Shillingtons of Portadown

Vol. 9 No. 2 - 2009

Shillingtons of Portadown

Part 2

by Anthony Shillington

Anthony Shillington
Anthony Shillington, great great great grandson of Thomas Shillington of Portadown (1767 - 1830).

In Part 1, in the last edition of Review, I covered the period from 1641, the probable date when the first Shillington settled in Ulster, till just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Part 2 focuses primarily on my grandfather, David (Graham) Shillington (1872-1944), whom the family called Do (pronounced ‘dough’). In this article I also focus on Do’s eldest son Tom, and his cousin Geoffrey Cather VC, who both, with Do, fought in the 1914-18 war.

My grandfather, David Graham Shillington

Do, who was to become The Rt Hon David Graham Shillington PC DL JP, was born in Portadown on December 10th, 1872, the youngest son of Thomas Shillington JP and Mary Jane Graham. Mary Jane’s Graham surname was introduced to large numbers of Shillingtons for the next three generations, as a Christian name, in some cases – for my father for example as the name by which he was known.

Do Shillington
Do as a small boy at Tavanagh

Do was educated at Methodist College Belfast, and then at Rydalmount, Colwyn Bay, which he left early, to get business experience in McLaughlin and Harvey of Belfast, before going into the family business in Portadown, TA Shillington & Son. As his older brother Thomas died in 1880 aged only23, his parents were keen that Do, as their only surviving son, should become responsible for the business as soon as possible. However, this happened much earlier than expected, as his father died in 1889, at the age of only 58, when Do was still only 16. And so it was that the family business was to play an important part in his entire adult life (except during the 1914-18 War, when his army responsibilities took over). His business commitments had to be shared with his political life once he became a member of the first Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont in 1921, following the partition of Ireland between the north-eastern six counties and the remaining twenty-six counties, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

As a child, Do lived at Tavanagh House in Thomas Street, Portadown, where his grandfather had lived, and then his parents. It was close to the Methodist church built in 1860, where Mo subsequently played the organ for several years. The family had taken a major role in the life of this fine church since Thomas Shillington (Do’s great grandfather) had been instrumental in the building in 1802 of the little Methodist chapel that was the precursor to the 1860 church. Mary Jane Graham lived on in Tavanagh after her husband Thomas’s early death till 1915 when she died. From 1916, it was rented by Owden Valentine Greeves (owner of the Portadown Weaving Co.Ltd) and his family till 1929, after which one of Do’s sisters, Gertie, lived in the house with her second husband Francis Callender Bullock, till her death in 1949. The house no longer exists, its site being under the Cascades swimming pool carpark.

In 1895 Do married Louisa (Sarah) Collen known by the family as ‘Mo’, rhyming with Do, a daughter of John Collen DL MP (1837 – 1921) and his wife Mary, of Killicomaine House, Portadown. So my grandparents both had their roots firmly in Portadown. They spent the first 22 years of their married life in Portadown.

Do was 22 when he married Mo and was already handling his responsibilities at TA Shillington & Son. They started their married life at Church Place, Portadown, where their first four children were born; they then moved to Ardeevin, at the junction of Gilford Road and Killycomaine Road, where their two youngest children were born. Ardeevin was thus close to Mo’s Collen family home, Killycomaine House. Ardeevin was a wedding present from John Collen, Mo’s father … what a wonderful start to their marriage . The builders were Collen Bros of Hanover Street, Portadown and the architect was Henry Hobart of Dromore.

Do and Mo
Do and Mo with their 6 children
Mollie, Tom, Beth, Jack, Graham and Mabel (seated)

My Aunt Beth (1900-1986), who was Do and Mo’s third child, recalled her early childhood years as follows: - “At this time, the principal means of transport was by horse and carriage. Although both my father’s parents and my mother’s parents kept horses, my parents did not, so as children we walked to school in Portadown. My mother’s father (John Collen) often picked his older grandchildren up from the school gate in his horse-drawn covered car. On Sundays he went to church in a horse-drawn carriage called a Brougham and when my grandmother (Mary Collen) went out she drove in a carriage called a Victoria.

“John Collen was one of the first people in Portadown to get a motor car, a Chambers car built by a Belfast firm, and this was before the First World War. It was a great thrill to ride in this ... Later on, we all had bicycles. My father went to his office by bicycle. We all joined the local tennis club at the far end of the town from where we lived and we all, led by our parents, cycled there to play!

“‘Later we were sent to boarding schools, my brothers (at age eight) to Castle Park, Dublin and my sister Mollie and I (at age thirteen) to Pollam Hall, Darlington. We went by train and boat. On our return for the holidays we were met at the station by my paternal grandmother’s coachman with the Wagonette, an open carriage which could also take our trunks etc.”

At around the same time, during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, Do was one of the organisers of the Portadown Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the unionist militia founded in 1912 to block Home Rule. He was a staunch Unionist, like his father Thomas Primus, whereas Thomas Secundus, his father’s first cousin, had been strongly in favour of Home Rule for all Ireland.

Beth’s story continues:- “My elder brother Tom was killed in action in August 1917. That same summer we took a furnished house in Newtownards, and then moved from Portadown to Strandtown, Belfast. When the war ended, we sold Ardeevin and stayed on in Strandtown. My parents bought their first car in about 1920 and my sister and I learned to drive it. After the war my father returned to the family business in Portadown, though we still lived in Strandtown.”

Ardeevin where Do and Mo lived for some 20 years until they moved to Belfast. It then became the home of William Edward Greeves and was subsequently renamed Skerry Hill in 1960

Do joined the Irish Fusiliers in 1914; when the 36th (Ulster) Division landed in France he was Company Commander of D Company. In May 1916 he was posted to the 10th Reserve Battalion in Newtownards, after suffering from neurasthenia (shell-shock), suffered by many who experienced modern warfare at close quarters, and today known as “Post Combat Disorder”. He was declared fit to return to the 9th Battalion a short time later, and at the Battle of the Somme he saw his eldest son carried back wounded to the Base Hospital - after which his sister’s son Geoffrey Cather also lost his life. Do was ill again in February 1917 owing to the strain of active service, and returned to Newtownards. He was demobbed in 1919.

Around 1920, Do became interested in politics and, aged 48, he was elected to the first Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1921, as a Unionist. Some of those members who made up the Commons had been members of the Imperial Parliament, but he was without parliamentary experience, his background being business, the Ulster Volunteers and what is best described as ‘persons interested in the betterment of the Province’. At the opening of the Commons on 23rd June 1921 Do was deputed to present the humble address to his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, following the speech from the throne setting out the duties of the new parliament. Do presented his speech in military uniform and acknowledged the honour that had been conferred on him “not as a personal one but rather as a compliment to the many thousands of loyal men of Ulster who during the great war so nobly responded to the call of King and Country” and also “by the relatives and friends of those who laid down their lives in the greatest conflict the world has ever known”.

Matt Lamb etc
Matt Lamb, George Moore, Herbert Whitten and Samuel Fergus in 1924

From 1921-1929 Do was Unionist MP for the Armagh constituency. Parliamentary business on three afternoons a week took him away from his business responsibilities, but he remained committed to his post as chairman of TA Shillington & Son, as well as being active in several different causes as a backbench MP.

From 1929-1941 he was MP for Central Armagh, in which Portadown was the main centre of population, and he conducted many an MP’s surgery for his constituents at his business premises.

The year 1937 was perhaps the most active of his life. He was installed as Deputy Speaker at the first session on 9th March. It was the year of the Coronation, when, with Mo, he attended Westminster Abbey. The same year he joined the Northern Ireland Cabinet as Minister for Labour and also became Minister for Pensions.

D G Shillington
David Graham Shillington MP, Chairman of TA Shillington & Son, in 1928

During December 1937 Do became ill. It had been a great year for him but Mo had always said that he could not run the business while at the same time being a government minister. At Christmas he did not appear and the family gradually came to realise that this jovial and charming man, who was convivial and welcoming to everyone, had become withdrawn and sad in himself. The stress of his parliamentary life had taken its toll. The courteous and articulate Rt Hon and gallant member for Armagh was never again able to enlighten his colleagues with his concise expositions of the Labour Ministry rules and regulations. At 65 his promising career was at an end. His last appearance in Parliament was to take the oath on 12th March 1940 and his letter of resignation was written on 24th February 1941. He died three years later, aged 71, on 23rd January 1944. His obituary in the Belfast Telegraph, describing his time in office, said “Every duty thrown upon the Department, everything that it was asked to do, every grievance brought before it, he regarded as a personal liability and threw all the energies into whatever it was. It was this, it has been said, which brought about the illness that forced his retirement.”

He was a heavy smoker, and therefore at high risk of arteriosclerosis, a condition which is known to have caused his eventual death from a heart attack. During the First World War, he had twice, in 1916 and 1917, been sent home from France suffering from stress, insomnia and the suggestion of “shell shock”. He had been sent to Harrogate to take the waters, the recommended cure in those days, and in 1938 he went there again, which indicates that one of the Drs Hadden from Portadown considered the two conditions to be related.

The above paragraphs on Do’s political career were written by my cousin Anthony Shillingford, Do’s eldest grandson, in a booklet entitled ‘The political life of Major the Rt Hon David Graham Shillington DL MP’. Anthony, who was 13 when Do died, wrote “As his grandson, I was privileged to spend much of my early childhood at their home in Earlswood Road, Strandtown (Do and Mo named this house Ardeevin, after their house in Portadown). I was happy there and during this time I came to admire Do for his geniality and good fun, but I was also conscious of the increasing importance of his political life, especially when chauffeur-driven cars and important people came to the home. This was a conscientious man with a strong sense of duty”.

Anthony also remembers being taken by Do to Portadown as a child - once to Shillingtons, where he was impressed by the power-driven saw cutting up wooden planks, once to the music festival, and once electioneering (when Do held him in his arms and the crowd cheered).

Do at Golf Club
Do as President of Portadown Golf Club, shortly after the new course was opened at Carrickblacker in 1935.

From 1926-1944 Do was also District Master of the Orange Order in Portadown. Under his firm and moderate leadership, Portadown Orange District prospered and membership increased to well over 1,000. In contrast to many other parts of Northern Ireland, the town of Portadown enjoyed a mostly calm and untroubled atmosphere throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Like his fellow officers in Portadown District, Do contributed in no small measure to good relationships between both communities in the town by positive leadership and by guiding the Order clear of any hint of sectarianism. As a keen supporter of local causes, he was President of the Portadown Golf Club at Carrickblacker which has long had close links with the business: Thomas Wilson (Managing Director 1946-55) was both Captain and President, and more recently Alan Whitten (mentioned later) has been captain. Do was also President of the town’s music festival, and a director of the Portadown Loan Company. He was a patron of Portadown Football Club, and regularly attended their matches at Shamrock Park.

Do remained a committed Methodist all his life - in Belfast the family had worshipped at Knock Methodist Church. Do’s funeral in January 1944 was a private affair in Thomas Street Methodist Church. The interment took place at Drumcree churchyard where the family had been buried for generations. Do had been a good friend of the Rev Halahan, Church of Ireland Rector at Drumcree, who was also Chaplain to the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Barges at Shillington’s Quay
Barges at Shillington’s Quay, Portadown
TA Shillington & Son

For 144 years TA Shillington & Son played a major role in Portadown life, before being taken over by Haldane Shiells in 1979; the Shillington Building still bears the family name today.

TA Shillington & Son was founded by Thomas Averell Shillington in 1835 when he was 35. Its origins however go back to about 1800 when it was a business run by Thomas Averell’s father (also Thomas), who died in 1830. Thomas had bought it from one John Stanley, whose business was at the corner of Market and High Streets. John Stanley in turn had inherited it from his uncle, Henry Robb - a Church Warden at Drumcree in 1803 - who was the first coal and timber merchant in Portadown. By 1830 Thomas had become the largest purchaser of grain in the district, with boat loads coming from Tyrone across Lough Neagh and up the river to his quay.

Its first Chairman was my Great Great Grandfather (Thomas Averell Shillington, 1800-1874) and each of my direct ancestors was Chairman right through to my father Graham, though in 1970-73 he had to stand down temporarily when he was Chief Constable of the RUC. His older brother, Jack Shillington, a Colonel in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, had been Chairman from my grandfather Do’s death in 1944 till his own death in 1972.

It was after my grandfather’s death that the family became less involved in the day to day management of the company. Though Do and Mo’s six children were all born in Portadown, this was the generation that moved away. Despite this, some of them continued to be involved with TA Shillington & Son, as Chairman or as directors. Though the family has scattered even more widely in the two subsequent generations, there is no doubt that our roots are still firmly in Portadown, and that many of the values and characteristics that typify so many members of our family were formed by our Portadown ancestors, through four generations from Thomas Shillington (born in 1767) to my grandfather.

Thomas Wilson - a legend in the firm for his toughness and fairness - became Managing Director from 1946 -1955. Herbert Whitten, who was MP for Central Armagh from 1969-72, was from 1955 Managing Director till 1979, initially as joint managing director with George Moore, a great character who worked with the firm for a remarkable 62 years from 1916 and rode his bicycle some ten miles to work from Loughgall. Herbert’s son Alan took over as Managing Director in 1979 and worked under Haldane Shiells’ ownership till his retirement in 1996; the name change to Haldane Fisher took place in 1998.

As illustrated in my first article, goods could be unloaded from barges and lighters at the company’s own private quay on the River Bann, brought via the Newry and Lagan canals; there was also a town quay where timber was unloaded. Many

Portadown factories, flour mills and business premises made use of the waterways for transport of freight, none more so than TA Shillington’s. One of the early purchases authorised by Thomas Averell was a 43 ton lighter (a long-boat for the transport of timber and coal) which he named ‘The Thomas’, after his father.

At this time Thomas Averell was dealing mainly in slate, coal, iron and timber. In Slater’s Directory of 1846 he is listed as having premises in Church Street and in the directory of 1856 he is listed as having premises in Woodhouse Street.

Alan Whitten
Alan Whitten (left) presenting a cheque to R. Uprichard (2nd from right) and M Foster of Portadown FC in 1986 when TA Shillington and Son sponsored the Club in a 2nd round Irish Cup Tie (won 3-1 against Larne) at Shamrock Park. Also pictured (2nd from left) is W. Twinem of Shillingtons who used to play for Portadown FC.

In 2005 Tommy Flavelle recounted his experiences of working at Shillingtons for 30 years, starting with a shop boy’s pay of 30 shillings per month. He cycled to an aunt in Drumcree for something to eat in the middle of the day. He remembered Herbie Whitten and George Moore (later to become joint managing directors) working on the counters with himself, Sammy Walker and Wesley Hunniford while Alex McCracken and Miss Grundel worked in the office. Sam Fergus was in charge of the coal-yard. The lighters, brought to Shillington’s Quay from Newry, held up to 200 tons of coal which was unloaded by a winch into a large barrow, then wheeled to the coal-yard and emptied into a large pile.

Alan Whitten recalls Alex Hewitt being a tower of strength, first in Administration and then in General Sales, especially the timber trade - sadly he died while still in employment. He also recalls Davy Gordon, who built up the plumbing department to the largest supplier of plumbing products in the province; and also Eric Davison who was manager in the Coal Office - sadly also dying in service - and finally his own uncle Sammy Whitten (Herbert’s brother) who was the Timber Foreman.

TA Shillington’s eventually became not only one of Portadown’s foremost companies but also the biggest provincial builder’s merchants operating inland, i.e. not at a seaport in Northern Ireland. Latterly the company supplied primarily the building trade but also the vibrant farming community and also the maintenance requirements of businesses such as Ulster Lace, Spence Bryson, Henry Denny, Ulster Carpet Mills and the Metal Box Company. Its business covered a wide area around Portadown, including Lurgan, Moira, Dromore, Armagh and Dungannon, and it had a fine reputation throughout the province and an excellent morale among the workforce.

The First World War

Tom, Do’s eldest son, was born in Portadown on October 9th 1897. His first cousin Geoffrey Cather was the eldest son of Do’s sister Mabel (who married Robert Cather of a Methodist family from Coleraine); they became like brothers to each other, despite Geoff being 8 years older.

After following his father to Methodist College, Belfast for his early schooling, Tom boarded at Rossall School, near Blackpool. In 1914, when he was 16, his cousin Geoff urged him to join up to fight in what became known as The Great War. The Headmaster protested at Tom leaving school so young; but Tom’s mind was made up, and in 1915 he was commissioned, joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and went to train for war in Newtownards, along with his father Do, who had been enlisted into the 3rd Battalion but by then had moved to the 9th…and Geoffrey Cather.

Geoff was born in Middlesex and went to Rugby School. He enlisted in 1914, aged 24, and in May 1915 was commissioned into the 9th Battalion, The Royal Irish Fusiliers – Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan Volunteers. As his parents (Robert and Mabel) were both Ulster-born, Geoff had been keen to join an Irish regiment. He became Assistant Adjutant in October that year and Adjutant a month later. The 9th Battalion, part of the 36th Ulster Division, arrived in France in October 1915 and was immediately sent into the line near Gommecourt Wood.

The Royal Irish Fusiliers won two Victoria Crosses in the First World War, both being awarded posthumously. Geoffrey Cather was one of the recipients: he was just one of 57,470 British soldiers killed or wounded on that first day of the Battle of the Somme. The 9th Battalion alone had 240 people killed on that horrendous date, July 1st 1916. His citation was as follows:- “From 7.00 pm till midnight, he searched No Man’s Land and brought in three wounded men. Next morning at 8.00 am he continued his search, brought in another wounded man and gave water to others, arranging for their rescue later. Finally at 10.30 am he took out water to another man and was proceeding further on when he himself was killed. All this was carried out in full view of the enemy and under machine gun and artillery fire. He set a splendid example of courage and self-sacrifice.”

Lt Col. Stewart Blacker, the Battalion’s commanding officer, gave an account of the events of that day:- “It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to tell you of the doings and losses of the Battalion on July 1st. After being 5 days in the trenches during the preliminary bombardment, we came out for two days rest, then went in at midnight on June 30 and then took up our positions ready for the assault which was for 7.30 am on July 1st. The opposing lines are about 400 yards apart with a ravine some 70 yards wide with steep banks about 20 feet high about half-way. The order was for the leading wave to get within 150 yards from the German line by 7.30 to be ready to assault the instant our barrage lifted at 7.30am. To do this the leading waves went over the parapet at 7.10am, 7.15, 7.20 and 7.30. Each of these waves had an officer in command and there were eleven additional platoon officers (one of whom was 18 year old Tom Shillington) and there were about 600 men. Of these 15 officers 7 were killed and the other 8 – including Tom – were wounded. The casualties among other ranks were similarly appalling.

Geoffrey St George Shillington Cather
Lieutenant Geoffrey St George Shillington Cather VC
The first wave had attempted to go forward but came under intense German machine gun fire. The following waves were mown down as they tried in their turn to reach the ravine. At night after a roll call of those who had made the attack, there were no officer survivors and only 80 men had been left unwounded. 244 men were either killed or wounded, including the nine dead officers.”

In the same report, Stewart Blacker wrote “The loss of Cather is a severe one; he was quite wonderful as adjutant, but his was a glorious death and his name has gone in for a posthumous VC. I am still dazed at the blow, and the prospect in front of us all, but we must not be downcast and must remember the glorious example of the gallant band who so nobly upheld the honour of the Battalion and who have died so gloriously, leaving their example to live after them and to inspire those of us who are left.”

The Shillington family was on holiday at Portrush when the news came through that Tom had been wounded and Geoff had been killed in action. Happily Do was unwounded – he was by then 43 years old and for the rest of the war he concentrated upon the recruitment and training of further Ulster soldiers to join the war effort.

Geoff has no known grave and so is commemorated on Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and at the nearby Ulster Tower which my wife Patricia and I visited recently when we looked across the valley to where Geoff had fallen. His VC is now held by the Museum of the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Armagh, having been donated in 1979 by his brother Captain Dermot Cather (RN retired).

Do was a founder member of the Portadown branch of the British Legion and held most offices before being appointed President. This makes it all the more appropriate that the Portadown Branch of the Royal Irish Fusiliers Old Comrades Association erected a memorial stone on the wall of the British Legion Hall in Thomas Street, Portadown in 1999 to commemorate his nephew Lieutenant Geoffrey St George Shillington Cather VC.

The Portadown Times wrote on February 12th 1999, “It is fitting that his sacrifice should now be commemorated in the Ulster town where the Shillington family lived for so many years and played such a vital role in the development of the town for over a century.”

Jonathan Shillington
My son Jonathan with his own two sons, Micky (6) and Jamie (8), proudly holding Geoff’s VC when they visited the RIF Museum in Armagh during 2008.
But what about Tom? After being wounded at the Somme, he was promoted to Captain and put in charge of ‘B’ company. Despite his youth he was now regarded as an experienced leader, the battalion having lost so many officers on 1st July at the Somme. But first he had to convalesce in London, where his mother Mo and elder sister Mollie joined him and they all went to theatres. In the early summer of 1917 the whole family had a wonderfully happy time together at Ardeevin in Portadown. Then he returned to the front.

On 16 August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele, the 9th Battalion was part of the assault on Langemark. At 4.45 am, with A and B companies in the lead, they left their position in the Pommern Redoubt. The terraine was full of shell craters and in many places a quagmire. The men were met with ferocious machine gun fire from the front and from Hill 35. This was overcome after 20 minutes, but now the head of the line and the artillery barrage was far ahead, leaving the men of the 9th to face heavy machine gun fire as the Germans emerged from their dug-outs, causing heavy casualties. The battalion tried three times to retire but kept coming up against German machine gun fire and counter attacks, causing even more casualties. Their total casualties were 456 killed and wounded on that day.

Captain Tom Shillington was wounded whilst leading his company at the front of the attack and died as a result of his wounds on August 18th. He was only 19. He lies in the beautifully kept small Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No 3, 12km from where he fell. It was the location of a casualty clearing station for the Passchendaele offensive.

Captain Tom Shillington

My aunt Mabel (1906-2004) recalled, “Do and my mother Mo had gone off on a recruiting drive, giving talks to try to get people to join up. My sister Mollie and the older ones were running the house and it was all very haphazard and fun. Then suddenly we heard that Mo and Do were coming home unexpectedly early. We all ‘set to’ to tidy the house. Then we heard them coming and as they drove up to the house we could see that they were crying. They had got the news in Portadown by telegram. We had been so full of exultation about them coming home and then they were telling us that Tom had been killed. It made a very big impression - I can remember the scene vividly.”

There is much more that I could write about the other children of Do and Mo, including my own father Graham, but this article is focused on Portadown. I do believe however that all the descendents reveal certain characteristics and qualities that have come through to them from the Portadown generations that have gone before them - like their strong sense of service to the community, firm principles and quiet ability to lead and their sense of fair play; a sense of humour and an enjoyment for life.

In summary – I see them as good representatives of all that is best about Portadown…..I must admit to a certain bias!

Sources/acknowledgements: -

  • The Linen Houses of the Bann Valley by Kathleen Rankin
  • The political life of Major the Rt Hon David Graham Shillington DL MP by Anthony Shilingford
  • Amanda Moreno, Curator R.I.F. Museum in Armagh
  • Passchendaele 1917 by Franky Bostyn
  • Mr Alan Whitten
  • Mrs Elizabeth Lutton
  • Photography by Jim Lyttle
Shillington Family Trees
Children of do and Mo
The children of David Graham Shillington (Do) and Louisa Collen (Mo)
Geoff Cather VC
This shows how Geoff Cather VC was a first cousin to Do’s eldest son Tom