Thursday 27 September 2012

The Linen Trade in Lisburn (1913)


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(London "Times,"
March 17th, 1913.)

At Hilden, on the River Lagan, about seven miles south of Belfast, and close to Lisburn, on the line of the Great Northern Railway Company, stands one of the most interesting village industrial communities in the United Kingdom; for it is here that are to be found the world-famed Linen Thread, Twine, and Net Works of Messrs. William Barbour & Sons, Limited, which for the last 130 years have been associated with the same family.

Of Ulster's industrial centres, no place has a more varied and interesting history than Lisburn, one of the handsomest and most prosperous towns in Ireland. Through all the ups and down of Irish affairs the development of Lisburn's principal industry -- namely, the manufacture of linen thread -- has consistently progressed, until now the products of this town and of the adjacent village of Hilden, penetrate into every civilised region, and are universally recognised as the best of their kind in the world.

The establishment of the Linen Thread Industry, which has brought such fame to this portion or Ulster was due to the enterprise of Mr. John Barbour, a native of Paisley, in Scotland, who in 1784, when engaged on one of his frequent visits to Ireland for the purchase of linen yarns for Scottish factories, was impressed with the opportunities existing for the introduction into Ireland of the linen thread-making industry, which had not as yet been taken up by the Irish linen manufacturers. So satisfied was he that this adjunct would prove successful if grafted on to the Irish linen trade that he forthwith took steps to establish it, in what he regarded as its proper environment; and for this purpose he erected small mills at the Plantation, Lisburn. As it was an entire novelty in the country, it became necessary, at the same time, to undertake the instruction of young women of the neighbourhood in the art of thread-making. They proved apt pupils, and at their new work they found themselves able to earn higher wages than they had ever before known. The industry thus inaugurated in 1784 has now grown to stupendous dimensions. Its history is interesting.

In 1823 Mr. John Barbour was succeeded by his two sons, John and William. Dissolving partnership with his brother, William Barbour removed to the present admirable site at Hilden, adjoining the River Lagan, and facing the Great Northern Railway subsequently constructed. Twelve years later he purchased the original business at the Plantation, and removed the plant to the works at Hilden which be had previously erected. Having now become sole proprietor, he pushed the business with unflagging energy, enlarging the works from time to time to accommodate the ever-growing demands for the firm's products.

Mr. William Barbour died in 1875, but the business still remained in the hands of the family, the management descending to his sons, John D., Robert, Samuel, and Thomas Barbour, who added still further to the extent of the works, whilst at the same time they maintained the high reputation of the firm's productions.

Advantage was taken of the Limited Liability Act in 1883 to incorporate the firm as a limited company. In 1898 it widened its scope of operations by joining with other Irish, Scotch, and English thread manufacturing firms, and forming the Linen Thread Company, Limited. For the purposes of the present issue one need only mention the four Irish mills comprised in this company, vis.:--

     William Barbour & Sons, Ltd, Hilden.
     Robert Stewart & Sons, Ltd., Lisburn.
     F. W. Haues & Co., Ltd., Banbridge.
     Dunbar, M'Master, & Co., Ltd., Gilford.
Employed in these different Irish mills is an aggregate of 4,000 hands.

The oldest and most important constituent in this group is the firm of William Barbour & Sons, Limited, started, as above described, in 1784, and continued down to the present day by the direct descendants of the original founder, one of whom -- Mr. J. Milne Barbour, D.L., J.P. -- occupies the position of chairman and managing director of the Linen Thread Company, Limited, Glasgow. The present directors of William Barbour & Sons, Limited, are -- Messrs. Frank Barbour, J. Milne Barbour, D.L., J.P.; Harold A. M. Barbour, W. Barbour Ardill, Sir James Knox, and Mr. Malcolm Gordon, who is the director in charge of the management of the Hilden and Dunmurry mills.

At the present time the works, with their environments, cover about 50 acres, and including the adjacent Dunmurry Mill, give employment to over 2,000 people, engaged in the manufacturing of linen threads, linen yarns, twines, and nets of every size and description. Linen threads are used largely by bootmakers, tailors, saddlers, bookbinders, tent makers, brush makers, and other trades, as well as for general domestic use. Fancy linen threads are required for lace making, embroidering and crochet work; whilst upholsterers employ many sorts of twine of all sizes. The amount of twine need annually in the shops for parcelling, etc., accounts for no small fraction of the company's output; whilst yarns and twists of all kinds for weaving, plaiting, braiding, lace making, knitting, etc., each form a special department of the firm's industrial activities.

One noteworthy feature with which William Barbour & Sons, Limited, is very intimately associated is the production of thread and twine for fishing lines and nets. Not only do they supply the fishing industry with these twines, but the nets and seines manufactured at Hilden, and bearing the firm's famous trade mark of the Open Band, have earned for themselves a reputation among fishermen in all parts of the world.

The exhibits of William Barbour & Sons, Limited, at the principal international expositions have met with conspicuous success, medals having been awarded for their threads at London in 1862, at Vienna in 1873, Philadelphia in 1876, at Berlin in 1877, at Paris in 1878, at Dessau in 1879, at Sydney in the same year, as well as in later years at Melbourne, Dublin, Cork, London (1883), Boston, Mass.; the World's Fair, Chicago; and the Truro Fisheries Exhibition.


The branch factory at Dunmurry, close to Hilden, has already been mentioned; but the manufacturing enterprise of Messrs. William Barbour & Sons, Limited, has extended itself far beyond Ireland. In 1863, at Paterson, New Jersey, in the United States, and in 1886 at Ottensen, near Hamburg, in Germany, large works have been erected, the former for the production and extension of their trade in America, and the latter for the same purpose within the German Empire. Incidentally it may be mentioned that the hostile tariffs raised by those countries against British manufacturers rendered it necessary for the company to establish German and American mills if they were to retain any appreciable trade with such highly protected nations.

Thus Messrs. William Barbour & Sons, Limited, through their foreign branches, taken in conjunction with the home factories, give employment to a total of about 5,000 operatives, thereby entitling the firm to the claim of being the largest linen thread manufacturers in the world. A network of agencies has familiarised every user of linen threads, twines, etc., with the famous productions distinguished for over a century and a quarter with the device of the "Red Hand," carrying across the open palm a single word -- "Flax." The despatch department, at the mills daily demonstrates not only the multiplicity but the varied nationalities of the patrons of the firm. Indeed, William Barbour & Sons are obliged to describe the vast range of their products in their price lists in practically all the civilised languages in the world.

Model Village.

The village of Hilden -- the existence of which is due almost entirely to the growth of the Linen Thread Mills of William Harbour & Sons, Limited -- comprises with its surroundings some 36 houses built by the firm for their operatives, containing a population, including women and children, of over 2,000 inhabitants. The "housing question" has been solved at Hilden, which now affords a model village for the imitation both of employers and municipalities. The foremen live in semidetached cottages standing in their own grounds, built not with a mere view to utility but also with a sense of artistic fitness. The houses are indeed quite neat little villas. The less elaborate red brick cottages for the use of the workpeople are wholly free from that sordid aspect which so often appertains to working-class dwellings in manufacturing centres.

For the younger members of the community the firm hare recently erected one of the most admirable primary schools in Ireland, lacking nothing that can minister to the health and comfort of the teaching staff and the scholars, who number over 350. Evening and recreative classes are also in contemplation for those of older growth.

In addition to the ordinary class-rooms the school building is provided with a spacious model kitchen equipped with an up-to-date cooking range and all the necessary utensils. The kitchen has been designed to serve a strictly utilitarian purpose. Lessons in cooking and domestic management are given to the girl pupils with a view to rendering them better able in after life to undertake the care and duties of a home of their own. Everything, in fact, is done at Hilden to promote the bodily and also the intellectual welfare of the firm's employees. Not the least of the many amenities provided for the employees is a large dining hall, situate in close proximity to the works, in which hot meals are served at cost price.

The mills of Messrs. Robert Stewart & Sons, Limited, are situate in the town uf Lisburn itself, being only about a mile and a quarter distant from the works of Messrs. William Barbour & Sons, Limited, above referred to. Here about 600 hands are employed. This firm was established in the year 1835, and its name and trade mark is well known all over the world for all classes of threads that are used in tailoring, shoe manufacturing, and leather industries.

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The island in the River Lagan was originally known as Vitriol Island, and was the site of famous chemical works, with which was connected Dr. Crawford, a renowned chemist, who then lived in the old mansion now known as Roseville and occupied by Mr. George H. Clarke, J.P.

Messrs. John M'Cance and William John Handcock were then owner's of this island, which contains more than three statute acres.

The Island Spinning Company was established in the year 1867, the premises having been purchased from Mr. J. J. Richardson. This gentleman represented Lisburn in the Imperial Parliament from 1853 to 1857. The original flax spinning mill was built by Mr. Samuel Richardson in 1840, who, having died in 1847, was succeeded by his brother, Mr. J. J. Richardson, who added materially to the size of the mill.

In 1871 the company added an extensive weaving factory, and in 1882 they introduced into their business the production of linen threads of all kinds for hand and machine sewing. About 1,000 persons are employed, many of whom reside in the firm's houses; the workers are also supplied with a suitable and comfortable dining hall. The chairman of the company in 1906 was Mr. Joseph Richardson, of Springfield -- a gentleman long connected with the linen trade of Ulster -- the managing director Mr. George R Clarke.

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Close to the railway station at Lisburn the flax spinning mills and thread manufacturing works of Messrs. Robert Stewart & Sons, Limited, are seen from the trains of the Great Northern Railway. The works are very conveniently and pleasantly situated within the town limits, and with workers' houses, etc., cover about ten statute acres. The history of Robert Stewart & Sons, Limited, as flax spinners, linen and shoe thread manufacturers; commenced in the year 1835. In that year Robert Stewart, of Lisburn, began twisting thread here by hand, and in the course of a few years afterwards he had about 3,000 spindles at work, spinning the yarn used in the manufacture of the thread. In the year 1845 Mr. Stewart took into partnership his sons Robert and James Andrew, from which date the firm traded under the style of Robert Stewart & Sons. Robert Stewart, senior, died in the year 1858, but the business was actively continued by the brothers until the year 1882, when Robert Stewart, junior, died as the result of an accident, leaving his brother James Andrew sole proprietor of the concern. Many extensions had been carried out in the lifetime of Robert Stewart, junior, and the continued growth of the trade of the firm rendered it necessary a few years after his death for the surviving partner to erect an entire new spinning mill, which was completed in the year 1889. This is a handsome structure, built on the most modern designs, and fitted throughout with the most approved sanitary arrangements. The comfort of the workers is ensured by the installation of the most efficient ventilating arrangements. The works are lighted throughout by electricity, and employ almost 1,000 hands, a large proportion of which are females. Tailors' threads and shoemakers' threads, both for hand and machine sewing, are specialities of this firm. In the year 1899 the firm became incorporated in the Linen Thread Company, Limited.

(Nest week: Old Belfast and its Vicinity, by R. M. Young.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 27 September 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week for several years. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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