Bessbrook: 100 years ago

On one wall inside the Chinese Restaurant in Margaret Street is painted the legendary quote from Jonathan Swift, ‘Belfast is a little village on the outskirts of Newry.’ 

It may raise a smile – but on reflection, one wonders at the Dean’s interpretation of ‘outskirts’, it being then as now, some 38-40 miles distant from us.

Bessbrook however, is the largest village nearest to Newry. I remember more than once, in England, when explaining that I came from Newry, being asked was it close to Bessbrook. This juxtaposition in my mind at least, was resolved by the realisation that the speaker had a former association with Richardson‘s Mill, or with the British Army that for so long was billeted there. Happily the site will soon revert to civilian hands and the disturbing memories may fade.

Then we may happily bask in the delightful little ‘Model Village‘ of old.  The following is a description for tourists, from just before the outbreak of the Great War.

‘Bessbrook is a large manufacturing village, the population of which is about 4,000 – the same number as are employed in Mr Richardson’s linen manufacturing enterprises there.

It is situate (sic) in a beautiful and well-watered valley convenient to the Camlough Mountains and about three miles ENE from Newry. The scenery, from the combined effect of hill, vale and wood is very attractive.

The village is the property of Mr John Grubb Richardson Esq., who has spared no expense or trouble to make it ‘the model town’. In this he has received the heartiest support from other members of the firm. 

The place has certain peculiarities. First it is without a public house, a feature endorsed by six to one of householders in a recent poll. It is also without a pawnbrokers, and a police barrack, these not being required.

Bessbrook is remarkable for its yarn and linen manufactories, a process from flax-growing to the finished product – be it family linen, a pocket handkerchief of a table cloth – carried on locally. The firm’s huckabacks, towelling, fronting linens, drills, diapers and damasks are known the world over. The damasks made at Bessbrook by machinery are easily the equal of those made by hand looms.

The company have also extensive quarries where the beautiful blue and grey granite is hewn out, dressed and polished for different markets. It is now extensively used in England, Scotland and America for monumental and other purposes. It was used for example in the Manchester Town Hall and in the construction of the Law Courts, London.

The religious denominations are well represented. A fine structure is that belonging to the Irish Church capable of holding 500-600. The Presbyterians have a commodious Church for a similar number. The Friends (Mr Richardson himself being a parishioner) have a place of worship for 700-800 and the Wesleyians have a neat Chapel. The Roman Catholic Chapel is a spacious edifice.

The village has a medical dispensary, a news-room, and a lending library. In the winter months the news-room is well-patronised as is the library, which latter contains a careful selection of elegant works and is largely used by the workpeople.

The day-school is divided into three departments – boys, girls and infants, and is run by efficient teachers.

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