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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.

Sam Hanna in the doorway of No.6 College Square

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. Here Marie chats with Sam Hanna about a restored mill workers house in the village.

Marie took John and Sam the short distance across from the mill / barracks to College Square to have a look inside No. 6 which has been restored to its former glory as an 19th century mill workers house.

view of the former spinning mill  from college square
The former mil - now army barracks - is seen here circled in a photo taken from College Square


The media tends to use a "one stroke fits all" brush when it covers parts of Northern Ireland made infamous by the dark days of the troubles. Bessbrook, to those who have never travelled through the village - which sits quietly up the road from Newry - might be thought of as a border backwater which is probably best known for the kind of headlines associated with the South Armagh region in general, over the course of the Northern Ireland conflict.

But as you can clearly see from these photos this is far from the truth. As you turn into college square the three sides are bordered by quaint former mill workers' homes. The middle of the square has a bowling green and children's play area, while standing proudly on each corner of the entrance to the square are the town hall and primary school.

Sam tells us that the 20-30 houses which make up college square is a great example of a "model village", purpose built for the mill workers. Although some houses were remodeled which already stood here, the majority of the area was planned specifically by the Richardson's family for the benefit of its employees.

The motto of the this Quaker family was - " In essentials, non-essentials liberty and in all things charity.

mill workers' houses in College Square, Bessbrook
The neat row of mill workers' houses in College Square, Bessbrook


Sam explains to Marie that the monument in the photo below, until recently, stood in the grounds of the mill. The Bessbrook Development Company campaigned for it to stand in the square for all to see the history of its main employer for so many years. The monument lists the owners of the mill from 1760 to the end of the 19th century.

The historical monument in  College Square, Bessbrook
The neat rows of mill workers' houses in College Square, Bessbrook


College square, was named after the primary school - built in 1849 - which was, for its time, an upmarket school. The boys and girls were taught separately and the teachers resided on either side of the school premises.

the College Square primary school at Bessbrook
The primary school in College Square, Bessbrook

Sam then takes us to No.6 College Square which has been restored by the Bessbrook Development Company to resemble a mill workers house of about 1881. With the mill still in the background and the view of the rows of small terraces, even before we enter the house, there is a strong sense of history.


Audio Clip : Marie talks to Sam and John about the mill houses



Once inside the picture is complete. Each room exudes a feeling of pure history. From the table set in the front room to the stone bed warmer in the bedroom, the house, which would have housed up to 12 people, is a fascinating glimpse into the 1880's.


Sam and Marie look at the papers on the table
with a little digital imaging this photo  resembles life in 1880
the table set for a hungry family
Is this what a family in the 1880's might have seen?


Sam is keen for any help in finding the families who once lived here. The Bessbrook Development Company has searched far and wide to add the authentic items for No.6, but if you think you have something suitable which you'd like to donate please contact us here at YPAM.


mill workers' house in College Square, Bessbrook
Do you know anyone who may have looked out of this window at no.6 ?


You can fill out the form below if you have anything to add to this article.



Breda Bollard - Feb '08

I am the 'leader' of a social history group based here in the library in Ballyboden, now a part of South Dublin, this area has long associations with mills and mill-workers, the group would love to visit Bessbrook, and we have Saturday 29th March as a date, there are approx 25 in the group. could a guide be organised, we will have bus organised

Breda Bollard
Whitechurch Library

Leeanne Ferguson - Dec '07
I was wondering if any one could help me that has lived in the Bessbrook area for the last 50 years. I am trying to trace family relatives, my mother is Kathleen Ferguson (nee Turley) and my father John Ferguson, my father passed away last year. My parents lived in Bessbrook until the 1970s, my fathers parents where Wilbur & Gwen Ferguson. If any one could give me any information I would be very grateful.

Eimear Mc Parland Oct 07
I've lived in Bessbrook all my life and no 6 would be; as I have heard,a good glimpse of what a child of a house of say 11-14 children would see if it was lucky enough to get to look out the window. Of course I'm not one of those children!. We are doing the history of Bessbrook in school so I am very interested in what Bessbrook would have looked like in the old days so this was very enjoyable to be able to look at all these photo's.

Mary Lou Fleming Dewar - Apr '07
Are any of the school records for Bessbrook still in existence? How would I go about finding them? I believe my grandmother, Eleanor Thomas, would have been a student there around 1856 - 1865.

Michelle Bailey - Mar '07
I don't know if my family were actually mill workers, or even lived at number 6, but they were from College Square in the early 1900's as far as up to WW2, there were 13 children and the two parents. Looking at your pictures, a bit of a squeeze!! if anyone knows anything about the Clulows, let me know, I'd be very interested!!


Patricia Byers (Hobart, Tasmania) - Feb '07
All I know about my great great grandfather John Wallace is that when his daughter Martha married John Wright Somerville in Armagh in January 1872, he was described as a tenter from Bessbrook. A distant cousin from Armagh tells me the Wallace family came to Ireland from Scotland.
I visited Bessbrook about fifteen years ago and was overwhelmed by the military presence. Is it so today?
Recently I came across reference to an article by Roisin Lafferty "19th Century in-migration to the South East Ulster village of Bessbrook" in the JGSI in 2000. Is this the same person quoted in the story? I would dearly like to get a copy of that article, and to find out more about Bessbrook when John Wallace lived and worked there.
As my father once told me "It's the people that make places." Series such as these are invaluable in recording stuff that rarely gets into books.

How do I get in touch with Anne Wallace?

Michael King - Nov '06
My great grandfather Michael King and great grandmother Margaret King nee Edgar worked at the mill and lived in Bessbrook. He came from Whitehaven.
Anybody have any information?

Mary Marshall - Oct '06
"Workers At The Bessbrook Mill 1940/53"

I am doing research for my Son in Law Kenneth Barr, he was born in BESSBROOK in 1952.
His family all worked in the mill, I do not know all their christain names but there would have been, EILEEN, NORA, KATE, and ALICE, There were probly more, all their surnames would have been BARR, probley their menfolk also worked there, their father was JAMES BARR, they all left BESSBROOK in about 1954 to live in BIRMINGHAM UK and the family have multiplied many times, they still speak of the mill. I wonder if there is any record of the BARRS who worked there.

Jim Stinson - Oct '06
No. 6 College Square East - the house where I was born in 1954!

My mother's maiden name was McKee and No.6 was her family home, where she lived, with five brothers and sisters, until she married my father, and I was born there. My grandfather, James McKee, was a mill worker up until the mid 1960's, if I remember correctly.

My mother, my sister and I returned to Bessbrook every summer during the 1960's, for 2 weeks holiday staying with "granny and granda" McKee. I can hardly tell you how much Jennifer (my sister) and I loved staying in that little house and being in Bessbrook. In the sixties, it was such a quiet place, but for us it was a place of never-ending delight for that 2 weeks. I can still remember every detail of the house - the rooms, the large collection of brass and china ornaments and decorations, lovingly polished by my grandfather, the tiny kitchen, the stairs that creaked at the turn just before the top - even the back yard with outside loo! All kept immaculately clean and tidy.
Of course, it was a house with a typical 1960's interior that I am describing, not like the traditional mill-worker's house it has been restored to. No doubt an excellent job has been done to make the house what it is now, yet I cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness, knowing that I can never again see it the way my sister and I remember it from those happy days of our childhood and the summers we spent there.

The window at the back - yes, I looked out of it many times, often to see a pair of goats grazing in the field!

Barbara Mccormick- Aug '06
My grandad and granmother lived in 6 College Square East, Bessbrook and my father was born there. I frequently stayed with my grandparents and looked out of the little window shown above.

K.Woods, USA - March '06
I grew up in Bessbrook or the Brook as we knew it, in the 1950s It was a great place to grow up in at that particular period of time. I remember the mill horn going off at 12pm and all the workers streaming out the mill gates into the center of the village. Those who lived in the village would go home for a hot dinner and the people who travelled to the mill from the outlaying districts would eat their lunch around the big tree or sit on the benches in the park at Charlemont sq.

The Co or Ferguson's would be very busy cutting ham for sandwiches and selling pop and candy to the workers. There weren't any fast food restaurants or coffee shops in those days and most of the workers would eat their"piece" another name for a sandwich,and drink their hot tea out of flasks or thermos. I went to the convent of mercy and would come into the center of the village every day to my house for lunch, so all this was apart of my every day life. All of my mothers family worked at the weaving at least some part of their lives......

Doreen Moran - March '06
My great-grandfather, Samuel McComb, was born in Bessbrook in the 1860s and left at the age of 22. He traveled to Liverpool and then onto the port at Philadelphia aboard the ship "Lord Goff" . He ended up in Chicopee, MA and was listed as a Mill Operative. That's all I know.

Roisin Lafferty - Jan '06
My greatgrandmother Margaret Hamill worked here in the 1870 to 1890 era. She travelled from Lurgangreen co. Monaghan by ass and cart to be picked up by Richardsons coach on a Sunday evening. She went hack home on Sat being collected again by Ass and cart. She died 1902.

Ray McCaughey - Oct 05
Wonderful article. I too am trying to trace a relative of mine who worked as a watchman at the Mill. His name was Joseph Milligan and he worked there in or around1880/1900. Hia wife's name was Eliza and they had 3 children Joseph, Maggie Emma and Florence. If anyone can help or point me in some direction that would be great. Many thanks.

I would also be grateful if i could get hold of the employee records of the Mill or given a contact who might have them.

Mary Lou DEWAR - July '05
My great grandfather, James THOMAS, was living in Bessbrook in 1864. According to Griffith's Valuation, he was leasing a house (No. 57) from James Richardson for L 2 10s 0d per year. James Thomas's occupation is listed as "gardener". Are there any records from Richardson's still surviving for that period of time? Would the Quakers in Bessbrook have records?

Raymond O'Regan - July '05
An excellent article on this model village ; built by the Richardson family. The Richardson family also had business interests in Belfast . The large red brick building ; nowadays part of Marks and Spencer and before that the Water Office in Donegall Square North, was one of their warehouses.

Their model village in Bessbrook was copied by English Quakers e.g. Cadburys Bournville Model Village. A Baroncy was offered to Richardson but he turned it down. As is typical of the peaceful stance shown by Quakers, Bessbrook village did not have a police station and they also made provision for all the main religions.

The Quakers were also the first charity to open up soup kitchens during the 1845/50 Great Irish Famine. The Quakers entry into Northern Ireland was brought about when a soldier of Cromwells army c.1650's, stayed on in the Lurgan area. In the early 1800's they opened up a Quaker Meeting House in Belfast in Frederick Street (then known as Brewery Lane). This building is still in use; by Concern Worldwide and the more modern Quaker Meeting house is to be found behind the original building.

Anne Wallace - July '05
My mum and dad were born and bred in Bessbrook and both worked in the mill. My dad is no longer with us but mum is 82 now and has wonderful memories if anyone is interested. I would certainly pass on any information she would give me.



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