From the Second World War to the juniors’ golden era

Enjoying the 50th anniversary celebrations at Chambers Park. Back row, from left, Kenneth Reid, Mark Snowden, Barry Gribben. Front row, from left, Clive Anderson, Robbie Speers, Paul Heasley, Jimmy Davidson, Ian Flack.
Enjoying the 50th anniversary celebrations at Chambers Park. Back row, from left, Kenneth Reid, Mark Snowden, Barry Gribben. Front row, from left, Clive Anderson, Robbie Speers, Paul Heasley, Jimmy Davidson, Ian Flack.

The game of rugby continued on a disorganised, ad hoc basis during the Second World War, with ‘scratch’ games against Forces sides. Jimmy Chambers’ last recorded game was against Queen’s Air Squadron on December 5, 1942, when “J. Chambers, a veteran of many battles, led the pack with the energy and enthusiasm of a schoolboy”.

I remember him from the year after he stopped playing. When he coached us after school at Portadown College, he was always immaculately togged out, his boots shining, like those of an ex-soldier. Of course, teaching maths was his real job, but rugby was at least first-equal in the psyche of the dedicated Jimmy Chambers.

(Portadown College those days was at Bann House, or Edenderry House as it was known when in the ownership of Hamilton Robb who also owned the neighbouring linen factory at Goban Street).

The captains of the town rugby team at the start of the war were – Ronnie M. Wilson (1939-40), D. Gary (1940-41), and J. Gough (1942-43). It was holding operation immediately after the war, when the captains were – H. Walsh (1945-46), A.B. Burnett (1946-47), and J.C. Cowell (1947-48).

The years 1948-56 were consolidator, under three captains, who each made significant contributions to the club. There was an intimacy in the small club. Thomas Charles (Tommy) Wells is still fondly remembered as a legendary character of the 1950s.

Although not fully recognised at the time, these were important years, setting up a foundation for a golden era in the junior game.

The 1947 Education Act and the raising of the school leaving years would soon produce more players, and there were more vice-presidents and supportive last players.

The club was looking outwards.

Senior Branch members attended the first annual dinner on December 7, 1952 at which Jimmy Chambers recalled how he had played with Sam McGredy, senior, and Edgar Acheson in the club revival after the First War.

The need for permanent premises was now irresistible.

Tommy Wells led the club from 1946-52, followed by Raymond Long (1952-53 when they won the Junior League Section Two), then Harold Thompson (1953-54), Raymond Long (1954-55) and Tommy again (1955-56).

But then came the Frank Henderson era from 1956-59, and they developed into the finest junior side in Northern Ireland, and Jimmy’s dream of success began to be fulfilled. Frank – a superb organiser and motivation – brought a ruthless devotion to the captaincy.

His first season saw the First XV win the Towns Cup, and in 1958-59, they won the Junior League undefeated, reached the Junior Cup semi-final, won the Towns Cup, the Past Players Cup and the McGredy Cup.

The club was still small and intimate enough for Frank to know every player and every activity, being an inspiration all round – a brilliant organiser both on and off the field, with his technical knowledge of the game and his devotion to every aspect of Portadown RFC.

Sammy Walker, a former Lions’ captain, told Portadown Rotary Club on September 23, 1957, that Portadown’s victory in winning the Towns Cup was “the best exhibition of rugby during the entire season”.

In 1958, the Levaghery Old Schoolhouse at Gilford Road was acquired and renovated as the Portadown RFC clubrooms.

The following were the trustee – Jimmy Chambers, Kenneth Irwin, William Stewart, Harold Thompson and Tommy Wells.

Prior to that, the club had no fixed abode and moved about from the Anchor Café in Bridge Street to Pentland’s Pub just across the road to Portadown College locker rooms to J.G. McCann’s Nursery and its famous lorry bath.

The first games had been played in the People’s Park, followed by Old Shamrock Park, Levaghery, Woodside, the Rosebowl (McGredy’s at Garvaghy Road), Brownstown Road, Ballinacorr and Kernan. Nomads indeed.

Five of the town teams, following the Towns Cup successes, were captained by players who had been under the Henderson wing, with solid, rather than spectacular, successes.

1959-60 – Roy Henderson (Frank’s brother) – Towns Cup semi-final and promotion to Junior League First Division; 1960-61 – Brian Maxwell, McGredy Cup winners; 1961-63 – George Douglas, McGredy Cup winners Towns Cup semi-final and five teams fielded; 1963-64 – Ray Stewart, first game played at Chambers Park; 1964-65 – Derek Logan, W.A. Mullen Pavilion opened.

At the 1957 annual meeting, Club President Jimmy Chambers expressed his pride at being a member of Portadown Rugby Football Club.

A 1963 Press report in had him supporting the club at every level.

“For the first time in weeks” the report stated, “the third fifteen took the field with the full complement of 15 players, thanks to the sterling work of Jimmy Chambers.”

In the same year, I accompanied Jimmy to the funeral to club stalwart (and talented prop forward and ex-captain) Bill Stewart.

I had walked off the pitch with Bill the day before he passed away and was deeply touched by his death.

He was a wonderful clubman, an unobtrusive, unsung servant, with a ready smile. He was deeply mourned by everyone at Chambers Park.