Salts/Tullamore Yarns, 1937–82: the largest employer in Tullamore for thirty years. By John Carroll and Offaly History

In the week of 23 December 1978, the Tullamore Tribune published an interview with the late John Carroll on the history of Salts/Tullamore Yarns. He had been with the company for its full forty years in Tullamore. The Tribune noted that John Carroll might be called the ‘Bill Riley of Tullamore Yarns’ – which means, as fans of the popular television serial of that time ‘The Brothers’ will realise, that he came into the firm at the bottom, without any special advantages, and worked his way up on merit alone. He made his appearance on the scene as a young teenager, helping to unpack and clean the machinery arriving for setting up of the Salts textiles factory in 1938. By 1978 he was works manager. He took a keen interest in Tullamore and was for many years a director of Tullamore Credit Union.

Salt’s spinning mill, erected on the site of old Tullamore jail, was the largest employer in Tullamore for about thirty years. Prior to its completion in 1938 there had been no major factory in the town from with the loss of the Goodbody tobacco factory due to a fire in 1886.  Any tradition the town had in textiles was gone since the 1820s. A linen factory building had been constructed in 1754 but was out of use by 1800. Salts decided on Tullamore after making a short list of suitable towns, interviewing the town council and satisfying themselves in regard to the site at the old jail which had been largely destroyed in 1922 during the civil war. Nothing could have been done without the support of the townspeople, William Davin, TD and the Minister for Industry and Commerce Sean Lemass.

Salts/Tullamore Yarns 1937-82

    The owner of the new woollen mill was Salts of Saltaire in Yorkshire and employed 3,500 workers in the textile industry. Salts (Ireland) Ltd. was established in 1937 to supply the requirements of the Irish market in worsted yarns both weaving and hosiery. The leading figure on Salts’ side was R. W. Guild who was from Scotland. At about the same time as  Guild was establishing Salts (Ireland) William Dwyer, the founder of the Cork-based Sunbeam Wolsey,  was working to  develop his own plant.

The Tullamore mill was intended to provide for one-half of the demand in the Free State for such yarn and in the initial phase was set to employ 300 people. The new Irish company had the benefit of trade tariffs and two of its five directors were connected with Tullamore companies – Edmund Williams (d. 1949) and Patrick J. Egan (d. 1960). By the autumn of 1938 work on the new factory was well advanced and Lemass as Minister for Industry and Commerce was able to tell the Dáil that ‘No question has caused me personally more trouble than to reconcile the interest of the clothing manufacturers with the interest of woollen manufacturers.’ The new factory would not, he stressed, be in competition with existing manufacturers. The selection of the new staff was also in progress with a number sent to Saltaire Mills, Bradford for training. By November 1938 most of the machinery was installed and a new road was under construction at Kilcruttin and presumably also at Spollanstown where about 12 houses for key staff were completed by the early 1940s.

Some of the Tullamore Yarns staff in 1982

Possibly the best period for Salts was in the late 1940s and 1950s. The company then had one of the most modem worsted plants in Europe and was producing on a single shift about 35,000 / 40000 lbs. per week of weaving and hosiery yarns; in eleven basic wool qualities. The firm employed about 600 people. The first general manager of Salts was Peter Saunders and he guided the company through the difficult war years. It was Saunders who established the tradition of meticulous attention to detail by initiating a programme of thorough training at all staff levels and whose policy had been maintained by subsequent management. William Kiley came to Tullamore in 1952 from the parent company to succeed Saunders. In the 1960s the Salts sold out to Sunbeam Wolsey. In 1968 the factory lost its managing director, Bill Kiely, who became Group managing director and moved to Cork.

Salts celebrated forty years in Tullamore in December 1978, but in a low-key way with interviews given to the Tribune on the history of the factory and the problems it was facing. It still employed 250 but had lost some key people to the new Burlington factory which was fully opened by July 1979 (employing 220 people) and Eamon Dowling from Kildare had opened Dowcloth with thirty jobs in Spollanstown (see separate pieces on the fortieth anniversary). The closure of the factory was announced in November 1982. Earlier that year there had been 90 redundancies and the axe finally fell as winter approached and contracts dwindled. The departure of Tullamore Yarns was part of a general decline in textiles, clothing and footwear industries in the 1970s after entry to the EEC market. For a country that made much of its clothing in 1960 it was importing 77 percent of its clothing needs by 1980. In the years from entry in 1973 to 1985 three-quarters of the clothing firms in the state and two-thirds of the textile firms had closed down. The wonder was that Tullamore Yarns had not closed sooner.

The picture includes Paddy Meacle, Frankie Hughes, Paddy Vicars, Mick Dowling Snr. & Jnr., Eamon Fox, Albert Scott, Paddy Doheny, Braendan Dagg, Joe Doheny, Erney McGuire

John Carroll surveys the history of Salts/ Tullamore Yarns in 1978

 “I came in in October of 1938’ Mr Carroll recalls, as the machinery was coming in from Salts Saltaire in big boxes, all covered with grease and sawdust. Our job was taking the machines out of the boxes and taking the grease and dirt off them. I got 10s. 6d. a week, and you worked 48 hour, 5½ day week. You got your bucket, half a bucket of paraffin, and half a dozen cloths. You might change your paraffin, but the rest was what you worked with for the week.”

    A little later when the machinery had been installed and the factory went into production, section by section, the young John was taken into the mill itself. He was on a five-day week then, and he suffered a drop in wages – he was cut down to 8s. a week.

John Carroll is second from the right.

The Way Ahead

What were the factors which enabled John, to become the works manager? He recalls one little incident: “I had nothing to do one day and I said to my foreman: that machine keeps giving trouble and I feel I could put it right.” He said “go ahead”. The mill manager, John Walker, came in and saw me at the machine. He said to the foreman: “what’s he doing”. The foreman said: “he thinks he can put it right”. After lunch, I had Brasso out, with everything cleaned up and everything all right. The Manager said: “We don’t need you here; we want you out as an apprentice overlooker.”

    The overlooker, or supervisor, was in charge of a “share” comprising 22 machines, operated by about 24 people, including the jobber lad, whose job was to tidy up the share, keep the floor clean, oil the machines, etc.

    Among those who filled the role of jobber lad during John Carroll’s years as an overlooker, was Kevin Donaghy, who subsequently became general manager. Like other management trainees, the youthful Kevin came into the firm from school, was sent to Bradford for technical training and went “through the mill” from one part to another. John Carroll speaks very warmly of his former jobber lad and general manager. Kevin Donaghy, he says, is one of the best. We were very lucky – we did have some good men coming through the place.

The Social Side

All down the years, there has been a recognition in the firm of the importance of social activities. “The social side was very good” recalls John Carroll, looking right back to the first function ever held by the employees – a picnic in the hills of Arden. “We collected 1s. from each person which gave us £2.” A Christmas Club was organised, and when the first welfare officer, Miss Prenderville, was appointed a committee was selected and another picnic was held, this time at Pallas Lake. “We had to borrow some money from the firm to meet debts, but the first dance we ran in the county ballroom [in the courthouse from 1927 to 1960] made £99 profit. That was a colossal amount of money. We paid back our debt to the firm and went ahead from there.”

    There were many other activities besides picnics and dances. “In the summer we used to have a trip to a resort. In the winter we had a Christmas dance or dinner and a children’s party, complete with Daddy (Arthur Green) Christmas. We ran our Panto or show nearly every year – rehearsing in the canteen. In Robinson Crusoe we had people like Michael Dowling, Paddy Doheny, Nurse Thornberry, Kevin Dwan, Vincent Connell, Angela Hensey and the late ‘Cock’ Martin.”

    Quite early on, the firm offered very tangible help to the social club and a vote was taken as to the facilities which should be chosen – tennis courts and club house, a swimming pool, a library . . ?  The majority favoured tennis and two excellent hard courts were put down, together with a pavilion. The late Bill Ennis came along to give lessons . . . teams from other towns were invited for challenge matches. . . a table tennis team was formed. The courts and pavilion gave a great deal of pleasure to many people. But times changed. More and more people bought their own cars, found their own amusements. Now the courts are in decay; the area is covered with weeds.

    Social life is not dead within the firm however. On the contrary. Even though the workforce is down to little more than a quarter of its peak level there has been a revival of interest in social and sporting activities. Summer brings pitch and putt, seven-a-side soccer, quoits, etc, and a presentation social. Highlight of the winter season is the Christmas dinner – a particularly topical activity, the 1978 dinner having been held in the Bridge House on Saturday night.

    Current chairman of the Social Club is Mr Bobby Brophy; Secretary is Mr P.J. Ryan; Treasurer, Mr Tom Hynes, and committee members: Messrs Peter Cronly, Sean Cronly, Bertie Cutler, Mick O’Brien, John Carroll (Jnr.) and Philip Martin.

Salts Tullamore about 1948

A walk through the Tullamore Yarns factory

A walk through the Tullamore Yarns factory has a somewhat battering effect on the uninitiated – partly because of the noise and partly because of the sheer size of the place. There are acres of clicking and clanking machines; row upon row of bobbins and tops. Some machines appear to be working on their own, unattended – and at first sight it is hard to see that some are working at all, so fine are the yarns. But appearances are deceptive. The machines in fact need constant attention and the skill, or lack of skill, of the operator will show up in the finished product, for an excessive number of knots could result in a consignment being rejected.

    The wool or oil spinning area is separated from the dry or acrylic area in which there are extra factors to be taken into account – necessity for control of temperature, problems with static electricity. Acrylic yarns are apt to be brightly coloured, some made to customers’ specifications. The raw material coming in from Du Pont, Asahi, etc., is a very fluffy material, like hunks of wool from the sheep’s back, which will pull apart in the hand. It is twisted and spun. Waste from the factory floor is brought to the waste department, where Sean Cronly is in charge. It is “waste” in name only, for it can be as valuable as the raw material, being used in paint – the paint you buy downtown, says Mr Cronly. “There is a synthetic fibre in it. The Irish Countrywomens’ Association use it for making toys. It is used for upholstery. It goes to the Geriatric Unit in the County Hospital and to the Rehabilitation Institute.”

Tullamore Yarns in the early 1980s

There is much more to be written about Salts/Tullamore Yarns so why not put pen to paper. We welcome new contributions from across the county. info@offalyhistory.com