Article 15

ART. XV. On the Linen and Hempen Manufactures in the Province of Ulster. 4to. By S. M. Stephenson, M.D. M.B.L.S. FROM SELECT PAPERS OF THE BELFAST LITERARY SOCIETY. FASCICULUS II.

[pp. 419-429] [original article in PDF format]

  1. TO those who are acquainted with Mr. Arthur Young's Tour through Ireland, and Mr. Preston's Prize Essay on the manufactures of that country, contained in the ninth volume of the Irish Transactions, the present memoir will not afford much new information in any point of view; and as a communication to a literary society, it appears to us altogether puerile. It is very well for a pantological work, like a modern encyclopedia, to give minute descriptions of such processes as rippling, swingling, scutching, and hackling, together with many other mysteries practised in the preparation of flax for the loom: and a superficial history of the chemical properties of the substances employed in bleaching may, not improperly, enter into a popular lecture on that important art: but discussions of this kind, which are very far from interesting on any occasion, surely do not come within [419] the province of a philosophical writer. We have consequently been much disappointed in finding nearly three-fourths of the present memoir occupied by details, which are familiar to every dabbler in science, or intelligible and important to none but the mere artisan.

  2. The first four paragraphs contain the rudiments of a conjectural history respecting the origin of the linen manufacture in Ireland; in the examination of which question due honour is paid to the Phenicians: for though Dr. Stephenson does not positively express his reliance on the Irish historians, who assert that those navigators introduced the spindle and loom into their countries some centuries before the Christian era, yet his arguments, drawn from the probable etymology of certain technical words, entirely lead to that conclusion. He has however the merit of not dwelling long on this useless though generally fascinating part of the subject; and, proceeding to the records of more legitimate history, argues from an act passed in the reign of Henry VIII. against forestalling, that linen yarn was in the sixteenth century a very considerable article of commerce: and he adds that in another act passed in the thirteenth year of Queen Elizabeth it is recited, that the merchants of Ireland had been exporters of wool, flax, and linen and woollen yarns for more than a hundred years before that period; that is, in the middle of the fifteenth century. Lord Charlemont, in a paper contained in the first volume of the Irish Transactions, asserts that there are records proving the existence of the woollen manufacture in Ireland as early as the middle of the thirteenth century; and from a passage in a poem, written by a Florentine nobleman about the year 1360, he shews that Ireland was then famous for her woollens, which were exported to and were in great request even at Florence, at that time most eminent itself for trade and manufactures, and remarkable for its luxury in dress.

  3. After having mentioned the act passed in the thirteenth year of Queen Elizabeth, Dr. Stephenson gives a very brief and scanty outline of the linen manufacture down to the ninth year of Queen Anne, which we shall here subjoin.

    'In 1599, Fynes Morrison, Secretary to Lord Mountjoy, observes that Ireland yields much flax, which the inhabitants work into yarn and export in great quantity. In the reign of Charles the First, Lord Strafford adopted the most effectual measures for the encouragement of the linen manufacture; and in 1673, Sir W. Temple asserts, that if the spinning of flax were encouraged, we should soon beat both the French and the Dutch out of the English market. In that year, England imported from France linen to the amount of [420] 507,250l. 4s. including 2820 pair of old sheets.' [We need hardly recommend to the reader's notice, the delicate accuracy of the last statement.] 'In l678, the absurdity of this traffic became so evident that it was prohibited. But in 1685, James the Second was so much in the French interest that he obtained a repeal of the prohibitory act. At the revolution however, the importation of French linen was declared a common nuisance in the parliament of the three kingdoms, and finally suppressed.' [We cannot wonder at this, if the article above mentioned continued to be imported in such filthy profusion.] 'In 1698, the woollen manufacture had taken such deep root in Ireland as to excite the jealousy of the English to such a degree that both houses of parliament addressed King William on the subject; beseeching him to take effectual measures to discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland, and promising in this case every encouragement to the manufacture of linen. This stipulation was announced to the Irish parliament by the Lords Justices in their speech from the throne. The two houses readily acquiesced, and this transaction has ever since been considered by the Irish as a solemn compact between the two nations. In consequence of an act of the ninth of Anne, a board of trustees of the linen and hempen manufactures was established; and on the sixth of October, 1711, the Duke of Ormond nominated an equal number of trustees for each province.'

  4. Although from the period of the compact in 1698, the linen manufacture advanced with great rapidity, and soon became of such importance as to occupy a very principal share of the attention of government, being deemed by many the main support of the political existence of Ireland; yet instances of the encouragement which it met with, not only from the Irish government, but also from that of England, may be traced to a much earlier period. Thus when James I. soon after his accession, revised the rates of merchandize which had been established in the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, adding imposts to those subsidies which from change of time and circumstances seemed to justify this addition, he permitted the duty on Irish linen cloth to remain unaltered: nor was this subsidy increased upon a subsequent revision of the rates by the parliament in 1641. And this is the more extraordinary, because, as appears from the preamble to the book of rates of James I. it was his policy with respect to linen in other instances to encourage the introduction of the raw, but not of the worked material: agreeably to which policy, the duty upon Dutch linen cloths, of which several varieties are specified, was very considerably augmented by James; and again by the parliament in 1641; and afterwards in the reign of Charles II. Nay, even the duty on British linen cloths was augmented at the [421]  same periods; notwithstanding, as we learn from a treatise published about that time, and entitled 'The Treasure of Traffike,' the town of Manchester then carried on a considerable trade in working up Irish yarn into linen. In the year 1665, an act was passed for the advancement of the linen manufacture, which in some sense may be called oppressive with respect to others. The principal clauses in this act were, that tenants should be obliged to sow a proportion of their land with flax; (which regulation indeed had been adopted more than a century before); that premiums should be annually given to the three best pieces of linen cloth, of certain dimensions, to be produced at the summer assizes; 20l. for the best, 6l. for the second, 4l. for the third: and lastly, that all weavers, having no other trade but that of weaving, should for seven years be exempt from serving on any juries, or bearing any offices which they themselves should not be willing to undertake.

  5. Still however the compact of 1698 may be considered as the foundation of the present flourishing state of the linen trade in Ireland; and from that period the Irish statutes are full of acts that were passed in favour of this manufacture, which was not only cherished by public support, but by the munificence of private individuals. Of the nature and extent of the encouragement given to the linen and hempen manufactures, some idea may be formed from the following statements.

  6. In the year 1705 an amended act was passed, on the repeal of that of 1665 already mentioned, by which it was provided that any manufactured flaxen or hempen cloth might be exported from Ireland duty free: by the same act immunities from various civil offices were granted to linen weavers, provided they had fulfilled a regular apprenticeship: a free toll was given to linen cloth and yarn, and hemp and flax: and potashes, as being a material used in the bleaching of linen, together with flax and hemp seed, were permitted to be imported duty free.

  7. In 1707 an act was passed, the preamble to which begins thus:- 'Forasmuch as the flaxen and hempen manufactures are almost the only branch of trade which this kingdom (of Ireland) hath left, &c.' By this act bounties were given for the importation of flax and hemp seed: also for the exportation from Ireland of sail cloths; and for the making of kelp, as being a bleaching material. By the same act several houses of correction in the different counties of Ireland were enlarged for the convenience of dressing and preparing hemp and flax: the keepers of these houses were bound to sow, annually, at least two acres, with hemp or flax seed: and it was ordered that in [422] the neighbourhood of these work-houses spinning schools should be established. In the years 1709 and 1710, the regulations of the former acts for the encouragement of the hempen and linen manufactures not having had their intended force, other acts were passed to amend them. By these additional duties were laid on foreign linens and various other articles; the sums arising from which were to be solely applied in aid of the Irish linen manufactures: and trustees were appointed, as mentioned by Dr. Stephenson, to superintend the management of these duties in the several provinces.

  8. Another act was passed about the same time empowering the Irish to export linens, duty free, to the English plantations.

  9. In 1715 the term of the duration of the bounties tending to encourage the linen manufactures was prolonged; and further assistances were at the same time granted. In 1719, an act was passed for regulating the buying and selling of yarn and cloth; so that it should not be exposed to sale before the lawful market and fair days; or at unlawful hours on those days. Other regulations were also made respecting the bleaching of linen.

  10. But it would be endless to enumerate the various public acts that have been passed in aid of this favoured manufacture: it will be sufficient to state, that, from the year 1700 to 1796, not less than £ l,300,000 was expended in promoting it; of which, from 1703 to 1771, £184,000 was paid from the surplus of the yearly revenues of Ireland.

  11. During the first thirty years after the compact, the mode of conducting the trade is thus described by Dr. Stephenson—(p. 28.)

    'The cloth, when bleached, was carried to some neighbouring fair, which was attended by travelling linen buyers, who purchased for Dublin merchants or for foreign markets. Each fair continued three days; the first of which was appropriated to yarn and linen cloth. The gradual extension of the linen manufacture attracted buyers from Dublin, and other distant parts: the measuring of each piece on the afternoon of the fair day became inconvenient, on account of the delay and altercations it occasioned. This circumstance induced the trustees, in 1719, to appoint public tappers, to examine and measure all webs brought to them. It was their duty to stamp each end of every merchantable piece with the number of yards which it contained, the name of the tapper, and his place of abode. It was at the same time deemed expedient to licence a number of private tappers, who were impowered to stamp such pieces only as were bleached in their own greens, except there were [423] no public lappers within six miles of them: both denominations have since been called seal-masters of white linen. Bleached linen was exposed to sale in fairs till the year 1728, the period of opening the Linen-hall in Dublin.'

  12. The construction of this building, which is a public warehouse for the wholesale market of linens, was first resolved on in the year 1721; at which time parliament advanced £3000 for the purpose. The measure has in its effects been of the highest utility, as may be collected from the following observations of Dr. Stephenson—(p. '29.)—'By the establishment of this great mart an effectual stop has been put to the various inconveniences and abuses that prevailed in the country fairs. Factors and drapers have been accommodated with rooms for exposing their goods to sale: there a general assortment of linen is presented three times every year to buyers that resort to Dublin, from every part of Great Britain. The seasons at which two of these markets are held, are regulated by the fairs of Bristol and Chester, which are supplied from Dublin; and the surplus remains in the hands of factors to answer the demand in the interval between the stated markets.'

  13. Mr. Preston, in speaking of the establishment of linen halls, says, that it is a measure which has been attended with the most beneficial consequences wherever it has been adopted; by which we might suppose that there are many of these halls. From the following paragraph, however, of Dr. Stephenson, it appears that there is only one besides that at Dublin. 'About the year 1785,' he says, 'an attempt was made to remove the seat of the trade from the capital to the manufacturing country; and two halls were actually erected by private subscription, one in Belfast and the other in Newry. The latter has been long since applied to other purposes; but the former, although it has withdrawn its pretensions to rival Dublin, and ceased to hold regular markets, possesses a considerable trade, and is particularly serviceable in enabling the merchants to assort cargoes for exportation:' (p. 29.) The Newry linen hall was, by an act passed in the year 1800, purchased for barracks: so that strictly speaking there are but two linen halls in Ireland; one in Dublin, the other in Belfast. There are, however, in Drogheda, and many other places, commodious and roomy buildings appropriated to the weekly linen market.

  14. It is stated above, that the linen manufacture has not only been aided by the support of government, but by the munificent encouragement of private individuals, of which the following instance is borrowed from Arthur Young. When Mr. [424] French, of Moniva, near Tuam, first took possession of his estate, in 1744, there was no other linen manufacture among the tenants than a little bandle linen, as it is called, merely for their own consumption, with no other spinning than for that: and even for this purpose there was not more than one loom in a hundred cabins. In 1740 he undertook to establish a better fabric, and began by erecting spinning schools; and by sowing flax seed, and purchasing flax. The progress of this undertaking will be seen by the following returns of the Moniva estate at different periods.

  15. In 1744 there were 3 farmers, and 6 or 8 shepherds and cowherds.

    In 1771 there were 248 houses, 90 looms, and 268 wheels.
    In 1772     -       -     257        -       93       -       -     288
    In 1776     -       -     270        -       96       -       -     370

    Such have been the encouragements afforded ab extra to this important manufacture. It will not be uninteresting to take a short view of its intrinsic advantages; some of which are thus stated by Mr. Preston—(p. 224.)—'The linen trade replaces three distinct capitals which had been employed in productive labour; the capital of the farmer, who saved the seed (supposing Irish flax seed was used,) and produced the flax; the capital of the master manufacturer, who employed a number of laborious hands on the primum, in its progress to the perfect state of a linen web at market; and the capital of the bleacher who finishes it for consumption at the bleach green.' With respect to the agricultural advantages above alluded to, it may be observed, that although the precept of Virgil holds good in Ireland as well as Italy,

    Urit enim lini campum seges;

    yet, in the succession of crops, flax may be very securely introduced; since, in the first place, the nett average profit of each acre is very nearly £7; and, in the next, it leads to the employment of great numbers of women and children, in gathering, and drying, and dressing the flax. Besides this, by the production of the raw material of its manufacture, the country is rendered independent of foreign aid; and, at the same time, freed from the expense of importation, and from the loss which virtually attaches to the buyer, in consequence of the profit necessarily exacted from him by the seller. Another advantage-belonging to the linen manufacture is, according to Mr. Preston, 'that the acquired or artificial value, which the skill and exertion of the manufacturer bestow to the substance worked on, is greater in [425] proportion to the intrinsic value of the raw materials than in any other instance.' It is not worth while to question whether this be strictly true: it certainly is true to a considerable extent; in proof of which we cite the following passage from Dr. Stephenson, (p. 21). 'Spinning flax has been brought to such perfection in Ulster, that twenty hanks, and sometimes thirty, weigh only one pound. A young woman in Comber, in the County of Down, spins so fine that sixty-four hanks weigh only one pound: each thread round the reel is two and a half yards long, one hundred and twenty threads in each cut, twelve cuts in each hank.' In order to give our readers some idea of the extreme fineness of this thread, it may be stated that the aggregate length of the several threads, contained in the sixty-four hanks above-mentioned, amounts to more than seventy-four miles; and that the aggregate length of the threads, contained in a pound of the finest sowing thread, if we may rely on the accuracy of our mercer, amounts to something less than twenty-two miles.

  16. We shall sum up the intrinsic advantages of the linen manufacture of Ireland, by inserting the following passage of Mr. Preston's Prize Essay, of which we have already more than once made use. 'If we except the money, which goes out of the country for flax seed (great part of which, if not all, might be retained at home, if the farmers would apply themselves to raise flax for the seed); and some of the articles necessary for bleaching, for which also equivalents might probably be found in the country; all the money advanced from the capital of the society, to set in motion the linen manufacture, circulates within the society itself. From the very moment of the seed being first put into the ground to the very time of its being exhibited in the market (after having passed through innumerable hands, and having undergone various operations, and multiplied changes) in the form of a piece of white linen, every thing is the native growth of the soil, every thing the productive labour of the inhabitants of the country.' p. 226.

  17. It appears, that for a very long period the linen manufacture was principally confined to Ulster; and it was not till the year 1791 that the regulations of the trade, which had been hitherto confined to that province, were extended to the provinces of Leinster, Minister, and Connaught; particular bounties having been given to them for a few years previously to 1791. The importance of the trade may be estimated, therefore, in attending to the following statement of the exports from Ireland between the years 1700 and 1778, by considering that during that [426] period the manufacture of linen was almost entirely confined to the province of Ulster.

  18. The annual average quantity of linen cloth exported from Ireland from 1700 to 1750, was not four million yards: from 1750 to 1756, the number of yards exported annually was 11,796,361; from 1757 to 1763, 14,511,973: from 1764 to 1770, 17,776,862. The average quantity of yarn exported annually, in the first of the foregoing periods, was 15,000 cwt.: in the second, it was 24,328 cwt.: in the third, 33,114 cwt.: in the fourth, 32,311 cwt.: in the last, 31,471 cwt.

  19. From 1770 to 1777, the average quantity of cloth exported annually was 20,252,239 yards: and the annual average quantity of yarn exported, during the same seven years, was 31,475 cwt. From the year 1756 to 1773, England was the market for nearly nine-tenths of the whole Irish exportation.

  20. The foregoing statement is taken from Mr. Arthur Young. The following account, on the accuracy of which we can rely, will give our readers an opportunity of estimating the annual state of the linen trade since the year 1777.

    An Account of the Quantity of Linen Cloth exported from Ireland, from the 25th of March, to the 5th of January, 1809, inclusive.
      Years Yards   Years Yards
    date1 1777 19,714,638 date1 1794 43,257,764
    1778 21,945,729 1795
    1779 18,836,042 1796
    1780 18,746,902 1797
    1781 14,947,265 1798
    1782 24,970,303 1799
    1783 16,039,705 1800 35,676,908
    1784 24,961,898 ¾ to Jan. 5, 1801 25,041,516
    1785 26,677,647 date2 Ended 5th January 1802 37,767,077
    1786 28,168,666 1803 35,491,131
    1787 30,728,728 1804 37,432,365
    1788 35,487,691 1805 42,988,621
    1789 39,344,633 1806 43,534,971
    1790 37,222,126 1807 39,049,727
    1791 39,718,706 1808 40,901,442
    1792 45,581,667 1809 43,904,382
    1793 43,312,057    

    Notwithstanding, however, the flourishing state of the linen and hempen manufacture (we speak of them as one), and the [427] encouragement which it continues to receive from the trustees, it is supposed to be still capable of further improvement and extension. The principal desiderata seem to be

    A more general cultivation of flax and hemp.

    A convenient mode of drying flax seed.

    The encouragement of minor branches of the manufacture.

  21. The first point has been already attended to by government; parliament having last year granted, upon a motion of the Right Honourable the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the sum of 20,000L to be applied, under regulations hereafter to be named, towards the encouragement of saving flax seed to be sown in Ireland. The necessity of this step is at the present moment evident, since hitherto we have depended principally upon America, Riga, and the Low Countries for flax-seed: but from the extent of the importation, which is such that from the year 1764 to 1777 the annual average value was considerably above £100,000 and since that it has been £200,000 the measure was always desirable.

  22. The trustees also last year renewed their bounties on the manufacture of sail-cloth; at the same time publishing their intention to continue them: and thus the encouragement of the growth of hemp will be indirectly promoted; and many extensive tracts of ground, at present wholly unprofitable, though very well adapted to the production of hemp, will be called into cultivation; and great numbers of people consequently employed. The improvement of those uncultivated tracts of ground, called in Ireland waste or mountain-land, (for mountain does not necessarily mean hilly) Mr. Arthur Young supposes to be the most profitable of all species of husbandry; and gives an instance where eleven shillings an acre was immediately offered for improved mountain-land, which was before let for not more than one shilling an acre.

  23. With respect to the second point it may be observed, that there is a great difficulty in preserving the flax-seed in Ireland; in consequence of the uncommon moisture of the climate: so that if the farmer attempts to separate the seed from the plant during the harvest, it is likely to be injured by damps; and if he stores up the crop in order to preserve the seed, the value of the flax is injured in consequence of the fibre of the plant becoming too dry for the process of dressing it. In one instance we understand this evil has been remedied; Mr. Tennant, a linen inspector near Dungannon, having constructed a flax barn which fully answers the purpose of preserving both the plant and the seed: [428] but we do not know the particulars of the plan, nor to what extent it has been adopted by others.

  24. Of the encouragement of those branches of the linen trade which are said to have been hitherto imperfectly pursued, such as the manufacture of sewing-thread, of the finer kinds of tape, of fine cambric, &c. we presume not to speak with any degree of confidence. We merely mention the propriety of it as recommended by those who seem to understand the nature of the trade. It is at least a favourable argument in support of the encouragement of these branches, that they furnish employment for women and children; and may be carried on advantageously in orphan houses and other charitable institutions.