Through The Mill

The demise of the linen trade captured by 'local' photographer David Cleland

The massive Hilden Mill will be familiar to residents of the Lisburn area and can readily be spotted from the Belfast/Dublin railway line. The firm, founded by John Barbour in 1784, moved to the Hilden site in 1817 and eventually achieved world dominance in the manufacture of linen thread. By 1914 it employed over 2,000 workers, but, after a long decline, the last 83 workers lost their jobs when it closed in 2006.

David Cleland’s evocative photographic essay in the Island Arts Centre shows how much can decay in even a few years. Working in both black and white and colour he explores new and vivid patinas of rust consuming once mighty cogs and sprockets, and shows how even the grime on a window now additionally framed with tendrils of ivy can take on the characteristics of a delicate watercolour.

More shocking is the chaos of the last moment of abandonment. It is as though an invading army has passed through, or plague has broken out. According to reports at the time it felt that way to those last workers who lost their jobs in 2006. Cleland relates how on the last day some workers clocked in but failed to clock out, such was the hurry of departure.

Their ghosts cannot be photographed but one worker has left her apparently nicely patterned jacket draped over a chair; elsewhere bobbins lie abandoned on the floor. What looks like a shattered clock seems to symbolise the moment when time stopped for the mill, though on closer examination this appears to be a water pressure gauge.

Now mill floors stripped of their machinery, and with debris strewn everywhere, confound the prim notices of an ordered past; ‘A Clean Yard Makes A Clear Statement About Our Company’. Even the gigantic painted slogan ‘Ahead in Thread’ which embellished one of the mill towers has peeled towards illegibility.

This is also an architectural essay, and gives eloquent testimony to the scale and architectural importance of the building. It reminds us of the industrial triumph that gave us Royal Irish Linen Floss and many other products which were once household names.

Through the Mill

Significantly a major rebuilding and extension of the mill took place in 1861 and on the eve of the linen boom caused by the American Civil War. The Barbour family were sufficiently confident about their timing to embellish the building with ornamental heads which appear to owe their inspiration to classical Rome and Greece. Thus their expanding enterprise was, in its own way, to rule the known world.

Cleland nonetheless aims to ‘transcend location’. The exhibition is about universal themes such as urban decay, the minutiae of daily routines, remembering past generations of workers, and even about nature. But the exhibition also continually subliminally raises the question which Cleland also specifically asks; ‘what will become of an architectural and industrial landmark on our doorstep?’

Here the good news is that in December 2009 planning permission was given for a £100 million development on the site by London based developers Galliard Homes which, according to architect Dawson Stelfox of Consarc Conservation, will create a ‘new urban mixed use village’ on the site. There is a precedent for this approach in that the Barbours created a model village linked to the mill including 350 houses.

If the new development progresses it will secure the important listed buildings involved, though it remains to be seen how the balance between purely commercial development including 605 apartments and a planned museum element will work out. Certainly there is major potential for linkages with the existing Linen Museum in Lisburn and with the planned revival of the Lagan Canal.

We can only hope that the Hilden project fares better, in what is now a very hostile economic climate, than another once world beating mill, that of Dunbar McMaster in Gilford, County Down, and some 25 miles to the south. Once scheduled for major commercial development it still lies empty and increasingly derelict. Hilden, however, has the advantage of a truly strategic location.

Cleland is modestly described in exhibition literature as a ‘local photographer’. He is indeed just that, and is more normally a teacher at Wallace High School. There is just one aspect of the exhibition that betrays an amateur enthusiasm and that is the evident desire to put everything up. It is not that there are obviously inferior photographs here, but amongst the dozens on display, some subjects recur without obvious advantage. Sometimes less is more.

Yet Cleland is living proof that the photographer’s eye is not the exclusive possession of the professional, and that the ‘local’ can inspire an enabling commitment to a subject which might have eluded an artist from further afield. If those heroic classical statues are restored and Hilden sees a new golden age, he will have played his part.

Through the Mill runs at the Island Arts Centre until October 23.