Obituary: Mrs Yvonne Friers – Holywood centenarian who was renowned for her colourful hats

In later life Yvonne became well known for the colourful hats she wore, crocheted by her daughter-in-law Josephine.

By Ruth Dowds

YVONNE Friers, the widow of famed cartoonist and illustrator Rowel, has died at her Holywood home in Victoria Road at the age of 100, following a short illness.

She was lucky to have enjoyed excellent health throughout her life and until six weeks ago she was still fit enough to engage in her daily two-hour walk.

She was a well-known and much respected resident in Holywood, where she loved to shop for clothes and hats, enjoying the conversations with strangers that her colourful headwear often attracted.

Family was central to Yvonne’s life and she shared the family home with her photographer son Jeremy, his wife Josephine and their son, Rowel, a well-known concert pianist who was named in memory of his grandfather.

She travelled with Rowel junior and his parents to all his international and Irish piano competitions, always supportive and proud of his tremendous achievements.

Family was perhaps particularly important to Yvonne because of the challenging circumstances of her own upbringing.

She was the youngest of 10 children, born to Eleanor Henderson and her husband Joseph, a farmer and draper.

Yvonne was christened Evelyn Maud Henderson and born in Beragh on December 1st, 1923, though her birth certificate wrongly recorded the date as December 8.

“In those days you had to travel by horse and trap and it probably took her dad a week to get to Belfast to register the birth, so it was probably registered on the day he arrived,” explains Jeremy.

When her mother died within a day of her birth, Yvonne, the name her mother had wanted for her, and her siblings were sent to various family members to be raised.

Yvonne remained in Beragh for the first years of her life, raised by an elderly relative by the name of Mrs Kidd.

When Mrs Kidd became too old to care for a young child, she sent Yvonne to Belfast to live with her daughter, known to the family as Aunt Agnes (Kidd).

Yvonne never forgot her introduction to life in Belfast, despatched from the Beragh countryside on pony and trap to her new home in Stranmillis.

Aunt Agnes had been a nurse during both World Wars and was proud to have delivered Scott of the Antarctic.

She and Yvonne enjoyed a close relationship, but she later heard that her brother Harold had fared less well.

Unhappy in the home where he was being brought up, he ran away at the age of 14 and pretended to be 16 so that he could join the Merchant Navy.

He became a deep-sea diver and later set up factories in Australia and the United States making handbags and hats.

After travelling the world, he worked for the BBC in London as an electrician and in 1966 he traced Yvonne and visited the family in Holywood.

That was the year the family moved to Victoria Road, more than a decade after Yvonne and Rowel first met as members of Fitzroy Church Dramatic Society where Rowel took an interest in stage design.

“Mum was very excited because she had been watching his cartoons in various papers,” says Jeremy.

“There was a story that before they were married dad called and she wasn’t expecting him. When he knocked the door she answered and had a face mask on and dad said, ‘Oh you must have known I was coming, coz you’ve caked your bake’.”

The couple married at McCracken Memorial Church on August 27, 1954, and daughter Vivien came along in 1956, with Jeremy following in 1959 and Timothy in 1962.

While Rowel worked on his satirical cartoons and illustrations, Yvonne opened the doors of the family home to children in the local area, running Brookside Nursery play school for over 30 years.

She was proud that many of her young charges went on to become doctors, surgeons and lawyers and she could even count a famous actor amongst them in the form of Jamie Dornan.

Jeremy recalls that a number of well-known people of the time come along to entertain the children, amongst them former Downtown Radio presenter Candy Devine.

Yvonne also supported Rowel’s voluntary work as chairman of a Cystic Fibrosis charity and she accompanied him to a Downing Street event in the 1990s, hosted by then Prime Minister John Majors.

She was also pleased to have met the actress Jenny Agutter and Princess Alexandra through that charity work.

Yvonne was a keen gardener, her skills evident in how she maintained her own garden which was featured in a number of specialist magazines.

Jeremy laughs at the memory of how his mum acquired some of the plants and flowers she nurtured.

“She would be out with the Great Dane I had and she would quite happily wander into someone’s garden to take a cutting and blame the dog for pulling her in there, but it was her who took the dog in there.”

She was equally passionate about her hats, proudly sporting the colourful creations that her daughter-in-law Josephine crocheted for her.

Says Jeremy: “Everywhere she went strangers always stopped and admired her hats and she loved that.

“If we were ever trying to rush her out of the house she would say, ‘stop stop stop, my hat’ and we would have to go back to the house to get the hat because she said people didn’t notice her unless she had her hat.”

Amongst those extending their condolences to the Friers family was North Down MLA Stephen Dunne.

He said: “Mrs Friers was a remarkable lady who enjoyed life and was a great character, and always had a smile and chat for everyone who she met, particularly on her many walks in Holywood, almost every day.

“In 2022, I had the pleasure to welcome Mrs Friers along to Parliament Buildings, Stormont, to show her some of her late husband’s famous caricatures and drawings which are still proudly on permanent display in Stormont to this day.

“Mrs Friers really enjoyed seeing her husband’s work, and took great pride in the fact that his work was still so prominent, so many years on.”

A Service of Thanksgiving took place yesterday (Wednesday) in St. Philip and St. James Church, Holywood, followed by burial in the family grave at Redburn Cemetery, Holywood. 

In remembrance of Yvonne’s childhood journey to Stranmillis on pony and trap, Jeremy arranged for a horse-drawn hearse to take his mother to her final resting place.

The service was attended by her three children, Vivien, Jeremy and Timothy, her grandchildren Matthew, Timmy, Arun, Rowel, and Karishma, and great granddaughter Mai.