Wick­low’s long lost tex­tile in­dus­try

REPORTER DAVID MED­CALF FOUND HIM­SELF STEP­PING BACK MORE THAN A CEN­TURY AND HALF INTO HIS­TORY WHEN HE TOOK A GUIDED TOUR OF STRAT­FORD-ON-SLANEY, ONCE THE SITE OF A COT­TON MILL WHICH EM­PLOYED 1,000 PEO­PLE

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

STRAT­FORD-ON-SLANEY is all too easy to ig­nore, over­look or sim­ply for­get about these days. For most of the thou­sands upon thou­sands of mo­torists who travel along the nearby N81 na­tional route, the place is lit­tle more than a quaint road sign glimpsed north of Balt­in­glass. They have no ready rea­son to turn off and ex­plore what lies be­hind a name which reeks of old colo­nial de­cency.

If Eng­land can have its Strat­ford-on-Avon, then why should Ire­land not have its imitation in West Wick­low? Yet the road through the vil­lage is no high­way to any­where much and there is no huge su­per­mar­ket or theme park tempt­ing vis­i­tors to make that turn. Where Strat­ford-on-Avon has its as­so­ci­a­tions with Shakespear­e to draw tourists in mul­ti­tudes, Strat­ford-on-Slaney has no such heavy­weight cul­tural head­liner.

In short, this is a back­wa­ter and no doubt there are many in the area who are happy to be ever so slightly off the beaten track. How­ever, as part of the re­cent her­itage week pro­gramme, Sarah Gille­spie from the Cam­phill Com­mu­nity re­called a very dif­fer­ent Strat­ford-on-Slaney. She ar­rived with her clipboard car­ry­ing the fruits of his­tor­i­cal re­search in­di­cat­ing that this was once a place with ex­alted am­bi­tion and economic clout.

The vil­lage now so peace­ful and charm­ing with its smartly cut grass and neatly man­i­cured hedges used to cut a very dif­fer­ent dash. She parked the Cam­phill mini-bus un­der the shade of a lovely chest­nut tree and gath­ered her Her­itage

Week fol­low­ers around her next to the old wa­ter pump on the vil­lage green. The set­ting was the very essence of quaint, though she wished to paint a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture of Strat­ford as a den of pub­lic dis­or­der and in­tox­i­ca­tion, teem­ing with peo­ple.

She reck­oned that back in 1837 the peace­ful green where she started her his­tor­i­cal tour would have pre­sented an in­fer­nally rack­ety scene on mar­ket day morn­ings. At that time, Strat­ford staged its mar­ket twice a week – on Tues­days and Satur­days – and 14 pub­lic houses had sprung up in re­sponse to pub­lic de­mand. The most re­cent cen­sus fig­ure put the pop­u­la­tion of the vil­lage at fewer than 250 souls but back then it had 2,833 in­hab­i­tants – more than 10 times the cur­rent fig­ure.

What on earth drew so many to such an un­likely spot? The an­swer is tex­tiles as Strat­ford has a largely for­got­ten past as a hive of cot­ton pro­duc­tion. It was also once touted as a model town – nay, a model city with am­bi­tions far be­yond its cur­rent low-key re­al­ity…

Sarah told all present that the Strat­ford name is not de­rived at all from Shakespear­e’s birth­place. Rather Strat­ford was the fam­ily name of the lo­cal big-wigs who ar­rived in Ire­land back in the 1660s. From rel­a­tively hum­ble ori­gins in Bri­tain, the Straf­ford clan made their way up the so­cial scale on this is­land, mainly on the back of strate­gi­cally well-judged mar­riages. They ac­cu­mu­lated land and their sig­nif­i­cance was un­der­lined with the grant­ing of the Ald­bor­ough ti­tle by the Crown, moving up from baron to vis­count to earl over the gen­er­a­tions.

The Strat­fords made their home – aside from houses in Dublin and London - across the Kil­dare border in Athy and they had prop­erty too in Laois and Wex­ford. And among the thou­sands of acres at their dis­posal were hold­ings in West

Wick­low, which were ac­quired in 1707. Then, as now, the vil­lage they named af­ter them­selves was a short hike off the main road leading to Dublin. Then, as now, most trav­ellers hardly both­ered to make the de­tour un­til the en­ter­pris­ing Ed­ward Au­gus­tus Strat­ford (1736-1801) took the ini­tia­tive.

He was clearly a char­ac­ter, twice mar­ried to English ladies and once con­signed to New­gate Prison on con­vic­tion for bribery. Sarah told how this Lord Ald­bor­ough was artis­tic and am­bi­tious with lit­tle time for the re­li­gious di­vi­sions in so­ci­ety be­tween Catholic and Protes­tant. She de­scribed him as a ‘prac­ti­cal phi­lan­thropist’ who sought to make a bet­ter life for the or­di­nary peo­ple by cre­at­ing jobs.

Ap­par­ently he had a pas­sion for town planning – and so it was that he hit on the no­tion of planning to make Strat­ford a big town. His lord­ship out­lined his vi­sion for a Cot­ton Me­trop­o­lis, com­plete with 30 streets and nine squares along with pub­lic foun­tains.

In this ap­proach he was a decade ahead of the fa­mous Robert Owen who over­saw a model tex­tile in­dus­try set­tle­ment called New La­nark near Glas­gow. The orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was prob­a­bly to use Ir­ish grown linen, and there was a lo­cal, Balt­in­glass tra­di­tion of work­ing with wool and silk. In the end the fo­cus turned to cot­ton, not least be­cause a tar­iff was placed im­ported printed cot­ton by the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment in 1782.

The full grandiose scheme for the site in County Wick­low never be­came a re­al­ity but re­minders what might have been re­main in signs for High Street, Church Street and Chapel Street. The town plan­ner ev­i­dently had the el­e­gant English spa city of Bath in mind as he en­vis­aged The Oc­tagon, The Cir­cus and Ald­bor­ough Square as part of the lay­out

Strat­ford was a new in­ven­tion, a green field site, where build­ing be­gan in 1774 and it was com­pleted in 1780, al­ways with the in­ten­tion that it would be­come a sub­stan­tial in­dus­trial town. The Ald­bor­ough legacy also ex­tends to churches at ei­ther end of the town, the Church of Ire­land at the top and the Catholic down the hill. A Pres­by­te­rian chapel was later con­structed at the height of the cot­ton boom, since con­verted to be­come a com­mu­nity cen­tre for the 21st cen­tury com­mu­nity.

The drive to make a me­trop­o­lis led to the erec­tion of 400 houses with stone walls and slate roofs, though likely res­i­dents proved dif­fi­cult to tempt in. They baulked at the prospect of heavy heat­ing bills and gen­er­ally pre­ferred the damper but bet­ter in­su­lated ac­com­mo­da­tion of­fered by thatched hovels.

The land­lord’s ge­nius lay in see­ing that Strat­ford-on-Slaney had a ma­jor as­set run­ning past the doorstep. The Slaney of the ti­tle pro­vided a reli­able wa­ter sup­ply and plenty of wa­ter was needed to sup­port cot­ton man­u­fac­tur­ing. The Ir­ish gov­ern­ment of the time (be­fore the Act of Union with Bri­tain, re­mem­ber) was ea­ger to de-cen­tralise the tex­tiles business out of Dublin. By 1787 he was ready to ad­ver­tise the vil­lage as avail­able for sale or lease as an in­dus­trial cen­tre.

At this point in the narrative, the guide from Cam­phill took her party down the road to­wards the river, to show ev­ery­one why Ul­ster firm Orr, Smith & Com­pany were in­ter­ested in tak­ing out a lease. The fac­tory which lent economic clout to the ven­ture is now on pri­vate prop­erty, on the farm run by the Wil­son fam­ily, set well back from the pub­lic road and usu­ally off lim­its. How­ever, Sarah ne­go­ti­ated a one-day pass for her group, bring­ing ev­ery­one across a grassy field to stand in the shadow of the fac­tory walls.

Up close, the size of the long-aban­doned struc­ture is very, very im­pres­sive. The stone walls more than 50 me­tres long, now roof­less and en­clos­ing sim­ple pas­ture, were for a while the work­place of 1,000 em­ploy­ees. Many of those on the pay-roll came from far afield, with Orr Smith draw­ing on skilled op­er­a­tives from Scot­land and their heart­land around Hills­bor­ough in County Down.

The fac­tory made a name for it­self in pro­duc­tion of cal­ico, a form of printed cloth which was much in de­mand by fol­low­ers of fash­ion. By 1809, Strat­ford was turn­ing out dye as well as han­dling cloth, with cow ma­nure as one of the prin­ci­pal in­gre­di­ents. The fol­low­ing decade Orr, by then the dom­i­nant part­ner, had prof­its to spend on pro­vi­sion of a li­brary and a fever hos­pi­tal while his out­put was ex­ported as far afield as South Amer­ica. The ef­fect on the so­cial or­der was not al­ways pos­i­tive, with one ob­server point­ing to drunk­en­ness, pros­ti­tu­tion and fight­ing as a side ef­fect of in­dus­trial pros­per­ity.

But fash­ion is a fickle mistress, while the eco­nom­ics of tex­tile man­u­fac­ture also ebb and flow. The bub­ble burst in or around 1838 and the skilled work­force was scat­tered around the globe, many head­ing for Bri­tain and then moving on across the Em­pire. The de­cline was has­tened by the Famine of the late 1840s which was marked by an epi­demic of dis­ease in the vicin­ity.

Dur­ing the 1850s, the great fac­tory be­gan pro­cess­ing corn rather than cloth and the great mill wheel, once the largest on this is­land, turned for the last time in 1901. It is be­lieved that it may have been sold for scrap dur­ing World War One.

The Cot­ton Me­trop­o­lis never quite lived up to its billing though re­minders of what might have been re­main to be seen in the lay­out of this charm­ing and un­usual vil­lage.

The weav­ing tra­di­tion has at least been re­vived by Cam­phill Com­mu­nity who make their cloth in Dunlavin, just a few kilo­me­tres away from Strat­ford. Other echoes of old en­ter­prise may be dis­cerned in Weavers Square in Balt­in­glass which has a Tuck­mill town­land com­mem­o­rat­ing linen mak­ing.

HIS LORD­SHIP OUT­LINED HIS VI­SION FOR A COT­TON ME­TROP­O­LIS, COM­PLETE WITH 30 STREETS AND NINE SQUARES ALONG WITH PUB­LIC FOUN­TAINS

Reporter David Med­calf with Sarah Gille­spie.

Strat­ford-on-Slaney.

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