175 years of Kelly’s and still going strong

The Eileen M with, in the background, Kelly's coalyard at Coleraine Harbour.
The Eileen M with, in the background, Kelly's coalyard at Coleraine Harbour.

For those of a certain vintage, many of us will remember the mountains of coal at Coleraine Harbour.

Kelly’s coal yard, as it was known locally, occupied an iconic place in both the landscape and history of the town.

Coal being loaded from a ship to a John Kelly Ltd lorry at Coleraine Harbour during the 1940s or 50s/

Coal being loaded from a ship to a John Kelly Ltd lorry at Coleraine Harbour during the 1940s or 50s/

The then coal business, which later diversified into oil heating and gas supplies, was synonymous with the harbour for generations until it moved to its current premises at Northbrook Industrial Estate off the Newmills Road in July 2003.

The company - which now has depots in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Portadown, Larne and Portadown, as well as Coleraine, has just celebrated a major landmark - 175 years in business.

“The company’s history is a remarkable story and one that we are very proud of ,” reflected Derek McAuley, Regional Manager of Kelly’s in Coleraine this week.

“The business started as a coal merchants with ships coming into Belfast from all over England and Wales.

Bobby Gordon pictured at the former Kelly's coalyard at Coleraine Harbour during the 1984 Miners Strike.

Bobby Gordon pictured at the former Kelly's coalyard at Coleraine Harbour during the 1984 Miners Strike.

“But in the early 1980s Kelly’s expanded into the heating oil business due to the changes in the domestic fuel industry.”

And those changes saw the Kelly’s depot move away from Coleraine Harbour to its new home where it employs 13 staff and drivers.

Astonishingly Kelly’s has had only three regional managers in Coleraine since 1928 - Sam Moss was followed by Glenn O’Neill and now Derek, who has worked for the company for some 32 years.

O’Neill began working for the company when he was 14 and was appointed manager in 1970. An office had been opened five years before that at Circular Road, opposite Coleraine Harbour and the company branch received a Civic Trust award for the open plan, modern building.

Staff from Kelly`s Coalyard at Coleraine Harbour photographed on April 1968 prior to leaving on their annual bus trip, probably to Donegal. In those days most firms had a annual bus trip and a Christmas dinner dance in a local hotel. Picture: MAURICE PLATT

Staff from Kelly`s Coalyard at Coleraine Harbour photographed on April 1968 prior to leaving on their annual bus trip, probably to Donegal. In those days most firms had a annual bus trip and a Christmas dinner dance in a local hotel. Picture: MAURICE PLATT

When the business first opened in the 1920s in Coleraine there were no grab or steam cranes and the dockers used sinking shovels to fill the coal into tubs which were then emptied into carts.

Coal was filled into bags by graip and shovel and there was a rail link to the quay and trains rumbled past shaking the old harbour office to its foundations.

It was 1977 when the Coleraine Branch began to sell oil for central heating and transport when it became a distributor for Conoco Ltd.

But the history of Kelly’s began a long time before that. John Kelly, after whom the firm is named, died in 1904 but it was his father, Samuel Kelly, born in the village of Ballinderry in Co Antrim in 1818, who set up the business at 2 Queen’s Quay, Belfast in 1840.

Derek McAuley at the helm of Kellys Fuels Coleraine'INCR04-16 001BW

Derek McAuley at the helm of Kellys Fuels Coleraine'INCR04-16 001BW

Samuel was very much a product of the Victorian age, a self-made man who was listed in the street directories of the 1850s as a “grocer and commission coal merchant.”

For decades the ‘Kelly’s Coal Boats’ brought in huge loads from Blyth, Garston and Swansea and the young Kelly worked industriously to build his fleet, the first of which was the brigantine William, a 108 ton vessel built in Canada, which he bought in 1861 in partnership with James Ross, a Belfast builder.

By the time of Samuel’s death in 1877 at the age of 59, he had a fleet of five ships, with two others passed to partners and one that had been lost - an occupational hazard given the treacherous easterly winds along the Co Down coast.

The business was passed to his son John when he was 37 and when he died in 1904 it was taken over by his son Samuel who was then 24.

Within ten years the Kelly’s fleet - recognisable by their funnel colours of black, red and white - grew to 13.

In 1911 the firm was incorporated as a limited company with capital of £50,000. Just a few weeks later the rival company Wm. Barkley and Sons Limited was absorbed by John Kelly Ltd - and so began the process of growth and acquisition which resulted in the company becoming the most prominent solid fuel importer and distributor in Northern Ireland.

Derek McAuley stands on the former Coal Yard site at The Harbour Coleraine INCR04-16 003BW

Derek McAuley stands on the former Coal Yard site at The Harbour Coleraine INCR04-16 003BW

Through the years of the First World War the company prospered - and as 1919 drew to a close John Kelly Ltd and their associated companies had almost 30 ships in the fleet, all carrying cargoes at high freight rates, many taking coal to France from south Wales.

Those difficult war years and the continuing international shortage of coal after the conflict ended prompted Samuel Kelly, who in 1921 became Sir Samuel Kelly, to begin the ambitious and ultimately abortive attempts to mine coal in Co Tyrone, so that Ireland would not be so dependant on imported stocks in the future.

Despite the stagnant trading conditions and the huge pressure of the Miners’ Strike the Kelly fleet grew steadily through the 20s and coal ships sailed into Coleraine Harbour for the first time in 1928.

Acquisitions between the two wars included R & D A Duncan & Co Limited, Belfast Charles M Legg, Carrickfergus and Howdens Limited, Larne.

When Sir Samuel died in 1937, Sir Ernest Herdman, chairman of Belfast Harbour Commissioners described him as “a man of inestimable worth, of great force of character, of kindly disposition and esteemed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

The control of John Kelly Ltd passed to Lady Mary Kelly and she appointed her brother, Kennedy Stewart, as managing director.

The outbreak of another world war in 1939 again totally disrupted trading and no fewer than 18 of the the Kelly fleet were resquisitioned by the Government at some time during the war.

In the aftermath of hostilities Irish ports being supplied were Belfast, Londonderry, Coleraine, Larne, Warrenpoint, Cork, Dundalk, Magheramorne and Ballylumford - but at least 10 other Irish ports regularly saw the company’s colours in the immediate post war era.

On April 1, 1948 a major turning point in the history of the company occurred - as after 108 years the firm passed out of the Kelly family’s control when the entire share capital was bought by Wm Cory and Son Ltd and Powell Duffryn Ltd.

There was no ostensible change to trading and besides their own shipping and coal distribution business the company diversified in the 1950s to include domestic heating units, National Coal Board products like bituminous paints and a free coal efficiency service for industrialists and other customers.

Through the sixties to 1970 the fleet remained constant at 11 and trading was efficient and almost incident free.

Although “Kelly” and “coal” are synonymous, the firm was mindful of changing trends in domestic heating and with more and ever more homes using oil as their primary source of heat, the fuel oil business was entered.

The first road tanker was acquired in 1983 and soon the name “Kelly Oil” became familiar across the Province. Steady growth followed with the oil business being introduced to other coal depots.

That same year Kelly’s merged with Lanes Group Limited, another significant player in the oil and solid fuel markets and twelve months later became wholly owned by Tedcastle Oil Products following a period of joint ownership with Powell Duffryn plc.

The business has become known as John Kelly Fuels (Ireland) trading as Top Kelly Fuels.

The company still sells coal and heating oil as well as bottled gas and also Cleanburn ‘greener’ oil, for the past 20 years.

“With the internet, the world has changed enormously. Our customers can now buy their oil online, by telephone or at the depot itself,” says Derek McAuley. “However one thing has not changed: we always aim to put our customers first whether that be in the products we sell or the advice we give them.

“Even after 175 years the Kelly name is synonymous with quality.”

Indeed when Samuel Kelly entered the coal business in 1840 many in Northern Ireland could still recall the 1798 rebellion, Queen Victoria was a young monarch and Lord Shaftesbury was preparing his Mines Act to outlaw the use of women and children in pits.

And the unique and inspirational Kelly story will continue following 175 years of unbroken enterprise, through wars, strikes, civil disturbances and depressions.