Milford House Museum

 

Mc Crum, Watson & Mercer Ltd.

The Mc Crum family was one of Ireland's premier line manufacturing dynasties. They created and owned one the largest linen manufacturing firms in Ireland and Milford linen was world famous.

In 1808 William and his brother John arrived in the town land of Kennedy's (where Milford village was built) and acquired a number of flax and flower mills. They carried out flax spinning under a partnership for some years even though James seems to have died in 1818. In 1825 William C Crum became the first in Ulster to spin flax by the dry process. In later years he preferred to lease his mills out and rather than actually manage them.

It was his son Robert Garmany Mc Crum who was the real family genius. In 1850 he went studied an apprenticeship in the linen industry in Lurgan. He went to America to study productivity and figured out what it took America another fifty years to work out- it you treat your workforce well it's more productive.

In 1852 R.G Mc Crum was given one of his father's mills which he turned into a spinning mill under the name Robert Mc Crum & Co. By 1860 this was a damask factory producing damask linen. Messers. Robert Mc Crum and Co. acquired the Gillis factory which adjoins the railway station in Armagh in 1872. Gillis factory was built by the late Mr. John Gass in 1863. In 1888 Gillis was recorded as having 220 power looms and employed over 250 people.

On August 7th 1886 R.G Mc Crum was joined by Mr. Wesley Watson, the firm becoming Mc Crum, Watson and Company. Mr. Mc Crum had a share valued at £17,270-17s-11d while Mr. Watson had a share worth £16,835-19s-4d. The partnership with twenty two clauses agreed for R.G to own the mills with a rented partnership to Wesley of £1,550 per annum. Then in 1888 a third partner Mr. William Mercer, joined the business and the name changed to Mc Crum, Watson and Mercer Ltd. Both Mr. Wesley Watson and Mr. William Mercer were silent partners and gave R.G Mc Crum sole control over the business. The company had agents in London and New York. In the year the company became Mc Crum, Watson & Mercer Ltd, Bassett in his 1888 Guide and Directory to Armagh describes Milford as :

"At present there are 270 looms in full operation driven by a 200 horsepower steam engine and a turbine of 120 horse. About 450 people are constantly employed. Diapers and towelings are also woven at Milford and yarn bleaching are done for the use of the concern only. Since 1850 Mr. Robert G. Mc Crum has made substantial structural improvements to the factory and has almost entirely built the village, of which it may be said that it is a model of cleanliness and good order, the humblest dwelling bearing evidence internally and externally of a beneficent proprietary control. Mr. Mc Crum's handsome private residence, Milford House stands in a richly planted and highly ornamental park at the verge of the village and commands a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside"

Milford factory at this time consisted of nine acres. In 1894 the business was incorporated as a limited liability company, a number of chief officials of the firm become shareholders in the company. In 1907 it became a public limited company with shares on the stock market.

While the company was considered one of the older linen firms of Ulster their methods continually kept pace with the changes necessitated in the textile industry. It is testament to the drive and ingenuity of R.G Mc Crum that even in his eighty third year and in failing health made important improvements to Milford factory , when new engines of the Sulzer type and a new boilers by Penman of Glasgow were erected. Two years later in 1915 his eighty fifth year (he died on 1st of September of that year) he oversaw that Milford factory was provided with one 600 horsepower engine and a 100 horsepower water turbine, and a considerable portion of the machinery was driven by electricity.

The company had a warehouse at no.5 Linen Hall Street Belfast in 1888 but a new one appears to have been built on this site in 1900.The ware house was one of the finest structures of ware house buildings in the city of Belfast and was steam heated and lit with electricity throughout. At that time the use of electricity for driving the sewing machines, presses and other machinery for the use of double damask line was a rarity.

The company only once exhibited specimen products at an exhibition- the Franco- British in 1908and received a gold medal.

All of Mc Crum, Watson and Mercer's linens were naturally bleached under ideal conditions consistently maintained by very high level as regards quality. There were two factors which made Milford linen superior and different. Firstly the fact that R.G Mc Crum revolutionized the industry with his patent which created double damask linen which gave him the monopoly and secondly that unlike most linen manufacturing firms which used standard designs – R.G Mc Crum insisted Milford design all its own linen. He actually cut up his wife's winter wardrobe in 1867 when she was in Bournemouth to make designs for the factory!

Milford factory supplied linen all over the world to clients including Canadian Railways, the Plaza, and even it even supplied the linen for the Titanic. The Mc Crum family were given tickets for the Titanic but for some unknown reason they were never used.

With the death of R.G Mc Crum in 1915 there was no clear heir to take over the business. On 30th March 1893 when R.G Mc Crum was seriously ill he gave his daughter Harriette power of attorney over all his business affairs (he subsequently made a full recovery) which shows the lack of faith in his son William's business acumen. R.G had been forced to sell Gillis Mills to pay for his sons debts. None of his grandchildren where old enough to run the business so after his death equal shares were left to Harriette and William with William having superior shares. William left the running of the company in the hands of directors and managers.

The Wall Street crash of October 1929 hit the fortunes of Mc Crum, Watson & Mercer badly. There should have been enough reserves in place for it to have survived but the business collapsed within weeks following ‘the Montgomery Scandal' and the reserves disappeared. The Northern Bank took control of the Company. The company continued in the 1930s when most other firms had closed with the Managing Director Mr. Thomas Coote burning sawdust to keep the heating system operative. During this time linen for the royal yacht was produced. He kept the business going until 1949 when the factory was taken over by Captain Noel Smith. Milford factory closed in September 1980 and until it was demolished in 1996 it held the record as the largest linen factory ever built in Ireland!