Report by Sandra Millsopp
Members of Bangor Historical Society met on 9 March 2017 to hear a talk by Keith Haines. His subject was ‘Fred Crawford, Carson’s gunrunner’. Mr. Haines felt that Crawford’s life and career have been ignored, despite the important role he played in Ulster history in the early twentieth century. Crawford himself fought shy of publicity and was reluctant to take praise.
The family owned land in the Malone area at Chlorine Gardens. Crawford, himself, had a varied early career. He was an apprentice at Harland and Wolff for five years and then served as an engineer for the White Star Line 1885-6. He joined the family firm in 1886, but business was not good. Like his Presbyterian father he was a very religious man, but followed the Methodism of his mother. Crawford had a strong belief in the British Empire and in the concept of fair play. 1900-1901 he fought in South Africa with the Donegal Artillery. He wanted to be a full-time soldier, but his regiment was disbanded after the end of the war.
The Home Rule Crisis brought him to prominence. Craig asked him to undertake the gunrunning for the unionists. At first he was reluctant, but agreed when Craig told him he was the only person he could trust with large sums of money. He travelled to Germany to purchase 25,000 rifles and then to Bergen to buy a boat, the SS Fanny. The guns were brought through the Kiel Canal and transferred to the Fanny.
It was a very risky and stressful business as action by the authorities meant they had to leave without the proper papers. The Unionist Council got cold feet about the operation, but Crawford convinced them that they were wrong. He persuaded them to purchase the Clydevalley and the weapons were transferred to it. It then travelled north through the Irish Sea. A change of plan meant the ship headed for Larne, instead of Belfast, with small amounts being landed at Bangor and Donaghadee.
The gunrunning would not have succeeded without Crawford yet he always gave the credit to God and to Captain Agnew. He turned down a cheque for £1,300, although Carson urged him to accept and took only a silver casket as recompense for his vital role. In 1921 he was presented with the CBE when the King and Queen came to Ulster.
Crawford continued to run the family firm which he inherited in 1908 until it closed in 1924. It employed both Protestants and Roman Catholics and when one of the employees was involved in an attack on him, he did not pursue the prosecution, as the man was drunk and had also fought in World War One. He was also a governor of Campbell College for about 50 years.
The society chairman thanked Mr Haines for a very interesting talk, while the secretary asked for members’ names for the outing on 20 May. The final meeting of the 2016-2017 session will be held on Thursday 13 April at 8pm in the North Down Museum. Members only are asked to come at 7.30 for the AGM, while guests are invited to join us at 8pm for the talk by Leanne Briggs of the museum.