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  • February 7, 2019 // GES

Is Gas in Downpatrick a new event?

Some 22 years after natural gas was first introduced to Northern Ireland (NI) via the Scotland to NI gas pipeline, natural gas is now being made available to households and businesses in Downpatrick.

Gilmore Engineering Services Ltd (GES) recently carried out the gas installation to the new Down Leisure Centre Building, which is the first in the Downpatrick area to be fuelled by natural gas since Phoenix Natural Gas installed its network to the area. However, as Andy Gilmore, GES Managing Director, explores this is not Downpatrick’s first experience of using gas.

The use of gas, known as coal gas or town gas, in Ireland dates back to 1764, when gas for lighting began to be produced from coal in a process known as distillation.  1810 saw the first recorded use of town gas in Belfast in the factory of Messrs McCrum, Lepper and Co near what is now known as Clifton House.

In c.1777 there were 25 oil lamps providing lighting in public areas in Downpatrick. PDF A report in the Down Recorder on 25 September 1841 impelled the local residents and businesses to consider that many attributes and advantages of gas lighting over the oil lamps that then furnished their streets.  The report implied that the town lacked gas due to an economic argument, but believed Downpatrick to be the wealthiest town, for its size, in Ireland.  The author believed that gas street lighting would benefit inhabitants of “every grade” and would be of particular advantage to business which would be better able to display their wares.  Other towns such as Newry and Lisburn had by this year already established their town gas, and the Down Recorder, not wishing to see the town fall behind encouraged the residents to action to by suggesting a town meeting be called to “take the opinion of the inhabitants on the subject”.  It went on to express its confidence that this would lead to the foundation of a gas company.

December 1842 saw the Down recorder express further disgruntlement at the fact that the town remained lacking in this valuable commodity and was seen to be at a disadvantage to inland Towns such as Ballymena, Lisburn and Coleraine.  The article also sought to reassure its readership that such an addition to the town would cost no more than they were currently paying for oil.

Fast forward and on 4th October 1845 a call for shareholders was made in the Down Recorder flowing the “anxious desire expressed by the Board of Commissioners” and other residents of the town to have it lit by gas.  The capital required was £5000 and shares were £5 each.  (half a million pounds and £580 respectively in today’s hard cash). David S. Ker, Esq. MP, and the then landlord of Downpatrick, agreed to be a shareholder and for a nominal rent provide the ground required for the gas Works.

An Act of Parliament was obtained to light the town by gas at a cost of between £300 and £400, which in today’s terms would be between approximately £35,000 and £46,000, however a much-reduced cost compared to the original estimate of up to £600 (almost £70k in 2019 terms).  At the Downpatrick Gas Company Shareholder meeting in May 1846 they, who were all inhabitants of the town, were optimistic that building works would commence for a gas works in June with the hope of commencement of lighting that winter.

A site on Market Street was agreed for the gas works, having had the necessary consultation with Mr Ker MP. On Saturday 15 August 1846 a “Notice of Contract” appeared in The Builder for tenders for the erection, fitting and supply of necessary materials for the Downpatrick Gas Company.  The gasworks was opened on Market Street, Downpatrick, across the street from the railway station in 1846 and in same year, as the shareholders had planned, gas lighting replaced oil lamps.

Gas production relied on imported coal, and production of town gas from this source continued until the 1960s. The present narrow channel at Quoile Quay used to be a wide estuary filled with sea water at each high tide. The remains of Quoile Quay reminds us that until the 1940s this was a busy port, with sailing ships and steamers carrying timber, coal and slates to Downpatrick.   A little way downstream is Steamboat Quay, built in the 1850s by David Ker, then landlord of Downpatrick.

The use of gas was not restricted to the town centre.  The Castle Ward demesne (now in the care of the National Trust) was owned and enhanced by the Ward family for more than three centuries. During the nineteenth century a gasworks plant was added to provide gas-lighting using coal shipped to the adjoining quay. Downshire Hospital, originally the Down District Lunatic Asylum, was built between c.1865-69 and c.1904. and had its own gasworks built in 1905.

The first electricity generating station opened in Northern Ireland in 1895, introducing serious competition for the gasworks, but for a long-time gas held its own.

Downpatrick Gas Works closed in 1953.  It was all demolished to make way for a new college, except for the Gas Works House in 1958 which had to be retained.  In 1990 the Gas Works House was dismantled and moved to Market Street West to the old railway site.  It was reconstructed and used as the railway station by Downpatrick Railway Society. PDF

 

 

The former Downpatrick’s gas works manager’s house

In the South of Ireland technology for manufacturing town gas from oil had become available and was more economical than coal.  Hence gas companies switched to oil as the feedstock for gas manufacture.  The existing town gas mains were eventually converted to natural gas following the discovery of the Kinsale Head gas field in 1971.  The piping of gas to households and industries in Cork city and Dublin followed in the 1980s and shortly thereafter the development of a national gas grid rollout began. Link

In the UK, government was subsidising town gas to the tune of £3million per annum. Margaret Thatcher decided this was unaffordable and in 1979 announced to its intention to kill off the Province’s ailing gas industry, which employed some 1200 people across 13 separate areas of Northern Ireland. Link However, this cost central government £185million as consumers had to be compensated to convert to electricity and oil.

Northern Ireland suffered another blow in 1984 when the government announced that the proposed project to build a pipe-line to bring natural gas from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland would be cancelled. It was also announced that subsidies to the ‘town gas’ industry in Northern Ireland would end with the loss of 1,000 jobs. Link

Back in the 19th Century Towns Gas came to Downpatrick due to the campaigns of the local paper, local people and with the support of the MP.  The inhabitants of the town were proud of the area and fought fiercely for equality with comparable towns in Northern Ireland.  This is not that incredibly different to the chain of events that have led to the extension of the natural gas network and distribution to Downpatrick today.  It is with thanks to the efforts of local elected representatives campaigning on behalf of their constituents that we have the ability to benefit from a cleaner, cheaper alternative source of energy for homes and businesses.  Today natural gas is piped to Northern Ireland via the Scotland to Northern Ireland Pipeline.

And, almost coming back full circle, our interest in the history of town gas in Downpatrick was piqued due to the fascinating installation project at the town’s new leisure facilities, but it wasn’t without its hiccups as the start of construction work on the new Down Leisure Centre in Downpatrick was delayed due to contamination of the ground stemming from the old gas works….. a little bit ironic.

If you are a business or householder in Downpatrick and are interested in converting your business or home to natural gas check out Phoenix Natural Gas website to see if it is available yet in your area:

https://www.phoenixnaturalgas.com/projects/breaking-new-ground-en-route-to-east-down

If you are a resident or business in the area served by natural gas and are interested in converting give GES a call to discuss your options and seek a quote on 028 4355 1007 or check out our website for more information about our services at www.gilmore-eng.com

Acknowledgements:

Downpatrick Library

Flame Museum, Carrickfergus

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