National Heritage Week continues at pace this week. The Old Cork Waterworks Experience presents “Water Heritage Open Day” on Sunday 26 August, 11am-4pm. It is a family fun day themed on the industrial heritage and history of Cork’s Victorian Waterworks on Lee Road. Throughout the day the team there will provide guided tours of the impressive engine and boiler rooms, offer an insight into the working day of a waterworks employee and map the role of water supply with the growth of Cork City. There will also be a range of engaging and educational activities available including a puppet show, marine science, giant bubbles as well as launching water rockets and a water science zone.
Officially opened in October 2005, the formerly named Lifetime Lab was a Cork City Council initiative funded by EFTA or the European Free Trade Association, and was a welcome move in protecting and reinvigorating Cork’s heritage stock. The old waterworks on Lee Road, was converted into a “lab” where visitors of all ages, especially children could enjoy a modern interactive exhibition, steam plant, beautifully restored buildings, children’s playground and marvellous views over our Lee Fields.
The buildings, which stand at the old Waterworks site today, date from the 1800s and 1900s but water has been supplied to the city of Cork from the site since the 1760s. A foundation stone today commemorates the building of the first pump-house, which was itself constructed on the Lee Road in the late eighteenth century. It was in 1768, that a Nicholas Fitton was elected to carry out the construction work needed for a new water supply plan. The water wheel and pump sent the river water unfiltered to an open reservoir called the City Basin, which was located on an elevated level above the Lee Road. This water was then pumped from here to the city centre through wooden pipes.
Between the years 1856 and 1857, the Corporation of Cork obtained a sanction from the parliamentary treasury to acquire a loan of £20,000 to upgrade the Lee Road waterworks. In February 1857, John Benson’s plan for a new waterworks was given to several eminent engineers in London for consultation. Much of it was based on Londoner Thomas Wickstead’s 1841 survey and plan for the provision of water to the Cork public in association with the Corporation of Cork. By May 1857, tenders were issued and cast-iron mains were chosen to replace the wooden pipes. They were initially shipped to Cork in 1857 and during the ensuing two years, the pipes were laid down. By February 1859, the pipes from the new waterworks to the military barracks on the old Youghal Road were in place. It was here that a new reservoir was to be constructed. The reservoir itself was to cover one acre and was five metres deep with a capacity of four million gallons.
In 2004-05, the conservation and restoration of the Old Waterworks site was all under the watchful eye of Jack Coughlan and Associates, industrial archaeologist Dr Colin Rynne and Imagination Ltd. Of all the buildings on the site, the steam engine building required the least amount of restoration work. Some water that had seeped through the roof had caused some deterioration of timber work, but in general, the building remained as it was built, one hundred years previously. The roofs were re-slated, with the maximum amount of slate salvaged and re-used. All steel and timber trusses were retained. Two modern interventions were made to this building. Firstly, a viewing gallery was inserted to allow visitors a fully accessible birds’ eye view of the steam engines without the necessity to enter the engine room via the exterior stone steps. Secondly, large glass doors were inserted to the two arches to the boiler house. These openings were originally without doors as the coal to feed the boilers was piled outside the buildings and shovelled by the stokers. The engines and boilers still remain in the buildings today.
The chimney stack, 44 metres in height from the base to the capping, was designed to disperse the exhaust fumes from the boilers and to help create a draught to the boilers. The condition of the chimney stack was first surveyed by steeplejacks and conserved as appropriate. Originally the second engine house with its own boiler room and coal store, was completed in 1863, with the exception of the second engine room to the east, which was completed c.1868. This building had not been used as anything more than a store for many years and had serious problems with the roofs and exterior stonework in particular. The roofs were re-slated and counter battened to allow for insulation.
In April 2018, the Lifetime Lab rebranded itself as the Old Cork Waterworks Experience. In June 2018, the Old Cork Waterworks Experience was been given a major boost as Fáilte Ireland have awarded funding from its new Storytelling Interpretation Grants Scheme to enhance the existing visitor experience. As part of its wider strategy to boost tourism and revenue across Ireland’s regions, Fáilte Ireland launched the scheme last year to improve the quality of animation and storytelling at existing attractions throughout Ireland’s Ancient East. Successful bids such as the Old Waterworks were recognised for their ability to improve the quality of physical interpretation at their sites through a range of innovative resources including audio guides, video and interactive technology.
Water Heritage Open Day at Old Cork Waterworks Experience, Lee Road, Cork, Sunday 26 August, 11am-4pm
960a. Cork Waterworks & Sundays Well, c.1900 from K McCarthy & Dan Breen’s Cork City Through Time (2012)
960b. Buildings of Old Cork Waterworks Experience, 2017 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)