Portadown Port

Vol. 6 No. 2 - 1991

Portadown Port

by George Robinson MBE

In the 1830s the town of Portadown had a population of around one thousand and work other than weaving was centred on the town quay and shipping from the Canal and the Lough.

The scene would have been a busy one with perhaps half a dozen lighters being loaded and unloaded along with a couple of barges or schooners. The cargoes would have consisted of grain, imported timber, iron, English and Scotch coal, slates, Irish coal, flour, and oatmeal. A small schooner from Scotland or Liverpool awaits a berth to unload slates, imported timber and potash. Salt also came in direct from England.

Lighters and barges

Lighters were used on the canal, while barges which were larger worked on the river and the lough as they were too wide for the canal. Barges really came into their own with the advent of steam when they were driven by engines.

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

The scenes at the quay would have been noisy with carters shouting and belabouring their horses, while carts rattled over the rough stones on the road, some carting grain into the Distillery, others bringing in native timber and farm produce. It was to be another 50-60 years before the roads were tarmacadamed. A long line of carts waited at the quayside to collect the cargoes. Barley was collected for the distillery across the road. Up to 3,000 tons of barley was used annually by the distillery. The distillery later became Calvin's Mill.

At Shillington's Quay two lighters unload, one with coal, the other building materials. Across the river can be seen a new barge being built in Bright's Boat Yard with the resultant sounds of hammering. Later this yard was to build iron barges for clients all around the Lough. Beside Shillington's Coal Yard another lighter is being winched up the repair shop slipway for repairs.

Ferry to Ballyronan

Back at the town quay, a group of people await as the flyboat "The Grand Junction" sails in to discharge her passengers and pickup those awaiting, en route for Ballyronan and Newport trench, on the west shore of the Lough. Another one is seen coming up the river carrying passengers from Belturbet. Horse drawn omnibuses, brakes and side cars stand waiting to collect passengers from the flyboat, some for an Inn or Hostelry, others to await a stage coach for distant parts. The Quay is stacked with all sorts of cargo awaiting collection or loading onto lighter or barges.

The Schooner has finished off loading and is about to take on board her outward cargo .of barrels of apples, webs of linen and webs of bag cloth. Bag cloth was used for flour and other fine powder produce and was woven with less care than linen. A raft of timber arrives at Shillington's Quay from Newry, indeed it may have come from Liverpool. Timber was, and to a lesser extent still is, tied together in a large raft, the size of which depends on the depth of water it is to float in. Three feet seemed to be suitable for the canal. In the canal the raft was pulled by a horse and poled from the Point of Whitecoat. Passing upstream is a lighter laden with sand from Coalisland bound for Newry.

The river in winter annually overflows and from September to April the Bann Meadows become a lake. Lighters would have to rely on sail to get to the Point of Whitecoat as horses obviously could not have worked. No conclusive evidence exists proving that horses did pull lighters up the river to the Point of Whitecoat other than the fact that a causeway existed at the mouth of the Cusher River. Local anglers can remember fishing from it. Another man can remember diving from it as a boy when swimming. The Department of Agriculture Drainage Division demolished it in the early sixties to improve the flow - it would have been lying disused from the introduction of the steam tug in the eighteen -twenties.

Paddle steamer

The first steam boat to sail on Lough Neagh was the "Marchioness of Donegall" in 1821, a paddle steamer. She sailed, or rather worked out of Ellis's Cut but her operation proved expensive to run and she was laid up circa 1845.

The first steam boats to sail out of Portadown were the "Grand Junction" and the "Countess of Caledon". They were flyboats operating services from Portadown to and from Ballyronan on the west shore of the Lough and to Enniskillen and Belturbet. They were scrapped in 1851, presumably because the trains outmoded them.

In 1844 the following notice was published:

The "Grand Junction" will leave Ballyronan with goods and passengers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at eight o'clock, calling at Newport Trench, and will arrive at Portadown in time for the two o'clock train for Belfast and the flyboat for Newry.

Returns to Ballyronan every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, leaving Portadown after the arrival of the ten o'clock train from Belfast and the flyboat from Newry, calling at Newport Trench.

The 1856 Sleators Directory of Ireland states the following:

"From the Ulster Canal carrying company's quay, John D Robinson, agent, to Belturbet, a flyboat every Saturday to Clones, a flyboat every Tuesday, to Enniskillen, a flyboat every Thursday".

Extracted from the "Portadown News" souvenir edition, 1859 - 1959.

Flyboats were light boats originally pulled by two trotting horses, each with a mounted horseman. After the eighteen twenties they became steamers. The flyboat service to Newry was inaugurated in 1813 and operated for approximately thirty years.

By the eighteen eighties there were six quays and two slipways in the town, with a further five smaller ones between Robbs ferry, Derrybroughas, and Moyallon.

Some were small private quays like the one at Carrickblacker House, which had its own small canal from the river Bann to a landing stage at the bottom of the slope leading to the big house. It was used for deliveries of coal and turf.

There was also the W S Mercier one at Moyallon, not far from the White Bridge. It had a tramway leading from the Mill to the edge of the canal. Merciers were a large flour milling concern and also manufactured semolina and other patent foods. They went out of business early this century. A Mr Milligan, a retired coal merchant can remember carting coal from the quay at Moneypenny's Locks. He bought his coal in Newry by the lighter-load and had it delivered to this quay by lighter where he then had it off-loaded and carted to his yard near Cordrain. The landing stage under the bridge at Knockbridge was used by the Newry flyboat, and this service was later extended to Portadown.

Ferry at Derrybroughas

Robb's Ferry quay at Derrybroughas served mainly the pottery and brickworks. A lighter load of pottery lies sunken near this quay and would provide an interesting exercise for a diving club to retrieve its cargo. The shipment was quite probably crocks and stone jars.

The Station quay situated somewhere near the station in Railway Street served the temporary station at Seagoe until the railway bridge and the main station were built.

No trace now exists of Spence Bryson's quay which would have been used to bring in coal for the boilers and sand and lime for making mortar which this company manufactured for the building trade up until the nineteen forties.

Hamilton Robb's quay, situated on the Edenderry side of the river at the back of the factory was in constant use until the late forties. During the Second World War the company used it extensively to bring in turf for the boiler and to make gas. The gas was used to drive an engine which in turn drove a dynamo to make light for the factory.

Peatlands Park

The turf came from the peat-works near Verners' Inn, now the Peatlands Park and Conservation Area. Here a small locomotive on rails ran through the bog carrying turf to lighters on the Lough. It pulled four or five wagons with high sides, which were emptied into the lighters which, when full, were taken by tug-boat to the quay. There they were off-loaded and carted into the factory. The tugboat was known only as "Billy Caddel's Tug".

The little engine and the railway have been restored and now run a circuit through the Park carrying passengers. Not only is it now providing a service, but it also is a piece of Industrial Archeology in its own right, doing a worthwhile job and good to see it. Before the Bann Bridge was widened in 1929, the entrance to this quay and the factory was off the end of the bridge. So that the bridge could be widened, the entrance had to be moved to its existing site in Gabon Street, but to put it here Gabon Steet had to be created by demolishing two houses on the main street -one of these houses was reputed to be the original Edenderry School.

Shillington's Quay, situated on the town side of Shillington's main shop was extensively used by the company to bring in coal, building materials and hard-ware for their large wholesale and retail concern which has been in business over 150 years. The lighter repair shop and slipway was situated on the town side of Shillington's coal yard alongside Francis Street and the river. Here lighters were pulled up to have their planking recaulked, repaired or painted.

A very large manual winch was used to pull the lighters out of the water and up the slipway. It required two to four men to operate it, but launching again was much simpler as the winch would have had a brake which allowed the vessel to slip effortlessly back into the water.

Bright's boatyard and slipway

Across the river nearly opposite was Bright's boatyard and slipway, where new barges and lighters were built and launched down the slipway which can still be seen in existence at the bottom of Foundry Street. The company made barges and lighters and were later to build iron barges for clients around Lough Neagh. One of their barges can still be seen lying as a hulk beside Robb's ferry - now called Irwin's Quay - in lower Seagoe. It had been fitted with an atmospheric engine which was scrapped a few years ago. Brights eventually became Portadown Foundry.

Point of Whitecoat

The Point of Whitecoat is an unusual name for this most interesting area, at the confluence of the two rivers - the river Bann and the river Cusher - and where in the seventeen thirties the entrance to the canal was added. The Ordnance Survey memoirs of 1837 give an explanation which is well worth consideration and could well be the reason how it came about.

The survey states that a man who was in the habit of wearing a white coat drowned himself at the point. In those days suicide would have been considered a great tragedy and would have been a major talking point so the occurrence could well have given the area enough publicity for the name to stick.

According to the Ordnance Survey memoirs the port handled the following merchandise in 1836:


  • 250 tons of iron
  • 600 tons English and Scotch coal 500 tons timber
  • 200 tons slates 500 tons flour
  • 100 tons oatmeal 200 tons Irish coal Turf - quantity not known Salt - quantity not known


  • 2500 tons wheat
  • 2500 tons oats
  • 250 tons barley Native timber
  • Limestone
  • Cyder

Port Dues

  • Timber between 5 and 10 tons - 3d per ton.
  • Timber between 10 and 20 tons - 1d per ton.
  • Turf not exceeding 50 gauges - 1d.
  • Turf not exceeding 100 gauges - 1s.6d.
  • All other merchandise not exceeding 5 tons - 2d per ton. Over 5 tons and under 10 tons - 1½d per ton.
  • Over 10 tons and up to 24 tons - 1s per ton.
  • Over 24 tons - 2s per ton.
  • Small boats with grain for market - Free.
  • Full loads limestone - 1 shilling.

  1. Coates Statistical Survey of Co Armagh - 1804.
  2. Ordnance Survey Memoirs -1835.
  3. Bassetts Guide & Directory for Co Armagh - 1888.
  4. Portadown News Souvenir Edition - 1859-1959.
  5. Recollections of and deductions by author.
  6. Extracts - Belfast Newsletter - 1859-1959.