Portadown has a manufacturing sector that has grown beyond its roots in linen production to include carpet-weaving, baking and engineering. These industries all thrive against a backdrop of the traditional rural economy. For decades it has been the home of the Portadown Festival, which brings in thousands of participants in amateur dance, theatre, music and song. At present, the title of Musician of the Year 2008 for the Portadown Music Fesitval belongs to Simon "Skippy" Neill, as he is known to close friends, ALCM(Th. Dip.), present pupil at Portadown College.
Although the town can trace its origins to at least the 17th century it was not until the Victorian era, and the arrival of the railway that it became a major town. Portadown is known as "The Hub of the North", the origin of this phrase coming from its central position in Northern Ireland and being a major railway junction in the past, where the Great Northern Railway's line diverged for Belfast, Dublin, Armagh and Derry.
Little is known of the area now called Portadown prior to 1610 other than it was inhabited by indigenous Gaelic speaking peoples. The dominant local clan was the Clan Cana (McCanns) known as the "Masters of Clan-Breasil" (Clanbrasil) who were known to have been in the area since the 13th Century. The McCanns were vassals of the O'Neills. The fortress referred to in the Irish name Port an Dúnáin was the stronghold of the McCann's.
During the Plantation of Ulster in 1610 the modern history of the town began with a grant of land to a William Powell who sold it to a Reverend Richard Rolleston in 1611. Rolleston later sold the land in two portions to Richard Cope and Michael Obins. Obins built a large house with a bawn known as "Obin's Castle" and settled 20 tenants on the land around it in the area now called Ballyoran. The former McGredy's nursery was on the same land for some years and also the People's Park which formed part of the land owned by Obins and which surrounded the Castle. Running off the town centre today is Castle Street which is named after Obins Castle. Nearby Obins Street is another reminder of the Obins dynasty.
Obins was awarded a licence for a "fair and market" in 1631 which led to the building of the first bridge across the River Bann.
Obins Castle was captured by a force of dispossessed Irish led by Magennises, the O'Neills and the McCanns during the Irish Rebellion of 1641, reports exist of various atrocities carried out against the townspeople including a massacre of between 100-200 people who were forced off the bridge over the River Bann and either shot or drowned.
Following the defeat by Oliver Cromwell's army of the Confederation of Kilkenny in 1650, Hamlet Obins who had survived the sacking of the town repossessed Obins Castle in 1652. From that point onwards a succession of children of this family continued to develop the town until Michael Eyre Obins sold the castle to the Sparrow family of Tandragee when he took holy orders in 1814.
The town came into the possession of Viscount Mandeville when he married Miss Millicent Sparrow in 1822 and started an association with the Dukes of Manchester which, although severely diluted, still exists today in a small way. The Manchesters legacy to the town includes street names such as Montagu Street, Millicent Crescent and Mandeville Street, in addition to proprties such as the Fergus Hall (formerly the Duke's School and Church Street PS), and the Carlton Home (the Duke's former townhouse, latterly a maternity hospital/nurses accommodation and now private apartments).
The Blacker family, descended from Danes who entered Ireland in the 9th century are also associated with the town. The estate at Carrowbrack, Drumnacanvey, later known at the Blacker Estate (Carrickblacker) was first purchased by Colonel Valentine Blacker from Sir Anthony Cope of Loughgall in 1660 One of the notables in the family Colonel William Blacker, High Sheriff of Armagh fought at the Battle of the Diamond and was a founder member of the Orange Lodge. Many of the Blacker family, such as Valentine Blacker and more recently General Sir Cecil "Monkey" Blacker, KCB, GCB, OBE, MC, 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, were soldiers or churchmen. The family estate was purchased in 1937 by Portadown Golf Club who demolished Carrickblacker House in 1988 to make way for a new, modern clubhouse.
Other prominent family names in the town are Curran, (Curran Street) Woodhouse, (Woodhouse Street) Workman, Pepper, Marley (Marley Street - now demolished) and Shillington (Shillington Street).
The affairs of the town were overseen by Portadown Borough Council until 1973 when it was amalgamated with Lurgan Borough Council to form Craigavon Borough Council. The new town of Craigavon being built between, and intended to link, both of the older boroughs to form a city. The seat of the old Borough Council still exists in the Town Hall, Edward Street.
There are three bridges across the Bann at Portadown. Bridge Street and Northway are both road bridges and there is a railway bridge adjacent to the Northway. The story of the present bridge is unusual in that it was built without a river running underneath it. After construction was complete, the course of the River Bann was diverted by some 100 yards to straighten a meander. The old riverbed was then built upon. In subsequent years an archeological dig on the site, on which had stood the GPO for many years, uncovered the bones of some of those drowned in the 1641 massacre were recovered for examination. The existing bridge was lately widened for the second time since it was built.
No permanent places of worship existed in the town itself until the building of a Methodist Chapel in 1790. The site of this church has moved several times and it now stands in Thomas Street where it was finally rebuilt in 1860 Prior to 1826 the Church of Ireland members attended Drumcree Parish Church or Seagoe Parish Church but the diocese built the new church of St Martin's, later renamed St Mark's in the town centre, which still stands today in its commanding position at the start of the High Street. There is also St Columba's Parish Church on the Loughgall Road which was built in 1970 in an area previously served by St Mark's. There are also two Presbyterian churches, Edenderry (1822) and Armagh Road (1867). The Roman Catholic faithful built two churches, St John the Baptist, Drumcree, (1783) and St Patrick's, William Street (1835). The original St John the Baptist Church was relocated to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museumin the 1970s and replaced with a more modern building on the Dungannon Road/Garvaghy Road crossroads. Other churches or meeting halls include Baptist, Thomas Street and Killicomaine Road; Elim, Clonavon Avenue; Society of Friends, Portmore Street; Free Presbyterians in Levaghery and the Christian Meeting Hall, Fitzroy Street.
A combination of road, canal and rail links all converging on Portadown gave it the nickname "Hub of the North" and this created employment through mass industry as well as benefitting the traditional agronomy of the area. In particular the Newry Canal opened up waterborne trade from Lough Neagh to the East coast at Newry and Belfast leaving Portadown ideally situated to take full advantage of the trading routes. With the establishment of the Great Northern Railway the overland trading routes were extended and delivery times shortened as well as creating further employment in the railway industry from 1852 when the first station opened in the town which increased when the repair yards were opened in 1925.
There are many companies that have been a part Portadown's history:
Some of these linen mills survived as manufacturers and major employers into the 1960s, such as Robbs and Achesons but all eventually closed as the demand for Irish Linen fell due to the manufacture of cheaper, man made, fabrics.
Other industries have vanished from the town such as; whisky distilling and brewing, cider making by Grews in Portmore Street, milling of animal feed by Clows and Calvins, Castle Street, iron and brass from Portadown Foundry and other smaller firms, ham/bacon curing by McCammons and also Sprotts. There were also a number of small industries related to farming and agriculture, like packing and/or distribution of eggs, butter, poultry and apples. Several nurseries were established in the town, most notably Samuel McGredy & Son Ltd., and James Walsh Ltd., these too have gone.
A large POW Camp was constructed during World War 2 at a former sports facility on what was then the western edge of town, now covered by housing from Fitzroy Street and the Brownstown Estates. This accommodated (mostly) German POW's. In the post VE Day era these POW's were guarded by Welsh servicemen who had been transferred from Germany (known as "Bluecaps") and who were billeted at St Patrick's Hall in Thomas Street in accommodation vacated by US servicemen who had left prior to the D Day landings. Many of the Welsh soldiers chose to be demobbed to Portadown as they had formed relationships locally and this accounts for a fairly large proportion of Welsh surnames in the town.
In 2005 a public air raid shelter was discovered during excavation works near the riverbank just outside the town centre. One of ten built by the council during World War 2 it is the only one now remaining and a rare example of public air raid facilities in Northern Ireland.
Portadown boasts a large selection of academic institutions, past and present. There are many primary and secondary schools in the area, and the town is home to one of the top Grammar Schools in Northern Ireland, Portadown College, which was opened in 1924.