Whiskey, shirts and ships: Boom and bust in the Derry of the 1920s

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When WW1 erupted Derry was at the peak of its prosperity; she had stamped her dominance over local rivals and emerged as an important urban centre in Ireland.

In 1821 Derry was the 12th largest town in Ireland, by 1911 she was the 4th. In 1821 Derry was only twice as big as Strabane and Coleraine, and 4 times the size of Letterkenny. By 1911 she was 5 times as big as Coleraine, 8 times the size of Strabane and 18 times the size of Letterkenny.

In 50 years the shirt industry in Derry grew from nothing to become the main seat of production in the UK. By 1914, Derry’s 44 shirt factories and their associated outworkers employed 18,000 people; more workers than the rest of Derry’s industries put together.

Although shipbuilding in Derry failed to develop on a scale that became self-sustaining, it was nevertheless very important. In May 1912, Trevisa Clarke arrived in Derry and within a year his North of Ireland Shipbuilding Company, had built three ships at Pennyburn shipyard and employed 450 men. By Spring 1919, there were 2,200 men and apprentices employed in the yard, the largest ever male labour force in the city’s history. Derry and its hinterland had associations with distilling, both legal and illegal, dating back to the 18th century. By 1900, thanks to the Watt family, Derry had one of the largest distilleries in Ireland and ‘The Tyrconnel Whiskey’ was famous throughout the UK and USA. In 1892 Andrew A. Watt & Co were producing 1.5m gallons of grain whiskey at their Abbey Street distillery and 180,000 gallons of malt whiskey at their Waterside distillery.

The Tyrconnell was the flagship brand. In 1876 the Watt family entered a horse named Tyrconnell in the Irish Classic horse race ‘The National Produce Stakes’ in Dublin and it won at odds of 100 to 1. The event went into racing folklore and is celebrated on the label to this day. One of their advertising posters claimed ‘100 to 1 Tyrconnell Wins: Andrew A Watt & Co Ltd Londonderry’. Not only was Andrew A. Watt & Co a major and reliable employer for one hundred years, it also supported coopers, carters and blacksmiths.

Furthermore, Derry’s bacon curing factories got many of their pigs from householders living near the distillery, as its waste material, known locally as ‘pottle’, provided cheap pig feed. Pig rearing supplemented many families’ income. The war years were boom years in Derry. For the first time in its history there was full employment.

Derry, however, throughout this period was one of the major Irish emigration ports. Indeed, from the early 1700s right through to the onset of the Second World War in 1939, when the last transatlantic steamer sailed from the port, the peoples of Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and further afield left Derry quay for new lives outside Ireland.

In Professor Robert Gavin’s words (Atlantic Gateway: The port and city of Londonderry since 1700, p. 179) ‘during the two years following the end of the first world war, Derry moved brusquely from a peak of unprecedented prosperity to an economic crisis of equally unprecedented proportions.’

Rationalisation, restructuring and protectionism, together with Derry’s peripheral location on a contentious border, created by partition of 1921, spelt economic hardship for the remainder of the inter-war years. From full employment in 1918, an unemployment rate of almost 30% was being experienced in the city by the mid-1920s. Its manufacturing base really suffered. In 1922, the future of shipbuilding in Derry looked secure; the workforce stood at 2,600 and the yard had the third largest output in Ireland. Yet by 1924 the yard was closed, and it never re-opened. The last ship ever built in Derry was the SS New York News which was launched on 24 May 1922.

Watt’s Distillery closed its doors in 1921 although it continued to trade ‘The Tyrconnell Whiskey’ to 1937.

The closures of Watt’s Distillery in October 1921 and of the Foyle Shipyard in October 1924 left a struggling clothing industry as by far the dominant industry in the city. The clothing industry also faced a crisis with collapse of shirt orders in 1920 and 1921; the workforce that had stood at around 8,000 in 1919, numbered only 4,500 in 1924. By 1924, however, the shirt industry had recovered and achieved a stability it was able to maintain through the rest of the inter-war years.