Interests embraced travel, ballet, sports and family

Harry Martin.
Harry Martin.

William Harold (Harry) Martin was best known in Portadown as half the partnership of the iconic gents’ outfitters B&H Martin (Woodhouse Street), which he and his late brother Bertie ran for almost 50 years.

Such was their individual expertise, that either Bertie or Harry could have run such a successful business on their own. Together – with an ancestral tradition in the trade - they were local legends. They inherited the business through their grandfather John Woods, who founded it in 1868, followed by their mother Margaret who held the fort until the brothers took over in 1940.

They constituted the perfect team. Harry, the younger of the brothers, dealt with the buying, and Bertie, who died in May last year, with the administration. They were both superb salesmen – it was in the genes. They treated every customer with the utmost respect, often knowing better than the customers what suited them, guiding them rather than using pressure salesmanship.

Harry (92) passed away in hospital on January 7 after a short illness. And while the ‘B&H Martin’ business may have been his most public legacy, there were many aspects to his life, from sport to culture, travel to community, which added up to a deeply contented and fulfilled life.

Paramount was his love for his family. Back in 1965, he met the former Mary Gilpin, of Ashgrove House, Portadown, when they played badminton at Portadown College, of which Mary was a former pupil. They were married within three months at Drumcree Parish Church and set up home at ‘Marwood’, which Harry had designed and built, at Killicomaine Road. They moved to their bungalow at Kernan Close, 10 years ago.

Daughter Emma – a teacher in Lisburn - was born in 1966, and there are two grandchildren. Caroline represented NI in badminton at the India and Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Chris is at university in America on a golfing scholarship. Their dad Michael Black MBE is a prominent business-IT professional and the son of Gerald and Joan Black of Bannview Squash Club, Portadown.

Harry Martin was born in Woodhouse Street, “over the shop”. He was perennially proud of his Woodhouse Street ‘roots’ and could recite just about every business, with each being family-owned – the likes of Irwin’s, Burnett’s, Winnie’s, Evans, Henderson’s, Locke’s, McKeever’s… No wonder Portadown was then The Hub of the North.

He was educated at Thomas Street Public Elementary School and then at Lurgan College, where the headmaster wanted him to proceed to Queen’s University. But Harry had a mind of his own, and the ‘rag trade’ was in the family make-up. So, he and Bertie ran their famed business until they retired in 1987, selling it to Tom Morrow of Dungannon.

In Bertie’s obituary, last May, the Portadown Times recalled that never a cross word passed between them, even though they were individualistic and different characters, with which Harry totally concurred. They were both keen members of the then thriving Portadown Chamber of Commerce, both holding office throughout the years.

Harry’s interests went far beyond business. He participated in sport, but typically took more pleasure in the achievements of others. As well as badminton, he played tennis – at Edenderry Tennis Club – beside Edenderry Memorial Methodist Club, until he was 77.

With typical humour, he said that he never gave it up – it was his knees which gave up! He had been captain of the club and remained as treasurer after he downed the racket.

Being married to Mary, long-serving President of Portadown Ladies Hockey Club, he relished the team’s golden era in the 1980s and ‘90s when they won just about everything in the Irish game – Ulster and Irish League and Cup titles and trips to Europe when the name ‘Portadown’ was renowned throughout the Continent. He also followed the success of Emma and the grandchildren in their chosen fields, be it academia, sport or music.

He was a fervent fan of Portadown Football Club, even though he could attend only evening matches during his working life. But when he retired in 1987 and could go on Saturdays, there followed a clutch of League and Cup titles with the arrival of manager Ronnie McFall.

His great football friend Mervyn White shared those halcyon times. Said Mervyn, “As in every aspect of his life, Harry was really knowledgeable about the game and we couldn’t believe the haul of silverware that flowed into Shamrock Park. We travelled all over with the Ports.

“Sadly, Harry’s final year coincided with the current problems of the club, and he let his feelings be known. But at least we had the memories of success.”

Mervyn added that music, drama and other aspects of culture played a big part in Harry’s life – “and we’d often chat until midnight about places he had been and international stars he had enjoyed, with his mother in earlier years and more recently with Mary and the family he adored.”

These included trips to places like Vienna, Paris, New York (he had cousins in America), La Scala in Milan, London, Stratford-upon-Avon. He enjoyed ‘live’ shows which included ballerina Margot Fonteyn, the great Italian operatic tenor Beniamino Gigli, actors Sir John Gielgud and Dames Sybil Thorndike and Judi Dench. He loved Shakespeare plays, opera and ballet, which he enjoyed throughout his life. He has an eclectic collection of records and programmes reflecting these pursuits.

At one play in London, he found his way to his seat, only to discover that Winston Churchill was seated beside him. Harry was struck dumb, his mother whispered “Speak to Mr Churchill”. Harry found his voice and said he was from Northern Ireland. Whereupon Churchill informed him that the Unionists had just won the Fermanagh Westminster seat!

Harold loved opera and international orchestras in these far-flung places, and the Irish music and legacies of Count John McCormack and Percy French. “He was also a great fan of Portadown Male Voice Choir, in which I sing,” said Mervyn White. “So, we had to be on our mettle when Harry was in the audience!”

Harry’s other great pursuit was the Masonic Order, as stated in son-in-law Michael’s tribute at the Celebration of Harry’s life in Edenderry Methodist Memorial Methodist Church on Tuesday of last week. He joined Jubilee Temperance Lodge in 1946 and was presented with his 50-year jewel, followed by 60 and 70-year bars.

He was invited to join the Lodge’s Arch Chapter in 1952 and progressed through the various offices to Excellent King, again receiving the 50-year jewel. Then, he was invited to join the Portadown Preceptory in 1961, was Eminent Preceptor in 1979, and again gained the 50-year jewel.

The packed church included many members of the Masons.

The Bible readings at the service were by brother-in-law Mervyn Gilpin, granddaughter Caroline Black and niece Lynne McCausland. The hymns were ‘The King of Love My Shepherd is’ and ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’. The organist was Ryan Harris.

Rev Aian Ferguson, minister at Edenderry, conducted the service and committal was at Drumcree Parish Churchyard.

Donations are to – Chest, Heart and Stroke and to Paget’s Bone Disease, c/o Milne Funeral Service Ltd., 59 Seagoe Road, Portadown.