Copeland Linens, Belfast's last working linen factory closes

BBC Newsline reporter Eunan McConville takes a final look around Belfast's last linen mill.

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The last working linen factory in Belfast - a city once famous across the world for the textile - is set to close.

Copeland Linens Limited, based in the Shankill area, has been manufacturing in the city for almost 60 years.

It once employed dozens of people and counted a British prince and an Irish president among its clients.

Its owner said his decision to shut was a combination of the economic downturn and his own age and health.

Sad demise

Start Quote

I remember, having read or heard on the radio, that the Queen was paying for the wedding and when we delivered the cloth we thought 'great, we're going to get a cheque signed Elizabeth R'”

End Quote Peter Smyth Copeland Linens

Peter Smyth, 78, said he was disappointed and saddened to see the demise of his trade in Belfast and recalled a time when mills and factories dominated the city.

"The whole of Linenhall Street, the whole of Bedford St, the whole of Ormeau Avenue, the whole of Dublin Road was solid with big, red, well-built buildings that were all in the textile business.

"Sadly no-one is left in the city, as I understand, but me."

The linen industry is woven into the history of Belfast.

In the 19th century, it was one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, and its thriving linen factories were a major driver in its expansion.

By 1896, almost 100,000 people worked in the trade, making it the largest employer in the city.

Royal wedding

At present, 10 people are employed at Copeland Linens Ltd.

Mr Smyth began working in the industry in 1954 - almost six decades ago.

Linen and Belfast

  • In 1911, Belfast was the leading centre of linen production in the world.
  • Linen was so important to Belfast the city was known as Linenopolis
  • Linen was produced in Ireland as far back as 1260, when an Irish tribe wearing linen was defeated by the chainmail-wearing Normans.
  • Belfast's population boomed from around 120,000 in 1861 to nearly 400,000 in 1911 as people moved to the city for jobs in the linen industry.
  • Companies like Coombe Barbour and Mackie's developed to build machinery for the linen industry. These companies were in turn responsible for the great age of ship building

He previously owned another factory in the city centre, but after seven bomb attacks on his premises, he moved his operation to the west of the city and bought the current factory on Boundary Street.

He recalled that his firm secured a very special client in 1981.

"We were fortunate enough to produce an altar cloth for Prince Charles' wedding," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"I remember, having read or heard on the radio, that the Queen was paying for the wedding and when we delivered the cloth we thought 'great, we're going to get a cheque signed Elizabeth R'."

Presidential order

However, when the cheque arrived, he said it was signed by "somebody called the controller".

"We were all disappointed. We had planned not to cash that cheque if Her Majesty had signed it."

If Copeland Linen was good enough for a future king, then why not a president?

Embroidered linen napkin The factory made napkins, embroidered with the flax flower, for Irish embassies throughout the world

In the years that followed, the small factory in the shadow of the Shankill Road was soon supplying fine linen tableware to Irish embassies around the world.

"We got involved with the Republic of Ireland government and the then president, Mary Robinson, decided that when she went round the embassies and consuls throughout the world, the linen that they had was pretty awful and it certainly didn't do anything for Irish linen," Mr Smyth said.

"So she picked this particular motif of the flax flower and we submitted samples of placemats, napkins and coasters."

The flax flower, now also the official symbol of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, was embroidered onto all the samples before they were exported.

Cutbacks

Mr Smyth admitted the Irish contract was "very lucrative for us indeed".

At one stage, he had seven shops to accompany his factory, and employed dozens of people.

However, when the Celtic Tiger economy went bust, the work dried up.

Peter Smyth Mr Smyth said he was disappointed and saddened to see the demise of his trade in Belfast

"Sadly I lost most of the business from the Irish Republic due to the cutbacks. They're having to cut back on things like the linen for their embassies," Mr Smyth said.

The building has been sold and the factory will cease production in a matter of weeks.

Mr Smyth said he had been left with little alternative.

"Well I'm approaching 80 and my health's not grand and I think I should maybe call it a day."

He said he was "slightly overcome" by the number of people who had called and written to him when word of the closure spread.

"I am disappointed but I think it's time I hung up my boots," he added.

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