Clara and the Goodbody textile factory and mills, by Michael Goodbody

Clara has the distinction of being one of the only towns in the Irish midlands to have increased in size in the years between the Famine and Independence in 1921. This growth was entirely due to the industrial activities of the Goodbody family, whose mills and textile factories provided employment for large numbers drawn from the surrounding countryside.

Robert Goodbody (1781-1860), a Quaker from Mountmellick, came to Clara in 1825 when he took over one of the three flour mills in order to provide a living for some of his six young sons. Despite having no experience in milling, the business prospered at a time when the Corn Laws favoured domestic producers, Ireland then being the principal supplier of grain for the English market.

Valuable reading material for the history of Clara in the Offaly History Centre, Clara and Tullamore Central Libraries

The Goodbody firm, now consisting of Robert and three of his sons, Marcus, Jonathan and Lewis, then built a new mill powered by steam. This gave them a competitive advantage over the other millers so that, by 1866, they controlled all the town’s mills and had also built a factory for weaving sacks. The area had long been noted for its flax production and was one of the main flax manufacturing centres outside of Ulster. However it was still a cottage industry, the weavers keeping the looms in their own houses, and often involving the whole family. The Goodbodys, needing flour sacks, gathered these weavers into a purpose built factory which still stands next to Charlestown Bridge.

001 Marcus, Lewis Frederick, Jonathan, Thomas Pim (seated) Robert James Goodbody
The five Goodbody brothers in 1882: left to right, Marcus, Lewis Frederick, Jonathan, Thomas Pim and Robert James

The coming of the railways, with the opening of the line linking Tullamore and Athlone in 1859, provided new opportunities for moving goods so, in 1864, it was decided to build a factory to carry out spinning as well as weaving and finishing. The railways meant that goods could be speedily transported and sold throughout the country.

Flax was far from ideal for sack making and a new material – jute from India – was now available. The factory was designed with this in mind and the latest machinery installed, supervised by skilled workers brought in from Scotland to train the local girls.

 

028 Clara Mills
The mills at Charlestown, Clara, about 1900

The reasons behind the new venture were partly to provide a living for the increasing number of Robert Goodbody’s grandsons but also to embody the Quaker ideal of combining a viable manufacturing operation with beneficial working conditions for the underlying labour force. Offaly had been badly hit by the Famine of 1846-49 and, in the words of Lydia Goodbody, wife of one of the partners and a main proponent of the scheme, the intention was to provide work for local women to help ‘them gain an honest livelihood, and save them from some of the temptations of extreme poverty, as well as give good moral training.’It was many years before the jute factory was profitable but the partners still managed to build workers’ houses and started a primitive health scheme with a resident nurse. By 1890 the factory and the mills were employing more than 800 people and the works at Clashawaun occupied an area almost as big as the town itself. The Goodbodys built a gas works in 1860, a Quaker meeting house and burial ground for their own use, and bought up much of the surrounding land.

Mills at Clara

Like all success stories it could not last for ever. The Great War of 1914-18 changed everything. Wages increased dramatically and the former paternalistic way of looking after workers and their dependents was no longer appropriate or acceptable. Ireland was moving towards independence and there was enormous resentment about land which was being gradually – but not quickly enough for some – redistributed following the Land Acts of the 1880s.

Moreover the third and fourth generation of the family were now running things and they had become accustomed to a good lifestyle which encouraged complacency. They had lost the entrepreneurial flair of Robert’s three sons who had been responsible for Clara’s former growth.

Then disaster struck in November 1918 when the main steam mill was destroyed by fire. It was never rebuilt and Erry mill, several hundred yards downstream, was upgraded and fitted out in its place. However the firm, which also owned large flour mills at Limerick and Cork, was financially stretched and had few reserves. They began to face competition from the large English milling concerns such as Ranks and Spillers and were in no position to combat this. The final curtain came down in 1930 when the family firm of M., J. & L. Goodbody had to be rescued by Ranks but, to all intents and purposes, milling in Clara had reached the end.

The jute factory was also under threat from overseas competition at this time but went through something of a renaissance under Harold Goodbody in the 1930s when it was turned into a public company with outside shareholders and new capital. Outdated machinery was replaced and a second factory opened in Waterford. World War II brought production almost to a standstill but the company survived and enjoyed considerable growth in the 1950s, expanding into cotton and synthetics. J. & L.F. Goodbody became one of Ireland’s largest public companies and Clara was thriving once again. Competition from the Far East finally took its toll of the British Isle’s textile manufacturers and the company, no longer in family hands, eventually went into liquidation and was wound up in 1984.

The Goodbodys are now gone from Clara, their houses and land disposed of, the mills have mostly been demolished and the factory at Clashawaun is a quiet relic of its former activity.

Inchmore House in better times.
The house was built in the early 1840s and to the left the Quaker Meeting house erected in the 1860s.

 

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