Linenopolis: the rise of the textile industry
Emily Boyle
In 1750 Belfast was a small town with little importance for the Irish textile industry. By the outbreak of the First World War, however, it had been transformed into the largest linen-producing centre not only in Ireland, but in the world. The change in Belfast was caused, as was the case with many towns in the British Isles, by the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, linen, the most common textile manufactured in Ireland, was not produced in towns or factories, but made domestically, in rural areas. It went hand in hand with agriculture: the family grew flax along with its foodstuffs, the wife and children prepared it and spun the yarn, and the husband wove the yarn into cloth. The woven cloth was taken to one of the brown linen markets where it was bought by bleachers for finishing, then exported to England, the main market, and elsewhere.

Though linen making was concentrated in Ulster, and remained so, the opening up of new overseas markets especially in South America encouraged people in the other provinces particularly Connacht, to turn to linen making as a means of boosting the family income. Irish linen was of a fine quality, and was used for such things as sheets, tablecloths, and clothing. The profitable export trade was controlled by merchants operating through Dublin. However, in the second half of the eighteenth century the bleachers of the Lagan valley gradually built up direct links with English merchants, sending their linens through Belfast. This brought about an important shift in the trading pattern. By 1783 Belfast's linen exports had grown to such an extent that the bleachers decided to build a hall in which white linens could be bought and sold. 10,000 was raised by public subscription, and in 1785, amid much ceremony and acclaim, the prestigious White Linen Hall was opened. Its symbolic significance can not have been lost on many, least of all the Dublin merchants.

However, some years before the White Linen Hall was first mooted, the seeds had been sown for the transformation of Belfast from a market town and linen exporting centre into a large industrial city. Ironically, the route for this transformation was not a direct one from the domestic production of linen in the town's hinterland to its industrialised production inside the city's boundaries. Rather it took a diversion by way of the cotton industry, which grew out of an experiment started in Belfast's Poor House in 1778.

In that year the Belfast Charitable Committee decided that the children of the Poor House could be usefully employed spinning cotton by hand. Nicholas Grimshaw, a committee member, provided a carding machine and spinning wheel for the operation. About a year later Robert Joy and Thomas McCabe offered to install machinery which would enable them to carry on their spinning on a larger scale. This offer was readily accepted and so, in effect, part of the Belfast Poor House became the town's first spinning mill. By 1780 the operation employed ninety.

From this unusual beginning the Belfast cotton spinning industry expanded rapidly because the cost of mill spinning drastically undercut the cost of hand spinning. Furthermore, although Belfast cotton spinners experienced certain disadvantages vis a vis their Lancashire rivals, they were protected from this competition by a high tariff barrier.

By 1820 over 2,000 people were employed in about fifteen cotton mills spread over the city and out as far as Lisburn, Bangor and Larne. The centre of the industry, however, was the Smithfield area. Here, John McCracken's mill employed 200, operating 14,000 spindles, while the workforce of McCrum, Lepper and Co. was 300. Their mill, which was sited behind the Artillery Barracks, was 200 feet long, 40 feet wide and 5 storeys high, a massive structure for the time. Another mill in Winetavern Street was 70 feet long, 36 feet wide and 5 storeys high, with 5,364 spindles and carding machines. In 1815 this mill was bought by Thomas Mulholland, who later acquired one in Francis Street, and in 1822 built another in Henry Street, becoming one of the largest manufacturers in the town. He was to play a vital role in the development of Belfast's textile industry.

Cotton spinning in Belfast reached a peak around 1825-6, when more than 3,500 people were employed in over twenty mills. However, a combination of circumstances brought about upheaval in both the linen and cotton industries and led to the Belfast cotton industry's swift decline. Firstly, the tariff barrier which protected Irish cotton yarn from direct competition with British yarn was lifted in 1824. In the same year James Kay of Preston patented his wet spinning process for spinning fine linen yarns. Within a few years Marshall's of Leeds had successfully adopted this process for commercial purposes. Furthermore, the United Kingdom cotton industry began to slide into a deep recession in 1826. On top of all this, in the summer of 1828 Mulholland's big, new Henry Street mill was burnt down.

Before rebuilding it the Mulhollands looked into the possibility of adapting it for spinning flax rather than cotton. Thomas had recently noticed that large amounts of flax were being exported to be machine spun in England, and that equally large amounts of linen yarn came back, on the Liverpool steamer, to be hand-woven into cloth. Impressed with the logic of establishing a flax spinning mill in Belfast he and his partner John Hind took a trip to Leeds 'to inquire into the state of the (flax) trade there', and look into the idea's feasibility. Meanwhile, Andrew and St Clair Mulholland, Thomas's brothers, toured York and Lancaster to find out as much as possible about mechanical flax spinning. During 1828-9, as a technical experiment, the firm established 1000 flax spindles in its Francis Street Mill. These worked efficiently and so the mill, which became known as the York Street Mill, was rebuilt to spin flax. It was opened in 1830 and contained some 8,000 flax spinning spindles.

The operation was an outstanding success, and there was a rush amongst cotton spinners to adapt their mills for spinning flax. Not only cotton spinners. Belfast's business community smelt success, and capital and entrepreneurial talent were attracted from all quarters. Robert Thompson, who built the Wolflhill Mill, was a bleacher, William Ewart, who built the Crumlin Road Mill, was originally a cotton manufacturer and merchant, Robert McKibbin, founder of the Connswater Mill, was a doctor, and Edmund Grimshaw, acting in a spirit Nicholas would have approved of, converted the Mossley printworks to flax spinning. In 1834 there were only marginally fewer people spinning flax than cotton. The trend continued and by 1850 only four mills in Belfast spun cotton against twenty-nine spinning flax.

Further reading:
Read more on Belfast's linen industry and of one worker's tragic story.