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1911 letter to Lisburn from an exile.


1911 letter to Lisburn from an exile.

John Porters letter please click here or above to read letter

I recently received a copy of a letter from a relative of the Maginnis family, Lisburn which had made its way across the Atlantic to Lisburn just over one hundred years ago. The letter which was sent from Soledad, California, U.S.A. gives us a fascinating insight into the experiences of local exile John Porter.

He commenced the fifteen page letter on the 8th May 1911 and completed it over two weeks later on the 23rd May. The letter was addressed to Mr. Maginnis, Lisburn, Ireland.

The Maginnis family will be remembered for the grocer shop located at 69 Bridge Street, Lisburn. Ernest took over the business from his father, John, who retired from the grocery trade about 1940. John married Mary Jane Thompson, a school teacher. The Maginnis family resided at 116 Hillsborough Road, Lisburn. John’s father, William Maginnis came from the Knockmore area.

John Porter who was corresponding with a member of the Maginnis family, Lisburn in 1911 provides us with some details of the Porter family. He refers to a sister, Agnes, who was still alive at the time of writing. He also mentions the deaths in Chicago of a younger sister some years earlier, and his eldest brother in about 1905. He claimed that his niece died in St. Louis, Missouri in about 1904. She was the daughter of Andrew Thompson, a shoemaker from Lisburn. It is believed that this was the bootmaker listed in the 1888 directory at 75 Bow Street, Lisburn.

John was a stone cutter and he served his apprenticeship in Railway Street, Lisburn with William Caul. That name is still to be found on some of the older headstone in graveyards throughout the district. William Caul was auctioning off his entire stock at Railway Street in August 1885.

The author of the letter reminisced about his early days at Blaris School and made reference to one of his teachers, a Miss Johnston, whom the children nicknamed “Miss Timber-toes.” He tells us that the name originated “from the way she sprung on her toes when tanning some of our unruly hides.”

He also attended Clarke’s School, Railway Street, Lisburn where he was taught by Mr. Gillespie, principal. This is believed to be Andrew Gillespie. The Railway Street National Schools were at the rear of the church, and were built in 1869.

He also recalls the Miss Mulhollands who had an interest in the school at Blaris and would occasionally bring them down a treat and took them up to Eglantine for a picnic, where they had races and other sports. The Mulhollands resided in Eglantine House.

He mentions family names whom he recalled resided down the Blaris Road. He remarks that there used to be lots of young people there and he mentions surnames including Ferris, Dowey, Kernan, Chapman, Marmion, Brown, Andrews, Heuston, Jones, Leathem, Singleton, Gardner and his own family, the Porters who lived down The Priest’s Lane.

He also mentions the following family surnames and people who were living in the area as you travelled towards Lisburn town – Whitla, Garrett, Miss Moore, Topping, Brownlee, Hoy, Dornan’s Black smith shop, David Walsh and Graham.

He informs the reader of the antics of a local schoolboy – William Scott from Waterloo who was “so bad at mitching that he had to get a note from the master and take it to his father to confirm he was present at school.”

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One day the said William failed to go to school and he went into Ned Cairns. He borrowed a pen and forged a note to his father saying “William was preseth.” The incorrect spelling was picked up on by his father and his cunning plan had been discovered.

John Porter came to Chicago in 1888 and stayed there just over ten years. He left the area during a strike and moved to Indianapolis where he remained for six months, before moving to Louisville, Kentucky. Two seasons later he crossed the Ohio River at Paducah and went to Louis, Missouri. John was unsettled and subsequently moved to Iowa and then to Kansas City. He then went to Cheyenne Wyoming before returning south to Arkansas and then to Utah and Nevada. Whilst in Nevada he was involved in some railroading and stone work. He later returned to Salt Lake City.

He writes that in June 1902 the quarrymen quit quarrying stone to catch grasshoppers. There was a bounty on the grasshoppers and the quarrymen were paid a dollar a bushel. In a few days the courthouse had paid out 1700 dollars.

John then left for San Francisco and on the 4th July 1902 he states that he got his first sight of The Golden gate. He was employed as a stone cutter on the Stanford University, one of the great colleges in California. He then moved to Salinas, the chief town of Monterey County and he took up employment there in a sugar factory. A short time later he moved to Soledad where he worked in carpentry and farming. On 18th July 1906 he took up the position of a manager in a store that traded in general merchandise and butchery.

From the details that John Porter provides in his letter it is believed that he was born about 1864 and he was the son of William Porter and Elizabeth (nee Reid) who were married in 1848. There is a record of a John Porter born in Lisburn on 28 02 1864 to the aforementioned William and Elizabeth. They are also known to have had another son Francis, born in Lisburn on 03 03 1866.

On the 30th December 1907 he married a school teacher Amy Alvira Davis. He informs the reader that he was married in the building where he worked. At the time of writing he claimed to have 20 acres of fine land that was under irrigation.

Amy had previously been married to Charles Monroe Hodges in 1890. Charles Hodges died in September 1906. One of the relatives that I traced stated that there were some significant problems with John’s marriage and Amy would later remarry, to a Mr. Charles Smith.

The 1910 American census records indicate that a nephew, Frank Porter was residing with John Porter and his wife at Monterey. It is believed that Frank, then aged 20 years, was the son of a William and Annie Porter, Killeshandra, Cavan, Ireland. They also had a son called John Reid Porter, a name which connects into the Lisburn family.

John Porter died in 1932 and he is buried in Soledad cemetery, Monterey County, California. A photograph of his memorial at this cemetery can be found at (memorial 28744270 refers) Monterey County Historical Society Website hosts an article on Fort Romie: The Salvation Army’s First Colony by Patricia Binsacca Terry. The article contains several references to John and Amy Porter.

John Porter gives us a fascinating insight into some aspects of early life in the Lisburn area in the 1870 period, and his life as an emigrant in his adopted land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. His travels across America totalled over 4000 miles, before he finally settled in Soledad. A copy of the letter has been passed to the Centre for Migration Studies, Omagh for inclusion in their research library.

Thanks to the following people for their assistance in providing background information relating to John and Amy Porter:

Jim Berry, Winchester, VA; George Cassady, Point Richmond, CA & Barbara McGee

The Digger can be contacted at

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The following is a transcription of the original letter:

Soledad Caly1

May 8 1911

Mr M Maginnis

Dear Sir

Words fail to express the pleasure and interest I took in reading your very kind and welcome letter in reply to mine. I don’t know how I shall repay you for the time and trouble it took to hunt up such a lot of information as your letter contained. But will try and send you some seeds which will grow there. I have a great many seeds as I sell seeds in the store which I am manager of. Yes my sister’s name is Agness I say sister as she is the only one I have left now. I had a younger sister but she died in Chicago a few years ago. My oldest brother died in Chicago about 6 years ago and a niece of mine a daughter of Andrew Thompson shoemaker Lisburn died in St Louis Missouri about 7 years ago.

I used to know some people named Maginnis in the Longstone but they were hacklers I think. And some McGuinness in Causeway End I believe too. I remember all the people you mention in your letter with the exception of one or two new people such as the Robertsons of Shamrock Vale and Camp Lodge. It was very interesting to hear so good an account of Blaris School. And I look back with pleasure to the days I spent there all my school days were spent there but three week at Clarks School in Railway Street taught by Mr Gillespie principal Willie G Miss G Mr Todd Arthur Watson Fanny Wilson were assistants at that time. The teachers in Blaris School in my time were first a Miss Johnston (nicknamed) Timbertoes from the way she sprung on her toes when tanning some of our unruly hides, then Mr & Mrs Anderson. Mr Galagher who almost killed his wife and I think died in jail on breaking out of it.

A Mrs Campbell who had a son D R Campbell and a Mr Campbell not her husband a Mr Cook who boarded with Allens in Bow Street. Joe Allens father the solicitor Joe came out with him on one or two occasions and gave us pupils a music lesson. Then Sam Greer of Newport and Mr Banks the two latter after I left school. The Miss Mullhollands were very much interested in the school then and would bring down a treat for us once in a while and over a year would take us up to Eglantine for a pic-nic. And provide prizes for races and other sports. I well remember Rev Stephen Campbell in Christ Church before All Saints was built and the Rev H A Moore curate at the same time I think. I went to Nicholsons memorial to Sunday School and was in John Johnstons class he had a shoe shop in Bow Street but died many years ago.

When All Saints was built we went to that church up the banks and over on the boat at Wilsons house or above a little or we went around by M Coys and went to Blaris Sunday School where I was in Mr McGowans class of whom you speak. Was that Geo Lynch who used to work on the canal so many years ago who got Mr McGowans place. Mr Campbell used to visit us in Blaris very often. And dear old Mr Pounden (Rev. William Dawson Pounden, Lisburn Cathedral) . I got a portal some years ago with his photo in it and I cherish it very much. Johnny Armstrong was lame and worked in Belfast on the Queens Island and James was a carpenters with John Vernon and worked for Wm Norwood. Johnny is not a boy anymore as he was a man when I was a boy going to school but I picture those people just as they were 30 years ago. Holt Warren Lindsay had 3 daughters one Minnie one Alice and I don’t remember the name of the third did one of them marry a Clergy man.

Then there was a Mr Moreland who started to manufacture starch about Carnbane Hill but I think did not keep it up. I remember George Hall Tom McCoys son in law and also Joe McCullough another son in law his wife (Elizabeth Ann McCoy) and used to keep store in their house before she married and a kind of a Sub Post Office too one of the girls married a George McBride (Boss McBride) I remember the Ritchies well James the son was just started to school a short time when I quit there was a big family of boys and one girl I think.

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There is lots of change down the Blaris road I see most all the old folks gone There used to be lots of young people there Five families of Ferriss and Doweys and Kernans Chapmans Marmion and ourselves lived down the Priests Lane. And the McCambley at the grave yard. The Browns the Andrews and Jemmy Kernan and the Houstons and the Joness and the Leathems. The families of Thorntons one of them James called one of his sons Stephen Campbell Thornton. He was quite a man in Eglantine Church and the Singletons of the Half Town and Gardners. Coming toward Lisburn there was the Whitlas I think 4 boys 3 girls and the Kernans and Mr Garrett long dead and Miss Moores house of the Ivy Wall used to be a school there and Tom Tapping and Mr Brownlee and Becky Hog and Dornans Black Smith shop and David Walsh and the Graham family. I think Sergeant Gowan built up about Brownlees and Mr Savage and his sons. I remember them all with pleasant associations. I was glad to hear of the Scotts of the Waterloo and they had one son William a hard boy at school could not get him to go regular so bad at mitching that he had to get a note from the master saying he was present and take to his father and one day William did not go and he knew what that meant when he got home so he goes into Ned Carrs and borrowed a pen and forged a note to his father saying William was preseth and was detected at once and got his trimmings just the same. We had some very interesting pupils in school in those old happy school days. This Mr Cook who I referred to was a pensioner and he liked a glass and one or two times came to school a little top heavy and the masters desk at that time was just at the left of the door as you entered the boys end and on these occasions us bigger boys would put a little strong table in front to keep him from falling down on the floor. He would go to sleep up there and then us boys and girls would “cut up” I have not many acquaintances here from the north of Ireland. There is one woman here from Belfast has a little ranch next us who came here eight years ago and was married the day she came. She married a Hollandier and raises chickens another family two men and a woman about 9 miles from here one of our customers are from Monaghan one of the men William Hazlett used to work in Arthur Mussen’s in Cross Row so he says about 17 or 18 years ago.

I myself was a stonecutter and served my apprenticeship in Railway with Wm Caul. I believe the Post Office stands there now next Clarks meeting house and Wardsborough. I came to Chicago in 1888 and stayed there a little over 10 years. Chicago then had a population of about eight hundred thousand now over two million. I left Chicago during a strike (we had many there) and went to Indianapolis worked six months there then went to Louisville Kentucky. Worked down there for late winter and early spring came across the Ohio river at Padukah and up to St Louis Missouri and worked a while there, then came up to Iowa worked all summer and fall there and west to Kansas City worked there and shipped to Cheyenne Wyoming. Worked there to late fall again and went back east and down south as far as Arkansas . Stayed down south till spring and came back to Wyoming and west into Utah and Nevada worked Railroading some then some times in Stone and went back to Salt Lake City and worked there until middle of June 9 years ago and the Quarry men quit quarrying stone to catch grasshoppers don’t laugh because there is grasshoppers sometimes in Utah and San Peter County paid a dollar a bushel bounty on them and in a few days in that court house the paid seventeen hundred dollars for as many bushels of grasshoppers.

On the 02 July I left Salt Lake City for San Francisco. I stayed that night in Ogden and we had a snow storm then it is away up in the Rocky mountain. And on the 4 July 1902 I got the first sight of the Golden Gate in San Fransisco. And went to cut stone on the sixth. I next went to cut stone on the Stanford University one of the Great Colleges of California. And after a while I came to Salinas the Chief town of this (Monterey) county. Worked in a sugar factory there for a short time and came here eight years ago 2 last December. Went farming and carpentering in the country and finally went into the store I am in now as Manager July 18 1906.

We do a general merchandise business and Butchering. We had until a week ago a butcher steady. And 6 and 7 horses for the beef wagons and so I am doing the most of the butchering myself. Yesterday (this is Monday) after I left Sunday School I went to the Slaughter house to kill. I don’t like it on Sunday but people have to eat . About 4 years ago I took a notion to get married and I met a nice school teacher and her and me decided to cast our lots together and on Dec 30 07 we were married in the very building where I work We have 20 acres of fine land under Irrigation and raise Alfalfa and my wife is still teaching but will be through the year on June the 2 and she is going to take a rest for a year anyway. Teaching here is very well paid most teachers are women in this country from 70 to 95 dollars per month for county schools here which is quite a lot more than there is paid in Ireland. The school year is 10 months in most cases some small schools only 9. Teachers are engaged for a year only some is reengaged for a second and third year but teachers change very often and most of the girls get married and quit teaching at an early age.

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Some continue to teach many years. My wife has taught eighteen years mostly all in this county and mostly all in this township. There is three trustees elected by the people and they engage the teacher and any little petty spite is used by them to deprive a teacher of getting a school again for instance on of the trustees of the school here (the Mission School on of the biggest and best paid in the county about 65 pupils and last year my wife got 95 dollars and her assistants 85 per month) wanted teachers who would board with him so used his vote to keep her out. Of course all teachers nearly get a place but she had to go 30 miles from home. Of course if she had applied earlier she could have got one closer but July 1 is the time to get schools. School year begins 1 August and ends June 1 or first Friday in June 10 months per year and all teachers are reengaged or new teachers engaged. I have been quite a while but will send you some reading matter and some photographs of this vicinity and will send you any kind of seed you would like but I don’t know what we have you would like but you can tell me some you might prefer and I will try to get what you would like. I have two bunches of Orange lilies growing in my garden and lots of roses and a Palm tree and we have a Cyprus hedge on two sides of our garden. Cyprus grows very fast 6 ft high in two years those trees are raised from seed and are very nice. They look like a Yew tree or are a species of fir or pine We have some gum trees planted 6 years old 50 ft high a very good semi tropical tree but don’t stand very much frost when young. I had lots of them killed last year and we have the pepper tree also a fast grower but semi tropical those that are evergreens the Gum tree sheds its bark throwing off great strips 12 or 14 ft long and full of oil and burns like fir out of the bogs in Ireland. We never burn any coal here we have a coal oil stove and use that quite a lot but the staple fuel is wood which is worth about $5 00 per Grd(?) here Coal oil is sold retail common 18c per gallon the best $1 75 per can of 5 gals. 35c per gallon. We pay 7 ½ c for common water white oil and 6 cents freight 26 cents for best same freight. I must close this and get some of the pictures of this place and vicinity. I will list them so you will know what they are.

The picture *1 is yours truly and wife taken on our honeymoon some 3 ½ years ago. 2 is the interior of the Fort Romie Rochdale Co Store which I have been manager of for 5 years. 3 is a picture of our house and surroundings taken some time ago about 2 years I think.
4 a picture of our house taken one year ago. 5 another view taken three of four months ago in winter.

Again thanking you for your kindness.
I am Sincerely yours
John Porter

Finished on 5/23/11


  • Rev. Stephen Campbell installed at Eglantine 22 11 1875
  • All Saints built 1875
  • Mulholland family resided at Eglantine House
  • Holt Waring Lindsay resided at Blaris
  • George McBride, a gentleman from Carnbane, married Sarah McCoy, from Old Warren, on 31 10 1878 at Christ Church, Lisburn
  • George Hall married Teresa McCoy, Lisburn on 11 05 1876 at Lisburn Cathedral
  • Joseph McCullough married Eliza Ann McCoy on 24 12 1872 at Lisburn Cathedral
  • John Vernon, carpenter, son of a builder married Hannah Mear on 06 03 1865
  • John Dornan – blacksmith died on 07 08 1904 aged 56 years

Maginnis Family notes (Lisburn)

  • *William Maginnis, Knockmore, weaver, son of Chal. Maginnis married Sarah Bunting, daughter of James Bunting, farmer at Lisburn cathedral on 22 05 1859. This Maginnis family resided in the Tonagh area of Lisburn.
  • *Their son is believed to be John Maginnis, sorter, Lisburn, who married Mary Jane Thompson, Lisburn, National School teacher at Magheragall Parish Church on 14 07 1903.
  • The 1901 census indicates that Mary Jane Thompson resided with her father William, a bootmaker and her two sisters Margaret and Emily at Bridge Street, Lisburn.
  • John Maginnis a grocer and provision merchant – business premises gutted by fire (Lisburn Herald 06 01 1940)
  • John Maginnis of 116 Hillsborough Road, Lisburn, aged 82 died on 05 05 1950. He went into the grocery trade and opened a shop at 69 Bridge Street, Lisburn. He retired in 1940. He was a Past Master of Lisburn Temperance LOL 152 and he had been in the Orange Order for 65 years. He went to Christ Church, Lisburn. John had a brother called Edward.

The family of John and Mary Jane Maginnis –

  • John Herbert, a motor mechanic, in Lancashire in 1950
  • Ernest Samuel – a grocer at 69 Bridge Street, Lisburn in 1950
  • Eliza Thompson (Bessie) – died unmarried on 02 04 1968. She was a company captain of Christ Church Girl Guides and a choir member.

*A Mrs. Maginnis was principal at Blaris School.


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