The Sulphate of Ammonia Co. Ltd. (Carnlough) by Linda McNeill

This article originally appeared in The Glynns Volume 8(1980).  It is re-presented here with additional images and hyperlinks.  Also presented is a short article by Frank Rogers and Bobby McMullan (GOAHS) and John Hulme (CDHS) in the Hidden gems and Forgotten People series (Glens of Antrim Historical Society & Carrickfergus Historical Society)

Harphall townland
Harphall and surrounding townlands in Glencloy. (NIOS. Crown Copyright)

Some suspicion was aroused in the area of Glencloy in the early 1900’s when an American and a German, Messrs. H.C. Woltrick and G.W. Mottram, appeared frequently in the village of Carnlough.Although spying seemed evident at the time, it later turned out to be greatly to the advantage of the villagers. The fact was, both men had arrived in England in 1899 to demonstrate the process for the production of white lead by electrolysis. They had ventured to Northern Ireland where they discovered after much research that the mountain behind Carnlough, in the townland of Harphall, was particularly rich in the type of peat from which ammonia could be extracted. Thus the venture began and a limited syndicate was formed to carry on the work.

However, sufficient preparation had not been completed to ensure economic production and early in 1904 the business was taken over by the Chemical Proprietory Co. Ltd. with a capital of £100,000. Woltrick and Mottram remained directors and it was not long before this new company also ran into difficulties. It was reconstructed as Chemicals Ltd. in late 1904.

On 28th November, 1904 an agreement was drawn up between Mr. James Gault, owner of the Mully Park, and Chemicals Ltd. in the presence of J.W. McNinch, solicitor of Larne. The Company wished to build an aerial Ropeway across Mr. Gault’s land. The terms of the agreement were as follows:—

“You are to construct your aerial Ropeway through my land known as Mullough Park in the townland of Harphall Carnlough on the line shown on the map prepared by your engineer or as near thereto as circumstances will permit.

The said Railway to go through my lands for a distance of one mile and three furlongs or thereabouts. You are to be at liberty to use any stone you may find in my ground for the purpose of constructing the foundation for the trestles of your railway but you are to do as little damage in procuring the stone as you possibly can.

After the Railway has been constructed you are to be at liberty by your servants or workmen to enter my lands from time to time and view the condition of said Railway and make any repairs thereto but no trespass is to be committed upon my lands that can reasonably be avoided.

You are not to sanction the keeping of dogs by your workmen or servants so that as far as possible my sheep and cattle may be undisturbed upon my ground.

If at any time you shall decide to work the peat or to contstruct any other works save and except the aerial Ropeway on my ground the amount to be paid me for damages is to be then settled between us but it is understood the amount agreed on in this writing is to be exclusive of any such special damage.

The term of this agreement shall be the period of forty two years commencing on the thirty first day of October one thousand nine hundred and four but you are to have the liberty of putting an end to the agreement at the end of every period of seven years by giving to me six calendar months previous notice in writing and on paying up your rent and on removing from my ground all building structures and materials this agreement is to terminate and be at an end. 

You are to pay all rates and taxes (if any) that may be imposed upon the said aerial Railway as far as it passes through my ground.

In working the said Railway, the buckets shall be kept at such a height from the ground that they shall not cause any danger to the sheep or other animals grazing on the lands and any damages that may be done to any sheep or other animals by the working of the said Railway shall be paid for by you. 

The annual rent to be paid by you to me shall be the sum of thirty pounds a year payable half yearly upon the first May and first November; the first half years payment to be made on the first May one thousand nine hundred and five.

I will execute any agreement lease or other assurance that you may think necessary for carrying this agreement into effect but the costs incurred by the execution of such document shall be borne by you. You are to accept this agreement under the common seal of your Company within one month from this date.

The agreement was signed by two company directors and the company secretary, H.J. Humphries. On 10th December, 1904 it was registered in Dublin and stamped ‘Legal’ by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue. So early in 1905 a dining-room and huts for sleeping were erected in the mountain; and an office, staff house and retorts were built at the foot of the mountain at what Mr. R. Abrams calls the ‘Low Station’. The aerial Ropeway, supported by 24 trestles in a straight line down the mountain side and over the Cranny River to the Low Station was also built.

The aerial Ropeway was to carry numerous buckets which were to circulate continuously in a clockwise direction up and down the mountain side. They would be loaded with peat at the top of the mountain and carry it down to the Low Station to be unloaded and burned in the large retorts. Tools such as stone hammers and peat knives were purchased to aid the workers cut the peat. Some 200 people were employed, male and female, to make this exciting new adventure a success. People flocked from all arts and parts of Ireland, including many tramps. Men and women from Glenariff ventured over the hills to find employment. Naturally many of the villagers from Carnlough were eager to seek work here. Being so convenient to the village (about five miles there and back) meant that they could stay at home with their wives and families.

At that time the main and virtually only industry in Carnlough was the mining of limestone in the quarries of which Mr. Foster was the manager. As Chemicals Ltd. were offering higher wages at that time, many of the men left the quarries to join the peat work. This did anything but please Mr. Foster who had the unwelcome task of recruiting fresh labour. Amongst the local people employed were Sgt. Hugh Kane — office clerk, Margaret Holden and Mary Hurl — staff house, Mrs. Felina Mary Jane Grant — housekeeper, Jimmy Magee, the McDermott brothers, Hugh Wilson — foreman, Thomas Wilson — ground measurer, John McGavock, the McCambridge brothers, Robert Campbell, Robert Abram, Joe Smyth, Willie Worthington, Mr. Kelly and Mr. McMullan, Pat Kane and Mr. Towning who married the local girl Kitty McGavock.

Most of the travellers and tramps who worked at the peat lived at the site in the mountain because it was too far for them to travel home. They were accomodated in the huts and when pay day came their board and lodging were taken into consideration. The villagers from Carnlough walked; every morning they would leave the village at five o’clock with their billy cans and lunch boxes. In the summer time the children of the village thought it a great privilege to rise early also and accompany their father or mother a mile or two on the road to work. The production line worked as follows:—

First the ground was surveyed, mapped and drilled for depth. In places it was found to be as deep as 28 feet. The Harphall and Lemnalary peats were especially rich in ammonia. Then the land was squared by drains 6 feet wide and as many deep. Next the overlying sods were cut off and the peat laid bare. Then the actual cutting began and the resultant peats scattered to dry. Later these were ‘footed’ or ‘castled’ until they were 2/3 dry. Railway lines 7 feet wide resting on 12 foot sleepers were laid through the bog. Side lines were laid in conjunction with the main line. The peats were stacked beside the lines and then loaded onto wagons on the main line which were drawn by an engine called “Moor Hen” to the head of the aerial Ropeway. Here they were transferred into buckets and taken by cable to the Low Station at Drumahoe (hill of caves), where they were emptied into the large retorts lined with lead and burned using sulphuric acid. From here the produce was loaded in granule form into trucks and sent down to the harbour for export.

For the first few months production went well and the future for Chemicals Ltd. looked promising. Rumours were that, provided supply could keep up with demand, plans were being made to convert the Cranny River into a canal with lock gates and an additional harbour at the entrance to the canal. This would have been more economical for the Company, less time consuming as boats could come right up to load at the Low Station. But instead Chemicals Ltd. went into liquidation for lack of capital. It was reconstructed as the Sulphate of Ammonia Company with a capital of £125,000 and for the next two years things went well without any hitches.

Many stories were told, and are still told, around Carnlough village by the descendants of the workers. Milk for the Company was supplied by the McGalliard family at Gortin. Each morning two men were designated to go down to Gortin to collect the milk. On arrival they would find a large glass of milk each to quench their thirst before their trek up the mountain again. The milk was carried in two nine quart cans, a total of 18 quarts of milk costing 21/2d a quart of 3/9 a day. However, as days passed Mrs McGalliard received complaints as to the poor quality of her milk.

The McGalliard family could not understand the reason for this as the milk left their farm every morning in perfect condition. Discreetly, they arranged to have the milk tested both before leaving the farm and upon arrival at the plant. It was then discovered that between the dairy and the plant the milk had somehow ac-cumulated a large percentage of water. Finally the truth leaked out; each day the two men enroute for the plant were stopping for a rest and a drink , replacing the milk with water from the burn! Eggs and fowl were also supplied by the McGalliards and the account settled monthly by Sgt. Kane. My great grandfather, Joseph Smyth, worked as telephonist in the office at the Low Station, but his telephone was not the most efficient model on the market. The sound of the ringing was made by two small tin cans knocking together. Thus one had to be very attentive when listening for a call. Nor was the communication system very audible. On one occasion a request by phone was made for “Seven hurricane lamps” and my great grandfather proceeded to make preparations for the arrival of “Seven Larne tramps” he understood to be coming!

During 1905 the plant was working at full capacity and business was thriving with more and more people being employed. Not only did the Company work during the day but also at night as shift work and during the weekend. This suited most of the workers as it gave them a chance to return to their wives and families for a few days. Oil lamps were brought down every morning from the mountain and left at the Low Station to be trimmed.  At this stage Company personnel were firmly established at the Low Station. Messrs. Buller, Towning and Mottram lived in the four houses built for overseers, whilst the clerks etc. lived in the staffhouse. Sgt. Kane, who resided at the bank in Carnlough, was appointed wages clerk. On one accasion he mislaid the wages cheque which had been given to him for all the workers. A great search was made for the cheque but in vain and a new one had to be written. However, many years later his sister Sarah discovered the cheque folded up inside a book — better late than never!

Early in 1908 production was almost at a standstill due to the decreasing ammonia content of the peat and the unavailability of further capital. First the tramps and travellers were made redundant and finally the villagers. These now had to bow humbly to Mr. Foster to recover their old jobs in the quarries. Some never worked again, like Joe Smyth who, after walking miles up and down to the plant in all sorts of storms and downpours developed arthritis in the spine and remained in a wheel chair for the rest of his life, a span of a further twenty five years.

Mr. Woods, a worker at the plant, remained at Drumahoe as care taker for a further five years during which time there were two auctions to sell off the machinery and remaining equipment. A Mr. Jamison of Larne bought the timber of the dining-room and huts which was brought down from the mountain in buckets and forwarded to Larne by carter’s lorry. The aerial Ropeway itself was purchased by a Cumberland coal mining company. Under the direction of Hugh and Thomas Wilson it was re-erected at St. Bee’s Head where, it is believed, it is still in use for conveying pit refuse to the sea.

Lord (Herbert Lionel) Henry Vane-Tempest (National Portrait Gallery.)
Lord (Herbert Lionel) Henry Vane-Tempest (National Portrait Gallery.)

On 6th January, 1913 the land on which the plant stood was sold under the Irish Land Act of 1903 by Lord Herbert Vane Tempest to the tenant, Alexander Montgomery of Harphall for the sum of £1029. William Clarke Robinson, ‘gentleman’, of Carnlough witnessed the deed of conveyance. The sale was subject to the Sulphate of Ammonia Company or their assigns or agents having the right to remove the aerial Ropeway until the 1st June 1913, provided they made good any damage done in so doing. However, it was not till 1919 or 1920 that the ropeway was finally removed. Today few remains of the peat works can be seen other than the ruins of the mountain terminal of the Ropeway and a few pylon bases in a line down the mountain side to the Low Station. Since 1944 the land has been the property of Mr. William Wharry.

In conclusion I should add that in researching this venture I discovered that the Sulphate of Ammonia Company was in no way connected with the present I.C.I. firm of Richardsons which uses basically the same process for the manufacture of fertilisers. Most of the information gleaned for this article has been by verbal contact with descendants of workers at the plant, to each of whom I am grateful for their assistance.

Hidden gems and Forgotten People

(Glens of Antrim Historical Society & Carrickfergus Historical Society)


Ruins of accomodation and dining hall for peat diggers for The Ammonium Sulphate plant at Carnlough.  PHOTO: Cameron Kane (CDHS)

The ruins are situated on the high moorlands amongst the hills about two and a half miles to the west of Carnlough and can be accessed by following the Cranny River along Whitehill Road towards the source of the river. These ruins suddenly appear and dominate the skyline looking like remains of an isolated monastic settlement in this beautiful but desolate landscape.

 In the early 1900s two gentlemen, an American, CW Mottram, and a German, H.C. Woltrick discovered, after some research, that the peat in the area was particularly rich in ammonia. After some preparations and setbacks, a firm called Chemicals Ltd in about 1902 began to exploit these reserves of peat that contained other chemicals as well as ammonia.
The ruined building was principally a dining hall to feed the army of peat diggers and around this were hutments to provide sleeping accommodation for the numerous labourers many of them tramps that came from beyond Carnlough. It must have been a considerable complex. Wagons drawn by a steam engine brought the peat from the workings after it dried to a two-mile overhead ropeway, whose concrete and metal anchor points are still visible. This was constructed to convey the peat in buckets down to the processing works in Carnlough. Here the peat was apparently reacted with caustic soda and the resultant gas passed through sulphuric acid to produce ammonium sulphate, a nitrogen rich fertiliser.
All that is left on the moors are the ruins of the dining hall. This very promising industry that gave a great deal of employment was abandoned in 1908, due it is thought, to a lower content of ammonia in the peat that was practical for them to use. After only six years of operation most of the equipment was sold off leaving only the shell of the accommodation, as well as the concrete foundations of the processing plant in Carnlough. The long aerial ropeway was dismantled in 1920.


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