Linen Manufacture in County Antrim

As this county is situated in the centre of the district in which the linen and cotton manufactures are most vigorously carried on, a brief historical view of the progress of, these branches of industry, the most valuable in the island, may here be introduced. The linen manufacture, of which Belfast is the grand mart, is most extensively carried on at Lisburn and the surrounding country: it is of remote antiquity in Ireland, but appears to have been first particularly encouraged in the north about 1637, by Lord Strafford, who induced the Scottish and English settlers, then recently established in Ulster, to cultivate flax, offering them every facility in exporting the yarn. But this rising trade was for some time entirely destroyed by the civil war which speedily followed, and its revival effectually prevented by the competition of the French and Dutch in the English market.

In 1678, an act prohibiting the importation of linen from France was passed, which was soon afterwards disannulled by Jas. II., who afforded great encouragement to the French manufacturers. The first parliament of Wm. III. declared the importation of French linens highly injurious to the interests of the three kingdoms; and the progress of the woollen trade in Ireland having alarmed the English manufacturers, the king was prevailed upon to suppress it, and re-establish in lieu the manufacture of linen, which was accordingly so much encouraged as to induce many of the Hugonots to emigrate hither from France, several of whom had carried on the trade extensively in their native country.

Amongst these emigrants was Mr. Crommelin, who received from Government a grant of £800 per annum, as an equivalent for the interest of capital to be expended by him in establishing the linen manufacture at Lisburn, with a patent for its improvement, and an additional salary of £200, on condition that, with the assistance of three other persons, also remunerated from the public purse, he should instruct the Irish farmers in the cultivation of flax, which had been altogether neglected for upwards of half a century. These and similar efforts, aided by protecting legislative enactments, produced the most important results: a board of trustees of the linen and hempen manufactures was established under an act passed in 1711 at which period the value of the exports did not exceed £6000 per annum.

But in the early part of the reign of Geo. I., a linen-hall having been erected in Dublin, and a Board of Management appointed, authorised by parliament annually to employ a large specific sum in the importation and gratuitous distribution of flax seed, and in awarding premiums for the extension and improvement of the trade, the annual imports, before the year 1730, had increased in value to upwards of £400,000; in twenty years more they exceeded one million sterling; and of such importance was the success of this staple manufacture deemed, that £12,000 was annually granted by parliament for its better protection. During this rapid growth, numerous abuses crept in, and the most obnoxious frauds were practised by the weavers in the length and quality of their webs; for the suppression of which several acts were passed in vain, until the provisions of the act of the 33rd of Geo. II. were enforced, on the southern border of this county, by Lord Hillsborough and Mr. Williamson, whose persevering activity rendering it impossible for the weavers any longer to evade the law, while the bleachers and merchants were convinced of the advantages to be derived from its observance, the sealing of brown linen by deputed responsible officers, to attest its quantity and quality, became general throughout the whole province, and continues to be practised with equal strictness at present.

In 1784, the value of brown linens sold in the markets of Ulster was £1,214,560; and for several years prior and subsequent to the Union, the total exports amounted in value to upwards of £2,600,000, of which nearly one-half was the produce of the county of Antrim. Some conception of the present extent of the manufacture may be derived from the fact that at one only of the numerous bleach-greens about 80,000 pieces of linen are finished annually, and at many others nearly the same number. Prior to the accession of Geo. II., every branch of the manufacture was performed by the same parties. Machinery was first invented and applied in the operation of washing, rubbing and beetling at Ballydrain, in the parish of Belfast, in 1725, and, as the manufacture extended, the process of bleaching became a separate business; the bleacher became merchant, bought the brown linens in the open market, and has made this business one of the most important branches of the trade.

Owing to the improvements in machinery, and the aid afforded by the application of chymical preparations, the present number of bleach-greens is not so great as formerly, notwithstanding the vast increase in the produce of the manufacture. So late as 1761, the only acid used in bleaching was buttermilk: in 1764, Dr. James Ferguson, of Belfast, received from the Linen Board a premium of £300 for the successful application of lime, and in 1770 he introduced the use of sulphuric acid; ten years subsequently, potash was first used, and, in 1795, chloride of lime was introduced: the articles now generally used are barilla, American ashes, chloride of lime, and vitriol. The fine material which first induced competition and the offer of a bounty was cambrics: the attention of the Board was next directed to the production of damasks and diapers, and many looms were given to the weavers in the counties of Down and Antrim; and so great a degree of perfection has the weaving of damasks attained, that the Lisburn and Ardoyne manufactures adorn the tables of most of the sovereigns of Europe. Every species of fabric, from the coarsest canvas to the finest cambric, is now manufactured here, from flax which is cultivated and prepared in all its stages in the province of Ulster.

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