As the Irish linen industry grew at the turn of the eighteenth century, linen merchants felt that a governing body was needed to nurture and guide it to greater success. So, the Board of Linen Manufacturers was established in 1710 to carry out this task. The board proved to be a success, remaining in place for over a century until it was dissolved by Parliament in 1828. This act of dissolution left flax production in Ireland ‘without almost any other guardian’ except for some private enterprising individuals.
Thirteen years passed between the demise of the Board of Linen Manufacturers and the establishment of a body which campaigned to revive Irish flax production, the Irish Flax Improvement Society. Formed in March of 1841, this society’s aim was to encourage and instruct Irish farmers in the cultivation of the crop. It was much-needed as Irish flax production was in a sorry state with cheaper supplies from abroad taking over.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were invited to become patrons of the new society, while the 3rd Marquis of Hillsborough, Arthur Trumbull Hill became its President. There were some early successes as native flax production grew. At a meeting of the society in Belfast’s Assembly Rooms in December 1843 it was claimed that in the two years since the society was formed, Irish flax production had increased by 11,465 tonnes, while in the following years up to 1854 the number of acres used to cultivate flax increased threefold.
To encourage and reward the use of native flax, the society produced a series of medals which were presented to those who made outstanding contributions to the linen industry. The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum has acquired a number of these medals, including three presented to Messrs Richardson & Co, Lisburn, in 1845 and 1846. The medals show the quality of the yarn the mill was producing in its early years.
The medals in the collection are significant for a number of reasons, most notably their link to the early history of the Island Spinning Mill, co-founded by Samuel Richardson in 1840, now the site of the Island Civic Centre. Second, the medals were awarded in the two years prior to Richardson’s early death in 1847 at the age of just thirty. Richardson, a noted benefactor of local people, died during the famine after contracting disease whilst visiting the sick and poor in various infirmaries in Lisburn.
The medals are an important addition to the Museum’s collection and reflect the Island’s prominent role in Lisburn’s industrial history.