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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
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Scotland's fourth city was built largely on the Jute industry, a natural fibre also known as hessian or burlap. Gavin D Smith reports.
Last year Dundee launched an initiative to become the first ‘plastic bag-free’ city in Scotland, with the council and local retailers handing out thousands of reusable carriers made from jute, imported from India. Until the low wage economies of the Indian sub-continent brought about its ultimate demise, Dundee was the world capital of jute manufacture for the best part of a century, and the irony of the situation was not lost on Dundonians.
It is fair to say that the Victorian economy of Scotland’s fourth city was built largely on the jute industry, which had its origins in an 1820 shipment of 20 bales of the fibre which were landed at Dundee docks from India for processing. Between 1841 and 1901 the population of Dundee tripled from 45,000 to 161,000, principally due to the employment afforded by the burgeoning jute trade, and in 1883 more than one million bales of raw jute were unloaded in Dundee. By the turn of the century in excess of 50,000 people worked in more than 100 mills, and Dundee was popularly referred to as ‘Juteopolis.’ During the first half of the 19th century Dundee was well placed to become the jute capital of the world because it already boasted a long-established textile industry, with an infrastructure that could be adapted and a workforce that could be retrained to handle the newly-imported commodity. The bundles of hard, compressed jute that arrived in Dundee docks required softening with whale oil as part of their conversion into useable fabric and as Dundee was also a notable whaling port, that commodity was easy to source. The city was a centre for ship building, too, and Dundee-constructed vessels carried raw jute from India to their home port, and then transported the processed material all over the world.
Today it is easy to forget just how ubiquitous jute once was. As ubiquitous, in fact, as those much disliked plastic bags are in the 21st century. It provided material for ropes, sacking, carpets, sailcloth, electric cables and roofing felt, to name but a few of its uses. It was cheap, strong and versatile, and was derived from natural fibre obtained from the Corchorus capsularis and Corchorus olitorius plants, which are native to what was formerly Bengal and is now Bangladesh.
In the mills of Dundee this natural fibre went through a complex series of processes, including ‘carding’ and spinning, before finally the cloth was ‘calendared’ under heavy rollers to give a smooth presentation.
Inevitably, in Victorian Scotland, the large numbers of workers who carried out these tasks were not well paid and many were women and children. Indeed, three women were employed in the mills for every one man, and children under the age of nine were used to clean dust from beneath the machines. Dust and extreme noise were ever present, respiratory diseases common, and accidents all too frequent.
The ‘mill girls’ gained a reputation for fierce independence and a tendency to spend their spare time drinking to relieve the misery of their situation, much to the consternation of the conservative press of the day. By contrast, the ‘jute barons’ who owned the factories made fortunes from the trade, though in characteristic Victorian philanthropic fashion they did spend money creating parks, libraries and even swimming pools for the working people of the city.
Nonetheless, militancy surfaced from time to time, with 30,000 workers protesting for four days in 1874 at a proposed cut in their wages. Fifteen years later the Dundee and District Mill & Factory Operatives Union was founded, and it soon boasted a – largely female – membership of 6,000.
By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the great days of the Dundee jute industry were beginning to fade, with the ‘barons’ discovering that the processing of jute could be undertaken much more cheaply in its Indian homeland. By 1950 only 39 Dundee mills were in operation, and the 1970s saw the trade almost at an end, with an increase in the popularity of synthetic materials also aiding its demise.
Today, the major jute-producing countries are Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar and Thailand, and jute is used for packaging materials, sacking and carpet backings, as well as having found a valuable role in more ‘eco-friendly’ interior fittings for motor vehicles.
However, against all the odds, one working Dundee jute mill survived until recent times. Taybank Works was constructed alongside Arbroath Road between 1947 and 1949 for the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society, and under the auspices of Tay Spinners took its last delivery of raw jute from the MV Banglar Urmi in October 1988. The final bale was processed in May of the following year, and the company subsequently brought over Indian workers to dismantle the power looms for transportation to their new roll in the jute magnate G J Wadwha’s Chamdany Mills in Calcutta.
At the time of writing, Taybank Works is in the process of being demolished to make way for a housing development, and very few of the old jute mills endure, though some have been converted for commercial or residential usage. One permanent reminder of the source of a great deal of Dundee’s employment in days gone by endures in the shape of ‘Cox’s Stack,’ the 85 metre-tall chimney of the former Camperdown Works jute mill in the Lochee suburb. The stack was constructed in 1866 and was modelled on an Italian Campanile for James Cox, a true ‘Jute Baron’ who employed 5,000 people by the mid-1880s and also served as Dundee’s Lord Provost.
Despite the loss of so much architecture associated with the jute trade, Verdant Works stands as a fitting memorial to the great industry that was such a vital part of Dundee’s industrial heritage and is now a cherished piece of Scotland’s history.
Places to visit
West Henderson’s Wynd, Dundee DD1 5BT
Tel: +44 (0)1382 225 282
Established in 1833 in the Blackness area of Dundee, Verdant Works was created by flax spinner and
merchant David Lindsay. At the height of its prosperity in 1864 the plant operated three steam engines driving
70 power looms and 2,800 spindles and employed 500 people. By 1991 the site was derelict, but in that year it was
purchased by Dundee Heritage Trust, which subsequently began an ambitious restoration programme aimed at returning the mill to its former glory. Many of Verdant’s original features remained intact, and as far as possible, historic materials and techniques were used to restore the structure. The first phase of the project officially opened to the public as a museum in September 1996. Visitors to Verdant Works are able to explore the background to jute, the methods of processing and the everyday lives of the people who worked in the industry through original architecture and machinery, film shows, multimedia technology and interactive features. The attraction is open all year round and
features a gift shop and café