Great Women: Viscountess Craigavon

Lady Cecil Craig, Viscountess Craigavon

Cecil Mary Nowell Dering (later Craig) was born at No. 26 Chester Terrace, Belgrave Square, London on the 22nd of January 1883 and grew up in the upper echelons of British Victorian society. She was an only child, and her father Sir Daniel Tupper held the prestigious position of ‘Assistant Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s department in the King’s household’.

In 1904 aged 21 she met her future husband – then Captain James Craig – at the most respectable of places: a shooting party in County Tyrone. After a very ‘brief engagement’, the couple married in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace on the 22nd of March 1905 and settled at Glencraig in Co. Down.[1] Her new husband was twelve years her senior, but it was Cecil who was seen as the catch. Arguably, it was his marriage to Cecil that gave James ‘an entrée into fashionable circles’ allowing him to develop networks and connections and further his political ambitions.[2]

Once settled in Glencraig, Cecil quickly became involved in local politics. In 1911, she became a founding member of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council (UWUC), an organisation that ‘bound the Unionist women of Ulster together in one common aim – resistance to Home Rule for Ireland.’[3] Although the UWUC was essentially an auxiliary organisation, formed to help the all-male Ulster Unionist Council oppose home rule, promote Unionist propaganda, and preserve the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland, its formation was a significant event in the history of women’s political activism in Ireland. By 1912 it was the largest female political group Ireland had ever seen with an estimated 115,000 – 200,000 members![4] Cecil was at the forefront of the UWUC, serving as both the Vice-President (1912-23) and later President (1923-42).

Viscount and Viscountess Craigavon c.1930.

Prior to the First World War, the UWUC was, nonetheless, explicitly ‘forbidden to discuss [women’s] suffrage or any issue other than Home Rule’ by the all-male Ulster Unionist Council.[5] This attitude appears to have shifted by the time women were awarded equal franchise in 1928. Speaking to newly enfranchised female voters in 1929, Cecil reminded them that ‘you really are a factor in the administration of your country’.[6]

Cecil was also heavily involved in local charitable work in Northern Ireland and took her responsibilities seriously. She was both a Patroness and Governor of the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children and was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) for her tireless work in the 1941 New Years’ Honours List.[7] In her position as Viscountess Craigavon after 1927, Cecil regularly appeared at civic ceremonies across Northern Ireland. Donegall Street Congregational Church, ravaged by fire in 1931, was rebuilt and formally reopened by the Viscountess Craigavon in December 1934.[8] This building remains a place of worship, today it is known as Redeemer Central. The bridge from Trasna Island to Derrymacausey on Upper Lough Erne was also opened by Viscountess Craigavon in 1936 and named ‘Lady Craigavon Bridge’ in her honour.

Lady Craigavon Bridge, Co. Fermanagh, shortly after opening in 1936.

Cecil’s husband, James, was appointed as the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in June 1921. In addition to her own political involvement, she consistently encouraged him in his political career and, as an ‘able public speaker’, substituted for him at major civic functions throughout the 1930s.[9] This included speaking engagements during the first royal visit of King George VI in 1937 and launching RMS Andes at Harland & Wolff shipyard in March 1939.[10] Following her husband’s death in November 1940, Cecil assured the Belfast News-Letter of her intention to ‘continue to make her home in Ulster’ emphasising how she would ‘not now be so much at home anywhere else’.[11] However, circumstances appear to have changed during the Second World War. Cecil resigned from all her charitable and political commitments in Northern Ireland and re-settled in England in January 1943.[12]

Cecil died on 23rd March 1960 at her home in Merle, Wiltshire and was buried, alongside her husband, in the grounds of Stormont.[13] Cecil and James Craig are the only individuals buried at Stormont. The tomb, located to the east of Parliament Buildings, was commissioned following Lord Craigavon’s death and was completed in 1942.[14] A recent campaign to have the tomb restored was successful and work was carried out during the summer of 2020.[15]

History often paints Cecil as ‘the wife of Sir James Craig’ but our research has shown that she was a determined Unionist activist and public figure in her own right. A founding member of the UWUC and its President for over twenty years, Cecil made a significant contribution to the strength of popular Unionism in the first half of the twentieth century.

Footnotes:


[1] https://dib-cambridge-org.queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a2141&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes

[2] https://www.dib.ie/biography/craig-james-a2144

[3] https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/ulster-women-unionist-council-papers-d1098.pdf

[4] https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/ulster-women-unionist-council-papers-d1098.pdf See also The UWUC papers are available for consultation at PRONI (Ref: D1098).

[5] Ibid., p. 338.

[6] Belfast News-Letter, 24 April 1929.

[7] Belfast News-Letter, 1 January 1941.

[8] Belfast News-Letter, 10 December 1934.

[9] Irish Independent, 23 March 1960.

[10] British Pathe footage of the event can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8fWXTkk-9I

[11] Belfast News-Letter, 5 February 1941.

[12] Belfast News-Letter, 13 January 1943.

[13] Irish Independent, 23 March 1960.

[14] https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/stormont-estate-points-interest

[15] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/tomb-of-nis-first-prime-minister-is-restored-by-campaigners-disgusted-by-the-years-of-neglect-39431961.html

Members Involved

YEAR: 1862

Location: Duncairn Avenue

YEAR: 1934

Location: Donegall Street

YEAR: 1886

Location: Clifton Street