MOST people who remember Portadown Foundry - before the Edenderry company closed in 1983 - see it mainly as a firm which provided structural steel for the construction trade. And indeed it was during the latter days of its 140 years in existence that the firm made a name for itself throughout Ireland for quality steelwork.
Schools in Portadown, like Clounagh JHS, are still standing firm on a framework of steel from Portadown Foundry, as are the Central Markets, many of the original factories at Seagoe Industrial Estate, North Street Markets in Belfast, Chico Foods in Lurgan, the old Shamrock Park grandstand, Bairnswear in Armagh, Moypark factory, Portadown swimming pool, Boyne Mills, Drogheda, Desertmartin RC Church, and many more.
Bot throughout its history, the products at the Edenderry firm were of a much greater variety, reflecting the industrial times through which it lived from 1844-1983. These included everything from spare parts for the textile trade, barges on Newry and Lagan Canals, special roofing for linen factories, products for the railways, hand grenade casings and covering for aeroplanes at wartime...
Portadown Foundry reflected local and national history, and this is all contained in the book ‘A History of Portadown Foundry’, written by local historians Cardwell McClure and Wilson Steen, promoted by the Edenderry Cultural and Historical Society, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The book covers every conceivable angle of the foundry years, not least the families which guided it through the various eras - five of them, the Woolseys, Brights, Williamsons, McNeills and Johnstons.
John Woolsey (succeeded by son Robert )was the founder and built the factory on raw farmland - the street didn’t have a name, but was officially called Foundry Street for obvious reasons.
Their main products were castings for the seven textile mills and for the four brick yards that existed in Portadown, with the pig iron, scrap iron and coke brought up via the Newry Canal. The Woolseys ran the show from 1844-1879.
Then came the Bright family (1879-1920) who were also building manufacturers for the burgeoning town that was built around the fact that the railway had arrived. There were three stations - two at Obins Street and the third at Seagoe Halt during that spell. The magnificent Watson Street one was also constructed in that era until it was flattened to make way for the Northway by-pass. They built Edenderry National School, and their main products included lighters for Newry Canal - they weighed up to 100 tons - and another piece de resistance was the famous Northern Lights. Nothing to do with the Aurora Borealis, but a roof lighting system that diffused lights perfectly for the manufacture of textiles.
They were brothers William Henry and George and dad David, and the long-gone Bright Street at Edenderry (now occupied by Edwin May Motors) was named after them.
And so, into the realms of living memory, and the Williamson era (1920-1975), with James Alex Williamson entering the arena during the Bright era in 1912 as manager. He was trained in Kane Foundry (Ballymena and Larne) finally buying over Portadown Foundry in 1920. And in between 1914-18, Portadown Foundry helped in the World War One effort by making hand grenade cases in their hundreds of thousands, covering new-fangled plane wings and fuselages in special ‘aerolinen’, which shrank and tightened and was covered in a lacquer ‘dope’.
When the war ended, the foundry diversified into products like ‘chairs’ which supported sleepers on railway lines and ancillary railway products like buffers, turntables and switch points. The Williamsons included the original J.A. (died 1937), his wife Rebecca, Robert and then Fred, son of J.A. and Rebecca. And they also helped in the World War Two effort - again with hand grenades and Bombardon Tanks, used in breakwaters for landing craft, and a vital aspect in the war against Hitler’s Germany.
In the Williamson era, they entered structural steel, initially supporting hay sheds, and they developed that for the construction trade.
When the giant McNeill Group from Belfast (1973-1079) moved it, that was their main occupation. McNeills had an eye on the building of the new town of Craigavon, but the book reports that they had difficulties over receiving payment for major contracts in Africa - they were truly an international firm - and they bowed out of the scene.
Portadown Foundry to be taken over in 1979 by the Johnston family, who owned a drapery store in Omagh, Corbetts in Portadown and one in Dumbarton, near Glasgow. Inflation and various other financial millstones transpired against them, and the foundry finally closed in 1983, ending a unique era in Edenderry.
In the third and final part of the Foundry History, we will take a look at the workers in the factory over the years, and the memories it evoked.