An “unforgettable British icon” is how many of the tributes to the late Dame Vera Lynn are headed. The multiple record breaker passed away this week, surrounded by her close family. The singing legend rose to international acclaim during World War Two, with her inspiring songs such as The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again.
Yet not only did she entertain the troops via radio, she even embarked on morale-boosting visits to the front line during the war. By such remarkable endeavours she endeared herself into the hearts of the British public like few performers ever did.
Not only did she prove a chart-topper with her sentimental ballads, but also a poll topper. In 1939 she was awarded the title “Forces’ Sweetheart” – a moniker she still held to the end of her life at the age of 103. Then, as late as the year 2000, she received the “Spirit of the 20th Century” Award, from a nationwide poll in which she won 21% of the vote.
Such was the clear belief among the British public that Dame Vera Lynn was the personality who best represented that spirit, serving as she did as a “symbol of resilience and hope” during Britain’s Darkest Hour.
Yet this remarkable woman, who represented everything so British, actually had Irish roots.
In an interesting letter to Ireland’s Own magazine penned by Ronnie Farrelly, he recalled hearing Dame Vera Lynn talk on the Gay Byrne Radio Show about her visit to Ireland after the war. Ronnie vividly remembered how Dame Vera Lynn referred to Glasnevin by the old name of Glaswegian.
This writer was greatly intrigued by this interesting letter. Could it be that the darling of the British Armed Forces had some Irish blood? Not unusual of course but certainly a link I had never heard of before. Immediately I decided to write to the great Dame and ask her about her Irish background.
In a swift response she stated: “Yes I do have connections to Dublin, on my mother’s side. Her father came from there and his name was Simon Martin from the Glaswegian area.” It struck me that Dame Vera Lynn was very aware of her genealogy. She added, “James and Ann Martin were Simon’s parent.” I was delighted with the response but curious to know more about her visit to Dublin to see her relatives. I immediately contacted her again to ask for more details. She very graciously replied in a letter dated 2012.
"Thank you for your letter regarding my Irish relatives and I will try to answer some of your questions, but there is little I can tell you as I only met them on one occasion many many years ago.
"Yes, I did enjoy my visit to Dublin very much and of course there is so much I have forgotten as it was so long ago. I do remember visiting a little house and had tea with them and I believe that they were in the dairy business and that is all I know of them.
"It was lovely being able to meet them as I saw a little cottage where my grandfather was born, no doubt it has been demolished by now. I also remember seeing a wooden ring on the kitchen table which I was told they used to empty the potatoes in at dinner time instead of putting them on a plate.
"I cannot tell you anything about Grandfather Simon or why he left Dublin, except for the situation that was in Ireland at that time with the potatoes famine. I never heard him sing, as I was young when he died.
"Sorry there is not much to tell you about them as I said, I only met them once and it was for a short time.
"Maybe you may learn more from my relatives who are still alive, but I do not know where to contact them.
"Yours, Dame Vera Lynn D.B.E., LLD, M.Mus."
Dame Vera Margaret Lynn (née Welch) was born March 20, 1917. Her mother Annie Martin (1889–1975), who was a dressmaker, had married Bertram Samuel Welch in 1913.
A visit to Ancestry.com to find reference to Annie Martin (b.1889) on the Census Form for 1901, proved successful. There was Annie, listed as 12 year old. Sure enough, on the same form, was listed her father - Simon Martin - listed as born in Dublin, Ireland. Also on the census was Simon’s wife - listed as born in Liverpool, Lancashire.
(In the 1891 census you will see Dame Vera Lynn’s mother listed as age two.) Searching Ancestry.com for further information on Simon Martin, the Irish born grandfather of Dame Vera Lynn, likewise proved fruitful.
Documentation regarding “Port of Registry, Liverpool, Lancashire, England” from 1884 lists Simon Martin, age 25, arriving from Dublin to England, and thereby setting the course of history that would see his granddaughter rise to incredible heights.
More searching for documentation on Simon Martin revealed his marriage record. An event which took place on 27 July 1885, in East Ham, at St Mary Magdalene, Essex, England. The Groom was aged 26, and his bride bore the name Margaret Lynn. (It was this surname of her maternal grandmother, that Vera Lynn would adopt as her stage name when she was 11.) Interestingly both documents referred to above state that Dublin man Simon Martin was born c.1859. Plus one knew from the 2012 letter penned by Dame Vera Lynn herself, that “James and Ann Martin were Simon’s parent.” Armed with all this information, finding the baptism certificate of Simon Martin would not prove difficult.
Sure enough, there was the baptism record of Simon Martin on February 5, 1858 in the parish of “North Anne” at St Michan’s Roman Catholic Church, Halston Street, North Anne Street, Dublin 7.
Simon’s birthday is given as January 29, 1858. Most interesting of all in this record is the listed maiden name of Simon’s mother. The record shows that the parents of Simon were James Martin and Anne Lynn.
How remarkable to observe that Simon Martin, born in Dublin, had a mother called Anne Lynn; then moved to Liverpool and married a lady called Margaret Lynn. Ultimately would become grandfather of world-famous Dame Vera Lynn. Three Lynns - you could not make this up.
Further research on Ancestry.com also revealed the names of Simon’s siblings, all born to James Martin and Anne Lynn.
Very detailed family tree research on the whole of Dame Vera Lynn’s heritage was undertaken by Ms. Margaret Martin, the Secretary and Welfare Officer for the Java FEPOW (Far East Prisoners of War) Club. “Some 12 years ago,” Margaret Martin told me, “I invited Dame Vera Lynn to be one of our Club’s Patrons, which she accepted.” Margaret Martin, from her research, states that the parents of James Martin were Joseph Martin and Frances Dunn.
The Baptism record for James, at St Paul’s, Dublin City (Parish Variants: Arran Quay, Old Glasnevin, St. Paul’s, Arran Quay) dates the sacrament as 05/04/1837.
Margaret added that the great-grandparents of Dame Vera Lynn, James Martin and Anne Lynn were married in St Michan’s, Dublin, on November 9, 1856 and said Anne was baptised March 15, 1838 in Clontarf, Dublin. James’ parents, Joseph Martin and Frances Dunn were married at Canice’s (Finglas and St Margaret) in Dublin, on January 13, 1842.
Such are the Dublin dates and records on one of Britain’s most renowned personalities.
Ironically, for a woman who really made her name during World War Two, her first reaction to that conflict was something very different, as she explained in 2009: “I was sitting in the garden with my mum and dad having a cup of tea and listening to Chamberlain on the radio and I thought, ‘There goes my singing career. It’ll be the munitions factory for me now’.” At that time radio brought music to the masses. Hence Vera Lynn was to become a radio star with her nightly request programme called “Sincerely Yours”, which came on after the News. This show was to prove a bridge between the soldiers on the frontline and their loved ones back home.
Vera shared in the risks and dangers of wartime London. After her shows and radio broadcasts in London, she would drive through the East End to her mum’s house in Barking, listening to “the drone of aircraft overhead, the whang-whang of the ack-ack batteries and the crump of bombs.” She bravely performed in London throughout the Blitz and had some narrow escapes, not least when one of her regular venues, the Holborn Empire, was bombed. Her concerts would go on regardless through the air-raid sirens.
At this time Vera Lynn’s talent also shone upon the silver screen in We’ll Meet Again (1943) which also starred Irish actor Brefni O’Rorke; Rhythm Serenade (1943) and One Exciting Night (1944) where she gave a wonderful rendition at the piano of One Love.
Famously in 1944 Vera got even closer to the heart of the war, when as a performer with the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) she went on an arduous five-month tour of the Far East, stopping at Egypt, India and Burma, to raise the spirits of the men of the 14th Army – ‘the forgotten army’.
Great are the many stories told about her experiences. One recalls a husband and wife comedy double act with the ENSA who arrived in India. The usual ENSA hotel was full to the brim, hence for a few days the couple were given a room above a bakery. The heat from the bakery added to the natural heat of India was unbelievable. After a few days the man approached his commanding officer and complained how the ongoing heat during the day and night was draining them, making life impossible. The officer apologised for their discomfort and added: “I really wasn’t aware just how awful it must be for you; Vera Lynn was put in that room last week and didn’t say a thing”. So ended any further complaints!
Yet it was in Burma that Vera would really make a name for herself which would forever endear her in the hearts of Burma veterans. To the end of her life she regarded them as "her boys", - they were “perfect gentlemen, every one of them”.
“It wasn’t glamorous," she recalled. "I took one frock but I couldn’t wear it because of the mosquitoes, so I would wear a combat uniform with the sleeves rolled down instead. I was on my own except for my pianist and 6,000 soldiers. Had no female companions. No hairdresser. No make-up. Well, I gave up on the make-up because it just ran in the intense heat. All I could use was lipstick. I would shower with a bucket where I could.”
Vera found her visits to the field hospitals in the jungle distressing. Men would be weeping. “They cried then and they still cry when they meet me now,” she said in 2009. “They always have tears in their eyes because they are thinking of their comrades they left behind.”
The Forces’ Sweetheart was well regarded for her charity work with ex-servicemen, breast cancer, and most notably she was the founder and president of the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity.
Yet the most remarkable aspect of Dame Vera Lynn’s career is the fact that her singing career never came to an end. In 2009, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK Albums Chart with the compilation album “We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn.” In 2014, she released the collection “Vera Lynn: National Treasure” and in 2017, she released “Vera Lynn 100,” a compilation album of hits to commemorate her centennial year—it was a No. 3 hit, making her the first centenarian performer to have a Top 10 album in the charts.
As recently as last March, to mark her 103rd birthday, Dame Vera Lynn recorded a new voiceover for “We’ll Meet Again”, which addressed those separated from family and friends during the coronavirus lockdown, as well as releasing a duet of the song with Katherine Jenkins to raise money for staff and volunteers on the front line.