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Northern Ireland


The flax flower is the emblem of Northern Ireland


UK flax production 1850 - 1900














  IRELAND's takeover of the flax trade from 1850 - 1900.

In 1850 Ireland had 325,000 spindles, England had 365,000 and Scotland 303,000 (ie. there was roughly the same number in each country). Over the next fifty years, however, the number of flax spinning spindles in England decreased to near vanishing point with less than 50,000 spindles. Even Marshall's, the leading firm, found it necessary to wind up their business, close their famous mill in Leeds, and transfer the business to America. By the end of the century Scotland had also suffered a major reduction, the number of spindles being 160,000.  While both of these two countries had lost production, Ireland's share had increased and by 1875 there were 906,000 spindles working, this number having reached 935,411 by the turn of the century.  One of the reasons for this great displacement in favour of Ireland was the fact that linen was the staple industry there, whereas England and Scotland had other textile industries which allowed a higher profit and the payment of wages on a higher scale. Towards the end of the last century an average sized flax spinning mill contained about 22,000 spindles, and gave employment to about 750 persons. According to 19th century figures it cost about £4 to £6 a spindle to erect. This meant that the average cost of building a factory at this time was in advance of £120,000. The work force employed in the mill was in the proportion of two or three females to one male. Children of both sexes at the age of 12 were also employed as learners. These were called "half-timers". They worked and went to school on alternative days and could not be employed unless they went to school.

 Ireland.  Until the 19th century Irish peasants repeated the mythical story of the introduction of flax into their island by the "dwellers on the Shliabh na Mann mountain. These talented peoples, who had the name Mann, are said to have been foreigners, from a distant land (could they have been from the Isle of Man?), who long ago settled on this mountain, and first instructed the natives in the art of the management of flax, and hemp.

  The Westminster Parliament prohibited the export of woollen goods from Ireland in 1699, although woollen yarn was still produced both for domestic use and for English manufacturers. These restrictions on the woollen trade increased the linen industry, particularly in Ulster. In 1696 a Bill went through the English parliament which encouraged the manufacturing of linen in Ireland. From the early 18th century, Irish linen was imported duty free to England and to British Plantations in America, and by the end of the 18th century linen accounted for about half of Ireland's total exports. In the early 18th century much of the Irish linen went through the port of Chester, this reached it's zenith in the mid 18th century, much of the trade moving to Liverpool.

Russian Flax and Hemp Seal finds in Ireland, both North and South, are very rare. Why is this? Possibly because the Irish were open to importing hemp and flax from lots of other countries like Holland, New Zealand and even Italy and those imported bales did not have seals attached.

  Location Number Post Inspector Year Agent from - Type
N.I Armagh IDS1292 84 Ershev 1762 S.S Baltic 12 head  flax
N.I Newtownards IDS1606 68 Ershev 1824 H.Ш (N.Sh) Baltic 12 head  flax
N.I County Tyrone IDS1745 No 5 5 1750 NP Baltic 1.2  flax
N.I Coleraine IDS1782 20 K.Poznekov 1838 IH Baltic 12 head  flax
N.I North Down IDS1876 111 P.Burelkoi 1827 CH Baltic Rein  hemp
N.I - IDS 764 Arch Pavel Surl??? 1888 Я.П.П (Ya.P.P) Archangel 2nd Sort  Krown
N.I Lisbon IDS 2251 Arch  Nikolai Bul'gin 1888 Я.П.B (Ya.P.V) Archangel 2nd Sort  Krown
Ire - IDS 561 271 Lepshev 1786 A.B Baltic 12 head  flax
Ire - IDS 1415 8 L.Lobkov 1798 T.T Baltic 12 head  flax
Ire - IDS 1522 15 E.Sarynin 1799 А.Ш (A.Sh) Baltic 12 K  Krown
Ire - IDS 1393 Arch Н.И. (H.I.) 1834 M.П (M.P) Archangel 1st Sort   flax
Early 17th Century Cloth Bale Seals found at Excavations in Essex Street, Carrickfergus - Brian G Scott

Belfast. Rather than reinvest in cotton the Mulhollands investigated the possibilities of moving into linen. They saw that large amounts of Irish flax were being exported to England to be machine spun. Much of this was then re-exported to Ireland for use by the hand weavers. They visited the North of England and saw James Kay's process, which they brought back to Belfast. After a small-scale trial in 1828-29 T. & A. Mulholland opened an 8000 spindle flax-spinning mill in Belfast in 1830. Although they may not have been the first to see the opportunity, it was the most significant as this was one of the biggest mills in Belfast - The York Street Mill. The project was a magnificent success, and there was a move by other troubled cotton spinners, as well as other businessmen, into flax spinning. By 1850 linen spinning in Belfast was very much greater than cotton spinning. The York Street Mill by 1856 had 25,000 spindles and was probably one of the largest mills of it's type in the world, possibly second only to Marshall's of Leeds. Not forgetting the Brookfield Mill on the Crumlin Road This concentration of mills, mainly in Belfast, put many of the traditional hand spinners out of business. With this it also caused many of the weavers to move into the northeast to be nearer supplies of yarn. The stone or stone weight  is an English and imperial unit of mass now equal to 14 pounds.  Before the early 19th century, as in England, the stone varied both with locality and with commodity. For example, the Belfast stone for measuring flax equalled 16.75 avoirdupois pounds. The most usual value was 14 pounds. Among the oddities related to the use of the stone was the practice in County Clare of a stone of  potatoes being 16 lb in the summer and 18 lb in the winter.

  Bleaching Greens: Older methods of bleaching linen involved various lengthy treatments of washing and boiling the cloth and the placing the linen upon greens in the open air throughout the summer months.
  Bleaching Watch Towers: The green keeper who used the watchtower guarded the linen from damage; ‘linen on the green’, was vulnerable to damage from straying livestock and from theft. Tullyish Watch Tower in Ulster is one of the few remaining.

A postcard circa 1900 of Irish Peasants Spinning Flax

Wellbrook Beetling Mill - the last in Northern Ireland


  Beetling was a process applied to linen fabrics and now to cotton fabrics to produce a hard, flat surface with high lustre and also to make the texture less porous and resemble fine linen. In this process, the fabric, dampened and pounded with heavy wooden mallets. For the best class of beetle finish, the pieces are first impregnated with sago starch and the other softening ingredients.

 This beetling machine has four sets of Fallers which are made of beech wood, each about 8 ft. long, 5½ in. deep and 4 in. wide, and are kept in their vertical position by two pairs of guide rails. Each faller is provided with a tappet or wooden peg driven in at one side, which engages with the teeth or Wipers of the revolving shaft in the front of the machine. The effect of this mechanism is to lift the Faller a distance of about 13 in. and then let it drop on to the cloth wound on the beam. This lifting and dropping of the Fallers on to the beam takes place in rhythmical and rapid succession. To ensure even treatment the beam turns slowly round and also has a to-and-fro movement imparted to it. The treatment may last, according to the finish which it is desired to obtain, from one to sixty hours.  Beetling was originally used for linen goods, but to-day is almost entirely applied to cotton for the production of so-called linenettes. Below are photos of a Beetling Machine from an old mill in Ulster, NI, by Sebastian Graham.

    Wellbrook Beetling Mill. Linen manufacture was of major importance in 18th century Ireland and beetling was the final stage in the production process. This water-powered hammer mill has its original machinery still in working order. The mill takes its power from the fast flowing Ballinderry River. A short distance from the road you can see the mill race and the flume - the wooden trough carried on piers of Coal island brick - which takes the water for 15 metres to hit and drive the water wheel on the gable of the building. The wheel is 5 metres wide and 1.4 metres deep, trade mainly of wood. with an iron shaft and surround which bears the name of the Armagh Foundry. The lever to open the sluice gate to start and stop the wheel is inside.



 Upperlands is home to the oldest linen-making business in Ireland and probably the world. In the early to mid-1700s, it used simple water-driven machinery to mechanise a key stage in the linen process: pounding or beetling the cloth with wooden blocks to make it smoother and shinier. Upperlands is now the only place in Ireland where that process continues on a commercial basis. While the Clarks were beetling cloth, their neighbours, the Thomsons, were bleaching linen, and probably growing flax, on a nearby farm. But around 1739, the newly widowed John Thomson gave up the struggle and embarked with several of his sons for the New World. Meanwhile, the linen makers of the two-horse hamlet of Upperlands near Maghera - home to the oldest linen-making business in Ireland and probably the world. Today, the annual flax seed planting in March by Bruce Clark, the direct descendant of William Clark, who established his linen manufacturing plant in 1736, making it the oldest of its kind in Ireland. Still in the hands of the Clark family, the company has been manufacturing fine linen canvas for the tailoring industry for over 260 years, using its unique process of beetling - the pounding of the fabric to flatten it and give it that distinctive sheen flat. The steady thrum and thump of this dusty operation, overseen by local man Sam Anderson - Ireland's last commercial beetler - makes a hell of a racket behind the old stone walls of the plant. Gorteade Cottage and grounds in Upperlands contain a treasure trove of artefacts and memorabilia open to public visits by arrangement. The only known remaining flax crop in Northern Ireland is planted there each spring and harvested in August - depending on the weather.

Northern Ireland Flax Summary
  Three hundred years ago, as any history buff will tell you, the north of Ireland began making its mark on the world in two different, but closely related, ways. First, people migrated to the New World in huge numbers. They transformed the demographics of the colonies and prepared the way for American independence. And secondly, linen - woven in cottages but bleached and finished with light, water-driven machinery - became Ireland's first industrial export. By the mid-1700s, there was a three-way trade between North America and Ireland, involving flax-seed, bleached white clot - and people. As Dick McMaster, a fine American historian, has shown, dozens of sailing ships took flax-seed from the New World to Ireland. On their return journeys, those ships brought migrants, mostly but not exclusively Presbyterian. Some of the flax-seed eventually returned to the New World in the form of crisp white Irish linen, a prized offering in the boutiques of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the pace of migration fluctuated along with the fortunes of flax and linen. There was a surge after the horrific year of 1740 when frost and drought killed crops, livestock and people - and another leap in the early 1770s when linen prices in Ireland slumped.

Flax Workers at John Barnett Mill (Dick Bradshaw)


    Slater's Directory of Ulster - 1846 (Mary Gouger, Andrew Jones)  

 We have a Rev John Barnett, D.D.Minister at the Presbyterian Meeting House, Moneymore but whether he is any relation to the mill owner is debateable.

   MONEYMORE is a market town, partly in the parish of Desertlyn, but chiefly in that of Ardtred, barony of Loughinsholin, county of Londonderry. The linen manufacture is carried on extensively in both the town and the circumjacent country; and at the markets and fairs considerable quantities of linen, corn and butter, are sent to Ballyannan, and there shipped for conveyance up Lough Neagh. The weekly market is held on Friday, and there is a general market or fair on the 21st of every month. The town of Moneymore contained, in 1841, 942 inhabitants.

    COAGH is a village, in the parish of Tamlaght, barony of Dungannon, county of Tyrone, between four and five miles south by east from Moneymore; situated at the north verge of the county, on the river Ballinderry, about four miles above its debouch into Lough Neagh. The trade of Coagh is considerable for its size; the manufacture of linen is carried on extensively, and there is a large flax mill. A fair is held here on the second Tuesday in every month. The population of the village, which in 1841 was 388, is rapidly increasing.
Donnelly Daniel, Cove Lodge, Coagh
M'Guckin Benjamin (and yarn), Drumany
Duff Thomas, Coagh

Donnelly Daniel (and flax and linen merchant) Cove Lodge, Coagh
Downing William, Coagh
M'Guckin Benjamin, Drumany
Mellon Owen, Derrychrin
Richey James, Rockspring
Sloan Thomas, Ballydawley, Coagh
Treanor Christopher, Sessia

Some photos of Flax Mills in Northern Ireland (mainly by Kenneth Allen).

 see more here at!/content_id=139679/image=3033525

Donacloney Works, County Down

Working Textile Mill at Dungiven

Flax Mill at Blackskull

Silverbrook Flax Mill

Waterwheel at the Old Mill in Keady

Newmills Corn and Flax Mill

The Old Flax Mill at Coleraine The Old Flax Mill at Aghasowey
The Old Flax Mill at Carrigans The Old Mill at Cavanamara The Old Flax Mill at Dyan
Carrigans Mill once employed 100 people with a water powered wheel on the small river heading towards the Foyle.

Houston's Flax Mill at Broughshane Flax Scutch Mill at Glenaan in County Antrim. Note the Water Race.
Herdsman's Flax Spinning  Mill, Sion Mill, County Tyrone Inside Herdsman's Spinning Mill


Photos of Flax Processes in Northern Ireland

Gathering Flax at Dromara Bleaching Fields around the Ulster Mill extend into the distance
Flax Harvesting by Hand Scutching Flax Stream Retting of Flax using Rocks
Spreading flax in Northern Ireland - from the Illustrated London News 1859 Retting Flax
Dam retting of Flax Pond Retting of Flax

click to enlarge

The Flax pond at Lisnastrean in

Lisbon in Northern Ireland is a

good place to search for seals.

Inside Ewart Flax Mill in Belfast Removing Seed from the Flax -

Copyright 2022 © Ged Dodd

 aka PeaceHavens Project

 Click here for the terms
of free copy & share &
supporting your Project