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The White House, Portrush

Article contributed by Claire Burgoyne.

(July 2004)

The White House, Portrush

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For years holidaymakers and day-trippers have been visiting this seaside town on the north coast of Northern Ireland in search of fun. Portrush, with its beautiful, sandy beaches, amusements and cafés is a haven for thousands of people. One of the places that many of those visitors call into is The White House department store. Its distinctive frontage on the Main Street means it’s impossible to miss.

The store was founded in 1891 by Henry Hamilton, who originally came from Portglenone. He was involved in a business which failed, so the story has it, and he went on to fake a suicide, leaving a pile of clothes next to the banks of the River Bann, before fleeing the country for America.

Helen Mark with Rory Hamilton, whose great grandfather Henry started the  shop
Helen Mark with Rory Hamilton, whose great grandfather Henry founded The White House
When he arrived in the United States Henry Hamilton worked in New York and later in Santa Cruz, California, where he picked up the entrepreneurial skills that would later come in so useful at The White House. However it was romance that brought him back to Portrush. He'd fallen for a Miss Allen before he left Northern Ireland, and after sixteen or so years in America he came back to marry her. Hamilton had planned to take his new wife back to the States with him, but that plan never came off - his sweetheart insisted he stayed in Ireland. So before long plans were announced for a new drapery business in Portrush, to be known as Hamilton and Company. The shop was soon renamed The White House in honour of its owner’s American connections.

Many years later Henry Hamilton invited all his previous creditors to a meal and there was an envelope in front of each dinner plate, and when they all opened the envelopes, there was the money that was owing to them before Hamilton's bankruptcy - it's not clear whether interest was included or not!

Henry Hamilton started off selling what were called 'peasant crafts', the products of little cottages in Donegal. His time in America meant he could see the potential of Irish goods, so he was stocking linens and home-spuns and other materials, which sold very well. It wasn't long before The White House started to attract customers from far and wide. Henry Hamilton began to advertise in magazines and newspapers and his mail-order service was said to be years ahead of its time; indeed it's said that there was so much stuff going through the store that Portrush needed a new post office - this opened in 1908.

The most distinguished customer was Queen Victoria, who put in an order for linens in the late 1890s, and the Prince of Wales carried on the tradition in 1903. The biggest order The White House ever took was for twenty-six suits for His Highness the Rajah of Pudukota in South India in the early part of the century.

In fact Henry Hamilton really does seem to have been a shrewd businessman. He arrived in Portrush to set up the store at just the right time. The town was expanding, bathing in the sea had become popular, the railways were being utilised and the golf club had opened two or three years before, so more and more people were visiting Portrush.

Listen to Rory Hamilton talk about other family members' involvement in the business.

Harold Brown, former White House employee

Harold Brown:
former White House employee
1946 - 1953

"If Mr Hamilton came across a piece of furniture where there was dust, he wrote his initials on it and if the initials were still there when he came back there was something to be said!"

The shop expanded greatly over the years. Most people will remember the ‘terrazzo floored’ arcade at the front of the shop, which was taken away recently. Inside the shop there was a wooden-panelled electric passenger lift connecting the first and second floors - it's still fully functioning today. The first floor was devoted to ladies fashions, including millinery and evening gowns. On the second floor was the carpet and house furnishing departments.

During the first part of the 20th century the shop catered for the 'well-to-do', who would visit Portrush and stay in its big hotels. In World War II, Portrush was the destination for American GIs, who got a day off from duties at their base in Londonderry. They would come into The White House and buy footballs to send back home. But by the 1950s and 1960s a new generation of visitors was coming to the north coast for their holidays in search of entertainment. The wartime restrictions had come to an end. Portrush was a thriving, bustling seaside holiday resort, with families staying in the town's guesthouses and hotels. They would dance the night away at ballrooms, including the renowned Arcadia. Holidaymakers came from across N. Ireland, but also Scotland and northern England, with bus companies ferrying visitors on day excursions along the Antrim coast.

Former White House employee, Harold Brown, shares his memories of the shop including his wedding reception in 'The Trocadero' restaurant (now the shop's storeroom)

By the 1980s the package holiday had become a mainstay, so the appeal of two weeks in Portrush was not so strong. Hotels and guesthouses closed and The White House had to come up with new ways of attracting customers. In 1971 the store launched the 'Spot On‘ boutique to attract younger, fashion-conscious shoppers.

Nowadays a property boom in the area means there are still plenty of people visiting Portrush for weekends or short breaks. The caravan parks are still full and families are still enjoying bringing their children to the beaches, because they know they’ll be safe. Then there are the international visitors, who come to trace their ancestors and enjoy the wonderful golf courses. The White House, like all independents, is having to compete with the chain stores, but under the ownership of the Moore family its future can be viewed with optimism.

Listen to Helen Mark as she takes the train to Portrush and pays The White House a visit. (Bargains and Bed Linens, broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster 17.07.2004)

Do you remember the ‘terrazzo floored’ arcade at the front of the shop? Is there a part of the store you always like to visit? Perhaps you enjoyed dancing the night away in the Arcadia when it was open? What's your favourite ride at Barry's. Share your Portrush memories here at Your Place & Mine.

Find out more about other department stores that featured in the series .....

S.D. Kells, Lisnaskea

Warden Brothers, Newtownards

Linton and Robinson, Strabane

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