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Title: Bessbrook and its Linen Mills - A Short Narrative of a Model Temperance Town
Author: Ritchie, J. Ewing (James Ewing)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcribed from the 1876 William Tweedie edition by David Price, email

                             ITS LINEN MILLS.

                             SHORT NARRATIVE
                         A MODEL TEMPERANCE TOWN.

                                * * * * *

                            J. EWING RITCHIE.

                           LONDON,” ETC.  ETC.

                                * * * * *

               WILLIAM TWEEDIE & CO., LIMITED, 337, STRAND.


                                * * * * *

  [Picture: Decorative graphic of The Gresham Press, London & Chilworth]

                             UNWIN BROTHERS,

                                * * * * *

                 [Picture: Bessbrook and its Linen Mills]


THAT the times in which we live are out of joint is a truism too obvious
to require comment.  As much now as in old days the cry is, “Who will
show us any good?”  We hear much of modern progress; but there are many
who, like Mr. Froude, intimate that what we call progress is in reality
merely change, and that change is not necessarily always for the better.
When such men as Mr. Ruskin leave the domain of the beautiful fiercely to
arraign what in our wisdom, or want of it, we term Political Economy and
its pitiless laws, we may be sure that all the social problems of the age
have not been satisfactorily solved.  If it be true that our rich men are
becoming richer every day, it is equally true that our poor are becoming
poorer.  Might has taken from the peasant his strip of land, and has
driven him into the towns, where he dies of bad air, bad water, bad food,
bad lodging, bad pay; where his sons learn crime, and his daughters how
much better rewarded is vice than virtue.  Underneath the whited
sepulchres of our boasted civilisation there lie rottenness and dead
men’s bones.  Of talk we have somewhat more than enough, as must
necessarily be the case now that woman claims to appear on the platform
on an equality with man.  Associations of all kinds exist partly for the
bettering and partly for the bewildering of the public.  Money is freely
subscribed for them; for Dives has a dim idea that he owes much to
Lazarus, and would at all times rather discharge the debt by letting a
few crumbs fall from the table, than by personally clothing his naked
form and binding up his loathsome sores.  It is not clear that we have
improved on that very much.  It is clear that for lack of it we have a
great deal—especially in our crowded manufacturing districts—of social
anarchy—of progress the wrong way—of licence which means licentiousness,
of teaching and talking downward rather than upward.  The need of silent
divine action, as Thomas Carlyle writes, is very great at this time.

In Ireland, in one spot in particular, this silent divine action has now
been in progress some twenty years, and the result is worth noting.  I
write of Mr. Richardson’s Flax-spinning Mills at Bessbrook, a model town
near Newry, and not far from the headquarters of Ireland’s principal
source of wealth, the linen trade.

A few words as to this trade may not be out of place here.  The art of
weaving is of great antiquity.  In Ireland for many years attention has
been paid to this branch of industry.  Its linen manufacture has existed
from the earliest period.  In the reign of Charles I. the Earl of
Strafford caused flax seed to be brought from Holland, and induced
manufacturers from France and Holland to settle in the country.  After
the Restoration the trade was firmly established.  From 1711 to 1832 it
was placed under Government patronage.  In former times the weaver was
superior in social status to most other workpeople, and he enjoyed
special privileges.  He was exempt, for instance, from serving on juries,
and, except under peculiar circumstances, could not be forced to join the
army.  Many of the old Irish squires as well as the sons of landed chiefs
were taught to weave, and even as late as the last century there were
numbers of such weavers in Ulster.  Indeed in that district everything
was done that could be done to develop this important industry.  During
the long period of Lord Moira’s residence at Montalto, he gave all
possible encouragement to his tenants in stimulating the growth of flax.
He had a dinner prepared every Thursday for the cloth buyers who attended
Ballynahinch Market, and on these occasions we are told that his lordship
sat at the head of the table and listened to the trade gossip about
yard-wides and seven-eights, with all the zest of one who had become
personally interested in the rise or fall of goods.  In a similar spirit
the Earl of Hillsborough, at that time a leading statesman, readily
exercised his senatorial influence as well as his baronial power.  Lord
Hertford was also very friendly in every way where his aid could be of
advantage.  In 1765, when he held the office of Irish Viceroy, he
obtained from the Linen Board many concessions in favour of the Northern
merchants, and his influence at Court was successfully used to obtain
royal patronage for the Lisburn Damask works.  A large lot of goods was
specially got up for the royal table, the fame of this damask rapidly
rose after the accomplishment of the royal order, and not only the
leading peers of Great Britain, but several of the Continental
potentates, sent to Lisburn for their goods.  In many ways
public-spirited men sought to improve their machinery in order that they
might be able to produce a better class of goods.  About the time when
James Quinn was stirring up the latent taste for the fanciful in
damask-weaving and giving the people of Lurgan new ideas as to what could
be accomplished in working patterns with the shuttle, James Bradshaw, the
son of an independent landowner, who resided near Newtownards, was paying
great attention to the diaper trade, then carried on in that town with
considerable spirit, though at that time the Irish looms were beaten by
those of Holland and the Continent.  Mr. Bradshaw was determined to find
out the secret of that superiority.  As an amateur weaver, he had taken
much interest in the improvement of weaving machinery, and seen its
defects.  One morning in 1728 he left his home in Ulster, and for two
years afterwards no one of his family or friends knew anything of his
whereabouts.  Immediately after leaving home, he assumed the style of
dress usually worn by weavers, and set out for Holland, but at the end of
several weeks’ travel by sea and land, he found himself, instead, in
Hamburg, where he engaged with a diaper manufacturer, and at once
commenced work.  While so employed he paid the most diligent attention to
all he saw, both as to the style of weaving, the fittings of looms, and
the peculiar description of yarns chosen for certain classes of goods.
All the time young Bradshaw remained in Hamburg he was obliged to keep up
the garb and character of an ordinary workman, as such was the jealousy
of the trade there, that had it been known that he had merely come among
them for the purpose of finding out the secret of the manufacture, his
life might have fallen a sacrifice.  At length, having mastered the
details and gained ample experience of the practical department of
diaper-making, he thought of returning home, which he did, by the aid of
friends.  In 1730, he arrived safely at Newtownards, a town which has
since become famous as the Paisley of Ulster.  Soon after his return, Mr.
Bradshaw had looms constructed on the improved principle.  He personally
inspected the mode of fitting them up, and had all the gearing made on
the plan so popular in Hamburg.  The effect of all this was, we are told,
to introduce a superior system of production, and to give life to the
diaper trade, not only in Newtownards, but throughout other parts of

Thus the linen trade flourished and became more important every year; of
this importance Belfast may be considered as the outward and visible
sign; every one knows that, in consequence of its being the seat of the
linen trade, it has become the most prosperous town in Ireland.  Its
mills, factories, and docks, combine the commercial and mercantile
features both of Liverpool and Manchester.  Its situation is most
picturesque—its streets are broad and uniform.  Some of the
linen-warehouses are palaces, and nowhere in the world are there finer
buildings, more attractive shops, and greater symptoms of prosperity and
wealth.  It is not merely the seat of shipping, of commerce, of
manufacture, but its intellectual claims are of no common character.  It
calls itself the Irish Athens, and its colleges, and libraries, and
newspapers, and general intelligence, bear out in some degree that claim.
The linen trade of Ulster now represents a capital of several millions,
and employs men, women, and children.

What has developed it to its enormous extent has been the application of
steam.  No longer the weaver sits in his isolated cottage.  He is a hand
in a mill, and weaving is a complex affair, requiring, to make it pay,
gigantic operations and many hands.  The factory system has many
disadvantages, which tend to the mental, moral, and physical
deterioration of the hands engaged in it.  I write of one of the most
successful efforts that has yet been made to free the factory of them,
and to carry it on in a way advantageous, not only to the employer, but
the employed.  For these purposes it is necessary that the factory be an
isolated one; that it should be a community by itself, an _imperium in
imperio_, governed by its own laws, with its own special educational,
religious, and philanthropic establishments; and that, above all things,
it should be conducted on the principle, or rather practice, of total
abstinence from all intoxicating drinks.  I heard the Rev. Kegan Paul say
at a temperance meeting, held in Exeter Hall this year, that in some
parts of Dorsetshire, the county in which he resided, there were parishes
with no public-houses in them, that in these parishes there were no
paupers, that no cases came from them to the Petty-Sessions, and that the
answer given by policeman, when asked by the magistrates whether he had
ever taken a teetotaller into custody, was “No.”  From many other
districts in England, Scotland, and Ireland, a similar testimony reaches
us.  From all the judges of the land, from all our clergy, from all our
prisons and penitentiaries—affirmation, mournful in its monotony, reminds
us that drink is the bane of the working-man.  This is confessed by all,
whether they be temperance reformers or not.  In many cases it is found
that the higher the wages earned by the operative, the more drunken and
dissipated are his habits.  No fact has been more conclusively
established.  Where you shut up the public-house, the gin-palace and the
beer-shop, you have less pauperism and crime, more honest, decent, sober
living, than you have where these places are open.  If this be true in
England, where the people are more phlegmatic and less wild on politics
and religion, it is trebly true of Ireland, where the people are supposed
to be at all times too passionate and ready to take offence; where ages
of political and religious partisanship have given to those passions an
unnatural ferocity; and where the drop o’ drink seems to be especially
potent in its working.  I have travelled in most parts of England,
Scotland, and Europe, but I never felt in the slightest peril from the
character of my travelling companions.  I have been very little in
Ireland, but the most disagreeable journeys I ever made were on Irish
railways.  In each case the disagreeableness arose entirely from the
extent to which my fellow-passengers had indulged in the national drink.
Perhaps we get it adulterated in England.  If so, we have reason to be
thankful.  Its effects on the Irish are, for the time, truly demoniacal.
I have never seen people so maddened with drink as those of the sister
isle.  The temperate character of Bessbrook strikes you at once.  There
the difficult problem of carrying out a factory with the minimum of
inevitable evil seems to have been satisfactorily solved.

Where is Bessbrook?  The answer is, you pass it as you travel by rail
from Belfast to Dublin, a little more than fifty miles from the latter, a
little more than thirty from the former place—close to the Newry station
on the main line.  By day and night it is visible, and testifies afar-off
the industry of which it is the source and centre.  About half a mile to
your right you can just discern its lofty chimneys and gigantic works.
By night the place looks like a palace of glass, as the cheerful light,
eloquent of labour and capital and intelligence, shines out of its
thousand windows.  We get out of the train, and ascend the road on our
right.  If it be daytime we shall have a pleasant walk.  Behind us is
Newry, or rather the valley in which it is seated, where its merchants
and tradesmen sell and buy and get gain; and the river with its ships,
which trade to Liverpool and all parts of our English coast.  On our left
and right are mountains and hills, well planted with white cottages and
farmers’ houses, which look smilingly at us in the morning sun.  The
interiors, we admit, may be capable of improvement.  Many of them are of
the rudest kind, with the bare earth for the floor, with stone walls,
whose sides internally are black with the smoke of the peat fire, which
is painfully manifested to the unaccustomed and curious stranger who
inquires within.  The inhabitants are all small farmers.  They grow flax
and potatoes, keep a cow or a goat, and poultry and pigs, the sale of
which is their living.  As for themselves, they never touch such
delicacies, and live chiefly on potatoes and Indian meal.  They are very
dirty.  Muck of all kinds surrounds their dwellings, and yet they seem to
thrive, and the shoeless, unwashed, ragged boys and girls you meet up
there, have faces and figures you often seek in vain amongst more
civilised people and in more comfortable homes.  They have a hard time of
it.  In their dreary cabins wretchedness seems to reign supreme.  At the
outside, a couple of rooms comprise the whole extent of the building
devoted to the human biped, and he is but little better lodged than his
cow or pig—that is all.  Nevertheless, you can’t get the tenant to
abandon his holding, for which he pays to take possession a great deal
more than you would think it really worth, the rent of which is often
high, and is generally scraped together with much difficulty and after
considerable delay.  To be behindhand with the rent is no uncommon thing
in these parts, and a stranger up yon hills is viewed with considerable
suspicion.  It can be no good that takes him up there—such is the firm
belief of the natives.  No power on earth is able to get them to give up
their mountain freedom and frugal fare for better living elsewhere.
Here, at least, the Irishman is too contented.

    “He sees his little lot the lot of all;
    Sees no contiguous palace rear its head
    To shame the meanness of his humble shed;
    No costly lords the sumptuous banquet deal
    To make him loathe his vegetable meal;
    But calm, and bred in ignorance and toil,
    Each wish, contracting, fits him to the toil.”

As we wend our way, a fine breeze meets us from the distant downs.  You
can fancy the sportsman may find on the distant heather something that
may repay his toil, or the artist something he may love to transfer to
his canvas; but you would never guess that in so romantic a spot there
was so unpoetic a thing as a flax-spinning mill.  On our right runs a
little stream, which, ere it reaches its destination in Newry, sets more
mills going, considering the distance, than any other in the country.

A turn in the road, and we are at Bessbrook Mills.  As we descend we see
the works in all their extent, and the rising slope beyond, on which is
planted the town in which the workmen live.  “What an admirable
situation!” you exclaim; and truly you are right.  No poisonous
exhalations load the air; all seems cheerful and healthy.  Here you see a
picture of factory life without factory abominations.  No policeman is
required to keep order, for you see no public-house to create disorder.
The head of the place is a teetotaller.  Most of the leading men in the
concern are the same.  There is no law to compel the workpeople to be
such, but most of them are so, and great is the comfort of the wives and
families in consequence, as most people are fully aware of the fact that
the worst thing a working-man can do with his money is to spend it in the
gin-palace or the public-house.

What immediately strikes the stranger is the substantial and comfortable
appearance of the mill and its surroundings.  At Bessbrook each house
consists of from three to five rooms, according to the size of the family
occupying it.  Every arrangement necessary to promote cleanliness and
health is resorted to.  As you pass up, some of the first buildings you
come to are the schoolrooms, which are for girls and boys, and for lads
in the evening who are engaged during the day.  The infant-school
attached is the most interesting feature; but you will be pleased with
the clean appearance of the boys and girls—with their intelligence and
readiness to learn.  The staff of masters and mistresses employed is
evidently superior.  This school is on the Irish national system, that
is, it is _undenominational_, and people need but examine the results of
these schools to prove the real value of unsectarian education bringing
all classes together, and trusting to the Sabbath schools for religious
instruction.  Every householder has to send his children there, or
whether he sends them or not he is charged a penny for the schooling of
each child.  £100 is subscribed annually, I believe, by the mills, and
there is, besides, a Government grant.  The playground attached to the
school is an extensive one, and the view from it very fine.

A few doors further on, and we come to the Dispensary.  There are ills to
which all flesh is heir, and to remove which the services of a medical
man are required.  In Ireland the county is divided into districts, and
the services of a medical man are given gratuitously; but this is
pauperism, and the hands at Bessbrook are not paupers.  All here are
expected to subscribe to a medical club, and the Firm supplement the
subscription with a handsome one of their own.

Thus a doctor is secured, who comes to his Dispensary on certain days of
the week, and who also, of course, visits the serious cases in their own

Further on, we come to a building which we ascertain to be the Temperance
Hotel.  This is the club and newsroom of the place.  In the winter-time
it is highly popular.  Many Irish papers and a few English ones are taken
in, and, I may add, most diligently perused.  Here also are _Punch_ and
_Zozimus_, or the Dublin _Punch_.  There also chess and draughts are
played, and smoking is permitted.  Boys are here indulging in games,
while the advanced politician has his favourite organ—Conservative or
Liberal; and those who care for neither, discuss matters connected with
the neighbourhood, and the state of affairs at home.  I may add, close to
the mill itself is a large hall in which refreshments are provided at a
cheap rate for those who come from a distance.

A little further on, and we come to a square, around which are workmen’s
houses, some of them really most eligible habitations, with a few shops
at the end nearest us.  One of them is a co-operative store; another is a
milliner’s shop, in which the latest fashions are as much sought after as
in London; and then there is a butcher’s shop, a baker’s, a general shop,
and a post-office.  At right angles to the right of the principal street
are two or three more streets, which also contain a shop or two; so that
the good people at work here, if they have money to spare, can find
little difficulty in parting with it.  A farm of 300 acres, belonging to
the Firm, must also be noted, by means of which that real luxury, pure
milk—a thing unknown in our great metropolis—is placed within the reach
of all.  There are allotments in which the householders work on a
summer’s evening, and at one end of the town are some better classes of
houses, in which the gentlemen connected with the works or the
estate—which belongs to the same proprietor—reside; just below these
spreads out a picturesque sheet of water, which feeds the mill, and is
here useful as well as ornamental.  From thence the ground rises, and you
get a good view of the surrounding hills.  On one elevation, just before
you enter the town, there is the Friends’ Meeting-house, and a
comfortable villa in which Mr. Richardson resides when he visits the
place.  Indeed, though he lives some fourteen miles off, he is not long
absent from Bessbrook.  He and his wife are perfectly cognisant of its
wants, material and spiritual, and are ready to relieve them.  They feel
that it is a serious thing to have such a community under their care,
they realise all the solemn responsibility of such a charge.  Mr.
Richardson, jun., who lives near the works, entertains similar ideas, and
conducts the Sabbath-school—a very flourishing one, held in the
schoolroom on a Sunday afternoon.  A little way out of the town you may
see, near one another, three very substantial-looking buildings—one is a
Roman Catholic, one is a Presbyterian, and another is an Episcopalian
place of worship.  Let me add, that all these seem well attended, and
that in Bessbrook there is peace and harmony; the rival sects rarely
interfere with each other, because the demon of strong drink inflames no
root of bitterness, and fans no religious animosities into a fever heat.

I think I have now given an account of all the institutions of the place,
with one exception—that of the Methodists, who meet in a temporary little
hall, originally a photographic establishment.  They are an infant cause
as yet, but Mr. Richardson has recently granted a site for a place of
worship for their accommodation.  Such, then, are the institutions of
Bessbrook.  Let me repeat what they are—the school, the church, the
dispensary, the shop, the reading-room, the mill.  Let me add what they
are not—the pawnbroker’s, the leaving-shop, the ragged-school, the petty
lodging-house to which tramps resort in all our large towns, the
public-house, and consequent police-station.  Does it now dawn on you,
intelligent reader, why, in the opinion of many, Bessbrook is deemed
worthy to be called a model town?

Let me now speak of its origin.  The concern has been in active operation
about a quarter of a century.  An estate of six thousand acres belonging
to an Irish nobleman was in the market, and it was purchased by Mr. John
G. Richardson, a wealthy, intelligent, and public-spirited member of the
Society of Friends, partly with a view, of course, to the productive use
of his capital, and partly to give the operative class a chance of living
and working under conditions favourable, and not, as is too generally the
case, opposed, to their physical and moral welfare.  On the estate, on a
site admirably adapted for the purpose, Bessbrook is situated.  There is
a beautiful blue granite found in one part of the estate, equal if not
superior to that of Aberdeen as regards appearance and quality, which is
gradually being introduced into England, where it needs but to be seen to
be appreciated.  It is now being used in the Manchester new Town Hall,
and as it is better known we may expect to find it more largely in demand
there.  As at the mill, the same law holds good, that no public-house is
to be tolerated.  As a natural consequence, as I have already intimated,
the police are unknown.  All over the rest of Ireland you see
them—wonderfully fine fellows, equal to any Prussians—the flower of the
country—fully armed and ever active, as they may well be, for in Ireland
there is little sympathy between the rulers and the ruled; even on the
hills around Bessbrook the peasants illuminated when they heard of French
successes, as if France was to come and fight on their behalf.  There are
public-houses around, and they bring with them the usual curses incident
to such institutions among a people so excitable and passionate as the
Irish.  In Bessbrook, and in one or two other districts, the public-house
is forbidden, and consequently the step of the policeman is never there
heard.  In its peaceful streets his martial figure is unknown.  The
operative has no fines to pay for being drunk and disorderly, and has no
occasion to pawn his Sunday clothes to procure a meal for his starving
family.  Teetotallers flourish.  There is a Band of Hope with nearly nine
hundred members, a Temperance Society, and a flourishing society of Good
Templars as well; and occasionally lecturers come there from the
head-quarters in Dublin; but the place itself teaches a lesson better
than any of them, inasmuch as Thomas Carlyle writes, “Silent divine
action is better than any amount of speech or song,” and in this point of
view the example of Bessbrook cannot be too much dwelt upon or too widely
proclaimed.  As long as the workman drinks it is in vain that you try to
elevate him.  I am not speaking of drinking to excess.  As wages are, the
workman who is but a moderate drinker wastes money and time which, if
better employed, would enable him to do better for his family and
himself.  At Bessbrook this is clearly felt; the men and women who come
there have no desire to leave it—the mild despotism of a paternal
government suits them.  From the villages all round, even from as far as
Newry, people come to work at the mills.  Tuesday is the day when fresh
hands are taken on, and great is the joy when an application receives an
affirmative reply.  The crowd round the door is the best possible test of
the popularity of the place: you get a better idea of its magnitude when
I tell you that it employs upwards of 4,000 hands, and that it pays away
in wages as much as £50,000 a year.  I have said there is little of that
troublesome discontent which seems chronic in Ireland in and around
Bessbrook.  I might say more—I might testify to the existence and skill
of the Volunteer Brass Band, which performs on public occasions, and
whose services are in request even beyond Bessbrook itself.  One great
characteristic of the place is the sober and moral air of the people.  In
dense communities outside, you hear of scandals which are rare at
Bessbrook; the superior education given, the absence of intoxicating
liquor, have of course much to do with this.  But other agencies are at
work.  I refer in the first place to the family system initiated, or at
any rate carried out here; the rule is to take on a whole family at a
time.  Here you have no young girls and lads at the most dangerous
periods of their lives freed from parental control, and thrown
uncared-for on the world.  Where they are, we know too well what follows.
Our great towns by night testify to the evils, moral and social,
resulting from such a state of things.  At Bessbrook the family is placed
in one or other of the houses built for the operatives, and work is found
for all.  If the father cannot work in the mill, he is set to mend the
roads, to work on the farm or at the quarries, to be a waggoner, or to
make himself generally useful: and the services of such people are in
request, as all the repairs of the mill-gear are done by workmen on the
spot.  There is no occasion to go out of the settlement for artificers of
any kind.  All the machinery of the place is set in motion by six engines
consuming annually 10,000 tons of coal, which has all to be brought from
Newry, and a water-turbine representing in all many hundred horse-power.
It is clear, then, that paterfamilias will find plenty to do, and it is
equally clear that the family living on temperance principles will be
more decent, orderly, and comfortable than if the head of it frequented
the public-house.  I must say that as regards personal appearance, the
Bessbrook mill-hand may challenge a comparison with any other mill-hands
of a similar class.  Some of the work I should fancy is not of the
healthiest, at any rate there was a heat in some of the rooms, and a
dusty condition of the atmosphere in others, not very desirable, but the
hands looked well nevertheless; and on a Sunday it is scarcely necessary
to observe that they are got up in a style regardless of expense.

Another cause of the good condition of the place may be found in the
reward given under certain conditions to the deserving and to the
saving—habits induced by the establishment of a bank, depositors in which
receive interest at the rate of five per cent.  That the men appreciate
the advantage of such an institution is clear, when I state that some of
them are depositors to the extent of £300 or £400.

After all, that which mainly distinguishes Bessbrook from other places of
the same kind, are the religious agencies constantly brought to bear.
Mr. Richardson himself is, as is well known, a member of the Society of
Friends, and he and his lady—who possess, I may be allowed to state, many
admirable qualifications for such work—devote much of their time to the
promotion amongst all of the Christian life: but all are free to worship
as conscience dictates; Quakerism has no monopoly of the place; Roman
Catholics and Protestants abound, and the result is, every operative,
with his family, makes a point of attending some place of worship, and on
a Sunday all the churches and chapels in the district are well filled.
You don’t see at Bessbrook what you may often see elsewhere—the
intelligent and independent operative lounging about on a Sunday morning,
ragged, unshaven, unwashed, a short pipe in his mouth, the penny radical
newspaper in his pocket, an untaxed and ill-bred cur at his heels,
waiting for the public to open and supply him with his beloved and
pernicious beer.  Sunday is a busy day at Bessbrook.  At an early hour
the Roman Catholics may be seen going to mass, and then, as the day wears
on, the general public are visible marching to one place of worship or
another.  Few, very few, stop away.  All the boys and the men are at a
place of worship—if the mothers, and the infirm and the sick, have to
stop at home.  I don’t imagine they have got the millennium at Bessbrook,
but I feel justified in saying that there people live in charity with
each other, who, in other parts of Ireland, would be at work cracking
each others’ skulls.  How is this?  I reply, the secret is to be found in
the temperance character of the place.  People discuss without the
stimulating influence of the national drink, and the result is they never
come to blows.  The nearest public-house, outside the estate, is called
Sebastopol, on account of the fighting of which it is too often the

There are many week-evening services in Bessbrook, including mothers’
meetings and such-like gatherings; Mr. Richardson, with his wife, as I
have already intimated, frequently leaves his beautiful seat at Moyallen
personally to inspect the state, not merely of the mill as a commercial
undertaking, but as an assemblage of men and women, and young persons and
children, who have bodies to be cared for, and immortal souls to be
saved.  To help the backslider, to preserve the unfallen; to reclaim
those who have; to relieve the sick and destitute; to visit the
fatherless and the widow in their affliction, is one part of a Christian
man’s duty, faithfully remembered at Bessbrook.  The aim and efforts of
the principal are carried out by a devoted band of ladies and gentlemen
connected with the place, and with the happiest results.  I am told that
in five years only three cases of misconduct have occurred.  The
discipline of the Roman Catholic Church of course prevents a great deal
of mischief.  If the priests do not marry themselves, they are great
promoters of matrimony in other people.  But, after all, they are not all
Roman Catholics in Bessbrook—indeed, there, the followers of the old
religion are rather in a minority.

Commercially, Bessbrook may be said to be of the first importance in the
linen trade.  The produce of its looms enjoys a world-wide reputation.
Such confidence have buyers in them that, as a London gentleman remarked,
“You may purchase them in the dark.”  There is nothing inferior in the
quality of the Bessbrook linen.  It may be pronounced unsurpassed.  What
is manufactured there is sold to the trade, who put their own name to it,
and export it to all parts of the world.  The Spanish are customers, and
so are the Americans.  The warehouses of London and Belfast and
Manchester are full of linen manufactured at Bessbrook.  The public do
not know the name, but the merchants and shippers do.

Bessbrook is placed in the centre of the flax-growing district of
Ireland, and this is why the linen trade flourishes in that district.  In
1829 the first flax mill was erected at Belfast, at an expense of nearly
£30,000, which, however, in the course of a few years, was more than
repaid.  In 1855 it was calculated that no less than 500,000 spindles
were at work, of which more than two-thirds belong to Belfast, affording
occupation to no less than 250,000 hands in the province.  In addition to
the flax grown all round, and bought in the country markets, it is
imported from Belgium, France, or the Baltic, as different qualities are

The flax goes through many processes ere it becomes the snowy damask
which adorns your dining-table, or the delicate fabric which, under the
name of linen, ornaments your person.  Even a towel—as you will see at
Bessbrook—like Rome, was not made in a day; hence I may say the interior
of the mill is more remarkable that its exterior, imposing and stately as
that is.  Outside you see the mere walls, the windows, the lofty chimney,
and, at certain times, streams of men, women, and children, emerging from
it, known in manufacturing districts as “hands.”  Inside, you feel,
directly you have passed the threshold, that you are in a magic scene of
industry, with its long, long rooms, filled with wonderful machinery
harmoniously working, requiring, in many cases, only the attendance of a
child.  By gaslight the scene is exhilarating.  Far, far away is the
power which sets all this machinery in motion, and on it works untiring
and as if for ever.  The flax, however, is not fit for spinning and
weaving as it comes to Bessbrook.  Even though it comes there in the
scutched state, a great deal has to be done to sort it and purify it.  It
is no joke going into a scutching mill.  The dust and noise are hideous.
It is bad enough to see the men and boys hackling it at Bessbrook.  This
hackling consists of three processes—(1) _roughing_, performed by
roughers, in which the flax is passed over a course hackle, merely to
take out dirt and tow, and leave the fibres straight; (2) _machine
hackling_, performed by machinery, attended to by boys of from thirteen
to sixteen, in which the flax is further hackled or combed out; (3)
_sorting_, performed by men, who are called sorters or hacklers, whose
business it is to hackle the flax as it comes from the machine, and to
sort it in the different qualities.  It is now ready for spinning, and is
placed in a store until required.

The next process is spinning the flax into yarn, which process consists
of two parts: (1) _preparing_, which is done by girls, technically termed
preparers, back-minders, and rovers; and (2) _spinning_, which is done by
female spinners.  The yarn, when spun, is sent up to the reeling room to
be reeled into hanks.  This work is performed by reelers, also girls.
The yarn is now ready for the market, with the exception of drying and
bunching, which are carried on elsewhere.

We now ascend to the more important processes.  For this purpose we enter
a room where the atmosphere is uncomfortably warm, and the smell not the
most agreeable.  Here, men are at work, steeping the yarn in a mixture
which is supposed to strengthen it, and the secret of which is generally
pretty well kept.  Men also are required for other purposes: the yarn is
to be scoured or bleached, as the case may be, and then dried, and all
this work is done by lads or men.  As it is not all light and cheerful
employment, most of the work is downstairs.  Joyfully we ascend the big
stone staircases and reach the upper air, where again we admire the
beautiful order and the exquisite machinery; and the neat appearance of
the women and girls employed in this, which is the weaving factory—large,
airy, and well lighted—excite our admiration.  I must add, the place is
not a little noisy, with the clack and click, and whirr and whizz, of no
end of looms.  Here the first thing done is to wind the yarn on spools
for warp, and pirns for weft.  As soon as this is done, the latter is
ready for the shuttle; but the warp has yet to be wound by girls off the
spools, and attached to the warpers’ beams.  When this is done, it is
taken into the dressing-room, and consigned to the care of men.  Four
warpers’ beams are then and there twisted into one thread, and that is
the one which goes into the looms and which forms the basis, as it were,
of the manufactured article.  But the beam has to submit to another
process ere it reach this consummation.  It is again passed into female
hands, who attach to it heddles, or healds, by which the warp is raised.
Now nothing remains but to take it to the weaving shed, and attach it to
the looms, where the yarn is transmogrified into plain linen, hollands,
sheeting, damask, and towels.  The manufacture of damask is exceedingly
interesting.  Patterns of great beauty are procured at much expense.  In
one part of the mill you come to a large room, in which the designers,
male and female, are at work drawing designs, and adapting them to the
requisite scale.  The patterns are cut out in cardboard.  At the top of
the loom there is a wonderful apparatus of little hooks, which as the
cardboard pattern slowly revolves, pull out the requisite needles which
do the bidding of the designer.  You almost fancy fairy fingers must have
worked these delicate designs.  It is nothing of the kind.  Machinery
does it all.  All that human intelligence has to do with the operation
is, after the patterns have been secured in their proper places and
machinery set at work, to see that the threads do not break, and that the
uniform action of all be maintained.  What leaves, and flowers, and
garlands, are thus woven into the cloth!  They are very proud of their
damask at Bessbrook.  No wonder at it.  It is very beautiful, and has no
superior in the trade.

In another part of the premises we find men at work at hand-looms, some
of the beams of which are of immense breadth, and to move which requires
the brawnier hands and firmer muscles of men.  You, perhaps, wonder at
this.  Naturally the stranger expects the power-loom to have superseded
the hand-loom.  That it has done so, to a great extent, is evident from
the most cursory inspection of Bessbrook, or any other weaving mill.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the very finest descriptions of linen
are made with hand-looms.  Why is this? you ask.  Well, the answer is—and
it is soon given—that the finest yarns would be quite unable to withstand
the wear and tear of power-looms urged on by the resistless impetus of
the water-turbine or the steam-engine.  Ah, that machinery!—so delicate,
so clean, so bright—can be very cruel!  Be a little careless, a little
wild, a little frolicsome, and an accident will occur in the twinkling of
an eye.  A mill is a good schoolmaster.  With its unerring action, with
its inevitable laws, with its results, good or bad, immediately following
on action, it is an epitome of the universe.  Mill-hands ought to be a
thinking, sober-minded people.  At any rate, such they seemed to me at

The success of Bessbrook implies something more than a fair interest for
money invested.  It means the advancement of the employed morally and
socially.  Bessbrook is not, as I have already said, a mere pecuniary
speculation.  It is a grand experiment, intended to show that not merely
can the workman do without his drink, but that he is better without it;
that factory life may be carried on under circumstances favourable to the
training of the children, to the development of the young, to the comfort
and happiness of the advanced in life.  At Bessbrook this experiment is
carried out on the largest scale—how large, the following facts will
abundantly demonstrate.

It is calculated that the refuse of the place brings in an income of
£1,200 a year.  Of course in a flax mill there is waste.  After the flax
is hackled and sorted, a good deal of fluffy flax is rejected.  It falls
down on the floor; it flies about in the air.  Well, this is all swept up
and sold for what I have stated.  Then, again, it must be remembered that
Bessbrook is the name of the head concern, but that it gives a great deal
of employment in the country around.  For instance, a lovely walk under
shady trees and by the side of a bustling little river, under the fine
viaduct of the railway, which takes you, as the case may be, to Dublin or
Belfast, and over one of the hills which glorify this part of the world,
and you come to a place called Craigmore.  Well, there is a mill there,
and the same process is carried on as at Bessbrook, only on a smaller
scale.  At Bessbrook there are 22,000 spindles at work, 500 power-looms,
60 hand.  At Craigmore there are 100 power-looms, that is all.  I have
said this is the flax-growing country.  Before the flax is fully ripe it
is pulled up by the farmer, and left to dry in the field.  After a day or
two it is steeped in ponds, and then, when dried and scutched, taken to
the market.  All about the country there are scutch mills always at work.
Nor is this all; the country is full of weavers, who work away all day at
their hand-looms, lamenting probably the good old times before steam had
altered the mode of linen manufacture—when the article in question was
scarce—when wages were high, and linen only the luxury of the very rich.
The old hand-looms remain, and people still get their living by working
at them.  As I have said already, under certain conditions it is
necessary that they should remain.  In the country round here there are
900 of such weavers who are employed in connection with the Bessbrook

Again, the size of the concern may be illustrated in another way.  It
employs altogether nearly 4,000 hands, including weavers, of which
three-fourths are girls; girls, many of them would otherwise have to walk
the streets in rags, or be thrown wild upon the towns, and add to their
ever-increasing pauperism and degradation.  About £200,000 worth of “raw
material” is worked up at Bessbrook every year, and above £50,000 per
annum paid away in wages.  Few get any large portion; it passes away in
small quantities to boys and girls.  At Bessbrook the old proverb is
still true: “Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of children.”

The question is often asked, how are capital and labour to be reconciled?
Bessbrook shows.  In that mill there is no feeling of antagonistic
interests.  I believe once there was a difficulty, but that was
political, and not industrial.  The wild frenzy of Fenianism in its
desolating course extended to Bessbrook, but it was only a passing
visitation, and it left no trace behind.  A year or two ago the writer
was standing on the steam-boat pier at Seraing, where the Messrs.
Cockerell have their grand works for the manufacture of rail-iron and
steam-engines.  One of the heads of departments was with me.  “Had you
been here last week,” said he, “you would have seen the soldiers here.”
“Why?” said I.  “Why,” was the answer, “we had a strike, and were obliged
to call in the military.”  Assuredly it is not pleasant for masters and
men when the military are called in to keep peace between them.  At
Bessbrook not even the presence of a policeman can be detected; and as to
soldiers, they are as rare as angels.  In a land where discord runs high,
where party passions are strong, where intemperance adds fuel to the
flame of lawlessness, is not this saying a great deal?  If some of our
manufacturers and employers of labour would visit Bessbrook, I fancy they
would not find their time thrown away.  I commend it to the notice of our
social reformers.  Plans on paper are one thing, and in actual life
another.  It is well to evolve a good idea from one’s inner
consciousness; it is better to see it, as at Bessbrook, successfully
carried out.  A poet enthusiast would write glowingly of the place; I
merely tell a plain unvarnished tale, and testify of what I seen and

Since writing the above, I learn that in another part of Ireland the plan
which Mr. Richardson has pursued has been carried out, and with great
success.  In the county of Tyrone there is a district upon which the
liquor traffic is entirely prohibited.  This district embraces an area of
nine or ten miles, covering three great public roads, inhabited by a busy
population of nearly 10,000.  In that district it is conclusively
established that there is a complete immunity from crime, and a poor-rate
very much lower than that levied in surrounding districts.  In Ireland,
at any rate, these facts are being realised, and Irish M.P.’s in large
numbers, especially in Ulster, help to swell the growing minority which
demand that the people of a district may be freed, if they wish it, from
the contamination of the beer-shop or the public-house.

                                * * * * *

                                * * * * *

                                * * * * *


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