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The Isle of Mann

Flax, a lost Manx industry by Dave Martin

(with thanks to Andrew Jones, Ray Livermore and Stuart F Elton for their contributions)

   A once wide-spread industry on the Isle of Man - the processing of flax - of which remarkably little remains overtly visible. Wool was not the only fibre spun and woven on the island. At one time probably as much flax was processed and woven as wool.
   Flax and hemp are field-grown crops which, unlike wool or cotton, have relatively long and straight fibres which make them easier to align and produce yarn. The coarse fibres of hemp when spun into yarn could be woven into sacking, but were typically used to make cordage which was woven into nets, or twisted-up in rope works to make hempen ropes. Even though nets and ropes were made on the Isle of Man, there was relatively little hemp production, compared to the volume of flax that was grown and processed.
   Flax has finer fibres which produce a finer yarn; the longer fibres also mean a stronger cloth typically results. When woven from the finer yarn, the cloth is known as linen; when thin yarns are combined (twisted) and woven, strong canvas is produced. Linen has been woven for millennia, and can produce light but strong fabric.
   Warriors’ shields are known to have been faced with leather to armour them. But it has been suggested that, from Roman times, linen was used on some shields - bonded on with paint or varnish, possibly like laminating with glass-fibre mat or Kevlar.
  Preparing the yarn
The journey from field to fabric can be split into two stages - growing and processing the flax into yarn and weaving. Whilst water is needed for processing flax, it doesn’t grow well ’with wet feet’, so it was often grown near water. Flax was usually harvested when sufficiently grown to produce the best fibres, though sometimes it was left to mature and the seeds collected either for sowing the next year or for processing as linseed. Some types of crop are sown once and then cut and harvested year after year, but flax takes a lot out of the soil, so it was normally sown on fresh ground each year. As there was no need to leave the rootstock in place, to maximise the yield it was often pulled rather than cut.
  Once the flax straw had been collected, it was ’retted’ to loosen the various components so they could be separated. Just laying the flax out in a field will achieve that eventually, but it was usual to submerge bundles of flax under water to hasten their breakdown. Sometimes this was done by weighting bundles down in a stream or river, but often convenient still-water was used - a ’retting pond’ or as they were known on the island, a ’flax dub’.  When retted-down, the flax was beaten or scutched to separate the wanted fibres from both the woody and soft pith material. This could be done by hand, pounding with sticks, flails or logs; but in later days Scutch mills sprang up alongside sources of water power.
  Once all loosened and beaten the flax was ’heckled’ or combed to separate it and align the fibres prior to spinning; this was very similar to carding wool or cotton, but the nature of the flax meant the initial heckling used a long-toothed comb. Spinning, like for wool, was long a domestic side-line; it could be spun using the same spinning wheel, although it was sometimes found the dried flax fibres had to be dampened as they were being spun.
Weaving linen from flaxen yarn is not that different to weaving with wool, the only significant difference is that the yarn might be thinner and hence more threads to the inch. Some weavers wove flax, cotton and wool. Others specialised. Flax can produce a spectrum of fabric - from fine linen to coarse canvas; most home- and small-scale flax weaving was for linen. Wool fibres are naturally ’wavy’ with many bends along the length of each fibre on the sheep’s back (known as ’the crimp’) and when spun into yarn and then woven or knitted, this residual waviness means air is trapped and the resultant garment has insulating properties. In comparison, when linen is woven from flax, the lack of ’crimp’ means the fibres, as they lie close together, have minimal air trapped between them, so the resultant linen doesn’t have the same insulating properties as woollen material.
    Linen was used for cooler-wear and for items such as tablecloths; and because of the fine and stable weave, became popular as ’a blank canvas’ for artists and embroiderers. Mixed wool/linen weaving, known as ’linsey-woolsey’, is also recorded for such as ’health belts’; it was claimed that flax had health benefits, but it may just have been the linen gave dimensional stability and the wool gave warmth. Raw linen has a warm grey / light beige colour, but could be bleached and then dyed, sometimes in the yarn but also ’in the piece’ after weaving - be that fine linen for an undershirt or tea-towel, or canvas for ’red sails in the sunset’.
Unbleached linen is sometimes described as ’ecru’ (French for raw or un-bleached).
  Flax on Mann
Flax has certainly been processed on the Isle of Man for at least a significant part of the last millennia, reaching its peak in late 19th century. It became a cultivated crop on the Isle of Man, albeit never on the industrial scale which arose in Ulster in the 19th century. Basil Quayle’s 1794 survey of Manx agriculture reported: ’The growth and manufacture of flax is very general throughout the whole island, almost every
farmer and cottager growing a little, both for the use of their families and exportation.’
  The Isle of Mann was a central player for trade in the north of the Irish sea where the small trading vessels carrying flax did a circular route from Liverpool, Lancaster & Ulverston around Morecambe Bay, heading up to Whitehaven before calling at the Isle of Mann on the way to Belfast, Dublin and back to Liverpool with linen goods.

   There are certainly records of ’flax mills’ but in the same way that woollen mills could provide a range of services, there’s no way of knowing if a ’flax mill’ was just scutching and heckling, or spinning, or weaving, or bleaching and dying - or a combination of these. Flax mills abounded on many of the streams where power was found, in locations such as Glen Auldyn and Glen Roy. In the same way that corn and woollen mills may have used the same waterwheel, it is possible that not all flax mills were used solely to process flax. Some also evolved, such as the Silverburn/Ballasalla mill - originally developed in 1767 as a fulling mill for processing flax by John Quayle, and later owned by George Quayle of Bridge House in Castletown (who shipped linen to America). The building was converted first for grinding ochre, and later into a dwelling ’Grey Tower’ in 1901 - an example that shows new uses can provide new lives for a building. Similarly, the Ballasalla ’Factory’ had several lives - as Delapryme’s Cotton Mill, as a fishing-net works, then a mill to process flax. Most rural flax mills were powered by water, but there are suggestions that there was at least one wind-powered flax mill in the North of the island.
    Linen wasn’t just woven for domestic consumption, it was also exported. The amount used at-home and sold locally cannot be determined, but the Receiver General’s returns show that between 1781 and 1810, average exports of linen were 40,000 to 60,000 yards of linen fabric each year.
    The pinnacle of the Manx flax industry was Moore’s Tromode Flax-Spinning, Bleaching, and Sailcloth Manufactory. Moore's started by Douglas harbour, then moved to Factory Lane (now Wellington Street). The Tromode works were established in 1814 by Edward Moore, who was succeeded in 1823 by his brother James and James’s son William Fine Moore. The works were powered by water, with sophisticated water management feeding a waterwheel then later a turbine; augmented by steam engine when there was insufficient water to drive the wheel/turbine. They also had their own plant to manufacture gas for lighting. Moore's did use some Manx flax but increasingly imported flax from the Baltic and Northern Ireland, from whence they also brought in weavers. The workforce reached some 150 in number. To accommodate the workforce close at hand, and build loyalty, W.F.Moore built the island’s only industrial village: Cronkbourne village - houses, a school and chapel - for their workers.
    Archibald Knox was born in one of the houses, his Scottish father was employed as a master machine maker at the Tromode works. In 1882, a water-powered Crompton dynamo was installed, this supplied not only the works, but also a small number of lights in Cronkbourne village. Moore’s canvas stamped with the Three Legs was exported world-wide to navies and for merchant fleets. Supplying Moore’s Three Legs canvas to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ’Great Britain’ was one of their greatest coups, but also an omen. Following loss of a contract to supply much of the British Admiralty’s sailcloth, as steam took over, the works eventually closed in 1906. The Three Legs brand was sold to a rival in Crewkerne and the sailcloth works was eventually re-used as a laundry for the burgeoning visiting trade.
   What remains now?
For an industry that spanned every parish, very little physical evidence remains, but there are some documentary sources. The Folk Life Survey in the Manx Museum Library has many recollections of growing, spinning and weaving flax. Recorded mid-twentieth century, these recall life in the later 19th and early 20th century. Going back further, documents such as the Letter books from the Bridge House papers, and Deeds relating to various mills, provide an insight back to at least the 1700s into their ownership and value. There are also more poignant glimpses such as that relating to James Sampson, who was buried at Kirk Michael on October 25 1769. Killed by the log-wheel of the Flax Mill. Retting ponds or flax dubs were probably the most prolific structures used for flax processing, but there was nothing specific or distinctive about them - even if some were specifically constructed for flax retting, nowadays any that do remain are ’just another dub or pond’. Whilst an engine house and vestiges of an early stone flue remain at Tromode, there is very little elsewhere which is known to be definitely connected with the actual processing of flax. The only significant built heritage from the flax industry is Cronkbourne Village, whose future is uncertain.


   With amendments by Ged Dodd. As far as I am aware only 4 Russian flax bale seals have been found on the Isle of Man which is wide open for exploration for metal detecting especially around Cronkbourne.



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Jon Wade
Isle of Man


Cross quartered

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Baltic States
(Krown flax)

Jon Wade
Isle of Man



Cronkbourne Village, Tromode
Tromode is the only 'industrial' village on the Island.

The view is looking up the river to the factory from Cronkbourne House - the village is to the left.

The first Moore sailcloth works was started in Duke Street in 1790 by brothers James and Edward Moore with their father. As they needed a bleaching field they rented Ballabeg farm in Braddan on the other side of the river from Tromode. Following the death of their father in 1810 the brothers dissolved their partnership in 1814 - Edward started his business in the old corn mill across the river at Tromode whilst James moved back to Douglas starting his factory in Factory Lane (later Wellington Street) but in 1823 bought his brother's works after Edwards bankruptcy. James bought Cronkbourne (his invented name mixing Manx Cronk = Hill and English bourne = river) and built Cronkbourne
House and the works in which he was assisted by his son William Fine Moore. On James' death in 1846 his estate passed by law to his eldest son Joseph Christian Moore who being unmarried and Archdeacon of Man, sold the business to his brother William Fine Moore.
The village was started in the 1840's by William Fine Moore to provide accommodation for the workers at his nearby Flax mill (making sailcloth etc.) along the river to the North of the village. He lived in Cronkbourne House a little to the south of the village along the river.
       The plan, extracted from the 1868, 1:2500 plan shows the two lines of small terraced houses separated by a sward of grass. To the west the village green terminates in a schoolroom and chapel, to the east bounded by the river which originally provided power for the works. Four larger houses exist in the north-east - these were probably allocated to the skilled engineers needed for the machinery. Archibald Knox was born in Tromode whilst his father worked at Tromode. A lithograph was issued c.1850 showing a somewhat idealised view of the village (possibly the housing was intended to be two storey but they do look a little like a Scottish tenement).

   The Factory
  The newspaper Manx Sun for 28 September 1850 gives a lengthy account of the factory in its early days.
The motive power is derived from an iron water-wheel . . . 19ft diameter and 10ft wide, the water is applied on the overshot principle. When the supply of water is plentiful the motion is entirely derived there from, and even in times of scarcity the water is by a peculiar contrivance, husbanded, as it were, so as to give an adequate supply for a few hours in the morning. . . . When the water fails to communicate the required motion recourse is had to a horizontal steam-engine of 16 inches cylinder and aft stroke. ... The wheel was made by John Rowan and Sons of Belfast.... The motion of this wheel . . . is conveyed by internal and external contrivances . . . to the rooms containing the different machines....
    We come now to the heckling. This operation is for the purpose of removing the tow or short fibre.... A quantity of the flax is arranged in a sort of case, and introduced at one end of the machine. Speedily the first operation is effected - that of getting rid of the coarser matter. In this state, the portion of the flax is passed, by the machine itself . . . into another division, and then to another, in each of which a different degree of fineness is produced, till, at last, every particle of extraneous matter is removed, and the whole of filaments arranged in distinct even and parallel fibres.... The heckling machine was manufactured by Samuel Lawson and Sons of Leeds, upon their patented principle The next process is accomplished by various drawing machines. The drawing is for the purpose of straightening the fibres. The first result of the drawing is what is called the sliver, a beautiful, glossy, ribbon-like arrangement of the fibres. The subsequent drawing is for equalising this sliver.... The product is then ready for roving.
      The roving throws the sliver, thus arranged and equalized, into coarse thread, twisting it slightly, which thread is then ready for the spinners. The spinning is conducted in upper rooms, where there are 636 spindles . . . Here the coarse thread, derived from the roving, is spun and is afterwards reeled. The spinning and preparing machines were made by Samuel Lawson & Sons and Peter Fairbairne & Co of Leeds.... The yarn is also bleached on the premises. This department contains a plash-mill, washing reels, wringing hooks, and weft beating machine driven by a water-wheel. After bleaching process is accomplished, the yarn is in summer hung on poles in the neighbouring green to be dried, and in winter, this is effected by means of a stove. During the night time, and in rainy weather, the yarn is carried into a shed 150ft long and hung up there. The drying may now be supposed to be completed.
   All is now ready for the weaving. This important part of the process takes place in a separate building . . . it is in reality one room. The roof consists of a number of divisions a peculiarity adopted for the due admission of light. The whole of the Northern aspect of each division is glazed . . . the power looms are by C. Parker of Dundee....
  The Laundry
  The present premises were formerly occupied in making Moore's Sail Cloths. Clucas's Laundry, Ltd., have made the works into a large Laundry and Brush making Factory. The Laundry is one of the largest and best equipped in the United Kingdom, and the Brush Factory is steadily growing into one of the largest Brush
Factories. It is just doubling its turnover each year. This Laundry and Brush Factory is a great credit to the Island and speaks well for the ability and enterprise of the three partners, viz T. Clucas, S. Clucas, and W. Callow. This is the only Laundry Co in the British Isles which provides houses for its employees. The Company owns the whole village of Tromode, and their employees occupy all the houses. The village is lighted by electricity, and is worth a visit any evening to see the decided improvement of Lighting by Electricity instead of gas. The electric current for both village and works is generated by Water Turbines, which were recently added to the laundry plant to replace the water wheel formerly used by the Sail Cloth Works. The photo shows the Interior of Clucas's Laundry c. 1913
     Current state
     The sail cloth works closed in 1905 ; the site was taken over for many years as Clucas's laundry and brush factory but in the 1990's became a somewhat rundown industrial site - a new housing estate has been built to the east and the village itself, initially threatened with destruction seems to have been saved. The south row of houses have had extensions to the rear - following extensive renovation both rows have kept their facades but the interiors have been modernised..

Copyright 2022 © Ged Dodd
aka PeaceHavens Project
Click here for the terms
of free copy & share &
supporting your Project