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16 October 2014
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Sion Mills - Part One

Read about the history of this Co Tyrone village.

Article written by Celia Ferguson.


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Herdman's Mill was founded in 1835 and is a large complex of buildings, statutory listed B+, the most prominent of which was built in 1853 by William Lynn of Lanyon Lynn and Lanyon, Belfast. This is a very large and handsome five storey mill built in Italianate style of grey ashlar stone quarried locally, with yellow brick extensions added in 1884 to 1900 (referred to as the "Main Mill" on the maps). There had been a series of corn mills on the site, (the earliest recorded in 1640), with the latest one rebuilt in 1828 which the three Herdman brothers from Belfast, and their partners, the Mulhollands, purchased from the Marquis of Abercorn, and this became part of the 1835 tow mill next to the river, now the three storey "Old Mill".
To read in more detail about the mill's history - click here .

old Herdmans Mill, Sion Mills. Photograph taken by Celia Ferguson.
The old Herdman's Mill in Sion Mills.
Photograph taken by Celia Ferguson.

The spectacular River Mourne was the reason the Herdmans chose this site, with its immense water-power which provided 1000 water horsepower. The water-power and its history are still very much a feature of the Mill with the modern turbines, the newly developed river walks and picnic areas overlooking the huge weir and the 35 ft wide mill lade which flows on to run between the two main buildings of the Mill. The complicated system of sluices, the suspension bridge ("the swinging bridge"), the island, the beach and above all the river itself which is one of the best salmon rivers in Europe, set amongst lovely mature trees, all combine to provide a fascinating and beautiful spectacle. This is where Mrs CF Alexander wrote her famous hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" when she lived in Camus-juxta-Mourne Rectory overlooking the weir, a Georgian house later owned by the Herdman family. The River Mourne is "the river running by" and "the purple headed mountain is Meenashesk", a hill to the east of the village.


Sion Mills village is situated in the North West of Ireland, only 2 miles from the Border with Co Donegal in the Republic of Ireland and equidistant from the City of Derry, Letterkenny in Co. Donegal and Omagh the County Town of Co.Tyrone, being 17 miles from each of them. It straddles the main road and bus route from Dublin (and Belfast) to Derry and Co. Donegal, which is also part of the "North West Passage" tourist route. Strabane, the seat of Strabane District Council and a very busy market town, is only 2 miles to the North.

Sion Mills is a residential area which has become very popular due in part to its attractiveness, but also due to its well-known reputation as a very friendly and completely non-sectarian village, which is upheld as an example to the rest of N. Ireland today. This atmosphere is due to the endeavours of the Herdman family who made it a policy not to discriminate between the denominations in any way, and provided work, housing and schooling for all. In 1888, Mr Emerson Tennent Herdman told Mr William Hurlbert from America, "I find it wise to give neither religion a preponderance, and to hold my people of both religions to a common standard of fidelity and efficiency".

Mr ET Herdman also started the sporting tradition of the village when he founded the Cricket Club in 1864, and later built the cricket field and the football pitches as well as a Men's Institute and the Recreation Club. The tennis courts and bowling green were added to celebrate the Centenary in 1935.



Maria Duffy - June 08
Hello Celia - my mother was born in Sion Mills and worked in the mill around 1930-1940. Her name was Sarah Archibald. Her 4 sisters also worked there. My grandfather tended the gardens at the mill. I have pictures of the rose gardens around the time he worked there. I have lovely memories of childhood holidays in Sion Mills after my parents moved to England in the 1940's. The 'swinging bridge' is a legend in our family, we have pictures of us as children on it and playing around the rivers edge. lovely memories!

Fiona Palmer - Feb '08
Thanks for the wonderful photograph - my family worked on the railways too. My great grandfather was Samuel Palmer a stationmaster who worked mainly in Co Antrim but we have connections I believe to Barrs and Maddens who worked on the railways and were located elsewhere. I obtained great information in PRONI Belfast in Ulster Transport Authority files about the wages and dates of transfer for my great grandfather. There are a lot of railway people mentioned in the employee records. Not sure if Strabane is there though. If your Barrs and Maddens orginated in Antrim I would love to hear from you!

Hazel Kidd - Feb '08
Hello Celia, This is a wee note just to say hello and hope you remember the times my sisters and I played with your daughters. I will always remember and be proud of the time and efford my Granny Kidd and your mum and many other honourable people of the village spend for the royal british legion. I hope you and all your family are well.

Niall - Feb '08
I hadn't passed through Sion Mills for years. The state of the main road's pretty awful, is no one responsible for the great architecture on that road? It's falling to pieces. Very sad.

Celia Ferguson - Feb '08
If anyone reading this is interested in finding out more about Sion Mills past and present, visit (the very comprehensive website of Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust).

Danny Hunter- Feb '07
Hi Celia, My name is Daniel Hunter,and we have met in regards to the local fishing in Sion Mills .
I just love telling tourists that visit here the story of the old Mill and its village.
I wish you all the best in breathing new life into a superb building that should never be forgot, It will indeed serve as a great Tourist attraction,and will also create local employment.

Celia Ferguson - Jan '07
To all my Suffern Herdman relations in the States/Canada I do have a copy of Rex Herdman's family tree but it is difficult to copy it. We are about to launch a new website which we could perhaps add it to. It should be online hopefully in mid-March and will be


Carole Atkins Sherr - Nov '06
I am very interested in the comments of Robert Alec Wilson. My paternal great great grandfather was a Robert Wilson married to Jane? Their daughter, my great grandmother, Rebecca Wilson, married John H. Thompson in the Ballinamallard CI in 1861 prior to coming to Philadelphia the next year. Because of the frequency of the Wilson surname I am having difficulty sorting out the many families in County Tyrone. I would appreciate hearing from Robert Alec Wilson if he reads this and is interested in genealogy. I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Robert Alec Wilson - Oct '06
I am a cousin to William Suffern Herdman 1V, my mother was his father's sister. I am very interested in obtaining a copy of the "Family Tree" done by Rex Herdman. If you have information on who to contact I would greatly appreciate it.

J Hughes - Oct '06
Having visited Sion Mills to fish the river Mourne for the first time in September 2006, I was most impressed by the river in the area of the Herdman's factory. It is certainly a beautiful site with the weir, the Gravenue Pool and the public walks. However, unfortunately I have to agree with R M - Aug '06, who points out the mindless vandilism that has taken place in this lovely area. Isn't it a pity that the young people of the district can't admire and respect the beauty of their local surroundings.

Celia Ferguson - Sep '06
To Susan Arn
In answer to your query about the Sufferns, James Herdman who founded Sion Mills married Elizabeth Suffern of Belfast. She was my great-great-grandmother and I have a huge portrait of her at home. She was the mother of Dr William Suffern Herdman (who founded a dynasty of Herdmans in America, starting in Seattle). Her mother was the sister of Sir James Emerson-Tennent who was godfather to my great-grandfather, Emerson Tennent Herdman and the name has passed down through the family.

Max DeBeeson - Aug '06
Hello Celia, my name is Max DeBeeson. I'm working on a family website that includes Herdman on my wife's side. I came across your site and it is wonderful. I have attempted to connect the dots from my wife back through Sion Mills to John Herdman who fought for King William. I've put a link in the text to the full article you've done. Please check out what I've done and if you don't want me to use what's there, I'll change it. Thanks a lot.

Website address is:

My wife's email is sdebees @
she would like to be in touch too.

Susan Arn - Aug '06
Hello: I noticed the name Suffern used as a middle name for a William Herdman with a relationship to a mill in Ireland? My own Suffern ancestors came from Ireland (County Antrim and County Derry) and I wondered where your William got the middle name Suffern?

R M - Aug '06
I read with great interest this article on Sion Mills and the surrounding areas, namely Strabane. It almost filled me with great pride to hail from this town. However, the reality of life in Sion today couldn't be different from that portrayed here.
A walk along the river today will reveal burnt out picnic areas, burnt benches, glass everywhere, abusive teenagers and an ineffectual police service which seems to ignore the noise, underage drinking and the tearing up of the local area by quads and scramblers. My family have a long history in Sion Mills. My mother and her family all earned a crust at the mill. Mr Herdman would turn in his grave if he where to wander along the weir these days. Whilst still a naturally beautiful location, it has unfortunately not escaped the blight that has befallen most towns in the north west and indeed the rest of the UK. Lawless teens and thoughtless parents.
The romantic view laid out above would be a fine thing given half a chance.

Celia Ferguson - May '06
From Celia Ferguson (nee Herdman) to William Suffern Herdman IV I have your photograph here in Sion Mills and William Suffern Herdman was my great-grandfather's brother which makes you my 3rd cousin. Please do come and visit us - my Aunt Iona is still alive and will be 95 on 9th June. Rex died in 1981 and their brother, my father Claud, died aged 90 in 1993. My email is smbpt at btconnect dot com.

Diane Angel - May '06
My dad was born in Sion Mills, his name was Stuart McKelvey. He worked in the mill and we left in 1980. I'm thinking about going back for a short break and taking my children with me.

Caroline Roncone - May '06
I am reserching my family history and my maternal grandmother was born at Sion Mills, 28/04/1895. My great grandparents must have lived and worked there. Names- Mary Doherty, James and Matilda nee Carlton. I have a copy of her birth certificate.

Stacey O' Meara - April '06
Hello! I am currently a year 13 A-level Art student at Drumragh College, Omagh. I myself live in Sion Mills and i am studying the buildings in Sion, such as The Mill and The stables. I have done loads of drawings and research! I new Sion had an interesting history and i am pleased to have learned things i never knew from this website, it also helped me alot for my pages of the art exam.
Many Thanks.

Ellen Fraser - January '06
Dear Ms. Ferguson: (& Michael Murray ??)
Oh my. I have been searching & searching trying to find the "mill" my mother heard about in her family. Her grandmother was Eliza Sharkey from Tyrone. Since I notice another Sharkey replying here - I feel this could be it...but don't know. The family rumor was that the mill had fallen on hard times or problems. It was known as the Mill at o'Keppe (not sure of the spelling) - and the sharkey's were involved in some fashion.

My great-grandmother Eliza Sharkey - and husband Michael McGeeney emigrated in 1881 and located in Newton, Kansas.

I sure would love to know. The name might also be A'Keppe...?? Bits and pieces of heresay, that is all I have.

William Herdman, South Colby, WA - January '06
I have just read some of your article and wanted to drop you a line. My name is William Suffern Herdman 1V, my father spent some time at the mill in the early 1980's. He mostly enjoyed his visit with his (I believe cousin) Iona and Rex who lived in a cottage on the river. I know that they spoke often after that and prior to her death and subsequently my fathers death in 1996. I would love to come visit retracing my dads footsteps. I would very much appreciate a response.

Celia Ferguson - November '05
I have just read the comments to date on my article and would like to say thank you to all those who have made such kind remarks. I have put together a book on the Early Years of Sion Mills, with extracts from the archives I have here at the Mill. If anyone wants to contact me for more information about the Herdman family (I am a Herdman myself), my email address is smbpt @

Elizabeth (McGeehan) Smith - November '05
My grandmother Margaret (Mohan) McGeehan worked at Sion Mills as a young lady. This would have been in the early 1900's.

While visiting Strabane in 1984 it was awesome seeing that huge building still standing.

Patricia Booth - Oct '05
Would love to find someone who has information on the Herdman family. I'm descended from them and trying to piece together some fragments of family history. Would appreciate any information. I have a beautiful linen bedspread, said to have come with the family to the US, from the Herdman Mill.

Hilary Whitford - July'05
I have some large framed prints on linen by Herdmans of the linen-making process. I inherited them 15 years ago from my ex-husband's uncle (Bill Cant) who worked, I believe, as a salesman for them. The prints are clearly of a series and were produced for some anniversary; I'm not sure I have the whole set, but I do have duplicates of one of the prints, which I'm prepared to sell if anyone is interested.

Lisa - June 05
Celia, this article on history of Sion Mills is amazing. I myself do live in Sion Mills and find that it yes does have a lot of history about the mill and the Herdman family. Thanks for the enjoyable article that I read and good luck in the future. thanks again

Michael A. Murray - December '04
Dear Celia Ferguson, great article on Sion Mills. It is too small of world when I am a yarn broker, buying and selling textile yarns around the world, receive a random e-mail from someone needing to sell some obsolete linen yarn. Linen yarn is not something I handle. Anyway, I shrug off the e-mail. Two days later I get a call from a regular customer asking me if I knew where to find some linen yarn ...!!

I pull the e-mail about the linen yarn. I begin to type an e-mail to the sender at SION MILLS. I said to myself, S I O N M I L L S!!! I wonder if that is the same SION MILLS my grandmother's family (Sharkey Family) worked at over 100 years ago .. So, I go into the hallway of my office to take a digital photo of the photo my sister took of SION MILLS and send it to the supplier of linen to learn if the SION MILLS I have a photo of is the same SION MILLS my relatives worked in.

Indeed it is the same mill! So, now I have a new yarn supplier and have reconnected with some aspects of my family's history.

Thanks for your web site and photos!

Hazel Kidd - Feb '08
Hello Celia, This is a wee note just to say hello and hope you remember the times my sisters and i played with your daughters. I will always remember and be proud of the time and efford my Granny Kidd and your mum and many other honourable people of the village spend for the royal british legion. I hope you and all your family are well.



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