Will there ever again be as bustling a street as Derry’s Foyle Street was in the mid 20th century? Stretching from the junction of John Street/Foyle Road to the Guildhall, Foyle Street was the main thoroughfare into the centre of the city. Today, the ‘Journal’ recalls the heyday of one of the city’s busiest streets.
Half a century ago, traffic jams were commonplace on Foyle Street as it was used by buses - the city bus service and the country buses as they were known in those days - lorries, cars and horse-drawn carts.
Indeed, the bicycle, used by many people travelling to and from work, was the quickest means of travel.
A herd of cattle was a familiar sight along the street - making their way to the cattle pens on the quayside, for shipment on the cross-channel steamers, or to the local cattle market at Chamberlain Street, just off William Street.
Now, little remains of the street as I remember it - all that’s left is the premises known as the Commercial Buildings, opposite the old City Hotel site.
The commercial world, together with the professional fraternity, were once to be found here, with more than fifty different trades and businesses providing a hub of activity.
Some of the exports for which the city was most famous, such as shirts, leather goods and pork products, were produced in Foyle Street.
Other business included wholesale wine and spirit merchants, flour merchants, confectioners, coal importers, butchers, solicitors, furniture dealers, motor garages and repairs, newsagents (retail and wholesale), iron and brass founders, millers, grain merchants, furniture removers and storekeepers, grocers (retail and wholesale), hardware merchants, and ship owners and shipping agents.
In addition, there were ship chandlers, shipbrokers and shipwrights, book makers, poulterers, pork and provision merchants, bus repair and washing depot, tractor and machinery agents, precision carpentry, gents’ hairdressers, produce merchants, tea merchants (blenders and tasters), tobacconists, timber merchants, seed and manure merchants, sausage makers, stationers and booksellers, tailors and outfitters, sugar merchants, accountants, chiropodists, auctioneers, cafes and tea rooms, wholesale fruit merchants, retail footwear merchants, boot and shoe makers and repairers, and many, many more.
With such an array of activities, the street was one of the busiest in the city; it was a very interesting place to work having such a variety of premises to visit.
Some businesses were of particular interest, such as Foyle Hatcheries, owned by Mr. William Mitchell.
The chicken farm was situated at Collon Lane, off Racecourse Road, from where the eggs were produced and then taken to his Foyle Street premises for hatching.
To segregate the sex of the day old chick, he employed a ‘sexer’, a very unique and highly skilled professional occupation.
Mr. Mitchell also owned a grain and flour business in Foyle Street and was a pioneer of the launderette business, having premises at Abercorn Road and Spencer Road.
Sadly, he was killed in a road traffic accident in the 1950s while travelling from Limavady to the city.
The Ulster Manure Company, with their works at Lisahally and offices in Foyle Street, were also agents for guano, which was shipped from the islands off the west coast of South America; this was the dung of seabirds and was used in the manufacture of fertiliser.
The pork stores of Biggers Ltd., Mark, Roulston and McLaughlin and Buchanan Bros. Ltd. were large employers of skilled labour, selling their produce locally, but mainly exporting the bulk of their products to Britain.
All three had retail shops attached to their premises, selling a variety of pork products such as pork pieces (known as skirts), pork steaks, pork fillets, ribs, chain bones, pigs’ feet (trotters), pig heads, knobs, hocks, ham and bacon.
Indeed, It was often said that the only part of the pig not sold was the squeak!
John Kelly Ltd., Ireland’s largest coal importers and shipowners, had an office on Foyle Street; they also supplied domestic coal and steam coal to the industrial market and also to the local Electricity Power Station.
George Howatson & Company, as well as being coal and salt merchants, were also stockists of coopers’ staves (wooden strips used in the manufacture of barrels for the wine and spirit trade).
Opposite the premises known as the Newton Buildings, which housed on its upper floors the shirt factory of McBrearty & Co., was a square known as The Butter Market. This was occupied by various businesses and had at its entrance the Public Weighbridge owned by Londonderry Corporation.
Further along the street was the shirt factory of D.A. Mooney & Co. Ltd. owned by the Curran family, and also the foundry works of Alexander Brown & Co., known as the Wellington Foundry.
Many Jewish refugees, such as Fred Zilagy, Ludwig Schenkel and Harry Lazarus, operated businesses at Foyle Street after the war.
The hostelry business was also very prominent with some twenty public houses as well as six hotels and guest houses.
Summertime was extremely busy with the street thronged with tourists and visitors using the Great Northern Railway which was situated near the Craigavon Bridge at the corner of Foyle Street and Foyle Road.
Passengers could be seen waiting to travel on the Glasgow vessel, the Laird’s Loch; the months of July and August were especially busy when thousands of visitors arrived during the Glasgow and Paisley Fairs to holiday in County Donegal.
At one end of the street, on its corner with Bridge Street, was The Sailors’ Rest, located in premises formerly known as The Metropole Hotel and offices of The Anchor Line who owned the passenger lines which traded to America.
The Melville Hotel, owned by the late Mr. Tony Kearney, was situated at the corner of Orchard Street. The North Western Hotel, at the steps to the entrance of East Wall, was latterly owned by the famous Quigley Brothers of jazz band fame.
Then there was the renowned City Hotel which occupied the corner site nearest the Guildhall; it was owned by the Ulster Transport Authority and the manager was Mr. John Miskimmon who, before retirement, managed The Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down.
Sadly, however, owing to the redevelopment of the entire area, much of the street was demolished, forcing many well known and famous companies to relocate and others to close their doors forever.
It was the end of employment for many hundreds of skilled workers.