As the SGN Natural Gas network beds down in Strabane, a former employee of the old gasworks which served the town for almost a century, takes a fascinating trip down memory lane and welcomes an exciting new era for local homes and businesses now connecting to natural gas.
Strabane pensioner Patsy Rouse has created a significant piece of local history by witnessing both the arrival of electricity back in the 1940's and the recently installed natural gas network in the town.
The 93-year-old town gasworks veteran enjoyed a lengthy career spanning four decades at the former Park Road site and, he remains a firm advocate of mains gas for his home energy supply.
Patsy, together with his son Patsy and wife Marcella who live next door to each other in Ballycolman Avenue,had both adjoining homes connected to natural gas as soon as it was available in their area.
Having devoted his entire working life to helping operate the town’s gas supply, he is delighted with the arrival of natural gas in Strabane, thirty years after he retired from the industry.
Born in 1925, Patsy had served his time as a young mechanic when he was offered work as an engineer at Strabane’s municipal gasworks in 1946. He was happy to take the job which paid “big wages” for a 21-year-old who married his late wife Bridie the same year - his first pay packet was half a crown, the equivalent of £3 in today’s currency, for working 49 hours a week.
Patsy notched up 40 years’ unbroken service before retiring aged 63 when the old gasworks ceased operations. He was there with the last remaining staff until the day the gates finally shut in 1988 as the ageing infrastructure which had served its purpose from the early 1900's ran its course.
Patsy worked in a number of roles including his early days as a labourer, meter collector and happily taking on additional responsibilities in subsequent years to ensure the town’s trusted gas supply remained operational 24/7, later moving into customer sales and servicing gas appliances.
In the days before Strabane’s street lights were converted to electricity, one of Patsy’s jobs was out on his bicycle lighting the gas lamps across the town, returning the next morning to put them all out again.
He and his colleagues continued to perform this daily ritual using a hook to pull a chain on new strip lights powered by electric until a more modernised ‘on-off’ system eventually became automated.
Recalling the days when the town’s population increasingly relied on mains gas, Patsy said: “The biggest percentage of people were cooking with gas, even just a single ring. Virtually every house had gas cookers and heaters. When electricity came in, some households changed over.”
Patsy and his colleagues worked at the coal-face of the operation which produced gas on site in the town, a world away from the high-tech engineering associated with the development of the new SGN Natural Gas network which is currently being extended into eight key towns in the western area.
Workers at the old gasworks were paid two shillings per ton of coal wheeled in wooden barrows into the stoke house where it was burned into coke. One memorable day which Patsy dates back in the 1950's saw himself and a colleague wheel 100 tonnes of coal from 8am-6pm for which they were paid the handsome sum of a fiver each.
Coal was brought to Strabane through the many decades when the gasworks was operational, by horse and cart, later by canal boat and railway and, when both those transport routes closed, in lorries.
One of Patsy’s abiding memories was the sweltering heat of the furnaces. It was common for workers to wear shorts and douse themselves from a nearby water tank to try and cool down.
“I saw me having to change my clothes twice in one night,” recalled Patsy who explained that the gas passed from underground vats into a purifying shed to remove any remaining dust and dirt before ending up in the distinctive large holders where it was stored before being piped underground into homes.
Reminiscing from his super cosy home this week, Patsy said he had looked forward to going to work every single day and has only happy memories of his employment at the old Strabane ‘Gas House’.
While the old coin-fed gas meters he collected, into which a penny or shilling were inserted are now a distant memory, it is still just as easy for households to budget through a range of payment options such as a pre-pay card to top up your natural gas supply so that it never runs out.
Having chosen gas as his family’s home energy supply all his life, Patsy says he is delighted just how easy it was to switch recently from LPG to natural gas and he would encourage other Strabane residents to do the same now that the investment in the new energy infrastructure is firmly in place.
“I never thought we would have gas in the town again, it’s a great job and cleaner too,” he said.
His son Patsy and wife Marcella Rouse are also enjoying the benefits of switching to natural gas including having instant home heating and hot water. The removal of two LPG tanks in their back yard also means additional space has been freed up for parking cars when their family come to visit.