The old days in Coolkeeragh power plant

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Every so often an appeal for help in identifying a photograph or a person in an old picture on the Sentinel History page turns to gold.

So it was with a couple of old images which we featured two months ago, which we thought were from either the old Coolkeeragh Power Plant or the old Waterworks.

It turns out that long-time Sentinel reader, Albert Smallwoods was more than able to help us identify two photographs, one of which was an old Sentinel print plate, showing a former colleague of Albert’s, David Berry, in the control room.

The control room was operated by five engineers, operating on a shift basis, one of which was David, and one was Albert. The others were Hugh Pollock, Maurice Pearse and Sidney Curry.

“When you started at Coolkeeragh you normally started there as a control engineer,” Albert said, pointing at the control room photo.

“Then after a while you were promoted to a third engineer, a second engineer and a first engineer. I went there in February 1960. There were only four engineers up to then and I became the fifth. The reason for that was they all started in November 1959, because that is when the first machine was operating, but I had a leaking valve in my heart and the EBNI would not take me on their superannuation scheme; therefore they would not allow me to start. The chief engineer of the Electricity Board and the chief in the Derry Corporation power station in which I was working, came to an agreement that if I was happy to go without being on the superannuation scheme - and with no pension, of course - they would take me. On that basis I said ‘yes’ because the other station in Derry was closing down and I was going to be out of a job. I took out my own insurance and, therefore, I became the fifth person,” he said, tapping the plate photograph decisively.

Albert Smallwoods, former engineer at Coolkeeragh Power Plant

Albert Smallwoods, former engineer at Coolkeeragh Power Plant

The top of the photograph, above David Berry’s head, show the feeders going out to the city, Strabane and Limavady and each of the metres shows how much electricity is going out. To either side of Mr Berry are the generator panel machines. There were four in total.

“This photographs looks to have been taken in 1963, because the panels on the right were not there before that, there were just panels on the left,” he said.

Pointing to the sloping panel displays on the right of the photograph, Albert continues: “This is how you started the machines, how you synchronised them and how you increased the load on them to met demand.”

In the centre of the desk in from of Mr Berry are a series of alarms.

“From these you could tell what was happening. So if anything happened on any of the distribution lines the alarms would come up on this panel.

“I can well remember this telephone system. It was very outdated. I know that this photograph is later than 1960 because up until 1960 we have no electricity in that room at all. We had one piece of wire hanging down from the ceiling and a 150 Watt bulb hanging on the end of it and that was the total light.”

There was also no ceiling, just the concrete roof and there was a concrete floor in those early days.

In time the old wooden chairs were replaced with swivel chairs and the floor was tiled. In the early days there was no toilet either, so you either had to cross your legs and hold on or make a dash for the main building after you rang over to get another engineer to come over and take your place for a few minutes.

“Health and safety didn’t exist. If you were doing this job now you would be sitting in a pair of white overalls, with a safety helmet on and, ear muffs and all that.

“To get into this building all those years ago you had to walk along a plant over a two foot wide trench. It is hard to believe, but that station was actually running, had two machines running, before they ever put a fence round it. It was running for a bout a year before they decided to put a fence round it.”

Coolkeeragh opened in November 1959 and Albert went to work there in February 1960, for the princely wage of £560 a year. Prior to that he was employed at the power plant was on the Strand Road, the site of which is now a car park, opposite Asylum Road.

“I started there when I was 15 and three months, and my take away pay at the end of the week was £1 and half a Crown and you started at 8am and you went to 6pm and you had an hour’s break at lunchtime,” he said.

Pointing to the outside photograph of the plant, Albert recalled how there were two round chimneys and when the last machine was commissioned in 1967 a third chimney was also installed.

“One of the main reasons for building here was that the Derry station was getting very old. It was run by the Corporation and if they had to extend it there wasn’t the room on the Strand Road. They had to build it within the boundary of the city, so it would have had to be no further than the Camp, Woodburn or a bit out the other road, so it was going to be built at St Columb’s Park; that is where the Corporation of the day decided because it was the only space they had that was big enough.

“It had to be at a river because to run a modern power station in those days you needed to bring water in from the river to cool the turbines and you also had to be near a river for the ships to bring the coal of the oil to run it. This station was the first oil fired station in Ireland. We have moved on a lot now. The new station is run by gas and has about 35 of a staff but in the good old says of this one you had about 440 staff. In the new station one man can sit and turn knobs, but in the old station you had to physically climb up and operate valves, everything was done manually.”

In the old plant, Albert recalled how all the water houses used to freeze because the structures were exposed to the elements.

In the foreground of the outside photograph, Albert points to the white round structures, the oil tanks and as the station got older another set of tanks was built, roughly in the same sport as the new power station now sits.

In 1958 or 1959 Albert recalled that there was a big shout down in the old power station, which was the only occasion ever that the station completely shut down and the whole city was offline, due to a cable blowing up.

“They could not find the cable. The cable had blown up and blew a manhole off but there happened to be a car sitting over the manhole so it was not easy finding the fault. After that it was decided to let EBNI take over,” he said.

In the early days of the old power station they started off powering the lights before they started supplying consumers.

“The first machine they needed because DuPont wanted a big supply and BoC which was next door also needed a big supply. This first machine supplied about 30 Megawatts. One particular day the furnace tripped and the protection didn’t work and it tripped the machine in the power station. The like of it was never heard of before, or probably since that a machine in a factory could trip a power station.”

The old station closed down in 2005.

Through time Albert moved up from a control engineer to a third engineer and then to assistant charge engineer and up to charge engineer. In 1966, for reasons still unclear, Albert was admitted to the superannuation scheme, up to that his ‘health issue’ was always flagged up to him. So it was that on December 25, 1968, he started to move up the ranks until becoming a first engineer in 1970.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. In 1994, for example there were two strikes and there was also the Ulster Workers Strike, which Albert described as “very difficult”.

“If you worked and others were going out, then you were unpopular. The time that they went on strike looking for more money that was really, really awful. I turned up for work at 9am on a Saturday morning and went in the office door and the Shop Steward just came out and just stuck his hand up in the air and shouts to everybody ‘Out!’ Immediately all the plant had to be started to shut down.

“I went in at 9am that Saturday morning and I didn’t come out until 9pm on Tuesday. What happened was all the engineers went in; the day engineers weren’t in so we brought them in and we tried to get a shift pattern going and the engineers ran the station, so nobody knew there was a strike on.

“But that didn’t please the workers. Unfortunately I was on duty when the workers came back in and they came back in with bin lids banging and everything. It was awful. For years there were people who did not talk to me. It wasn’t easy at times. You were better lower down than you were higher up,” he said laughing.