When Ballyclare was Paper Town

Ballyclare was the home of papermaking in Ireland for over 200 years, the Paper Mill employing 800 workers at its peak before its closure in 1951.

When Ballyclare was Paper Town

For two centuries Ballyclare was the home of papermaking in Ireland. The original mill gave its name to Millvale, where it stood near the river and close to the Ballynure Road, at the point as it turned and climbed steeply. In the early eighteenth century it was owned by Sir Robert Adair, who sold it to Francis Joy, publisher of our oldest newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter. We know, from an advertisement he placed in the paper in 1740, the kind of raw materials they were intending to use.

‘Whereas the proprietor having from time to time occasion for considerable quantities of paper for carrying on the printing business did purchase the Paper Mill at Ballyclare from Sir Robert Adair to carry on the paper manufacture there, in which they hope to be encouraged by preserving of linen rags for which they will give full value in ready money.’

The new owners clearly intended to expand the business as they had appointed on John Petticrew as their agent, to buy and transport the rags and were offering jobs to two or three workmen skilled in papermaking. The mill was powered by a water wheel but the adjacent slow flowing Six Mile Water was of no use for that purpose. Instead they diverted the Green Burn at a spot opposite the present entrance to Colin View. The water was channelled along side of the Green Road for a short distance before being piped across the road and over the fields to eventually drop to a dam at Millvale. This gave a sufficient fall for the water to drive a twenty-eight feet millwheel.

At its peak the mill employed twenty men and fifty women. We have already seen that Robert Simms, who managed the mill, was chosen as the leader of the United Irishmen in the area. The mill closed in 1838 and when the ruined building was used for a demonstration of hypnotism in 1851 the floor collapsed, killing three people and injuring many more. The account of this accident was retold by McIIroy in one of his books.

In 1836 Robert Greenfield acquired some land by the Six Mile Water, about three quarters of a mile from the town, and set up a business as a corn miller and papermaker. He had great difficulty in finding the initial money and within two years the mill passed into the hands of Andrews, William & Orr, stationers of Glasgow. In 1847 they rented it for £800 a year to Archer & Sons from Belfast, who soon afterwards bought it outright. The business thrived with machines capable of producing 48’’, 60’’ or 90’’ rolls of paper, totalling fifty five tons a week, which sold for £40 a ton.

After the initial success orders became more irregular and the mill even had to close at times, until a Blackburn businessman on holiday was so impressed by the sight of the buildings that, with some friends, he bought the mill and established a new company with the splendid title of The North of Ireland Paper Mill Company. They decided that the way ahead was in producing high quality paper. After 1897 they no longer used rags but imported wood pulp from Scandinavia. Each morning a throng of workers set out from Main Street to walk along the tree lined Mill Lane, which is now Avondale Drive, while others followed the Mill Road, which has since returned to its original name of the Templepatrick Road.

The location had great advantage of a constant supply of clean water from the Six Mile but major disadvantage of being three miles from the nearest railway line. James Chaine proposed the building of a line from the port of Larne to Ballyclare. An unusual feature was that instead of using the standard Irish gauge of 5’3’’ it would follow the examples of the lines at Cushendall and Glenariff, which had to work in confined spaces. Parliamentary approval was sought, a Larne and Ballyclare Railway Company formed, one thousand tons of steel rail was bought and work got under way in fine weather. The new Narrow Gauge Railway was opened in 1877 by the Duke of Marlborough. The Paper Mill now had a convenient way to bring pulp from Larne Harbour and send out the finished paper using its own siding. Trains puffed under the bridge on Main Street to a station where coal was unloaded to be transported to the Green.

The outbreak of war in 1914 created problems of supply and delayed a modernisation programme, which proved to be more costly when it was eventually carried out. However output increased between the wars with five powerful machines at Ballyclare and two more in the Larne mill using Finnish pulp to produce fifteen thousand tons of finished paper each year. Much of this was for export and the wooden crates in the yard were labelled in Chinese and Arabic as well as most European languages. A newspaper reporter sent from England in 1936 had some reservations about coming, but was impressed by what he saw at the mill in Ballyclare.

'This Distressful Isle is a country of great possibilities, despite its declining population and unrestfulness. A few minutes ride in a jaunting car covered the distance from Ballyclare Station to the mill, where a hospitable greeting was accorded by the writer Mr Fleming, whose kindness to visitors tempts one to regret that Ballyclare is rather off the beaten track.

A complete new electrical lighting plant has just been installed and there is in the course of erection, a system of electric driving supplied by British Thompson-Houston of Rugby of the most up to date type. The manager, Mr George Fleming, who entered on his duties in 1909, has since then, by his keen insight and abilities, very considerably increased the business and extended the earning of the company.'

The Second World War saw the mill working three shifts round the clock. The men operated the machines and the girls sorted the paper into bundles of 500 sheets. They were producing 700,000 a week. At its peak the Paper Mill employed eight hundred workers so it was a terrible blow for the town when it closed in 1951. No one ever explained to the workers what the economic reasons were, which made the Ballyclare no longer viable. Some work was transferred to Larne mill but the narrow gauge railway was no longer needed to transport paper and it closed too. Another forty years went by before Fred Dibnah carried out the final execution by felling the great mill chimney. Many of the townspeople kept a brick, some signed by Fred himself, as a souvenir of the days when Ballyclare was Paper Town.

‘The Green’ was one of two major employers in Ballyclare until it closed in 1966. In the early Eighteenth Century it was owned by the Bell family before it was bought by Kirkparticks, whose KB is on the main tower. They bleached and finished linen and at their peak had an output of 110 tons a week and employed 500 workers. For a number of years they produced Linron combining synthetic fibres with linen and the firm won several Queen’s Awards to Industry. Today only a small part of the building is used by a workforce of fifteen while the rest of the buildings are just an empty shell.

The collapse of the textile industry had a dramatic effect on employment in the area as there were mills all around Ballyclare at Mossley, Doagh and Corgy. The buildings remain and are finding new uses. Mossley Mill has become the Civic Centre for Newtownabbey in an imaginative restoration which has preserved the external facade of the two main blocks, while creating modern interiors for the council staff. There is a suggestion that Doagh Mill may be turned into an apartment complex.

Some mills were at the heart of a community as a village grew up around them to house workers. Corgy had its own school, while Mossley even had a swimming pool. In many cases like Doagh the houses are still homes but at Corgy the whole village disappeared to be replaced by up-market housing development. There were originally two rows of houses, which were without water or inside toilets, so one need was met by a walk to the single village pump and the other to a dry privy at the back of the house. The houses were bulldozed when the new estate of Corgy Square was built. The mill however survived as an engineering works and made parts for Boeing aircraft. It is now one of the world’s leading producers of Industrial shredding equipment. As Jack Gowdy explains the original owners were in the recycling business too. Mr McMeekin owned the houses, the shop, the pub and one of the first cinemas in Ireland. After he paid his workers they spent their wages paying the rent, buying groceries and entertainment in the village so the money was effectively recycled.

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