‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 4 (4 June, 1881)

The following is the fourth 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 IV.—The Mill Mechanic.

At one end of our spinning flat stood a mechanic’s bench, to which I devoted some attention in my spare minutes. Though it was not very much used in connection with our machinery, yet many other places near at hand required the workman’s attention, and this corner seemed the handiest place for repairs in contiguous places. I paid much attention to the bench, and the worker too, and was even called to help in an amateur way in some urgent cases. Gradually and almost unconsciously I acquired a little dexterity in the handling of hammers and files, nutscrews and chisels, and ere long my services were more and more appreciated and required. It was not to be wondered at, therefore, that before I had been a twelvemonth in the flat I had begun to feel a liking for mechanic work. Confiding my wishes to my father and mother I was much pleased to find them offering no objection to me looking after an opening in the mechanic shop when it should occur. It was well known that going there as an apprentice I would have to sacrifice some shillings a week, but the ultimate advantage seemed to manifest that it was resolved rather to put up with that for a time.

My opportunity came anon, and the foreman duly entered me in “the shop,” and set me to some simple occupations. Being the youngest apprentice I had of course a heavy share of the scogie work which was about the place; but I had penetration enough to see that I would soon get above that for I could already handle most of the tools more deftly than some of my seniors in service could. The gaffer was not slow to discern this too, and wisely distributed both mechanic art and common drudgery between me and the next in advance. This, while a benefit to him in some cases, was to me an incalculable advantage. When the time wore round, and the ability was acquired for it, I was allotted the use of a turning lather. Using it carefully and satisfactorily I began to be steadily employed at it, and thus almost reached the summit of my ambition. A sense of proprietorship sprang up in my mind as I found the entire management of this implement confided to me. It was like a new friend from whose society I should derive delight and profit, and its rapid revolutions and gradual transformations did good service in the shaping of my character.

To keep such an establishment as ours in right working order there was necessarily a deal of mending and altering and general repairs. The great engines and expensive machines might be had from makers, and the long shafts and innumerable pulleys by which they were connected might be fitted up by strangers hired to make and erect them; but this and the other articles wore or broke or became defective. We had therefore workers in iron and brass, in wood and tinplate, and other things to see after repairs constantly. Of the former class there were mechanics located in nearly every separate department. In the preparing flat you might see an engineer’s bench, where any urgent repair was attended to. In the weaving room you might see another; so also in the winding department, as in the spinning flat. But our heavier work, alterations and refittings, were attended to in the mechanics’ shop, where lathes and saws and planing machines and all the etceteras of practical engineering were at hand, and skilled men to attend them.

A mechanic in a mill is a very different person from one in a general fitting shop, for he has not only his special tasks to do, but is expected to be handy in many ways beside. He should be competent not only to render assistance in heavy lifting and hoisting—knowing the capabilities of pulleys, levers, and wedges—but to be quick at a temporary patch or alternative fitting, so that the machine or engine may be kept running in usual working hours. In order as far as possible to prevent delay as well as to avoid confusion among the workers, a relay of mechanics is always on the premises during meal hours to attend to such repairs as can best be done when the engine is standing.

That is not all, for many a time these have to work at extra hours now and again even through the whole night, in order to economise opportunity and secure the perpetual run of the machinery in working hours. This abnormal engagement often cuts off opportunity for the enjoyment of the weekly half-holiday; nay, it is not an uncommon thing to find that the ordinary seasons for local or national holiday are the very times chosen for the mechanics’ closest and heaviest spells of work. Of course it is very hard to be obliged to be working at such times when every other person is at rest or play—the privation being aggravated by the appearance of pleasant summer weather—but there seems to be no alternative. Better that a few be deranged in their times of pleasure than that hundreds be kept out of ordinary work. It is no advantage to have much of this irregular time, for while it is more expensive to the employer, it is also more exhausting to the employed. A considerable margin must therefore be allowed in any estimate of cost for work done at such extra times. At this time of course I was a junior, and therefore not liable to such excessive hours, for by the Factory Act this overtime working is not allowed till the age of 18.

My new occupation afforded me occasional access to nearly every part of the work, so that I had opportunity to observe every process, and, indeed, sometimes had to study the principles of the machine I was employed upon in order to do my work correctly. There was not much for us to do in the warping flat, but I was there often enough to learn all the method of working, and to note the general characteristics of the place. Coming from the noisy mill, it was quite a relief to step into it. The only sound of machinery there was from a distance—the rumbling of shafts below the floor, or the rush of the spinning frames in some adjacent apartment heard when a door was opened. Several rows of great warping mills occupied the place, stretching from floor to ceiling. I have frequently noted how deftly the warper shifted the empty bobbin from the “bank” on which it was running and replaced it with a full one, catching up the retreating end of one thread and attaching the new one to it without stopping the mill. The great warping reel was driven by a pulley and long woollen cord, the shaft of which pulley stood up close to her hand, and had a winch on the top. For the most part, however, the foot was used as the propelling organ, and thus both hands were left free to shift bobbins and to tie knots. As the haik, guiding its scores of yarns, moved upwards and downwards to distribute the warp over the reel the warper had her attention carried both above and below her eyes, and this, with the perpetual motion of hand and foot, afforded an amount of muscular exercise eminently calculated to promote strength and health of frame and grace of action in the whole body. No wonder those women had lither and well-developed figures. The warper is almost the only worker not directly affected by the engine-driven machinery, and consequently she may on a pinch supplement her work with a pull up when the engine has temporarily refused to work—provided her box is well supplied with bobbins.

I was much oftener in the winding flat in the way of business. There the weft yarn was wound in solid spools, called “cops,” to fit into the shuttles of the weavers. Those cop-winding machines, although so far automatic, yet required constant attention, and with the best of them a woman might tend as many as twenty-five or thirty spindles at a time. The cop-winder, like the others, does all her work standing, and the quick eye and nimble fingering in tying knots and removing cops, in which her foot as well as her hand was employed, all tended to the cultivation of an active habit of body and mind, of great service in this steam propelled age.

The steady action of the steam engine was always a matter of great importance. Our engineer seemed to feel a heavy responsibility on his shoulders, which required a constant watch on all the movements of his engine. He took frequent readings of his “indicator,” and was every day surveying his corliss clips and plungers, his keys and cranks and cogs, so that by this familiarity with the pulse of his instrument he might gauge and secure its health and efficiency. A regular supply of steam was indispensable; towards this I could learn it was not simply sufficient to have plenty of coal in the furnace and of water in the boiler, but the stoking of the fires had to be done at stated times, and the pressure of the steam observed always. Sometimes I had to do duty in the cleaning out of the boilers. The steam was blown off the night before, but though the boiler had a whole night to cool there was still a sweltering heat about it when we had to go inside to ship and scrape away the crust. This service was done in relays; while one set was hammering away inside, the other was resting and cooling outside. The removal of this crust is very necessary, as it is a badly conducting substance, and weakens the steam-raising capacity very much. I have also seen when there was a cracked or injured boiler place that its removal and replacement by a sound one was effected without removing the boiler. The men employed in this work had to worm themselves into the most awkward postures conceivable, as they hammered away at the rivets on the fresh plate—at one time lying flat on their backs under the boiler, at another wedged into a part of the flue among soot and hot bricks and discomfort. What will not men do in the pursuit of necessary business? Truly one-half of the working world has little conception of the shifts to which the other must sometimes resort.

Occasionally our services were called for on account of the oiler’s neglect in allowing his bearings to get heated. The “hot journal” was an evil not always easy to cure, and with heavy shafts and large pillow-blocks often required a run of cold water for a long time, and much care besides to restore it to right working trim. Then, again, we were firemen of the establishment, and had a brush now and then with the flames. Fire occurred most frequently in the cards, either from the steel pins striking each other or the presence of a lucifer match among the jute. This once lighted spread with great rapidity by igniting the caddis which was about. The rule for this case was to keep the machine running, but cut off the supplies. Buckets of water were always at hand, and hosepipe hanging ready to charge, so that a prompt attack with either or both on the fire which the revolving machinery was spitting out generally extinguished it in a short time.

(To be continued.)

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