Vol. 10 No. 1 - 2013
Memoir based on an interview recorded by Ann McClelland
Ann McClelland speaking to Bill Burnett, whose family on both sides had a business in Portadown, one of which is still trading. "Thank you, Bill, for agreeing to record these memories for the Craigavon Historical Society."
Bill Burnett: "Thanks Ann for asking me to do this. I suppose it’s a good idea to record these things.
My father’s side was the Burnetts. His father came to Portadown from Magherafelt with Robert Corbett. The story goes from our side that they came as apprentices. My grandfather’s first wife’s surname I think was Robinson. They had two children, but on the birth of the second child his wife died. He then remarried, and the second wife, called Belshaw from Armagh, gave him ten children so in total there were twelve children, six boys and six girls - that was quite a family, but I guess not unusual in those days. My father was number 10: he was the youngest boy, born in 1894.
Then my mother; she was one of the McDonagh family. Her father started a furniture factory in Richhill. He had a problem with it and it folded, but he started up again. My mother was the second child in his family; there were seven children, three girls and four boys. Her young days were hard for her: when her father’s business folded she was taken out of Brookfield School near Lisburn aged 14 and put in the furniture polishing section when the factory started up again.
She always talked about how she would have loved to be a pianist, and she had learnt the piano but was always embarrassed with her fingers because they were always covered with this brown polish. The polishing was hand-done in those days. She was the second daughter of the family and eventually she ended up running one of the McDonagh furniture factories.
They opened a factory in Monaghan, to sell furniture in the Republic of Ireland (or Eire as it was then called). Because my mother had been working in the Richhill factory and knew how it operated from the age of 14 she was given the responsibility of running the factory in Monaghan when she was only about 20. She went to Monaghan every day, six days a week by car from Richhill, across the border in the 1930s. Eventually she taught her brothers the furniture business by bringing them down with her to work in Monaghan.
She had four brothers: John, Thomas, William and David, and they eventually ran the furniture factory that operated in Obins Street in Portadown. I can’t tell you when they moved to Portadown, but the older factory was too small so they bought some land in Obins Street and opened up there. They employed quite a considerable number of folk there for many years; it’s still operating now and two of my cousins, William McDonagh’s sons Terry and Ross, are running the business. It has a different slant from what it had in the early days but it’s still going, McDonagh’s Furniture Factory - and this was of benefit to us when we were getting married, because my uncles all gave us furniture so we didn’t have to buy much. So that’s a bit about the McDonagh side.
Then on my father’s side his father A J Burnett had started, from what our side of the story says, as an apprentice in a shop called Shillingtons. It was a drapery shop in High Street and after he and Robert Corbett had served their time, as we were told, they set up business together in Portadown but after a couple of years they both decided to go their separate ways.
Robert Corbett as far as we know went into Market Street; my grandfather went to Castle Street and started his business at the top of Castle Street where Esme’s Hairdresser is now. Like Corbetts, the staff that he employed lived on the premises during the week, then went home on a Saturday night and came back on Sunday night from away out in the country, even as far as South Armagh sometimes. They fed them too, that was part of the apprenticeship and the working conditions.
I suppose with having six sons A J had to devise ways of looking after those fellows and giving them work, so he started a shirt factory in Harford Street and his son James Burnett took that on. They made the shirts, and men’s underwear too, and then sold them in the shop. Another son Tom opened a gents’ shop, roughly where Cordner’s shoe shop is now. He had been injured serving in the First World War; he married Ethel Walsh of Walsh’s Nurseries, who had a shop in High Street where Jameson’s is now.
My father had two other brothers: Samuel went to Brighton and was a tax inspector; the other one died at about 19 – I don’t remember what happened to him. The eldest son Andrew James had emigrated to America when he was quite young and never came back, though my father kept in contact with him until he died; he lived in Washington State.
My father John (who was number six of the boys) ended up working in the shop when they moved from Castle Street - because there was a fire there about 1912 I think. Actually they moved to High Street beside the Bank of Ireland, and this shop later became Trimble’s and then Jameson’s.
I’m not sure of the timing of this, but I was told that the whole family moved to a property in Church Street which became the Carleton Maternity Home and is now in flats. That was where my father remembered most of growing up because he would have been 10 or 12 when they were in that big house.
Then in 1926 they bought what had been the Portadown Old Town Hall and Wallace’s Hardware Store next Woodhouse Street and converted it into Burnetts store. It wasn’t long after that, as far as I remember from what I was told, that my grandfather died in 1927; at that stage they had the shop going with a good number of staff. A J Burnett (my grandfather) was an evangelist and regularly held Missions in the country areas around Portadown. I remember Mildred Rainey’s father Mr Ritchie telling me about attending one of these Missions when he was a young boy.
My aunt Mrs Holland who lived in Renmore Avenue was in charge of the Fashions Department at Burnetts, and my father was in charge of everything else.
My father just went straight to work in the A J Burnett shop as a young man; it was just accepted that that was what he was going to do. Then my mother came along: they must have met about 1935 or 36. They never talked about how they met, but my father would have been quite shy. They were married in June 1937, I think it was the day after the Coronation of King George VI; the 3rd of June was the date of their wedding.
The thing that my brother and I would remember most from what they would have talked about was going on their honeymoon; we still have the book about it. My father at that stage had a Singer car. He was a great man for writing down in detail all the things that happened and he kept a diary. He records the whole journey: they went to Belfast in the car, to the Liverpool boat, and there was no roll-on-roll-off ferry then so the car had to be lifted by a crane onto the deck of the boat and then they got on board.
They spent the night on the boat; they got off at Liverpool and the car was again lifted by crane and set on the quay-side. They drove the whole way down through England to Devon and Cornwall. It’s all recorded, the different places they visited on the journey right down to the tip of Cornwall. They were really taken with a wee village in Devon called Clovelly which doesn’t have a proper street because it goes straight down the side of a hill to the harbour with steps all the way. When they came home and rented their first home on the Tandragee Road it was called Clovelly. I remember that house, Number 170, it’s still there. It was later bought by the Housing Executive and was then owned by Stewart Totten who lived next door. For some strange reason my father preferred to rent the house and he did so for a good number of years. That’s where I was born and grew up.
My mother worked for her own family right up until she was married, but in Monaghan; she never worked in Obins Street. She basically trained her brothers in running a furniture factory, and when they opened the factory in Obins Street the older boys took responsibility for it; their father was still there. Her mother Grandmother McDonagh died in 1934. This was a big thing for the family, because most of them were still reasonably young; the youngest boy would only have been about 17. My mother’s older sister was married, so my mother became the organiser; there was an aunt who came to live with them, but it was quite a traumatic time. However they had a great family spirit and they used to have lots of folk come to the house in Richhill and stay; they had a reasonably sized house. It was non-stop work, non-stop catering. I don’t know how they coped with it.
My mother told us as children growing up a lot of stories of bringing stuff back and forwards across the Border, and all the problems they had with the Customs people over driving to work in Monaghan. It was 23 miles, and the roads were not anything like what they would be today. There was lots of fog, and she told us about one time she was driving and her brother got out to walk in front of the car and she could see no further than him. It took them ages to get home at night. After she got married my mother just stayed at home; I came along a year later, and my brother David a few years after that.
Then came the start of the War. For people running a business during the Second World War there were a lot of difficulties. Getting materials; then rationing came in; and my father used to talk many a time about the Fire Watch they had to do, especially when there were air-raids. Many a night they would have had to go in and sit on the roof of the building to watch for aircraft; not that they could do anything except give a warning that planes were coming. They had a rota worked out; so many went in for a night or two nights to look after the premises.
When I think of that it reminds me of the Troubles later and the problems we had with the premises even then, because any time there was a bomb of any kind in Portadown we lost our windows. Those were difficult days, but we managed to survive through it all. There was one chap who was working for my father, Cecil Kilpatrick; I don’t know exactly what happened, but he died during that stage and his wife came in; my father gave her a role as the book-keeper and she worked for us until she retired. Mrs Kilpatrick lived up at Seagoe and was a member of Seagoe Church. She controlled all the money, controlled all the accounts, and was indispensable to the business.
Reflecting on the old shop in High Street, I’m sure some of the older folk will remember the way the money was handled. There were no cash registers. On the first floor the customer bought say a coat and paid the assistant the money. If there was change to be given a docket was written and the money was put into a big round wooden ball and dropped down through a hole in the floor; it ran along a little track and fell into the Office. Then Mrs Kilpatrick opened the ball, took the contents out, put the change in, and sent the ball back along the track to be pulled up to the first floor where the customer was given their change. On the ground floor there were containers that went along above people’s heads on a wire and back. When we were children we used to love to go to the Office and be allowed to pull the cord that sent the ball back to the various departments. There was no such thing as credit cards, but there was a credit system which was like a Savings Club and also an approbation system where customers could take items home to try on, giving their name and address which was recorded in the Appro. Book.
There were various departments – the first floor was all ladies’ fashions; the ground floor had ladies’ underwear, children’s wear, dress fabrics for people to make their own clothes, and also curtain fabrics and towels, sheets, pillows etc. There was an alterations department, with four women who widened, narrowed, shortened or whatever was necessary. I think we made a small charge for the alterations but it was never viable for us; it was always subsidised.
We had about twenty or thirty staff altogether – over thirty when we were burnt out in 1975. We had opened the second floor by then so we had three floors open. We had managed to put in a passenger lift about 1970 - very few shops had one then. People were a bit nervous of it at that time; it was a small lift, but once they got into the way of it they got used to it, especially when they had to go up two flights! Then of course when we opened the second floor we had a curtain-making section. We made the curtains on site. Everything was done like that, including the alterations.
My mother eventually came to work in the shop too, after I started work in 1955. It was when my father took rheumatoid arthritis; he wasn’t fit to run the business. My mother was involved in underwear, children’s wear and school uniforms. Of course she had the right experience, with her background in the furniture business. My brother would have been at the College or ready to go to university. It was really more because my father was ill, although once he was treated with a Health Reform diet he got rid of all the pain. He used to walk into town to the shop, but he didn’t take as much interest in it when I was there.
I just left the College after Senior Certificate; my brother went to University, but I never did. I was expected to go into the business, as I was the eldest. I think I was made Managing Director when I was twenty or twenty-one. No business training – it was all hands-on experience, you just learned by being there. I did a correspondence course in Business with the Metropolitan College; that was the training I had. In those days some folk from family businesses were still being sent to learn the trade in another firm. I remember men coming from Enniskillen and Lisnaskea or places like that to learn the drapery business at Corbetts, but I never had that privilege because my father was not well. They had to have someone on the ground.
Being burned out in 1975 was a traumatic experience. From when the Troubles started in 1969 it was just a constant battle to try and survive. The siren would have gone any time there was a problem, and automatically you went into town to see what was wrong.. Where we lived at that time we could see the centre of town, and could see where the smoke was coming from, and could guess where it was, but that was a constant problem. Then you would have the police ring to say there had been a report of a bomb scare in Portadown. You just had to get up and go, and like that time in the War we organised a rota so we didn’t have to go in every time. We had it all set up; there were so many bomb blasts that we had permanent chipboard panels that fitted our huge display windows on the ground floor and they needed to be secured in place. I remember on a lot of occasions going in and doing that in the middle of the night.
I couldn’t tell you how many bombs there were altogether, but it was very constant. Corbetts was targeted in I think 1973 or 1974; it was owned then by Sinclair’s of Royal Avenue and Harry Corbett was working for them as Manager. What happened with us was in 1975: we found incendiary devices in the pockets of a lady’s coat on the first floor while one was being tried on. These were just jelly packets: we didn’t know what they were, but we called the Army and when they came people were evacuated out of the shop. It was a really busy Saturday afternoon. These devices had been brought in by members of the public. Our Security staff looked in bags but they didn’t frisk people, so these were probably brought in on someone’s person or in their pockets. The devices would start burning after a period of time because of the way two substances in them interacted.
The Army dismantled the devices we had found and we checked through the coats and so on, opened the shop again and traded until half past five. Once we had closed the shop we kept all the staff behind to search the whole premises. Unfortunately the search did not find all the devices, and at a quarter to nine that night the building was on fire. Being the Old Town Hall it was really brilliant material for a fire as all the beams were wooden, the floor was wooden, the walls were wooden panels and it was well seasoned. As well as that the curtains and towels etc were easily lit and so the fire got a hold. We thought that one or more of these incendiary devices had perhaps been slid in between the stacks of towels.
Eventually the premises were rebuilt and we traded for several more years, but we never got the business back to its previous prosperity. Instead our skills were re-directed from our business to God’s business, as we became representatives and later directors of a Missionary Agency, sending people to four continents to share the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ - but that is another story….
Sadly the days of family businesses have mostly gone, and with them the many examples of fine Christian people who served their community by giving employment with fair wages to their staff and made products and provided services that were reliable and of trusted quality to the community. Those typical family businesses treated their employees as part of their large family as they worked together for their joint good and prosperity.