Meath Chronicle, 24th April 1909 ~ Spicer's Dance

Mr. John Spicer and his Workmen.

On Saturday night the employees of John Spicer and Co and their friends, by invitation of Mr. John Spicer, senr., were present at an enjoyable dance held in the Young Men's Society Hall, Navan.

Mr. Spicer, Mr Jack Spicer and Mrs Spicer, Mr Louis Magee, V.S., and Mrs. Magee, Mr Brendan Gunn, V.S., Kells and other gentlemen were also present.The catering was done in capital style by Miss Nooney, while the dance music, supplied by Miss Smith, Messrs Smith and Mullen, gave satisfaction.

During an interval toasts were proposed and songs rendered. " The employees " was given by Mr. Jack Spicer, and responded to by Messrs J. Quinn and P. Daly. The toast,

" Prosperity to Navan " was proposed by Mr. Gunn and supported by Mr. Jas. Ownes. Mr. John Spicer senr., responded.

The health of Mr. Jack and Mrs. Spicer was next proposed by Mr. Gunn. It was drunk most heartily, and Mr. Spicer, on rising to respond, was greeted cordially.


Advertising Feature in the Meath Chronicle in 1984

The name Spicer comes from the Swiss word, "Spizzzer", which is a German derivative meaning "strong point".

The noise of the busy commercial world outside the headquarters of John Spicer & Co. Ltd., on the corner of Navan’s Trimgate St., and Cannon Row constantly intrudes into the office of the managing director, Mr. John Spicer.

From here one of the oldest, yet most modern and successful, bakery firms in the country is administered.

The Spicer family is one of the oldest in the area and can trace its origins back for five generations – to 1743 – when the great, great, great, grandfather – also named John – of the present managing director (1984) was born. The company has a history in the meal business which dates back to 1821 when Patrick Spicer (1791-1840) a son of the 18th century John, was involved in milling. Patrick’s son John (1817-1871) seems to have diversified considerably as the 1856 edition of Slater’s “ National Topographical and Commercial Directory of Ireland” records that he conducted coal, corn, flour, timber and seed businesses at Academy Street. The same edition of Slater’s lists seven bakers in the town but there is no Spicer among them.

The history of the Spicer family is intertwined with the development of agriculture in Meath and surrounding counties. According to the 1821 census, Patrick Spicer (born 1791, died prior to 1840) lived at Academy Street, Navan and was a mealmonger. He was 30 and his wife, Mary (born 1789) was a flaxspinner. On the date of the census they had six children, one of whom, John developed the business.

The 1856 edition of Slater's makes no mention of a mill, but he must have bought or established one subsequently as, shortly after John Spicer  (1853-1922) was born, the family moved to Blackwater House where the mill operated.

John Spicer 1743-1804 is buried in Donaghmore cemetery. His wife Mary 1755-1794.

Their son Patrick Spicer 1791 and died before 1840. His wife Mary born 1789 no record of death.

Children in 1821 were Anne (10), Mary (9), Bridget (6), John (4), Patrick (2), Thomas (1).

John Spicer 1817-1871, age 53, buried in Donaghmore cemetery. Wife Mary.

John Spicer, 1853-1922 buried in St. Mary's cemetery. Wife Mary.

John Spicer 1882-1953 buried in St. Mary's cemetery. Wife Pauline. Only son John, four daughters Maureen Dorgan, Blackwater House, Navan; Gladys Spicer, Blackwater House; Poppy Fairs, Lymm, Cheshire; Betty Pracy, Banbury, Oxfordshire.

John Spicer: 28-2-1914 to                        Wife: Elizabeth Fogarty (1943-          ).

Children: Gwendoline, John Andrew, Patrick, Kevin, Joanna, Claire.


John Spicer 1853-1922

However it was in the next generation, when Patrick’s grandson, John Spicer (1853-1922) took over the reins that the Spicer interests developed into an empire. John Spicer, probably the most dynamic figure in the development of the company and in all of Meath, purchased the mansion and demesne at Belmont, Navan. In his obituary in the “Meath Chronicle” in 1922 he was described as “ the dominating figure in the business life of Meath, and one whose industrial activities extended far beyond the borders of his native county.”

John Spicer was educated in Navan, in Mount St. Mary's College, near London, and in Belgium before returning home to take part in his father's extensive businesses. In the early 1880s he married Mary McCann, sister of James McCann, the sitting M.P. for the St. Stephen's Green Division in Dublin. They had nine children-six girls and three boys.

Following his father’s death, John Spicer took control of what the obituary described as” the large and rapidly advancing business” and through enterprise and courage, struck out into paths then unknown in the industrial life of this country.” He installed a plant to generate electric light for his various premises and the family residences and expanded the plant to cater for requirements of the people of the town. In 1920 the Urban Council took the question of acquiring the lighting of the town and John Spicer disposed of his rights and a site at the back of Ludlow Street for a power station. There were three interests involved in the site-John Spicer, James McCann and the Murphy estate. The first two were easily dealt with but the Murphy estate had some years to run independent of its letting to John Spicer. In typical no nonsense manner John Spicer bought out the Murphy interest and placed the site at the disposal of the Council.

At the time of the death of John Spicer, his son, also John, the father of the managing director in 1984 resided at Blackwater House.

When he assumed control, milling was carried on by the semi primitive stone process, but the roller system had revolutionised the industry in America and John Spicer pioneered its use in this country. This necessitated a complete change of methods but, which was to characterise his approach to industry throughout his life, the latest equipment was installed regardless of cost. Only the best was good enough for him and everything else was scrapped. But the increased milling capacity created a problem- what to do with the extra produce? With the forthrightness which typified the man he decided to dispose of it himself and bought a bakery from Luke Smith when the latter retired in 1899. That was at Boyne Road, Navan, where the bakery up to 2012 stood.

Both businesses flourished, creating extra employment and according to the obituary writer he “was recognised as one of the best employers in the county, possibly in the province.”He established branches in Balbriggan, Kells and Trim, increasing still further his turnover. He purchased corn for export to England and this trade was appreciated over an enormous area. Farmers in Louth, Cavan, Westmeath, Kildare, Longford, Dublin, and of course, Meath benefitted from this and he was, in the words of the obituary writer,” the pivot on which this branch of tillage hung for many years in this county.”

He formed his business into a limited company in 1908. The first directors were John Spicer, his wife Mary, his son John Spicer, who was the father of the Managing Director (1984), and John Quinn, who was the company secretary. Mr. Quinn was a grand uncle of Desmond Ward, the company secretary in 1984. John Spicer was chairman and managing director.

The company’s many interests continued to flourish and in 1915, two years after the Boyne Navigation Co. went into liquidation, John Spicer bought the canal linking Drogheda and Navan. The canal had been built during the period of Grattan’s Parliament (1780-1800) but was not worked to best advantage or fully maintained. In view of his extensive trading with England and with the farmers in Louth and Dublin, and because of the easy accessibility from Drogheda, Skerries and Balbriggan, where he had a branch and Dublin City it seemed a logical business step for John Spicer to purchase the canal. It may have been his only venture which backfired. The canal had become derelict and he spent a huge sum in repairing the lock gates and carrying out other improvements. He had intended using it extensively but government restrictions imposed during the second world war limited his trade to only one centre. However, it was successful for a time and he ferried grain to Drogheda and returned with coal and timber.

John Spicer had many other business interests. He farmed extensively. He also owned the Club House Hotel (later the Russell Hotel and now the Newgrange Hotel). In the early 1900s , it was patronised by English and other clientele coming to the area for the sporting season. He disposed of that in 1920 to Purtill & Co., Accountants.

The company's head offices were housed in the building now occupied by Bank of Ireland and previously by Allied Irish Banks. Spicers sold the premises to the Munster and Leinster Bank in 1921. The Munster and Leinster Bank later amalgamated with others to form AIB.

Spicers also owned three mills-one at Blackwater House, off Abbey Road (now off the inner relief road) where he resided until 1908; one at the rere of Ludlow Street, near the Newgrange Hotel, and the third on the Boyne Road, near the bakery which closed in 2012. Part of the last named mill stood on the site of Rivermill Apartments. But in June 1919,disaster struck and may have brought on a stroke which he suffered shortly afterwards. The mill off Ludlow Street was equipped with the most modern machinery but it was burned down with disasterous effects for the company and the town of Navan. Up to 40 people were employed at the mill and many more worked in subsidiary industries. All that was swept away, but in typical couragous manner Spicer planned to build another at Athlumney. However, the high cost prevented him from proceeding with it.

The Times, 17th June 1919:

Spicers Flower Mills at Navan, County Meath, were destroyed by fire early yesterday morning.

Another indication of the entreprenurial of John Spicer was that he had installed electric lighting in his many premises before the town itself had such lighting. But he was far from being a capitalist with an unacceptable face. He expanded the plant to meet the requirements of the people of the town and by 1922, all the main business premises and residences were lighted from his plant.

His interest in the affairs of the town began quite early in his career. He became a member of the Town Commissioners early in the 1880s and continued as a member when it became Navan Urban Council in 1899, a position he held as chairman until 1920. He was the chief mover in the scheme to supply water to Navan at the time and also in erecting workman's dwellings in three terraces. He was also elected a member of Meath County Council in 1899 and continued as a member until 1912 when he was succeeded by his son John Spicer. Another son Jim Spicer became a member of Navan Urban Council.

Johm Spicer was a follower of Charles Stewart Parnell and remained loyal to him after the Parnellite Split. When the Land League in Meath was started in his offices in Ludlow St., he was present with Michael Davitt who had served as an M.P. for Meath in the 1890s and George Jones.

By any standards John Spicer was a remarkable man and it is fitting to reproduce the tribute paid by his obituary writer"...A man of whom Navan and Meath are proud, a man whose memory will live long in the hearts of the people, whose monument is in the midst of the community in the great business he worked up and in the many civic enterprises which he inaugerated".

John Spicer 1882-1953

Following his death in 1922, control of the company passed to his son, John Spicer. Since then the development of the company has been one of steady progress, though there have been a number of new ventures started and significant improvements made. He was also a member of Meath County Council. Probably the major change under the management of John Spicer  was the conversion of the Blackwater mill from water power to electricity in the late 1940s. Part of the old mill wheel still existed in 1984 in the bowels of the building. After the second world war the company's drying and storing facilities were expanded and it started producing balanced rations for cattle.

When the Administrator of Navan parish, Very Rev. Dr. Dunne, was stuck for a site for a new primary school he approached John Spicer who donated the land on which the present Scoil Mhuie stands. He was a founder member of Bellinter Park Golf Club now Royal Tara. He was captain of Bellinter Park Golf Club and president of County Louth Golf Club. He captained the County Meath Cricket Club.

A sister of John Spicer was Madeline Spicer an accomplished singer. She was trained in Italy and on many occasions she sang in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. She was director of musical societies in Navan and Trim in the 1950s.

John Spicer IV died in 1953 and the managing director in 1984 was in control since then.

John Spicer 1914

He started school at the age of eight in Our lady's Bower, Athlone, then a co-ed but later an all girl school. Two years later he moved to Stoneyhurst College, Lancashire where he received the equivalent of primary and secondary education.

He was a versatile athlete in his younger days. He played as a first and second row forward for Wanderers Rugby Club. He played for three years with Leinster. He was on the final trial teams for Ireland twice, but his chances of gaining an international cap were disrupted by the second world war, when he was at the height of his playing prowess. He was chosen on a Rest of Ireland team and there is a photograph of him being introduced to President Douglas Hyde prior to a game in 1940. In tennis he won several Provincial Towns Cups. His sisters Poppy and Gladys were on those teams. He won the singles championship in that competition twice in the 1950s. He won county championships in Meath, Longford, Louth and Westmeath. He took the Connaught mixed doubles championship in Galway and was the men's number 1 in Bective Lawn Tennis Club, Dublin for many years. He played hockey in Navan, Trim and Rathoath. He got a trial for the Connacht interprovincial team. The "provinces" of hockey were Dublin, Munster and Ulster and the remainder of Ireland was designated as Connacht. He was a huntsman with Tara harriers, the Meath Hounds and the Ward Union. He was twice captain and president for seven years of Bellinter Park Golf Club now Royal Tara.

He learned the bakery trade in the London Borough Polytechnic in the 1930s and then returned to work in the family business. He performed various duties before graduating to the position of assistant manager and following the death of his father in 1953, he assumed full control with the title of managing director and chairman of the board of directors. He modernised the Boyne Road bakery and set up a confectionery plant in Trim. The most significant development during his reign was the expansion in the bread van fleet to 50 vans.

He describes his contribution to the ongoing success of the company as "steering a steady course" but he may be somewhat modest in that. He did not have an active interest in politics. However he was a founder member of Navan Chamber of Commerce and became its first president and continued his membership. But being a Spicer and with land in Navan, he could not escape the needs of the town and, though he admitted he had no desire to, he sold the site for the vocational school at Abbey Road which was opened in 1965. When the County Council planned the ring road, he was again in the firing line. Part of the road from Watergate Street to the Kells Road passed through his land and he sold an area needed for that road.

The generosity of the Spicer family to the people of Meath also was in evidence in the late 1960s when the Navan to Drogheda canal, which the company still owned, was handed over to An Taisce.

In 1957-58 he acquired the Fitzsimons Bakery in Kells. He extended the bakery at the Boyne Road premises and installed a modern plant there. The process took five years and was completed in 1982. The company expanded its production facilities in Trim in 1953 when equipment for manufacturing confectionery was installed, in addition to the bakery and shop.

About 1969 the company started producing meal rations for cattle, pigs and poultry under the brand name "Farmore" and since 1982 produced calf and dairy nuts and pellets for poultry, also under the Farmore brand name. Many farmers would not have been as successful if they did not have a reliable and convenient market for their produce and a milling service to grind and roll their corn. There were many mills in the county in the late 1940s, but as farmers began to grow less corn most of these disappeared. Spicers continued to mill even when it meant bringing in grain from America, but in 1984 there was a resurgence in the area as farmers see the benefits of meeting the needs of Spicers.

Spicer's vans were a common sight on the roads of Math, Louth, Dublin, Cavan, Westmeath and Kildare and it is the expansion of this fleet which, possibly has been the most significant in the company since the 1950s. The directors of the company in 1984 were: John Spicer, managing director and chairman of the board of directors, his sisters Maureen Dorgan and Gladys Spicer and John Spicer's wife Elizabeth. John Spicer attributed the success of the company to good industrial relations, the expertise of its employees, the loyalty of its staff and customers and the quality of the bread and confectionary. It was a tribute to good industrial relations that not one day's delivery was lost since the bakery was acquired in 1899. Many of the workers fathers had been with the company and this continuity had been a stabilising influence.

In 1984 there were 150 employees.

Desmond Ward, Company Secretary. He was a grand nephew of the first holder of the position John Quinn. He joined the company in 1954 when D.J. Coleman left the company. Coleman succeeded John Quinn who died in 1950. John Quinn lived in Beechmount House, Trim Road, Navan.

Teddy Walsh, Sales Manager.

Vincent Byrne, Assistant Secretary.

Michael O'Donnell, Production Manager.

Michael O'Callaghan, Navan Bakery.

Tom Markey, Trim Bakery.

Michael O'Donnell, Trim Confectionery.

Michael McGrane, Kells Bakery.

Larry Mallon, Balbriggan Bakery.

Joe Finnegan, Blackwater Mill.

Margaret Murtagh, Navan Shops.

Maureen Conlon, Trim Shops.

Former employees included John Giles, who, for many years was secretary of the Meath GAA board. His brother was Capt. Patrick J. Giles, a Fine Gael TD in Meath from 1937 to 1961. Seamus Smyth, artist, was shop steward in the bakery for a time. Many sons followed their fathers into the firm. This was common in many businesses up to the 1960s and indeed was enforced by trade unions. Spicers was a family's family firm. An example is Johnny Reilly foreman in the Navan bakery in 1984. His father James "The Brock" Reilly and grandfather Tommy worked for the company.