Life

Anne Hailes: Internet scrapbook of history and memories brings people together

A 'lighter' brings coal from Queen’s Quay up the Blackstaff River to the Gasworks

I BELONG to a Facebook group called Images and Memories of Old Northern Ireland Pre 2000. It's a scrapbook of experiences from people all over, within Northern Ireland and from local people in other parts of the world.

There's a lot of history on the group's website, resulting in connection, and the delight is that one post leads to another, queries are answered and stories evolve.

Recently one topic caught my attention – the Gasworks on Ormeau Road in Belfast, a famous plant which produced gas for over 160 years. It sent me on a path of exploration.

Opened in 1822, it was a major employer and made big profits – so much that the company paid for the construction of Belfast City Hall, gave money to improve the transport system and, I suppose, put themselves out of business by sponsoring an electricity service. I well recall the downside, the frequent smell of sulphur that blanketed the city.

By the end of the Second World War the company provided town gas for around 120,000 people but, according to Belfast City Council, by the 1960s demand declined and production finally stopped in 1985.

I remember my mother telling me that when they were little, she and her sister were taken to the gasworks when they had whooping cough. They were held over the vertical retorts and told to breathe the sulphur fumes into their lungs. It might have cured the whooping cough but it didn't do much for the poor frightened children.

:: Serving the community

I discovered that children were also given cinder water, as a remedy for congested chests. Burning-hot cinders from the furnace were plunged into cold water which was then drained through muslin and given to treat asthma or a bad cough.

When you delve into the history the stories are fascinating. Bags of coke for the fire cost housewives one shilling and enterprising children would buy a bag and split it up into smaller bags which they sold for a halfpenny.

Some women whose husbands worked there told their children they must behave because the gas pipe in their home went all the way to the gasworks where their daddy could watch what was going on. Another tall story was that there were machines that could turn silver bottle tops into half crowns.

I am ashamed to admit that we used to cover pennies with bottle tops and rub and rub until the penny looked just like a shiny half crown and sometimes in the busy tuck shop we'd get a handful of change back for a penny chew.

All this brought back my memories of walking down Ormeau Road past the Klondike Building and hearing the buckets carrying the coal as they were winched up high to the furnaces to be turned into coke, the metal screaming in the mechanism.

I was working in Ulster Television in those early days and after the evening programme, at about seven o'clock on a misty winter night, it was a terrifying experience. For some reason I thought it must sound like the children in Auschwitz crying out as they were forced from their mothers.

I had no idea why I thought that but when I visited Auschwitz many years later as I walked between the gas chambers I could hear that screaming in my head.

There was great camaraderie between the men, John Wayne, Willie Woodbine, 65 Special and Sausage. When Sausage had an accident on York Street his mate went for the police but he couldn't give them a name because he didn't know his name!

“He's just Sausage,” he told them.

:: Quenching your thirst

The Ivy bar in Donegall Pass was the place to ‘keep that glass dirty'. A pint of Guinness cost 11 pence and although the men made a good wage the management were aware of the rolling contract and made sure they didn't fall into that trap.

Men, and some boys as young as 14, were employed right up to Christmas week then laid off so they weren't entitled to a Christmas bonus. Then they were re-employed in the new year and the buckets started their relentless journey again.

It was dirty work so the Ormeau Baths were a welcome relief from the black dust that covered the men. One said he had to cover his mug of tea with his hand between sips to shield it from the coal dust.

In October 1976 some remember the explosion which rocked the city. People thought it was the end of the world as the whole sky lit up orange when an IRA bomb resulted in a spectacular gas fireball and the deaths of three IRA men.

When the Gasworks closed in 1985 the site was contaminated but was eventually cleansed and is now a modern business park, although the red-brick perimeter walls have been retained, apparently because in a BBC documentary John Betjeman said they were important both historically and architecturally.

The imposing clock tower still stands as a reminder of those pioneering days; it was designed in 1887 by Robert Watt and was one of the first to be erected in the British Isles.

While it doesn't appear to have changed from the exterior, the clock has been revamped over the years to keep up with the times, both literally and metaphorically.

An Ulster Television documentary Goodbye Old Flame is well worth the watch and is available at digitalfilmarchive.net/media/goodbye-old-flame-2173

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