The one that started it all
Of all the family stories I have told, this is the one that got my whole story-telling adventure underway.
There had been much family speculation that the Cochrane family had at one time owned the Flax and Tow spinning mill in Buncrana, Co. Donegal. This was based on information in a series of letters that appears on the Macky (NZ) family website www.macky.net and the speculation was further fuelled by the following information in our 2 x great grandfather’s obituary in 1879. (Samuel Cochrane of Auckland, NZ)
“He was brought up in the vicinity of Londonderry, and was there engaged in the linen trade.”
Somewhat frustrated by the lack of information, even local anecdotes, it was a case of trying to verify the information in the family letters from scratch, and with the profusion of Samuels and Josephs that emerged in the family tree a lot of additional research was required to make sense of it all.
With the letters as a basis, additional information was sourced from Irish newspapers, and various accounts of the linen industry, academic papers (one written in German) and local histories in both Co. Donegal and Londonderry.
A longer version of this story (with references) was donated to the West Inishowen History and Heritage Society in early 2016.
So, enticing as it was, the facts proved much more interesting than the conjecture.
The Development of the Mill
Linen production has a long history in Ireland. In the early 1820s Derry’s linen market was one of the largest in the country with over a million yards of cloth handled annually. Linen was a key export dispatched to North America, Europe and England during this period.
After unsuccessfully venturing into cotton production by the 1830s, the Buncrana Mill switched back to linen production, brought about in part by improved technology. But such ventures were difficult to finance and viability was problematical and the industry only survived because its operators were prepared to accept lower returns with the competing cotton.
There also had been a new development in the purchasing of linen products. The larger processing plants began to employ their own buyers thereby by-passing the traditional Derry linen drapers. This shift forced the previously independent weavers into doing business with traders who could now dictate the market price, lessening the ability of the weavers to make a living wage. The resultant fall off in the quantity of linen produced both impacted on the associated industries and disrupted the rural economy that had previously depended on the linen industry to supplement their incomes.
This situation would also spell the end of linen manufactory in Buncrana but not before Derry brothers, Samuel and Joseph Alexander, purchased the site and rebuilt the then derelict mill in the mid-1830s.
The brothers were soon made welcome by the Buncrana community and a special dinner was held in July 1839 in their honour. But things can move quickly in the world of business and by the end of 1841 Joseph Alexander had left the partnership and returned to Derry.
Samuel Alexander continued to operate the mill, including upgrades financed by Richardson & Smith to increase production. The Richardson family was already involved in large milling operations in Belfast, so even though times were difficult, the venture had a much better chance of success than some.
After a short period of operation Samuel Alexander incurred further debt and this was compounded by him entering into a commission agreement for the purchase of the raw material and the sale of the finished product with Jonathon Richardson, with the profits intended to service the debt. This placed him in the position that the prices were dictated less by market forces, and more by needs of the lender.
Before long, the enterprise was over-committed, and Samuel Alexander made a huge effort to avoid insolvency, with the Alexander family attempting to sell various properties in Buncrana and Derry, including the mill itself.
In 1845 the bitter dispute over the debt and ownership of the mill became openly perceptible when Richardson attempted to remove property that he said belonged to him from the mill. At this time the mill employed upwards of 200 people or around one-fifth of the town’s population, and the towns people fearing that this would lead to the mill itself being repossessed, sabotaged the carts that would have been used to remove the goods from the mill. Although the dispute was settled peaceably, it was an omen that worse was to come.
At around this time, a Joseph Cochran of nearby Chrislaghmore, a family cousin as it turns out, was encouraged to take over the management of the mill, assisted by his young cousin, Joe. It is not clear why the Cochran family decided to invest their time in the running of the mill and the full facts can only be suggested, however, there were family ties to the Alexander family with Ann Cochran having married Joseph Alexander in 1839, and also some evidence of prior business dealing with the Alexanders in Derry. Joseph Cochran was also in the habit of lending money to other family members so it is also possible that he took on the management of the mill to secure his interest in an outstanding debt.
Following Joseph Alexander’s death in June 1851, and the transfer of ownership of the mill to Richardson in May 1852, the Cochran family’s involvement apparently reached its natural conclusion.
The Final Years of the Mill
After taking over the mill Jonathon Richardson again expanded its operations and the Richardson family became as popular with the townsfolk as the Alexanders had been before them. However, by the end of March of 1876, Jonathon Richardson had held an auction of goods and chattels at Buncrana Castle and was “removing to another part of the country”. The once thriving partnership between Richardson and his brothers was long since dissolved and by 1877 the Richardson name had by now, featured in the Dublin bankruptcy courts.
Although the mill closed its doors in 1876, its machinery was maintained in working order for several years afterwards, with the expectation of operations resuming, presumably in anticipation of the early sale of the mill. However, this was not to be. The mill was eventually demolished in the 1940s and the land around it converted to parklands in the 1965.
Written in 2017, based on research undertaken 2014-15.
Especial thanks to John Hopkins, Michigan
Photograph: Postcard showing the Mill Bridge with the spinning mill and outbuildings from the Linen Hall Library Collection, Belfast http://www.postcardsireland.com/about