Chapter 5


The Charter-Hemphill Story

Linen Weaving in Ulster

Chapter 5

There is overwhelming evidence that there were Hemphills living in Aghadowey in Coleraine Parish and throughout County Londonderry. One example is Table 1. The town Coleraine was one of the two urban communities developed by the London Companies in Londonderry in the Plantation of Ulster at the start of the 17th century. During the Williamite War, Coleraine was a centre of Protestant resistance to the rule of James II. Richard Hamilton's Irish Army made an attempt to seize the town but was repulsed. The Protestants were forced to abandon the town shortly afterwards and withdrew to Derry. Later the same year, following the failed Siege of Derry, Sir Charles Carney and his Jacobite garrison fled the town on receiving news of the advance of Percy Kirke's Enniskillen forces and the landing at Carrickfergus of Marshal Schomberg. The Williamites controlled Coleraine for the remainder of the war.

Linen Exported
 Year  Million Yards Exported
 1720s  2.5
 1740s  8.0
 1800s  17.0

From very early times the Irish had grown their own flax and made their own ‘bandle linen’; it gets scant attention in Gaelic records, however, for it was woven up by people who were low born. Bandle linen was still made for local sale in the eighteenth century, but its width was too narrow for the export market. Some of the leading planters encouraged their tenants to grow and spin flax to give them extra income to tide them over during hard times. Lancaster weavers were eager to buy Ulster yarn but some of the colonists were weavers themselves, who knew what sold best in the English market, and by the 1680s Ulster’s

Flax, the world‘s strongest natural fiber, is used in making linen and linseed oil, the traditional oil used in making paint and varnishes.
linens were being recorded as a distinct variety of linen cloth. The Government, too, was keen to foster an industry that did not conflict with English commercial interests, in 1696 Irish linen, in its ‘brown’ or unbleached form was freed of all English import duties and this, together with comparatively low rents and cheap food then prevailing in Ulster keeping production costs down, at once gave northern Irish linen a distinct edge over German and Dutch cloth on the English market. Only the import duty on dyed Irish linens proved prohibitive, and though the customs charge on ‘white’ or bleached linen was not removed until 1782, it did not prevent a dramatic growth of exports for most of the eighteenth century.

The results of a name search for Hemphill in Londonderry using the PRONI (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland)
Coleraine was a top area for the production of linen. (See Fig. 1 1)

The Irish parliament devoted much of its time to development of the linen industry:

  • Grants were given to inventors
  • Subsidies to bleachers
  • Bounties on export of sailcloth
  • Spinning wheels and looms were given to the poor
  • Tuition fees for spinning schools were paid

Ulster weavers had neither the capital nor the contacts to export directly to England and English merchants preferred to come to Dublin three or four times a year to buy Irish linen. The Linen Board, made up almost of all member of the Irish Parliament, built a Linen Hall on the north side of Dublin in 1728 and the Ulster origin of most of the cloth brought there is underlined by the names of the streets adjoining it: Coleraine Street, Lurgan Street, Lisburn Street. Here linen brought from the north in solid wheeled carts was sold to Dublin ‘factors’, who in turn struck deals with English merchants. It was not until the 1780s that the capital, Dublin, ceased to be the main point of export of Ulster cloth.

Fig. 1. Linen manufacturer William Clark showings locations of its various linen products. Linens of Ulster would be a better discription, since the image is Ulster, not Ireland. The companyis still in operation.

Coleraine, and other areas of Londonderry were flax growing, flax spinning and weaving areas. Available records show many Hemphills involved in the production of linen. Figure 3 is a table showing those receiving a bounty for growing a certain acreage of flax whose surname is Hemphill. The date record, 1796, is two decades before Andrew’s birth but it strongly suggests family ties to linen production

Weaving was man’s work, for it was heavy work. The making of linen was essentially a domestic industry carried on for the most part by people who divided their time between farming and the making of yarn and cloth. Flax is a greedy crop, requiring good soil and heavy manuring, but if it could be included in the farm’s rotation, it was a good cash crop which went a long way towards paying the rent.

Besides linen, Ulster produced rabbit, geese, oysters, honey, and whiskey. Nearly all the barley in the north-west Ulster was grown for making whiskey and by the 1780s there were no fewer than forty legal distillers in County Londonderry, with Coleraine second only to Dublin in importance. Parliament jacked up the excise tax on whiskey to stimulate beer and stout sales, leaving only Newry and Belfast with legal distilleries. Two years after the excise tax increase, a reporter with the Londonderry Journal wrote that no legal distilleries survived in the county and yet whiskey was a plentiful as ever.

Interior (library) of a Londonderry house belonging to the gentry.


“The Irish gentry are an expensive people, they live in the most open hospitable manner continually feasting with one another,” an English antiquary remarked during a tour made in 1732. Certainly, there is ample evidence that the great landowners in Ulster in the eighteenth century could afford an extravagant lifestyle. A celebrated actress visited her friend Lady O’Neill in 1783 and then had this to say, “ It is scarce possible to conceive the splendor of this almost Royal Establishment, except by recollecting the circumstances of an Arabian Night’s entertainment: Six or eight carriages with a numerous throung of Lords and Ladies and gentlemen on Horseback began the day by making excursions about this terrestrial paradise, returning home but just in time to dress for dinner. The table was served with a profusion and elegance to which I have never seen anything comparable.”

In return for long leases and compact farms, tenants agreed to erect their own farm buildings and fence all the outbounds of their lands. The great influx of colonists in the closing years of the seventeenth century meant there was no need to tout for Protestant tenants on the best land.

“Long leases are the ruin of Ireland and of every man in it and the great obstruction to improvement,” grumbled Lord Abercorn in 1770—arrangements that had been so convenient earlier in the century now led to fixed rates at a time of fast—rising land values, allowing tenants to sublet very profitably. Leases end eventually, however, and when they did landlords were able to raise rents and make direct arrangements with subtenants to their own profit; this was especially true in the linen producing areas, where weavers would pay high rents to stay close to the markets.

Lady Edith and Lord Londonderry and Lady Mairi circa 1924

Many houses in Armagh city were still “ruined in wars” in 1704. Until the middle of the eighteenth-century growth was kept down by famine, epidemics and emigration. Thereafter, the expansion of the domestic linen industry, the revival of trade, and a new canal opening the interior stimulated town development until by 1800 there were about fifty market towns in the province with a population of five hundred or more.

Until the coming of the railways, canals provided the best and most inexpensive transport for bulky and fragile goods. For most people in Ulster, however, roads remained the principal means of communication. Inland navigation required huge injections of capital and the support of central government. Roads on the other hand were a local responsibility and a source of mounting friction. A major grievance shared by merchants, weavers and farmers was that all decisions on the levying of local taxes and how they were spent were made by the gentry and aristocracy of the Established Church. In 1761 bands of weavers and farmers tore down most of the toll gates on the turnpikes. In 1770 a mob 1,200 armed with firelocks, pistols and pitchforks set out for Belfast, led by a man on horseback who carried a crowbar wrapped in straw rope. The called themselves the “Heats of Steel” and burned the house of a shipowner. The immediate cause for this action was the eviction of poor tenants who were replaced by speculators, including the shipowner who outbid them on the lease. The revolt spilled over into Londonderry, Tyrone and Down. The army arrived soon afterwards and put down the uncoordinated uprisings, men were tried and hanged, and it was reported many insurgents were drowned while attempting to escape to Scotland in open boats. The Viceroy ordered a general pardon and privately condemned the landlords whose rents were “stretched to the utmost.”

Lord Londonderry under a portrait of Lord Castleereagh

Rent increases coincided with a succession of acute harvest failures in 1770, 1771 and 1772, and by 1773 bread prices were close to those during the famine of 1741. The succeeding Viceroy concluded that the people he governed were “in a state of poverty, not to be described.” Then when the harvests improved the linen trade was hit by a catastrophic slump; merchants were left with £900,000 worth of linen unsold in April 1773, leading the Londonderry Journal to report: “Trade has never been more stagnant in the memory of living man.” This was a crisis that rippled through the western world.

An Antrim agent wrote to his employer, “The Linen Trade seems totally at a standstill. . .This cannot last long, for if it does this country will be ruined. The immigration to America seems rather to increase than diminish. Some of the People might be spared but the Money taken with them is what makes this Country Wretched. The Sums gone & going out is inconceivable.”

In 1770 emigration from Ulster to America reached a new peak of about ten thousand a year. The next chapter will examine the beginning of the emigration from Ulster.

Primary Sources:

  • Bardon, Jonathan. A History of UlsterThe Blackstaff Press, 1992, Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • Bardon, Jonathan. A Shorter Illustrated History of UlsterThe Blackstaff Press, 1996, Belfast, Northern Ireland