A Quaker take on Irish business history


Though small in number, the Quaker community has played a huge part in the social and business history of Ireland – with many firms becoming household names

THE PROMINENCE OF the Quaker community in Ireland’s industrial history is a striking aspect of the story of the Goodbody family, outlined in a new book by retired banker Michael Goodbody.

Although small in number, the strict religious beliefs of the Quakers, their position outside both the Catholic and Protestant communities in Ireland, and the fact that they tended to intermarry, led to an accumulation of business interests, expertise and capital within the community that came to a head in the 19th century.

Families such as the Goodbodys, Bewleys, Pims, Lambs, Jacobs, Edmundsons, Perrys and Bells were involved in milling, textiles, shipping, imports and exports, food and tobacco production, brewing, iron production and railways at a time when the landed gentry were focused on their affairs in London and the Catholic majority were focused on agriculture and retailing.

Because of their beliefs, Quakers refused to swear oaths of allegiance, something which excluded them from attending university. A central aspect of their faith was that there was no need for priests or clergy to assist them in their dealings with God, and as a consequence they refused to pay tithes.

“During the Penal Laws, the Quakers were treated almost as badly as the Catholics but business was open to them,” says Christopher Moriarty, a Quaker and retired marine biologist who is curator of the Quaker archives in their library on Stocking Lane in Co Dublin. “A lot of them went into milling.”

The Quaker faith arose from the views of Englishman George Fox and came to Ireland by way of the Ulster Plantation. The first Quaker meeting was held in Ireland in 1654.

As well as settling in Ulster, where the Quakers were to play an important role in the linen industry, some of the early Quaker settlers moved to the midlands. Mountmellick in Co Laois was one town around which they gathered.

Some families became involved in farming and, from that launch pad, so to speak, began to develop downstream commercial activities. Flour milling was one such activity, in which a number of Quaker families soon became prominent. In time, Mountmellick was to earn the sobriquet the Manchester of Ireland. Brewing, distilling, wool milling, cotton production and leather tanning were in operation there by the 19th century, with up to 2,000 people working in the woollen mills. Ireland’s first sugar beet factory opened there in 1851.

Because of their beliefs, the Quakers did not gamble, drink alcohol or engage in lavish spending on housing or clothes. “They concentrated on their business, looking after each other, and charitable work,” says Michael Goodbody. “Because they tended not to spend their money, they accumulated a lot of capital.”

Members of one family would serve their apprenticeships in the businesses of other Quaker families. A lot of business was conducted between Quaker families.

A Quaker School in Ballitore, Co Kildare, was founded by Abraham Shackleton in 1726 and catered for Quakers from many parts of Ireland, as well as Protestant and Catholic local children. Among the non-Quakers to go there were Henry Grattan, Cardinal Cullen, the Napper Tandy and Edmund Burke.

The community imposed strict moral standards. They felt that to give your word on something was a solemn commitment – this was one of the reasons they refused to swear oaths, which were seen as redundant. Because of their integrity they were trusted, something which formed part of the reason for the success of Lloyds and Barclays Bank in the UK.

It was a core belief that people were equal, and so the Quakers were known for their work on slavery, prison reform, the care of people with mental problems, and the poor.

The Malcomsons, who had a huge cotton mill in Portlaw, Co Waterford, employing 1,800 workers in the 1840s, built a model village for their workers. Likewise the Richardsons, who were involved in the linen business in Co Armagh, built a model village in Bessbrook. That village, like those of the English Quaker families, the Cadburys, in Bournville, near Birmingham, and the Rowntrees, near York, are believed to have been inspired by the Portlaw village.

The Portlaw workers were provided with housing, schools for their children, and medical care. The village even had its own money. “It was quite socialist really,” says Goodbody.

Some Quaker families, such as the Bells in Waterford, became involved in shipping, while others became ships’ chandlers. The Jacobs in Waterford developed the water biscuit, which became a huge success because they took so long to go stale. From this, the family branched out into the biscuit business generally. However, by the time Jacobs became a part of Dublin’s commercial life, says Moriarty, the family had been expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying outside the fold.

Other Quaker families and the sectors they were involved in include: Ulster linen – the Bell, Greer and Richardson families; milling – the Davis, Malcomson, Pim, Goodbody, Grubb and Shakleton families; ship building and shipping – the Lecky, Malcomson, Pike, Pim, Bell, and Bewley families; and engineering – the Edmundson and Perry families. The Lamb family were behind the Fruitfield jam business.

James Perry, originally from Mountmellick, was one of the Quaker promoters and directors of the Dublin Kingstown Railway, along with the Pims, who were the prime movers of the line.

Perry backed William Dargan, the main Irish railway contractor of the time, and was also involved in the Dublin Drogheda Railway, the Great Southern Western Railway and the breakaway Midland Great Western Railway.

“Ireland was very undercapitalised at the time,” says Goodbody. “The landed gentry were spending all their money on living it up in London and building their big houses. This is why the Church of Ireland/Church of England types weren’t the main force behind Irish railways.”

But as the poet Yeats said, things fall apart. The accumulation of wealth, the relatively small number of Quakers in Ireland, and the changing times put pressure on the strict rules that applied to the society’s membership. In 1860, reforms were introduced that allowed marriage outside the society and other activities that had hitherto been restricted. The difficulties in going to university were overcome and Quakers began to enter the professions.

The social, commercial and political changes that arrived at the end of the first World War hit many of the Quaker businesses. The government was urged by many millers to introduce protectionism in the 1920s, but to no avail, and many went bust. As the 20th century progressed, the Quaker presence in Irish business ebbed.

The Pims ran a well-known department store on George’s Street in Dublin that was one of the largest in the city. It was knocked down in the 1970s to make way for offices.

Bewleys cafes was the last large Quaker-run business in Dublin. The family’s control ended in the 1980s, though Patrick Bewley, great great grandson of Ernest Bewley, who opened the Grafton Street cafe in 1927, remains involved.

The Goodbodys,by Michael Goodbody, is published by Ashfield Press, Dublin, €40 hardback.

Goodbody roots: The genealogy of an Irish dynasty

Robert Goodbody went to Clara, Co Offaly, after the death of his wife, Margaret Pim, where in 1826 he started a flour-milling business. He had six sons (one died young) and no daughters, and 44 grandchildren, of whom 29 were sons.

The first generation of sons opened general merchants businesses in Tullamore, a tobacco factory in Dublin, and a jute factory in Clara. The family also bought land and other property in the Clara area, where it was virtually the only employer. The size of the family’s presence in the area only laterally caused resentment, according to Michael Goodbody.

The family probably had the intention of emulating the model village built in Portlaw, but never got as far with the project as the Malcomsons did in Portlaw. They did provide pensions and medical care for their workers, says Goodbody.

Portlaw and Bessbrook didn’t allow drinking and there were no pubs. Goodbody’s just discouraged it. Clara was of course an existing village, with a pub in it already.”

While the Pims were probably the most prosperous Quaker family in the first half of the 19th century, that position was taken over by the Goodbodys in the second half of the century, not least because of the fact that there were so many male Goodbodys, and so many females in the Pim family.

(The Goodbody family married into the Pim family 10 times, with Goodbody men marrying Pim women in all cases. Goodbody says he is his own cousin eight times over.)

Because in those days people tended to use their family names for their businesses, the Goodbody name became something of a brand. Robert’s grandchildren expanded into stockbroking, law, trading in tea and coffee, and brewing, while continuing with the jute, flour and tobacco businesses.

When the flour-milling business went bust after the first World War, it had outlets in Clara, Limerick and Cork. It was bought by the Rank family.

The jute factory survived up to the 1970s, when it succumbed to competition from the Far East. The tobacco business – which the family unwisely failed to modernise and continued to hand-roll cigarettes – was taken over by Carrolls.

The Goodbody name lives on in Irish business in the law firm, AL Goodbody, and in the stockbroking firm Goodbody. However, the last member of the family to be involved in the firm was in 1933, and it was the mid-1980s when a family member was last involved in the stockbroking firm.

Michael Goodbody worked for a time in a cotton factory in Slane, Co Meath, but moved to London in 1962 where he pursued a career in private client fund management, in the City.

Colm Keena