The Rise of Portadown

Vol. 5 No. 2 - 1986

The rise and development of Portadown

by S.C. Lutton

The area of land covered by Portadown was in pre-plantation days (prior to 1610) sparsely inhabited by people of Gaelic origin. The local sept were the McCanns of Clann-Cana (Clancan) which is the area south of Lough Neagh between the Blackwater and the Bann. About the end of the thirteenth century a branch had thrust across the Bann and become masters of Clann-Breasil. Their neighbours were the O'Hanlons of Ballymore (Tandragee area) and the Magennises of Iveagh (Donacloney and Tullylish area). These local chieftainships were vassals of the powerful O'Neills.

The name Portadown is derived from the Irish `Port-nadun', meaning the port of the dun, stronghold of the McCanns, commanding the crossing of the river Bann at the main intersection of a road going east and west with water communication of the Bann flowing south to north. There is no evidence that the Bann was fordable at this point. There were, however, two fords on either side, Derrybroughas to the north and Knock to the south.

The Plantation of Ulster

Little is known of the Portadown area until the Plantation of Ulster in 1610. In County Armagh there was constant warfare between the Irish septs with the O'Neills gradually establishing dominion in County Tyrone and County Armagh and bordering on the established English settlements in County Down.

The English grip on Ulster was tightened by the defeat of the O'Neills in 1603, followed by the Flight of the Earls in 1607 from Rathmullan on Lough Swilly, in the persons of the Earl of Tyrone and the Earl of Tyrconnell with many Gaelic nobles including a Maguire of Fermanagh. In 1608, James I of England commenced plans for the Plantation of Ulster when English and Scottish settlers were granted lands which dispossessed the native Irish.

The history of the town of Portadown begins with a grant of land in 1610, to one, William Powell. In 1611 Powell sold his grant of land to the Rev Richard Rolleston who in turn sold to Richard Cope and Michael Obins. Obins bought the portion of land running down to the west bank of the Bann. He built a house and bawn of brick and lime and settled 20 tenants around him in the Ballyoran area. The Obins Castle was sited adjacent to the old McGredy Nursery Offices. The present People's Park formed part of the surrounding grounds or parkland. Castle Street (sometimes also known as `The Walk') is a reminder of the Obins Castle.

Michael Obins in conjunction with his mother, Prudence, secured a patent for a fair and market at Portadown in 1631 and there the history of the town really commences. About the same time the first bridge was built across the Bann. The site was not that of the present bridge as the river bed at that time swung in towards the foot of high Street and the older bridges were located approximately to the right of the old Post Office but further back. The Plantation settlements in

Ulster made considerable progress over the years, but were hampered to some extent by the small numbers of settlers. To augment the work force, they were forced to employ the Irish who seized on the opportunity to gain information about the strength and weaknesses of the struggling settlements.

The 1641 rising

The dispossessed Irish had been plotting for many years to wipe out the imposed alien culture, to regain their lost lands and re-establish Gaelic rule. A rising was planned for October 1641. Sir Phelim O'Neill, nephew of the great Hugh, led the rebellion in Ulster. On the 23rd of October 1641, O'Neill captured Charlemont, the residence of Sir Toby Caulfeild. Over the next few days the various plantation strong points in Tyrone and Armagh were overrun. These included Dungannon, Mountjoy Castle and Newry. In the same year Portadown and Lurgan were taken and burnt by the Irish under the Magennises, the O'Neills and the McCanns. There were many atrocities committed against the settlers in Portadown after the capture of the Obins' Castle. Some 100/200 (the number varies in various reports) were forced off the broken down bridge over the Bann and were shot or drowned in the water. However, not all of Ulster was overrun. Enniskillen repulsed the insurgents, as did Londonderry and Coleraine. Towards the end of 1641, Sir Con Magennis attacked Lisburn in strength, but was repulsed. Belfast and the territory to Carrickfergus were not seriously threatened and in any case had the advantage of supply and reinforcements by sea.

The Great Rebellion affected most of Ireland. The Irish met with some success in persuading the 'Old English' (long established Roman Catholic English settlers of the Pale) to join them and were also strengthened by the arrival of the distinguished soldier, Owen Roe O'Neill, in North Donegal in 1642. Owen Roe O'Neill took command of the Confederate Army. The Irish also established a form of Parliament known as the `Confederation of Kilkenny'. Their one big military success was the defeat of General Munro's Scottish Army by the Irish Army under Owen Roe O'Neill at Benburb. However, this victory was not followed up and the remnants of the defeated Army reformed and were soon harrying the Irish forces in south Armagh. For the next two years there was stalemate with disagreement on the conduct of the war between Owen Roe O'Neill and the Confederation. By this time, King Charles's Royalist Armies had been defeated by the Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell had gained supremacy in England.


In 1649 Cromwell landed in Dublin with a well-armed, experienced Army of 3,000 Ironsides, complete with artillery. Cromwell's campaign began with the storming of Drogheda when the garrisons and clergy and some of the townspeople were put to death. He then turned south and took Wexford, New Ross, Kilkenny and Clonmel. Cromwell left Ireland in May 1650 and handed over the command of his Army to General Ireton. It took a further two years to finally subdue the country. Some of the Irish forces and their commanders were given the opportunity of going abroad for service with continental armies. Others stayed on and as Tories or Rapparies, harassed the newly re-established settlements. Redmond O'Hanlon of County Armagh was the best known of the Ulster outlaws. Some of O'Hanlon's followers murdered Henry St John of Tandragee (the English owner of the former O'Hanlon estates) at Drumlin Hill 1679.

In Portadown the Obins family re-established themselves. Hamlet Obins who had escaped the sacking of Portadown in 1641, returned in 1652. The Obins estates passed to the son Anthony. Around this time, Portadown became well known for the manufacture of cider. This indicated that there were already considerable plantings of apple trees in County Armagh. Anthony was also concerned in the development of the Newry Canal in 1741. He was succeeded by Michael Obins in 1750. It was he who set up a linen market in Portadown in 1762 and this laid the foundations of Portadown's major industry. Michael Obins died in 1798 and left a son, Michael Eyre Obins to succeed him. He resided in Castle Obins until 1814 and then took Holy Orders and settled in England. He sold his Portadown estates to the Sparrow family of Tandragee. A Miss Millicent Sparrow married Lord Mandeville in 1822, who later became the 6th Duke of Manchester.

The Duke of Manchester

The Dukes of Manchester (Montague is the family name) thereafter were the landlords of Portadown as well as Tandragee. We are reminded of this by such names as the Duke's School, Mandeville Street (Mandeville was the courtesy title of the eldest son), Montague Street, Millicent Terrace.

The other large landlords who owned land on the east bank of the Bann were the Blacker family who resided at Carrickblacker House built in 1692. This family originally hailed from Yorkshire and purchased the Manor of Carrowbrack comprised of 16 townlands, from Anthony Cope of Loughgall. The Blackers were prominent in the Army and the Church. Other prominent families associated with the rise of Portadown were the Curran's, Woodhouses, Workmans, Peppers, Marleys, Carletons and Shillingtons.

The first place of worship of any kind in Portadown was the Methodist Chapel built in 1790. It was situated on a site between Mandeville Street and Church Lane. It was followed by a Chapel in Thomas Street (now Thornton's Stores) and in 1860 by the present Church on the Thomas Street/Portmore Street corner.

The St Mark's Parish Church in Portadown was not built until 1826 and was known originally as St Martin's. Prior to 1826 the town was served by Drumcree on the west side of the Bann and Seagoe on the east. The first Presbyterian Church in Portadown was erected in 1822 at Edenderry and Armagh Road Church in 1867.

The Roman Catholic places of worship are St Patrick's, William Street built 1835 and Drumcree on the Dungannon Road. Other denominations are the Baptists, Thomas Street and Killicomaine Road, Elimites in Clonavon Avenue, Society of Friends in Portmore Street, and of recent years the Free Presbyterians in Levaghery.

Portadown owes its rapid development in the 18th and 19th century to the Newry Canal, built in 1741, which linked it with the sea, and water communications through Lough Neagh and the Ulster Canal with Belfast.

The railway arrives in Portadown

The railway system operating as the Ulster Railway (later the Great Northern) radiated from Belfast and reached Portadown in 1842. A railway bridge was built over the Bann in 1848 and the line was extended to Armagh and subsequently to Enniskillen and Clones. Portadown became a junction in 1855 with the completion of the line to Dublin. 'Another line was opened from Portadown and later continued to Strabane (with narrow gauge railway connection to Letterkenny, Donegal town and Killybegs).

In the earlier days of handloom linen weaving, Portadown was not involved to the same extent as Lurgan. Portadown did, however, come into its own with the advent of steam-power. In the 19th and 20th centuries it produced in its many weaving factories a wide range of linen goods. Without doubt, good railway and water communications were important factors which assisted the development of the linen trade.

The abundant supply of soft water from the Bann, used for boiler feed-water and also for boiling and bleaching of yarn, was also a major factor. It is to be remembered that Portadown did not have a piped water supply until 1906.

Fine linen manufacture

Portadown with Lurgan had a monopoly of the manufacture of fine linen, loosely referred to as the `fine end' or Cambric trade. Cambrics were made up into men's linen handkerchiefs and the even lighter 'Sheers' were used for ladies' handkerchiefs. Portadown, with Lurgan, had a thriving trade in finished handkerchiefs produced in hemstitching factories which in some cases were situated alongside the weaving factory. Besides straight forward narrow or broad hemming, shire effects involving drawn thread work which gave a fret effect, and rolled hem (a hand job) constituted the fancy effects.

Portadown had in the late 19th and 20th centuries seven large weaving factories and some of these had over 500 power looms. The weaving factories were Watson Armstrong of Watson Street (Railway Street); Tavanagh Weaving Co. (earlier Grimshaw & McFadden) of Armagh Road; Hamilton Robb & Co. of Goban Street; Portadown Weaving Co. of the Annagh; Spence, Bryson & Co. Ltd. of Portmore Street and Meadow Lane; Castleisland Linen Co. and Achesons Ltd. of Garvaghy Road.

Aerial view of Spence Bryson, Meadow Lane, Portadown

There were also four weaving factories outside the town, namely Blackers Mill Ltd. of Ballynaghy; John Turtles of Mullavilly; Robert Reid of Tarson, and Thomas Sinton & Co. of Laurelvale. The `fine end' weavers were Portadown Weaving Co., Spence, Bryson & Co Ltd., Hamilton Robb Ltd. Damask was woven by Tavanagh Weaving Co., Watson Armstrong, Castleisland Weaving Co. and Achesons Ltd. Damask is the queen of linen fabrics. Its end use is mainly linen tablecloths with matching napkins. Designs are mainly floral and foliage effects, but crests and national emblems were not uncommon. The design for damask is controlled by punched cards, laced together, or continuous paper roll. The cards or paper roll are fed into the jacquard machine, mounted above the loom.

Besides handkerchief and damask linen cloth, linen is used for a host of purposes. The most common one is the linen glass cloth or drying cloth. For drying purposes linen has the highest absorbency rate of any fabric and does not lint off (shed fibre) like cotton. Other linen fabrics woven in Portadown are Dress Linens, Linen Suitings (Linen is a cool crisp fabric made from firm compact yarn with relatively little projecting fibre, high moisture absorbency and does not cling to the body); artists' linen canvas and furnishing fabrics often in conjunction with cotton as a union of cotton warp and linen weft, tailor's interlinings and for various industrial purposes such as hose piping and canvas.

Decline of the linen trade

Due to the high price of linen and the inroads of man-made fibres, the linen trade had declined very sharply in the past 30 years. The only weaving factories still operating in the Portadown area are Blackers Mill Ltd. and Spence, Bryson & Co. Ltd. at Markethill. It is of interest, that over the past five years the remaining linen firms in Northern Ireland, have had a revival of fortunes. This is particularly evident in wearing apparel, where the appreciation of comfort with cloth made from natural fibres, is a major factor.

The raw material for linen is the flax plant, Linum Usitatissimum. It is extensively grown in northern Europe. The chief countries growing flax are France, Holland, Belgium, Northern Italy and the USSR. Up to 1950 it was grown in Northern Ireland on a fair scale with Counties Antrim and Down the main producing areas. After 1950, the flax crop virtually faded out, though there has been an attempt of recent years to revive it using new methods.

On the Continent, the growing of flax with subsequent processing is a major industry with the Belgian town of Courtrai the main market for flax grown in the adjacent countries of France and Holland. The better quality flax is water-retted in tanks under controlled conditions, but large quantities are dew-retted by spreading out on the field and allowing the heavy night dews to ret the woody matter in the plant. Most flax used in Northern Ireland today comes from Courtrai in the form of large bales of scutched flax delivered to the spinning mills of which there are still eight in business, the nearest to Portadown being Thomas Sinton & Co. Ltd., Tandragee.

Industry in Portadown

Portadown has seen a number of industries come and finally go, for example whisky distilling and brewing, cider making by Grews in Portmore Street, milling of animal feeding stuff by Clows and Calvins in Castle Street, iron and brass foundings by Portadown Foundry and several smaller firms and ham and bacon curing by McCammon and Sprott. There was also a number of small industries associated with farming and agriculture, for example the packing and distribution of eggs, butter, poultry and apples. Too well known nurseries of the past were Samuel McGredy & Son Ltd. and James Walsh Ltd.

The Great Northern Railway was a large employer with their railway marshalling yards, permanent way maintenance and also the maintenance of steam locos, carriages and wagons. With the upsurge of road transport, the G.N.R. lost the most of its goods traffic by rail. The closing of all the branch lines meant that Portadown was no longer a junction as it has now only the main line through to Dublin. The former majestic steam locos have been replaced by diesel engine propulsion incorporated in the leading passenger carriage, or as a separate diesel loco for goods trains pulling heavy loads.


Education in Portadown in past years was divided between (1) Primary (2) Technical and (3) Secondary School. The present Primary Schools were originally National Schools. After the setting up of the state of Northern Ireland they were known as Public Elementary Schools, then later called Primary Schools. In past years there were some nine schools of this category in Portadown, namely - Edenderry, Hart Memorial, Thomas Street, Church Street (the Duke School), The Academy, Park Road and Montague Street. The Roman Catholic Schools were St Columba in Carleton Street and the Convent School in Thomas Street. Post war additions were Millington (which replaced Thomas Street and Church Street), Ballyoran and St John's, Drumcree.

The Portadown Technical School on the Armagh road was established in a black stone building, originally built as a Cholera Hospital, but never used for this purpose. There had been several additions made over the past fifty years. It has now been superseded by the College of Further Education on the Lurgan Road.

The Secondary Grammar School in Portadown is `Portadown College', established in the early 1920s at Edenderry House, formerly the residence of Mr Hamilton Robb. The first headmaster was Mr W.J. Warren who, prior to the opening of Portadown College, had established a private school in Carleton Street known as "Carleton Collegiate School". On the opening of Portadown College Mr Warren took over as headmaster and Carleton Collegiate School was closed. Portadown College continued at Edenderry House until 1958 when it moved to a new greenfield site on Killicomaine Road where its new buildings were surrounded by playing fields. Mr D.W.J. Woodman succeeded Warren as headmaster and he was in turn succeeded by Mr T.H. Armstrong and Mr T. Flannagan.

The Secondary Intermediate/Junior High Schools are a post-war development. They are represented in Portadown by Clounagh, Killicomaine, St Brigid's Girls' High School and St Malachy's, Moy Road.

Population growth

The population of Portadown has gradually risen over the years. The census figures in were:

1841 2,500
1945 16,300

The material matter in this article is in the main Portadown's historic past. The up-to-date history of the town would be a worthy subject for some future article in REVIEW, which would include Industry, Borough extension, Buildings, Hospitals, Housing, Recreation, Public Services, Commerce, Commercial Organisations, Social Services, Youth Organisations, Literature, Drama and the Arts. Not least would be the new City of Craigavon as an object of an urban development encompassing Portadown and Lurgan which has not met its promised fruition.

Source References

  • The writer's personal knowledge of Portadown and the linen industry.
  • Portadown Official Guide. Armagh County Guide. Methodism in Portadown by William J Green.
  • 'Harvest Home, the Lost Sheaf', a selection of the writings of T G F Paterson.
  • A History of Northern Ireland by D A Chart.
  • The Students History of Ireland by Stephen Gynn.
  • An Atlas of Irish History by Ruth Dudley Edwards.
  • Travel and Transport in Ireland by Kevin B Nowlan.