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Living Linen Interview LL2_R00/06


Sound Recording on Reel: Fitter - Combe Barbour & Mackies. Library Transcript: Transcript. Summary: Albert Haslett 'The Shankill Poet' is best known for his published poetry and recollections of the Shankill area and of Belfast in general. Albert has also made several appearances on local radio stations and gives public readings on a regular basis. Albert Haslett was born on the Shankill Road in 1926 and has lived in the greater Shankill area all his life. Albert's elder brother was a fitter in Combe Barbours and managed to secure an apprenticeship for Albert during WWII. When Albert's apprenticeship finished, in 1947, the textile industry was in a boom period - responding to a domestic market that had been under-supplied during the war. The mills themselves had also been somewhat neglected during the war and, coupled with booming business, this led to a wave of investment in new machinery. Consequently, Albert was kept on at Combe Barbours as a fitter in a full-time capacity. Combes was on North Howard Street and employed upwards of 2,000 people at its height. Combe Barbours manufactured preparing machinery such as hacklers, carders, drawers and scutchers for the textile trade. Although they occasionally repaired and overhauled looms the firm did not manufacture any weaving or finishing equipment to the best of Albert's knowledge. The fitters job was to assemble the machine, first in the foundry and then later in the mill. Albert regularly went out to different mills such as Walkers of Newtownards and Doagh, while colleagues spent time in Greeves, Ewarts, Jennymount, Brookfield and Banbridge. The fitters often remained in the mill for several weeks setting up the machine(s), rectifying any teething problems and training the mill mechanic to service the machinery and keep it in perfect working order. Combes also offered a guarantee on their produce and Albert recalls fitters being sent down to the various mills to look at machines that were giving difficulty. Combe Barbour were in direct competition with Mackies, although the latter firm produced a broader range of equipment, and while both had loyal customers, it was not unusual for individual mills to run Combe and Mackie machines side by side. Most of the machines produced around this time had guards to protect the operatives and to prevent dangerous practices such as cleaning in motion. Albert is unsure whether or not Combes were involved in the inventing and patenting of machinery, although they had a development department on site. He recalls a man by the name of 'Gadget Gibson' who was possibly an engineer in Jennymount who invented a locking device that prevented operatives taking the guards off machines while they were running. These devices became used throughout the industry. In 1962 Albert left Combes and joined Mackies for a brief spell after an argument with a foreman. He returned to Combes soon after, but found himself in Mackies again after Combes closed in the mid 1970s. The competition between the firm and the respect that each had for the other meant that either gladly accepted men who had trained and served their time in the other. Soon after joining Mackies, Albert worked for a few months in Woodvale factory, assembling equipment that they had purchased. At its peak Mackies employed some 5-6,000 people. The engineering firms relied heavily upon the linen trade and consequently suffered when the industry contracted. Even after the closure of Combes, Mackies found local business difficult. Albert left Mackies and the textile trade soon after - working for a period on oil rigs in Scotland before retiring.