YP&M reporter Marie McStay invited Sam Hanna, a local historian
and John Feehan, an ex-mill worker on a trip back in
time at Bessbrook Spinning Mill - still home to a very
different workforce than the buildings original tenants
- and to a restored mill workers house in the village
of Bessbrook, County Armagh.
Sam Hanna tells Marie that the site of the spinning
mill first came into the ownership of Sir Toby Caulfield
between 1620 and 1650. It lay derelict up until 1750
when the Pollock family showed an interest and bought
the lease over in1750. By 1752 they had established
a bleaching business.
site of the Bessbrook spinning mill circa late
After a fire in 1839, the next carnation of the factory
began in 1845 when the property was put on the market.
Around this time the family which would leave a lasting
impression on the mill and the community, the Richardson's,
were looking to expand their mill business and by 1846
the spinning mill was up and running. As with the rest
of the Northern Ireland linen industry, at this time,
the Bessbrook Spinning Company flourished over the next
the 30-40 years, peaking around 1900.
Around the beginning of the troubles - 1970/71 the
army needed a substantial base in South Armagh and Bessbrook
mill was all but finished as a business, so the former
linen mill was requisitioned by the British Army.
entrance to the barracks / mill
John Feehan recalls how the hundreds of workers would
arrive at the mill each day - "I remember the war
type lorries of covered canvas, where everyone sat in
lines in the back...they came from everywhere..Newry,
Whitecross, Belleek, and Darkley...."
John himself walked to the mill where many a time he
had to run the last few yards in order to beat the factory
horn - " I ran down Park Lane to be in in time
to get my clocking in medal ...( A coin the size of
a large penny which had the worker's individual details
on it ) ...if you weren't in before five to eight you
were docked an hour's wages..."
Feehan shows Marie his former work place in the
As an eager 17 year old, John Feehan spent a year at
the mill just before it closed in 1971. John's working
day began at 8am and finished at 6pm, with breaks of
half an hour for lunch and 15 minutes each in the morning
and the afternoon.
John worked in the "card" office where his
job involved sorting the stiff-paper cards which were
a vital part of the loom system. Carefully punched holes
in the cards guided the looms along a predefined path.
This area is now the army officer's accommodation block.
Hanna explains the importance of a diffused light
source in the mill
Sam explains that the weaving shed shook to the thunderous
vibrations of the looms and so had to be sited on the
ground floor of any mill. The strange slanted windows
above were designed to face north which allowed only
a diffused light source to fall on the looms which aided
John recalls about 300 looms at work in this area :
" Each man or woman would operate three, four or
maybe five looms at once.The noise was deafening. The
passageways between the looms produced greatly skilled
lip reader..as you couldn't hear a thing! "
sneaks away from the interview when she spies
the army climbing wall
Although the army has re-deigned the mill buildings
to suit its needs the sense of the old mill is still
there. The major change to the landscape being the building
of the high steel walls around the perimeter and the
demolition of the mill's two chimneys.
As we walk through the base, flights of helicopters
take off and land - this base was once the busiest heliport
in Europe - with a thundering whirr. Which reminds us
of the deafening noise of the looms which once stood
here along with another proud workforce.
As John enters the army Naafi which once fed hundreds
of linen workers his step slows and it's clear he is
deep in thought about his time here. He vividly recalls
lunchtimes in this room where he "broke bread"
with his mother and father - both mill workers.
returns to the canteen, now the army naafi
The Richardson family were keen to improve the life
of its mill workers and provided sports facilities and
purpose built housing which Marie takes us to next......
The Mill Houses
at College Square
DEIRDRE M JENNINGS - Mar '08
Sarah Firth has got it wrong, although the Campbells lived and worked in Bessbrook
they were not born there. My dad was George Campbell and he was born in Lisburn.
I visited Bessbrook with him about 15 years ago, we went through the mill yard
and had to stop at the army checkpoint, there was also a shool there some of
them went to on the top road. I remember the helicopters taking off every few
minutes, the noise was horrendous, they just skimmed the tops of the houses,I
don't know how the people stood it. I took some photos while we were there
must take another look at them Sadly my dad died 5 years ago, but I miss his
stories all about his life back then.
Don Gruno - February '08
My grandmother and Grandfather, Mary Ann O'Neill and
Tom (Cock) Pentony both worked at the Mill. When married
they lived on (#44?)High Street, Bessbrook until they
moved to the USA in 1924. They had seven children.
The oldest was my mother, Molly (Mary Ann), then Thomas,
Frank, Rose, Brian, Seamus and Jack. I've visited Bessbrook
twice. The first time was 1966 and the last time was
2001. I have cousens who still live in Bessbrook. I
enjoyed visiting with them. My Grandmother's uncle,
Barney O'Neill was once the Post Master in Bessbrook.
Tony and Anne Maron are our distant cousens who lived
in Bessbrook. (Anne is my Grandfather Pentony's half
sister). I've lost contact with Tony Maron's eldest
son, and would like to make contact with him again.
Can anyone who reads this help put me in contact. My
e-mail is dongruno at bellsouth dot net
Arthur McConnell - Jan '08
I worked in the mill around 1958 in the spinning dept.
First I was a racker, then handle holder, then bobbin
laer, also band tier. We lived in the huts beside
the Orange Hall, I would like to hear from anybody
who remembers me! (My knickname was Scottie).
David Vogan (son of the above) - Dec '07
My name is Violet Vogan and I worked in Bessbrook Mill
for many years where I spent many happy times as a
My husband is William Vogan who was also employed
in Bessbrook spinning company as a joiner for 32 years.
After the maintenance dept. closed down, I was kept
on to look after the property to prepare for tenants
Greg - May '07
I was stationed there during the late ninties
for a while. I have some interesting memories of the
Sarah Firth - Apr '07
My garandma and her brothers and sisters (8 all together)
were all born in bessbrook i think 1900 -1925 they lived
at 15 federick street and then moved to 35 federick
street. the surname was campbell.
they then moved to france for work and later settles
in bingley, england.
does any one remember them? or have any photo's of federick
street as my grandma would like to see what it looks
like, she was a baby when they left! please help email
me at sarah dot firth1 at hotmail dot co dot uk
Ann - Jan '07
Can any one remember Jean, Joe and Maises Heaney they
were three sisters from Newry I think. They worked
the in the mill in the 1950s.
Michael King - Dec '06
Message for Stephen Edgar.
My Great Grandmother was Margaret King (nee Edgar)
and worked at the mill in the late 1880's... any link?
William James McCutcheon - Oct '06
I grew up in 44 Federick street in BessBrook and was
happy times spent there. I remember the front doors
open, like Arkwrights shop all hours, the front door
step washed every day, the tin bath we got washed in
on Saturday nights in front of the fire, the dreaded
mangle used to squeeze out the water from the clothes
, the dry toilets, etc but most of all everybody and
anybody dropping in for endless cups of tea with my
mother, and no fridges, freezer's, washing machines,
etc. I don't know how our mothers coped they should
all get medals.
Plus everybody mixed with each other as still do today
no matter your colour or creed Bessbrook must be unique
in this manner.
William James McCutcheon.
Mary Marshall - Oct '06
THE BARR FAMILY.
Does anyone out there remember the BARR family, they
all grew up close to the mill, the female names were
Eileen, Kate, Annie, their mothers name was Alice she
also worked there, I do not know if their father JAMES
worked there. They left the area about 1954 and moved
to BIRMINGHAM U K, they would love to hear from anyone,
old school friends and neighbours. My E MAIL is mrsm.
marshall @ tiscali. co. uk.
Anne - July '06
The rent man was called Billy Bell....I know, my mother
juggled a large family and little cash to provide us
with a loving home. As for spricks, the pond and Saturday
matinees at the HIBS....happy days. The Feehans are
related to my family. My grandmother being the sister
of Mary who had the little sweet shop in the Gardens
in the 50s.
Annie McKenna was the sister of my Grandfather. The
Finnegans, Kanes, McDaids, O'Hagans, Hughes, (many different
families), are all related Growing up in the 50s with
such a large extended clan made getting into mischief
without being sprung almost impossible. Just about everyone
in my street worked in the mill. The day was punctuated
by the horn sounding for breaks and day's start and
end. If there is anyone in Australia who remembers these
times, contact details are below. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Pritchard nee Bradley - June
It's a pity the old mill couldn't be brought back to
life again as a museum of history. Near me in Cheshire
there is Styal Mill which was owned by Samuel Greg and
was a cotton mill. There you can take a trip through
time and find out what it was like to work there and
how all of the machinery worked. You can also find out
the history of some of the employees and how they were
treated by their employer.
Most of my aunts and uncles worked at the Mill in Bessbrook
as did my Mother and Father. They met there in their
teens. I don't think it was happy days for all working
there, but it was work!
Gerry McGuinness - April '06
Gerry (Kieran) McGuinness from Adelaide, Australia.
My mother Evelyn McGuinness (Nee Keenan) used to work
in the mill. I have vivid memories of her coming home
with wool stuck to her cardigan. I too had great fun
at the pond and used to fish the river all the way up
to Camlough lake. I moved away in 69 and have only been
back a couple of times.
I was born at 51 Frederick Street and moved to 52
Frederick Street when my grandparents moved to the Gardens.
I remember the rentman, Tom Bell I believe his name
was, coming around every Friday to collect the rent
which he carried in a brown satchel which was slung
across his shoulder.
I recall, on many occassions, my mother telling us
to be quiet when he knocked on the door because she
didn't have the rent. Then we moved to O'Donoghue Park,
wasn't that a celebration!! Inside toilets and hot running
water. I shall never forget my first night sleeping
in the new house, the fact is I could not get to sleep
for hours because I missed the pitter patter of the
mice whose company we shared at Frederick Street for
all those years. And what about that phone box in Fountain
Street, the only means of communicating with the outside
world in the lower village.......those were the days.
John Curran - April '06
I would be interested in hearing a bit more history
about my native town Newry. The mill at Dromalane was
still operating in the fifties. Does it have a similar
Sam Hanna - April '06
My name is Sam Hanna as was my Father. He lived on Northumberland
St in Belfast and used to tell us stories of his training
in the mills before coming to America. I still have
relatives in Newtonards, the McNair family, my father's
sister. Also I remember an Uncle George Beggs who was
quite a singer during WWll. I never have been able to
find much information on the family ancestry. This article
seemed to bring up memories--very nice and appreciative.
Thanks for listening to my rambles.
Anthony Scott - April '06
Interesting reading, i remember my mom telling me stories
from her days at the mill, and how her and her sisters
used to walk from newry every day, and then have to
stand on a wet floor all day long, and she said they
were good days, lol.
Steven Edgar - March '06
My family may well be connected to the mill in the 1800s.
What information do you have on the surname Edgar. Thanks.
David Edgar - March '06
Anyone seen rita? That was a common bit of the daily
banter in the mill canteen between john and dash. they
were good times.
Una James - Mar 06
I think my father may have worked there. how can I find
K. Woods - March '06
I was reared in Bessbrook and have warm memories of
growing up there in the 1950s. I go back to visit every
year, and sadly but naturally the people I knew and
grew up with have either passed on or moved away. I
still get the "warm fuzzies" when I arrive
back the first day of my yearly visit and love to go
to the paper shop, as it is known for my Cadbury fix.
The Pond was a great source of summer entertainment
for me and my friends . We would race round to catch
spricks or baby fish in our nets made from an old pair
of nylons. At that time the square was surrounded by
railings and the park was kept in immaculate condition
with the gates closing at 9pm in the evening. We would
wait until Rufus or Andy McClenaghan were gone and we
would climb over the side gate to play on the tumbling
bars and slide, as the swings were chained up for the
night. That was the extent of our juvenile delinquency
in those days! I was glad to see that some information
has been posted on decorative boards in the village
center to let strangers and visitors know a little of
the "Model Village" history.
David Sturgeon - Feb 06
Thank you for the interesting comments on the Bessbrook
Mill, I can well remember my father taking us for a
drive from Dromore where I grew up ,and seeing the little
train running down to Newry. Can you recommend any books
on the history of the linen business in the area?
(David, We suggest you contact
the Lisburn Linen Museum. Click here
to view details Ed.)