Thriving Industry in Larne

My name is Jenna Fox and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.

My placement involves transcribing a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals in the late 1950s and 1960s. These notebooks were essential for the development of the Folk Museum as they record by county and locality anecdotes and information on truly diverse topics. The notebooks that I will be discussing were written by a teacher from Larne in the 1950s. The author covers a wide range of topics from her youth, including local country cures for ailments, superstitions and folklore, the role of the town blacksmith, as well as her favourite confectionery that she enjoyed as a child.

Larne was a bustling town around 1900.The author lists how the town was filled with ‘grocers, butcher shops and pork stores, drapers, milliners, tailors, iron-mongers, coal-stores, baker’s shops, tin-smiths, timber-yards, shoe-makers, blacksmiths, druggists or apothecaries, public-houses, eating-houses, hotels or inns, builders’ yards, plumbers, [and] coach-builders’. Here we’ll focus on the work of just a few of these vocations.

Drapery and Dressmaking

The author recollects how business was booming for the drapers’ shops before the era of ‘ready-made clothing, hats and footwear’ came in which sadly saw the workshops in Larne ‘gradually dwindling and closing down’. This was quite the change. At the start of the 20th century, drapers’ shops had ‘so much busy work’ that their dressmaking departments had their own ‘millinery and tailoring departments’. Work was lengthy and demand was high. The author recalls how one shop had ‘26 dressmakers’ in order to meet demand. Eventually, some of these dressmakers branched off and open their own shops. The author recollects how these workers ‘were real artists’ who had ‘marvellous opportunities in those days to express themselves through their hands’, as much embellishment was still in vogue.

However, not everyone was blessed with such talent. Those who completed shoddy work ran the risk of being labelled a “botch” and usually lost clients.

Image: Ladies wearing hats and dresses in Cross Street, Larne, HOYFM.WAG.546.
Ladies wearing hats and dresses in Cross Street, Larne, HOYFM.WAG.546.

Shipbuilding

Larne was and remains today to be a highly valued harbour. In 1900, Larne boasted two ‘flourishing’ shipyards where ‘small coasters and other small crafts’ were manufactured. These shipyards employed specialised carpenters who operated from the late 1870s until the end of the First World War. The author recalls how the men who first found the shipyard hailed from Carrickfergus, another important harbour town located a short distance from Larne.

Image: Skilled carpenters were employed at Larne Shipyard, HOYFM.WAG.535.
Skilled carpenters were employed at Larne Shipyard, HOYFM.WAG.535.

Milling Industry

Like other industrialised towns in Northern Ireland, the mills in Larne were responsible for the employment of a vast amount of the population around 1900. These mills varied in design and purpose.   

Flour Mill

Larne boasted two thriving flour mills at the turn of the 20th century – Arnold’s Mill on Mill Street and another at Inver. The author remembers her father telling her about ‘farmers’ sons and anyone possessing a horse and cart’ who could earn some extra cash ‘by carting grain from the Star Line ships that came into Larne Harbour from America’ to the mill at Inver. Both mills were water-driven, fed by the Larne River. The author notes how this industry has changed, telling us that these mills have, by the 1950s, been enlarged and modernized, having been ‘converted into a clothing-mill’ which ‘gives employment to many girls’.

Image: Many of the mills were water-driven by the Larne River, BELUM.Yt4796.
Many of the mills were water-driven by the Larne River, BELUM.Yt4796.

Linen Mill

The author writes how the ‘spinning and weaving factories in the town flourished when linen became a major industry’. These mills were staffed by mainly women and girls who worked long hours in the factories, ‘from 6am till 6pm’, walking home for breakfast and for dinner. The author remembers how easily one could pick out the ‘spinners’ in town, as they were typically older women who ‘had hair full of “lint” fluff.’ The town landscape was transformed for the better by these mills as the ‘gleaming lines of linen bleaching on the green slopes of Inver made a lovely sight’.

...And many more!

Larne boasted paper-mills, saw-mills as well as corn-mills, but many of these had ceased operation by the 1950s due to lack of economic revenues. The author acknowledges how ‘only the ruins’ of many of these industries remain. Instead, employment in Larne was provided by newer industries. At the time of writing, the author discussed how many of the young women in the town were engaged in the manufacture of radio sets. As for the men, they turned to work in the Magheramorne cement works.

Agriculture

The author notes how farm work was allocated between men and women, and indeed boys and girls at the turn of the 20th century. While some girls may have ‘stayed at home’ until they were married, they were still expected to ‘work for their keep’! Women’s work included gathering and selling the potatoes, while men dug the land and spread the manure. Men cut the turf while women gathered it. Work was completed together, recalls the author, such as when men cut the hay while women ‘attended them’ by ‘hacking, turning or forking’. That is not to say that all work was completed in this dual nature. Men were expected to keep ‘the ditches and hedges and fences in order’ as well as completing any other required constructional repairs on the farm. As for women, they were responsible for ‘the milking and looking after the poultry’ as well as for the churning of milk for butter.

Image: Many of the ‘country folk’ in Larne occupied themselves with farm work, BELUM.Y.W.01.09.4.
Many of the ‘country folk’ in Larne occupied themselves with farm work, BELUM.Y.W.01.09.4.

The author notes how this separation changed when modern machinery came into use, as ‘men took over jobs that had formerly been done by women’ including the milking and poultry attendance. Indeed, this separation was not always so rigid, even before the modern machinery came about. Should a family only have a few boys or men, the author notes that women and girls ‘often undertook “men’s work” quite successfully’! As for the men – even they could manage ‘quite well’ with baking and washing should they be ‘deprived of women’s help’.

Farmers could look to their neighbours should the work be too much even for a plentiful family. The author recalls how ‘neighbouring’ was practiced in the district, in which nearby neighbours helped to get the work done before ‘the weather broke’. This was especially useful when gathering and making the hay, or ‘on smaller holdings’ when they did not have the machinery to harvest all the corn and potatoes.

Agriculture was not just reserved for the country folk. ‘Many of the larger houses in the town had large gardens or yards and most of these families kept cows and horses’. These families engaged in the business of milk-selling. The author remembers one family who had such a large home in the middle of town that they were able to house ‘cows, horses, calves, pigs, hens, ducks and even a goose’! Incredibly, even the families which had no gate-way entrance to their backyards sold milk. This meant that the cows had to pass ‘through a long hall from front to back’ of the house, even through houses which had ‘several high steps at the front door’ that the cows had to negotiate. As the author notes, ‘one can only imagine how the hay was got-in, and the manure got-out!’

Image: Both country folk and townspeople kept cows for ‘milk-selling’, HOYFM.WAG.1952.
Both country folk and townspeople kept cows for ‘milk-selling’, HOYFM.WAG.1952.

Home Crafts

For girls who stayed at home, a little ‘pin-money’ could be earned by ‘embroidery, knitting, sewing or baking’. For those less craft inclined, they could gather ‘dulse’ from the shore, dry it and then sell it on to shops or on the street to customers.

Street Sellers

Fishermen caught ‘lobsters, plaice, sole and mackerel’ down at Larne Harbour and bring them into town. They were ‘brought round the streets in a sprung cart’ with the ‘driver-sales-man’ calling out his catch of the day. Of particular note were the ‘Islandmagee herrings’ which were well spoken off and always ‘assuredly fresh’. The author remembers how ‘house-wives would come out with their big plates’ ready for their order, and the salesman always called “and there’s wan for luck!”.

Bread was also sold round the streets ‘from tall baker’s carts’ with the goods perched ‘precariously up in front’. Bakers usually offered ‘white loaves, baps, seed-buns, current squares, stomach cakes and Paris buns’, but the loaves were usually carried around in a large basket over the arm of the baker. The author tells us how she remembers a time when her mother told her that ‘white loaf-bread was considered a luxury’.

Image: Fish was brought into town and sold on the street from carts to waiting housewives, BELUM.Y13623.
Fish was brought into town and sold on the street from carts to waiting housewives, BELUM.Y13623.