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FLAX TRADE RELATIONS BETWEEN WEST FLANDERS AND NORTHERN IRELAND

By Claire Dejaeger

Introduction

The Grundtvig Exchange Program and ALL

As a participant in the EU Grundtvig exchange program, Armagh-Leuven Links (September 2012) I spent three weeks in Northern Ireland and subsequently did some research on the flax trade relations between West-Flanders and Northern Ireland. (1)

West-Flanders, the region where I was born and grew up, had held important flax/linen trade relations with Northern Ireland and more specifically Belfast. In 1965 I had the opportunity to stay three weeks in Strathmore Park, Belfast, to practise English, thanks to Mr Ernest Tainsh, who lived in Kortrijk and bought flax yarn for Oulton.

My family had been in the flax trade since the 17th century - they lived in Wevelgem, a village on the river Leie/Lys near Kortrijk/Courtray. In the 1950s and 60s the growers sold their flax to the representatives of the Belfast spinning mills.

While in Ireland with ALL in September 2012 our exchange groups visited Sion Mills, south of Strabane, laid out as a model linen village by the Herdman brothers who operated flax spinning mills dating back to 1835. The mills closed down in 2004 and are almost in ruins; a pity, as the mills would deserve restoration as architectural heritage.

The Belgian Connection

In the 1960s Kortrijk was an important centre for the flax trade in Belgium and the city prospered and benefited highly from the trade. Every Monday afternoon the Central Market place was buzzing with flax farmers, manufacturers and their intermediaries. The foreign traders or their representatives from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany and France signed present as well. Standing on the pavement, with a beer in the one hand, a cigar in the other, they were heavily discussing and networking. They needed to feel the pulse of the economy and know about politics, they needed to know if they would sell or wait for better world flax prices. Questions like What is going on in Russia? How about French subsidies, is another Korea boom (1952) in the making, what about the Suez-crisis (1956) were all subject for animated discussion. Indeed wars usually gave a boost to the industry.

In the Courtray cafes deals were made but never signed. The word of honour was as important as a signature.

History

The Flemish flax and linen industry go back to the antiquities, but it was only in the mid 19th century that South West-Flanders became the Mecca of the flax industry. The crisis of the 1840s had abruptly made an end to the cottage industry in the countryside and many farmers lived in abject poverty. The Belgian government lifted the retting ban in the river Leie (Lys) to help the poor Flemish farmers. Many south West Flemish farmers started to grow flax, as it had become apparent that the slow flowing river Leie (Lys) had special retting qualities and the soil and mild, humid climate was ideal for flax growing.

In Kortrijk export companies took hold and the British called the river Leie The Golden River. Small villages developed into densely populated and international known production centres, where a unique network of growers, processers, workers, intermediaries and expeditors brought wealth to the area and laid the foundation for the Texas of Flanders of today, as the area was and is referred to today.

Seeds from Riga, flax from Normandy or the Netherlands, Irish and Scottish buyers, the flax industry was never limited to local activity, but went hand in hand with international trade. This international network would prove most valuable for the reconversion of the flax industry in the 1960s, when the flax growers went through a deep crisis, due to rising wages and energy prices, and cheaper and new materials competing with the expensive labour intensive flax industry.

The intermediaries between the flax growers and the Irish/Scottish buyers

When the flax was processed and the yarn was ready for sale, a group of traders acted as an intermediary between the producers and the Irish/Scottish buyers. They often did the finishing job, hackling, scutching, and moisturizing, to give the flax its typical silvery shine and they were paid on commission.

The Northern Ireland Connection: The Irish Linen Industry

British gentlemen in Kortrijk

British firms dominated the Flemish flax export in the 2nd half of the 19th century. The big spinning mills of Belfast in Northern Ireland and Dundee in Scotland sent their buyers to Kortrijk where they set up expeditor firms. They were all situated in one area in Kortrijk, around the Menen Gate. Belfast Street is a reminder of the privileged trade relations between Northern Ireland and the Leie-region.

The British expeditors were part of the gentry. They lived a posh life in grand town houses, and drove big cars. They introduced tennis and badminton in the area and financed the construction of their own Protestant Church in the Bloemistenstraat. In their relations with the Flemish flax people they remained cool and distant, and a feeling of superiority was never far away.

On market days (on Wednesdays and Fridays), you could spot the English buyers or their representatives in the streets, each of them looking for a specific quality of flax. The Belfast mills were known for fine linen for the clothing industry and table linen, - Irish Linen is a registered trademark - the Dundee Scottish buyers were looking for yarn suitable to make ropes, sail cloth and fishing nets.

If a deal was made, the flax would be sent to the expeditor in Kortrijk, where the party was inspected and found good. If not, the flax was sent back. The buyers sometimes returned the flax party simply because they speculated on dropping flax prices.

History of flax growing in Northern Ireland and its links with Flanders

Flax was part of the Northern Irish agricultural produce since the 800s. The river Boyne, similar to the river Leie in Flanders, played an important role. As the Irish wool trade was severely restricted by prohibitive government tariffs on export into England, the Irish had to concentrate on linen.

When the Edict of Nantes 1685 was revoked, the government encouraged the coming to the North of Ireland of some 500 families of Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing persecution by Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century. Huguenots were strong in flax growing and manufacture, and they introduced the cambric-weaving loom. A leading Huguenot, Louis Crommelin (1652-1722) arrived in Lisburn in 1698. He had a great influence over the development of the industry in Lisburn and the Lagan valley, and all over Ulster. At about the same time a colony of Flemish weavers brought improved methods entirely new to Ireland. In the 1800s a huge number of spinning mills in and around Belfast took hold. No wonder there is a flax museum in Lisburn.

Over time the Irish flax growing production went into decline, as it was no longer competitive with the European continent. Despite the fact that in the 1930s Flemish flax experts like Jules Bevernage were engaged by the British government in Northern Ireland to give advice and supervise the flax production process (with retting pits in Dungiven and Dromara), the continental competition was too strong and Belfast turned to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Russia to buy flax yarn for their spinning mills. Jules Bevernage was criticised as he didn't discriminate between Protestant and Catholic workers, the flax business being mainly in Protestant hands, resulting in wall graffiti Death to the Pope.

Decline

The trade was heavily influenced by weather conditions, economic upheavals, wars, resulting in fluctuating prices on the world market, speculation and irregular income for the flax people who always had to save in good times so as to survive in bad times. Rising wages, rising oil prices, new synthetic materials and cotton, too many intermediaries, all were factors contributing to the decline of the labour intensive flax production. In the 1970s flax manufacture disappeared almost entirely from Flanders and was outsourced to India and China. Worldwide France is still providing 75% of the flax production and Belgium 15 %.

Revival through Innovation

Thirty young flax growers in Flanders together with university researchers are investing in innovation and reinventing new uses for the yarn. Did you know that a West-Flemish firm uses flax yarn for the production of the American one-dollar bills?

The yarn has recently been introduced as a composite material, to replace glass fibre and similar mineral composites in such new applications as tennis rackets, race bikes, cars, and football fields. The researchers need to grow and process a brand of flax that is suitable for the new applications, as Chinese flax cannot be used as a base for composite materials. Delocalisation reversed. Fortunately the know-how is still here.

The flax yarn is a sustainable and ecological material; unlike the depleting mineral oil composite materials flax can be grown year after year and the entirety of its waste products is used in other applications, exactly what the circular economy of the 21st century is about.

A new flax history museum in Kortrijk

The new museum will reopen in 2014 in Kortrijk in the premises of the former Linen Thread Company, a Northern Irish company, that had an office in Kortrijk.

The Linen Thread Company was founded 1898 in Lisburn and it quickly became a large international company with a branch in the US. In fact it became the largest linen thread mill in the world, giving Lisburn a richly deserved international reputation. No wonder that an interesting flax museum was also set up in Lisburn, which we visited at the time.

List of Representatives of UK Spinning Mills in Kortrijk since World War II until 70s

Foreign spinning mills with their own buying organisations
Greeves
York Street Linen Corp.
Linen Thread Co
Independent British firms established in Belgium
Godfrey & Co
Du Vivier

Irish or Scottish flax buying firms operating on the Kortrijk markets (not set up as Belgian firms)
Titterington B.J.
Nicoll (later John Hogg)
Wigglesworth
Williamson
James Johnston
Mc Ilhagga
Oulton
James Davie

Belgian firms trading with the UK
Dewitte Lietaer
Van Lede
Putman

Reference:
The Making of Irish Linen - Peter Collins - Friars Bush Press - ISBN 0946872570
The Linen Museum - Kortrijk
Flax experiment. Development Committee to try Belgian methods, from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post- 29 November 1938)

(1) Armagh-Leuven Links is a EU Gruntvig Senior Volunteering project.

The Grundtvig program supports volunteering projects between organisations located in two different countries. It enables senior volunteers (aged 50 and above) to work for an organisation in another European country for any kind of non-profit activity on any topic e.g. history, language, arts and culture etc. The participating organisations sending or hosting volunteers thus create lasting European co-operation.

The participants in Armagh-Leuven Links were the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and The City Archives of Leuven, a two-year project running from 1 August 2011 to 31 July 2013. In addition to preparation activities and regular communications between participants, each group spent a period of three weeks in the other's country participating in a number of hands-on activities.