Vol. 7 No. 1 - 2007
This is the first of two parts of the story of my family history on my father’s side. It is based on a talk that I gave to the Craigavon Historical Society in Portadown in September 2005. This first part covers the period from 1641 when the first Shillington settled in Ulster, till the start of the First World War.
This is a story in which Portadown emerges as the town from where, although I now live in Buckinghamshire, I feel that my roots, and my family’s values, stem. My father was born there and it was there that my family was based for a 150 year period between 1790 and 1940, during which it played a major role not only in the growth of Methodism - particularly at Thomas Street Church, but also in local business - with the founding and development of TA Shillington & Son, and, later, in public service in Northern Ireland as a whole. Together, the two parts of this story cover a turbulent period in Ireland’s history and I feel proud that my family has played its part in that history in various ways.
The Revd John Dwyer in his book ‘Christian Thoroughness – a Memorial of Thomas Averell Shillington’, published in 1875, favoured the view that there were two brothers who came over from England with Lord Conway, a large land-owner, in 1658. However, I favour the view expressed by George Shillington, Professor at the University of Winnipeg, in his book ‘Did Elijah Die’ (a historical novel published in 1995). This view, based on his discussions with the Ulster Historical Society, was that one Thomas Henry Shillington was enticed over from England in 1641 by Lord Conway, to Aghagallon in Co Antrim, as an architect/builder, and built Portmore Castle, Portmore Church and Portmore Stables for Jeremy Taylor who later became Bishop of Down and Connor.
It appears that he was accompanied by his sister and that his home, and probably also the home of one of his children, was at Portmore itself, close to Aghalee, and that this is why Portmore Street in Portadown became so named.
The Aghalee/Aghagallon area of Co Antrim is the area where the family was to settle for well over 100 years, and I am indebted to Jim Lyttle for the photograph of the house in Aghagallon where my direct descendants appear to have lived for many years during this period, and also for help with many other photographs.
There then appear to be two generations about which too little is known to record them properly in the family tree, although one of them had a brother called Antony whose Will is on record. Thereafter the family tree becomes reliable, with Henry of Aghagallon (1711-1786) and Thomas of Aghagallon (1740-1804). However it is with Thomas’s eldest son, who was to become known as Thomas of Portadown, and was born in 1767, that I shall begin the main focus of this family story.
The tablet says:
“As a memorial of undying affection, the Trustees of this Chapel have erected this tablet to perpetuate a grateful recollection of their late friend and brother, Thomas Shillington who exchanged mortality for life on 15 April 1830 aged 63. He was the nursing father of Methodism, in this town and neighbourhood, for nearly forty years”.
So how did he earn such an accolade? John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited this part of Ireland on several occasions and in 1767, the year in which Thomas was born in Aghagallon, he said “I do not wonder the Gospel runs so swiftly in these parts. The people in general have the finest natural tempers which I ever knew; they have the softness and courtesy of the Irish, with the seriousness of the Scots, and the openness of the English.”
Thomas was the eldest of ten children. As the family tree footnotes show, no less than six of them died in childhood. He left an account, in his own hand-writing, of his early years, and this account focuses - even when he was only 12 years old - on his religious feelings and actions which were, as he grew older, to play a major role in the growth of Methodism in Portadown.
When he was still in his teens, he wrote “I received the holy communion today, which to me was a solemn ordinance. When receiving it, I found a measure of joy and comfort, and being glad that I had renewed my covenant with God, I resolved to devote the remainder of my days to his service. I now applied myself to the reading of His Word, often with streaming eyes.”
His early years of religious conviction were with the Church of Ireland, but gradually he found that it was not answering all his needs, and when he was about 20, and still living in Aghagallon, he wrote the following words:- “It was at this time that I formed an acquaintance with some people called Methodists, and to them I freely disclosed the dealings of God with my soul. Their company I prized highly, and could say whenever I met with one of them, that just as ‘iron sharpeneth iron’, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. I would have gladly joined in their social meetings but my father opposed me in it, and clearly felt that the Church of Ireland was the family’s church and did not want his eldest son to ‘rock the boat’ by joining the Methodists.”
When Thomas was 22, his father, despite – or perhaps even because of this conflict, bought him a farm on the Derryanville Road in the parish of Drumcree, adjacent to Portadown, and in May of that year he started to live there with one of his sisters. His younger brother remained in Aghagallon and became known as Henry of Aghagallon, just as his grandfather before him.
One of the joys to Thomas of his new home was that there was a flourishing society of Methodists nearby at Derryanville. In his words “their doctrine I heartily embraced, and truly the Lord blessed the preaching of the Word to my comfort and edification”. When it became clear that he had joined the Methodists, his father ceased all communication with him and insisted that his sister stopped living with him before she was converted to Methodism too.
It was then that Thomas met his future wife, Sarah Averell, of Ballinderry, Co Derry, who was herself a Methodist. Before he gathered up the courage to tell his father that he planned to marry her and that her parents were in full agreement, Thomas prayed that all would work out according to God’s Will.
“I found my prayers directly answered”, he wrote subsequently. “Before this, my father was opposed to me, but now he said he would assist me in anything he could do. On April 19th 1791, Sarah and I were joined in marriage. Truly I may bless Him who has the hearts of all men in His hands, that He has given me my desire in a wife who loves Him and whose chief endeavour is to adorn the Gospel of God her Saviour.”
He preached his first sermon in 1793, at Warrenpoint, when he was only 26. From then he was regularly employed as a local preacher. As The Revd John Dwyer wrote in Christian Thoroughness, “in details he was not minute; but he was strong in his grasp and comprehensive in his range of thought, and often penetrated deeply into the meaning of the scripture. His earnestness was frequently manifested in deep emotion and falling tears; he made the truth to be long remembered and often referred to.”
He had a tremendously vigorous and enquiring mind, and read avidly the works of Wesley and also the Bible, and frequently met with others for conversation on religious topics. In his writings he wrote frequently about the joy that he received from his faith and about the spiritual closeness with Sarah’s strong faith too, on one occasion with the words “We went to prayer together, when the Lord met us both, and gave us to drink out of salvation’s wells. This gives me to see the value of a partner who is going with me to heaven”.
The parish of Drumcree, where Thomas and Sarah now lived, was to play a major role in the lives of future generations of Shillingtons, including those who followed Methodism.
Thomas rapidly became one of the pillars of Derryanville. There had been an attempt some years previously to build a Methodist chapel in Portadown but it was not completed and it was through the exertions and financial help of Thomas that new life came into the project and that it was finally completed in 1802, and opened for public worship.
This Chapel was the precursor to the current Thomas Street Methodist Church that was built in 1860. In 1960, to mark the centenary of Thomas Street Church, William Green wrote a book on Portadown and Methodism, which, like The Revd John Dwyer’s book on Thomas Averell Shillington I have found invaluable. I quote a lot from both books in this article.
It was at the time that Methodism took root in Portadown that the town began to flourish and to grow strongly in size and prosperity.
The distinguished Portadown historian, William Henry Wolsey, noted that Thomas Shillington, whom he described as the nursing father of Methodism in Portadown, moved in 1805 from his farm on the Derryanville Road into premises close to the present Bank of Ireland, which he subsequently extended into Woodhouse Street. It was there that he started a business similar to the one that was to be founded by his eldest son, Thomas Averell Shillington, in Castle Street in 1835. Under the name of TA Shillington & Son, it was to thrive for 155 years, before being taken over by Haldane Shields in 1990 and being renamed Haldane Fisher.
According to Mr Wolsey, it was Thomas Shillington, who died at Tavanagh House in 1830, who acquired the quay that became known as Shillington’s Quay, and was also the largest purchaser of grain in the district; boat loads came from Tyrone across Lough Neagh and up the river to his quay. “At the time he started business at the corner of Market and High Streets, there were those who prophesied failure on the grounds that the business was too far out of the town as it was then, but he was a businessman and knew what he was doing and his business thrived.”
At that time much excitement prevailed in consequence of Lord Sidmouth’s Bill, which was intended to crush dissent and Methodism. Thomas believed strongly in religious liberty and opposed the Bill vigorously, and happily it was defeated.
I understand that Thomas Street was named after him, a great honour, especially as that is where the magnificent Methodist Church, built in 1860, still stands.
After his 60th birthday in 1827, having enjoyed a successful business career, Thomas planned and built Tavanagh House, on the site of what is now the car-park to the swimming pool in Thomas Street, no doubt expecting to be permitted to spend several years there with Sarah in single-minded service for the cause of Christ.
But this was not to be. In the month of November 1829, having preached in Ballymagarney Chapel, about six miles from Portadown, about half a mile from home, he fell from his horse and one of his ankles was bruised. The injury did not appear to be serious, but it led to an attack of gout. For several months the disease shifted from one part of his body to another, until, in April 1830, he died.
On the morning of his death (April 15th 1830), one of his children, who was wetting his dying lips, said, “Father, you will soon be drinking the new wine of the heavenly kingdom” and he replied “Yes, yes”.
Thomas Averell Shillington, the eldest of Thomas’s six children, was born in 1800, in Portadown, in the farmhouse on the Derryanville Road. He was preceded by three sisters and his eldest sister Sarah died, after a short illness, at the age of 13.
The period was marked by much political commotion, arising from the aftermath of the plantation. Catholic/nationalist rebellion had raged throughout a considerable portion of Ireland and had just been crushed. The Act of Union had been passed, allowing for the whole island of Ireland to be united with the rest of Britain, with its regional government based in Dublin. There was still much bitterness about this, though the province of Ulster had proved for the most part thoroughly loyal to the British crown.
Thomas Averell was brought up in a very happy home and religion was presented as being both solemn and attractive. Being the eldest son, he seems to have claimed a large share of his father’s affection, and to have been often in his company.
When he was only about six, a well-known preacher called Lorenzo Dow visited Portadown to preach in the then recently erected Methodist chapel at 5.00 am, which even then was an unorthodox hour for a service. It was arranged that Thomas should stay at home but he took it upon himself to be at his father’s side, having threaded his way through the mass of people who were assembled.
When not more than eight years old, he was known to lead the singing at religious meetings. As John Dwyer wrote in ‘Christian Thoroughness’ it was the spontaneous outflow of heart and energy which could not easily be pent up.
His parents gave much attention to his schooling and at an early age he demonstrated that he was very quick at learning. It is likely that, if he had been allowed to pursue his studies with a view to an academic career, he would have distinguished himself as a scholar. He read eagerly such books as came his way, and it is said that before he was a teenager, he kept himself up-to-date with current events by reading a newspaper on his way to and from school.
When he was only 13, he left school to assist his father with his business, perhaps no bad thing for someone who was to become the founder of the TA Shillington business some twenty years later. His father’s trade concentrated upon the purchase of grain from the surrounding farmers and its sale to millers, together with the import of coals, timber, slate and iron.
Frequent communication with Newry and Belfast was necessary and, so great was the father’s confidence in his son, that while he was still a teenager, he entrusted to him the transaction of important business in both these places, travelling to them both on horseback. Nor was his confidence misplaced. Prompt, energetic, and faithful in fulfilling his father’s instructions, he gave early promise of the successful, honourable and highly active career which followed.
Thomas Averell was converted, as a Methodist, when he was 18. Never a man to talk much about himself, it is unlikely that he talked much about what God had done for him; but he looked it and he lived it, and this he continued to do for upwards of fifty years.
In 1829, he married Miss Elizabeth Johnston, fifth child of Mr John Johnston, of Lurgan, a Methodist who had been converted at the age of 16. On his father’s death in 1830, he inherited, at the age of 30, Tavanagh House in Thomas Street.
Even a casual visitor could not fail to perceive that, in this comfortable home, order reigned. In winter, breakfast was commenced before the day had dawned and was concluded before the gas lights could be dispensed with.
The last Shillington to live at Tavanagh House was my great aunt Gertie ( a sister of my grandfather) whose second husband Francis Callender-Bullock bought it. They died in 1949 and 1944 respectively and it then became the Headquarters of the Borough Council’s Technical Staff, before being knocked down to make way for a car park for the Thomas Street public swimming pool.
On his father’s death, Thomas Averell succeeded to a healthy and prosperous business, which he steadily pursued, founding TA Shillingtons only a few years later, and developing it until he died. But he always held true to the principle that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth. A vigorous body, a mind free from care, and a heart happy in the love of God, are more to be desired than gold”.
He wrote to his eldest son, my great grandfather Thomas Primus Shillington, when Thomas was only ten…“Never forget that it depends upon yourself whether the object in sending you to study at Wesley College Sheffield be gained or not. If it be secured, I shall not only not regard the expense, but be glad that I was led to incur it. The object is two-fold – to put it into your power to become a respectable man of business, and that you might become a man of God – a Christian; and it would be no compensation at all if you did become a respectable man of business, if you did not also become a Christian man.”
Over and above his role as the first Chairman of TA Shillington & Son and his strong commitment to the Methodist Church, Thomas Averell held numerous other positions in Portadown. He was a member of a variety of other boards and committees; it seemed as if nothing was instigated to promote the interests of the town, either by public movement or by private enterprise, in which he did not take a leading part.
Thomas Averell had a well built frame and great energy; his manner was frank and hearty, and his words were always well selected”. This portrait hangs in the former Council Chamber in the Portadown Town Hall, opposite one of his nephew, The Rt Hon Thomas Shillington PC.
He acted on the view enunciated by a preacher of note: “It is not work that kills men: it is worry. Work is healthy; you can hardly put more upon a man than he can bear. Worry is rust upon the blade. It is not the revolution that destroys the machinery but the friction.” He was accustomed to rise early, to arrange his business carefully beforehand, and to complete each transaction in its allotted time, employing every moment usefully.
His punctuality could be relied on. Neglect in this respect he considered to be practical untruth and practical dishonesty, falsifying the word by which the arrangement was made, and robbing others of their time, one of their most precious possessions.
He appeared to see all the aspects of a subject at a glance, and promptly made up his mind as to the course to be pursued. “While others were fumbling about a knot, he opened it”, it was said of him.
But nothing in Mr Shillington’s character as a man of business was more noteworthy than his unbending integrity. In some minds the difference between right and wrong can become blurred or indistinct. But not with Thomas Averell. One newspaper paragraph, in noticing his death, wrote, “No men, we think, contributed more to raise and fix the standard of mercantile morality on the foundation and teaching of the Holy Writ, in this community, than did the Messrs Shillington, father and son.
But in nothing was this characteristic so marked and so apparent as his singing. He revelled in the richness of Charles Wesley’s soul-stirring hymns, entering into their spirit to an extent that has seldom been surpassed. He attached much importance to singing as a help to devotion.
Following the death of his wife in December 1870, his health began to deteriorate and he gradually lessened his engagements till he died in April 1874.
The plaque to him in Thomas Street Church pays tribute to him for the “public spirit and private virtues rendered by him in promoting the progress of Portadown and the true welfare of its inhabitants”.
It is to Thomas Averell (1800-1874) and his father Thomas (1767-1834) that I believe that all their Shillington successors owe a huge debt, such was the example that they set in how a life should be lived to the full, both as a Christian, as a businessman, as a citizen and as a husband and parent. I make no apology for emphasising so strongly the Christian side of his life; his Christian values and principles underpinned everything that he did, and it is these that have been the cause of so much inspiration to generations of subsequent members of the family. But, my goodness, what a hard act to follow!
Meanwhile Portadown had grown faster than any other town in Ireland. A copy of the Portadown News dated 1866 states that at the previous census in 1861 the population was 5,561, compared with 820 in 1820.
Averell, a younger brother of Thomas Averell, became Superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School in Portadown for 58 years from 1832 to 1890 – the Sunday School having been founded in 1803. Its 200th anniversary was celebrated in 2003 with a wonderful service at Thomas Street Church planned by Elizabeth Lutton who also wrote a history of the Sunday School’s first 100 years of the Sunday School. The service included a re-enactment, in period costume, of life in the Sunday School in the year 1880 involving Miss Mabel Shillington as the young teacher. She was my great aunt and was the mother of Geoffrey Cather VC about whom I shall write in part two of this article, in a future edition of this publication.
One further anecdote about Averell. Rosalind Hadden’s grandfather, Dr WE Hadden was his doctor and was with him in the closing hours of his life. Averell’s last words to him were “The Lord bless you doctor…and He will!” This would have been at Altavilla, now St Francis’s Nursing Home in Charles Street, in which Averell was the first Shillington to live, his older brother Thomas Averell having inherited Tavanagh House from their father.
Interestingly, in at least part of the 1800s, the Shillingtons were also strong members of the Church of Ireland, worshipping at St Mark’s, Portadown, at the same time as being devoted to the advancement of Methodism. The Minutes of the very first Vestry meeting in March 1826, show that at that meeting Thomas Shillington (1767-1830) and his two sons Thomas Averell (1800-1874) and Averell (1802-1897) were elected to serve as the church’s first Churchwardens.
As Portadown was expanding and was within the parish of Drumcree, it had been decided in 1824 to divide the area into two Church of Ireland parishes, creating the additional parish of Portadown, which was then named "The Parish of Saint Michael, Portadown" but was later to be renamed St. Mark's. Thus, St. Mark's Portadown is a daughter of Drumcree Church of Ascension.
A further interesting family connection with St. Mark's is that the Memorial Tower of St Mark’s Portadown, commemorating those who gave their lives in the Great War of 1914-1918, was built by Collen (Brothers); Louisa Collen of Killicomaine House married my grandfather David Graham Shillington, in 1895.
Before turning to Thomas Averell’s son, Thomas Primus, it is worth mentioning that at around this point in time, Shillingtons of Ulster descent were beginning to emigrate to countries as far afield as Canada, the USA, Australia and South Africa. These emigrants do not appear to include descendants of the Portadown Shillingtons, but rather other branches of the family, most notably the branch descending from Joe and John Shillington who, around 1760, settled near Benburb where my brother-in-law Alan Parkhill is the current Rector.
It was another Thomas Shillington, born in 1777, who was almost certainly the first Ulster Shillington to have emigrated to another continent. He left his home in Co Tyrone to emigrate to Canada in 1818 and was almost certainly the great grandfather of George Shillington, author of “Did Elijah Die”, who now lives in Winnipeg. This branch of the family never lived in Portadown and I have a theory that the Portadown Shillingtons were so engaged in their Methodist and business activities there that none of them emigrated.
Thomas Primus, the eldest of eight children, was, like his father, a committed Methodist, and also played an important part in the development of TA Shillington & Son Ltd as its Chairman, before he died early at the age of 58.
He shares a tablet in Thomas Street Church with his wife Mary Jane, whose maiden name (Graham) became a Christian name for subsequent generations of Shillingtons, both boys and girls, including me, my brother Colin and sister Eve, my two sons Jonathan and Edward and my seven nephews. It was a repeat of the situation following the marriage of Thomas of Portadown to Sarah Averell in 1791, after which Averell was adopted as a Christian name for many subsequent Shillingtons.
Thomas Primus’s second name (Primus) differentiated him from Thomas Secundus (1835-1925), the eldest son of his uncle, Averell. They became brothers-in-law when Thomas Secundus married Sarah, one of Thomas Primus’s younger sisters, one of several examples of Shillingtons marrying cousins in the period covered by this article.
Despite their close relationship, and the fact that they both lived in Portadown – Thomas Primus at Tavanagh House and Thomas Secundus at Altavilla, Thomas Primus was a strict conservative and Thomas Secundus was a no less strict Gladstonian Liberal.
Thomas Secundus was as passionately in favour of Home Rule for Ireland from Dublin as Thomas Primus, a staunch believer in the Union with England, was against it. And yet their differences in politics made no difference to their love of and commitment to the Methodist Church. Thomas Primus was Superintendent of the Thomas Street Afternoon Sunday School and Thomas Secundus was a most able preacher.
Thomas Secundus was made a Justice of the Peace and was the first President of the Portadown Chamber of Commerce. In 1910, under Gladstone’s Liberal Government, he was appointed a member of the Irish Privy Council, an appointment which reflected the respect in which he was held by both the British Government and its Irish administration in Dublin Castle.
These divisions within the Shillington family were underlined that same year (1910), when a mass rally of unionists was held in Portadown to oppose the Home Rule Bill, “the Bill for the Better Government of Ireland” as it was known.
At that Portadown rally, it was decided to form Unionist Clubs. One of the executive members of the new Unionist Clubs was David Graham Shillington, JP, my grandfather. The feelings aroused by the Home Rule Bill led to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the North, and the appointment of Edward Carson, a Dublin lawyer, as leader of the Unionist cause in its opposition to Home Rule.
In February 1912, Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, and supporter at that time of Home Rule, made a controversial visit to Belfast to address an Irish nationalist rally in support of Home Rule.
The Ulster Hall, near the City Centre, was the original venue for the meeting, but due to the fierce hostility of Unionists, and the size of the crowd expected to protest outside the Hall, the meeting was switched to Celtic Park in nationalist West Belfast. Present at that meeting in Celtic Park was Thomas Secundus, i.e. the Rt Hon Thomas Shillington, JP, who proposed the vote of thanks to Winston Churchill.
His voice was also heard when Edward Carson visited Portadown in September to speak at one of the series of great outdoor rallies held in the days leading to the signing of the Ulster Covenant – the solemn covenant signed by over 400,000 Ulster men and women, pledging opposition to Home Rule.
But Thomas Secundus did not share the joy expressed by most of his co-religionists over the welcome accorded to Carson. In an interview with the Daily Chronicle, he said of the Portadown Unionist demonstration and the signing of the Covenant, “it is the last gasp of the ascendancy party”.
His funeral was in the hands of the Circuit Ministers, one of whom was the Revd JW Parkhill (the grandfather of my brother-in-law, Alan Parkhill, Eve’s husband), who paid tribute to the noble character of Thomas and said that in all his dealings with him he had never once left Altavilla without feeling inspired to be a better man.
Thomas Secundus’s son, another Thomas Averell (1864-1951), known widely as ‘TAS’, also supported home rule and lived at Altavilla.
He ran the Castle Island Linen Company and was Chairman of the governing body at Portadown Technical School whose Management Committee, when he died, recorded his friendship for, and willingness to help, all sorts of people, and his great service in so many fields, including education.
Thomas Primus had a younger brother called John of Glenmachan (a magnificent house off the Old Holywood Road outside Belfast). John would also have been brought up at Tavanagh House as one of the 8 children of Thomas Averell, some of whom died very young. He married a Canadian from Montreal called Annie Hall in about 1870 and they had two sons (Courtenay and Melville) and four sisters, one of whom who was one of the first women to fly an aeroplane. Courtenay had two sons, Rives and Maurice.
Maurice was a newscaster and programme presenter with the BBC – his programmes included Family Favourites – and he presented Northern Ireland’s first Television News in 1957. His three children, Ann, Susan and Patrick all now live in County Down.
In Part 2, in a future edition of this publication, I will continue this story to the present day, with a strong focus on my grandfather David Graham Shillington. He represented Armagh in the first Northern Ireland Parliament in 1922 and after 16 years as a back-bencher was appointed Minister of Labour in 1937, becoming The Rt Hon Major D.G. Shillington. His political career has been researched by my cousin Anthony Shillingford. He married Louisa Collen of Killicomaine House, Portadown, who lived to be 100. The article will also feature their six children, including my father Graham, as well as that fine Portadown business that was known as TA Shillington & Son.
It will begin with a focus on the First World War itself, during which my uncle Tom lost his young life at Paaschendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres) and his first cousin Geoff Cather was awarded the VC, having been killed on July 2nd 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Like my grandfather they were both proud members of the 9th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers (part of the 36th Ulster Division). The curator of the Museum of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Amanda Moreno, has been enormously helpful with her research.