Gilford and its mills

Vol. 4 No. 3 - 1977

Gilford and its mills

by M.P. Campbell

The town of Gilford dates from about the middle of the 17th century when the Magill family, after whom it was called, acquired the land. The Magills were of Scottish origin. Before the Rebellion of 1641, Captain Magill whose name appears in the list of officers of the Cromwellian Army obtained half the townland of Ballynagarrick from Art Og Maginnis for the princely sum of £150. At the end of the war he had acquired an extensive estate in Gilford comprising the townlands of Loughans, Drumarin, Drummillar, Mullabrack, Ballymacanallen and half of Ballynagarrick. Besides he owned land in Donacloney and Dromore and it was here in his Gill Hall Estate that the family seal was placed. He died in 1670 and having no son, the property passed to his grandson, John Johnston, who was a son of Susannah who married William Johnston, a lieutenant of the Dragoons stationed in Dromore.

The first mention of Gilford (Magills Ford) is in the letters patent creating the Manor of Gilford in 1680. The Manor is set out as containing 800 acres (Irish) in demesne and the patent granted a power to make tenures, to hold courts, leet and barn, to appoint bailiffs, senechals and other officers, to build a prison and appoint a gaoler, to hold two fairs on 10th June and 18th November and also a Monday market in Gilford at a rent of 15 shillings.

Early maps show the village of Gilford confined to what is now the Main Street. It had a tuck mill and a corn mill located in the vicinity of the present Presbyterian Church Hall. Houses were built around the crossing place or `ford' and on Castle Hill which was the main road leading from Lurgan to cross the river and proceed to Loughbrickland.

In 1691, Sir John Magill (Johnston) grandson of Captain Magill granted by lease, for ever, to Thomas Purdy the tuck mill and corn mill of Gilford, with a large part of the present town and all that ground on which the present spinning mill now stands. Thus begins the first recorded history of milling in Gilford.

The introduction of linen

Having purchased these premises, the Purdys set about the processing of linen and by the end of the first quarter of the 18th century had extended their interests in the area. The will of Thomas Purdy, dated 21st August, 1728 states that he left the mills and lands to his sons, James and John after the interest of his widow ended. He further left to his son, James, the bleaching yard or green. The document also states that prior to 1691, the mills had been leased to a Hugh Ridley "Clothier" and John Thompson "Glover."

Up until the last quarter of the 18th century the Purdy family retained their interests in the linen industry. Imports and exports were facilitated by the vast enterprise, for those times, of cutting the Newry Canal which was opened in 1737 and finally completed to Lough Neagh in 1741 at an estimated cost of £896,000. It is roughly 1½ miles from Gilford to the Canal at Madden near Tandragee.

Dunbar Dickson & Co.

From 1775, however, the Purdy family began to dispose of their property in Gilford, mills included, and transfer their commercial interests to Newry. By a series of assignments up to 1792, the corn mill, tuck mill and lands became the property of a leading linen merchant - George Law. Being in the linen trade and with his family connections in the industry, he gave Gilford the stimulus that was to attract the attention of other enterprising entrepreneurs, who came into the district, purchased existing mills, developed machinery and increased output. Money was to be made in abundance and those engaged in the industry became very wealthy. In addition to the trade facilities afforded by the Newry Canal which served as the principal means of goods transport, there were the properties of the Bann water which were excellent for the whitening of the linen and, of course, the easily accessible water power.

During his years in Gilford, George Law extended his business interests by building a new beetling mill to the south of the present Gilford Castle. He also erected a new weir and widened the mill race to generate more power and thus increase production. When he died in 1802, his property became the subject of a law suit in Chancery between members of the Law family. Eventually the property was purchased by his nephew, Hugh.

Early Housing Development

With the increased industrial development, there was the ever increasing need for labour and accommodation of a sort. Sir James Johnston granted 46 leases for the building of houses on Castle Hill between 1807 and 1811. It is interesting to note that in each case there is a covenant that the lessee or his assigns should within one year, "erect on the said granted premises one dwelling house, 40 feet in front and well dash, rough cast and whiten the same every two years and put sash windows in the said dwelling house." Unfortunately nothing now remains of this early development.

In 1835-1836 there opened a new era in the industrial history of the locality. About 1834, Hugh Dunbar, late of Huntly Glen, near Banbridge, where he carried on a linen thread and brown linen manufacturing business, conceived the idea of erecting flax spinning mills and linen thread manufacturing on a large scale in Gilford. To do so he obtained free farm grants from Hugh Law of the Corn Mill; from James Uprichard of lands at Banvale to construct a tail race and from Wm. McCreight lands on the opposite side of the river to the proposed mill. The original partnership was formed by Hugh Dunbar and W. A. Stewart of Edenderry, Banbridge and business commenced on 4th February, 1836, in premises in Mill Street. The dyeing houses were located at the rear of the present library. Having obtained the necessary lands and water rights, building of the large mill complex commenced in 1837. In 1837 Stewart died and Robert Thompson entered into a partnership with Dunbar to form Dunbar Dickson & Co. Thompson died in 1839, and having bought out his share, Dunbar now formed a partnership with John Walsh McMaster from Armagh. In the same year, James Dickson, elder son of Andrew Dickson of Glenconway, Co. Antrim, together with John McMaster became partners with Hugh Dunbar in his several trades of flax spinning and thread and linen manufacturing. The firm began to trade under Dunbar McMaster and Co. for flax spinning and linen thread and Dunbar Dickson and Co. for brown linen. Dunbar himself became the exclusive owner of the lands, mill buildings, workers' houses, etc.

Banford, near Gilford – Last Bleach Green to close. & Co.
Banford, near Gilford - Last Bleach Green to close.

At the beginning of this partnership, the mills at Gilford were substantial enough to permit the commencement of the business but for some time longer until 1843, part of the business, that of the manufacture of brown linen continued to be carried out at the Huntly Glen, Banbridge.

Spinning Mills Completed

Completion of the Spinning Mills at Gilford took place in November 1841, and an extract from the Northern Whig of November 22, 1924, recalls the occasion, "19th November, 1841 was a great day in Gilford when one of the most splendid soirees ever held in this part of the country took place at the Works of Messrs. Dunbar, McMaster & Co. in the reading room and library belonging to the establishment. The proprietors, it seems, have just finished a large building for the manufacture of thread and this was appropriately fitted out and beautifully ornamented for the occasion. Upwards of 800 sat down to tea which was arranged in fine style under the able management of Mr. James Beck and company with a well selected committee.

After the company regaled themselves with a plentiful supply of good things of this life, dancing commenced and was kept up to a late hour. At occasional intervals lemonade was served with cakes and fruit. Several of the operators enlivened the company with song. A great many ladies and gentlemen from the surrounding neighbourhood and also from Belfast were present and seemed highly gratified with the proceedings of the evening. Mr. and the Misses Dunbar likewise honoured the soiree with their presence and appeared highly delighted especially Mr. Dunbar who, at all times, takes great interest in the welfare of his workers and spares no expense in making them comfortable. He has erected a hospital for the sick to the support of which he contributes very liberally. In fact, he has done everything which generosity and human feeling can suggest for the benefit of those employed at the Gilford works. Great credit is due to Mr. McMaster - one of his partners of the establishment. He used every exertion in his power to promote the comfort of the large assembly. The company retired at a reasonable hour, apparently highly delighted with the entertainment."

The famine

To accommodate the large number of workers encouraged to come to Gilford in search of employment mainly from Counties Monaghan, Fermanagh and Armagh, a huge house building project was begun. Altogether 180 houses were built in close proximity to the mill such were the numbers that came from the Keady district of Co. Armagh that Hill Street was known locally as "Keady Row." It was in this street that 2 houses were set aside and converted into a hospital for the sick of the town. From valuation fieldbooks many of these "two up, two down," type houses accommodated two families. It is not surprising that during the famine period, large numbers suffering from fever were accommodated in this well strategically erected hospital at the extreme north-east of the town. Though the records for the Banbridge Union Workhouse aren't complete it is known that a substantial number of people from the neighbouring townlands in the Lurgan Union died in the Lurgan Workhouse during the famine period.

The magnitude of the task in supplying houses to accommodate the ever increasing population in Gilford can be seen from the following table.

Official Census Figures: Gilford

Year Population Houses occupied
1841 643   111  
1851 2,814   359  
1861 2,892   478  
1871 2,720   559  
*1881 1,324   502  

In a letter from an emigrant to his uncle, Mr. James Beck (mentioned in the report of the soiree), dated September 24th, 1848, from Dinsmore, Shilley Co., Cincinnati, he states:

"With great pleasure I received your letter dated 14th June, I received it the 10th July.

It astonishes me to hear of the rapid improvement of Ireland; in my day there was no such factories as you are concerned in. And it also seems strange that Common work hands in that country get but £15 or £20 per annum and that Archabald and you get so large salaries."

It is certainly implied that the workers, despite the industrial advances, had poor wages, while management had comparable very much higher salaries.

In 1849, the following letter was circulated in the hope of establishing a market which would bring a degree of prosperity to Gilford and also attract business to the area.

A meeting of the Inhabitants of Gilford, will be held in the National School, on Saturday next, the 3rd of March, at the hour of 2 o'clock, for the purpose of adopting a requisition calling upon the Seneschal of said Manor, to convene a public meeting of the Inhabitants of Gilford and its vicinity to take into consideration the priority of having a weekly market established.
Your attendance is particularly requested,

Franklin McCreight Secretary, Pro. Tem.
Gilford, 1st March 1849

Suffice it is to state that the market was established.

During the 1840s the firm provided schools under the National Board of Education. Sites for the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches were presented by individual members of the firm. In the case of the Church of Ireland, Mr. John McMaster was a large subscriber to the actual cost of the building and the parsonage on the Stramore Road was erected at his own expense. Mr. Hugh Dunbar himself did not confine his generous liberality to the provision of Churches and schools. He concerned himself with the temporal welfare of his workers. It is recorded that he was a man of extraordinary generosity. He had a list of 400 poor people whom he served weekly at his own house with financial assistance. Having died suddenly in 1847, while dispensing his alms, the piece of money he was about to give was still found in his hand after death.

On his death he was survived by four sisters: Anne, Jane, Isabella and Elizabeth. Elizabeth married Henry Herron and lived in the house which is now the library. Having died intestate, all his estate, mills, etc. passed to his sisters as co-owners but by amicable arrangement, Anne and Jane became the legal owners of their father's whole property.

In 1858, McMaster purchased the Misses Anne and Jane Dunbar's share for £20,662 and the lands, buildings, etc, for £25,000, the latter to be held by him as his property, the partnership paying him for the use; each partner was to have a separate interest in proportion to the sum bought in by him and at the end of eight years any surviving partner might by a year's notice dissolve the partnership and be paid the value of the shares.

Linen boom

The great linen boom took place during these years which, in fact coincided with the American Civil War (1861-65). Grade reached the highest peak. Sales in the year ending 31st March, 1866, amounted to over £1,000,000. McMaster and the Dickson Brothers became very wealthy men and it was during this period that the latter built Elmfield and Gilford Castles. However disagreements took place and on 1st April, 1866, McMaster served notice on his partners that the partnership was dissolved from henceforth, the trade of "Dunbar, Dickson and Co" would be carried on by him in partnership with Wm. Spotten and James Douglas of New York under the style of "Wm. Spotten and Co. successor to Dunbar, Dickson & Co."

A famous law suit followed with the petition filed by Benjamin Dickson on 6th April, 1866, stating said business was carried on as well at the Gilford premises as also at certain warehouses and premises at Belfast, Dublin, London, Manchester, Glasgow and New York and by agents, travellers and correspondents in almost all parts of the world... that the goodwill and trademark and name

'Dunbar, McMaster and Co.' and 'Dunbar, Dickson & Co.' were extremely valuable and that the goods stamped with the said trade marks commanded a much readier sale and higher price in all markets than other goods of the same description. That stock in trade at the last half-yearly estimate was upwards of £500,000.

This petition came before the Lord Chancellor of Ireland 24th-28th May, 1866. It was decided that John Walsh McMaster was absolutely entitled to the goodwill and trademarks of the partnership. However, the next year the Court of Appeal over-ruled this decision on 28th June 1867. McMaster carried it to the House of Commons which finally reaffirmed the decision of the Lord Chancellor. Bonfires raged in Gilford at the verdict, giving testimony that the workers supported the claims of McMaster.

McMaster continued to live in Dunbarton House overlooking the Mill and died in 1872 at the age of 53. He left 12 children. His eldest son, Hugh Dunbar McMaster being named after the founder of the Mill. Six other sons were mostly engaged in the linen trade at home and abroad with the exception of one son who became a clergyman and ministered to his flock in England. McMaster is buried in Tullylish Old Churchyard. By his will, he left all his land, etc., to the eldest son, with Dunbarton, House (after life interest to his widow), and various other legacies.

In spite of difficult conditions, Hugh Dunbar McMaster carried on a very successful flax spinning and thread manufacturing business. Huge sums of money were used to improve the layout of the works, the erection of new buildings and the installation of plant and machinery. A large reservoir near the works was erected for fire extinguishing and was connected with hydrants and hose in every part of the mills, so that a conflagration that occurred in 1869 when £40,000 worth of property was destroyed, was not likely to happen again. Towards the end of the century, the Gilford mill complex was reckoned to be unsurpassed in the whole of the British Isles in the completeness of its resources for all the processes of the industry.

The economic success story of this industry in Gilford was such that it was necessary and commercially profitable to open a mill in Greenwich, New York, in 1880. It was managed by Mr. John McMaster and was called Dunbarton Mills. Workers emigrated from Gilford to man the mill and an examination of the population figures for the period will reveal that the town showed a decrease of approximately 50%. This can be attributed, in part to the attraction of the new mill in America. A Grocer's advertisement of the time indicates that he has undertaken an emigration agency. No doubt to meet the demands of those who decided to leave and find "better conditions" elsewhere. It is interesting to read that in "Industries of Ireland" Published 1891, when referring to Gilford Mill it states, "To all these advantages, as regards water for bleaching and dyeing and motive power, must be added cheapness of "labour. . . ." No wonder there was a steady demand for work elsewhere, even in the U.S.A.

In 1886, the firm became a limited company and Mr. Hugh Dunbar McMaster conveyed the whole of his property, lands, mills, etc. under certain covenants. In 1901 he decided to join the great linen thread combine in which Barbours of Hilden were prominent. Up until his death in 1908, he took the place of his father in the industrial and social life of the area. He was survived by his wife, Florence, a daughter of Major General Saxton of England and it was to her homeland she returned after her husband's death.

A large lampstand was erected after his death to his memory. This stood in a prominent position in the Square, but with the development of the road and widening of the streets, it was removed only to be re-erected without its lanterns and now stands rather inconspicuously in the corner of the lawn in front of the library.

Gilford Mill has survived the passage of time and the depressing economic ills of the linen industry but its past glory will not be easily forgotten. The thread produced here was world famous and gained many eminent awards at international exhibitions at home and abroad including a prize medal for "great general excellence" at London 1862, 2 medal ip Dublin 1865 for "superior quality," a medal for "superior excellence" at Philadelphia 1876 and a special gold medal at the Toronto Exhibition 1880. The "British Trade Journal" of 1890 states: "The success of the firm as manufacturers of yarn and thread must be attributed in no small degree to the exceptionally favourable position of their works. They are built, in part, literally over the River Bann, the water of which is famous for its bleaching power.

The extremely fine white and even yarn required in making lace which sells in London at fabulous prices is spun and bleached in this district and is largely produced by this firm. So well appreciated is the river that linen is sent long distances, even, from Belgium to be bleached on the banks of the Bann. The fine quality threads spun for certain lace and embroidery may be inferred from the fact that a length of thirty-six thousand yards weighed only one pound. Commercially, Messrs. Dunbar McMaster & Co. were known all over the world. The looms of Europe wove yarns spun in Gilford. Gilling twines were exported to the Adriatic and Mediterranean countries, twine for salmon-fishing to British Columbia, carpet threads, book binders' thread, extra strong threads for leather and thick cloths, and fine threads for the sewing machinist and lace-maker were exported to United States, South and Central America, Brazil, Australia and the rest of the British Colonies."

Even as early in its history in 1849, on the occasion of Queen Victoria's visit at Belfast, "Dunbar McMaster & Co" and "Dunbar Dickson and Co." were chosen to exhibit for the Royal viewing. "The Northern Whig" Tuesday 14th, 1849, reports that "Dunbar, McMaster and Co." exhibited the following:

  1. Specimens of foreign flax - Riga, Dutch, Flemish, French and Egyptian.
  2. Hackled flax both Irish and Foreign.
  3. Full series of tow, linen yarns and sewing thread.

"Dunbar, Dickson & Co." had the following on exhibition:

  1. 4 pieces 4-4 extra stout unbleached millspun linen.
  2. 10 pieces 4-4 extra stout bleached linen for family use.
  3. 10 pieces 4-4 stout millspun line: 1 piece sheeting 117 inches wide.
  4. Brown damask linen made up for North and South American markets.

Today the firm still remains in business. It is now Dunbar, McMaster Ltd. No longer is it the thriving industry of former years. However, it has survived the recession in the linen trade and in doing so will be in an advantageous position to benefit if the industry should expand, as predicted. No longer does it re-echo to sounds of 1,500 workers as in its early days of existing but the existing labour force of 150 produce flax yarn that still finds its export to Greece, Italy, Belgium etc. The remaining hope is that once again it may find its best quality flaxes used in the process being grown at home, instead of being imported from Courtrai in Belgium.

Andrew McBrinn, Seed Merchant

Ironically, Gilford has of late, begun to develop, with its new housing projects - public and private and at a time when the mill draws its labour force from areas other than Gilford. This late 20th century development provides another interesting study not entirely unconnected with the local linen industry. That is for another time.

Footnote: once the largest industrial undertaking on the Upper Bann, production ceased at Dunbar McMaster's mill in the 1980s and the site currently lies semi-derelict awaiting a new use.