The Co Down linen mill that supplied the Ritz and Titanic brought back into focus

The old linen mill in Donaghcloney
The old linen mill in Donaghcloney

The antiquated glass filing system from a former Co Down mill at the centre of the linen boom of the mid 1800s has been salvaged and given a new lease of life for the 21st century.

The transparent plates from William Liddell & Co in Donacloney – latterly Ewart Liddell – featuring patterns for napkins and tablecloths for worldwide clients including the White Star Line and the Ritz were donated to Ulster University in 2005.

Barbara Dass and Trish Belford with the plates used to keep track of designs in the linen mill in Donaghcloney

Barbara Dass and Trish Belford with the plates used to keep track of designs in the linen mill in Donaghcloney

Trish Belford, a senior research fellow at the Belfast School of Art within the university, said: “They [Ewart Liddell] didn’t really know what to do with them. The university got 1,600 of the plates, all in their original boxes. They are very fragile and needed to be handled extremely carefully.”

The plates, which measure around seven by five inches – the same as a standard photograph – were donated to Ulster University via Donna Campbell, a previous employee of Ewart Liddell.

Trish said: “The plates were put into storage. I always felt that it was a bit of our legacy that was just going to die if it stayed locked away in a room.”

Along with Professor of Design Barbara Dass, the pair aimed to bring the plates back into focus. With the help of National Lottery Heritage Fund they were able to clean the plates and get them digitised and develop a website (www.ulster.ac.uk/shuttlesandshafts).

The glass plates used in the mill's filing system

The glass plates used in the mill's filing system

Trish said: “We don’t know much about the legacy and history but we just wanted to make them available so anyone who was interested in that side of things could access the website and see the digitised plates.

“We also carried out a series of roadshows in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Lisburn Library and Donacloney Orange Hall. In Donacloney quite a lot of the previous generation who had once worked in the factories of William Liddell attended accompanied by their children and grandchildren, lots of stories and artefacts were gathered, photographed and included on the website.”

The project returns to Donacloney Orange Hall in Main Street today at 3pm for a tea party, hosted by the project.

Trish said: “It’s about taking the project back to where it started. It really is about the community of Donacloney in which the William Liddell company was founded.”

A digital print fabric design

A digital print fabric design

The plates will live on in a book funded by the current reincarnation of the William Liddell company – Vision Support Services Ltd – and Trish is also working with William Clark Ltd of Upperlands to launch three new printed designs on linen inspired by the old patterns. The new range is aptly called ‘Donacloney’.

She said: “We’ve hopefully saved everything from the past and we’re using it for new designs to extend its legacy into the future.”

The linen mill in Donaghcloney was opened in 1866 by William Nicholson Liddell and quickly became one of the largest jacquard weaving company in Ireland, famously supplying the tablecloths of the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic back in 1912.

In 1973, the William Liddell Company merged with William Ewart & Sons and became Ewart Liddell, ending one of the largest rivalries in linen trade history.

The Titanic design by Ewart Liddell

The Titanic design by Ewart Liddell

During the 1980s, the brand’s linens could be found in luxury department stores such as Harrods, House of Fraser and even Bloomingdales in the US.

By the 2000s, the company was struggling to keep pace with competitor pricing and the decision was made to sell the Donaghcloney factory and land.

The photographic plate preceded film and was used to capture images on a light-sensitive emulsion of silver salts that coated the glass plate. The use of glass plates for photography declined after the 1910s yet this method of photography appears to have been used to record design work produced in the Liddell design office throughout seven decades of the 20th century.