The cost of coal from Flower and M‘Donald
U 17.128-30: best Abram coal at twentyone shillings a ton from the yard of Messrs Flower and M‘Donald of 14 D’Olier street
Don Gifford notes that Abram coal was “advertised in 1904 as the finest A-brand coal in Dublin” (Ulysses Annotated, p. 568). Slote refers, more helpfully, to “the Abram Coal Co.: Bickershaw, Wigan”. Both note the real existence in Joyce’s day of Flower and M’Donald at 14 D’Olier Street in Dublin.
The production and sale of Abram coal in Ireland
There is more that can be said about the sale of Abram coal in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Dublin, some of which bears on Joyce’s mention of the commodity. Abram (pronounced ABB-ram) is a village in Lancashire, which is now part of the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan in Greater Manchester. The area, with nearby Bickershaw and Wigan itself, was well known for its collieries until closure in the mid twentieth century. Abram Main colliery was managed by the Abram Coal Co., and the company was responsible for the sale and marketing of Abram coal to Flower and M’Donald in Dublin.1
Flower and M’Donald, coal merchants and manufacturers of Irish salt, were the main suppliers of Abram coal in Dublin, to judge from the regular newspaper advertisements by Dublin coal merchants which ran in the daily papers. They brought their imports into their dock at Ringsend and also just north of Dublin at Balbriggan for sale and distribution through their D’Olier Street head office.
Joyce will doubtless have been aware of Flower and M’Donald’s advertisements for Abram coal, such as this one run in the Irish Times on 9 December 1897:
The Abram colliery was opened in the 1870s, but its coal does not seem to have reached Dublin under the name “Abram coal” until the 1890s. It was in 1892 that the Abram Coal Co. was established, managing most of the Abram pits and in competition with many other local collieries, and this seems to be a significant landmark in the distribution and sale of “Abram coal”.
Joyce and the dating of Flower & M‘Donald’s advertisement
Joyce’s reference in Ulysses is based on a quotation that he copied into his “Ithaca 3” notesheets, as reproduced by Phillip Herring:2
The Ithaca notesheets date from 1921, and so we might naturally assume that this was when Joyce first encountered the reference, presumably from one of Flower & M‘Donald’s advertisements in the Dublin newspapers that he had acquired abroad.
But there are several problems with this. Firstly, Flower & M‘Donald advertised as “Flower & McDonald” in 1921, and so the text is typographically suspect. More significantly, references to Abram coal stop dead in the Dublin papers with the advent of the First World War in 1914. The coal is not sold (at least under this name) in 1921.
We are therefore thrown back on other theories, of which the most likely is that the relevant page of Joyce’s Ithaca notesheets contains transcriptions he made in 1921 from older Dublin newspapers that he had acquired. This is supported by the fact that at least two of the surrounding notesheet extracts can be dated to the first years of the twentieth century. Herring (citing Adams) notes that the quotation:3
comes from “a letter to the Irish Independent written by Ignatius J. Rice, and published in the issue of June 15, 1904”. Similarly the “£5 reward” quotation at ll. 24-7 comes from the Dublin newspapers of 1902 (see more on this reference here).
It seems, therefore, that we should be searching the early twentieth-century Dublin papers for Joyce’s source, from the period leading up to or including Bloomsday 1904. Whether Joyce was attracted by the play on “Flower” and “Bloom”, or even whether, by a stretch of the imagination, he saw a Jewish allusion in Abram coal, remains uncertain. He had coalmen in the back of his mind when completing Ulysses:
Abram coal was advertised in Dublin over a roughly twenty-five year period. In the early 1890s Flower and M‘Donald’s newspaper advertisements did not mention Abram coal. Their top brands were Orrell and Arley coal (from coalmines near Abram), and then maybe Whitehaven and Wigan coal. Their descriptions of cheaper varieties were more generic (“Kitchen coal”) or geographically more general (“Scotch coal”, “Glasgow coal”).
But Abram coal was imported into Dublin from late 1892 by the firm of W. W. Robinson of 19 Westland Row (as “Abram Wigan” coal). In the following year, an excited advertisement appeared in the Dublin papers from Flower & M‘Donald:4
But the supply of high-quality Abram coal seems to have been slow at first. Flower and M‘Donald do not include the coal in their regular advertisements until late 1895. Their neighbours at 13 D’Olier Street, Wallace Brothers, had by then been importing and selling it for several months, and several other Dublin merchants dabbled with the variety in their advertisements. But it was Flower and M‘Donald who were the most ardent advocates of the Abram coal.
Coal prices given were typically per ton, as in Joyce’s reference. In 1891 (see advertisement below) the prices for high-quality coal advertised by Flower & M‘Donald were well above the 21s. (one guinea) per ton quoted in Ulysses.
Irish Times (1891), 3 January p. 8
Flower & M‘Donald offered coal at two prices, the lower (cash) price normally being one shilling less than the full price (see also A Joycean price guide). Prices were depressed in earlier years, and it was possible to go to Flower and M‘Donald’s yard in the first half of 1896 to pay 17 shillings in cash for a ton of Abram coal (by now these coal ads were placed on the front page of the Irish Times):5
Flower & M‘Donald’s prices for Abram coal varied with supply, from a low of 16 shillings (cash) in spring 1896 to a spike of 28s. 6d. in October 1900. This was followed by a drop in 1905, after which the price steadily rose until it was apparently discontinued under this name in 1914.6
It is tempting to think that Joyce’s advertisement derives from 16 June 1904. Certainly in the period leading up to Bloomsday in 1904 the full price of Abram coal was 21 shillings, but as we enter June it sinks down to 19 shillings (cash) and 20 shillings or one pound (full). The longest stretch of time over which the price of Abram coal was advertised as 21 shillings (cash or full) ran from early 1898 until early 1900. Joyce’s advertisement dates from this or another of the short time slots indicated in the appendix, but the appearance of this and similar references in the Ithaca notesheets also reminds us that we should not necessarily assume that apparently contemporary references date from the time of the notesheets.
Appendix 1: the cash price of Flower & M‘Donald coal from 1895 until 1910 (expressed as price in pounds over time)
For further information on the history and management of the Abram colliery see
the web site of the Northern Mine Research Society: http://www.nmrs.org.uk/mines/coal/lancashire/wigan/abram.html
Joyce's Environs >