Saturday, 19 September 2015

Gasworks: pride, beauty, and a cure for malingerers

We Belfasties impressed the German travel writer Johann Georg Kohl in 1843: "Almost all the little towns through which we drove that evening were lit up with gas. It is wonderful what progress this very important new invention has made in these islands. In Germany, a great city is very proud of being distinguished by gas-lights; in the British islands scarcely a town can be pointed out which is without them.

"At length we arrived at the centre point of all the gas-lights of northern Ireland, the centre point also of the great linen manufacture - at the thick cluster of houses and inhabitants which Irish flax has knotted together, at Belfast.

"I thought at first that it must be some great festival, for wherever I looked, on every side, I saw great houses, four, five, and six stories high, illuminated from top to bottom.

"There were even buildings, within which lights glittered from one hundred and two hundred windows. Yet all this was but the every-day, or rather every-night, appearance of a great manufacturing city."

193 years have passed since the founding of the Belfast Gasworks. 

The land on which it stood has been transformed into a business park, but some elements of the original Gasworks have been preserved, and I visited these rooms last weekend as part of the European Heritage open days. That same morning I'd had quite an emotional visit to Carlisle Memorial church (you can read about it here), and I didn't expect to be particularly thrilled by the gasworks. But in fact it's very beautiful and I did feel a strong sense of pride, both in the original achievement the buildings represented and in the fact that they haven't just been wantonly demolished, as so many lovely buildings in Belfast have

The governors' room (yes, I thought it was going to be some kind of boardroom, but it's where they governed the mechanics of the city's gas supply) still has the original wrought iron floor, tiled walls and ceiling.

There are touches of Belfast's typical yellow, a slightly more mustard shade than normal (did the city decide at some point that yellow was its colour, or is this a happy accident?). As ever, I notice how elegant and appealing the machinery of nineteenth century engineering was.

This room is a beautiful space, crying out for reuse. When I'm rich, it will be mine. A licensed coffee bar, I think, and little art gallery. The machinery and decor will remain in place, so patrons will just have to wear reasonably sensible shoes.

Oh yes, and the malingerers. In days gone by, apparently, when children complained of not feeling well, their mothers would bring them down by the gasworks to catch a whiff. That would revive them swiftly, and back to school they'd go. Excellent.

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