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.
From the collection of taped interviews made by Harold M. Thompson 1982-'83 and Mrs Brenda Thompson's talks to Miss Jean Corbett, a grand-daughter of the founder.
My name is Harold McAfee. I was born in September 1911 and served my apprenticeship with Corbett's for 4 years 1926-30. For a further two years 1 was a junior assistant. I took up a position in Belfast in 1932 and returned in 1942 to R. Corbett and Sons Ltd. with whom I remained until my retirement in late 1981, a grand total of 55 years, start to finish.
Corbett's, "The House for Value" as they were proud to call themselves, is a large department store. Outside Belfast in the olden days there was nothing in the province to touch it. Samuel S. Corbett was very fond of quoting "Portadown is the hub of the North", to which the staff would add, "And Corbetts is the hub of Portadown." There were three familiar figures around the store: Robert Corbett, the founder, Samuel S. Corbett, one son, and J. Harry Corbett, the other son. Mr. Sam, as we called him, was the managing director.
Mr. Harry looked after the office and its smooth running. He took great pains to have everything in apple-pie order. He was fond of system and therein reaped his reward. Robert the father had retired, but there is a saying "Where the heart is, the feet will wander", and it was only the odd day now and then that he wasn't to be seen, wandering around, interesting himself in both merchandise and staff - a staff numbering 80-90 and at times past the 100 mark. He was referred to as "The Governor".
There was always a goodly number of apprentices and at that time the apprentice wage was £100, spread over 4 years. Their tasks were sweeping the floors and taking off and putting on the guards. But that wasn't all. There were many important items still to be seen to, for example how to tie up a parcel, different types of parcels, how to fill in stock, being a good stock-keeper and keeping a department clean and tidy, the approach to a customer - the right approach, ticketing goods, checking off invoices and most of all getting to know all they could about what they were selling.
By the end of the four-year apprenticeship they were ready to make their first venture into the big world of business as a junior assistant. There was a saying often quoted, "If you serve your time in Corbett's you can take a job anywhere." It was only natural that businessmen south of the border would like their sons to get a good training and so it was that many of the top business-men today in the Republic started off their business life in Corbett's. Shopping hours were 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday closing 9 p.m. This arrangement eventually was changed and we finished at 6 o'clock Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, half day on Thursday and Friday up to 8 o'clock - Saturday 9 as usual. Christmas Eve, Easter Saturday and 11th July were rather important dates and had a little later time of closing - 10 p.m.
There were ten departments covering household linen, curtains, men's and boys clothing, outfitting, hats and caps, tailoring, underwear - ladies' and gents' -footwear and blankets. Heads of departments were known as buyers and names like Jo Bell, David Best, R.J. Robinson, Chissy Fulton bring back memories. I think too of ladies who had similar positions - names like Miss Netherleigh, Miss Burns, Miss Tate and Miss Scott come to mind. Looking back further there was a time when Corbett's made their own electricity, eventually merging with the newly founded Portadown Electric Company.
As cars were few and far between people came to town with their horse and cart. You could stable your horse at the rear of the premises for 8d, entrance by Fowler's Entry, which was also known as "The Orange Cage". The summer and Winter Sales created a great rush of extra business. Sale leaflets, or handouts were delivered by hand around the various streets and houses. They conveyed to the public the value that was there for the picking. "Opposition is the life of trade", they say, and there was no shortage. The large stores in the clothing trade bring names like A.J.Burnett, Wm. Paul and Son, J. and M. Reid, W.G. Hutchinson, John Hosey Ltd., Elliot and Stevenson and R.Trimble all to mind.
There were 2 important hotels in this hub of the North, both occupying good positions in the town centre and known as "The Queen's" and "The Imperial". Pubs were many and plentiful - such as Eliss's, Pentland in Edenderry, Falloon's at the foot of the town, Darren Kane, Kelly's pub and Alfie Johnston's pub in Market Street and Barry's and McConville's in Mandeville Street. Those I have mentioned are only the half of them. Portadown had plenty of "characters". There was Johnny Waugh, the newsagent, with rosy cheeks and whiskers and his shop stacked to the ceiling with papers. Then there was Herbie Briggs, always keeping a keen eye open for a good-sized cigarette butt as he dandered with long strides along the footpath. Billy Hipps was always good for a song. He was fond of wearing a bow tie and belted raincoat with the belt so tight it was enough to cut him in two.
Further back, I think of Billy Coulter, a second-hand clothes dealer. He wore a tall hat and a frock coat and he had one leg a little longer than the other. When he disagreed with the preacher or the sermon he would go stomping out to show his disapproval. Factories played a big part in the town's progress. We had Atkinson's, Castle Island Weaving Company, Spence Brysons, Tavanagh Weaving Company, Greeves and Robbs all weaving Irish linen. Today the buildings are there, but supplying the wages by manufacturing other goods.
End of Interview
Miss Jean Corbett, daughter of S.S.Corbett, was able to fill in some of the earlier history of Corbett's, relying on memories of what she had heard from her parents and newspaper reports of a speech made by her father.
In the year 1876 or 1877 Mr Robert Corbett and Mr. A.J. Burnett, who had been in business in Magherafelt, moved to Portadown and set up business together in premises which later became Shepherd's dairy, a narrow-fronted shop in High Street. In 1879 Robert Corbett brought his bride, Miss Katherine Smythe of Garvagh, to Portadown. By this time Mr. Burnett was also married and the two men decided to dissolve business partnership. Mr Corbett stayed in High Street, probably living above the shop, but shortly moved to the premises in Market Street, which later became Edgar's hardware shop.
In 1882 Robert Corbett moved across the street to the firm's permanent premises. Mr. S.S. Corbett, his son, remembered the building as a ruin - an old public house that had been burnt down. Mr. Dawson, the owner of the property, had it rebuilt for Mr. Corbett. After 7 or 8 years in business Robert Corbett found himself in financial difficulties and had to ask his creditors to accept 10 shilling in the pound. They did so, but Mr Corbett vowed before God that if spared and given health and strength he would pay every penny he owed. 14 years afterwards, in 1901, he was able to do so. Shortly afterwards Corbett's staged their first sale. When they had taken £100 in sales Mr Corbett closed the door and said he would do no more business that day. With the staff he gathered inside the shop and they all sang the Doxology.
From then on the business enjoyed amazing prosperity. During the difficult years Mr and Mrs Corbett lived in a house in Woodhouse Street where apprentices who came from the country, too far out to travel daily, boarded and were looked after by a housekeeper. Later, when S.S. Corbett had married and moved to Quarrybank, Miss Corbett remembers the tradition of caring being continued when sick members of staff were brought there to convalesce. Other memories are of mannequin parades inside the shop. Some of the models were brought from Belfast, others were members of staff such as Miss Myrtle Lyske and Miss Winnie Anderson, later of "Arlette's".
There were annual outings for the staff, the earliest of these being to the Garvagh home of Mrs Robert Corbett. Later outings required two buses to take staff and their families to a seaside resort for the day. In the early days the shop was opened from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., closing at dark in the wintertime. On Saturday nights boys were still delivering parcels at midnight. Once established, Corbetts built the impressive shop front familiar from the 1920s on, with two large windows and an "island" between them. The island was made of curved glass and customers could walk all round it to admire the display. The Chamber of Commerce used to have competitions for the best-dressed window in what were known' as "Linen Weeks", and Miss Corbett remembers a large dining table in the island window with Old Bleach damask, cut glass, silver and sweet peas.