The Industrial Heritage of West Belfast

An overview of the industrial heritage of west Belfast.

West Belfast can be defined as the area between the Bog Meadows and the Shankill Road, reaching the centre of the city at Castle Place. It is characterised by rising ground originally drained by a few small streams. Housing developments arrived here in the late nineteenth century.

Spinning Mills
Thomas Mulholland built a large cotton spinning mill on Winetavern Street in 1816.  By 1850, the Herdman family also had a linen spinning mill, which drew water from a dam at Marquess Street. They were unable to expand it economically in the 1850s and decided to relocate their business to Sion Mills, where there was a more reliable source of water and room to expand.

Early weaving sheds were built around Durham Street and Albert Street. Other mills, such as Conway and Clonard Mills on the Falls Road, were built further out. At Oldpark, a linen mill was built around 1800 but it was later converted to cotton printing, and then back to linen as trade fluctuated.

Weaving was undertaken by the Blackstaff Flax Spinning and Weaving Company and the Falls Flax Spinning Company.

Among the earliest foundries in Belfast was the MacAdam Brothers’ Soho Foundries, which was located at Townsend Street from around 1825. The MacAdams’s helped design and build wet spinning machinery for the York Street Flax Company when it was rebuilt after a fire in 1828.

As well as textile machinery, they made steam engines and inward flow water turbines designed by James Thompson, professor of engineering at Queen’s College. Although the firm exported some steam engines to Egypt, they were unable to break into any export market permanently, and the firm closed on the death of its founders.

The Falls Foundry was one of the main foundries in Belfast. It was set up in 1845 by a Scot, James Combe, to supply equipment for the railways, which were expanding at the time.  By the 1850s the firm had moved into the textile machinery business and was making carding machinery for long staple flax fibres.

The name of the firm was later changed to Combe, Barbour and Combe, and in 1900 became a part of Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd.  For a period from about 1880 to the end of the first world war, the Falls foundry also made large steam engines as part of their service to mill owners.  Although they occasionally tried to diversify by making specialist machinery for other trades, the firm was best known as a major manufacturer of spinning and twisting frames until 1955, when the parent company ceased business in Belfast.

The Clonard Foundry was opened by George Horner in 1859. Having served his apprenticeship in Leeds with Samuel Lawson and Sons, he worked for James Combe and Company, before starting his own business. Specialising in hackling machines for flax and hemp, Horner developed the ‘Duplex’ machine that took up less room than two single machines, yet hackled both ends of a bundle. James Mackie and Sons took over the firm in 1905.

James Scrimgeour had a business in Albert Street which made spinning frames. When he got into financial difficulties in 1858, the firm was taken over by his manager, James Mackie. He steadily built up the business manufacturing flax cutters, bundling presses, and twisting frames. Wet spinning frames were added later, and by the 1890s, a substantial export business had been created which led to the move to much larger premises at the Springfield Road.

During both world wars, Mackies made large quantities of armaments ranging from shell cases to aircraft wings. Between the wars the firm developed jute preparing and spinning machinery, and became the leading manufacturer of sisal and hard-fibre spinning machinery. After the second world war, they also added machinery for spinning synthetic fibres to their range, and extra sites further up the Springfield Road were put into use.

The Reynolds brothers set up business at McClenaghan’s Court, off Mill Street, around 1850, and turned from general engineering to the manufacture of spinning machinery around 1865. They moved to Grosvenor Street in two adjacent but distinct premises: James Reynolds in the Linfield Foundry and Peter Reynolds in the Northern Foundry. The latter went out of business around 1875, but James Reynolds and Company continued until 1929. Although they specialised in equipment for thread twine and ropes, they also made a comprehensive range of flax preparing and spinning machinery.

JP Hamilton and Company were in business in Percy Street as specialist brass founders, and remained as one of the last in the trade which had been carried out by many small firms over the years.

Dunvilles Distillery was built on the Grosvenor Road in the 1850s and became one of the oldest in Belfast as the competition closed and newer firms such as the United Distillers came on to the scene. During the first world war, much of the distilling activity changed from potable spirits to industrial alcohol for armaments production. Dunvilles themselves became bankrupt in the 1930s.

Contemporary Industry in West Belfast
Andrews’ Milling feed mill at Northern Road and Percy Street is one of the last manufacturing businesses in the heart of what is now a commercial area in the city, occupied by offices and a large shopping complex.

The drive for new employment after the second world war created industrial areas in Finaghy and Dunmurry. The major employer in the former is the international Ford company and its subsidiaries. Grundig established a plant in Dunmurry, but the firm to gain most publicity was the ill-fated De Lorean Motor Company. Its premises have been taken over by the French aluminium founders Montupet, and by Shorts, the aircraft manufacturers.

The Ulster Brewery moved from city centre premises to the Glen Road in the 1950s. Maguire and Patterson operated a match works on the Donegall Road up until the 1980s, when the premises were redeveloped as a supermarket.