Linen Mills in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: Lichen, Lungs and Loss of Limbs

by Rebecca Watterson, Ulster University

Linen’s Rapid Expansion in Belfast

Nineteenth century Belfast became known as ‘Linenopolis’.[1] It was linen that drove the rapid population growth of Belfast from 25,000 in 1808 to 70,000 by 1841 and then 385,000 by 1911.[2] By the beginning of the twentieth century, Belfast was the linen capital of the world and the largest city in Ireland.

Up to the early 19th century across Ireland, linen was produced in a rural domestic setting. And it was the influence of the cotton industry that led to the industrialisation of linen production. In the early 19th century, developments in technology saw cotton being produced significantly cheaper than linen. Belfast was a leading exporter of cotton.[3] In 1800, 27,000 people were employed in cotton manufacture in Belfast and by 1811 that had increased to 50,000 people.[4] It has been estimated that there were at least 21 cotton mills in Belfast in 1826.[5]

These technical developments in the cotton industry led to a desire to achieve similar mechanisation of linen manufacture. In 1825, James Kay of Preston developed the wet spinning method which saw flax passed through warm water, creating a finer yarn for spinning.[6] This innovation was quickly adopted in Ireland and by 1850 a third of all the flax spinning mills were located in Belfast and were responsible for the production of over half of all the linen in Ireland.[7] Cotton production saw a global decline through the 1860s as cotton supplies were impacted by the American Civil War, and mills in Belfast began to shift to linen production, with only one cotton mill left in Belfast by 1875. Linen continued to develop as an industry and with it the landscape of Belfast shifted.[8]

Mills, factories, and linen warehouses were established with the majority of linen manufacturing occurring in the west of the city and small finishing factories located in the city centre. On the outskirts of Belfast city were also numerous scutching mills. Housing and indeed overcrowding became significant factors impacting the health of mill workers and their families. Housing conditions and the size of mill worker homes are discussed in several late 19th century medical reports including one published in 1873 by C.D. Purdon, certifying surgeon for Belfast. In The Mortality of Flax Mill and Factory Workers as compared with other classes of the community and the diseases they labour under and the causes that render the death rate from Phthisis &c., so high, he describes housing as deeply affecting the health of those working in the mills, who were not getting sufficient rest due to overcrowding.[9]

This overcrowding impacted on the spread of disease amongst those working in the mills and their families. Mill workers were affected by diseases such as tuberculosis. Through the 19th and into the 20th centuries, consumption (as tuberculosis was then often called) was associated significantly with the Belfast linen mills. It was not unusual for entire families to contract tuberculosis. The impact of the flax dust and hot, damp temperatures already causing chest illnesses amongst mill workers were connected to high rates of pulmonary and tubercular consumption.[10]

Image: Toe Rot: Diseased Tissue on the Toe and Nail of a Woman Showing Symptoms of Onychia. Watercolour by C. D’Alton c.1870. Wellcome Collection.

Working in the Mill

Different parts of the process of linen manufacture saw different working conditions, so the health (and illnesses) of those who worked in the mill depended on which room they worked in.

Preparing and Hackling: Working in the preparing room where flax was prepared was described by one mill manager in 1875 as being ‘sure death’.[11] The process of preparing the flax and also hackling, which is the process of splitting the flax fibres, created a huge amount of flax dust or ‘pouce’. These rooms in the mill were badly ventilated and so the workers were almost constantly inhaling this dust. It dried out your throat, caused a cough and led to chest illnesses such as byssinosis. Those suffering from byssinosis would often have a cough, fever, shivers, fatigue, and their lungs would usually be permanently affected.[12]

Spinning: The spinning rooms where the flax was spun together to create yarn were wet and hot. This was to stop the flax from breaking, but these working conditions deeply impacted the spinners. They worked in their bare feet in attempts to stay cool, but the floor was always wet and so we see spinners suffering from what they describe as toe or foot rot. John Moore a doctor, in 1867 described ‘onychia’ where the nail bed becomes infected and ultimately the nail is lost, and also ‘deformity of the foot’ as being prevalent amongst the people working in the spinning departments.[13] The spinners also worked with hot water which caused a skin condition on the face and arms, or any skin uncovered that was touched by flax water. Purdon called this ‘lichen’.[14] In the hot and humid conditions, it might be unsurprising that spinners often fainted and this was sometimes attributed to anaemia.[15]

Weaving: Weaving, where the linen cloth is produced using looms, came with its own set of possible and likely illnesses. Again, this was a warm, damp and badly ventilated room in the mill and we see weavers suffering from chest afflictions such as bronchitis.[16]

Mechanisation: Injuries at work were very common because of the mill machinery, especially the loss of limbs. On 11th December 1858, the story of William Browne was told in the Belfast Newsletter:

Yesterday a young lad named William Browne aged 14 years, was brought to the general hospital, suffering from a severe laceration of the right arm while at work in Messrs Stewart & McCellands mill at Ligoniel. The injury inflicted was so severe a nature that it was found necessary to amputate the arm at the elbow.[17]

Image: Amputation Case, Mid-19th Century. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Improvements by Mill Owners

The 1908 Belfast Health Commission report described an improvement in working conditions, particularly in hackling, where the Health Commission detailed the installation of fans to draw away flax dust, as well as improvements to ventilation.[18] The fans followed an earlier attempt by Robert Baker, Chief Inspector of Factories in Ireland, to introduce the ‘Baker’ respirator.[19] This was a device to protect the workers from the flax dust, but they were unpopular. Working conditions in the linen mills would continue to be of serious concern and detrimental to health into the late 20th century.

Women and Children

A greater number of women than men were employed in the linen mills in Belfast. Up to 1895, they made up approximately 70% of the mill workforce.[20] In 1910, the Weekly Irish Times described infant mortality rates as being very high and attributed this to the number of ‘premature births amongst women working in the mills and factories’ who often had to work up to the beginning of their confinement. Women often returned to work quickly after giving birth, ultimately because their wages were necessary for their families survival.[21]

In 1867, the Factory Acts allowed children to begin work from the age of 8 years old. They could be employed for 6 hours each day, and also had to attend 3 hours of school. They started work at 6am on alternate fortnights and this was usually after a travelling some distance to the mill.[22] The Factories Act 1874 did increase the starting age to 10 years old and allowed them to attend alternate days at school. However, poverty was rife and so sometimes the age of the children was lied about so they could enter the mill at an earlier age and begin contributing to the keep of the house.[23]

Children often worked in machine, preparing, and spinning rooms. The children inhaled flax dust in the machine and preparing rooms meaning their lungs were exposed to this dust from a young age. By the time they were ‘full-timers’ in the mill, they were often already suffering from chest problems.[24] Children in the spinning rooms often worked as doffers. Although less affected by dust, they were affected by heat and vapours from the boiling water through which the flax is passed. Their clothes were often wet as the water sprayed from the spindles. They left work in wet clothes, and it was believed that this coupled with the change in temperatures from the hot spinning room to the cold outside air induced bronchial affections.[25]

Doffers often suffered from mill fever, usually within their first days at work. The fever lasted for up to 8 days, with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, headache, and fever. No treatment was considered necessary as it was accepted that the fever will pass and the sufferer would be unlikely to experience it again. It was surmised that the smell of the oil along with the vapour and heat of the spinning room was the cause.[26]

Image: Lichen Leg affected with Lichen Ruber. St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Trade Unionism & Health

During the 20th century campaigns from mill workers attempting to seek pay increases occurred. For instance, on 10 May 1906, spinners of the York Street Spinning Mill demanded a 10% increase and when they received no response, they went on strike. Other mill workers across Belfast joined them, and almost 30 of the mills in Belfast were involved in strike action. The dispute ended in July 1906 with no increase and meaning a continuance of poverty wages impacted the health of mill workers and their families.[27]

The 1908 Belfast Health Commission report is one of many reports that repeatedly discussed the diet of mill workers. Subsisting upon a paltry diet of tea, white bread and butter was blamed for ill health and a ‘weak constitution’. Mills such as York Street Spinning Company Mills provided meals at cost price in a canteen and it was not understood why workers still preferred tea and bread. There was no consideration that even cost price was completely unaffordable for such low paid workers.[28]

In the York Street Mill, there was a fine system established which forbade workers from singing, talking, or laughing in work.  In 1911 following a meeting with James Connolly, the Textile Workers’ Union was established as part of the Transport Union. The workers went on strike and returned to work singing, laughing, and talking, and some of those restrictions did disappear.[29]

Winifred Carney who was Secretary of the women’s section of the Irish Textile Workers’ Union and wrote with Connolly the 1913 Manifesto to the ‘Linen Slaves of Belfast’ which stated:

Many Belfast mills are slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children. But while the world is deploring your conditions, they also unite in deploring your slavish and servile nature in submitting to them: they unite in wondering what material these Belfast women are made, who refuse to unite together and fight to better their conditions… Sisters and Fellow-workers, talk this matter over, do not be frightened by the timid counsels and fears of weaklings. Be brave. Have confidence in yourselves. Talk about success, and you will achieve success…[30]

Saidie Patterson, a mill worker during the 1930s and 1940s described the children or half-timers walking to work in their bare feet through snow and women lifting them to warm their feet in the hot water troughs in the spinning room. In 1940, Saidie and other mill workers at Ewarts went on strike for seven weeks because of working conditions but their demands were not met.[31]

Linen went into a decline from around the mid-twentieth century but there are stories from former workers of mills that operated up to the early 1990s describing working conditions as being almost the same as those described in the 19th and early 20th centuries including spinning in their bare feet.[32]

© The Author(s) 2021. Published by the Epidemic Belfast team on behalf of Ulster University. Any unauthorised broadcasting, public performance, copying or re-recording will constitute an infringement of copyright.

[1] Alice Johnson, Middle-Class Life in Victorian Belfast (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), p. 5.

[2] Census of Ireland, 1911, Preliminary Report with Abstract of the Enumerators’ Summaries, c. BPP 1911 LXX [Cd.5691] 11.

[3] Frank Geary, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Belfast Cotton Industry: Some Problems’, Irish Economic and Social History, 8 (1981).

[4] Geary, ‘Rise and Fall of the Belfast Cotton Industry’.

[5] Frank Geary, ‘The Belfast Cotton Industry Revisited’, Irish Historical Studies, 26 (1989).

[6] John Horner, The Dawn of Flax Spinning Machinery, Journal of the Textile Institute Proceedings and Abstracts, 1 (1910).

[7] ‘Belfastiensis’ [I. XW. Ward], Power Loom Pioneers, in J. J. Marshall’s collection of newspaper cuttings in the Linen Hall library, Belfast, ii. 187; Conrad Gill, Rise of the Irish Linen Industry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), p. 318.

[8] Mary Lowry, The Story of Belfast and its Surroundings (Belfast: Headley, 1913).

[9] Charles D. Purdon, The Mortality of Flax Mill and Factory Workers, and the Diseases they Labour Under (Belfast: H. Adair, 1877), p. 5.

[10] Robert H. Newett, Address to Mill-Workers on the Prevalence of Consumption Among Them, and on Certain Causes of it which are Preventable (Belfast: W. and G. Baird, 1875), pp. 6-7, p. 9.

[11] Charles D. Purdon, The Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District during Ten Years (1864 to 1875 Inclusive) Under Various Aspects (Belfast: H. Adair, 1877), p. 14.

[12] Purdon, Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District, p. 12; J. Moore, ‘The Influence of Flax Spinning on the Health of the Mill Workers of Belfast’, Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (1867).

[13] Henry S. Purdon, ‘Flax and Linen’, in Thomas Oliver (ed.), Dangerous Trades. The Historical, Social, and Legal Aspects of Industrial Health as Affecting Health by a Number of Experts (London: John Murray, 1902), p. 699; Moore, ‘The Influence of Flax Spinning’.

[14] Purdon, Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District, p. 15.

[15] Moore, ‘The Influence of Flax Spinning’.

[16] Purdon, Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District, p. 8.

[17] ‘Accidents in Mills’, Belfast Newsletter (11 December 1858).

[18] ‘Belfast Health Commission. Report to the Local Government Board for Ireland’, House of Commons Papers, Reports of Commissioners, Cd.4128,vol. 31, 1908.

[19] Henry S. Purdon, ‘Flax and Linen’, in Thomas Oliver (ed.), Dangerous Trades. The Historical, Social, and Legal Aspects of Industrial Health as Affecting Health, By a Number of Experts (London: John Murray, 1902), p. 696.

[20] D. L. Armstrong, ‘Social and Economic Conditions in the Belfast Linen Industry, 1850-1900’, Irish Historical Studies, 7 (1951); Janet Greenlees, ‘Hidden Voices: Women, Cotton and Health’, Valley Voices: A Literary Review, 20:2 (2020).

[21] ‘The Health of Belfast’, Weekly Irish Times (20 August 1910).

[22] Purdon, The Mortality of Flax Mill and Factory Workers, p.5.

[23] Factories (Health of Women and Young Persons in Textile Factories) Act (1874), 37 & 38 Vict. c. 44; Marilyn Cohen, ‘Survival Strategies In Female-Headed Households: Linen Workers In Tullylish, County Down, 1901’, Journal Of Family History, 17:3 (1992).

[24] Purdon, Mortality of Flax Mill and Factory Workers, p. 5; Purdon, Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District, p. 10.

[25] Purdon, Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District, p. 10; Purdon, Mortality of Flax Mill Workers, pp. 5-6.

[26] Purdon, Sanitary State of the Belfast Factory District, pp. 14-15.

[27] ‘Belfast Mill Strike’, Dundee Evening Telegraph (23 May 1906); ‘Walker and the Belfast Mill Girls’, Socialist (Edinburgh) (01 July 1906).

[28] ‘Belfast Health Commission. Report to the Local Government Board for Ireland’, House of Commons Papers, Reports of Commissioners, Cd.4128,vol. 31, 1908.

[29] ‘Belfast Mill Strike’, The Irish Worker (28 October 1911).

[30] James Connolly, Manifesto of Irish Textile Workers’ Union (Belfast, 1913).

[31] Women’s Research and Development Agency, Celebrating Belfast Women: A City Guide through Women’s Eyes, Belfast Women’s History Tour,; Janet Greenlees, ‘Workplace Health And Gender Among Cotton Workers In America And Britain, C.1880S–1940S’, International Review Of Social History, 61 (2016).

[32] For more on textile industry working environments and occupational health reform, see: Janet Greenlees, When the Air Became Important: A Social History of the New England and Lancashire Textile Industries (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2019).

5 thoughts on “Linen Mills in Nineteenth-Century Belfast: Lichen, Lungs and Loss of Limbs”

  1. Since I have been able to access the death records for some of my Irish ancestors and their families, I have been appalled by the high rates of death for some of those families, especially from TB. Housing has seemed to be a key there. I was amazed that my grandfather survived and am not surprised that the took the opportunity to find work in Bristol in the early 1900s. My grandmothers brothers and sisters were also involved in the linen trade, spinners in 1901 . By 1912/13 most had left for America. A very interesting and informative article thank you .

  2. Thanks so much for your comments and feedback, Fran. We’re glad you enjoyed reading the article.

  3. My quilt guild is running a challenge called Linen and Lace. I would be keen to incorporate some of your article in my art quilt entry. Would that be ok please.
    Ros Taylor
    New Zealand

  4. Yes definitely! Please feel free to drop us an email about your entry – we love hearing about how people use our research.

  5. I am writing a book on linen and bleaching mills in Northern Ireland and found this paper extremely helpful, informative and interesting.

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