Irish linen – A little history

In the middle of the 19th century, linen was the staple industry in the north of Ireland. An increase in the production of linen yarn and cloth took place in many parts of the country but industrialisation was most rapid and concentrated in Belfast.

By 1850 power loom weaving was beginning in Belfast and the inability of hand loom weavers to compete, caused a steady drift of men, women and children to the city to work in its mills. Belfast’s population grew from 20,000 in 1803 to 100,000 in 1851. By 1861, 32 linen mills had been built, some on the Crumlin, but the majority on the Shankill and the Falls areas, by the banks of the Farset and Forth rivers. With nearly 3,000 power looms operating, Belfast outstripped linen manufacture in Leeds and Dundee and by 1873, it was the largest linen producing centre in the world, a position it held until 1914.

The Crumlin Road area of Belfast had many mills, including Brookfield Mill (1850), Edenderry (1869) and Ewart’s (1860). Others included Lindsay Thompson’s, Rosebank, Lower Lodge and Brookfield Factory. The linen industry employed mainly women, but the supervisors and mill managers were men. A typical working week in a mill could be up to 55 1/2 hours, with the working day starting at 6am to 6pm, with one hour for lunch.

Children as young as eight years were employed, most of whom worked under the ‘half-time’ system, i.e.. a half day in the mill and at school the other half. In 1901 the legal starting age was raised to 13 and by 1907, there were over 3,000 half-timers in Belfast, earning about 3s/6d a week.

A typical mill was four storeys high, with work divided as follows:

Ground Floor. Here the process of roughing was carried out, both by machine hacking and hand hacking. This entitled splitting the fibres into finer filaments, ready for further processing.

First Floor. Processinf of the fibres combined them into long ribbons, called silvers, which were further refined by wet spinning into fine yarn.

Second Floor. The spinning room here was devoted to the spinning of coarse yarn.

Third Floor. This floor contained the reeling and winding machinery. The linen yarn was reeled into lengths of 300 yards, called a cut. Twelve cuts formed a hank.

Working conditions in the mills were harsh. The noise from machinery was deafening, and many workers became skilled lip readers in order to communicate over the noise. The combination of heat, steam and oil fumes from machinery was made worse by the fine dust released when preparing the fibres.

The linen industry went into decline after the Second World War and by 1964, one third of the Northern Ireland’s mills had closed. Today a number of Belfast’s mighty mill buildings have been converted to local community and small business uses, but many people still have fond memories of Belfast ‘millies’ pouring out of their workplaces, walking arm in arm and singing their mill songs.

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Brookfield Mill ‘Millie’

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Brookfield Mill November 2013.

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A wall mural beside Brookfield Mill, Crumlin Road / Flax Street, Belfast.

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A statue named ‘Millie’ to commemorate the contribution of female mill workers to Belfast by sculptor Ross Wilson.