Flour and fire: the rise and fall of Robert Perry & Co, Belmont Mills

The Perrys originated with Henry Perry, a Quaker from Shanderry, near Mountmellick in Co. Laois. He had five sons, many of whom became successful industrialists. Robert Perry, the eldest, founded Rathdowney Brewery, of Perry’s Ale fame,  and was father to the Perry Brothers who founded Belmont Mills. Another of his sons, James Perry, was a visionary in terms of transport development. He was a director of the Grand Canal Company and then turned his attentions to railway advancement. With the Pims, another Quaker family, he promoted the first railway line in Ireland, the Dublin to Kingstown line. He made a sizeable fortune investing in that company, and then became director of the Great Southern and Western Railway before leading a new group to form the Midland Great Western railway, and the two companies battled it out to win routes west of the country, finally managing to get a train line through Clara in 1859.

With his now vast fortune,  James and his brother Henry purchased Obelisk Park in Stillorgan Co. Dublin, which later became synonymous with the Goodbody name in Dublin. The reason for this is that his daughter, Hannah Perry married Marcus Goodbody of Clara thus joining two prominent Quaker families. That particular union was very fruitful for the Goodbodys – 13 Goodbody children resulted and Hannah brought with her a substantial Perry dowry and when her father James died, Marcus Goodbody, (of the millers M. J. & L. Goodbody and Inchmore House, Clara) inherited a sizeable portion of his fortune, including Obelisk park and its estate. John, a further son of Henry of Laois, founded the mills at Ballinagore in Westmeath with his brother, William. This became John Perry & Co.

032600 Belmont Mill with bridge and river
Belmont Mills on the banks of the River Brosna

The firm of Robert Perry & Co. originally began life in Clara, when Henry Robert Perry took a lease of the Street Mill in Clara and formed the company 1850s. It was named after his father, Robert Perry, who founded Rathdowney Brewery in 1831 which brewed Perry’s Ale. In 1859, Henry Robert purchased Belmont Mills from Captain John Collins for the sum of £3275. The mill complex was located beside the site an earlier 18th century mill complex situated south of Belmont Village on the right bank of the River Brosna. The company now traded as Robert Perry & Co., Clara and Belmont Mills but by 1865, Marcus Goodbody controlled all the mills at Clara so that Robert Perry & Co. became exclusively attached to Belmont and thereafter known locally as Belmont Mills or Perry’s Mills.

Henry Robert’s brother, Thomas Perry ran the mill at Belmont during the 1860s and acquired full ownership of it in 1878. He converted the adjoining derelict corn and rape mills to an oat mill and a granary. Business was brisk, much of this owing to its advantageous location. Distribution was aided greatly by both the Grand Canal, which connected Dublin with Limerick via the Shannon, and also by the Clara-Banagher railway, which had opened in 1884. There were three major fires at Belmont Mills, the first of which occurred in 1879, the year after Thomas acquired outright ownership of the mill. A report in King’s County Chronicle at the time of the fire described the sequence of events:

The average daily output in the flour department alone was about 150 bags; and in such high favour did Messrs Perrys’ manufactures stand that, although working night and day, the supply was scarcely equal to that demand. During the night-work it was customary to have two men on duty, one a professional miller, the other to look to the machinery; and in anticipation of disaster, buckets of water were placed at convenient distances on the various floors. On Thursday the men detailed for the night were James Murphy and John Wilson, and up to half-past eleven o’clock matters progressed as usual. Very shortly before that hour, Wilson, pursuing his regular rounds, came to the second floor – that immediately above the stone loft – and on entering through the fire-proof door was shocked to find a distinct trace of fire. A closer examination showed him that a brass bearer – the revolutions of which averaged some 700 per minute – becoming over-heated had communicated the flame to the adjoining woodwork. To expend all the available water on the momentarily increasing fire was but the work of a minute, but with little effect, as the dry, floury deposit all around was serving as a conductor to the hungry flames….Seeing the hopelessness of any attempt at repressing the fire, efforts were next directed to saving the stock, at the moment an unusually heavy one, a large consignment of wheat having been just delivered; the supply of flour in store, too, was over the average. Close upon 2,000 bags of flour and 5,000 of wheat, it is calculated, were within the walls on Thursday, and of these not more than 400 bags were saved. During this time the fire had communicated to the upper and lower lofts making it impossible to go near the building, and the crowds of men could do little more than look helplessly on while the fune structure was being surely destroyed. Before daylight the whole block was on fire from foundation to roof, the flames leaping wildly out at the numerous windows. (Kings County Chronicle, 15 August 1879)

002153 Ruins of Belmont Mill (1)
Fire damaged Belmont Mills

 

Rebuilding commenced immediately and innovative machinery was installed during this time such as roller mills as well as the traditional millstones. In 1893 the company was restructured as Robert Perry & Co. Ltd. and upgrading continued. Ernest Perry took over in 1900 on the death of Thomas Perry. A new maize mill was added between 1906-09 for the production of animal feed and a turbine was installed in 1908 to provide electricity to the mill and the village of Belmont.

032601 Belmont Mill with workers (1)
Rebuilding the mills

The mill then passed to Wilfred Perry on the death of his brother, Ernest, in 1924. Another disastrous fire in 1925 destroyed the flour and maize mills. Insurance was paid out but after a couple of years, it was rebuilt and re-opened in 1928 under the name Robert Perry & Co. (1927) Ltd. producing flaked maize, wheatmeal, oatmeal, and flaked oatmeal. The mill subsequently passed to Wilfred’s son Philip, who continued to produce oats and animal feed until his death in 1967. His wife continued the business for many years and the oatmeal mill was used to produce ‘Groato’ flaked otatmeal until c.1974. On her death in 1980, their son, David Perry took over the business.

In 1982, the mill was devastated by fire for the third time. This time it was not rebuilt, but demolished, except for the granary, which had not been damaged. David Perry began work on the installation of a hydro-power station at the site to generate electricity for the national grid. Animal feed production continued in the maize mill granary and did not cease until 1997 when the entire operation was sold to the new owners, Tom and Sandy Dolan, who have completed a sensitive restoration of the mill complex. It is now an artists’ retreat and home to many arts and crafts studios. More details on their website.

Despite not one but three devastating fires, archival records relating to the mills are plentiful. However they are dispersed. A sizeable collection is housed at Tullamore Central Library, having been discovered and transferred at the time of its renovation in the early 2000s. These records, which encapsulate the day-to-day administration of the business in its heyday in the mid to late nineteenth century, are catalogued and available for consultation (reference code OCL/P68). Further collections relating to the company can be found at the NUI,Maynooth (reference code MU/PP17), and the National Archives of Ireland (reference code NAI BRS OFF/9).

 

Further reading

For an extensive history of the Goodbodys, their business interests and related Quaker families, including the Perrys,  see Michael Goodbody, The Goodbodys: Millers, merchants and Manufacturers  The story of an Irish Quaker Family,  1630-1950, Ashgate (2012).

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