Sion Mills is a conservation area unlike
any other in Northern Ireland – not only a model village similar to Bessbrook
but also a curiously English-looking place many of whose main buildings were
designed at the end of the 19th century by the young English architect William
Unsworth in the Arts and Crafts style. It was a linen mill village, developed
from 1836 by the Herdman family who continued to run the Mill until its
relatively recent closure.
The most prominent building in the
village is the mill of 1855 by Lanyon Lynn & Lanyon which has been badly
damaged by arson, but perhaps the most unusual is Sion House, the Herdman’s
family home in ornamental grounds alongside the Mill. Unsworth, who was the
brother in law of Emerson Tennant Herdman, dramatically remodelled the original
house designed by Lanyon in a romantic neo-Elizabethan style in 1884. Amongst
the other buildings he designed for the village was the Stable block for the
house, dating from the same year. It would not be out of place in a Tudor
village with its steep rosemary-tiled roof and small latticed windows, but the
belfry with its four-faced clock is more obviously Victorian, and alongside the
stables for the Herdman horses there was soon a pit for the family chauffeur to
repair their fleet of horseless carriages.
Sion Mills was one of the last linen
villages to remain in flourishing production long after the last war, but the
Herdmans moved away nearly fifty years ago and sold the house and grounds to a
new owner, and when the village lost most of its employment with the closure of
the Mill it became obvious that many of the buildings themselves were under
threat. Sion House was actually delisted, but then relisted when it became
apparent that despite its poor state of repair there was still substantial
evidence of its historic architectural character. The Stables, which are on the
side of the main road running through the village, remained listed and were a
matter of concern to the NIEA. Urgent Works notices were discussed, and the
possibility of compulsory purchase to save the building was discussed.
Strabane District Council took matters into its hands and served a notice in
2008 requiring the building to be made safe as it was on a public thoroughfare.
The intention was that the owner would remove loose tiles or repair the roof
but when the belfry ended up on the ground and a JCB turned up to tumble the
tile-hung gables, the NIEA moved fast to implement its long-considered plans
and within a week the Stables had been vested and acquired by the DoE.
This was the first time the DoE here had
compulsorily acquired a listed building in order to secure its preservation.
Although Hearth Revolving Fund had been consulted about possible transfer of
the Stables to it for restoration, the details had not been finalised and it
took some years to negotiate the terms of the purchase and then to raise funds
for the restoration. The fact that DoE engineers had removed most of the
remaining roof leaving little more than the four walls of the building meant
that the structure Hearth was being asked to restore was much less complete
than the building it had been looking at a couple of years earlier, but at the
same time the Fund was keen to support the DoE in its action of acquiring the
building, which would send a strong message out to other listed building owners
neglecting their buildings.
By 2011 Hearth had acquired the building
and raised sufficient finance to carry out holding repairs to the Stables. This
consisted of stabilising the structure and reinstating the roof in order to let
the building dry out while further funds were raised and planning permission
for the conversion and a new classroom was awaited. A generous grant from the
Pilgrim Trust enabled the belfry to be reinstated at this stage, and Ulster
Garden Villages provided a loan that enabled the work to be taken to an interim
conclusion with the help of NIEA grants.
The major phase of the restoration
started in 2014, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston
Foundation, the Headley Trust and NIEA, along with ARC(NW), with continuing
support from Ulster Garden Villages and Danske Bank. This consisted of the
restoration of the Stable building as a restaurant, museum and offices, along
with construction of a new-build classroom to provide additional meeting space.
By this stage a formal partnership had been agreed with the Sion Mills Building
Preservation Trust, with a view to their managing the building on completion,
and visitors were first welcomed to the restored Stables for European Heritage
Open Days in September 2014.
1861 serves a wide range of meals and light refreshments, while Sion Mills BPT
continues to manage the classroom and museum, with support from Derry City
& Strabane District Council.
Piperhill Construction Ltd (Phase 1)
Louerne Construction Ltd (Phase 2)
Albert Fry Associates
Rainey & Best
Heritage Lottery Fund, Ulster Garden Villages, The Pilgrim Trust, The Architectural Heritage Fund, The Headley Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, ARC North West, Historic Environment Division DfC, Danske Bank