THE GAS MEN OF MARYBOROUGH
by John Dunne
On the evening of Thursday, January 21, 1858, the town of Maryborough, for the very first time, was lit by gas. But why did this landmark event in the town’s history come as a surprise to the very Company set up to bring gas to the town? Let’s go back a few years to when, so to speak, the first flame was lit…
The first piped-gas street lamps appeared in Dublin in 1825. Almost thirty years later, in November 1854, solicitor Thomas Turpin proposed the setting up of a joint stock company for the erection of a gasometer. The cost, including pipes throughout the town, would be £1,500, to be raised by shares of £10 each. To demonstrate his confidence in the scheme, he immediately put his name down for forty shares. Thus was born the Maryborough Gas Company and, within a month, £1,000 worth of shares were taken.
Work on the gasometer was scheduled to begin in the spring, and Mr. Turpin was confident that the town would be lit by gas for the winter of 1855. The winters of 1855 and 1856 came and went and the Gas Company was still debating the venture with the Town Commission. A plan to erect the gasometer near the railway station was objected to on the grounds that vapours would be offensive to passengers, and it wasn’t until April 1857 that the Commissioners finally agreed on a site (where the Macra na Feirme Hall stands today). Following the receipt of plans and specifications for the project, an advertisement was placed in the papers seeking tenders for the construction of the gasometer and all associated works.
And so, on Thursday, June 4, the foundation stone of the Maryborough Gasometer was laid by Mr. Turpin, assisted by Mr. Lalor and Mr. Daniel from Dublin, engineer and contractor respectively. Under the foundation stone was laid a hermetically sealed bottle containing various coins and documents with details of those involved in the venture. A small piece of artillery was discharged amid much cheering by the large attendance from the town and surrounding districts.
That evening, Mr. Daniel entertained more than thirty of the great and the good of Maryborough – all gentlemen, of course – at a sumptuous dinner in McEvoy’s Hotel. Various speeches were made and glasses raised to, inter alia, the Royal Family, the Lord Lieutenant, and Mr. Turpin. The festivities, including prolonged cheers and songs by Mr. Lalor and Rev. A. McDonnell, continued until midnight.
Preparations for the opening of the gasworks didn’t always run so smoothly. Sales of the shares were sluggish – so much so that Mr. Turpin, the Parish Priest Dr Taylor, and others, had to go around the town asking people to buy them – and it was also discovered that someone had thrown broken spoons into the pumps in an effort to disable them.
By mid-October, nearly all the main pipes had been laid in the town, but it seemed unlikely that ‘new light would be let into the ancient borough’ by the promised date of November 1. It was, in fact, almost another three months before the town witnessed the landmark event referred to in my opening paragraph. The Company’s intention was that, in order to honour the marriage of the Princess Royal, general lighting should not occur until Monday, January 25. But, four days early, some of the townspeople – including Patrick Quigley, the Town Commissioner who had provided the site for the gasometer – lit the gas in their own premises. I suppose that, nowadays, we’d call that a stroke.
At dusk on Monday, January 25, many of the commercial premises, private houses and principal streets were officially illuminated. Townspeople of all ages turned out to witness the new phenomenon, but plans by some traders to light up their buildings with political emblems had to be abandoned due to high winds. An exception was the Main Street premises of Thomas Craven – Secretary of the Gas Company – which featured an illuminated crown and stars.
At seven o’clock that night, McEvoy’s Hotel was again the venue for a celebratory public banquet (unfortunately served up in the Freeman’s Journal as a ‘pubic dinner’) which boasted ‘every variety of the season, a profusion of confectionary, a superfluity of choice wines’ and the usual array of toasts and speeches. The same paper noted that the occasion was ‘much enhanced by several songs sung in excellent style by members of the company’.
Over the next year or so, Mr. Turpin reported that the directors were very satisfied with progress so far; 70 gaslights in the Asylum and 29 in the gaol; the streets lit by 21 public lamps; and townspeople with meters installed in their homes (no number given) had ‘expressed themselves in very satisfactory terms as to the superiority of gas over candles or oil’. According to the contract with the Town Commission, public gaslights were lit at dusk, extinguished before 11 pm, and not lit at all during a full moon.
A meeting was held in September 1859 to reach a final settlement with the contractor, Mr. Daniel. This was a less than congenial affair. A dispute had arisen over his alleged unpunctuality, his failure to purchase shares he had applied for, and the rather more serious matter of 45,000 cubic feet of gas leaking from the gasometer. The proceedings developed into a flurry of charge and counter-charge, only resolved when the contractor reluctantly accepted reduced payment for his work.
Throughout its existence, the Company had its fair share of ups and downs. The breaking of public lamps, for instance, was so widespread that a reward was offered for information. In March 1868, the Leinster Express published a letter from an anonymous shareholder which, in no uncertain terms, accused the Company of secrecy and being looked upon with mistrust. But most serious were the frequently-strained relations between the Gas Company and the Town Commission. As early as 1864, it was reported that ‘the directors of the Maryborough Gas Company are endeavouring to give the Town Commission every species of vicious opposition they could’. In 1870, the Company had difficulty in obtaining payment from the Commission and the latter complained about the ‘irregular and very inconvenient way in which the town lamps were lighted’.
Six years later, matters reached a head when the Chairman and others, incensed at the Company’s refusal to reply to their letters, proposed that if such ‘outrageous treatment’ were to continue, they would advocate that the town be lit by paraffin oil. Which, of course, never happened, but there was still dissatisfaction with the Company’s performance and friction between it and the Town Commission continued on and off into the new century.
By 1903, the retort bench (the construction which housed the retorts) was completely worn out and had to be replaced, and local builder William Carroll was given the contract to build a new engine house and repair other buildings damaged in a recent storm. In March 1914, the Gasworks manager wrote to the Town Clerk complaining that someone was pilfering money from the meter in the Town Hall: add to this, scarcity of coal, strikes, and increased expenses, and it seemed that the new century was bringing nothing but new woes for the Company.
In March 1920, following some public complaints about the state of lighting in the town, a well-attended meeting – presided over by Mr. P. J Meehan – was held in the Town Hall to consider the feasibility of forming an Electric Light company. This was surely a sign that the times were indeed changing; that the writing was beginning to appear on the wall for the Maryborough Gas Company. That writing soon loomed so large that, in May, the directors offered to sell its premises and plant for £2,841.00 to the new Maryborough Cooperative Electric Lighting Society. The offer was considered unreasonable and refused.
In 1928 the recently-established Electricity Supply Board started to ‘wire’ the town, and now there was no escaping the fact that the days of the Maryborough Gas Company were indeed numbered. One of the last shots fired in the saga of discontent between it and the Town Commission was a disagreement in 1929 over who actually owned the now-redundant lamp standards. The Maryborough Gas Company went into voluntary liquidation that year, and the gasworks and auxiliary buildings were subsequently advertised for sale.
The buildings remained derelict until the 1950’s when the local branch of Macra na Feirme acquired the site for a new Hall. As contractor Jack Bloomfield worked on the new building, the local paper marvelled at how the gasworks had been ‘built like a fortress, how the chimney stack resembled the keep of a Norman castle’. It went on to remark that ‘many strange tanks and formations were found in the foundations’. I wonder if the workers ever came across a sealed bottle with its parchment bearing the date June 4, 1857, and the names of those long-forgotten gentlemen, the original Gas Men of Maryborough..?
© John Dunne 2019
An annotated version of this article may be found in Home by John Dunne, Purtock Press, Portlaoise 2016.