John Barnes, Historian

Sir William Allen (1866 – 1947)

William Allen was a Lurgan linen manufacturer. Prominent in support of Lord Carson and James Craig in the campaign against the Home Rule Bill in 1913-14, he was a champion of Ulster’s interest at Westminster for thirty years as Member first for North Armagh and then for Armagh. He campaigned vigorously in 1924 against the first Labour Government’s bill to bring the Irish Boundary Commission into being. He was returned unopposed in the 1945 General Election.

William James Allen was born on 15 October 1866. He was the son of Joseph and Catherine Allen, and was educated at Lurgan College.

He served as Deputy Grand Master and Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge and as Honorary Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council. He also served as Sovereign Grand Master of the Imperial Grand Black Chapter of the British Commonwealth.

He joined the army on 14 November 1914, raising and serving with the Pioneer Battalion of the 16th Royal Irish Rifles. He served in France from 1 October 1915, was mentioned in despatches four times, awarded the DSO in 1918 and held the Knight’s Cross of the Legion d’Honneur. Promoted to Major in September 1916, he commanded the regiment as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1918.

He was elected to the House of Commons as an Irish Unionist at a by-election held in the North Armagh constituency in November 1917 and held the seat at the subsequent General Election at the end of the First World War. When his seat was abolished for the 1922 general election, he was selected as the Ulster Unionist Party’s candidate for the new Armagh seat. He was elected without any opponent and held the seat comfortably for the next quarter century. Often unopposed, when his seat was contested by Republicans, as in 1935, he could count on a substantial majority.

He was made KBE in 1921 on the occasion of King George V’s visit to Belfast to open the first Northern Irish parliament.

His maiden speech, not recognized as such by the following speaker, was a plea on 8 November 1921 for the Goschen ratio of public expenditure to be applied to the sum of £5.5 million voted for unemployment to ensure that part was made available to help with unemployment in Northern Ireland, a point he tried to raise again on the third reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill three days later. He had made no interventions in the House between his initial question and the 1921 session, but from then on he spoke more frequently, not least in connection with the Boundary Commission and apparent departures from the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. He was strongly opposed to the Prayer Book measure in June 1928.

After 1931 he supported the National Government, condemning the treatment of Ramsay MacDonald by the Labour party, and proved a staunch supporter of the policies pursued by Neville Chamberlain and was one of those signing an amendment to Eden’s motion on 29 March 1939 expressing complete confidence in the Prime Minister.

When the Oxford Group for Moral Rearmament came under fire in 1941, he was one those signing motions in its favour.

Allen was knocked down by a motor van on 5 December on alighting from a tram on the Malone Road near his home in Cleaver Park, Belfast. He received severe head injuries and died in the Royal Victoria Hospital on 20 December 1947 just over two weeks later, at 81 and the second oldest MP in the House of Commons. Sir William was buried in Lurgan.

Allen was married twice. His first wife, Maria, eldest daughter of John Ross, died at 51 Adelaide Park Belfast on 14 November 1937. In 1938 he married Lillah Ierne, daughter of R. Hill Forsythe of Lurgan, who survived him. There were a son and daughter from the first marriage.