Under the mercantilist system linen was viewed as Ireland’s contribution to imperial trade, and as such it received the support of the imperial government. The linen industry, like the woollen industry, was keyed into the demands of the English textile industry and benefited from its rapid development during the eighteenth century. For example, Ireland provided yarn for the Lancashire linen and particularly for the early cotton industry, where it was used to strengthen the weft. During the seventeenth century various attempts had been made to encourage the Irish linen industry, but none of them had succeeded in bringing it to the point of sustained development.

Traditionally much of its eighteenth-century success has been attributed to the part played by the Huguenot refugees in developing the industry, and especially to Louis Crommellin and the colony that he settled around Lisburn in 1698. In part this attribution has resulted from the convergence of three events: the English government’s decision to encourage the linen and discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland, the desire to encourage protestant settlers in general and Huguenots in particular, and the fortuitous arrival of Crommellin at this time.

Anxious to encourage both Huguenot settlement and the linen industry, the Irish administration gave considerable financial support to Crommellin’s settlement at Lisburn, where a ready source of motivated labour was available in the surrounding counties.

Crommellin’s system was to establish colonies of weavers and control their production through supervision and the provision of raw materials. Enterprising landlords followed his example and introduced colonies of weavers into an area in the same way, thereby ensuring supplies and marketing and also instruction for their tenants. Throughout the century this supervised system existed along with the independent weaver.

However, in 1707, Crommellin’s community was scattered by the great fire at Lisburn, and thereafter local rather than Huguenot names predominate in the linen manufacture of the area. Nevertheless, the Huguenots’ contribution was a quantum jump in the development of the industry, for their particular skill lay in producing fine linens. By 1736 when another Huguenot, de Joncourt, with the encouragement of the Linen Board, established a cambric manufactory at Dundalk the standard of weaving fine and often elaborately patterned linens was well established.

In 1700 linen, hemp and flax accounted for 8.4 per cent of Irish exports, while wool accounted for 30.2 per cent. By the late 1790s the picture was startlingly different: 56.5 per cent of exports were of linen and related goods, while wool and woollen goods had fallen to 1.2 per cent. From a meagre base at the beginning of the century, the linen industry had come to dominate Irish textile manufacture by its close. It also became concentrated in the northern half of the island, and in particular in the north-east.

Some landlords, such as Thomas Adderley at Innishannon and Sir Richard Cox at Dunmanway, established settlements of weavers in Co. Cork, and there was a small enclave of spinners and weavers who prospered there, exporting their linen through Cork. There was also a home market for linen, particularly for the narrow and coarser bandle types. Fine linens were produced in the ‘linen triangle’ – south Antrim, central and west Down and north Armagh.

The main linen spinning and weaving counties remained north of Dublin. The reason for the mainly northern location of the industry is unclear, for it came neither with the Scots nor with the Huguenots, although both made a substantial contribution to its eighteenth-century success. Certainly the Ulster landlords were supportive, but they were not unique in wishing to raise the incomes of their tenantry. Conditions of work and the reasonable assurance of markets may have suited the cautious, independent temperament of the Ulster people, while the woollen manufacture may have been more established in the other provinces and the peasantry more conservative.

The linen manufacture was organised within the family hierarchy. The father wove, did the marketing and any business associated with it, and trained his sons when they were of an appropriate age. The men also did some supplementary farming or fishing, depending on the locality and circumstances. The mother looked after the house, spun the flax, taught the younger children to prepare it for her, and in due course trained her daughters in her skills. Diverse family circumstances might modify this basic pattern, but in 1825 the Select Committee on the Linen Trade of Ireland was told that:

The linen trade is so constituted in Ireland and the capital so subdivided and spread abroad over the population … [that] to alter it (were it even desirable) you must recast the state of society … It is now a mixture of agriculture and manufacture, and I think it tends greatly to the health and morali­ty of the people.

Despite its social virtues, the linen industry was not immune to the commercial imperatives of industrialisation. However, technological development delayed the recasting of society until the mid-nineteenth century, by which time the industry was resilient enough to survive it.

The Linen Board. The industry did not have the smooth beginning that its later success might suggest. In 1709 its condition had degenerated to such a point that parliament decided to investigate it. A Select Committee was appointed, and reported that ‘It was in a declining condition, by reason the Acts already passed for the encouragement thereof have not fully answered the ends for which they were made.’

As a result of this Report, parliament allocated funds for the encouragement of the linen manufacture, 9 Anne, c. 3. At the same time it established the Linen Board for distribution of the funds and for the general oversight of the industry. The Board is of particular interest because it is a very early example of a government encouraging commercial development by providing a supporting educational and regulatory infrastructure. The industry had many facets both in stages of production and marketing, and spinners, weavers, bleachers, manufacturers, and merchants at home and overseas all wished to see any group regulated but their own.

The Linen Board had 72 members, 18 representing each province. Membership was a much sought-after honour, and members were almost invariably members of one or other house of parliament. They were frequently deafened by assorted experts preaching contradictory theories. Attendance was, as with other public bodies, voluntary.

The prestige of its members disarmed the unavoidable and sometimes justified criticism aroused by its activities, while the large membership allowed for the inevitably high rate of absenteeism. The quorum for conducting business was seven, and, given its unwieldy size and eighteenth-century conditions, the Board operated surprisingly successfully.

The large membership contained not only influence but expertise. For instance, from 1740 to 1763 the Board’s legislation was drafted by Anthony Foster (0804), Baron and later Chief Baron of the Court of the Exchequer. Influence was useful in ensuring that legislation had an easy passage in both the Irish and British Privy Councils. To this end the Linen Board, in common with other eighteenth-century pressure groups such as the West Indian merchants, kept an agent in London to lobby in its interests and expedite its affairs.

The educational duties of the Board involved the erection of spinning schools in areas that, it was hoped, would benefit from them. Usually the initial move to establish the school was made by the local landowner and the school was established under his or his wife’s patronage. The request would be reviewed by the Board, which might send an inspector, known as an ‘itinerant man’.

For approved schools the applicant provided the building, a spinning mistress and the flax to spin. So long as there were 12 to 20 children to be taught, the Board supplied the school with spinning-wheels. In return the patron or patroness marketed the finished goods and was entitled to keep any profits from selling the yarn. For each child instructed the spinning mistress received 6s a year from the Board, while the child’s parents received 6d a week for his or her food and clothing. To obtain these payments the schoolmistress submitted a quarterly return sworn before the parish clergyman or a Justice of the Peace.

Furthermore, to prevent fraud, the itinerant man was expected to check on every school within his district once a quarter, varying the days of his visitation. He was to inspect the attendance register and note and discover the cause of any absences, for which deductions would be made, and he was to forward the register to the Board. This scheme had a built-in defect: it was in the interests of both parents and teacher to falsify the attendance roll. Children who could already spin were sent to or kept at school to get the child allowance and to augment the mistress’s salary, and there were many more complicated frauds than this simple arrangement.

Regulating a dispersed cottage industry, with no guild structure to fall back on, was difficult. Quality control involved not only the production of the linen but also its bleaching, with potential to injure the cloth. The bleaching season was from March to October and the bleachers were anxious to acquire a stock of webs for this period, during which the weavers were partly occupied in agricultural pursuits.

Early in the century the webs were boiled in a mixture of potash (barilla) and buttermilk - this was replaced by diluted sulphuric acid in the 1760s. Finally, the web was rinsed in cold water. Labour-saving wash mills, rubbing boards and beetling mills (to give the linen a glossy finish) appeared in the 1730s.

In both cultivation and preparation, flax was very labour-intensive and a task for the entire family. The ground required extensive preparation before flax could be sown, and when harvested it had to be hand-pulled by the roots. It was then soaked (retted) for about a fortnight in water-filled pits or dams to allow the fibres to be separated from the wooden core.

As it retted it filled the countryside with a distinctive smell. Water-powered scutching mills to separate the retted flax were known from the 1730s, but not widely used until the 1760s.

The Linen Board drew most of its income from three sources: the proceeds of certain customs and excise duties or their commutation, annual parliamentary grants, and special grants for specific non-recurring purposes. Its original income came, appropriately, from import duties on calico and linen. These produced about £1,600 p.a. and in 1719, 6 Geo. I, c. 7, they were augmented by the more lucrative duties on tea, coffee, chocolate and cocoa.

These, particularly the duties on tea and coffee, rose as the century progressed. Eventually they were commuted into an annual sum of £10,350 p.a. Income from the remaining duties was increased by a grant of the import duty on linseed oil and an export levy on untanned hides. In 1780 the bounty on imported flax-seed was similarly commuted for £7,250 p.a. The Board had other resources, as in 1723 parliament made a direct annual grant of £2,000 p.a., 10 Geo. I, c. 2.

A decade later this was augmented by a further £2,000 p.a., specifically earmarked for encouraging the lagging industry in Leinster, Munster and Connacht, 7 Geo. II, c. 10. One-off grants to the Linen Board included £3,000 in 1721-3 towards the cost of erecting the Linen Hall in Dublin, and a further £540 in 1741 to purchase ground for its expansion.

In 1788 the total income of the Board was £21,600 Irish p.a., with some minor additions. In 1800 this sum was computed as £19,938 sterling, and this was annually voted at Westminster until 1827, when it was reduced to £10,000 prior to the winding-up of the Board. By 1828, when the Board was dissolved, the parliament that created and sustained it had ceased to exist as a separate entity. The Board had gradually become moribund and the conduct of its business passed increasingly into the hands of its permanent officials. In large part this was because the industry had developed its own momentum; new marketing techniques had evolved and new technology had changed its methods.

Nevertheless, the Linen Board was, despite its failures, a remarkably progressive achievement for an eighteenth-century government, particularly given the lack of infrastructure and experience that largely accounted for its problems. For instance, the problem of effective inspectorates was not successfully solved until the mid-nineteenth century.

Linen manufacturing and marketing. Although there was always a certain amount of ‘putting-out’ by middlemen, many of the weavers operated independently. They either grew and processed their own flax or purchased their yarn, selling their webs on the open market. In 1825 the term ‘linen manufacturer’ was explained to the Select Committee on the Linen Trade as one who ‘does not work at the loom himself, but who buys his yarn and gives it out to weavers employed by him to be woven into cloth, which he sells himself in the public market’.

At the beginning of the century the linen draper was the key figure in marketing. He bought the brown webs, contracted with the bleachers to bleach and finish them, and then arranged for their sale. By 1728, when the Dublin Linen Hall was built, the bleachers had begun to combine their finishing role with the marketing role of the draper; by the 1760s they dominated the industry.

The manufacturer’s role was slightly different, as he was essentially a middleman who was willing to tie up his capital in yarn, whereas the bleacher preferred to use his to modernise or expand his bleach greens. As the century progressed the markets became increasingly specialised and centred on certain towns such as Banbridge, Lisburn, Lurgan, Coleraine and Ballymoney.

This encouraged the development of another class of middlemen, who bought webs in outlying districts and resold them at the major markets. Once the cloth was bought, it was bleached and the impurities removed on the bleachers’ bleach greens. This finishing process was concentrated in the east of Ulster, where it benefited from economies of scale and improved technology, particularly the use of chemicals for bleaching.

Merchandising linen required capital and credit and, because of the finance involved, for most of the century the finished white linens were brought from all over Ireland for sale at the Dublin Linen Hall. Young found that ‘the linen manufacture is very general about Coleraine … it is carried to Dublin in cars 110 miles, at 5s per cwt in summer and 7s 6d in winter.’

In 1782, a serious and long-standing quarrel over the regulation of the manufacture finally erupted and ended the monopoly of the Dublin Linen Hall. No one quarrelled with the objective behind the dispute, which was to ensure the quality of the linen being offered at all levels to buyers. The dispute was over the means to achieve this end. The basic problem was that the marketing system did not allow adequate time to inspect the goods on offer, which could be fraudulent in measurement and defective in workmanship.

The linen was brought to market by the weaver, who rolled it tightly except for a small showpiece known as the lap-yard. On the strength of this the bargain for the web was made, the draper’s clerk writing the draper’s name and the agreed price per yard on the cloth. Brown linen markets opened at 10 a.m. when a bell was rung, and closed at 4 p.m. - yarn sales began at 8 a.m. After the close of the market the webs were measured, the bargain finalised and the weaver paid in cash.

Market prices fluctuated with supply and demand. But, as the bleacher or his agent might have bought as many as 60 webs, the cloth had often to be measured at such speed that the quality of the web was barely seen, let alone inspected. In 1796 De Latocnaye recorded that:

It is surprising to note the speed with which the linen merchants examine the cloth. They stand on a sort of platform with a little desk before them, while the peasants carry their webs past and stop for just a moment. The merchant looks, and immediately mentions a price; if it is accepted, he marks it on the cloth, and the peasant goes to the office for payment.

The longevity of this system of independent selling through brown linen markets, and its persistence against the alternative of a putting-out system, is interesting. This preference for direct dealing possibly reflects the weaver’s desire ‘to be his own man’, while it allowed the bleachers a greater freedom in price, selection and quality.

However, in an attempt to regulate the market at least to some extent, the Linen Board in 1733, 7 Geo. II, c. 9, 10, appointed lappers whose duty was to inspect the linen brought to market. An act of 1745, 19 Geo. II, c. 6, enjoined that cloth should be lapped (folded), rather like a table cloth, so that it could easily be opened for inspection. Both of these statutes created friction between the weavers and the linen drapers, and were allowed to lapse. But by 1759, rising complaints from English factors, and returned merchandise, indicated that the situation had become critical.

The linen drapers pressed the Linen Board and parliament to make the 1733 and 1745 acts effective. The Linen Board responded by appointing brown linen seal masters, who were to inspect the webs before the market opened and, if they were of good even quality, to affix their seal. The seal master could charge a penny for every piece sealed. The northern weavers were furious, and when the law (33 Geo. II, c. 5) was to be enforced at the Lisburn market in May 1762, they rioted, beating up the drapers and damaging property.

However, popular opinion was against the weavers and the system was introduced but made more palatable by appointing respected weavers to be seal masters. This both appealed to the weavers’ individualism and made the system self-policing, for the seal carried the seal master’s name and reputation. Nevertheless, by 1782 corruption had again crept into the system.

Part of the problem was that the War of American Independence had created a shortage of potash for bleaching and lime had been substituted. If lime was not to have a delayed destructive action on the cloth it had to be very carefully monitored, and this care was not always taken. In an attempt to restore the reputation of the manufacture, the Linen Board decided to withdraw the brown linen seals from the weavers and to make the bleachers responsible for sealing white linen. The bleachers were to accept the Linen Board’s regulations and swear that they would not seal ‘any linen that is mildewed, rotten, unmerchantable, or fraudulently made up, bleached or whitened, or … any false length or breadth.’

The bleachers were now furious, as they felt that if they had to affix their seal to all linens that were merchantable they could lose their individual reputations for supplying quality goods, built up over many years. Moreover, the northern drapers blamed the Dublin factors for the act (21 & 22 Geo. III, c. 35), and established their own white linen halls at Newry and Belfast.

In fact, the days of linen halls were virtually at an end. Many of the manufacturers no longer needed to trade through this intermediate facility. They had amassed sufficient capital to provide the credit required to trade directly with the English merchants. By the second half of the eighteenth century some bleachers, such as Thomas Christie of Moyallen, Co. Down, were wealthy.

When Christie died in 1780 he left £2,000 to each of his five granddaughters, while his two grandsons inherited, in addition to various sums of money, 6,000 acres of land in North Carolina; finally, the core of his estate – the large bleach green and a considerable amount of property scattered throughout Ulster – was left to their father, his son-in-law. Another son-in-law and his children also received considerable legacies.

Similarly, families such as the Clarks of Upperlands, Co. Londonderry were sufficiently prosperous to industrialise in the early nineteenth century. Industrialisation affected the linen industry comparatively late, although when it came, in the years after the famine, it brought the usual social and economic disruption – particularly to the weavers, many of whom rejected factory employment and turned back to farming.