Times past with Brian Gabriel

The Blarney Woollen Mills in 1881

Half an Acre of Roofing In 1881, Mahonys Blarney Woollen Mills had 127 power looms for weaving, 11,262 spindles for spinning and enough business coming in to keep them going at full operation. As many as 90 of the looms were contained in one vast room, which was “fine, airy” and “covered by half an acre of roofing”. So said a visitor, with a keen eye for detail, who was given a tour of the factory when he visited Blarney in the September of that year. Our visitor filed two reports* with the Freeman’s Journal newspaper and they provide us with a unique glimpse into the workings of the plant at that point in time. Today, the ‘Woollen Mills’ is inextricably linked with tourism and shopping, but in 1881 this truly was an industrial operation on a massive scale, one which had an all-pervading influence on the economic and social life of the locality. Installed Power The machinery of the Blarney Tweed Manufactory, as it was also sometimes known, was capable of being powered by both steam and water. Two steam engines were working at 112 and 114 horsepower at the time of the visit but were capable of getting up to 220 and 125. There were a further three water turbines which were equal to 30 horsepower at low-water time (the drier summer months) but which could get up to 130 horsepower at high-water in the winter. These derived their impetus from a fall of 24 feet and were a supplement to the steam power. Mahonys had brought their operations from Cork to Blarney in 1824 during a time of economic recession. There they found a small mill building standing idle on the banks of the river Martin, which had been erected in about 1800 through parliamentary grants made to encourage the linen industry. Its one water wheel, which generated 14 horsepower, had long since disappeared and been replaced by the steam-power potential of 345 horsepower. Perfect Machines of Inventive Genius Two large coal-gas tanks supplied the modern plant with lighting and, all told, it had “many of the most perfect machines that inventive genius has yet devised”. One particularly expensive machine had recently arrived from Scotland and, in fact, much of the plant was quite new having been procured within the previous 18 months. Two years earlier, the firm found itself very much cramped by a lack of space but had since obtained seven acres in the immediate vicinity, which gave it a total of ten, to spread its works over. No time was lost diverting the river and where water formerly rolled along there now stood the dyeing, washing and scouring rooms. All this expansion had raised communication problems between the different departments and this was something, “intercommunication”, which management had targeted for improvement. The new space was needed – the firm was processing 60,000 stone of wool in a year. It was sourced principally within Ireland, but came from England and Australia as well. There were four markets held each year in London for Australian wool. When the raw material got to Cork it was sorted in “enormous rooms full of it”. Even the cleanest Irish wool proved very dirty but the Australian stuff, which was very short, was excessively so, being frequently shipped without having been washed. The whole cleaning process decreased the bulk by 3 out of every 5 pounds, meaning that for every 5 bought, just 2 pounds was yielded to the manufacturer. Spinning and Twisting Early in the process the material was passed through willowing machines to beat out the dust. Next came the teasing machines, which mixed qualities and colours together. Two of these were of a different make and action and were used specially for the Australian wool. After teasing, the wool went to the carding machines. There were 28 of these machines for “this beautiful process” and they delivered the short wool for tweeds in 64 thick ropes. The next stages in the process were spinning, twisting, warping, wefting and weaving before finishing. Then it goes to the dye house where £1,000 of indigo had been used in three months. Popular colour preference was not the explanation for this since all black yarns had to be dyed blue first to make the colour fast. Near the latter end of the whole process came the more sedate occupation of examining pieces of product by window light as they came over a trapeze. Any noticed defects were remedied by darning and white threads or any unseemly faults were picked out by girls with a special instrument that looked like a scissors. The fabrics were then folded in squares with alternate layers of warm tin before being pressed hydraulically. Not the Enemy of the Labouring Class All this was being done by the 730 people employed by the firm in September 1881. This was a massive increase of 130 on the previous May and a sure sign of the flourishing state of things. Also, according to our visitor, an indication that machinery need not necessarily be considered the enemy of the manual labouring class. In fact, throughout his review, he rings the praises of machinery for bringing about an age superior to what were sentimentally and erroneously called the “good old times”. Yet this flourishing state of business brought other problems to the firm besides the relatively straightforward and practical one of intercommunication. Blarney was an oasis of industrial society, but it was surrounded by an older agricultural world. This world displayed “an aversion entertained by even the poorest class of farmers against the manufacturing industry as an employment for their daughters”. They seemed, according to the visitor, to look down with a mistaken disdain upon mill work. Of the 730 employees, only “two or three” were farmers daughters and surely, he thought, it would be better for the poor and struggling farmer to send his daughter to a well-managed factory than to leave her at home in “idleness”. No doubt many a farmer’s daughter in the Blarney district would have disagreed with him about the “idleness”. Good Looks to a Striking Degree The great majority of the employees, then, were women (several of them married) and girls but there were also boys engaged at the mule-spinning and other operations. A great tidiness was noted among them, greater than he had observed in other countries. They all seemed healthy also, but “of course they are living in a country wherein, it seemed to me, the feminine portion of the population possess good and healthy looks to a striking degree”. It can have been no mean feat to maintain these when each work day stretched from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Payment was by piece work and a year’s wages for the firm amounted to a staggering £18,700 or £360 per week. In 1830, they had not exceeded £15 per week with 11 shillings being the highest paid to any one individual. Maintaining Motivation To maintain worker motivation, the Mahonys had devised an incentive scheme or, to use language closer to the time, they offered prizes and premiums. To this end, the half-yearly earnings of each employee were totalled from which all fines for such infringements as being late were first of all trebled and then deducted. The prizes were then awarded upon the balance, the person who had earned the highest amount getting a top prize of 10 shillings and so on by a percentage scale, everyone who had earned up to a certain amount getting some prize. When asked why the fines were trebled, our visitor found he got no clear and satisfactory answer. Despite the coyness of country families, there should, in theory, have been no scarcity of workers with so many willing hands available from Cork city. There were, in fact, several machines lying idle in the factory solely owing to the want of hands to work them. Some of the new looms had yet to weave a thread. The labour force difficulties the firm was experiencing actually had more to do with a shortage of accommodation. This was still a time when buses or bicycles were not yet conveniently available and the engines of the Muskerry light railway would not be spotted chugging along until 1888. As of 1881, some girls from the city, who did work at the mill and had no accommodation in Blarney, walked out each morning to be at work for 6 a.m. They walked the return journey in the evening, naturally, and our visitor hoped that “the same strict rules of fining” were “not enforced against them”. Shipping Wool to Liverpool Another problem that the mill was experiencing, despite its flourishing state, was with transport, Mahonys were purchasing wool in Ireland but finding it cheaper to ship it from Dublin to Liverpool and on to Cork than to send in direct by rail from Dublin. The Great Southern & Western Railway (G.S. & W.R.) had been charging as much as 50 shillings a ton, although that was now reduced to 30 shillings. “Ah, if we had to depend upon our Irish railways” said one of the Misters Mahony, “we should have to leave the tweed and cloth trade to the Scotch”. It had taken four years of wrangling before the G.S. & W.R. consented to giving the firm a siding at Blarney station. It was surely erring on the side of caution to its own detriment (“committing suicide of their own interest”). The railway could, in fact, have benefited by taking the opposite approach and actually laying a line from the station to the factory. A Kerry Man Trades in Bermuda The Mahonys were especially proactive when it came to Trade Exhibitions and were continually preparing for upcoming events of that nature. The great Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 had produced one unusual spin-off – a Kerry man, who had long since emigrated to Bermuda and gone into business there, became a large and constant wholesale customer. Further exhibitions in Melbourne and Paris also generated trade – the firm was now exporting to the Cape of Good Hope, and when Marshal Patrice de Mac-Mahon had expressed his admiration of one sample of cloth in particular, the Messrs Mahony wasted little time in presenting him with a suit from the same fabric. The former French President (1875 to 1879) returned the compliment by sending a handsomely framed picture of him-self on horseback surrounded by his staff. To add compliment to compliment, the firm renamed the pattern “Marshal cloth” and duly went on to sell several miles of it. All were carefully manufactured by the firm’s hard-working employees in Blarney around 1881.

The above excerpt was taken from a much larger article written by Mr. Richard Forrest titled “The Blarney Woollen Mills in 1881’ in Issue No 10 “Old Blarney” Journal.

Historical