Boyds survived the infernos - but as Limerick's fortunes declined, so did theirs

Grainne Keays


Grainne Keays

Boyd's survived the infernos - but as Limerick's fortunes declined, so did theirs

An external view , taken in 1962, of J&G Boyd Limited - for more photographs, see this week's Limerick Leader broadsheet editions

William Street in Limerick has played host to some of the most highly-regarded and long-established businesses in the city’s history, including Newsom’s, Bolger’s, Todd’s, Daly’s, O’Connell’s, to mention but a few. Some are still with us, some have changed names, and some have disappeared altogether.

Many of us feel a certain tug on the heartstrings when we reflect on these old firms, with their associations with childhood and simpler times.

For well over a century, no foray into the city centre was complete without a visit to the premises of J. & G. Boyd Limited, situated at No.s 11 and 12, with its stores and workshops extending onto Denmark Street at the rear.

Founded in 1848, Boyds served the people of Limerick faithfully until 1993. Recently, we discovered a magnificent collection of photographs from Boyds in our archives, depicting the building’s facade at different times, the shop’s interior, some of its eclectic range of stock and, most importantly, its staff.

During its long existence, the firm contended with every conceivable challenge: the vagaries of the economy, mechanical and industrial advances, changing tastes and fashions, and, most dramatically, actual physical destruction.

Twice in the 1800s, Boyds premises were destroyed by fire: in 1877 and again in 1890.

The 1877 fire was enormous and spread from Boyds to the adjoining Hibernian City Hall and both premises were completely gutted.

The intensity of the inferno was such that the paintwork on the shutters and doors of the buildings on the opposite side of the street were blistered by the heat.

The stores at the rear, containing large quantities of machinery, were saved and “several hundred gallons of paraffin oil were removed” from the yard before they could catch fire, preventing, as one newspaper suggested, “one of the greatest conflagrations that ever took place in the city”.

Only 13 years later, Boyds was ablaze again. A representative of Boyds wrote to the Limerick Chronicle following the fire, wishing to correct erroneous statements made in the press generally, to wit, that “petroleum and other oils of an inflammable and dangerous character” were stored on the premises.

The writer was adamant that no such products were present. Clearly, Boyds had learnt their lesson from the previous disaster and no longer stored oil products but it was not enough to save their premises.

The writer goes on to record for posterity the terrible scene and the frantic and frustrated efforts made to quench the fire.

“It was most exasperating,” he wrote, “when the hose was in position and just directing a volume of water upon the junction of the stable and the large store to find the water suddenly cut off. The wild excitement and shouts of “More water! More water! Work the engines!” - the flames, meanwhile, steadily gaining ground, were trying in the extreme and sufficient to cause those who were risking their lives amid the crash of falling slates to cease their efforts in despair.”

Boyd’s was nothing if not resilient and rose, phoenix-like, once more to resume its leading position amongst the city’s traders.

The business could best be described as a hardware store but the reality was that over the years it adjusted the stock it carried to meet the demands of the day.

The writer of the above-mentioned letter of 1890, went on to describe the articles that Boyd’s had in stock at the time and, while neither a needle nor an anchor are listed, it seems Boyd’s stocked almost everything else (oil products excepted), including “several hundred cases of Walter A. Woods’ mowing and reaping machines just arrived direct from America, corn and grist mills, chaff and turnip cutters, ploughs, harrows and other implements of husbandry, churns, gears and dairy requisites … dye-stuffs, cement, plaster and window glass, chimney glasses, starch, soda, salts, candles and sugar - all in bulk quantities”.

Seldom did Boyd’s let a week go by without placing an advertisement in the Limerick Chronicle and the Limerick Leader.

The ads give an idea of the bewildering array of goods Boyd’s carried over the years and the changing times.

The candles, starch and butter churns that were household essentials in 1890, were very much out of vogue in 1969, when Boyd’s advertised for sale: children’s swings and toys; gardening equipment including mowers, weed killers, fertilizers, seeds, and hand tools; everything for the DIY enthusiast and home decorator; veterinary medicines; farming implements of every imaginable kind; fireplaces and cookers; and Boyd’s Own Blend tea.

As you will see, one of our remarkable photographs shows a very elegant lady packing the tea in 1962.

Wellstood cookers, which were stocked by Boyd’s, had a particularly eye-catching ad. Under the slogan “Don’t buy a cooker, lady,” the sales pitch suggested to the apparently exclusively female buying public that they were not just buying a kitchen range but “investing in a way of life that’s easier than you ever thought possible.”

It would appear that whoever composed the ad never had the job of clearing ashes and soot from one of these marvels.

1969 was a momentous year for Boyd’s with the directors signing a £60K contract for the refurbishment of their premises on William Street.

The contractors appointed were O’Connor & Bailey of Dublin, and their task was to modernise the shop front and to refit the interior.

A new warehouse in Galvone was purchased and the wholesale part of the business was to move there.

The company placed an ad in the Limerick Leader apologising to customers for any inconvenience caused by the ensuing works. Customers were promised that they would “continue to receive the utmost value, consideration and personal attention” that had characterised Boyd’s trading down the years.

“Personal attention” was a mantra that ran through all of Boyd’s advertising throughout its lifetime.

During 1991 and 1992, the company again invested heavily in a major refurbishment programme to coincide with the development of the new Cruise’s Street. The timing of this work was unfortunate as there followed a rapid downturn in city-centre business.

Had such a heavy outlay not been made, the business might have coped and survived into the Celtic Tiger Years at least. As it was, March 1993 brought the shock announcement that Boyd’s was to close after 145 years of trading in Limerick.

Eight full-time and ten part-time staff lost their jobs when Boyd’s closed its doors for the last time on April 8 of that year - the end of an era in the commercial history of Limerick.