The Shop Part One -1938 by Geoff Cronin
My father, Richard (Dick) Cronin, born in 1881 at 12 John Street Waterford, set up business at that address under the style and title of Cronin’s Bakery. His father Owen Cronin, born in 1846, had bought the premises in about 1875 and had carried on business there selling bread, hardware, flour and meal, and trading in grain on the world market. In fact, he was importing wheat from Canada, among other countries, when the Canadian Pacific railway was being built.
Having gone to Limerick at age 16, my father served an apprenticeship of seven years with the Waterford & Limerick Railway, and became a qualified fitter. (My son Frank has the original indenture papers). He later worked for Dublin Port & Docks Authority as a fitter/engineer, and saw the introduction of the first turbines in Dublin Port. In 1904 he joined the British Royal Navy as an ERA – Engine Room Artificer, and served on Destroyers, Cruisers and Battleships, including a term in the China Seas.
I still remember the names of two of the ships he served on. One was “The Barfleur”, a First-class battleship, and another was “The Vengence”, a Canopus class battleship, which had twelve-inch guns with a range of approximately twenty miles.
HMS Vengeance In Hong Kong Circa 1905
In 1912 he came out of the Navy and returned home to Waterford to work the business with his father.
In the interim, Owen Cronin had bought a grist mill in Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny, about two miles from Waterford City, and subsequently acquired a neighbouring property of some 37 acres on which stood a gate lodge, a school, and a fine old residence occupied by (I think) the Presentation Nuns, who ran the school. This property included “the pond” which formed the headrace for the mill, which could run for a day and a night on the full of the pond.
Over the next few years they set up a modern bakery at Kilmacow, a thriving milling business grinding oats, wheat, barley and maize for sale to the local farmers and to supply the shop in Waterford.
My father used his engineering expertise to set up an electricity generating system for the mill and bakery, and also built the new bakery there. He subsequently modernized the shop in John Street, built a new bakehouse there of some 2,400 sq. feet, and installed a pair of Thompson Steam-Tube draw-plate ovens in it, together with a power driven Dough Mixer and Dough Divider. All the machinery was powered by a Crossley gas engine, for which a new engine room was built, and a gas producer, run on coal and coke was installed to feed the Crossley. Finally, as there was no public electricity in existence, a dynamo was hooked up to the Crossley and electric power and light was produced for the house and the shop. At a time when public lighting was by gaslights, which was fairly dim, the shop stood out like a jewel in John Street.
The business of the mill and two bakeries had been booming and in 1920, prior to the big modernisation programme at John Street, my father had married Claire Spencer and they began living over the shop – my grandfather having retired to live in the house at the mill in Kilmacow.
However, just at the point where my father had launched the new business, disaster struck. There was a country-wide strike by agricultural Labourers, and all my father’s employees went out on strike in sympathy with them, even though he had no dispute with them. In fact, they were the best paid workers in the city. The net result was that the two bakeries and the mill had to close down and even our grain store in Conduit Lane off the quays, was picketed. There were forty men on the payroll at that time.
A cargo of oats had been purchased just before the strike and was stored, loose in Conduit Lane on four floors of the building, and my mother, who was pregnant at the time, had to help out at the store by turning the oats with a miller’s shovel to prevent the grain from overheating and going bad, and hopefully saving the cargo.
Millstone from Cronin’s Mills Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny – Now demolished.
I was born in September of that year, 1923, and the men had stayed out for eleven months, which resulted in a huge bank overdraft for my father, as he had lost heavily during the strike.
In the twelfth month, a deputation arrived at the door of the shop at midnight, with the proposal that “the lads would be satisfied to come back to work on the following Monday” even though the agricultural labourers were still on strike.
Needless to say by that time the whole injustice of the thing had stuck “crosswise” in my father’s gullet, and he replied in caustic terms, comparing them to “a pack of cowardly cur dogs come back to lick up their vomit.” “Well,” he said, “it was swept out 12 months ago!”
He never employed one of them again, or even any of their relatives.
By the end of the strike the modernisation programme, which was to have been a huge success, ended up – not just for that reason – as a struggle to overtake the losses which had been incurred during the strike. But my father did overtake those losses, chiefly by concentrating on the trade in flour and grain, and he showed an uncanny instinct in watching the grain market and taking some huge gambles on the movement of international prices. In short, he brought the business back into profit over the next seven or eight years, and ended up – by repute – one of the richest men in the city.
As part of the recovery plan, my father established a poultry farm at the mill in Kilmacow, and to do this, he purchased the winners of the world’s laying competitions held in England, and also the prize-winning hens of various breeds of fowl all over Britain. The breeds he bought were Buff Rocks, White Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Jersey Giants, White and Black Leghorns, and the produce, eggs, were being exported at good prices to England.
Then in the 1930s, the Irish government, led by deValera, embarked on the “Economic War”. All the ports were closed to imports and exports, and anything which had to be imported was subject to prohibitive tariffs and excise duty. Up to then, Waterford was exporting huge numbers of livestock, cattle, sheep and pigs, and we had the largest bacon factory in Europe, namely Denny’s. In fact, most of the employment in the city was provided in the docks. The shipping industry, in all its aspects, was the lifeblood of the city which was known as “Waterford of The Ships”.
As far as the Cronin business was concerned, the effect was disastrous. There was no more export of eggs, the price of which fell from one shilling and sixpence a dozen, to fourpence a dozen, which was absolutely uneconomic, and I recall that three hundred pure-bred champion fowl were sold to a poulterer for seventeen pounds – a mere fraction of their value.
Flour, maize and all grain could no longer be imported, and the grain store had to close down. The mill also ceased to function and in fact, all mills had to be licensed and be given a quota saying how much you would be allowed to grind. Our capacity at Kilmacow as 200 tons per week, but when our license came, the quota was two and a half tons per week. At that point, my grandfather closed the mill. The bakery there had already closed following the strike.
The effect of the economic war on the national economy was devastating. The farmers suffered immeasurably due to lack of markets. For instance, they were told by politicians to “throw the calves in the ditch”, and I vividly remember seeing two calves being sold outside our shop for one shilling and sixpence, and a three year old bullock being sold in the street for thirty shillings. Milk was being poured down the drains – literally – and the object of the whole exercise was “to starve John Bull”, cutting off all our own lifelines in the process, and it lasted long enough to shrink the Cronin business to near extinction.
©Geoff Cronin 2005
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read the previous chapters of The Colour of Life in this directory: