Northern Ireland

John Thompson and Sons: Photo discovery reveals history of 143-year-old firm

Image caption Among the photographs is an aerial view of the bomb damage sustained by the mill during the Belfast Blitz
Image caption Workers were reportedly told to 'tidy the yard' after the mill was destroyed by German bombers
Image caption The firm's feed mill is a now familiar landmark on Belfast's York Road, next to the M2

Old photographs have been discovered that document the history of one of Northern Ireland's oldest businesses.

The company, John Thompson and Sons, was first established in the city in 1870 and survived the Belfast Blitz during World War Two.

It now supplies animal feed and the firm's feed mill is a familiar landmark on Belfast's York Road, next to the M2.

Seventy-five old photos dating back decades only came to light when they were found in a cupboard at the mill.

'Treasure trove'

The images have been dusted down and the stories behind the pictures have been turned into a book entitled Gentle Giant.

The firm has been part of Belfast since its founder, John Thompson, left the family's farm in Ahoghill, County Antrim, in 1870 to set up his first mill in Beresford Street.

The company then moved to Donegall Quay in the city.

Its current chief executive, Declan Billington, said: "The history has never been documented and it was like opening a treasure trove.

"Originally it was going to be some photographs with a few narrative captions beneath it, but as the stories unfolded it became more and more a book about 130 years of pioneering."

Among the photographs are some showing the devastation of the mill on Donegall Quay during the Blitz of Easter Tuesday 1940.

'Long legacy'

Mr Billington said: "The story goes that when the owner came down the next day and the yardmen asked 'What shall we do?' in the middle of the ruins, he said: 'Tidy the yard'."

When John Thompson established the first mill in the late 19th Century it would have involved a horse pulling a wheel to grind corn.

He then became one of the first people in Northern Ireland to use steam power.

The business has expanded over the years from a small operation in the back of a merchant's store to its current seven-acre site that produces 850,000 tonnes of animal feed a year.

Mr Billington said the photographs highlighted how Thompsons has been an intrinsic part of the city of Belfast, whilst also being a part of the fabric of rural life across Northern Ireland.

He said: "A long legacy - two world wars, partition, rationing in the Second World War which meant we weren't free to make the products we wanted to.

"You've had foot and mouth, everything that happens in the farming community happens to us because we supply them, so what's happened in the last 100 years in farming."