The Mill Worker

John Gray critiques a new sculpture dedicated to the memory of Belfast's forgotten female workers

Belfast’s latest piece of public art, a bronze sculpture of ‘The Mill Worker’ by Ross Wilson, was unveiled at the corner of Cambrai Street and the Crumlin Road on May 27. No better location could be found to belatedly acknowledge the army of women workers, whether spinners or weavers, who were the mainstay of the linen industry. The site is at the one-time epicentre of the business, and immediately adjacent to Brookfield Mill, once one of the largest in the world, with three other spinning mills, Edenderry, Flax Street, and Ewarts nearby.

The sculpture is a strictly representational portrayal of a young mill girl, and much more so than another nearby piece of public art reflecting the linen industry in Jason Mulligan’s ‘Winding the Warp’, an elegant essay in stone on the patterns of woven thread at the foot of the Oldpark Road.

The similarity of style with Wilson’s previous pieces of public art in Belfast is evident, whether in the ‘Ulster Brewer’ or ‘Barrel Man’ (1997) featuring a cooper sitting on his barrel at the cafe terrace of the Waterfront Hall, or in ‘The Searcher’ (1998) celebrating the CS Lewis centenary with a lifesize Lewis approaching the wardrobe that leads to Narnia at Holywood Arches.

Now Wilson, who hails from Cullybackey and has had a distinguished career primarily as a painter with The Mill Worker, by Ross Wilsonmany exhibitions to his name since 1980, acknowledges his debt in the case of this sculpture to another painter, William Conor (1881-1968). Conor, above all others, the artist who chronicled the lives of ordinary Belfast people.

The panel adjacent to the new sculpture reproduces his 1914 sketch ‘Going to the Mills. Crumlin Road’. That is all to the good, because Conor’s early sketches are more realist than some of his later more whimsical work. There was certainly no romance of the linen mills in this Conor work which portrays two older women and a young girl all wearing their shawls, all with a certain dignity, yes, but careworn and unmistakedly unkempt. It is as though they have all too unwillingly dragged themselves out of bed to the 6.00am call of the mill siren or the door knocker.

Wilson’s single girl is none of Conor’s three women, so perhaps the Conor inspiration is generic rather than precise. Now the mill girl has an elfin hair cut rather than unshorn locks. She has a shawl, yes, but is nonetheless more tidily dressed than Conor’s originals. Exhaustion has not yet overcome a certain gawkish charm. It may be the bronze but she cleans up nicely.

Perhaps that is how we want to remember the mill girls. It is certainly true that their working conditions were appalling, often labouring in 100% humidity, and hence barefooted in the mill, and that their pay was miserable for unconscionably long hours. They were also the mainstay of their families, carrying the burden of child rearing, and compensating for the poor pay of their husbands in many occupations.

Yet they were also the young womanhood of Belfast, and with a spirited sense that life was to be lived. When Betty Messenger, undertook her pioneer oral history Picking up the Linen Threads (1978), it was this undying spirit that came through, rather than a pre-occupation with the hardships of working lives. Oral history does of course tend to erase bad memories, and one could say that a similar spirit infuses civic endeavour today.

I see that the new sculpture is already being nicknamed ‘Millie’, and yet wonder is this how old mill-workers want to be remembered. Extraordinarily it remains a middle-class teenage term of contempt, denoting easy prey, and this from a generation who will never meet young and nubile mill workers!

Thus forever there are questions about the representation of women. Certainly the new sculpture will help to redress the balance in which women are still all too rarely represented in public art at all. This may also explain why we give such an enormous emphasis to shipbuilding – the Titanic Quarter and all that – and to an all male industrial heritage, while far more people (96,000 in 1896) and most of them women and children worked in the underplayed linen industry.

The new sculpture will certainly be far less contentious than our first piece of public art representing women, Louise Walsh’s ‘Monument to the Unknown Woman Worker’, which can be seen outside the Great Northern Centre in Great Victoria Street. Its origins were surrounded in controversy about the representation of women from our red light district in neighbouring Amelia Street.

It was good to see Baroness May Blood at the unveiling of the new sculpture, alongside Councillor William Humphrey representing the City Council. May Blood spent much of her life working in the linen industry, an experience that led to her commitment to the labour movement. There are no mill workers to defend now, but if we rightly celebrate them now, we should also remember that women have unfinished business in achieving equality in the modern working environment.