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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Flax Workers of Ireland

The flax and linen industries of Ireland provided employment until modern times. Flax was used to weave linen cloth, towels and sailcloth.

Linen was not an important manufacture in Ireland until the late 1690s. Flax was grown in the 'Linen Homelands' of Ulster and many other parts of Ireland such as Clonakilty. Cookstown (County Tyrone), the centre of a large flax growing district, had the biggest market in Ireland.
For centuries flax processing, spinning and weaving was done by hand. Spinning and weaving took place in worker’s homes. The mechanization of scutching, spinning and weaving improved efficiency but moved workers into factories.
Conditions in the wet-spinning mills and scutching mills were extremely unhealthy. The machinery in the scutching mills was particularly dangerous and there were some horrific accidents.
In August 1876 thirteen-year-old John Donaghey died from his injuries at Brown’s factory at Cookstown near Belfast. This accident was partly owing to bad management. In this factory nail-bags were woven from tow (short-fibred flax used for coarse cloth), and similar machinery to that used in the flax scutching mills softened up the tow during the initial processing. Someone (it was never discovered who) turned on the water which powered the machinery without warning the workers. A ‘feeding tray’ which acted as a guard had been taken off while the machine was serviced. When the machine started up suddenly, John’s arm was dragged into the rollers.
The Children History Forgot has more children's stories from the flax mills, and discusses the factory inspectorate’s fight to bring the industry under better regulation. And my feature for the February issue of BBC Who Do You Think You Are magazine explores how to trace your Irish flax worker ancestors.

Boy scouts binding the stooks (sheaves) of flax together. Work and Workers Shown to the Children, T. C. and E. C. Jack Ltd, circa 1920.
Flax processing. After harvesting, the flax was stacked to dry in the fields. After drying the seeds were then removed, then the stalks were ‘retted’ to soften them for processing. Then the flax fibres were ‘broken’ and ‘scutched’ Then the ‘heckler’ (hackler) cleaned any remaining fragments of bark from the flax.
The silken fibres of flax could now be spun into yarn, then woven into cloth. Cassell's Book of Knowledge Vol. III (Waverley Book Co. circa 1920). Author’s collection.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Poet's Choices

Robert Burns faced some of the most critical choices of his life during his late twenties. Scotland’s bard was tormented by indecision. How could he best make a living: as a poet, farmer, or excise-man? Should he share his life with a lady of good birth and education, or a woman of his own class?

On 13 March 1788, Burns agreed to lease Ellisland, only a few weeks after saying he had no intention of ‘beggaring’ himself by taking a farm. Burns loved the countryside around Ellisland. As he walked by the banks of the ever-rippling River Nith, he composed some of his most famous poems, including the classic Tam O' Shanter.
You can find out more about Burns’ life at Ellisland, and about the life choices he made there, in my feature for the latest issue of Highlander magazine.
Images: Engraving of Robert Burns. Great Authors of English Literature, (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1899).
Ellisland farmhouse © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Huntley & Palmers Baked Them

I was very interested to see Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys last night. Mr Portillo visited Reading, the former home of the huge Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, and Whitchurch silk mill. Huntley and Palmer was a famous British brand, and Captain Scott took some of their biscuits on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition.
The first Huntley & Palmer factory was built by the Kennet and Avon Canal, and canal boats were used to transport the biscuits to Bath and Bristol.  A later factory was sited near the Great Western Railway, and the company built its own sidings to link to the railway.
When writer Archibald Williams visited the factory early in the twentieth century, about 6000 people were employed there. The factory workforce was mostly men, women and small boys.
Factory Inspector Robert Baker (Reports, 31 Oct 1869), said that he had often heard complaints from Reading people that the Huntley & Palmer factory was not yet covered by the factory acts, because they claimed that ‘boys have often been employed for 20 hours at a stretch, and have been carried out, owing to the heat’. Baker had not been able to visit the factory, as it was outside his remit. Joseph Huntley and George Palmer were Quakers, however, and were said to look after their workforce. Baker commented: ‘I cannot vouch for the truth of these statements, and I should think that Messrs. Palmer treat their staff with consideration’.

Images: Taking biscuits from the oven. Packing biscuits into boxes. Packing boxes of biscuits into tins at the Huntley & Palmer’s factory. Their sturdy tins were much-loved by the British public. How It’s Made, Thomas Nelson & Sons, c.1910. Author’s collection.

Monday, 2 January 2012

A New Year Walk along the River Weaver

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all had a peaceful Christmas.

One of the nice things about living in this part of Cheshire is that we always find something interesting to see on our walks. Yesterday we explored the Weaver Parkway from Winsford. At first the path, which meanders along the River Weaver, passes by the Winsford Rock Salt Mine. Salt from the mine helps keep our roads safe in winter.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries salt from Northwich and Winsford was transported along the River Weaver and the Trent & Mersey Canal.
The River Weaver is a haven for wildlife and we saw some ducks, a heron, two swans and some shags as we walked along the path. It was far too early in the year to see any of the rare plants which live near the salt mine in flower but we did see some teasels. A variety of teasel was used in textile manufacture, to raise the nap of woollen cloth ready for shearing. So we packed hundreds of years of history into an hour’s walk!
Images: Winsford Rock Salt Mine and teasels by the Weaver Parkway © Sue Wilkes