‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 3 (28 May, 1881)

The following is the third 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 III.—The Spinning Flat.

Through a series of incidents which I need not particularise I by-and-by found my field of labour and sphere of observation in the spinning flat, that very place I had been so solicitous to see and know about. My work there was to oil the machinery. It is easy to see that where so much depends upon smooth and rapid motion, every bearing must be kept moist and sweet, and therefore an oiler’s duties are important. I had to undergo a course of pupilage at this for several days under a young man who was about to be promoted as second foreman; and as I received much patient kindness at his hand, I cannot but note how much of practical goodness is to be found among millworkers. Not but that the general features of mill manners are such as to impress one unfavourably—so much rudeness, duplicity, and profanity, hidden by the noise and activity of work, afford anything but a good school for the morals of young persons. But against so dark a background the guileless faithfulness of Harry, my predecessor, appeared all the more striking.

Tutored by him, I learned not only what was to be done, but the reason for its being carefully attended to. Neglect in my duty could not be hidden, for the rapid motions soon dried up the imperfect supply of oil, and induced heat and hindrance. Besides, what a disgrace as well would it be to hear some journal screeching out my remissness. An intelligent hint from Harry taught me a lesson in conscientiousness in the discharge of other duties than the more oiling of machinery—a lesson which has been of use to me all my life.

It was at the beginning of winter I made this change of work—the weather was becoming cold, and I was therefore the more struck by the warmth of the spinning flat as compared with the low mill. There we had a stone floor, and a good deal of openness about the whole apartment; but here the floor was of wood, and the room was pervaded with a pleasant kind of warmth, which felt as if one had suddenly gone into another climate. The heat of this place arises from the friction of so many shafts and spindles revolving at great speed. On the coldest day of winter we may find the spinner girls going about their work with bare feet, and yet quite comfortable. The heat is better than from steam pipes or stoves, and is very rapidly evolved, for ten minutes after starting, the whole place feels quite as warm as on a summer day. There was also a more agreeable smell in the place, the heavy towy flavour of the low mill was almost absent, an the fragrance of the lubricating oil (in which the mineral element was present) came in its place. The noise of the machinery, although deafening, was so steady and solid that after a little while I did not notice it at all. The workers are so little affected by it that they rather observe the unpleasantness when, from any accident during working hours, the machinery is stopped, and the room, instead of being pervaded by the deafening rush suggestive of silence, has sharp talking and noisy steps to strike them with disagreeable acuteness.

My duties led me over every part of this flat, and gradually made me aware of the whole process as well as the functions of the different parts of the machinery. I saw that the essential principle of the spinning frame was the same as that of the roving frame I had attended so long. The rove bobbins which were brought hither were set on pins on the top of the frame and the end drawn down between a pair of retaining rollers running at a slow speed, but immediately it was caught by another set going much faster, and the slack rove was drawn into a thin thread—the revolving flyer and bobbin in front giving it a twist, and it was then the finished yarn. At the end of the frame were pinions which could be shifted so as to adjust not only the reduction (or draw), but also the twist of the yarn, and a good spinning foreman could regulate this to any degree by an exchange of wheels. This I learned not only to assist at, but to do independently, and I wisely reckoned it a valuable lesson to me.

Besides the visits of the rove cart, there came into that flat many nimble little fellows wheeling along his barrow with boxes for the little bobbins of yarn. With us the boxes or skips were made of buffalo hide, and therefore better fitted to stand a good rough knocking about. The agility with which those boys move about, and yet the leisure they have for a little fun and friendly talk with a companion, are worthy of notice. In a little while they learn the exact range of their duty—how many spinning-frames they have to attend, carrying away the full bobbins to special warping mills or winding machines, and the return with empties in their skips. The particular routes they have to take and the times when they are needed at different parts are familiar and habitual, so that what mind they have for other thoughts is perfectly free. Nothing about the work interested me more than the process of shifting—that is, removing the filled bobbins from the frame and replacing them with empty ones. My ear would be suddenly greeted with a shrill whistle, heard above the constant rush of the machinery, and I noted the woman who had used it hurrying her troop of young girls and boys into their places in one of the passages, one loiterer who comes last perhaps getting a clip with the light strap or tawse hanging by her side. When all were forward they would stand at regular intervals in front of the spinning frame. It was stopped, and in an instant all the little hands were busy. The thread of half-spun yarn above the flyer was broken off, the flyer unscrewed, the bobbins slipped off the spindles, tossed into a skip, and empty ones—which they took out of the bags hanging about their waist—set in their places; the flyers screwed on again, the broken ends drawn down and twisted through them, and all again ready for action. Those young people are the “Shifters,” who, as a rule, are half-times. The mistress shifter has to keep her eyes about her, and find the time when her active band is required at another place. One of those shifts is effected in less time than it takes to describe it, and here also the special movements and exigencies are soon understood so well that the agile workers do their duty infallibly by habit. In the intervals between the shifts, the youngsters may be seen lying about or sitting in the broad passages, playing or talking, or reading, or dressing their hair, ready at the signal of the mistress for another two minutes brush of work. I have in my mind just now one of those shifter mistresses. She was quite a handsome young woman disguised in a plain and almost dirty garb, and a few flecks of caddis might be on her black hair, and her bare arms stained with oil in one or two places, but her form was erect, her step graceful, her eye sharp and intelligent. This work of hers had a tendency to cultivate not only quickness of perception and promptitude of action, but a spirit of mastery which encouraged ease and self-confidence when the apparent bewilderment of so many frames to look after and so many young people to manage were matters of no extra anxiety, and her duties and responsibilities fitted together like clockwork. I have spoken of high speed. Let me give some idea of that. Consider that horse-shoe shaped steel flyer, one of our smallest sizes; it is screwed to the top of an upright spindle. At rest this shape is seen clearly enough, but when it is up to speed—making, say, 2000 revolutions in the minute—the shining steel describes a solid figure, and looks like a bell of clear crystal. When a row of eighty of these is in order the spectacle is quite striking. Each wooden bobbin, gradually filling, is enclosed in an inverted transparent vase, and assumes quite an aesthetic character, giving an example of what pure mechanism can contribute to the sense of the beautiful.

Each spinner was expected to keep her own frame in good order, a regular time being set apart for cleaning it; but I have known the anxiety of the workers get the better of their judgment, and break the strict rule of the establishment, which forbade cleaning the machinery while in motion. I have also known that lead to an occasional bruised hand or crushed finger, for, mind you, those revolving wheels and spindles are inexorable. Give them the nail of your little finger, and they will soon take your whole arm if not promptly checked.

There are some young people so determinedly and foolishly venturesome that even one nip does not deter them. There was one young lad who wanted some fingers off both hands. How came it so? At work in the spinning flat one day he incautiously put his right hand where it had no right to be, and lost two fingers in consequence. Good surgical treatment saved the rest of the hand, and he was soon fit to run errands and do little services about the work. Matters ran on so that he pined for regular work again, and he was set into his old place. The second day he was there he climbed on the top of the cage of the elevator while in motion, and allowed his other hand to be crushed between the rope and the pulley, and lost another finger or two. Having at last learned wisdom on both hands, in his maimed condition he proved to be still fit for some service, and took care to run no more risks with his limbs. There was a still more thrilling tradition about the place, of a madcap of a boy who seemed never satisfied unless he were in danger. On the street he would be running below the bellies of horses or climbing dangerous heights; and, coming to work at the mill, nothing less would serve him than tampering with the shafts and pulleys. One day he ventured too far, and before he could be rescued was caught by a broad belt, carried round a heavy drum and his skull fractured. As may be expected, the event was always remembered with a certain feeling of horror. But such terrible warning did not prove sufficient to prevent all exposure to danger; for we were never without a Daring Dick in the establishment whose feats were the wonder of the other lads and the admiration of not a few. Our pond was well fenced, yet more than one unfortunate tumbled into it, for by a curious law of youth that which is meant as a protection may prove a cause of extra danger. We have not wanted boys who, in the attempt to balance themselves on the wall, have fallen and been drowned, for not every one could safely float in that tepid bath.

(To be continued.)

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