Few people have served Portadown so long, faithfully and well as Ernie Thornton, who died on Monday morning of last week, after a short illness.
Ernie (83) passed away at Newry Hospice and leaves a legacy that will survive for many years. He was best known for his one-man gents’ outfitters in Edward Street – a case of a legend following a legend, for he took over the business from Charlie Twinem in 1964.
He ran it in his own quiet, immaculate way for almost 40 years – through five terrorist bombs - reluctantly retiring when he was 71. He had “served his time” in the ‘rag trade’ with Joe Twinem of High Street (Charlie’s cousin) after leaving school at 14.
His fondest memory (as well as serving his beloved Portadown community) was the day he sold a fishing hat to none other than Jack Charlton, 1966 England World Cup hero, manager of the Republic of Ireland team and famed angler. (Two tough-tackling centre-halves united!) Charlton wore it with pride for his TV series – ‘Hooked’.
The business was one of the many strings to Ernie’s considerable bow, the most important being his family. He married the former Margaret Crozier at Vinecash Presbyterian Church in 1964 (the same year that he started his business) and the devoted couple celebrated their Golden Anniversary in 2014. Their home is at the Willows, Brownstown Road.
As well as Margaret, Ernie is survived by sons Neal and Bryce, daughter Tara, son-in-law Brian, grandchildren Erin, Elisha, Ethan, Ryan, Ben, Molly, Mya and Katy. And it gave him great pleasure and pride – 12 days before he died – to learn that grandson Ryan Davison, Head Boy of Portadown College, had gained a place at Oxford University to study politics and economics.
Ernie Thornton was the youngest of the family-of-four of William and Louisa Thornton from the Annagh area of Portadown. He was predeceased by sisters Edna (Hunniford) and Maureen (Tucker) and is survived by his elder brother Billy.
He was educated at Thomas Public Elementary School, when Isaac Dalton was principal, continued his schooling at Portadown ‘Tech’ and spent his working life in retailing.
Tailored suits and a wide range of gents’ hats were the order of the day, and Ernie quickly developed the knack of “measuring up” a customer simply by looking at him. And when the tape came out he was invariably correct.
His talent and his quiet authoritative manner made him a natural for going out on his own. He succeeded from the start, maintaining the Twinem tradition of quality and personal service. His honesty, his trustworthiness and his Portadown family connections were a sure combination.
The E.V. Thornton outfitters were not only successful, but a mecca, a meeting place for his wide circle of friends.
As well as running a successful business, Ernie busied himself with an eclectic range of pursuits – not least his fanaticism for football. He and fellow gents’ outfitter Jackie McMahon started the legendary ‘Shop Boys’ for footballers who had to work Saturdays. They took to the field on Thursdays, as it was half-day closing in town.
After he finally shut up shop, he rented out the Edward Street premises to the opticians Alexander, Bain and Murray – after he had re-built them after bomb number five. He had managed to expand despite the troubles, and the premises were finally demolished by the terrorists in 1998. After a two-and-a-half years absence, his former customers flocked back, until he felt it was time to go.
At his football prime, Ernie somehow managed to turn out for (and invariably captained) teams like Wolves and the All Blacks in the thriving Summer League, Ulster Laces in the Works League, and turn out for Portadown Reserves, thanks to his understanding boss Joe Twinem. He was pursued by Glenavon, but that was anathema to such a Ports fanatic.
Nat Richardson, one of Ernie’s team mates in the all-conquering Wolves, said, “Ernie was a born captain and leader. He was six-feet, was always immaculately turned out, and never raised his voice as he inspired us.
“ He was a visionary, embracing the ‘squad and rotation’ method, although it was a matter of necessity as we had to work night shifts at different stages while matches were played in the evenings. Ernie was a super left-back and later moved to centre-half.”
Other sports that Ernie played with distinction included badminton and snooker-billiards. And when he was ‘freed’ from business to watch Portadown at Shamrock Park, he didn’t shy back from giving a knowledgeable opinion.
He rejoiced with all other Ports fans at their great 1990s and 2000s successes, but in latter days he didn’t much fancy the fact that “they don’t play with enough width, or construction in mid-field!”
He was a life-long member of St Columba’s Badminton Club, and honorary president of the Mid Ulster Association. He was fast over the court and played well past ‘retirement’ age. Then, he took up indoor bowls with St Columba’s, the church where he and Margaret worshipped.
He was also a keen member of Thomas Street (1st Portadown) Boys Brigade Association and was President of St Mark’s Past Members’ Group.
In Thomas Street, he was no mean billiards player. They competed in the Belfast and District League and took great pride in wresting major trophies from the city. Team members included Jim Wills, Tommy Austin, Ronnie Baxter and Errol Whitten, among others.
Ernie and Margaret were officers in 3rd Portadown (St Mark’s) Junior Boys Brigade and were associated with the group over 40 years. Lieutenant-in-Charge Tommy Hanlon said, “The boys adored Ernie and Margaret – their quiet ways of communicating were ideal. In latter years,
“Ernie helped me run our fund-raising shop which attracted thousands of pounds for us and various charities. We were dubbed ‘Steptoe and Son, but were never quite sure which was which!”
The funeral service was at St Columba’s last Wednesday and it was packed to overflowing, with Canon Bill Adair conducting the service.
Bible readings were by Tommy Hanlon and grandson Ryan Davison.
Burial was at Kernan Cemetery.
Donations in lieu of flowers are to the Southern Hospice and St Mark’s Junior Boys Brigade, c/o Joseph Poots and Son, 42 Bridge Street, Portadown BT62 5AE.