For most of the 20th Century, Spence Bryson Linen Mill provided work for many people in and around Markethill. It continued a fine tradition of linen manufacture in the area.
The linen industry in Markethill and district was largely a domestic endeavour until the Victorian era. Linen production was copied in Britain and Ireland from the exiled French Huguenots. It was accepted as a means of augmenting the family income and provided a little more stability than exclusive reliance on agriculture.
A Linen Board was established in 1711 to advance the linen industry in Ireland and did much to aid a move from cottage beginnings to factory surroundings. In the 1888 DH Sinton purchased a plot of land adjacent to the railway station in Markethill and established a linen factory with twenty looms in operation. The tenants in the area largely welcomed this as it provided much needed employment and a means of survival and advancement. Sinton lived in Paxton House in Markethill until his death in 1909.
The chimneystack of the factory was eighty feet high and was built by Peter McLarnon of Belfast. Tradition within the town says McLarnon left an ounce of tobacco at the top of the stack for anyone brave enough to climb to the top. The tobacco was never claimed!
The factory was purchased by the Spence Bryson partnership in 1909 for the sum of £1,500. The partnership of Thomas Henry Spence and John Bell Bryson was commenced in 1884 and for the duration of their lives no formal deed of partnership was ever written up. Originally they operated in their native Portadown buying yarn for the cottage weavers to work with. They established Clonavon Factory in Portadown prior to extending their concern to Markethill. The first employee of the Spence Bryson Factory in Portadown was one D'Arcy Wentworth Sinnamon who operated as a bookeeper and had a habit of throwing ledgers about when the accounts failed to tally.
When Spence Bryson took over the factory in 1909 they appointed John Dawson as manager and he gave the company fifty years of loyal service. The venture quickly flourished with the factory advancing sufficiently to be in a position to sell directly to American concerns such as Marshall Field and Acheson Hardy. By 1910 the capital of the firm totalled almost £100,000.
The factory certainly made its presence felt in more than the employment sphere. Workers commenced work in dim and damp conditions at six each morning and the noise when the power looms were started was almost deafening. In the early days belts suspended from overhead shafting operated the looms. A shuttle made of hickory wood and tipped with metal was driven across the 'sley' (area between the weft threads) up to one hundred and sixty times each minute. Steam was released to prevent dry linen yarn from breaking and no doubt this exacerbated chest conditions, as did the practise of many employees of smoking woodbines, otherwise known as 'coffin nails'.
Spence Bryson was famous throughout the country and beyond for producing exceptional quality in its products. They produced Linen sheeting, white dress suiting, handkerchiefs, artists cloth and even aero cloth for use in the wings of planes. Mush talked of was the Tenter Tom Freeburn whose ability to set a loom was legendary. Such was the progress of the factory that during the depressed thirties when other mills and factories were closing their doors Spence Bryson was in fact working two shifts, twenty-four hours a day, with almost two hundred employees to complete their workload.
Weavers in the factory commenced work as soon as they left school aged fourteen. No references and interviews were required as jobs where attained through relatives already employed at the factory. New employees filled batteries for seven shillings (35p) per week but as they progressed to weaving they could hope to earn twenty-one shillings each week. There was no accepted retirement age and many workers continued to work into their eighties.
In 1958 George Chamber succeeded John Dawson as manager but he died prematurely at aged fifty-one. He was succeeded by Horace Adams who introduced the Rapier loom. Having no shuttle their looms were much more efficient and made significantly less noise. The downside of efficiency was of course that manual labour was usurped by technology and by the 1980's Spence Bryson employed only eighty workers.
On the 28th August 1991 Markethill was devastated by a terrorist bomb and the Spence Bryson Factory was destroyed. Amazingly a new factory was established within two days and only one order was lost.
Greig, W, General Report on the Gosford Estates in County Armagh with an introduction by FML Thompson and D Tierney (Belfast, 1976)
Hill, P, The Linen Valley (Belfast, 1992)
Marshall, P, "Spence Bryson and Co. Ltd. Linen Weaving Factory, Markethill in Before I Forget...", Journal of the Poyntzpass Historical Society (October 2000, No.8)
Additional material provided by Irene Grey, History Dept., Markethill High School.
(Article by Tom Ferris)
In the closing decade of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution came to Markethill. This quiet market town, lying within the shadow, had the lofty walls of the manorial park of the Earl of Gosford, had for centuries been the Mecca of the farming community for miles around. On its village green - or 'The Commons', as it is still called - they congregated with their cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep to pit their wits against the shrewdest 'dealers' in the country in an effort to obtain the best prices possible for their livestock. At the same time their wives and daughters went to the Markethouse to sell their eggs, butter, and poultry.
Money, however, was scarce in those days and many there were who returned home little richer for their 'outing'. What was wanted, they said, was some local industry that would bring money to the town.
In the 1890s, Mr Sinton, scion of the farmer Quaker entrepreneural family, already established at Laurelvale, and Tandragee, supplied this need. He purchased, from the Earl of Gosford, a small meadow adjacent to the new railway station, which now linked the town to the thriving industrial and commercial centres of Newry, Portadown, and Belfast; already linked by road, rail and water.
On this plot of, almost useless, land he built his first weaving factory, with twenty looms, and the auxiliary machinery for winding, warping, and dressing the yarns needed by the weavers.
In 1909, owing to advanced years, and indifferent health, Mr Sinton decided to sell his factory and retire from business. It was purchased by Messrs Spence Bryson of Portadown and became a part of the growing industrial empire of that firm. A firm with a secure base in the American market, owing to the sophisticated marketing skills of Mr T. H. Spence's sons.
Under the enlightened, and sale management of Mr John Dawson, Markethill mill became semi-autonomous, and secured the respect of linen manufacturers throughout Norther Ireland for the excellence of its weavers, of whom Minnie Topley, Minnie Mathers, Maggie Anne Trew, Mary O'Neill, and Alice Pickering, are but a few. It was also very fortunate in having a 'Tenter' of the calibre of Tom Freeburn whose skill in seeting a loom to weave the very finest and Sheerest cloth is still a legend. The skills he transmitted to the apprentices he trained still survive in the person of the present HeadTenter, Mr Bobby Cochrane, who received his training from one of the most skills of Mr Freeburn's neophyes, Mr Nat Boyce. Mr Dawson, a very young man when he took over the management of Markethill mill- now a still slert and active monagenarian living in retirement with his son, Dr Andrew Dawson, at Portadown, was always a 'perfectionist' and many a weaver's heart quaked when Tom Burns told them 'he wants you: But he was a fair and compassionate manager, and although's 'warnings' were often given the ultimate sanction of 'the sack' was but rarely enforced.
Perfection was a 'must' if the high reputation acquired by Markethill linen was to be maintained. The Sheers and Cambrics, woven on Butterworth and Dickenson looms, along the lines laid down by the late Tom Freeburn, were unique to Spence Bryson, and the envy of many of the Ulster linen manufacturers. Orders for them, from such 'giants' as the York Street Spinning Company, and Lamount, formed a staple part of the 'orders' filled by Spence Bryson. Some of these cloths were of almost unbelievable delicacy and I feel sure that some of the 2600 Cambrics, and the 2200 Sheers, where they survive, will one day become valuable museum pieces. Most of the hands who' wrought them are, alas, no more.
Mr Dawson was indefatigable in his efforts to introduce the latest 'tested and tried' technology into the production of even the finest linens, while still preserving the 'skills' of the 'old' weavers. Under his expect guidance weavers progressed from weaving two looms, to four, and them to six. Today twenty looms is a 'norm' for a weaver, but now the skill is in the technology, not in the weaver. Wages and profits increased commensurate to increased productivity and in the Trade Depression of the Thirties, when many larger, and longer established mills were closing, Markethill was working two shifts and became a veritable Mecca for many weavers who were out of work.
Although automation was in its infancy, automatic looms, for the weaving of a popular cotton tweed were introduced during the Twenties, and during the Thirties 'depression' did much to ensure that the factory wheels continued to turn, and the shuttles to 'sing:
Under Mr Dawson's successor, the late Mr George Chambers, further diversification was introduced, in technology, and in the patterns and qualities of the cloths, not all of them linen now, that were produced. Mr Chambers's early death robbed the firm, not only of an excellent manager, but of those special skills, of which he was master, in textile design.
Today, under the guiding hand of Mr Chambers's successor, Mr Horace Adams, an entirely new type of loom has been introduced - the 'rapier' loom. This loom which does not use shuttles, has a productivity potential many times greater than the 'traditional' loom of earlier days. It is also almost 'silent' in its operations. Soon there will no need for the old 'sign language' of the weavers, and, because of its producity potential lees need for weavers.
Some of the 'old' cloths, however, are still being produced, but the 'demand', is smaller, and the nature of linen yarn is such that it lends itself but uneasily to modern technological processes. Blended with other fibres it, possibly, cane be adapted, but that would mean the end of the pure fine Irish linen we knew, and on which the reputation of Ulster textiles was founded. Will some way be found to preserve the unique beauty of laundered Irish Linen? A beauty which may appeal more to the aesthete than the voluptuary, but which is, thankfully, even today, the 'hallmark' of good taste.
In 'the mill' of Mr Adams, the 'old' has been successfully married to the 'new', and I feel sure that under his expert management, his weavers and technicians can look forward to a bright and very prosperous future.