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Florence Cathcart: Doughty Omagh retailer who rebuilt in Troubles and after 1998 bombing

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Prominent: Florence Cathcart

Prominent: Florence Cathcart

Prominent: Florence Cathcart

Florence Cathcart, who has died at the age of 103, was a prominent businesswoman in the life of Omagh.

At the age of 90 she was still a director of J B Anderson & Co Ltd, situated at what is known locally as Anderson’s Corner at the bottom of Tyrone’s county town.

For decades J B Anderson’s department store was one of the largest retail outlets in the surrounding area and today it stands as one of the older companies in Northern Ireland with 155 years' continuous trading behind it.

The retail business, which was a victim of Troubles’ attacks and destruction, reinvented itself latterly as a commercial property company.

Sadly the site became known internationally in 1998 when the Omagh bomb was detonated without warning outside the building, killing 29 people, many of whom Florence knew.

Florence was in Omagh at the time and was scheduled to be in the vicinity of the explosion but fortuitously was diverted.

The history of the company and of Florence herself illustrates the life and times of so many Northern Ireland family businesses during an eventful era.

The company began in 1865 when 24-year-old Joseph Anderson from Sixmilecross started a haberdashery and drapery business at 41 Market Street, Omagh, in what was then a thatched roofed building. Soon adjoining premises were added as the business expanded.

The firm became a limited company on May 19 1913, incorporated in Dublin since at that time Ireland and Britain were one country. After partition this incorporation was transferred to the Government of Northern Ireland on November 15 1923.

At the first AGM it was reported that the dividend was one shilling (5p today) per share free of income tax. The remuneration of the governing director was £300 per annum, that of the other director £100 and that of the secretary £20 per annum.

In 1929 the furniture showrooms were extended and yet more adjoining buildings added, some of which were leased to tenants. A very successful coffee lounge was added in the 70s, a development ahead of its time.

Such was the extent of the company’s business the area soon became known as Anderson’s Corner.

The retail business stayed much as this until 1977 when IRA incendiary bombs destroyed 90% of the premises.

Rebuilding was completed in 1982 and J B Anderson & Co Ltd began another life as a purely property company.

In 1998 the premises were destroyed again by the dissident IRA car bomb which killed 29 and injured over 200. The outrage, coming just months after the Belfast Agreement, was condemned worldwide, killing and injuring men, women and children, including visitors from Spain and the Republic.

Rebuilding the premises took three years and the result is Anderson House, as the building is known today.

Florence was born in November 1916 in Tullamore, Co Offaly, then Kings County, the daughter of James and Mary Anderson.

James was the Headmaster of the Charleville National School in Tullamore, a Church of Ireland School which is still educating children today.

In 1918 the family moved north due to the simmering troubles of the time and settled in Loughgall, Co Armagh where her father taught at the Grange Primary School.

A few years later her father moved to Innismagh School near Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, and here Florence grew up with her sister Jean and brother Eric.

Her teenage years were spent at Dungannon High School for Girls where her interests included sport and music. Indeed it was through sport of tennis that Florence met her future husband John Cathcart, who became the guiding hand of the company until his death.

In 1939 after Florence's father’s retirement the family moved to Omagh where Florence was to live for the next 67 years.

John and Florence married in 1942 and in 1944 their daughter Pat was born. They took up residence literally above the shop in a commodious flat above the business premises of J B Anderson, where John was now managing director.

Both John and Florence were deeply involved in the business in the 60s and 70s but still found time to indulge their love of sport, which by now included golf.

Florence managed the coffee shop in J B Anderson’s, which had become a favourite meeting place in the town. Indeed, J B Anderson was ahead of the curve in providing a coffee shop within retail premises.

But the Troubles were raging throughout Northern Ireland and John and Florence decided to leave their home above the shop in 1975, moving to a bungalow outside the town.

It was a wise decision. Two years later the whole business including their former home was burned to the ground in a terrorist attack. That was the end of J B Anderson as a retail business and its rebirth as a property business.

On the death of her husband John in 1981, Florence became a director of the company and she oversaw the rebuilding of Anderson’s Corner. Florence had in her time seen major changes to Omagh’s Market Street and retained close interest in the fortunes of the company until her retirement from the Board in 2006 at the age of 90. She then moved to Lisburn to be near her daughter.

Florence died this July peacefully, her nearest family by her bedside. Her mental faculties remained unimpaired almost to the end.

Belfast Telegraph