Big thank you from

Roadmen and repairs



A postcard depicting Bow Street, Lisburn before the era of the motorcar.

A postcard depicting Bow Street, Lisburn before the era of the motorcar.

In 1903 it was reported in the Lisburn Standard that Hillsborough Rural Council heard a report outlining a scheme for the improvement and reorganisation of the system of road maintenance. It was suggested that the main part of any improvement scheme would be the introduction of steam rolling. The report stated that it was recognised that steam rolling was absolutely necessary for the efficient maintenance of macadam roads and that the road would give off less mud and dust. Other advantages included less scraping and sweeping, and a reduction of about 25 per cent in the materials formerly applied. A recommendation was made that the current maintenance contracts were allowed to lapse and a scheme put into operation on the Main Road from Belfast to Lisburn between Drum Road in Ballyaughlis and Largymore county boundary. Similar schemes were to be put into operation on the Main Road from Lisburn to Saintfield between Lisburn to Ballynahinch Road at Lisnastrean and on the Belfast to Ballynahinch Road at the Temple in Carricknaveigh.

In 1906 tenders were invited for steam rolling and repairing the road leading from Hilden road, near the railway tunnel to the Lagan via Bridge Street, Hilden. The probable cost was given as £100. In 1911 a report on road maintenance was presented to an inquiry in the Town hall in Lisburn by Mr. Cowan, the Chief Engineering Inspector of Local Government. It was noted that “the lamentable condition of the streets has for a long time been the subject of unfavourable comment, but the council have at last taken the bull by the horns by formulating an extensive scheme…”

Mr. Cowan recommended that the town surveyor ask for tenders for both machine and hand broken stones. He also recommended that provision be made for the supply of 80 tons per day and should arrange that two steam rollers should be working at once. It was reported that Mr. Cowan could see no reason why the council could not make an experiment with tarmacadam in the Spring of 1912. It was stated that the cost of tarring a road five yards wide at one penny per square yard amounted to £56 and 13shillings per mile. The use of the steam-roller would become common practice throughout the district. In April 1936, Lisburn Urban Council accepted a quotation of 25 shillings per day for the hire of a steam roller from Mr. William Belshaw.

In February of 1912 a speed limit of 9 miles per hour was set in Lisburn due to the fact that motor cars were being blamed for raising dust. The problem with dust in the summer and mud in the winter time prompted complaints from shopkeepers in Bow Street, Lisburn. The Urban Council were uncertain as to whether tarmacadam or tar spraying would prevent dust altogether. They employed a man and horse to water the streets at a cost to ratepayers of £15 to £20 per year.

In July 1913 the problem of excess dust was highlighted by 16 ratepayers residing in the Park Parade/ Llewellyn Avenue of Lisburn by way of a letter of complaint to the Town Clerk. They had previously requested water to be sprinkled on the road to lay the dust and they alleged this had not been done satisfactorily. The enormous increase in motor traffic was highlighted as the source of the excess dust. It was reported that the matter had been passed to the Streets Committee, who were trying to resolve the matter. The town surveyor, James Johnston reported that he had witnessed the watering done at Park Parade three times the previous week and he further added that he had “threatened the contractor several times” that he would stop his money. Mr Johnson added that this “was really the only way to get him (contractor) to attend.” The local Doctor had also observed the cart going down to the area in question but he had noted that there was hardly any water in it adding that “the driver seemed to be too lazy to go back for more.” It was suggested that perhaps tar or oil spraying would be the solution to preventing excess dust.

Tar spraying would not please everyone. In 1924 concerns over the tar spraying of roads had been raised at the Brookhill and Broomhedge branch of the Ulster Farmer’s Union. It was reported that the members there expressed their personal experiences of the dangers arising to horses proceeding to the Belfast and Lisburn markets due to tar spraying. Similar concerns were highlighted at the Dundrod Farmer’s Union meeting that year. They alleged that the tarring of the Hannahstown Road would be dangerous to horses.

In January 1925 Redmond Jeffersons Ltd., Bow Street, Lisburn had found the perfect solution. They were advertising “Dick’s Horse Shoepads” and claimed they would “prevent slipping on tarred roads and restore the natural growth of the foot.” “Treat your horse to a pair of pads and keep it on its feet!” Later that year the County Surveyor reported that unclassified roads throughout the rural district have been kept in fair order considering the weather conditions and the increase of heavy traffic. In Lisburn there was concern that the surface men were losing a great deal of time on the roads, having to shelter from the rain. It was suggested that they be provided with oilskins with a probable cost of £70. The men, however, preferred to take a 2 shilling increase in their weeks wages at that time!

In 1931 Down District Council published proposed wages for those men who worked on 1st and 2nd class roads, and engaged in working with tar. This provides us with an excellent insight into the various jobs each man had to carry out. Those who worked in the tar spraying gangs applying tar or bituminous dressing and cleaned the boiler were paid 1 shilling a day. The same wage would be paid to a man who came to light the fire of the boiler and assisted in cleaning it out. The men who applied binding material and hoisted and removed casks would be given 6 pence a day. The foreman was entitled to 1 shilling a day. Those men engaged on small hand drawn boiler gang work would not receive as much. There are still those in the district who can recall the horse drawn tar-boilers mounted on iron wheels trundling along behind the roadmen’s cart. Several barrels of tar were carried on the cart, having been rolled onto it using several planks. It was not an uncommon sight to see the tar-boiler left in the stone recess overnight for the next days work. Some recall seeing a roadman trawling the roadside early each morning, seeking out sticks, to place in the grate of the boiler in order to have it lit, prior to the day’s work. One retired roadman, of forty years on the roads, recalled many of the antics of the roadmen of yesteryear. It was a standard practice to play tricks on each other. One of the favourites was to block the pipe on the tar-boiler, preventing it from lighting, much to the annoyance of the man designated to have it ready each morning.

The debate over tar spraying would continue. In April 1948 it was reported that complaints had been received about the condition of the road from Aghalee to Crumlin which had been sprayed the previous November. It was alleged that the stones had not stuck to the tar. Similar complaints were received at Dundrod and Dunmurry Lane. It was agreed that part payment would be withheld from the contractors, pending the respraying of the roads again.

Despite the complaints and grievances over the years, the roadmen were a necessity within communities. Each roadman was a well-known figure in the local neighbourhood. Local men would spend many years of their working lives repairing and maintaining roads for the benefit of the traveller. Some of the names of the men who worked the roads to the north of Lisburn can still be recalled. They include Billy Thompson, Jimmy Sloan, Billy Hoey, Isaac Ellis, Albert Harris, Billy Flanagan, John McKnight, John McCaul, James Easton and Jimmy Geddis.

Tar-boilers had another use in years gone by. Many of the older folk believed that one of the cures for asthma in children was to have them breathe in the fumes given off by the heated tar. Many children had their first introduction to the local roadmen this way. The horse-drawn tar boilers, stone recesses and stones being broken by hand are now all confined to pages of our history books.

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