Mill Row and its factory

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In these increasingly harsh economic times when hardly a day goes by without talk of job losses, many within the older generations, whilst acknowledging there is hardship - since they are unquestionably feeling the pinch more than most, will surely tell you that the younger folk don’t appreciate how well off they are.

And, apart from the now widely accepted madness of the banking systems which afforded ludicrous credit to all and sundry at the drop of a hat, they have come through everything we are now experiencing - not least the loss of relatively well-paid and much-appreciated jobs.

The years have taken their toll since the days when manufacturing industries were king. And, even though today’s generation may perhaps need to have them pointed out, everywhere you look there are wonderful examples of how small local communities benefited so greatly from the entrepreneurship of ordinary men and women who provided a lifeline to people who’d otherwise have been paupers in the true sense of the word.

Sadly, of course, times have changed immensely and nowadays the odd old building is all that’s left to provide fond memories of an era when those premises meant so much to their communities.

One such place is Roan Spinning Mill, which was sited on the Derryvale Road in Brackaville a little more than a mile from the centre of Coalisland as you head for Newmills. And, for reasons which are not appropriate to the story, that’s an area which is pretty close to my heart - albeit only from the mid-1960s onwards, by which time the old Mill had long since become derelict.

Enjoying the advantage of a good water supply from a small stream which flowed from Roughan Lough, the site also had an abundance of locally-grown scutched flax as a raw material - while the wonderful old Coalisland Canal nearby was vital as a means of providing essential transportation.

This mill began production in 1848 and it had the proud distinction of being the first mechanised spinning mill in the district.

Employing 250 people, a massive bonus which accompanied the opportunity to earn a living wage was the fact that many of the workers also had the luxury of a house because the ‘Mill Row’ was purpose-built accommodation adjacent to the factory - this consisting of a row of terraced houses of stone or brick. The houses ran from the big house on the corner, which still remains, both along the lane leading into the Mill and up the hill towards Patterson’s Corner, this along the perimeter line of what is Brackaville Community Golf Course - which used to be a sand pit.

Whilst it was undoubtedly a Godsend for the local folk, it was far from an easy working life because at the start of the last century, employees worked a 12 hour day, usually from 6.30am to 6.30pm. They did have breaks at 9am for breakfast and 12.30pm for lunch. In 1914, thankfully, the hours were trimmed back a little, but not much!

Wages were determined via a grading system. The highest earners were male workers who were skilled as spinning and needle-masters and by the hacklers, with between ten and twelve shillings a week the norm for these guys.

There was no such thing as equality of the sexes in those days, so it was openly accepted that wages for women who were equally skilled and doing precisely the same work were just eight shillings a week! Young girls, depending on their age, could earn between four and eight shillings weekly.

Indeed, in the early years the workers were paid via company tokens, which could only be spent in shops in Coalisland approved by the company.

The textiles, which were of high quality, were exported all over the world and the company in this small hamlet was recognised at this time as one of the most successful in the whole of the island of Ireland.

But, even in those days and grateful as the locals were to have a steady income literally on their own doorstep, it wasn’t all rosy in the garden - and people were prepared to stand up for themselves.

In 1914, when production at Roan Spinning Mill was at its absolute peak, the workers asked for an increase of a penny an hour. Mr Wilson, who was the owner, refused the increase and a strike was threatened. Tommy Rodgers, a spinning master who may have been charged with organising the strike, was sacked.

The workers went on strike and the factory was closed in the belief of Wilson and the management that the workers would pretty quickly return without their request being granted. Alas, the impasse lasted almost a year, until the management acceded to the pay increase demand.

The factory resumed operations. However, the consequences of the lengthy strike was to prove disastrous, many of their workforce having taken on new jobs and, with a year’s production lost, many of their global markets had obtained new suppliers - many of them replacing the company’s spun textile good with cheap Russian imports. Unable to retrieve this business or to obtain new outlets for their products, the Mill closed in 1915.

A few years later, local businessman Samuel Kelly bought the factory and re-opened it with around 200 employees. Alas, after trying very hard for more than a decade, he was unable to make the business viable and the shutters came down for the last time in 1926 - aanother devastating blow for the local community because of the importance of the income generated through the Mill.

Danny Donnelly’s excellent tome, ‘The Sperrin and Their Foothills’, which is the source of this article, has an appendix which catalogues the full names of many of the workers in The Mill. Here are a list of some surnames - many of them familiar: Anderson, Atcheson, Bergin, Boyle, Bradley, Butler, Cairns, Campbell, Casey, Corr, Costley, Cullen, Devlin, Dolly, Donnelly, Dooey, Douglas, Duff, Dunn, Ferguson, Flanagan, Fleetwood, Foster, Gamble, Gillis, Girvan, Grimes, Harron, Henry, Holmes, Hughes, Jackson, Johnstone, Kelly, Kennedy, Kittle, Lindsay, McCaffrey, McAlinden, McCartney, McCaul, McCourt, McCracken, McCrum, McCullough, McGlade, McGurk, McIlwaine, McKnight, McKeown, McManus, McMenemy, McNally, McShane, Magee, Maginniss, Mallon, March, Morrison, Morrow, Mulgrew, Murphy, Neilson, Nixon, O’Donnell, O’Neill, Quinn, Patterson, Rafferty, Rainey, Robb, Robinson, Simpson, Steenson, Thompson, Toughell, Turner, Williamson and Wright.