Gas Lighting Comes to Lurgan
By Ken Austin

Gas LightingGas Lighting was a major event for the people of Lurgan and one that at long last brought them into the modern age and on a par with the rest of Great Britain.

William Murdock was the first to utilize the flammability of gas for the practical application of lighting. He worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at their Soho Foundry steam engine works in Birmingham England. In the early 1790s, while overseeing the use of his company's steam engines in tin mining in Cornwall, Murdoch began experimenting with various types of gas, finally settling on coal gas as the most effective. He first lit his own house in Redruth, Cornwall in 1792. In 1798 he used gas to light the main building of the Soho Foundry and in 1802 lit the outside in a public display of gas lighting, the lights astonishing the local population. One of the employees at the Soho Foundry, Samuel Clegg, saw the potential of this new form of lighting. Clegg left his job to set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company.

Gas lighting was introduced to the town after the Towns Improvement Act of 1854, nearly 50 years after the world's first gas main was laid in London (1807). The Gasworks was built on the site of the old Bridewell or jail in William Street which was erected in 1831. In June 1855 the Guardians of the Lurgan Union put out a tender to fit the Workhouse with 100 gas burners to light the buildings.

Gas light and its production was a great feature of Lurgan at that time. Early in the morning there was the rattle of the horses and carts delivering coal to the gas works and taking away the coke. When the street lights were lit again after the war, the lamplighter, with his long pole traveled up and down the street at dusk, pulling the little chains inside the street lamps that ignited the gas.

There was great ceremony each night as the mantles were lit and trimmed. These were very fragile things and much thought of in order to get the best light. They were very much 'out of bounds' for small boys. In some houses there were 'Butterfly' lights which had no mantle but the flame of gas spread out in the shape of a butterfly.

Lighting the town didn't always work without mishap. In January 1890 a large gas explosion in Victoria Street, destroyed a shop and house and damaged five other houses in the street. Many were taken to the Workhouse infirmary with their injuries, some were extensive. Again in July 1892 a large explosion in a house in William Street, occupied by Messrs. Clarke & Co., a general furnishers, warehouse and store, blew out all the windows and demolished two internal walls and blowing the front door into the street. Luckily no one was injured.

The death knell for gas lighting came in 1914 when the Lurgan Urban Council authorising the expenditure £12,000 on the promotion of a municipal electric lighting scheme for the town. The Provisional Order to supply electricity within the area of the urban district, was supported by practically the whole the occupiers in the town, and was opposed by the Lurgan Gas Company and a number of ratepayers who were either themselves shareholders in that company or connected with those who were. The Lurgan Gas Light and Chemical Company which was formed in 1848, and had since that date, had a monopoly of supplying the town with gas. It appeared that the company had since its establishment spent £35,000 in laying mains through the town, but all the money had been obtained from the consumers, who were paying 3s 10d per 1000 cubit feet. Later that year they purchased the Gas Light and Chemical Company, Ltd for £35,000.

As a by-product of the original production process, sulphate of ammonia fertilizer was also produced. A labour saving vertical retort was introduced in 1911. The fuel crises in the 1960s and 70s led to the modernization of the plant to produce gas from oil, but this proved uneconomic and forced the closure of the plant. The former Gasworks showroom is now a supermarket.

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