Digging up the past – the forgotten Spade Mills at Derriaghy

by “The Digger” – October 2010

Published in The Ulster Star – October 22nd 2010

The stone in the Ballymacward area used for the sharpening of the spade over many years

The stone in the Ballymacward area used for the sharpening of the spade over many years

I had called with an acquaintance of mine whilst out on my travels recently, in the townland of Ballymacward, outside Stoneyford. He was anxious to have my opinion on a shaped stone that had lain in a ditch in that area for many years. I was unable to offer him any suggestions as to the purpose of the peculiarly shaped stone. It appeared to be sandstone and the unnatural shape suggested there had been some deliberations to the forming of the curvatures. On close inspection I noted that there were two distinct grooves in the side of the stone. It was not long before my friend put me out of my misery. He lifted a spade and proceeded to demonstrate the process of cleaning and sharpening the spade using the stone that undoubtedly had been used by several generations of farmers and labourers working in that area.

The spade was no stranger to the rural community, and was a necessity to those in previous generations who worked the farms and toiled in peat bogs. In order to find out more about the spade I despatched myself on a fact finding tour and visited the National Trust property, Patterson’s Spade Mill, located at Templepatrick. The spade mill lays claim to the fact that it is the last working water powered spade mill in the British Isles. It is a fascinating place to visit and as soon as you pass into the building and adjacent workshops it is difficult to imagine that you are actually living in the 21st century. Here you experience the sounds of yesteryear as the staff working there demonstrate the art of spade making, explaining each process. Billets, lugs and loys and other words not used much in today’s vocabulary are explained, as too is the myth relating to the “Lurgan Spade.” I learnt that spade makers were secretive individuals who were keen to protect their jobs and in the process they went to great lengths to guard the “tricks of the trade.”

Spades were skilfully tailored to suit the individual needs of the customer and the design of the finished product took into account the type of area to be worked. A spade to work a turf bog would differ vastly from a spade to be used in a clay based soil. As a result of this it is commonly believed that there were 171 different types of spade in Ireland.

The skills acquired in the spade making industry were passed from father to son and journeyman to apprentice. The Patterson family moved to Templepatrick and opened the spade mill in 1919 on a site once occupied by a papermill, beetling mill and a cornmill. The Patterson family had been involved with spade making from the 1760’s when the first recorded spade-mill in Ireland was recorded at Ballyronan.

There were in excess of thirty spade mills in Ireland by the mid-nineteenth century, and journeymen craftsmen in the art had the opportunity to move about from mill to mill. Members of the Patterson family travelled about from mill to mill and had worked in mills located at Dungannon, Coalisland, Bushmills, Broughshane and Derriaghy.

The 1911 census for Ireland lists 71 men who had involvement with the industry. The list included finishers, grinders, platers and apprentices. It is interesting to note that a number of those individuals were working in mills located in places considerable distances from their birthplace and were most likely journeymen.

At the turn of the 20th century we find at least one local family involved in the spade making industry. They are the Lyons family who resided at Derriaghy in a house owned by John Hutchison. John and his brother Robert and are recorded as spade finishers. The Hutchison family had a long association with the Derriaghy area. The Rev. W.N.C.Barr in his book “Christ Church Derriaghy, Gravestone inscriptions” informs us that a headstone bearing the names of the Hutchison family and recording deaths from the 1820’s had been discovered during renovations of Derriaghy House. It had been the former home of the family and the headstone had been used in the construction of the fireplace.

The Hutchison family were mentioned in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs in the Derriaghy area. James Hutchison owned one of two spade factories in the area. It occupied the site of a former flax mill from 1818. The large hammer, bellows and grinding stone, necessary in the spade making process, were powered by a water wheel 14 feet in diameter. It was reported that an average of 400 dozen spades and three tons of shovels were produced there. James Hutchison’s spade foundry is believed to have been situated in the vicinity of Church Green, Derriaghy. In July 1833 an advertisement was placed in the Belfast Newsletter by James Hutchison. At that time he was letting Derriaghy Church Green “situated off the Dublin Road.” It was claimed that there was a waterfall, good dam and a good head of water there with 3½ acres of land. The proprietor had spent a considerable amount of money on the concern and it was rendered fit for bleaching muslin. In October 1843 it was reported that James Hutchison was dangerously ill as a result of a fire at his premises at Derriaghy. He lost a number of buildings, three horses and a cow. In 1854 James Hutchison was offering to let out the spade mill. The advertisement stated that the mill formerly occupied a muslin bleach green. The Hutchison family continued their association with spade making in the area. John Hutchison inherited the spade factory, forge and associated property after the death of his father on 14th May 1878. In 1889 John Hutchison, Derriaghy Iron Works, Dunmurry advertised a position for a spade and shovel finisher. John himself passed away on 9th October 1916 at the age of 78 years and he was survived by his sisters Elizabeth Johnston and Mary Ann Hutchison. At the time of their deaths in 1929 and 1930 respectively they were residing at Derriaghy House. The Hutchison family are buried in the family plot at Derriaghy and their names are inscribed on a headstone erected on instructions left by John Hutchinson at the time of his death.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs also refer to another spade foundry in the Derriaghy area called “The Forge Lodge Spade foundry” which was occupied by Murray Douglass. We learn that this foundry had two water wheels used for driving the large hammer and fan bellows. The foundry averaged from 500 to 600 dozen spades and 3 tons of shovels annually. Murray Douglass was said to have introduced fan bellows “superior to the common bellows” used in other forges. He also possessed a machine that rounded and fitted handles, turning out 30 dozen per day. The premises were initially occupied as a muslin bleach green and had been converted in 1819 by Samuel Johnston and Andrew Smyth. It is believed that three members of Samuel’s family were attending George and Samuel Bullick’s English and Mercantile School at High Street, Belfast in 1829. Samuel Johnston had been in partnership with John Potts at this period and their business premises were located at 28 North Street in Belfast. In August 1829 it was announced to the public that the partnership and dissolved and John Potts had taken his brother Robert into partnership. In October 1830 Samuel Johnston opened a warehouse at 76 Ann Street, Belfast for the sale of his own manufactured goods. They included spades, shovels, plough beams and cart axle-blocks. In 1831 it was reported that there were 400 dozen spades and 4 tons of shovels in his warehouse. At that time the machinery at his forge was capable of making 1200 dozen spades annually. The entrepreneurial Samuel Johnston was also selling oatmeal that had been freshly ground from his mill. Samuel Johnston and Andrew Smyth were believed to be in America at the time when the memoirs were compiled. That seems to be supported by the fact that Milltown Farm, formerly occupied by Samuel Johnston, containing about 8 acres and a spade mill, were up for sale in March 1835. Four years earlier he had been advertising the sale of Derriaghy Corn Mill and Iron works. The premises would eventually be purchased and in October 1835 year Murray Douglass announced that he had commenced in the manufacturing of spades and shovels at Derriaghy Mills. The finished products were being sold to the public and could be purchased at John and Robert Pott’s Iron Stores, 30 North Street, Belfast and also at Jefferson’s Hardware establishment in Lisburn. The Potts family had a long association with Dundrod Presbyterian and family memorials dedicated to the family can be found in the church and the adjacent graveyard.

An advertisement in the local press in January 1841 announced the sale of Murray Douglass’s spade manufactory and farm. According to the lease The Spade Mill Farm and associated premises for sale contained 7 acres, 3 roods and 12 perches of land. It was possible at that time for the premises to be disposed of in two separate lots. The advertisement referred to the fact that the mansion house on the farm was now occupied by the rector of Derriaghy the Rev. Thomas Thompson. The premises also contained four cabin houses for workmen. The Belfast Newsletter announced the death of the Rev. Thomas Thompson at 31 Northumberland Avenue, Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) on the 28th February 1858.

Records show that by the mid 1920’s that the premises where the Hutchison family once had their spade making business were in ruins. Spade making at Derriaghy had been confined to the history books.

For further reading on spade making consult “Spade Making in Ireland” by Alan Gailey, published by The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in 1982. The Coalisland Spade Mill is one of the properties that have been preserved and can be visited at The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, County Down. For further details on the opening times of Patterson’s Spade Mill, Templepatrick contact The National Trust or have a look at their website www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

“The Digger” can be contacted via our Contact page or by contacting the Ulster Star Office.

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