"Few who now see this immense establishment in full work can imagine the amount of care, forethought and energy required and exercised to bring it to it's present state" (Maguire 1852: pg 164)
The above was written by John Francis Maguire in 1852 whilst praising the merits and splendour of the Portlaw Cotton Factory, nearly thirty years after it's inauguration. He was not the only person to praise the Malcolmson empire. Many travellers such as Inglis, Hall and Lewis, wrote of the imposing edifice and it's flourishing existence, and in turn the benefits derived by the local population as a consequence of it's establishment. In light of this I feel the factory itself warrants some mention, as it alone without even reference to the village of Portlaw, manifested the initiative and imaginative scope of the Malcolmsons.
It was in 1825 then, that David Malcolmson and Sons leased from John Medlycott a local landholder - Mayfield House Portlaw with around sixteen acres of land. There was a small mill on the land, and it was here that the Malcolmsons were to construct their cotton factory. This construction was the first task which befell the family. The mill on the site was an old corn mill, which had previously burnt down. T.W. Freeman speaks of canals as being the "acme of modernity in the late eighteenth century" (Freeman 1969: pg 106). The canal was for the Malcolmsons their acme of modernity and perfection. The river Clodagh on which the mill was situated joined the river Suir a mile downstream from the factory. However, this river at various times was quite shallow, therefore the Malcolmsons excavated a canal, which enabled the raw materials from America and elsewhere to be brought up the Suir to the canal, and then carried up the canal by lighters to the factory. It was not raw materials, alone which were, transported this way but coal and machinery also. The most interesting point about the canal was the fact that instead of it stopping at the factory it went inside, as it ran right in underneath the receiving house. The finished product was taken by the same means to Waterford harbour and exported - all over the world. The Clodagh was put to further use in providing efficient steam power for the running of the factory. - Three large water wheels were placed near the factory and waterpower was utilised also. The inside of the factory was unique, it was said that at that time the factory contained - the largest single space building in the world - 260 x 40 feet. The raw cotton did not come directly from America but through Liverpool. The factory required about 150 bales per week and the weekly output of the manufactured product was about forty tons.
The Portlaw factory was not a small insignificant factory operating in Ireland. It could be said that the Malcolmsons and their factory at Portlaw served as ambassadors of Ireland. The factory proved that "there is no doubt that energy and industry applied to the natural resources of Ireland, may enable the Irish manufacturer to enter the market and compete with the manufacturers of England" (Hall 1841: pg 309). At the height of their prosperity the Malcolmsons were exporting world wide, they were known and bore a high repute according to Maguire in 1853 in "the markets of the eastern archipelago, on the main lands of Hindostan and China, in the torrid regions of Mexico, the West Indies and Brazil, and on the west coast from Cape Horn to Oregon" (pg 164). These were the manufacturers who wrote in - 1825 "we consider the attempt a very serious matter and all about us being strangers to the business" (D. Malcolmson 18.4.1825). Strangers they may have been but in the space of a few years they had proved themselves experts in their field of endeavour.
The industrial revolution conjures up for many, the idea of inhumane working conditions, long working hours, poor pay, bad housing, health problems and poor sanitation. Henry Allsopp in his book An Introduction to English Industrial history vividly describes some of the conditions experienced by the workers. He tells how "many of the buildings were unsuitable, unhealthy and dangerous, the hours of labour were often as long as sixteen per day and the wages were far too low" (pg 121). The conditions of the workers portrayed here and in further passages contrasts quite markedly with the conditions experienced in Portlaw. The Portlaw workers probably worked the same hours as their Clonmel counterparts. In winter the hours of work were 7.00 a.m. to 8.00 p.m. and summer 6.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m., with forty five minutes free for breakfast at 9.00 a.m. and one hour for dinner at 2.00 p.m. Wages in Portlaw at that time were 2/6 to 7/ - for boys and girls and a pound a week for adults. To many today these conditions may seem severe enough. However, in light of the context of nineteenth century Ireland and the approaching cataclysm - the famine - Portlaw was a paradise.
As Maguire says "one glance at the exterior of the village and the great establishment would have been enough to put to flight the miserable nonsense that some people nurse in their brain, as to the unhappy condition of those who are employed in mills and factories" (pg 162). Apart from pay and wages the welfare of the workers was always seen to. The cotton factory had 365 windows, thus ensuring ample light for the workers. Special arrangements were made for the ventilation of rooms, all impurities were removed by large revolving fans, and the temperature of the rooms was always carefully regulated. In case of fire, a large reservoir of water was maintained on the roof of the factory, as well as there being fire escapes outside the factory. A provident society was established to care for workers when they were ill. Each week the workers contributed a certain amount of their wages to the society, and then if they became ill, it was seen to that his family was properly cared for, during the duration of his illness. The Malcolmsons were shrewd and wise men, and believed in proper administration of their workers. So much so that one of the rules of the provident society stipulated that if a member had "brought illness or accident on himself by drunkenness, debauchery, rioting, quarrelling or playing at unlawful games on the Sabbath, they shall direct his allowance money to be suspended": It appears as if the Malcolmsons were trying to establish an ideal society, this shall be further exemplified in Victorian Virtues And Social Control, where they seemingly tried to impose Victorian attitudes of behaviour upon an Irish peasant society. In effect they were creating virtues and perhaps dismantling and transforming this peasant society.
As is quite obvious the factory was not built overnight, neither was Portlaw transformed from a sleeping village to a vibrant one in the same time period. On the Malcolmsons arrival in Portlaw the population totalled 395, there were only 80 families and 72 houses. Out of the 395 persons only 94 were occupied, the main categories of occupation being- 29 employed in agriculture and 43 in trades, manufacturing and handicrafts. How then it may be asked did David Malcolmson and Sons get people to come and work in Portlaw? It must be admitted that the conditions alone in the factory may evince why people would come to work in Portlaw. Also as shall be seen in The Model Village Of Portlaw, the housing and living conditions of the workers were quite excellent. Due to lack of evidence it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of the first generation of workers recruited. Some written material makes reference to English artisans coming to Portlaw to initiate work in the factory. These primary workers were mainly brought over to train the indigenous population in the many trades practised within the walls of the factory. These qualified persons were certainly needed at the start, as the table below shows the many various trades practised in 1852.
Table 1 Trades & Numbers of Artisans Employed In 1852
Evidently there was no shortage of Irish workers themselves. Ireland at this point in time had an abundance of Population, also she had possessed in the late eighteenth century, a flourishing cotton trade. This, however, was not very strong in the. middle of the nineteenth century. Therefore, it could be presumed that Ireland supplied many of the skilled and unskilled hands, as people may have migrated to Portlaw for work. David Malcolmson relates to Shiel in his travels in 1855, the origins of his workers. "He originally employed Englishmen, but he found that the Irish, on being properly instructed were just as expert. The English had intermarried with the families in the vicinity and a perfectly good understanding prevailed" (Shiel 1855: pg 355). Now that the conditions of the workers and their origins have been discussed, the following tables will give an indication as to why the Portlaw factory was such a renowned one, and by virtue of comparison one is able to see how extensive and immense the works at Portlaw were.
Table 2 Cotton Factory Employment Figures For 1836
Table 2-1 Cotton Factory Employment Figures for 1839
Table 2-2 Cotton Factory Employment Figures for 1850
By mere comparison between Table 2 and Table 2.1, one is given a good indication to the relative expansion of the Portlaw factory. In the space of three years it's workforce increased by 277. Also in 1839 and 1850 Portlaw is shown as employing more than all the other factories listed. In 1836, apart from one factory in Belfast Portlaw was employing the largest amount of persons in the country, more numbers than similar factories in Armagh and Down. It must also be noted that the numbers of females employed in Portlaw and in the other factories is significantly high. This is not an unusual occurrence; female employment numbers were also significantly high in England at the time. Females traditionally had always played a part in the cotton industry, and the time of the industrial revolution was no exception. They moved to the factories when it was no longer profitable to spin at home.
Female labour was required for spinning, carding, and reeling etc. all these trades in a cotton factory were traditionally ones to be filled by the females. Also it must be remembered that it was cheaper to employ females versus males, and also the males were required for the heavier work in the factories. The industrial revolution was a very important factor in regarding the part women came to play in industry. During the revolution work came to be centralised on the factory versus the home. This in turn required large amounts of capital expenditure on the part of the Capitalists. Competition was high between various industrialists and all tried to minimise costs, this many did by employing females. Also in places, the men were needed to work on the farms and to produce the agricultural products required by the community. Portlaw was no exception, inevitably women would be employed in the factory.
The population of Portlaw, as already stated, at the time of the arrival of the Malcolmsons was 395, yet in the space of ten years the factory alone was employing approximately twice that figure. It is only with this in mind that one can fully understand why the Malcolmsons are called the builders of Portlaw. They were the force that brought literally thousands to the small village in search of work in the nineteenth century. The onus, therefore, was upon them to house and care for their workers. This, they did without any shortage of expense. They built out of nothing a model village. A model village which was to be copied in part by the Richardson family of Bessbrook, and it is said that the Cadbury's in building Bournville had the style and layout of Portlaw in mind.
Francis Maguire in 1852, speaks of the village and it's environs as the "loveliest landscape that ever realised the dream of a poet" (pg. 162). He notes unhappily that what Portlaw was experiencing at the time of his visit "is not often to be witnessed in the small towns and villages of the country" (pg 162). He carries on to say ",how the rags of beggary nor the distressing whine of the craver of alms" (pg 162) are to be seen or heard in the district. To finish he asks the rhetorical question "In what pastoral village in Ireland could there be witnessed greater cleanliness, greater comfort, or greater cheerfulness?" (pg 162). One may feel that these passages are very idealistic and romantic, however, many writers were to praise Portlaw and speak of it, in the same light as Mr Maguire does in 1852. It must be remembered though that the conditions in the factory were only one element in the making of this model village. The Malcolmsons were creating a society, and transforming an old one. They did not pick Portlaw for purely aesthetic reasons, they capitalised on its advantages, they built a factory, and adapted the environment for their benefit. In doing so, however, many others were also to benefit as shall be seen in the later pages of this article.
Author: Tina Foran