Irene Bathgate

Helena Irene Anne Bathgate was born on 26 June 1920 at 11 Western Terrace Edinburgh, not far from where the Murrayfield Stadium now stands. 

She was known as 'I-reen-nee' from the Greek for ‘peace’ and was a pupil at George Watson’s Ladies College from the age of 12 until she left in 1939 to go on to the University of Edinburgh to study social sciences.

Irene at school in Beirut

However, she had started school not in George Square but in Beirut in Lebanon, because her father, Dr William Bathgate had been appointed to the staff of the Edinburgh Medical Mission Hospital in the village of Nazareth in Palestine.

Dr Bathgate was said to have been a quiet man with a gentle smile, but he had seen harrowing service as a doctor in the First World War, serving at Ypres where four out of every five men in his regiment had been killed. 

He would find his true vocation in Nazareth, working there for 35 years, but Irene’s mother, Lena, had to return to Scotland due to mental ill-health. 

Irene also came back to begin her secondary education at GWLC, but probably due to her mother’s inability to look after her, she lived at Cunningham House, a boarding house for missionaries’ children on Lauder Road. 

At that time there were children in the boarding house whose parents were working in many different parts of the world, from Manchuria in North East China to Rajasthan and from Malawi to Jamaica. They often lived for many years without seeing their parents, but although some other people felt sorry for them, it did not occur to them to feel sorry for themselves.

Picture of Irene and the other children at Cunningham House Lauder Road

This House photo, taken in 1932, shows Irene, in the middle towards the back grinning.  

Irene spent many of her holidays in Burntisland with her maternal aunt and uncle, Thomas and Annie Wilson and her cousins, Doris, Zella, Netta and Sheena, where she was almost like a little sister.

Irene loved poetry, drama and music. She was a gifted pianist. One of her school friends said that she was quiet and a good listener whilst another said that she was lively with a keen sense of fun. Maybe, like many of us, how Irene appeared to her friends depended on who she was with.

When she was 14, in 1936, Irene had her poem Matins published in the school magazine, The George Square Chronicle.

Matins

The air is swept with palest gold,
Yet, while we watch, it grows
Brighter, finer, and more pure.
That sweet-voiced Herald, the dawn wind,
Calls up the sky,
As, with a silver stream of sound,
The bells peal clear across the cloisters,
And monks, soberly black-gowned,
Move rev’rently to worship.
The bells have ceased, and soon
The deep-toned chant, melodious and rich,
Blends with the far-away dull crash of breakers
Where the sand lies cold
On the Steps of Day.

Irene as a Prefect

Irene was made a Prefect in her last year at school and her ambition seems to have been to return to Palestine and work with the sick, as her father and two of her Wilson cousins were doing. Her school record card noted that she planned to return to Palestine for a year, before beginning her studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her records at the university for the year 1940-41 appear to show her studying social work with a view to becoming an almoner, a social worker attached to a hospital. 

However, by April 1941 she had a ticket to rejoin her father in Nazareth. Because of the war raging in the Mediterranean, the only way of getting there was on a ship that was part of a convoy sailing south around the tip of South Africa and then back north towards the Arabian Gulf. This would have been an extremely dangerous journey, taking eight weeks under the constant threat of attack by German U-Boats.

Shortly before the date of her departure, Irene travelled to Cambridge to attend a Christian conference, probably run by the Church Mission Society. Afterward, her friend Joan Gray offered to give up her bedroom at her father’s vicarage in Ipswich so that Irene could get a good night’s sleep. Irene accepted the kind offer.

That night, 8th April 1941, a German bomber missed its target at the nearby docks and instead dropped a high explosive bomb on the vicarage, hitting the bedroom where Irene slept. 

The vicarage after the bombing

Irene died of her injuries a few days later in East Suffolk Hospital, a few weeks short of her 21st birthday. She was buried in a cemetery in Ipswich, a long way from anywhere that she had ever called home.

Irene Bathgate’s name is now listed on the George Watson’s College War Memorial. A victim of a savage war during which death so often came indiscriminately from the air and where women and children, as well as men, were all too often the casualties.