Much has been written about the participation of women in war production during the twentieth-century but virtually nothing about women engaged in producing wa materiel during the Napoleonic war.(1) When the treaty of Amiens failed to secure a lasting peace in 1802, Britain geared up for what turned out to be twelve years of continuous warfare. Demands for vital war materiel such as clot for uniforms and canvas for sails increased just as men were withdrawn from the work force to serve in the army and navy. The demand for outfitting armies and ships was only one dimension of the increased market demand for cotton, woolen and linen textiles. War disrupted normal trade patterns, and presented British and Irish textile producers with expanded commercial opportunities to increase their market share in the Caribbean; continental weavers (French and German) normally supplied major sectors of this market. Linen-making in Ireland was sex-linked; traditionally, women spun and men wove. The withdrawal of men from the weaving work force for armed service, consequently, created a shortfall in the number of weavers available to maintain current production levels, let alon to supply expanding markets. Wartime, then, brought conditions conducive to change in the Irish linen industry, both in the composition of its gendered wor force, and in the application of new technologies to spinning flax and weaving linen.
This paper will analyze the initiatives of innovative linen merchants (drapers and bleachers) to meet new exigencies created by the Napoleonic wars. As entrepreneurs, they were motivated to protect their current share of the world linen market, at least, and, at best, to increase their profits from the new opportunities. To maintain or increase their market share, they would have to keep their competitive edge. They had to protect their secure supply of home-grown flax and to maintain an adequate work force of spinners and weavers under trying conditions. An important part of their strategy after 1804 was to recruit Ulster women in Counties Down, Tyrone and Armagh to weave commercial linen. Besides a positive climate for labor substitution, commercial expansion encouraged industrial leaders to tinker with prevailing notions of work and gender--to break the link of man to the loom and woman to the spinning wheel. This paper explores the recruitment of women weavers during the Napoleonic war in order to assess its economic and social impact. What was the outcome of this innovation? Were women weavers a temporary accommodation to emergency conditions, or did they become a permanent feature of the postwar linen industry?(2) Did this industrial innovation have long-term effects on women's work, gender, and the domestic mode of production?
I argue that war conditions presented Irish entrepreneurs with a golden opportunity to snap the link between gender and commercial linen weaving; snapping that link, in turn, prepared the way for snapping the link between farming and weaving, the bi-occupations of rural Ulster households. War-time innovations in the linen industry, subsequently, turned independent farmer-weavers into rural proletarian weavers. The industrialists succeeded because their innovations did not mount a frontal attack on the tuff of Ulster' independent farmer-weaver households, namely, domestic industry and the public linen markets. Instead, they developed a complementary side of the industry to meet heightened wartime demand. As the letters of notable linen merchants and bleachers, and the reports of the Irish Linen Board will show, the innovators mounted a concerted effort to recruit women to weave linen. Withdrawal of these workers from spinning was to be offset by mechanizing flax spinning, at least the coarse grades of yarn. Weaving offered women a more remunerative alternativ occupation in wartime. Women weavers, as we will see, had ramifications for the peace as well.
While women offered industrialists an alternative labor supply of weavers, sufficient raw material had to be secured as well. Raw material for the new flax-spinning mills became a real problem early in the Napoleonic wars. Though cottons challenged linens as cheap, serviceable clothing by the turn of the nineteenth century, cotton substitutes for strategic war materiel, namely canvas, duck and sailcloth, did not exist until well after the Napoleonic war.(3) The expanding war machine needed linen goods as the number of British ships doubled from 425 to 900 ships, and navy personnel rose 800 percent.(4) At least 300,000 soldiers carried knapsacks at home and abroad.(5) Consequently, flax for these manufactures was in high demand from 1800-1815. Handloom weavers used coarse linen yarn to make canvas, duck and sailcloth; weaving coarse yarn went quickly. Early in the war coarse yarn continued to be hand spun, but sustained war-time demand for this yarn only increased efforts, already underway, to mechanize flax spinning. Before 1810 flax mills in England, Scotland and Ireland were using the dry-spinning process to produce quantities of coarse linen yarn fit for war materiel.(6) (The process for the machine spinning of medium and fine linen yams was developed several decades later.) Mechanized flax-spinning only exacerbated the demand for raw flax.
English and Scottish linen industries were built on substantial imports of flax from the Baltic. Though British hand spinners spun home-grown flax, it constituted only a small part of the linen yarn used by British linen weavers. England and Scotland had to import large quantities of flax and linen yarn from Ireland and the Baltic.(7) While British linen manufacturers became increasingl reliant on foreign raw material, the Irish linen industry chose to become self-reliant. It adopted a two-pronged strategy in the last quarter of the eighteenth century: first, to promote extensive flax-growing; second, to increase linen cloth exports by diverting Irish yarn from the export market to Irish weavers.
Direct action by Irish weavers played no small part in shaping this strategy. I 1775, an observer reported that "it was within the knowledge of every Gentleman and manufacturer that the Weavers see the Linen yarn exported from the Several Seaports with great reluctance."(8) To prove the point he cited a case in which weavers prevented the export of linen yarn by shooting at a merchant engaged in this activity. The industrial strategy succeeded. Irish imports of foreign flax became very small, principally from France for the manufacture of exceptionally fine linens. Irish yarn exports decreased dramatically and linen cloth exports rose. Figure 1 identifies the dramatic drop in yarn exports just before 1790.(9
When Napoleon implemented the "Continental System" attempting to isolate the British Isles from the continent, Britain was cut off from its usual Baltic fla suppliers which jeopardized war production.(10) Ireland was a close and secure source of flax. Consequently, the demand for Irish flax increased …