LOUIS CROMMELIN
"To Ireland from France"
by H. Alfred BELL
President of the French Linen Industry



En francais

Return / Terug

Louis Crommelin was born in the year 1653 at Armancourt, near Saint-Quentin (Aisne), France. For some 500 years his ancestors were farmers and producers of linen cloth in this beautiful region of Picardy. He was the elder brother of four sons who were all very accomplished and energetic businessmen. The indisputable influence of Louis Crommelin on the brilliant future of a major linen industry in Northern Ireland (Ulster) is worth relating. The editorial staff of this article were assisted by M. Alfred S. Moore of Belfast who authorized me to use extracts of two books entitled "LINEN" which he wrote in 1910 and 1922), Sir Milne Barrour de Hilden (who was kind enough to send me several photos and documents which illustrate this text), articles which appeared in "The Lisburn Standard" and "The Belfast Telegraph" in July, 1950, and by the precise documentation of "Cahiers CIBA" in Basel, Switzerland.

The religious intolerance of Louis XIV which led to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 (originally promulgated in 1598 by Henri IV), had the effect of transforming more than 500,000 industrious French into exiles, forcing them to scatter to the safety of other European nations. Great Britain opened wide its doors. A significant number established themselves at Lis-Na Garvagh (today called 'Lisburn'), 14 km from Belfast in the province of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

In their native country Huguenots were specialized in the silk industry (the important British silk business "Court" also being of Huguenot origin) but they were especially noted for the manufacture of fine linen cloth.

Immediately upon their arrival in their new country, the Huguenots began duplicating their trades and imparted to their associates the energy and skills which they were in the habit of employing in France during the troubled times. At first these efforts were somewhat uncoordinated for lack of the direction which occurred later on.

For more than two hundred years till the end of the XVIIth century, the Netherlands had acquired an excellent reputation in the production of beautiful linen cloth, and textiles exported from Haarlem was at the time the most beautiful in Europe. It is thus rather surprising to notice that it was the Dutch prince who facilitated the beginning of the Irish linen industry utilizing the very effective competition of a Frenchman. WILLIAM HENET DE NASSAU, Prince of Orange, third stadtholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, married Marly, a daughter of James II, King of England. Under the name of WILLIAM III he had the difficult task of supporting the interests of the Netherlands as well as those of the United Kingdom. These interests were far from compatible and it happened that when WILLIAM III got in touch with Louis Crommelin, he decided on measures which were unfavorable to the future of the Dutch linen industry.

Crommelin's reputation as an astute businessman having reached the Prince of Orange, it was at the personal request of King William III that Louis Crommelin left the Netherlands and went to London where the sovereign was very impressed by his personality and commercial expertise. He entrusted to Crommelin the mission "to organize, steer and make progress in Ireland" of an embryonic linen industry which the Prince of Orange had first noticed during one of his campaigns in the Emerald Isle.

WILLIAM III seems to have been a great promoter of linen fabric. In a recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London recalling the life of this King, we can see a portrait in which he wore a linen shirt at the time of his death.

Giving in to the desires of the King, although regrettably it meant leaving his peaceful life in Holland, it was thus in 1689, only four years after the arrival of the first Huguenots in Lisburn, that Louis Crommelin joined this French colony and became its leader. He was accompanied by 25 Huguenot families who had also taken refuge in the Netherlands. Upon his arrival he was very impressed by the green prairies of Erin and by going through them this visionary no doubt already saw them covered with the delicate blue flowers of flax. A practical and far-sighted man, he saw first to the needs of the French refugees. A Huguenot minister was appointed. The first one was Rev. de la Valades, the brother-in-law of Louis Crommelin, the new "director of the Royal Manufactories of Irish Textiles".

Eventually more than one thousand looms were brought in from the Netherlands - very sophisticated models then unknown in Ireland. These looms quickly replaced the primitive ones which hitherto wove the cloth. Indeed the author, SACHERVYL, wrote that around this time the Irish linen industry "was only of little importance, and produced only in the North by persons oblivious of production costs, the cost of culturing the linen, the cost of the spinning mill and the cost of bleaching the cloth - strange use of looms and the other tools essential for normal work." Louis Crommelin introduced at the same time as these new looms an invaluable innovation in the form of Dutch spinning wheels to spin the linen, of a type unknown by the Irish. Indeed, before the arrival of the French refugees, the reel and distaff such as were used by the Greeks in the classic times were the only tools used by the Irishmen to spin their linen. The new spinning wheels enabled the production of a thread, more uniform linen, and of a quality superior to that produced hitherto and in superior quantities.

The weaving mill prior to the industrial revolution was essentially of domestic character in all its details: the farmers cultivated the flax on their own lands; the fibers were cut and separated by them; their daughters and domestic help spun the linen and their sons weaved it. As for the bleaching, this was very primitively performed on fields by the same persons. Louis Crommelin first taught farmers about better methods of cultivating the flax. The raw fiber was taken to mills; workshops were built for weaving mills in a weaver's community, and after numerous difficulties the first bleachery was set up in 1791 at Haden near Lisburn, surrounded by prairie for the clotheslines to treat large sheets.

Some years before his death, a royal decree assured Louis Crommelin a 500-pound sterling sum over 12 years which represented the interest on 10 000-pound sterling capital which he had invested at his own risk and resources for the development of the linen industry in Ireland. Besides this sum a 300-pound sterling life annuity was assigned to him personally as well as 130 pounds for the salary of his three main assistants, and 60 pounds for the wages of a French minister. Louis Crommelin who wanted to insure the future of his son, Louis who was in poor health, asked and obtained from the Government to have this life annuity put on the life of his son. Unfortunately his son died in 1711 at the age of 30 and the life annuity was not restored into the name of the father. It is likely that the widow Anne, then the reigning monarch, was not inclined to continue the generosities of her late brother-in-law, William III. Louis Crommelin died relatively poor on July 17th, 1727, aged 75 years, leaving behind his wife and a daughter. He was buried at Lisburn in the churchyard of the Cathedral of this city.

During the second centenary of his death, in 1927, numerous linen dignitaries from Holland placed on his grave the reproduction in flowers of a Dutch spinning wheel.

On the photograph of this grave reproduced opposite, a part of the engraving on the stone was eroded by bad weather making it illegible, but this was written relative to the memory of his son: "six feet from here rests Louis Crommelin born in Saint-Quentin (France), only son of Louis Crommelin, Director of the Manufactory of Textiles, who died liked by all 1-7-1711." I am happy to be able to reproduce the photograph of a stained glass window which was offered quite recently by Sir Milne Barrour to the Cathedral of Lisburn. In this stained glass, inaugurated in July, 1950, appears among other notables, Louis Crommelin. It seems surprising that in Belfast, major centre of the Irish linen industry, where numerous statues recall the benefactors of this industry, nobody honours the memory of the one who was its real founder. "The Belfast Telegraph" wrote on July 18th, 1950: "Under Louis Crommelin were put the foundations of the industry" - the Irish linen industry for which Northern Ireland has become world renowned. Some days before, on July 14th, 1930, "The Lisburn Standard" wrote: "History applauds Louis Crommelin, the refugee Huguenot, as the biggest benefactor of Ireland, and this title is certainly justified." Crommelin was indeed the "Father" of the Irish linen industry.

To give credence to these impartial statements, three names of fine cloth are still employed to this day by the weaving mills of Ireland which reveal their French origin:
CAMBRIC (batiste) origin: city of Cambrai
DIAPER : origin: city of Ypres (d'Ypres)
LAWN (linen): origin: city of Laon.

By 1700, not long, thus, after Louis Crommelin's arrival in Ireland, the exports of linen fabric, according to old statistics, amounted to between 200 and 300,000 yards annually and rose by the end of the XVIIth century to between 30 and 40,000,000 yards.

According to other statistics we find an interesting progress of the exports of linen cloth from Ireland:

1700 Exports at 6,000 pounds sterling
1705 24,000
1720 100,000
1741 600,000
1825 2,893,000

Thus it seems indisputable that it was indeed under the direct influence, by the intelligence and relentless work of the French exiles that the Irish linen industry grew from only minor importance in 1700. Thanks to the intelligent initiatives and obstinate work of the Irishmen and the Scottish elements which came to settle in Ulster, it became afterward the very important current industry which in 1948, under The Irish Linen Guild's banner, exported more than 33,000,000 pounds of sterling worth of thread and linen fabric.