BESSBROOK: A Brief History

In the baptismal register of the Presbyterian Church in Newry there is an entry which reads: Bess, daughter of James Pollock, Esq., of Bessbrook, linen draper, baptised 24th July, 1779. The village was probably named after this child’s grandmother, Elizabeth Carlile, of Newry, wife of John Pollock who opened a bleach green in the townland of Clougharevan in 1761. He acquired the property from James, 4th Earl of Charlemont. The business thrived and at the end of the century Mr William Pollock’s works was capable of completing 18,000 webs per year. His neighbour, Mr John Duff, of Mountcaulfield, could complete 14,000 pieces in a year.

Joseph Nicholson & Sons leased the property from William Pollock in 1802. Once again business increased and soon the Nicholson property consisted of a spinning mill of 1024 spindles, a scutch mill, a hackling house and sundry other buildings. The Nicholsons were among the first to try ‘wet spinning’ which was invented by James Kay of Preston in 1825 and in 1827 they received a grant of £600 from the linen board on the understanding that it was for spinning by Kay’s process.

Other families associated with the area include the Hudsons who acquired John Duff’s business and the Atkinsons who had a bleach green and a flour mill at Millvale.

The Nicholsons’ mill was burned in 1839 and the buildings lay derelict until 1845 when the Richardson family bought the property. The Richardsons had extensive linen concerns in the Lambeg area. John Grubb Richardson conceived the idea of a Model Village. He had ‘a great aversion to be responsible for a factory population in a large town’. So he ‘fixed upon a place near Newry with water power and a thick population around, and in a country district where flax was cultivated in considerable quantities’. Bessbrook was not on a main road and Richardson believed that, with this isolation from the major towns and their distractions, he would have a temperate and controllable colony. He believed that alcohol was the main cause of all evils. So he did not allow a public house to be erected in the village. He concluded that with the absence of a public house there was no need for a pawnshop nor a police station. For many years Bessbrook was the village without the three Ps. The police did not arrive until the 1890s and, as yet, the other two Ps are still absent (although the local restaurant has recently been granted a licence).

There was the nucleus of a single street village when the Richardsons arrived in 1845. By 1860 the large linen factory had been built and the other side of Fountain Street was built. By this time there were houses in High Street and Charlemont Square was started. The population was 637. The American Civil War of the 1860s led to a shortage of cotton and a subsequent boom in the linen industry. James Street and Frederick Street were built at this time and by 1871 the population had increased to 2215. Thomas Street was added and the core of the old village was complete when College Square was built in the 1880s.

The Bessbrook Spinning Company by this time had control over the large linen factory at Bessbrook, a weaving factory at Craigmore and other smaller mills including a bleach mill, a beetling mill, a scutch mill and a foundry. To transport workers, and raw and finished materials, to and from these mills it was decided to build a tramway. This tramway, the second hydro-electric tramway in Ireland, was opened in 1885. It ran from the edge of Bessbrook to the edge of Newry. By an ingenious arrangement of the rails the goods wagons, which had flangeless wheels, could be made to run on both road or rail, and so it was not necessary to build a line through Newry. The tramway remained in operation until 1948.

There was very little change until just before the Second World War when part of the allotments were taken over by the local council to build "The Gardens". This building work was continued after the war and "The Gardens" were completed. No further changes were made until the late 1960s when James Street and Frederick Street were demolished to make way for O’Donohue Park and more allotments gave way to Orior Park. In the 1980s the oldest part of Fountain Street was replaced by modern housing. High Street, Quarry Row and Flynntown have now all gone and the space between Camlough, Bessbrook and Newry is gradually being filled.

The linen trade ceased in 'The Brook' in the early 1970s and the mill became an important army post. It was eventually vacated in 2007.

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