Harold M. Thompson often regretted that he did not tape the many conversations he had with his grandmother-in-law about the days when she came as a new bride to Portadown in the nineteenth century. This gave him the idea during the last three years of his life that he should try to capture on tape the memories of some of those who had lived in Portadown during the early years of the twentieth century. The following is a slightly edited transcript of a series of interviews on the subject of Sport and Recreation in Portadown in the early 20th century. I have changed very little of the original wording, hoping that this will give a sense of the immediacy of the spoken word.
29th April 1982
I'm Harry Falloon. I was born in Portadown 72 years ago and I've lived here most of my life and for at least 60 of those 72 years I've been very interested in fishing and most of my fishing has been done on the River Bann.
Fishing was very difficult in the 1930s because times were bad. There were a lot of people out of work in the 30s and they couldn't afford to buy fishing tackle, so we used then to buy bamboo canes and a length of cord fishing line and an eel hook in James Edgar's - he was the fishing tackle dealer in Portadown away back in the old days. Some of the older fellows who fished in those days, (especially one old man, although he wasn't old then - I regarded him as a middle-aged man) - who worked in Robb's linen factory, brought home balls of waste linen, and twisted their own fishing lines and made their own fishing nets. None of this tackle was suitable to fish in the big river, the River Bann, so we fished in the small tributaries like the Annagh River and what we called the Corcrain River and we caught all sorts of fish - in fact we were able to catch in these tributaries all the species that could be found in the Bann, only they were of a smaller size.
Our method of fishing in the old days, which was quite successful, as far as catching the bigger fish was concerned, would be regarded as illegal at the present time. In those days coarse fishing, that is fishing for species that aren't regarded as game species such as salmon and trout, coarse fishing was absolutely free. There was no rod licence required or no permit to fish in any water. The only thing you needed was the permission of the landowner. Well in war time everybody was engaged in war work and essential services, or most people were, and although money became far more plentiful as far as the working classes were concerned, they didn't have the time, in fact it would have been considered a waste of time, to sit fishing while there was a war going on.
However some of the English soldiers who were stationed in Northern Ireland came and brought their fishing tackle, because the Englishmen were always very keen coarse fishers. They brought their fishing tackle and enjoyed some good fishing here while they had the opportunity on the River Bann. A friend of mine, Lincoln Pillar, who was a joiner, was doing essential work in Belfast, in fact in one of the places where the English soldiers were stationed, and he invited some of them to come and fish in the canal here. He saw some fish that he suspected were tench and for several days these soldiers fished. They could see the fish plainly and they verified them as being tench, but although they fished for several days they didn't manage to land a fish. I believe myself, although 1 have never caught them nor seen them, that there are tench in the Bann system because there have been too many stories of these fish having been seen and some even caught. These fish have been described accurately, and locally they're known as 'mud-suckers' because in the wintertime, when it comes time to hibernate, they bury themselves in the mud in the riverbed.
After the war when things became normal and fishing tackle was easier to get, even though it was quite a bit dearer than it had been before the war, I continued to fish although there wasn't a great wide-spread interest really, - although there was a plentiful head of pike, rudd, perch, gudgeon, bream, minnows, sticklebacks, eels and an odd trout or two. Then coming up to the sixties when some young boys joined me and were taking an interest in the fishing I started a fishing club. We organised competitions and there were more fish being caught. I noticed that we were catching fish that didn't appear to be the typical cross between bream and rudd. The Bann didn't have - was supposed not to have - any roach at that time - but I suspected that these could be roach so I took a couple home and took the teeth out of them and a couple of scales and sent these off to The National Anglers' Federation. I got a reply to assure me that these were true roach. I kept the fish and one when it died was six years old and the other was four years old and each fish had made excellent growth. I communicated this knowledge to a friend of mine who is a fishing journalist by the name of Daniel McCrea - he writes a column for the Daily Mirror - and he came to make sure that what I had told him was true. He couldn't believe that there were roach in the Bann system.
He knew that they were in the Erne system where they had escaped from a lake at Baronscourt for the Duke of Abercorn had brought some roach over to stock his lake at Baronscourt. Some of these roach had escaped and got into the Erne system but it was believed that there was no connection between the Erne system and the Lough Neagh system and McCrea wondered how on earth these roach could have got into the Bann. So he came to Portadown and we had a chat.
There was a competition organised for his benefit and when he saw the fish that the competitors had brought he saved some and brought them alive to 'The Cuts' at Toome Bridge where there is a laboratory One of the scientists there verified these fish that Dan brought as being true roach. Well, when Dan had the fish verified he started to advertise the fishing in the Bann and he organised some competitions in connection with a big competition that was sponsored by Woodbine. It appears not to be so popular a cigarette now as it was in the old days and they sponsored the competition, 1 think, to bring this cigarette back into popularity. Anyway, he was the representative here in the north and he organised these local competitions, which were eliminators for the final event, which was usually fished in Denmark, and he was very, very excited.
These Woodbine finals were fished on a river called The Guden in Denmark and some of the anglers who fished in those competitions, and even had won prizes in them, said that the River Guden, good and all that it was, couldn't touch the River Bann catches of fish. Since the roach were discovered in the Bann ten years ago - now the roach could have been in the Bann for a longer period, but they were discovered about ten years ago) - the River Bann has become one of the most popular - if not the most popular - in Europe. The coarse fishing from the Point of Whitecoat to Lough Neagh is excellent and from both banks of the river, and from the Point of Whitecoat upstream as far as Hilltown is the coarse fishing end of the Bann. At the present day the most popular part of the Bann is where the coarse fish are.
At weekends the banks are lined along the boulevard stretch for a mile upstream and on the lower side of the Bann bridge (that is the main bridge over the Bann) on what is called Hoy's Meadows there is another line of anglers stretching away out into the country. They can be seen every weekend now on Saturdays and Sundays. There is no game fishing locally around Portadown - that is to say the waters near the town don't hold any trout -just the odd trout might be seen or caught when its passing from Lough Neagh going up to the faster, shallower water upstream. From the Point of Whitecoat upstream is the trout fishing water and one needs a special, dearer rod licence to fish in the upper reaches. From the Point of Whitecoat as far as Knock Bridge and even Gilford the fish tend to be small and some people feel they're not worth fishing for. But further up, between Gilford and Banbridge, good fish can often be caught.
I can remember some lovely happy days spent on the Bann fishing for trout upstream lying in the sun taking our lunch waiting for the evening rise. But now I've got too old for that. My bones are beginning to creak so I content myself with sitting near the town - in the town in fact - fishing for roach - or bream - or rudd.
The Second subject is Billiards and Snooker and the speakers are Winter McDonald and Richard McClure. (H.M.T.)
14th October 1982
I am 74 years of age. I started playing billiards when I was 14 years of age and 1 played all through this time at every opportunity I got. I started to work to serve my time in Portadown Foundry from 1924-31. Then I was made redundant. I then got a job with my father in his bookie's shop at number 7, Bridge Street. I was employed by my father for about 2 years, until his business folded up. 1 then, at every opportunity went to all the clubs all around Portadown and played billiards. I was unemployed from 1933 until 1937. Then I went across the water to Bristol to work with the Bristol Aeroplane Company. I worked in Bristol all during the war and came back about 1944 when I got a job on Maghaberry working for Short and Harlands. This time I was playing any time I got the opportunity. The principal billiard clubs in Portadown at this stage were St. Patrick's Hall, the British Legion and the Institute. There were other clubs such as Parkmount, Edenderry and Greenview - they had all finished. There was the NCL club in Lurgan who won the Belfast League. I then went over to Chester to work for de Havilands. I stayed there for 5 years. While I was there I played for St. Francis Club in Chester and Ambridge Club in Chester. I was beaten in the final of the Chester Championship. When 1 came back from Chester I took ill and was off work for three years. Around about that time
I worked for Jim Brads for four or five years. Then I worked for O'Hare's bookmaker's office. Then I worked for Tony Morgan's bookmaker's office up to 1975. In 1975 1 retired and since that time I have been living in Portadown. 1 spent most of my billiard career in Patrick's Hall, although I have played in all the clubs in Portadown including the Institute, the Legion, Parkmount, Edenderry - all the clubs in Portadown I have played in my time.
14th October 1982
I am Richard McClure. I am 71 years of age. I started my billiard career in the Catch My Pal Hall, playing bagatelle. After the bagatelle I went onto the billiard tables where I played in Parkmount Hut for about seven or eight years in the Portadown League. I graduated from there to the British Legion where
1 played until I joined the Air Force in 1939. There I played such prominent players as Bob Courtney, Tom Burnett, John Lynch, Winter McDonald, Brendan Wright, Dee Black, Eddie Crawford, Reggie McIlroy, Albert Forsythe, Jack Thompson, Jimmy Leeman and Sandy Hamilton. When I returned to Civvy Street from the RAF, 1 returned to playing snooker in the British Legion. The game had become very popular around Portadown after the Pot Black series, although young people now have various other amusements to turn to.
The next speaker is Jackie Gilpin who recently wrote a book on the Centenary of Portadown Rugby Club. (H.M.T.)
22nd November 1982
Rugby Football began in Portadown in 1879 as part of an awakening local and international interest in all types of sport. Initial enthusiasm could not be maintained without a recruitment base and by 1884 the club was all but dead. Revival after the First World War came in 1921 with the foundation of Portadown College. W.J. Warren, the first headmaster, introduced rugby immediately, with Fred Crooks, member of the eighties team, as coach.
A Schools' Cup draw in the very first season against Coleraine resulted in a 75-nil defeat, a record for the competition. Cecil Mullen, aged 11 years, was scrum half. That rugby survived at all in Portadown after such a difficult rebirth was due to Jimmy Chambers, sports master at the College and inspiration of the town team for the entire inter-war period.
The twenties were a time of almost imperceptible growth. During the thirties Portadown established itself as a sound provincial club, able to sustain a good Firsts and a struggling Seconds. Several times trophies were almost won, particularly in the 1932-33 Provincial Towns Cup final against Banbridge. These were lean years generally for players. There was none of the affluence of the eighties of the past, or the sixties and seventies to come. Few only had cars and teams often used public transport. There was a notable lack of organisation within the club. Early on, teams were picked after the game on Saturday on the basis of availability for the next week. Later selection meetings were held on Monday evenings in a room in the Anchor Cafe in Bridge Street. The Saturday night dances there satisfied a social as well as a financial need. Training usually began in September with the best of intentions but petered out as the cold weather came. Tactics, where they existed, evolved during each game. Rugby continued on a disorganised basis during the Second World War, mostly against scratch forces teams.
The late forties and the early fifties were dominated by the personality of T. C. Wells. The increased secondary school enrolment created by the 1947 Education Act had filtered into the club by the late fifties. Now fielding three teams it was big enough to offer a reasonable selection yet small enough to be influenced and enthused by Frank Henderson's captaincy from 1956-'59. The Provincial Town's Cup was won in 1957 and in 1959. Henderson persuaded young men with rugby sympathies and business acumen to become involved. They began the long haul to finance and provide the facilities to match those now available in the schools and necessary for senior status. Chamber's Park and the W.A. Mullen pavilion are their creation. Sam McGredy's Appeals Committee financed them. Harold Thompson's Grounds Committee structured them. From 1959 -'66 the sides were consolidating, without enhancing, the glamour and success of the Henderson era.
Though the club impetus was towards development, five teams were fielded. Playing record, facilities and potential development of the new city of Craigavon convinced the Ulster branch in January 1966 that Portadown should be admitted to the Senior League. This achieved, it soon became evident that members' subscriptions could neither cover the ' running costs of a senior club nor meet further capital expenditure.
A new social centre, opened in May 1971, provides the club's financial base. Jimmy Chambers died in 1973 and Tommy Wells in 1976. The present club patron, Kenneth Irwin, succeeds them worthily. More and more people enjoy the game and facilities. Charlie Murtagh has become the club's first international and Billy McKinney its "player perpetuo". Success on the field for the 1st XV, which is the real dynamic, has, despite much endeavour', so far unfortunately eluded the club.
16th November 1982
This is Winter McDonald on 16th November 1982. In the 1930s Portadown had two greyhound tracks known as "Flock" tracks. One was on the Gilford road and the other was on the Armagh Road. They were rough grass tracks and they were very popular at this time. They usually operated in the spring and summer. The admission fee was usually 6d and the mechanical hare was a bundle of rags driven by a stationary bicycle.
There were usually six dogs in the race, but it all depended on how many greyhounds came to the track and they made up the races as they went along. There were usually about seven or eight races at each meeting. These meetings were illegal, but the police turned a blind eye to them. The dogs were raced under false names.
When my father came out of the army about 1920 he started his first bookmaker's shop in The Shambles in William Street using the gratuity that he got from the army. He later opened a shop in Castle Street. At that time McGurdy had two bookmaker's shops, one in John Street, and one in David Street. McCourts had three bookmaker's shops, one in Dawson's Court, one in Jamieson's entry and one in Obins Street. Robert Malcolmson, William Cochrane and the McClure brothers opened later shops. At the present time there are eight bookmaker's shops in Portadown, which are as follows: McGerrity has shops in Thomas Street and Woodhouse Street, Sean Graham has shops in Bridge Street and Mandeville Street, Hughes has a shop in High Street, Brady has a shop in May's Entry, Joe Madill has a shop in West Street, Tony Morgan has a shop in Garvaghy. Portadown has always been a good town for punters on horses and all other sporting activities such as snooker Miss World or any other sporting event.
(I have replayed the tape several times and believe I have not made an error with "Miss World"!)
I was born in 1907 and when I was about 14 I remember a lot of people used to go to swim at the Point of Whitecoat. It would be like a family outing on a Sunday afternoon, everybody going to the Point of Whitecoat. At that time Mr Grimason rented rowing boats at 6d an hour. It was a great place for having a picnic on a Sunday. There was no swimming pool in Portadown at the time, but there was also a swimming place in the Corcrain River, at the back of where the Springs Abicoil Factory is now. People went to it from the Garvaghy Road and Obins Street and also from all round Corcrain.
The next subject is Bridge and the speaker is Wilfred Robb on 27th April 1983 . The beginning is somewhat abbreviated because Mr Robb, having heard himself, brought the tape home to condense it, but then took a stroke and died. (H.M.T.)
27th April 1983
Portadown Bridge Club was for many years - in fact until only two years ago - known as The Portadown Bridge and Whist Club, the only Bridge and Whist club that I know of in Ireland. The originator of the club was Mr Tom Burnett and he had a very healthy bridge club going in the early nineteen-thirties. I remember coming back from Stranmillis where one of our lecturers was a well-known international bridge player, Professor McKinnon, and being rather surprised that in Portadown there was a bridge club that was going in various cafes round the town.
At the beginning of the year they would take a room in one cafe, but then as more and more people approached the club for membership bigger premises were needed and so the club moved from cafe to cafe. This presented obvious difficulties, so in the early nineteen-forties the bridge club joined with the whist club and they took over a portion of the building immediately above Marley's fruit shop. They have been there ever since and it is only a couple of years ago that the Whist part of the name was dropped. This was due to the unfortunate death of Mr Herbie Walsh and Mrs. Evelyn Walsh who were the organisers of the whist section of the club. In the new club rooms the bridge section was held on a Monday night when junior players were asked to come and play.
Tuesday night was reserved for the whist players. Wednesday night was for those whom we considered to be more advanced bridge players. Thursday night was given over to beginners and a bridge class run by Mr Burnett and Mr Tommy Berry, principal of St. Columbas School in Portadown. Friday night was free, but anyone could take over the rooms for bridge, whist or a mixture of the two. The standard as I remember in those days was good for a country club and a lot of our people began to go up to Belfast where they were quite successful in senior competitions. This encouraged the formation of teams and it wasn't long before Portadown teams and pairs were beginning to win competitions. We had some extremely fine players, coached by Mr. Burnett whom I still think of as one of the very best players I have ever seen in action.
At the end of the war people who were demobbed and of quite a high standard of bridge joined the club, keen for competitive bridge. I'm talking about people like George McCaw, Bob Gardiner, Mr McShane (a principal teacher in the town) and Jimmy Greene (a business man in the town. The first full international player from the club was Tommy Berry and he later teamed up with Ray Corrick. Other International partnerships from the town were Tommy Berry and George McCaw, and Jimmy Greene and Bob Gardiner. The club, relatively small with 80-90 members, became extremely well-known. Success breeds success, so the club grew until we had to knock down the club kitchen to extend our premises.
As leaders of the provincial clubs in N. Ireland, many members became officials in the N. Ireland Bridge Union. George Sloane became chairman of this body, followed by George McCaw and then myself. We each in turn later became President of the Union. The club took a severe beating when the troubles started. The premises being where they were and the building being old, many thought there was danger and the numbers dropped drastically. Some members still play internationally and the standard has risen markedly, so we trust things will improve.
While there was an old Athletics club a good many years ago, for some reason it went out of existence. Shortly after I came to Portadown in 1955 Wilbur Forker, a student in the Methodist ministry who was a runner, a quarter-miler, put an ad. in the Portadown News saying that he proposed to start an Athletics Club and asking anyone who was interested to come down to the Savoy. I read this in the paper and was interested because in my young days I did a lot of running. I went to the Savoy and met there a lot of people who were afterwards well known in the Athletics world. One was Mary Peters, of course, Olympic Pentathlon Champion, Wilbur Forker, Kenny McClelland, a teacher, David Magill, I think he ran for Ulster, and Leslie Jones, a very good quarter-miler. We decided to start a club. Wilbur looked at my grey hairs and thought, "We have a treasurer here." This was a heavy responsibility for me with subscriptions at five bob each!
We got a team together, for they were starting an Athletics League in Ulster. We entered a team for that and we trained on the Pleasure Gardens cycle track. We had a very pleasant year, meeting teams like Collegians, Ulsterville,
Dromore Harriers and others in the League. It was a limited league, of course, because the events were very much restricted - they were geared for towns like Portadown with a membership of about twenty and you couldn't have a full athletic programme with that. We managed to get a programme together of 100 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 112 mile, Mile, Long Jump and maybe something else. Then we had a ladies' section which also had a good year of athletics.
The club kept going for two or three years and then Wilbur moved to the church in Geneva. Without him the team collapsed and now the club is no more.