Andrews Flour, based in Percy Street Belfast, is an unassuming company with quite the opposite in terms of historical relevance. Over the years, the history of Andrews Flour has been meticulously documented, if you excuse a mishap in 1880 where many manuscripts, letters and ledger books were mistaken for useless lumber and burnt. Nevertheless, ledgers dating as far back as 1771 can be found in the Andrews Flour offices to this day, giving a fascinating insight into the lives of the Andrews ancestors who were soap boilers and chandlers until the linen and milling trades took off.
One of the first documented Andrews ancestors was ‘Thomas the Miller’, born in Comber in 1698. In 1722, Thomas took lease of the Upper Mill in Comber and ground corn. Who would have known that this small business venture 300 years ago would become the foundations of which the Andrews dynasty would flourish?
Continual investments were made to the mill throughout these early years. New machines to dress fine flour were installed and a dam was built to feed the newly built wash mill for bleaching linen. The biggest investment of this time was the new flour mill that was built in 1771. This imposing building was five stories high and became the principal landmark in Comber. With new advancements in machinery, wheatmeal, oats and barley were able to be milled.
Andrews Flour faced many challenges through the early years. Famine ravaged through Ireland in 1740, affecting not only potato, but grain harvests too. In 1775 the American War of Independence caused uncertainty with the relatively new export trade. In 1778 Ireland’s financial situation was desperate because of the 1770 embargo imposed by the English government on the export of provisions from Ireland. Throughout the turmoil, linen and flour trades continued to flourish and in the early 19th Century, Michael Andrews built a factory producing fine damask linen, known as Ardoyne Damasks. These were delivered to the White House and various royal palaces around the world. Flour was regularly being shipped far and wide, including the West Indies and Canada.
The 19th century saw its fair share of troubling times, from The Great Famine causing exceptionally poor crop yields, to the Crimean War which saw wheat prices spike. By 1872, the linen business had closed in its entirety. However, Isaac Andrews’ son, John Jr. came into the Comber business, having returned from Prouvy in the North of France where he was a director of a large mill operating the Hungarian system of milling. He brought with him much needed knowledge of the new roller system and business acumen.
By 1880, Meadow Street Mill was purchased by Thomas J Andrews and John Jr. Andrews which underwent a significant modernisation. In 1882, the Belfast Mills site on Percy Street in Belfast was rented for one year, before an agreement was later reached whereby the mills became, and remain to this day, the home of Andrews Flour. Capacity at both sites allowed for significant growth in business.
Clerical work continued in Comber until August 1885 when it was transferred to the Belfast Mills. Experimental telephone lines had been tried and tested between Comber and Meadow Street via the Belfast Exchange. John Andrews and Co. operated on the old Comber Mill for another 20 years before the mill was officially closed and the site cleared.
By 1890, approximately 80% of the flour sold throughout Ireland was for retail trade. Large 224lb retail bags were favoured as these could be sewn together to create fine cotton bedsheets. But by 1900, most of Ulster’s flour mills were driven out of business due to the favourable transport costs arranged with local railways, enabling imported flour to reach any town via Belfast for a cheaper price than the Belfast Mills flour. By 1895, Meadow Street mill was sold to Thomas Gallagher for his new tobacco factory and Belfast Mills ceased production until the large stock of flour was disposed of or sold.
In 1897, John’s sons joined the family business at Belfast Mills. It was then that Sydney Andrews used his knowledge with chemistry to develop an innovative process to produce whiter flour. On the 13th February 1902 a patent was accepted on the bleaching specification and within two years of installation, imported soft flour was hard to find in Ireland. This method became known as the Andrews Patent, or the master patent for flour bleaching, a practice that is no longer used today.
In the early 20th century, significant works to the mill took place to increase capacity. New deals with the railway network meant business in the west of Ireland flourished. But in 1914, the First World War struck and the British Government took over all mills by 1916 due to the risk of importing grain at this time. Mills were paid pre-war profits to ensure they survived. Following the war, Andrews Flour continued to adapt, and a new plant was built on the Belfast Mills site that was more suited for milling strong flour, targeting new markets by 1933.
During the Second World War, from 1939-1945, English mills were unable to ship across the Irish Sea which saw the Belfast Mills working overtime to cope with demand. By 1956 an overhaul of the mill saw new flour stores, a screen house, conditioning bins and five more stands for lorries. With business flourishing, Mortons Flour of Ballymena was purchased in 1989. The old mill in Ballymena, owned by Robert Morton and established in 1835, was closed and operations were brought to Percy Street.
Today, Andrews Flour and Mortons Flour continue to be milled at Percy Street. Each day Andrews Flour is sent across the island of Ireland in tankers and large 25kg bags whilst the retail brand, Mortons Flour, can be found in smaller packs in major retail and convenient stores across Northern Ireland. It is fair to say that Andrews Flour has survived through some of the most challenging times in history and today is no different: Covid-19, Brexit uncertainty, and the Russia/Ukraine war causing volatile wheat markets are a few of the challenges that Andrews Flour face today. But one thing through this complex history remains constant, and that is the resilience of the people behind Andrews Flour and their ability to adapt and overcome whatever the future may hold.