Thursday 14 February 2013

The Linen Industry in Ulster (pt4)


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 Edited by JAMES CARSON. 
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The Factory System.

Meantime, James Watt was struggling with the steam-engine. In the year 1765, by a flash, of genius, he discovered the error in the Newcomen engine, which was then in use for pumping purposes, and after a long struggle he was able to remedy the defect and to produce a new engine which performed its work satisfactorily. The discovery of the "rotative" motion shortly afterwards enabled it to be applied to drive machinery, and in 1785 the first steam-engine was introduced into a cotton mill at Popplewick.

All these discoveries taken together dealt a fatal blow to the domestic system. The output of cloth was enormously increased, and the cost no greatly reduced that a great increase took place, in the demand. In fifteen years the cotton trade trebled itself. Old barns, cart-houses and out-buildings of every description were repaired and converted into loom-shops. Means of communication had improved, the canal system had become developed, the money market was springing up, banking had increased and was providing the necessary, capital and credit, without which the revolution could not have been carried out. Hand-loom weaving in the cotton trade gradually ceased to be a paying trade. It could not compete against the power-loom. Gradually the weavers flocked to the centres of manufacture seeking employment. They had to sacrifice their independence and submit to the discipline of the factory system. Under the domestic system where journeymen were employed, there was a great deal of intimacy between master and labourers, which brought about a good feeling between them. Under the new system, workers were thrown together under very hard and rigid conditions. The hours were long, and the employers in the early days not very humanitarian. A great proportion of them were self-made ignorant men who did not understand the economy of good wages and shorter hours. The workers had not grown up to the new system and found it oppressive. Consequently from the evils of those early days there sprang up that antagonism between employer and worker which has caused so many strikes and lock-outs, which has caused combinations between capital and labour, and which has handed down to our time industrial problems, the solving of which will be one of the greatest difficulties of the future.

It now remains to trace what the effects of the establishment of the factory system in the cotton industry were on the linen industry of the North of Ireland.

The mechanical inventions which revolutionised the cotton industry must have excited a great deal of interest amongst the linen manufacturers who soon heard about them. For a considerable time afterwards it was not thought practicable to apply any of these inventions to the manufacture of linen, consequently the minds of enterprising men turned instinctively to the manufacture of cotton. There had been some manufacture of cotton goods carried on in the north of Ireland previous to this time, but it now made rapid headway.

Lisburn again came to the front, and it is on record that the first steam-engine applied to drive machinery was in a Lisburn cotton mill. The following is rather interesting extract from McCall's history of the Cotton Manufacture in Ireland:--

Steam Power.

In 1789, Mr. Wallace erected a cotton mill in a court off Castle Street, Lisburn, and had the concern filled with the most modern machinery. Job Ryder, a shrewd watchmaker of Belfast, offered his services as superintendent of works, and these were accepted; but when all had been nearly finished, some difference of opinion arose between the proprietor and his people as to what description of "power" would be most effective for driving the spindles. The building being situate in the centre of the town no one of all the local streams could have been brought to bear on the machinery, horse-power was out of the question, consequently the only course open to Mr. Wallace was to call in the aid of steam. He had heard much about the discoveries of Watt and Boulton, but he was also aware that several manufacturers of Lancashire and Lanark, who had great experience in the matter, were of opinion that, besides its great cheapness, the strength of a mountain stream, where it could be made available, was quite equal to that of the new agent. As it was, Mr. Wallace had no choice, he must try steam power; and, for the purpose of personally examining the principle and seeing it at work, he set oft for Glasgow -- a full week's run in those days -- and on arriving there, he visited several concerns in the cotton spinning trade, and in each of which that machinery was driven by steam. Having been convinced of the superiority of the new principle, he purchased a fifteen horsepower engine, engaged competent mechanics to set it up, and returned home. Many were the difficulties he had to contend against in the preliminary proceedings -- a well had to be sunk to obtain water for condensing purposes, and competent hands had to be engaged to work at the concern; but at length all arrangements were completed, and Mr. Wallace enjoyed the triumph of seeing the first steam-engine that ever whirled in the North of Ireland driving the spindles of the Lisburn Cotton Mill. The wonderful power of mechanism stirred up immense curiosity, not only in that town, but in several other places, and many scientific men from distant parts of the North visited Lisburn to see the new power at work. A venerable friend of mine, who lived to a patriarchal age, and was one of that race of gentleman-farmers which has few representatives in these days, told me that he recollected perfectly the erection of Mr. Wallace's mill, and he described with great interest the excitement which had been created about the steam-engine. Its construction was, of course very inferior to that of those manufactured in after days, the beam having been made of wood, and the inner work roughly finished, still, it worked well and was considered a marvellous invention.

In 1793 another cotton mill was erected in Lisburn by George Whitla and Robert Stirling. That concern was not so large as that of James Wallace; it gave employment to fifty hands, and the spindles were driven by an engine of twelve-horse-power. These cotton spinning mills were carried on successfully for several years, but death and other casualties brought "about many changes, and in 1812 not a spindle was in motion in Lisburn."

The Cotton Manufacture

now extended very rapidly, and it looked about the beginning of last century as if cotton would displace linen manufacture. In the year 1800 ten thousand bales of raw cotton were landed at Belfast, and in the year 1807 the imports amounted to 14,000 bales, worth about £420,000. Another important factor must have helped to stimulate cotton manufacture; the interruption of the supplies of flax and flaxseed which was practically all imported from abroad, during the Napoleonic wars. Prices of flax increased enormously and manufacturers were obliged to turn their looms on to cotton the supply of the raw material being available.

It was natural at this period that Belfast should become an important centre, owing to the growing facilities for importing the raw material and exporting the finished article. We find, therefore, that out of the fourteen cotton spinning mills started about this time, ten were located in Belfast and the immediate neighbourhood, and gave employment to over two thousand hands.

By the year 1810 cotton manufacture seems in have attained its zenith in Ireland. In the year 1776 there were about 500 linen looms at works in Belfast. In 1790 there were 158 linen and 500 cotton looms, and in the year 1810 there were 6 linen looms and 860 cotton looms. From 1812 to 1814, owing to the war with America about the right of search, raw cotton supplies were interrupted, and cotton spinning in Ireland received a check. During the years of financial disasters that recurred at regular intervals after the Napoleanic wars, owing to the great fall in prices, great losses were sustained and cotton spinning lost ground rapidly until it became practically extinct in the North of Ireland in the year 1828.

During this period the Lisburn market was still the most important centre for the sale of brown cloth and was celebrated for the superiority of its thirty-eight inch linens. The turn-over at each day's sales, in the busy season, about the year 1816, amounted to £5,200. After this a gradual transition seems to have taken place, other markets increased in importance, and Lisburn gradually lost ground, until at a late date Ballymena and Armagh were finally the only two places where brown linens were sold in the open market, and when the domestic system was displaced this method of selling cloth disappeared altogether.

Flax-Spinning by Machinery.

was first invented and developed in England and afterwards introduced into Ireland. Experiments had been going on for some years previous to 1788, but during that year John Marshall, the son of a Leeds shopkeeper, entered into partnership with two others and erected a small mill in Leeds. It was not very successful at the commencement, but in the course of a few years the machinery was improved and the undertaking commenced to be a success. Under this system coarse yarns could only be spun as the flax was spun in a dry state. In the year 1825 Mr. Thomas Kaye, who was a very ingenious manufacturer, discovered the method of "wet spinning" which enabled yarns of much finer counts to be spun. This was a great stimulus to flax-spinning in England, and machine-spun yarn rapidly gained ground.

The year 1828 marks a very important period in the history of the linen industry in Ireland, for during that year flax spinning by steam power was adopted and introduced by two firms -- Messrs. Mulholland Bros., of York Street, Belfast, and Messrs. James and William Murland, Castlewellan. Both these enterprises were successful and succeeded beyond expectations. In a short time yarns were produced which were superior to those produced by hand-spinning, and besides the cost proved much cheaper. A great demand sprung up for machine-spun yarns, and the linen industry was greatly stimulated. Meantime, other important changes had taken place which accelerated the development of the new system. In 1825 the Irish coinage was reformed. There had been important accumulations of capital, and through the operations of banking which was now being developed in Ireland this capital could be readily utilised for the extension of enterprise. The channel was being cleared, shipping was increasing, and regular services between Belfast and English ports were established. It was now possible to transport easily heavy and bulky machinery necessary for the development of the industry. Improvement in spinning machinery quickly followed. The development was pushed energetically, and by the end of the year 1840 there were thirty-eight mills working in Ireland, containing 245,000 spindles, and hand-spinning had practically ceased to exist. In 1845 there were sixty mills at work containing 290,000 spindles and in 1850 the number of spindles bad increased to 330,000. This rapid growth continued until in the year 1867 the number of spindles at work in Ireland was about equal to the spindles of England and Scotland combined.

The date of the introduction of power-loom weaving into the linen manufacture in Ireland seems uncertain. McCall states that power-loom production of linen goods was "little thought of by Irish manufacturers until 1848, and even then was looked on by over-cautious men as a risky speculation." It is evident that the cloth was practically all produced in hand-looms up to this time. Enterprising bleachers and merchants had established hand-loom factories for the production of cloth on an extensive scale, and even successful and pushing country hand-loom weavers who had accumulated a little capital, took advantage of the facilities that Belfast offered to come there and start small hand-loom shops which were afterwards greatly developed. After 1850 the power-loom manufacture greatly extended, and in the year 1867 there were 12,500 power-looms at work in Ireland.

A special feature which encouraged the development of the factory system in Belfast is worthy of notice, and may explain to some extent the rapid development of the industry there in comparison with its development in other cities in the United Kingdom. Between 1828 and 1840 most of the land on which Belfast now stands was let at low rents under leases for lives renewable for ever, and by the operation of the Renewable Leaseholds Conversion Act 1848, these leases were converted into grants in perpetuity subject to the same rents and other payments as were reserved by the leases. Some years after the Donegall Belfast Estate was sold through the Encumbered Estate Court, and in many cases the rents were redeemed at low cost owing to values being depreciated by so much estate being thrown on the market at once. Where they were not redeemed the grant in perpetuity operates to prevent any increase in rent. As the urbanisation of industry was a feature of the industrial revolution, the development of the industry in Belfast received a notable advantage in this way.

The progress of industry has been continuous, and since 1867 it has quickly outstripped the linen industry in Great Britain where it has rapidly declined, until to-day there are about 1,000,000 spindles and 40,000 looms engaged in the manufacture of linen in Ireland, and as well as Irish linens having the reputation of being the finest in the world, the industry in Ireland occupies the premier place amongst the world's rivals.


In making this brief survey of the history of the development of our staple industry, one cannot help being impressed by the fact that the development has been unfortunately lob-sided; that is to say, the spinning, weaving, and marketing branches of the trade have developed, while there has been practically no progress made for nearly two hundred years in the culture of the flax and the method of preparing the flax for the market. As a matter of fact, the growth of flax instead of increasing with the growth of the industry had actually declined so much that the industry was being carried on mainly by the supplies of flax that were imported from abroad. During the great European war when these supplies were cut off, when the fate of our Empire was hanging in the balance, and when linen was vitally essential for the equipment of our aeroplanes the sorry spectacle was witnessed of frantic efforts having to be made at the eleventh hour to stimulate the growth of flax at home in order to help to bring the war to a successful issue. It was only when foreign supplies failed, and such a contingency never seemed to have been reckoned upon, that any thought was given to the idea of stimulating the culture of flax in Ireland. The farmer, although in some measure responsible for the diminution in the production of home grown flax, cannot be blamed for the weakness of the position of our industry during the critical years of the war. He was rendered powerless by the economic conditions which had been at work during past years. Foreign flax was imported cheaper than could be grown at home, consequently Irish farmers, not being philanthropists, neglected its culture.

The outstanding feature in connection with the development of our industry is the fact that the cost of the production and handling of flax in the hands of the farmers has increased, while, on the other hand, the cost of production in the other branches of the industry has under the factory system been enormously reduced. This latter has always been the case in every other industry, to which science, ingenuity and organisation have been applied. It would appear that there is a missing link in the organisation of the linen industry. The farmer should not be asked to do more than grow the flax, and by the assistance of education and the application of scientific methods there is no reason why the flax crop should not be profitable under normal conditions. When the crop has been harvested the farmer's work should cease. He has neither the capital nor the labour at his disposal, nor can he grow the flax in sufficient quantity to undertake the retting and handling in an organised and scientific manner. Because no advance has been made in the, retting and handling of the flax crop for two hundred years, no person would be insane enough to say that a state of perfection had been reached, that the old method of steeping in bog holes under arduous and difficult conditions where nature, never in a hurry, is allowed to work out her own ways, is the only one. It is here that an advance in the development of the industry is essential in order to cheapen the cost of production. There is room for the growth of an organisation to buy the flax straw from the farmers, to discover and apply scientific methods by which the spinner will be supplied with flax at a cost that will check foreign competition.

Already a movement is on foot to establish a Research Association in connection with the linen trade. Such a movement should receive the support of everyone interested in the welfare of our trade, and it is to be hoped that their efforts will be directed to try and find a remedy for the weak parts of the organisation of the industry.

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 14 February 1919 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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