A Neglected Branch of Irish Industry (Calico and Linen Printing in Ireland)

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 33, April 19, 1862

AS every fact relative to the manufacturing and commercial interests of Ireland possesses a national importance, we are induced to avail ourselves of some recently-published statistics relative to linen and calico-printing in this country, for the purpose of giving our readers an insight into the history of those important branches of Irish industry. With respect to the history of calico-printing in Ireland, it would appear that very little is known concerning it. We have no record in what precise year the first Irish print-works were established, or whether the trade commenced in Leinster or Ulster. It is most probable that the former province had the merit of originating the trade in Ireland. From all the information that our authority has been able to glean, it would appear that Dublin and its neighbourhood were, perhaps, the earliest seats of it.

The abundance of pure water there offered every facility for bleaching purposes, and, accordingly, we find that about the year 1770, an attempt to bleach and print cotton goods, was made at a place a few miles from the city. The business increased rapidly, and, in the course of a few years, several persons had embarked in the trade The goods manufactured were not exported, but sold in the city of Dublin, where the more fancy kind of them were held in great esteem. In the year 1780, there was a large establishment combining bleach-fields and print-works, at a place called Prosperous, county Kildare. There was also a small one then near the city of Cork. The trade had extended considerably about Dublin, and had assumed importance enough to attract the attention of the Irish Parliament, with the view of legislating for its protection. It was suffering from the competition of English master calico-printers, who had found in Ireland a ready market for their goods, which they were enabled to sell at prices much lower than those at which the Irish printers could afford to sell them. The Dublin manufacturers were greatly alarmed at the consequences likely to ensue to the trade, if such a state of things were allowed to continue, and they boldly appealed to their Parliament, in College-green, for protection. The result was, that an act was passed in 1782, imposing a duty of one shilling per yard upon all printed calico imported into Ireland. This was ample protection, and the measure was hailed as a great boon by the Irish calico-printers, who had now a monopoly in their own markets. In the same year (1782), Ireland exported nearly nine thousand pounds of cotton yarn to England, and in 1784 she was able, for the first tune, to export cotton yarn and printed goods to America, to the value of £8,000.

In consequence of this protection to Ireland the English manufactures were virtually shut out from the Irish market. They were alike suffering from Irish legislation, and from an oppressive law passed against them in their own Parliament in London. This is a curious historical fact. Whilst the Irish Parliament was anxious to promote cotton or calico printing in Ireland, the English Parliament was decidedly opposed to the trade in England. It set its face against it in all its branches. For instance, in 1721, an act was passed prohibiting the people of England from wearing or selling cotton clothes. The cotton trade had been introduced, and it was feared by the legislators of the day that if it were encouraged the woollen and flax trades would be annihilated. Hence this prohibitive enactment.

In 1755, this act was repealed, and the cotton manufacture was declared lawful; but parties were permitted only to engage in it on condition of paying three-pence per square yard of duty on ail cotton goods "printed, painted, or stamped with colours." These were the words of the act. It was, then, in the face of this law that the English manufacturers were sending their printed goods into Ireland, when the Irish act of 1782 was passed. In England machines were extensively used for printing calicoes and cotton, notwithstanding the great opposition given to them by the block-printers, whose formidable combinations struck terror into the hearts of the manufacturers. The latter aimed at quantity rather than quality, and the price of goods was greatly lowered by the operations of the machines. Extensive houses not unfrequently had large stocks on hands, upon which a duty of three-pence per yard had been paid for two or three years, without being able to effect sales. One great English house, which gave employment to 20,000 persons in 1790, suffered frightfully from over-stocking. It commenced business on a capital of £130,000, and in the course of a few years failed in £1,500,000.

Coming down to the year 1800, we find that there were then in Dublin and its vicinity, eleven houses engaged--some of them extensively--in the calico and linen-printing trade. At Stratford, in the county Kildare, there was also a large establishment carried on by a Mr. Orr, who began the business there in 1790. In 1809 there were some fourteen or fifteen houses in the trade in and about Dublin. Mr. Duffy had a large and prosperous concern at Ball's-bridge, Mr. Burton had one at Island-bridge, and there was a third at Harold's-cross. Mr. Patrick Dillon carried on business at Donnybrook, and Messers. Anderson and Son, were in Love-lane, in the city of Dublin. There were likewise extensive concerns at Palmers-town and Rathgar. In fact, the trade had very much increased, in Dublin especially, and was of importance, not only in regard to the amount of capital invested in it, but also on account of the large number of people to whom it gave employment. The goods printed were, for the most part, exported to the United States, and South America, but there was a large home trade done at the same time. The cloth was hand-loom woven, and the prints were of the best description of chintzes, varying from four to nine colours. Block-printers were paid at the rate of a shilling per piece of twenty yards. Most of the extensive Dublin houses had printing machines in use, as early as 1800, some of which were wrought by hand, and some by water-power. In the year 1820, Mr. Duffy, of Balls-bridge, gave employment to some ten or twelve engravers, and at the present time there is not in Ireland an engraver supported by the trade of any one house. Mr. Duffy had employed four surface and four cylinder machines capable of doing from one to six colours, and had in addition, upwards of one hundred block printers, at work, each of whom could then earn about twenty-eight shillings per week.

In the early part of the present century, the calico-printing trade very much increased, as may be inferred from the fact that in 1812 the houses engaged in it in Dublin and its vicinity numbered upwards of twenty. In Cork, in 1814, there were some four or five houses engaged in it, and doing a good business. At Island-bridge, in 1826, the establishment changed proprietors. Mr. Burton, who held it from 1809, gave place to Mr. William Henry, an enterprising gentleman, who pushed the trade with great energy and skill. He printed for the London market, where it is affirmed he sold his muslins at about a guinea a piece profit. He wrought chiefly in blacks and purples, and printed on what was called "tape muslins," giving employment to 140 block printers, and six cylinder machines. Altogether, there were about 500 hands daily at work in his concern, which was broken up in the year 1845.

In 1830, the trade was greatly on the decline, there being then only nine or ten houses employed in it, in Dublin and its vicinity. In the course of a few years the number had decreased, and went on getting "small by degrees and beautifully less," until 1850, when the last of the firms ceased to exist. In the north of Ireland block-printing on a small scale was attempted, it is supposed, as early as 1765; but there is no printed record of which we know anything to establish this as a fact. The only thing certain in regard to the time when it did commence is, that, in the year 1770, Mr. Nicholas Grimshaw, an Englishman, laid the foundation for the trade which still maintains itself in the neighbourhood of Belfast. He opened a print-works on a small scale at Greencastle, employing only some three or four block-printers; but he persevered, and increased in business satisfactorily. He carried on there for fifteen years, and then removed to Whitehouse, which offered greater advantages to him in his trade. At Whitehouse the block-printing trade, so far at least as he was concerned, was in a promising state. He opened that place with about one hundred block-tables, and continued to do a prosperous business. Several men were employed on the premises to execute designs, but the great proportion of the patterns in use came from England. Travellers from London came round two or three times a year to solicit orders, and by this means there was always a good variety of patterns on hands. The cloth on which the printing was done was what was called "linen warp and cotton weft.' It was in use many years before calico was employed. As time wore on improvements were introduced into the trade. The ingredients employed in dyeing were principally vegetable matters. Chemistry, as applied to the print-works and bleach-fields, was very imperfectly known, and the immense resources of the mineral kingdom, now available for the purposes of the trade, were in a great measure undiscovered. In the early days of block-printing indigo was an invaluable colouring stuff. Blue and white were predominating colours in handkerchiefs and women's dresses. The pattern was printed on wax, and the cloth was then dipped in a blue vat. The wax preserved the part covered from the action of the indigo, and in this primitive manner were blue and white produced. About the year 1800 the chintz pattern goods printed at Whitehouse sold at from 2s. 6d. to 5s. per yard, and now an article of a similar character can be bought at from 5d. to l0d. per yard. The first machine in the North for printing on cottons was introduced at Whitehouse, in 1810. It was turned by hand, and was looked upon by the block-printers as a great innovation. In two years after there were two machines, one flat-press, and sixty block-tables at work in the establishment. In order to encourage calico-printers to do their work with taste and skill when linen goods were employed, the Irish Linen Board offered premiums to the most deserving. Mr. Grimshaw carried off the premiums on several occasions. He distributed the money among the workmen in his concern, and the effect of that was to make the men more exact and particular in the execution of the work. All the cloth used was bleached on the premises, the supply of water being then particularly good. In 1824, the year after the duty had been taken off cotton goods exported from England and Scotland to Ireland, and when free trade in cotton was fairly established, the business transacted at Whitehouse was considerable. The goods printed were chiefly for exportation to America and Mexico. Other houses in Belfast were doing increased business also; but there was a general feeling of doubt pervading master printers, and the workmen too, that a reaction would soon come, as the result of free trade, and destroy the business in this country. In 1828, we find Mr. Thomas Grimshaw proprietor of the works at Whitehouse. In that year there were four cylinder machines and one surface machine at work in the establishment, besides seventy block-tables; and in 1835, there were eighty-five tables and six machines in operation. The trade was then very brisk, and continued to be so until 1836, when cotton and linen printing here ceased entirely, and the establishment was converted into a flax-spinning one.

The manufacture of cotton was unknown in the north of Ireland until the year 1777, when the first attempt at it was made in Belfast. From an exceedingly valuable work, by Mr. Hugh M'Call, entitled "Our Staple Manufactures,' we learn that the merit of introducing there the manufacture of cotton is to be ascribed to a Mr. Robert Joy, who resided in Belfast, in 1777. This gentleman, it appears, had been on a tour in Scotland, where he saw the importance of the trade; and, believing it could be carried on successfully in the Athens of Ireland, commenced there, in conjunction with a Mr. Thomas M'Cabe, cotton-spinning eighty-four years ago. They, at first, essayed manual labour, but it was found that the yarn was so unskilfully spun that it did not answer the purpose, and they were obliged to abandon the experiment, and employ machinery. At this period (1777) the entire population of Belfast was only about 12,000; according to the census taken last year it exceeds seventy-six thousand!

The cotton trade was commenced in the counties of Wicklow and Kildare, as far back as 1750. In 1770, the manufacture of cotton yarn and cotton hose was carried on briskly in Balbriggan, which is still noted for its beautiful specimens of hosiery.

As an illustration of the esteem in which Irish manufactures were "once upon a time" held in England, to say nothing of their Continental repute, we may cite an instance not generally known, evidencing the universal use of Irish cloth in England at an early period--that of Henry IV., in 1410. It is on genuine documentary record that this monarch gave a royal grant of tolls, for the purpose of paving the town of Cambridge, in which, among other articles. Irish cloth is taxed at the rate of twopence per hundred. The grant, "De Villa Cantabrigiae Paveanta," will be found in Rymer's "Faedera." Now, the manufactures of Ireland are but the "baseless fabric of a vision;" the wrack may be seen in deserted squares, in massive but tenantless edifices; in poverty, hunger, and dirt.

Some books on Irish linen:-
The Impact of the Domestic Linen Industry in Ulster
Illustrations of the Irish Linen Industry in 1783 by William Hincks
Flax to Fabric: The Story of Irish Linen
Linen Houses of the Lagan Valley: The Story of Their Families
The Rise of the Irish Linen Industry
The Making of Irish Linen: Historic Photographs of an Ulster Industry
Domestic Industry in Ireland: The Experience of the Linen Industry
Picking Up the Linen Threads: Life in Ulster's Mills
Scientific Research for the Linen Trade
Linen on the Green: An Irish Mill Village 1730-1882