'Memories' Portadown  P5

By Harry Foy

“The Visitors Are Not Coming”

A stranger arriving in Portadown during the thirties would have been impressed with the large number of factory chimneys stretching above the town like a many-fingered glove.  There was a choice of where to stay. Mc Creesh’s Hotel in Bridge St., The Laurel in William St., The Queen’s in High St. or the more palatial Imperial Hotel, where society weddings and local balls were held.  Family-run businesses fronted the High St names like Corbett’s, Burnett’s and Jackson.  The town’s two largest grocers Mongomerys and Irwins vied with each other to blend Gold Medal tea.

In the local tailor’ shops, Hipps you could get a suit for fifty shillings.  It is said the Town Council would not let them open a second shop, as two Hipps would make an ass of the town.  The small red-bricked streets with their corner shops, hugged the town.  A little lad walked into a corner shop, placed a toilet roll on the counter and said “My ma says to change that for five fags, the visitors are not coming.”

Viewing the boating, swimming and fishing from the Bann Bridge you might have glimpsed local cycle agent Bob Cordner, on his specially constructed tricycle fitted with floats, sailing past.  The traffic in the town was mostly bicycles and carts.  Shop boys with their heavy carrier bike and dressed in white or navy apron, delivered provisions to the shop’s customers.  High mounted bread carts delivered bread to all parts of the town and to nearby rural areas.  Clydesdales, with their coloured manes and gleaming brasses pulled heavy loads of coal.  A policeman’s lot was not a heavy one.  Court cases mainly dealt with family disputes, drunkenness and fines for cycling without lights.  A runaway horse dropped dead at the corner of Mandeville St and a policeman called West, was sent to investigate. On arriving on the scene the policeman got help to trail the horse round the corner into West St., so that he could make out his report.          

Thems Not Twins

My first set of wheels was a convertible with chrome embellishments and removable seats.  It was second hand ‘silver cross’ – the prince of prams.  The bodywork was immaculate, mileage unknown but it had only one previous owner, a clerymans' son.  With such a stylish mode of transport, I’m told I was the pride of my family.

There was no end to the stream of aunts and cousins wanting to take me for ‘walks’.  On good days the hood was lowered so that people could gawk at me.  If they tweaked my nose I slobbered over their hand.

Prams were an investment and passed from child to child; of if the children were small it could be used as a two-seater.  Mothers were superstitious about prams, believing that once you gave a pram away you became pregnant again.  When a pram reached its sell by date, it became a transporter, carrying coal and coke from the coal yard.  Eventually the wheels would be removed to make a buggy for the older children.  A well-known comedian boasted that he was the only child in the street walking at the age of six months – the ass had fallen out of the pram and his parents didn’t know.

The story is told that one Christmas Eve a young priest hurrying along in the streets of Dublin in a heavy snowstorm saw a woman struggling to push her pram up a steep hill.  He went to her assistance and after much puffing and blowing they reached the top of the hill. ‘Thank you father’ said the woman ‘not at all’ said the young priest. ‘God Bless you and the twins’ ‘God save us Father’ said the woman, ‘thems not twins, thems two cases of Guinness for the holidays’

There she blows

At one time the factory horns acted as timekeeper for the workers of Portadown.  You see, the only clocks most poor people had in their homes were the ones that crawled over the tiled floors at the dead of night and were killed by your Da with paraffin oil.

Each weaving factory horn had its own distinct sound and blew at set times.  The seven o' clock blast called people from their beds and later warnings measured out the time for them.  The last factory horn blew at five minutes to eight and urged people to hurry along.  At eight o, clock sharp the huge factory gates slammed shut and a small wicket door was opened.  A clerk with a notebook then jotted down names of latecomers and they were “Pennied” for each minute they were late.  At eight fifteen this door also closed and entry was barred until lunchtime.

In the factory the noise of the steam-driven looms was deafening and each worker had four looms.  In very damp conditions people survived on a bread lunch for little wages for forty-eight hours each week.

The women wore coloured garments called “pinnies” and the men who tended to the machiney were called “Tenters.”  The talk in the homes was of shuttles; drop wires, floats, borders and ducks, all terms used in the waving industry.

At eleven o, clock on Saturday the work stopped but the workers had to spend the time cleaning down their looms before leaving.  My father worked as a maintenance worker at night, so I would go in with him on Friday nights to clean the looms of my mother and aunts.  I would get three pence of each of them and they could get way early on Saturday.

Waste yarn was made into balls and given to the workers to use for tying up things.  The balls were seven strands thick and very strong.  Children used them for flying kites, which was a popular past time.

When the weaving factories closed down the silent horns sounded the beginning of a new era.      


In the forties, a visitor to Belfast Docks would have seen on the quayside hundreds of barrels of apple pulp bearing the name "Grew's Fruit Products".  A closer look at the labels would have revealed their destinations- H.P Sauce, Everton Toffees, Cross and Blackwell's, Hartley, to name a few.  At this time the food factories in England could not get foreign purees so they depended on Irish Apples.

Each day Grews produced over 200 barrels of apple pulp.  Apples arriving at the factory were put into large stainless street vats and cooked.  They then passed though sieves to remove the skin and cores.  The pure golden pulp was then filled into oak casks and left to cool.  The factory used Cylinders of Sulphur Dioxide to make Sulphurous acid, which acted as a preservative.  Two gallons of acid were then poured into each cask.  Factory regulations were very laxed and men who worked with the acid did not have a mask.  What it did to those men’s lungs I hate to think.  The casks were then weighed and stacked on railway sleepers to await shipment.  On the day of dispatch the casks were brought to the railway goodsyard for onward dispatch.  Getting two hundred casks ready each day meant overtime for the coopers.  Hoops had to be tightened to make sure the casks did not leak.  Using a hammer and driver these craftsmen could remove broken staves or damaged heads and replace them.  A wonderful craft that has long since died out.

These were boom times in Armagh.  The best apples were boxed and the rest could be bagged for the fruit-pulping factory.  The factory also shipped large quantities of blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and currants to the jam factories in England.  An industry, which no longer exists, once gave employment to over a hundred men in Portadown.

Vinegar and Brown Paper

Every street had its own Guardian Angel.  Ours went by the name of Martha Ann McDonnell.  A lanky lady with a kind face and her long grey hair held back in a bun with coloured combs.  Her front door was always open, night and day.  A large round stone kept the door in place.  In her wee kitchen where the gas cooker was, she kept a canary to warn of a gas leak.  When anything went wrong in the street, the first race would be for Martha Ann.  She attended the sick and administered cures with her own brand of medicine.  She kept leeches, docken leaves, eel's skins, dandelion juice, elderberries and vinegar and brown paper.

I remember once I fell on a broken bottle and ended up with a nasty cut that began to fester.  I went to Martha's dispensary where she applied a poultice of bread, buttermilk and baking soda. That night I cried with the pain but next morning when the bandage was taken off, the cut was clean as a whistle.  Martha was the street mid-wife and boasted she knew more people by their asses than by their faces.  Most children in the street got the first smack on their ass from Martha.

When a person was dying she was always on hand to tend their last needs and insisted on a bedroom window being open so that the spirit of the dying could be released.  When it was all over Martha would lay out the corpse.  The remains would be scrubbed and if it were a man she would do the shaving.  She believed that a person should be in a presentable state to meet the Lord.  Pennies would be placed on the eyelids to make sure the eyes stayed shut and a prayer book placed under the chin to keep the mouth closed.  When a person arrived at the pearly gates looking spotlessly clean, St. Peter would always say, "It's another one from Martha Ann"

You Pushed Me

When my children were growing up they spent a lot of time with their grandparents.  Some of the phrases my sons picked up from their grandfather left a lot to be desired.

One evening, the local clergy called on a visit and the family pet, a wire-haired terrier called Rory growled at the intruder.  My father-in-law spoke up, "Down Rory Down."  My son aged four helped out with, "Granda will I kick the bloody mongrel to hell out of that" He was even blunter on another occasion when while sitting on his little potty, a visiting priest asked, "Well young man are you at exercise?" to be bluntly told, "No I'm doing my numbers".

Then there was the time he was detained overnight in hospital with a hazel nutshell stuck up his nose.  Even there he picked up the wrong ideas.  The day he was released from hospital his wee cousins called at the house to see him.  Sometime later he and one of his wee cousins were missing.  A search found him with a bar of soap in his hand and the little girl pinned against a wall and he was telling her where he was going to put the soap.

In these early days of marriage I sang in the choir while my wife and son sat in the front of the gallery.  One Sunday as Father McGrath started to ascend the pulpit my son tried to climb over the seat in front.  He slipped and disappeared under the seat with a yell that shook the Church windows.  My wife reached down to rescue him at the same time trying to find his mouth to smother him.  Then all around the still Church echoed a cry that will haunt me for the rest of my life, "You Bloody Bitch, you pushed me!











                                                                                                                                                                                                           HARRY FOY

Memories Portadown P1

Memories Portadown P2

Memories Portadown P3

Memories Portadown P4

Memories Portadown P5

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