Wade Factory Fire 1956

recalled by Dr. John R. Wright


   Photo courtesy Maurice Fenton NZ


Monday, October 29, 1956 brought a night to remember for all the workers of Wades, Portadown.  Around four o’clock in the afternoon a fire broke out in the vicinity of the maintenance shop.  The alarm was raised by two of Wade’s employees, Pierce McCann and Jack Bryans.  The blaze, fanned by a strong north-east wind, soon enveloped the factory, especially those buildings nearest the Railway Station.  At one stage, the flames were so ferocious that a nearby timber-yard and a Presbyterian church were threatened by the conflagration.

The Portadown Fire Brigade, led by Divisional Officer, T J Browne, fought the flames until far into the night and eventually brought it under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning.  At its height, the thick acrid smoke emanating from the burning buildings had blanketed the Edenderry area of the town and brought traffic to a virtual standstill.  According to Mr Browne, the fire was the worst in Portadown for almost twenty years.

When management surveyed the charred ruins on the following day it must have seemed that the Ulster Company had received a blow from which it would not recover.  Tony Wade, joint managing director, was later to recall the horror he felt when he saw photographs in the local newspaper with the caption, ‘The burnt out shell of Portadown Pottery’.   Things were certainly bad – over 20,000 sq ft of floor space was ruined and the tunnel kiln lay buried under the remnants of the still-smoking roof.

To exacerbate the situation, the timing of the fire could hardly have been worse.  Factory production was at its peak, turning out giftware for the Christmas trade as well as coping with a huge order for industrial ceramics.  Even worse, the company’s managing director, Straker Carryer, was on holiday in Majorca at this time.

It is a memorable tribute to the various departmental managers and workers in the factory that the production line began to roll again within a week and by the beginning of December output was nearly back to normal.  Their Herculean efforts did not go unnoticed; Tony Wade, who had flown over from England, confessed that any doubts or forebodings he might have had soon changed to relief and admiration.  He had arrived thinking that the precious tools and dies would have to be transferred to the Wade Burslem factory in order to meet promised delivery dates.  However, thanks to local building contactor, Robert Heathwood and the unceasing efforts of so many key personnel, no transfer of production was necessary.  By five pm on Sunday, over one hundred yards of roofing had been replaced, the kiln had been re-lit and power and heat restored.  By Monday three-quarters of the workforce were back at their jobs – and not one customer was seriously affected.

If ever factory organisation was tested to the utmost; then surely this was the time.  However, Wades (Ulster) Ltd came through the ordeal with flying colours.  As Tony Wade commented:  Thank you Portadown, for proving yet again that when we decided to open a factory in Ireland we made a very wise decision.

Those workers who had worked so tirelessly in the cold and damp to restore production were presented with commemorative tankards by the company.  It was both appropriate and fitting that these tankards were decorated with a phoenix rising from the ashes of a fire.   

In Memoriam:  William Belshaw, maintenance manager, and the man mainly responsible for getting the factory up and running again.



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