'Memories' Portadown  P4

By Harry Foy

The Big Apple

Portadown has always been synonymous with apples.  At the turn of the century, to provide an outlet for the apples grown locally, A Mr James Grew started manufacturing cider.  Soon Grew's cider could be bought in pubs across the province.  Eventually the rights were bought over by the famous Bulmers Cider Company, to whom Grews continued shipping apples.

During the forties, apples were sold to pulping factories to make puree but the boom in apple growing came in the early fifties with the demand for canned apples.   It was the Golden Years for apple growers in Co.Armagh.  Gas stores nicknamed 'sleeping factories' sprang up overnight.  First class apples were stored for selling during the spring and the others, known as the peelers, were sent to the caning factories.   The demand was so great that peeling stations opened up in every vacant building.  People could be seen going to work at all times of the day as these stations remained open until ten at night.  Each worker had a small peeling machine and the peeled apples were cut into slices and stored in a brime solution.  There was no regulations governing these establishments so the black economy flourished.  Children worked alongside their mothers after school.  No cards were stamped and no tax was deducted.  Lorry loads of prepared apples in barrels could be seen speeding to the canning factories, with brime splashing all over the place.  Some employers even agreed that milk churns and boxes of apples could be delivered to houses so that the whole family could join in.

The conditions under which a lot of the fruit was prepared left a lot to be desired.  I once saw apples being prepared in an old byre with children as young as nine years using a peeling machine.  It was a wonderful opportunity for families to earn extra money, so they cashed in on it.  Eventually, after about ten years, the trade dried up but it was good while it lasted.

The Big Big Animal

One year during school holidays, I joined the local land army.  It was a scheme devised to help farmers during the harvesting.  You reported at the Labour Exchange in Church Street each morning to be divided into squads of eight workers.  Covered lorries then took us to the farms to help the farmer.  My first day was haymaking, which I enjoyed.  At the lunch break the farmer's wife would arrive with baskets of sandwiches and large kettles of tea.  It was great sitting with your back to a haystack while you devoured huge rough-cut sandwiches and endless mugs of tea.

One of the hardest days I spent was collecting spuds behind a digger.  The spuds were collected in baskets before being bagged.  At the end of the day you thought you would never be able to straighten your back again.  But worse was to come when the squad was sent to pull flax.  Without doubt this is hardest job on a farm.  You were paid by the beat and the farmer made sure each beat was twenty-two inches in circumference.  That day I made up my mind not to become a farmer's boy or even marry a farmer's daughter.  A farmer's daughter said to her mother "my boyfriend is calling tonight, don't let my da use the word manure". "Don't you start now," replied the mother, "it took me years and years to get him to say manure" A horrible job I did on a farm was spreading flax.  After storing in the flaxhole until it is rotted, the flax is then spread out to dry.  The stench of the flax gets into your hair and clothes.  It's weeks before you get rid of the smell, which means no dances and no dates.

Many jokes are told about the farms and the farmers.  The one I like best is about Duffy's circus, which in the early thirties toured rural areas.  One day an elephant strayed into a farmer's vegetable plant.  The farmer's boy, who had never seen an elephant before, ran into the farmhouse to tell the farmer "there's a big big animal in the garden and it's pulling up the cabbages and turnips with it's tail" "What 's it doing with them?" asked the farmer.  "If I told you" said the lad "you wouldn't believe me."

The Dampkiller

In a play by Joe Tomelty, a wee man who is a painter by trade is nicknamed the "Dampkiller".  There was a time when every street had its own dampkiller.  He could tell at a glance how many rolls of paper were required for any room in the house.  He would also be an expert in painting and brush graining.  I remember a small painting contractor who did not like people to know when he was unemployed.  On these days he would get out his handcart with ladders and large paint cans and walk around the town.  After lunch the exercise would be repeated.  Even when he got a contract he would let everyone know about it.  The footpath would be blocked with ladders and there would be planks all over the place.  Every now and then while painting a shop front he would descend the ladder, walk out into the middle of the road to admire his work.  Traffic would be held up while he held up his paintbrush at arm's length like a landscape artist.  In his white overalls and bowler hat he looked like a character out of a silent movie.  People were always doing up their homes as the smoke from the open fires stained the walls.  During the war when the wallpaper was unavailable, people distempered the walls and then using a stippler made a design with a different colour.  Boys on leaving school became apprentices to the painting trade but with the arrival of new materials and D.I.Y stores most people did there own decorating.  A newcomer who came to live in a small street asked a resident "When you last papered your front bedroom, how many rolls of paper did you buy?"  The resident replied "Six rolls" "Thanks " said the man.  A month later they met again and the newcomer said "When I asked you how many rolls of paper you bought and you said six rolls" "That's right" said the resident.  Well said the newcomer, "I bought six rolls and I had one over" "That's right" said the resident, "So had I"

The Day the Bookies Wept

When I  first worked as a Bookie's Clerk, Turf Accountants as they were fashionably called were not allowed to have premises on the main thoroughfare.  They were illegal and consequently they were confined to gateways or side streets.  Occasionally the police would raid the premises and any person found with betting dockets would be summoned.  A retired civil servant opened a bookies in his home.  In those days the result of races were relayed via the telegraph exchange in McGredy's Building.  As the man was not a member of the Exchange Group he employed a lad to bring him the results from a nearby bookie.  Locals discovered this and retained the runner while they went ahead and backed the known winner.  The man went broke in three months.  When a new bookie arrived in town he brought his own "Blower" system, which gave a running commentary on races and also gave the results at Irish Race Meetings which the Telegraph Exchange did not.  It proved very popular with the punters.  One day some men noticed that a horse called "Another Wave" had won the first race at the Irish Meeting at eight to one, and it was also engaged in the last race.  They then came to the bookies where I worked and placed bets on "Another Wave".  When it was noticed that a large amount of money was being placed on this horse, the bookie grew suspicious and got in touch with the Telegraph Exchange.  When he learned that the horse had already won, he refused to pay the winning bets, and the case ended up in court.  The Bookie lost the case on a technicality, as his dockets were not timed.  All the punters got their winnings.  It was the day the Bookies wept.


Like most children I was introduced to Irish dancing at an early age.  Later there was the fun of the ceildhes when you first dated girls.  The dances were mostly held in small halls with little ventilation, so after a few set dances the coat came off.  As the sweat rolled down your face you headed for the mineral counter.  It was in these halls that courtships started but before you asked to leave her home you found out how far away she lived and if she had any big brothers. When old-time dancing became the rage, I went to classes run by Jonnie Rowe in the Old Savoy Dance Hall.  Here we were taught the waltzes, the velita, the duchess the shamrock, the military two-step as well as American Square Dancing.

On Saturday nights, Albert Wilson and his nightlights were a big draw.  Boys sat on one side of the hall, the girls on the other.  When the music started you rushed across the floor to get the girl of your choice.  You didn’t ask the girl if she would like to dance you just said “Are you up?” but most times it just sounded “yup.”  When you were not dancing you watched the good movers on the floor, as you didn’t want to end up with the one with two left feet.  When you got tired of the home talent you could always go to dances in Castle Lane, Maghery Hotel or Banbridge.  I remember many a Sunday night up to eight of us piling into Carson Brownlee’s taxi to go to a dance in Banbridge.  You paid two and six pence for the return trip.  Having a car was a rarity in those days so a young lady at a rural dance was amazed when a farmer’s son asked “can I drive you home?” “why?” she asked have you got a car?” no” replied the lad, “but I have a big stick.”

 Irish lads were very shy of being the first on the floor so every hall had its own leader off who was a good dancer.  A young lady once found herself dancing with a lad who kept tripping her up.  “You’re not much of a dancer” she remarked, “no” said the lad cheerfully, “but I’m good at the going home bit.”

The Man from the Pru

 A weekly visitor to our house when we were young was the insurance man.  He was a Mr McAnally and he collected a penny or tuppence on each child.  This was solely to cover the cost of a funeral.  Because of the large number of children who died at an early age, nearly every family had insurance.  Sometimes because of the unemployment Mr McAnally would pay what was due himself rather than let the policy lapse.  The arrears could be paid at a later date.

There was no such thing as insurance on furniture or houses, as the houses were rented and most of the furniture was nearly all second hand.  I remember one day setting the house on fire.  My mum and da were out at work and I was in charge and had to have the fire lit when they came home.  Unfortunately, I was playing football and forgot the time.  I rushed home, set the fire and lit it.  But it was too slow; so I poured paraffin oil on it.  There was a huge flash; a roar and the chimney went on fire.  My parents arrived home to see flames shooting from the rooftops and soot falling everywhere.  Luckily, there was no damage except that some neighbours who had washing on the line had to do a rewash.  In the thirties, people relied on coal fires for heating and cooking so chimney fires were a regular occurrence.  When a chimney needed cleaning people who could not pay to have them cleaned would wait for a wet night and then put lit papers up the chimney to set them it fire.

I am a great believer in having insurance.  One night during a storm my T.V aerial was blown down.  I made a claim on my insurance company and ordered a new complex aerial from a Belfast store.  The work was speedily done I was to pay the store when the claim was paid.  Unfortunately, it took the insurance six months to decide whether it was against house insurance or fixtures and fittings.  When the cheque arrived I made out a cheque and sent it to the store in Belfast but my letter came back marked "Gone Away", so I was left with a new aerial and a cheque for £50.

The Taws

In our family an early introduction to “ the Taws” was part of our training.  The Taws was a strip of belting obtained from one of the many factories.  It was about fifteen inches in length with the last twelve inches cut into strips.  As small children, you got a playing flick round the legs but you knew a stronger smack would leave your legs stinging.  It hung where all could see it, on a nail beside the fireplace, the family’s deterrent.

Later on at school we came face to face with the cane, when you were punished on the hands.  Unfortunately, some teachers used the cane without charity.  A nun who taught me in early schooldays had a different punishment.  If a boy talked in the class he was made to sit in the back row between two girls. Naturally, I was the best talker in the class.  A school inspector called Lyttle would try to frighten children who mitched from school by handing them the keys of his car and threatening to take them to jail.  This was the way of life then.

Children had to be taught to respect rules.  Being late for school was a punishable offence, so a little boy kept saying “ Don’t let me be late, God, don’t let me be late.”  Just then he stumbled and looking up to heaven he murmured “ all right, there’s no need to push me.’  An early cartoon in ‘punch’ magazine showed a boy putting a book down his trousers before being caned.  Another showed a teacher admonishing a pupil “you should have been here at nine o’ clock” and the boy replying “ Why sir!  What happened?”

Today’s children are punished by taking away their videos, pocket money or other treats.  In the thirties we did not have these luxuries.  In spite of ‘The Taws,’ I grew up in a loving and caring family.  I am also grateful to the dedicated teachers’ canes and all who gave me a wonderful education and taught me to respect others and to adhere to rules and regulations.  Keeping these principles foremost, I have had a long happy and successful life.

Memories Portadown P1

Memories Portadown P2

Memories Portadown P3

Memories Portadown P4

Memories Portadown P5

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