Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Public Lighting in Athy

I bought a postcard of old Athy last week, a copy of which I already had, but this card was special as it was sent to Mrs. Rd. Krowlis from the local firm of A. Duncan, Son & Co. Ltd.  It carried the printed message: ‘We have pleasure in informing you that we have received a large number of autumn and winter goods.  You will find the latest things in millinery, jackets and dress goods.  A call will be welcomed.’  The coloured postcard reproduced here was dated October 11th but unfortunately the year was not given.  It’s interesting for a number of reasons.  The large buildings on the left were mills operated by Messrs Hannons which closed down in or around 1924.  The gas lamp at the end of the bridge was just one of the 47 public lamps in the town which were lit from 1st September to 1st May each year.  Athy Gas Company which operated the gas works at the end of Green Alley, opposite what is now Tegrals factory, provided the gas and initially employed the gas lampers who had the job of lighting and extinguishing the public lamps every night.  The lights were put out at 10.30 p.m. but in 1893 the Town Commissioners agreed to employ its own lamp lighters.  Over the following years two lamp lighters were employed by the Town Council, but as part of the economy measures adopted in 1915 only one of these men was then retained to light every second lamp in the town.  The last lamp lighter, so far as I have been able to discover, was Michael Johnson.

Another interesting aspect of the postcard is the clear view one has of White’s Castle and the bridge, free of any trees, poles, overhead wires or the unsightly E.S.B. transformer.  Indeed the side wall of the bridge seems to have provided a good viewing seat for the men as they kept an eye on a young fellow approaching the bridge with his ass and cart.

Duncans went out of business selling out to Sam Shaw in or about 1916.  This therefore dates the postcard to sometime before that year, making it at least 90 years old.  The major difference between the scene depicted in the postcard and what we can see today are the absence of the electricity transformer and the electric wires. 

Athy was still lit by gas when on 9th June 1922 Edgar W. Youell wrote from Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim seeking permission on behalf of Athy Electric Company to erect poles in the town for electric lighting purposes.  He also sought a plot of ground between the Courthouse and the River Barrow at a reasonable rent as a site for a powerhouse.  The Council agreed to the erection of ’50 lights more or less’, while considering an objection from local solicitor H.K. Toomey on behalf of Stephen Telford of the Abbey to the proposed powerhouse site ‘as injurious or noxious to residents.’  As a result the Council suggested that Youell take a site at Garter Lane.  Work on putting up the electric lighting poles went ahead and at the October Council meeting Councillors Michael Malone, F.R. Jackson and P. Dooley with the Town Surveyor were appointed to inspect the position of the poles.  In January 1923 the Council Solicitors, R.A. Osborne, acknowledged the Council’s instructions to prepare an agreement between Mr. Youell and Athy U.D.C.  The town was on the brink of having electricity and even though the Council Minute Book does not record the fact, presumably the lights were switched on soon afterwards. 

The Council Minutes record in July 1923 a total of 34 public lights in the town, extending from Model Farm to the Military Barracks on the Stradbally Road, to Mr. Plewman’s gate at Upper William Street on the Kilkenny Road, to the Protestant Church on the Carlow Road and to Rathstewart on the Monasterevin Road.  One of those lamps was placed outside a Mr. Youell’s premises in Duke Street which makes me believe that Edgar Youell who in 1928 was living in Emily Row was not, as I had once thought, the same man whose family operated Youells shop in Duke Street in the 1950s.

Public lamps were still only lit from 1st September to 1st May and from dusk to 11.00 p.m. each night.  The 1923 tender of the Electric Company of £120 was accepted on condition that 14 lights were of 200 candle power and 20 lights of 100 candle power.  It was also agreed to leave 3 lights on all night, being those at the Railway Bridge, Market Square and Canal Bridge.  The following year the number of lights had increased to 38, with 5 all-night lights lit between September and May.  Christmas Eve 1925 saw the public lights, all 38 of them, left lighting throughout the night.  On 27th September of that year Mr. Youell felt compelled to write a letter of apology to the Council when the public lights were extinguished on a couple of nights before the regular time ‘due to an error of his employees.’

Duthie Larges, then one of the largest employers in Athy, complained to the Minister of Industry and Commerce in March 1926 following an unspecified increase in the cost of electricity.  Nothing further was noted of their complaint, nor indeed was there a record of any other local businesses complaining of the electricity charge.  In its annual report dated 16th November 1927 Athy U.D.C. claimed ‘the lighting of the town by electricity has been an unqualified success and a great boom to the town and it reflects great credit on the enterprise of its promoter.’

Each year at the end of the summer both Athy Electric Company and the Athy Gas Company tendered for the public lighting contract, but so far as I have been able to ascertain the Contract always went to the Electric Company founded by Edgar Youell.  However, on the 29th of August 1929 Mr. Youell wrote to the Council informing them that he was giving up possession of the powerhouse in Garter Lane on the 1st of September to the newly established Electricity Supply Board.  Within a few weeks Mr. Algar of the E.S.B. submitted a quotation of £145 for 60 watt lamps and 100 watt lamps to be lit from dusk to 11.15 p.m. from 5th September 1929 to 31st March 1930.  A decision was deferred by the Council until the cost of providing electricity to private consumers had also been agreed.  At the same time the Council passed the Motion, ‘that the U.D.C. join with Athy Electrical Consumers Association in pressing their claims on the E.S.B. for a reduction in the charges for electricity in Athy, both for public lighting and for private consumers.’ 

Athy Gas Company, seeing its opportunity, quoted £135 for public lamps, ‘apart from lamplighters wages and the erection of lamps and making connections’.  The Councillors decided to set up a meeting with the E.S.B.  Electricity was to win the uneven battle however and by 31st March 1930 the Council agreed to erect a further 30 public lights throughout the town. 

This extra demand necessitated the provision of two transformers and the E.S.B. were granted permission to erect them at Leinster Street and Woodstock Street.  In September what was described as a new lighting system came into operation in the town.  It  consisted of fifty 200 watt lamps, ten of which were pilot lamps lit from dusk to dawn, while the remaining lamps were extinguished at midnight.  The proposed location of the transformers prompted objections from ‘influential ratepayers of the town’, following which the E.S.B. were asked to have them erected on some other sites.  The E.S.B. refused, ‘as the material was already brought to the sites’, whereupon the Council at its meeting on 23rd June 1930 adopted a motion ‘that in view of the opposition of the entire town to the proposed erection in the Market Square of an electric transformer as demonstrated in the petition of protests submitted to us signed by all the clergy, professional and businessmen and general ratepapers, we the Athy U.D.C. ask our representatives in the Dail, Messrs Buckley, Wolfe and Holohan to raise the matter in the Dail and petition the Minister for Local Government to use his good offices with the E.S.B. to adopt an alternative site offered by us and less than 80 yards away.’

The E.S.B. later agreed to change the transformer from Market Square to Barrow Quay, even though work had already started on the original site.  The Council Minute Book recorded ‘the townspeople are delighted with the outcome’.  The transformer is still there, no longer serving a useful purpose and remains an ugly eyesore at Barrow Quay.  The postcard sent by Duncans many years ago shows how we could improve the area around Barrow Quay by its removal.

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