Dr. Bill O' Gorman, from WIT, speaking about this site on WLR

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Garter Lane and the Quakers

Extract taken from Views from the Brasscock by Joe Falvey, published in the Munster Express on the 15th May 2009.

This week we return to our local tourist trail of discovery under the expert guidance of the esteemed and distinguished director of the self same Waterford Treasures. This time we are just popping down O’Connell Street to yet another historic gem of a building which in recent times has housed Garter Lane. This is accessed through an 18th century archway which leads to a small courtyard area. Here we find a fine building that was originally built as a Quaker Meeting House in 1792. The entrance gives no idea at all of the size of the 18th century building behind. Its size gives ample testimony to the size and wealth of the Quaker community then in Waterford.

Economic Contribution

It was in this newly developed area outside the old medieval city, and in streets like King Street (now called O’Connell Street) and Hanover Street, where most of the Quaker merchants of Waterford had their homes and business premises. Names like Penrose and Gatchell, both of glass-making fame, Jacob of biscuit fame - it was in Waterford that Jacob produced the first cream cracker as ship’s biscuit and White the ship -builders were all to be found here. The name of Grubb still features trading on this street. The building which housed original home of the Jacob founding brother is still in daily use as a business premises.

In total the Quakers made up just 2 percent of the city’s population but their economic contribution proved enormous and thus far outweighed their small number. Streets in this Quaker quarter still echo their presence and their metiers: Glasshouse Lane, Penrose Lane, Dyehouse Lane and of course, Meeting House Lane. A Penrose flint glass decanter, crafted in the nearby works, dating from 1790 is on display among the Waterford Treasures in the Granary. We have not even mentioned the towering influence of the Malcolmson family, some descendents of whom are still giving service to their community today. Remembered too is their great contribution in this city of life-saving sustenance to the poor and hungry during the terrible famine of the late 1840’s which the members of the Quaker community both financed and operated.

Interestingly, the previous Meeting House had been in the Manor Street area established in the late 17th century - to the rear of this was the original Quaker cemetery. This old and venerable grounded was granted to the City Corporation back in the middle of the last century - in recent times and belatedly was developed as Wyse Park - a civic amenity space. I say interestingly because before the move to King/O’Connell Street area the previous meeting house stood at the centre of then trading focus of the previous Quaker community with their tanning, milling and weaving activities.

New Spaces and Faces

After nearly two hundred years in O’Connell the Quaker community acquired a site from Newtown School and built a fine new meeting house to an interest modern tri-part design in the early 70’s which has been giving good service for nearly 40 years now to its community up Newtown way. But the old building too has continued to serve as a thriving centre of the Arts. Before that it served as a court house while the main one was refurbished - I remember the general election count of ‘82 being held in its large meeting room with a dramatic re-count that went into the early hours ach sin sceal eile, as they say.

The meeting house building now called Garter Lane Arts Centre is in many ways the centre of artistic and cultural life in Waterford ( The Granary/Waterford Treasures is a rich addition to the repertoire). The acquisition by the City Council and the subsequent conversion of this building two centuries after it was built to an arts centre has had a tremendous spin-off in theatre, dance music, youth drama and a visual arts programme for the city. The founding of Red Kettle which in turn flowed from the Arts for All movement inspired the need and subsequent provision of this wonderful arts facility of Garter Lane - one of the good things that flowed from the last recession!

The Corporation of the day deserve great credit for their far-seeing and imaginative development of this building. I have no doubt but that the Quaker community who owned and worshipped here for nearly two centuries would have heartily approved. The name by the way comes from a famous, or should I say, infamous lane that once stood in the present-day John Robert’s Square, one of many removed by the Wide Street Commission during the mid-nineteenth century. Remember the triangular area there which became a small car-park in the pre -Red Square days, well a block of tenement houses occupied that space. The original Garter Lane, as it was quickly dubbed, ran along here between Supermacs and MacDonald’s restaurants - even then a place for hanging out. But historically it was the ‘ladies of the night’ sporting their alluring garters that did the hanging out - nuff said! Plus la change…

Jim Daly

I dedicate this column today about Garter Lane to our good and dear friend, the late Jim Daly for his work here was very much a labour of love and so lit our lives and imaginations with his artistry. His wonderful wife Bernie has also played a vital role in the world of Waterford theatre and long may she do so.

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