independent

Monday 23 September 2019

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

Reporter David Medcalf with Sarah Gillespie.
Reporter David Medcalf with Sarah Gillespie.

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.

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