The varied life of just one Cork city street long ago

Readers have been sending us their memories of Alfred and Ship Street, writes JO KERRIGAN in her weekly Throwback Thursday column
The varied life of just one Cork city street long ago

The Metropole Laundry on Alfred St. Picture supplied by Michael Lenihan.

WHO would have thought that just one old and unidentified photograph from the 1920s could spark so many memories, draw so much wonderful detail from readers’ memories? Over the past few weeks so many of you have emailed in, not only to locate the scene in the photo, firmly as the junction of Alfred and Ship Street, but also to supply unexpected and highly valuable information on the rest of the life in the street.

You will remember that last week, in Throwback Thursday, Felim Buckley, now living in New Jersey, told us of his grandmother and grandfather who worked in two separate small domestic hotels on Alfred Street, and who met and married there. Their son, John, Felim’s father, was born there too. That gave us some great insight into the accommodation on offer near the railway station in those days.

We all know the big Cork hotels, but they were only for the well-to-do. There are many B&Bs on the Lower Road today, handy for early morning trains, but back in the 1900s, small family-run hotels at low rates were plentiful in places like Alfred Street. Wouldn’t it be great to know more about what they charged, what the facilities were like, who stayed there? Something similar to Cobh, where over the centuries so many emigrants must have spent their last night in Ireland in one of the multitude of lodging houses, but so little (if anything) remains of their passing by, what they felt and thought. That’s another story that needs to be written.

But back to Alfred Street. Fintan Bloss, who has often contributed to this page, read it last week and immediately emailed to let us know that he is in fact Felim Buckley’s cousin, and he knows all about their joint grandparents and Alfred Street. Now how is that for Throwback Thursday power? A gentleman in New Jersey writes in, a Cork resident sees it, and hauls out the family album to prove the connection!

Mary Bloss (nee Buckley) outside No 3 Alfred St. Picture supplied by Fintan Bloss.
Mary Bloss (nee Buckley) outside No 3 Alfred St. Picture supplied by Fintan Bloss.

“Further to my cousin Felim’s article, I attach a photo of my late mother, Mary Bloss (née Buckley), outside no 3 Alfred St. where our grandparents, John J Buckley and Sarah Ann Innes lived.” 

They were married, says Fintan, in St Patrick’s Church on Aug 28, 1901, and he also thoughtfully attaches a photo recording that happy event.

“John (who was the father of Felim). Jimmy, Alex, and Harry were all born at Alfred St, along with another brother, Danny, who was killed following an accident with a horse and cart. In 1908 or 1909, they moved to the North Mall, and a further ten children were born.”

The wedding of John Buckley and Sarah Ann Innes, 1901. Picture supplied by Fintan Bloss.
The wedding of John Buckley and Sarah Ann Innes, 1901. Picture supplied by Fintan Bloss.

Hang on, Fintan, I seem to remember something about this in Throwback Thursdays of last year. Didn’t they run a guesthouse there in later years? Isn’t that a great family tradition being carried on, the parents being born to it, so to speak?

Well, we are all delighted to find this linking up going on among readers. Who will next write in, from Alaska or Kamchatka, we wonder, to claim kinship with someone who sneaked into a football game without paying in those carefree golden days of long-ago childhood? Get emailing, we want to hear from you! No doubt about it, EchoLive and Throwback Thursday get themselves seen everywhere, across the world, thanks to online technology.

And here is something really fascinating from expert local historian Michael Lenihan ( Hidden Cork; Timeless Cork; Pure Cork), throwing light on yet another part of daily life and business in that thoroughfare which now could almost be described as a quiet backwater, but once buzzed with people, horses and carts, cattle, and steam trains!

“The chimney in that horse trough photograph was once part of the Metropole Laundry, which was established in 1898. This was part of the Musgrave empire, founded in 1876 by Thomas and Stuart Musgrave who opened their first shop at 103 North Main Street.

“By 1894 their businesses had grown significantly, and the name was changed to Musgrave Brothers Ltd. This enabled the duo to raise money from shares, enabling the construction of the Metropole Hotel, a sweet factory, and the Metropole Laundry.”

The laundry, says Michael, was the largest and most up-to-date in the south of Ireland.

“It employed a large staff, mostly female, as you might expect. It had purpose-built machinery for ironing large fabrics such as tablecloths and sheets, and even had a special machine for shaping turned-down shirt collars.”

It boasted that it retained experts exclusively to treat special clothing (think silks and satins, laces and velvets here – this was the age of luxury fabrics – for the wealthy at any rate). These modern advancements, he explains, enabled the company to monopolise the laundry business in Cork.

‘Satisfaction is our Aim!’ was the Metropole Laundry’s reassuring and inviting caption and motto. Servants’ aprons (without bibs) were washed from one penny, whilst petticoats were far more expensive at 4 pence. That’s understandable. A plain waist apron would have very little fabric, whereas a petticoat might have yards of gathered cotton lawn, trying to wash and the very dickens to iron. It was also noted in the strictest terms that these prices were for the plainest description of garment. Any fancy or trimmed articles included in a servants washing were charged at the full rate.

The ironing room at Metropole Laundry. Picture supplied by Michael Lenihan.
The ironing room at Metropole Laundry. Picture supplied by Michael Lenihan.

The most expensive items were window curtains made of lace or muslin with the frilled variety being charged at one shilling and nine pence. In addition, these goods, due to their fragile nature, were only accepted at the owner’s risk. Remember after all that this was well before the tougher products like nylon became generally available.

“Another reminder that these were also different and more dangerous times is evident, in the rule that “under Section 142 of the Public Health act Ireland, any person sending articles to a public laundry from a house in which there is infectious illness is liable to prosecution.”

The Metropole Laundry dealt not only with the city’s washing but the county’s as well. How did these bundles get there? Michael has the answer at his fingertips: “For places some distance away, goods were dispatched by post to the laundry, using a special washing book, outlining the list of items sent.

“Agents were located in all the major towns of West Cork, East Cork, North Cork, even as far as Kenmare, to help in this process. In addition, the company maintained its own laundry vans which collected in Lismore, Fermoy, Buttevant, Charleville, and Mallow as well as the suburbs of Cork city.”

Gosh! Any more? Indeed.

“Gentlemen’s washings amounting to two shillings and six pence or over, but excluding household linen, were sent post free.”

And, a reflection of the Corkonian’s perpetual and over-riding urge to talk, to explain, to chat at length rather than commit anything to anything as definite as writing down, there was yet another strict rule: under no circumstances were van men to be given verbal messages with regard to special washing instructions as these were likely to be forgotten or miscarried.

The streetscape changed in 1919 as there was a major fire in the laundry, says Michael Lenihan, but the Metropole Laundry continued on this site until 1953, when it was relocated to Millfield in Blackpool.

“The next business to operate from there was Chris O’Mahony, the Volkswagen dealers, who many readers will remember...”

John Mooney has contacted us, again with that old photograph as a starting point, to say that the building on the left of the picture, the one with four windows and two chimneys, was W&T Avery.

“I started working there in Oct 1958 as an apprentice weighing scale mechanic. Barrys Tea & CAB were next door to us.”

Ah yes, we seem to remember that Avery’s had a bright neon sign at night, when there weren’t that many of those new-fangled things around. ‘SCALES. AVERY. SCALES.’ We would read it out as a chant when we passed by. It was easy to amuse oneself with such things back then, when we didn’t have all these modern distractions to seduce us from using our eyes and looking around when we walked in the city.

John’s wages on starting at Avery were £1.5s 11d (one pound five shillings and elevenpence for a 40 hour week. No we will not give you nice modern equivalents. You wouldn’t believe them in any case, and if you’re reading this page regularly, you probably remember your pounds, shillings and pence perfectly well. Keep that brain moving!

As the newest member of the team at Avery, John got to go out now and then.

“I used go to Thompsons Bakery up York Hill & get a bag of broken cakes for a shilling to have with morning tea. That was one of my jobs!”

The cake-fetching or the tea-making, John?

“Both! Many a time my bicycle wheel got stuck in the railway tracks, and I would fall off, and my tool kit, fastened on the back, would scatter all over the road. Great fun on a wet day!”

Ah those first jobs. Can any other readers remember theirs – where it was, what they did, how much (or little) they got paid? And what they did with the tiny residue once they had done the accepted thing and passed over the bulk of it to the mother who had somehow managed to bring them up, clothe and feed them to this adult stage?

John Mooney knows his Cork (it must be all that cycling in earlier years!) and he has a question for Throwback Thursday readers. In fact it could well be our Mystery Query this week!

“I want to ask all of you if you ever heard of, or maybe know where in Cork is, the FLAT BAR ?. It is more likely that older people would have heard of it. It was my father told me about it, and he knew of it in his own childhood, so the knowledge goes back a fair way.”

Right, there you are, your challenge for the weekend. Find the Flat Bar and let us know. Or if today’s reminiscences have sparked other recollections, then send us those as well.

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