PORTADOWN IN EARLY DAYS.
In attempting to write anything of the history of Portadown one is at once confronted with the great difficulty of discovering material. From the scanty records available it must be concluded that prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century the place was of little account, containing a population considerably below one thousand souls, and without a place of worship of any kind. The first to remedy to some extent this latter disability were the Methodists. Not, indeed, that the good seed sown by the Rev. John Wesley fell on congenial soil. Seven times did that saintly man of God visit the vicinity of Portadown ere his adherents were gathered together in class in a private house, and ten years more passed before the first house of worship was opened in 1802.
So early as 1756, Mr. Wesley preached in a place named Terryhugan, near Tandragee, where he got a very cordial reception. He returned two years later to discover that the people's love for him was such that a room had been specially built for his reception. On a third visit, in 1760, he writes in his journal:-- "I spent a comfortable night in the Prophet's Chamber nine feet long, seven broad and six high. The ceiling, floor, and walls were all of the same marble, vulgarly called clay."
Some other places with names more familiar may be mentioned:-- Kilmararty (spelled differently now) had a small preaching house erected in 1767 and was visited the same year by Mr. Wesley who wrote of his visit:-- "About noon I preached near Dawson's Grove to a large and serious congregation, but to a far larger in the evening at Kilmararty. I do not wonder the Gospel runs so swiftly in these parts. The people in general have the finest natural tempers which I ever knew; they have the softness and courtesy of the Irish, with the seriousness of the Scotch, and the openness of the English." Derryanville -- a name very familiar -- owed its first introduction to Methodism to a good woman who heard one of its preachers so far away as County Meath, and so influenced was she that she induced a local preacher to travel seventy miles to her home, where a society was formed. At Bluestone a society was founded about 1770 by two men of the name of Malcomson, one of whom, named Joseph, had the honour of establishing there the first Sabbath School in Ulster and the second in Ireland.
It was in 1790 that the first Society was formed in Portadown, and in 1802 the first chapel was erected. Of the makers of Portadown one may mention two whose names are prominently identified with the progress of Methodism. Unquestionably the most outstanding name is that of the founder of the Shillington family in this neighbourhood. In 1789 a young man of twenty-two years of age came to a farm in Drumcree from Aughagallon. In the course of a few years he married a Miss Averell. He established himself as a grain merchant, large quantities of grain being then marketed in Portadown. Later he came to reside in the town when he laid the foundation of the business subsequently carried on by his son Thomas Averell, his grandson Thomas, and at present by his greatgrandson David Graham Shillington, M.P. During a period of 120 years the business has gone on uninterruptedly, increasing in volume and importance, while all the time the name of Shillington has been a synonym for perseverance, integrity and fair dealing.
It is also on record that an open door in Annagh was provided for the Methodist preachers by a Mr. Moses Paul, who occupied an influential position in the neighbourhood. A brother of this gentleman was the founder of the Drapery business known by the name of William Paul and Son, which ran through three generations before it finally passed from the original owners.
A pen picture of Portadown very far from flattering is to be found in a volume entitled: "Tours in Ireland in 1813 and 1814 by an Englishman, written in 1816 on another visit to Ireland."
One must assume that the writer was quite unprejudiced and wrote his impressions without bias. It is all the more to the credit of the town that the influences detrimental to commercial progress which were so apparent at the time of his visit very soon disappeared and the progress he justly believed possible soon began to manifest itself.
It is somewhat singular that the town of Clonmel with which he compares it, and whose population was then approaching 10,000, has increased but little since the date on which he wrote, while Portadown has increased at least twelvefold. The extract runs thus--
"From thence we proceeded to Portadown through a country in a high state of cultivation and improvement, thickly inhabited by weavers and very small farmers. This is but a small town, consisting principally of one short but wide street. Since I first knew it, it has been much improved by several new houses having been built, and others rebuilt of brick in a handsome manner; and yet it has for many years appeared strange to me that its improvement has been so trifling. I never yet saw an inland town better situated for trade. It is built on the banks of the Bann and of the Canal from Newry to Lough Neagh, whereby it has navigable communication with five of the most populous counties in Ireland, and in the midst of a very populous, rich, and highly cultivated country, and, though it has a great linen market, and by far the greatest market of corn for many miles around, yet it still remains but a small town of very insignificant appearance. I know not how to account for this otherwise than by attributing it to a less enterprising spirit in the neighbouring inhabitants (or a pride that restrains gentlemen from being engaged in business) than appears in other parts of the island: when I compare it with Clonmel in the South, which though very well situated for trade has not all the advantages of Portadown, daily increasing in wealth and containing nearly ten thousand inhabItants, whereas Portadown contains only eight hundred and sixty-seven."
A few pages further on he refers to Tandragee, of which he writes: "This little town, containing about two hundred houses and 1095 inhabitants, is situated nine miles east of Armagh; it possesses some very capital advantages, whether we consider its natural situation or other matters of much moment. As to the former it cannot be easily exceeded, standing in a fine, rich, and beautifully improved country, and though in the County of Armagh it is in the vicinity of some of the most charming parts of the County of Down. The country around is thickly inhabited by wealthy linen bleachers, and the small farmers, who are very comfortable, are all engaged in the linen manufacture, so that it became no difficult matter to have a weekly market of linen, the average value of which amount to £2000. In this town there are but two places of worship, a church and a Methodist meeting house. The church being rebuilding the service was performed in the latter. I was at church there one Sunday and was greatly pleased to see a congregation of nearly five hundred persons very decently and many genteelly dressed, some of whom had walked two or three miles. A short time after we were all collected a fine carriage with footmen in grand liveries drove up to the house, out of which stepped the Rector and his family, whose elegant glebe house is about a quarter of a mile distant, and it was very fine and dry weather. I was much edified at seeing the great splendour of this gospel minister so far superior to any of his auditors."
In explanation of this he goes on to say that the glebe extends to 560 acres, let at 20s per acre, while there are tithes to the extent of £900 more.
Of a different character is the description of Portadown to be found in a volume "Tours in Ulster," by T. B. Doyle, published in 1854: "Four miles farther is the thriving little town of Portadown, situate upon the Bann, in a very superior trading position, having a sufficient depth of water to float vessels of fifty to sixty tons burden. By means of the Ulster Canal it carries on a communication between Belfast and Enniskillen, and with Newry by the Newry Navigation. The railroad between Armagh and Belfast opens up another important commercial communication. The markets are well supplied with agricultural produce, and with linens and yarns from the surrounding country. The town, though small, is wealthy and respectable, and is much noted for the spirit and enterprise of its merchants."
A long description of the river Bann follows, in which the following appears:
The Pearls of the Bann
"The river Bann was much noted for its fine pearls some of which realised large sums. An instance is given by Sir R Reading in a letter to the Royal Society in 1688, in which he states: 'That a vast number of merchantable pearls are offered for sale every summer assizes, some gentlemen of the county making good advantage thereof; one pearl was bought for fifty shillings which weighed 36 carats and was worth fully £40. Again: "A miller found a pearl which he sold for £4 1Os to a man who sold it for £10, who disposed of it to Lady Glenawley for £30, with whom I saw it in a necklace for which she refused £80 from the Duchess of Ormond."
One more quotation must suffice -- "In 1842 the great novelist, W. M. Thackeray, published "The Irish Sketch Book," descriptive of a visit he paid during 1842. His reference to Portadown is as follows: "The little town of Portadown, with its comfortable unpretending houses, its squares and market place, its pretty quay, with craft along the river -- a steamer building on the dock close to mills and warehouses -- that look in a full state of prosperity -- was a pleasant conclusion to this ten miles drive, that ended at the newly opened railway station. The distance hence to Belfast is twenty-five miles; Lough Neagh may be seen at one point of the line, and the Guide Book says that the station towns of Lurgan and Lisburn are extremely picturesque; but it was night when I passed by them, and after a journey of an hour and a quarter reached Belfast."
In looking over the files of the "Portadown News" the writer came upon a very interesting document regarding which he thinks few of the present generation have any knowledge. It is a Memorial to both Houses of Parliament from Portadown in July, 1866, and signed by the then Chairman of the Commissioners, who is also described as the Seneschal, John O. Woodhouse, and is occasioned by the fact that in a Reform Bill recently introduced Portadown is not mentioned. It recites that at the last census the population was 5,524, and is now calculated to be 7,000, that it contains eight power-loom factories and flour mills containing at least 2,000 workers, that there are at least 30 H.L. manufacturers employing 10,000 workers, that 784 houses were built in the past seven years, and that the yearly value of the produce and cattle sold in the weekly markets and in the fairs exceeds £253,000, and concludes: "Comparing the present population with 820 in the year 1820 the percentage of increase is greater than any other town in Ireland. That in the Reform Bill of 1851 it was proposed to unite Portadown with Armagh, that the claim of Portadown to share in a member is now greatly increased, but that nevertheless Portadown was not included in the Bill introduced last session. Petitioners therefore pray that in any Bill that may be passed for a redistribution of seats a member be allotted to Portadown, or that Portadown may be allowed to share in the return of a member with some other town."
All this goes to show that our fathers, to use an old Scotch expression, had "a guid conceit o' themsels," for which we should respect them all the more.
As this chapter relates to the history of the town in early days it will be interesting to relate that in the year 1828 a memorial was presented to the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, signed by twenty-nine householders, asking that the town might have corporate government as regards lighting, cleansing and watching. After enquiry the request was granted, and twenty-one Commissioners were elected by nomination. Mr. Thomas Shillington was chairman, and Mr. William Colgan clerk, the salary attached to the office being £4 annually. The Commissioners decided to restrict their operations to cleansing and paving only. In the year 1855 the town adopted the provisions of the Towns' Improvement Act, which came into force the year before. From this early beginning in local government the town has largely benefited. It is safe to say that since the date mentioned no town in Ireland has made greater progress, and this must be largely attributed to the wisdom, discretion, and the progressive methods of those entrusted with its civic government.
In order that the continual progress. of Portadown, may be brought home to the reader, and a permanent record preserved, the undernoted table will prove interesting. It is a comparative statement of the number of inhabited houses and population, since such enumeration was begun, as supplied by the Census returns, together with the Poor-Law Valuation so far as this latter information has been procurable:--
It is well known that no Census was taken in Ireland in 1921, so there are no official figures. Progression was severely hindered by the war, no houses being built. This will be seen by a comparison of the Valuation for the ten years 1911-1921, which is only £1181 compared with £6249 in the previous decade. It is very pleasing to learn that for the year 1921-1922 there has been an increase of £2002, almost double the previous ten years. What then is the population? A comparison of the number of houses would not reveal the true increase as it is unquestionable the number of persons in each house is, on the whole, greater than ten years ago. It will be quite safe to put the present population at round about 12,700.
May the future years bring a continuance of the happiness and prosperity so long enjoyed. Amidst the turmoil and strife of war, as well as of the civil commotion of the past years, nothing has brought so much comfort to the hearts of the people as the fact that peace and contentment have reigned here.