1,000 years of water power from the Roe
WATER power from the River Roe has a long and varied history, and with a new hydro-electric turbine to be installed soon in the Roe Valley Country Park, the Sentinel is examining that long history.
Planning permission has been granted by both the Department of the Environment and Limavady Borough Council for a new turbine to be installed in the Country Park and a number of the requisite parts have already been ordered.
Water power has been used by the inhabitants of the Roe Valley for somewhere in the region of 1,000 years.
The Roe Valley Country Park attracts thousands of visitors every years, in large part thanks to its’ beautiful scenery and quiet, natural surroundings. In the context of the quiet, almost meditative nature of the Country Park it can be difficult to imagine the area as a hub of industrial production, fuelled by the unceasing power from the river.
The two best known instances of water power being exploited in the Roe are seen in the installation of Ireland’s first hydro-electric turbine in 1896 and the use of water for the flourishing flax industry in both the 17th and 18th centuries.
However, the earliest known use of power from the red river can be traced to a much earlier date. While it has long been known that the Norman invaders of the 12th Century made use of water power from the Roe, it has been suggested by recent archaeological evidence that the monks who lived in the area made use of sophisticated water mills before any Norman French had set foot in Ireland.
The next known use of the river for power comes from the modernising English soldier, Sir Thomas Phillips. Phillips was a professional soldier, who has left a significant mark on the town of Limavady, with some commentators suggesting that without his vigour and zeal, the town as we know it might today be nothing more than another small village.
Phillips was one of the leading figures in the plantation of Ulster, serving the Crown through warfare as a ‘servitor’ and also as chief advisor to the Crown on the plantation of County Londonderry.
Phillips was granted some 3,500 acres in the Roe Valley, in addition to 500 in Castledawson, which he described as “the horsepond of Limavady” and the “cabbage patch of Castledawson.”
He did, however, immediately set about making improvements to his new territory. He extended and repaired the O’Cahan Castle and dug out a surrounding ditch.
Other works included a ‘pleasure garden’, a fish-pond, an orchard, a ‘malt house’ for brewing beer as well as a host of embattlements.
It was Phillips who built what remains today of a ‘weir’ in the Roe, having constructed a water mill and a mile long race. It has been suggested, however, that the race was more likely a renovated version of the old race built by the Normans for their own mill centuries earlier.
An interesting fact about Sir Thomas Phillips reveals him as the man who applied for the licence for the brewery at Bushmills, which still produces world-famous whiskey to this day.
It wasn’t until the development of the linen industry, however, that the Roe was to be fully exploited. The Roe Valley was an ideal location for the process of linen production, commonplace throughout Ireland on a large scale from the late 17th Century onwards.
Flax grew well in the damp climate and with an abundant and freely available water supply available from the Roe for both power and the washing process, the industry grew exponentially to turn the Roe Valley into a hub of industry.
While the water was not used directly, various weirs sluices and ponds were built to control the flow. Many examples of these can still be found throughout the Country Park.
The peak of this industry was in the 18th Century, when water power was used to mechanise many of the processes in what ultimately amounts to a cottage industry, which can be seen as a fore-runner of the full-scale industrial revolution which was to follow.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars which fuelled so much of the demand for linen, the industry in the Roe Valley fell into decline. After the first steam powered mill was introduced in Belfast in 1829, the water power supplied since a time before even the Normans has arrived in Ireland by the red river was no longer needed.
Water power was to make something of a revival with the arrival of John Edward Ritter. Ritter at one time owned the entire area which now makes up the Roe Valley Country Park. He first began generating electricity in 1893 for the Roe Park House and farm with an engine and dynamo, having inherited a working water mill when he took over the land. The Roe Park House is known to most people today as the Radisson Hotel.
In 1896 Ritter built the power house, installed water turbines and began supplying electricity for Limavady. The first power was delivered to customers in 1897 and by 1900 he had 75 people in the area purchasing electricity, with Limavady becoming the first town in Northern Ireland to have a hydro-electric power supply.
After his death in 1901, his wife took over the running of the business, helped by her eldest son Stanton, and it continued in the family right up to 1946 when the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland bought it over.
It was finally closed by the Board due to the cheap availability of electricity generated using fossil fuels in 1965.
With planning permission now granted to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to install a new turbine in the Roe, indeed at the very site of the old Ritter’s powerhouse, it appears that the unremitting and relentless natural power of the river will be exploited once more.
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Weather for Londonderry
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 8 C to 14 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North west