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Emma Duffin (1883 - 1979):
Nurse; diarist

Emma Sylvia Duffin was born at 26 University Square Belfast, one of seven daughters and two sons of Adam and Maria Duffin: Adam was a successful Belfast businessman who was awarded LLB through Queen's College, Belfast in 1882 and prior to his death in 1924 was Senator in the new Northern Ireland government; Maria (1854-1954) was the granddaughter of the United Irishman, William Drennan and was one of the founders of the Belfast Charity Organisation (1906) which in 1919 became the Belfast Council of Social Welfare. The 1911 Census Enumerators’ returns recorded the family as being Non-Subscribing (Unitarian) Presbyterians.

All seven daughters were educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Gloucestershire, indicating the family's commitment to education, particularly girls’ education. When she left in 1903, Emma developed her skills as a book and card illustrator. She illustrated particularly the children’s novels written by her sister Ruth and the volumes of poetry published by Ruth and Celia.

When World War One broke out she was one of three Duffin sisters to enlist in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Offering to serve in a nursing capacity, she was sent to Alexandria in Egypt from September 1915 to March 1916. She re-enlisted and from April 1916 she spent three harrowing years in Le Havre and Calais tending to men wounded on the Western Front and too seriously injured to be shipped across to England. A fluent German speaker (she had spent almost a year, 1911-12, as an au pair with a family in Germany) her service in the several military hospitals in Le Havre and Calais was also marked by attentive care for the increasing numbers of hospitalised wounded Germans and to whom she offered a word of comfort in their own language, often in their final hours. Duffin was Mentioned in Dispatches on 31 December 1918.

Returning to Belfast (the family had moved to “Dunowen”, a large house on Cliftonville Road) she became a member of the Belfast Council of Social Welfare (BCSW) Committee on which she served as Honorary Secretary, 1933-53. When World War Two broke out she re-enlisted and was appointed Commandant of the VAD unit at Stranmillis Military Hospital in Belfast on the site of Stranmillis Teacher Training College (later Stranmillis University College). This was a more administrative position than had been the case in World War One: she was responsible for supervising over 100 VAD nurses. When Belfast was blitzed in April-May 1941, she recorded her efforts to help a city where there were more casualties (as many as 800) in one night than in any other British city outside London. Most harrowing of all, as her memoirs show, she helped grieving relatives search through the unidentified bodies laid out in St George’s Market, the only public space with the capacity to hold so many bodies, for their loved ones believed to have been killed.

After the war she continued to serve as Honorary Secretary of the BCSW, and was particularly concerned that the After-Care committee she had previously established, which was concerned with the support of patients, especially women, discharged from hospital and expected to resume immediately their normal family duties, featured in the newly-created post-war welfare system that was now a Stormont Government responsibility.

In 1954 she was awarded an Honorary MA by Queen's University, Belfast. She was presented for the award by Professor E Estyn Evans whose encomium recognised her many attributes: 

Eleven years ago the University honoured Miss Ruth Duffin, the distinguished first warden of Riddle Hall. Today it is my pleasure to present another gracious member of that gifted family. It must be rare, short of Royalty, for two sisters to become honorary members of the same university but the Duffin family is little short of royalty ... For many decades the family has stood for liberal ideas and for liberal service to the community. It might indeed be said that the link of the Duffins with voluntary social work goers back to Adam, for Adam Duffin was the first vice-chairman of the Belfast Charity Organisation, which was to become the Belfast Council of Social Welfare. For twenty years Miss Emma Duffin was the honorary secretary and moving spirit of the Council. 

For all her activities Miss Duffin shows a rare combination of quick perception and warm human sympathies with a capacity for the practical application of her ideas. It was she who, having seen and proved the need for after-care services, initiated the Belfast Hospitals’ After-Care Committee. By 1937, when the Councils’ Housing Scheme was launched, it was Miss Duffin who fought masculine prejudice by insisting that the houses should have convenient kitchens as well as pleasing facades. 

Miss Duffin’s fighting qualities were already in evidence in the 1914-18 War, when she served with the V. A. D. in Egypt and France and was mentioned in Dispatches. During the Second World War she was V. A. D. Commandant of Stranmillis Military Hospital. 

Her interest in the care and education of children has shown itself in many ways: in sponsoring schemes for the teaching of young patients in the City Hospitals; in bringing colour and beauty into Public Elementary schools through the Schools Pictures Committee; and not least in writing and illustrating several charming children’s books. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the Duffin quality of holding in balance gifts of mind and manner, heart and hand. 

Chancellor of the university, my Lord, I present to you Emma Sylvia Duffin for the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa. 

Miss Duffin resigned her position of Honorary Secretary of the BCSW after 20 years in 1953 and continued to serve on the committee until the early 1960s. She spent her last years in the family home, “Shimna”, in Newcastle, badly affected by arthritis. She died on 31 January 1979 and is buried in St Colman’s graveyard, Newcastle alongside three of her sisters, Dorothea, Sylvia and Celia, and Lt Col Harry Randall, Celia’s husband. 

Born: 8 November 1883
Died: 31 January 1979
Trevor Parkhill

PRONI (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland) D2109/18/1-5B: five diaries 1915-19; PRONI D2109/18/9: diary 1939-42; PRONI: 2086: achive of Belfast Council of Social Welfare; Trevor Parkhill (ed) The First World War Dairies of Emma Duffin, VAD Nurse 1915-19. Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2014; Trevor Parkhill (ed). A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz. The Diary of Emma Duffin 1939-4. Belfast, Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016. 

from The Dictionary of Ulster Biography, Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1993:

Emma Duffin was born in Belfast. She enlisted as a Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment nurse and worked in front-line hospitals in Northern France and in Egypt. Initially, she was an untrained auxiliary nurse tending to the wounded as they were brought in, and changing and maintaining dressings. She kept a diary during this period. In 1941, during the Second World War, her experience of nursing in war-time was called upon. On the night of the 15th to the 16th of April, 1941, during the raid on Belfast by some two hundred Luftwaffe bombers, over nine hundred people were killed. Emma reported to Belfast market which was being used as a morgue. The experience left a profound expression, which she recorded in her diaries of the Second World War. These diaries are now in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. 

Kate Newmann