My father-in-law, Geoff Cronin was a raconteur with a encyclopedic memory spanning his 93 years. He sadly died in 2017 but not before he had been persuaded to commit these memories of his childhood and young adulthood in Waterford in the 1920s to the 1940s.
The books are now out of print, but I know he would love to know that his stories are still being enjoyed, and so I am repeating the original series of his books. I hope those who have already read these stories will enjoy again and that new readers will discover the wonderful colour of life in Ireland nearly 100 years ago.
The Shop and Bakery – 1900 – 1938
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.
Richard Cronin Circa 1905
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.
During this period, my grandfather died, the mill was sold (for buttons) to appease the bank and “the Convent” and its lands were also sold, leaving only the shop and a shrinking trade in bread.
Next came the Government order controlling the price of bread, a vote-catching ploy. The price of flour and other ingredients was not controlled, nor were wages, fuel etc. Our staff shrank to four or five, and the writing was on the wall.
The family home had been in Woodstown from 1928 to 1942, and about 1936 my father was taken ill with mastoid trouble in both ears, and spent almost 12 months in hospital in Dublin.
During that time, my mother cycled into Waterford very early each morning – 8 miles – and ran the business, cycling home to Woodstown each night. My father had ten operations on his ears and throat, and seven of those were done by Oliver St. John Gogarty, and three were done by Dr. Curtin, a surgeon at the Eye and Ear Hospital in Adelaide Road, Dublin. Gogarty was a high-flying social figure at the time, and had his own private aeroplane and his own nursing home in Baggot Street, and he charged the earth for his services. My father paid him £300 for one operation, which was not successful and ended up having the job successfully done by Dr. Curtin, whose fee was £30!
Anyway, the final chapters concerning the shop in John Street are detailed elsewhere in this saga, but to give you some idea of the scale of operations, I shall enumerate the staff, which consisted of the following:-
Three shop assistants cum bookkeepers
Three van men
Three porters cum cleaners and delivery
One engine attendant and
Three housemaids, who lived in.
The balance of forty was employed in the mill and the grain store on the docks.
I should mention also that our bread was famous for quality and our Christmas Bracks were known worldwide. I can remember tea-chests being filled with bracks and shipped to Australia and America. When the bakery was in full swing, we were using a hundred sacks of flour per week, which was two hundred ten-stone bags and at the end this was down to two and a half sacks per week.
During the war – which was known as “the emergency” – the law was such that no white flour could be milled or used to make bread. The order of the day was brown flour and brown bread – known as “Black Bread”. This regime went on from 1939 to 1947, and the law was rigidly enforced, any contravention being met by heavy fines or imprisonment.
Things, however, had become desperate, and we (my father and I) decided to enter the black market in white flour to try to save the business. My father’s expertise in the milling business came into play here, and through various contacts, a length of milling silk was obtained and he and I went to work each night after the shop closed, and worked until 2 a.m. sifting the regulation brown flour into its components, i.e. white flour, bran and pollard, and everything had to be cleaned up and hidden before the bakehouse staff came on duty at 4 a.m. The white flour could then be sold for one pound per stone – the brown flour cost approximately three shillings and six pence per stone, and a very small amount of white bread was baked twice a week to cater for invalids and such like.
The drill was that I would get up first in the mornings and open the shop and start the day’s work, get the one van loaded and deal with the early morning trade. My father would stay in bed until about eleven and then appear in the shop.
Now my father was a short man, only 5 ft 4½ ins. tall, but he was fifteen stone in weight – 46 ins. in the chest and 48 ins plus in the waist – and after a late night was often too tired for formality. He just kicked off his shoes, loosened his tie, and dropped his pants where he stood, and fell into bed practically fully clothed, minus shoes and pants.
Richard Cronin Circa 1922
On one particular occasion, when I opened the shop in the morning, a Jewish businessman from Dublin arrived and quietly asked me for eight stone of white flour in eight separate bags. I took out a ten-stone bag from hiding, and weighed out the eight bags onto the counter, stowing the remainder under the counter. I then took the money and proceeded to close up the eight bags which the client was taking out to his car. Our most trusted employee, Jimmy, was standing by keeping an eye out on the street for anyone who looked like a government inspector.
Just as I was closing bag number eight, Jimmy whistled from the street, and in walked a man unmistakably an inspector.
“I want to see the proprietor!” he said, in a peremptory tone.
“Just one moment, sir” I said, as I handed bag number eight to the customer, who departed swiftly.
“Jimmy,” I called, “This man wants to see the boss. Would you run upstairs and call him please?”
Jimmy knew exactly what was going on, and he duly went upstairs and woke my father with the announcement that there was an inspector downstairs in the shop.
As described by Jimmy afterwards, “The man leapt out of bed, jumped into his trousers, shouldered his braces, and stepped into his shoes while donning his jacket, glasses and hat.” Thus composed, he arrived into the shop, every inch the proprietor, and invited the inspector, who incidentally had declared himself, to accompany him into the office.
Meanwhile, I told Jimmy to take the half sack of white flour to the shop next door, and say he’d collect it later.
The inspector had been seated in the office with my father standing over him. The man seemed to go quite pale, and got up to leave, with my father following him. I didn’t hear what had been said earlier, but as he got to the door, my father took him gently by the arm, and nose to nose, said quietly “I wouldn’t come back here if I were you – it would be very VERY unhealthy, and another thing, Mister, this country will never be right until people like you are strung up by the arse and shot like a dog in the street.” The man walked away, very quickly, and he never came back.
My father stood at the counter, his face flushed with a dying anger and I saw him struggling to get his hand into his trousers pocket, unsuccessfully, and no wonder, for he had his trousers on back to front! Jimmy saw his predicament and guffawed, and then I saw it and I laughed out loud, and then my father, standing on his dignity up to then, spotted the problem and groaned “Oh Bloody Wars” before exploding into laughter.
So ended a very funny episode, which I recall with great affection for my father.
Owen Cronin – My Paternal Grandfather
Owen Cronin was born in 1846, the year of the great famine, and I believe he came from Fermoy, Co. Cork. He died when I was quite young and in all of my memory of him, he lived in the mill house at Kilmacow, Co. Kilkenny. Because of this, I saw him rarely, except for Sunday visits to the mill during which he and my father had long discussions about the price of grain, on world markets, and the business of the mill.
I remember him as a quiet old man, bald, with piercing blue eyes and a walrus moustache. He fascinated me, as a child, and I remember that he had a walking stick with a devil’s face on the knob, which frightened me. My only real contact with him was on the occasions when he used to complain to my mother about my escapades in the mill – and they were many! Most memorable was when I decapitated his prize rooster by throwing a slate at it. His exact words were “That one is a little devil”. Sunday visits to the mill were suspended for three Sundays after that.
Owen Cronin – Circa 1890
My grandfather knew all about horses and horses were his hobby all his life. He was regarded as “a great judge of a horse”. In his young days, he was friendly with a horse dealer named Anderson, who used to buy horses (troopers) for the British Army – and for Charles Bianconi, father of the stagecoach network, which served as public transport at that time. At a later stage Owen Cronin became a friend of the famous Bianconi, and used to buy horses directly for him.
As a young man, he was sent to Leeds, in England, to learn the textile trade. When he returned, he toured the country selling boots, to the mostly barefoot country people.
In or about 1875 he bought the premises at No. 12 John Street from a Mr. Murphy. He then set up shop in grain, feedstuff and hardware. Then, because there was a bake-house attached to the premises, he also set up in the bread business. In time, this became his main trade. Later, he acquired the mill and the Hermitage at Kilmacow.
When my father was married, Owen Cronin gave him the property at John Street, plus a sizeable amount of cash – £10,000, I believe.
Once, I came upon him at his bureau in the mill house, when he was having a raw egg and a glass of whiskey. I was about four years old at the time and asked him for a drink out of his glass. He gave the glass to me, with one of his rare smiles, and I took a goodly slug! I thought I had swallowed a red-hot poker, as I coughed and gasped for breath.
He patted my back and sad to me; “Now boy. What you just had was Drink. So, always remember this… It’s a good servant but a damn bad master!” I never forgot those words.
Owen Cronin was never known to say a bad word about anyone. He was most highly respected in business circles and was noted for his integrity. I just wish I had known him better.
©Geoff Cronin 2005
About Geoff Cronin
I was born at tea time at number 12 John Street, Waterford on September 23rd 1923. My father was Richard Cronin and my mother was Claire Spencer of John Street Waterford. They were married in St John’s Church in 1919.
Things are moving so fast in this day and age – and people are so absorbed, and necessarily so, with here and now – that things of the past tend to get buried deeper and deeper. Also, people’s memories seem to be shorter now and they cannot remember the little things – day to day pictures which make up the larger canvas of life.
It seems to me that soon there may be little or no detailed knowledge of what life was really like in the 1930s in a town – sorry, I should have said City, in accordance with its ancient charter – like Waterford. So I shall attempt to provide some of these little cameos as much for the fun of telling as for the benefit of posterity.
Thank you for visiting today and I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of Waterford in the 1930s courtesy of Geoff Cronin. As always your feedback is very welcome. thanks Sally.