An Old Kilkenny Industry – The Merino Woollen Mill

AN OLD KILKENNY INDUSTRY – The Merino Woollen Factory

Patrick Neary

The Merino Woollen Factory was established by two Kilkenny men Timothy Nowlan and Thomas Shaw in 1810. The site they chose was Ennisnag close to Stonyford and beside the King’s River. This Thomas Shaw had already served an apprenticeship in Dublin and spent seven years in the North and West of England learning all aspects of the trade.
Much trouble had been caused in the Irish Woollen Industry, mostly in Dublin but also in Kilkenny and Carrick on Suir by workers demanding higher wages. Messrs Nowlan and Shaw were determined to avoid these troubles by employing only country people and training them from childhood. Although sometimes taken on at a more tender age, they were usually apprenticed at 14 years of age for a period of seven years. Working hours during Summer time were from 6 a m to 7 p m. With three quarters of an hour for breakfast at 8 a m. and one hour off for dinner at 2 p.m. Wages paid were from 3 to 10 shillings which in an agricultural community were regarded as not ungenerous.
The Boys and Girls were kept apart in the work rooms, the Girls been sent home an hour earlier than the Boys, under the watchful eye of a Matron. Schools were organised for the apprentices, one hour per day after work and three hours on Sunday. No charge was made for schooling and books were provided free.
Out of the weekly wage, stoppages were made as contributions for sickness, widowhood and old age funds, to which the proprietors also made contributions. These must have been among the first Heath Scheme in existence. A Doctor also called regularly.
By 1814 it was estimated, that 300 to 400 were employed. The proprietors had the church at Ennisnag built and opened for worship by 1816. Adults entering public houses on a weekday were fined 2/6.A Sunday visit cost 5 shillings, apprentices faced instant dismissal.
The idea of the partners in setting up the concern was to make it self supporting from raw material to finished article. To secure wool of first quality, they imported Merino sheep from Spain, it was from these sheep the factory got its name. In a short space of time the flock had increased to 600 and the owners could sell on surplus sheep to the country generally.
By 1814 things were going smoothly and the Company gained five first prizes at the Irish Farmers Society exhibition, a body which carried some of the functions the R. D. S perform to day. Up to this period £40, 000 had been spent on the premises, a very large sum of money in those days. 1815 had seen The Battle of Waterloo, and Napoleons defeat. The depression which seems to follow in the wake of wars set in and proved unfortunate for the factory. In these circumstances business was advertised at the R.D.S in 1816. A long letter was written to the
Freemans Journal in 1817 extolling the Quality of the wool. While a Scotchman who had a good knowledge of the Woollen trade described a visit he paid to the mill most favourably, and considered it better than any in Scotland.
At the request of the owners, the R.D.S. held an enquiry into the running of the mill in 1819. Numerous witness’s were called, among them The Rev Butler, who gave evidence as to the excellence of the products and the benefit the mills had been both financially and morally to the locality. As a result of the enquiry the R.D.S passed a resolution that the Merino factory was a most meritorious institution highly deserving of public support and encouragement. For a few years employees of the R.D.S. were clothed in material purchased from Messrs Nowlan and Shaw.
In 1822 the firm went bankrupt, two Prims who held a mortgage on the premises and relatives of the owners carried off manufactured stock, and sold them in a shop in Kilkenny which they hired for the purpose. A Scotch firm took over the factory in 1837 but gave it up 3 or 4 years
later. The buildings lay derelict for nearly thirty years, until the 1850’s when the Pilsworths took a lease of the buildings and turned them into a flour mill. They were used as such until the 1870’s when the business transferred to Thomastown.
The once proud buildings still stand to day and house a furniture manufacturing business.