History of Conway Mill
At the centre of Belfast's linen spinning industry
Conway Mill first appears in Belfast history as part of the city’s mill culture in the nineteenth century.
Under the ownership of James Kennedy & Son, Flax Spinners, the mill began operation on the Falls Road in 1842. The location of the mill on Conway Street, also referred to as the Millvale site, was at the centre of the then growing linen spinning industry. Over the years 15 other mills would be located in this vicinity.
The front building located directly on Conway Street was listed as comprising a carding and roving room and a spinning room. Industrial architects date the building presently on this site as being built sometime between 1900 and 1910, replacing a one storey building recorded as a weaving factory. The moulded brick cornices, windows with pseudo-cornices and the white glazed brick are consistent with the Edwardian period.
The back mill block on the site, the ‘old’ building, is Victorian. It seems to have been built around 1842, and therefore would be original to the Millvale site and consistent with the opening of James Kennedy & Son. The 1856 site plan lists this building as having three stories and an attic and that it was used for spinning and carding.
Architectural details indicating the age of this building include walls less embellished than the ‘new’ mill, stone windowsills and a wet-dashed façade.
History has added it's own story to the architecture of this building. The joint stock report of January 1870 for the Falls Flax Spinning Company states: ‘The Directors report that a fire broke out in the roof of the mill on the night of 9th December, the loss of which is covered by insurance. They have entered into a contract for the building of a new storey, in place of the attic which was destroyed.’
This statement, if presumed to relate to this particular mill building explains a discrepancy between the 1856 site plan which lists the building as three stories and an attic.
Though these two buildings are the most prominent on the site, several other buildings are present on the property including a boiler house in which yarn dying was carried out, two engine houses, and five other large buildings used for various purposes including storage and flax machinery rooms.
An 1859 Deed of Sale by Mortgage, shows that Ellen Kennedy, James Kennedy and Victor Coates Kennedy entered into an agreement with Victor Coates, whereby the mill buildings and machinery were used as collateral on a £3,000 loan. It is uncertain how this money was used, but in the next available Belfast Directory from 1862, the company is listed as being power loom weavers in addition to being spinners.
In 1865, the Falls Flax Spinning Company Ltd was formed. The Articles of Association of the Falls Flax Spinning Company implement a rotating directorship of the company alternating between James Kennedy and Victor Coates Kennedy. The formation of this company was accompanied by the selling off of the old McConnell & Kennedy factory on the corner of the Falls Road and Conway Street to JT & M Greeves and Company.
The Conway Street mill updated its spinning machinery between 1906 and 1913. The new machinery was made by Belfast 's James Mackie and Sons. Though not a lot of information has been found documenting the work of the Falls Flax Spinning Company during the first world war, this period was in general a prosperous time for the linen industry as demand increased for linen fabric.
Again in the 1940s the war effort gave a boost to the linen industry. High demand and government price controls caused the industry to flourish. However, the changing climate of consumerism, which moved taste away from the more formal linen fabric to cotton for home use and toward easier care synthetic fibres for fashion, led to a decline in the linen industry from which it never recovered. Two of 's largest mills, York Street and Brookfield , closed during the sharp collapse between 1961 and 1962.
The Falls Flax Spinning Company was able to keep its doors open longer than many of its contemporaries, but in 1976 it too was forced to close. Leaving behind over 100,000 square feet of mill space, the relics of the spinning industry and boxes of business documents, the mill was abandoned.
In the 1980s Conway Community Enterprises bought the mill, ensuring that the importance of the mill and the linen industry would not be forgotten. The preservation of this site has provided the opportunity for future generations to rediscover the majesty of the mill and of the people for whom it provided not only a source of employment, but also a way of life.