Factory Horn Strike

Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003

The summer of the factory horn strike

by Rosalind Hadden

factory horn

Once upon a time, the workers in a particular factory would rely on hearing their factory's horn or siren to get into work on time. In the days when Portadown had many active linen factories, the noise was not only loud but prolonged, with each horn sounding its own note at its own time.

In June 1909 my grandfather, Dr W E Hadden, who lived in Thomas Street near the centre of town, was sufficiently concerned to write to one of the local papers - and kept the cutting in his scrapbook.

A Plea for Less Noise

To the Editor of The Portadown News

Dear Sir, I think the public owe a debt of gratitude to the authorities of the William St.church (The Catholic church) for their action in shortening the time of the ringing of their splendid bell when calling their congregation together for worship, especially for the early Sunday morning service. Could not the factory owners now follow this good example, and stop the babel of screaming sirens which renders the early hours of the morning and the meal hours during the day hideous to all, and specially trying to invalids and people with sensitive nerves? Could not one horn of sweeter tone be made to do duty for all? Or is even one necessary in the present day, when there is a clock in almost every home, and nearly every worker wears a watch? In these days of stress and strain, of hurry and worry, and nervous break down, an effort should be made to put an end to, or at least to lessen, these discordant sounds, and so increase peace and harmony in our midst.

I am yours faithfully,
W E Hadden
June 29th 1909

Mr Jackson Greeves, a friend, had written out a scientific record of the problem, noting the number of horn blasts during each day - no fewer than 45 in all. My grandfather pasted this into his scrapbook too.

No. of horns blowing

Time   -   Number
in the Early Morning
  • 5.00 - 1
  • 5.20 - 1
  • 5.30 - 5
  • 5.40 - 1
  • 5.45 - 5
  • 5.50 - 1
  • 5.55 - 4
  • 6.00 - 1
at the Breakfast hour
  • 8.00 - 2
  • 8.40 - 1
  • 8.45 - 5
  • 8.50 - 1
  • 8.55 - 3
at the Dinner hour
  • 1.00 - 2
  • 1.40 - 1
  • 1.45 - 5
  • 1.50 - 1
  • 1.55 - 3

in the Evening

  • 6.00 - 2

Eight months later, on 5 February 1910, a news item reported, under the headline: "Up-to-date Portadown".

"We understand that our mill and factory owners have agreed together to reduce the number of horns sounding in our town, while at the same time ensuring that those for whose benefit they are intended shall not suffer.

The arrangement is as follows - Edenderry and Tavanagh horns only will be used, and to ensure that they "keep time" the clocks are to be set to Post Office time, by the watchmaker who regulates the Post Office clock. We believe this change will appeal to all members of the community as an up-to-date arrangement, and especially for those for whose benefit the horns are sounded, as it will not in future be necessary to listen for any special horn."

My grandfather must have felt pleased. Six others of the town's doctors joined him in signing a newspaper letter dated 10 February...

"Will you kindly allow us through your columns - on behalf of our patients - to thank the local factory owners for having reduced the noise caused by the factory horns".

Little did they realise what lay ahead.

News must have been short that week, as the change was greeted in two further press items.

"... Considerable satisfaction to every resident..." was one comment; " ...of late years the number of horns sounding early in the morning has been growing, and while these serve a very useful purpose, and indicate a gratifying increase in industrial activity, many persons felt that there was no great necessity for so many. It is therefore matter for congratulation that the factory owners have mutually arranged that in future only two horns will be used, one at either end of the town... both horns will be sounded at exactly the same moment. Healthy people who slumber soundly, no matter what happens, and who are oblivious of the call to work early in the mornings, can afford to be indifferent to the factory horn, but it is a very different matter to those in the community who may be suffering from sickness, or from nervous ailments, to whom 'murdered sleep' is a serious matter.

The factory operatives' interests cannot suffer, seeing that the horns at Tavanagh and Edenderry are powerful enough to serve the whole town."

The second comment, under the heading "A Step in Advance", believed that this would prove "a boon for the whole community", and especially those for whose information the horns are used. It will not now be necessary to listen for the special horn of the works where each person is employed, and hitherto it has often proved very difficult to distinguish the different blasts when so many horns were sounding about the same time."

Alas, this pious confidence was misplaced. Immediately following this item was another:

"Since the preceding was put in type we have received a letter from a worker protesting against the change and imputing the most unworthy motives as its object. Where so many persons are affected it is not surprising that someone would indulge in a grumble, and we think it better to hold over the letter until the new arrangement gets a fair trial. Of course if found unsatisfactory it will not be continued."

However, the Portadown Express did publish a letter signed Factory Worker, dated (like the doctors' letter) Feb. 10, 1910:

"Sir - The new regulations that came into force on Monday last has proved a failure as far as benefiting the workers is concerned. On Monday and Tuesday large numbers of the workers were shut out of the works on account of being late, until after the breakfast hour, consequently losing their morning's work, and being fined also; and some of the workers who were in time had been waiting to get in from shortly after five o'clock.

This caused so much dissatisfaction among the workers that one firm agreed to start and continue sounding their horn as usual. The workers of two other firms have now struck work because of the number of people unable to hear any horn under the present system. Most of the people of Portadown - factory workers or not - have always been pleased to hear the horns blowing. So I hope the factory owners will see their way to resume blowing the horns as formerly..."

The strike spread, and unflattering news items followed it. "The Novel Factory Strike - Situation today in Portadown" was one heading, probably in one of the Portadown papers, though my grandfather's cuttings don't make this plain:

"Large numbers of the operatives who have refused to resume work until the horns are sounded as hitherto, are to be seen parading the town, singing as they go popular - and unpopular - ditties in great variety, waving sticks and demolishing pastry and other dainties. "So far there has been no actual disorder. Good humour seems to prevail, and the scenes generally partake largely of the nature of hilarity... Up to the present only two factories - those of Messrs. Spence, Bryson & Co. and the Parkside Weaving Co. - have been affected, but the strikers number, it is stated, between eight hundred and a thousand, and it is rumoured that the movement will extend to other establishments if the horns are not sounded as formerly."

On 11 February the Belfast News Letter entered the fray, hoping that a settlement would be arrived at shortly:

"... This arrangement seemed to be entered into by the manufacturers without consulting the operatives who, it is held, were the principal people concerned, and it is said that this is mainly the cause of the whole friction. The general opinion is that, viewed from either standpoint, there is nothing in the matter to warrant a cessation of work, and as the linen trade is just now very brisk the present dispute is to be deplored in the interests of all concerned.

County-Inspector Oulton visited the town yesterday and left with his mind considerably relieved on ascertaining that there was nothing of a party nature in connection with the dispute. "Last night a number of the workers were brought together in the Town Hall by members of the Town Council and several prominent merchants who were anxious to effect a settlement... Mr W H Wright, Chairman of the Town Council, presided. After the views of the workers had been heard a deputation of workers waited on Messrs. Spence, Bryson & Co., who stated that the factory would be open...

[here the cutting is torn]

The News Letter did concede:

Certainly, the town is not so large that a horn at each end could not be heard, but the workers are very conservative in their opinions, and do not readily part with old customs. Last summer a deplorable tragedy took place between three and four miles from Portadown, and at the subsequent trial at Armagh Assizes, witnesses fixed the time certain events by hearing the one o'clock horns in the town, so that apparently their sound carries a long way... There are residential parts of Belfast where the noise created by horns from an early hour in the morning is very annoying. In some cases the horn is kept going for five minutes, filling the air with hideous sounds.. ."

Belfast was not the only other place with an eye for the unusual: the Portadown News of 12 February 1910 reported sadly:

"Portadown has once more achieved distinction. The English newspaper men are making merry over our factory strike, and racking their brains for funny headings to dress out their paragraphs on the subject. We are very sorry indeed that the bone and sinew of our busy town should make sport for the Philistines, and with a little forbearance a friendly arrangement could have been arrived at... It is passing strange if this grievance can only be redressed by hundreds and hundreds of workers losing the whole of their wages for a great part of the week."

And that is all I know: unfortunately my grandfather only kept a few newspaper cuttings, and there are no background notes in his scrapbook to explain what happened next.

Can anyone help?