Memoirs of Youth

In these notes, written around 1930, Harry remembers what it was like to enter the family linen-finishing company as a cheeky, sharp-witted teenager who soon developed clear ideas about why the 150-year-old business was stagnating. His account of family and business life is at times poignant, at times hilarious. It’s not in strict chronological order but it gives a powerful impression of the atmosphere in a country district which was only half-way into the industrial era.

Back in the mid-1880s, the business specialised in finishing freshly-woven linen cloth in various ways: bleaching, dyeing and above all beetling, in other words pounding linen cloth with wooden blocks, driven by a water-wheel, which drove the fibres together and made it smoother and shinier. A set of these blocks was known as a beetling engine. The cloth was then sold across the British Isles and on a small scale, to the New World.

As Harry recalls, the buildings erected by the Clark family around the river Clady served four main purposes. There were offices where accounts were kept in a haphazard style; the “Brown Room” or cloth-store, where rolls of newly-woven linen were placed on arrival; the “Green” which was a catchall term for the areas where cloth was finished in different ways; and the Lapping Room where webs of cloth were prepared for despatch to customers.

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Old Habits

I entered the linen business of my father William Clark early in 1885 when I was just under 16 years old. The business was then very small. It consisted of the Lower House where there were 16 beetling engines working on black hollands; the six Mill Engines beetling brown and pale hollands and brown buckrams; the Road Engines, with nine engines working on coloured hollands; and the Middle House with seven engines, working on blacks.

All were driven by water wheels with no auxiliary power.

The Green was only driven by a small water-wheel, although there was a very small steam boiler (20 foot long by 4 foot six inches diameter) suitable for 20 lbs pressure. The steam pressure was never really known as there was neither a pressure gauge nor a water glass.

There was no proper steam engine and when water became scarce during dry summers or during frost, which was frequent and severe during the 1880s, the works had to be closed down for a few days until some water gathered in the dams.

The Green manager was an old man named John Smith, a splendid character and a skilful fisherman, indeed he spent many hours daily with his rod on the dams. Unfortunately he had little knowledge of dyeing - although he did it all.

At this time the cloth store was in the same building as the Lapping Room - absolutely the wrong place as all linens had to be carted from there to the Green.

In later years, about 1898, I got this changed when a large cloth-store was built in the Green: a three-storey building, the top two storeys being the cloth stores…so that when the webs were being sent out from there to be finished, they were simply dropped through holes in the floor or sent down sloping chutes.

The webs were in the first instance carried up to the top floor on an endless conveyor belt.

A carter who never forgot

When I first came into the business to serve my apprenticeship, I spent most of my time in the old cloth-storage room which was part of the Lapping Room.

James Canning was then in charge there.  An old man named John Tohill brought in a cartload of webs from Castledawson, which was then the nearest railway station, and then Canning and I would catch the webs as Tohill flung them from the cart.

I may here mention that Tohill left Upperlands early in the morning with the day’s shipments of two or three cases of linens, and brought back the linens or dyestuffs in his cart. He could neither read nor write but he had a good memory and always counted every web, delivered carefully. I never knew him to make a mistake.

James Canning and I would then carefully check the lengths of all the webs, count and carefully examine them as well as measuring a good many of the webs. My father was rather old to take an active part in the work, but occasionally he came down to the cloth-store from the office where he kept the bank account and helped with correspondence.

My father’s feel for cloth

I was struck by the way my father [then aged 70] could tell any quality of linen without looking at marks or counting the threads. He explained that he acquired this wonderful knowledge while very young. In those days linens were all hand-woven. At Ballymena or Ballymoney where my father visited on market days, always on horseback, the weavers just tossed the webs down on a stand in the market-place and the bidders had only a second to examine them and make their bid.

The goods were made by many different weavers in farmhouses about Ballymoney, Ballymena, Coleraine Armagh, and there was a great difference in qualities and widths.

My father told me that in earlier days during the winter months he was often held up by very deep snow when the roads would be covered from hedge-top to hedge-top.

I can even recall that in the late 1870s our mill dams were frozen over for five or six weeks and we had a lot of skating. The water wheels often got frozen up and great turf fires had to be kept burning all night and on Sundays.

A poorly-equipped Green

Very few new houses were built (in Upperlands) between 1885 and 1888. Four beetling engines were erected about 1886 in the Green and the race from the old weir near the chimney was deepened and all arched over. I can remember a finisher named David Smith having a potato garden where the Black Dye House now stands, and I often, as a boy, caught trout in the race, which is now arched over.

William Paxton died about 1885 – he had been foreman for a very long time. He was very clever and most economical.

At this period there was no proper workshop, no lathe, no saw or tools of importance. At this period the beetling beams were all made by hand on the Back Avenue, in the place where the building known as the Rag Store now stands. In order the make the beam round, it was placed in a rough wooden frame.  One man turned it round while another held a chisel to it, and even rollers for mangles were turned in a similar way.

A very foolish move: as carpenters objected to working outside on wet days, the building on the edge of the ?Penn Brae (present site of the Rag Store) was erected. Why it was put there I never could make out. Certainly no more unsuitable spot could possibly have been selected, as it was not near the all-important requisite for any workshop, power.  I think possibly this site was selected because three or four beams were lying there.

There certainly was no directing mind in Upperlands at this period, and when all is considered, it is not surprising that the business was not expanding.

The carpenters at this period were: William Paxton, foreman, wages 18 shillings weekly; Henry Arbuthnot, second man; Francis McShane; Isaac Donaldson; Jas Wilson (beam maker) – he also sawed boards out of logs with a pit hand-saw opposite the Middle House.

About 1887, a new workshop was built in the Green, which later became part of a much larger workshop one, added about 1897.  The workshop was driven by an old water-wheel situated at the gable end of the Green, [with] four engines. A house was also erected between the engines and the dye house for steam cans and a starch mangle. The drive was through an upright shaft which broke the level gears very often.

When William Paxton died, for a considerable time no foreman was appointed and the carpenters were like a flock without a herd. Then Henry Arbuthnot was made foreman, but he had little experience.

So R Montgomery was appointed at a weekly wage of 26 shillings, which was considered awfully high. He was a splendid engineer but after being here about a year his behaviour became erratic and he was dismissed. His parting words were “your place is going to hell” and indeed he was right, as the machinery went in the direction named, until he was reinstated about 1898 when he practically rebuilt the whole place.

Around 1886, the Middle House was nearly burned to the ground. Henry Arbuthnot and I saved it from total destruction by cutting the thatched roof and getting two ladders up, one for passing full buckets of water and the other for returning them empty. This was the only serious fire for years…since an old workshop in the yard (the present meal store) was burned about 1875.

A Makeshift Office

Terrible stools

Returning to the days of my apprenticeship, as well as working in the storage room I was occasionally brought up to the office which was a miserable little room, 13 foot long by 10 foot six wide, the only furniture being about four home-made high wooden (three-legged) stools with no support for one’s back, and the desks were high and of the roughest description. There was no lavatory accommodation of any kind either for the offices or for any other part of the works.

I often felt very sorry for my aged father sitting on one of those awful stools, and he frequently complained bitterly. However it was not until 1889 that a wing of the Lapping Room was taken in and added to the office. But even here the awful stools were used and until the day he died, my poor father never had a decent chair in the office.

Stock-keeping was if anything [even] more unsatisfactory. When linens were sent to finishers, they were advised in the body of an ordinary letter instead of through regular tickets. When deliveries came back they were marked off stock books without any date; it was impossible to identify any particular lot, and many webs were lost.

The agents’ stocks in places like Manchester were recorded in a most careless way and seldom checked. I can’t remember any stock-books for the Lapping Rooms. I am certain that no stocks were kept for goods in the Green or [beetling] engines.

No collective note was made of the amount (value) of linens received daily, and it was never known how much our liabilities were to be on the 4th [of each month] until I introduced this system in later years.

Correspondence – all letters were hand-written and copied into books by the old system of wetting the tissue leaf of the copy book…Shorthand was not introduced in any department until 1890 when I got a shorthand writer for the American department named Mr Smith, a most beautiful writer but a rogue.

The Home Department did not use shorthand until six years later.

It was always claimed by our Home Department that customers would object to a letter written by anyone except the heads of the business.

I was occasionally made to copy letters, check invoices, agents sales, and so on.

When checking the sales of our Manchester agents (Walter Clark and Sons, no relation) I noticed that they never paid pence. They made the total item to run at say, £5-16-11 instead of £15-17 and pocketed the odd 11 pennies. I believe they made 5 or 6 pounds every month in this way. Later on [my brother] Mr AW Clark heard this was not done by any other business house so it came to an end.

The office hands at this time were John Kane, John Miller and William Kirkwood.

John Kane is still here in 1929/1930.

How not to organize invoices

Even at this early age I noticed a complete absence of system in our offices, and while our linen invoices were always promptly paid, odd invoices for iron, timber were completely neglected until, at the expiry of three or four months, a threatening demand would come from the people for payment.

The invoice – say for 50 planks – would be hunted for in the piles of letter, circulars etc, that lay scattered in big piles over the desk….and an old carpenter names James Wilson who made the wooden cases would be sent for, and the conversation would run like this...

John Kane"James, can you tell me did you get 50 planks of wood from J and P Corry three months ago?"

Answer"Now John, how could I mind what I got so long ago.I may have got them, or I may not!"

This most un-business like state of affairs hurt our credit. Indeed I remember at least one house writing that they were closing our account as our payments were so irregular. This was H and J Bell of Coleraine.

Realizing that a business could never be developed on these lines, I established a proper system for checking invoices immediately when the goods came in and our credit soon improved greatly.

I must here explain that at this time I was only an apprentice and take no blame for the appalling blunders that were made. Harry Chalmers was an excellent [US] agent but his enquiries only received half-hearted replies and our "makeup" of canvas was so vile – only one ply was put in the lap – he soon became disgusted and very little business was done.

The total trade of Upperlands then did not exceed £40,000 yearly.

As of 1888, I had now served nearly half my apprenticeship and realized how useless it was for me to remain on in a “sinking ship”. I had a great wish to see the world and said that if I was given £300 I would renounce all claims and go to South Africa where my friend Alex Barklie had settled. However it was said the business could not afford £300, and it would not be fair of me to ask so large a sum. So I remained on and did my best to make improvements, and things dragged on without any great change. Although my mother, who greatly wanted me to stay on, urged an extension of the business, her demands were met with such absurd arguments as “if we extended, how could Jimmy McShane the measurer carry up more goods?” The possibility of getting Jimmy a boy to help him never seems to have been considered.

Home Life & Holidays

At the time we were all living in a very poor way in Ampertaine and until the early eighties we never got to the seaside in the summer...before the Derry Central Railway was opened (about 1880). When going to Portrush we drove via Garvagh and sometimes went on to Ballymoney and got the train there. Going down for a day was quite out of the question.  The first time I ever went to Portrush or in fact saw the sea was about 1880.

We had taken No 5, Mark Street, Portrush, for the month of June, and I thought it delightful to get playing on the sands... and my father who was a great swimmer was very keen on teaching me this art but I did not actually learn until two or three years later.

We all liked Portrush so much that we wanted to stay July as well but my father was told that the business could not afford this so we returned home.

My mother's health was not very good at this time, and she suffered greatly from the results of a fish bone sticking in her throat when at Portrush.  On returning home she found the July heat very trying, and as there was an enormous manure heap always kept at the back of the cow and pig sheds, not more than 50 yards from Ampertaine House, the smell was at times unbearable.

There also was a horrible cesspool not 30 yards away on the east side, and between these two the house was most unhealthy. My father and mother both wanted to have these "plague pits" removed, but they were both over-ruled and the cesspool was not altered until my sister Sarah got typhoid fever.

Approaching America

A rocky entry on the American market

At about this time, George Riggs was appointed as our agent in the USA and Canada. At this time there was a tremendous demand for linen elastic canvas for ladies’ dress facing. At this time unfortunately we had only a few numbers of canvas…and a few numbers of finer make.

And our goods were not in the right finish which was a highly beetled finish – very bright – in blacks, slate, chocolate.

Mr Riggs however opened a few accounts such as Carson Pirrie Scott of Chicago, Jas H Walker and Co of Chicago, Tohey and Co, Chicago, Hall Thomas of Minneapolis and Milwaukee... Joseph Horn of Pittsburgh, and in Canada Gault Brothers and Henry Morgan of Montreal.

We got the goods made by Acheson of Portadown and they used very dirty yarn which caused claims and endless trouble... so Riggs resigned and went to the Northern Linen company and did a great trade for them for many years.

We then appointed WM Robinson Burgess as our agent, he also represented the Athlone Woollen Mills, but was not a success for us. Without dismissing him, Harry Chalmers of 335 Broadway New York was appointed. This was of course most un business-like of us and later on led to serious trouble and double commission. When I eventually went to America in 1888 I actually met the two agents in the same territory.

Jumping ship

In 1888 I fully realized the impossibility of our making money under existing conditions and decided to try my luck abroad. I saw every evidence of how a great trade could be done in Upperlands – but as all schemes for making such important improvements – [such] as putting in a steam engine to drive the Green when there was no water – fell through, I therefore got in touch with the Liverpool shippers.

About November 1, I ran away from home, crossed to Liverpool with everything necessary (except much money, I only had about £20) for starting life in Australia.

I had arranged with the Liverpool shippers ... to sail on the "Scottish Isles" a large four-masted sailing ship for Melbourne as cabin boy. But on arrival in Liverpool I found I could not get this post. I was terribly disappointed to find there was a hitch. [Instead] the shippers got me a job on the Scottish Dales, [another] four-masted sailing ship and I was to sail for San Francisco... a week later.

During the interval, our coachman Pat McEldowney, whom I had taken into my confidence, split on me and told my father who brought me home.

I however told him I would not stay and was determined to see the world. He therefore arranged to let me sail for New York two weeks later on the old state liner "State of Nevada".

I had a very busy two weeks getting samples prices etc ready. John Kane, head clerk, made a nice little book giving the names of all the customers in America and Canada, very few indeed!

The only samples I had were a book of hollands, buckrams and very few numbers of elastic canvas as well as some pale and brown roughs.

No passport was necessary at this time and my return ticket cost only £18 first class.

I got letters of introduction from our rector, the Reverend BB Gough of Maghera, and [also from] Tom Field, manager of the Ulster Bank Maghera... but save Mr Field’s to a carpet manufacturer in Philadelphia, they were of no use. The carpet manufacturer was a Maghera man, now a millionaire, who used to gather potatoes for [our second cousin] Colonel Clark.

On November 15, 1888, after saying farewell to all at home, I started off driving to Castledawson in order to say goodbye to my favourite uncle Dr Henry Clark who was ill at the time.

I also saw Mr Charlie Clark who sent messages to Alexander his son (A. L. Clark) who was then in Cleveland, Ohio.

I went on from Castledawson by rail to Larne and got on board the SS State of Nevada and was just settling down when at 4:30 pm I was glad to see my brother Alexander and our Coachman Pat McEldowney turn up to say goodbye. I still remember Pat's last words of advice, "Master Harry, don’t say much but take in all you can."