Leaving their home in Banbridge in 1949 with nothing more than a couple of suitcases, Raymond Kelly and his parents were one of the last families to leave the area seeking employment in the New Lanark Mill, Scotland.
Raymond had spent his childhood at Abercorn Primary School, before going on to work in Hayes Mills and also Charlie Watson’s pub at weekends. He was 15 years old when his family uprooted and now recalls the experience of moving to the south Lanarkshire valley, situated less than an hour from Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The 18th century cotton mill has since been restored to become a World Heritage Site, but during its operational era it attracted many workers from Northern Ireland due to the social welfare programmes it implemented. Under Robert Owen, social reformer and mill manager from 1800, attempts were made to improve conditions for the workers and the mill had the reputation of a clean, healthy industrial environment, and a content workforce with excellent housing and amenities.
“Our boat sailed for Glasgow at about 9 o’clock at night, and this was no luxury liner” said Raymond, talking of the night they left Banbridge.
“It was actually a cattle boat, so called because whilst carrying passengers it also transported cattle between Belfast and Scotland.
“Most of the passengers were going over to Scotland for the potato picking and as the boat began to draw away a hatch on the wall opened up to serve tea and drink, and it was mostly drink that was ordered.
“As the alcohol began to flow and take effect, some started singing, others were playing cards, and others arguing ready to fight. All the passengers were in this small room and with the noise of the people and the cattle down below it was pandemonium.
“Sleep was impossible, and as the boat began to toss and beer was getting spilt, the strains of “The County of Armagh” and “Galway Bay” rang out. Others were dancing, and my father said ‘you would think they were emigrating to America instead of going to the potato picking in Scotland’.
“On arriving at the Mill office in New Lanark, we were taken to a large building across from the factory gate and walked to the top flat. This was to be our new home. The firm supplied everything - table, chairs, bedding, cutlery and dishes. We had never seen tenement flats before now, so it was a bit of a novelty.
“Word soon got round the village that newcomers had arrived and when the mill workers finished work and had their meals we received a string of visitors to welcome us. I recall a Tommy Jess (digger), a David McCaw, and a host of others - mostly people who had come from the Dromore area as children.
“Up bright and early the next morning, my father and I looked forward to starting our new job.
“We went down to join a crowd of workers waiting for the gate to open, and when it did there was a surge forward and in a few minutes the street outside the gate was bare.
“My father and I had to report to the main office to be allocated our place of work, and then we were taken to the weaving sheds where most of the people we had met the night before worked.
“I had no experience of weaving as I was on the hackling machines in Hayes Mill, so I was given the job of sewing the bales of cloth up in hessian and preparing them for dispatch to various parts of the world”.
Raymond’s father William James Kelly was born and brought up at Quilly Burn in Dromore, where he had worked as a weaver. He married Florence Hawthorne from Banbridge before settling down at 3 Fryars Place.
Raymond said: “In 1945 when my father left the army, he got a job in Charlie Watsons public house in Dromore. While working there in 1949 he met a Dromore man who was back on holiday from New Lanark. He told my father that the wages at the mill were good, you got a house at a rent of about one shilling a week, and they were looking for men who had experience at weaving.
“After careful consideration my father and mother decided to make the move to New Lanark.”
Raymond has gathered details of many families who left the Banbridge and Dromore areas in the early part of the last century to seek work at the Mills and this information can be found on his website www.raymondscountydownwebsite.com.