Nostalgia: Water supply and lighting in old Cork

Nostalgia: Water supply and lighting in old Cork

View of area surrounding Cork Waterworks, Lee Road, July 1929. 

IN the Cork we know and love today, we never give a second thought as to where our next glass of water is coming from. 

How convenient it is to pour ourselves a tall glass of sparkling water or brew a fresh pot of tea. 

In old Cork, however, it was a very different story.

Road works on Liberty Street formerly a waterway showing the old Cork water pipes. Picture: Cooke’s Cork Collection
Road works on Liberty Street formerly a waterway showing the old Cork water pipes. Picture: Cooke’s Cork Collection

In 1307, during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), the ‘Bailiffs and Men of Corke’ were awarded a grant of half the returns of the Murage Tolls - a tax to maintain the city walls - in order to construct an aqueduct to transport fresh water into the city. 

No evidence exists that this aqueduct was ever constructed. 

However in 1761, when the city’s population stood at approximately 58,000, new proposals were unveiled in relation to delivering a fresh water supply to the city. 

View of Cork Waterworks and Lee Road, 1929. 
View of Cork Waterworks and Lee Road, 1929. 

An Act of Parliament was passed giving the green light to the establishment of the Pipe Water Company which appeared a year later. 

The company’s capital was made up of 100 £5 shares, 25 of which were held by the Corporation while private investors subscribed to the remaining 75. 

Located on the spot where today’s Waterworks is situated on the Lee Road, the plant pumped water to a reservoir 50ft above river level.

Water rates of 2 guineas a year was payable by each consumer however three public fountains were built for the benefit of the poorer citizens. 

As time rolled by, the 75 remaining shares were acquired by the Corporation who pledged to do great things for the citizens of Cork, few of which came to fruition.

One Corporate record tells us that:

"It was intended to erect 100 public fountains to be open at all hours so that no part of the city will be less than 200 yards from a fountain."

View of Cork city Waterworks, Lee Road in July 1968.
View of Cork city Waterworks, Lee Road in July 1968.

The street scene of old Cork up to the beginning of the 19th century was one that was very dimly lit while the city’s treacherous unprotected canals and docks were often to blame for drowning tragedies.

The only public lamp to be seen in the city in 1768 with a population of around 60,000 was the one located on the Drawbridge which spanned the Long Quay, part of today’s St Patrick’s Street where Fr Mathew’s statue is situated.

As the 18th century drew to a close, the streets of our city were illuminated with the golden glow of more and more public lamps each of which was supplied with “good rape-seed or fish-oil through a turkey cotton wick”.

While the City Fathers efforts to brighten the streets of Cork by enhancing the pubic lighting could be applauded, the citizens did not jump for joy at the Public Lamp Tax that was introduced to pay for it. 

In order to explore what ‘legal steps’ could be taken to overturn this unpopular tax, a meeting was assembled on August 17, 1772, on Red House Walk.

Picture courtesy of Cork City Library. George’s Quay in the 1930s showing one of the elegant gas lamps of old Cork.
Picture courtesy of Cork City Library. George’s Quay in the 1930s showing one of the elegant gas lamps of old Cork.

Failing to see eye-to-eye on the matter, however, the citizens took the law into their own hands and proceeded to smash each and every one of the city’s public lamps.

Later upon calm reflection came the realisation of the folly of their actions and in a short space of time sufficient light was restored to the streets of Cork.

In 1790, the city’s public oil lamps numbered 1,660. 

Nine years later, this figure had risen to 2,088. 

Gas, it seems, was used to light private houses and shops prior to being used for public lighting. 

Patrick Street around the turn of the century, showing trams and street lights.
Patrick Street around the turn of the century, showing trams and street lights.

The population of the city totalled approximately 104,000 in 1825, the year in which the Wide Street Commissioners make a contract with the London United Company to light the city with gas. 

At an annual cost of 3,200 pounds, the duration of this contract was for a period of 21 years while the light generated by each individual lamp had to be equivalent to the combined light of at least 12 tallow candles in order that a “newspaper may be read in the middle of the street by night”. 

The London Company built the gasworks on the Monerea Marsh.

Electricity replaced gas for public lighting in 1936.

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