The Inland Port of Portadown

Vol. 5 No. 3 - 1987

The Inland Port of Portadown

by S.C. Lutton

Shillington's Quay
Barge tied up alongside Shillington's Quay on the Bann at Portadown

Portadown was known until very recently as a major railway junction, but prior to the coming of the railway system, it was a centre of communication by inland waterway utilizing the natural river waters of the Bann on whose banks it was built and the vast area of Lough Neagh of 150 square miles, bordering on counties; Armagh, Antrim, Londonderry, Down and Tyrone. Over the years a number of artificial cuttings or canals were made which had connections directly or indirectly with Portadown on the river Bann. They are listed as follows:

(1) The Newry Canal from the "Point of Whitecoat", one mile south of Portadown on the Upper Bann. The canal joins the Bann close to where the Cusher river also joins the Bann; to the centre of Newry. Construction started 1729 and the canal was opened in 1742. The canal was eighteen and a half miles long and contained 13 locks. It could take boats up to 62ft x 14ft 6ins Draught 5ft tins. The date of disuse for commercial traffic was 1938/39.

(1a) A "Ship Canal", joining Newry to the sea at Warrenpoint on Carlingford Lough was constructed 1829 and completed in its present form in 1850. Originally ships of 4,000/5,000 tons could only get up to the Victoria Lock and the cargo had to be transhipped into smaller vessels of 700 tons which steamed or were towed to the Albert Basin in Newry. Improvements made in 19301935 and again in 1950 allowed the sea-going vessels of 4,000/5,000 tons to steam through from Carlingford Lough to Albert Basin, Newry. The Ship Canal was over 7 miles long. It was finally abandoned in 1969 after a terrorist explosion wrecked the Victoria lock gates.

(2) The one large river that flows out of Lough Neagh is the Lower Bann. The rapids known as "The Cutts", impeded navigation, but from 1847 to 1859 locks were constructed at the "Cutts" and a staircase or double lock at Portna which allowed vessels up to 120ft to navigate through the 32 miles from Lough Neagh to Coleraine and thence to the open sea. This canal is still open and is used mainly by pleasure boats using a lock at Toomebridge.

(3) The Lagan Navigation canal from Ellis Gut or Cut Lough Neagh to the Lagan River at Stranmillis was constructed in two stages. The first section was opened in 1763 from Stranmillis to Lisburn and the second section from Lisburn to Lough Neagh in 1794. The total length was just under 26 miles. This canal was part river (Lagan) and part cuttings and contained 27 locks. It could take vessels, 62ft x 14ft 6ins x Draught 5ft 6ins. It fell into disuse in 1951 and was abandoned in 1958.

(4) The Tyrone navigation or Coalisland was built 1729-1787 and linked the River Blackwater, entering Lough Neagh with Coalisland itself some four miles to the west. It contained 7 locks and could handle boats 62ft x 14ft 6ins x Draught 5ft. It fell into disuse in 1946 and was abandoned in 1954. Its chief use was to transport coal from the Coalisland area to Lough Neagh and points beyond.

(4a) Another interesting but commercial failure was a canal known as Ducart's. It connected the canal basin at Coalisland with the colliery at Drumglass some three and a half miles distance. It used tub boats l Oft x 4 ft x 2 ft Draught. It had no water locks, but instead used dry inclined planes, known locally as "dry hurrys". The tub boats slid down or were pulled up the inclined ramps which were fitted with wooden surface rollers. The power through winches was insufficient to pull the tub boats up the ramps. Some improvement was made by counter-balancing ie a loaded boat in descent was to haul up an empty one up with the rope between them passing round a large pulley wheel. This system was of interest in being the only one of its kind in Ireland.

(5) The Ulster Canal, extended from Charlemont on the Blackwater to Wattle Bridge on the river Finn, south-east of Upper Lough Erne. It was part of a grandiose scheme which was to provide canal linkage from Upper Lough Erne to the Shannon. This link connected Lough Neagh with Limerick, Athlone and Carrick-on-Shannon and with Coleraine, Belfast and Newry.

The Ulster Canal

The Ulster canal was opened in 1841 and abandoned in 1931. It served Moy/Charlemont, Blackwatertown, Benburb, Milltown, Caledon, Middletown, Monaghan, Smithsborough, Clones and joined the Upper Lough Erne at Wattle Bridge on the river Finn.

The engineer of this canal was John Killaly. One glaring mistake was that the canal was built some 12ft in width which was up to three feet less than those on the existing waterways adjoining Lough Neagh and so preventing through traffic, except by specially built craft.

Coal barges and yachts in Kinnego Cut. Murtagh McCann's Nymph in foreground. A pre-1914 post card.

The Ulster canal had the famed English Engineer, Thomas Telford as a consultant and was finished under William Cubitt with William Dargan the principle contractor. This same William Dargan was later to play a prominent role in railway development throughout Ireland.

(6) In 1828 an intriguing scheme was put forward by an engineer, Alexander Nimmo. His proposal was to alleviate flooding in the low lying areas around Lough Neagh by providing an alternative outlet to the Lower Bann for surplus water in the Lough. He suggested removing the locks on the Newry Canal and cutting the bed of the Upper Bann and the existing canal to a depth of some 21 ft and thus reverse the flow from Lough Neagh to Carlingford Lough.

Alexander Nimmo's proposals were not proceeded with, but in 1882 the Chairman of the Portadown Commissioners put forward an almost identical scheme but again nothing came of it. This scheme was bitterly opposed by the GNR as the new deep canal would have to pass under the Scarva to Banbridge railway line. In any case the cost of £200,000 at that time was too ambitious for local interests and the results may not have justified the cost.

In general the North of Ireland canals were not very successful. The exceptions were the Newry Navigation and the Lagan Navigation. The shipment of coal from Coalisland was the main reason for the construction of canals in the first place to distribute this mineral to the main centres in Ireland. The relatively low cost of transportation from County Tyrone in time was met by coal from larger and more efficient collieries in Scotland and England and the canal traffic started to decline. The coming of the railways was the final factor in the decline and closure of the canals.

In the pre-railway age, land transport could bear no comparison with water in regard to facility or cheapness. In Ireland however, the absence of any great mining or manufacturing areas, and consequently of any regions of high population density, greatly reduced the benefits generally resulting from large scale inland water transport.

The Newry canal holds pride of place in being the first, true summit-level canal in the British Isles. Completed in 1742, it ante-dated by some twenty years, the Sankey Cut at St Helens Lancs and the Bridgwater Canal at Manchester.

Having given a sketch of the various inland waterway systems which had connections with Portadown we would have a closure look at the position of the "Inland Port of Portadown" on the Upper Bann.

Prior to the opening of the Newry Canal in 1742, Portadown already had its river connection with Lough Neagh to the North and a limited mileage of the Lower Bann. The Lough Neagh landing places with quays were Maghery at the mouth of the Blackwater, Newport Trench and Ballyronan on the west side, Antrim on the Sixmilewater river at the north-east corner, Aghagallon on the south-west and Derryadd on the south.

Ellis Cut at Kinnego was the direct result of the Lagan Navigation canal in 1794 and serviced the flourishing County Armagh town of Lurgan.

Passenger transport never played a very big part in water transport, but the Newry Telegraph of the 17th February 1813 tells us of a passenger service from Knock Bridge on the road inter connecting roads between Portadown/Gilford and Portadown/Tandragee, main roads. The passenger service was introduced by the respectable Quakers of Moyallen to enable people of a wide area to go to Newry and return the same day with ease, comfort and convenience. Return fare was three shillings and fourpence 1st class and two shillings and one penny 2nd class. This service, long since forgotten, continued for 30 years.

The opening of the Ulster Railway

On the opening of the Ulster Railway from Belfast to Portadown, the morning train connected with a boat at Portadown station quay for transportation to Newry. There was also an embarkation quay on the East bank of the Bann on Bridge Street at premises known as the "Anchor Cafe". A door in the basement of the Cafe gave access to a small quay.

The Newry Navigation canal was constructed from 1729 to 1742. The engineer was Edward Lovett Pierce assisted by Richard Castle, a Huguenot. On the death of Pierce, Castle took over but was dismissed in 1736. Thomas Steers, an English engineer took over and finished the project. The first vessel to bring coal from the County Tyrone coalfields to Dublin was the "Cope". It arrived in Dublin on the 28th March 1742.

One of the great difficulties with high-level canals was the maintenance of sufficient depth of water for the vessels. The Newry canal used Lough Shark as its main reservoir. It also used the Bessbrook, Poyntzpass and Acton rivers as "feeders". A channel was constructed to convey water from the Cusher river. This Cusher water is conveyed by an aqueduct over low ground to the summit level of the canal. The canal of course lost water continually by natural seepage and also at the lock gates, thus feeder streams were an absolute necessity to maintain the level.

Newry Navigation served, Knock Bridge/Moyallen, Madden, (between Gilford and Tandragee) Terryhogan, Scarva, Poyntzpass, Jerrettspass, Gorawood Newry (Albert Basin) and the Newry, Sea Canal -Victoria Lock, (Lower Fathom) Narrowater and Warrenpoint.

The Portadown waterways were used for transporting clay bricks from Collen's Brickworks at Seagoe, Bell's Brickworks off Portadown/Armagh Road (now Kingsway Drive) and Devon's Brickworks off Montague Street.


One of the largest users of the Portadown waterways was the firm of T A Shillington & Son Limited of Castle Street who owned 4 barges. They used both their own quay and also used the town quay (both now filled in). They also had a repair berth for their own and other barges. A wheeled bogey was lashed to the bottom of the barge under water. The bogey had flanged wheels which ran on rails up an inclined plane. A heavy rope or chain was attached from the barge to a winch on dry land. The winch was manned by at least two men each side and the barge was drawn up the inclined plane (ramp) and out of the water. The repair work on the barges was carried out by Ship-wrights from Newry who would have worked at Shillington's for several months at a time.

To facilitate the repair work on the barges, Shillington's had a plant for steaming the pitch pine planks to produce the curved surfaces.

Shillington's used their barges to draw coal from Newry and Belfast, also timber in plank form, fireclay goods from Coalisland, iron castings in the form of kitchen ranges and fireplaces, cove gutters and down spouting from Falkirk in Scotland, transshipped to their barges in Newry or Belfast.

The Portadown grain mills received their raw materials by barge - Maize for producing 'yellow meal' for animal feeding stuff and oats and wheat ground for human consumption. The mills were owned by William Clow, John Calvin and J Green. There was also a flour mill owned by a Mr. Mercer at Moyallon.

Turf was delivered to Portadown by barge and the linen weaving firm of Hamilton Robb Limited who at one stage used turf for producing power for their factory in the form of 'producer gas' engines, the gas being derived from turfs calcinated in pressure vessels. The writer can well remember watching from the Bann bridge some 63 years ago the steam tug called the Erne drawing three or four barges in line under the Bann bridge and casting off the barges which drifted in to Robb's quay, one after the other. The turf was built high on the barges like the ridge of a house.

The turf was lifted out of the barges in a large square container which was power operated. The container loaded with turfs lifted vertically, then changed course to a horizontal direction on a gantry which ran close to the factory. The container then descended and the turfs unloaded by the action of a lever which caused the hinged bottom to 'drop out' of the container.

During the 1926 General Strike, coal was in very short supply and most of the Portadown factories fired their furnaces with turf. This commodity was shipped by barge from County Tyrone. The Irish Peat Development Company were the main suppliers.

Most of the linen firms had quays mainly for the intake of coal to fire the boilers. The coal was winched out of the barge in a barrel and tipped into a horsedrawn cart which dumped its load as close as possible to the boilers. Hamilton Robb, Spence Bryson, Watson Armstrong, Castleisland Weaving Company and Achesons Limited had quays on the main river.

The Blackers of Carrickblacker House had a private cutting from the Bann to the back of their farmyard for supplying them by barge with coal and turf etc.

Robb's pottery at Derrybroughas

Robb's pottery at Derrybroughas produced goods from fired clay (fireclay). There was no clay on the site but this raw material was supplied by barge at their own quay. Barges normally returning empty after delivering other goods, were occasionally loaded with clay as a "catch" cargo.

The method of propulsion of the barges varied. From Newry the barges were normally towed by a horse walking the town path. It is to be remembered that a horse could draw some 70 tons by towing a barge as against 1 ton by the wheeled cart. When the barge reached the Point of Whitecoat, it was usually poled down to its destination. There is some evidence that steam powered barges with large propellers did operate on the Newry canal, but shallow draught and the narrowness would have caused problems.

Mr T G F Paterson records two Portadown steamers, the "Grand Junction" and the "Countess of Caledon" engaged in the conveyance of passengers and freight.

From Portadown, north to Lough Neagh, barges were towed by a steam tug usually with three or four linked line-astern. The tug boat service linked the Upper Bann, Lower Bann Lagan Navigation at Kinnego and the Ulster Canal at Maghery.

Portadown Foundry

Some old photographs taken on the Bann at Portadown, show barges with crude, square-rigged sails. These would undoubtedly have only been used on the Bann and crossing Lough Neagh. The barges used on the Bann were built of pitch pine and presumably were constructed at Belfast or Newry. At a later stage in canal and waterway development, steel or iron barges were constructed by Portadown Foundry Company and certainly some of them were fitted with engines. In the 1930s a Mr Willy Greeves who was a director in the linen weaving firm of Portadown Weaving Company bought one of these disused steel barges and had it refitted as a 'house boat'. For some years it was used as a private, pleasure craft between Portadown and various destinations on Lough Neagh.

Before the days of popular automobile transport on the roads, taking out a row-boat on the Bann in the summer months was a common occupation for fresh air and exercise. The Portadown Boat Club besides their racing boats had some twenty pleasure row-boats. There were also at various times boats hired out by private individuals such as Joe Grimason who hired out rowboats adjacent to Spence's quay. He had also a thirty foot launch fitted with a petrol engine. It was called the "Nightingale" and was used for excursion parties down to Lough Neagh. Another party who owned a pleasure launch known as the "Bann Lily" was a Mr Downey. His boat was moored at Acheson's quay.

The last Portadown firms to make use of inland water transport was Wade (Ireland) Limited, Ulster Pottery, Watson Street, Portadown. They shipped China Clay into the port of Newry via the Newry Ship Canal. It was transported to Portadown by road. This route closed as a result of a terrorist explosion which wrecked the lock gates at the Victoria lock, lower fathom. The writer has used the term "barge" for the vessel operating the Portadown and connecting waterways. However, the local term "lighter" was more usual. As a youth I can still remember the somewhat derogatory term applied to anyone who wore extra large-sized shoes. He or she was said to "have feet as big as Bann Lighters".

It is not generally known that after the fall of France in 1940, the line of the Upper Bann linked with the Newry canals through to Carlingford Lough became a defensive position in case of German landings in the Republic of Ireland. This line of defence through from Lough Neagh to Carlingford Lough was to safeguard the east of Northern Ireland from German attack. To this end, the bridges at Portadown were mined and left ready for instant demolition.

Source References
  • The Canals and Waterways of the North of Ireland by W A McCutcheon.
  • Travel and Transport in Ireland. The Section.
  • The Transport Revolution. Canals and River Navigation by W A McCutcheon.
  • A History of Northern Ireland by D A Chart.
  • Harvest Home - The writing of T G F Paterson.

Conversation with the following Portadown, senior citizens:

  • Sidney Grimason of Portmore Street,
  • George Moore and Thomas Flavelle, retired managers of Thomas Shillington & Son Limited
  • Victor Mullen, retired director of Hamilton Robb Limited
  • John Dawson, retired manager of Spence Bryson & Company Limited.