Greer Garson was one of the great stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was an Oscar nominee seven times, winning for Mrs. Miniver (1942). Years ago the official story was that she was born in County Down in September 1908. The studios often invented back stories for their stars. However, according to her biographer, Michael Troyan, Garson herself was particularly vague on such matters.[i] As he determined, she was four years older than she admitted to, being born in London in 1904. None the less, she did have Irishness. Indeed, she got the name Greer from her Irish mother.
Garson’s early career was primarily on the London stage. The International Movie Database (IMDb) credits her with 46 screen appearances, but many of these were on television. It’s said that Louis B. Mayer saw her in a play in London and gave her a contract for MGM.[ii] Her first feature film was the wonderful Goodbye, Mr. Chipps (1939), appearing opposite Robert Donat. The performance gained her a first Oscar nomination. She was an immediate star, though she was a late starter in Hollywood. When the film was released in May 1939 she was 34, though admitting to 30.
In Pride and Prejudice (1940) she played the part of Elizabeth Bennet, supposedly aged about 20, exchanging insults with Laurence Olivier and Edna May Oliver. Just two years later Garson played Kay Miniver, the mother of a university student. That’s the magic of Hollywood!
Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson was born in the Manor Park area of London in September 1904, the only child of George Garson and Nancy Sophia Greer. George’s parents were migrants in the mid-1860s to London from Kirkwall on the largest of the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland. Nancy Sophia was Irish, born in Drumalure (also spelt Drumaloor), north-west of Butlers Bridge, County Cavan, on 25 March 1879. Her parents were David Greer and Sophia Emily Brown. By the mid-1890s the Greer family was living in Castlewellan, County Down, so there was a grain of truth in Greer Garson’s nativity story.
Nancy Sophia Greer married George Garson on 21 October 1903 at the Presbyterian Church in Castlewellan. She was not in the Greer household at the time of the 1901 Census and she was not found as Nancy or Sophia Greer anywhere in Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales in the census that year. It seems likely that she was the ‘Nina Greer,’ a government clerk aged 21, born in Ireland, who was a lodger in Matthews Park Avenue, Stratford, Essex. At the same time her future husband George Garson was a boarder a short distance away in Glenparke Road, Forest Gate.
The Browns of Drumalure
Greer Garson’s maternal grandmother, Sophia Emily Brown, was a native of Drumalure. She was baptised into the Church of Ireland in April 1852, a daughter of Francis Brown and Eliza Jane Bell. They married in July 1849. Both were from Drumalure and were born c1828. Francis was a farmer, as was his father, William Brown. Eliza Jane’s father was, Charles Bell, also a farmer.
Greer Garson’s maternal grandfather, David Greer, was a policeman. At nineteen years of age he joined the Irish Constabulary in 1867, the year it received its ‘Royal’ designation. He was recommended by Robert Holbeche Dolling, J.P., of Manor House, Kilrea, County Londonderry. David was posted to Cavan the following year and subsequently served in Down. On becoming a head constable in 1892, he was transferred to Mayo, then Roscommon and finally Down again. He was pensioned in December 1898 and remained in Castlewellan, working as an estate office clerk. He died in March 1913 on a visit to Glasgow.
David Greer was born on 28 December 1848 in Timaconway in Tamlaght O’Crilly parish in County Londonderry. He was on baptised on 20 February 1849 at First Kilrea Presbyterian Church. He was the fifth child of Robert Greer and Nancy Bolton of Timaconway. They married on 18 October 1838 at First Kilrea. Nancy’s parents were William Bolton and Elizabeth Sloan of the neighbouring townland of Lismoyle. Robert’s parents were Robert Greer and Catherine Stewart of Timaconway. At the time of the 1831 Census a Robert ‘Grier’ was a head of household in Timaconway (otherwise Tivaconavy). The family consisted of seven individuals, six of them male and one female, all Presbyterian.
Greer Garson’s fib about being born in County Down succeeded in throwing people off the scent regarding her date of birth for years. But her maternal ancestry was entirely Irish. The surnames Brown, Bell, Bolton, Sloan, Stewart and, of course, Greer were rooted in Ulster soil.
[i] Michael Troyan: A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson.
[ii] Featured image: MGM studio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Greer_Garson-publicity.JPG