Chapter 6


The Charter-Hemphill Story


Chapter 6

The grave in Bangor Abbey, County Down, of United Irishman Archibel Wilson, who was hanged for his part in the 1798 rebellion. No relation (that I know of).

In 1798 The United Irishmen, a revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, rebelled against English rule. The rebels were led by Presbyterians angry at being shut out of power by the Anglican establishment and joined by Catholics, who made up most of the population.

Half-hanging of a United Irishman by the forces of the Crown

Many Ulster Protestants sided with the British, resulting in the conflict taking on the appearance of a sectarian civil war in many areas, with atrocities on both sides. A French army which landed in County Mayo in support of the rebels was overwhelmed by British and loyalist forces. The uprising was suppressed by British Crown forces with a death toll of between 10,000 and 30,000.

Ireland was made part of Great Britain by the Act of Union on 1 January 1801, which took away the measure of autonomy granted to Ireland's Protestant Ascendancy. It was passed largely in response to the rebellion and was underpinned by the perception that the rebellion was provoked by the brutish misrule of the Ascendancy as much as the efforts of the United Irishmen.

Violent fluctuations in Ulster’s economy were helped by banks and insurance in the early nineteenth century. Overall, almost every sector of the province’s economy was stimulated by the long wars against Napoleon. Not only was there unprecedented demand for linen sailcloth, material for uniforms and provisions for the army and navy but also the commercial blockades of the war created acute shortages in the rapidly expanding English market. Ulster was Britain’s principal overseas supplier of cattle; animals reared on hill farms and fattened in the lowlands were driven in their thousands to Donoghue for transport across the Irish Sea.

Weaving on a handloom

Nowhere was hectic growth more evident than in Belfast; its population increasing almost fifty percent in the ten years ending in 1811 when its exported 15 million yards of linen; yet it was the manufacture of an exotic import—cotton—for sale to the home market that was the most arresting feature of Belfast’s expansion in these years. Clustering around Belfast Lough for the most part, to be close to sea-borne supplies of fuel and raw material, factories spun cotton by steam or waterpower; this mill yarn was then “put out” to hand-loom weavers to be made into cloth. Five story mills were built having thousands of spindles turned by steam engines. In 1811 it was calculated that there were 150,000 power-driven spindles making over 70 million hanks of cotton yarn and concluded “that not less than 30,000 individuals derive a good support from the muslin and calico trade.” By the end of the Napoleonic Wars Belfast was producing half of Ireland’s cotton and wool yarn.

During the Napoleonic Wars there was a rising demand for Irish corn in Britain—which increased in value by one quarter during the conflict-brought unprecedented prosperity to many landlords and farmers. Owners raised rents and shortened leases as soon as they expired. The rent roll of the Downshire estate went up from £30,000 a year in 1801 to £55,000 a year by 1815. There was also an increase in population, which intensified competition for land sublet to farmers—without the protection of leases these wretched people bid against each other from year to year. With increase population there was a shortage of arable land. Shortage of land was not a problem in the wilder and more mountainous parts of Ulster where the potato made possible the cultivation of such marginal land.

But the Napoleonic Wars ended, and it left Belfast in a severe depression. Desperate weavers attacked a hated employer’s home; the hall door and window shutters daubed with tar and set on fire. Early next year a bomb was thrown that would have wrecked the home if it had not been tossed to the back door with a pitchfork just before it exploded. Three men were convicted as a result—the last public hanging in Belfast.

Irish imigrants working in English textile factory

Weavers wages were so low Ulster manufactures did not see the need for power looms until it was too late, and Lancashire captured its market. Cotton, once a luxury material, had become the cheapest of all textiles and threatened the very survival of the Ulster linen industry. Unsaid, this cheap textile was dependent on slave labor.

With the industrial revolution, led by advances in cast iron technology resulting in larger spinning wheels and water frames; steam-powered beam engines; rotative mill engines; and power looms, Ulster lost its edge: cheap labor. Its cotton industry never recovered.

Ulster’s linen industry saw the future and the linen board offered a subsidy to anyone who could erect machinery “for spinning hemp or flax for sail-cloth . .  . to be worked by steam or water, ten-shillings per spindle.” The discovery of wet-spinning allowed large scale power-spinning of flax by 1834, but for the great majority in the Ulster countryside mechanization spelled disaster. “The machinery has thrown our families idle.” As Thomas Beggs, a weaver who died in the Famine, wrote:

But the guid auld times are gane out ó sight,
An’ it mak’s the saut tear aften start to mine e’el;
For lords o’ the Mill and Machine he’s decreed
That bodies like me maun beg their bread.
Textile manufacturing was one of the earliest applications of the industrial revolution.

The real problem was that mass production of cheap cotton in Britain depressed the price that could be asked for the competing textile, linen. As hand spinners lost their work, the status and income of linen weavers were steadily pushed down. Weavers became employees, getting their yarn “put out” by the flax-spinning mills; no longer their own masters, they had to abide by the conditions laid down by factory owners taking advantage of the vast numbers of desperate for employment. The belated introduction of the flying shuttle speeded up the weaving and made it easier for women to work the loom: this deskilling of what was once a proud and independent craft resulted in weavers finding themselves on a par with the poorest cottiers and laborers, forced to work almost every waking hour to survive. Only the largest and most efficient linen firms survived and over much of Ulster the industry all but disappeared. Where it held out, even the miserable earnings gave significant protection from the disasters which were to strike those now utterly dependent on what the land would yield.

York Steet Flax Spinning Mill in Belfast, 1842
White Linen Hall in Belfast, 1784

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