MANOR OF KILLULTAGH.
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Edited by JAMES CARSON.
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THE LINEN INDUSTRY
by WILLIAM LARMOR.
Many Huguenot refugees settled in Waterford in the south of Ireland. At this point it would be interesting to examine briefly why the linen trade made little or no headway in the south of Ireland, and why it became gradually localised in the North, although by the settlement of skilled artisans in Waterford a splendid opportunity was offered for developing the linen manufacture in the south.
The manufacturers of linen during its earlier stages of development were chiefly subsistence farmers, who had small holdings on which they grew a small patch of flax. This flax was spun and manufactured into cloth by the different members of the family for their own use, or to be sold at the best price it would fetch. The growth of Ulster tenant right and the friendly relations existing between landlord and tenant gave a sense of undisturbed possession. The Ulster tenant felt more or less secure so long as he paid his rent. This sense of security, long leases, and fair rents, encouraged the farmer to accumulate a little capital. This was the basis of prosperity in the north. Gradually the farmer was able to buy imported seed which gave a better crop of flax: As his capital increased, and as trade expanded he could buy another loom or two, and perhaps employ a journeyman weaver.
In the south, on the other hand, owing to the operation of the Penal laws, leases were very short, so that there was no encouragement to accumulate capital for to try to improve the land. Rack-rents and tithes kept the farmers in poverty. Attempts were made at several times to establish the moderate modus, which was in operation in Ulster, instead of the tithe on flax. This proposed change invariably met with relentless opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities and could not be established in the South, to the disadvantage of the flax grower. The crop was unprofitable and was only grown in small patches.
The farmers in the North were in a position to make use of all the improvements that were introduced in linen weaving by Crommelin and his countrymen. The farmers in the South were not so fortunately fixed. Consequently the North drew ahead of the South, and linen weaving found its chief centre in Lisburn and neighbourhood. The knowledge of the markets abroad and the quality of cloth suitable for these markets, together with the technical skill of manufacture and the new capital that was introduced by the Huguenot settlers, were all powerful stimulants to the extension of enterprise. In a short time linen weaving extended so that Armagh and Lurgan became important centres of manufacture. The export of linen in the year 1727 amounted in value to £338,444, having increased by £,332 since 1701. This is sufficient evidence to prove the economic importance of the Lisburn settlement at a critical period in the history of the trade.
The English policy in accordance with the promise made by William III helped to stimulate the manufacture of linen. An Act was passed by the English Parliament to allow the export of coarse white and brown linens to the colonies, but this benefit was hampered by the working of the Navigation Laws. No colonial products could be imported direct into Ireland on the return voyage without being first landed in England. The system of bounties granted by the British Parliament on the export of linens operated in favour of English and Scottish manufacturers, because the Irish manufacturers who exported their linens to British ports with the idea of re-exporting them to obtain the bounty, had to undergo an expense amounting to 7 per cent, for freight, factorage, and loss of time incurred. In spite of all these disadvantages, the Irish linen manufacturers increased enormously during the eighteenth century. Between 1745 and 1771 the exportation from Great Britain of Irish linens entitled to bounty increased from 101,928 yards to 3,450,224 yards. This increase, however, was partly caused by the import duties which were levied on the importation of foreign linens. The Irish trade was certainly stimulated by these measures. In 1773 the total quantity of Irish linens imported into Great Britain amounted in value to £1,787,617.
The Linen Board.
The Irish Parliament also did much to stimulate the industry. Early in the 18th century premiums were granted to farmers for the cultivation of flax. In 1711 the Linen Board was set up to encourage and supervise the manufacture. The Board met every year in the White Linen Hall in Dublin, and was entrusted with the disposal of the Parliamentary grants, which varied from £10,000 to £33,000 a year, for the purpose of keeping the manufacture abreast of modern technical improvements, securing the best flax-seed providing the best markets and otherwise encouraging the industry. In 1710 an effort seems to have been made by them for the standardisation of cloth. Particular titles were to be given to each description of goods. These were arranged according to the length and width of the webs. "Ulsters" was the name applied to linens of forty-three inches wide and twenty yards long. Linens twenty-eight inches wide and twenty-eight yards long were to be called "Dungannons"; those of the same' length and thirty-one inches wide "Coleraines"; thirty-six inches wide "Lisburns;" thirty-six inches wide and twenty yards long were to be sold as "Lurgans."
It is interesting to note here that the first piece of fine cambric produced in Lurgan was woven by a weaver named Brown in the year 1714. Although it was only a "sixteen hundred" all who saw the wondrous fabric were astonished at the fineness of its texture. Immense curiosity was stirred up about this web all over the country, and many bleachers and drapers travelled long distances to see it. The weaver of this web was presented with a prize of £10 by the Grand Jury of the County, and had the dignity of "Master Weaver" conferred on him. It is stated that he made a tin case for it and carried it about for exhibition in several towns in the North.
Under the Mercantile system there were minute and manifold regulations of industry which in some cases gradually became unworkable and were allowed to lapse. The inspection of linen previous to sale had been established by law for nearly a century before the existence of the Linen Board. This law, like others, was carelessly carried out, and consequently in nearly every market the evil effect of badly-made reeds, short measure, and deficiency in breadth of goods was in evidence. An effort was made by an Act passed in 1719, authorising the trustees of the Board to appoint fit and proper persons in all the market towns to examine linens which were offered for sale. When the goods were found correct in make, length, and breadth, they were to be stamped by persons appointed, called lappers, with their official seal.
These lappers had permission to charge the manufacturer the sum of twopence for each web they examined and stamped. Where goods were disposed of without being examined the seller was liable to a heavy fine. Stringent as this law was, it did not prevent lappers, from accepting bribes to certify as correct, webs which were imperfectly woven and of false measure. In 1723 a new Act was passed for the better protection of buyers but it was also a failure. In 1734 a more penal code received the Royal assent, and like the other it was systematically evaded. In 1757 the seventh Act was passed for stamping and regulating the sale of linens in public markets which also shared the fate of the others.
The matter now appeared hopeless. A great deal of fraud was going on, and in consequence a serious reaction took place in the home and foreign markets against Irish linens. Another effort was made in the year 1762. Mr. John Williamson, who is described as a very energetic and intelligent bleacher, then carrying on a business at Lambeg, had been taking considerable interest in linen manufacture for some years. A meeting of merchants was held in Lisburn, and a committee, with Mr. Williamson at its head, was appointed to proceed to Dublin to lay their case before the Duke of Bedford, then Chief Governor of Ireland. The idea was that lappers should be abolished and inspectors should be chosen from the ranks of manufacturers. As a result a new bye-law was to come into operation on 11th August, 1762, and previous to that date, the trustees were to appoint "fit and proper persons, manufacturers and others" to inspect linens about to be sold in public markets. These officers were to be called "Sealmasters," and they had to produce good securities that they would faithfully discharge their duties.
The first seal was issued under the new law was granted to Mr. W. Dawson, a manufacturer of Hillsborough.
A great outcry was raised all over the country by the weavers. Meetings were held and the following proclamation was issued:--
"This is to give nation to all gentlemen, manufacturers and weavers to meet in a body, like valiant and honest men, at Lisburn, on Tuesday next, that we may oppose the imprudent and oppressive means which are to be used against us by the merchants, and to bring them to reason by fair means, and if that will not do other means will be used, and let us like Demetrius and his craftsmen, stand valiantly up for our Diana, for our craft is in danger."
On the following Tuesday, and for many weeks after on market days, hundreds of weavers paraded the streets of Lisburn armed with blackthorn sticks, obstructed the market, made business impossible, and all the drapers or merchants they could lay their hands on were made to swear that they would not recognise the use of seals for stamping linen webs. No business could be done until Lord Hillsborough took the initiative, and in October in his own town he set the example of personally inspecting and sealing the webs offered for sale, general spirit of conciliation followed, and in a short time the duties of the Sealmaster were found to be of equal advantage to the weaver, the draper, and the bleacher.
This settlement was only shortlived, however. In a short time the same old difficulties cropped up. Weavers evaded the regulation, and the Sealmasters were also accused of accepting bribes. Eventually the whole system became a nuisance and was finally abolished in 1823.
The prosperity of the linen trade in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century is particularly noticeable. This can in some measure be accounted for owing to the modification of the English Commercial olicy. After the American colonies had secured their independence it was evident that the Colonial Policy must undergo a change, and Ireland shared in the benefits of that change. In 1779 some of the principal commercial restrictions were removed, with the result that a thriving trade was opened up with the American States and British Plantations, and exports of linen cloth increased from 18,764,242 yards in 1780 to 53,616,908 yards in 1796, which was enormous.
Although the industry made immense progress during the century it did not increase as rapidly as in England and Scotland, and although some encouragement was given for its development, it was fostered far less than the linen manufacture in England and Scotland. It was a great achievement, therefore, that it should have prospered to such an extent in spite of difficulties and hindrances.
The Irish Parliament had given large premiums for the cultivation of flax, but in spite of all the encouragement given to the growth of flax and the raising of flaxseed, a large sum had annually to be paid away for imported seed, which became a serious drain on the resources of the industry at a time when the accumulation of capital was essential for its development. In 1779 it was calculated that nearly all the seed sown was imported and that it cost the country between £70,000 and £80,000 yearly. Later on flax farming gradually, and imperceptibly became a losing trade owing to competition, caused by the importation of foreign flax from abroad. This gradually became accentuated until at a later date the industry had to be carried on mainly by the importation of raw material from abroad.
(To be continued)
(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 31 January 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.)