Kilkenny Women Flax-spinners in 1827

Small Sources 26.  Evidence of women in Irish genealogical sources is unfortunately sparse, and those that do occur are often listed only as e.g. ‘Widow Murphy’. We list here 83 women receiving payments in 1827 for spinning and weaving of flax. The documents are in the  Bessborough papers in the National Library of Ireland Ms 29,805 (1).   The estate was owned by the Ponsonby family who had very extensive estates in Kilkenny.  Their residence was Bessborough House at Piltown in the civil parish of Fiddown.  The house and estate are now an agricultural college    The family lived in England until 1825 when the 4th Earl of Bessborough and his wife came to live there, with their 11 children.  They were ‘improving’ landlords and encouraged local industry and crafts. A full account of the tenant practices of Irish estates is in our article on Rentals.
Bessborough House in 1818

It is likely that the women on the list below were encouraged by the estate to become involved in spinning.  Although residences for the women are not specified, it is logical that they lived in the immediate vicinity of the estate.  There was no practical reason why the farm management would seek flax spinners further than was necessary.  As further validation of this, almost all of the surnames on this list appear locally in the Griffith Valuation returns (1850) and in the Tithe Applotment Survey.  For example, 15 of the 83 family names appear in townlands neighbouring Bessborough house e.g.  Belline & Rogerstown; 6 in Tobernabrone; 6 in Banagher and 6 in Fiddown.

Flax spinning involved making yarn by spinning, or twisting, fibres of flax into a thread.  It was uniquely women’s work at the time and involved using a spinning wheel operated by a foot treadle.  The yarn was then transferred to the weaver to be woven into linen cloth.   Linen-making was popular with small-holders as it provided work throughout the year, and also involved several members of the household.  Men were involved in growing and processing the flax, and in weaving.  Women were involved in the spinning and (later in the century) also in weaving.   At the period of this list (1827) all of this work was still done by hand.  The later development of steam-powered spinning machines resulted in rapid decline in hand-spinning.  Machine-spinning became centered in large Ulster mills and the cottage-industry gradually disappeared.  Weaving, on the other hand, was maintained partly because of the availability of machine-spun thread.
The Bessborough papers contain several lists of payments for the period March to July of 1827. They are arranged by date and most of the 83 women receive several payments over the period.    A few of the names are indecipherable, and those of which we are uncertain are indicated.   Our thanks to Mary Flood of Rothe House Genealogy for guidance on the occurrence of the names.  Many of them are very common in South Kilkenny including Butler, Carroll, Dalton, Maher, Morris, Murphy, Power, Ryan and (particularly) Walsh.  Further information on some of these families may be available through our e-book title ‘Sources for Irish Family History 2021‘.  It   lists 6,500  books and articles written .  The sources listed include books,  journal articles and some other records written about specific Irish families.  It provides access to  a wealth of published  information on about 2,500  Irish families.
The image of the document below was created by Ancestor Network in the National Library of Ireland and are reproduced here through their courtesy. If you need help in following up on anything related to this source, or any other Irish research, you can outline your requirements here and we will let you know what we might be able to do for you.  Ancestor Network will also offer 1 free hour of research by a professional researcher to conduct further research on these individuals, or on other tenants of this estate. We can also obtain images of the original documents. Click here and quote KilkennySS26  in the subject line.

The list is below.  As the writing is unclear (see Fig 1) some names are uncertain and are indicated. 

Dolly Allen
Dolly Alton
Joany Bourke
Kitty Bourke
Nelly Bourke
Peg Broderick
Sally Bullen /Buller?
Lally Butler
Molly Butler
Kitty Byrne
Mary Byrne
Figure 1: An extract from one of the lists showing the format of the record. The payment to each woman is listed at right.

Mary Carroll

Mary Cashion
Kitty Christian
Peggy Cleary
Mary Cotton
Nelly Cravagan
Nelly Cudahy
Nelly Dalton

Flyleaf Press publish ‘Sources for Family and Local History’ which lists some 6,500 books and articles on 2,500 Irish families, including several families of the names listed here.

Kitty Dee
Kate ? Delany
Bridget Donnell
Mary Donnell
Biddy Doyle
Widow Dwan
Mary Dwyer
Nancy Etherson
Nancy Feely ?  Freeney
Biddy Finn
Widow Finny ?  Finnup ?
Cally (Catty?) Fitzgerald
Liz? Fl…tity
Betty Fulton ?
Cally Furniss
Peggy Griffin
Lucy Hartity
Ally Howly
Judy Towly/Howly
Mary Joy
Peggy Kehoe
Mary Kelly
Mary Kiely ?
Kitty Lane
Nelly Lavin ?
Kitty Lewis
Betty Lewis
Molly Lewis
Mary McClennon
Nelly Madden
Peggy Maher
Widow Monahan
Nancy  Morris
Peggy Mul?
Nancy Murphy
Biddy Oates
Mary Oates
Ellen Owen
Kitty? Power
Lally Power
Nelly Quin
Kitty Quinlan
Mary Quinlan
Kitty Riordan
Ally Ryan
Anstie ? Ryan
Mary Ryan
Molly Ryan
Peggy Ryan
Ally Scully
Nelly Scully ?
Anstie Shanahan
Nelly Shanahan
Mary Slatery
Mary Sled…
Molly Spencer
Biddy Sullivan
Mary Thilly?
Lucy Thornton
Nancy Tri…
Cathy Trump
Biddy Walsh
Honour Walsh
Mary Walsh

The less common names on the list include:

• Oates:   also written Oats or Othes: several  families in the civil parish of Fiddown
• McClenon:   Possibly McClenaghan (found in Co. Derry).  A John Mac Lennan Jnr is listed in townland of Belline (Parish of Fiddown) in the Tithe Applotment books.
• Christian:  Occurs  in the Catholic Parish register of Fiddown in 1814.
• Etherson:   A marriage of a James Etherson  appears in Templeorum RC records in 1846.

The list also shows some of the short names commonly used for women at the time. These include the now rare Ally, Lally, Dolly, Anstie,  in addition to the better-known Kitty, Nelly, Sally etc.  The short-form names and their probable derivations are in the table below.
The lists also include 5 men paid for weaving ,  or for dressing flax.

  • Bryan Cravigan
  • Nicholas Dalton
  • John Corjakes     (listed in Griffith’s   in Fiddown Parish  as Corjaques);
  • John Laundrigan   (possibly a variant of Lonergan)
  • John McClenon
  • Patrick Merry  (paid for ‘dressing of flax’ – with receipt and signature)
Spinning wheel illustration is from the Lawrence Photograph Collection in the National Library of Ireland collection.   

Further articles in our series on Irish Family History sources include: