Most Progressive Factory Catered Mainly For Women

MOST progressive industry in the Newry region, over the past 50 years, must have been Starks’ factory at Cornmarket, now Ballybot House.

Employing mainly women, it was the first to establish a crèche; employees were permitted to leave and have babies, rear them, and return to the workforce, on a part-time basis if necessary. It gave women, whose men-folk might be unemployed, the chance to earn some money.

Best-paid of any workers in the locality, they had ten-minute breaks in mid-morning and afternoon, and an hour for dinner in the canteen. Christmas parties and trips to Butlins were laid on for children, while annual dinners and shopping-trips to Dublin were the norm. A bus was provided to transport workers, who lived in areas from Forkhill to Mayobridge.

Those who were employed at Starks, - which opened in 1946, and closed in the 80’s, - included Anne McConville, Kathleen McCaul, Ruth Kane, Philomena Poucher, Claire and Maisie Higgins, Roisin Farmer, Molly Andrews, Margaret McConville, Judy Markey, Maureen Rafferty, Freda Baines, Sadie Irwin, Madge Boyle, Mary Carnegie, Mavis McKeown and Vera McElroy. The office staff included Pauline Meehan and Hanna Brady.

Among the cutters and pressers were Hughie Doran, Bobby Loughran, Sean Dillon, Johnny Mulholland and Joe Poucher, with Arthur Murphy as mechanic, and Mr Kay, chief cutter. The garments manufactured at the Cornmarket plant were Gabardine and Burberry coats, Duffle jackets and Crombies, - very popular with teenagers in the 70’s, - as well as “hot-pants.”

However, not everyone was happy about the logo attached to its products, which featured a Union Jack and the inscription: `Made in England.’ However, the general feeling was: “Jobs are more important than symbols.”

Anne McConville from Drumalane, a shop-steward, employed at Starks from 1956 to ’65, recalled how there was a great spirit in the factory, with Protestants and Catholics working happily together.

“What always remains in my memory was so many young girls from St Clare’s Convent primary school, coming to work part-time, in order to learn the skills. No sooner had they finished school than there were given a full-time job at the factory.

“And I will always remember one young girl, whom I saw one morning on my way to work, playing ball against the gable wall of the factory. Her mother came along and brought the girl into Starks, to be interviewed by the manager. She left the factory with the ball still in her fist, and started work next morning.”

The shop-steward of the Tailors and Garment Workers Union, who got the opportunity to attend Trade Union Congresses in Britain, also described how many girls left jobs at other factories or mills, in order to take advantage of the superior pay and working conditions at the Cornmarket plant.

Indeed, women had an advantage in that many factories in the Newry region were conducive to female labour in the 50’s and 60’s. They included such clothing manufacturers, which concentrated on stitching, as Taylors, Northern Waterproofs, Zeenozip and Starks. Even Bessbrook, Damolly and Drumalane mills employed lots of women.

The Starks family were Jewish, and came from Selford in England. Aubrey Stark had served as a British soldier in Newry during the early 40’s, based at the massive mill in Cornmarket. He had seen the commercial potential of the building so, when the war ended, he returned with his father and brother, Geoffrey, to establish a clothing industry in the temporary barracks.

Anne McConville described Mr Stark (senior) as “a real gentleman,” and Aubrey “kind and fair to his employees; always pleasant and gregarious, especially in company.” Geoffrey was handsome and urbane.

However, Starks factory was badly damaged in an arson attack in the 70’s, having to move its operations to an advance factory at the Greenbank industrial estate on the Warrenpoint Road. It ceased production in Newry during the 80’s.

Maybe the shortest-lived factory in the Newry region was Zeenozip, which opened on the Warrenpoint Road to a great fan-fare in 1961. This was the year that saw the demise of Drumalane Mill and Horrockses factory, along with large lay-offs at Bessbrook Mill, so the local Urban Council and the Ministry of Commerce were pinning great hopes on its progress.

Indeed, Newry Urban Council decided to grant the company ten years’ exemption from rates. And a high-powered delegation from the Department of Commerce met the top directors of the company, who included the Unionist M.P. for West Belfast, Mrs Patricia McLaughlin. A government advance factory was made available for the enterprise.

Target of the industry, described as one of the largest manufacturers in Britain, was to produce one million of the “invisible” zip-fasteners in the first year, building up to three million in a few years. The most modern automatic machinery was installed at the Newry plant, which was officially opened by Stormont Prime Minister, Lord Brookeborough.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008