Rural industries in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong

As we enter the new millenium, rural industry has all but disappeared from this locality. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the countryside of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong was dotted with small industrial practices. The rivers Burndennet and Glenmornan powered more than a dozen mills of various descriptions – corn, flax, tuck, spade, paper and bleach. Other rural industries included brickmaking and distilling. This chapter explores in some detail the rural industries in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong. Attention will be focused on the factors that gave rise to rural industry, the difficulties experienced by the different ventures, and the reasons for their eventual decline. Although there were undoubtedly corn mills in north-west Tyrone before 1600, we find the first documentary references to them in the Plantation surveys of the early seventeenth century. In an earlier section we have discussed the corn mills and tuck mill in the manors of Cloghogall and Dunnalong in the seventeenth century. Here we will concentrate on the mills in the area under study in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The freeholders and the mills

One of the main issues with regard to the corn mills in the Abercorn estate in the middle of the eighteenth century was the question of whether the freeholders were obliged to grind their corn at the manor mills. To each mill was attached a district known as the succan. All tenants living within this district were bound by their leases to bring their corn to be ground at the appointed mill. They were also required to pay a proportion of their crop to the miller as mulcture. A smaller proportion known as bannock was paid to the under-miller. These obligations were enforced on the Abercorn estate in the early eighteenth century. However, in 1749, when a new run of leases were being issued, Abercorn gave the following instructions to his agents: ‘Free the tenants from all service to my mills and let them grind their corn where they please. My view is to prevent them from growing idle … [and] to take away the disputes that are ever arising about multure’.

In August 1758 he both clarified and reiterated his position on this matter to his agent, James Hamilton. He pointed out to Hamilton that he permitted his tenants to ‘grind at any mill whatsoever, without regarding whose estate it was in.’ However, because of a fear that some of the neighbouring landlords would take advantage of this by constructing additional mills on their own lands, Abercorn insisted that his tenants were only at liberty ‘to go to any mill in their own manor, or to any mill in any other persons estate that was standing at the time they took their land’.

However, it was a different story with the freeholders on the estate. Here we see Abercorn doing all in his power to ensure that the freeholders ground all their corn at his appointed mills. The freeholders held their lands by perpetual leases, usually dating from the early seventeenth century. These freeholds tended to be fairly extensive and could comprise several modern day townlands. This meant that the freeholders themselves had large numbers of undertenants on their lands. Although the original freehold deeds contained a clause requiring the freeholder to grind all his corn at the appointed mill, by the middle of the eighteenth century it was becoming extremely difficult to enforce this rule. It also wasn’t clear whether the freeholders’ undertenants were also obliged to have their corn ground at a particular mill.

One of the mills in the Abercorn estate, which particularly experienced this kind of difficulty was Burndennet, in the manor of Dunnalong. In 1754 Abercorn was involved in a dispute with the Knoxes, owners of the freehold of Moyagh, and their undertenants. In a letter to his lawyer in Dublin, a Mr Nelson, Abercorn pointed out that:

The tenants of Moyagh, particularly, always ground their corn at my mill and paid for doing so the sixteenth grain under the name of multure and the sixty-fourth grain under the name of bannock, till about ten years ago when they refused to pay any more than the twenty-first for the multure and [not] to pay any bannock, and have carried their corn to other mills when they have not been allowed to grind at mine upon their own terms.

In 1759, Abercorn gave instructions that the toll of Cloghogle and Dunnalong tenement was to belong to the corn mill in Magheramason, while the toll of the other freeholds in the manor of Dunnalong was to belong to Bundennet mill. He was also insistent that the millers enter into a mutual agreement about the toll of the freeholds. In the following year it was reported to Abercorn that, although the freehold of Dullerton, owned by William Hamilton of Dunnamanagh, the M.P. for Strabane, was obliged to pay the sixteenth grain to the miller as mulcture and the sixty-fourth grain to the under-miller as bannock, since 1744 the undertenants had refused to pay any more than the twenty-first grain to the miller and nothing at all to the under-miller. They also claimed that they were acting on the instructions of their landlord, William Hamilton. Before 1756 the mill had been rented by a tenant ‘who, either out of friendship or for fear of the cost of the law, was content with what he got’. In 1770 James Hamilton reported to Abercorn that he had been told by two of the Dullerton undertenants that ‘they never paid more than the twentieth grain, and if that was not taken they would go where they pleased for that they were not bound to any place by their leases; I do believe Mr Hamilton did neglect binding them’. Despite numerous attempts by Abercorn and his agent, James Hamilton, to deal with the issue of the freeholders and the mills, it was never satisfactorily resolved.

The corn mill at Drumgauty

At the beginning of 1778 a new corn mill was built in the townland of Drumgauty. Over the next decade this mill was to feature regularly in the correspondence between the earl of Abercorn and his agent, James Hamilton. The first mention of this mill comes in a letter of 27 March 1778 from Hamilton to Abercorn. The mill had been built by Michael Cary of Prospect, and in the opinion of Hamilton its construction had ‘pinched him; it has cost him a great deal I am told’. Hamilton also believed that Cary was ‘not well suited ... for such a business’. Cary had built the mill at the instigation of the neighbouring tenants, but realised that it would be difficult to get back what he had laid out on it. He was clearly disappointed with his project and wanted to dispose of the mill as soon as possible. Hamilton considered that ‘it would be better for Mr Cary to lose something and better for your Lordship that it was in another tenant’s hands’.

Abercorn himself would appear to have been doubtful from the outset over whether the mill was going to be a success. In May 1778 he wrote to Hamilton: ‘It was much contrary to my own inclination, entirely to gratify Mr Cary, and at your insistence that I consented to the building of a corn mill at Drumgauty’. However, he instructed his agent to take the mill off Cary’s hands and allow him whatever expenses he asked for. He was also keen for Cary to know that there was ‘not the least displeasure’ on his part over the situation.

In July 1778 Cary presented to Hamilton his bill for building the mill in Drumgauty. It came to £124 14s. 1d.. However, Cary claimed that ‘it cost him a vast deal more and that this [was] only what he paid out, besides what his servants did and his own attendance’. He also claimed that the mill did not begin working until 10 February 1778 and that what he had made from it ‘did little more than defray the expense of the water course etc. not charged’. The mill building was 33 feet long and 24 feet wide and at the corners about 12 feet high ‘from the foundation to the eves’. It was ‘well timbered and pretty well thatched’. When the mill had first been proposed James McCrea of Ballydonaghy had offered £50 for it, ‘but at the time he expected there would have been stills in Grange and that the mill would have otherwise turned out better’ and he was now prepared to give no more than £20 for it. Cary was determined to sell his interest in the mill and move to Inishowen where he had another farm.

It was, however, to be a further four months before a public auction was called to sell the mill. Hamilton gave the following eye-witness account of the auction:

On Friday I went to Drumgauty in order to sell Mr Cary’s interest in the mill; a great many people met. We proposed that the purchaser should pay £100 and agreed (on their complaining of the scarcity of money) to give two years for the payment of it, yet no person would offer. We then agreed to take £50 and to give a year’s credit. We then desired it to be set up at Mr Cary’s rent £20. [- ?]rson then offered for it. We set it up at £10 rent. James McCrea of Ballydonaghy offered £11 and though we waited half an hour no second bid was made. Mr Cary then thought it best that it should be set up without a fine at £20. Charles McCorroston who has half of the new ferry at Cloghboy at £24. As there were not three bidders, nor likely to be any more, and that I did not think him a sufficient tenant, we thought it best to desist.

Some individuals then suggested that the mill should be tried for one year. With no satisfactory outcome in sight Hamilton told Cary to continue to collect the toll until a better arrangement could be worked out.

The following February Hamilton informed Abercorn that Walter McCrea had agreed to give £20 for the mill and was to hold it until November of that year. He was to keep a careful account of what was paid till November and if this, together with what he had been given by Cary, did not make up the rent, Cary was to pay him the difference. McCrea was the son of John McCrea of Magherareagh and Hamilton described him as ‘a very industrious young man’. The previous November (1778) he had bought Widow Hamilton’s farm in Drumgauty for £130.

In late February 1779 Hamilton informed Abercorn that ‘Mr Hamilton of Grange has got assurance that it will be made a walk provided he can get three distillers to set up there, which he is endeavouring to do. This has set the people much astir about Drumgauty mill’. The realisation that the mill might prove profitable after all resulted in a number of increased offers for its tenancy. Joseph Alexander of Magherareagh offered £26 for it while David Ramsay of Gortavea proposed £27. Hamilton pointed out to the interested parties that the tenant whose bid was accepted would probably have the mill and his farm included in the same lease. He also believed that if the stills in Grange proved successful the mill in Drumgauty would be worth at least £30 in rent.

Following the announcement that stills were going to be established in Grange, Cary wrote an ebullient letter to Abercorn, rejoicing at this news and the resulting increase in the value of the mill at Drumgauty. However, by June 1779 there had been no more word about the stills. Alexander and Ramsay had another meeting with Hamilton about the mill, but the earl’s agent found it ‘hard to deal with them, they have such tricks’. Alexander then offered £18 for the mill for the remainder of the lease, but his offer was not accepted.

In August 1779 Cary requested permission from Abercorn to sell his farm at Prospect so that he could move to Inishowen. He also thanked Abercorn for his kindness in ‘allowing the expense which by over persuasion of my neighbours I inadvertently engaged in building Drumgauty mill’. Abercorn granted Cary permission to sell his farm and noted to his agent, James Hamilton, that Cary seemed ‘very sensible of the indulgence he met with in the transaction about the mill’. In Cary’s place Abercorn accepted Mr Hamilton of Grange provided that he kept the farm and buildings at Prospect in ‘excellent order’.

In the meantime another problem with regard to the mill at Drumgauty was occupying the mind of James Hamilton. This concerned the supply of water to the mill. A plan for a water course was suggested, which Hamilton approved of, though he was aware that it ‘may be some inconvenience to Mr Chambers who waters his meadows which greatly improves them’. Abercorn was concerned about the effect the proposed water course would have on Chambers’ farm, which was in Sandville, and warned Hamilton: ‘The water must not be brought to Drumgauty mill so as [to] materially affect Mr Chambers’.

Nothing more had been done by 12 October 1779 when Hamilton wrote the following letter to Abercorn:

I don’t well know what is best to be done, whether to attempt bringing the water to Drumgauty mill by the way Mr Chambers pointed out to me. McCrea showed a line higher on the hill to avoid the rabbit warren .... if water can be got otherwise perhaps it would be better. Mr Chambers might not care to part with it [the water] at the time the mill most wanted it. He makes great use of it and is a very good and neat farmer. McCrea is to view a brook tomorrow in Tamnabrady that is pretty considerable and they say may be brought to the mill. McCrea’s brother who is present tenant to that mill says he cannot pay £20 in the present rent of it.

Just over one month later Hamilton again wrote to Abercorn on the subject of the water supply to Drumgauty mill. He had been back to Drumgauty and had seen the water course that Chambers had made through his farm to the mill which McCrea considered to have been done ‘very judiciously’. Having viewed the water course Hamilton was of the opinion that:

There is much more water than I did expect. It is now brought into the course at Magherareagh bog. I cannot so well call it a course for much of the water that did in part come from that and this now lead to it will be lost in turf holes, beside I think the bog wants very much to be drained. I think it would not cost four pounds and the bog itself would be ten pounds the better off beside serving (?) a great deal more water to the mill. There is a dam wanted much to that mill to make it as it ought; might cost ten pounds ...

However, Hamilton believed that these works would have to wait until the following summer to be carried out. He also continued Walter McCrea as tenant of the mill. McCrea was less than wholehearted about this, though he immediately set about constructing a dam.

In July 1780 a Bryan Kearney offered James Hamilton £24 per annum for Drumgauty mill. Hamilton did not know Kearney, but the latter had promised to provide good security or pay an entry fine of half a year’s rent. McCrea at this time was refusing to continue paying even £20 in rent for the mill. However, in a letter to Abercorn, Hamilton wrote: ‘McCrea is a substantial tenant; perhaps when he finds there is one to take the mill that he would consent to take a lease at his now rent £20’. The following February Hamilton informed Abercorn that McCrea had shown him an account of what the mill had made in the previous year. Clear of expenses, its income had amounted to only £16 8s. 2½d., which when considering that the rent of the mill was £20 indicated a loss of more than £3. McCrea again asked for an abatement in his rent; Hamilton encouraged him to try the mill for another year, but without success. Hamilton then advertised the mill and Bryan Kearney, who had offered £24 the previous year, returned with the same offer, which Hamilton accepted. Kearney was also allowed £4 for repairing the mill dam.

Although work had been done in 1779-80 to improve the water supply to Drumgauty mill, at the beginning of 1781 the issue was still preoccupying James Hamilton. Soon after Kearney had been leased the mill he came to Hamilton with a proposal for bringing water to the corn mill. Hamilton then went to Drumgauty and gave the following account of his visit:

I saw the intended course which was computed to cost about ten guineas. It was to go about 20 yards in some places above the road, cross a great deal of arable ground which would be an inconvenience in preventing the stretch (?) in ploughing, beside the loss of land, and I think it is doubtful whether it would go well that way. It was to go on the other side of a hill under the slate quarry in Tamnasollus, where for some part a wooden lead would be necessary. Beside I think it would be hard to keep it in order as on the side of a hill the course must be very shallow so that a cow’s putting its foot on the side of it would let off the water, nor could it be done, I think, for £15. I went then to the top of the hill to see the springs and found up in Tamnabrady hill, I think, enough of water, which is spreading over some pretty good ground there, and may be brought down far above the quarry to Prospect and so on to the mill, which might be done I am sure for less than £10.

Abercorn approved of Hamilton’s plan to bring water from Tamnabrady hill and instructed him to carry it out.

In May 1784 James Hamilton reported to Abercorn: ‘Bryan Kearney who held Drumgauty mill ran away last Wednesday; the little effects he had he removed before then and kept his house shut up; he had neither cow nor horse.’ Hamilton had discovered that Kearney had fled to Derry and was preparing to sail to America. In order to catch Kearney, Hamilton had written to the mayor of the city asking him to arrest Kearney and get from him an order for £30 which was a year and a half’s rent. Hamilton was confident that Kearney would be found and had sent someone to Derry to look for him. The problem for Hamilton was then to find someone to replace Kearney as the farmer of Drumgauty mill. The previous tenant, Walter McCrea of Drumgauty, had intimated to Hamilton that he would be willing to lease the mill, but only for £15 a year.

Nathaniel Edie, who operated a bleach works at Burndennet, was also interested in leasing Drumgauty mill, but because he was already the tenant of Burndennet mill Hamilton considered the possibility that Abercorn ‘might have some objection to give 2 mills to one person, as in some sort it might defeat the purpose of having the mills kept in good order and ready to serve the people.’ Hamilton believed that if McCrea was leased the mill it should be joined to the lease of his lands as this would make a ‘sure rent’ and discourage him from giving it up so easily. McCrea was granted the mill at Drumgauty, but to begin with it was ‘not quite on any fixed rent.’

McCrea was actually quite insistent that he would not give any more than £15 a year in rent for the mill. Edie was still interested in acquiring the mill because he found that ‘a great many that used to come to Burndennet are induced to go to Drumgauty as McCrea supplies them with a kiln to dry their corn and other conveniences, sometimes sending his horses for their grain.’ Hamilton did have some sympathy for McCrea, recognising the fact that the mill was ‘ill watered and the take belonging to it very small.’ He was also of the opinion that McCrea was a ‘very good tenant’. McCrea’s request was granted and his rent was reduced to £15.

However, in the spring of 1786 McCrea declared that he was unwilling to pay any more than £12 a year for Drumgauty mill. According to James Hamilton, McCrea had kept ‘an exact account of not only what he receives from others, but of his own making of meal and malt (for he is a maltster) and that he could not one year with another make the rent of it, nor would he give so much but to have the mill convenient to him for his own business.’ Another offer for Drumgauty mill came to Hamilton from Joseph McCreery of Magherareagh who held Burndennet mill under Edie. McCreery was prepared to give £15 for the mill if it was put in order, or £14 if he had to put it in order himself. Hamilton advised Abercorn that the latter offer would be the better option. In the end, however, McCrea continued to lease the mill.

In the period 1806-10 Drumgauty mill formed part of a protracted and complex dispute between the marquis of Abercorn and the McCreas that eventually saw the McCreas evicted from Drumgauty. The first edition Ordnance Survey map of 1834 marks the mill as flax mill. This would appear to have been a mistake. The First Valuation book for the area contains no description of the mill. In the 1850s the corn mill in Drumgauty was owned by William Smith. The mill itself worked ‘occasionally from Nov. till Feb. every year’. There was one additional comment of interest in the Primary Valuation fieldbook: it was noted that the occupier was unwilling to give further particulars about the mill. Presumably this was because Smith was worried that the mill would be given a higher rateable valuation than he was prepared to pay. The corn mill did not operate for much longer and in 1881 was described as being ‘in ruins’. Virtually nothing now survives of it.

Milling and bleaching at Burndennet

In November 1756 John McCreery became the tenant of the corn mill at Burndennet. The following February a flood broke the mill dam, preventing any water from reaching the mill. When McCreery went to repair the breach in the dam he was met by Mr Hamilton of Killyclooney and an armed force who threatened to shoot McCreery if he continued to tresspass on Hamilton’s property. When Nathaniel Nisbett, Abercorn’s agent, went to reason with Hamilton the latter told him that he would not accept any less than £5 a year to allow the dam to be repaired. Nisbett was adamant that Hamilton should not receive any more than he was usually paid especially since the damage done was so little and also because he had not provided any materials off his own lands to assist with the repair of the dam. Later Nisbett suggested to Abercorn that it might be better to move the mill to Loughneas than to pay ‘an unreasonable man 18s. per annum, where there is not 18d. worth of damage’.

There were other problems for McCreery at this time. When he took over the running of the mill he continued to employ the previous under-miller, a man by the name of Dougherty. However, they quarrelled and when McCreery tried to sack Dougherty the under-miller put McCreery out of the mill. When Nisbett arrived to try to settle the dispute Dougherty fled, taking with him the keys of the mill. Nisbett considered breaking down the doors of the mill in order to gain entry to it, but was afraid ‘that ill-disposed persons would have taken the opportunity of plundering the people’s grain which was in the mill. Dougherty then took McCreery to court, claiming that he was owed money. Whatever the outcome of the case and the dispute over the mill dam with Hamilton of Killyclooney, by the following January (1758) Nisbett was able to write to Abercorn: ‘The mill is now going in good order’.

McCreery was keen to expand his milling concern, and in 1759 he built a flax mill at Burndennet which, according to Abercorn’s agent, John Sinclair, ‘used up all his ready money’. In September 1761 the corn mill at Burndennet was set on fire and burned to the ground. A large quantity of flax, which had been stored in the mill, was destroyed, as was the timber that McCreery had acquired for the roof of his new house. The water wheels were not damaged, but the mill stones were broken with the heat of the fire. On the same night a burning coal had been thrown into the flax mill, but fortunately the fire was brought under control before too much damage had been done. A £10 reward was offered by John Sinclair for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the fire.

Abercorn’s reaction to the incident was to admit that he was ‘by no means surprised at the burning [of] of Burndennet mill’. He issued instructions that the mill was to be repaired at his expense; some of the materials used to repair the mill were brought from Mongavlin, across the River Foyle in Co. Donegal. He also warned McCreery that before he could recover money from the county in compensation for his own personal losses he would have to declare whether he thought the fire was started by a Protestant or a Catholic. McCreery later stated that it was his belief that the fire had been started by a Protestant. In the meantime Sinclair had questioned every man and woman in Burndennet about the fire, but could get no satisfactory answers.

On 4 November 1761 Sinclair visited Burndennet in order to inspect the progress of the mill repairs. He found the mill ‘working though little more than “half scrawed”’; the timber was all up and the the work would have been completed, but for the bad weather and slowness of some of the tenants in bringing in wood to help with the repairs. Well over a year and a half after Burndennet mill was set on fire Abercorn himself offered a £40 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person reponsible for the blaze. He suggested that the reward be advertised in the market towns and churches as ‘the public papers do not fall into the hands of people likely to inform’. He later admitted to Sinclair that he was not really bothered whether the guilty party was caught, he just wanted to give the impression that he was doing his bit. There is no record of anyone being charged with the fire.

In February 1764 Sinclair informed Abercorn that McCreery had ‘built a bleach house and is erecting a bleach green in the holme above the mill with intent to bleach for the country.’ However, the expense of maintaining these various enterprises proved too much for McCreery and he ran into serious debt. The Abercorn correspondence contains numerous references to McCreery being behind in his rent payments. As early as November 1771 he owed £128 in arrears; his rent was £60 a year. In 1779 James Hamilton advised McCreery that it would be better to sell his business rather than let it. At this time a Mr Nelson of Strabane, who dealt ‘very considerably’ in the linen business, was the chief person interested in it. In 1781 McCreery’s rent was reduced to £35 a year. However, this did not sufficiently alleviate the situation for, in February 1782, he owed £300. At this time his son had chief management of the bleach green. Not long afterwards McCreery was forced to sell his interest in the holding to Nathaniel Edie, a member of a well established family from the Newtownstewart area. Edie, or perhaps his father, had intervened back in 1771 to help pay McCreery’s rent.

Edie laid out a large sum of money on repairing the bleach mill, which had fallen into disrepair, and also on rebuilding the corn mill on a more convenient site. In June 1776 James Hamilton had visited Burndennet and had found that ‘the water gable [of the corn mill] overhangs and seems in danger. Should it fall the roof … will come down for it leans with the gable’. It was later reckoned that Edie had spent £1000 on the new corn mill. He also repaid about £100 loaned to McCreery by Abercorn, and paid out at least as much in arrears. In 1784 James Hamilton informed Abercorn that there were ‘but two greens in this neighbourhood, Mr Edie’s at Burndennet and a Mr Smyly’s about two miles from this’. According to Hamilton, the consequence of this was that ‘4/5 of our brown linen goes near 30 miles to be bleached’. Edie extended his holding by purchasing a farm of just under 24 acres from Andrew Patton, one of the neighbouring tenants.

In 1791 a dispute arose between Edie and Abercorn over whether the former could have a place to settle on in Burndennet. Edie was keen to build for himself a residence at Burndennet, on which he was prepared to lay out between £300 and £400. His principal motivation for doing this was to put a stop to the £10 to £30 worth of cloth that was stolen from his bleach green every year, and he even went so far as to threaten that he would remove his bleaching concern to his own estate near Newtownstewart if he did not have his way at Burndennet. The problem would appear to have been not so much to do with space to build at Burndennet, but rather security of tenure, and as a solution to the problem James Hamilton suggested that Edie surrender the leases of his two holdings in Burndennet and in return be granted a single lease for the lives of himself and his two sons at an annual rent of £60. This arrangement was accepted by both sides. The house which Edie built at Burndennet was known as Thornhill; it was recently demolished.

The success of Edie’s venture at Burndennet, in sharp contrast to McCreery’s ultimate failure, indicates the importance of having strong capital backing before becoming involved in industries other than agriculture. Mills on their own were rarely, if ever, economically viable, and could usually only be maintained when run alongside a fairly substantial farm. The same was also true for orchards and fisheries. This was recognised by James Hamilton, who pointed out to Abercorn in 1781 that if ‘orchards, mills and fisheries could be let in a lease with land, there would then be some security for payment.’ Hamilton wrote this at a time when mills, apart from bleach mills, were still generally seen as merely providing for service to the local community. However, by the end of the eighteenth century this perception was changing as commercial interests came increasingly to the fore.

Other bleach greens

The earliest reference to bleaching in the Strabane area comes in a deed of 1708 where John Henderson’s ‘blechery’ in the manor of Cloghogall is mentioned. Nothing more is known about it. Another early attempt to establish a bleach works in the district was at Drumgauty where in 1751 the tenant, James Hamilton, was in the process of building a bleach mill. The bleach green was originally at Prospect, the farm now occupied by the Lindsays in Drumgauty, and Hamilton set aside part of his farm for homes for the labourers at the green. However, because the bleach mill was roughly where Atkinsons is now, Hamilton later decided to move the bleach green to Grange. This venture would appear to have been fairly short-lived. There would also seem to have been a bleach green in Sandville in the middle of the eighteenth century. In July 1776 the tenant of that townland, a Mr Chambers, requested that a new bridge be built over the Burndennet and proposed that ‘he could spare the stones of an old watch house that Mr Winsley [the former tenant] had at his green’.

In January 1767 it was noted to Lord Abercorn that James Lowry had bought part of the lease of Fawney, one of the townlands owned by the bishop of Derry in the parish of Donagheady, and had established there a bleach green. The next month it was reported that Lowry, who lived at Carrickatane and was, therefore, one of Abercorn’s tenants, had cut down a large sycamore tree in Castlemellan and had carried it off to Fawney. When confronted by James Hamilton, Abercorn’s agent, Lowry admitted that he had cut down the tree ‘for a beam and beetles for his green. Lowry’s bleaching concern was on the small scale: when Hamilton forced him to sell the beam he was unable to find a buyer as it was too small for most other mills.

In 1790 John McCrea and James Ross petitioned the marquis of Abercorn, requesting that they be allowed a lease of part of Artigarvan where they intended ‘laying out from six to eight hundred pounds in houses, a bleach green etc.’. The request was granted and in July 1791 it was noted that ‘Jack McCrea has gone on wonderfully in his improvements for the bleach green this summer. He has almost completed two large houses’. In 1821 it was noted that between forty and fifty people were employed there. However, according to the First Valuation of 1833, the bleaching concern at Artigarvan was in a state of ‘dilapidation’ and ‘out of use’. Its ownership at this time was ascribed to either Sir John Burgoyne, one of the marquis of Abercorn’s agents, or John Holmes, a linen draper who lived at Stranabrosney. Soon afterwards one of the bleach mills was converted to a spade foundry by William Sigerson.

Other corn mills

The manor mill in Cloghogall was situated in Milltown, near Ballymagorry. While it was caught up in the same controversy involving the freeholders and their toll, there is little additional material on it in the Abercorn correspondence. In 1770 the miller of Milltown corn mill was involved in a dispute with Thomas Lowther, the miller of Strabane mill, over the toll charged for grinding malt for brewers. In 1788 James Hamilton noted that this mill ‘has 14 acres of land with it and is extremely well watered and in dry season can get a great deal of “out sutten”, yet it is joined with Glenmornan mill which has but a patch of ground and is ill-watered and hardly does or can do business of the Glen’. Hamilton suggested raising the rent of the mill in Milltown from £60 to £75 and keeping the rent of the mill in Glenmornan at £12. The mill in Glenmornan had been built in the late 1770s in the townland of Knockanbrack.

A further corn mill was in Tullyard in the manor of Dunnalong. In February 1782 it was burned and the roof and £8 worth of grain destroyed. The mill’s tenants, the McCreas, were keen to have it quickly repaired as this was the busy time for mills. James Hamilton ascribed the incident to ‘shameful carelessness’ on the part of the McCreas and, casting doubt on the suggestion that the fire may have been the result of an arson attack, pointed out to Abercorn that ‘no people are better liked than they are’. In 1785 the rent of Tullyard mill was increased by £5, but later that year the mill course was badly damaged by a flood and it was reckoned that it would cost £30 to repair it. In 1808 Tullyard bridge was washed away. The McCreas were keen to have it repaired quickly as much of their business came from the other side of the Burndennet. They suggested that a temporary bridge be erected as soon as possible otherwise their mill would be ‘set idle’.

Flax mills

Almost as common as the corn mills, the flax mills, or scutch mills of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong were an important part of the local economy, employing large numbers of workers and producing a commodity vital for the local linen industry. W. A. McCutcheon explains the purpose of the flax mill as follows: ‘Flax is a bast fibre, from the stem of the flax plant, and has to be freed from the core by retting. When the retted flax is dried the stems can readily be broken and the unwanted shows beaten off by hand or by machinery in the process known as scutching.’ The first water-powered flax scutching mill was probably established near Belfast c.1740. We have already drawn attention to the flax mill built at Burndennet by John McCreery in 1759. By 1834 further flax mills had been built at Loughneas, Sandville, Altrest (2), Ballynabwee, Castlemellan, Tullyard (in the manor of Dunnalong), Ballyheather and Artigarvan.

Other mills: tuck, spade and paper mills

The Irish tuck mill corresponded closely to the fulling mill of Great Britain. Fulling, a term deriving from the use of fuller’s earth, a natural detergent, was the name given to a process used to thicken cloth and give it a firm structure. Following this the cloth was then scoured or washed. Mention has been made in an earlier section of the tuck mill in the manor of Cloghogall and a map of c.1710 marks it next to the corn mill in Milltown Ballymagorry. Nothing more is known about this mill. In the first half of the eighteenth century another tuck mill was established at Loughneas which in 1749 provided its then proprietor, William Hamilton of Tyrkernaghan, with £8 in rent per annum. It was still working in the 1830s.

One of the responses to the increase in population and the resultant agricultural expansion of the pre-Famine period was the appearance in Ireland of the spade mill to cater for the rise in demand for hand tillage tools. By 1834 spade mills had been built in Hollyhill and Gorticrum Irish. In the 1840s or thereabouts William Sigerson, the owner of the spade mill in Hollyhill, converted one of the former bleach mills in Artigarvan to a spade foundry. It was described as having ‘two wheels - viz. one for blowing large bellows ... and the other for striking [a] large hammer’.

In the early nineteenth century a number of paper mills were established in the parish of Leckpatrick. The earliest would appear to have been at MacCrackens, near Ballymagorry, which is shown on an 1804 map of the Abercorn estate. Nearby, in Leckpatrick townland, another paper mill was built, while there were further paper mills at Tullyard (Donagheady) and in Dunnamanagh. The paper mill in Dunnamanagh shared the same waterwheel as the adjacent flax mill. Paper mills used raw materials such as linen, straw wood or other fibrous material and produced a commodity for the local market.

The decline of milling

Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries mills were affected by economic fluctuations like any other industry. Following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 there was an agricultural depression, which was not without its effects in the Strabane area. In September 1819 Sir John James Burgoyne wrote to Lord Aberdeen, who was managing the Abercorn estates following the death of the first marquis and during the minority of his grandson, concerning a dispute over water rights between the marquis’s mill in Milltown Ballymagorry and a mill in the Bishop’s lands in the townland of Leckpatrick. The mill in Milltown was ‘on hands’ having been abandoned by its previous tenant. Burgoyne pointed out to Abercorn that because of the number of people engaged in the grain trade the value of mills has very much decreased these few years, and as they are without lease I fear unless the rent is lowered they will be thrown upon hands. This one in the manor of Cloghogall has been on hands this year past, and it is very troublesome and expensive to keep it in good order.

The next few decades saw the construction of several more corn and flax mills as well as the conversion of a number of mills to different uses. In Leckpatrick townland the paper mill was converted to a flax mill. However, in the opinion of the valuer in the 1830s, it had not been ‘very well adapted for the use to which it is at present applied’. The paper mill in Maccrackens was converted to a corn mill. About 1850 David Smith built a flour mill at Artigarvan which the valuers described as ‘furnished with elevators and with the requisites of a first class mill’. However, in the 1870s the flour mill was sold to James Miller and converted to a corn mill.

The impact of the Great Famine had a profound effect on the rural industry in Ireland. The sharp decline in population in the late 1840s and 1850s and the general decline in the number of people living in the countryside ever since, coupled with technological advances that left the rural mills behind, resulted in the steady abandonment of water-powered mills over the course of the next century. In the 1850s, when the Primary Valuation was being compiled, the valuer of Milltown corn mill, near Ballymagorry, described it in the following terms: ‘I consider it a very bad take. I would put on [it] a higher value, but there are so many corn mills in this locality that they decrease the value of each other.’ According to the same valuation, Tullyard flax mill, near Dunnamanagh, had been ‘worked very little for [the] last three years in consequence of the erection of other mills - worked not more than one month last year and employed only two scutching stocks’.

By going through the valuation revision books it is possible to discover the date by which the mills had ceased to operate. In 1869 it was noted that the two corn mills in Maccrackens ‘get very little work, only grind for the county’. In recognition of this the valuer reduced the value of the buildings from £35 to £25. The mills struggled on, but by 1897 they were both ‘at rest’ and ‘dilapidated’. In Leckpatrick townland the corn mill and flax mill had ceased working by 1884.

It has already been noted that the bleaching concern at Artigarvan was in a state of disrepair by 1833. The bleach green at Burndennet did not last much longer. At this time the Edies were leasing the bleaching concern to Francis O’Neill who lived at Mount Pleasant in the neighbouring townland of Gloudstown. By the 1850s the bleach mill at Burndennett had been converted to a flax mill, though, in the opinion of the valuer, the building was ‘too large for present use’. The decline of the bleaching concern at Burndennet would appear to have had a knock on effect on the fortunes of the Edie family. Their outbuildings at this time were ‘all going to ruin and the grounds neglected’. On Francis O’Neill’s property in Gloudstown it was noted that there was a ‘large office on [property] 1 which was formerly used in connection with a bleach green and which is now useless; consequently the value of the buildings are kept low’. The corn mill at Burndennet ceased working about 1890.

Other mill closures included Sigerson’s spade mill in Artigarvan in 1884 and the corn mill in Magheramason in 1910. Flax mills tended to fare better than corn mills and in 1890 a new flax mill was built in Milltown, Ballymagorry, by John Brolly, the lessee of the corn mill in that townland. In the early part of the twentieth century there was one ill-fated milling venture at Artigarvan. About 1920 John Colhoun built a saw mill there. However, just seven years later it was described as being ‘almost in ruins’ and its value was reduced from £14 to £4. There had been another saw mill in the parish of Leckpatrick on the Holy Hill estate which was solely for the private use of the Sinclair family. A few flax mills were still functioning at the end of the Second World War, but none survived the 1950s.

Brickmaking in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong

Another of the industries practised in this area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was brickmaking. In 1751 John Colhoun, Abercorn’s agent, visited three brickyards in the manor of Dunnalong. Soon afterwards he reported his findings to the earl:

I have viewed three brickyards in Dunnalong manor, vizt James Paterson at the ferry boat who says he had made bricks seven years past and alleges he had leave; his clay pits are close on his mearing with Menagh Hill and surely does some damage, but he has smoothed the surplus pretty well and it will be good pasture; says he also depends more on the bricks than on the ferry for his rent as he has great loss by several persons on both sides of the river having small boats who ferry over passengers without any exception and some take money on public days.

The other two brickyards that Colhoun observed were worked by William Hamilton of Drumgauty and John McNielly of Gortmessan.

In the 1760s the number of tenants wishing to make bricks dramatically increased. In 1764 alone, Abercorn received requests from William Drummond of Gortmessan, David Love, Thomas Meather and James Baird, all of Tamnaclare, John Smith of Magheramason, and Widow Osburn of Creaghcor to make bricks. The tenants were prepared to pay handsomely for brickmaking rights. Drummond was prepared to pay fifty shillings advance rent for the privilege of making bricks on one acre of land, while Love, Meathers and Baird offered £3 a year additional rent for one acre of their farm to make bricks.

James Hamilton, Abercorn’s agent, was of the opinion that brickmaking could be ‘beneficial to the estate’. He was of the opinion that the ‘land that the clay is dug from, if properly levelled and dressed may in general be bettered, and good rents arise from them at present’. Furthermore, he considered that ‘the refuse of the brick, of which there must be a good deal wherever they burn is the best thing I know for improving “souer” grass which generally grows on those cold bottoms where brick clay is found .... I think clay well burned is preferable to lime for such land’. Abercorn was however concerned at the implications of opening up too many claypits and warned his tenants that those of them who made bricks ‘must confine themselves to a particular spot and not spoil the land wherever they please’. By 1770 so many tenants were making bricks that there was a glut on the market. In that year John Hamilton, another of Abercorn’s agents and brother to James Hamilton, informed Abercorn that ‘there are so many brickyards already between this town [Strabane] and Derry that the owners cannot get their bricks sold; Luke of Ballydonaghy has many thousands unsold’. The Lukes of Ballydonaghy were still making bricks in the early nineteenth century. In 1806 William Luke and John Pollock engaged to make 200,000 bricks a year and sell them for 14s. 6d. per thousand.

The Barnhill family at Backfence operated a large brickyard in the nineteenth century. The family residence even became known as Brickfield. In the 1850s the valuer for the district had great difficulty in finding out any details about the brickyard from its proprietor, Thomas Barnhill. A note in the valuation book reads as follows:

I could not get a return of the brickfield tho’ I asked three times for it. I think £20 a fair value to rate him at and my father considers it low enough. I should not wonder if he said it was high, but I tried; it will not be reduced without getting a return from him as I consider he must be making near £50 a year clear profit - or else he would not think it worth his while to work it.

William Gamble established a further brickyard in the townland of Leckpatrick in the late 1860s. It was valued at £15. However, the venture was not particularly successful and in 1881 Gamble asked that its rateable valuation be reduced as there was ‘very little doing in brickmaking of late’. The valuation was reduced to £10, but not long afterwards the brickyard was abandoned. Bricks continued to be made in Leckpatrick until at least the mid 1930s by James McKean of Farmhill.


A minor industry in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong in the eigtheenth and early nineteenth centuries was distilling. However, unlike the other industries that have been discussed above this one was generally practiced illegally. As early as 1745 there is a reference to a Robert Smith being convicted for selling whiskey without a licence. His brother had moved the stills from Eden to Cloghogle and here they were detected and seized by the authorities. The earl of Abercorn became concerned at the level of spirit consumption in his manors and tried to promote beer as an alternative to whiskey. Towards the end of the eighteenth century distilling came under much stricter government regulation. There would also appear to have been a change in attitude towards alcohol among the poorer classes. In 1783 Abercorn dryly remarked, ‘I am glad the poor people here at last found out they were starving in consequence of drinking their barley instead of eating it’.

The following year Abercorn’s agent, James Hamilton, noted:

If it was possible to put an end to private distilling, if a check could be given to the drinking that liquor to excess, the manners of the people would soon be changed, but the farmers who have barley and almost everyone grows it on their potato ground if the land is such as it can grow in, think they would be undone if distilling was checked, yet if we had brewers in common through the country, and good ale to be got, I do think by degrees the people would be “wained” from drinking spirits to such excess. I called at one Kerr’s who lives on the other side of Ballymagorry bridge, who has compounded for brewing and selling ale, and also for selling spirits. he assures me he could sell double the money’s worth of ale than he could of spirits, and his profit much greater. He told me that people often carry bread with them which they eat with their ale. Should the people in general come to that it would be a great reform. We should have but few quarrels and though a person exceeded in that liqour, he would be able to mind his work the next day which few can do who debauch in whiskey. The little whiskey houses that are all over the country ruin the people.

In the district of Glenmornan illegal distilling was fairly widespread in the early nineteeth century. In April 1808 James Hamilton junior reported to the marquis of Abercorn that several parishes in the Strabane area had been fined for having unlicensed stills. Glenmornan alone had been fined £200 and a further fine was due which, in the opinion of Hamilton, would be ‘ruinous to the most of them’. A concern for John James Burgoyne, another of Abercorn’s agents, was that the heavy fines would leave the people of Glenmornan ‘beggars’ and unable to pay their rent. He had also found out that the inhabitants of Glenmornan had decided to set up their illegal stills in one particular townland of low agricultural value so that it alone would be subject to the fines. The following month Burgoyne reported to Abercorn that he had burned an illegal still in Glenmornan and that the people there had ‘solemnly promised to quit’. However, by 1819 illegal distilling was on the rise again. This was due to the low price of grain and Burgoyne reckoned that £8 of barley could produce £48 of spirits in a fortnight.

Leckpatrick Co-Operative Agricultural and Dairy Society Ltd

In the latter part of the nineteenth century there was a drive to improve agricultural efficiency in Ireland. One of the principal figures in this movement was Horace Plunkett, son of Lord Dunsany. He launched his co-operative campaign in 1889 and in 1894 became the first president of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. In 1899 he was vice-president of the newly formed Department of Agriculture. On 20 June 1901 the first business meeting was held of the Leckpatrick Co-Operative Agricultural Dairy Society. Those present included Henry Shaw J.P. of Ballymote, Co. Sligo, an organiser for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, and Mr A. Poole-Wilson, an engineer with the Dairy Instruction Branch of the Department of Agriculture in Dublin.

The task of the first meeting, which was held in the Glebe school house, was to elect a president, vice-president and committee. J. C. Boyd Esq. M.B. of Lifford was elected president and Mrs Sinclair of Holy Hill vice-president. The committee elected was as follows: Andrew Robinson, William Briggs, William Bailey, William Woods, Robert Fulton, Edward Devine, John Jamieson, John Williams, Robert McComb and Alexander McCrea. James H. Donaghy was appointed secretary on a salary of £10 per annum.

Over the next few months the committee met regularly to discuss plans for establishing a creamery to serve the needs of the local farming community. One of the most important decisions which needed to be made was where to build the creamery. The site chosen belonged to Samuel McCleery who agreed to sell forty perches of land to the society at £1 per perch. Included in the deal were the materials of the old forge and all water and sewerage rights. Rough plans for a creamery building were drawn up by Poole-Wilson of the Dairy Instruction Branch. The committee then hired Mr W. Stewart C.E. of Strabane to prepare formal plans and elevations and to ensure that the work was carried out properly. The contract to build the creamery was put out to tender, but only one reply was received. This was from Robert Dunleavy of Holy Hill and his offer of £558 was accepted. The committee also voted to accept the offer of Messrs Alex. Brown & Sons of Londonderry to supply the machinery for the creamery.

Twenty-four applications for the position of manager of the creamery were received. The candidate selected was a Mr A. J. Spearman who agreed to a salary of £1 15s. 0d. a week. For this he was also expected to carry out secretarial duties. An advertisement for a dairy maid was placed in Irish Homestead and there were twenty-seven replies to this. The successful candidate was a Miss Logan. The committee also decided that they would need to appoint an engine driver, fireman and a man for the milk platform who could also ‘make himself generally useful’. In May 1902 Andrew Austin was hired as the engine driver on a weekly wage of twelve shillings.

Shortly afterwards the creamery was up and running and at the committee meeting held on 6 June 1902 the manager ‘expressed his satisfaction at the quantity [of] milk received at the opening of the creamery, and the manner in which the machinery in it which was working.’ James Kelly of Leckpatrick was appointed to carry butter and coal etc. to and from the station at Ballymagorry. The committee also accepted Robert Smith’s offer to supply forty tons of Glasgow splint coal in six ton waggons to Ballymagorry station at seventeen shillings per ton. Butter was to be advertised in the Irish Grocer. The committee allowed local shopkeepers to sell their butter so long as they did not try to undercut the creamery.

In July 1903 the Leckpatrick committee met with a deputation from the Dunnalong society to discuss proposals to build an auxiliary creamery at Dunnalong which would be worked as a branch of the Leckpatrick Co-Operative. The deputation from Dunnalong included William Rankin, Joseph Sayers, James Lowry, A. McClements, Charles McGettigan, John McClure and Charles Roulstone. Nothing of any substance was decided at this meeting, and it was not until a further meeting was held in March 1904 that it was agreed to draw up a rough draft of a proposal which could then be put before a joint meeting of both committees. At a meeting held on 24 April 1904 the agreement was approved. The Leckpatrick committee insisted that a clause be added which would show whether or not the auxiliary creamery at Dunnalong had contributed to the profits of any particular year.

The minute books of the Dunnalong Society have not survived and so we know little about its formation and early development. However, we can glean some information about it from the minute book of the Leckpatrick Society. In July 1904 A. J. Wellwood was asked to resign as the manager of the creamery at Dunnalong. His replacement was Thomas Kearns who had previously been employed at Solohead creamery. His weekly wage for managing Dunnalong was £1.

In February 1905 Mr Spearman was asked to resign as manager of the creamery at Leckpatrick. The precise reasons for this are not stated, but there would seem to have been some suggestion of financial impropriety. Spearman, however, refused to resign and this necessitated the calling of an emergency meeting. At this meeting, which was held on 7 March 1905, Mrs Sinclair and the Reverend Rennison both spoke in support of Spearman and wished him to stay on as manager. Despite their support Spearman decided to tender his resignation which was duly accepted. On the following day the Leckpatrick committee received a request from the Dunnalong committee that the existing arrangements between the two societies be discontinued. It was agreed that this would take effect from 1 April 1905.

Having examined in some detail the establishment of a creamery at Leckpatrick, only a very brief sketch of its history since 1905 will be given. In 1956 the reconstruction of Leckpatrick began. Four years later a new agricultural store was opened for the sale of farm and domestic supplies. This development included a petrol filling station. In 1970 there was a further important development when the animal feed business of James Miller & Co. was taken over. Just glancing at the turnover figures over the last ninety-eight years it becomes immediately apparent how much the business has expanded. In 1902 the turnover was £4237, by 1942 it was £132,361, and in 1977 it was more than £15,000,000. The main reason for the increase in the company’s turnover was the development of new business ventures. The establishment of a liquid milk business in the city of Londondonderry, from premises at Rossdowney, just after the end of the Second World War, was of major importance. In 1974 the Old City Dairy Ltd in Londonderry was acquired and in 1979 a new milk processing centre was built at Tamlaght Road, Omagh. In 1993 Leckpatrick was bought by Golden Vale. Dunnalong Creamery is sadly no more. The buildings are now used as the office and store of Andy Olphert’s plumbing business.


Much of this chapter has been based upon the voluminous correspondence between the earl of Abercorn and his agents which is available in the Abercorn papers (D.623 and T.2541) in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. For the nineteenth century it has been possible to use the manuscript books of the First Valuation, c.1835 (VAL/1B), the Primary Valuation, c.1850-60 (VAL/2B) and its subsequent revision which run from c.1864 to 1929 (VAL/12B), all of which are available in PRONI. W. A. McCutcheon’s mammoth work, The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1980), provides an excellent background to the chapter and explains in detail the way the mills actually worked. The minute book of Leckpatrick Co-Operative is available in PRONI under T.3164.

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