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The Cotton Industry in Ireland



BY J. J. WEBB, M.A., LL.B.



In Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh's "History of Dublin," we read that in the year 1718 a petition was presented by two brothers named Sherston to the Trustees of the Linen Board which had lately been established, praying for some encouragement for the carrying on of cotton manufacture in Dublin.

Nothing seems to have come of this petition. In 1760 we find that there were two cotton manufacturers in Dublin employing 600 looms. Their machinery was rude and imperfect, spinning being performed on a common worsted wheel, which spun only one thread at a time. Cotton yarn of an inferior quality was obtained by them from Manchester.

About the year 1779 the manufacture of corduroys was first introduced in Dublin.

Up to this time the Irish cotton trade had been carried on under difficulties. By a seventeenth Century Act of the British Parliament, the direct importation into Ireland of cotton from the colonies was prohibited.

It could only be brought into Ireland via Great Britain. The cost of the raw material was thus considerably increased. By an English Act, 7 Geo. I., penalties were imposed on the wearing in England of cotton garments which were not of English manufacture.

Thus the English market was cut off from Irish manufactures; exportation to the colonies had already been prohibited.


At the end of the year 1779 the British Parliament, compelled by force of circumstances, removed the various restrictions which had hitherto crippled  Irish trade. Ireland was now allowed to trade directly with the colonies. An era of enterprise set in in Dublin. A gentleman named Robert Brooke, who had lately returned to Ireland with a large fortune gained in the East, took advantage of the newly declared freedom of commerce and invested a large sum of money in the cotton industry. Through his exertions, we are told, he "suddenly raised an obscure and scanty trade into a great national manufacture."

English artisans were invited to Dublin to instruct the people in the best method of manufacture. The most improved machinery was introduced into a large factory established in the Liberties. To complete the process of manufacture, Mr. Brooke erected a dryhouse and finishing factory in Cork Street. This gentleman was a man of very enlightened views, and far in advance of his age in his idea of the conditions under which manufacturing enterprise should be carried on. In a word, he was a pioneer of what is now known as the “Garden City" movement. In order to avoid carrying on the cotton manufacture in a confined, unhealthy place like the Liberties, where living was so expensive, he decided to build a new town, nineteen miles away in the county of Kildare. Factories were erected there to carry on all the processes of manufacture, including the printing of cotton and linen goods. He called his new town by the auspicious name of "Prosperous."

Led by Mr. Brooke's example, other men were induced to follow in his footsteps. A Mr. Jackson established a factory in Cork Street. Others were set up outside of Dublin at Malahide and Balbriggan. Up-to-date machinery was imported from England. The Irish Parliament was at last free to do something to promote Irish enterprise. A grant of £25,000 was made to Mr. Brooke, who had expended his whole private fortune in the cotton industry. £5,000 each were granted to

Mr. Jackson, who had established a factory in Cork Street, and to Baron Hamilton, who had opened another at Balbriggan. The Trustees of the Linen Board and the Dublin Society granted machinery to manufacturers and offered bounties on manufactured goods. A Cotton Hall was opened in which cotton-factors were accommodated with chambers for the deposit and sale of their goods.

Owing to their inexperience and too great ardour these three gentlemen speculated overmuch.

In 1786 Mr. Brooke failed and 1,400 looms were thereby thrown idle.

Mr. Jackson was, however, able to hold out in Cork Street. Other factories were established in Dublin in Francis Street, Roper's Rest, and at Harold's Cross, all of which prospered.


The number of manufactories established in the Liberties gave rise to serious objection not only on account of the workers engaged therein, but also on account of the community. We are told that a spirit of combination and riot existed. The large number of men connected by their own regulations, constantly associating in large numbers, and roused to sudden irritation by every temporary fluctuation in employment, were a constant menace to the public peace. To break up these combinations it was proposed to establish factories in different parts of the country. For this purpose Parliament granted £96,000. Many of the best

"Artists" and the chief leaders of the men were thereby drawn from Dublin. About this time there were 1,600 cotton weavers in the city and Liberties.

In common with other branches of the weaving industry, the cotton manufacture experienced a decline in the beginning of the new century. The reasons assigned were the want of a resident Legislature to protect it, and the existence of the great Napoleonic war, which excluded the cotton manufactures from the continent of Europe, while at the same time an embargo was laid on the American ports. In consequence the Irish markets were inundated with English cotton. In 1816 only 300 looms were engaged in the cotton industry in Dublin. Of these only loo were in the hands of master manufacturers.

The others, strange to say, were worked by cotton weavers who had joined together and started manufacturing on their own account, thereby cutting out the middleman's profits. Thus we see that the principle of co-operation was not unknown in Dublin even one hundred years ago, at a time when some of the Rochdale Pioneers were yet unborn. It is interesting to record that these men were enabled to start on their own account through the instrumentality of an institution known as the " Meath Loan."


A certain capital was set aside by a member of that well-known family for the purpose of lending small sums to industrious artisans in order to enable them to tide over periods of unemployment, or to start work on their own account. This association of cotton weavers established a depot for their manufactures and had a regular market in the Liberties for their sale. About 200 working manufacturers were engaged in the industry.

In a Parliamentary Report on the State of the poor in Ireland, published in 1830, we find that there was at least one cotton factory in Dublin which employed a considerable number of hands. It was carried on by a Mr. Henry, who gave employment to 400 persons. This manufacturer was carrying on the industry under disadvantageous conditions as compared with his British rivals. His yearly consumption of coal amounted to about 3,000 tons, which cost him £2,500 more than the same amount would have cost in Glasgow or Leeds. Not alone was it necessary to be at the expense of importing coal from the British coal-fields, but a tax had to be paid on its entry into the port of Dublin.

In 1838 we find that the cotton industry had practically left Dublin and was almost confined to the county of Antrim. Belfast became the great centre, much capital and skill being localised there. The advantageous position of Belfast near the cotton weaving districts of Scotland and the North of England contributed to the prosperity of the trade in the northern capital. The Census Returns of 1841 show that the trade was still carried on to a small extent in Dublin. The existence of free trade between Great Britain and Ireland, the localisation of the industry in the Lancashire district, the increased use of machinery there, and the large capitals employed in the industry, combined with the high price of fuel in Dublin, led however, to the gradual extinction of the cotton industry in Dublin.

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