SMYTH & CO.
Jack Benton & Joe Curtis
The hosiery and linen businesses were the central industries in the Balbriggan area for about two hundred and fifty years. Both saw the best and worst of times and this story outlines the industry and its link to the prosperity of the region.
Any industry, which not only outlived the commercial restrictions of the 18th and 19th.centuries, but also waxed strong while others declined, must surely be of special interest.
Where relentless laws and heavy taxation, where high tariffs and the imposition of every embargo which the most cunning mind could evolve failed for over 250 years, still defeat had to be conceded when the marketing policy which had sustained these industries was not geared to match the wholesome onslaught from the Orient.
At the turn of this present century the town of Balbriggan was renowned throughout the world for its quality textile products. A writer in 1909 declared that if ever Shackleton covered the last few miles still remaining to reach the South Pole it was more than likely he will find the inhabitants of that far distant land wearing “Real Balbriggan” hosiery.
What was to become the prosperity maker for Balbriggan had its roots on the northern fringes of Balrothery. In the 18th century, Balrothery, then the main population centre, overshadowed the then small hamlet of Balbriggan.
Balrothery, referred to as the ‘town of the knights’, had been an area of some religious significance for many centuries and had several small manufacturing industries. Their main outputs were basic furniture, tanned products, beer and biscuits. From the wheels of the local grain mills came the basic ingredient to produce the biscuits which were well known to seafarers in that they were the most suitable and long keeping of ship’s biscuits.
Significantly these mills were situated on the northern side of Balrothery, in order to make use of the several streams which drained the hills and marsh ground to the south of Balrothery.
The same streams were to run the spinning jennies which would later give Balbriggan a place in the American language and in the Oxford Dictionary.
The Early Years.
The hosiery business is recorded as having been carried out in the Balrothery area prior to 1740. It is stated as having been very successful although it is clear that the ‘industry’ was really only a cottage industry which served the needs of the local, prosperous, inhabitants and also the traded with Dublin, 20 miles distant.
In 1740, Mr. John Mathews established the trade on a solid basis, and for over 25 years he employed a large number of workers knitting fine silk stockings. These stockings were expensive to produce and not very hard wearing. This business lapsed in the early 1760’s and was resumed shortly afterwards by Mr. Fullam.
Mr. Fullam, who displayed much originality in the improvements he introduced in developing his products, was responsible for the introduction to the market of a new concept in stockings known as “Economies”. “Economies” were made from two materials, silk and cotton; the ankle portion of the foot and the top portion of the stocking were made from cotton and the remaining area, which might be on display, from silk. This development had two main advantages, a considerable cost reduction and the wider market availability to a less costly product. Increased demand was the direct result.
Mr. Hatton acquired the business in 1775 and although only a short time in command he had a considerable and beneficial influence on the affairs of the business. The family of Hatton left a further impact on the area; two place-names, Hatton’s Hill and Hatton’s Farm were in general use until recent times. The late Paddy Murphy, who did extensive research into the history of industry in Fingal, rated the contribution of the Hatton family very highly.
1780 was to see Mr. Hatton joined by his cousin, Joseph Smyth, when the firm of Smyth and Co. was established and traded for almost exactly 200 years. That year also saw the business move to Balbriggan proper.
For many years after the formation of the company the hosiery manufacture went on apace; adding regularly to its improvements and most importantly, keeping in touch with developments in technology and machine design. The progress made by Messrs Smyth and Co. actually blotted out the smaller manufacturers while their workers were taken over by the new firm. Smyth and Co. gradually and steadily gained in reputation and popular favour through the excellence, quality and style of their goods until the name of Balbriggan was known all over the globe and the products from Balbriggan looms their way to every market from China to Peru.
During this period of expansion for Messrs Smyth and Co., entrepreneurs, especially in England, were looking to Irish low cost labour and high skill to improve their profit margins. Thomas Ogle from Preston in England was one such man. He had the foresight and pioneering attitude, which drives the thirst for greater return on investment, and he saw Balbriggan as a potential area with a suitable skill base. It is recorded that on 5th.August, 1806 that Thomas Ogle made an agreement with William Suttell, a flax dresser from Leeds, to proceed to Balbriggan, Ireland to take charge and manage the flax mill shortly to be built there. That flax mill did eventually come into being, although far later than intended, and the Gallen family purchased the establishment in 1883. The Gallen family still runs the business although not producing to the extent of former years.
The Mangan Family.
The name Mangan is imprinted in the annals of Balbriggan and Smyth and Co. as just one year before the decision of Thomas Ogle, an apprentice started work at Smyth and Co. This young person was to learn the fundamentals of the hosiery business and later passed his learning to his son, Thomas Mangan, who was to become the most famous of all the Balbriggan hosiers. Thomas and his brother, who was the first local to perfect lace or openwork stockings, were breeds apart. They set the standard for the industry, not only in Ireland but for the world market. Among the customers for whom they worked through Smyth and Co. were the Empress of Austria, the Princess Eugenie, the Czarina and of course Queen Victoria herself. Queen Victoria was stated to be very fastidious in matters of dress and insisted her stockings would be made by the most skilled of craftsmen. It seemed that her choice of selecting Mangan made stockings from Smyth and Co. was based solely on the fact that their quality was unsurpassable anywhere.
One must realise the importance of her first order to Balbriggan, the anxiety to meet with Royal approval for the first pair, and yet the quiet confidence that among the well-descended craftsmen in Balbriggan would be the man to win it. Having won the Royal approval by providing stockings which weighed only three and one half ounces for a dozen pairs, Thomas Mangan was to continue to hand make stockings for Victoria for a period of 65 years.
This dedicated service was rewarded when, on the 25th September, he was the recipient of honoured notice from Queen Victoria. The following extract from the Daily Press of September 26th 1898 tells the story:
“Yesterday afternoon, in the Courthouse Balbriggan, the Recorder of Dublin acting on the authority of the Queen presented a photograph of Her Majesty, bearing an autograph signature to Mr. Thomas Mangan, a Workman in the employment of Messrs. Smyth and Co., in recognition of the fact that for a period of sixty years he has been engaged in the manufacture of hosiery for the Queen and Royal Family.
The Recorder said, ‘Before I begin the business of the Quarter sessions I have been asked as Chairman, to present to you, Thomas Mangan, a portrait of her majesty Queen Victoria. Signed with her own sign manual, Queen and Empress of India, in token of appreciation she has for all her subjects who have been engaged in honourable toil, and upon the occasion of it having come to her Majesty’s notice that you have been for more than 60 years a conscientious worker, though in a humble position in which you hitherto escaped the notice of the public.’
Sadly in the recent past, the mementoes of Thomas Mangan have passed to members of the family in America.
Balbriggan was rightly proud of Thomas Mangan and his superior skill at hose making and many might feel that the Royal approval and notice might indicate that only Mangan was fit to clothe the Queen’s leg. Alas that was not the case as the wily Queen had several suppliers. Of course much claim and counter-claim ensued as to who was the first supplier.
At least four English suppliers as well as Smyth & Co. supplied the Royal family during Victoria’s reign. The hose worn on two of their most important days, her coronation and Golden Jubilee, were in both instances made by John Derrick. Derrick, who died in 1895 at the age of 89 years was a superior craftsman from Barber-gate, Nottingham and his granddaughter named Hammersley of Mapperley has copies of the original patterns complete with crown and the letters V.R. underneath.
In arguments concerning who was the most important supplier, a Mr. James of I and R. Morley, who called their product English Balbriggan, said they had sample stockings dating back to 1877 but Smyth & Co. were able to refer to stockings made from Sea Island Cotton made in 1837 which were still in the companies possession, and to even older samples which were lost in the fire of 1882. Royal tokens were sent out to Derrick, a Mr. Byard of Colverton, a Mr. Meakin of Derby and a Miss Ann Birkin also of Derby. All were for work related to hose making and embroidery of hose.
The role played by Smyth & Co. craftsmen during the period 1853 to 1873, resulting in major exhibition victories for the excellence of their hose, cannot be overstated. Among the almost endless list of honours won were Philadelphia, 1853; London, 1862 and 1868; Paris, 1867; Vienna, 1873. It was Thomas Mangan himself who made the stockings exhibited in Philadelphia in 1853 that were awarded the Gold Medal as the finest Stockings ever made.
An advertisement placed in 1853 in connection with the Great Industrial Exhibition, Dublin gives unbridled praise and refers to a First Class Prize Medal won at The Great Exhibition of All Nations in AD 1851, a year not mentioned in the usual “Role of Honours Won”.
The formative years were not without trouble for Balbriggan and its textile industries. The Head Office of Police in Dublin placed a notice in the Freeman’s Journal of January 1st 1810 seeking information about what they referred to as an outrageous proceeding. “Richard Doogan, a carrier, from the town of Balbriggan, when on his way to that place with a load of cotton, was stopped at Drumcondra Bridge, on the evening of the 26th December 1909, between three and four o’clock, by two armed men, who compelled him to hide his face for a considerable time, during which they made use of many threatening expressions and fired several shots, and when liberated, the said, found that the cotton had been taken out of the cart, injured with Vitriol and thrown into the river. “A reward of one hundred guineas was offered for useful information as to the two gunmen and a further offer of fifty guineas for information on the band of 40 or so men who were with them. Several prominent business people offered rewards separate to the police reward and among them was a Bridget Maguire who offered ten pounds. Among the police notices on 18th January 1810 was a notice seeking information as to the people who set fire to Mrs. Maguire’s premises in Ardee Street, Dublin and almost entirely destroyed her warehouse. Many Balbriggan people supported the reward list with sums ranging from twenty-two pounds and fifteen shillings from Rev. G. Hamilton to five pounds from John Sharkey.
1867 was to see the building of a fine, handsome factory premises for Smyth & Co.; convenient to the Great Northern Railway Station at Balbriggan into which was put the most up-to-date machinery. This splendid factory was burned to the ground in a horrendous fire in the year 1882. It was instantly rebuilt, but on a larger scale and refitted with all the latest machinery available in Europe. This machinery was to herald a new era in stocking manufacture as it enabled Smyth & Co. to manufacture Cashmere and Lisle thread goods which had not hitherto been made in Balbriggan, the trade having been chiefly confined to Silk and Cotton.
That fire presented other opportunities also, skilled labour not fully utilised during the rebuilding programme attracted the attention of the English firm of Deeds, Templar and Co. The added bonus of having premium prices for products made at Balbriggan, by now a generic name, must have been almost a licence to print money. Using the area just to the east of the Railway, at Sea banks, Deeds, Templar and Co. traded as the Balbriggan Sea Banks Hosiery Company from 1884 to its destruction in 1920 at the hands of the Black and Tans.
1886 saw a strike in Smyth and Co., which depending on the record of the event you decide to believe, was to bring about drastic changes in the future of that company. The Board of Directors meeting was informed that a minor strike involving just a few of the workers, none of whom were working on products on order, was taking place and would soon be remedied. The reason for the strike was very minor indeed, Mr. W. Whyte, Managing Director, told his Board Colleagues and that the workers would soon see reason and return.
The Drogheda Independent, itself only two years old at that time, reported on 29th May 1886, that the Smyth and Company workers “struck work by reason of the proprietors having previously served the men with notice of a reduction in their pay averaging from 17% to 25%, the expiry of which notice took place on that and to the number of 35, six men remaining on. The men stated that previous to the strike they were obliged to pay on an average 15% of the following – “Standing” (the space occupied by the machine) winding; and in the winter, fire and gas.”
The paper further reports “It seems anomalous that Smyth and Co. should be disposed to, and insist on this reduction in the face of the fact that the proprietors of the new Balbriggan Sea Mills Hosiery factory – Messrs. Deeds Templar – not only have made no offer to reduce their men’s wages, but, since the strike in Messrs. Smyth and Co.’s factory, they have taken on five of the men on strike, at the standard rate’ and having, besides, expended between £8, 000 and £9, 000 in the recent purchase of the site and the last erection of their factory, machinery, and plant. “The last paragraph in that article gives further insight:
“By the way it should be mentioned that in the makeup of the 15% reduction mentioned about (standing, winding, fire and gas) there should be included discount to the tune of 2d to the shilling – of every shilling earned by every man in Messrs. Smyth and Co.’s employee.”
The outcome was simple to conclude as Mr. William Whyte, the proprietor in 1886, put the company for sale in 1887.
1887 was a milestone in Smyth and Co.’s long career as it signalled the company going public. The first meeting of the Board of Directors took place at 2.30pm on 7th December 1887 at Trinity Chambers, Dame Street, Dublin.
In attendance were: -
Frederick William Pim Adam S. Findlater
Tomas Stuart William Whyte
On the proposal of A.S. Findlater and seconded by Mr. T. Stuart, Mr. F.W. Pim took the chair. The directors had before them the list of applicant for shares. The seal of the company was decided upon also and it was agreed to use the Trade Mark with the words “Smyth and Company Limited Balbriggan” and Mr. W. Whyte, Managing Director, was instructed to secure some from Messrs. Waller of Suffolk Street, Dublin.
A further decision was to instruct Messrs. Craig Gardner to open the share books and to close the ordinary books to 1st November 1887.
By the end of December the company was still under-subscribed and not sufficient cash was available to pay the vendors in accordance with the terms of the agreement drawn up on 15th November 1887.
On 29th December 1887 the Board “agreed and resolved that the company do not take over the liabilities of the vendor on 1st November 1886 amounting £9, 550-19-7 and that they undertake to pay or otherwise settle said liabilities, and that this undertaking shall be deemed to be a payment to the vendor on foot of the purchase money to the extent of the liabilities thus taken over.”
The Major Shareholders at that period were: -
William Whyte senior 1,000 shares
Mrs. Smyth 400 shares
William Whyte junior 200 shares
Miss Smyth 120 shares
Miss Crawley 130 shares
Federick Pim 120 shares
Warren St. Leger Woods 100 shares
Miss Gertrude Hamilton 100 shares
Dixie Ratham Coddington `` 100 shares
William Holland, Victoria Mills, Manchester 100 shares
The same meeting showed that the company recorded a loss of £292-19-7 and this loss was charged to Mr. Whyte against the purchase price. During 1888 Mr. Whyte, on a journey to London, Paris and Brighton had sales amounting to £2, 200-00. The sales journey took 22 days.
By act of Parliament it was necessary to call a General Meeting of Shareholders. Smyth and Co. had 37 shareholders, ten were needed to attend; only eight turned up and the only meeting was adjourned and called for one week later. Only Mr. Whyte turned up to this meeting.
A further strike took place in 1888 and Mr. Whyte told the Board that the issue was “trifling”. It was too months before work was resumed and it is worth noting that 40 men were involved and that coupled with a loss of American orders it was not possible for the company to pay a dividend.
Ten new American accounts were opened in 1889 and of annual sales of £9586-11-10, the American market was valued at £2500.
About this time many companies were using the word “Balbriggan” to sell their hose. Unfortunately, much of the work was of inferior quality and the Smyth and Co. Board decided on a policy of prosecuting companies found improperly using “Balbriggan”. Messrs. Stagg Mantle and Co. of Leicester Square London paid £25 towards legal costs and entered apologies in nine English and three Irish papers. Success was having its problems too.
The Board Meeting of February 1892 was informed that the company had made a loss of £1272-18-0 for the previous year and the reaction to that being ‘to continue for a further six months only when a decision would be made on the companies long-term viability’. The employees were asked to take a reduction in of approximately 8% and after consideration this was agreed to. Matters were made worse by the McKinley tariff on goods entering America. A switch to sell aggressively on the home market was decided as the only way to resolve the company’s problems.
This policy change proved to be the correct course of action. In 1897 it was found that the already extensive premises built during the 1880’s were by no means sufficiently large to deal with their constantly increasing trade. They built a very elaborate factory across the street at the north side of Freeman’s Row (Railway Street) and connected with the large premises over the street by an enclosed footbridge.
Soon after the opening of this further extension the company decided to add their own dyeing works to the new portion of the factory. At that time this was significant, as experience on the American market had shown some complaints had been received regarding the “fastness” of some of their dyed materials. Colour “fastness” being as important then as it is today.
To accommodate further the increasing trade Smyth and Co. engaged full-time instructresses to go round the villages of the north county – Rush, Skerries, Lusk, Swords, Naul etc, teaching young girls to embroider stockings, and by this means a very lucrative cottage industry was formed which gave off-site work to almost three hundred people.
We are most fortunate to have a copy of a photograph taken in 1903 of the men and boys employed at Smyth and Co. and to see the surnames of those employed. So many are surnames well-known in Balbriggan: Canty, Corcoran, Brailsford, Hammond, Campbell, Seaver, Harper, McGavisk, Dillon, Donegan, Orange, Smith, Cannon, Dennis, Clynch, Whearity, Gorman, Mooney, Markey, Spencer, Clarke, Brady.
Facilities were added to for the benefit of the workforce and a recreation hall with a full time caretaker was provided in Convent Lane.
Later a football team was established and it is recorded as being most successful in the various competitions entered. Among those mentioned being R. Corcoran who captained a side versus the British Legion in 1926 and on which occasion “Smyth and Co’s” lost by three goals to one. Mr. H. Cashell refereed the match.
A team selected to play Cairns Athletic in 1939 comprised: Rooney, McAuley, Kenny, Duffy, Dunne, Markey, Driscoll, Carvan, Canolan, Byrne and Doolan. N. Dunne was captain and J. Kennedy was honorary secretary.
September 1920 was a time of severe hardship for the people of Balbriggan. The Black and Tans were to leave the town in ruins, its people scattered, two savagely killed and its industry in ruin.
The factory of Deeds Templar on the Seabanks was destroyed and 109 employees were thrown out of work. Many of these lost their homes as well as in Clonard Street alone thirty-five houses were burned and became a total loss.
The Smyth and Co. factory, situated between Clonard Street and Seabanks was saved from destruction by the intervention of Mr. Gorman, Dr. Fullam and Constables McGlynn and Sexton, all of whom pleaded with the arsonists. Smyth and Co. did survive and was to give employment to many of the skilled hosiers made unemployed from Deeds Templar.
To be famed in music or verse is the dream of many and we all know of the Coca-Cola and Donnelly sausage tunes. Not many know the Stanza on Smyth and Co.
This interesting story relates to Mitchel O’Grady who was an inmate in the County Home, Castlebar, concerning Smyth and Co. In a letter from the county home to Smyth’s management he wrote that the Madam was an admirer of Balbriggan hose and she influenced O’Grady, who was an old Rhymester, to pen a stanza on our esteemed product. He suggested a small postal order for his trouble and was awarded a postal order for 5/=(five shillings = 25 pence).
The following is his stanza:
Some appreciative stanza’s on Messrs Smyth’s Superior Balbriggan Hose.
Erin for her Manufacturers has a prominence – her own,
Nought can beat some Golden Products to our famed Green Island known,
` But there’s one the housewife praises, its choice merits to disclose,
Gem of Fair North Dublin’s Bosom – Smith’s renowned Balbriggan hose.
Pure as are the Crystal waters of our everlasting hills,
Lasting as the purpled heather on our Connemara Hills,
Irish as the storied Liffey, that by rack or Castle flows,
Is this star of Leinster’s Bosom – Smith’s renowned Balbriggan hose.
Here we have no worthless Eyesore from the Mersey, Thames or Clyde,
But a Gem that ‘mid out Valleys must acknowledge be the pride,
Irish-made by Irish Labour, enemy to foreign foes,
Is this star of Leinster’s Bosom – Smith’s renowned Balbriggan hose.
Here’s success renowned Providers and the duty long be mine,
Round thy fame each day extending, choicer Garland’s yet to twine,
Gem from best of Home Materials, while the peat fire cheery grows,
We must praise this Gem of Dublin – Smith’s renowned Balbriggan hose.
The period when Mitchel O’Grady made his move to gain the modest (by today’s standard) award was one when Irish Industry was finding its feet between 1925 and 1935 and Smyth and Co. was no different to many other companies in the new Free State. With the imposition of tariffs on imported hosiery, Smyth and Co. saw a boom period in the 1930’s and in 1932 they needed round the clock production from 8:30 p.m. on Sunday Evening through to 1pm on the following Saturday to cope with orders. That was the first time in its history that the factory hands had to work at night.
Messrs Stephenson and Co. of Newtownards, manufacturers of the Shamrock brand of hosiery and underwear, commenced work on November 1st 1932 on the site of the old Deeds Templar factory. A number of workers were brought from Newtownards to train local operatives, made necessary by the shortage of skilled labour as Smyth and Co. were employing its largest workforce ever.
For the record, this might be a good period to select to illustrate the process of Hose manufacture and to give a 1931 Drogheda Independent view.
How It Is Made from a special correspondent of the Drogheda Independent
“A short account of the making of a stocking may be of interest and it shows that the process is not a simple one, and also that the care taken to ensure success is considerable. The commencing stage is outside the hosiery manufacturer’s province, that is the selecting, sorting and spinning into yarn of the various wools and cottons and other materials brought into the markets. This initial step has been brought to perfection by specialised hands and machines and the yarn is delivered to the Hosier in Cops and Cheeses as they are called. From these the hosiery makers have to wind them on wooden bobbins, lubricating the yarn at the same time. The bobbins are transferred to the looms and knitted by them into a web, which ultimately becomes a finished stocking or sock. The greater part of the hosiery made in Balbriggan is what is called fashioned: that is, it is made on the looms in flat pieces, widened and narrowed in such a manner that they can by joined at their selvidges , so as to make perfectly shaped hosiery, which cannot be so successfully made by the seamless or round machinery, all high class hosiery being so woven and shaped.
The joining up or seaming, as it is called, used to be done by hand, but of recent years seaming machines of great perfection have been introduced. In answer to the demand for seamless hosiery a large number of seamless machines of various types have been installed making patterned goods of endless variety and colour. After the goods have been seamed they are thoroughly washed and dyed, after which just before they are quite dried they are stretched upon flat boards shaped to the size required and dried at a high temperature in a specially constructed heating chamber. Then they are subjected to pressure in a hydraulic press for several hours and finally sorted into their quantities and sizes and made up into packages as seen in the retail shops.
Modern Tendency to Colour
The modern tendency towards colour has been met by Smyth and Co. and they have a range of colours standardised to the number of over 500. They do their own dying and in the selection of dyes used by them they take care that none of them are of a poisonous nature. As a matter of fact many of the dyes used are in their constituent elements the same as disinfectants and a number of the dyes are used for colouring high-class confectionery. In embroidered goods the company pride themselves on the excellence of the work executed by their employees, Irishwomen who are renowned for the neatness of their needlework, embroidery and lacework.
1s to 20s Per Pair
The various kinds of hose manufactured by the Company are too numerous to embody in this short article but they are made to suit all markets at prices ranging from 1shilling per pair to 20shillings per pair. One of the Company’s special brands, the Sea Island Cotton Hose is more expensive than the finest pure silk. So light are the finest that a dozen pairs of stockings weighs less than 4 ozs. And the cost of the yarn is considerably greater than silk. The thread in these fine makes has to be continuous from welt to toe.
New “inventions” in the hose business introduced by Smyth and Co. were ladies Tennis Sox and Golf Sox, which were copied by various British and Continental makers. They were also the first to turn out a lady’s art silk stocking with a wool lining.”
The 1930’s also saw a policy change for Smyth and Co. from exclusive and expensive lines to mass- produced product to compete with cheap imports. While this gave great employment and very impressive turnover figures it was to prove the undoing of Smyth and Co. following the Second World War.
Smyth and Company were to stop with the actual production of those during the 1960’s when a phase-out plan was in force. The plant continued to run other lines but imported hose for finishing at Balbriggan and the very skills which made Balbriggan famous was now leaving the town every day to Bradmola, Blackrock or Thompson’s of Patrick Street in Dublin.
“Smyco” management claimed it was cheap imports that cost them their jobs but the union representatives blamed the Smyth and Co. losses in a series of charges which included the charge that the Smyth and Co. premises contained stacks of imported garments.
Who was right is of little consequence now as the 200-year reign was coming to an end. The final ignominy was to take place at 12 noon on Friday 24th June 1980 when the remnants of a great industry were auctioned off to the public.
The late Bill Chase
And the many ex-Smyth and Co. employees who assisted with this and other ‘Smyco’ articles.
Jack Benton / Joe Curtis,