Demeter Archive - Women at Work

Prime Cut Demeter Archive - Women Against the Cuts Protest     Prime Cut Demeter Archive - Bleaching and Passing in the Mills    Prime Cut Demeter Archive - Women in the Winding Room   Prime Cut Demeter Archive - Yarn Reeling

Women in Northern Ireland and Belfast have always worked in and outside the home, though it is only work done outside the home for pay that is traditionally thought of as work. In the early 20th there was a shift from agriculture and domestic work to working in factories, mills and other industries in Northern Ireland and especially in Belfast. Belfast was known as a vibrant commercial and industrial centre in the 18th and 19th centuries.   These thriving industries included linen, rope-making, tobacco, engineering and shipbuilding. It was the linen industry and the production of textiles that were predominately women’s work, daughters following sisters and mothers who followed their mothers, generation after generation.   


 Many girls started to work as early as age fourteen, leaving school to work at a mill or factory where a friend or family member already worked. In the linen mills women worked as doffers, rovers, reelers, drawers, spinners or weavers. They laboured for long hours in harsh and unhealthy conditions for low wages. Their wages supplemented money in their homes and in some cases were the only source of income for an entire household.  

Prime Cut Demeter Project - Gallagher's FactoryPrime Cut Demeter Project - Gallagher's FactoryPrime Cut Demeter Archive - Gallagher's Tobacco FactoryPrime Cut Demeter Archive - Gallagher's girls on a day trip

Not all girls and women who worked in factories worked in a linen mill. In Belfast  women and girls who worked at the Gallaher Tobacco factory were known as Gallaher Girls, and worked as rollers, strippers, trimmers or may have placed photographs and advertisements in the cigarette packs.   

In spite of conditions that may sound to harsh many people today, the memories and stories collected from women who worked in the mills reflect enjoyment and satisfaction, hard work, pride and spirit. These years were remembered fondly, noting the camaraderie that existed between the girls and the women.  They joked with one another, gossiped about dances or going to the cinema.   Some women enjoyed day trips or holiday outings with co-workers. They sang during their shifts to pass the time, complained about their bosses and kept themselves entertained. They could even be heard singing on their walk to work in the morning and when they left the building in the evening.  

Working life in factories and other services, including office and clerical work, absorbed much of the labour of single women. Whether working in the mills or factories, or banks or even in the civil service, women were often forced to quit or leave their job when they got married to make positions vacant for new girls or men. Those who were forced to quit when they married resented having to leave.

In the 1950s and 1960s the paths for work broadened into the public service sector and in large corporations. Education became more accessible for both women and men and they entered the workforce at a later age, eighteen, though it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that women in Belfast saw an increase of opportunities in education and returned to education.

Community Activism

Education and social advances of the 1960s and 1970s liberated women as well as men and helped them to imagine new possibilities and opportunities. In the 1970s women helped friends and neighbours with things like money and child care making it possible for them to work.  Soon after-school groups and mother/child play groups developed. These informal ways of coming together and supporting one another later developed into women and youth groups and centres.

The establishment of these centres, clinics and clubs helped to foster the education and empower of women. Classes and educational courses in history and literature were offered alongside training and advice. These groups are responsible for providing and provide a safe and friendly environment, a place to learn and a way for women to become involved in cross community programs and local politics. Through their time and work groups like Ardoyne’s Women’s Group, Dee Street, Newhill Community Group are examples of initiative of local women in Belfast who have helped women establish a strong voice in the community.  They have brought about many important issues and sought ways to be part of the political process and helped to increase womens’ involvement in cross-community activities. Just as important the local leaders work with children and young people in the community, inspiring and encouraging them to play a positive role in their neighbourhoods.