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History of Montrose
Chapter X. - Linen Trade


THIS trade, from small beginnings, has arrived at great maturity and extent in Montrose. It may now be accounted its staple trade. According to Pennant, in 1745, there was not a single manufacturer in Montrose—in the sense, I suppose, that we now understand the term as an employer of labour to any great extent; for it is not to be doubted, that the wives long before that, had their spinning wheels, and sang such ballads as the following:—

"There was a lass, they ea’d her Meg,
And she gaed o’er the muir to spin;
There was a lad that followed her,
They ca’d him Duncan Davison.”

On a fine evening, it was a customary thing for the wives to bring out their wheels to the door and spin together, and sing till dark; and they were much better employed in that way than many of them are now. Fifty years ago, the best ladies in the town would have had their wheels whirring in the parlour, and would have accounted it no discreditable thing, and it looked so industrious like, and they would have laid by with such satisfaction to their four hours. Her Majesty, it appears, is to set the example again, having ordered a spinning-wheel to Windsor, and another to Balmoral. There is nothing better for driving away ennui than some useful employment of this kind. And if even by hand-spinning and by machinery, cotton were beat out of the market, it would be a saving, for linen is much more durable than cotton, and better for the health to wear. Formerly there was not a draper’s shop but pieces of Irish linen were to be seen in the windows, but now there is not much of it sold.

In 1776, thirty-one years after the last date, “Montrose,” says Pennant, “increased one-third—manufactures having risen to a great pitch; for example, that of sail-cloth, sail-duck, as it is here called, is very considerable. In one house, 82,566 pieces have been made since 1755. Each piece is 38 yards long, numbered from 8 to 1. No. 8 weighs 24 lb., and every piece, down to No. 1, gains 3 lb. in the piece. The thread for this cloth is spun here, not by the common wheel, but by the hands. Women are employed, who have the flax placed round their waist, and twist a thread with each hand, as they recede from a wheel turned by a boy at the end of a great room. Coarse cloth for linen for the soldiery is also made here; besides this, coarse linens, which are sent to London or Manchester to be printed; and cottons for the same purpose are printed at Perth, Great quantities of fine linen, lawns and cambric, are manufactured in this town, the best from 2s. 6d. to 5s. a yard. Diapers and Osnaburgs make up the sum of the weavers’ employ, which are exported to London, and thence to the West Indies. Much thread is brought here by the rural spinners to be cleaned and made into parcels, and much of it is coloured here. The bleaching is very considerable, and is the property of the town. It is not only used by the manufacturers, but by private families, for the drying of their linen. The men pride themselves on the beauty of their linen, both wearing and household; and with great reason, as it is the effect of the skill and industry of their spouses, who fully emulate the character of the goodwife so admirably described by the wisest of men.”

“In the years 1805 to 1807, the quantity of linen stamped averaged 198,375 yards yearly ; the fees which the stamp-master drew from the same being 20 13s. 3d. For the three years, from 1816tol818, the quantity had increased to an average of 465,369 yards yearly, and the fees to 68 9s. 6d. When the stamp-master found any of the cuts short of threads, these were taken, and burned at the cross once a month. Montrose was not long in following Dundee in spinning by machinery; and in 1805, what went by the name of Ford’s Mill, was erected. The celebrated George Stephenson was about a twelve month in Montrose, superintending the erection. At that time, the women workers were called mill hags; and a dirty tribe they were, for they came out from their work, all covered with mill-dust and pob from top to bottom—not at all as they are now, neat and clean and well put on. On 11th July, 1817, Ford’s flax spinning-mill, of four stories and attics, with two engines of 12 and 25, together 37 horse-power, was advertised for sale. It contained 38 spinning-frames for flax, and 22 for tow, of 30 spindles each, or 120 in all, making a total of 1620 spindles. In 1834, there were four large works in the town moved by steam, and one in the parish, on the Northesk, driven by water. There were also other two mills on the same river, in the neighbouring parish of Logie, both driven by water, and belonging to Montrose firms. The steam-power of the mills in Montrose was equal to 129 horses, producing annually 854,869 spindles, and the two in Logie, 302,224 spindles. Part of the yarn was manufactured in the town and district, and part sold to manufacturers in other towns, or shipped to foreign countries. That year, the linen woven in the town and neighbourhood consisted of 4200 pieces bleached sheeting, 21,443 bleached dowlas, 2,225 brown sheeting, 7,106 bleached duck, 2,253 bleached canvas, 2,716 brown canvas, 191 navy canvas, 1,690 hessian, 104 tarpanling, 2,057 hop bagging, 32 sacking, 2,635 Osnaburg, and 241 of sundries; making in all . 46,993 pieces. The importation of flax into Montrose same year was 2,496 tons, and 44 tons of hemp.

“Since the period referred to, the trade of the town has gone on steadily; and the fluctuations and vicissitudes of other towns have been less felt here—chiefly owing to the firms engaged in the business, not having extended their establishments beyond the wants of the trade, nor beyond their ability to maintain the control over them, and to buy and sell, when and where they can do it, to most advantage. At the present time, there are four firms engaged in flax-spinning in Montrose. The motive power is steam, of the aggregate of 305 horse-power; and the mills contain 27,500 spindles, and give employment to 1,855 people In 1851, the number of firms engaged in the trade was the same, and the power differed little from what it now is. One of the firms (Richards and Co.), have now also a steam-engine of 26 horse-power, driving 122 power-looms, with all the necessary preparing and finishing machinery for their extensive production—240 hands being employed in this department. The quantity of flax, tow, &c., now consumed annually, is close on 5000 tons; and the wages paid to those engaged in the linen manufacture in the town, amounts to ' about 50,000 yearly. There are a good many hand-loom weavers in the town and district around; and the fabrics chiefly woven by them, and in the power-looms, are ducks, sheetings, dowlas, hessians, canvas, and floor-cloth, quality being remarkably good, and the bleach and finish of some of the fabrics of a high order. Mr James Mudie employs about 130 to 140 hands in making floor-cloth in all widths, up to 8 yards, and broad sheetings. He has now erected a power-loom factory. The yam spun in Montrose has long had a high reputation, both for superiority of material and excellence of spin. Messrs Aberdein & Co. spin from 8 to 70 lea, and Messrs Paton have spun as high as 30 lea dry tow, and 50 lea dry flax. Part of the yam spun, and not manufactured by the spinners, is sold to manufacturers throughout the country, and part of it is exported to Germany, Spain, and other countries. The firms in the trade are of long standing and high respectability.

“The district trade’ is in a very prosperous condition. Messrs Aberdein have made a large addition to their factory, which will employ 500 hands more. Spinners and manufacturers are getting a satisfactory return from their capital and labour. Operatives have steady employment and good wages. Provisions are abundant and cheap. All classes are satisfied, and happy contentment reigns.”* Richards and Co. have just got up. a new engine, by Mr Carmichael, on the newest and most improved principle.


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