William George O’Doherty opened his business in 1871 as a grocery and public house. From these humble beginnings, WG (as he was known by the locals) and his family built a well-renowned business, and established a Derry landmark.
WG was born in 1840 in Ballymagroarty, two miles outside of Derry, into a reasonably well-off family. He and his brothers, John Keys and James, received a decent education. John Keys studied for the priesthood and became bishop of Derry, and James trained to be a solicitor. WG attended Samuel McQuilken’s Classical and Commercial Academy. He went to work for the firm of O’Neill and McHenry before starting his business at the age of thirty.
The original shop front is now in the Ulster American Folk Park, where the sign over the door claims that the business started in 1869. City records show Joseph Monteith occupied the premises at that time. It was owned by James Sherrad, who had formerly run it as an agricultural machinery supplier.
The Derry Almanac of 1873 lists the shop as a grocer’s, guano merchant and publican. Guano, the excrement of seabirds and cave-dwelling bats, is an exceptional fertiliser and was highly prized in the 1800s. Ten years later the guano business had been dropped and WG had added wine and spirits to his stock. By 1893 he had added the bottling of ale to his business interests. Through this period the shop was known alternately as the ‘China Tea Shop’ or simply as WG’s.
WG married in 1873, had 11 children. The family lived in the rooms over the shop. He died in 1895, aged 55. He is commemorated in a stained-glass window in the Long Tower Church in Derry, dedicated to him by his family.
W.G. imported food from all over the world, including tea, sugar, dried fruit, and spices. Grocers sold their own blends of tea, and W.G. O’Doherty’s were particularly proud of theirs. Look out for the tea bins behind the counter. Customers bought loose tea leaves, measured by weight into paper packets.