Factory Life in Portadown

Vol. 8 No. 3 - 2005

Factory life in Portadown in the 1950s

by Frederick Wright and Sam Lutton

This article gives a perspective on factory life in the Portadown linen weaving industry as it was in the early 1950s. It covers both the physical aspects such as buildings and machines, and the human aspects of work on the shop floor and in the offices of a big weaving firm - Spence, Bryson & Co. Ltd. of Portmore Street Meadow Lane.

Around 1950, there were 11 weaving companies based in and around Portadown, employing a total of hundreds of people, perhaps one third of the working population in those days. Their output was of fine fabrics including cambrics and sheers for handkerchiefs and damask for tablecloths. Between them the companies were involved in every step in the process, from flax growing through spinning, weaving and finishing.

Spence, Bryson's factory in Meadow Lane

The Portadown firms included Hamilton Robb in Edenderry; Watson, Armstrong near the railway station; Achesons and Castle Island in Castle Street; Portadown Weaving (Greeves); Tavanagh Weaving of Armagh Road; and Spence, Bryson of Meadow Lane. These companies were very self-sufficient and employed skilled tradesmen to handle all manner of machinery installation and repairs, plumbing, electrical, carpentry and building work. The modern concept of sub-contracting such work had not been adopted. The output of these firms was sold through warehouses in Belfast to customers around the world.

The linen industry in Portadown in the early 1950s

Spence Bryson had a reputation for being self-sufficient and produced the loom woodwork from ash, beech and pine. They manufactured weaving pirns (for the weft in the shuttle) from native beech, starting with logs from trees felled locally. Many of the cast iron loom parts were cast locally and machined in the firm's workshop.

The actual manufacturing processes of spinning and weaving were very labour intensive. The natural linen fibre extracted from the flax plant is delicate, so the yarn has to be carefully handled by skilled workers to produce high quality cloth. All the cloth woven from 'grey' or natural yarn had to be bleached and finished outside Portadown on bleach greens. Spence Bryson cloth went to bleach greens at Milltown Bleaching Company on the River Lagan. The finished cloth came back to Portadown for making into hemmed handkerchiefs in the Meadow Lane hemstitch factory, but large quantities were also sold as piece goods (cloth in rolls) from Spence Bryson's warehouse in Belfast. This cloth and the handkerchiefs were sold to customers around the world. At the time, competition was largely with similar weaving companies within Northern Ireland. The impact of artificial fibres, and competition from low labour cost countries such as China came later.

The weaving factory occupied three acres north of Meadow Lane. Between Meadow Lane and the river Bann, the buildings owned by Spence, Bryson were a hem stitching factory, domestic laundry, and a handkerchief and shirt factory. The weaving factory had north light saw roof construction to give the best possible light and contained 500 looms.

Three coal-fired Lancashire boilers provided heat and steam to the factory via 4" pipes and fed steam to a vertical engine made in Belfast of over 250 HP. The engine drove overhead shafts via 2" rope pulleys which in turn powered the machines on the shop floor through flat belts. By 1950 the looms were powered by individual electric motors. As time went on, the steam engine became redundant. The site had its own electricity generator to power the lighting system. Humidity control was important as linen yarn can become brittle in dry conditions so there was a system of fans producing a fine mist of water vapour (atomised water).

In this period, Spence Bryson employed around 200 workers. There were also office staff, and around 20 fitters, carpenters and the like.

Personal experiences in Spence Bryson's in the 1950s

Frederick Wright joined the firm as an apprentice mechanic when 14 years old in 1949, and helped to maintain the machinery and buildings. Fred recalls many modernisation actions during the 1950s, including a 400 volt electrical system to power new machinery, and installation of fluorescent lighting to improve working conditions. Fred later became Chief Engineer for the firm, and looked after the buildings and machinery in Portmore Street / Meadow Lane.

Sam Lutton joined as a trainee manager in 1935 and in due course was responsible for obtaining orders, ordering yarn and ensuring the orders became woven cloth. Sam later became a Director of Spence Bryson responsible for weaving factories in Markethill and Portadown and for the oversight of the Portadown complex. He also took the major investment decisions such as upgrading the boiler, purchasing new looms, improving the factory layout and conditions for the benefit of the workers and the quality of the cloth.

Life in the weaving factory

Women comprised 60% of the weavers in the Portadown factory. Weavers worked a 40 hour week. They were trained by working alongside more experienced weavers, one of whom was referred to as "standing with Nellie". She had the reputation of being the best for training the younger recruits.

Conditions in the yarn winding and the weaving sheds were by today's standards rather cramped and extremely noisy, and not well lit considering the fine nature of the work. Workers had few breaks, and had lunch in the factory canteen (bringing a piece (!) with them) in Portmore Street. The weavers were responsible for 3 or 4 looms each, and were paid on a piece work basis, earning about £4 a week. They were supported by loom minders, called 'tenters' in the trade, who installed the warp beams and fine-tuned the looms to maintain cloth quality.

There were of course other key workers. In those days, the coal for the boiler was shipped via the port of Newry and then by lorry to Portadown. It was shovelled from a pile inside the building and fed into the boiler manually. Fred recalls that Jack Crealy, the boiler-man at the time, would shift 5 tons of coal in winter every day in a wheelbarrow, and then shovel it into the boilers. The spent coal ('clinker') then had to be removed and the boilers cleaned periodically - a most arduous job.

Heating and humidity control vital

The mechanics cleaned and oiled the machinery and fixed any breakdowns. The carpenters were responsible for the buildings, and would undertake tasks ranging from roof repairs to preparing foundations for a new loom. It was particularly important to maintain the heating and humidifying systems which were vital to the production of good quality cloth. At this time, there were approximately 20 people employed in the engineering department covering the boilers, the skilled trades and their helpers.

The fitters and the tenters were the top wage-earners in the factory at about £5 per week. Apprentices would be paid around £1 per week when they started in their early teens. There were about 6 foremen in the factory - a foreman mechanic, a foreman tenter, two winding masters, a foreman cloth passer (cloth inspector) and a foreman carpenter.

The managers in the factory were responsible for hiring and (as necessary) firing as well as looking after the commercial side of the business - sales, stocks, expenditures and accounts. The wage rates for the workers were set by The Irish Power Loom Manufacturers Association after negotiation with the Trade Unions.

Since the 1950s...

The growing competition from artificial fibres led to downscaling of the linen business. Spence Bryson's weaving activity in Portadown was closed down in 1968, with consolidation in Markethill. The business continued there until 1991 when the factory was destroyed as the result of a terrorist attack on the nearby police station. The business survives as the Ulster Linen Co. in a small factory near Armagh.

The hemstitch, shirt and laundry buildings south of Meadow Lane were progressively replaced by what is now the Meadows shopping centre. The weaving factory housed the hemstitch and shirt operations for a time, but these closed down and the site now houses shops, etc.

All the weaving factories within Portadown and district are now closed due to the high labour intensity of the process, escalating costs, and the increasing usage of easy-care synthetic fabrics such as nylon and terylene. The only linen manufacturing remaining in the district is W J Baird, McNutt of Lurgan whose goods serve a luxury market for fine linens.

Besides weaving, Portadown in the 1950s had several flour mills, iron and brass foundries, lace manufacturing and a ropemaker. Many of these factories have also closed down, while furniture and carpet manufacture continues to thrive. Despite the closures, the town is busier and more prosperous than ever as new businesses, mainly in service and high tech industries, have started up.

A final comment...

We are both proud of what we achieved in our working years in Portadown. Although the industry we were part of was on a downward trend, we continued to manufacture high quality goods that pleased our customers, and gave many people gainful employment. Businesses will always come and go - the important thing is to recognise the trend and manage accordingly.

"Well calculated adventure is our business. The occasional disappointment is part of the cost."

Frederick Wright and Samuel C. Lutton
December, 2004