The Walk, Portadown

Vol. 8 No. 3 - 2005

The Walk, Portadown

by Brian Courtney

Garvaghy Road became known nationally, and indeed internationally, during the 1990s, because of the controversy which raged over the question as to whether Orangemen had the right to walk the Road on their return to Portadown from the District LOL No 1 service in July.

But Garvaghy Road was a name rarely given to this famous thoroughfare by its inhabitants in the years before it became so well known to a vast audience. To those who lived on Garvaghy Road and the streets radiating from it, it was known as 'The Walk' - a title which baffled most outsiders, but was readily identified within Portadown.

The term 'The Walk' had nothing to do with the annual Orange walk from Drumcree Parish Church. Its origins related to the fact that two main streets leading from the town centre, Castle Street and Garvaghy Road, led to 'the castle', an Elizabethan-type mansion which occupied a site close to where the present Woodside Green stands.

The Irish Rebellion, 1641

This House or castle was built around the time the first 30 or so English families settled in Portadown in the early 1600s, at the time of the Ulster Plantation. Early records show that the first owner of this land and castle was a man called William Powell, who, after a short time, sold it to the Rolleston family, who, in turn, sold it to the Obins family. The castle was sacked or destroyed, and the English families forced out, during the great Irish Rebellion of 1641.

Those turbulent times were followed by the restoration of English rule in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentary armies crushed the Irish resistance. Hamlet Obins returned with his family from England, to reclaim the castle, and the Plantation was restored, followed by a long period of comparative calm, order and progress.

This was the oldest part of Portadown, and the names of streets like Castle Street and Castle Avenue indicate the existence of the castle in that area. There was hunting of deer in the extensive lands of Castle Obins during the 17th century, extending to Richmount, some miles further out into the countryside.

This part of Portadown continued to occupy a very important role in the town's affairs. In the 18th century the Portadown Yeomanry or militia trained on the green close to where Seth Robb's house stood until it was demolished just after the Second World War, to make way for the new Woodside estate.

The arrival of linen

But it was the development of the linen industry and the small but important port close to the area which was to make 'The Walk' a hub of activity.

What a bustling and prosperous place 'The Walk' must have been in the 19th century.

The poet and writer William Makepeace Thackeray visited Portadown in the 1840s, and he referred to the smart and attractive little port, with its craft and tugs in the river, and ships being built in the nearby foundry.

Throughout the 19th century 'The Walk' continued to grow, and at the height of its industrial prosperity, it contained two large linen firms - Acheson's and Castle Island (now the site of the Ulster Carpet Mills). It had the large hardware store of T. A. Shillington, and there were two large flour mills, Calvin's and Clow's.

Sam McGredy
Early photograph taken at Giant's Causeway.
Front row: Mr. and Mrs. Sam McGredy, founder of Sam McGredy Nursery. This Sam is great-grandfather of Dr. Samuel Darragh McGredy (Now in New Zealand). Back row: Mr. and Mrs. James Stevenson, Parkmount and Mr. William McKinley of the Spinning Mill.

It later acquired the world-famous rose-growing firm of Samuel McGredy and Sons, and the opening of the railway brought further activity to the area.

The owners of the linen factories built streets of terrace houses for their workers - King Street. Water Street. Victoria Terrace. Wilson Street, Parkmount, and Castle Avenue.

People's Park

The town's People's Park, donated to the town by the Duke of Manchester, adjoined 'The Walk', and its neighbour 'The Tunnel'. A new street, Park Road, joined these two major roads, and provided the residents of the new street, built in 1906, with a perfect view over the park.

The linen workers lived alongside men who worked in the nearby railway passenger and freight stations, and a number of lightermen (barge men) also lived in Castle Street and Water Street - a reminder of the important role of the river and canal in the industrial life of Portadown in those days.

Unlike most other working-class areas of Portadown, 'The Walk' did not possess a church or a public house. Its law-abiding tradition also meant that it did not have a police barracks, at a time when there were three in Portadown. It did have a school which served generations of the children of the area. Originally called Water Street National School, the educational establishment was later named Park Road Primary School, and it was demolished a few years ago as part of a housing re-development scheme.

Park Road School 1961
Park Road School

I was not born in 'The Walk', but my mother was a 'Walk' woman, born and bred in Castle Avenue, a street sadly no more. We moved from another part of the town to Park Road when I was nine years old, and it didn't take long for me to settle in. That's hardly surprising, as at one time our extended family lived in four houses in 'The Walk', including the one in Victoria Terrace where my grandmother grew up.

I have a postcard sent to granny Foster by my grandfather during the First World War. He mentioned the fact that the train carrying the men of the Royal Irish Rifles, in which he was serving, to the Curragh camp near Dublin, would be stopping in Portadown for some minutes. He stressed how he hoped my grandmother could walk from their home in Castle Avenue to the railway station to see him - and also bring some cigarettes for him and his comrades!

A tradition of service

The men of 'The Walk' had a great tradition of service in HM Forces, and during the 1914-18 War most members of the famous Parkmount Flute Band joined the Army, a number of them making the Supreme Sacrifice on the battlefields of France and Flanders.

That band, which won many prizes, practised each week in a recreation hut which stood at the junction of Parkmount and Castle Avenue. The hut was the home of the Parkmount billiards and snooker team which competed between the wars in the Portadown Billiards League, winning many cups.

I have fond memories of boyhood days sitting in the Hut watching the men playing billiards, and the flute band being put through its paces by its renowned conductor, Mr Albert Wilson, senior. Under his conductorship, Parkmount Flute Band once gained maximum 100 points at a contest, and this put it into the Guinness Book of Records.

Alas, the Hut, which was the centre of so much 'Walk' activity, went up in flames during a fire caused accidentally in the late 1940s. Many 'Walk' people were to assert that the loss of the Hut, combined with the building of the new Woodside estate, led to the breakdown in the close-knit community ties of an area in which family roots could be traced back through generations.

The building of that first post-war estate at Woodside, they claimed, led to the fragmentation of traditional loyalties. An interesting theory, but there is little doubt that the once proud sporting achievements of 'The Walk' went into decline from the 1950s onwards.

In the inter-war years, the district had two cricket teams and a strong football team which produced players like Jackie Russell, who starred for Linfield and Portadown.

The loss of the Hut, and the absence of alternative premises, meant that sporting organisations no longer had a focal point for activities.

The flute band continued to make its mark on the town's music activities, and the members practised in the Park Road School premises.

Many of the menfolk of 'The Walk' were pigeon fanciers, and I can also recall games of skittles played in the ground at the back of Park Road and 'Jam Row' as Wilson Street was fondly known, in the 1950s, when the game was very popular in town.

Those were the days when corner shops were a common feature of most working-class areas, and 'The Walk' was certainly no exception. There was the large grocery premises of Clements and Wilson, just across the road from Shillington's store, and my mother would often send me to Clements and Wilson with the local grocery list.

We also purchased goods at Frank Jones' grocery shop at the junction of Water Street and Garvaghy Road. Just facing it was another grocery shop, Noble's, later Somerville's, at the corner of Park Road, and I was a regular customer there with my chums, buying sweets, lemonade and buns.

Further up 'The Walk' was Nana Mathers' large grocery shop, where many country folk stopped to buy their goods on the way home. And just through the railway bridge in Castle Street, there was another popular grocery and sweet shop owned by Mr Charlie Whitten.

Charlie Whitten's Bakery
Charlie Whitten's Bakery

Water Street had a small confectionery shop belonging to a Mr Livingstone who carried on business in his cosy little premises converted from a parlour for that purpose. Many a night I would sip sarsaparilla with my chums as Mr Livingstone recalled the happenings of the day, or quoted from the Bible - he was I believe a staunch Jehovah Witness.

That was 'The Walk', a thriving community which reflected so much of British working class society in the years before re-development, new housing, roads, and the coming of supermarkets and shopping malls changed everything for ever.

Small wages in Victorian mills

It is easy, of course, to dwell on the positive side of the era and tend to forget the many negative aspects. Those hundreds of factory workers sweated for small wages in mills built in Victorian times. The houses in which large families were raised lacked amenities like central heating, indoor toilet, baths and gardens.

It was a time when the Welfare State did not exist, or was in its infancy, and when the working-class families often found it extremely difficult to pay for medical attention.

But there is no denying that 'The Walk' and similar districts in Portadown, Lurgan, and all the other cities and towns of Northern Ireland enjoyed a community way of life which produced immensely close ties and an enjoyment of simple pleasures which have largely disappeared. Things like the 'May Queen' ceremony, when a girl decked out in flowers, was wheeled by her compatriots around the houses in the area, and a collecting box was filled by residents to fund a party for the kids.

'Eleventh' night

The annual 'Eleventh' night bonfire was truly cross-community in 'The Walk', with people from both communities joining for dancing and music at Parkmount bridge. And events like VE-Day, the Festival of Britain and Coronation resulted in street parties with tables groaning with 'goodies' providing light relief for the people of the area - a break from the daily drudgery of mill work and trying to make ends meet.

Throughout its long and fascinating history, 'The Walk' has always been cross-community in its population. Until the 1970s it was predominantly Protestant in demographic terms, but with an integrated Roman Catholic minority.

The roles are now reversed, but happily 'The Walk' is still a 'mixed' area, and it also contains a growing number of people from ethnic communities. That follows a noble tradition and one which the founding fathers of this famous area of Portadown would no doubt have approved.

People whose family roots are in 'The Walk' are to be found throughout the world - from Toronto to Melbourne, and from Glasgow to Hong Kong. They, like the writer, are proud of their ties with this part of Portadown whose origins go right back to the earliest days of the town.

Pictures were kindly provided by the late Jim Lyttle from his extensive collection which can be seen on