William Moffat Clow

Vol. 10 No. 2 - 2013

William Moffat Clow and family

by Arnold G. Sleator

W.M.Clow was born in Glasgow on 13 September 1852, and came to Ulster when he was three years old. He became one of the best known men in the business, social and religious life of Portadown, and across the North of Ireland. He was head of the firm of James Clow & Co., millers in Portadown and Belfast; his residence was at Feddal House on the Gilford Road in Portadown.

James Clow and Co.
Premises of James Clow and Co.

James Clow, the founder of the firm, was born on 10 April 1820 at Mill of Feddal in Perthshire, and came from an old stock of millers. Back to Reformation days the name Clow could be traced in parish registers which also indicated that the milling of oats was a family occupation.

When he came to Ulster in 1855 with his wife and three young boys – Peter, William and James - his first venture was at Caledon Mills, where his manufacture of ‘Caledon Cut’ oatmeal was highly valued. In 1870 he took over the Emy Mills at Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, and was one of the first millers to produce the grades ‘flake meal’, ‘pinhead’, ‘granulated’ and ‘bakers’ fine’.

The steam corn mills in Castle Street at Portadown were taken over in 1885, principally for the grinding of ‘Indian corn’ and the production of wheatmeal and cattle feeds. This mill contained six pairs of stones, and power was supplied by a steam compound tandem engine of 100 horse-power, driving the mill-stones at a speed of 160 revolutions per minute. The mill produced 200 tons of meal per week, and had storage capacity for over 1,000 tons of grain. The firm also held large stocks at the ports of Newry, Dundalk, Glasgow and Liverpool.

For a time the firm was associated with John Calvin, who later went on to establish his own firm on the other side of Mill Avenue in Portadown. The Clow firm transported grain and products to and from its mills both by lighters on the River Bann and later by train: Portadown railway goods yard was directly beside the mill.

James Clow died at Emy Mills, Emyvale on 9 June 1892; his death is commemorated in a memorial plaque in Minterburn Presbyterian church. The management of the firm then passed to W.M.Clow, along with his brother Peter. The firm continued production in Portadown until 1969; the Belfast branch at the docks there closed only in 2000, when it was taken over by Barnett Importers.

The family in Portadown

Mr Clow recalled that when he came to Portadown in 1885 the population was only 8,000. At the firm’s Silver Jubilee in 1910 he stated that he was ‘proud of the fact that the firm was helping to take forward the growth of the town’.

W.M.Clow was twice married. His first wife was Eva Thompson from Saintfield, Co. Down, who died on 27 January 1902. They had two sons and two daughters: William Thompson Clow, Malcolm Percy Clow, Annie Moffat Clow, and Nellie Clow.

W.T.Clow joined the firm, and his son Thompson Broderick Clow was one of the last of the Clow name to be connected with it.

M.P.Clow also joined the firm. He was noted for his baritone singing voice, winning the Challenge Cup and Gold Medal at the Derry Festival in 1916. Sadly, as in many other families, tragedy struck during the first world war. At the beginning of 1917, after having tried many times to join the regular Army, he uniquely joined up as a ‘conducteur’ of the Croix Rouge Française (French Red Cross). He died aged 32 on 10 July 1917, and is buried at Sorovitch in Serbia. (There is a poignant archive of letters he wrote home to his family, held by First Presbyterian Church Archives.)

Annie Clow married John George Brew, who also worked for the firm. There must have been a romantic aspect to this marriage: J.G.Brew was born in Gateshead-on-Tyne on 14 December 1876 and went to sea in 1893, eventually becoming a respected shipmaster and joining a Belfast shipping company. Ironically, in view of what happened later, he was awarded a medal by Germany in 1902 for saving lives at sea. There were two sons of this marriage: William Moffat Brew, who died aged just five, and R.A.F. Squadron Leader James Kenneth Brew.

J.G.Brew joined up on 15 September 1914, at 38 years of age, and less than two weeks after the announcement of the formation of the 36th Ulster Division, joining the 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (Blacker’s Boys). He was rapidly promoted to 2nd Lieutenant (December 1914); then to Captain and eventually to Major (January 1917) and second-in-command of the Battalion. Sadly he was captured in March 1918, was shot in the confusion of the capture, and died on 6 April 1918 at the age of 41. He is buried in Roye New British Cemetery near the Somme.

One can only contemplate with dismay the effect that these two deaths had on the family and on the business in later years.

W.M.Clow was married again on 15 June 1915 to Emily Robertson of Laneside, Scotland. The ceremony was at Burlington House in Glasgow, carried out by the Rev. Professor W.M.Clow, D.D., assisted by the Rev. Thomas Currie M.A., Laneside Hill, and the Rev. W.J.Macauley D.D. of Portadown.

Civic affairs

There were very few areas in the life and welfare of Portadown that W.M.Clow was not involved with during his lifetime.

From 1905 to 1911 he was a member of the Urban District Council. In 1906 he was made a J.P. and in a tribute paid to him the following comment was made by Mr R.M.Cullen, solicitor: ‘Mr Clow knew justice well, but he knew mercy and charity better’.

In 1925 he was elected President of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also Chairman of the County Armagh Agriculture Society (Portadown Show), promoting the progress of farming in the county. He was President of Portadown Golf Club. There is also reference to an interest in tennis, as in 1928 he opened a new club-house for Dunavon Tennis Club. Mr Clow had a maxim: ‘A sound mind in a sound body is a good thing’.

A report in the Portadown News from the 1920s under the heading ‘Portadown Baby Club’ (Maternity and Child Welfare Committee, at which Mr Clow presided) referred to the Child Welfare movement spreading across the United Kingdom: in London ladies of title had contributed jewels valued at over £14,000. A collection was being organised in Portadown to raise the £2,000 necessary to adapt premises given by Miss Carleton, and Mr Clow hoped that the name ‘The Kate Carleton Children’s Home’ would be erected above the doorway when it opened in Church Street. Later a nursing home, this building has now become a centre of sheltered flats.

Carleton House
Carleton House - formerly the Carleton Maternity Home

Another interesting snippet from the paper in 1923 was a meeting of the Wireless Association, chaired by Mr Clow, about the establishment of a Wireless Room in the town. A lot of the discussion was about a suitable aerial; this turned out to be a 68-foot fir tree, whose erection evidently presented great problems. The meeting closed with a demonstration of the ‘apparatus’, receiving musical programmes from Glasgow, Manchester and London.

Around 1904 Portadown Foundry was re-financed by a number of business firms in the town, including James Clow & Co., and W.M.Clow became a director of the Foundry. Mr Clow was also closely associated with the Y.M.C.A., the N.S.P.C.C. and the R.S.P.C.A. branches in the town. In 1929 he attained the office of High Sheriff for County Armagh – the King’s representative at civic gatherings.

Clow’s legacy evident

Perhaps there are two areas in which Mr Clow’s legacy is still very much evident in the progress that has been made through the years thanks to his foresight. These are the Portadown Festival, and education.

The history of the Festival began at 8 pm on Tuesday 30 May 1922, when a meeting duly advertised in the Portadown News was held in the Minor Town Hall, presided over by Mr Clow, ‘to consider the advisability of instituting a Musical Festival’.

A detailed report appeared in the Portadown News of 3 June 1922. Mr Clow was very enthusiastic about encouraging music and the arts; he linked this to Portadown Show, which that year had had over 800 entries in the Home Industries Section, 200 of which were related to art. He said he would donate a cup for singing, in the name of his son Malcom, and pointed out that as Portadown was a large rail centre competitors would find it very easy to travel to the town. He referred to the effort made in 1921 to form a Technical Workers’ Choir, and their great success, which was very encouraging. It was unanimously agreed to proceed, and Major D.G.Shillington was elected as President, with Mrs C. Johnson and Dr Winifred Hadden as Secretaries and Mr F.Anderson Treasurer.

Sir Ivor Atkins, the first festival adjudicator, being welcomed at the Town Hall

So the Festival was born. The Malcolm P.Clow Memorial Challenge Cup for baritone solo was won for the first time by Captain I.C.Herdman of Sion Mills. There was then a class for ‘Factory Choirs’, in which the first cup was won by the Portadown Textile Choral Society, conductor Mr George White – which may have been that earlier Technical Workers’ Choir.

The other great legacy of Mr Clow was in education – mainly Portadown Technical School and Portadown College, but also the development and progress of the former Edenderry National Primary School on the Carrickblacker Road..

On 11 August 1902 the newly-formed Urban District Technical Instruction Committee met for the first time: Mr Clow was appointed Honorary Secretary on 25 August, and from that date until September 1906 he was instrumental in encouraging the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland to provide staffing, equipment and finance for the school, including the provision of an engineering workshop and science laboratories.

On 29 July 1909 he was appointed Chairman, and continued to hold this office until the Committee was dissolved in 1926 when the School was transferred to the County Armagh Education Committee; when the new Management Committee was re-formed he was unanimously elected Chairman, and continued as such until his death in 1933. As a tribute to him, the assembly hall of the new technical school on the Lurgan Road is named the Clow Hall (now part of the Southern Regional College).

Portadown College was set up in 1924, when a number of notable far-seeing citizens, of whom Mr Clow was one, bought Edenderry House by the Bann Bridge for £2,750 - the former home of the Hamilton Robb family. The aim was to provide ‘a system of preparatory and secondary education’ in the town. The first Trustees were: W.M.Clow (Miller), Thomas Cordner (Merchant), William Laird Cowdy (Linen Manufacturer), John Davison (Merchant), George Dougan (Medical Doctor), Samuel Lutton (Linen Manufacturer) and David William Thornton (Merchant).The town and district still benefit from the initiative of these men in the College now with 800 pupils on the Killicomaine Road.

Movements across Ireland

In Mr Clow’s lifetime there were two great wider movements, in which he was a leader and to which he devoted much personal effort.

From 1908 until 1931 he was Treasurer of the Irish National Christian Endeavour Union and in 1923-4 was also elected President. He was a familiar figure each year at national conventions held in towns across Ireland. In 1927 he was a Founding Director of Irish C.E. Holiday Homes Ltd., which first purchased Rock Castle in Portstewart, and then took over the former Golf Hotel at the railway station in Portrush and re-named it Castle Erin; this provided guest house accommodation for 90 residents on a superb site for almost 80 years. It was demolished in 2007.

Mr Clow also played a permanent part in the Irish Temperance movement, ably supported by his wife Mrs Emily Clow, who was an eloquent speaker in her own right. His active support of the Catch-My-Pal movement, started by the Rev. R.J.Patterson in Armagh in 1909, resulted in his presidency of the Portadown branch and the erection of the Catch-My-Pal Hall in Edward Street: this became the Savoy or ‘Catch’ Cinema, now incorporated into the offices of William Sprott Ltd.

Mrs Clow mirrored her husband’s interests. She advocated temperance across the United Kingdom and abroad. In 1921 she founded the Ulster Women’s Christian Temperance Union, popularly known as the White Ribboners, which formed branches across the province. During the First World War she introduced War Savings Certificates in Ulster. She was also very much involved in the C.E. movement, becoming president at different times of both the Irish National C.E. Union and the C.E. Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

W.M.Clow and his Church

A year after coming to Portadown Mr Clow was made an Elder in First Presbyterian Church in Bridge Street, an office he held from 29 November 1886 until his death. He also later became Clerk of Session, and Treasurer, of the Church. His talent in financial matters was also recognised by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, when he was appointed to committees supporting scattered congregations in the south and west. He was also President of the Presbyterian Orphan Society.

General Booth with WM Clow in 1902
General Booth with WM Clow in 1902

In 1922, the centenary year of his home church, he wrote the ‘Centenary Bazaar Book’ which is a definitive history of Presbyterianism in Portadown from its beginnings in 1822. Mr Clow personally gave much of the finance required to build a new suite of halls there in 1920 – which were in use for over 60 years. His great joy was working with children and young people, and this extended back to years before he came to the town, as he was a teacher in Sunday Schools from 1876 until 1933.

The Church has a large and beautiful Communion Table dedicated to the memory of W.M.Clow and his friend Samuel Sprott, with the inscription ‘The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance’.

Feddal House

The house on the Gilford Road is an imposing red-brick mansion with spacious rooms and stained glass windows (now part of Carrickblacker Fold). In addition Mr Clow built two semi-detached houses for his family just round the corner on the Carrickblacker Road; the one called ‘Rathlin’ was where the Brew family lived.

Clow wedding
Wedding of WM Clow's neice (not daughter) Ida - group photo taken in front of Feddal House. from Rotary Club booklet Portadown’s Pictorial Past

Some mysteries

In the hallway of First Presbyterian Church hangs a very large portrait of W.M.Clow, painted by the renowned Portadown artist Charles Lamb. On a plaque below are the words ‘He was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit’ – Charles Lamb 1920. It is thought that this painting was donated to the Church by Mrs E.M.Clow when she was leaving Feddal House, on the representations of Mr Johnny Reid, who was one of the last managers of the firm in Portadown.

However the Portadown News, reporting on the death of Mr Clow in 1933, states that the employees of the firm ‘had a beautiful painting of him executed and hung in Feddal House’ – with an entirely different set of words below. Were there two portraits? And if so, what was the occasion of the earlier Lamb portrait ?

Another puzzle was the tribute on his death from the Portadown Parish Magazine, which stated ‘It is only fitting to acknowledge that Mr Clow was the first to present a bell to our Church’. Was this connected with the rebuilding of the tower and installation of bells at St. Mark’s after the 1914-18 war ?


I have only been able to mention the main bodies and activities with which Mr Clow was associated in Portadown and across Ireland. There were many more, and there was no division in his generosity, as a tribute from the St. Vincent de Paul Society confirmed.

How does one sum up a man like W.M.Clow – perhaps in the words of Longfellow:

So when a great man dies,
For years beyond our ken,
The light he leaves behind him lies
Upon the hearts of men.

  • Craigavon Borough Council Museum
  • Portadown News Archives
  • First Presbyterian Church Archives
  • Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum
  • Edenderry Cultural & Historical Society
  • Rotary Club of Portadown
  • Other contributors who wish to remain anonymous

November 2012