Decade of Centenaries

Belfast City Council explore the role of women in the city's evolution to mark International Women's Day. View the full Spring Programme of events

With International Women's Day in the offing on March 8, Deputy Lord Mayor, Tierna Cunningham, got her timing right for the launch of Belfast City Council’s spring programme featuring four events focussing on the role of women in the period 1912-14, as part as the wider Decade of Centenaries agenda.

The programme continues on March 14 with Shrieking Sisters, a rehearsed reading based on archive material on the suffragette movement in Northern Ireland, with several events scheduled to take place in the Ulster Hall on International Women's Day.


The Decade of Centenaries programme begins, however, with a talk by Olwen Purdue on the role of women in charitable endeavour and as elected Poor Law Guardians, and with Brenda Collins discussing working and living conditions for mill workers.

Purdue relates how, in the late 19th century, one of the few spheres in which it was thought appropriate that women should take a leading role – or, alternatively, from which they were not excluded – was that of charitable work.

The care of children and the sick was a prime role of women at home, and charitable and public endeavour in the same sphere could be seen as a mere extension of this. Middle-class women also had the time and means to do it.

Prior to the development of state welfare provision, charities played a vital role. In a rapidly expanding Belfast, heavy demands were made upon them, and they multiplied. All too often the churches developed their own charities – even in sickness and poverty, separate development was often the rule. There was also a particular moral emphasis on the rescue of ‘fallen’ women – no-one asked who pushed them!

A more modern role for women developed in the context of the Poor Law Guardians, who had responsibility for the destitute and ran the workhouses.

As early as 1896 the Orange hero, William Johnson of Ballykilbeg and MP for South Belfast, sponsored Westminster legislation enabling the election of women to the Boards. It was viewed as a more limited case than the granting of full suffrage, which was to be opposed by Edward Carson in the years up to 1914.

Kate Megahey was the first woman elected in Ulster, and 90 others were to follow in Belfast before the abolition of the Guardians at the end of the 1930s. Elsewhere, in areas with tenant right or Liberal traditions, substantial numbers were elected, while in more rural backwaters they made no headway.

Women attended meetings more regularly than men, and may have mitigated the worst features of harsh regimes. Contrary to this image, the most famous or infamous woman Guardian, Lily Coleman, Chair of the Belfast Board from 1929, was notorious for her sneering and hectoring manner towards the poor.

Brenda Collins, a former long-time member of staff at the Linen Museum in Lisburn, demonstrates an easy familiarity with the intricacies of linen production through the preparing trades, spinning and weaving, and the various occupations associated with it.

This aspect of Belfast’s industrial triumph was overwhelmingly dependent on women, who made up at least two-thirds of the workforce. In the age group 15 – 24 women actually outnumbered men in Edwardian Belfast by 30%, as young girls flooded to the city seeking employment in the mills.

Working conditions were often grim, especially in the preparing trades where flying dust or ‘pouce’ led to a high death rate from tuberculosis, or in the spinning mills where 100% humidity had to be maintained and endured – new starts suffered from a week or two of ‘mill fever’ while they acclimatised. Sign language was a means of communication across the roar of machinery and later deafness was common.

In 1913 there was a 56.5 hour working week, and there were no paid holidays. Wages were also abysmally low, averaging 10/6 per week for spinners and 11/6 for weavers or perhaps two-thirds of what an unskilled male labourer might have earned elsewhere.

Collins emphasises the occupational divisions between the mill workers. The nimble doffers who removed filled spindles from the midst of the machinery were usually half timers – the 4,000 children as young as 12 who spent half the week in the mill and half at school.

Spinners, although only marginally less well paid than weavers, were a lower caste and rarely graduated to weaving. Weavers and reelers were paid piece work rates and had more control over their working environment.

Mill owners exercised control beyond the mill because many employees lived in the tightly knit terraces owned by them. If you were in a mill house, you were last to be laid off in a recession and first to be taken back in better times, but woe betide you if you went on strike!

Collins’s talk sparks off lively discussion in an audience at least half of whom had worked in the mills or whose parents had done so. One vivid memory from the early 1960s is of barefoot spinners running down Ardilea Street in the Bone to the corner shop to buy a bap for their lunch. 

It all makes for a good start for a programme which will embrace the suffragettes and striking mill girls both by way of talks and drama and all for free. For further visit the Belfast City Council website