Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Electricity Comes to Carlow

Part 1

"... I was not a little surprised at night when I found my surroundings lighted by electricity, bedrooms, coffee room, corridors and the rest. The street too, as well as the hotels and business houses, have the electric light which points out Carlow as one of the most up-to-date county towns in Ireland, Good for Carlow!..

— Edmund D. Whelan
 in the Western Catholic News, Chicago, 10th August 1895.
Workmen laying the half inch cable along the streets of Carlow Town in 1891. Photo Carlow County Museum
Electricity comes to

On June 24th 1891, the large water wheel at Mil ford Mills was set in motion once again, not to grind corn, but to drive a dynamo to generate electricity. The current was carried by cables on poles along the bank of the river Barrow- to service Carlow Town.

A precis of Carlow Town Commission discussions leading up to the formation of Carlow Electric Company has been compiled by William Ellis from the files of The Nationalist & Leinster Times.


Electricity for the experimental lights was generated at Kelly's Mill, Burrin Street, which was situated beside Burrin Bridge. The demonstration lights were switched on in November, 1890.

Carlow was surely in the forefront of the electric age when we realise that the first practical generators were operating in 1870, the first arc lamp in 1878 and the ordinary bulb developed commercially in 1880. 

 WHEN the project of lighting Carlow town by electricity was first proposed to Carlow Town Commission, at their meeting of November 18th 1890, the members present were: Messrs. John Hammon, J.P. (presiding), S. Johnson, T. Byrne, E. Morris, John Clowry, W. Douglas, P. J. Conlan, J. O'Brien, B. Coleman, M. Molloy, Thomas Murphy, M. Governey, L. McCaul and John Whelan.

During the course of the meeting the following letter was read:

To the Chairman and Town Commissioners of the Borough of Carlow.

Gentlemen—We beg to apply for permission to supply electricity in your town.

If you accede to our request we will undertake to light your streets with 12 arc lamps of 1,200 candle power each, and 40 incandescent lamps of 16 candle power each (equivalent to 15,040 candle power) during the usual lighting season, and for the usual lighting hours for the sum of £170 per annum, on condition of your giving us a guarantee that you will not oppose but will as far as possible assist in our application for the right of private supply.

The sum of £170 per annum includes all attendance, repairs, and renewals. We beg further to apply for permission to erect and light specimen lamps in your streets this week or next.

We have secured subject to your consent to our application an offer of the lease of Milford Mill, and are ready to commence work at once.

We propose to form a small company to be called the Carlow Electric Light Company, and will offer shares — ourselves subscribing for all not taken up. —

We are, gentlemen, your obedient servant.
J. E. H. Gordon & Co, ltd. Thos, Tomlinson, (Chief Engineer).

After the reading of the letter, Mr. Tomlinson was invited to address the meeting.

In reply to a question from the Chairman, Mr. Tomlinson said he had gone over the whole lighting area, and he noticed every lamp, numbering in all, he believed, 110, and the light they proposed supplying would cover the whole of that area.

He would submit to the board a map of twenty inches to the mile, showing the exact position of the arc and incandescent lights. The arc lights would begin at the end of Tullow-street, where the several roads met at the end of Barrack-street, and would end at the police barrack in Graigue, and it was intended that eight arc lights should extend along that line, each of 1,200 candle power.

In Dublin-street, from the Courthouse to the far side of Burrin Bridge, there would be three arc lights, and the remaining arc light would be in College-st., at the end of Browne-street.

Beyond the reach of these twelve arc lights they proposed to replace the present oil lamps with incandescent lamps, each of 16 candle power.

He took it that the present lights were about 10 candle power, which would give a total lighting of 1,100 candle power, while the proposed electric lighting would be 15,040 candle power.

In the experiments they proposed they would show, if permitted, the actual lamps they promised to supply.

Chairman—You ask for permission to light specimen lamps. Of course that will be free of expense to this board?

Mr. Tomlinson—Altogether free of expense.

On Saturday, July 13th 1991, the 100th anniversary of the generating of electricity at Milford Mills, Co. Carlow was commemorated by the unveiling of a plaque (inset) and also to mark the fact that electricity is again being generated at the mill and fed into the national grid.
Pictured from left: Mrs. Mary McDonald, Co. Council chairperson; John Browne, T.D.; Sean Whelan, U.D.C. chairman; John Alexander, mill owner; Ray Conlon, Carlow Chamber of Commerce president; Dr. Laurence Ryan, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin and Old Carlow Society patron; Paddy Dowling, pioneer of rural electrification; M. J. Nolan, T.D.; Michael Shell, author of  'The Quiet Revolution' and Martin Nevin, Old Carlow Society chairman.

 Photo: Courtesy "The Nationalist & Leinster Times."

After some considerable discussion the board decided to give permission for the experimental lights to be erected.

Members present at the December 9th 1890 meeting which took the decision in principle to have electric street lighting were: Messrs. John Hammond (Chairman), M. Governey, Stanley Johnson, John Clowry, B. Coleman, L. McCaul, J. O'Brien, M. Molloy, T. Murphy, E. Morris, J. Bolger, John Whelan.

To start the discussion the Clerk read the proposal of Messrs. Gordon and Company to light the streets of the borough by twelve arc and forty incandescent electric lamps, for £170 a year, providing any extra arc lamps that might be required at £15 each for the season, and incandescent lamps at £2 each. They also gave the option to the board to purchase the lighting after six months.

The cost of lighting at present was £100 a year for 104 oil lamps, and that sum included repairs and labour.

A very detailed discussion took place, every member having their say. The Chairman speaking of the experimental lights said:

"During the last fortnight they had seen specimens of the electric lighting in Dublin-street and Burrin-street, but as yet they did not know how it would look in Tullow-street.

No doubt whatever that Dublin-street, which might be regarded as the boulevard of the town (laughter), looked to great advantage by means of the electric light.

He thought they were all, the townspeople generally, as well as the commissioners, so pleased with the spectacle presented that they would all like very much that it should be the mode of public lighting for the future.

He had no hesitation in saying, without wanting to influence their decision, that he was delighted with the electric lighting, and with the spectacle presented by the appearance of Carlow during the previous few nights. It quite altered the look of the town, and he was sure would add new lustre to their nice town of Carlow, which was generally regarded as comparing most favourably with most other towns in Ireland.

It was unanimously agreed that the proposal of Messrs. Gordon and Co. to provide street lighting by electricity be accepted, subject to agreement on both sides.

A draft agreement was considered at the January 13th 1891 meeting, and the company's (Messrs. Gordon & Co.) request that they have the exclusive rights to supply electric light to the town for 42 years was considered to be too long. It was decided that 21 years should be the maximum time.

Mr. Bridie, who represented Messrs. Gordon at the meeting said that it was just a formal matter, and he would say, unofficially of course, that the Co. would agree to the shorter time.

After some other minor changes were made, the amended contract was ordered to be sent to Messrs. Gordon & Co. and also to Mr. Malcomson, solicitor to the Commission for approval.

The Commission next considered the question of the sites for the 12 arc lamps. The following sites were approved without discussions: The Market Cross; The Post Office, Core's Corner; Courthouse Square, Willi's Corner; Pembroke, McDonald's Corner; Tullow St., corner of Charlotte St.; Bolger's Corner, Tullow St.; Junction of Barrack St., Tullow St., etc.; Coalmarket; Graigue Police Barracks; Wellington Square; The Quay. After a long discussion, the site of the 12th lamp was postponed until the others were erected.

It was also decided at this meeting to give permission for the erection of poles to carry the wires.

Town Clerk informed the January 21st 1891 meeting that Mr. Malcomson, solicitor thought it would be necessary to have counsel's opinion on the contract. Commission were not disposed to "waste" money on counsel, it was decided that two members, Chairman J. Hammond, and J. Whelan meet with Mr. Malcomson.


A dispute arose between the Commissioners and a Mr. Ogle over the erection of a pole at the corner of Tullow St. and Burrin St. Mr. Ogle said he intended to erect a one storey building on the vacant corner site, and the pole would hinder the project.

A lease was produced which was from Most Rev. Dr. Haly, Bishop of Kildare & Leighlin to Mr. James Morris, made in 1854 and leasing the houses known as Numbers 1 &2, Tullow St. and Burrin St.

"In the interest of harmony", a change of site was agreed to by the Commissioners.

100 years on, sees the erection of a lamp standard on the site in the present ongoing 'Urban Renewal Programme'.

"Bid a long farewell to oil lighting"

It appears that Mr. Malcomson's advice was heeded as it was decided at the meeting of February 21st 1891 to submit the proposals to counsel's opinion. One outcome of counsel's (Mr. J. Samuel Edge) opinion was, that Messrs. Gordon's exclusive right to supply electricity to Carlow should not be for more than 3 years.

After considering Mr. Edge's opinion at their April 4th 1891 meeting it was decided to accept his advice.

A resolution was finally passed at the Carlow Town Commission meeting of Tuesday, April 28th 1891 authorising John Hammond (chairman), James Bolger and Michael Governey to sign the agreement with Messrs. G. H. Gordon & Co. to light Carlow town by electricity for 3 years.*

At the May 5 meeting the Commission decided to discontinue lighting the streets with oil lamps as from the following Friday night (22nd May 1891). The chairman, Mr. John Hammond, J.P., observing that they would bid a long farewell to oil lighting.

The chairman, Mr. Hammond said at the June 30 meeting, "that an event of great importance, lighting the town by electricity, had taken place during the week, which, he thought, it would be well to note on the minute book of the corporation, which, no doubt, would be kept for generations".

On Monday, July 13th 1891 a banquet was given in the Town Hall by Messrs. Gordon & Co., for 70 guests to celebrate the lighting of Carlow town by electricity. Earlier in the evening the visitors who had been invited to the banquet, together with the Town Commissioners were conveyed in three brakes and cars to Milford to inspect the works.

This is how The Nationalist & Leinster Times described the setting for the banquet in the Town Hall:

The public hall on Monday evening presented a beautiful appearance. It was transformed into a floral palace so profuse was the array of flowers.

The decorations were entrusted to Messrs. Morris & Co. (under the superintendence of Mr. Dugan), and were carried out in a manner which reflects credit on the firm.

Electric lights were placed in the ceiling, and on the table, twenty lamps with coloured globes gave an extremely pretty effect.

Covers were laid for 70. Mr. J. H. Gordon presided, and on his right hand sat Mr. Hammond, M.P., Chairman of the Town Commissioners and Mr. McGee, Londonderry and on his left Major Everard and Mr. T. Murphy, Kilkenny. Mr. Revington (Managing Director, Gordon & Co.) occupied the vice-chair.

Amongst the guests were the members of the Carlow Town Commissioners. Alderman Johnson, Mr. Richards, Portadown; Mr. O'Connell, Kilkenny; C. J. Kenealy, Kilkenny Journal; H. Power, do.; Dr. T. P. O'Meara, P. A. Brown, solicitor; G. Langran, Sentinel; J. R. Lawler, Irish Times; P. J. Conlan, Nationalist; Mr. Mackay, Pall Mall Gazette.

*It was reported in The Nationalist and Leinster Times (20th August 1892) that the Town Commission had extended the concession for lighting the town to Gordon & Co. to 42 years, to enable them to install auxiliary steam plant to make them independent of any failure of water power through floods or otherwise.

"It was a great waste of capital'

Mr. Gordon in the course of his address said: "... Carlow was the first inland town in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland to be lighted throughout with electricity (applause).

He himself had been in the electric light business ever since there was such a business, and the difficulty of it was not in an engineering way, because electric lighting engineering was simple enough, but the difficulty really was with the people they had to deal with.

They found that local authorities had all sorts of ideas about electric lighting, and consequently very often great difficulties were thrown in the way.

Things, however, had been different here, and consequently they had been able to make considerable progress in the way of lighting Carlow. He wished to say a few words on what he meant.

All over Ireland he believed, ever since the Repeal of the Corn Laws milling industries had declined, and the consequence was that they had throughout the country large mills standing idle, and wasting the use of a large amount of capital. At the same time they were sending large sums of money to England to pay for coal to make gas. If they only knew it this was a great waste of capital. . ."

Messrs. Gordon & Co. also entertained their employees in the Town Hall on the night following the banquet.

The Commissioners asked Messrs. Gordon to allow the electric plant in the hall to remain until after the forthcoming bazaar which is being organised by Colonel Vigors and others for the purpose of restoring the old Cathedral at Leighlin. Like all new ventures the Carlow Electric Light Co. had its teething problems, a letter was read at the September 8, 1891 meeting of the Town Commission from Messrs Gordon & Co. apologizing for not being in a position to light the public lights for two nights. The river being unusually high for time of year, they were unable to complete the permanent plant.


"The price paid by Major Alexander for the lighting installation, plant, machinery, and good will of the Carlow Electric Co., is £3,500.

The original cost of the works was £20,000, so that the venture was the reverse of successful.

It is to be hoped however, that the business will turn out a profitable one to its present owner, as there is no doubt but that the electric light is a great boon, not only for public lighting, but as a means of inducing wholesome competition for private supplies".

- Nationalist & Leinster Times, 19th May 1894.

The following letter appeared in The Nationalist & Leinster Times, October 10th 1891.

11 Pall Mall,
9th October, 1891.
Dear Sir,—I wish on behalf of my co-directors and myself to thank the Town Commissioners for the kind expression of satisfaction they have been good enough to authorise you to send to us with regard to the electric lighting of Carlow.
It has also given us great pleasure to note the opinion you held as to the manner in which we have carried out our engagement.
We may assure you that we shall endeavour to the utmost to retain this good opinion. I wish to take this opportunity to express the pleasure it has given us to have had dealings with the Carlow Town Commissioners, and to thank them for the assistance they have always readily rendered to us whenever it lay in their power.—
Yours faithfully,
W. J. Revington, Managing Director. John Hammon, Esq., M.P.,
"Chairman, Carlow Town Commissioners."

Source: This article was previously published in the Carloviana 1991/92 pages 24-27


Milford House Milford 1955 Milford Mills Electric Railway

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