c.1930. By the 1920s, Warrenpoint had become a popular seaside resort for holidaymakers and day trippers. Shopkeepers, business owners and hotel owners made submissions to the Boundary Commission with some arguing to remain in Northern Ireland while others, wanted the area to be transferred to the Irish Free State. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Postcard showing the sea front at Warrenpoint c.1930. By the 1920s, Warrenpoint had become a popular seaside resort for holidaymakers and day trippers. Shopkeepers, business owners and hotel owners made submissions to the Boundary Commission with some arguing to remain in Northern Ireland while others, wanted the area to be transferred to the Irish Free State. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The various evidence, including that of Johnston, provided to the Boundary Commission gives a fascinating insight into the complexity of people’s allegiances and opinions at this period. Johnson was also a great personal friend of John Henry Collins, another local solicitor who co-ordinated representations and submissions from anti-partition witnesses to the Commission. In April 1925, Collins was elected as MP for Armagh on a ‘Smash Partition’ mandate.

Newry and Mourne Museum holds a scrapbook once owned by William Johnson which provides a further insight into his life. There are a few letters congratulating him on the appointment of his son, who became a prominent Barrister, as Secretary to the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland in 1928. There is also a letter from Newry Shopping Week Committee thanking him for his assistance in organising a successful ‘Broadcasting and Concert’ during the event which took place at the beginning of July 1928.

Flyer issued by McGivern’s, a company which provided amusements in Warrenpoint on Excursion Days in July 1928. This flyer is included in William Johnston’s scrapbook in Newry and Mourne Museum. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Flyer issued by McGivern’s, a company which provided amusements in Warrenpoint on Excursion Days in July 1928. This flyer is included in William Johnston’s scrapbook in Newry and Mourne Museum. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Johnson supported Warrenpoint’s development as a seaside resort for tourists and was involved with promotional work with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway to attract visitors to the town. He was also Secretary of the Congregational Committee of Warrenpoint Presbyterian Church. He retired to England where he died in 1938.

 Newry and Mourne Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 am – 4.30 pm. Please call 0330 137 4422 for further information.

by Noreen Cunningham

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