Sunday, April 19, 2020

Helen Gilliland of Bangor (1897–1942)

Helen Gilliland was a big star in her day, a child prodigy winning singing competitions everywhere in Ulster from the Londonderry Feis in 1910 to big events in the Protestant Hall in Ballymena. Her father John was a well-known official in the Northern Bank who, at the time of his death in 1923, lived at 90 Seacliff Road in Bangor.

Helen was a pupil of Victoria College in Belfast. She hit the big time in 1917 when she signed with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and Gilbert & Sullivan; she became the advertising face of various cosmetic and fashion brands, like Ponds and Debenhams, shown in the adverts here. She graced the major stages of London and New York, and socialised with world famous celebrities like Amy Johnson the aviator.

She only appeared in one film, a minor role in The Storm, in 1938, with Charles Bickford in the lead role. The plot line, set onboard a stricken ship caught up in a typhoon, would seem to have been something of a portent.

When World War 2 broke out, Helen was involved in entertaining troops overseas. After a season in India, in early December 1942 she and her husband Norman Eric Peter Franklin were onboard a troop ship carrying 600 people en route to their next destination, in Africa. The ship was torpedoed by the Japanese Navy. The couple ended up in the water together – Franklin was washed back into the sinking ship but when he emerged he was unable to find Helen again. She was never recovered. Her husband spent five days adrift on a life raft before being picked up.

Her death was widely reported in the UK press, with the Daily Record saying that she was "Irish-born but with a strong Scots parental link" and that she had performed in Glasgow.