James Rea written account – earning a living

In this week’s blog, James Rea recounts his experiences of earning a living in County Armagh in the early 1900s. With three boys in the family, James and his brothers had to work to provide for the home. They accepted any kind of work that came their way – James preferred some jobs more than others!

“We used to draw threads from linen handkerchiefs, or what was to be used as such when finished. Several threads were withdrawn from all four edges of these handkerchiefs and we were paid a few pennies per dozen. These hankies as we called them were later embroidered or filled with fancy stitching at the linen factory. That was one job I detested. One of the reasons being that my hands were too rough from labouring work to handle such fine work.”

Caption: A fine linen handkerchief embroidered by hand with a drawn thread work corner (HOYFM.484.1998A). The pencil mark 1/7 (on this sample piece) was the price paid at the time for one dozen of these handkerchiefs to be embroidered thus and hemmed by hand.

The experience didn’t deter James from taking an apprenticeship in a linen factory in a local town.

“I was started off on one power operated loom, which I got along very well with. After some time I was given a second loom, which meant one ahead of me and the other behind. Occasionally a thread would break, which meant shutting down the loom and making a fast connection by means of the weavers knot. Work was not hard, but one had to be on the alert at all times.”

Image: Operating a power loom, Waringstown (HOYFM.WAG.1007).
Operating a power loom, Waringstown (HOYFM.WAG.1007).

General labouring was another occupation that James regularly undertook. One job he particularly enjoyed was thatching.

“I was about eighteen years old when I helped to thatch a roof. That was a great experience. Good clean oat straw was used for this purpose. Sheaves of oats were selected and a wooden barrel was laid on its side and supported in position. The sheaves were then opened one at a time, and the amount we could hold in two hands was hammered over the barrel, at the same turning the handfuls inside and out making sure all of the grain was hammered out. Otherwise there would have been green patches on the roof after rains. The straw was tied up in sheaves again, and kept dry until it was time to use it on the roof.”

Image: Many of the houses in the Ulster Folk Museum like Corradreenan Farmhouse have thatched roofs.
Many of the houses in the Ulster Folk Museum like Corradreenan Farmhouse have thatched roofs.

“Preparation for the job was as follows. Willow rods were gathered in the low-lying areas. These were one quarter to three eights of an inch thick and eighteen to twenty four inches long, and sharpened at both ends. An area of the roof was prepared by removing some of the old straw, or thatch. The gable walls usually extended about six to eight inches above the base of the roof. This was the retainer for the straw roof, and also a straight guideline to start off with. Two ladders were used; one to climb the roof, and the other was supported on the roof to be used as a guide and also to work off. The rows were about eighteen inches wide and about five to six inches thick. They started at the edge and worked up to the peak of the roof. The willow staples were pressed into position and the next lot of straw covered them up, similar to the shingles covering the nails. When an area of approximately three feet across was finished we would use a sharp thatcher’s knife to trim off the straw, starting at the roof peak and working towards the eave, using a slanting motion when cutting. The eave hangover was four to five inches. The only willow staples that would show up in the finished roof were two rows about twelve inches back from the eave and three inches apart. The same method was used at the peak of the roof on both sides. This was protection from the wind. A newly thatched house with whitewashed walls, a few rosebushes and green grass made a lovely sight.”

Image: Sam Williamson, Thatcher, c.1895 (HOYFM.DUNDEE.601).
Sam Williamson, Thatcher, c.1895 (HOYFM.DUNDEE.601).

I hope you are enjoying the blog series so far. We’ll continue with James’ recollections of earning a living next week.