Johnny Houston was born on the 14th May 1889 at Gloonan, Ahoghill, the son of shoemaker John Houston and his wife Mary Elliott - the record originally read 21st May, was amended to the 17th May, and an initialled marginal note says 14th May. The parent couple had married in Ballymena’s Register Office on the 6th January 1876. John (25) and Mary (22) are both recorded as being from Ahoghill, and their parents, Leslie and Thomas respectively, are said to be weavers. Handloom weaving was by then a dying industry and this may explain their leaving the village.
The family moved to Ballymena, to the south end of the town that is known as Harryville - it is supposedly so-called as the local landlord was at one time Henry O’Hara. The 1901 Irish census records John, 44 and still a shoemaker, at Alfred Street, Harryville; ‘Bella’ was 34. They listed children Leslie (15) and John (4). John and his brother Leslie, the latter born at Ahoghill on the 13th November 1884 and to die of wounds received in action as 7378 Private Leslie Houston, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, remained in the immediate area. Leslie had married 19-year-old Lizzie McFall of Patrick Place in Harryville Presbyterian Church on the 16th June 1906, and in 1911 they were living in Henry Street, Harryville with daughters Mary (4) and Annie (2); he was employed by H. Lancashire, Church Street, Ballymena as an 'asssorted water bottler'. The couple had four children by the time of Leslie’s death in 1914. John remained single.
Leslie was had played for Linfield Swifts and was for many years connected with local team South End Rangers. Johnnie, too, played local football with South End Olympic, but his talents on the football field were to take him much further. He played in the Irish League for Linfield FC in 1912 and 1913 and then transferred to the English League with Everton, making twenty-six appearances for them between 1913 and 1915. He returned to Linfield FC when he no longer got regular games at Everton and played for Linfield FC from 1915 to 1919. Post war he played for Ulster Rangers and then went from 1919 to 1920 to the Scottish League team Partick Thistle. During his footballing career he won six full international caps for Ireland and two Irish League caps. He won club honours with Linfield, being on Irish Cup winning teams in 1911/12 and in 1915/1916.
Local newspapers say that Leslie Houston was a reservist recalled to the colours in 1914 and it appears that Joseph Houston also had served in the Royal Irish Rifles before the First World War. The local press stated in 1915 that ‘John Houston of Ballymena, the Irish International Association football player, has joined the 4th Bn. Royal Irish Rifles, stationed at Carrickfergus, retaining the rank of Sergeant which he previously held in the 2nd Bn …. He is a brother of Private Leslie Houston who was killed in action.’
Irish regiments did not have ‘Territorial Force’ units, but they all had ‘Extra Reserve’ or 'Special Reserve' battalions. The 4th Royal Irish Rifles (Extra Reserve) had been formed from a militia unit in 1908 as part of Haldane’s Army Reforms, and prior to the Great War it was based at Newtownards, County Down. It was moved on 6th August 1914 to Holywood and then to Carrickfergus. Cyril Falls says in his History of the First Seven Battalions: The Royal Irish Rifles (now The Royal Ulster Rifles) in the Great War that “The 4th Battalion moved to Carrickfergus from Holywood in April 1915. Colonel McFerran took over command in succession to Colonel F Findlay. Detachments were found at Kilroot Battery, Larne Harbour and Cable Station at Whitehead. Bombing instruction was given to the battalion during the spring.” In November 1917 they moved to Newry and eventually went in April 1918 to Larkhill Camp in England.
Extra Reserve units contained unfit or underage regulars, army reservists temporarily surplus to the mobilisation requirements of the Regular battalions, partially trained men, recruits, etc. They did not serve overseas, their role being to supply reinforcements to the battalions at the front. Houston was a recalled reservist and, as stated in the local press, ‘joined the 4th Bn. Royal Irish Rifles … at Carrickfergus, retaining the rank of Sergeant which he previously held in the 2nd Bn.’ The 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles were on the war's outbreak based at Tidworth, Wiltshire, a part of the 7th Brigade, 3rd Division, and they were immediately mobilised for war. They then went first to Rouen, France.
The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles had seen heavy fighting before Houston arrived among them. Houston was probably serving initially with the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles in the 16th Division before they were absorbed into 2nd Royal Irish Rifles on the 14th November 1917. The 7th Royal Irish Rifles captured Guillemont on the Somme, fought at Ginchy, Somme, then at Messines (1917) and were at Langemark and the start of Third Ypres (Passchendaele).
The 2nd Battalion saw action at Mons, took part in the rear-guard action at Solesmes, fought in the battles at Le Cateau, Marne, Aisne, and at La Bassee, Messines and in the First Battle of Ypres. They participated in the winter campaign of 1914-15 and were involved in the first attack on Bellewaarde and in the fighting at Hooge. On the 18th of October 1915 they transferred with 7th Brigade to 25th Division and they continued in the thick of the fighting. They fought to defend Vimy Ridge in May 1916, joined the Somme attack shortly after it’s opening and were part of the 75th Brigade’s costly attack near Thiepval on the 3rd of July 1916. They were involved in the Division actions at Bazentin, Pozieres and Ancre Heights. In 1917 they were in action at Messines, attacking between the Wulverghem-Messines and Wulverghem-Wytschaete roads. At Passchendaele (Third Ypres) they fought at Pilkem Ridge.
They moved to the 36th Ulster Division on 13th of November 1917, first to the 108th Brigade and subsequently to the 107th Brigade. They were soon in action again on the Somme, in the Battles of the Lys and the final actions around Flanders. On the 11th November, the day the fighting ended, they were at Mouscron, north east of Tourcoing.
Houston held the rank of acting Colour Serjeant when he won the Military Medal in 1917 for conspicuous bravely. It is recorded that "during an attack on the enemy’s lines all the officers were put out of action and Sergeant Houston took command of his platoon. He led the attack in face of a murderous fire, advanced 100 yards and succeeded in taking and holding the objective for 36 hours until relief arrived". He was as good a soldier as he was a footballer.
The Liverpool Football Echo, December 1, 1917, celebrated his award. They were the ‘first in the field in England to announce the honour that has been bestowed upon Johnnie Houston, the Everton winger’ and they offered ‘Hearty congratulation to Houston and all good wishes’. They noted how Houston was always ‘endowed with unusual pluck’.
Houston survived the war and had won a Bar to his Military Medal - this is confirmed by Cyril Falls in his book 'History of the 36th (Ulster) Division'. The first award is noted in The Edinburgh Gazette, 21 November 1917, Issue 13167, page 2415; the second is noted in The Edinburgh Gazette, 13 February 1919, Issue 13402, page 842.
We also know he had married in St George’s, Belfast on the 1st July 1915. He was then 26 years old, a Royal Irish Rifles soldier, and he gave his address as The Barracks, Carrickfergus. His bride was Lillian Gilbert, 19 years old and from 52, Maryville Street, Belfast. Her father is named as Robert Gilbert, Royal Field Artillery. Houston, as already reported, continued to play football after the war, notably for Partick Thistle.
A newspaper report on his retirement states that was employed by the Belfast GPO (General Post Office) after 1929, initially as a hall porter, and it also states that he was commissioned in the field, date unknown, and later served in World War Two as a 2nd Lieutenant ‘in the Tank Corps’.
He unsurprisingly played football for the Royal Ulster Rifles, the name of the unit after Ireland’s partition and 1st January 1921, and that he was part of the first Irish team to ‘win the All-Army Cup’.
Houston died suddenly on 11 December 1964 at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, his address being given as 558, Oldpark Road, Belfast. He was buried in Dundonald Cemetery on the 14th December.