Author Lydia Foster was from Newmills
A question posed in this newspaper back in 1997 unravelled the mystery of precisely who Lydia Mary Foster was - and it turned out that the author of Tyrone Among The Bushes and several other superb novels with a local twist was actually from Newmills!
The answer to the little poser was supplied by a great neice of the lady in question. Wishing to retain her anonymity, she revealed that Lydia Foster was born in the village, the daughter of Reverend James Foster and his wife Mary, nee Harkness, who lived in Newmills Presbyterian Manse.
She had two sisters, Jane and Susan (who was better-known as Bessie), and three brothers - Nevin, James and William. The only one to marry was Nevin, who became manager of the Hillsborough Weaving Company and was one fo the most famous ornithological experts in the whole of Ireland.
It was Nevin’s grand-daughter, living in Clogher, who contacted the Tyrone Times with information on the family, some of the detail procured from a leaflet, The Rev James Foster of Newmills 1850-90, and also The Bush That Burned in Tyrone by John T.Carson.
The family grew up in the village, but the three girls then moved to set up a private school in Belfast after the untimely death of their parents, Mary in 1884 and James six years later.
Lydia was educated at home and later at Miss Black’s school in Holywood, where she boarded during the school week.
The sisters ran a Ladies Collegiate School at Balmoral, later moving to the Lisburn Road and then to Maryville Park. The school was mostly attended by local girls and boarders, but subsequently they enrolled a number of boys.
Lydia’s interest included music and animals and she especially loved her dogs. Indeed, in later life she became an avid supporters of the RSPCA.
The girls lived frugally but each had a great sense of humour and one of the things they inherited from their father was his strong conviction about the evils of drink - and they were enthusiastic members of the Catch-My-Pal Movement.
On one occasion, Lydia twice tried to stand and make a verbal contribution at a meeting, only to be stopped by Bessie. Asking later why she had not been allowed to speak, Bessie explained to her that the leader of the meeting had requested that all ‘reclaimed drunkards” talk about what the movement had accomlished!
Following that, the sisters often made fun of one another about the ‘reclaimed drunkard’ in their midst.
Alas, this was a hint of what was to become an increasing problem in Lydia’s life, her hearing difficulty.
The school prospered for more than twenty years, but Bessie died on Christmas Day of 1917 and Jane passed away on October 28 of the following year. And then, just four years later, William - who had shared the sisters’ home - also died, effectively leaving Lydia alone.
There were none of the social benefits we know today for a single woman of almost sixty years, but Lydia possessed plenty of what her manse upbringing has instilled within her, namely grace, grit, resourcefulness and the grace of God. So she decided to write.
She penned short stories, poems and plays, and contributed articles to magazines and periodicals.
However, ill-health began to hinder her efforts and her deafness got worse. She continued to occupy the family pew in Malone Church, although for years she never heard a word that was spoken by the minister.
Lydia had long yearned to write a story on Newmills Church and Prsebyterian life in county Tyrone and she realised this ambition via her book entitled The Bush That Burned. It became a best-seller, combining the character and activity of the Prsebyterian Church in Ireland with a deep knowledge of human nature and a fine touch of humour.
Manse Larks appeared in 1936, telling the story of family life in Newmills Manse and, in many ways, Lydia’s own life is portrayed in its pages.
Tyrone Among The Bushes appeared next. It had the stamp of a poet who had never lost her sincere love for her native county.
Lydia wrote her second most successful book, Elders Daughters, when she was 74 years old and, within four months, she saw it sell out two editions before she went to her eternal reward on December 13 of 1943. And her wish was that she wanted to be buried in Newmills.
At the time of her death, John C. Arnold KC wrote a eulogy in which he stated: ‘Newmills received her back to rest almost within the sound of the river that gurgles down under the viaduct to find its home in Lough Neagh, and well within the sound of the psalms when they float out through the open window. She would rather be there than in the nave of Westminster Abbey”.
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