SMYTH & CO.
Jack Benton & Joe Curtis
The hosiery and linen businesses were the central industries
in the Balbriggan area for about two hundred and fifty years. Both
saw the best and worst of times and this story outlines the industry
and its link to the prosperity of the region.
Any industry, which not only outlived the commercial restrictions
of the 18th and 19th.centuries, but also waxed strong while others
declined, must surely be of special interest.
Where relentless laws and heavy taxation, where high tariffs and
the imposition of every embargo which the most cunning mind could
evolve failed for over 250 years, still defeat had to be conceded
when the marketing policy which had sustained these industries
was not geared to match the wholesome onslaught from the Orient.
At the turn of this present century the town of Balbriggan was
renowned throughout the world for its quality textile products.
A writer in 1909 declared that if ever Shackleton covered the
last few miles still remaining to reach the South Pole it was
more than likely he will find the inhabitants of that far distant
land wearing “Real Balbriggan” hosiery.
What was to become the prosperity maker for Balbriggan had its
roots on the northern fringes of Balrothery. In the 18th century,
Balrothery, then the main population centre, overshadowed the
then small hamlet of Balbriggan.
Balrothery, referred to as the ‘town of the knights’,
had been an area of some religious significance for many centuries
and had several small manufacturing industries. Their main outputs
were basic furniture, tanned products, beer and biscuits. From
the wheels of the local grain mills came the basic ingredient
to produce the biscuits which were well known to seafarers in
that they were the most suitable and long keeping of ship’s
Significantly these mills were situated on the northern side of
Balrothery, in order to make use of the several streams which
drained the hills and marsh ground to the south of Balrothery.
The same streams were to run the spinning jennies which would
later give Balbriggan a place in the American language and in
the Oxford Dictionary.
The Early Years.
The hosiery business is recorded as having been carried
out in the Balrothery area prior to 1740. It is stated as having
been very successful although it is clear that the ‘industry’
was really only a cottage industry which served the needs of the
local, prosperous, inhabitants and also the traded with Dublin,
20 miles distant.
In 1740, Mr. John Mathews established the trade on a solid basis,
and for over 25 years he employed a large number of workers knitting
fine silk stockings. These stockings were expensive to produce
and not very hard wearing. This business lapsed in the early 1760’s
and was resumed shortly afterwards by Mr. Fullam.
Mr. Fullam, who displayed much originality in the improvements
he introduced in developing his products, was responsible for
the introduction to the market of a new concept in stockings known
as “Economies”. “Economies” were made
from two materials, silk and cotton; the ankle portion of the
foot and the top portion of the stocking were made from cotton
and the remaining area, which might be on display, from silk.
This development had two main advantages, a considerable cost
reduction and the wider market availability to a less costly product.
Increased demand was the direct result.
Mr. Hatton acquired the business in 1775 and although only a short
time in command he had a considerable and beneficial influence
on the affairs of the business. The family of Hatton left a further
impact on the area; two place-names, Hatton’s Hill and Hatton’s
Farm were in general use until recent times. The late Paddy Murphy,
who did extensive research into the history of industry in Fingal,
rated the contribution of the Hatton family very highly.
1780 was to see Mr. Hatton joined by his
cousin, Joseph Smyth, when the firm of Smyth and Co. was established
and traded for almost exactly 200 years. That year also saw the
business move to Balbriggan proper.
For many years after the formation of the
company the hosiery manufacture went on apace; adding regularly
to its improvements and most importantly, keeping in touch with
developments in technology and machine design. The progress made
by Messrs Smyth and Co. actually blotted out the smaller manufacturers
while their workers were taken over by the new firm. Smyth and
Co. gradually and steadily gained in reputation and popular favour
through the excellence, quality and style of their goods until
the name of Balbriggan was known all over the globe and the products
from Balbriggan looms their way to every market from China to
During this period of expansion for Messrs
Smyth and Co., entrepreneurs, especially in England, were looking
to Irish low cost labour and high skill to improve their profit
margins. Thomas Ogle from Preston in England was one such man.
He had the foresight and pioneering attitude, which drives the
thirst for greater return on investment, and he saw Balbriggan
as a potential area with a suitable skill base. It is recorded
that on 5th.August, 1806 that Thomas Ogle made an agreement with
William Suttell, a flax dresser from Leeds, to proceed to Balbriggan,
Ireland to take charge and manage the flax mill shortly to be
built there. That flax mill did eventually come into being, although
far later than intended, and the Gallen family purchased the establishment
in 1883. The Gallen family still runs the business although not
producing to the extent of former years.
The Mangan Family.
The name Mangan is imprinted in the annals of Balbriggan
and Smyth and Co. as just one year before the decision of Thomas
Ogle, an apprentice started work at Smyth and Co. This young person
was to learn the fundamentals of the hosiery business and later
passed his learning to his son, Thomas Mangan, who was to become
the most famous of all the Balbriggan hosiers. Thomas and his
brother, who was the first local to perfect lace or openwork stockings,
were breeds apart. They set the standard for the industry, not
only in Ireland but for the world market. Among the customers
for whom they worked through Smyth and Co. were the Empress of
Austria, the Princess Eugenie, the Czarina and of course Queen
Victoria herself. Queen Victoria was stated to be very fastidious
in matters of dress and insisted her stockings would be made by
the most skilled of craftsmen. It seemed that her choice of selecting
Mangan made stockings from Smyth and Co. was based solely on the
fact that their quality was unsurpassable anywhere.
One must realise the importance of her
first order to Balbriggan, the anxiety to meet with Royal approval
for the first pair, and yet the quiet confidence that among the
well-descended craftsmen in Balbriggan would be the man to win
it. Having won the Royal approval by providing stockings which
weighed only three and one half ounces for a dozen pairs, Thomas
Mangan was to continue to hand make stockings for Victoria for
a period of 65 years.
This dedicated service was rewarded when,
on the 25th September, he was the recipient of honoured notice
from Queen Victoria. The following extract from the Daily Press
of September 26th 1898 tells the story:
“Yesterday afternoon, in the Courthouse Balbriggan, the
Recorder of Dublin acting on the authority of the Queen presented
a photograph of Her Majesty, bearing an autograph signature to
Mr. Thomas Mangan, a Workman in the employment of Messrs. Smyth
and Co., in recognition of the fact that for a period of sixty
years he has been engaged in the manufacture of hosiery for the
Queen and Royal Family.
The Recorder said, ‘Before I begin the business of the Quarter
sessions I have been asked as Chairman, to present to you, Thomas
Mangan, a portrait of her majesty Queen Victoria. Signed with
her own sign manual, Queen and Empress of India, in token of appreciation
she has for all her subjects who have been engaged in honourable
toil, and upon the occasion of it having come to her Majesty’s
notice that you have been for more than 60 years a conscientious
worker, though in a humble position in which you hitherto escaped
the notice of the public.’
Sadly in the recent past, the mementoes
of Thomas Mangan have passed to members of the family in America.
Balbriggan was rightly proud of Thomas
Mangan and his superior skill at hose making and many might feel
that the Royal approval and notice might indicate that only Mangan
was fit to clothe the Queen’s leg. Alas that was not the
case as the wily Queen had several suppliers. Of course much claim
and counter-claim ensued as to who was the first supplier.
At least four English suppliers as well as Smyth & Co. supplied
the Royal family during Victoria’s reign. The hose worn
on two of their most important days, her coronation and Golden
Jubilee, were in both instances made by John Derrick. Derrick,
who died in 1895 at the age of 89 years was a superior craftsman
from Barber-gate, Nottingham and his granddaughter named Hammersley
of Mapperley has copies of the original patterns complete with
crown and the letters V.R. underneath.
In arguments concerning who was the most
important supplier, a Mr. James of I and R. Morley, who called
their product English Balbriggan, said they had sample stockings
dating back to 1877 but Smyth & Co. were able to refer to
stockings made from Sea Island Cotton made in 1837 which were
still in the companies possession, and to even older samples which
were lost in the fire of 1882. Royal tokens were sent out to Derrick,
a Mr. Byard of Colverton, a Mr. Meakin of Derby and a Miss Ann
Birkin also of Derby. All were for work related to hose making
and embroidery of hose.
The role played by Smyth & Co. craftsmen
during the period 1853 to 1873, resulting in major exhibition
victories for the excellence of their hose, cannot be overstated.
Among the almost endless list of honours won were Philadelphia,
1853; London, 1862 and 1868; Paris, 1867; Vienna, 1873. It was
Thomas Mangan himself who made the stockings exhibited in Philadelphia
in 1853 that were awarded the Gold Medal as the finest Stockings
An advertisement placed in 1853 in connection
with the Great Industrial Exhibition, Dublin gives unbridled praise
and refers to a First Class Prize Medal won at The Great Exhibition
of All Nations in AD 1851, a year not mentioned in the usual “Role
of Honours Won”.
The formative years were not without trouble
for Balbriggan and its textile industries. The Head Office of
Police in Dublin placed a notice in the Freeman’s Journal
of January 1st 1810 seeking information about what they referred
to as an outrageous proceeding. “Richard Doogan, a carrier,
from the town of Balbriggan, when on his way to that place with
a load of cotton, was stopped at Drumcondra Bridge, on the evening
of the 26th December 1909, between three and four o’clock,
by two armed men, who compelled him to hide his face for a considerable
time, during which they made use of many threatening expressions
and fired several shots, and when liberated, the said, found that
the cotton had been taken out of the cart, injured with Vitriol
and thrown into the river. “A reward of one hundred guineas
was offered for useful information as to the two gunmen and a
further offer of fifty guineas for information on the band of
40 or so men who were with them. Several prominent business people
offered rewards separate to the police reward and among them was
a Bridget Maguire who offered ten pounds. Among the police notices
on 18th January 1810 was a notice seeking information as to the
people who set fire to Mrs. Maguire’s premises in Ardee
Street, Dublin and almost entirely destroyed her warehouse. Many
Balbriggan people supported the reward list with sums ranging
from twenty-two pounds and fifteen shillings from Rev. G. Hamilton
to five pounds from John Sharkey.
1867 was to see the building of a fine,
handsome factory premises for Smyth & Co.; convenient to the
Great Northern Railway Station at Balbriggan into which was put
the most up-to-date machinery. This splendid factory was burned
to the ground in a horrendous fire in the year 1882. It was instantly
rebuilt, but on a larger scale and refitted with all the latest
machinery available in Europe. This machinery was to herald a
new era in stocking manufacture as it enabled Smyth & Co.
to manufacture Cashmere and Lisle thread goods which had not hitherto
been made in Balbriggan, the trade having been chiefly confined
to Silk and Cotton.
That fire presented other opportunities
also, skilled labour not fully utilised during the rebuilding
programme attracted the attention of the English firm of Deeds,
Templar and Co. The added bonus of having premium prices for products
made at Balbriggan, by now a generic name, must have been almost
a licence to print money. Using the area just to the east of the
Railway, at Sea banks, Deeds, Templar and Co. traded as the Balbriggan
Sea Banks Hosiery Company from 1884 to its destruction in 1920
at the hands of the Black and Tans.
1886 saw a strike in Smyth and Co., which depending
on the record of the event you decide to believe, was to bring
about drastic changes in the future of that company. The Board
of Directors meeting was informed that a minor strike involving
just a few of the workers, none of whom were working on products
on order, was taking place and would soon be remedied. The reason
for the strike was very minor indeed, Mr. W. Whyte, Managing Director,
told his Board Colleagues and that the workers would soon see
reason and return.
The Drogheda Independent, itself only two years old at that time,
reported on 29th May 1886, that the Smyth and Company workers
“struck work by reason of the proprietors having previously
served the men with notice of a reduction in their pay averaging
from 17% to 25%, the expiry of which notice took place on that
and to the number of 35, six men remaining on. The men stated
that previous to the strike they were obliged to pay on an average
15% of the following – “Standing” (the space
occupied by the machine) winding; and in the winter, fire and
The paper further reports “It seems
anomalous that Smyth and Co. should be disposed to, and insist
on this reduction in the face of the fact that the proprietors
of the new Balbriggan Sea Mills Hosiery factory – Messrs.
Deeds Templar – not only have made no offer to reduce their
men’s wages, but, since the strike in Messrs. Smyth and
Co.’s factory, they have taken on five of the men on strike,
at the standard rate’ and having, besides, expended between
£8, 000 and £9, 000 in the recent purchase of the
site and the last erection of their factory, machinery, and plant.
“The last paragraph in that article gives further insight:
“By the way it should be mentioned that in the makeup of
the 15% reduction mentioned about (standing, winding, fire and
gas) there should be included discount to the tune of 2d to the
shilling – of every shilling earned by every man in Messrs.
Smyth and Co.’s employee.”
The outcome was simple to conclude as Mr.
William Whyte, the proprietor in 1886, put the company for sale
1887 was a milestone in Smyth and Co.’s long career as it
signalled the company going public. The first meeting of the Board
of Directors took place at 2.30pm on 7th December 1887 at Trinity
Chambers, Dame Street, Dublin.
In attendance were: -
Frederick William Pim Adam S. Findlater
Tomas Stuart William Whyte
On the proposal of A.S. Findlater and seconded
by Mr. T. Stuart, Mr. F.W. Pim took the chair. The directors had
before them the list of applicant for shares. The seal of the
company was decided upon also and it was agreed to use the Trade
Mark with the words “Smyth and Company Limited Balbriggan”
and Mr. W. Whyte, Managing Director, was instructed to secure
some from Messrs. Waller of Suffolk Street, Dublin.
A further decision was to instruct Messrs.
Craig Gardner to open the share books and to close the ordinary
books to 1st November 1887.
By the end of December the company was
still under-subscribed and not sufficient cash was available to
pay the vendors in accordance with the terms of the agreement
drawn up on 15th November 1887.
On 29th December 1887 the Board “agreed and resolved that
the company do not take over the liabilities of the vendor on
1st November 1886 amounting £9, 550-19-7 and that they undertake
to pay or otherwise settle said liabilities, and that this undertaking
shall be deemed to be a payment to the vendor on foot of the purchase
money to the extent of the liabilities thus taken over.”
The Major Shareholders at that period were:
William Whyte senior 1,000 shares
Mrs. Smyth 400 shares
William Whyte junior 200 shares
Miss Smyth 120 shares
Miss Crawley 130 shares
Federick Pim 120 shares
Warren St. Leger Woods 100 shares
Miss Gertrude Hamilton 100 shares
Dixie Ratham Coddington `` 100 shares
William Holland, Victoria Mills, Manchester 100 shares
The same meeting showed that the company
recorded a loss of £292-19-7 and this loss was charged to
Mr. Whyte against the purchase price. During 1888 Mr. Whyte, on
a journey to London, Paris and Brighton had sales amounting to
£2, 200-00. The sales journey took 22 days.
By act of Parliament it was necessary to
call a General Meeting of Shareholders. Smyth and Co. had 37 shareholders,
ten were needed to attend; only eight turned up and the only meeting
was adjourned and called for one week later. Only Mr. Whyte turned
up to this meeting.
A further strike took place in 1888 and Mr. Whyte told the Board
that the issue was “trifling”. It was too months before
work was resumed and it is worth noting that 40 men were involved
and that coupled with a loss of American orders it was not possible
for the company to pay a dividend.
Ten new American accounts were opened in
1889 and of annual sales of £9586-11-10, the American market
was valued at £2500.
About this time many companies were using
the word “Balbriggan” to sell their hose. Unfortunately,
much of the work was of inferior quality and the Smyth and Co.
Board decided on a policy of prosecuting companies found improperly
using “Balbriggan”. Messrs. Stagg Mantle and Co. of
Leicester Square London paid £25 towards legal costs and
entered apologies in nine English and three Irish papers. Success
was having its problems too.
The Board Meeting of February 1892 was
informed that the company had made a loss of £1272-18-0
for the previous year and the reaction to that being ‘to
continue for a further six months only when a decision would be
made on the companies long-term viability’. The employees
were asked to take a reduction in of approximately 8% and after
consideration this was agreed to. Matters were made worse by the
McKinley tariff on goods entering America. A switch to sell aggressively
on the home market was decided as the only way to resolve the
This policy change proved to be the correct
course of action. In 1897 it was found that the already extensive
premises built during the 1880’s were by no means sufficiently
large to deal with their constantly increasing trade. They built
a very elaborate factory across the street at the north side of
Freeman’s Row (Railway Street) and connected with the large
premises over the street by an enclosed footbridge.
Soon after the opening of this further
extension the company decided to add their own dyeing works to
the new portion of the factory. At that time this was significant,
as experience on the American market had shown some complaints
had been received regarding the “fastness” of some
of their dyed materials. Colour “fastness” being as
important then as it is today.
To accommodate further the increasing trade
Smyth and Co. engaged full-time instructresses to go round the
villages of the north county – Rush, Skerries, Lusk, Swords,
Naul etc, teaching young girls to embroider stockings, and by
this means a very lucrative cottage industry was formed which
gave off-site work to almost three hundred people.
We are most fortunate to have a copy of
a photograph taken in 1903 of the men and boys employed at Smyth
and Co. and to see the surnames of those employed. So many are
surnames well-known in Balbriggan: Canty, Corcoran, Brailsford,
Hammond, Campbell, Seaver, Harper, McGavisk, Dillon, Donegan,
Orange, Smith, Cannon, Dennis, Clynch, Whearity, Gorman, Mooney,
Markey, Spencer, Clarke, Brady.
Facilities were added to for the benefit
of the workforce and a recreation hall with a full time caretaker
was provided in Convent Lane.
Later a football team was established and
it is recorded as being most successful in the various competitions
entered. Among those mentioned being R. Corcoran who captained
a side versus the British Legion in 1926 and on which occasion
“Smyth and Co’s” lost by three goals to one.
Mr. H. Cashell refereed the match.
A team selected to play Cairns Athletic in 1939 comprised: Rooney,
McAuley, Kenny, Duffy, Dunne, Markey, Driscoll, Carvan, Canolan,
Byrne and Doolan. N. Dunne was captain and J. Kennedy was honorary
September 1920 was a time of severe hardship for the people of
Balbriggan. The Black and Tans were to leave the town in ruins,
its people scattered, two savagely killed and its industry in
The factory of Deeds Templar on the Seabanks was destroyed and
109 employees were thrown out of work. Many of these lost their
homes as well as in Clonard Street alone thirty-five houses were
burned and became a total loss.
The Smyth and Co. factory, situated between
Clonard Street and Seabanks was saved from destruction by the
intervention of Mr. Gorman, Dr. Fullam and Constables McGlynn
and Sexton, all of whom pleaded with the arsonists. Smyth and
Co. did survive and was to give employment to many of the skilled
hosiers made unemployed from Deeds Templar.
To be famed in music or verse is the dream of many and we all
know of the Coca-Cola and Donnelly sausage tunes. Not many know
the Stanza on Smyth and Co.
This interesting story relates to Mitchel
O’Grady who was an inmate in the County Home, Castlebar,
concerning Smyth and Co. In a letter from the county home to Smyth’s
management he wrote that the Madam was an admirer of Balbriggan
hose and she influenced O’Grady, who was an old Rhymester,
to pen a stanza on our esteemed product. He suggested a small
postal order for his trouble and was awarded a postal order for
5/=(five shillings = 25 pence).
The following is his stanza:
Some appreciative stanza’s on Messrs
Smyth’s Superior Balbriggan Hose.
Erin for her Manufacturers has a prominence
– her own,
Nought can beat some Golden Products to our famed Green Island
` But there’s one the housewife praises, its choice merits
Gem of Fair North Dublin’s Bosom – Smith’s renowned
Pure as are the Crystal waters of our everlasting hills,
Lasting as the purpled heather on our Connemara Hills,
Irish as the storied Liffey, that by rack or Castle flows,
Is this star of Leinster’s Bosom – Smith’s renowned
Here we have no worthless Eyesore from the Mersey, Thames or Clyde,
But a Gem that ‘mid out Valleys must acknowledge be the
Irish-made by Irish Labour, enemy to foreign foes,
Is this star of Leinster’s Bosom – Smith’s renowned
Here’s success renowned Providers and the duty long be mine,
Round thy fame each day extending, choicer Garland’s yet
Gem from best of Home Materials, while the peat fire cheery grows,
We must praise this Gem of Dublin – Smith’s renowned
The period when Mitchel O’Grady made his move to gain the
modest (by today’s standard) award was one when Irish Industry
was finding its feet between 1925 and 1935 and Smyth and Co. was
no different to many other companies in the new Free State. With
the imposition of tariffs on imported hosiery, Smyth and Co. saw
a boom period in the 1930’s and in 1932 they needed round
the clock production from 8:30 p.m. on Sunday Evening through
to 1pm on the following Saturday to cope with orders. That was
the first time in its history that the factory hands had to work
Messrs Stephenson and Co. of Newtownards,
manufacturers of the Shamrock brand of hosiery and underwear,
commenced work on November 1st 1932 on the site of the old Deeds
Templar factory. A number of workers were brought from Newtownards
to train local operatives, made necessary by the shortage of skilled
labour as Smyth and Co. were employing its largest workforce ever.
For the record, this might be a good period
to select to illustrate the process of Hose manufacture and to
give a 1931 Drogheda Independent view.
How It Is Made from a special correspondent
of the Drogheda Independent
“A short account of the making of
a stocking may be of interest and it shows that the process is
not a simple one, and also that the care taken to ensure success
is considerable. The commencing stage is outside the hosiery manufacturer’s
province, that is the selecting, sorting and spinning into yarn
of the various wools and cottons and other materials brought into
the markets. This initial step has been brought to perfection
by specialised hands and machines and the yarn is delivered to
the Hosier in Cops and Cheeses as they are called. From these
the hosiery makers have to wind them on wooden bobbins, lubricating
the yarn at the same time. The bobbins are transferred to the
looms and knitted by them into a web, which ultimately becomes
a finished stocking or sock. The greater part of the hosiery made
in Balbriggan is what is called fashioned: that is, it is made
on the looms in flat pieces, widened and narrowed in such a manner
that they can by joined at their selvidges , so as to make perfectly
shaped hosiery, which cannot be so successfully made by the seamless
or round machinery, all high class hosiery being so woven and
The joining up or seaming, as it is called, used to
be done by hand, but of recent years seaming machines of great
perfection have been introduced. In answer to the demand for seamless
hosiery a large number of seamless machines of various types have
been installed making patterned goods of endless variety and colour.
After the goods have been seamed they are thoroughly washed and
dyed, after which just before they are quite dried they are stretched
upon flat boards shaped to the size required and dried at a high
temperature in a specially constructed heating chamber. Then they
are subjected to pressure in a hydraulic press for several hours
and finally sorted into their quantities and sizes and made up
into packages as seen in the retail shops.
Modern Tendency to Colour
The modern tendency towards colour has been met by Smyth
and Co. and they have a range of colours standardised to the number
of over 500. They do their own dying and in the selection of dyes
used by them they take care that none of them are of a poisonous
nature. As a matter of fact many of the dyes used are in their
constituent elements the same as disinfectants and a number of
the dyes are used for colouring high-class confectionery. In embroidered
goods the company pride themselves on the excellence of the work
executed by their employees, Irishwomen who are renowned for the
neatness of their needlework, embroidery and lacework.
1s to 20s Per Pair
The various kinds of hose manufactured by the Company
are too numerous to embody in this short article but they are
made to suit all markets at prices ranging from 1shilling per
pair to 20shillings per pair. One of the Company’s special
brands, the Sea Island Cotton Hose is more expensive than the
finest pure silk. So light are the finest that a dozen pairs of
stockings weighs less than 4 ozs. And the cost of the yarn is
considerably greater than silk. The thread in these fine makes
has to be continuous from welt to toe.
New “inventions” in the hose
business introduced by Smyth and Co. were ladies Tennis Sox and
Golf Sox, which were copied by various British and Continental
makers. They were also the first to turn out a lady’s art
silk stocking with a wool lining.”
The 1930’s also saw a policy change for Smyth
and Co. from exclusive and expensive lines to mass- produced product
to compete with cheap imports. While this gave great employment
and very impressive turnover figures it was to prove the undoing
of Smyth and Co. following the Second World War.
Smyth and Company were to stop with the
actual production of those during the 1960’s when a phase-out
plan was in force. The plant continued to run other lines but
imported hose for finishing at Balbriggan and the very skills
which made Balbriggan famous was now leaving the town every day
to Bradmola, Blackrock or Thompson’s of Patrick Street in
“Smyco” management claimed it was cheap imports that
cost them their jobs but the union representatives blamed the
Smyth and Co. losses in a series of charges which included the
charge that the Smyth and Co. premises contained stacks of imported
Who was right is of little consequence
now as the 200-year reign was coming to an end. The final ignominy
was to take place at 12 noon on Friday 24th June 1980 when the
remnants of a great industry were auctioned off to the public.
The late Bill Chase
And the many ex-Smyth and Co. employees who assisted with this
and other ‘Smyco’ articles.
Jack Benton / Joe Curtis,