• alt tag

The Plight of the Half Timer

Back in the days of Dundee’s industrial past, life was far from easy for the majority of school age children. Being allowed to go to school was actually a bit of a luxury! 

By 1833 the new Factory Act had forbidden the employment of children under nine in the textile industry. Unfortunately, recommended regulations from this and subsequent Factory Acts passed by Parliament were not always properly followed. 

From 1876 children were legally required to have some form of education up to the age of thirteen. Trafficking in birth certificates was a common practice at this time. Between 1875 and 1900 jobs had become scarce. ” ..a certificate allowing a child to leave school and take employment was a valuable commodity. To employers in a low profit industry the employment of young persons at low wage rates made sense even if it did mean that grown men remained unemployed. It was this factor which made the half-time system last longer in Dundee than in any other town. Half timers were employed in the mills for either ten hours every alternate day, in which case the next day was spent in the mill school, or from 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. at work with the period after mid-day dinner until 6 o’clock in school.” (Abridged from Abertay Historical Society publication – Dundee and it’s Textile industry 1850-1914) 

Some employers set up schools within their factories so that child workers could move quickly from work to instruction.  

This delightful letter from Dundee Heritage Trust collections is from D. Douglas to Messrs. W. G. Grant & Co. Ltd. describes terms of employment of half-timers at at Panmure Works, Carnoustie in 1897. It was sent to the company on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of the factory. 

By the 1890s, the half-timer question was a hot topic, with many condemning such a practice with the hopes of having the government raise the compulsory schooling age. Others, meanwhile, fully supported the employment of half-timers. 

In 1901, the Dundee Evening post reported:  

50,000 [children] are being worked more than 20 hours a week in addition to the 27 ½ hours at school, and that a considerable proportion of this number are being worked to 30 or 40, and some even to 50 hours a week.’ 

Dundee Evening Post 3rd May 1901 

Dundee factory inspector Mr. Wilson said: 

‘As I said in my last year’s report, the typical Dundee half-timer is somewhat undersized and decidedly thin, not so much perhaps as a result of his work, but as the result of poor nourishment in children. These little creatures are diminutive when they commenced work at eleven years of age, and the circumstances under which the majority of them labour are such that bodily growth is certainly not encouraged or fostered thereby.’ 

The half-timers also faced terrible dangers in the mills with accidents being shockingly commonplace. They would risk being scalded, or crushed, or cut, or having their bones broken, or even their limbs torn off, 

Records show an example of a child death at Verdant Works in 1852.  

12 year old Bridget Carlin died after becoming tangled in the workings of a carding machine, probably located on the ground floor of the high mill or near the glazed alley. She was Irish born and possibly an orphan and seemed to have only worked at the Verdant mill for a short time. 

The case for change 

There was also an economic aspect in the argument against the half-timer system. Child labour, being cheap, necessarily forced down prices, and with it, wages for their adult counterparts. The half-timers were occupying jobs that could have gone elsewhere. 

Mr. Wilson, the Dundee factory inspector states:  

“The great majority of Dundee and Arbroath half-timers are employed for ‘shifting’ purposes, that is, removing the full bobbins from spinning frames and replacing them with empty ones. It has been found that the work can be as well, if not better, done by young persons of thirteen who have passed the Fifth Standard, and by those who are exempt from further school attendance, being fourteen years of age.” 

However, the reality for many working class families was that they really had no other choice than to send their children out to work. The object was survival, and even the small amount of money that a half-timer brought in was desperately needed. 

In 1881, the People’s Journal series ‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ began to tell the tale of a family from rural Howe of Fife who were struggling to make ends meet working a handloom and made the decision for the whole family to come to Dundee for work and lodgings. “One cart was sufficient for the conveyance of our whole household effects.” The following is an except written three months on from the point of view of the youngest boy in the family who had recently started working in the same mill where his father worked: 

“Work was dull and monotonous. The room in which I worked was on the ground floor, and principally filled with great bales of jute standing end to end, which were being wheeled about now and then in a way I could not understand at first, until I observed these were brought by one man, and another distributed to the workers required for batching. The batching was effected by laying the jute in layers in great wooden stalls, and wetting it with water and oil. These stalls being were allowed to stand a day or two in soak, thus the fibre was made softer. To render the jute fibre still more pliable it was next put through a “softener” -a machine with a curious and noisy arrangement fluted rollers, which broke down all its remaining elasticity.

My duties lay beyond these processes, receiving the “streaks” of jute from the softener and placing them in right order upon travelling rope, which they were transferred to the scutching machine. I never saw the inside of machine, but afterward found out that its function was to comb or tease out the thick end of the jute that might be more suitable for the next process to which it was subjected. Occasionally the monotony of work was varied gathering and filling bags with the tow which came from the scutching, and wheeling them another machine where it was used up. At that time I had no conception of the meaning of any of these different processes, and had to content myself with understanding what my own particular work was.

Well-schooled at home, I studied to be as attentive as possible, and avoided as far as I could the tricks and peccadilloes which were common among my companions. But this was not always easy, for now and again I had one work-fellow who proved notoriously careless and unfaithful, and I therefore frequently got a share of the blame which should have gone to him alone. There was no person within reach to whom I could complain of this, for everyone was too busy or too indifferent to be troubled with such petty grievances, and I therefore carried all my sorrows home, and at fireside not only found sympathy but strength and direction, so that I became more wary for the future. By-and-by I was relieved of this fellow, and had a youth his place who was as obliging as the other had been faithless, and I got on well that I was in time noted person worthy of advancement.

The school to which I went in the other half of the day had only half timers like myself as scholars, not from our mill alone, but several others, and a very and disorderly pack they were. The teacher was a woman of considerable nerve, but had such difficulty in curbing the wild spin’s of several the bigger boys that she was in continual trouble. Complaints she could and did make to her employers of nonattendance, but for behaviour she was expected regulate that herself. I often felt sorry for the good woman when two or three knaves conspired to annoy her.

My activity during the hours spent in the mill tended to stimulate my application to lessons, and soon found myself learning more and at a more rapid rate than I had dreamed of in the village school. Meanwhile I grew big and strong, and after about a year’s work in the batching house, and satisfactory appearance in the school inspection, was passed into the ranks of the full-timers, and got my wages doubled. This was very acceptable at home, for although my father had been earning much more than could possibly have made at the handloom, it was found that town life was more expensive than country, and my mother required much scheming and economy to make ends meet.

I could not but observe that all along I was in much better circumstances than any of the boys in similar work—boys whose fathers and mothers as well were workers, who had to take their meals in any accidental style which was possible, and had no home peace at night as I had; for the household being it were dissolved reason the absence the wife all day from home, the ties were loosed, and the interests and sympathies of young and old destroyed. . ” 

Photo Credit Dylan Drummond


Dundee Evening Telegraph Article  

Wednesday 4th July 1900, is entitled CHILD LABOUR IN DUNDEE

“The Chief Inspector of Factories has just published indictment of employers of labour, foremen, and workers in Dundee which deserves public consideration. In his report for 1899 the Chief Inspector makes special reference to the question child labour, expressing satisfaction that of late years there has been a great ripening of public opinion on this subject, and that this trend is clearly in favour of its total abolition.

In Glasgow the Inspector is told that not single half-timer is at present employed, and in Belfast their numbers are steadily decreasing. Dundee, the Scottish stronghold of the halftime system, also shows steady decrease in the number of children employed in its jute mills…..Though satisfied that Dundee of to-day only employs some 2000 child labourers, instead of the 5000 of 1834, this is tempered by the information proffered concerning the condition of the 2000 half-timers whose labour is deemed essential to the prosperity of Dundee.

The Inspector declares that he has never seen anywhere children of poorer physique than the Dundee half-timers….. Described as very diminutive when they commence work at 11, and the arduous nature of their duties and the high temperature which they have to withstand, render them emaciated and pallid to degree. The children are employed in the most unhealthy processes, and are compelled to breathe more or less dusty atmosphere continually, and in the spinning rooms ” they are rushed from one machine to another droves of 12 for the purpose of ‘shifting’ the bobbins, or have drag and lift heavy hide boxes full of bobbins.”

The Inspector also shrewdly remarks that the children of the very poorest are as a rule the most diminutive and delicate-looking. The stunted and emaciated condition of the Dundee half-timers, as well as many the adult workers, is declared undoubtedly to be the result of combination of circumstances, the chief being, “poor and unsuitable food in infancy, crowding together in single-roomed houses (where the ordinary and the infantile death rate is abnormally high), labour in unwholesome atmospheres, want of sufficient sleep in early youth, and heredity.”

Attention is also directed to the fact that illegal employment of children by personation has been somewhat prevalent in Dundee …. with cases of persistent efforts to evade the law, and also making; complaint that workers and foremen connive the employment of children illegally. The indictment, as a whole, reflects the community of Dundee, and it is time that the representatives of the community and of the working classes acknowledged their responsibility for the state of affairs described by the Chief Inspector.” 

Living Conditions  

During the jute boom with the upsurge of incomers to the city of Dundee, a housing crisis developed. Mill owners were forced to erect more and more tenement dwelling houses which were largely poorly constructed with little or no regard to proper sanitation.   

The Dundee Yearbook of 1901 had a great deal to say about what the author describes as the “degrading conditions of life” that so many Dundee women, children and men are living under in overcrowded single room tenement dwellings. 

“The overcrowding is a serious evil, and lamentably common…… 

…. the writer has found seven children and two parents living, sleeping and eating in the same room and another where six children and two parents similarly housed.  

In this class there is no airing of infants daily …exposure to cold, improper and insufficient food in infancy more ot less ruins their physical health through general neglect. The child must tumble about in a filthy bed or cradle through the sweltering heat of summer, in the polluted atmosphere in which perhaps five or six people may live and sleep. The tenement system offers to the young child particular facilities for acquiring a strange knowledge of evil, and affords little opportunity for improving character.” 

The following extract from The Scottish Home, edited by A. Carruthers, describes the cramped tenement areas:  

‘Going into the house, people were often struck by the darkness and gloom.  Older tenements were frequently so close to each other that light was limited, and new buildings put up in the garden grounds of existing tenements created the infamous ‘blacklands’, with warren-like passages and classes.  The internal layout, too, could be entirely dark and unventilated….It must have been foul smelling, since one privy or dry closet served thirty-four houses with a population of one hundred and thirty people’ 

Dundee tenement plettie  

Photo from Dundee and Its Textile Industry, 1850-1914,by Bruce Lenman, Charlotte Lythe and Enid Gauldie.Published by Abertay Historical Society, 1989. 


Change at last? 

By 1872 Scotland had moved to a system of state-sponsored largely free schools, run by local School Boards. Overall administration was in the hands of what became the Scottish Education Department in London. Education was now compulsory from five to thirteen and many new board schools were built. Larger urban school boards established “higher grade” (secondary) schools as a cheaper alternative to the burgh schools that had previously existed. The Scottish Education Department introduced a Leaving Certificate Examination in 1888 to set national standards for secondary education and in 1890 school fees were abolished, creating a state-funded national system of free basic education and common examinations.  

So there was hope for the children of Dundee’s working class although progress would be hampered by a number of years of wrangling  over the lack of harmony between the Factory and Education Acts in Scotland. Many believed that if healthy children about 12 years of age, who had passed Standard 5, could be employed to work full time in healthy places, there would not be the same inducement to parents to send their little ones to work on half-time at 10 years old. However the pace of change was slow and child labour in Dundee was only finally abolished in 1918. 

Click here to find out more about the early School Board schools in Dundee.

Other News

For all the latest News from RRS Discovery & DHT, or to return to the latest news from Verdant Works please use the following links.