Russells of Portarlington

Funny how things link up ….

I have a brief page about the Mountmellick Canal. I created the page mainly to draw attention to Laois County Council’s free publication about the canal (PDF here), about which I said:

There is an interesting photo of what looks like a square-sterned wooden barge, employed in the timber trade.

In the book itself, we read:

In 1914, Bob and George Russell opened Russell Brothers sawmills on a 25-acre site in Portarlington. Like Odlums Mill, Russell Brothers was adjacent to both the canal and the railway. Timber harvested from large estates was shipped via the canal to the mill, where it was processed. From there, it was transported to Dublin and on through Liverpool and throughout the U.K. Wood from the Russell Brothers’ mill became bobbins in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Much of the timber was also sent to Wales, where it was used as pit props in the coal mines.

From the description in that book, and from that in Mills of Co Laois: an industrial heritage survey: Part 2: site inventory (also by Fred Hamond for Laois County Council, 2005; PDF here). I think the sawmills were roughly where I’ve put the red X on the OSI below (which predates the sawmills): south of the canal (which itself is south of the town) and with “the remains of an old railway line in Russell ’s Yard” (Peg Moran quoted in the canal book). I’m not familiar with the area, so if I’ve got that wrong please leave a Comment below.

Location of Russells sawmills

Now for the link. On this page, about the Lloyd family and the Rockville Navigation, I wrote:

In 1917 the young Mr Lloyd was appointed a magistrate for County Roscommon (Irish Times 15 December 1917) but the following year he sold Rockville. The Irish Times of 23 March 1918 announced that 1000 acres, the mansion house and demesne and farming lands of Rockville, Drumsna, would be auctioned on 3 April 1918. The house had been occupied by the owner until recently and his family had held it for over two centuries. It included 73 acres of lake and water, with a boat-house. Some marked timber had been sold and was in the process of being removed; on 16 November 1922 the Irish Times reported that the new owner, Mr George Frayne (not Freyne), a farmer, was suing the timber merchant.

The last of those Irish Times articles identifies the timber merchant as Messrs Russell Brothers of Portarlington.

I was contacted by Eleanor Russell, whose husband is a member of the sawmilling family. She said that she had a photo of Rockville House taken in 1913 and she very kindly sent it to me, along with several other photos of Messrs Russells operations, and gave me permission to put them on this site. I have added the Rockville photos to the Rockville page; here are the others. I am very grateful to Eleanor Russell for permitting me to use these photos; the copyright belongs to the Russell family.

Goods store in Portarlington

Portarlington lock

My guess is that the goods store shown in the photo is the goods shed just above the lock, as shown on the OSI map above, and that the railing in the foreground is protecting the footboard crossing the lock’s upper gates. That would position the store a little away from where I think the sawmills were:

Lock, flour mills and sawmills

Again, I would welcome correction.

Unloading timber from a canal boat

This photo shows the same shed in the background. Eleanor Russell says:

[This] one is the unloading of the timber from the boats at the mill in Portarlington in 1914. A lot of the timber was taken from the estates and brought directly to the mill on the canal. They also had their own siding to the railway station.

The canal boat is wooden, with two planks above the waterline on each side. There seems to be a wooden bollard at each corner, as it were. The steerer has his hand on the curved tiller at the stern. At the bow, there seems to be a chimney, probably for a stove, and a long rope, which may be the trackline (towing line).

On the shore, more fencing seems to have been added since the first photo was taken, and so has the crane.

Canal boat at Portarlington

The third photo shows the same (or a similar) vessel, again with two planks above the water level. I’m not sure where this was taken: the buildings in the background look as if they might be associated with the flour mills, but there seems to be a tree trunk being either loaded or unloaded on the right-hand side of the photo.

Russell boat at Kilcock (on the Royal Canal)

The building on the left seems to be that now occupied by Toddy’s, a florists. beside the arch with red doors in this photo on A J Vosse’s website. I thought I’d be able to see the roof of the next building along, but it seems to have been rebuilt after the time this photo (from Seamus Cullen’s North Kildare history site) was taken. Furthermore, the bank of the canal harbour seems to have been built up somewhat.

There seem to be two boats alongside, the outer one already loaded and the inner awaiting loading with the timber on the bank. The tiller on the inner boat is less curved than that on the photo above. The rudder seems to be rather crudely constructed. There seems to be a tall vertical object in line with the rudder; it may be a stove chimney on the bow.

The boat is pointing eastward, towards Dublin; that suggests that the boats travelled into Dublin on the Royal Canal, crossed the Liffey under tow from a tug, left on the Grand, then turned left at Lowtown and went down the Barrow Line as far as Monasterevan, where the Mountmellick Line (on which Portarlington stood) branched off. Quite a long journey.

There is more to be learned about the Russells traffic.






13 responses to “Russells of Portarlington

  1. Can confirm that Russell Brothers site was directly opposite Odlums Mill, the picture showing logs unloading suggests they would be “rolled” into the sawmills from the canal bank. When I lived in Portarlington ( 50’s) Russells had a small “train” of flat trucks pulled by a cross between a modern quod and a tractor, which took goods (ladders, mainly) to the railway goods store. The canal store (still extant) was about 500 yards further east from the two mills. Goods from the canal store were delivered around the town by a horse-drawn dray; goods from the railway store were delivered by a Bedford truck.
    Odlums had their own barges which took wheat from Dublin Port and were unloaded from the canalside into their silos (my mother’s 1st cousin was the Siloman)

  2. Portarlington Station and at the station, there is a short siding going off towards the North, Engineers vehicles and locos sometimes stable in this siding, which is called the Russells Siding, there was a loading bank there where round timber was unloaded from the train, i think pit prop traffic went by rail from same. From the loading bank there was a 3ft gauge railway, horse operated that ran to the sawmill and i was told it crossed a public road to reach the mill. The little railway later used a tractor to pull the bogies in from the loading bank and to take down coal for the steam engine that drove the mill. I think the little railway ceased in the 1950s, no idea if it ran to the canal or not as i can find no maps that show it, yet it did exsist.

  3. Thabnks, Derek. Very interesting. bjg

  4. Thanks for that: it’s good to have more details to add to the picture. bjg

  5. Eleanor Russell writes:

    “The timber mills were directly on the canal with their own harbour and shed so the one in the photo with no timber is not Russells one. That is further down on what is now known I think as Canal Road. Russells took up the site on the 1.625 field and the 1.56 field. Odlums was on one side of the canal and Russells the other— directly opposite one another.”


  6. Derek..were not two of your mothers 1st. cousins Silomen at one time or another?
    Also The Canal was important to all of us who lived in the town and did inspire stories.
    See website below Canal Memories

  7. The man I referred to as Siloman was Michael Mc Namara ( known as Mickey Mac) from Gracefield. His children would still live in the area. Another cousin of my mother was Anna Doyle whose husband Jim Doyle ( known as “the Ringer”) was a lorry driver for Odlums and lived in a company house where the current Odlum’s Warehouse stands. Some of their girls worked in Odlums Packing Room.

    The canal and railway in the 1950’s were very important to the town because much of the town’s trade ( both import and export) used these transport channels. Most of Odlum’s grain came by canal boat, as did Russel’s raw timber; all of the beer and most of the hardware sold in town came by rail. The Goods store buildings for both the Railway and the Canal are still standing ( though not in use).

    Tracing the canal route is not very difficult; at least 6 of the original canal bridges are intact and 3 of the lock chambers can be identified. In the current search to find safe routes for walking/cycling trails this must be one that should be promoted by the local authority ( the body that filled-in a few miles of the route in the 70’s) or by tourist interests.


  8. Hey Cus! You are forgetting Francie, (The Runner) . So Big Head, The Weary Fellow, and The Ringer worked for Odlums. When Auntie Anna lived in the Mill House I often visited her there. I also lived with the Fowler and the rest of them in Gracefield for a while before we moved to “our” Odlum’s House.

    Thanks for your reply.

  9. Pingback: An early narrowboat on the Royal Canal? | Irish waterways history

  10. Who was the brains behind filling in the canal that ran through portarlington

  11. The Mountmellick branch was closed in 1960, when commercial carrying ceased on the Grand Canal (by then part of CIE). By the 1950s there was very little traffic on the line, mostly to Odlums in Portarlington. The Ballinasloe, Kilbeggan and Naas branches were closed in 1961. bjg

  12. I see that between us all, we are still finding items to add to the thread on Russel’s and Odlums. The latest items from Brian are just marvelous.
    The Irish Railway Record Society mention in one of there journals that Odlums had a private 5ft-3in siding laid for there traffic, it was taken out of commission in 1975.
    On the recent map posted by Brian we can see the long siding coming in off the Dublin line to serve the goods store. Off this line was a siding branching right for Russel’s, known as Russel’s Siding, the main CIE siding served the Goods Store, Russel’s and a longer one ran up to and terminated near a small road and this was the one that was owned by Odlums.
    Turning to Russel’s, we know the little 3ft gauge horse and later tractor operated line crossed a public road to reach the CIE goods store and the siding that CIE laid for Russel’s own traffic. I think where the red cross marks the spot should actually be just on the other side of the road that it is next to. A local historian in Portarlington, pointed out the exact location of the mill to me and said the little tramway first came from the wood yard and crossed that very road, a flag man was provided to warn any traffic when the train was in operation and would use the crossing, which had neither gates or barriers.

    I have looked into the various traffics by rail or canal from or to Russel’s.
    Most of the incoming raw timber did come by barge, but the local opinion is that some came by rail. Coal for the boiler house probably came by rail and then either over the tramway or by cart from the goods yard.
    Pit prop traffic used the tramway, to reach the transship 5ft-3in siding, because there is evidence to show that pit props from Portarlington were unloaded at Wicklow Harbour from rail to ship for South Wales in the 1920s. As for the Bobbin traffic i have not seen or found anything yet on this traffic.
    A picture or photo showing the 3ft tramway in use or just in situ, would be a real treat, but i have still to locate anything.


    Andrew John Waldron.

  13. I understand this is an old thread but does anyone know approximately when Russel Bros ceased operations? Currently doing a history project and am having difficulty contacting anyone to do with the firm would really appreciate the help!

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