Great days of cricket at the Portadown Public Park

Caption in story
Caption in story

Our main picture is of Portadown cricket club’s annual meeting in the 1960s, the halcyon days of the club, when matches were contested in the Public Park and attracted crowds of hundreds. And within the picture is a tale how the founder of the Portadown Times revived cricket in the 1930s.

The park was the natural home of the club, with the iconic Nissan Hut where players changed, the latest score went up on the board, and inside the hut, the ladies - wives, mums, girlfriends - made the tea, sandwiches and other treats, to be consumed during the tea break.

But firstly to the picture and that story of how the Portadown Times was central in resurrecting the game. Second left (back row) is a man deeply involved, Jack Houston. Jack worked as a compositor with the Times during its early days at Carleton Street when W.H. Wolsey was the man at the helm - W.H. (aka ‘The Chiel’ who later wrote a superb history column) - decided it was time that leather-upon-willow returned to Portadown. So he motivated employees like Jack Houston, Billy Courtney and Earl Wright, and also included his son William, sadly killed in action during World War Two. And cricket was back in town.

A local district league was the result, and from there was formed Portadown Cricket Club whose natural home was the Public Park - with Park Road being a regular supplier of players. Indeed, Jack’s son Ronnie also starred for the club.

The photograph was, incidentally, supplied by Billy Spence, second right seated, and he, too, has a background in journalism, He was club captain at the time and worked for the old Portadown News, under editor Douglas Sloan and later moved to Ballymena with wife Doris and the Ballymena Times, retiring recently. Billy was perhaps the best fast bowler in the junior cricket scene of the era, and was quite a loss to the town. He reported mainly sport and made quite an impact in Ballymena.

Right of Billy is Kenny Upton, also a super captain of the club at one stage, and was something of an all-rounder. He was a joiner by trade.

The others in the front row are (left) Mitchell Graham, a long-time servant of the club, on pitch and off. He did such a superb job in helping to keeping cricket going, after the park became out-of-bounds with Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ kicking in. Mitchell, now retired, was chief administrative officer of Craigavon Borough Council and has done much general community work.

Beside him is Raymond Purdy, an expert administrator and no mean cricketer himself. Raymond taught geography at Portadown College, but was dogged by cardiac problems and died all too young. A tremendous loss to the club and the town.

And then, of course (fourth left back row) is the legendary Jimmy Chambers, a maths teacher at the College and sport mad. Rugby, though, was his first love, and such was his contribution to Portadown Rugby Club over the years that Chambers Park is named after him. He was humbled, but his first reaction was for the club to do nothing of the sort. “It’ll be called ‘Po Park!” was his initial reaction. Chambers Park was constructed on top of the town dump at ‘Guinea Row’ (as Eden Crescent was once known). Could you imagine a tip being so close to the town in this day and age!?

Left of Jimmy is Harrison Morrow, who had earlier played in Portadown’s greatest hour, the day they won the Junior Cup in 1953, beating Laurelvale by a couple of wickets at that theatre of cricket, The Lawn at Waringstown.

Harrison recalls that Portadown were in real trouble ‘at tea’ - three runs for two wickets, “and later there were three ducks on the board”.

But Jack Richards, with an attacking 36, turned things round, but still they were in danger when Harrison came to the crease. “We needed 19 runs with two wickets remaining,” he recalled. “I hit a four with my first shot, and then protected my wicket (he ended on four) while captain Billy Martin hit a match-winning 18, finishing with a great boundary. It was a great day.”

Harrison is now a sprightly 80 and still sings baritone in Portadown Male Voice Choir.

On Jimmy Chambers’ right is Sam Best, also a fine cricketer, and later a talented umpire - he lived at Park Road - and perhaps his umpire experience served him in good stead later in life when he became a straight-taking union representative!

The rest along the back row are all promising cricketers of the time - left to right - David Corkin, later a teacher at Millington Primary School; Raymond Belshaw, a talented batsman; Mervyn Haire, another Park Road man and superb with the bat; Tom Guy, who - along with brother Dennis - was part of a formidable early-batting duo; Reggie Forbes, no slouch with bat and ball; and Peter Graham, another all-rounder whose dad was a respected teacher of history at Portadown College.

Sadly, the troubles saw Portadown ‘new’ pavilion at the Public Park - which replaced the Nissan Hut - was destroyed by fire. Nomadic days followed when they played at Portadown College and Tannaghmore Gardens before settling at Chambers Park.

Ironically, the Public Park is again hitting the headlines with a £7m investment turning it into “a shared space for all the community”. And should that happen, perhaps the day may come when Portadown Cricket Club could return its old, natural home. We’ll wait and see...

The Times is grateful to Billy Spence for providing the picture and to former colleague Brian Courtney for providing many of the details.