Brian Desmond Hurst was born in East Belfast on 12th February 1895 as Hans Moore Hurst changing his name on the outbreak of the First World War.  He was born into a working class family and in the early years the family followed their father's work between the Belfast and Scottish shipyards depending on where work was available. Tragically Brian's mother, Esther Hurst (nee Hawthorn), died in 1899.


The Hurst Family Portrait with Brian sitting on his mother's knee - copyright © The Allan Smith Collection

Back row standing:  Brian's beloved sister Sarah Patricia Hurst (always known as Patricia) born in Govan, Scotland in September 1882 who died a spinster on 27th January 1963. After leaving Belfast Patricia had briefly lived in Scotland before settling in London and working for Brian's friend (see Hollywood years)  Henry de vere Clifton (known as Harry) whose family had built Lytham Hall in Lancashire and owned Kildalton Castle on Islay.  Harry is thought to be the model for for the Brideshead Revisited Character, Sebastian Flyte.  Patricia lived at 1 Deanery Mews, Deanery Street London W1 (next to The Dorchester Hotel) and therefore remained close to Brian throughout his life when he was living across the road in Belgravia. 

Seated left to right: James Hurst (born 15 September 1888 in Govan, and died a bachelor in 1911 when 22

Father Robert Hurst a metal worker in the shipyards of Govan and Belfast. Born in County Armagh 1855 and died 27 March 1911.

Sitting on his father's knee Robert Hurst (junior) born in East Belfast 1890 and died in the flu epidemic in 1917 being buried in Dundonald cemetery.  Robert was also a metal worker in the shipyard and looked after Brain after his mother and father died (living together at 46 Welland Street as the Ulster Covenant signatures show below).  Brian's ashes are scattered on his big brother's grave.

Sitting on his mother's knee.  Brain born Hans Moore Hurst on 12 February 1895 in East Belfast.

Mother Esther Hurst (nee Hawthorn).  Born in Banbridge, County Down on 15 February 1866 and died 27 September 1899.  She was pregnant with her 8th child when she died and her baby was buried with her.

William Hurst.  Born in England 1886 and worked in the shipyard (the 1901 census records his occupation as a hammerboy), William married Maggie and they had no children.

Sitting on the ground: Mary Hurst (Minnie) was born on 7 May 1892.  The 1901 census records that Mary was born in Scotland but no record of her death has been established, and it is believed she died as a teenager.

Robert and Esther had another son, also christened Robert and born 28 November 1884 but no record of his death has been established.  It is believed to have occurred before 1890 for Robert (junior) to then take the same name.

Brian lived at 33 Finvoy Street in East Belfast at the time of the 1901 census.  In 1910 he was living closer to the shipyards at 112 Tamar Street, East Belfast. 

Robert (senior) remarried in August 1900 marrying Margaret Shilliday (nee Wright).

Brian attended the New Road School, a Public Elementary School, on the junction of the Newtownards Road and Hemp Street in East Belfast. This is now the premises of the Constitutional Club.  The signage of the school is still just about visible on the Hemp Street wall of the building.

School Wall in Hemp Street

New Road School in East Belfast - copyright © The Allan Smith Collection
New Road School sign on the wall along Hemp Street - copyright © The Allan Smith Collection


Ticket for the launch of the Titanic

Gates to Harland and Wolff Shipyard - copyright © The Allan Smith Collection
The launch of the "Titanic" 31st May 1911. Brian was at the launch

Brian Desmond Hurst's father (Robert, senior) and older brothers, (Robert junior, James and William) were iron-workers in the Harland and Wolff shipyard. The photos show the gates to the entrance to the shipyard that are still preserved  in their original form today. Brian would have passed through these gates when visiting his father and brothers. The view looks across the road to where the engine sheds used to be and which had been demolished at the time of the photo (April 2009) to make way for a new University complex.  The housing on Welland Street has largely been demolished with only the properties adjoining the Newtownards Road remaining. Brian's residences on Tamar Street have also been demolished but the Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes can just be seen in the distance and this allows you to picture the scene of the Hurst's walk to work and Brian's 'breakfast run' (see below).

Photos courtesy of the Allan Smith Collection



By the time of the 1911 census Robert (senior) had died earlier in the year and the children who remained (Brain, Mary and Robert) were living with their step mother Margaret and still on Tamar Street and therefore close to the shipyard in East Belfast but this time at number 59.  The 1911 census is shown below.  Also in the house were Brian's step sister Martha and his half brothers Hugh, George and David.

Tamar Street
Tamar Street where the cranes at Harland and Wolf shipyard can just be seen on the horizon at the end of the street - © The Allan Smith Collection
1911 Census including an entry for Hans Hurst (later Brian)

By September 1912 Brain had moved out of the family house to 46 Welland Street in East Belfast and only a few hundred yards from Tamar Street.  He was now living with his big brother, Robert.   On 28 September 1912 Brain (signing as Hans) and Robert joined just under half a million men and women who signed the Ulster Covenant (men) and the parallel Declaration (women). The Ulster Covenant was part of a response by Ulster Unionists to the efforts of successive Westminster governments to settle the running sore of the 'Irish Question' by giving Ireland a limited measure of local autonomy known as 'Home Rule'.

Robert's Covenant Signature
Brian's Covenant Signature (as Hans)
Welland Street
Welland Street, most of the street which ran down to Tamar Street suffered bomb damage in the Second World War and has been long demolished and replaced with a newer housing development visible behind the wall at the end of the present street - © The Allan Smith Collection

Margaret died on 22 December1912  leaving Brian's half brothers as orphans.  A challenging existence and no doubt one of the reasons why Hugh falsified his age and joined the army aged 13 and is claimed as possibly the youngest soldier from Ulster that fought on the Somme. David joined the Navy and remained single and little is known of George.


In August 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War Brian enlisted as a private in the British Army and changed his name from Hans to Brian soon afterwards. He saw service with the 6th (Service) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles at the battle of Chunuk Bair in Gallipoli, the Balkans and the Middle East. At the battle of Chunuk Bair his regiment was slaughtered. Philip Orr in his book Field of Bones recounts the experience of the Irish Division at Gallipoli. On the 6th (Service) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles Philip Orr explains "They had set out a few hours before for the Chunuk Bair with twenty officers and over 700 men. Several stragglers and those who had lost their way returned to base in the hours that lay ahead but by the evening of 10 August the Hampshires and the Rifles had been broken in what amounted to a cruel massacre". For more information please visit The First World War section of this site.


Brian was interviewed by Punch magazine in 1969 and the article contained the following quotation


After the war Brian returned to Belfast to study at the college of journalism in Belfast’s Royal Avenue.  He found Belfast to be a place of turmoil as the troubles of the Irish War of Independence spilled onto the street of Belfast.

The following photograph of Royal Avenue in 1922 reveals the sort of scene that Brian may have witnessed as he walked to work to his college on Royal Avenue.


Photo courtesy of the 'Belfast Telegraph' photo archive section www.photosales.belfasttelegraph.co.uk



Finding life in Belfast constraining he took a government grant to emigrate to Canada sometime in 1921. He wanted to follow his artistic ambition and enrolled at the Toronto College of Art. After two years he left and went to France to study art at École des Beaux Arts in Paris.

The following full-page article is from the American newspaper The Independent (which ceased publicating in 1927) and documents the Belfast Riots during the Irish War of Independence.

The Independent (USA) 2nd October 1920

The Independent (USA) 2nd October, 1920 covering the Belfast Riots - Courtesy of The Allan Smith Collection