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16 October 2014
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Sion Mills - Part Two

The Herdman brothers, James, John and George, came from Belfast to found the mill in 1835.


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Sion Mills - Part Two

(Contributed by Celia Ferguson)


The Herdman brothers, James, John and George, who came from Belfast to found the Mill in 1835 to be near the flax-fields of the North-West, were certainly influenced by Robert Owen, and began their own version of his social experiment in building the village and the community of workers for the Mill. They also, like Owen, believed in education and not only educated the children, but also had evening classes for adults. There was a village band as early as 1842 and George Herdman ran singing-classes for the girls who worked in the Mill. Unlike Owen, they were religious, and built the Churches (although for the first 30 years everyone attended Church together in a converted building in the village - and James Herdman used to beat a drum to call the people to church). They also believed in temperance for the workers and until 1896, when they lost a court case, there was no public house allowed in the village. The Mill Diary kept by James Herdman from 1842 onwards gives a fascinating insight into the social aspects of the mill and the village, besides giving much technical detail of the business of flax-spinning.

A diary has been kept ever since by Herdmans Limited, which is still spinning flax 166 years on, in the most modern flax-spinning mill in the world, built in 1989 immediately to the south of the Old Mill, and employing 600 people. At its height the Old Mill employed 1500 people.

From the diary we learn that there was a gasworks in the Mill in 1840 and in 1842 pipes were laid to the village so that every house had a light, the shop had 4 lights and there were street lights. Later, the Mill installed DC turbines to light the Mill, the village, Sion House and Camus Rectory. Sion House, built by the Herdmans in 1846, was designed by Charles Lanyon of Lanyon Lynn and Lanyon and altered in 1888 by William E Unsworth (a pupil of Lutyens who married the sister of Emerson Tennent Herdman) to a 50 room house in Elizabethan Revival style. Unsworth also designed many of the buildings in the village including the Mens Institute (now the Recreation Club) and the large Church of the Good Shepherd in 1909 in Byzantine style and modelled on a church in Pistoia, Tuscany. The style of the Main Mill and the layout of the village, was, according to tradition, influenced by Titus Salt, but we can find no written record of his involvement. By the end of the 19th Century, there were 240 workers houses in the village, and a population of over 2000.

It was the time of the first potato famine when the Herdmans came and work in the Mill must have provided relief for the poor people of the area. Indeed, in 1840, in the account of Mr and Mrs Hall's visit to Ireland, they wrote the following:

"In the County Tyrone, and within a distance of little more than three miles from Strabane, is to be found one of the most interesting establishments it has ever been our good fortune to visit in any country. We have inspected manufactories of much greater extent than the "Sion Mills", but have never witnessed with greater gratification the practical and efficient working of a fine moral system. . . . . . . . Instead of the hot furnace, long chimneys, and dense smoke, rendering still more unhealthy the necessarily close atmosphere of manufactories devoted exclusively to the spinning of flax and tow into linen yarn, there is a clean, handsome, well-ventilated building, where nearly seven hundred of a peasantry, which, before the establishment of this manufactory were starving and idle - not from choice but necessity - are now constantly employed; and the air is as pure and as fresh as on the borders of the wildest prairie, or the boldest coast.

A NEW SOCIAL ORDER: The bare fact of such a population being taught industrious habits and receiving full remuneration for their time and labour, is a blessing, . . . . . . . . this system of social order and social industry is not the only advantage enjoyed by Sion Mills. Cottages, of simple construction, but sound and comfortable, have been built for the workers and their families; a school is established, and to the Sunday school the Messrs Herdman themselves attend, taking the greatest interest in the educational progress of their workpeople and distributing motives to improvement, lavishly and judiciously. . . . . . . .

A HEALTHY POPULATION: We visited several of the factory dwellings, and found that, in many instances, they combined the small comforts of town rooms with the peculiar advantages of country cottages. We never saw a more healthy population, and the watchful care of the proprietors has effectually prevented the growth of immorality supposed to be inseparable from the "factory system". . . . . . . .The factory in the wilds of Tyrone was so perfectly what we had often desired to see established and prospering in Ireland, that we have dwelt upon it longer than may be interesting to all our readers, though the safe working of such a system carries so much moral influence with it - induces such genuine prosperity - that we have been more than commonly anxious to satisfy our English readers of the proof being in existence, that, in a particularly wild district in the North of Ireland, capital may be safely and advantageously invested to any amount, and peasantry found, not only to work, but to understand the respect due to property, and the advantage which it gives where it is diffused."

In the 1847 famine, there is a series of letters from James and George Herdman to their brother John in Belfast which tell how they coped with keeping their workers and families alive in very difficult circumstances. The devotion of the Herdman family to their workers and the villagers until the village houses were sold off to their occupants for between £60 and £180 each in the early 1960s, is well known in the area and much respected. The legacy of the villagers living, working and going to school together persists and the new state primary school which superseded the Mill School in the 1970s was the first integrated state school in Northern Ireland.

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