Source of the Ligoniel River
The Ligoniel River is not one of Belfast’s better known waterways but it did play an important role in the development of the northern outskirts of Belfast and in the town itself.
Ligoniel River rises from a number of springs leaking through the peaty soil of Wolf Hill. The water flows eastwards though deep fissures cut into the limestone. This is how the river and district acquired its name from the Irish Lag an Aoil ‘hollow of the lime’. The river crosses the Antrim Plateau for a distance of 150m before joining the Forth River.
The Naming of Wolf Hill
The hill on which the Ligoniel rises is named after a notable hunt in 1692.
Clotworthy Upton, of Castle Upton in Templepatrick, was out hunting with his dogs when they captured and killed the last wolf in Ireland.
Hence the name Wolf Hill. The nearby Squire’s Hill was named after Upton.
The Antrim Plateau
The area of the Antrim Plateau has a long history of human habitation. The fertile soils, abundant streams and the plentiful supply of flint have attracted folk from around 2,000BC.
On Squire’s Hill and Wolf Hill are numerous examples of Megalithic burial sites, cairns and standing stones. Neolithic pottery has also been found as well as raths (ring forts) and souterrains (man-made underground chambers).
“The low forts….are found in extraordinary numbers in this parish. They are most frequently situated between the town of Belfast and the mountains and are particularly numerous at the foot of Squire’s Hill. In general they are low and circular, either surrounded with trenches, or retaining marks of having been formerly possessed of such defences, which remain, in some cases, so complete as to be yet filled with water”George Benn A History of the Town of Belfast 1823
The Growth of Linen Industry
Over the years a ‘road’ developed from the ford at Belfast parallel with the Ligoniel River leading north to Templepatrick and Antrim. This facilitated the travel of people and cattle and the transport of goods. This road is still one of Belfast’s arterial routes to this day.
The original Ligoniel Village that grew up on the banks of the river was small and isolated. The men worked the land while the women were employed in home-spinning. However, with the advent of water-powered factories for the production of linen, the potential of the Ligoniel River was soon recognised.
“The power of the Ligoniel River and its tributaries, as well as the reliability of the flow, attracted linen manufacturers to the slopes of Wolf Hill”Des O’Reilly Rivers of Belfast 2010
In order to maximise and control the speed of the current a number of weirs, mill ponds and mill races were constructed along the course of the river.
Trees along the river banks were removed to make room for bleach greens. This is where the wet linen cloth was spread out on the grass to whiten in the sunlight.
In 1770 John Sinclair laid out a bleach green on the banks of the Ligoniel. He was followed by other linen manufacturers such as John Ferguson at Ballysillan and Stewart and Cunningham at Mountain Green on the north side of the Ligoniel Road.
The Men behind Ligoniel’s Industry
The Ewarts at Ligoniel
In 1852 William Ewart opened new business premises on the Ligoniel River, Glenbank Bleachworks. The Ewarts were already a successful firm of linen manufacturers. They had begun as cotton producers in Ballymacarrett but had diversified into flax by the 1840’s.
In 1859 the company, as well as its mills on the northern outskirts of the town, had a large warehouse at 11 Donegall Place. Ewart senior was succeeded by his only son, also William, in 1873. Six years later the Bedford Street Weaving Company and the Mountain Mill at Ligoniel were added to the family business.
By 1899 the company employed over 5,000 workers and was one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of Irish linen in the world.
The Ewart family had a long history in the textile industry.
The Ewart Dynasty
Thomas Ewart of Carnreagh in County Down owned 20 acres of land and in 1716 began a small damask-weaving business. His son Thomas and his grandson, the aforementioned William, continued and expanded the family trade.
William was born in 1779 in Hillsborough. In 1810 he married Mary Ann Rossman. They had three children William, Sarah Jane and Eliza. The family lived at beautiful Glenbank House overlooking his factory’s bleach greens.
The garden was planted with trees and ornamental shrubs and had a pond built in the shape of Lough Neagh.
The house and grounds remained in Ewart hands until 1920 when it was offered to Belfast Corporation as a public park.
William Ewart Junior
William’s son, William was born on 22nd September 1817 at Sydenham. He attended Belfast Royal Academy and in 1843 became a partner in the firm William Ewart and Son.
He married Isabella Kelso Mathewson on 10th December 1840 at Newtownstewart, County Tyrone. Isabella was the daughter of Lavens Mathewson. The couple had eight children – 6 sons William, Lavens, Richard, James, George and Frederick and 2 daughters Marianne and Lavinia.
The family lived at Wheatfield House to the north of Belfast. Their home ‘a gentleman’s country seat’ was described as a “large and beautifully situated dwelling house together with 26 acres”
William Ewart was a well-known public figure; he was a member of Belfast Corporation for 25 years. In 1859 Ewart was mayor of Belfast and from 1878-1889 he was a Conservative MP.
William Ewart also served as a magistrate for Antrim and Belfast and was President of the Irish Linen Trade and Flax Supply Associations. In addition he was a member of the Belfast Local Marine Board.
On 13th September 1887 Ewart was rewarded for his services by being designated the 1st Baronet of Glenmachan and Glenbank.
William Ewart died in London at the Carters Hotel, Albemarle Street, on 1st August 1889. His remains were returned to Belfast and interred in the family vault in the New Burying Ground, Clifton Street.
“The firm of William Ewart and Son was undoubtedly the most extensive concern of flax spinners and linen manufacturers that Belfast has known”A C W Merrick, Old Families in the New Burying Ground, 1991
Another businessman to profit from the ready supply of water from the Ligoniel River was William Thompson. He established the Bleached Flax Spinning Company at Ligoniel in 1835.
Following this success he opened the Wolf Hill Spinning Company. This firm is notable because Thompson’s mills were the first in Ireland to be illuminated by gaslight.
The Growth of Ligoniel Village
Influence of the Mills
With the industrialisation in the area attracting those seeking employment, the village of Ligoniel grew rapidly.
William Ewart had 500 houses constructed for his workers alone, including Thread Row sited opposite the mill gates. As well as the numerous mills there was also a brick yard and a nearby limestone quarry to provide jobs.
“The mill owners then commenced an extensive house-building programme for the influx of workers who came from Newry, Banbridge, Sion Mills and from as far away as Cork. The village soon assumed a busy atmosphere….”Robbie Henderson The Last Mill Village- Ligoniel
By the mid nineteenth century Ligoniel Village had a National School and a Village National School.
Wolf Hill had a National School and a Mill National School, for the children of mill employees. It is safe to assume there were a lot of families residing in the district. There was also an Episcopal Church.
Notable Industries at Ligoniel Village
In 1865 the local industries included the Ligoniel Spinning Company, Waring & Duncan Flaxspinners and the Wolfhill Spinning Company. Other smaller businesses were Samuel Darling a grocer, Hugh Fitzpatrick a spirit dealer and Matthew Arlow postmaster, grocer and haberdasher. There was also the Glen Inn on the Upper Ligoniel Road that dated back to 1785.
Life was far from easy for the inhabitants of Ligoniel Village, especially for those who worked long hours in the dangerous conditions of the mills.
“The tall mills no longer belch with the toil of child labour and the sweat of their over-worked parents. In recent times a certain romance has grown up about mill workers….but there was no romance for the doffer, the reeler, the half-timer, and others who made up the workforce ‘among these dark Satanic mills’. There was little pleasure for the woman working until the last possible moment when the child in her womb had to be born; and there was little pleasure in watching school children grow old before their time”Fred Heatley, The Last Mill Village – Ligoniel [introduction]
Ligoniel Village Population Growth
By the 1890’s the population of Ligoniel Village had expanded to 5,000. The village had its own courthouse at the top of the hill.
Petty Sessions were held on the first and third Wednesday of the month. The judge stayed over at Everton House on the Ligoniel Road. The village boasted 3 churches – Ballysillan Presbyterian Church (1839), St Mark’s Church of Ireland (1852) and St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church (1898).
There was also a Dispensary Station and a Constabulary Station and Wolfhill Reading Room manned by librarian Richard Coggins.
Notable inhabitants in 1897 included
- William J Campbell at Wolfhill Cottage
- Philip Diamond at Ligoniel House
- Thomas Cochrane at Ligoniel Cottage
- John Fitzpatrick at Glenview
- Hugh Morrison at Ligoniel Villa
Occupations among the villagers included
- Samuel Toland – boot and shoe maker
- Robert Burns – carpenter
- Isaac Greenaway – flaxdresser
- William Heron – pawnbroker and draper
- Hugh Sherrard – blacksmith
The majority of Ligoniel folk lived in rows of cramped and often damp mill-workers cottages. There was no indoor sanitation just an outdoor shared ‘privy’
In 1901, eleven members of the Wallace family, Presbyterians, lived in a 4-roomed, stone built house with 2 front windows in River Street. Nearby, at 2 Finlay Street, the Catholic O’Neill family included the mother, father, 5 adult sons and 3 grandchildren residing in a similar house with 4 rooms in total.
These workers’ homes were seen as an improvement to the previous houses in the district. In 1873 Dr Robert Newett, Ligoniels Medical Officer, summed up the houses that he had inspected as
“newly erected houses which ….are not fit to afford shelter to domesticated animals, much less our fellow creatures”Robert Newett, 1873
The Ligoniel Public Bath House
In 1911 a public bath house was constructed on the Ligoniel Road, which meant that at least locals could have a bath. It was designed by James Gardner Gamble in the High Victorian style. Gamble, from Derry, was the principal city architect for Belfast Corporation. The red-brick building was gable-fronted with projecting glass roof insets.
The public baths was closed after the Second World War and subsequently, in 1946, was converted into a public library. Unfortunately the library closed in June 2010 and the building remains empty, apart from its well-known ghost, that is!
In 1888 horse-drawn trams connected the Shankill Road to Ligoniel to facilitate the workers. In the late nineteenth century the Ligoniel Tramway Company ran trams as far as St Mark’s Church.
“The mill village of Ligoniel always considered itself as being independent from Belfast and for many years kept itself to itself”Mike Maybin, Belfast’s Lost Tramways, 2003
However, in 1905 Belfast City Tramways introduced electric trams and extended the tramlines a half a mile further to Ligoniel Village. Due to the steepness of the road and concern over the brakes, Wolfhill Spinning Company allowed the new terminus to be constructed on their property on level ground at Mill Ave.
Even into the twentieth century Ligoniel seems to have felt itself apart from Belfast.
“Although it was incorporated in the city of Belfast as long ago as 1897, Ligoniel has never lost its friendly village atmosphere. With its steep streets and white-washed houses and its quaint row of cottages known as ‘the city’ Ligoniel has both personality and charm. To enter it is to step back into the past”Belfast Newsletter, 11th May 1956
Today Ligoniel is a busy working-class district of Belfast. Redevelopment has levelled the mill- workers houses and streets. The mills with their towering chimneys are no more. However, the area does still retain a distinct ‘village feel’ Perhaps because it is surrounded by green mountains it seems a place apart.
The curve of the Ligoniel Road almost seems like a signpost to a different place.
“The Turn of the Road as the locals term the citywards connection of their approach road where it meets the Crumlin Road at a sharp T junction was, and remains, a comforting boundary keeping Ligoniel geographically isolated from its more urban neighbourhood”Fred Heatley, The Last Mill Village – Ligoniel [introduction] 1981
The traditional industries of the area have long gone and with them the importance of the local rivers. We have all but forgotten that without our rivers as power sources Belfast could not have developed as an industrial city. But the Ligoniel River still flows and reminders of the mills surround us.
Today Ardoyne is a busy working-class district in north Belfast. However it was once a village in beautiful countryside. This is it’s story.
A history of Ballymacarrett from it’s rural beginnings, to a small village and subsequent emergence as a hub of Belfast industry & enterprise
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