Herdmans Flax-Spinning Mill was built in 1835 by the brothers James, John & George Herdman from Belfast. Sion Mills was chosen as a rural area of high employment and with enormous waterpower. The Herdmans’ vision was to create a moral, God-fearing, temperate, educated, non-sectarian community around a flax-spinning business in the northwest of Ireland which was a prolific flax-growing area. They built a model village, a school, churches, recreational and sporting facilities and succeeding in creating a community where everyone, of both religious traditions, has lived, gone to school and worked together happily over the past 170 years and 5 generations of the Herdman family.
In 1989, in order to keep ahead of the field and keep the business going in a very competitive market, a new Mill was built in order to accommodate the most modern machinery in the world, and the old buildings were abandoned. At its height the Mill had employed 1500 workers – the new Mill was able to produce a lot more linen yarn with 600 workers. However, due to the ever-improving quality of yarn spun in China, half the workers were laid-off in 2002 and on 21st May 2004, 170 years of flax spinning in Sion Mills came to an end, with a final 300 redundancies, and with this has ended the Irish Linen Spinning industry. This has come as a severe blow to the village and the surrounding area where nearly every family has had people working in the Mill for generations.
The Herdmans Mill site is statutory listed B+ (ie: it is in the top 6% of heritage buildings in the UK). The site itself is spectacular, situated as it is overhanging the magnificent River Mourne, with the 35 ft wide, 6 ft deep Mill Stream (or Lade) running through between the two main buildings to the Turbine House and thence falling 14 ft back into the river, creating hydro-electricity. This was originally produced by 4 huge waterwheels until 1900 when 5 new turbines were installed which operated undisturbed until 1989 when the old Mill stopped. Now there are 3 new French turbines which were installed in 1996 to produce electricity cleanly from renewable energy and these are still in operation and helping to meet Government renewable energy targets.
The Trust sees the present pause in the use of the Mill buildings as temporary. Thankfully the Herdmans built exciting buildings which are worthy of saving for reuse, and which will give such added value when restored and regenerated that, besides housing new employment opportunities and community facilities, they will also be a great attraction to tourism. Industrial heritage tourism is all the rage in Great Britain where New Lanark in Scotland, Saltaire near Bradford, Yorkshire and the Derwent Valley Mills have all been created World Heritage Sites. So, with restoration and careful conservation, Sion Mills's past should be the source of a prosperous future for the village and the District, provided that the community are prepared to embrace such a prospect and work with the Trust to achieve it.
Sion Mills is unique both as a Mill village and a model industrial community - the only linen village in the North West and the most important in architectural terms, and with an historical non-sectarian ethos and a great story to tell of 170 years of spinning the finest linen yarn in the trade.
In the context of the surviving structures and equipment of the Irish Linen Industry as a whole, Herdmans Mill is one of a handful of large flax-spinning Mills left in the country and the most important architecturally. The only other flax-spinning mill listed B+ is Sintons of Benburb, Co Armagh, which was not designed by such a well-known architect as William Lynn. Herdmans Mill is also the furthest west in Europe as an example of a sizeable mill of the Industrial Revolution.
HISTORY OF SITE
A Corn Mill on this site (at Shean, Liggartown) was mentioned in the Civil Survey of 1640 as part of the Abercorn estate. Galbraith Hamilton became the tenant in about 1729 and, on the adjoining lands, established a Bleach Green which was abandoned around 1779.
In the 1750s, the Mill was in need of rebuilding, and Hamilton was advised to add to it a Wheat mill, for which he was loaned £100 by the Marquis of Abercorn. He also petitioned the Irish House of Commons in 1765 for financial assistance in building the Mill. However, this venture did not prove successful. In the 1780s, Abercorn intervened personally and more than £1,000 was laid out on improving the Seein mill. This included £39 for two French millstones and £36 for a stove for drying wheat. Abercorn brought in Alexander Stewart to design and build it. Stewart later became Clerk of Works during the building of Castle Coole.
In 1828, this mill was rebuilt by Abercorn, but shortly afterwards became incorporated in the flax spinning mill standing here today, having been purchased by way of a 500 year lease by the Herdman brothers, James, John and George, in 1835 in partnership with the Mulhollands (Andrew & Sinclair) and Robert Lyons. By 1849, the Herdmans were the sole owners, having bought out their partners.
A map of 1846 shows the “Old Mill” as measuring 248 ft long by 48 ft wide and the old Mill ledgers show that no building work took place from 1840 on the Old Mill until in 1879 a third storey was added. This Mill became known as the Tow Mill and was where the hackling of the flax took place. It is now known as the Old Mill.
The Main Mill and Extensions
As the business developed and Herdmans switched from dry to wet spinning, it was decided to build a new 4 storey fireproof stone Mill with an attic floor in 1853. The Architect was William Lynn of Lanyon Lynn and Lanyon, Architects, of Belfast and the Mill was built by James McCracken of Derry in light brown sandstone quarried locally at Douglas Bridge. The foundation stone was laid on 18 May 1853 and the building was completed on 23 February 1855. Apparently this Mill was built wider than any other spinning Mill and was thus able to accommodate longer machines, and this is the reason that Herdmans Ltd survived when most other spinning firms in Northern Ireland closed down in the second half of the 20th Century.
With the American Revolution came a boom in the linen trade because there was no available cotton. It was decided to extend the size of the Main Mill and handsome yellow brick extensions were added in 1884 and 1888, designed again by the distinguished Belfast architect, William Lynn.
The first yarn was spun in Sion Mills on 14th November 1835. The ledgers show that from the beginning this yarn was exported all over the world, although the bulk of it went to the weavers in Belfast and surrounds in those early days. During the First World War, aeroplane wings were made of linen woven from Herdmans Yarn, and the cords for parachutes in the Second World War. The Company also made brass shell cases in Sion Mills during the Second World War, under licence to Mackies Engineering of Belfast. Although Herdmans have always spun all weights (leas) of yarn, they were particularly known for their very fine yarns, and were the world’s leading spinners of this quality of the finest yarn, used for the nearly transparent linen used in handkerchiefs and vestments. The replica of the Turin Shroud was woven from Herdmans finest of linen yarns.
Extracts from the early Mill Diaries can be viewed here:
Names of some 19th century millworkers
A potted history of power at Sion Mills is as follows:
1839 2 water wheels producing 70 horsepower.
Gasworks (coal-fired) erected.
Weir completed (paved in 1858 with roman cement and square stones) The well-known English engineer, William Fairbairn, designed the water power system in 1835.
Watercourse built – 35 ft wide, 6 ft deep.
1843 All houses in village provided with a gas light, the shop with 4 lights and lamps on the road.
1845 New waterwheel installed by Messrs Randolph
Elliott & Co. of Glasgow.
1849 4 Waterwheels producing 600 horse power and new Steam Engine.
1865 New 35 horsepower “walking beam” engine installed (the last word in its day). Named “Gladiateur” after that year’s winner of the Derby. Made by B. Hick & Son of Bolton. It continued working for 41 years.
1870 New sluices built.
1877 New horizontal engine by J Rowan & Sons completed (£1260)
1892 Electric light installed in Mill by King Brown & Co. of Edinburgh. 250 lights from its own dynamo.
1900-03 Turbines installed by Messrs John Turnbull & Son. 1000 horsepower (the highest in Europe until after the First World War).
1908 New Oil Gas installation completed by Messrs Mansfield & Sons.
1919 Hydro Electric Plant built because of extreme difficulty in obtaining gas-oil. Designed by Mr Macrory of Derry & Mr Brown of Belfast and built by Laverty of Belfast. DC Turbines installed in new small Turbine House providing 135 horsepower to produce electric light for the Mill, the village, Sion House and Camus House. Wiring of village done by Messrs Thomas May of Derry; wiring of Mill done by Messrs Wm Coates of Belfast.
1935 Steam Turbine-Electric drive installed by Metropolitan-Vickers (£6880).
1989 Turbines abandoned when new Mill built to south of the old site
1996 3 New turbines installed generating 850kw, helping to meet government renewable energy targets.
A recent report from Dr Paul Sikora of Dunstar Energy, Co. Cork states: “The restoration of the historic Sion Mills presents an opportunity to apply renewable energy technology on a truly spectacular scale."
Mr John R. Hume, a member of the Heritage Lottery Fund's team of experts, visited from Scotland and said there was nothing in the UK to better the weir at Sion Mills and its surrounds. It is certainly very spectacular and really awesome when the river is in flood.
Much more can be read about the history of Herdmans Mill in Celia Ferguson's book "170 Years Spinning - Sion Mills and the Herdman family - 1835-2005" which is available from this website. It includes extracts from the very early Mill Diaries, such as the following:
“15 Apr 1843 (Sat) Commenced to prepare the reeling room for the Ball on Easter Monday. The Mill not to be started until Tuesday morning at 8 past 5.
On Monday at 4 pm the girls who had bought tickets for the Ball formed a procession of 2 abreast and with the band, Mr Mitchell at the head, marched to Liggartown, from that to Ballyfatton and back to the Mill. Most of the girls had bought white dresses and coloured sashes for the occasion, and as the evening was remarkably fine and warm, the whole thing had a most splendid and striking effect. The Ball was opened at 7 by the band playing God Save the Queen. The band were in the middle of the room at the right hand side and three rows of seats were placed around the room (600 was the number of tickets issued) After currant buns and eau sucre had been served round, two sets of quadrilles were danced the band playing. The dancers were the two Mr Hamiltons, James and George Herdman, Wm and Robert Trimble etc; Miss Minah Hamilton, Mrs James Herdman, Mrs Roberts, Miss Knox etc. Several country dances, reels etc were danced during the evening and in the interval the band sang some of their glees. The respectable people danced at the upper end of the room and the workers next the door. There were 650 buns, 650 large cakes, 2000 small cakes, 600 oranges, 2 boxes of raisin and 36 gallons of eau sucre distributed, but much less than this would have sufficed. Everything went on remarkably well and every one was well pleased. The people were dismissed at ½ past 12.”