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Living Linen Interview LL2_R01/42


Sound Recording on Reel: Hamilton Robb. Library Transcript: Transcript. Summary: The linen weaving industry dominated employment market in Portadown in the late 1930s. Joe Neill began work at Hamilton Robbs in 1939. He was not paid during his initial training period. After a serious fire destroyed the warping department, Joe was given a loom and began to weave. He eventually was transferred into the cloth office, where he worked the cropping machine. The cropper resembled a large revolving lawnmower blade that shaved any loose hairs off the cloth to give it a smooth finish. Hamilton Robbs was owned by the Mullen family - the factory manager was a Mr Hawthorne. W A Mullen had worked for Hamilton Robb before emigrating to America. The firm encountered problems and Mr Robb wrote to Mr Mullen asking him to come back and manage the factory. Mr Mullen eventually bought the firm and it remained in the hands of the Mullen family until it was eventually bought by Herdman's on Mr Mullen's death. During WWII Robbs wove cambric cloth for aircraft wings. Robb's also built a scutch mill on site. The firm had contracts with farmers in Moira to grow flax for them. Robb's employees (including Mr Neill) picked the flax in the evenings and at weekends. After it was scutched the flax was sent on to a spinning mill and, as far as Mr Neill is aware, was returned directly to Robb's for weaving. In later years the scutch mill was converted into a weaving shed and filled with looms. Robbs wove cambric cloth, duck and table linens in linen and rayon. The firm had no damask looms. Both men and women wove in the factory. Before Mr Neill's time the firm apparently had a turf fired boiler. The steam engine drove all of the equipment via a system of ropes and belts. Conditions in the weaving sheds did not trouble the workers; many of whom leamt sign language or could lip-read. The factory backs directly onto the banks of the river Bann. The river is navigable up to the factory and was used for transporting coal. The yarn came from Dunbar McMaster and as the firm had no independent bleaching capacity, Cowdys of Banbridge processed most of Robb's cloth. Quality standards in the factory were high. The weavers were skilled and took a great deal of pride in their work. The cropper was a very dangerous machine to operate. The atmosphere was very dusty until an extractor was installed above the machine. The collected pouce was later burnt in the boilers. Robb's employed 300 workers, most of whom lived locally. The workforce was mixed and labour relations were excellent. With so many weaving firms in Portadown, workers tended to move around. Mr Neill has seen photographs from other local companies and has identified many people who worked in Robbs. Facilities were excellent. There was a first aid room with a nurse, and a cloakroom with washing facilities and hot air blowers to dry coats. In later years business began to falter, the workforce contracted and Mr Neill worked week about with the other cropper. When Herdman's bought the firm, although there was a temporary upsurge in orders due to Herdman's connections in the Republic, there was no real capital investment made in the company. Mr Neill had worked in Robb's for 29 years when the closure was announced. Mr Hawthorne helped many employees secure work in other firms. Mr Neil applied to a plastics company and although Mr Hawthorne promised him employment until the end the firm closed within a few months of his leaving in 1968. The plastics company had been encouraged to set up in Portadown by Mr Mullen. The Portadown weaving industry was faltering - Greevers and Spence Bryson closed before Robbs.