Gone But Not Forgotten : The Jute Factory.
There would be a period of independence in Ireland in the late thirties which widened the country’s economy and mustered a wide range of factories and activities which benefitted from a new legislation that was designed to protect Irish industries. In Waterford it proved no different. And so the Jute Factory was born. A factory that breathed life into the city, employing hundreds and providing a wage for them. Sadly the factory’s demise in the mid-seventies was more down to the product in the company becoming somewhat outdated, but the Jute Factory has taken it’s place as one of the most iconic factories in the city. That history at least has been insured. J. & L. F. Goodbody, who already had a thriving plant in County Offaly , went looking to set up in Waterford. They were given backing by the Waterford Corporation who handed over a lush five acre green field on a site in Tycor to build the factory. It was with great anticipation the first sod was turned on December 17th 1936. Now the word ‘strike’ is going to appear all over this book and the Jute Factory would have its fair share too so stay with me! The first of those came to lighting September 1937. While working on the factory building 23 members of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers would down tools complaining about working conditions. The men were employed by McLoughlin & Harvey Building Contractors, who were based in Dublin, went outside the gates. With the building half-finished the timing wasn’t great. However the strike would last just a couple of days and work was completed in March 1938 when the Jute Factory started work. 180 people would be initially taken on but that number would rise to over 400 at it’s peak. Though Jute became more or less obsolete in the late seventies it was in major demand back in the late thirties and the factory was producing 2.5 tons of jute weekly. The city was building on it’s employment figures as Waterford industry with the likes of the Flourmills, Clover Meats, Iron Foundry and Denny’s all employing workers became a hub of activity in the South east. The factory became a happy workplace for hundreds of locals, all with their own whimsical stories which some whom I interviewed and cast their minds back and drew a raw smile from their faces.
“I joined the Jute Factory at 16 years of age and made my way up. I can safely say it was a lovely place to work. Everybody knew everybody and there seemed to be a family atmosphere about the factory floor” ‘DASHER’ BOLGER
A lack of raw materials in 1941 meant the factory had to temporarily close down. The company had nowhere to turn with the shortage which caused consternation at the plant. At the time it was a once off and everyone was back in work within a week. However the closure made the news and the minutes of the next Waterford Corporation meeting when two sides to the story were told. The Mayor, CouncillorT. Dunne, felt it was only a matter of time before a raw material shortage was sourced and the factory re-open, however Ald. J.Aylward thought differently.
“I remain convinced the only reason the Jute Factory has had to close was a shortage of raw materials and nothing else. If you’re asking me now I have every reason and faith that the firm , along with McDonnell’s Creamery (which had closed as well) will re-open again, when the material becomes available” - MAYOR T. DUNNE
“I’ve had the opportunity of investigating the matter and it is my considered opinion that it was impossible for these firms to operate any more. The Jute Factory gets raw materials from Calcutta and some from Dundee and it was impossible to get raw materials from Calcutta at present, and even if they did they would need a boat to fetch it. Alderman J.ALYWARD Though there was a closure the factory did get its much needed raw materialsand there was no more inadequate supplies of raw jute. Production would restart on March 1st 1944. Within six weeks the factory had got back up to speed. The Jute Factory would come into it’s prime after the second World war and production blossomed as demand was high. The factory continued to make great strides and by 1951 over 600 people were now working in the Jute Factory making it one of the biggest and most profitable factories not only in Waterford but the South-East. However the issue of equal rights and pay for women was still a long way off folks! Though the plant would now have 75% women and just 25% men, thefemale wages were still less than their male counterparts! In 1956 the plant was forced to go short time to allow the fitting of newequipment which would allow it to diversify into a high class yarn for carpets. At the time there was really no competition for the factory though that wouldchange in the early sixties. By that point synthetic fibres came into play and would gradually lead to a reduction in the demand for its products. It would mean 300 of the factory workers were temporarily put on short time but thankfully again the factory dodged a bullet and work would soongo back to full time hours. A year later the demand for increased wages would make for an uneasy truce in the summer of 1957. The Transport & General Workers Union had actedon behalf of the workers. Conditions at the plant were also on the agenda andmany complained of their current situation. Strike notice would be served. Mayor D.J. Fitzpatrick would preside over emergency meetings between the Union and factory – lasting almost three days , but it finally saw strike action being averted much to everyone’s reliefand workers conditions in the factory were investigated. Things began to look up. The factory celebratedits 21st anniversary in 1958 and by the end of that year the weekly production averaged 25 tons of Jute cloth. The weekly wage bill was the princely sum of £3,000. That may seem like small money but it wasa steady wage in a growing industry with plenty of supply and demand. By this stage an extension was built to the spinning mill (1948) and a doubleshift working since 1951 to keep up with the increasingcommand for Jute. A picture taken in 1949 after the opening of a new spinning extension at Tycor, Waterford.
Included in the picture (L to R) H.E. Guinness, D.M. Goodbody, Minister for Industry & Commerce Daniel Morrissey, R.O’Connor (secretary I.T. & G.W.U.), J.Forristal, T. Devereaux, J. Waters, J. Grant, P. Greene, M. Farrell. Copyright Paul O’Farrell.
The Goodbody’s had also commenced production on high class jute yarns which would go on sale to carpet manufacturers and the bulk of the speciality yarn was now being exported to Britain. In addition , 50 tons of jute cloth wasnow being produced weekly at the Tycor plant – a portion of which would go to foreign markets. The cloth was largely used in the manufactureof jute bags for packing potatoes , sugar and wheat and also backing for carpets. At this point the factory still had thriving plants in Limerick, Cork and Clarain Offaly – the main parent factory which had been establishedin 1865. In February 1969 pickets were placed outside the Jute Factory in support of a MaintenanceCraftsman strike that brought most of the factories in Waterford City to a standstill. Clover Meats ,Waterford Metal Industries , Waterford Flourmills,and Cherries Brewery followed suit along Munster Chipboard, Graves & Co, Waterford as did Waterford Iron Foundry. In all nearly a dozen factories went out for a week. The owners of the factory would make a contributionto local sport outside the factory in the early sixties. The Factory league became a huge annual soccer tournament, competed for by dozens of major factories in the city. The Goodbody Cup , sponsored by J & L.F. Goodbody became the trophy everyone wanted to lift. Competition was fierce . Each factory seemed to have a scattering of goodplayers and the Jute Factory themselves had a strong team each year. The Jute Factory entered the seventies with just under 400 workers, still busy,but things would change dramatically as by the end of 1974 the doors wouldbe shut on a disbelieving public and the even more distraught employees.A warning sign would be some short-time redundancies in 1970 as the company fell short on orders and closed one section of the factory thoughthat would only be for three months In 1971 Goodbody’s would close their Jute operations in Kildare and in doing so making 250 employees redundant so it could concentrate all their business in Waterford. Initially that would benefit Waterford, more work and employees taken on but there was always the chance the Waterford plantcould suffer the same fate. Little did anyone know at this point but the life of the 33 year old plant wasentering its end game. An unlucky Friday the 13th in October 1972 spelled another warning of redundancy – this time Goodbody’s announcing to the I.T.G.W.U that the jobs of over 100 employees were at risk. Again crisis would hope to be averted. However a total of 109 workers (45 women and 64 men) were made redundant with the company blaming the recession. Thankfully all got their jobs back come January 1973 but still there was a real fear on the factory floor about the factory’s future at this point. By 1974 a major recession had hit the country. In Waterford the long establishedDenny’s was forced to close after 152 years on the Suir putting almost 300 on the dole. Couple this with the loss of Croker’s of O’Connell Street (100 jobs) it put a serious dent in local production. The real problem for the Jute Factory would be a serious decline in thedemand for Jute products due to a worldwide switch to synthetic materials for the manufacturing of sacks. It was just a sign of the times. Not that it made it any easier for the potential loss of almost 400 jobs. By mid- October 1974 the factory’s future hung in the balance. everybody knew the factory had been in difficulties since July when the company said that profits were falling due to an “unsatisfactory situation” in the Waterfordjute activity. The Union spokesman said that general discussions had been taking placewith the management of J. & L.F. Goodbody but this didn’t help stop thegeneral anxiety felt within the walls of the factory. The I.D.A. (Industrial Development Authority) were put under pressure about a supposed agreement they had reached with a foreign company to take over the Jute Factory. Theywere “ talking to other people outside the factory walls “ ,but it wouldn’tlead to anything. Being a worker from the county that winter of discontent didn’t help either. The week it became public that the Jute Factory might close, the Dungarvan County Council made an extremely unpopular call to raise a new rate of £6.47 which was unanimously adopted meaning the taxpayers in rural areas had to pay an increased rate of £1.61 for 1975. Taoiseach Liam Cosgrove would take to the airwaves to allay any fears for a country heading for a huge black hole of a recession.Mayor of Waterford JoeCummins painted an even blacker picture. With the Jute Factory seemingly entering the point of no return he had his say.
“To say I’m dumfounded about the situation with redundancies in the city is putting it midly. There is a limit to what any area can take in any part of the country and by this point Waterford has got more then it’s fair share of redundancies “ - MAYOR JOE CUMMINS
By the last week in October 1974 the news everyone dreaded came through.The announcement from J. & L.F. Goodbody to close the factory in eightweeks time ,a week before Christmas, hit hard. It was one thing knowing the factory would finally close it’s doors after 37 years of production, but the factit was a mere eight weeks to adjust and Christmas on the horizon hurt even more. Michael O’ Brien , secretary of the Waterford branch of the G.W.U. wouldbring up the issue of compensation. Shortly before those talks began a spokesman for the management told a Munster Express reporter that thediscussions would embrace all aspects arising out of the closure of the factory, including the general well being of the employees now made redundant. Theannouncement of closure had come from Dublin on Friday October 25th.Messrs. Tim Dennehy & Associates delivering the news.
“ We regret to inform the redundancies at our Waterford Jute plant this afternoon which was primarily made because of the decline in the markets for Jute products and the situation could sadly not be avoided. The company's principal factory in Clara, Co. Offaly and it’s other activities throughout the country would be continued. Regarding our closure in Waterford, every effort will be made to minimize the impact of the closure of the 393 workers (161 men and 232 women.) An employment centre will be set up to assist the employees with problems arising from the closure and to act as a clearinghouse for new job opportunities. Continuing close consultation will be maintained with the Industrial Development Authority, the trade unions, the responsible Government departments and other interested bodies” TIM DENNEHY
Little of the statement would help ease the worries of nearly 400 men andwomen. It wasn’t any fault of workers that there had been a slow decline , the closureof Goodbody’s Kildare plant in 1971 would be a stark reminder of the way thecountry was going economically. 37 years gone down the drain. The week of leaving workers accepted animproved offer of compensation from the company after talks between management and the Workers Council. Mr Barry O’Neill would tell The Munster Express that the company had offered £10 for each year of service plus £22.50 per worker, along with the usual redundancy allowance which had been accepted .
“I worked there since 1955. When I went in there I was a casual worker with the electricians. It was a happy time there. We got our notice on the 25th of October and it came as a massive shock to us . I mean we knew the place wasn’t doing too well but we felt that it may be phased out and that there could be another five or maybe ten years in it. Unfortunately that idea didn’t come off. So they came along on the 25th of October and just told us we were closing down the factory the last week in December. About 70% of the factory would have been aged 50 or over (between men & women). Indeed it was roughly the same amount for people aged 40 and over as well. After the factory closed I looked for jobs in three or four places but with no luck. The age bracket was the problem there. At my age we can never hope to get permanent employment, just maybe casual. Itwas awful to think we wouldn’t be employed or if we did it wouldn’t be a permanent job like the Jute factory. It sad but I knew it would be a major problem.” DICK LARKIN
Factory League Team 1962.
In August 1975 , eight months after the Jute Factory closed, an annual I.D.A. report stated that at the end of December 1974 a total of 2,612 jobs were created in the South-east but only 371 of them were in Waterford . The loss of jobs at the Jute Factory effectively cancelled that out. And it would get worse before it got better.
Those made redundant might remember that the lights inside the factory would actually come on again in 1977. Phaeron Textiles, a subsidiary of Youghal Carpets, took over the building with plans of up to 200 jobs. However the company wouldn’t sustain a permanent fixture in Waterford. It closed a chapter in many people’s lives that they will never forget.
The friendships made at the factory would last a lifetime and looking back now people who worked there can regale stories that will bring a smile to many a face. The bitter sweet pill of closure remained, but unlike many other factories who closed for questionable reasons, the Jute Factory had to close its doors simply because the demand for the product they made just simply wasn’t there. RIP the Jute Factory (1938-1974)