Raw jute was produced in significant quantities in only one region of the world: the deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in Bengal in India. And for a short period – long finished by 1900 – Dundee and the surrounding district had a near monopoly on its manufacture. The Dundee jute industry was composed of many firms, most of them carrying out only one part of the process of buying, transporting, manufacturing and selling jute. Big profits were made in jute, but these were invested overseas rather than in the local economy. From the 1870s on, investment trusts launched by Dundee businessmen, channelled enormous sums into foreign investments and particularly into American railway, land and cattle companies. Dundee's ‘jute barons’ preferred to invest in American stocks rather than in developing new industries in Dundee. The result left Dundee dangerously dependent on the jute industry.
Wentworth D'Arcy Thomson, professor at Dundee's University College in 1884, recalled his first impressions of the city: "Dundee was terribly poor. When I first came here the Greenmarket was full of idle men, walking to and fro, hungry and in rags. Of all those young professors who had come to Town, I doubt if there was not one who was not shocked and saddened by the poverty which Dundee openly displayed...Dundee was worse even than the slums of London, Glasgow, and Liverpool."
Dundee has often been described as a “women’s town.” For most of the 20th century women dominated the workforce. Men were due pay rises at the ages of 16, 18 and 21, and employers often preferred to lay men off rather than grant the extra wages. There is some evidence to suggest that men were not keen to adopt the new power looms when they were introduced in the 19th century, and so the employers willingly replaced the workforce with women. This also ties in with the theory that the employers, keen to avoid strike action from the male unions, found women 'more manageable'. It was quite common for a married woman to go out to work at the mill, and for her husband to stay at home, looking after the house and children. The jute industry, Dundee’s staple trade, which in 1901 employed almost 25,000 women, who accounted for over 70% of its workforce. In 1921 24% of married women in Dundee worked compared with just 6% in Glasgow and 5.6% in Edinburgh. In Dundee there was a widespread ( not entirely accurate) image in Scotland of Dundee men staying at home as “kettle boilers” while their wives worked. The local authorities also encouraged children to work in the mills by permitting them to do half a day at school and half a day at the jute mills. Cowgate Half-Time School was a school that provided a part-time education for children employed in the mills and factories of Dundee. Some received education for half a day and worked the other half, while other pupils went to school every alternate day. Children under the age of ten years could not be employed, so the ages of students in these half-time schools were between ten and fourteen years. In the city of Dundee, with its large jute mill industry, this system lasted longer than elsewhere. Research showed that the part-timers suffered from stunted growth and under-weight.
Many working-class women had little time for political activity, as they were expected to find time to work and keep house for husbands and children. Before 1885 there was little in the way of formal union organization amongst the various sections of the jute workforce. The weakness of trade unions among Dundee's women textile workers led many to conclude that they were too downtrodden and apathetic to organise properly. Eleanor Gordon, however, suggests an alternative interpretation. Between 1889 and 1914, she traced 103 strikes involving women jute workers in Dundee. Most involved just one firm, although a few spread across town, involving up to 35,000 workers. Most were spontaneous and were launched by the workers themselves rather than called by unions. News spread by word of mouth, supported by pickets at the entrance to the works.
The Dundee Advertiser (no friend of the strikers) gives a flavour of how strikes might progress:
"At Tay works, the great spinning and weaving establishments of Messrs Gilroy Sons and Company, there was also a gathering of malcontents who ‘demonstrated’ according to the accepted fashion. The general body of hands seemed undecided, but most of them in the end filed past the porter's lodge. At the dinner hour, however, evidently impressed by the knowledge of what was going on elsewhere, their ranks were largely augmented." (Dundee Advertiser, 24 February 1906, quoted in Gordon, 1991, p. 205)
"Strikers invaded the Cowgate...in a twinkling’, a circle, the diameter of which extended from the Queen's Statue to the portals of the shelter was formed, and a couple of score of shrieking, shouting spinners spun round in the gyrations of jingo ring … Panmure Street was thronged from end to end by an uproarious crowd of lassies. Number gave them boldness and they made a rush for the shelter, in which for the most part millowners seeking to escape personal allusion and recognition had taken refuge … A hooting band made a rush for the last door, but the police, who acted with commendable discretion intervened and the portals were closed." (Dundee Advertiser, 27 February 1906, quoted in Gordon, 1991, p. 208)
Spontaneous action, Gordon argues, "maximized disruption by being unpredictable and, as a display of united action, could also serve to heighten the self-respect and self-regard of the women’; the public ridicule of the millowners ‘challenged patriarchal authority" . Such strikes were usually short-lived because the women's low wages would not allow them to sustain a long strike, but this did not mean they were necessarily ineffective. Success depended on stopping one mill (when the others continued working) or bringing the town to a standstill. In such a competitive industry, firms could not afford to stand idle when demand was high. If demand was slow, however, firms such as Harry Walker & Sons were quite happy to sit strikes out. Success depended on the state of the market – as did so much else in Dundee.
The years 1910 to 1914 were a year of militancy and strikes across the whole of the United Kingdom. In Dundee, a city dominated at the time by the textile industry, one of the local responses included the jute workers leaving their looms and mills to take to the streets in1912. The early days of the strike were marked by a spirit of good-humoured defiance and good natured gatherings. The strike slogan was "We will never be content til we get our 10 percent". A local newspaper reported that the striking workers had marched through the city singing 'war songs'. As the strike wore on tensions began to rise, with the employees of Cox Brothers in Lochee becoming particularly militant. The company was so alarmed by the depth of feeling amongst the workers that they took serious measures to protect themselves and their factories in the event of riots and ordered twenty pistols, of the type that would fire up to 32 shots without reloading. On one occasion Baxter Brothers’ Dens Works was besieged by four hundred masked strikers from Lochee who were brandishing sticks and other weapons. They succeeded in preventing the Dens Works workers from entering the mill by throwing stones and missiles at them, although eventually the police were able to open a passage to the gate. At one point during the strike a total of 30,000 millworkers in Dundee were locked out. In the end, however, the employers gave in to the demand for a wage increase, although the 2½% increase was far short of the 10% and 15% demanded.
Jute Mill Song
Oh dear me, the mill's gannin' fast
The puir wee shifters canna get a rest
Shiftin' bobbins coorse and fine
They fairly mak' ye work for your ten and nine
Oh dear me, I wish the day was done
Rinnin' up and doon the Pass it is nae fun
Shiftin', piecin', spinnin' warp weft and twine
Tae feed and clad my bairnie affen ten and nine
Oh dear me, the warld is ill divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
For there's nae much pleasure livin' affen ten and nine
'The life of the women workers of Dundee right up to the thirties was ... a living hell of hard work and poverty. It was a common sight to see women, after a long ten-hour-day in the mill, running to the stream wash-houses with the family washing. They worked up to the last few days before having their bairns. Often they would call in at the calenders from their work and carry home bundles of sacks to sew. These were paid for at the rate of 5d for 25, 6d for a coarser type of sack. Infant and maternal mortality in Dundee was the highest in the country.' writes Mary Brooksbank, an expelled Communist Party member, and once a jute mill worker in 'No Sae Lang Syne: A Tale of This City'. At the age of thirteen Mary began work as a shifter
Dundee’s jute industry by the end of the twentieth century was no more. From 20,000 in 1948, employment fell to 8,000 by 1975. Low pay, poor working conditions and high levels of unemployment made the jute industry notorious as an industry to avoid wherever possible. As far as the bosses of the mills, the rich upper-class were concerned, the mill-hands were so much cattle. The mills were incredibly noisy and many workers went deaf; the dust and fibre in the air destroyed their lungs.
Today more than half of the city's council wards are among Scotland's most deprived and fewer than half of the homes in Dundee are owner-occupied. The Whitfield area in particular has the highest rate of child poverty in the UK at 96%. Dundee had the highest rate of abortions in Scotland in 2004 (24.2 per 1000) and the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe in 2003-2004 (1 in 16; the national average is 1 in 23)