‘One of the most honoured members of the community’ – John Millar and the Lisburn Gas Company.

As present day energy costs are never far from the news headlines, this week’s Virtual Museum blog post looks back to a time when the town of Lisburn took its first steps in industrial gas production. It is perhaps fitting, as this year (2022) marks the 185th anniversary of the establishment of the Lisburn Gas Company, an important development in Lisburn’s industrial history.

Bridge Street from the Gas Works. ILC&M Collection

At the turn of the nineteenth century many of Britain’s growing industrial cities and towns, such as Manchester and Preston, turned their attention to gas production to fuel both their factories and ambitions. While these developing industrial centres showed the way, it wasn’t until the late 1820s when Irish towns began to follow suit. The introduction of the Lighting of Towns Act 1828 was instrumental in bringing Irish towns in line with some of their industrially-focused neighbours. 

A landmark piece of local government legislation, the act gave Irish towns a variety of powers, including provisions for lighting, water and sewerage. It was an important marker in the development of local democracy and the journey towards industrial progress. The act had a significant impact upon Lisburn, by then a fast-growing and industrious town, not least with the establishment of the Lisburn Gas Company in 1837. The company was a much-needed boost to the town and quickly received the backing of a number of its notable citizens, including John Millar, the Rev. William Hind, and Anne and Edward Heron. With the financial aid of a group of prominent businesspeople the gas company was established on land at the rear of Bridge Street. This was an ideal location as it offered easy access to the supply of coal coming down the Lagan Canal which was needed for gas production.

Lisburn Gas Workers 1928. ILC&M Collection

Although the company was not a solo effort, it was John Millar whose name became most closely associated with it. Said to be ‘one of the most honoured members’ of the town of Lisburn, Millar was a prominent civic and commercial figure with many business interests. Outside of his businesses, he was also involved in the local judiciary and was a strong advocate for widening educational opportunities. In his crusade for widening education he became a founding member of the Lisburn Literary Society, and was described as ‘a sterling friend of education in all its branches’.

John Millar, Chairman of the Lisburn Gas Company. ILC&M Collection.

It was his main role, however, as Chairman of the Lisburn Gas Company  which he is most remembered for. During Millar’s time at the helm, he spearheaded the gas company’s development and expansion over a period of forty-four years, remaining there until his death in December 1881. With the loss of such an important local figure and business leader, many newspapers recorded testimonials which demonstrated the high esteem in which Millar was held. The Belfast News-Letter, reporting on Millar’s funeral, noted that he had a human touch in his dealings with Lisburn’s townspeople and his counsel and advice were widely sought out.

After his passing, a portrait of the late Chairman was commissioned by the company’s shareholders at their annual meeting on 7th August 1882. The painting, since acquired by the Lisburn Museum, was a central feature of the recent exhibition, 40 Years of Collecting. What are your memories of the Bridge Street gasworks? Did you or a family member work there? Get in touch and let us know

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