A historical overview of the linen industry in Belfast city centre
Linen has been invested in the life of Belfast city centre since the middle of the eighteenth century. At this time, Belfast’s development as a port began to draw the product from the linen producing areas of Co Down and Co Armagh into the city. During the next forty years, linen became an important part of life and Belfast emerged as its premier market place in Northern Ireland following a bitter dispute between the northern weavers and the Dublin merchants.
In order to cement this change, several leading merchants in the city banded together to build the White Linen Hall and to sell bleached linen. This stood on the site of today’s City Hall. The foremost building in Belfast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the White Linen Hall embodied the importance of linen to Belfast life. The construction cost £17, 550, but as a market place for white linen it was not a great success and gradually other uses were found for the building, including housing the Linen Hall Library in 1801.
Linen was not the first textile to be industrialised in Belfast. Robert Joy was a member of the powerful local family who owned the Belfast Newsletter and set up the poorhouse at Clifton Street. In order to ensure that those in the poorhouse earned their keep, Joy decided that they would import cotton machinery to be housed in the poorhouse. The mission was a success and Joy and his partners opened a mill in Francis Street. Slowly other mills and factories opened, including John Hazlett’s factory in Waring Street and a mill in Millfield powered by horse. By 1800, Nicholas Grimshaw estimated that in a 16km radius there was £192,000 invested in the cotton industry and work was provided for 13,500 people.
From cotton to flax
Thomas Mullholland and his partner John Hinds discovered that a way to prepare flax to be spun on machines had been invented. This had previously prevented linen from becoming a mass produced textile, as flax is too dry in its natural form to be worn as a fabric. This new ‘wet spinning’ ensured that flax created a finer yarn after the spinning process. Mullholland and Hinds went into partnership when a Winetavern Street cotton spinning mill was offered for sale in 1815. They created a business, which later became the York Street mill, the largest linen mill in the world for the next 100 years. The brief boom in cotton brought an industrial infrastructure into Belfast and linen was now grafted onto the cotton boom.
The boom of 1864
The Great Famine of 1845 to 1847 had an enormous impact on the industrial landscape of Belfast. Migration and emigration were two of the most enduring legacies of the famine years. The mechanisation of linen production and the emergence of Belfast as the linen capital of Ireland, resulted in thousands of people from rural areas seeking employment in the mills and factories of the town. At the same time, emigration to Great Britain and the New World became endemic, emptying the once bourgeoning rural areas. Belfast city centre became a veritable hive of people and factories. Shops, mills and houses competed for their position in Carrick Hill, Great Victoria Street and The Markets.
In 1864, however, linen was to receive an unexpected boost when the cotton supplies of the southern states of America were all but annihilated, due to the fall of New Orleans in the American civil war. Linen, whose raw material flax was imported from the Russian steppes, could now be mass produced due to recent investment in power looms. By 1867, there were 9000 power looms, increasing business for the manufacturers and ensuring that by 1870 Belfast’s place as the dominant world force in linen production was confirmed. H O Lanyon, President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce in 1894 stated:
I find the length of yarn produced in the year amounts to about 1037km, making a thread which would encircle the world 25,000 times. If it could be used for a telephone wire it would give us six lines to the sun and about 380 to the moon. The exports of linen in 1894 measured about 143m, which would make a girdle for the earth at the equator three m wide…or it would reach from end to end of the County of Down, 2km wide.
Through the dark days of sectarian riots and world war, Belfast maintained its linen produce. Linen, despite the misfortunes of depression and unemployment, was still the biggest employer in the city. During the 1920s, the York Street mill alone employed 5000 people and production throughout the industry was still growing. The second world war, however, meant that the supply from Russia was cut off, due to the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany. Costs, therefore, rose until the end of 1945. After the war linen prices resumed their upward path until a combination of foreign competition and the onset of synthetic materials caused a quick and drastic collapse in the Belfast linen industry.
Between 1951 and 1952, 50% of the workforce was laid off and despite restructuring and government support, the glory days of the linen industry were over. Today mill chimneys still punctuate Belfast’s skyline. Some have become apartment buildings and some cinemas, such as Yorkgate at York Street. Non-linen textiles were still an important part of the economy until the recession of the 1980s. The cultures and skills gleaned from the factories and mills are still apparent in the city’s language and social structure, but the days of Belfast clothing the world have gone.
Rise of the Linen Merchants in the Eighteenth Century (1941) by HC Lawlor; Belfast: Origin and Growth of an Industrial City (1967) edited by JC Beckett and RE Glasscock; Belfast: The Making of the City (1988) edited by JC Beckett; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by K Newmann; The growth of industry in Northern Ireland (1999) by DL Armstrong.