The Linen Trade
Linen manufacture has been an important industry in Northern Ireland for over three hundred years, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Practically every town and village had a mill or a factory. The Linen Trade in Ireland in the 18th Century is illustrated through the Hinks engravings.
For further information on the history, various stages in the preparation of linen and production processes, follow this link to the excellent "Living Linen Project' website:
Malcolm Haughton's memorandum of 1904 cites the following:
Brief outline of the production of flax to linen
Sowing: Flax is sown in March. The plant ripens by the end of June into golden yellow color, and then it flowers, dotting the fields with blossoms of violet, blue and white. This display is over quickly, however, for each flax plant blooms for one day only.
The Bann Valley
In addition to bleaching, Tullylish was also an area for yarn spinning and thread twisting mills. Before mechanisation, yarn was spun by women and girls. Mill-based spinning expanded rapidly and powerloom weaving began to spread in Ireland from the 1860s. By the 1880s, powerloom weaving took over from the handloom weaving of fine linens such as damask and cambric.
Tullylish saw all phases of linen production from flax scutching (reducing the flax to the long fibres), to yarn and thread spinning, to hand and powerloom weaving, to bleaching, to stitching and embroidery.
Dunbar McMaster & Co., opened Gilford Mill in 1839 for the spinning and bleaching of yarn and thread and developed a world-wide reputation and market. The days of spinning as a cottage industry came to an end when mechanisation took over. It traded under the name of Dunbar Dickson & Co., until 1865 for the manufacture of linen and cambric. The owners built one of Ireland's first factory villages. Most people knew one another or were related to one another. This was useful in terms of recruitment and also made for a friendly atmosphere among the workforce.
The average life expectancy of a mill worker was between 46 & 56 years and the length of time to be able to work under the conditions in a mill such as Gilford Mill was 27.5 - 39 years depending on which job was done (according to Dr C D Purdon, 1877, a Belfast surgeon).
Carding (combing & preparing for spinning) was particularly dusty work and was usually done by young girls. A carder's average working life was estimated to be 15 - 17 years. The life of a girl who began carding at 18 ended at 30. Carders like scutchers, roughers and sorters, often turned to whisky for relief - "anyone that was chesty, the only freedom they had was a drink. It cleared the pipes you see"
By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Belfast, was the biggest linen producing centre in the world. The number of spindles in operation rose by 5% between 1905-13 and the number of power looms producing linen by 18%. Several new Irish linen factories were built in Dunmurry, Donegal and Victoria. The immediate future looked bright and prosperous with the government demand for Irish linen as a war material: Irish linen was in use in kit bags, tents and even aeroplanes. The linen industry added considerably to the wealth and development of the city. Without it, Belfast would have remained a market town and port in the north of Ireland. European competitors in the linen industry impinged on Belfast markets.
Working conditions in the mills
The linen owners and managers worried about the fluctuating economy of the industry while their workers were faced with more personal concerns: coping with the detrimental effects of linen work on their health and staving off poverty. Most of the workers were women and children. Women did the same, skilled work as men but earned only half of the amount paid to men . Children between the age of 12-14 provided another source of cheap labour. These children were half-timers, who spent one half of the week in the factory and the other half at school. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a mill worker in Ireland spent 55 hours a week at work. By 1916, the Irish working day began at 6 am and finished at 6 pm while on Saturday , the working day lasted 5 hours. Sometimes Irish linen mill owners brought their workers back in to the mills in the evenings and on Sundays. Although this practice was illegal, the legislation was inadequate and employers were not penalised for the offence.
Working conditions in the mills were poor. For all types of linen spinning and weaving the atmosphere needed to be hot and humid. In the wet spinning rooms, where most of the children worked, the floors were always wet and the workers were barefoot to stop themselves slipping. Clothes were saturated with the spray from the spindles. Children in the wet spinning rooms often developed lung diseases. In the weaving factories, humidity often reached within a degree or two of saturation point causing evaporation from the body to stop, which caused body temperatures to rise and resulted in workers experiencing giddiness and lassitude. They were also vulnerable to bronchitis. After working in stifling conditions for twelve hours, they stepped outside into the cool evening air with their bodies and clothes still damp.
The men and women who spent long hours in unhealthy working conditions to earn poor wages are today forgotten. By the 1960s, the industry had declined and the linen production equipment was obsolete. Some of the mills still stand but the linen equipment has been removed and is now exhibited in museums for visitors and students of history. Anonymous accounts of the memories and harsh experiences of mill workers are recorded.