The Industrial Heritage of Co Down

Kathleen Neill gives an overview of Co Down’s industrial past

The county of Down is separated from Co Antrim by the River Lagan. Co Down also incorporates the eastern half of Belfast, traditionally the city’s industrial heartland. It was on this side of the river that most of Belfast’s shipbuilding, aircraft manufacturing and other major industries were developed. 

Co Down had 15 market towns, namely Downpatrick, Newry, Bangor, Newtownards, Hillsborough, Killeagh, Portaferry, Donaghadee, Banbridge, Saintfield, Kirkcubbin, Rathfriland, Dromore and Ballynahinch. Agriculture in Down was developed largely by Scottish settler families who moved to Ulster in the seventeenth century. They laboured in tilling, in sowing oats and barley, and in the cultivation of flax for the linen industry.

The countryside is still dotted with ruined windmills and water mills used for the grinding of the corn produced by local farmers. Some of these have been converted into private residences, and one windmill, Ballycopeland near Millisle, has been fully restored.

The farming of potatoes, of cattle for beef and sheep for meat and wool were also the mainstays of early agricultural production in Co Down. Spade and scythe making were early manufacturing industries.

The end of the seventeenth century brought an influx of skilled Protestant Huguenot refugees to the county, fleeing France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The linen industry became of primary importance, and fine linen, damask, cambric, drill and common household linens were all produced. The town of Dromore was the most important linen market, handling the finer quality linens.

Woven linen cloth is initially pale beige colour and must be bleached to achieve the crisp whiteness for which it is famed. Before the introduction of chemical agents, bleaching was done by exposure to sunlight. It could be a lengthy process, heavily dependent upon the weather, and the cloth was bleached on bleach greens dotted throughout the countryside. In summer months, many fields in Co Down were covered by acres of cloth.

Situated in Banbridge in the heart of the linen homelands, the Ferguson Linen Centre offers visitors a unique opportunity to see for themselves the various stages of production. These processes include designing, weaving, specialist sewing and ornamenting. The world’s only manufacturer of double damask linen, the Ferguson Linen Centre’s products have graced the tables of palaces and embassies around the globe since 1854.

Other commercial activities of note in Co Down include tanning, of which the Shrigley Mill leather tannery near Killyleagh is a fine example. Originally a cotton mill, Shrigley village grew up around the large six storey cotton mill built by John Martin in 1824. In 1836, it had more power looms than any other factory in Ireland. The original mill was burned down in 1845 and was replaced by a flax-spinning mill, latterly occupied by United Chrometanners Ltd. The Grecian gate pillars and some of the subsidiary stone buildings probably survived from the original mill and stood until quite recently.

Naturally, the mill became the principal source of employment in the locality. Most of the workers lived in Killyleagh and a number of black-stone workers’ cottages were built in a cluster along the three streets at the mill gate. The entire village of Shrigley has now been demolished and new housing erected.

In the later nineteenth century, many offshore fisheries developed around the east coast of Down. By 1880, the port of Kilkeel had become one of the most important herring fisheries in Ireland. At Ardglass, the harbour was packed with boats from Scotland, the Isle of Man and, later, Cornwall.

This fishery fed the curing industry, established locally in 1906 when Scottish curers working in Donegal were persuaded to travel east by the richness of Down’s herring harvest. Women known as ‘gutting girls’ processed the fish. Many of those working in Co Down came from Donegal and the west of Ireland, but local women also took part.