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Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, Northern Ireland

By Ciaran Toal

Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
The 17th-century Market House, with 19th and 20th century additions.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum (ILC & LM) researches, preserves and interprets all aspects of the history of the Irish linen industry, Lisburn and the surrounding area.

The Assembley Room, Lisburn.
Fine Irish damask on display in the Assembly Room, Lisburn.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The Museum and its collections are housed in the old Market House, an late seventeenth-century building, since heavily modified. The town’s merchants sold their wares and produce and sought shelter in and around the ground floor of the building, and John Wesley preached here in 1756 and 1789.  The first floor Assembly Rooms played an important role in the social and political life of Lisburn, hosting regular soirees, balls, dance classes and political meetings throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Lisburn Ground Plotte
The 17th-century ground plot for Lisnagarvey (Lisburn).
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The surrounding Market Place was first laid out in Sir Fulke Conway’s plan of the town in the 1620s, and was the later site of the city’s bustling linen market. Here weavers sold vast quantities of brown, unbleached, linen. William of Orange, on his way to the Boyne, ‘took refreshments’ in Market Place in 1690, while United Irishmen swung from gallows erected here following the unsuccessful rebellion of 1798. At an entry just off nearby Castle Street, James Wallace installed Ireland’s first steam engine, from Watt’s factory in Glasgow, in 1790.

From the museum it is only a short walk to Castle Gardens. Although the original castle is no longer standing, part of the walls and the impressive seventeenth-century terrace, including the gazebo and bakery, remain. The Gardens contain a monument to Sir Richard Wallace, local MP, landowner and successor to the Conway’s, whose collection of art and that of his father’s, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, largely makes up the Wallace Collection.

Island Spinning Company
Poster for the Island Spinning Co., Lisburn.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Castle Gardens affords a panoramic view of much of Lisburn  and the wider Lagan Valley, and it is possible to pick out remnants of the region’s industrial past. Just east of the Gardens, for example, lies the former site of the Vitriol chemical works (c.1760-c.1840) and later the Island Spinning Company Ltd (1867-1983), responsible for flax spinning and thread making.  The island, bounded by the River Lagan in the north and the canal in the south, is now occupied by Lisburn City Council, but the lock, through which over 180, 000 tons of linen, coal and dry goods travelled every year, remains.

Coulson's Factory
Coulson’s factory, Linenhall Street.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

Nearby, also, is the site of the iconic Coulson’s factory. From 1766 up until the 1960s the company, housed in a distinctive thatched building, produced fine damask linen, which was exported internationally. Coulson’s received Royal patronage in 1811, and a gold medal for their linen napkins and tablecloths at the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace (1851).

Hilden Mill
The Barbour’s Hilden Mill today.
© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

South east of Castle Gardens, and just over a mile east of the Island, is the site of the Hilden mill complex, at one stage the world’s largest linen thread mill.  Owned and operated by the Barbour family, in some form, from 1842 to the 1960s, the complex is a patchwork of workshops for spinning and the production of linen thread. The Barbour family, in the tradition of many nineteenth-century industrialists, built a model village, consisting of housing, a school and a community hall, to support their workforce.  Although abandoned, the mill is still standing, and provides a glimpse back into the Lagan Valley’s industrial past. A short distance away is Glenmore bleach green. In constant use from the eighteenth century, the green was used to treat – through the use of sulphuric acid, and an extended drying period in the sun – the brown, untreated, linen. In 1887 the site at Glenmore, under the ownership of Richardson, Sons & Owden turned out over 300,000 linen webs.

Glenmore Bleech Green
Drying linen at Glenmore Bleech Green.  Image in the public domain.
Lisburn's Flax to Fabric
‘Flax to Fabric’: A weaver’s cottage.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

A thorough overview of the Barbour family, a sample of  Coulson’s damask linen, or indeed the broader history of the linen industry in the Lagan Valley, is provided at the ILC & LM’s permanent ‘Flax to Fabric’ exhibition. Visitors are guided through the history of linen and its manufacturer, from its use in Egyptian burial rites, its biblical significance – fine linen is mentioned in Genesis – right through to its cultivation in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Irish linen industry developed under various political and technological pressures, and the influence of English landlords, Dutch spinning techniques, Quaker labour and Huguenot self-promotion, is outlined in the exhibition. A recreated 18th-century cottage scene gives visitors a sense of the lives of workers in Ulster’s domestic linen industry before industrialisation. The entire family was involved in the process. Women spun the flax into yarn – visitors can try this for themselves – while children wound it onto bobbins. Weaving was left to the men, and usually took place in a separate part of the cottage. The ILC & LM have a workshop dedicated to weaving, with a full-time staff operating a series of looms, including two Jacquard looms. Jacquard’s design was revolutionary, significantly speeding up the weaving process, and his innovative use of punched cards to control individual threads of the warp allowed complex damask patterns to be wove. His invention was an important influence on Charles Babbage, and the Jacquard system is viewed as a ‘first-step’ towards the development of the modern computer. Demonstrations are given daily.

Jacquard LOom
Jacquard Looms in the weaving workshop. Note the mechanism for reading the punched card on top.
© Copyright ILC&LM.
Sybil Connolly
An original Sybil Connolly creation.
© Copyright ILC&LM.

The linen industry played an important role in the geographical, social and industrial heritage of Ulster, and this is explored through presentations of The Wee Blue Blossom, a 1930’s film examining the traditional harvesting and spinning of flax, and The Irish Interlude (1955), a nostalgic look at industrial-life in post-War Belfast. Irish linen was sold worldwide, and the Museum houses a collection of some of the finest samples, including a piece of intricate damask woven at Coulson’s to commemorate Queen Victoria and Albert’s 1849 visit to Belfast, as well as fine embroidered muslin from the prestigious Belfast retailers Robinson & Cleaver. The work of Sybil Connolly, once Ireland’s leading clothes designer, is also celebrated in a display that shows off a number of her linen creations. Her work was worn by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and Liz Taylor.

The Market House gallery hosts regular displays and exhibitions on local history, from the Titanic to ‘17th-century Lisburn’, or even highlights from the Museum’s collections in the ‘Curator’s Choice’. The ILC & LM has a dedicated library and research service, and its education officers run a range of free workshops for school groups, colleges and community organisations.

Visitor information:

The museum is open 9-5pm Monday to Saturday, and admission is free. Group tours of the museum and Castle Gardens can be arranged.  The Museum shop sells a wide range of linen and craft goods, as well as books on the history of the industry and the Lisburn area.

For more information visit: http://www.lisburncity.gov.uk/irish-linen-centre-and-lisburn-museum/

Further reading:

Collins, Brenda (1994) Flax to Fabric: the Story of Irish Linen. Lisburn: Lisburn Borough Council.

Mackey, Brian (2000) Lisburn: the Town and its People 1873-1973. Belfast: Blackstaff.

McCutcheon, William (1984). The industrial archaeology of Northern Ireland. Antrim: Greystone Press.

Granada, Spain

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

The Alhambra, Granada - Spain

Cordoba was taken by the Christians in 1236, but Granada remained in Moorish hands until 1492, a refuge for artists and others who had been driven out of Cordoba, Seville, and elsewhere. Granada contains the most brilliant of all the products of Moorish architecture, the elaborate, intricately decorated Alhambra, with its gardens, courtyards, galleries, and statues-one of the artistic wonders of Europe. At one time Granada also had an acclaimed medical center and, at the time of the great plague, emissaries came here from all over Europe to consult (unsuccessfully) with local physicians. Where was the former medical center and have any of its buildings survived? There are no plaques or signs to tell us.

Campus Arboretum, Exeter, England

By Isabelle Charmantier

View from Devonshire House over Streatham Farm, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter
View from Devonshire House over Streatham Farm, Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, by Pierre Terre. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The University of Exeter Streatham Campus can boast to be one of the most beautiful of the country, set as it is within an arboretum, ponds and gardens. Twenty five sculptures are situated in this unique background, both in the open and in university buildings. They include sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Paul Mount, amongst other well-known and lesser known artists and students. It is possible to take a self-guided walk through the campus and the sculpture trail.

The arboretum has its origins in the 1860s, when the grounds surrounding Reed (then called Streatham) Hall was laid out by the Veicht family, famous for running plant nurseries in Europe in the 19th century. Their business was split between two places, Chelsea and Exeter, which became the main bases for this family of plant hunters, collectors and nurserymen. They employed plant hunters such as Lobb brothers and E.H. Wilson to collect and plant an ambitious arboretum on the Streatham estate.

Autumn colour, Streatham Campus

The University of Exeter traces its origins to schools and colleges established in the middle of the 19th century, but it is only in 1955 that it was officially founded. Gradually, through a period of fifty years, the University transferred its city centre sites to the Streatham campus, which had remained until then a farm and an estate.

The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a major re-landscaping of the main campus, but always with the aim of maintaining the diversity and exotic plants which had initially been brought in by the Veichtes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the botanical collection was extended.

Today, a great effort is made in terms of biodiversity throughout the campus grounds. Birds and bat boxes are being installed, and a ‘bioblitz’, or quick census of species, was conducted in 2010 by staff and students in the area between the Laver Building and the Business School.

Tiananmen Square Sculpture, University of Exeter

Species such as a kingfisher, a snipe and bumblebees were spotted, an indication of the potential rich biodiversity of the campus, and an incitement to further develop plans to enhance and protect this natural and man-made environment. In order to do so, staff working on the grounds and gardens cater for wildlife by leaving log piles, creating wild flower meadows and leaving areas of grass uncut to allow animals to move around safely.


The University grounds are open to staff, students and visitors all year around and can be visited freely. Fixed date seasonal tours are available, which last an hour and a half. If the dates are not suitable, bespoke tours can also be arranged for a minimum of 10 guests. To find out more and to make a booking please consult www.exeter.ac.uk/eventexeter/garden-tours.php, email eventsteam@exeter.ac.uk or phone 01392 215566.

Virtual tours are also available online and leaflets on request.