Herdman’s Flax Mill – Sion Mills

Industrial
Herdman’s Flax Mill – Sion Mills

This Flax Mill was located within a tree-lined industrial village and designated conservation area. The village had been laid out as a model linen village by three brothers from Belfast and in 1835, this flax spinning mill was established. Beforehand, it had been used as an old flour mill.  The mill was located on the outskirts of the village with a river flowing behind it. The brothers provided housing, schooling, churches, sports and leisure facilities within the village for mill workers. Herdman’s Flax Mill was once referred to as “Ireland’s Mill Palace” by William Hogg, the author of Mills and Millers of Ireland.

When the American civil war broke out, the southern states’ ports were blocked by the Union navy. Since the majority of raw cotton came from these ports, the blockade cut off important supplies to England and they were hit hard as textile workers were laid off. Ireland took advantage of this and were ready to capitalise. For decades, the linen industry was booming in Ireland. In fact, by 1914, Belfast was the world’s largest linen-producing centre.

At one point in time, Herdman’s Flax Mill was one of the largest manufacturers in the province, with a workforce of around 1,000. In an 1846 news article in the Belfast News-Letter, it was reported that workers at Herdman’s Flax Mill worked sixty-nine hours a week. It survived decades of the Troubles as well as the crippling recession during the 1980s. While active, Herdman’s Flax Mill prided itself on being completely non-sectarian which helped the community get through the darkest years. In 1989, the old buildings at Herdman’s Flax Mill were abandoned when a purpose-build Mill was built on the grounds. It was equipped with all of the most modern-machinery of its time.

Unfortunately for Herdman’s Flax Mill and other linen manufacturers, they struggled to face competition from China, who entered the linen market towards the end of the 1990s. It was said to all be downhill from there. Linen is sold by weight and at the time, China was selling it for £3 per kilo and the Flax Mill couldn’t sell it for less than £8 per kilo.

In 2001, there were reports that Herdman’s Flax Mill was going to be regenerated. The International Fund for Ireland gave £1 million to a Community Regeneration Improvement Special Project and that would mainly involve the refurbishment of Herdman’s Flax Mill to provide 12,300 sq ft of light industrial workspace. However, this never materialized.  

A couple of years later, Herdman’s Flax Mill along with two other “at risk” buildings were vying for the privilege of being restored to their former glory for the BBC 2 series, Restoration. Rhys Jones, the presenter, had set his eyes on Ulster’s architectural heritage as part of a scheme to promote traditional building skills and protect unique properties. He appeared in Co. Down to launch the Mourne Homesteads project with the aim to restore a number of traditional homes. Unfortunately, however, Herdman’s Flax Mill lost out and did not receive enough votes from the public to be selected for the program.

Just the following year, there was another blow to Herdman’s Flax Mill when it was announced that it was stopping production for good, with the loss of 250 jobs. The news came as a massive shock to the community and had an effect on the whole village, who had effectively evolved around Herdman’s Flax Mill. “The Government has to do something because there isn’t any employment in this area,” said one worker. Generations of entire families had worked at Herdman’s Flax Mill for decades, proving a steady flow of loyal workers. When Herdman’s Flax Mill closed, some of the production was relocated to South Africa. Only 20 employees remained at the Flax Mill for a while, including administrative staff.

Shortly after Herdman’s Flax Mill closed down, a fire started in wooden pallets in a storage shed next to the stable block. Thankfully, firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before substantial damage could be caused. Then in 2010, another fire engulfed Herdman’s Flax Mill. The blaze had begun at the front offices and around 50 firefighters were sent out to tackle the blaze. The following year, another fire was set at the Flax Mill. This time, the fire had begun on the fourth and fifth floors and took around three hours to bring under control.

Shortly before this fire had begun, Ulster Bank had appointment a receiver to Herdman’s Flax Mill, ending the more than 170 years of ownership from the previous family who had owned it. They had hoped to redevelop the site. The new owner of the Flax Mill is a lottery winner who said that she had a ten-year plan. Since then, however, there had been discord over rights of way.

In 2015, there was once again another fire at Herdman’s Flax Mill. It quickly spread across the entire ground floor of the mill. Police were able to determine that this fire had bee deliberately set. Around 60 firefighters were called to the scene and were able to extinguish the blaze.

During its heyday, Herdman’s Flax Mill was certainly ahead of its time. In 1935, tennis courts and bowling green were added to celebrate the Centenary. When we visited, the tennis courts were overgrown but still visible. Beside the tennis court, we explored the more modern canteen which was set apart from the old mill as well as a changing facility. There was reportedly a model village as well as a school at the Flax Mill.

Inside the derelict mill, many of the stone walls were in the process of being reclaimed by nature and foliage could be seen growing on the floors in several areas. Almost every single window had been smashed by vandals or fire damage and most of the warehouses have extensive fire damage. We also came across a number of old spinning machines, some of which still had flax spindles attached to them. In addition to the old mill, there was an old maintenance, carpentry and paint shop block. While there were very few artifacts left behind in the Flax Mill, it was still an extremely atmospheric explore.

In 2020, it was reported that Herdman’s Flax Mill could be given a new lease of life with an Irish soft drink manufacturer. There are currently talks between the soft drink manufacturer and representatives of the Flax Mill to open a plant which would create up to 200 jobs in the area.

The Tennis Court

2 comments on “Herdman’s Flax Mill – Sion Mills

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.