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The Malcolmsons - Corn & Cotton Magnates

Portlaw A Nineteenth Century Industrial Village

4. The Malcolmsons - Corn & Cotton Magnates

Mayfield House, PortlawInevitably an industrial village is the direct result of industry and also industrialists. It is the industrialist who injects capital and more importantly ideas into the making of a successful industry and consequently a village, for his workers - as this usually coincides with the birth of the industry. In his entrepreneurial skills and sometimes philanthropic interests, which sets the wheels in motion. Just as the name Owen is synonymous with New Lanark, so is Lever with Port Sunlight, Salt with Saltaire, Cadbury with Bournville, Richardsons with Bessbrook and Malcolmsons with Portlaw. Portlaw came in to being with the advent of the Malcolmsons to the small village in 1825. Portlaw in effect, was non-existent prior to their arrival. It was they who built Portlaw and placed it on the map of planned industrial villages of the nineteenth century. In light of the importance of the Malcolmson family to the village of Portlaw, it is inevitable I feel that consideration should be given over to their economic and social background, prior to their arrival in Portlaw at the start of the nineteenth century.

The first Malcolmson traced in Ireland dates back to the seventeenth century, and the arrival of Andrew, a skilled craftsman - a linen weaver - from Scotland.' He was a Presbyterian, and it seems he had two sons Joseph and David, who were also engaged in the linen trade. In 1748 Joseph married Rachel Greer, a Quaker, whose family was involved in the linen business.

It is important to note here that Rachel was a Quaker because as a result one branch of the Malcolmson family can now be traced as Quakers. This in itself is quite important, as the Malcolmsons whilst building the model village in Portlaw, were inspired in their design by many Quaker Motives, and other Quaker magnates. Also Richard Cropper, a Quaker from England was to be a major influence on the Malcolmsons - as shall be seen later. Returning to the family history Joseph and Rachel had eleven children, all of whom were reared as Quakers. In 1774 Joseph died, and two of the children, John aged thirteen and David aged nine were sent to some Quakers in Clonmel. It was here in Clonmel around twenty miles from Portlaw that David, the founder of the family fortune and practically of Portlaw, set out on his industrial career.

David's first job was as a clerk for his cousin Sarah Grubb who was owner of Anner Mills near Clonmel. Soon after leaving her employment, he became Agent to John Bagwell, a property owner in Clonmel at the time. He also spent some Lime as a distiller in partnership with a man named Simon Sparrow, presumably the Simon Sparrow who owned Suir Islands Mill. A few years later it seems that John - David's brother - who was quite wealthy at the time, bought on behalf of David, Corporation Mills on Suir Island. His experience in the corn trade was gained from various jobs he had held during his youth, especially from his work at Anner Mills and also from John Bagwell.

At this stage, it is necessary to take into consideration the economic climate in Ireland at the time, as this was an important factor as to why David Malcolmson bought these mills in the early nineteenth century. Around the beginning of the eighteenth century Ireland was essentially a country dependent upon pastoral farming, beef, butter, pork ' all were being exported from the major parts of Ireland at that time Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Dublin. However, Ireland was still dependent on imports of corn, to overcome this situation and to encourage tillage farming, the Irish Parliament around 1757 had Bounty Acts passed, which subsidised the carriage of wheat from distant counties to Dublin. Clonmel by virtue of its position on the River Suir, was to be able to take advantage of this new opportunity and hence the year 1757, is significant to the foundation of the milling industry and the evolution of tillage farming in the area. Flour became Clonmel's chief commodity and being a bulky commodity, the river Suir was the means by which it was transported to Dublin. An added stimulus was to come in 1815 with the Napoleonic collapse. The landed interest, which at this time controlled Parliament, passed the Corn Laws, which prohibited the importation of foreign grain. "This coupled with the development of manufacture and growth of population in England gave Irish agriculture an artificial stimulus". - (Burke 1907; History of Clonmel pg 181). Ireland became England's supplementary granary.

Clonmel, and in particular David Malcolmson took advantage of the situation. It was in this the corn trade that David first embarked he manipulated the situation of the time and in doing so became a major supplier of corn in nineteenth century Ireland. "Clonmel now became one of the greatest grain markets of the kingdom" (Burke 1907: pg 182). Shiel in 1828 whilst visiting Clonmel saw parallels between it's groceries and the cotton factories of Lancashire, "Malcolmson's Mill is I believe the finest in Ireland. Here half the harvest of the adjoining counties as well as Tipperary is powdered" (Shiel 1855: pg 358). Clonmel is I feel, important to the development of the cotton industry in Portlaw. Many factors about David Malcolmson in Clonmel can be likened to his activities in Portlaw. Here only a few miles from the village, he proved him self a shrewd and wise opportunist, an entrepreneur in all respects. He saw the opening for corn and trusted his luck, which was not to fail him. He used waterpower to it's best potential in his manipulation of the River Suir. He treated his workers with respect and proved himself a worthy employer, even his own son was put to work in the mills, as he said himself "he will teach others by first practising his business himself "

By 1822, he with his three sons Joseph, Joshua and John had built little Island Mill and had four corn stores. This was not enough however for the enterprising Quaker. In order to accommodate his increasing business he began to expand out from Clonmel, which in turn was to bring him nearer to Portlaw. He leased corn stores in Carrick-on-Suir, and became tenant  to the  Pouldrew Mills in 1824. Here at Pouldrew, just a few miles away from Portlaw, he constructed a canal in order that large boats could load at the mill, something which a few years later he was to do in Portlaw, making her share of the river navigable also. Thus we see David Malcolmson monopolising the corn trade. At the height of its prosperity he was not, however, to stop at the corn trade. Even in 1824 whilst being tenant to the Pouldrew Mills his thoughts were elsewhere. In the early months of 1825 he writes to his friend Richard Usher "We fear we are on the eve of such a change in the Corn Laws as will be very injurious to this country" (David Malcolmson 18.4.1825). It was more than sheer ambition that turned David's thoughts to cotton. The repeal, although it did come, was not heralded until 1846. Evidently David had seen the increase in population in England after the wars, her population was growing quickly and requiring food. Ireland could no longer compete with the other countries, who were opening their corn market to Britain at very cheap rates. "It is clear that for every barrel of foreign corn imported from foreign countries into England, she wants so much less from Ireland" (David Malcolmson 18.4.1825)

Foresight, apprehension and shrewdness in business matters caused David Malcolmson and Sons to move to new fields of endeavour. They were, however, not to abandon their business enterprises in Clonmel and elsewhere. Why cotton? one may ask. The cotton industry at this point in time was far from flourishing, it had proved fruitful in the south of Ireland to a degree in the 1790's, but in 1824/5 it barely had a foothold in the country. It was though, an expanding business in England, the Continent and the North of Ireland. Many aids had been given to the extension of cotton in Ireland during the seventeen eighties/nineties. Parliament bounties were granted on sales at home in 1783, and a year later on exports. In 1794 a protective tariff was established, all this coupled with the fact that direct trade with the raw material suppliers was opened, gave an added impetuous to the initiation of cotton factories in the South. All these stimuli aided cotton manufacturers in these years. However, by the time the Malcolmson family had decided to embark upon the cotton trade, some of the protective tariffs were gone, and linen was replacing cotton manufacturers in the North. It was not though these tariffs that attracted Malcolmson to Portlaw. The key attraction to setting up their factory at Portlaw was cheap waterpower and cheap labour as well as an overabundance of both. An additional bonus to these being the fact that Portlaw was and is only a few miles from the strategic port of Waterford - as it was in those days. In his letter mentioned previously David Malcolmson speaks of having acquired "the most eligible situation" - "with a full command of the river Clodagh" - a tributary of the Suir. David did not forget his Northern origins, as he laid great emphasis on procuring "assistance from Belfast or the other side of the water" (D. Malcolmson 18.4.1825).

The main source of inspiration to this line of business came it seems from James Cropper. Malcolmson spoke of him as "our mutual friend". Cropper was a Quaker who in 1825 published a pamphlet of fifty-nine papers entitled "The Present State of Ireland with a Plan for improving the position of the People". He came to Ireland In November and December of 1824 - note that David Malcolmson wrote the letter concerning his initiation of business at Portlaw in 1825 - Cropper came with the hope of increasing Irelands prosperity which, according to him "Irish agricultural products alone could not effect" (K. Charlton 1971 pg 321) He, like Malcolmson after him, was to see Ireland's population as her best resource in economic terms. "With regard to the population of Ireland there is not one man too many for the great work they have to perform" (K. Charlton 1971: Pg 321). The manufacture of cotton goods was the kernel of Cropper's proposals. He perceived countries such as India and China as the consumers of the product as well as possible suppliers of the raw material. Furthermore, he pointed out that the factories and required housing for the workforce could be cheaper to construct than in England. Waterpower potential was another factor he made note of, especially Ireland's untapped abundance.

Although enterprise played a large part in the setting up of David Malcolmson's wealth in Clonmel and subsequently in Portlaw, the role of the Irish and Ireland itself must not be overlooked. Ireland supplied for the capitalist an overabundance of cheap labour, also land was inexpensive. Added to this, Ireland also had many canals and waterways, important ingredients for the success of industry in those days. Capital and a shrewd entrepreneur were needed for a successful industry, however, so also was a cheap workforce, and relatively free infrastructure. All these essentials combined together brought about a profitable industry, for without the workers there is no industry.

Parallels are self evident between what cropper advocated and what David Malcolmson proposed. David Malcolmson and Sons came to Portlaw with a wealth of knowledge in the corn trade. They had gained invaluable experience in the entrapments of businessmanship in Clonmel. In 1825 they were to bring all this experience and much more to County Waterford. Their past life, previous to their arrival in Portlaw is important, their future in Portlaw was shaped by many forces from the past, only in Portlaw they were to do much more. David Malcolmson was to set up more than a cotton industry; he was to build a model village, which today still holds remnants of what transpired over a hundred and fifty years ago.

Author: Tina Foran

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