Industry in the Upper Bann Valley is very closely linked with the Linen Industry, from flax in the field to the snow white linen produced in the last process of Bleaching and Finishing. The Linen Industry is well covered by a poem, entitled, "Spindle and Shuttle" by Mary Morton and a section of it, runs as follows:

A field of blossomed flax in North Tyrone,
Its lean and sheen and shine, as small blue flowers,
As shy and secret as an Ulster maid
Who saves her smiles like shillings; unaware
Life pays no dividends an thrifty love.
Darning, learning,
Yarning, yearning,
Spinning, weaving,
Joying, grieving.
A black flax dam, a field of linen snow
Linked opposites : the scar upon the soul of every Ulsterman.

The first site of the Linen Industry' in the Upper Bann Valley was at Hilltown in the Mourne country. A Scutch Mill and a Bleach Green on the banks of the fledgling, river Bann was run by a John O'Neill who was a descendant of the O'Neills of Clandeboye. He was a man of princely aspect, noble deportment, majestic stature and almost preternatural strength. He is buried in the old graveyard of Clonduff a few miles outside Hilltown.

The river Bann, with its source in the Deer's Meadow, flows through Hilltown, Ballymoney, Katesbridge, Banbridge, Gilford, Moyallon, Portadown and into Lough Neagh at the Bannfoot. Industry in its lower course virtually finishes at Portadown, though there was at one time a pottery at Robb's Ferry in the townland of Derrybroughas, some five miles north of Portadown.

The waters of Upper Bann were relatively soft and free of discolouration to a little beyond Moyallon. After this point it flowed through peat bogs near Portadown which imported a brown colour, not beneficial to a 'good white' in the bleaching of linen yarn or cloth.

Before the use of the steam engine as a source of power, the Bleacher had to depend on water-power in the form of the water-wheel turned by the force of the rapidly flowing river water usually directed into a channel or head-race. The water, swiftly flowing down the head-race channel, came into contact with the under blades of the water-wheel and revolved the wheel which in turn imported centrifugal action to the heavy iron horizontal shaft on which the wheel was mounted. Water-wheels were of three types:

  1. The "Undershot" wheel as described, and
  2. the more efficient "Breast" type where the wheel was placed low and the water flowed into buckets attached to the periphery at axle level and caused the wheel to turn by the combined action of the water velocity and the dead weight of the water contained in the buckets. The "breast-wheel" had the advantage over the undershot, in that force was applied to a quarter of the circumference giving greater power. It was affected to the same extent by a fall in water level as was often the case in the summer months.
  3. The ultimate in water wheels was the "Overshot" type. With this type of wheel, the water entered the buckets at the top where the water force was applied to half the circumference. To maintain a good head of water in the Bann all seasons, a plan was made in 1836 to increase the power available to the Bleachers and Mill owners in the Bann Valley.

A survey and report was made by a distinguished engineer, William Fairburn. He recommended the construction of three reservoirs at Lough Island Reavy, the Deer's Meadow and the Corbet Lough. Work began on the Lough Island Reavy reservoir in 1837 and was finished in two years. The contractor was the great Irish engineer, William Dargan (of railway fame). Three mountain streams were harnessed and channelled into the Lough from which the waters were directed through pipes and valves (for control) into the Bann.

The Deer's Meadow reservoir was not proceeded with, but the Corbet part of the scheme was carried out where an embankment was constructed to impound the flood water. The water outlet to the Bann was controlled by self-acting, flood gates. The Lough Island Reavy and Corbet Lough reservoirs increased the volume of water power on the Upper Bann, five-fold. The Lough Island Reavy/Corbet Lough scheme was constructed and administered by the Bann Reservoir Company as a joint-stock effort. This company was not finally wound up until 1953. The company records are preserved in the Public Record Office, Northern Ireland.

Once the Bann Valley teemed with bleach works, and now the only one remaining, is the modern Ballievey Bleachworks at Corbet, near Banbridge which was erected between the Wars. The following bleachworks, listed in 1921, are now closed down:

  • Banford Bleach Works Co Ltd (Sintons)
  • Anthony Cowdy & Sons, Millmount, Banbridge
  • Wm Smyth & Co, Lenaderg, Banbridge
  • Uprichard & Lindsay Ltd
  • J T & H Uprichard, Laurencetown.

The following were Yarn Bleachers Only:

  • James Anderson & Co, Ballydown, Banbridge
  • Dunbar McMaster & Co Ltd, Gilford
  • Thomas Ferguson & Co Ltd, Banbridge
  • Hamilton Robb Ltd, Portadown.

Mention must be made of various activities connected with the linen trade in the Moyallon/Laurencetown area. These enterprises were run by inter-related Quaker families which included the Richardsons, Wakefields, Christys, Uprichards, Nicholsons and the Phelps. A small chemical works was established at Moyallon in 1786 known as, the Moyallon Vitriol Company to produce sulphuric acid for the bleaching trade. A James Christy was the leading partner in the company in addition to being a Cambric manufacturer. The Vitriol works and bleach works were situated on a roadway off the Stramore Road after crossing the bridge over the Bann. A few ruins are all that now remain of this enterprise. The Christys were traditionally said to have introduced linen bleaching into the Upper Bann Valley in or around 1675.

The first weaving factory at Banbridge was built in 1865 by Robert McClelland on the south side of the Bann. The McClelland home which was close to the weaving factory is now the Belmont Hotel. The William Walker factory at Clibborn was purchased by William Robinson and later traded under Robinson & Cleaver Co Ltd. Thomas Ferguson opened a weaving factory at Edenderry in 1850. This firm is one of only two linen Damask manufacturing concerns still operating in Northern Ireland. The other is William Liddell & Co Ltd of Donacloney. The Hazelbank Weaving Co Ltd, which closed some twenty years ago, was situated between Gilford and Banbridge. It was formed in 1880 by Thomas Dickson and William Walker. These old industrial premises started life as a flax spinning mill by the Laird family in 1833 and was one of the first power spinning mills in the country.

Another old established concern was F W Hayes & Co Ltd, Seapatrick. They had concentrated their business in 1984 on thread making, but the family had run a weaving shed of 100 power looms in 1835 and, as power loom weavers, were pioneers on the Bann and perhaps in the Irish Linen Industry. In 1876 after it had passed out of the Hayes family, a private company was formed. It in its turn became a branch of the Linen Thread Co in 1899.

The County Down village of Gilford is well known for its large spinning mill situated on the banks of the Bann. This mill closed down in 1986. It was built in 1834/1839 for Hugh Dunbar who already had a thriving thread and cloth business at Huntley Glen near Banbridge. He took into partnership a Mr W A Stewart. It subsequently traded as Dunbar Stewart, then Dunbar Thomson, Dunbar Dickson and finally Dunbar McMaster & Co Ltd. It joined the Linen Thread Coin 1901. It was one of the largest flax spinning mills in Ireland. The mill is of five storey construction and was originally water-powered with an iron breast-wheel of 20 feet diameter and 22 feet in width. Later a steam engine took over, followed by electric motor propulsion in the 193Os.

Following the course of the Bann hard by Moyallon with memories of the early Quaker family enterprises, we pass from County Down to Armagh where the Newry Navigation Canal joins the Bann at the Point of Whitecote, half a mile further on we come to Portadown, a town well known for its place as one of the large centres of the linen trade, especially the 'fine end' of Cambrics and Sheers handkerchief cloths. With its railway connections to Many surrounding towns, it was a major railway junction linking up with Belfast, Londonderry, Clones, Bundoran, Greenore, Enniskillen, Armagh, Dungannon, Newry and Warrenpoint. It was often referred to as 'The Hub of the North' because of the railway connections radiating to all points of the compass.

The canal systems had connections to the sea at Newry and Carlingford Lough and from Lough Neagh through the Lagan Canal to Belfast and Belfast Lough. Barge transport gradually had to give way to the railway system. Portadown had quite a few small industries in the past, from iron foundries to jam making, cider making, whiskey distilling, corn milling for flour, bran and animal feeding stuffs, bakeries, hams and bacon curers. There were also two large nurseries supplying all manner of fruit trees and shrubs. One of these was Samuel McGredy & Son Ltd, known worldwide for its roses.

Having given a brief sketch of the industries in the Upper Bann in past times it is a sobering thought that today the Linen Industry is now represented by one Bleaching and Finishing works at Ballievey and one Linen Weaving factory, that of Thomas Ferguson & Co Ltd of Edenderry, Banbridge. Otherwise there are only the scattered ruins of derelict industrial buildings and the palatial mansions once the homes of the 'Linen Lords' of former days.

Source References

  • The Industrial Archaeology of County Down by F R R Green.
  • The History of Water Power in Ulster by H D Gribbon.
  • The Rise of the Linen Merchants by H C Lawlor and James Black and E R R Green - a series of articles in the Linen Trade Circular 1943 - 1945.