I first met Wee Jimmy (Chambers) when I started Portadown College (then at Bann House) in September 1943. He taught mathematics, coached rugby and was reputed to have had several pupils expelled. Since I could just about count and had never heard of rugby, I expected my stay to be short. I began to suffer from what now might be called post-traumatic stress, only relieved when there were no obvious evictions. Jimmy’s bark was worse than his bite.
He relieved the tedium of maths by a number of regular digressions. Most significant was his obsession with the unknown game. When a rugby thought came into his head, everything else went out of it. He instantly forsook the maths to extol the exploits of the Uprichard Brothers from out the Mahon, or Jackie Gough from Gilford. He was the most enthusiastic commentator the BBC never had!
Another diversion arose from his pride in having taught five Scholar of Trinity College, Dublin – Tom Cowan (1932) from Gilford, Waldo Maguire (1941), Iris Boland (1942, later a PC maths teacher), Loudan Ryan (1944, later Governor of the Bank of Ireland) and Alex Agnew (1943) from my own townland of Balteagh. When he thought of them and looked at us, he despaired utterly!
Overtaken by these deviations, he became the crescendo Jimmy on the touchline. We were highly amused. More rationally, though, he once visited America which gave him frequent opportunities to compare the geometric planning of US cities with our own less organised urban sprawl.
Bud Graham, who taught history in the classroom next door, was less than amused. When he couldn’t hear himself talking against Jimmy’s proclamations, he would open the door to Jimmy’s room and stand on the threshold, a silent, staring sentinel, until the noise temporarily subsided.
I am convinced that Bud was a follower of Mahatma Ghandi and his policies of non-violent political protest. There was also a rather serious matter of sporting allegiance. Jimmy worshipped rugby six days a week and kept the seventh at Scarva Presbyterian Church where he was congregational secretary for 41 years. Bud he “desecrated” the College for five days a week, playing soccer in the quadrangle with the students and rarely missed a Saturday at Shamrock Park.
Of course, they were not the adversaries we thought they were. Bud, ever the philosopher, explained to me that society accommodates a conglomeration of individual prejudices, regulated by compromise. He then smiled and reminded me that I knew two men, Jimmy Chambers and himself, who espoused incompatible causes.
Post-elementary education came late to Portadown. The most successful school was Miss Ida Maud Marshall’s Carleton Collegiate. After her death in 1920, Billy John Warren, joint headmaster of Excelsior Collegiate in Banbridge took it over. A mathematician and a fine teacher, his influence was so immediate that, within three years, larger premises were needed.
Edenderry House, the former home of linen magnate Hamilton Robb – whose son was one of 321 young men from Portadown and district killed in the First World War – was purchased through the generosity of a few leading residents, and opened as Portadown College in 1924.
Warren’s academic contribution to Portadown is best assessed by the number of College students who gained entry to third level education, particularly to Trinity College, Dublin. Billy John seems to have been interested in sport, although I never remember watching a match. An early Carleton Collegiate team was drawn against Coleraine Academical Institution – an audacious entry for a fledgling school.
A 1921-22 Collegiate photograph includes Evan Johnston (later principal of Edenderry Primary School) Cecil Mullen (associated with Hamilton Robb’s) and Don Stevenson (later distinguished teacher and estate agent). Meanwhile, on the town scene, Portadown Rugby Football Club was admitted to the B Division of the Junior League on October 10, 1923.
The date of Jimmy’s arrival in Portadown is unknown, but he appears as a teacher with a Collegiate team which defeated Dungannon Royal ‘A’ on February 10, 1923. He played for the town in 1924-25 and was Captain in 1926-27.
Little did he realise that the town’s purpose-built rugby-hockey complex, named after Jimmy, would be opened in 1963, followed by the opening of the W.A. Mullen Pavilion in 1963. W.A. Mullen was, as the ageing generation knows, the MD of Hamilton Robb’s linen in Goban Street, whose former home constituted the original Portadown College, which Jimmy Chambers loved so well. The circle of life...