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The Origin and Development of the Portlaw Cotton Industry 1825 - 1840
By Orla Fitzgerald
Originally printed in "Waterford Today", May 18th 1999
David Malcolmson (1765 - 1844) was the founding father of what was to become a multi-national, multi-faceted business empire during the course of the nineteenth century. He was born in Lurgan on February 7th, 1765 and arrived in Clonmel to work for his cousin Sarah Grubb of Anner Mills when she advertised in 1784 for "competent clerks to aid her in her administration of her late husband's business." The potential entrepreneur could hardly have been based in a more appropriate town to take advantage of the prevailing economic opportunities. Clonmel, located in the centre of a rich agricultural hinterland, with the River Suir navigable from Waterford, was ideally placed to take advantage of the growing demand for agricultural produce created by England's involvement in the Continental Wars. Over twenty corn mills existed in Clonmel and its environs at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The Malcolmsons were Quakers, members of a religious group that played a major role in business in both northern and southern Ireland. They formed the largest and most influential group to emerge in the flour milling sector in Clonmel in terms of capital provision and extent of operation. The decline of the textile industry saw Quaker resources and skill become increasingly diverted into milling. On leaving Anner Mills, Malcolmson became involved in whiskey distilling and in 1790 became agent to John Bagwell (owner of the Marlfield Mill, the largest in Clonmel, and one of the largest property owners in Clonmel). The Bagwells later became politically influential.
A Quaker, living in Clonmel, an area with the most favourable geographical and economic circumstances, well connected politically and possessed of a sharp business brain. David Malcolmson was, in the next twenty years to earn a considerable fortune in the town. By 1800 he had inherited Ffennil of Cahir Abbey. Cahir gained him a dowry of £1500. Up to this point he was not an employer and did not become so until 1801, when he took control of a grain store on the quay in Clonmel. The business quickly developed and by 1818 he owned two corn mills and five stores. He built a property and stock portfolio of immense magnitude.
David Malcolmson's first-milling venture in East-Waterford began in 1824 when he took control of the Pouldrew iron and bolting mill, formerly owned by the Wyse family. This location a far greater fall of water than Clonmel and was of course much closer to Waterford.
The notion of extending the business to cotton manufacturing was inspired by the.visit of a Liverpool Quaker, James Cropper, to Ireland in 1824. Cropper was a shipping agent and cotton importer, who, was a founder director of the Liverpool- Manchester Railway and who also invested heavily in the New York State canal system. He believed that the key to relieving poverty and distress in Ireland lay in the provision of employment through the setting up of cotton factories which would have the advantage of a cheap water supply and cheap labour. The market for Irish cotton produce was to he found in India and China, he argued. Cropper visited Clonmel on the 13th December 1824 and addressed a meeting there attended by David and Joseph Malcolmson. Croppers' visit coincided with a time when David Malcolmson was beginning to express concern at the effects of what he perceived to be the forthcoming repeal of the Corn Laws. In a letter he wrote in 1825, he said that "it is clear that for every barrel of foreign corn imported into England she wants so much less from Ireland. This 1etter was written six days after he had leased land at Portlaw for the erection of the cotton factory. The site chosen for the factory was situated on the edge of the greatest landed estate in County Waterford, that of Lord Waterford at Curraghmore, valued in 1850 at £22,099, with Curraghmore House the most valuable in the county at £210. The leased lands were located at Mayfield where a corn or flour mill had been located. A second area of land, on which the Mayfield dwelling house was situated, was also leased. This became the residence of David Malcolmson's eldest son, Joseph and the senior partner in the firm after the retirement of David in 1837.
Shortly after work commenced on the factory, objections were raised by Lord Waterford. Their differences were resolved satisfactorily. However, further difficulties were experienced when the Malcolmsons needed to increase water power for the construction of a mill pond. This was rejected as it would have seriously encroached on the demesne and would have involved the destruction of three to four hundred ancient and magnificent trees. Steam power was introduced to compensate but this was only used when the water power was deficient. The need for steam power increased the fixed expenses of the factory. Steam engines had to he imported from Britain and were difficult and expensive to transport. In 1825 it is believed that on average a water wheel cost about a third of a steam engine producing about the same power.
The factory consisted of a six storey vertical integrated spinning mill. The process of spinning the cotton yarn began on the sixth floor and was completed on the ground floor. An elaborate water system was developed to serve the needs of the factory. The main body of the Clodaigh River was diverted into the mill race to turn the water wheels which operated the spinning machinery. The two water wheels were massive constructions, measuring 100 feet each in circumference. A canal was constructed linking the Clodaigh River to the River Suir because the Clodaigh River was very shallow in places. By this means, using barges up to forty ton capacity, coal,, cotton and machinery were brought directly to the factory. The raw bales of cotton were lifted from barge to the mixing floors, where it was blended and other preliminary treatment carried out. A foundry was constructed almost as soon as the factory and was vital in the efficient operation of the firm. The Portlaw factory developed a level of self sufficiency that was unknown in Ireland and unusual in Britain.
Production began in 1826, initially employing 250 people and by 1830 this number had increased to 600. By 1839 this number was 1011, 52% were under 21 years of age. By then children in the 12-13 age group were no longer employed. David Malcolmson had seven sons and after he retired in 1837, his son Joseph emerged as the key figure in the operation of the organisation which was known as Malcolmson Brothers.
Originally Englishmen were employed as factory operatives and instructors, but it was soon discovered that the native Irish, on being properly instructed and trained were just as expert. The Portlaw firm, as might be expected in the heart of rural Ireland, faced problems. Suspicion and prejudice were obstacles to progress. It was found almost impossible to convince the people that the loom was designed to render them comfortable and independent. In 1828, there was an attack on three Englishmen by the peasantry. David Malcolmson, inspired by his horror of having anything to do with the courts of justie began to intermarry with the families of the area within a few years.
The longer people were employed in the factory, the more content they became although the working regime was strict. In Clonmel, a six day week was worked by all female work force, from seven in the morning until eight at night, with just two short breaks. In Portlaw, working hours were unlikely to have been any different.
Between 1831 and 1841, the population of Portlaw more than doubled and it went from being the seventh largest settlement in County Waterford to the third largest settlement. A further stage in Portlaw's development took place in the 1860's, when the quality of housing was improved. At this time Portlaw was redesigned as a planned village based roughly on four triangles with the apex of each triangle meeting at an open square, just as it is today. The square opened into a wide street, leading into the factory compound.
This account is a summary of the David Malcolmson developed cotton manufacturing plant, located in Portlaw, concentrating on its growth until 1840. The plant expanded in 1840 and doubled its 1839 workforce. As a result, Portlaw became the headquarters of what was one of Ireland's first multinational business empires with massive steamship, shipbuilding, linen spinning, cotton. spinning and weaving, coal mining, salmon fisheries and railway interests.