In North East Ulster hand-loom weaving gave employment to a large number of people, and immense quantities of muslin were produced there mainly for Glasgow manufacturers. The American Civil War commenced in the Spring of 1861, and the effects of that conflict on the cotton industry were felt in the Lisburn area and in the Maze and Broomhedge in particular. As the American war entered its second year, with large tracts of the cotton lands destroyed or untilled, the imports of cotton into the United Kingdom fell dramatically and resulted in unemployment and suffering among the weavers and their families. It was in Lisburn and its neighbourhood that the greatest deprivation and hardship was endured, and alarming reports of destitution and semi-starvation were accumulating during Christmas week 1862.
During the Christmas holidays, David Carlisle, the Lisburn agent for a Glasgow muslin manufacturer, inspected the cottages of weavers in the Maze area, and, about the same time, Hugh McCall investigated the conditions of cotton weavers in Lisburn. These enquiries produced a mass of evidence that severe poverty and starvation was general among the weaver population, and, as the result of a petition presented to Lisburn town commissioners, a meeting was held in the Court-House to establish a relief fund. The speakers at the public meeting held on 8th January 1863 included James Megarry, Hugh McCall, Rev. E. Franks and David Beatty who gave the following reports.
Mr James Megarry of Broomhedge stated that they had heard a great deal about the Lancashire distress, and of the efforts that had been made to relieve it, but he believed that the people of their own neighbourhood at the present time were in a more pitiable condition than the operatives referred to. He believed there were many men in the Maze and Broomhedge districts who, if they did not get immediate assistance, would be forced to take it where they could get it, or death must be the result. They had borne all patiently. There was not another district in Ireland, or England either, in which the people could have borne their distress in the same way while almost starving; and it was the last thing they would do to ask assistance. Some of the children of these poor parents would touch the feelings of the most careless.
Mr Hugh McCall reported that within a circle of ten or twelve miles around Lisburn, there existed a greater number of hand-loom weavers than could be found in either Manchester, Bolton or Glasgow, but the wages earned by Irish weavers, even in the best times, were far under those realised by the English or Scots operatives. No other class of workmen in the kingdom were so easily pleased in the matter of wages as the weavers of the North of Ireland. Their wants were few and their habits simple; indeed a state of things which an English operative could only look upon as that of sheer poverty could be considered by an Ulster hand-loom weaver as a condition of comparative comfort. He did not exaggerate when he stated that a Lancashire man would eat up in a single day an entire week's earnings of a Down or Antrim weaver.
Rev. E. Franks, a Wesleyan Minister stationed at the Maze, addressed the meeting at some length on scenes of distress which had come under his own notice, and which he depicted with such graphic power as to elect the entire sympathy of every person present. He spoke of the cotton weavers of the district as a class of highly moral men, and second to none with whom he had ever before come in contact. He said that the people of the Maze were those of which any nation might well be proud. Mr David Beatty referred to the very alarming reports which had been heard from Broomhedge and the Maze by gentlemen in whom he could place the utmost reliance. They were honest men, with honest hearts, and these poor weavers would live on turnips rather than proclaim their poverty; but the day of relief had dawned and he felt happy to see so many of his townsmen coming forward in such an honourable cause.
The meeting passed resolutions to provide effective assistance, open a subscription list and appoint a committee to organise relief. The committee immediately began its charitable work. Advertisements were published in the Belfast newspapers for twenty tons of Indian meal, five tons of oatmeal and ten tons of coal. Blankets were ordered from a Yorkshire manufacturer, and, on the afternoon of the day of the meeting, houses and workshops of some of the most distressed people were visited and each family given an order for rations of food and fuel.
A Ladies Convention was established which met twice a week and arranged the purchase of clothing, the making of underclothing, sheets, blankets, frocks for girls and children, and their distribution among the female section of the cotton weavers. The committee set about raising funds, and letters soliciting aid were written to the Marquis of Hertford K.G., manufacturers and merchants in Belfast, Liverpool, Scotland, New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Letters and reports were published in the Liverpool Daily Post, the Belfast News Letter and Northern Whig and The Times. The following extract from a letter to The Times by Hugh McCall, Secretary of the Relief Fund, paints a dismal picture;
"The American war, in addition to all other evils that followed in its train, deprived the great majority of these people of their sole means of employment. Not only was one principal outlet for the sale of muslins and calicoes partly sealed up, but supplies of raw material fell off, and, as a consequence, prices rose so high that manufacturers could not make goods to sell at a profit. On the poor weavers and embroiderers in the North of Ireland the result fell with great severity. Employment decreased until the ratio of the idle to those in work became in some parts of the country as five to one. Some idea of the state of the weaving ranks in Lisburn and its neighbourhood may be formed from the fact that eight manufacturing houses which, at the close of 1860, gave regular work to 10,000 hands, have not at present 1,000 looms in work. Ten Belfast firms that had 1,500 persons employed in Lisburn, the Maze, Broomhedge, and other localities, have only 300 weavers engaged at present, and many of the manufacturers have ceased to make goods altogether. This decrease of employment has been going on for nearly two years, and is now at the lowest point ever reached. In fact, whole families for weeks past have been eking out existence on a class of food which would hardly be given to the lower animals. I shall give a few cases: One poor woman in the neighbourhood of the Maze, and who received relief off the Committee yesterday, has a sickly husband out of work and six small children. She declared that had it not been that a neighbour gave her some turnips which she had boiled and used as food, she and her children might have been lost - these turnips being the entire sustenance they had had from Saturday till Monday. In another instance a family of ten was found not only without food, but on being questioned on the matter, it turned out that not a single shirt or other article of body linen was among the wretched group. Inquiry having been made on this point in the next cabin that was examined, a poor fellow said that he and his wife had still some remnants of underclothing, but that of such necessaries the children were utterly destitute. Again, there is an almost total want of beds and bedding in the habitations of the cotton weavers. In not a few cases a parcel of damp straw, without either sheet or blanket, forms the sole sleeping place of the father, mother, and two or three mere infants, each resting at night in the ragged garments worn by day. Even in the less destitute abodes of the operatives, the Committee found entire families without a single shred of blanket, an old sheet and quilt constituting the sole amount of bedclothes. One case there was where eight children, from the ages of four to eighteen, slept with the parents in one department. The wages of the people in work are far below the lowest ever known. Not even in the former history of the labour market in the West of Ireland could sadder examples be found. It is not unusual to find men who must work at the loom fourteen hours a day to earn a net income of 4s per week - some make only 3s, and others again 2s 6d for six days work. In all their privations there has been kept up a spirit of independence, and a disposition to battle as long as possible against the inroads of want that seems almost incredible. It is quite usual to find families existing on a sort of gruel, made of the cheap description of Indian meal, and this only twice a day; others, again, have been living on boiled cabbage, with a little oatmeal shaken over it."
The appeals for support and finance by the Committee were successful, and gifts of food, clothing, services and money were received from home and abroad. The winter was severe and the claims on the relief fund increased, but the aid given to the poor households never exceeded one shillings worth of meal and coal to each member of the family, and this enabled large numbers to be supported.
The relief Committee were asked by a deputation of weavers to consider arranging for some of them to emigrate to the colonies, and, as a result, the good ship "Old Hickory", which had arrived with a cargo of flour for the distressed - the gift of Philadelphia, was fitted out with berths and sailed on the return journey with 253 passengers on 27th May 1863. The News Letter gives a moving account of the weavers and their families accompanied by an immense number of neighbours and friends passing through Lisburn to the railway station where they departed for Belfast and were then transported on carts and lorries to the quay. Their departure attracted a crowd of between 3000 and 4000 well wishers to see them off.
The greatly depleted relief fund was given a major boost in May 1863, when Alex. T Stewart, a successful New York businessman who originally came from Lissue, sent the barque "Mary Edson" with a cargo of bread stuffs and provisions valued at over �3000. Mr Stewart had also chartered the vessel for the return trip to transport distressed weavers and their families, and the numerous applications for free passage from every district made the task of selection difficult. The departure of the "Mary Edson" from Belfast Quay in July 1863 with 137 adults and children aboard, triggered scenes similar to the earlier voyage and inspired a poem by a Mr McComb.
Hail Mary Edson, goodly ship, her captain and her store;
And hail the gentle breezes that brought her to our shore;
And hail the name of Stewart, worthy of Irish soil,
Who sent relief in time of need unto our sons of toil.
And may our sons and daughters dear who now to thee we send
Find in thy land a heritage - in every man a friend -
Bind in the brotherhood of life a strong and lasting tie.
And link the Old World with the New in peace and amity.
Conditions began to improve, and the amount of relief required in August and September was much reduced, but there were still many families that required assistance due to ill health and bodily weakness. The sufferings which had been endured in the early part of the year still took their toll. In the country districts much distress still existed, for, although the demand for weaving had improved, the rate of wages continued so low that the best hands at the loom could not earn an adequate wage.
The work of the Relief Committee wound down at the end of 1863 after an effective operation.
Ireland and her Staple Manufacturers by Hugh McCall
The Cotton Famine of 1862-63, Hugh McCall
Some Recollections of Hugh McCall, Lisburn
The Lagan Valley 1800-1850, E.R.R. Green
The Cotton Hand-loon: Weavers in the North East of Ireland,
E.R.R. Green U.J.A. Vol 6-9 1943-46