Lurgan Weaving Industry

by Jim McIllmurry

Lurgan Weavers and Winders Strike

For over two hundred years Lurgan had a reputation of excellence for producing quality linen. Hand loom weavers in the Lurgan area had brought their webs into Lurgan on market day and sold them to the linen merchants. It was a low paid job with long hours and many worked until their premature death.

Around the year 1800 there was a Linen Hall in the Mall, (Church Place) each Friday hand-loom weavers laid out their webs on tables. Linen merchants came from all over the country to purchase in Lurgan. Records from 1825 show weekly sales averaged from £2,500 to £3,000. When the material came off the loom it was a tan, brownish colour. It had to be bleached white. Laid out after washing on bleaching greens and of course guarded and protected. At the start of the 17th century the Dougher townland was a bleaching green, including the area of the recently built apartments at the corner of Lake Street and the Antrim Road.

As a linen producing town, it will come as no surprise that approximately half the population of Lurgan depended on the industry in the early part of the last century. It was not unusual to find three or four members of the one family employed in the mill. Men were mainly weavers and most of the winders were women. Children of both sexes were employed from the age of 12. They were called “learners”. They went to school on alternative days. In 1855, a man called James Malcolm introduced the power loom to Lurgan. He built a factory where Malcolm Road is today and that chanced the game. Within ten years it had changed the face of Lurgan, Malcom had extended his factory and more were being built in other areas of the town. To some it was a blessing such a factory coming to the town, but for the hand loom weavers, it was the end of their industry. They even held a protest against the building of such a factory..

The wealth of the linen barons increased greatly at the turn of the last century, the demand for the product had never been greater, but wages hadn’t increased since 1886. Any of those brave enough to ask about a pay rise often received their cards at the end of the week and told there was an abundance of willing workers prepared to take their job, which was in fact true.

In the early part of the last century the increased membership of the trade unions in Lurgan became a force to be reckoned with. They took the case of a living wage to the main employers, Johnston & Allen, The Ulster Weaving Company and Messers Malcom Ltd. The early part of 1913 was a particularly lean period for many Lurgan families. A strike that had entered its fifth week saw many families struggle to live, as shown in the faces of many of your ancestors in the photograph of Lurgan Weavers and winders strike in Market street above. The Lurgan linen barons stood firm in their resolve. Eventually an agreement was reached which saw a very slight increase in their wage.

It was hard work with a minimal wage and the profit and wealth it amassed for the factory owners can still be seen in many properties around the town to this day.

Our thanks to Jim for his kindness in giving us permission to publish these stories here.

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