Woodhouse Street

1996/97 - 1997

Woodhouse Street

its past and its people

by Bertie Martin

Samuel Lewis's 'Topographical Guide to Ireland', published m 1837, says 'Portadown consists of one spacious and handsome street, with several smaller streets branching from it in various directions.' One of those streets was Woodhouse Street, a thoroughfare that played an important part in the town's growth and development and has an interesting history.

Our family connection with the street covers just over 120 years; my grandfather started in business there and three generations later the chapter closed when my brother and I retired.

A brief word about our grandfather. John Woods was born in Derryadd in 1839 or 1840, so he lived through the famine years. Like so many young men of that time he went to America probably in 1859 or 1860. He was there during the Civil War, but with the return of peace there was a depression and he returned home.

In 1868 he set up in business in Woodhouse Street and in the same year married 18 year old Cherry Sloan.

Earliest reference

The earliest reference I have to a particular event dates from 1835. In that year the Grand Orange Lodge ordered Orangemen not to parade on July 12th. This was to comply with the Party Procession Act of 1832 passed by the British Government. But the Portadown Orangemen were determined to parade and they met and proceeded to Drumcree. An Orange Arch in Woodhouse Street was removed by the police on the order of Curran Woodhouse, a local J.P. The report ends with the words 'the parade ended peacefully'.

It was from the Woodhouse family that the street got its name, and it is known that Curran Street and Mary Street also came from family names.

The railway station was in Woodhouse Street from 1846 and the congestion of traffic was so great there and in Obins Street that in 1861 a 'cutting' was made and so 'The Tunnel' got its name.

In 1846 the street had a wide range of businesses.

T. A. Shillington were general agents but they sold coal, corn, timber and slate. There was a blacksmith called George Locke, a name that was to have long association with the street. But at that time (1846) there were several grocers, a tailor, a straw bonnet maker, several clothes brokers, a saddler and a cabinet maker.

Bassett's Directory

Bassett's Directory of 1888 shows an amazing variety of trades. Long before the phrase 'shopping centre' was thought of, Woodhouse Street was that. Over 40 businesses are listed.

The name of Locke is still there but, as many traders in those days carried on multiple businesses, they are named as grocers, posting car owners and emigration agents. Two other agents are shown, demonstrating the demand created by people going to America, Canada and Australia.

But about every thing you needed could be bought in the street. There were auctioneers, baby linen shops, cabinet makers, a clog maker, a coach builder, a saddler, potato exporter, victuallers. You would find 5 grocers, including spirit retailers and two clothiers (including John Woods).

Hugh Wallace owned what seems to have been a miniature department store. His advertisement in Bassett's Directory refers to him being, a house furnisher, wholesale and retail hardware merchant, watchmaker and jeweller. Wallpapers, stationery and carpets were also stocked.

Hall's had a hotel there but the firm of Shillington is now shown in Castle Street.

Famous men were associated with the street. Sir Robert Hart was born there in 1835 and, until the removal of houses from the [site of the new] Magowan Building complex, there was a plaque on a house naming it as his birthplace. Later that house was owned by the Sheil family and their son, Charles, was Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland.

When John Woods died in December 1910, the business was carried on by his wife and three daughters, and at one time three shops were owned by them. One of the daughters married a W.J. Martin and became the mother of my brother Harold and myself, and we ran one of the three shops as men's and boys' outfitters from 1940 until 1987.

One sometimes stumbles on interesting little stories that illustrate social history.

W.D. lrwin and Sons

Mr. Kenneth lrwin told me his father came to Woodhouse Street in 1905. They had a grocery shop and sold pig meal, and kept a few pigs at the back. In his words 'my aunt Flossie used to bake a few cakes on Friday to sell in the grocery shop' and from that grew the huge and impressive bakery of W.D. lrwin and Sons.

At a time when bread was sold by breadmen with vans, they had a large fleet of vans and those vehicles, and the sand gravel lorries, were serviced in Woodhouse Street.

From a business point of view, the lrwin family played a dominant role. In addition to their ever developing bakery, their grocery shop was one of the first in the province to adopt a 'supermarket' format. The role that this hard-working family would play in the future, not only in Woodhouse Street but also in the town, could not be envisaged. All that lay in the future.

Another business man tells an unusual story. Mr. Charles McKeever, of the Railway Inn, had a family connection with the Megaritys who ran a boarding house in the street. On one occasion a man arrived late, stayed overnight, and on leaving told them his name was Roger Casement.

That name is known to all students of Irish history. He was born in the 1860's and was a British Consular official. Casement denounced the treatment of native workers in Africa and later as Consul General he condemned atrocities in rubber plantations. In the cause of Irish nationalism he went to Berlin at the outbreak of World War I to try and obtain German help. He was arrested in Ireland on landing from a German submarine, was tried for high treason and hanged. A traitor or a patriot? The verdict depends on your viewpoint of the history of this island.

In the 1920s and 1930s many business people lived over their premises and so my brother and I were born in Woodhouse Street.

In reviewing the four and a half decades we worked there, a long list of traders comes to mind. But not all them were there, all of the time.

Emersons, the grocers, were there for part of that time, but re-development caused them to move to Hanover Street. But there were always lots of grocers. You had Gibson, McAviney's (later Quinns), Metcalf's, Cassell's and W.D. lrwin & Sons; Miss Jamison sold provisions and was a greengrocer. Dicksons were known for their pork and also had a fruit shop. Mrs. Wright had a small shop selling a wide range of goods. Nearby was another grocer, Joe Henderson, who loved to relate tales of his cross-border smuggling activities during the Second World War.

The Murphy family had two butcher shops (and a blacksmiths forge as well). Another butcher shop was owned by Mr. Tweedie and after his death, his daughter, Mrs. Evans ran it for some years, until Mr. Norris acquired it.

The name of Locke was still there, selling farm machinery, tools and a travel agency. It is impossible to recall every shop, but there was Rowe's (Chemist) and Mr. Eakin, jeweller and watchmaker.

'Relayed Radio'

McConville and Thompsons were both newsagents and had lending libraries. When they ceased trading Winnie's became the main shop for newspapers, cigarettes and confectionery. (It has been established by the Donaghy family, and they continue to run it).

We read today about the coming of 'cable TV' but in the 1930s Bob Hazelton not only sold radios and charged batteries, but wired the town for 'relayed radio'.

Alex Adair had a wallpaper and paint shop. And at a time when bicycles were used in great numbers, Brown's or Fletcher's could sell you a cycle or repair it. Jimmy Fletcher, a keen cyclist, formed a 'Cycle Club'.

Mr. Johnston catered for your hardware needs, in a small crowded shop.

If you required clothing, you had Burnett's (on the corner of High Street), Steele's, Mrs. Martin, Mrs. S. Finn, Rafferty's, Dunbars, Miss Woods and B. & H. Martin (that name is still there but Mr. Tom Morrow of Dungannon acquired the premises and enlarged them).

Alan Egan sold footwear; this trade was later carried on by Perrotts.

Way back in 1888, Bassett listed all the markets in Portadown, and it is astonishing the number he refers to - this includes "Pigs on foot and young pigs, Woodhouse Street".

All this activity with farmers arriving and buying pigs created a need for places of refreshment and there were many - Stringers, Wallace, McCoo and later 'TheWoodwin'. Mr. and Mrs. Benn came from Tipperary and acquired a restaurant and all of these served people from the country and those who worked in shops, banks and offices.

It was a good place to enjoy a drink. The 'Royal Oak' and 'The Railway Arms' are still there, though re-built, but names like McKeever, Power, Pearsons, Prunty and Lynch were also publicans.

Megarity's sold second- hand furniture and bric-a-brac. Miss Clements had a bookshop specialising in religious books. Nearby was H.M. Inspector of Taxes' office; it later moved to Carrickblacker Road and eventually to Marlborough House. The building it occupied in Woodhouse Street became a Chinese Restaurant.

Herds of cows in the street

It is hard to believe that right up to the end of the 1940s the McCoo family drove a herd of cows up and down the street every day, and that in a week thousands of live pigs were unloaded at the Goods Station and driven to Denny's factory. On Fridays and Saturdays country taxi-owners ran a 'shuttle service' from the street.

All of this in a very busy narrow street and to add to the hustle, all road traffic from Strabane and Omagh came through it.

As children, the Public Park was our playground and there, we played with children from Park Road, Obins Street and 'The Tunnel' area, and memory tells me we played happily together.

That good relationship was reflected in the street. We were neighbours, we were earning a living and religious differences did not enter our everyday lives.

During the 'Troubles' from the end of the 1960s the street had its bombs and bomb scares, yet in a crisis trader helped trader.

The massive car bomb that devastated the town centre in the summer of 1993 damaged many shops in Woodhouse Street; some had to he repaired, some rebuilt.

Was this the darkest hour for the old street? Business was largely confined to the upper area, as the Magowan Buildings Car Park had removed all of the buildings on the lower left side.

But a miracle was going on, quietly behind the facade. The removal of some old buildings saw them replaced with new attractive shops, and Mr. C. Mallon not only built new shops but created an attractive trading area called 'Little Acorns'. And piece by piece, the impressive lrwin-Glenbank Shopping Mall was coming into being. The lrwin family, who had played an important part in the life of the street, were the driving force in a project that would bring a new heart to the centre of Portadown and bring Woodhouse Street a renewal of its life and vigour after nearly two centuries of its existence.

Sights and smells

I have written of the Woodhouse Street I knew and because it is based on personal memories some things have been forgotten. But two memories of childhood have come with me through the years. One is of sight - that of carts lined up with their shafts on the ground, full of small noisy pigs. The other is that of smell - going past one of the many small 'eating houses' and catching the haunting aroma of steak and onions.