WELCOME TO THE WEBSITE OF
SION MILLS BUILDINGS PRESERVATION TRUST
Co. TYRONE, North West IRELAND
(working to preserve the Industrial Heritage of the Irish Linen Industry)
SION MILLS - One of the most interesting places in Ireland, with a fascinating story to tell.
Sion Mills is being sold by the Receivers.
We are bidding to save it for the community.
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An historic Linen village community founded in 1835 when the Herdman company built a flax-spinning Mill on the banks of the spectacular River Mourne - the furthest west in Europe of the large Mills of the Industrial Revolution. Steeped in the tradition and skill of flax-spinning for centuries, the people of Sion Mills produced the finest linen yarn in the world until 2004, and Herdmans Mill became renowned as the "Rolls Royce" of the Linen Industry worldwide. Learn about the unusual history of Sion Mills and plans for its regeneration as an important Visitor Attraction.
A 170 year old close-knit Community, founded by a family determined on fostering non-sectarianism. The story of how the two Ulster traditions, often in equal numbers, have lived in harmony since 1835, aided and encouraged by the Herdman company, their employers and landlords - an example to others for a peaceful future.
The famous Cricket Match in Sion Mills in 1969 when the West Indies team were all out for 25 runs and the longest hit in cricketing history was in Sion Mills when the ball landed in a goods wagon of a passing train and was transported 17 miles to Derry. Also Master Hacklers from Sion Mills are said to have introduced football into Russia.
To read more visit "About Sion Mills" above.
On the border of West Tyrone & Co. Donegal, and on the main A5 North West Passage tourist route from Dublin to Derry & Donegal, Sion Mills, a picturesque, tree-lined village with 40 listed buildings, was designated a Conservation Area in 1977 - one of the first in Northern Ireland.
Sion Mills is on the Border of Northern Ireland and County Donegal, in an area of high unemployment, especially since the closure after 170 years of Herdmans flax-spinning Mill in 2004. Thankfully the Herdman family, who founded the model village around the Mill in 1835, built exciting buildings in a beautiful environment. There are 40 statutory listed buildings in the village as well as the legacy of the handsome Mill buildings (a magnificent monument to the Irish Linen Industry) awaiting restoration and regeneration. And the River Mourne - spectacular and renowned for its salmon and sea trout - with its huge waterpower, created by the weir and large mill stream, harnessed to create hydro-electricity. All of this unique heritage can be put to use as a visitor attraction for the benefit of the people of the North West of Ireland.
There is also a unique story to tell of the Herdman family and the model village and community which they founded in Sion Mills in 1835. Herdmans Mill operated for 170 years with as many as 1200 employees at a time, so there must be thousands of people all over the world with their roots in the North West of Ireland who have close connections with Sion Mills. We would like people all over the world, who had family in Sion Mills in the past, to know what a happy place this has always been to live and work, in a beautiful setting and with great care for the well-being of the millworkers and their families and all their needs. PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR CONNECTION WITH SION MILLS - visit our FORUM topic "Sion Mills Family Connections" and leave a message.
SION MILLS THROUGH THE EYES OF OTHERS
Northern Whig – 29 Sept 1926
“A Self—Contained Community”
An industrial village, comprising a factory with surrounding dwellings for its directors and workers, is no uncommon sight in England, but it is not so often met in Ireland, which is, in the main, an agricultural country. Of course, within a radius of twenty or thirty miles of Belfast, they are sufficiently numerous; but these really are so intimately connected with that great manufacturing centre that they may almost be classed in the same category as similar concerns in the city.
As an out-and-out “country” industry it would be hard to find a better example than the Flax Spinning Mill and Village of Messrs Herdmans Ltd at Sion Mills, Co Tyrone.
No chance visitor, passing through by rail or road, can fail to be struck by the tidy, flourishing appearance of the houses, streets, and inhabitants.
The village consists of some two hundred and fifty houses, which are kept constantly up-to-date and in good repair. There are billiard and reading rooms, schools, places of worship for all members of the community. The directors live in the midst of their people, and are in personal touch with all who may desire to approach them. Of course all sorts of sports are encouraged. The workers themselves give weekly subscriptions to the “Amalgamated Sports Club”, which subscriptions entitle the subscriber to take part in any or all games, and to the use of the reading and billiard rooms. The fund is run entirely by a committee of their own, a considerable addition to the balance being provided by a cinema, which is shown weekly during the winter in the large recreation hall.
There are a resident doctor and nurse – both similarly paid for by workers’ contributions.
Seeing so large a concern as this running so smoothly, it is but natural to turn one’s mind to the beginning of things. How, when and why was flax spinning started in the very heart of the country?
It was at the time of the first potato famine in 1835 that the Herdman brothers, James, John and George came from Belfast, where they ran the Wine Tavern Street flax-spinning Mill, to the district of Seein (or Sion). They were Liberals with a social conscience and wanted to start a major flax-spinning Mill and village in an area of high unemployment and high water power in the west of the province of Ulster. The Herdmans were an esteemed and important family in Belfast in the 19th century, as, indeed, they became in the north-west of Ireland also. As the business there flourished, the Herdmans’ reputation as fair, conscientious landlords and employers spread, attracting people to the area in search of work and a new life.
The Northern Whig article of 1923 ends with the following:
".........So it would be worth the while of anybody interested in self-contained industrial communities to pay a visit to Sion Mills. They will find a village whose inhabitants, though varying in creeds, live side by side, are taught as children in the same school, and work together daily in the Mill in peace and harmony. It has always been the policy of this firm to deal with all parties and creeds with absolute impartiality, and it is pleasing to record that this policy has been rewarded, and that through all the recent troublous time there has been not the faintest sign of unrest in the village of Sion Mills.”
In 1835, work in the Mill must have provided blessed relief for the poor people of the area. Indeed, in 1840, in the account of Mr & Mrs Hall’s visit to Ireland, they relate a heart-rending story told them by a widower with seven children in which he says,
“From the day the first stone of the Sion mills was laid, me nor mine never knew hunger ………My children are employed and happy, and each has something to give, instead of taking all – not that we ever grudged it, but that we hadn’t had it. If the Lord took me tomorrow ….my last prayer will be for the prosperity of the Sion mills”.
Mr and Mrs Hall went on to say:
“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 on 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 of being in existence and 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 it gives where it is diffused."
In New Lanark, Scotland, at the end of the 18th century, Robert Owen was a pioneer in the education of the workforce of his cotton mill. About forty years later, the Herdmans began their own version of his social experiment by building the village of Sion Mills and establishing a model community of workers for the Mill. They also believed in education for both children and adults – non-sectarian education – but, unlike Owen, they were religious and built the churches, although until the Presbyterian Church was built in 1866, everyone attended church together in an adapted building in the village, and James Herdman himself summoned all the children to Sunday school by beating a drum!
James, John and George Herdman - brothers and Founders of Sion Mills in 1835
The Herdman brothers were Presbyterian and endeavoured to create a moral and temporate community, with no public house allowed in the village until they lost a court case in 1896. They very much cared about their workers and their families, and were much involved in their welfare in a most paternalistic way until the 1960s. The first purpose-built village school was built in 1848 and replaced in 1879 by what is now known as the “old school”, in its turn replaced one hundred years later with a new state primary school; the first integrated State school in the province. Sion Mills is unusual in the north of Ireland in that it has always had both traditions living, going to school and working together.
The devotion of the Herdman family to their workers and the villagers until the village houses were sold off to their occupants in the 1960s, for between £60 and £180 each, is well-known. In the early years the Herdman Company farmed 100 acres around the village to supply the Mill Shop and help feed the community, managing against all odds to keep their people alive during the Great Famine in 1847. At that time James Herdman wrote to his brother John in Belfast, " You cannot imagine the misery I endure, being here at present. Constantly surrounded with a parcel of clamorous starving wretches, naked and cold, and these too, observe, our own workers, and in employment. I am sick at heart of wretched Ireland. In the meantime, I send the most hungry to the house where we make broth every day. I am cleaning out a boiler here that Robert had set to boil yarn & have sent in to Strabane to buy heads & houghs & will make a large supply of broth on the premises. I will buy a large quantity of Indian Corn in Derry & sell it to them in the shop at cost price. If we are able to keep the mill going, I hope to keep death by starvation away from our own people. My opinion however is, that in districts where there is no steady employment, a very large percentage of the population will perish. You can have no idea how one’s heart is rent living in the midst of the poor. I cannot refrain from an almost constant shedding of tears."
In 1839 they built a gasworks for lighting the Mill and in 1842 every house in the village had a gas light, the shop had four and there were streetlights. This was replaced by electricity generated by the Mill from around 1900. Sport was fostered and encouraged with cricket and football grounds from the mid 19th century. A bowling green and tennis courts were opened to mark the Centenary. There was a Boat Club and badminton, handball, hockey and even polo were played. Scouting was introduced at the earliest opportunity. Angling is another passion in the village with the River Mourne one of the best salmon rivers in Europe, and cricket and football are synonymous with Sion Mills!
From the outset, the Herdmans made it a policy not to discriminate between the denominations in any way, and provided work, housing and schooling for all. In 1876, there were 136 householders in the village – 68 Catholic; 68 Protestant, and in 1888 Emerson Herdman told James Christie 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.” In fact, how strongly the Herdmans cared about non-sectarianism is shown by the following advertisement.
The Londonderry Sentinel,
December 19, 1871
EDUCATION MEETING IN STRABANE.
A Public Meeting of the Friends of United Education will be held in the TOWN HALL, STRABANE, on WEDNESDAY Evening, the 27th inst., at SEVEN o’clock, to Memorialise the Government in favour of Non-Sectarian Education, and to Protest against Denominational Education. The Right Hon. Viscount Lifford will preside.
All Friends of Non-sectarian Education are invited to attend.
E. T. HERDMAN
By exploring this Website, you will discover a lot more of the Sion Mills story. We hope you enjoy it and we would be interested to have your comments on our Forum page. And you have the opportunity to purchase a CD Rom of a very comprehensive history of the first 100 years, with photographs - just click on Online Sales & Support.
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