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16 October 2014
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Bessbrook Mill and Millhouse

Marie McStay gets a rare glimpse into the former Bessbrook spinning mill which has been home to the British Army for over 30 years.

The Mill / Army Base at Bessbrook

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.

Bessbrook Spinning Mill
The site of the Bessbrook spinning mill circa late 1880's


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.


New Life

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.

The entrance to the barracks / mill
The 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..."


John Feehan shows Marie his former work place in the carding office
John Feehan shows Marie his former work place in the carding office


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.


Audio Clip : Marie talks to Sam about the history of the mill while John has an emotional return to his former workplace



Sam Hanna and Mrie McStay in  the  mill / barracks
Sam 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 the workforce.

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 you couldn't hear a thing! "


Marie McStay trys her hand on the army barracks climbing wall
Marie 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.


John returns to the canteen, now the army naafi
John 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


Your responses:

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 drawer in.

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 coming in.

Greg - May '07
I was stationed there during the late ninties for a while. I have some interesting memories of the mill...

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


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.

Mary Pritchard nee Bradley - June '06
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 history?

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 out?

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.)


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