Tag Archives: Emerson Tennent Herdman

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Sion Mills

This blog serial explored the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited 


“Everywhere we found order, neatness and thrift.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

In contrast to the Dublin slums, Hurlbert arrived 3 February 1888 at the “model village” at Sion Mills, near Strabane, County Tyrone (now part of Northern Ireland), 125 miles northwest of the capital city.

He described Sion House, the mill owner’s residence, as “a handsome Queen Anne mansion [that] stands on a fine knoll, commanding lovely views on all sides. Below it, and beyond a little stream, rise the extensive flax-mills which are the life of the place.” The village contained a reading room, cricket clubs, and other amenities for the 1,100 employees, which Hurlbert reported were an even mix of Catholics and Protestants.

“I find it wise to give neither religion a preponderance, and to hold my people of both religions to a common standard of fidelity and efficiency,” mill owner Emerson Tennent Herdman told Hurlbert. This quote is used in a 2014 BBC profile of the village, which it says has maintained a reputation as “completely non-sectarian.”

The 2009 video below by the Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust provides more history of the mill and village. In September 2017, The Architects’ Journal reported about efforts to “remasterplan” the village.

While late 19th century Sion village and mill life under Herdman’s watch was arguably more progressive than in Belfast or other Irish linen factory locations, it’s worth remembering that workers typically toiled for 12 hours weekdays, plus time on the weekend. “Wages were low and injuries and illness were common among factory workers,” according to this Ancestry overview.

Hurlbert sneered at the “ineradicable objection of some of the peasantry to continuous industry.” He wrote of “a strapping lass of 18 who came to the mills, but very soon gave up and went back to the parental shebeen in the mountains rather than get up early in the morning to earn 14 shillings a week. Three weeks of her work would have paid the year’s rent of the parental holding.”

This chapter of the book also contains an example of 19th century sexism. Herdman steers the American reporter and some other men touring the mill to get “a glimpse of the ‘beauty of Sion,’ a well-grown graceful girl of 15 or 16 summers.” Noticing the gawking visitors, the girl focused intently on her work, proving “how completely she saw through our futile and frivolous devices,” Hurlbert wrote. Next, Herdman tells his visitors about “the ugliest girl ever employed here.” She was engaged to a blacksmith, “who lost heart of grace on the eve of the sacrifice” and “fled Sion forever” on a ship to America.

I leave it to 21st century readers to decide whether such actions and comments are felonies or misdemeanors.

Sion House

NEXT: Glenveagh evictions

NOTES: This post is based on pages 71 to 76 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan