Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 29 August 2019
Tales from 1919: The Burning of the Metropole Laundry
A few minutes before 2am on Saturday night, 30 August 1919 some people passing along King Street (now MacCurtain Street) and the police on duty in the vicinity of St Patrick’s Church, observed flames emerging from the roof of the Metropole Laundry on Alfred Street. Within ten minutes the whole roof of the building was enveloped and the interior of the Laundry becoming a seething mass of flames. The block of buildings besides the Laundry and its offices comprised some well-known Cork businesses – the sweet and confectionery works of Hadji Bey and Company (their shop was within the Metropole Hotel frontage), Messrs Avery and Company, a shop belonging to Mr D R Baker, while adjoining the building at the western end or King Street end was the stone and monument construction works of Mr J A O’Connell.
The Metropole Sanitary Steam Laundry company – one of the city’s largest laundries – was launched by the Southern Metropole Hotels, Cork on 24 February 1898. The extensive premises with frontage on Alfred Street had been a skating rink. It also had frontage onto lower King Street. It was opened in March 1898 as a public steam laundry. The Directors of the company visited several of the leading London, and Provincial Steam Laundries, selected the very modern American, patent washing and ironing machines. A separate portion of the premises was to be fitted up for carpet beating and general cleaning works. In 1919, the Metropole Laundry was one of five city laundry operations – the other four being Cork Hand Laundry on Drinan Street, Munster Steam Laundry on South Terrace, Convent of Good Shepherd Convent and St Mary’s Magdalen Asylum on St Mary’s Road. The Metropole Laundry operated till 1953 when its operations were moved to Millfield in Blackpool. The site was subsequently taken over by Chris O’Mahony Volkswagen Dealers.
How the outbreak of fire in 1919 occurred is not known, but it spread with rapidity. The Cork Examiner records that the laundry was gutted within thirty or forty minutes from the time the outbreak was noticed. The Cork Fire Brigade was called on telephone and were on the scene within a few minutes. Police from the police station on King Street and soldiers from the nearby Soldiers’ Homes also arrived. Many nearby residents were awoken by the general commotion and watched the fire from their doors and windows, and their adjacent footpath.
When the Fire Brigade under Mr T Higgins arrived, they proceeded to lay out a line of hoses from the street to each side of the burning building. Unfortunately, any attempt to extinguish the fire in the Laundry was useless as the material fabric of the building burned like matchwood. During the progress of the fire in the Metropole Laundry portion of the block, the boilers burst.
The Fire Brigade men then directed their attention to endeavouring to restrict the area of the conflagration. The fire had entered the end of Mr O’Connell Works nearest the Laundry building and at this point the Brigade men concentrated their efforts to stop its further progress in that direction. Men in charge of the hose at the other side also endeavoured to cut off the fire at Messrs Avery’s. Several people, including a sailor and some soldiers, saved some stock from Messrs Avery’s but the fire made such extraordinary headway that very little could be done beyond look at the blaze while the firemen were directing the lines of hose at each side with a view to saving the adjacent building and property. At one time it looked as if the YMCA (Red Triangle) Hut would be involved.
Notable amongst those engaged in the saving work was a party of sailors, one of whom, J Lindsay of HMS Heather, Queenstown, got a very bad cut in left wrist from some of the falling glass. He was attended to promptly by Sergeant Gloster and some civilians, but so serious was the cut and so great the loss of blood that he became weak, and he was taken to the North Infirmary by Fireman P Higgins on the Fire Brigade car. On arrival at the Infirmary he was at once seen and attended to by Dr W Galvin, who dressed the wounded hand.
The heat from the laundry conflagration was so intense that the paint from some of the hall doors on the opposite side of the street was burned off. After much hard work the fire brigade succeeded in containing the fire to a portion of Messrs O’Connell’s, and the St Patrick’s Art Works on the western side of the Laundry, which had been destroyed before the Brigade came on the scene.
On the Alfred Street side of the building, where the stabling of Messrs Musgrave was situated, the work of saving the large number of valuable horses stabled within began. Over twenty animals were brought to safety. In addition the saving of hotel buses and other cars were undertaken by the constabulary and a large number of willing workers.
1012a. Former site of Metropole laundry Alfred Street on right hand side of photograph, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy).
1012b. Advertisement for Metropole Laundry from 1910s Cork Street Directory (source: Cork City Library).
1012c. Sections of Goad’s insurance map of Alfred Street, 1915 showing Metropole Laundry facility (source: Cork City Library).