Hibernia im Ruhrgebiet: William Thomas Mulvany & the industrialisation of the Ruhr

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), Volume 5

To find the title Hibernia im Ruhrgebiet (Ireland in the Ruhr) on a ninth-century map of ecclesiastical centres would cause little or no surprise. To find the title on a nineteenth-century map of successful mining enterprises is altogether more unexpected. In Britain and Industrial Europe 1750-1870 W.O. Henderson opens his chapter on the Ruhr with the following comment:

One of the major factors which retarded the industrialisation of Ireland in the nineteenth century was lack of capital. Since adequate funds were not forthcoming from private sources the government had to provide money both to encourage industrial enterprise and to build public works—such as canals, railways and harbours—which in England were constructed by private enterprise. As the Irish did not have enough capital for their own needs they seldom had any to spare for investment elsewhere and they were concerned only to a very minor extent with the migration of capital overseas which was a characteristic feature of the English economy in the nineteenth century. It is therefore surprising to find that Irish capital and managerial skill played a not insignificant role in the industrial expansion of the Ruhr in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the nineteenth century. In this connection the career of William Thomas Mulvany is of considerable importance. Yet his achievements appear to have been forgotten in his native country and no biography of him has appeared in English.

Mulvany was a remarkable man and he has influenced the subsequent development both of his native and adopted countries: in Ireland he operated as a public servant and made lasting contributions in the field of inland navigation and arterial drainage; in Germany he worked as a mining manager in the private sector and left his mark on the industrial development of the Ruhr. Through all the vicissitudes of the past 150 years the name of Mulvany has not been forgotten in Germany. Streets were named after him in Dusseldorf and a number of Ruhr towns. In 1922 there appeared, under the auspices of the Archives for Rhine-Westphalian Industry, a 250-page biography in German based on public records and the collection of his private papers donated to the archives by his daughter, Annabella Catherine Mulvany (unfortunately most of the collection did not survive the bombing of Cologne during the Second World War). A bust of William Thomas Mulvany occupies a prominent position at the headquarters of VEBA, the lineal descendant of the Hibernia Mine founded and managed by Mulvany. VEBA is the fifth largest company in Germany and has diversified well beyond the origins of coal mining 150 years ago.

Mulvany’s career in Ireland

William Thomas Mulvany (1806-1885) was the eldest of the seven children of Thomas James Mulvany and his wife Mary Field. Thomas James was a painter of some talent and one of the founders of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1823. Brought up in Sandymount, William Thomas Mulvany entered Trinity College as a medical student in 1823 but left without completing his first year, possibly due to family financial problems. He then worked as an architectural pupil under Francis Johnson on public buildings and under John Semple on churches. In 1826 he was appointed an assistant surveyor on the Ordnance Survey and was first stationed in Coleraine. In 1827 he was transferred as an assistant surveyor to the Boundary Commission which worked in advance of the Ordnance Survey under the direction of Richard Griffith.
In 1835 Mulvany was transferred as an assistant engineer to the Shannon navigation at the request of the engineer, Henry Buck, who had been his district boundary surveyor. In his new post he quickly acquired additional engineering and valuation responsibilities and was appointed a district engineer in 1839. He came to the notice of Sir John Fox Burgoyne, then Commissioner for the Shannon Navigation and later the first Chairman of the Irish Board of Works and the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland. Mulvany assisted Burgoyne in the drafting of the first comprehensive legislation on arterial drainage which became law in 1842.
After the passage of the 1842 Arterial Drainage Act, Mulvany was appointed Commissioner for Drainage and Inspector for Fisheries. In 1845 he was made Commissioner for Fisheries and in 1846 a full Commissioner of the Board of Works. The Arterial Drainage Act of 1842 was a notable landmark in the development of public works and their effect on private property. However, progress under the act was slow until 1846 when, under the impact of the Famine, the number of applications under the scheme rose from about 10 per year to 300 per year and special legislation was passed to speed up procedures. Despite the stress of the conditions under which this work was carried out, the engineers engaged in arterial drainage between 1842 and 1852 form a remarkable and innovative chapter in the history of Irish engineering in the nineteenth century. It was the beginning of an Irish contribution to hydraulic engineering in general that has lasted until the present day.
After the crisis years had passed, Irish landed proprietors protested strongly against the levying of the Irish drainage charges. Under the leadership of Lord Rosse of Birr they secured the appointment of a House of Lords committee in order to examine the operation of the arterial drainage code. Their main target was William Mulvany who was accused of exceeding his powers in pressing on with certain works. With the substantial representation of the Irish landed proprietors, the result of the House of Lords enquiry was a forgone conclusion. The landowners were relieved of any expenditure over and above the original estimates and William Mulvany was retired on pension at the age of forty-six. An indirect benefit from this House of Lords enquiry is the large amount of information on this important period of Irish engineering history preserved in its volumes of correspondence and reports.
If the career of William Mulvany had ended with his dismissal on pension as Commissioner of the Board of Works, one might be inclined to suspect that his professional ability and energy had not been matched by prudence and administrative ability. That this was far from the truth is demonstrated by the career of Mulvany in Germany in subsequent years.

Origin of the Hibernia Mine, Gelsenkirchen (1853-1856)

On St Patrick’s Day in 1856 work was commenced on a new mine near Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr. The manager was William Thomas Mulvany and the shareholders were all Irish. The colliery capital was divided into 128 shares (the fixed number stipulated under the mining law of the period) and were allocated as follows: Joseph Malcomson (40), William Malcomson (8), David Malcomson (8), James Perry, Snr (24), James Perry, Jnr (8), William James Perry (8), William Thomas Mulvany (16), Michael Corr van der Maeren (16). Thus began the Hibernia Mine, forerunner of the industrial giant VEBA which proudly acknowledges this origin today.
The key person in this initiative was Michael Corr van der Maeren. Though a Belgian citizen who fought for Belgian liberty in 1830 Michael Corr van den Maeren was as Irish as his colleagues. In 1802 his father, Michael Corr, whose name appears in the 1798 Rebellion Papers in the National Archives as an active revolutionary, arrived in Brussels as a political refugee accompanied by his wife but without their two-week old son Michael. It was only after the lifting of the continental blockade in 1815 that young Michael was able to join his parents in Brussels where he was educated and after five years in the army took up a business career. He was a well-known free-trader, an associate of Cobden and Bright and an advocate of social science as a discipline. He married a Flemish lady named van der Maeren and took her name as an adjunct to his own. Michael Corr van der Maeren owned some property near Gelsenkirchen and became interested in the possibility of the modernisation of the mining industry in the Ruhr which at that time exhibited centuries old structures and techniques. He visited Dublin in 1853 and met William Mulvany, James Perry and Joseph Malcomson. It is not known what his original contact was but it is perhaps interesting to speculate that it might have been with Mulvany through an acquaintenship between their younger brothers. Mulvany’s brother, George Field Mulvany, was an artist like their father and was the first Director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Michael Corr’s younger brother, Matthew Erin Corr, was a professor of painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
James Perry of Blackrock, County Dublin, was an acquaintance of Mulvany’s father and had provided William Mulvany with information on railway matters in the 1830s before Mulvany had transferred from the Boundary Commission to Shannon Navigation. A member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), he was a pioneer of investment in railway development in Ireland. Joseph Malcomson of Portlaw, County Waterford, was the head of the firm of Malcomson Brothers, who were involved in corn milling, cotton spinning, iron works and ship building as well as railways. Joseph Malcomson was also a member of the Society of Friends and the factory town at Portlaw was a model community.
In 1854 Mulvany accompanied Michael Corr on a visit to Gelsenkirchen in order to evaluate the prospects. Reflecting on the visit on the occasion of the company’s twenty-five year jubilee in 1880 Mulvany recalled:

As a result of a short visit to the Head Mining Office and examination of the geological map, I immediately realised what wonderfully extensive riches were hidden under the earth. I had seen how inadequate in those days were your railways and how insufficiently your canals and transport facilities were used. I said to myself on the spot: these people do not understand what they possess here.

Clearly it was on the basis of this report that the capital was put forward by James Perry and Joseph Malcomson and the Hibernian Mining Company was formed.

Progress of mining ventures (1856-1882)

Eighteen fifty-six also saw the launch of the Shamrock Mine in Herne. The same shareholders were involved with the addition of C.P. Roney, an Irish building contractor who had worked largely in London. The shares were allocated among the families as follows: Malcomson (64), Perry (40), Mulvany (8), Corr (8), Roney (8). The first coal from the two mines was brought to the surface in 1858. Production increased rapidly in subsequent years and by 1861 coal from Hibernia was being shipped not only to southern Germany and the Netherlands but also to London, Boston and Buenos Aires. It was responsible for the largest export of coal from any mine on the European continent at that time.
Hibernia and Shamrock were among the first of the mines in the Ruhr developed with foreign capital and were among the most successful because of the emphasis on technical development. Before 1850 coal mining had been organised by the state authorities who were responsible not only for mine safety but also for the regulation of miners’ wages and for pricing the coal produced. The first collieries were established on the banks of the River Ruhr where coal could be found at a shallow depth of about fifteen metres. The technology was consequently not of a very advanced level and quite inadaquate for the deep, rich deposits exploited by Mulvany. In the case of the Hibernia Mine the first shaft reached a depth of 112 metres and the second shaft, completed in 1861, reached a depth of 211 metres. A problem in sinking shafts of such a depth was the question of the control of water. A key element in the success of these mines was the recruitment by Mulvany of William Coulson, a mining engineer from Durham with considerable experience of the mining techniques of that region, together with a number of skilled workers from both northern England and from Cornwall. Coulson and Mulvany carried out research and development on a new shaft sinking process involving iron casings known as tübbings, which replaced the previously used brick shafts. This method was based on the assumption that the chalk marl consisted of malleable and sandy material which would allow for drainage and pumping away of the water when these iron tübbings were driven between  wedges in the water bearing material.
William Mulvany’s younger brother Thomas John, who had also played a notable part in Shannon navigation and arterial drainage in Ireland, joined him in the Ruhr and became a director of the company. William Mulvany’s son Thomas Robert (1839-1907) also joined in the work but was obliged to work his way up in the company from being an ordinary worker to a director and in later years the British consul for North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1858 another Irishman, S.W. Perrot, who had been a bank manager in Dublin, joined the enterprise as chief accountant. Over the next two decades the Hibernia and Shamrock Mines were among the most successful mining enterprises in the Ruhr. But the economic development of the 1860s did not take place against a stable financial background. There was a short-lived boom in 1864-65 and a money crisis in 1866. The rapid industrial expansion linked to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was followed by a crisis in 1873 which produced particular difficulty for the coal and steel industries and consequently for the Hibernia and Shamrock Mines. Unlike many other mines, the enterprises themselves survived but their financial structure became very different. As a result of negotiations with Berlin banks the coal mines belonging to the Hibernian and Shamrock interests were sold to two Berlin companies in March 1873. William Mulvany was chairman of the board of directors of the new company and his brother Thomas was also a director. Samuel Perrot and William Robinson owned shares in the new company. In 1877 there was a further economic crisis but the Hibernian and Shamrock mines recovered strongly from 1881 onwards and remained the most famous mines of the region. William Mulvany continued as chairman until his death in 1885.
Quite apart from the Hibernia and Shamrock venture, the same Irish capitalists financed a new company based on the Zolleren and Hansa Mines (purchased by Mulvany in 1859) and the Erin mines in the neighbourhood of Castrop. These were linked with ironworks under the name of the Prussian Mining and Ironworks Company. This amalgamation took place in 1866 and new shafts were sunk shortly afterwards using the tübbings method. The economic crisis of 1873, which affected many more countries than Germany, inevitably had an effect on this operation. In this case the company was able to carry on to 1877 when things became critical and production was severely affected. The Prussian Mining and Ironworks Company sold out to a Berlin commercial company in 1873 and was reconstituted as the Westphalian Mining Company in 1877. In 1882 the latter company was purchased by a consortium led by Friedrich Grillo and this constituted the end of the external Irish capital investment in the Ruhr.
The soundness of these enterprises as mining ventures is vindicated by their subsequent history. The Hibernia Mine continued to produce coal until the reserves were exhausted in 1925 thus completing seventy years of production. The Shamrock Mine continued to produce coal till 1967 and the Erin Mine until 1988. There seems little doubt that William Mulvany had the sound sense of mining possibility based on geology as well as technological and managerial skills.

Public activity and policy debates

William Mulvany was very far from being a manager concentrating only on the interests of his own enterprises. He preached very strongly the benefits of co-operation among those concerned with the same industry and played a leading part in the formation of a number of business groups and in their operation. For his general public services he was awarded a gold medal by the King of Prussia. Thus already by 1858 we find him active in the Association of Mining Interests in Essen and in 1860 a member of a commission sent by the Prussian Government to Britain in order to study the coal industry in that country. During the 1870s he was very much involved in the Rhineland Westphalia Economics Association, the Association of German Iron and Steel Industrialists in Berlin, the Coal Export Committee of which he was the chairman and the Central Association of Westphalian Coal Export Associations of which he was also chairman. He was very active in the attempts to amalgamate coal mines in order to weather the economic storms of the 1870s. In 1874-75 he was one of the most active persons in the foundation of the Dusseldorf stock exchange.
He was the author of a large number of pamphlets on transport and tariff policy. Over forty of these dealing with important economic issues can be identified. One of the first problems that concerned him was the tariff policy that was inhibiting coal mining and other industries. In this connection he wrote a memorandum on the ‘one penny tariff’ in 1860, a more general memorandum on tariffs in 1874 and a further memorandum on tariff reform in 1879. He also advocated strongly the necessity to plan an adequate transport system in order to enable producers to reach their markets. He wrote a general memorandum on transport in 1872 and a separate memorandum on railways in 1868 and a proposal for a central station in Dusseldorf in 1880. A major concern of his was the development of an integrated waterways system in which inland harbours would feed through coastal ports with seagoing barges. His ideas in this direction are represented by an 1873 memorandum for a harbour at Dusseldorf, an 1874 memorandum on Hamburg port, an 1881 report on German waterways and an 1882 report with a new proposal for Dusseldorf harbour. His concern with these general political questions were clearly of importance to him from the beginning of his work in Germany in 1855 till his death in Dusseldorf in 1885.

Mulvany as an exile (1855-1885)

Mulvany and his family were happy in their German surroundings. He introduced steeple chasing to Germany and provided the first race course with obstacles on the grounds of his own summer house at Castrop. The books by his daughters reflect a happy home life even if it does appear a little Victorian and stiff as in the portrait shown here. There is no hint of any regret in leaving Ireland. His commitment to his adopted country was complete. We in Ireland have not done well by ignoring William Thomas Mulvany and his contributions both to his own country and to Germany. In 1864 Mulvany received the freedom of Gelsenkirchen, the town which was his first home in Germany. Among the Larcom manuscripts in the National Library in Dublin there is a report from the Freeman’s Journal of 5 November 1864 headed ‘Irish enterprise in Germany’ which describes this particular occasion. On the margin Thomas Larcom (another neglected public servant of great ability), who was a fellow commissioner with Mulvany at the Board of Works, wrote,

I rejoice in seeing the great abilities of my friend Mulvany receive though in a foreign country the approbation denied him in his own.

Twenty years later an obituary of William T. Mulvany in the Irish Times of November 5 1885 takes up the same point:

It is a suggestive commentary on our system that long experience and abilities of high order which should have been devoted to the amelioration of this country and the development of its resources were more highly prized and rewarded in a foreign land.

In these days when Ireland and Germany are members of the one economic and political union and young people from Ireland readily travel for work to Germany it is well for us to remember William Mulvany and to reflect how different it was for him to leave everything behind him in 1855 and bring his whole family with him to an unknown country and an unknown future. That he triumphed is due to his own ability. That we have neglected to learn from him and from other pioneers of the nineteenth century is a loss to us.

Jim Dooge is a research consultant at the Centre for Water Resources Research, University College Dublin.

Further reading:

K. Bloemers, Thomas Mulvany (1806-1885) (Essen 1922) [in German].

W.O. Henderson, ‘W.T Mulvany: an Irish pioneer in the Ruhr’, pp 179-193 in Britain and Industrial Europe (Liverpool 1954).


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