THE BATH HOUSE
What we can now see as ‘Coastal Zone’ was once the location for a popular bathhouse where Victorian holidaymakers would come to enjoy the hot and cold baths. The first bath house was built in 1834 by Lord Mark Kerr for the use of the people of Portrush and gave Bath Street, Bath Road and Bath Terrace their names.
Lord Mark Kerr (pronounced Carr) was principal landlord of Portrush through marriage to Lady Charlotte McDonnell, younger daughter of the 6th Earl of Antrim. As Portrush became more popular as a seaside resort, a new bathhouse was built on the site by the Antrim Arms Hotel (the old Northern Counties Hotel which is now the Portrush Atlantic Hotel) and quickly became popular. Guests could enjoy seawater or freshwater baths of all temperatures, with or without added seaweed, and the Portrush baths became so popular that the ‘Bathkeeper’ was even provided with his own residence on the opposite side of Bath Road.
In 1888, improvements were made to the baths and a new petroleum engine was used to pump water into the bathhouse, replacing the old steam engine. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the baths were proving too expensive to run and most hotels had their own in-house bathrooms. By 1912, the building was converted into a stables and garage for the horses and the motorcars, which were starting to become more popular on the roads. The seawater pump was retained and, from 1934, was used to pump seawater up through Antrim Gardens to the new indoor swimming pool in the Northern Counties Hotel.
During World War II, the building was used as a cookhouse and canteen for American Soldiers training for the D-day invasion of continental Europe. It later fell into a state of disrepair and, in the early 1970s, was converted firstly into Portrush Countryside Centre and then into the Coastal Zone we can see today.
WW2 “Y” Listening & DF Station
During World War II, a building on Ramore Head near the Coastguard Lookout was used as a top-secret ‘Y-station’ inside which the Women’s Royal Navy Service maintained a 24-hour Direction Finding (DF) and listening operation.
The listening operation intercepted enemy transmissions from warships, submarines and Nazi occupied countries in Europe and sent the messages to the Top Secret British centre for code-breaking and de-coding at Bletchley Park. The Direction Finding equipment in use allowed the operators to fix an accurate bearing to the source of the transmission. With a minimum of two such bearings from DF Stations far apart it was possible to accurately pinpoint the exact location of the source of the transmission. This information could then be used by the Military to take further action against these targets.
Located on the Metropole corner, the impressive brick building belonging to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was taken over in the late 1960s by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.) to replace the existing Police Station on Eglinton Street opposite the Railway Station. The Ordnance Survey map of 1900 shows the Police Station (Royal Irish Constabulary) on Eglinton Street. A map of Portrush from 1853 shows the Police barracks on Mark Street [or possibly on Main Street – it is not quite clear which].
The current building itself, constructed originally as a private house, bears witness to these and earlier turbulent times with the barbed wire loops topping the fences, which were a common sight during “The Troubles”, making it more difficult for terrorist criminals to get to a building. Thankfully, Portrush was not overly affected by the Troubles by comparison with other parts of the country, but there were some serious incidents including an evening in April 1987 when two R.U.C. Officers were murdered on Main Street and in 1976 a series of incendiary bombs destroyed several buildings on Main Street. The Police Station is no longer open to the public but is used as out-offices from Coleraine Station and as a base for controlling policing for large events in the town.
The Fire Station at the corner of Eglinton Street and Sandhill Drive, dating from the 1960s, is part of a network of fire stations belonging to the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service. Previously the Fire Station was located on Dunluce Avenue and before that in Main Street, opposite the Presbyterian Church in c.1900.
Fire engines have developed greatly from earlier times, and one of Portrush’s former fire engines, the iconic 1936 Denis “Ace” Fire Engine fitted with an escape ladder, is believed to be in a private collection. Early Portrush firefighters were volunteers, one of whom, Section Leader John Logan was awarded the King’s Police & Fire Service Medal for Distinguished Service in 1946, having served for 42 years. Portrush Fire Brigade took part in fighting the fires caused by the Nazi bombing of Belfast – “The Belfast Blitz” – during World War 2. The current Fire Station also serves as the control centre for operations in the local area.
Firefighting began in Ancient Egypt, and there is evidence of the first known firefighters in Rome in the 3rd Century CE. It was a band of 500 firefighters under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who would rush to the building at the first alarm. However, when they got there, the firefighters would stand and wait while Crassus negotiated a suitable price from the homeowner. If an agreement was reached, the firefighters would line up and pass water in buckets along the line to the fire. If the price was unsatisfactory, they simply let the building burn!
In Britain, firefighting was never considered a necessity until the Great Fire of London in 1666. A number of Fire Fighting Companies were established, many of whom have evolved into major insurance companies, and the residents of the city subscribed to a certain brigade. Often, the buildings were left to burn until the right brigade arrived! This practise continued until the 1800s, when a more organised and quicker response was demanded. Thankfully, our brigade of full-time staff and retained firefighters are a lot more organised and helpful, being able to put out a number of large fires safely in Portrush. Some famous volunteer firefighters include George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in America, and Winston Churchill, who greatly admired firefighters for their efforts during the London Blitz in World War 2, calling them, “Angels with Grimy Faces”.
The War Memorial in front of the Town Hall was erected after the ‘Great War’ – First World War, 1914-1918, to commemorate and honour the 78 Portrush men who did not return home having been killed or posted as “missing in action” in the war. The structure is a cenotaph which is a tomb or monument erected in honour of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war. The Portrush memorial is more commonly referred to as the War Memorial and “Cenotaph” is generally reserved for those memorials which represent a tomb such as the earliest in Whitehall, London. The word cenotaph comes from the Greek words ‘kenos’ (empty) and ‘taphos’ (tomb).
The Portrush War Memorial was unveiled on 11th November 1922 by Lady MacNaghten of Dundarave and the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig. The bronze sculpture was designed by Frank Ransom and depicts the figure of “Victory” holding a Palm Tree branch and a sword with the point downwards. The Palm Tree branch is a symbol of victory, triumph, peace, and eternal life. Since a victory signals an end to a conflict or competition, the palm developed into a symbol of peace. In western Christian art, martyrs were often shown holding a palm frond as an attribute, representing the victory of spirit over flesh. The sword, held with the point downwards, represents the end of conflict, peace or rest.
After the Second World War, 1939-1945, the 30 names of those who perished in this conflict were added.
The War Memorial is the focus for remembrance on several occasions each year, principally on Remembrance Sunday – the Sunday closest to 11th November, the day on which the Armistice was signed to end the First World War. The act of remembrance on that day is usually organised by the local branch of the Royal British Legion. Wreaths – generally poppies – are laid by various organisations and individuals as symbols of remembrance and to honour those who paid the supreme sacrifice defending their country.
Portrush Gas Works was established on Causeway Street in 1866 and began to supply the town with much needed coal gas (commonly known as Town Gas) for lighting and cooking. Coal gas is a flammable gaseous fuel generated by heating coal strongly in the absence of air. Coal gas contains a variety of calorific gases including hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, ethylene and volatile hydrocarbons together with small quantities of non-calorific gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The gas was supplied to homes and businesses through a network of underground cast iron & lead pipes. Payment for gas used in domestic properties was normally made using a “pay before you use” gas meter installed in each property.
Generating town gas was not an environmentally friendly operation. Working with coal created clouds of black dust and the process itself generated various noxious aromas. Worst of all the tar like waste products were dumped directly into an adjacent stream which discharged across the east strand into the sea. For that reason the stream was known locally as “the tarry burn”.
As far back as 1893, the Urban District Council had debated the advantages of electric street lighting versus gas lighting. In the end, the town was not properly illuminated until July 1908 when the Urban District Council paid the Gas Company to install and supply 90 streetlamps. Although this was later replaced by electric lights in 1922, many homes still relied on gas for decades to come. In 1946, when the Portrush Gas Company was forced to temporarily shut for maintenance, it was estimated that 98% of the domestic dwellings in the town were affected.
The 1960s saw a decline in the demand for town gas as the use of electricity became more widespread. Electricity was seen as clean and safe whereas gas was seen as “nasty, smelly, dirty and dangerous” by the public. It was also cheaper and easier to provide electricity for cooking and heating rather than town gas in new housing schemes. The introduction of oil fired central heating and off-peak electrical storage heating also reduced the demand for town gas. The discovery, 1965, of large reserves of natural gas in the North Sea off the east coasts of Scotland and Northern England provided a live-saver for the gas industry in Great Britain but sadly not in Portrush. The gas works was run down and closed during the 1970’s and the site was cleared and decontaminated to remove the toxic waste products which had been allowed to enter the ground.
Northern Ireland was the last place in the United Kingdom to have functioning gasworks in Belfast, Carrickfergus and Portadown. They ceased operations in 1987 and the Carrickfergus gasworks was transformed into a museum dedicated to the works. Portrush is still awaiting its replacement by natural gas. The former site of the Gas Works is now occupied by apartments.