Kilkenny Marble Works

The Kilkenny Marble Works

Patrick Neary

The story of the Kilkenny Marble Works begins in 1730, when William Colles of Patrick Street, Kilkenny started one of the finest private industries that ever flourished in the County. The marble works was situated at Maddockstown, three miles south of Kilkenny City on the left bank of the river Nore. A grain mill existed on the site from earliest times, which was worked by the monks, and had the name Abbey Vale.
The Colles family was connected with the marble industry for just 200 years from 1730 to 1920. The warehouses and polishing sheds were built by William Colles. A further mill was built by Colles grandson and used as a factory for making paper from rags. This enterprise was quite successful until paper making machinery made it uneconomic.

William the founder of the marble works was a man of great talent, pre eminent as a mathematician, and inventor, but with the exception of the mills on the Nore for cutting and polishing marble, few of his inventions were profitable for his family. The old St. Johns Bridge was built by him. He was acknowledged to be the first person to apply water power to the sawing, boring and polishing of marble. This William was an Alderman and twice Mayor of the City.
In a Tour of Ireland by two Englishmen in 1748, they wrote, near the mill are warehouses where you may see such diversity as chimney pieces, cisterns, vases , punch bowls frames for looking glasses, and pictures, etc. that they would employ the eye the longest day. The marble is fully as durable and as fine a polish as any brought from Italy. We are informed several shiploads a year are sent to England, which gives particular satisfaction that a native of Ireland had outdone all they had seen hitherto. The machinery is at work by night as well as by day and requires little attendance.
William Tighe of Woodstock House wrote in 1802 The Machinery at the Marble Mill is the invention of Ald. William Colles , he first tried a model in a small stream and finding it succeeded, took a perpetual lease of the Marble Quarry near Kilkenny in 1730. He was a man of great mechanical abilities and astounding in eccentric schemes, one of which was an attempt to make dogs weave linen by turning wheels. Another the supplying to Dublin Corporation with bored marble tubes as pipes for distributing water only for them to be destroyed by a mob of pipe borers and mechanics on their arrival in Dublin.

In the year 1775, £10,000 was granted by the Government to start work on the canal between Kilkenny and Inistioge, Colles delivered a proposal for supplying the Commissioners with Stones and other materials for building the canal locks. Many of the locks can still be seen in a good state of preservation though the Canal was never completed. It only reached from the City to Bennettsbridge, when the Government having granted £18,000 refused any further grants.
William Tighe writing in 1810 mentioned the Black Quarry as been the most important Quarry in the limestone district. The dressing and coarse work are carried out at the Quarry, but the principal work is done at the Marble Mill. The mill which both saws and polishes is remarkable for its power and is said to do the work of 42 men daily. The finished blocks are exported to Liverpool and Glasgow, and Mr Colles in return takes Carrara marble which he works up into handsome and highly prized chimney pieces. The business is in a thriving state and wants nothing but the passage of a canal through Kilkenny to increase it. The business prospered in spite of the Napoleonic Wars until 1817 when as a result of a poor harvest, famine occurred. There was also political unrest which made trading difficult.
Alexander Colles took over the business in 1852 which had been derelict since 1849 and built up a lucrative trade. He was Mayor of Kilkenny in 1863 when the Fair Green and Market yard were enclosed and erected the gates. His son Richard succeeded him in the business in 1876, but sold the works and retired in 1920, thus ending their connection of almost 200 years. During that time they had supplied marble work to almost every building of note erected in those days.A beautiful example of their work is the marble pavement of the Chancel in St Canices Cathedral. An another example of their work, installed in 1902 is the horse and dog water trough on the parade.
So ends the story of what was once a famous industry. A great loss to the County and the highly skilled men who worked it.