Waterford history

Villierstown and the linen industry

Villierstown and the linen industry

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, John Fitzgerald Villiers, 1st Earl Grandison and 5th Viscount Grandison of Limerick, greatly improved the ancient family estate in County Waterford centred on Dromana House, perched on a high cliff overlooking the River Blackwater. John Fitzgerald Villiers was known as the “Good Earl John”. In about 1750 he founded the village of Villierstown as a place of residence for the linen weavers of his newly established linen industry. This article will examine this foundation and the linen industry so established at Villierstown.

Dromana Fitzgeralds 1620-1725

This Fitzgerald estate was once part of the vast Earldom of Desmond but was granted to Gerald Mór Fitzgerald, younger son of the 7th Earl of Desmond about the year 1450. In 1620 John Óge Fitzgerald succeeded his father as Lord of the Decies and the sizeable Fitzgerald estate in Co. Waterford. John Óge Fitzgerald was knighted by the 1st Viscount Grandison of Limerick, Lord Deputy of Ireland (a family with later connections to Dromana) and married the Honourable Eleanor Butler, daughter of 2nd Baron Dunboyne. On 1st March 1626 Sir John Óge Fitzgerald died leaving Gerald Fitzgerald, a minor, as his eldest son and heir.[1]

As a minor, Gerald Fitzgerald became a ward of the crown and was brought up a Protestant. The wardship of Gerald Fitzgerald was held for a time by Sir Edward Villiers, Lord President of Munster. After the death of Sir Edward Villiers, the wardship was purchased by Gerald’s paternal grandmother, Ellen Fitzgibbon Fitzgerald. Eventually Sir Gerald Fitzgerald of Dromana came of age and married Mabel, daughter of Sir Robert Digby and died in August 1643 leaving his only son, John Fitzgerald, as heir.

Sir John Fitzgerald of Dromana was less than a year old when his father died and the burden of keeping Dromana safe during the war of 1641-1653 fell to his mother, Mabel Fitzgerald. Sir John Fitzgerald married twice (firstly to Hon. Katherine Power, daughter of 5th Lord le Power and Curraghmore and secondly to Lady Helen McCarthy, daughter of 1st Earl of Clancarty) but only left one child, Katherine Fitzgerald (by the 1st marriage), as his heir when he died in March 1664.[2]

Katherine Fitzgerald succeeded to the title of Lady of the Decies and the family estates but as a minor she was made a ward of the crown and brought up in the court of King Charles II. On 20 May 1673 Katherine Fitzgerald unwillingly married the son of her cousin, Richard Power, 6th Baron le Power and Curraghmore who in consequence was created in October 1673 Viscount Decies and Earl of Tyrone. This marriage was soon annulled and Katherine Fitzgerald married secondly to Brig-General Hon. Edward Villiers, who assumed the additional surname of Fitzgerald, eldest son of the 4th Viscount Grandison of Limerick. On the death of her father-in-law in December 1699 Katherine received a Royal Warrant to the title of the Viscountcy and thus in January 1700 she became Viscountess Grandison of Limerick.[3]

The assumption of the title of Viscountess Grandison was of some sweet revenge as in a pre-1695 letter to Thomas Keightley she complained of ill-treatment from Lord Grandison and the Villiers family. In 1701 she secured a private Act of Parliament which established her rights to the Dromana estate and provided portions for her younger children. The 1701 rental income of Katherine, Viscountess Grandison was £1,198 of which £601 was set aside to pay creditors and £200 was for her two daughters, Mary (married Brig-Gen Stuart) and Harriet (married Robert Pitt, father of William Pitt, the elder, Prime Minster of Great Britain). In 1695 the entire estate was given as 39,993 Irish acres.[4]

In 1693 Edward Fitzgerald Villiers died leaving his eldest son, John Fitzgerald Villiers as heir. Viscountess Katherine Fitzgerald Villiers married thirdly to Lt. General Rt. Hon. William Steuart, Commander-in-chief of the army in Ireland in 1711. On 26th December 1725 Katherine Fitzgerald Villiers, Viscountess Grandison, died aged 63 years and was succeeded by her eldest son, John Fitzgerald Villiers, 5th Viscount Grandison since 1699.[5]

Viscount Grandison initially accused Lt. General William Steuart of expropriating money out of the Dromana estate and took him to court. But by 1724 relations had improved. In that year Viscount Grandison sent a letter to Steuart saying he was pleased with Steuart’s improvements at Dromana and Steuart replied with a letter of thanks.[6] This reference shows that the improvement in the Dromana estate in the first half of the eighteenth century was not solely under the management of Viscount Grandison after the death of his mother in 1725.

Dromana (20)

Dromana house which would not be too different to early 18th century visitors

John Fitzgerald Villiers, 1st Earl Grandison

John Fitzgerald Villiers was born about 1684 and was educated at Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge. From May to December 1705 he served as M.P. for Old Sarum in Wiltshire and in February 1706 married Hon. Frances Cary, daughter of 4th Viscount Falkland. On 11th September 1721 John Fitzgerald Villiers was created Earl Grandison.

Earl Grandison had two sons, James Villiers who died in 1732 leaving three children and William Villiers who died unmarried in December 1739.[7] James Villiers had married in July 1728 Jane, daughter and heiress of Richard Butler of London. Following James’s death in 1732, Jane married a second time in April 1734 to the 7th Viscount Falkland (died 1785). Even after her second marriage, Jane Villiers continued to receive £1,500 from the Dromana estate until her death in 1751.[8]

On 12th June 1739, Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald Villiers, only daughter of Earl Grandison, married Aland John Mason of Waterford city and M.P. for County Waterford.[9] In 1746 Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald Villiers Mason became heir to her father with the death of the only surviving daughter of her brother James Villiers.[10]

Earl Grandison before 1730

In July 1724 there were ideas circulating the John, Earl Grandison, might settle and live permanently at Dromana. His agent, Maurice Ronayne, wrote that the Earl could stay at his place, D’Loughtane, until Dromana could be fitted out with furniture and other necessities. Since about 1712, and certainly by the 1720s, Maurice Ronayne acted as land agent for Earl Grandison at Dromana.[11]

It was only in the winter of 1730-1 that Earl Grandison announced his intention of residing at Dromana. Before that time he was an absentee landlord with a house in Grosvenor Street, London.[12] Of course to be an absentee landlord did not mean you were a bad landlord. The nearby Lismore estate had, since 1754, an absentee landlord in the various Dukes of Devonshire but as far as I know the various Dukes never got the name of being a bad landlord.

What is significant is that there was nobody of consequence living at Dromana House in the 1720s apart maybe from a few servants. If the chief house of an estate is neglected and closed up it gives little good example to the tenants to keep their places in good condition.

Yet by 1729 improvements were happening on the Dromana estate. In that year 42,000 trees were planted. Trees like plum and pear along with box hedging and other hedges.[13] A further document made in 1729 describes an old nursery and a new nursery on the estate with over 107,000 fruit trees planted.[14] In 1730 there were plans to build a new cow house the same length as the “new” stables.[15]

The Age of Improvement

The eighteenth century, in which Earl Grandison came of age, has often being referred to as the “age of improvement” when landlords became aware of their role as economic and social improvers. Many landlords also realised that to increase their rents they could no longer rely on gaining forfeited estates to increase their income, as the landlords of the seventeenth century had often done.[16]

Of course estate income could always be increased by an advantageous marriage. In 1706 John, Earl Grandison, married the Hon. Frances Cary. Attached to his new wife was an estate inherited from Robert, Lord Lucas, which estate had an income of £2,000. Getting the money into the hands of Earl Grandison was another matter as previous charges were also attached to the estate. In 1715-20 Earl Grandison was still trying to secure the money.[17]

The Protestant landlords were keen to show that they held the leading role as improvers but among the few remaining Catholic landlords there were also improvers such as Viscount Kenmare in Kerry and Charles O’Conor in Roscommon. For the Protestant landlords, it was not just their ambition to pass on an enhanced rental to their heirs but also to see a prosperous and peaceful Ireland that perhaps could be a Protestant one. The planting of flax and the development of a local linen industry was part of this movement.[18]

Linen promotion in Munster

Flax had been grown for centuries in Munster but the principal linen cloth made from it was a very course fabric of less than a foot wide which was known as “bandle” linen. The weavers of this bandle linen were local craftsmen supplying the local market as there was no export demand for bandle linen. But the culture of growing and processing flax was seen as a foundation to develop a prosperous linen industry as they had in Ulster.

The establishment in 1711 of the Linen Board as a national body to promote and regulate the manufacture of linen was a decisive moment in the growth of the linen trade in the south of Ireland. Any export trade that could be developed with the linen manufactory would not run into objections in England like wool and cattle exports did. Instead the growth of linen would strengthen the national cause as the trade would displace traditional linen producers in Holland, Germany and particularly in France, the old enemy.[19]

Establishing a linen industry at Villierstown

The phenomenal development of the linen industry in Ulster in the 1720s and 1730s inspired many landlords in the south and west with hope that this success could be replicated throughout the country. It was widely believed that development of the linen manufacture would lead to prosperity as it had done in Ulster.[20]

To help kick start and develop the linen industry, landlords in the south and west saw many attractions in bringing Protestant farmers and artisans from Ulster. These migrants would at a stroke help populate underpopulated estates and make good the shortage of Protestant inhabitants. The trigger to bring these northern migrants to Villierstown, and to the Damer estate in Tipperary, was the catastrophic famine of 1740/41.[21] It is estimated that out of a population of about two million some 200,000 to 400,000 died of hunger, typhus and dysentery in just over a year.[22] This catastrophe was even greater than the so-called Great Famine of 1845-1850 in the short duration and thus greater sharpness of the death toll.

One writer accounted the scene in these words; “The great frost last season destroyed almost all their plantations of potatoes which so long been the principal, if not only, subsistence of the poor of this Province; multitudes have perished and are daily perishing under hedges and ditches, some by fevers, some by fluxes and some through cruel want, in the utmost agonies of despair”.[23]

In the aftermath of the famine subsidies were given to encourage liming and marling to increase productivity in corn, flax, hemp and hops.[24] Almost every landed estate in Munster promoted the linen trade in some way. In most cases this simply involved distributing flax seed, spinning wheels or looms obtained from the Linen Board. But about twenty estates went further and sponsored the establishment of a linen industry with weavers, pinning schools, regulating linen markets or providing bleaching facilities.[25] The planting, harvesting and processing of the flax with all the different work involved in making various linen products was extremely labour intensive and so a good source of local employment.[26]

Raising finance for the improvements

In today’s world when financing any investment the two main sources of money for same is from income and/or borrowed money. The third main source of financing, that of selling assets, is not an available option to everyone. In the days of Earl Grandison financing investments and improvements on a large estate was not different in principal.

In October 1728 the finances of John, Earl Grandison, appear to have been in a sound condition. Maurice Ronayne wrote that “Your Lordship may brag that no nobleman’s bills in the three kingdoms are more honoured by the merchants than your Lordship’s … They have good reason, since they have hitherto been paid to a day”.[27] A year later Maurice Ronayne could not get but £1,000 in rents as weeks of rain had destroyed the corn and hay crops.[28]

In 1737 the rental income of Earl Grandison was calculated at £5,300 a year. Out of this amount there were outstanding arrears owed to creditors and dependents of £5,391. Therefore Earl Grandison made a slight loss for that financial year. A good year in 1738 would bring the finances into the positive. Yet there were underlining problems with the estate income. As Captain Matthew Fitzgerald (Grandison’s London agent) explained there were rent arrears of £6,500 that had built up in the accounts over the previous three years and under those circumstances, how could Earl Grandison service his debts?[29]

These debts chiefly amounted to two existing loans of £35,000 and £18,000 upon which the interest charge was £1,935 per year. There was an additional £2,400 a year in the form of an annuity payment.[30] The finances of the Dromana estate in 1737 were therefore in a perilous state.

In addition to the estates in Ireland, Earl Grandison also had estates in England, principally in the Counties of Hertfordshire and Nottingham. Joseph Dobbin managed these English estates until his death in 1753 and some of the rents from same helped fund the Dromana improvements. But even though English estates attracted a better rate of return it was not always easy to get a loan secured on these estates. In December 1747 Joseph Dobbin was unsuccessful in raising a loan of £11,000 on the English estates.[31]

In 1740 John Kennedy was in negotiation for Lord Grandison with Richard Dawson for a loan of £8,000. Dawson wanted 6% interest but Kennedy was fighting for 5 or 5½%.[32] The harshness of the 1739/40 famine had an effect on landed estate for many years. In 1744 John Kennedy told Earl Grandison that “This is the worst of times to dispose of lands. Several estates are going a-begging, but no purchasers”.[33] Instead of disposing land onto a depressed market Earl Grandison invested his money in bank shares. In 1741-42 he purchased £5,650 bank shares and another £600 of shares in 1745.[34]

In about 1746 Earl Grandison calculated that his Irish estates produced an income of £6,164, his English estates £500, and the Mason estates of his son-in-law, Aland Mason, £2,200. Another document gave the half year rent on Grandison’s Irish estates in September 1746 as £4,765, i.e. £9,530 in a full year. The rent arrears in September 1746 were £1,471 but this had decreased to £1,023 by June 1747.[35]

The Mason addition to the Dromana estate was a welcome boost to the overall income. Indeed when Aland’s father, John Mason, died in 1737 he left a personal fortune of £20,000 but of this £16,000 was for the provision of younger children on the Mason estate. The annual expenses of the Grandison estate amounted to £3,400 while the household expenses were £3,190 and with other deductions this left a profit of just £1,134 a year.[36]

In various years, like in 1709, 1721, 1727 and 1731 Earl Grandison borrowed money from various people to finance his lifestyle.[37] Additional money was borrowed to improve the Dromana estate and build Villierstown and other buildings.

Not all the money needed to improve the Dromana estate was got from borrowing money. In 1750 the manor of Templemichael was sold to Richard Dawson of Dublin. The sale was in part to pay off previous borrowings owed to Dawson and raise additional capital. At the time of the sale the Templemichael manor had a rental income of nearly £2,000 which was nearly a third of all the Irish estates in about 1746. Yet the sale price for Templemichael could not be taken as clear income. The sale was subject to an indemnity clause on the failure of the Elizabeth Villiers-Aland Mason marriage and if Countess Elizabeth left issue by a second marriage. It was only with her death in 1782 having produced no issue from her second marriage that the money from Templemichael became true income for the Dromana estate.[38]

The sale price for Templemichael was £46,961 and with other items brought the full sale price to £49,038. Of this amount £6,600 paid off the mortgage from Sir John Hynde Cotton; £11,472 paid off the mortgage from [Henry?] Montague and £12,000 paid off the Richard Dawson loan to Aland Mason.[39] This left £18,966 for Grandison to use on building Villierstown and making other estate improvements.

The birth of Villierstown

The Dublin Society encouraged its members to establish villages as a vital element in the development of their estates. Its promotional literature said that “If gentlemen could once be persuaded to build little towns on their lands … they would in the best manner possible improve the circumstances of their own fortunes. We should in time see those parts of the Kingdom well peopled, not only with Protestants, but weavers, spinners and bleachers like the North”.[40]

Earl Grandison had availed of the support of the Dublin Society previously in the development of the Dromana estate and was open to learning and implementing new ideas on estate development. He therefore brought into the idea of building a village for the soon to arrive linen weavers. This was to be no quick built village of mud cabins with thatched roofs but a substantial village of stone houses with slated roofs.


Main street of Villierstown, looking south, in 2015

It is not yet clear if the village of Villierstown was created on land that once formed part of the townland of Dromanabeg or if part of Ballingown West. Charles Smith, the historian, and Thomas Carlyle, the great Philosopher, both referred to Villierstown as the village of Dromana. This could be because of Dromana House was the chief seat of the Dromana estate or it could be because Villierstown was built on land that was once part Dromanabeg townland. If Villierstown was built on part of Ballingown would the village not be known as Ballingown?

In 1726 John Sisson asked Earl Grandison for a lease of 31 years on part of Dromanabeg and the slate house for £23 per year to “get a little bread in his old age”.[41] In 1729 Dromanabeg was leased to several tenants.[42]

On 20th September 1750 the first thirty-six leases and rent charges were made on various plots in the area that would later become the village of Villierstown. Thus this date marks the birth of Villierstown even if the name of Villierstown was not universally used. Charles Smith in his history book of Waterford, 1774 edition, referred to the village as Dromana.[43]

The first linen weavers to arrive

Among these early leases at Villierstown were the linen weavers from Ulster who had come south. Some of these linen weavers who got slated houses were Michael Fennell, Joseph Hudson, Robert Logan, William Moore, James Sands, John Smyth, John Waters, Thomas Wilson, and James Bagge. Other weavers got land in Villierstown but lived elsewhere. These included Daniel Smith, George Rallans, James Becket, John Motte and Samuel Gordon.

The master weaver, Richard Hamilton, lived in Aglish as did another weaver, Robert Gardiner. The linen bleacher, James Wyer, lived in Ballingown.[44]

The slated houses built at Villierstown were in contrast the cabins built for the northern linen weavers who settled on the estate of John Damer west Tipperary town. Local folklore around the Damer estate has it that Damer intended to build a substantial village, much like Villierstown, but the project came to nothing “after his wife ran away”.[45]

Villierstown chapel

At the centre of Villierstown today stands the chapel which is now (2015) the local community centre. A survey map of the Dromana estate in 1751 placed the chapel further up the hill and nearer to the entrance gates of the Dromana demesne. The map also placed the chapel of the west side of the street as opposed to the east side that it is currently on.[46] This map was not an actual representation of existing structures in 1751 but a vision of how the full Dromana demesne would look when all the improvements had been made.

The chapel was endowed by John, Earl Grandison, in his will of 25th June 1763. The then personal chaplain of Earl Grandison, Rev. Francis Green, became first Chaplain of Villierstown. There was no district assigned to the chaplain and the village of Villierstown remained part of the civil parish of Aglish. Instead the chaplain was to give “divine service” and catechize.[47]

The chapel building dates from 1748 or 1760 depending on which secondary source you read.[48] Among the Villiers-Stuart papers are a number of letters from the 1750s which give more certain information. On 22nd June 1755 Christopher Musgrave of Tourin (agent of Earl Grandison) wrote to an unidentified recipient that “My Lord has not yet determined whether he will remove the well at the east end of the church, but says he will if he find it necessary. They have laid the foundations and the piers, and are settling the walk round the church”.[49]

On April 1757 Earl Grandison wrote to Aland Mason about the recent bad weather but hopes that the weather “will not prevent my appearing at church with my weavers” on the following day.[50]


Villierstown chapel 

The linen industry in operation

To make linen you need to plant an arable crop called flax. Flax requires well-prepared land with a fine tilth and was usually sown in late March/early April. The flax was harvested in August or earlier. Flax intended for fine linen was pulled early. After harvesting the flax was retted, that is, soaked in water for one or two weeks to separate out the woody central part from the stalk. A slow moving stream is sometimes used but special water ponds are preferred as flax can poison the water for fish.[51]

The flax was then sent to spinners to be spun into linen yarn or linen thread. Women usually did the spinning and could earn money in the process. In a time when men usually controlled most ways of making money, this was a welcome bonus for the womenfolk. The longer flax fibres were intended for linen manufacture. Weavers took the linen yarn and thread and made it into bandles of cloth. The Linen Board regulated the size of the bandle and the quality of the linen thread.[52]

The shorter fibres of the flax were used to make rope and string. The shipbuilding activity at Youghal and Dungarvan would provide a local outlet for the rope as a lot of rope was needed for the sailing ships.

Some linen from Dromana was also possibly sent to Douglas, Co. Cork. There, in 1726, a factory was established by a local partnership in make sail-cloth. A colony of Ulster weavers were settled in the early years but the skill base of the local work force was quickly built up. During the 1740s the Douglas factory produced about 75,322 yards of sail-cloth per year which was worth about £5,000. After a decline in the 1750s, due to English competition, the factory grew again in the 1760s and continued in operation until the 1820s.[53]

Bleaching the linen added extra value to the product and the Villierstown operation had some bleaching element. James Wyer, a bleacher, had a lease on property in Ballingown.[54]

In about December 1755 Christopher Musgrave wrote to Aland Mason that shortly before Henry Shea had gone away with the linens, apparently to the Dublin market, to sell.[55]

In May 1757 Earl Grandison wrote from Dromana that “The grain is backward, and it will be a very hard summer with the poor people. I will spare the oats from the horses as much as I can, to help the poor and I reserve a good quantity of barley for them”.[56]

In 1758 it seems that the local flax crop didn’t produce a good harvest. In fact there wasn’t enough flax to keep the weavers in work. Christopher Musgrave commissioned William Moresy to purchase some linen yarn in the Cork market so that the Villierstown factory could stay open. Musgrave was happy with the purchase as he said it “was the cheapest parcel ever brought”.[57] Musgrave’s comment could also mean that outside linen had to be purchased in previous years to supplement that produced at Villierstown.

Before November 1758 some 262 pieces of linen were sold. Christopher Musgrave directed that £2 12s 6d of the profits from the sale be divided among the weavers who had fourteen children.[58] This reference to children of the weavers suggests that by 1758 the northern weavers had decided that their stay in Villierstown was not after all to be a quick visit to train the locals and then move on. Instead they were settling down for a long stay, getting married and raising families.


During the 1760s the growth of Whiteboyism was such that Christopher Musgrave of Tourin, agent for Earl Grandison, wrote to his master that there was a serious problem of depopulation in many parts of the countryside.[59] It is not clear if there was depopulation among the weavers of Villierstown. In March 1762 there was much violence around Affane, Cappoquin, Lismore and Tallow caused by the Whiteboys. After a few days of lawlessness the army from Cork and Youghal brought the situation under control. The army stayed in West Waterford for the following few months.

For the ordinary people around Villierstown, be they weavers or others, the weather had more impact on their lives than Whiteboyism. In December 1763 Christopher Musgrave wrote that a recent hard frost had sparked fears of very high prices for oats but that the potato crop was safe. A month later Musgrave wrote of plans for sowing spring oats and that cattle prices were going well but sheep not so.[60]

In January 1764 the weather was wet and windy with the roads impassable for carriages. Christopher Musgrave feared that the wheat crop would be scarce in summer. More immediately the rain caused a great scarcity of firing for the poor people and prevented merchants from travelling the roads. A merchant from Castlebar, Co. Mayo had reasonably priced yarn for sale for the Villierstown linen industry but could not travel.[61]

Linen industry continues

These conditions of violence and bad weather seems not have stopped the linen industry to any major extinct. In 1763 the Villierstown linen industry produced 1,580 pieces of linen at a cost of £2,346 2s 1d and with a selling price of £2,652 9s. This gave a profit of £306 7s. Christopher Musgrave of Tourin, agent for Earl Grandison, considered this profit figure to be “very well” but warned of trouble ahead as yarn was likely to be “excessively dear”. At the same time Musgrave was perplexed as to why the sale price of linen had not increased in price in response to the increase in costs.[62]

In 1764 the linen industry was still in operation but was not without difficulties. On 24th January 1764 Christopher Musgrave wrote that there were invoices “ready to be sent off” for 122 pieces of linen which should give a profit of nearly 16%. Yet there was a shortage of yarn to keep the weavers in full employment. The shortage of yarn was not confined to Villierstown and some merchants were taking advantage with high prices. Christopher Musgrave could pay these high prices but Earl Grandison did not have the ready cash to do so.[63]

Flax, drying, bundle, sales, Sweden, agr

Flax drying out after harvest time 

On 27th January 1764 Christopher Musgrave wrote that two acres of flax ground will be planted but that seed was scarce in the Villierstown area and would have to be got from Dublin.[64] Flax was usually sown between late March and early April.[65] In November 1764 Christopher Musgrave wrote that the sale price for linen was still hard with some merchants trying to buy at a reduced price. The selling agent for the Villierstown linen, William Morrissey, would not sell to such merchants and hoped for a better price on the Cork market.[66]

In October 1765 orders for 200 pieces of linen were received by the Villierstown manufactory, but William Morrissey considered the prices to be too low and refused to honour the orders.[67]

In March 1766 Christopher Musgrave reported that Morrissey had received over £320 for 200 pieces of linen that was sold to Mr. Higginson. Morrissey could not sell any yarn until the yarn market opened and even then the market price was low. Subsequently Mr. Higginson sold 140 pieces onwards to two separate buyers but for an unknown price.[68]

In May 1766, John Fitzgerald Villiers, Earl Grandison, died. The death of the patron usually spelt the end of the local linen enterprise in many places in the south of Ireland. The linen industry at Villierstown seems to have continued for a few years until 1768 when operations were terminated. In that year Christopher Musgrave wrote to the Countess Grandison that he had sold 359 pieces of linen for £529 11s and still had 1,048 pieces on hand which he valued at £1,600. Christopher Musgrave had ordered 500 pieces of linen to be sent to Dublin to the usual dealer because of “his honesty and skill in disposing linens”.[69]

The Dromana estate under pressure

The financial commitments of Earl Grandison invested in the development of the Dromana estate and the building of Villierstown was pressure enough on the repayment capacity of the estate but Earl Grandison also had financial pressure from his cousins. The eldest son of his sister, Harriet Villiers Pitt, also had financial problems. Indeed in 1735 the financial affairs of Thomas Pitt were described as “chaotic”.[70]

The shortage of money for investment was often blames by Earl Grandison and his successor on the corruption of various land agents. In 1732 Earl Grandison sacked his then land agent, Maurice Ronayne, on a charge of cheating Grandison out of rental income. In the late 1760s the family’s English agent, Cavin Delane, was blamed for the disordered state of the family finances and was even accused of corruption with the finances. The Grandison family was forced to live on the Continent to avoid creditors and Dromana House was leased out to tenants. Even in the nineteenth century the Dromana estate suffered from less than reliable land agents.[71]

Yet despite the building work done by the 1st Earl Grandison and the strained financial situation of his successors, expenses for new building work continued to be paid out in the period 1766 to 1800. At one time £955 was spent on just a few buildings.[72]

Failure of the linen industry

When Dr. Thomas Campbell visited the town of Tipperary in 1775 he wrote that “an effort was made to establish the linen manufacture in the locality and for this purpose a colony of northern weavers was settled there about forty years ago. But this proved ineffectual, for the children of those weavers, like the other natives, neither weaver nor spin, and in everything but religion are indistinguishable from the general mass”.[73] Much the same could be said about the Villierstown linen industry.

There were a number of reasons for the failure of the linen industry in the south and west of Ireland. There was considerable difficulty in obtaining quality flax seed outside of Ulster.[74] Clearly the northern promoters of linen saw little concern in sending a few weavers south to educate the rest of Ireland but were not prepared to allow the prosperity of the northern linen industry to be compromised.

Outside of Ulster employment in the linen industry was unreliable and offered poor wages compared to worsted spinning. Also outside Ulster the linen industry was imposed from the top down, through the activities of the Linen Board and individual landlords. In Ulster the linen manufacture grew from the grass roots that were partly based on a long history of growing flax and making linen.[75]

The Villierstown linen project was not the only one of its type to fail in the south of Ireland in the eighteenth century. In many cases it was the death of the landed promoter which often spelt the end for the fragile linen industry in many places. The linen project started by John Damer of Shronell, Co. Tipperary in the 1740s using northern migrants failed shortly after his death in 1768.[76] Even the most famous linen enterprise in the south of Ireland, that which was at Dunmanway, failed shortly after the death of its promoter, Sir Richard Cox, in 1766.[77]

The reason for this decline after the promoter died was to do with the capital needed to keep the industry going. In order to continue weaving capital would be needed to maintain the existing looms and purchase new looms. The migrant weavers were often too poor to afford the small capital needed.[78] In the early days the Linen Board had subsidised half the cost of the wheels as each spinning-wheel or loom cost about five shillings which was over two weeks wages for an agricultural worker.[79]

The type of linen made in the south of Ireland also contributed to its decline. Many promoters were opposed to bandle weaving for the local market. Instead they preferred the finer cloth as produced in Ulster and supported the statute of 1763 which prohibited the sale of narrow linens at public markets. But the promoters of these finer cloths found it difficult to break into the markets already held by the Ulster traders. When the slump of 1773 came they were exposed to decline. The linens made in West Cork were able to later find a niche market in places like London by making modifications to the old bandle cloth.[80]

In 1773 the linen trade slumped nationally and many linen enterprises of the mid-century that had survived until then, quickly fell away. Many weavers were unable to sell their cloth and changed to weaving bandle linen for the local market while others changed occupation or left the country. In times of harvest failure, which often coincided with a recession in the textile trade, the weaver was especially vulnerable as he had to purchase some of his food requirements in normal times and would be exposed to the shortages more than others.[81]

linen weaving

Linen weaving at home

Where did the northern migrants go?

After the failure of the linen industry in Villierstown, where did the northern migrants brought in to develop the industry, go? The documentary trail is hard to conclusively find answers. The lease for one life given to the migrants suggested that they saw their stay in Villierstown as a temporary one. On the Damer estate in Tipperary some of the weavers continued to live locally as tenant farmers instead of as weavers. Other weavers on the Damer estate moved to the nearby estate of Maude of Ballintemple in about 1771 as he started a linen enterprise. While some weavers returned to Ulster the majority upped and went to settled in America or Canada.[82]

The weavers who came to Villierstown possibly also went different ways like those on the Damer estate. Their legacy and that of the linen industry of 1750-1768 is the present village of Villierstown.


As mentioned earlier, the Villierstown linen industry appears to have ended in 1768 or shortly after. Yet the linen connection was not totally severed. On 9th November 1804 Lord Henry Stuart wrote to his agent, Sir William Homan, about the linen manufactory. In 1802 Lord Henry Stuart, fifth son of the 1st Marquess of Bute married Lady Gertrude Villiers, only daughter and heiress of the 2nd Earl Grandison, and thus came into possession of the Dromana estate. Lord Henry’s children by Lady Gertrude assumed the family name of Villiers-Stuart.

In the 1804 letter Lord Henry Stuart asked his agent “Are you of opinion that weavers might be collected from about the county and established there [Villierstown] and the linen manufactory resumed”? Lord Henry said that with such a resumption of the linen industry “we should probably be but small losers … [yet] … be amply repaid in the prospect of being in the neighbourhood of an industrious village instead of a den of thieves”.[83]

This effort to re-establish the Villierstown linen industry came to nothing. Instead the Dromana estate concerned itself with developing agriculture, even buying extra land, and establishing corn mills along with the later development of the Helvick fishery. These stories are items for another day.

Dromana 800 crest

This article is part of the Dromana 800 celebrations. For more information visit their website at http://www.dromana800.com/


End of post


[1] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1065

[2] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1066

[3] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1066

[4] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers: Introduction, Summary List and Detailed Calendar (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, 1982), pp. 5, 6

[5] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1066

[6] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 13

[7] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1066

[8] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1066; A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 14

[9] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 1976, p. 1066

[10] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 12

[11] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/5/1, 17th July 1724, Maurice Ronayne to Lord Grandison

[12] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, pp. 14, 15

[13] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/5/42, 27th July 1729, Maurice Ronayne to Lord Grandison

[14] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/5/49, 1729, Maurice Ronayne to Lord Grandison

[15] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/5/70, 1st November 1730, Maurice Ronayne to Lord Grandison

[16] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 98

[17] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 17

[18] Toby Barnard, Improving Ireland: Projectors, Prophets and Profiteers 1641-1786 (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2008), p. 16

[19] David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830 (Cork University Press, 2005), p. 204

[20] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 97

[21] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, pp. 97, 99

[22] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 99

[23] Publicola, A letter from a country gentleman in the Province of Munster to his Grace the Lord Primate of All Ireland (Cashel, 1741), p. 3

[24] Marie-Louise Legg (ed.), The Diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740-1751: The worlds of a County Limerick farmer and agent (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005), p. 19

[25] David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830 (Cork University Press, 2005), p. 204

[26] Marie-Louise Legg (ed.), The Diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740-1751, p. 20

[27] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/3/9, 27th October 1728, Maurice Ronayne, Youghal to Lord Grandison

[28] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/5/53, 7th December 1729, Maurice Ronayne to Lord Grandison

[29] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/3/9, 17th July 1737, Capt. Matthew Fitzgerald, London to Lord Grandison

[30] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/3/9, 17th July 1737, Capt. Matthew Fitzgerald, London to Lord Grandison

[31] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, pp. 15, 16

[32] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/8/2, 23rd February 1740, John Kennedy to Lord Grandison

[33] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/8/43, 13th November 1744, John Kennedy to Lord Grandison

[34] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/11/12, August 1741-December 1742, Hoare & Arnold to Lord Grandison; Ibid, T.3131/C/11/24, Christopher Arnold to Lord Grandison, Dromana

[35] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/F/4/24, 1746 Rental of Lord Grandison’s Irish estates

[36] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, pp. 24, 25

[37] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 17

[38] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, pp. 18, 36, 37

[39] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/B/20/8, c.1750 Account of the purchase price for Templemichael

[40] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 104

[41] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 15

[42] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/5/50, 5th October 1729, Maurice Ronayne to Lord Grandison

[43] Donald Brady (ed.), Charles Smith, The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Waterford (Waterford County Council, 2008), p. 46

[44] Loose manuscript paper in possession of Barbara Grubb, née Villiers-Stuart

[45] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, pp. 101, 103, 104

[46] Hugh Maguire (ed.), An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of County Waterford (Government of Ireland, 2004), p. 14

[47] Rev. W. Rennison, Succession list of the Bishop, Cathedral & Parochial Clergy of the Dioceses of Waterford and Lismore (Dublin, 1920), pp. 220, 221

[48] Hugh Maguire (ed.), An Intro to the Architectural Heritage of County Waterford, p. 14; Rev. W. Rennison, Succession list of the Dioceses of Waterford and Lismore, p. 221

[49] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/B/7/36, 22nd June 1755, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin to [Aland Mason?]

[50] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/B/7/37, 30th April 1757, Earl Grandison, Dromana to Aland Mason, Dublin

[51] Marie-Louise Legg (ed.), The Diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740-1751: The worlds of a County Limerick farmer and agent (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005), p. 20

[52] Marie-Louise Legg (ed.), The Diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740-1751, p. 20

[53] David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830, pp. 398, 399

[54] Loose manuscript paper in possession of Barbara Grubb, née Villiers-Stuart

[55] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/B/7/36, c. December 1754 (more likely 1755), Christopher Musgrave, Tourin to [Aland Mason?]

[56] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/10/16, 6th May 1757, Lord Grandison, Dromana to [John Kennedy?]

[57] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/B/7/36, 5th November 1758, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin to Aland Mason, Dublin

[58] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/B/7/36, 5th November 1758, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin to Aland Mason, Dublin

[59] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 17

[60] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/2, 23rd December 1763, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison; Ibid, T.3131/C/14/3, 20th January 1764 Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[61] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/7, 31st January 1764, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin; Ibid, T.3131/C/14/8, Musgrave, Tourin, to Grandison, Dublin

[62] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/6, 29th January 1764, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[63] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/4, 24th January 1764, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[64] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/5, 27th January 1764, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[65] Marie-Louise Legg (ed.), The Diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740-1751: The worlds of a County Limerick farmer and agent (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005), p. 20

[66] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/10, 4th November 1764, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[67] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/13, 15th October 1765, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[68] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/C/14/16, 23rd March 1766, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin, to Lord Grandison, Dublin

[69] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/E/1/3, 22nd April 1768, Christopher Musgrave, Tourin to Countess Grandison

[70] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 19

[71] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, pp. 14, 20, 27

[72] A.P.W. Malcomson (ed.), The Villiers-Stuart Papers, p. 25

[73] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 97

[74] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 109

[75] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 109

[76] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 99

[77] David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830 (Cork University Press, 2005), p. 208

[78] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 109

[79] David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830, p. 206

[80] David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830, p. 208

[81] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, p. 109

[82] John Heuston, ‘The weavers of Shronell – 250 years go’, in the Tipperary Historical Journal 2002, pp. 109, 110

[83] P.R.O.N.I., Villiers-Stuart papers, T.3131/P/11, 9th November 1804, Lord Henry Stuart to Sir William Homan


4 thoughts on “Villierstown and the linen industry

  1. elizabeth says:

    Hi Niall,
    Really enjoyed the article. Thought it was quite interesting. I’m a young trainee architect working in the area and was researching the town. Do you happen to know what types of looms were used…a barn loom/four post loom perhaps? Also,do you happen to know where the linen factory was located.I’ve been looking through some osi maps from the 1800’s but haven’t come across anything Finally, did the quay on the Blackwater River play a part in the linen production? Any tips or info on these matters would be greatly appreciated.


    • Hello Elizabeth,
      Thanks for enjoying the article. I wish you well in your career and hope it will be fun and enjoyable. As to your questions = I was not able due to work commitments to go to Cork and inspect the Villiers Stuart papers directly. My references were based upon a calendar produced some years ago by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Somewhere in the estate papers it may say what type of loom was used but I don’t know at this time what type. It is assumed that the weavers worked in their own houses to work the linen but the estate papers give the impression that there was a store house for the flax or finished linen. It is possible that weaving occurred in that store house. The location of the store house is unknown. OSI maps are good but they were made in about 1840 while the linen industry stopped in 1768. A lot of structural changes could be made to buildings and the landscape between those dates. The map on page 14 of An introduction to the Architectural heritage of County Waterford was a proposed site development plan. The actual construction on the ground differs from this map. The Villiers Stuart papers in Cork may have a map between 1768 and 1840. As for the quay = shipping records only begin in 1879. Records before that time were thrown out by Waterford County Council and Youghal Urban District Council years ago = great! = There is records of ship building around Dromnanabeg alias Villierstown in the 1740s and the river has been used for trade since when first man came to Ireland. The 1st Earl of Cork made much use of the river for his industries and so it is very possible that flax or linen or both was carried on the river – we just don’t have the records to prove it.
      Not much of help in answering your questions because your questions, for the most part, fall into the dark ages of absent documents. I’ll keep your questions in mind if something comes up.
      Yours sincerely,

  2. Pingback: Villierstown Chapel and Chaplains | History Exploration with Niall

  3. Pingback: Observations on Villierstown in 1841 and 1851 | History Exploration with Niall

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