The Life and Death of an Irish Company Town

A recent article on the decline of Rochester, NY, a small city built on the back of the Eastman Kodak company got me thinking of an Irish ‘company town’.

Before the widely celebrated Port Sunlight and Bournville, there was Portlaw Co. Waterford. In the 1820s a model industrial village was developed there to house workers at the cotton factory that had been established by Quaker industrialist David Malcomson on the banks of the River Clodiagh in 1825. In the 1850s and 1860s, under Joseph Malcomson, the village was redesigned using formal planning principles. Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, is another example of a Quaker led industrial village.

Portlaw’s design of five wide streets with uniform house frontages radiated from a central open space known as The Square, which formed the commercial centre of the village. A popular myth is that Malcolmson on sitting down to plan the village laid his hands upon the table, and decided to build in the shape of a hand. Workers’ accommodation comprised 50 two-storey houses, and more than 250 single-storey houses on a uniform pattern.

It even had its own architectural innovation, the ‘Portlaw roof’, a gently curving type developed to be both efficient and cost effective.

The Malcomson venture at Portlaw prospered until the consequences of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) pushed the firm into liquidation in 1876, closing the mills and prompting mass emigration from the area. The Mayfield Spinning Company operated on site until 1904, and after a prolonged period of inactivity, the Irish Tanners Company was established in 1935, closing in 1985. This prompted a period of further decline and putting the mill/tannery, in a ruinous state.

Portlaw more than matches the level of achievement of the world-renowned model villages found in England, Scotland and North America; something acknowledged in Heritage Council conservation plan for the village and the Waterford county development plan which map out a path to making the most of this landmark.

Portlaw today from an Irish Examiner article on walks in the area.

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