A fit Situation for His Majesty’s Packets: building the Harbour at Dunmore

Today’s guest blog comes from Roy Dooney who has previously delivered a facinating presentation to the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society on the building of Dunmore harbour. I’m indebted to Roy for typing up his presentation for sharing with the readership. I found it a fascinating piece and I’m sure you will too.

The title of this piece is taken from the Act of Parliament just over two hundred years ago, dated 3rd June 1818, described as “An Act for improving and completing the Harbour of Dunmore in the County of Waterford, and rendering it a fit Situation for His Majesty’s Packets.”

The King at the time was George the Third who reigned from 1760 until his death in January 1820.

The Act of Union came into force in 1801 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. By 1821 the estimated population of Britain was about 14 million, and that of Ireland was about 7 million. So Ireland, with a rapidly growing population, was a major part of the United Kingdom.

Dunmore pier with railway line used in construction phase

In our modern era of constant cheap and direct communications, it is important to remember the huge primary importance of the postal service in past times to maintain links of trade, public administration, security and news between Britain and Ireland.

There had been an unsuccessful French naval invasion in 1796, followed by a rebellion in 1798.

There was another abortive rebellion led by Robert Emmet in 1803.

Britain was at war with France from 1793 until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Information flows were central to keeping London well informed about what was happening in all parts of Ireland.

Getting the mail backwards and forwards through the shortest possible sea crossings was a priority for the Post Office.

The first postal route to Ireland from London was through Bristol and then Milford Haven in Wales.

In late 1813 the Post Office sought applications for the design and construction of a new packet station in the Suir Estuary, much closer to the open sea than the then packet station for Waterford at Bolton (Cheekpoint).

At that time the ships from Milford Haven had to sail upriver, often against contrary winds, tides and the river itself. A packet station “lower down” would allow the mails to be landed at an earlier place and be taken by road to Waterford. This would be faster and more reliable than the vagaries of sail.

One of the main reasons for using Milford Haven for mails was that since most of the mail originated in London, the route from there to South Wales was a better road, faster and safer than that through Chester, across North Wales and Holyhead.

Oilean na gClioch which features a fine pointed arched bridge (see left of photo). This was designed by Nimmo and is similar to others he designed at Poulaphouca in Wicklow and Shaughnessy’s Bridge in Connemara. Authors collection.

The historian and map maker Gerald of Wales c. 1188 described Milford Haven as “the most excellent  harbour in Britain for ships to enter” and it was the point of departure to Ireland of many Royal and military expeditions.

Among many others these include Strongbow with Henry the Second as early as 1171, Prince John in 1185 and then as King John in 1210, Richard the Second in 1397 and Cromwell in 1649.

Dunmore was settled at quite an early stage. There was a grant in 1203 from King John to Heverbrichtof Dunmore and a Manor of Dunmore referred to in 1287.

A fishery is referred to in 1303.

By 1774 there was a reference to “eighty sail of fishing ships now belong to this small port.”

The oldest house still standing in the village from c 1790-1800 is Virginia Cottage on the hill from the lower village going up to Killea.

The first plan for building the Harbour at Portcullin Cove was submitted in March 1814 by 31 year old Alexander Nimmo to the Post Office.

Work began on building the Harbour in September 1815.

At the end of June 1818 the Government announced that: “as the Packet Station has been changed from Passage to Dunmore and a Post Office having been established in Dunmore it will be necessary for those residing in that area to have letters addressed “Dunmore East” to avoid confusion with Dunmore, County Galway.”

On July 7th 1818 an official notice appeared which stated that “on and from 7th inst. The British mails will be despatched from Dunmore East to Milford.”

Steam packets Meteor and Royal Sovereign which operated on the Milford Waterford route circa 1824
Maritime Museum Greenwich, via Roger Antell

Dunmore was designated as one of five Royal Harbours in Ireland through which mail was conveyed. The others were Ardglass and Donaghadee in Northern Ireland, and Howth and Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) to the north and south of Dublin respectively.

Nimmo was a quite extraordinary man whose contribution to designing and building the harbour in Dunmore, as well as many other projects across Ireland was enormous.

He was one of a number of Scottish engineers who played a transformative role in modernising transport in Britain and Ireland.

He first came to Ireland to work on bog engineering in the West and went on to plan and develop at least 50 piers and harbours ranging from North Mayo to Greystones in Wicklow.

This bust of Alexander Nimmo is the only likeness of him recorded and was done by his friend John B Jones in 1845. It is in the Royal Dublin Society.

The Tidy Towns committee in Dunmore East unveiling a plaque in June 2018 at the Harbour   to remember Nimmo who died at the age of just 49 in 1832.

Nimmo was a brilliant engineer but his correspondence in the National Archives with the Post Office and Dublin Castle show a repeated weakness when it came to accounting for monies spend and keeping the project on budget.

For its time, the construction was ambitious and complex.

Rock was quarried locally from the cliffs above the Harbour and a little further away above the Flat Rocks. It was then moved down to the pier on a railway. Stone had to be blasted and then cut by hand.

Limestone was also quarried in Dunkit and floated down the river on barges.

One of Nimmo’s achievements was to make a diving bell that worked. It was subsequently used in other projects in Ireland, particularly the Wellesley Bridge in Limerick which he designed.

Nimmo’s original plan had included a lighthouse and in July 1818, when the Harbour was about to enter service, the Secretary of the Post Office asked the Ballast Board in Dublin, who ran the lighthouse service, to let them set up a temporary light at the end of the pier.

George Halpin who designed the lighthouse was one of the great men in Irish lighthouse history responsible for many others around the country.

The design is of a fluted Doric column of which there is only one other in Ireland – the Haulbowline Lighthouse – in Carlingford Lough.

Dunmore East lighthouse circa 1900

Dunmore’s importance as a harbour for post and trade was under threat before it was finished.

Steam ships with greater strength and reliability were already in service. By 1817 the first steam ship on the Irish Sea travelled between the Clyde and the Mersey and a paddle steamer between Carrick on Suir and Waterford was in service.

The Post Office built its own steam ships for the mails and went into service from Holyhead in 1821, Dover in 1822 and Milford Haven to Dunmore in 1824.

As the steamers became more powerful they had no difficulty making the passage upriver to the extensive quays in Waterford and its concentration of merchants and mail coach connections.

Dunmore also grew as a resort, and by 1824 Ryland referred to it as “formerly a place of resort for fishermen, but now a fashionable and delightful watering place.”

Dunmore harbour changed from a packet station to a fishing port as the 19th century progressed. In more recent times it has undergone extensive re-modelling as excavations and infill have taken place.

As Nimmo’s biographer Noel Wilkins says of the Harbour today: “The visual prospect along the main quay (the original Packet Quay) towards the fluted lighthouse rising majestically at its head, has a certain boulevard-like quality that is decidedly unusual in fishery harbours, recalling the grandeur of its original purpose.”

My thanks again to Roy for this great addition to the blog and an insight into the making of Dunmore harbour. If anyone reading this has a blog that they would like to submit for consideration they can email me at tidesntales@gmail.com to discuss. The blog should relate to the areas maritime heritage be 1200 words approximately. I’m always delighted to get new material, and would love to hear from younger readers too, who might have ideas to share.

6 Replies to “A fit Situation for His Majesty’s Packets: building the Harbour at Dunmore”

  1. Lovely to read an abridged version of the history of the harbour. All the important points are here and added information for further reading. Your blogs are a pleasure and a treasure,thank you.

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