Speaker for 13th January 2015

Photo: President Gordon Ward greets Robert Anderson, with Club Members John Dobson (L) and Ian Murray (R)
Talk by Mr. Robert Anderson on ‘The History of the Barmouth’

Club President Gordon Ward welcomed members and hardy souls to our second meeting of the year, on this stormy day. The President then introduced our speaker for the morning Mr. Robert Anderson, well known river pilot and local historian. Robert's talk today was the fascinating story of 'The History of the Barmouth’.

Robert began his talk by saying that he assumed that there wouldn't be many people in the room that hadn't walked along the beach, either at Portstewart or Castlerock, and got a far as the bar mouth, perhaps even walking along it. However, it wasn't always like it is today. Contrary to some beliefs, the river always has drained into the Atlantic at this point, and there had long been a problem access for ships.


In 1802 a Rev. Samson reported on the problems of getting goods to the town of Coleraine, saying that in effect the river was only 'open' from April to October. Soon, John Linny (?) was contracted to survey the costal area for an alternative, reporting in 1803 that Portrush seemed the best option, and an expanded port should be constructed there. However, nothing seems to have happened with any urgency, as the 1830 Ordnance Survey map of the areas show the river in its historical state and an indication of plans to expand Portrush at some time.

The Portrush Harbor Company was eventually formed and by the 1850s work commenced on building the harbor with rock locally quarried. Paddle tugs then became available to take ships into Coleraine and even down the Foyle.
In 1844 the Bann bridge was built, but the harbor had very poor facilities and only small coasters could get in anyway. The town was now rapidly expanding and town councilors wanted it to be the main port in the area. By 1860 there was a rail link from Coleraine to Derry, and Coleraine to Belfast. In 1863 the river was dredged to get larger ships in. The depth was increased for 6 to 12 ft.

A Civil Engineer investigating the work reported that the entrance to the Bann could be protected by building a breakwater at the mouth of the river. He also found that stones could be quarried locally. Approval was given for the plan in 1866, but it wasn't until 1874 that a board was set up to do the work. It would take another nine years to complete the work.

The first breakwater stone piers were constructed by building an elevated rail line from the quarries at either side of the Bann out into the sea at he mouth of the river. Rocks were put into small rail wagons, taken to the river mouth then manually tipped over to build up the rock breakwaters. Sadly no photos have ever been recovered showing this process, even though photography was fast becoming the 'exciting new thing'!

The town and Coleraine harbor board must have thought their troubles were over when the breakwater was completed, but it wasn't. The river soon started to silt up, and the entrance to the Bann was as difficult as ever. Between 1907 and 1922 eight ships of reasonable size became complete wrecks off the bar mouth. By 1924 the Harbor Board were receiving many complaints about the problems of getting ships into Coleraine.

A further surveyor's report said that 'stones' over 7 tons had to be used the stop the sea/tides moving them. In 1929 work started on the second phase of the breakwater construction. Again the elevated rail line was built and locally quarried stone used. The harbor facilities at Coleraine were also improved at this time. However, and most importantly for Robert's talk, the site engineer for the construction works was also a keen photographer and Robert had been given is collection of originals for the 1920s and 30s. The unique series of slides Robert could show (and these had only ever been seem by 'the public' once or twice ever before) gave a wonderfully graphic description of the task the workers faced - And we are very sorry that these are not available for inclusion on the web site. WebEd.

By 1936 work the breakwaters or 'Molls' (spelling?) were advancing into the sea and concrete added to the top for a safe walkway. However, by this time there had been three more total wrecks off the entrance and the accumulation of scrap metal near the river mouth as becoming a hazard itself.

In 1940 the rounded 'ends' of the 'Molls' were being fabricated along the banks of the Bann. These are a honeycomb style concrete shell, which were towed into place in 1943 and then sunk and filled with stone. It's said that the original design of these inspired the 'Mulberry Harbor' idea used to great effect at the end of the Second World War.

And so the Bar Mouth we see today has a long and complicated history, which has stood the test of time for construction, but perhaps not so good for stopping the silting up of the river entrance. The Coleraine harbor has declined and the once busy 300+ ships and year turn round has dwindled to about 14, and these only collect scrap metal. The maintance of the shipping channel is also a lower priority. Robert said that when he was working the main dredger on the Bann, they would remove over 1000 tones of sand a day, now it is just skimmed over. (Below is a Pilots eye view of a ship entering the Barmouth. It looks tricky enough, but added to this, the deep water channel to take the ship up to Coleraine, isn’t that much wider than the ship and only a few feet deeper than the hull. Not much room for error - WebEd).


There was a very short question and answer session before the President asked Ian Murray to propose a vote of thanks. Ian said that Robert had put us all well into the picture (or rather 'water') with his fascinating and extremely well researched historical talk, as far as the all to familiar Bar Mouth was concerned. This was an excellent talk and deserved a big 'thank you'. The thanks were passed on by the President and members showed their appreciation.

Mike Turner, Secretary

For a short slide show of the Bar Mouth, ‘click’ the button below: