The history of Wellbrook Beetling Mill

Explore Northern Ireland's last working water-powered linen beetling mill

In a remote and green valley of County Tyrone stands Wellbrook Beetling Mill, now a lone reminder of the flourishing linen industry which once operated around Corkhill, near Cookstown.

Situated in a peaceful, wooded glen along the Ballinderry River, Wellbrook Beetling Mill stands as a reminder of Ulster’s once-flourishing linen industry that dates back to the late seventeenth century.

The mill was in operation until 1961 and was given to the Trust, along with one acre of land, by Mr. S. J. Henderson in 1967. The building, machinery, and watercourses were in a state of disrepair and required extensive restoration work. With the help of the Landmark Trust and a public fundraising appeal, £25,000 was raised to finance the repairs. Several years later, on Friday 19 June 1970, Wellbrook was officially opened to the public by the Chairman of the Irish Linen Industry.

Wellbrook Beetling Mill prior to restoration
Wellbrook Beetling Mill prior to restoration with no windows and damaged roof
Wellbrook Beetling Mill prior to restoration

Since 1970, thousands of visitors have come to see this important piece of industrial heritage and enjoy guided tours of the mill and the surrounding demesne. Summer 2020 marked fifty years since National Trust in Northern Ireland first opened Wellbrook Beetling Mill to the public.

Northern Ireland's linen history

By the nineteenth-century Northern Ireland was a major manufacturer and exporter of quality Irish linen. Flax was farmed, harvested and scutched (a process which made flax more fibrous), before being spun into yarn which was woven into linen cloth.

Beetling is the final process in the manufacture of linen; it is when the linen is pounded by wooden hammers, called beetles. This pounding tightens the weave and gives the cloth it's characteristic sheen. At Wellbrook, water from the Ballinderry River turns the water wheel to power the cogs, releasing the wooden beetles to crash down on the linen, giving the cloth its characteristic smoothness and sheen.

The history of Wellbrook Beetling Mill

Wellbrook Beetling Mill began as a linen bleaching work opened by Hugh Faulkner and his brother in 1764. During the eighteen century the price of linen fell dramatically, and Hugh fell on hard times. He passed away in 1805 leaving the business to a son-in-law who sold it on.

The future of Wellbrook prospered when James Irwin bought the bleaching works and replaced the then dilapidated building in the 1830’s with the building we see today. There were several rapidly expanding weaving mills in the local area and beetling was in high demand.

In 1864 the mill was bought by the Leeper family and continued to flourish as international demand for Ulster linen grew in the 19th century. As beetling is the final stage of the manufacture of linen, Mr. Leeper sourced raw linen from Gunning and Moore’s Milburn Factory in Cookstown. They had a large export market to New Zealand and Australia and production continued to flourish with Wellbrook Beetling Mill becoming an important link in the supply chain supporting Ulster’s booming linen industry.

Wellbrook continued to produce finished linen well into the 1930’s. During the First World War flax and linen was produced on a large scale for the war effort . However, by the 1940s demand for linen began to fall as cheaper, alternative materials like rayon and polyester entered the market. When their partners Gunning and Moore closed their doors in 1957 Wellbrook Beetling Mill found it very difficult to survive and the doors shut for the last time in 1961.

The National Trust took over the Mill in 1967 and with the help of the Landmark Trust restored it over a three-year period opening it up to the first visitors in 1970. It is now the only accessible beetling mill in the UK (Clarks of Upperlands is open, but only for group visits).