Mrs Rachel Torrens-Spence

MRS Rachel Torrens-Spence died peacefully at her home, Drumcullen House, Ballydugan, Downpatrick, on June 21, aged 99.

She was born Rachel Nora Clarke in Belfast on 16 October 1916, the first daughter and second child of Aileen and Edward Stanley Clarke, of Ballyaughlis Lodge, Lisburn. Her father was the manager of the Island Spinning Company mill in Lisburn.

She was brought up, and indeed lived her whole life, surrounded by dogs and horses and many other animals, and she hunted regularly until late middle age. She was a good tennis player, but was not very competitive, and once — to the great annoyance of her partner — deliberately threw a tennis match at the Ballycastle tournament because she thought that their opponents would be really disappointed if they were to lose.     

After school, she went out to India for a year to live with her uncle and aunt, Sir George and Lady Cunningham, while Sir George was Governor of the North West Frontier Province in Peshawar. This was a memorable experience and she helped her uncle by driving visitors up the Khyber Pass, including the famous Mrs Keppel, the former mistress of Edward VII.

On her return home in 1938, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and got lessons in first aid and home nursing. She was subsequently persuaded by her friend, Lady Musgrave, to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), which she did, though she said she regretted it later as she said that the FANYs had more fun.

She was called up when World War 2 was declared and went to Ballykinler Camp as second in command of a company of ATS girls who were cooks, waitresses, clerks, telephonists and drivers for the Royal Irish Fusiliers who were stationed there. One day, she rode her horse, followed by her donkey and her dog, across the regimental parade square, for which she was reprimanded.

She later said: “There were two air raids on Belfast while I was at Ballykinler. The Germans were trying to bomb the docks but ped bombs all over the place which did a lot of damage and there were fires everywhere. For one raid I was on weekend leave at Ballyaughlis and my father and I went outside and heard the bombers going over and the whole sky lit up with fires.”

Later she went to England to various camps and then, towards the end of the war, to the ATS Staff College. At the end of the war she was due to go abroad but got engaged instead.

She married Michael Torrens-Spence in September 1944 in Ballylesson Church, near Ballyaughlis.  Michael was then a naval test pilot at Boscombe Down and Rachel was transferred to Southern Command HQ at Wilton. It was a small wedding because of petrol rationing — in fact some people came on bicycles. They spent their honeymoon in a friend’s fishing lodge on the banks of the Bann near KIlrea. In 1945 she left the ATS as she was pregnant, and in due course Joanna, Bill, Johnny and Tom made their appearances.  

They lived for several years in the south of England and with Michael frequently away at sea, she was left to cope with the family on her own. However, there were two postings which she particularly enjoyed — one to Eglington near Londonderry in the early 1950s and a subsequent posting to Lossiemouth in Morayshire in Scotland in the late 50s where Michael was the station commander.

Michael retired from the Navy in 1962 and they returned to live in County Armagh, where she bought a horse and enjoyed hunting with Iveagh Harriers. During the Troubles she joined the RUC Reserve and did regular patrols in Portadown, often working through the night.  

In 1982 Michael and Rachel moved to Michael’s family home, Drumcullen House, Ballydugan. She became a volunteer helper at the local Riding for the Disabled group, worked for SSAFA, pursued her interest in gardening and entertained their many friends.

Rachel was interested in people and, to the end of her days, enjoyed having visitors.  She always wanted to hear what they had been doing. Her opening gambit was often “tell me the news?” and she loved a good story.  She had forthright views, but was always prepared to listen to others with different views

She had a remarkably robust constitution, and remained in good health and active into her 100th year.   She kept her sharp intellect and excellent memory right up to the end, and in later life enjoyed doing the crossword puzzles and playing bridge with friends, reading the papers thoroughly every day, and retaining an active interest in current affairs — including the Brexit referendum, about which she had predictably trenchant views.

She is survived by four children, nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren, who would like to thank the many kind people in Ballydugan, Hollymount and beyond who looked out for her, and helped her, in her later years.


The Very Rev Henry Hull, Dean of Down, conducted yesterday’s thanksgiving service in Hollymount Church.