The Lurgan Weavers and Winders Strike

by Ken Austin

Lough Neagh

Tuesday the 14th January 1913 dawned cold and frosty. An icy wind blew along Market Street accompanied by an unnatural silence. Usually at this hour the streets were thronged with men, women and children bracing the cold on their way to the Mills and Linen factories to start another day's work, but not today. Today the workers had finally agreed that enough was enough and so the Lurgan Weavers and Winders strike of 1913 began.

For well over two and a half centuries Irish linen, especially that woven in Lurgan and its surrounding villages had a world wide reputation for excellence. The patent for the market in Lurgan was issued in 1629 to Sir William Brownlow, and the rights for it were subsequently sold in 1884 to the Town Commissioners for £2000. 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 deaths. Linen merchants stood in the open street and made purchases, paying for, and receiving the goods afterwards in local public houses, most notably the Black Bull Inn which stood in what is now the entrance to Windsor Avenue. At the beginning of the 19th century a Linen Hall was built in Church Place (close to the site of what is now the War Memorial), 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.

The Lurgan and Portadown area was known throughout the world for the excellence of its fine linen, and, in fact held a supreme position in the production of fine handkerchief linens, generally termed 'the Cambric Trade'. At the same time though a vast range of other types of linen fabrics were produced in the area including damask, sheeting, aero linen, drying cloths (tea towels), dress linen, embroidery linen, tailors' interlining and many cloths for industrial use. In linen weaving, Lurgan was exceptional in that the weavers were mostly men, whereas women weavers were more common in other parts of the country. The reason for this would appear to be that there were no heavy industries in Lurgan, and men tended to gravitate to the heavier end of the textile industry, that of weaving. Women worked at the lighter jobs in the industry, such as winding in the weaving factories, hemstitching and embroidery.

The introduction of the power loom, however, sounded the death knell for the hand loom industry, although their demise was a slow and protracted affair. Factories did not immediately replace the hand looms – as late as the 1860s houses with weaving sheds were being built in the town, and in the surrounding rural areas this practice continued with labourers’ cottages into the first decade of the 20th century. The first spinning mill was built on the River Bann at Hazelbank, about 1834, by Samuel Law. Four years later Hugh Dunbar, from Huntly near Banbridge and William Stewart of Edenderry formed a partnership to build a spinning mill at Gilford. Power loom weaving came in force to Lurgan in 1855 when James Malcolm built his first plant in Factory Lane. The commotion the building of this factory created among the hand-loom weavers was so great that they collected in a body and marched through the town demanding that it be shut down. Despite their clamour and protests the introduction of the power-loom had the blessing of the principal people of the town and the Town Council. Nothing, could halt progress and by 1866 the enterprising James Malcolm was making alterations and extensions to the factory to increase the number of power-looms for weaving cambric and cambric handkerchiefs. About that time a power loom factory for the weaving of light and narrow linens, cost about £40 per loom while the weaving of wide damask or sheeting cost between £100 and £200. Wages were paid by piece work and the same scale applied to men and women. The light end of the work was done by the women and the heavy end by men. Work that fell between the two descriptions was carried out by either sex. Tenters and other skilled men were paid much higher rates. The number employed in and about a factory was somewhere about as many as the looms it contained. James Malcolm built another factory where Malcolm Road is today and that changed the industry in Lurgan forever. 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.

Lurgan WindersThe early part of 1913 was a particularly lean period for many Lurgan families. As a linen producing town, 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 mills. 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. 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. By 1913 there were four main companies in Lurgan: Johnston & Allen, The Ulster Weaving Company, Messers Malcom Ltd and the smaller W. J. Allen company. The average wage for weavers was 12/- a week, this had not increased since 1886. Labourers in Belfast were getting from 12/s -to £1.1s a week. The wealth of the linen barons increased greatly at the turn of the last century, the demand for the product had never been greater. Any of those brave enough to ask about a pay rise often received their cards at the end of the week and told that there was an abundance of willing workers prepared to take their job, which, of course was true. As the Trades Union movement grew across Ireland the need for representation could not be greater than for those in the Linen Industry. 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 who rejected it out of hand.

Industrial action was seen by the ruling classes as unpatriotic and tantamount to sedition. A report by one London newspaper on the Industrial action in Dublin that year read:

“The frightful conditions in Dublin were made known to the world by the recent strike, and the 'Fiery Cross' crusade of *Larkin. Instead of fighting one another over Home Rule, the workers of Ireland ought to unite beneath one flag against the common enemy, the plunderers and desecraters of their homes.”

*'Big Jim’ Larkin and James Connolly were the leaders of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. In 1913 the Dublin Lockout would erupt into the bitterest struggle between the classes in the whole of Irish trade union history.

On 16 January 1913 The Dublin Daily Herald reported:

On the 14th inst. not a single weaver turned up to commence work in three of the four Lurgan power loom factories—those of Messrs. Malcom Limited; the Lurgan Weaving Company Limited; and Messrs. Johnston, Allen, Co., Limited, and the owners, after consultation at the dinner hour, decided to close down their respective weaving shops until nine o'clock on Monday, 27th inst. when the employees will be given an opportunity of resuming, failing which, the works will be closed for a further period. The hemstitching factories of the three firms mentioned, which afford employment for a large section the female population, will meantime continue running as usual, though in one instance this will entail much additional expenditure on the output, the large engine for driving the entire plant both power loom and hem stitching departments will have to be utilised, which means considerable power being wasted.

As on the morning of the 13th inst. about a dozen weavers resumed work in the factory of Mr. W. J. Allen, J.P., who, notwithstanding the fact that to run his works for a few employees entailed great sacrifice, was loath to discharge them. In the evening, however. Mr. Allen decided to close down his works. No communication has passed between the manufacturers and the Weavers' Association since the outbreak and the general opinion (says our correspondent) is that unless a compromise can be effected—of which there seems to but faint hope at present, the strike will prove a prolonged one. On 14th inst. taking advantage of the fine frosty weather conditions, most of the workers betook themselves to the country, many accompanied with dogs, for hunting, and the town did not present such an animated appearance as the previous day.

The Royal Irish Constabulary drafted in officers from miles around expecting trouble and unrest from the strikers. A report at the time states:

During the last few weeks considerable friction has been going on between the employers and the men engaged in the weaving industry at Lurgan, which resulted in 1,400 weavers and winders coming out on strike, and four large mills are now closed down for a fortnight. Forty extra Constabulary from the county were drafted into town, but owing to the admirable arrangements of Mr Ryan, D,I,, and Head Constable Callaghan, no trouble has arisen, and all the extra men have now returned to their stations. The value of the recent instructions issued by the Inspector-General was here exemplified. The Head Constable arranged with the strike leaders as to the wearing of badges and limiting of pickets, and also, as political feeling is hot, that they should be of mixed religions, with the result that not a single instance of disorder has been reported. The badge of the pickets. by the way, took the form of a red ribbon in the button hole.

And so the weeks passed as the dispute wore on. The Weavers and Winders demands for a farthing a yard on the output of cloth woven went unheeded by the Lurgan linen barons who stood firm in their resolve. On Saturday morning 18 January, the majority of the workers returned to the several factories in which they had been previously employed, and drew what is commonly known as their “lying week's pay,” which is tantamount to the remuneration which they usually earned. The employees were admitted to the factories’ premises a score at a time through one door, and after receiving his money made their exit by another door, this was done in an orderly manner so much so that one observer at the time stated:

“One of the pleasing features of the present dispute is that, while the strikers feel justified in the position they have taken up, they bear no animosity to their employers, realising that the latter’s reason for not granting their demands due to the keen competition they have to face, and their conduct so fur has been exemplary.”

Lurgam WeaversAlthough the men were on strike, the women were still able to earn some money in the hemstitching factories to help feed their families. Daily families were leaving the town to seek employment elsewhere, and there were now scores of vacant houses to be found where not a single unoccupied dwelling existed a month previously. This, with the decreased funds at the disposal of the workers, had a harmful effect on the other trades of the town, and a meeting of the traders, clergy, and Town Council had been summoned to consider the situation, and to suggest some steps that might be taken to effect a compromise. The weavers stated that they were quite prepared to leave the questions in dispute to the Board of Trade, but no similar intimation had been made by the manufacturers, who were due to hold a meeting later that week.

Meanwhile the strikers were receiving very material financial assistance from outside sources. At a meeting on the Saturday night the Secretary of the union announced that he had that week received cheques amounting to over £250, and the Federated Trades Union had promised to subscribe a similar amount that week, and they had many other promises from other unions, so that they were receiving encouragement to continue the fight.

Writing to the General Federation of Trade Unions in early February 1913, James Anderson the General secretary of the Weavers and Winders union said:

“Our thanks to the Federation for the services rendered during our recent strike, we declare that but for the Federation the Ulster Weavers must have failed in their efforts to improve their conditions. At a meeting of our Executive Committee held last evening, I had the pleasure to report receipt of your cheque for final instalment of strike pay. I was desired to convey to you, and your Committee of Management the best thanks of this E.C, for your attention to this matter, as, of course, the assistance which we received from your Federation has been of the very greatest service to us. With best wishes for the welfare of the federation . . . Yours fraternally, JAMES ANDERSON, General Secretary.”

However, when it came time to pay out the strike pay to the Weavers it became apparent that the majority of the strikers were NOT union members. The Belfast Newsletter reported:

No fresh development tending towards settlement of the strike in the Lurgan linen trade occasioned by the refusal of the manufacturers to accede the demands of the Weavers for an increase of a farthing a yard on the output of cloth woven has yet to be reported, and on Saturday a compromise between the employers and employees seemed as remote as ever, though it must be conceded that the discovery, when strike pay came to be disbursed, that many of the workers were not members of the trade union, and had consequently to depend on the generosity of the outside public to carry on the conflict, had rather a dispiriting effect on the strike organisers.

During the day the collectors of the Weavers and Winders’ Union waited on the workers at their houses, and dispensed the pay accruing to them under strike conditions in the following ratio: 4s to those who had been in the habit of contributing 1d week to the Union funds and 8s to those who had weekly contributed 2d. Those who were in the custom of subscribing to the Federated Trades' Union received an additional 5s. In all, it is computed that about 800 members of the Union received strike pay, over 600 non-members benefited by public subscription, and it is calculated that between 200 and 300 other non-members have yet to participate in the latter fund. It will thus be seen that the majority of the strikers are non-unionists, but, they were equally determined to fight to a finish as the unionists.

In the House of Commons on 5th February 1913, Mr. Charles Duncan, asked the president of the Board of Trade whether he was aware of the existence of a trade dispute for the past four weeks in the Linen Weaving trade in Lurgan, Ireland, in which over 1,500 work people are concerned and that the wages earned by men average between 10s and 12s per week; whether his Department had opened up communications with the parties involved in the dispute; whether there was any hope of the good offices of the Board being used to effect a settlement, and whether he will ascertain what were the average weekly wages paid to men by the firms involved in this dispute during the four weeks preceding the dispute.

Mr. Robertson replied: I am aware of the dispute referred to by my honourable friend, which is one that has been receiving the attention of the Chief Industrial Commissioners Department. I understand that negotiations with a view to a settlement of the dispute are in progress between the parties at the present moment. Pending these negotiations it would, I think, be premature to make any further statement.

Mr. Charles Duncan asked the president of the Board of Trade whether he can ascertain if any of the linen weaving firms involved in the Lurgan dispute, Ireland, hold any contracts under the various government departments, with a view to ascertaining whether such firms have been observing the fair wages clause in their contracts.

Mr. Robertson replied: The Board of Trade have no contract for Linen. I am unable to answer for other departments and I would suggest that my honourable friend should make enquiries of the War Office, Admiralty and possible the Prison Commissions of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Johnston and Allen FactoryOn 10th February a Prolonged Conference took place from 10-30 in the morning until 3 o'clock the following morning in the Shankill Buildings, Lurgan by a committee appointed by the Ulster Power Loom Manufacturers’ Association, to consider the demands made by the Lurgan Weavers for an increase in their wages of a farthing per yard on the output of cloth woven. Representatives of the four local factories and the Weavers and Winders Union attended and gave evidence from their respective standpoints. At the end of the conference the manufacturers offered their workers an increase of a half farthing per yard. This offer was submitted to a meeting of the weavers held later that day. Twice during the day the Weavers and Winders in a drenching rain paraded the town in procession, headed by a banner bearing the words. “Be brave, Be firm, a farthing a yard. Nothing less.” Groups congregated later in the vicinity of the Shankill Buildings, anxiously awaiting the result of the deliberations of the conference.

The offer was put to a ballot of the Lurgan Weavers and Winders, whether union affiliated or not and on 13 February 1913 the Belfast Newsletter reported:

As a result of the ballot taken yesterday as to whether or not they would accept the increase offered by the masters as the outcome of Monday's conference between the Ulster Power Loom Manufacturers’ Association on behalf of the masters and the Weavers and Winders union, it has been found that a large majority of the operatives have declared themselves in favour of accepting the masters terms. Some 1,700 ballot papers were issued yesterday morning, and although some 460 of these had yet to be returned, most of the defections being from the country districts, it was evident that the vast majority of the weavers were agreeable to return to work.

According to the papers returned 702 operatives voted for acceptance of the manufactures offer, 132 for its rejection and 406 declined to vote either way. The Weavers demand was for a farthing a yard increase on all cloth woven, or in other words 1s 6d per cut, the final agreement was for little more than half that. Needless to say the result of the ballot has occasioned considerable satisfaction to the traders and people of the town generally and it is expected that work will be resumed today at nine o'clock, as the manufacturers have indicated their willingness to re-open their works at any time to suit their employees convenience.

On the other hand the Winders who number over 200 and whose work is closely allied to the Weavers have expressed their intention not to resume work until a more definite guarantee that good yarns will be supplied, than that given at Tuesdays meeting is forthcoming from the manufacturers. Their reason for striking was not for an increase in wages, but rather because of the alleged inferior yarns they were obliged to wind, a grievance also advanced by the weavers. Should the Winders adhere to their present decision, unless the manufacturers furnish the required guarantee, the result will be another deadlock, as there will only be sufficient yarns in the looms to keep the Weavers employed for a day or two. The winders have not been so badly 'hit' as the weavers have, as during the continuance of the strike they have been fully employed at out-work from the various hemstitching factories which at present have a surfeit of orders. The Winders have asked the manufacturers to receive a deputation on the question in dispute, but the latter point out that the matter is out of their hands and rests solely with the Power Loom Manufacturers’ Association. After agreement, by the masters to review the situation, the Winders also agreed to return to work.

The result of the ballot was announce by Mr. Edward Lunn at a mass meeting of the Weavers held at 9 o'clock last night in the Mall, but aroused not the slightest enthusiasm. On the opinion of the operatives being invited as to when they desired to resume work, the unanimous verdict was that they would defer doing so until Monday morning and their representatives undertook to advise the master accordingly.

The official result of the ballot which took place on the 12th February 1913 is as follows:- Number of ballot papers issued, 1,687; number in favour of accepting masters’ terms, 1.060; number in favour of rejection, 385; number not voting, 139; number of papers unreturned, 103.

My thanks to Kieran Clendinning and Jim McIllmurray for information used in this article.

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