Prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century Portadown was a place of little account, containing a population considerably below one thousand persons, and apparently without a place of worship of any kind. The first to remedy this latter situation were the Methodists who after seven visits of John Wesley to the surrounds of Portadown were gathered together in class in a private house and finally, ten years later in 1802, opened their first house of worship.
The picture of Portadown had changed considerably by 1866 when a Memorial was presented to both Houses of Parliament in July of that year. It states, "At the last census the population was 5,524 (1861), and is now calculated to be 7,000, that it contains eight power-loom factories and flour mills employing at least 2,000 workers, that there are at least thirty hand-loom manufacturers employing 1,000 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 markers and fairs exceeds £253,000, and concludes: "Comparing the present population with 820 in the year 1820 the percentage increase is greater than any other town in Ireland."
First Presbyterian Church has a complete set of Committee Minute Books from September 1855. Session Minute Books similarly extend back to September 1855, but there is a curious gap from September 1880 to October 1886.
In "Mason's Parochial Survey" of 1816, there is a chapter on Seagoe Parish written by the late Colonel William Blacker, in which he states: "There is no Presbyterian Meeting House, those of that Communion attending worship in the neighbouring town of Lurgan, but many of them frequenting the Parish Church".
This statement is true as far as the reference to church and resident minister is concerned but it is an historical fact that for some time before 1816 Presbyterians met for worship in the basement of a house where the Ulster Bank now stands. The congregation of Vinecash had been in existence for more than a hundred years dating back to 1697 and was the nearest country congregation. It is quite natural that the minister there would gather together those who could more conveniently worship in the town of Portadown.
The first church must have been erected, between 1816 and 1822 as the following extract from Killen's "History of Presbyterian Congregations in Ireland" shows:
"In 1821 the inhabitants of Portadown and its vicinity applied to the Synod of Ulster to be put under the care of the Presbytery of Dromore. The terms of the application itself are interesting as a comment on the times. "Memorialists, although they are increasing in numbers and strength cannot as yet offer the sum of £50 a year for the support of a minister; but in the hope that continuance of fostering care will enable them to do so, they pray that the Presbytery of Dromore may be authorised to supply them with preaching every Lord's Day".
In the following year more than £50 was available, and again the Synod was approached, asking permission to build a Meeting House and to be constituted a congregation. By this time a parcel of ground just over the Lurgan side of the river in Edenderry was acquired from a Mr. Giles Atkinson. The first church was much smaller than the present one and was parallel to the roadway. One can easily imagine it sitting back from the roadway surrounded by a quiet churchyard with its grass, trees and shrubs - a contrast indeed to the noisy bustle of traffic which roars past the doors of the present church. In this newly built Meeting House; almost in the country on the 12th December, 1822, the first minister the Rev. Alexander Herron was ordained.
The record of Ministers of 1st Portadown Presbyterian Church is surprisingly short for 150 years:
A brief comment on some of the more interesting facets of the above service. The Rev. W. T. G. Dowling was held in such high esteem by the congregation that he was buried in the Church grounds. The Rev. Alexander Kerr was appointed one of the first foreign missionaries to India by the newly formed General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1840. He died in India in 1841.
An interesting anecdote is told of the Rev. L. D. Elliott who was unmarried. A discussion was taking place on marriage at which a Quaker Mr. Edwards was expounding the virtues of marriage to a younger Minister. Mr. Elliott heartily concurred and the young Minister turned and said, "But what do you think of Mr. Elliott who so cordially supports your views and is unmarried?" The old Quaker turned and exclaimed: "Friend, art thou not married?" "No", said Mr. Elliott, "but I know what you say is true". The old Quaker exclaimed, "Friend you know no more about it than a savage does of the advantages of a civilised life".
The Rev. W. J. Macaulay was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly for the year 1913-14.
In the minutes of the 17th December 1856 we read, "At a congregational meeting, it was proposed by Mr. James Renshaw that this congregation put itself in a position to build a new House and that each member shall come forward and put his name down for the amount he intends giving to the building of the New Church". This must be set against the background of a ministerial stipend of £35 per annum which was the minimum sum payable to secure the Regium Donum of £69 4s 8d. It was a tremendous undertaking for a congregation so financially insecure, yet by June 1857 the Committee met and accepted the tender of Mr. David Bright (sum not stated). The grand total of subscriptions, a grant from the General Assembly, and the opening service collections amounted to £920. How far this fell short of the total expenditure it is not possible to say.
In 1865 a Commission was appointed by the Presbytery to examine the state of Presbyterianism in Portadown. Early on it was discovered that a section of the people were very anxious to establish a second congregation. This first met in the Town Hall and in 1867 a Memorial was presented to Presbytery by 105 persons in Portadown praying that the Memorialists be formed into a congregation and promising an annual stipend of £30 6s 6d. From this beginning Armagh Road Presbyterian Church was formed.
While this was in progress another section of the Presbyterian community approached the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland asking their formation into a congregation, urging the need for church extension, and of evangelisitic work owing to the great increase of population consequent upon so many factories having been started. A third congregation was thus formed in 1867 meeting in what was then known as Victoria Hall in David Street. A site for a church building was later secured in West Street and a church erected which is presently known as the Temperance Hall. This congregation ceased to exist in 1877.
The history of Presbyterianism in Portadown would be incomplete without a reference to education. About 1840 a teacher named Pierson conducted a school in a three storied house in Bridge Street, occupied by a man named Fox, and situated near the corner of Goban Street. This school was later transferred across the street to a room over the gateway in the house beside Hoy's Butcher Shop and was approached by a stairway from the yard. The school finally found a resting place in a building behind the First Presbyterian Church.
In Slater's s Almanack for 1846, under the heading "Academies and Schools in Portadown", one finds noted - a boarding school in Thomas Street conducted by Miss Amelia Cowan; the Duke of Manchester's school in Church Street, with Mr. Thomas Guy as Master, and a School in Bridge Street.
In 1858, following the erection of the new church, the school was transferred to the old church at the rear. This was doubled in size in 1877 at a cost of £210. At this time the principal was one Mr. David Geddis, a bachelor. In his day the child was largely looked upon as a troublesome nuisance to be sternly repressed both at home and in school "Ould Davie, as his irreverent pupils termed him was highly esteemed by parents as being able "to bate the larnin' into the childer", and pupils came from all parts of the town to his school.
In 1888 the school moved to a new building on the Carrickblacker Road. The cost of the school and teacher's residence was £1,750. At this time the principal was Mr. John Bell. The new premises were two storied and had two large rooms 40 feet long, 29 feet wide, and 14 feet high, together with four classrooms each 18 feet long, 14 feet wide and 14 feet high, with three cloak-rooms. This accommodation provided under the requirements of the Commissioners of National Education of 10 square feet per pupil allowed an attendance of 336 pupils.
The official records of the National Board's Inspectors supply irrefutable evidence of the solid worth of the work done by the Principal and his staff. In addition to teaching Latin and French in the regular school day, Mr. Bell for many years conducted most successful evening classes in which pupils were prepared for the examinations of the South Kensington Science and Art Department, the Universities, the Civil Service and the Bank.
Mr. Edward Dale succeeded Mr. Bell for a period followed by Mr. Samuel Weatherup. During his term the report of the general inspection in 1908 was briefly "excellent" and so it remained in succession till 1915 when the marking system was changed. Mr. Alfred M. Lynas succeeded Mr. Weatherup and the school was transferred to the Education Authorities in 1927.
Another school was maintained by the congregation on a much smaller scale at Balteagh from 1882, known locally as the "Duke's School", the reference being to the Duke of Manchester whom it would appear originally provided the buildings. This school again was subsequently transferred to the Education Authorities during the principalship of Mr. Thomas Sloan.