Belfast 1951 to ’60, in order, Belfasr Cuty Airport, Coal Diggers

George Best, Belfast City Airport in 1951,was merely Sydenham Airport, occupied by the Royal Naval Fleet Air Arm, and Short Bros & Harlands as a landing place for planes needing repairs and also testing new aircraft. During WW2 it was the test-bed and the home of the Sunderland Sea Recognisance Plane. It was about 1950 the ill-fated De Havilland Comet, the then new commercial aircraft, was being promoted, and the 05-23 runway at Sydenham selected for strengthening and lengthening to permit it to land. The work had strange and sometimes ridiculous anomalies, such as the Coal Diggers, and The Hokers and The Lethal Weapons,

The Coal Diggers Belfast, along the River Lagan and down the margins of Belfast Lough, is built on alluvial silt from the River, a soft mud known locally as Sleech. For decades, the Harbour Authority, by necessity, dredged the river along the quays and used the dredged material, pumped ashore, to fill areas encased by berms or dykes, which had tide controlled drainage through sluices to the sea. The original airfield was built in this way, and beyond it on the south shoreline, more dykes were built during and especially after the war with tipped material from factories, the Shipyard, some fly-tipping and the remains of the brick and reinforced concrete air raid shelters, which had been built on the corners of some Belfast streets and were removed in the post war years.

In particular, then, coal for the Belfast area was shipped in coasters, up the Lagan to the Coal Quay, beside The Queen’s Bridge ,and there unloaded with clam-shell excavators to the stock-piles. Speed in turn-round being the governing factor, much coal fell between ship and wharf from the clam-buckets, as they swung away from the ship, the coal to be dredged later. In the dyke areas were long lengths of very large steel piping through which the dredged material, in liquid form, was pumped to the dykes, filling the areas during the dredging periods. When the pumps were sending the sleech ashore, one could hear the rattle of the coal in the pipes as it too was being pumped. So, the filled area was rich in coal of a size suitable for the grate. I have always regretted not having a camera on those dark, winter evenings, with the sun setting and dark clouds looming, when the Dykes were like a Dickensian scene. Men, women, and children, were standing knee-deep in the slime, black to the elbows, rummaging for coal, filling sacks and wheeling their booty away in decrepit prams.

Categorized as post WW2

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