‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 5 (11 June, 1881)

The following is the fifth 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. In this chapter the social impact of the high proportion of women employees of jute mills is discussed. Perhaps the most interesting insight into contemporary attitudes is this passage on the equalising effect of machinery:

So it happens among our factory hands those men who have looms rank exactly with the young girls who work alongside of them, their superior strength or former skill availing nothing if they are not as nimble as their young friends in shifting shuttles and knotting threads, in connecting tension and hitching up levers, &c. This equalisation is one result which working men have long dreaded from the general introduction of machinery. But how could it have been averted, and why should it?

Chapter V.—The Powerloom Factory.

The last part of the work to which I was introduced was the powerloom department, generally known as “The Factory,” and my acquaintance with it has been of longest continuance. As far as practicable this is kept on the ground floor, and lighted from the roof—that kind of light being most suitable for weaving. There is as deafening a noise here as in the spinning room, but it is of a different kind. And although a stranger could not possibly hear any one speaking, yet the women and the girls make themselves hear one another by speaking close to the ear; the more distant signalling being effected by a peculiar kind of barking shout which is heard above the noise of the looms. The women employed at these powerlooms have the reputation of being a class superior to some of the other workers. This may be attributable not alone to their having comparatively light and clean work, but more probably on account of the individuality of the machine they attend. It is more under their control, and is more affected by their individual character and attention than any of the others. The nearest to this is the warping mill, and therefore we find the warpers ranking about the same as the weavers in social and educated status. The weavers are, as a rule, not only well conducted, but well dressed. Their occupation is healthy, and favourable to good physical development. Thus there was one we were in the habit of calling “the Little Duchess,” she was so stately in her movements, and had such an aristocratic carriage of her handsome little figure. And again the tall “Taglioni” was quite conspicuous among her companions as they flocked out, every motion of hers being full of youthful life and grace. Indeed there were many more such, for both mill and factory work is favourable for the production of active, healthy, and even beautiful women.

A few men are employed as weavers; but perhaps only such as have formerly been engaged on the handloom, and they generally have an ambition to get on as “tenters” (that is sub-foremen, with the oversight of a certain number of looms). Look, here passes one of them, in his linen jacket—a man in middle life, of a quiet, subdued aspect, and as he walks he carried his knife with him. The shears are the constant companions of the female weavers, but the men always use a knife for the same duties. This old weaver has two daughters at work in the mill, and one boy a half-timer. We have noted him for a long time, and he is familiarly known by us as “Sir Lawrence.” If he is none the richer of his unknown title, he is none the poorer—

“A king can mak’ a belted knight,

A marquis, duke, an’ a that;

But an honest man’s aboon his might”—

and such a person in Sir Lawrence.

Many of the processes about both mill and factory are very easily learned, and persons of ordinary aptitude, whether male or female, are soon able to earn good wages. In other cases there must necessarily be a long course of training. Where much depends upon personal attention in equalising the feed of jute or in securing the exact twist of the yarn—both processes being controlled by the worker alone—it takes a long time to acquire the requisite skill; and a good feeder or a good spinner is therefore highly appreciated. But the work of the mill is levelling; no vested privileges are allowed here; no apprenticeship with its unyielding term of service. Whenever a man or woman is fit for it, advance may be made, and the value o any worker is estimated simply and entirely by his or her capacity of making the machine productive. So it happens among our factory hands those men who have looms rank exactly with the young girls who work alongside of them, their superior strength or former skill availing nothing if they are not as nimble as their young friends in shifting shuttles and knotting threads, in connecting tension and hitching up levers, &c. This equalisation is one result which working men have long dreaded from the general introduction of machinery. But how could it have been averted, and why should it? As in my father’s case, so in that of many a poor handloom weaver, who had in some obscure village to rear and support his family on little more than a shilling a day; he comes into town and finds that himself and children can find employment in a factory, where, with less labour and much shorter hours, they can earn a comfortable livelihood. Without machinery how could this condition have been reached, and what cause has he for complaint although his daughter can earn as much as himself?

In a jute mill there are always twice or even thrice as many women as men employed, so that in a town like Dundee a much larger proportion of work falls to their share than in places where no such manufacturing is carried on. This circumstance explains the fact that when the town of Barrow-in-Furness was rising in importance as an iron-working and shipbuilding place, the Duke of Devonshire, as lord proprietor, thought it necessary to set agoing a jute mill, for the purpose of supplying work to the female members of the families of the artisans and labourers employed in his forges and shipyards. We cannot say these advantageous circumstances for women has a tendency to produce good wives and mothers by whom the generations to come may be ameliorated; for it does not seem to be the best thing to gather together large companies of women, nor to give them education so undomestic as the public work affords. They get married, however, and as much interest is felt in their wedding as in those of any other class. Perhaps there may be less care as to whether she makes a good match or not, the important matter being that she has secured a husband—perhaps not always thereby just got a home in the best sense of the word. Watch that young woman who left the mill yesterday on the top of her marriage—Bride Mary you call her. Don’t forget her altogether; perhaps you may see her again before the honeymoon is over, and no disgrace to her or any other person for that. It is one of the penalties of our levelling of value that a woman can earn as much as her sweetheart, and therefore it would be reckoned an extraordinary as well as an improvident course for her at once to curtail their united income because they are man and wife. So Bride Mary comes back again to her work and is entered on the books with the same name as before, even though she has marriage rings on her hand and is a creditable wife. So Bride Mary comes back again to her work and is entered on the books with the same name as before, even though she has marriage rings on her hand and is a creditable wife. If he has left he mother’s house to set up with the husband of her choice she must lay her account with a good deal of extra work in the evening, and even at meal hours if she should go home then. But thus they go on, an honest, well-doing couple, and betimes they get their house well furnished, and seem comfortable enough, even though they carry the key of their door with them to work. This is no unusual state of matters, for where there are large spinning and weaving works—whether in cotton, flax, or jute, and there is plenty of work for women—many a wife works there still. Even after they have children the same thing is continued—the mother returning to work as shortly as possible after the birth of her babe.

How are the children looked after? Ah, that is the question, and there is the danger. There may be a kind aunty, or a handy neighbour, or even a bigger brother or sister to tend them; but they can know little of the true mother’s care and loving attention which are so necessary for the proper development and education of the young creatures. It will be remembered that the infant school has sprung out of this condition of matters. Wilderspin, having been put in charge of a great troop of millworkers’ children, contrived means for their entertainment, and managed to establish methods of occupation and even instruction which are in use to this day. But the fireside, presided over by the mother, is certainly the right infant school. Then, in addition to the circumstances of such couples preventing them going home to a regular meal, there are with some single persons occasionally too great distances to travel, and in other cases a bad habit followed without any need. Certain it is, that of our hundreds of workers there are scores who do not go home to their meals. In the morning they bring with them a can of tea and a parcel of bread and butter, and find some corner in or about the work to feed thereon at meal hours. The breakfast and dinners are eaten in the same fashion, and most frequently consist of the same kind of food—tea, tea, evermore; very rarely soup. A dietary of this kind is known to be quite injurious to the physical system; but, except by the opening of many cook-shops and coffee-rooms in adjacent streets, and the facility of warming their pannikins afforded by the steam chest in the porter’s lodge, nothing has been done to convert this too frequent usage of meals by the mill people.

This little industrial world has many of the characteristics of the great political world outside—its sympathies and its anitpathies. Those different departments so dependent on each other for being and sustenance, and tied together by the relations aforesaid, have comparatively little social affinity, and the different class of workers persist in a sort of clannish separation, however much they may know of their mutual dependencies. Many friendships do not exist between individuals, but the sections have little or no sympathy with one another. Perhaps this reflection has more to do with female than with male workers. It is but right to say, however, that those matters in which their interests are identical there is no stint of friendly feeling. They freely exchange crotchet patterns and discuss frillings and bonnet trimmings, and in some cases a sick member of the same flat will be visited by her companions, and the unfortunate condoled with and helped substantially. What more could be asked or expected of their class sympathies?

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