Great Women: Elise Sandes

Elise Sandes founded a welfare movement that still survives today. Born in Tralee, Co.Kerry in 1851, Sandes was no stranger to a soldier’s life despite growing up in an upper-middle-class background. At this time, it was common for regiments of British soldiers to be stationed across Ireland and her father, Stephen Creagh Sands, was an Army officer. In her youth, she became friends with children on the neighbouring estate, one of whom would later become the famous senior British Army officer Earl Kitchener.

Sandes was only sixteen years old when she first became involved with improving welfare and recreation for local soldiers. She was moved to see how young recruits, especially the drummer boys who had been recruited into the Army aged just fifteen, were easily drawn into ‘bad’ company and took it upon herself to offer an alternative. In 1869 she invited a young soldier and his friends to her mother’s house in Oak Villa for regular sessions of Bible study, prayers, hymn-singing, as well as lessons in reading and writing. Soldiers gladly accepted the invitation and by 1871 the meetings had to be moved to a new location in Nelson Street to accommodate the growing numbers. Sandes continued this work at home until a retired officer donated premises in King’s Street, Cork, which opened as the first Sandes Soldiers’ Home in June 1877.[1] The Soldiers’ Homes were essentially hostels for soldiers on leave, promoting temperance and bible study.

Clifton Street:

Elise Sandes chose Belfast as the location for her second home, opening a purpose-built building in March 1891 on Clifton Street, directly opposite Victoria Barracks. By this date much of her work centred around promoting her cause, building up teams of helpers and securing funding for the expansion of her movement. The atmosphere of the homes was ‘welcoming and non-judgemental’ and, whilst there was a strong religious ethos to their work, prayers and hymns were entirely voluntary.[2]

Clifton Street Soldiers’ Home c.1920s

The 1911 census reveals that, on the night of 2 April, there were fifteen people residing in Clifton Street Soldiers’ Home. The Hon Lady Superintendent was Miss Edith Steen, accompanied by six servants and five boarders.[3] The Coffee Room Manager (central to Sandes promotion of temperance) was 24-year-old Reginald Rolfe and the Home had five live-in staff. The occupants of the Home came from all over – what was then – the British Empire. Some were born locally in Belfast and Antrim, but others had travelled further from Scotland and Donegal. The five soldiers who ‘boarded’ hailed from Scotland, England, India and, a little closer to home, Lisburn. The religion of the occupants was also varied: Church of England, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Methodist are all listed on the census return. By 1913 Sandes had established 23 Soldiers’ Homes across Ireland and a further eight in India and was well on her way to achieving her goal of ‘having a home in every Garrison town in Ireland’.[4]

When the Great War broke out in 1914 Sandes was sixty-three and had been planning on handing over responsibility to the next generation of women. Although the Sandes Homes had seen many men off to the front for the Afghan, Zulu and Boer Wars during the preceding decades, the scale of casualties this time around was entirely unprecedented. For the next four years, they essentially worked ‘to prepare men for death’.[5] Alongside prayers, they offered practical support: parcels sent to men at the front, with food, clothing, books, magazines and treats. Women went on board troopships before they sailed, handing out postcards and pencils for soldiers to send a last message home.

The armistice in 1918 brought peace in Europe but ushered in the start of the war at home. After the War of Independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 Sandes and all but three of her Soldier’s Homes (Curragh, Cobh and Parkgates, Dublin) left the new state. Writing in April 1922 she described how, “today I look back on my 53 years service amongst them (the troops), and I don’t regret one day of it or one bit of the labour spent in establishing these homes.”[6] Sandes moved to the new home in Ballykinlar Co. Down, where the surrounding beaches and mountains reminded her of her native Kerry, and she remained there until her death in August 1934. She was buried in nearby Tyrella, with full military honours. Sandes and her successor, Eva Maguire, are the only two civilian women to have received this distinction. Elise Sandes’ simple headstone reads: ‘For 66 years the friend of soldiers’.

Victoria Barracks was practically destroyed during the Belfast Blitz in 1941 and finally closed in the 1960s. All remaining soldiers were transferred to Ballykinlar and the Sandes Solders Home soon followed. The building on Clifton Street was closed and later demolished during the development of the Westlink Junction.[7] However, Elise Sandes’ legacy continues to this day. The organisation she founded in 1869 still survives as ‘Sandes Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Centres’ in Thievpal Barracks, Lisburn, Ballykinlar and Holywood in Northern Ireland, and Pirbright and Harrogate in Great Britain.

[1] Bryan Mac Mahon, “Sandes Soldiers’ Homes.” Dublin Historical Record 62, no. 1 (2009): p.16. p.16.

[2] Mac Mahon, ‘Sandes Soldiers’ Homes’: p.17.

[3] See 1911 census return for Clifton Street Sandes Soldiers’ Home at

[4] Mac Mahon, ‘Sandes Soldiers’ Homes’: p.16.

[5] Ibid: p.18.

[6] Ibid: p.19.

[7] Joe Baker, ‘Old Belfast 3’ Glenravel Local History Project p.22.

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