A Narrow Sea - Episode 52

A Narrow Sea - Episode 52

An Industrial Hub: Belfast and Glasgow
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon

The American Civil War in the 1860s was the bloodiest conflict anywhere in the world in the nineteenth century. It sent shockwaves back across the Atlantic to Europe, with a profound effect on two cities on each side of the narrow sea, Belfast and Glasgow.

When the Union commander-in-chief, General Ulysses Grant, sent Major-General William Sherman on his notorious march through Georgia in 1864, the cotton fields there were devastated.

Meanwhile the Union fleet imposed an effective blockade on Confederate States shutting off their exports. The price of cotton rose from 9d an ounce in 1861 to £1 4s in 1864.

Deprived of raw material, the machinery of the United Kingdom’s cotton mills fell silent. Glasgow, which was home to half of Scotland’s two hundred cotton mills, was particularly hard hit.

Long before, Belfast had given up its attempt to compete with Lancashire and Scotland in producing cotton. Instead it specialised in making linen by power machinery. Linen was then the nearest substitute for cotton and thus Ulster faced the challenge of making up the shortfall caused by the cotton shortage.

A boom, quite without equal in the nineteenth century, followed in the Ulster linen industry. By 1867 the province’s mills and factories – most of them in Belfast – reached a remarkable capacity of 900,000 spindles and over 12,000 power looms.

Belfast had become the greatest centre of linen production in the world and would remain so for many years to come. In 1895 the president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, H. O. Lanyon, made this estimation:

I find the length of yarn produced in the year amounts to about 644,000,000 miles, making a thread which would encircle the world 25,000 times. If it could be used for a telephone wire it would give us six lines to the sun, and about 380 besides to the moon. The exports of linen in 1894 measured about 156,000,000 yards, which would make a girdle for the earth at the Equator three yards wide, or cover an area of 32,000 acres, or it would reach from end to end of the County of Down, one mile wide.

Recovering from the loss of its thirteen American colonies in 1783 the British Empire had become the largest the world had ever seen. The United Kingdom had become by far the greatest trading state on earth.

Intimately connected, Belfast and Glasgow together formed a thriving commercial and industrial hub, making the North Channel one of the busiest waterways in the world. The growth of these two imperial cities had been uneven. In 1801 Belfast had been only a minor provincial port, with a population of less than 20,000. Glasgow at the same time had some 70,000 citizens. Its prosperity had been based on importing and re-exporting tobacco from America. Now Glasgow drew on the rich resources of its hinterland.

Unlike Ulster, Scotland had extensive deposits of coal, particularly in Lanarkshire. In the Monkland area of Scotland’s central belt, rich veins of blackband stone – a variety of coal containing up to 35 per cent of iron ore – were mined to smelt immense quantities of iron.

James Neilson invented the hot blast method of smelting iron in 1828 which required a quarter of the coal previously needed. By the middle of the century Scotland was producing a quarter of Britain’s iron output.

Along the Clyde, skilled engineers converted this iron and steel into ships to defend the Empire and to keep its trade expanding across the globe.

The world’s first transatlantic steamship, the Sirius, was launched at Leith in 1838; the elegant tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, was completed at Dumbarton in 1869; John Brown’s yard built ocean vessels for the Cunard line; around half the Royal Navy’s ships were built on the Clyde; and by the end of the century the Clyde employed 50,000 in shipbuilding.

Glasgow’s cotton industry never quite recovered from the American Civil War but when J. & P. Coats merged with Clarks in 1896 it was the largest cotton (rec both) manufacturing firm in Britain and the fifth-largest in the world.

What was remarkable about Belfast is that it became a great industrial city without local natural resources – coal, iron and steel had all to be imported across the narrow sea, principally from the Clyde. Nevertheless, this cross-channel trade made it possible for Belfast to become, not only Ireland’s largest city, but also by 1900 the port of third importance in the United Kingdom after London and Liverpool.

On the 14th of January 1899 Harland and Wolff launched the Oceanic, the biggest man-made moving object ever constructed. For some years to come it would continue to build the world’s largest ships.

Though smaller than Glasgow, Belfast could also boast that it had the largest shipyard, ropeworks, linen mill, tobacco factory, tea machinery and fan-making works, aerated waters factory, linen machinery works, dry dock, handkerchief factory and spiral-guided gasometer anywhere on earth.

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