Heritage Trail: Douglas Mills

Douglas Mills in 2015
Douglas Mills in 2015

The mill building on the site today was built in the 1860s by antiquarian and architect Richard Bolt Brash for a business partnership of Hugh and his son James Wheeler Pollock. The Pollocks had come from Bessbrook in Newry, a centre of flax manufacture in Ireland, to Cork, the only significant flax manufacturing area in Munster. [Obituary of James Arthur Pollock, Royal Irish Academy, Courtesy of Irish Linen Museum.] Cork city and county’s prominence in spinning and weaving had begun in the early eighteenth century, when skilled workers from Ulster were settled in Cork by landlords and industrialists. 1 In 1726, skilled spinners from Fermanagh came to live in Douglas, where they established 40 looms to spin sailcloth. By the 1740s, Douglas looms produced 75,322 yards of sailcloth per annum. A series of Huguenot families – Perdieu, Cossard, Besnard – were associated with the industry, but Julius Besnard was the outright owner by 1783.2 In 1783, 1,500 people were employed by Besnard to make sailcloth from imported hemp. Over 1,000 skilled spinners worked from their houses, while hacklers, bleachers and labourers toiled in Douglas village to prepare the raw material. 3 Because both hemp and flax are fibers collected from the inner bark of a plant and are produced in a similar way, the industry in Douglas was able to adapt when the Napoleonic War (1801-15) ended hemp imports.

Both flax and hemp required a labour-intensive manufacturing process to produce cloth. From ‘retting’ the plant in water to break down the woody exterior, to ‘scutching’, many unskilled labourers were employed before the skilled weavers could be employed. Alongside many flax factories was a bleaching green, where the finished cloth was laid outdoors to whiten, as this illustration from County Antrim shows.

Glenmore Bleach Green, Co Antrim, Courtesy of the Irish Linen Museum.
Glenmore Bleach Green, Co Antrim, Courtesy of the Irish Linen Museum.

As the manufacturing process was both labour-intensive and time-consuming, relatively low wages were central to the success of Cork’s flax industry. 4 The biggest purchaser of Cork’s sailcloth and coarse linen was the government, whose navy dominated European seas. The coarse linen shirts made in Cork were cheap, serviceable and plain, and so perfect for ordinary soldiers and common sailors. 5 Besnard’s business was considered important enough to the war effort to warrant government aid. 6 In 1801, Besnard introduced machinery into his works, and was the first in Ireland to spin flax commercially on a mechanised looms, driven by water power. 7 With business thriving, in 1806 Besnard built another spinning and weaving mill in Ravensdale. 8 Flax production in Douglas was now a vertically integrated industry, with Besnard controlling all aspects of production. Spinners and weavers no longer worked for themselves at home but were waged employees in the mill. Men and boys were paid 10 shillings per week, but women and girls earned just 3 shillings a week. 9 This wage disparity was typical, where women doing the same work as men were paid much less. However, the wages in the mill were much higher than those earned by a hand spinner at home. 10

But with the end of war in 1815, demand for sailcloth and military clothing collapsed. Besnard had employed 1,000 people in 1810, but by 1816 he had just 300 hands working at the mill. Sailcloth continued to be made Douglas but it was now produced on domestic looms because wages and costs were much lower. 11 The end of war brought about considerable economic hardship for Cork city and harbour, and the Besnards judged that a recovery in sailcloth production was unlikely. They sold the mill to the Pollocks. Flax production became profitable again because the American Civil War (1861-5) disrupted cotton imports to Britain and Ireland. 12 The Pollocks demolished the previous mill built by Besnards and began construction of a new mill, modelled on Belfast mills, in 1862.

Mill buildings, constructed by the Pollocks.
Mill buildings, constructed by the Pollocks.

It was finished in 1867, and contained 10,000 spindles driven by two 40HP engines. 13 To ensure a constant supply of flax for their mill, the Pollocks imported seed from Russia to sell to local farmers. 14 In 1874, the mill employed 750 people, many of whom lived in houses built by the factory owners. 15

Worker's housing, next to the Mill.
Worker’s housing, next to the Mill.

However, flax did not serve the Pollocks well and they had begun to produce wool and tweed by 1883.16 In spite of their efforts, the Pollocks’ business did not survive the economic depression of the mid 1880s, and the mill closed in 1885. 17

Entrance to Hugh Pollock's vault, St. Luke's graveyard.
Entrance to Hugh Pollock’s vault, St. Luke’s graveyard.

The mill’s next owner was John Morrogh, a Corkman who had made his fortunes in the diamond mines of South Africa. He was a director of De Beers Consolidated Mine, the company owned by Cecil Rhodes, who was a vigorous proponent of the virtues of the British empire. Morrogh returned to Cork in the 1880s and purchased the mill from the Pollocks, who then emigrated to Australia. 18 After installing a 250HP steam engine, 19 Morrogh abandoned flax in favour of wool. Tweed, serges, friezes and ladies dress materials were manufactured here, and ‘superior cloth for clerical suiting’ was one of the company’s specialities. 20 Although an imperialist in Africa, Morrogh was a nationalist at home: the first uniforms for the Irish Volunteers were manufactured in his mill. 21 Like previous mill owners, such as the Besnards, John Morrogh was active in politics. He served as a member of Cork County Council and held a Westminster seat for the Nationalist party from 1889 to 1893. Following John’s untimely death in 1901 at 52 years old, his eldest son, Francis, took up the chairmanship of the mill and his father’s seat on the County Council. When World War I broke out, Francis joined the Royal Munster Fusilliers and was killed in action in June 1915. 22 The mill continued to produce woolen goods until at least 1932. John Morrogh is commemorated in a stained-glass window, produced by Watson and Co., in St. Columba’s church, Douglas.

  1. Andy Bielenberg, Cork’s Industrial Revolution 1780-1880: Development or Decline? (Cork 1991), p 8 & 14.
  2. Bielenberg, p 14. Colin Rynne, The Archaeology of Cork City and Harbour from Earliest Times to Industrialisation (Cork, 1993), p 90; Grace Lawless Lee, The Hugenout Settlements in Ireland (2008), pp 58-9; David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630-1830 (Cork, 2005), p 399.
  3. Bielenberg, p 14.
  4. Bielenberg, p 14.
  5. Bielenberg, p 15.
  6. Bielenberg, p 15.
  7. Bielenberg, p 15. Rynne p 90.
  8. Bielenberg, p 15.
  9. Bielenberg, p 16.
  10. Bielenberg, p 16.
  11. Bielenberg, p 17.
  12. Bielenberg, p 19.
  13. Bielenberg, p 19.
  14. Bielenberg, p 20.
  15. Guy’s Cork Almanac 1875-6, p 205, available here http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/places/streetandtradedirectories/1875-6guyscountycity/
  16. The catalogue of an 1883 industrial exhibition in Cork shows Wallis and Pollock exhibiting a tweed loom at work (p 78) and with wool and tweed displayed on their stand (p 193) http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/history/corktradeexhibitions/uploadexhibition/croppedpdfs/1883_catalogue.pdf; In Guys Almanac (1884), the factory was producing flax, linen and wool, p 196 http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/places/streetandtradedirectories/1884guyscitycountyalmanacanddirectory/1884pages168to209/CorkCity&County1884Pages192%20to%20197.pdf
  17. Bielenberg, p 20.
  18. The next generation of Pollocks was very successful in Australia. See, J. B. T. McCaughan, ‘Pollock, James Arthur (1865–1922)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pollock-james-arthur-8072/text14087, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 3 November 2014.
  19. Bielenberg, p 39.
  20. Page 171, http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/history/corkitstradecommerce/corkpresent/Pages_158_188.pdf
  21. http://www.historyireland.com/volume-21/irish-volunteer-uniform/ accessed 1 October 2015.
  22. http://www.knockunion.ie/article/detail?id=242 accessed 14 October 2014.