History of Whitehead

No-one has done more to preserve and record the history of Whitehead than P. J. O’Donnell. In his book The Town with No Streets, he has explored its past in great detail. The modern town began to take shape in the late nineteenth century, its development facilitated by the easy access that the railway provided to Belfast. There was a period of rapid growth in the years immediately either side of 1900. Many of those who lived in Whitehead were employed in one way or another by the company that owned the railway. P. J.’s strong sense of the past also came through in his interview in which he talked about the town’s origins, the formation of a ratepayers’ association, the establishment of town commissioners in 1925, and Whitehead’s elevation to Urban District Council status in 1927. For the next 46 years the Urban District Council ran the town until this was abolished in 1973. As P. J. points out, ‘The people who were on the council in those days were all businessmen – they had a vested interest in the town’.

The 1937 census enumerated just under 1,300 people in Whitehead. By the early 1960s the population had risen to over 2,000. Whitehead was, therefore, significantly larger than Doagh and Toome during the childhoods and early lives of those who were interviewed for this project. It still had a certain intimacy, however. When he was growing up on a farm just outside Whitehead, John Milliken believes that he would have known half of the people of Whitehead by name and would have recognised nearly everyone. With many professionals living there the town also had a more middle class feel to it. There were also many more public amenities, shops, and leisure facilities, etc., than in the other two places. However, because of the nature of its development, Whitehead did not seem to have the same connection with its rural hinterland that Doagh and Toome had with theirs. Here there was a much clearer divide between urban and rural.

What came across strongly from those interviewed is that there was a strong sense of community in Whitehead. Brian McKenna pointed out that there was a very good community spirit and ‘no religious boundaries whatsoever’. He pointed out that it was not necessary to lock your front door and with no through traffic it was safe for children to play in the roads and avenues. P. J. O’Donnell also highlighted the good relationship between the various denominations in the town, pointing out that if there was a bazaar or a Christmas fair it did not matter which church it was in because everyone went to it and everyone supported each other. Kathleen McKenna spoke very warmly on her childhood in Whitehead and the type of town it was:

A lovely place to grow up in. Very friendly and you knew everybody. … You didn’t seem to have any worries about anything. … The traders were … very helpful. People had time for one another and you helped everybody. … You would have known everybody.

South Antrim Living Memories Project wishes to acknowledge the assistance of: