Thursday, 26 November 2009

Sugar-refining in Greenock

Berryyards Sugar Refinary, Greenock
shown with permission of
The McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Inverclyde Council.

Progenitor William McIlhagga of Ballycloughan was a weaver and a smallholder - he called himself a farmer. He and Agnes must have married about 1828 and have had their first child, a boy they also called William, about 1830. We have already established (see blog for 15th August, 'A Problem solved?') the he was the William McElhagga aged 20 named in the 2% sample of the 1851 Census of the townland of Craigs. He worked for Blacksmith Brown as a servant-weaver, along with Brown's own son. Later that very year, on 14th July he married Elizabeth Carson from Gortfadd, a townland in the village of Portglenone, 8.5 miles west of Ballymena. She was the daughter of farmer James Carson and Matilda McEwan. They married at Portglenone Second Presbyterian Church. William had attained his 'majority' between the census and the wedding for he is recorded as 'full age' in July; however, as we know from later records, Elizabeth was six years older than him, so was about twenty-six at their marriage.

William and Elizabeth were to have six children, but only the first, also William, was born in Ireland (about 1852). By the time number two, James, came along (about 1855) they were living in Greenock on the south west coast of Scotland. In the next ten years William and Elizabeth had had three children, and are recorded in the 1861 Scottish Census with the surname McIlhaggan. After James came Matilda (1 March 1858). We know that James and Matilda were named after Elizabeth's parents, so they were following the 'naming pattern' very strictly. Their fourth child and second daughter Agnes was born on 7th February 1860. Janet came along two years later on 15th July and finally Elizabeth on 23rd September 1864. In the 1871 Census they were 'McIlhaga', in 1881 'McIlhagga' (except James who was 'McIlhaggart') and in 1891 'McIlhaggart'. Such variations were surely due to the misspelling of the enumerators rather than to the family deliberately making such changes. Father William died at 6.30am on 20th September 1899 of a malignant tumor of the throat. One wonders whether this was work related. He was registered as a 69 years old Labourer. His wife Elizabeth died only seven months later, at the age of 75 of a Heart Disease. Both died at the house they had lived in all their time in Greenock, at 12 Terrace Road.

It is clear that William moved across to Scotland in order to find work, and possibly to escape the potato famine. He found work in the sugar-refining industry and was labouring in one of the many Greenock sugar houses by the time the 1861 census was taken. Technically he was a Sugarbaker. The job of Sugarbaker has been well documented by Bryan Mawer in association with the Anglo-German Family History Society. The title of his book, Sugarbakers - from sweat to sweetness says a lot. Work in the 19th Century Refineries in places like Greenock or Liverpool was hot, hard and often for long hours. They mostly employed men escaping from lack of work on the land who, like William, were therefore exchanging an outdoor life for 'stoking fires, unloading raw sugar, ladling boiling syrup, pouring bullocks' blood, grinding animal charcoal, cleaning filters, filling moulds with hot sugar, loading ovens, etc.' (p.6). Heat permeated the whole building such that men worked 'naked but for a covering for their legs and some sort of apron' (p.49, from an article by G. Dodd in the Penny Magazine). Doubtless working conditions improved as time went on, but the basic 2-3 week process of refining meant day and night working to produce the prized 'sugar loaf'. The intense heat meant that not only were there many personal injuries but also that many 'Sugarhouses' went on fire. Also heat produced intense thirst and where water was impure, as Bryan Mawers sums it up, doubtless with social and family consequences we can only imagine, 'so it was beer throughout the working day, beer in the evening, and they had Sundays off for church, rest... and a beer' (p.64).
Perhaps 'our' William was fortunate to reach his seventieth year, and not to die of anything worse than he did.

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