Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageis a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.


Changing Times

By the 1830s, the Custom House Docks were starting to fall into disarray. Their decline was inevitable. Like a brand new computer or mobile telephone in the 21st century, they had dazzled everyone for a while, then drifted hopelessly out of date. Many of the new ships were simply too large for the dock’s narrow locks, particularly the steamers. Moreover, the locks were only operational for a three-hour period at high tide. Inevitably, the regular cross-channel services were loath to risk the potential delays of such a system. In 1845, responsibility for the Custom House Docks, property of the Crown, was transferred from the Commissioners to the Ballast Board. (This excluded the warehouses, then under lease to the Scovell brothers for a term of 45 years from 1824). The Ballast Board commissioned John and Robert Mallet to build new entrance gates of stone and cast iron.

The Ballast Board

In a bid to convert the docks into something useful, the Ballast Board opened negotiations with the Treasury in London to buy them from the Crown. In 1869, the Board officially secured ownership of the Custom House Docks and its affiliated warehouses. Plans to improve the entrance locks and the docks themselves were continually scuppered. As Harry Gilligan put it, ‘the expenditure was out of proportion to the advantages’. Moreover, the forward-thinking members of the Board were focusing their attention on the possibility of new and better quays further upriver, unhampered by entrance locks and capable of hosting these bigger, better new steam ships. The North Wall Quay was extended and, by 1885, led all the way to the Alexandra Basin. The warehouses of the Custom House Docks became a storage depot for cargo transported from ships berthed in the deepwater section of the port. As such, it was not necessarily a huge gesture when the Scovells offered Stack A as a venue for the Crimean War Banquet in 1856. The original ‘Old Dock’ fell into almost total disuse. Steps from the Old Dock allowed passengers access to William Walsh’s ferry which took people across the river; a second Walsh ferry operated from Commons Street to Creighton Street on the south-side. Customs were still paid to the Harbour Master in his office but the land alongside George’s Dock and the Inner Dock became coal banks and remained so until the 1970s. As for the Custom House Quay, all railings and barriers were removed in the 1830s, allowing the public free access from Eden Quay along Custom House Quay to the newly revamped North Wall Quay. A timber railing was constructed along the riverside in front of the Custom House itself.

Heiton's Coal Merchants

From the 1880s until the 1920s, the Custom House docks and wharfs were rented from the Port and Docks Board by the wealthy Dublin coal-importing firm of Heiton’s.[1] Their coal arrived from Glasgow on a fleet of four colliers –St Margaret, St Kilda, St Mirren and St Olaf. The loading and unloading was operated by four steam cranes, capable of discharging 2,000 tons of coal a day. In 1895, the firm’s auditors registered that a mighty 158,000 tons of coal had been shipped in over the previous 12 months. In 1902, Custom House Docks sold 132,500 tons. A contemporary account of the colliers arriving in the docks ran thus: ‘Hardly is she alongside when the fillers, shovels in hand, scramble aboard. The powerful steam cranes are throbbing and vibrating as if anxious to get to work. The steamer is made fast and the signal given, the great tubs, with a capacity of 1° tons each, are swung on board and the work of discharge commences.’ By 6 o’clock the following morning there would be 160 men and 80 horses and drays waiting to start work. Each driver crossed the weighing bridge empty and collected a docket advising them which part of the wharfage to go to in order to collect their coal. They would then shovel the coal onto their drays and, by the time the breakfast bell sounded at 8am, they were all headed out into the city ‘carrying comfort to many homes’. The steady mechanisation of the process must have unnerved some of the casual labourers queuing for work by the docks every morning. By 1914, charismatic company director William Hewat was Chairman of the Port and Docks Board while his company was importing coal to Spencer Dock, from 1904, and the Grand Canal Dock, from 1914, as well as Custom House Docks. During the Lock Out, a delivery of coal from Heiton’s stores at the Custom House Docks had to be accompanied by ‘half a dozen mounted policemen and twelve constables’. Business continued to prosper until demand for coal began to wane in the latter half of the 20th century.

[1] By the 1880s, Heiton’s was the first Dublin firm to use steam for importing coal. The firm also had premises on George’s Quay, Townsend Street, Westmoreland street and in Kingstown. See ‘Heitons – A Managed Transition’, Tony Farmar (A & A Farmar, 1996).




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