Big thank you from

The Linen Industry

by Sam McBratney

Several factors contributed to the growth of a prosperous linen industry in Lisburn. In the first place,  the town is situated by a river in a fertile valley which is a valuable communication route to the coast and the rest of Ireland, and where disasters caused by extremes of climate are rare.

Secondly, the manufacturers of Great Britain. did not feel themselves threatened by the growth of a line industry here, and therefore did not try to repeat in respect of the linen manufacture what they successfully achieved when the Irish appeared likely to rival their production of wool.

Thirdly, the linen manufacturers of Lisburn could. usually count on. the support. of local landlords. The Conways and the Hertfords, whatever their shortcomings as "part-time Irishmen," were liberal with grants of land not only to Louis Crommelin, but also to later giants of the industry such as William Coulson.


A fourth factor in the rise of the Lisburn linen manufacture was undoubtedly the economic history of Lisburn since it began as a village in the early seventeenth century. The remarkable history of Lisburn in the eighteenth century would read differently had it not been for the efforts of the early settlers who cleared forests in the time of Sir George Rawdon or the experience and technology of the Huguenot immigrants who colonised Lisburn in the time of Louis Crommelin.

And finally, it is important to note the Linen board established in 1711 gave encouragement in the form of capital grants to manufacturers with progressive ideas. In 1725, for example, Mr. James Maxwell received a grant of £40 for three years to set up a bleach yard between Lisburn and Belfast and to "import a Dutch bleacher."

Another example of such assistance to a Lisburn manufacturer is given later in the text.


These factors - one might call them economic forces - combined to raise Lisburn to a position of eminence among the industrial centres of Ireland.

The linen industry here prospered after the death of Louis Crommelin in 1727 as it had during his life, and by the mid-eighteenth century the quantity and quality of linen exports from Ireland caused considerable concern to the linen manufacturers of other countries.

From the beginning of this rapid expansion Lisburn enjoyed a high reputation not only for linen, but also for equipment manufactured here for use in the manufacturing processes.

Kelly's shuttles and Knox's shears were recognised as objects of quality throughout Ireland, while Lisburn become a centre for the provision of loom parts.

At the weekly Lisburn market merchants bought great quantities of brown linen: indeed, as late as 1816 the Linen Board received estimates which showed that only Belfast and Dungannon, with sales of £4,000, approached the weekly sale at Lisburn market of webs worth £5,000..

In that year Lisburn markets accounted for over a ' quarter of a million pounds sterling of linen - more than any of the other 45 centres for the sale of brown linen in the nine counties of Ulster.


But of course., the reputation of Lisburn linen did not depend on the sale of brown linen so much as on the nature of the product. During the second half of the eighteenth century some remarkable developments occurred, which we must now consider.

If the economic history of  Lisburn has a golden age, it is to be sought in the_ records -of that period; and if some objects were to be presented as evidence of such an age in the history of Lisburn, they would certainly have been woven in a factory established about 1766 by William Coulston.

We learn from many sources that the damask linen woven here rivalled in its workmanship any similar product in the world, graced the tables of the European aristocracy and won the admiration of kings.

The sight of their crests impeccably woven into the finest line fabric tickled the fancy of their lordships, and out of the pride of titled people in their heritage, Coulson and Sons made a fortune.

Fortunately for his new enterprise, Coulson did no have to rely entirely on hi own resources. Lord Hertford made land available for buildings, bleach green and homes for the work people of the firm. H received help, too from the Linen Board.

The minutes of 1812 show that Coulston submitted specimens of damask with plans for new looms to support his claim for a grant from the Board, which "resolved unanimously that this Board highly approve of the plan of the damask loom this day submitted by Messrs. Coulson of Lisburn, and that the specimens of damash this day exhibited by them afford the highest satisfaction to the Board, as being fully equal, in their opinion, to the finest foreign damasks that have been hitherto imported into these countries, and that their exertions, therefore, are deserving the aid and encouragement of the Board."


Coulson's application proved successful. As in the time of Crommelin, however, local patronage and capital grants counted for little if not combined with skill and technology.

In the early days of the industry, Coulson trained designers to prepare on paper the pattern that would shortly appear in the cloth; Weavers to work the elaborate looms-and mechanics to service and repair the intricate machinery.

People of consequence who passed through Lisburn during an eighteenth century cultural tour frequently stopped for a while to stare at. the machinery moving in Coulson's factory, and if the account of a Mr. Reid is any guide, people were still staring as late as 1822, when he wrote: "Had I come from London to Lisburn, and returned without seeing anything but the admirable machinery of this manufactory, I would have thought, myself well rewarded for the trouble of the journey."


Scarcely less wonderful were the products of this same machinery that people looked at for kicks, if we are to trust in the first hand judgment of Hugh McCall: "Pictorial designs were brought out in the loom," he wrote, "exceeding in beauty the finest works of ancient tapestry ... Nobles of Britain, princes of the continent, and untitled men of dollars ... felt bound to have their tables covered with the beautiful fabrics of the Lisburn damask manufactory.

Whether the money of a disappearing European aristocracy or of lowly but rich Americans, it was all good business.

So, too, was another advance in a branch of the linen -manufacture which occurred in 1784 when John Barbour began the manufacture of thread at the Plantation, near Lisburn. The new enterprise flourished and soon employed full time many people who had been part-tune workers in linen. It is worth stressing that Barbour took particular care to appoint qualified teachers to instruct his employees in the skills of thread-making.

The prospects and international markets thus opened up by Barbour in the eighteenth century were availed of in the nineteenth by R. Stewart and Sons: and between them, the two firms accounted for much of the international trade in thread.


The triumphs of Coulson and Barbour, masters of different branches of the linen manufacture, continued through several generations, and no historian can overlook their importance in the economic history of Ireland. It was the practice of both firms to exhibit their produce at international exhibitions, where they were accustomed to win prizes.

I mention only two awards out of many. The official records of' the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in 1851 state that an ' award was made to "James Coulson and; Sons, Ltd., for an extensive and admirable exhibition of fine, well-made damask tablecloths and napkins;" and at an exhibition of 1862, Barbour and Sons received an award for "sewing and other threads - for general excellence."


Another name sometimes; seen on the prize-lists was that of Jonathan Richardson, a leading linen merchant of Lisburn. With John Hancock, another Lisburn man, he also won a place in the • history of the linen manufacture by demonstrating, about the close of the eighteenth century, that webs could be bleached all through the year notwithstanding the cold of winter and the hardy thieves who would brave rain and frost to steal them.

Coulson, Barbour and Richardson are the most famous names of the Lisburn linen manufacture. Between them they picked up the mantle of  Louis Crommelin, and with what result is shown in this report by members of the
Belfast Chamber of Commerce.

They had just been to an exhibition in Paris:-- "They (Belgium and Germany) are imitating our finish and quality, they are encouring intelligent persons, from the neighbourhood of Belfast, to settle in both countries, to instruct them in the processes of spinning, weaving and bleaching."

It is interesting to reflect that less than a hundred and fifty years after the death of Crommelin, the local manufacture he scorned in his essay of 1705 had progressed to the point where continental firms not only admired, but also sought after, its expertise. The brain drain had begun to operate in the opposite direction.


It would, of course, be wrong to assume that in eighteenth century Lisburn, the only manufactories were linen . This list of enterprises is by no means exhaustive and some of the dates are not exact; but it offers, I think, an impression of economic expansion during the early period of the industrial revolution:

1764 William Coulson's damask :manufactory.
1764 Thomas Gregg's Vitriol works, built on an island formed by the Lagan and the Lagan Canal. In association with Waddell Cunningham of Belfast.
1763 Belfast-Lisburn section of canal opened, completed to Lough Neagh in 1794. In 1834 four Lisburn men owned six 50 to 60 ton lighters.
1764 Joseph Beattie established a tanyard in Bow Street
1784 William Graham's  brewery opened in Bow Street.
1790 James Wallace's cotton mill established.
1793 Cotton mill of G. Whitla and R. Stirling begins production.
1784 John Barbour's thread works (moved to Hilden in 1823).
1807 Grahams tanyard established.
1810 Fulton's flour mill. Hudson's machine making factory, mainly for turning rollers, spindles and bobbins. A typical service industry based on the needs of established industries. Ed. Gribben's manufactory for husbandry implements.

During this period, then, the proliferation of small local industries which benefited from the success of larger undertakings proceeded more quickly than ever before and absorbed labour from the oldest industry of the area, farming. On fair and market days the town fairly teemed with farmers trying to dispose of their produce, and Dubourdieu tells us that Lisburn was "a most celebrated market for superior oats."

But since it is with the process of industrialisation that we are concerned here, our attention must be directed to the cotton manufacture of Lisburn.


In the later years of the eighteenth century Lisburn was the main centre of cotton manufacture in Ulster. Between 1790 and 1794 James Wallace and George Whitla erected in the town two cotton mills which together employed over a hundred hands.

In a letter to Lord Castlereagh Wallace wrote that he sank £10,000 into the purchase of equipment, which included a steam engine to drive the spindles of his factory; and like Coulson's looms, this brain child of Boulton and Watt took its place among the chief curiosities of Ireland, for the only steam engine in the country was to be seen in all its noisy glory in a Lisburn workshop.

Apart from these two mills, several hundred looms were engaged in the cotton manufacture of Lisburn. Late in the century John Barbour and a man from Lambeg named McFerran brought the tambouring trade to Lisburn, and when in 1813 George Dunne began a school to teach tambouring to local girls there, were about 300 people engaged in the manufacture of embroidered cotton fabric.


This article has merely described some of the major industrial developments of Lisburn in the eighteenth century. Unlike many historians who Write of these events under the influence of wishful thinking about the benefits of capitalism, I would avoid at all costs the pretense that the industrial revolution in Lisburn and the Lagan Valley progressed with the same happy results for all who found themselves caught _up in it.

Far from it. The Linen industry had its moments of wealth. The next aim of these articles, in fact, is to describe the impact of industrialisation on the lives, of the people of Lisburn.