The eccentric Antrim man who transformed mills into millions

THE burgeoning success of the mills changed the face of 18th century Antrim.

Huge fortunes were undoubtedly made - but where there are winners, inevitably there are losers.

In his 1804 paean to simpler times, poet William Blake pulled no punches in his critique of the impact of rapid industrialisation.

Yes, ‘Jerusalem’ speaks of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ - but it also pauses to consider the impact of the ‘dark Satanic mills’.

The locals were undoubtedly grateful for the work, but for many times were still hard.

Children slaved from six in the morning working the often dangerous machines ‘for buttons’.

Pregnant women dutifully stood at their looms until labour forced them home.

Working in clouds of flying particles, few mill workers were spared the racking cough.

In the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of 1835, there was also clear evidence of a gender pay gap in many of the Antrim mills.

One at Riverside, for example, employed 26 men and 36 women. For their labours, the men folk could expect to be paid from ‘18 shillings to six shillings a week’. The female workforce had to make do with ‘three shillings to three shillings 6d’.

Barely enough to scrape a meagre existence - so one can only imagine how they felt when they saw the fruits of their labours being spent by the owners.

And in Antrim in the mid-19th century, they came no bigger than James Chaine.

He owned many of the mills that dotted the Sixmile - and, yes, he became a very wealthy man indeed.

His is an intriguing story, but what better place to begin than at the very end...

Tears were shed and glasses raised on that bitterly cold afternoon in 1885.

A cutting wind whipped in from the Irish Sea as the society ladies and gents huddled together under an unseasonally angry May sky.

Just a week earlier ebullient Antrim man James Chaine had been very much alive, bidding a fond farewell to the Prince and Princess of Wales as they set sail from Larne. That had been a cold day too, but he felt it was the least he could do - after all, he did own the harbour.

Now it was him setting sail on an altogether different journey. The Honourable Member for County Antrim had contracted pneumonia and within seven days the life and soul of countless parties was no more.

At the tolling of a bell he was lowered, upright, in full yachting regalia into a grave cut into the side of a hillside above Larne - a vantage point from where he could spend eternity contemplating the open water.

He may have died at the age of 44, but the bon viveur from Ballycraigy had packed plenty into his years. This was an extraordinary life, well lived.

And to think it had all started out quite by chance.

His father William was a man of means in his own right, but he became a major player when he married into the wealthy Whittle family - and it was their serious capital that helped him set up his bleachworks at Muckamore.

It was a lucrative move and soon the money was rolling in and they needed a grand home to reflect his growing status - so work began on Ballycraigy House, his ‘castle on the Rhine’.

Erected beside the location of the current 11th night blaze, this bonfire of the vanities proved to all and sundry that they had finally arrived. The Chaine gang were finally living the Downton dream.

And it seemed that this was one party that would never end.

In 1823 William, the wily patriarch, decided to gamble everything on becoming Ireland’s biggest bleaching magnate - but for him to rise another had to fall.

And that patsy was the unfortunate Joseph Reford, the grandson of an early 17th century bleacher from Exeter. He had been invited to Antrim by the Clotworthys but when he began experiencing ‘cash flow problems’ he did not want to turn to his hosts.

Instead he set his sights on the nouveau riche Chaine clan, and the plot was hatched to fleece them of cash in a game of cards.

When he entered Ballycraigy Manor, Reford had no idea that the odds had been firmly stacked against him. William had planted a professional player at the table and he began chipping away at the errant Englishman. By the end of the night Joseph’s empire collapsed - like a deck of cards.

Chaine inherited bleachworks and greens, beetling mills, workers’ homes and a string of farms. Wealthy beyond his wildest dreams he set about a spell of rapid expansion. And if he could do that while driving any of his rivals to the wall, all the better.

Among his new acquisitions was the Muckamore Bleach Green, including the associated ‘houses, mills machinery, land, water courses, weirs, dams, rights’, a move that expanded his portfolio at the expense of the Thompson family from Greenmount. Soon New Lodge, Summer Hill, Firgrove, Moylena Cottage, Boghead and even the Antrim Quaker Meeting House were his.

By the time James took over the reins, the Chaines were tightly woven into the business fabric of Antrim, which gave him time to devote his energies to building Ballycraigy House’s reputation as a palatial rival to the Massereene’s anything but humble abode in the Castle Grounds.

There were tennis courts and prize golden pheasants all set in neatly trimmed gardens flanked by mature trees and rhododendrons. There were servants galore, liveried butlers, chambermaids and gardeners busying themselves in the walled garden and well-pruned orchard.

James was particularly proud of his stables, which boasted fine hunter, carriage and racing horses. It is said that he regularly raced the Belfast train from Muckamore to Dunadry - and he was ‘immensely proud’ when one of his steeds went on to win the Derby.

Among the stable hands was a young dreamer from Pogue’s Entry called Alexander Irvine - and this was just the first grand house he would visit during his remarkable life.

Above all, though, James loved to entertain. His parties were the stuff of legend and often raged for days.

Indeed, he so disliked the thought of his guests hurrying home at midnight that he struck upon the idea of putting his collection of antique clocks to good use. He diligently set them to different times, so in the chaos of chimes that ensued no-one was quite sure what time it was.

If a guest pulled out a watch the genial host would confound them by asking them to look at the clock in the hall, which he had carefully altered in advance.

Five years before he became a Conservative MP, he ploughed yet more cash into his home. The scale of the works finally emerged recently when an October 1869 edition of ‘The Irish Builder’ came to light.

It confirmed that the already massive residence was indeed undergoing ‘extensive alterations and enlargements’.

The front of the old structure would now form the left wing, and any ‘plain features’ were being recast. A new right wing was being constructed too, including a 30 foot staircase, wine cellars, a palatial dining room, with an adjoining serving room. There was also the small matter of the billiard room, a smoking room and the creation of a large tower and 10 extra bedrooms.

The style, they said, was ‘Castellated Tudor’ and the materials ‘local’. In short, it was expensive - but, ultimately, it was not enough for James.

Though he loved life in Antrim, the keen sailor also enjoyed his summer house in Larne. Indeed, he bought the port of Larne for the princely sum of £20,000 and was instrumental in initiating the steam boat service between the town and Stranraer.

As harbour master, he encouraged shipping trade with Scotland, but also wooed the cavernous American liners to stop off during their Atlantic crossings.

Though he died at the age of 44 his name lives on. Chaine Walk in Antrim harks back to when this was the Ballycraigy estate and not a housing estate. In Larne there is a park bearing the family name and Chaine Quay remains until this day.

His towering personal contribution was underscored three years after his death with the opening of the 92-foot tall Chaine Memorial at the entrance to Larne Lough. Designed to draw all the strands of his life together it was fashioned after the round tower in his native Antrim.

It was the mark of the man that it did not cost his family a penny. A plaque hanging above the door explains that the monument was erected by the ‘contributions of every class in this mixed community irrespective of creed or party, all cordially united in esteem and affection for the memory of James Chaine of Ballycraigy and Cairncastle who represented this County in the Imperial Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland from February 1874 till 4th May 1885 when his early lamented death in his 44th year deprived his native County of one who has worked indefatigably for its interests, especially in developing and improving the natural capabilities of the harbour of Larne’.

Quite a mouthful and high praise indeed - but then they were a pretty exceptional bunch. His brother John was Dean of Connor while other sibling William was His Majesty’s Physician General in Ireland, operating from the grand house that still stands at the junction of Belfast and Oldstone Roads.

But what of Ballycraigy House?

With James’ passing the heart and soul of the property had gone too. Soon the family spent less and less time there and eventually they took the difficult step of putting it on the market. It was the start of a Chaine reaction that would ultimately end in ruin.

Louis Meenan snapped it up and his family worked hard to keep up the repairs on the dwelling, and their diligence paid off when American and Belgian officers occupied the building during the Second World War. They found it ‘most comfortable’ and there are several contemporary reports of ‘many a pleasant musical evening’ in the main dining room.

The house, however, was past its prime and the Meenans moved on. Nature soon reclaimed the gardens and gradually Ballycraigy Hall came down in the world. Empty and unloved, thieves soon made their mark and carried away copper, timber and fireplaces. Contemporary reports revealed that ‘Gypsies’ descended too, temporarily taking up residence among the fading opulence.

A number of fires broke out, and on Thursday October 16 1958 the Belfast Telegraph reported that the former home of ‘an eccentric MP’ was marked for demolition. Another ‘big house’ was no more.

It had been, they said, ‘one of the stately homes of Ulster’.

‘The mansion, now hiding as if in shame behind trees, brambles and weeds will soon be demolished,’ the reporter noted.

‘It has been wiped off the rate books of Antrim County Council. Fire, depreciation, rain and decay have wrought havoc.

‘Ballycraigy has seen more prosperous days. Carriages ran regally along its drives. Hunter horses grazed quietly on its parklands. The cobbled yards resounded with the clatter of many hoofs.

‘Ballycraigy, too, was for years something of a social centre for leading families in South and Mid Antrim and there were old residents in the last century who sometimes talked of ‘parties at the big house’ lasting perhaps for a couple of days.

‘Some old stories still linger in the district of the Chaine family and especially of Mr James Chaine, who was regarded as something of ‘a character’.

‘He collected clocks and had scores of them all over the house...’

The mighty building was pulled down shortly thereafter and was replaced by the Ballycraigy shops, which have since suffered the same fate.

Only small fragments remain. The old Ice House, for instance, still stands on the fringes of the field opposite Garden Village.

The world has moved on and the close links that the Chaine family forged have all but disappeared.

For someone who so enjoyed watching the slow ticking journey of those hands, it is a sad irony that time has not been kind to the memory of his clan.

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