‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 1 (14 May, 1881)

The following is the first of eight stories about life working in a Jute mill. These sketches give a great insight into the operations of these mills, from the different machinery to the way leisure time was occupied. They also give a sense of how a family unit could be impacted by this new way of life, which was a world away from a quiet little toun in the Howe of Fife.

Chapter I.—The Half-Timer.

I was but a small boy when my parents determined to leave that quiet little village in the Howe of Fife where they had been struggling for years to gain a scanty subsistence at the handloom. The income from this was so small that I fear my reader would hardly give me credit for veracity were I to state its limited extent and unavoidable drawbacks.

My elder brother Tom was about to be set on the loom which my mother had formerly occupied, when matters took a turn, and it was that same Tom who brought it about. He had repeatedly heard and readily believed the reports current in the village that in the town of Dundee one could get a choice of employment and good wages, and it appeared to him much wiser to go thither than to drudge on in his native village for a pittance hardly sufficient to afford the bare necessaries of life.

When the thing was mooted at the fireside there was naturally an incredulous response; but happily a sensible neighbour backed up Tom’s energetic representations, and my father, beginning to reflect on the circumstances, and to weigh all contingencies of the case, at length determined to remove his whole family thither.

When we bade farewell to those scenes of my childhood, one cart was sufficient for the conveyance of our whole household effects, my mother, and sister, and me. Tom preferred to walk with my father beside the cart, and after some hours weary journeying we reached Newport on the Tay, and our eyes were greeted with the sight of the port of our destination—Dundee, which lay stretched along the opposite shore, and spread out on the heights behind.

The spectacle of so great a place, while exciting my interest and curiosity, also bewildered me, for sitting jolting in the cart I had exercised my youthful imagination on the kind of place to which we were bound, and had only got the length of a large village with a rivulet flowing through it, its clumps of trees, its tall steeple, and slightly multiplied streets; but that great town where chimney-stalks usurped the place of trees, and where ships added their bewildering fringes to the mighty sea which still separated us from the thousands of houses, dumfoundered [sic] me, and I almost cried with disappointment.

Our cart was taken on board the ferry-boat, and having dismounted I began to walk about the broad deck of the vessel, full of inquiring curiosity at all the wonders I saw. Before I had half exhausted my questions, we were landed on the pier at Dundee, and were walking on the hard causeway toward the town, followed by our cart of furniture.

My father had secured a house, and we were soon crowded into it. To me it seemed as if we had got into a prison, so close was everything. The alley up which I assisted to carry our effects was between dingy stone walls instead of bright green hedges, and the long stair we had to climb fatigued my limbs, so that I was fain to remain beside mother and watch her attempts to light a fire. When I looked out of the window I was surprised to find there was no green thing visible; instead of gardens or fields the only prospect was of tiled roots and chimney tops. Yet that night I slept soundly in my old bed, and next day we began our family life in Dundee.

Within two days my father had got employment in one of the great mills, and had even begun to look after occupation for Tom at some mechanic trade. I was much astonished at the leisure time my father now had. An evening or two sufficed to put the whole house into nice trim, and after that, instead of setting off to work at night, he now could sit by the fireside with my mother and read some entertaining book, or teach us young folks our lessons; and my mother instead of being harassed with perpetual pirn-winding could go about her housework deliberately, and find time to instruct Janet in sewing and knitting. In the day time I ventured along some of the streets, delighted with the shop windows, but wonderstruck at the great mills and factories, so much larger and more beautiful than our old village church, which had always appeared to me the most splendid of building. Great tiers of windows in successive storeys, finely ornamented gateways, pilasters and architraves, statues and fountains were all to me new and striking objects, and I carried home glowing reports of the splendours I saw.

Three months afterwards I was told that father had got work for me also in the mill. In fact I was quite prepared for that; the quiet strangeness of the country boy had got worn off, the stir of the town had begun to infect me with a restless desire for occupation, and when it turned out that I was only to work one half of the day and go to school for some hours in the other half, it seemed to me the most charming arrangement possible. Accordingly I was duly entered on the mill books, and got any dirrections [sic] as to attendance, and was then handed over to the care of a man who was called the batching foreman.

Our mill was planted in a part of the town where now after its repeated amplifications, the ground was becoming scarce, so that much ingenuity had to be exercised when new machinery had to be fitted up. The mill pond had been partly built over, and the ground dug away and quarried as far as was safe to give room for extension and improvement, and year by year it had become more and more crowded. From the second flat of the mill one could see the rough rock hanging above the pond, and over its jagged surface near the top appeared great patches of sow thistle and willow weed, while festoons of ivy and bunches of bare-bells adorned other nooks of the rugged cliff. All of which inaccessible, novel embellishment tended to impart a charm to the monotony of mill work, and on hot days to refresh the eye when it had leisure to look out.

All this I found out by degrees, but in the meantime my 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 on end, and which were being wheeled about now and then in a way I could not understand at first, until I observed these were brought in by one man, and by another distributed to the workers as required for batching.

The batching was effected by laying the opened out jute in layers in great wooden stalls, and wetting it with water and oil. These stalls being filled were allowed to stand a day or two in soak, and thus the fibre was made softer and more retentive of twist. To render the jute fibre still more pliable it was next put through a “softener”—a machine with a curious and noisy arrangement of fluted rollers, which broke down all its remaining elasticity.

My duties lay beyond these processes, and consisted in receiving the “steaks” of jute from the softener and placing them in right order upon a travelling rope, by which they were transferred to the seutching machine. I never saw the inside of that machine, but afterward found out that its function was to comb or tease out the thick end of the jute that it might be more suitable for the next process to which it was subjected.

Occasionally the monotony of my work was varied by gathering and filling bags with the tow which came from the scutching, and wheeling them to another machine where it was used up. Of course 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 my reach to whom I could complain of this, for every one was too busy or too indifferent to be troubled with such petty grievances, and I therefore carried all my sorrows home, and at the 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 in his place who was as obliging as the other had been faithless, and I got on so well that I was in time noted as a person worthy of advancement.

The school to which I went in the other half of the day was kept by a woman, who had only half-timers like myself as scholars, not from our mill alone, but several others, and a very rough and disorderly pack they were. She was a woman of considerable nerve, but had such difficulty in curbing the wild spirits of several of the bigger boys that she was in continual trouble. Complaints she could and did make to her employers of non-attendance, but as for behaviour she was expected to regulate that herself. Young as I was, 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 I soon found myself learning more and at a more rapid rate than I had dreamed of in the village school. The schoolmistress was paid for us by the millmaster, for so the Act of Parliament provided.

Meanwhile I grew big and strong, and after about a year’s work in the batching house, and a satisfactory appearance at the school inspection, I 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 he could possibly have made at the handloom, yet 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 had been in much better circumstances than any of the boys about the 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 of peace to go to at night as I had; for the household being as it were dissolved by the reason of absence of the wife all day from home, the family ties were loosed, and the interests and sympathies of young and old destroyed.

Observing and reflecting on such conditions, I have long concluded that this is in most cases a false economy, for the earnings of the whole family though apparently large are really insufficient to meet the extra expenses, while the general discomfort of all in numberless cases leads to habits of improvidence and intemperance, such as were unknown in a house like my father’s.

(To be continued.)

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