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Reflecting on ‘She Town’ 


“There is no other town I know of with you can compare 

For spinning mills and lassies fair” 

From William McGonagall’s ‘Bonnie Dundee’, 1878 

Today’s blog post is a quick delve into the unique situation for women workers during Dundee’s domination of the jute industry and a chance to share some of the wonderful pictures from our collections of Dundonian spinners and weavers. 

If you are interested in Dundee’s social history you will no doubt know that it was often referred to as a “women’s town” because of the central role that women played in the city’s jute industry. And it is often said that women and girls played a significant role in shaping our wonderful city – mainly with hard graft and sacrifice. 

A defining feature of the Industrial Revolution had been the rise of factories, textile factories in particular. Work moved out of the home and into these factories, which used a central power source to run machines. Thus, the advent of new machinery changed the gender division of labour in textile production. 

Jute machinery belonging to ULRO (Urquhart Lindsay & Robertson Orchar Ltd)

In fact, of the tens of thousands of people employed in the jute industry in Dundee during the 19th and 20th centuries, women represented up to 75% of the workforce. There was a heavy reliance on women to make the industry profitable.  

Norman Watson in ‘Dundee – a Short History’ states:  “A higher proportion of women worked in Dundee than in other Scottish cites – and fifteen per cent more than in Scotland as a whole …Dundonian women and girls were engaged in work very different from their contemporaries.” 

In the second half of the nineteenth century many Irish women emigrated to Dundee to find work in the city’s booming jute industry. Women represented just over half of all the emigrants who departed Ireland in this period. 

There was a severe a shortage of housing, rents were high at this time but wages in the mills remained low compared to other cities. Overcrowding was a huge problem. Unsanitary conditions at home coupled with difficult working conditions in the mills resulted in high rates of admission to hospital of women suffering from ‘mill fever’, or chronic respiratory problems linked to the heavy dust and oil fumes. In addition to this, accidents were frequent, for adults and children, who got their hands caught while cleaning machinery, resulting in broken fingers and hands and sometimes amputation or death. 

There was also a call for workers , often female from rural areas.  

Here’s a summary of a feature in the Dundee People’s Journal, Saturday 01 May 1915. 

FISHER LASSIES WANTED AS JUTE MILL WORKERS 

“The proposal that some hundreds of fisher lassies should be brought from the North East to work in Dundee jute mills and factories has attracted much attention. There is ample room for active women workers in the jute industry and hard pressed employers would welcome recruits. The advances of wages and the grant of the war bonus have had good effect calling out some new workers and in improving time-keeping, but the present demand for workers exceeds the supply .. The Executive of the Dundee and District Mill and Factory Workers’ Union has indicated the attitude of the jute workers by declaring that no objection should be offered to the importation fisher lassies provided the wages paid to them were the same as those paid local workers. Employers, requiring help, are prepared to make arrangements for the training of the girls. The one condition which would be imposed is that the newcomers would agree to remain in the service which they had been trained for a specific time. 

Our Stornoway correspondent reports that nothing is known in Lewis regarding the proposal to employ fisher girls in Dundee jute mills during the war. There are about 5000 girls on the island who used to find employment at the herring fishing who so far as that kind of work is concerned have been idle since August last. Some time ago an effort was made to get a number of them to go to potato planting in Ayrshire and also for work on farms in Easter Ross. These occupations though seemed distasteful to the girls and besides they were at the time busy with their own crofts. Offers of employment in preserving in other factories in England were also received but there was no response among the girls, mainly because the wages offered – 16s a week – were considered inadequate. As there is no information as to wages offered in Dundee no opinion is given as to how the proposal would be received by the women.” 

Mill workers
Weavers from Bowbridge,1900s

This photograph from our collections shows a group of weavers from Bowbridge Works, circa 1900s. The women can be seen wearing palm protectors and leather strap tool belts around waist. The woman far right is the donor’s aunt Alice May. 

Early years of the 20th century

Dundee’s world domination of the jute production was already on the decline, the 1901 census tells us that 31% of the female population of Dundee was employed in the mills. Men were outnumbered three to one, and this imbalance in the labour market created a unique and tough breed of women, born out of being the main providers for the family. The mill girls were noted for their stubborn independence. “Overdressed, loud, bold-eyed girls” according to one observer. In an article in the Aberdeen People’s Journal 3rd May 1902, A. B. Hardie wrote : 

“The mill girls of Dundee are, to put it mildly, a caution. During the meal hours when passing along they carry all before them. Woe betide that unfortunate wight who attempts to dispute their right to the whole street!”  

Also, unusually for the time there were a large number of married women in paid work in the mills. The automatic escape from work through marriage was largely irrelevant in Dundee. The 1911 Census which was the first with statistics for the occupations of married women, showed 5,639 working in the Dundee textiles industry. Most occupations had none. This meant that women, the breadwinners, were not at home during the day but often their men were. Staying at home to look after the kids and boil the kettle, they were quickly dubbed ‘kettle bilers’, a term which can sometimes still be heard used today. Back in 1891, a clause in the Factory and Working Act prohibited the employment of a woman within one month of her having given birth to a child. However, this proved difficult to enforce in a city like Dundee where a woman could gain employment in 20 different works where she was unlikely to be recognised. 

In any event the period of one month was considered by many to be too short a time.  This was understandable considering work involved a ten hour shift in difficult conditions – potentially detrimental to their health and that of their offspring. 

Traditional gender roles were reversed, unusual child care provisions resulted and this unique set of economic roles gave the city a dynamic like no other. 

Despite this there was little or no opportunity for women for advancement in the workplace. The only supervisory role for women was that of “Shifting Mistress” who had responsibility for the groups of shifters who were mainly young children. 

According to a number of published accounts of the time (The Dundee Yearbook and local newspaper articles, they were also deemed to need “close supervision” by their male peers). 

Don’t be thinking the Dundee women were happy about the situation though – it was not unknown for women to participate in various forms of collective action. Some excellent accounts of Dundee women activists and campaigners for equality can be accessed here: 

Twenty fourth annual issue of the Dundee Yearbook 1901

The following extract is from the twenty fourth annual issue of the Dundee Yearbook 1901, entitled “Female Workers”. The matter of fact, somewhat judgemental tone suggests that the writers of the time were not bound by any rules of political correctness! 

“Consider now the largest class of operative, namely the females. We are met by the outset by a decided and recognised division, consisting of weavers on the one hand, and spinners and preparing hands on the other. Speaking generally the weavers are well re-numerated and live in good dwellings. They are a fine, healthy looking and self-respecting body of women and a credit to our city. The spinners unfortunately although highly skilled in their own calling – a calling in which proficiency is only acquired after long experience, are by some strange trade custom less favourably recompensed than their colleagues the weavers. the spinning therefore attracts a different class of workers, a class who live often in the most miserable of houses and appear little superior to the poorest paid, namely the preparing room hands. Strictly speaking there are sub divisions even between spinners, those in certain mills being vastly superior in general conduct to others employed in premises working coarse and dirty material where space does not allow of too minute particulars.” 

Weavers at the Craigie Works, Arbroath Road, Dundee 1900s

This is one of our favourite photographs in the museum’s collection. It shows weavers at the Craigie Works, Arbroath Road, Dundee in around 1900. Luckily, we know the lady sat in the centre is Elizabeth Isabella Brown Massie, and the rear of the picture was annotated with the following note: ‘Born 10 March 1866 at 2.20pm in Forfar, Elizabeth married David Ross and moved to Dundee in the 1890s as the jute industry was booming. She was a fast and efficient weaver and is surrounded by her pupils. She had 8 children, 2 becoming university professors. 10 shillings and 9 pence for one weeks wages, 5 10 hour days and 1/2 day Saturdays. Daughter Aggie Ross was a half timer in the mills at the age of 12.’  

Miss Scott

Of course not everyone worked on the factory floor. This is Miss Scott, one of our famous museum mannequins – busy in Verdant Works Edwardian period office. When the works opened in 1833 the office staff were all male. It was only towards the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century that women were regularly employed in clerical work. 

Women spinners

This group of women spinners are dressed in their work clothes, complete with cop aprons, bobbins, tool belt and palm protectors. The woman 4th from the left has a whistle around her neck which suggests she may be the supervisor.  

In this photograph Shifters, Piecers and the Shifting Mistress from Ashton Works, Hawkhill are in work wear – dated 1926. 

Back row (from left to right), Madge McBean (donor’s mother), Jean Imrie, Anne Melville, Jessie Fleming, Liz McBean (donor’s aunt) and Kate Long.  

Front row: Bella Walker, Mary Carrie, Barbara McNeil, Liz Blyth, Agnes Murdoch and Winnie McQueen. 

Jute spinners – year unknown. 

In Dundee there has never been a shortage of women that have made their mark on the world. Like the admirable Mary Brooksbank (1897-1978) for example. She was an active spokesperson for the working class in general and the jute millworkers in particular. Her beliefs and actions led her to long periods on the dole and on local blacklists. She certainly had the courage of her convictions in her efforts to invoke change! She was also a talented songstress – the most famous of her songs being the”Jute Mill Song” about the life and the hardships of the jute mill lassies. Many of her songs were built around refrains sung in the factories – this one describes the occasion of a Spinner’s Wedding. This song’s lyrics really do convey the happiness of such an occasion that came from the tight knit camaraderie of the female mill workers. 

 Mary Brooksbank (1897-1978)
Pictures from Manhattan Works, Dundee, Nov 25 1929 

The mid 20th century women

Moving on to the mid 20th century women continued to be at the heart of Dundee industrial work scenario. The camaraderie, social life and sisterhood of the mills was legendary as seen in photographs such as this one – part of a collection depicting work outings organised by Baxter Brothers Works. The photographs belonged to Daisy Tasker a weaver at Baxter Brothers, who entered the mill at 14. In this photograph Daisy Tasker is seated 2nd from left. 

Work outings organised by Baxter Brothers Works
Cop apron

This is a Cop apron, made from a heavy jute canvas, worn by women working in the jute factories of Dundee. Tied round the waist, it held cops and bobbins of yarn which would be fed into winding frames in order to prepare the recently spun fibres for weaving into canvas. It is a very precious item in our collections because although thousands would have been in existence at one time, very few have been valued and preserved for posterity. 

Jute spinners from Constable Jute Works

Seven jute spinners (wearing cop aprons and winder’s knotters) from Constable Jute Works, Dura Street owned by Malcolm Ogilvie and Company. The factory has been decorated with union jacks and bunting, possibly to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation.  

 Image from Manhattan Works shows a woman working at a loom with scissors in hand

Power loom workers were usually girls and young women. They had the security of fixed hours and a regular income. They were paid a wage and a piece work bonus. Even when working in a combined mill, weavers stuck together and enjoyed a tight-knit community. By the late 1950s the women worked 7.30am to 5.30pm with one hour for lunch but otherwise no real breaks. They would usually have to rely on a co-worker to keep a couple of the end looms running while they dashed to the toilet! Weavers usually looked after up to six machines and kept the looms oiled and clean. It was a non-stop job to keep fixing broken end threads, keep all the looms running and meet the order deadlines.  

If you want to hear first-hand what it was like to be a weaver in the new industrial age just ask our volunteer guide Lily! 

Recommended reading:

  1. Warden, Alexander J. The Linen Trade, Ancient and Modern. (1864).London.
  2. Lythe, C., Lythe, C., & Gauldie, E.(1969). Dundee and its textile industry, 1850-1914. Dundee: Abertay Historical Society
  3. McKean, Charles and Whatley, Patricia with Baxter, Kenneth. (2008) Lost Dundee. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd.
  4. Watson, Norman (2006). Dundee, A Short History, Edinburgh : Black & White Publishing.
  5. Murray, Janice (1995). Dundee At Work, Stroud : Sutton Publishing Limited.
  6. Whatley, Christopher, Harris, Bob, and Miskell, Louise. (2011) Victorian Dundee – Image and Realities. Dundee : Dundee University Press.

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