Ballsbridge, Dublin’ s embassy belt, once had its very own slum, Turner’ s Cottages, close to the top of Shelbourne Road and almost opposite the present day Oval development.
Richard Turner, a noted 19th century ironfounder, opened his Hammersmith Works on Pembroke Road in 1834. They made the roof of what is now Pearse station in Westland Row, the great botanical greenhouses at Glasnevin, Belfast and Kew, most of the garden railings in Ballsbridge and did business as far away as Russia.
Today, Hume House is there, while next door, the Number One, Ballsbridge, scheme of luxury apartments and offices is being built on the old veterinary college site.
Turner built a collection of cottages at the back of his site to house his workers and they remained in place for many years after the iron works moved in 1876 to North King Street, on the other side of the city. The cottages weren’t demolished until just over 40 years ago, at which stage, there were still close on 20 left. Outsiders, but not the people living there, called it “ The Gut”.
The cottages each had two large downstairs rooms; most had no kitchens, although in later years some had tiny kitchenettes. People cooked on either a large open fire or on a range. Coal was fetched from a nearby coal yard in prams and stored beneath the stairs. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms, with wrought iron fireplaces and a small boxroom, but no lavatory or bathroom. In earlier days, a different family lived in each room, so that one house had four families.
People living there had to queue to use the outside lavatory in the yard and wash themselves in front of the fire in the living room.
Families living in the cottages shared a tap in the yard for water and for washing clothes, which were hung to dry on lines, worked with pulleys that stretched from one side of the small enclave to the other.
Many of the families living here had five or six children, who often went barefoot, so the little street with the cottages was always full of children playing and having fun. When the rag and bone man arrived at Turner’ s Cottages, children rushed in home to collect any old clothes or bottles, knowing they would be rewarded with a toffee or a plastic ring.
The menfolk worked at menial jobs, including at the Volkswagen assembly factory in the old tram depot on Shelbourne Road, the old bottle factory in Ringsend, at the original Johnston, Mooney & O’ Brien bakery in Ballsbridge or in the coal yards that then traded in the area.
Some of the women worked in the old Swastika Laundry, just across from the cottages on the other side of Shelbourne Road. A surprising number of families took in boarders to make ends meet.
Despite the lack of facilities, this was a strong working class community, right in the heart of Ballsbridge. Not so long ago, I met a lady called Breda Keogh, who had been brought up in the cottages and was married from there when she was 23. Initially, she and her husband lived in a flat in Sandymount for three years before buying a house on the northside. She recalled that it took her years to get used to living in that part of the city; even in recent times, it still sometimes felt a little strange to her after the neighbourliness of Turner’ s Cottages.
When the cottages were pulled down, her parents were rehoused in a maisonette in Macken Street, which they hated. Breda’ s mother died not long after the move and her father died a couple of years later. The residents of Turner’ s Cottages were scattered all over the city, some to Crumlin and Drimnagh, others to Beech Hill in Donnybrook, so that today, the only time former residents get to meet up is at funerals.
A similar slum once existed in a narrow laneway nearby, beside what is now Mary Mac's pub on Merrion Road. A whole cluster of families lived here in absolute squalor, with water from an outside tap and a communal lavatory. Further along Merrion Road, beside where the RDS sale ground once stood, another group of cottages had similarly deplorable conditions. Today, the headquarters of AIB stands on the site.
It’ s 90 years since the Germans established the first diplomatic legation in Ballsbridge. These days the area is awash with over 30 suave diplomatic missions; ambassadorial residences, too. Turner’s Cottages have long since been airbrushed out of history.