‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 6 (18 June, 1881)

The following is the sixth 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. This chapter focuses on how the mill workers used their leisure time.

Chapter VI.—The Amenities of Mill Life.

It is generally, and perhaps properly, reckoned that the real amenity of work is its justly earned reward. It may be very well to talk of the dignity of labour and the blessing of an active life, but comparatively few working people think about these things at all—reckoning the sole purpose of work to be the acquiring of wages. There can be no question but that real honest work is a blessed thing for man, balancing his nature and soothing his-temper for social or domeitic [sic] life, as well as stimulating his intellectual faculties for study and judgment. Let us, however, look at the more immediate remuneration of labour. These mill and factory workers can earn good wages, and as it is not an uncommon thing for a whole family to be so employed, we have often a plain house with a very large income. Although the father may have no more than 25s a week, yet there may be two daughters earning say 12s a week, a boy with 8s, and a half-timer at 3s, making £3 a week. This is no unusual case. Such a household is actually better off in monetary matters than the family of many a tradesman or shopkeeper, for he cannot always secure so much profit from his business, and rather keeps his grown up children at high-class schools, and sets up a more expensive establishment at home than his working cousin. What with anxieties of business, hiring of servants, and management of appearances, it is not possible for him to have half the pleasure of life nor nearly so generous a table as the millworker. Truly the same keen management and studied economy needed in the showy residence, if applied to our back street house, would soon make the workers rich. But this they do not think of doing. The full hand leads to a loose style of management, and what with squandering on dainties for food, frequent evening entertainments, and expensive dress, the money melts out of their hands only too quickly. Their working-days’ dress may be plain enough, even mean; but see those girls on Sunday, and you will find them eclipsing the families of the jute lord with the style of their outfit. Of course, no one has any business to complain of their use or abuse of what they have honourable earned. But waste is never wise, and may become positively sinful. On the other hand, see how some others mismanage their affairs. Through carelessness at first and indifference after-ward, they are always behind the world. To pay for goods when they get them is reckoned an impossible thing. Their pass-book at the grocer’s has their score only cleared for the past week’s consumpt, and their tally with the clothier or milliner is no more than settled when they need new dresses; and thus they live in perpetual debt, and but at a perpetual disadvantage. Our working people are often sadly short of wisdom in the management of their affairs.

That margin of charity which outlies the range of poor law legislation provides a field in which many a tender mercy is reared for private use and social amelioration. Our mill population are ever ready to exercise these; and there are times in which every barrier of class is broken down and the fire of sympathy takes hold of all. A man with a big family has fallen into bad health, and his wife and children are in danger of starving; a benefit concert is organised, and almost every one appears at it. A great enthusiasm is displayed about it, and frank help is afforded in disposing of tickets, or even in platform service, in order that this venture may prove a success. And mark you, those benefit concerts are generally successful, just as most ventures are successful when the heart of the people is in them; so much as £20 or £25 being sometimes thus repaid. And although the furore of this universal sympathy soon subsides, yet while it rages it has done good service, and we doubt not leaves a good impression on the hearts of the donors as well as the receivers of benefit.

As a rule the factory workers are comparatively sober and steady at work. They must keep by the factory regulations as to hours else they lose their employment, and if they are not steady at work they cannot expect the work to wait steadily for them. The uniform hour of starting in the morning is six o’clock, and to ensure prompt awaking we have our mill bells and steam whistles sounded over all the town by half-past five. In addition to this there is a very liberal use of knocking-up boys who, for a small consideration, will tap at door or window every morning to awaken the workers. Many a man of good estate in Dundee has earned his first pence by “knocking up” in the mornings. About the work every show of inebrity is promptly checked; any person found about the mill unfit for work by reason of liquors is summarily dismissed and his wages forfeited. So what moral suasion fails to do in the inducing of sober habits among our workers local legislation effects by force—the result being a wonderfully well conducted population. The early hours necessitate early bedding at night, and so the streets are comparatively quiet in reasonable hours. Our breaches of the peace and overt criminal acts are about always perpetrated by those who are not working, and therefore free for mischief.

The Government regulations necessitate six holidays in the year, and we distribute these so that we have, say, two at New Year time, two at the June fair, and the two Sacramental Fast-days in April and September. Thus is there opportunity for recreation in the four different seasons of the year. The June holidays, of course, are looked to with special interest, and a very large exodus of working people takes place at that time. Excursions by rail and steamboat are furnished on very favourable terms, and it would do one’s heart good to see how blithely our “honest men and bonny lasses” flock to the railway station and steamboat quay, every one equipped in holiday costume, and eager for the thorough enjoyment of a day or two in the country or the more distant metropolis. This systematic provision for the recreation of the active people who make the nation’s wealth, is one of the acts of the present age, and dates no further back—we suppose—than 25 or 30 years. It has almost been originated by and could not well be sustained without the railway systems. It is well that Acts of Parliament for the regulation of factories have included holidays in their provisions. There is no man however strong or however earnest on business, but feels the craving for an occasional holiday. We are now so familiarised to the weekly Sabbath rest and the Saturday half-holiday as not to notice their very great benefits, but an extra holiday is felt to be an extra blessing to all; while to those young people who are confined so many of the sunny hours in factory or school it is beyond all price.

Another piece of legislation in connection with our factories is the providing of free education for the half-timers. Several of our large works in Dundee have schools of their own, others provide for the instruction of the young people in public or private schools outside; and thus a race of book-readers and school-taught people is secured for the time to come. In some cases each day is divided between working and schooling, and in others the work and school are on alternate days, either arrangement working quite conveniently. In connection with the schooling also some attention is paid to orderly habits and cleanliness on the part of the young people, with a decided advantage to them personally, and probably with an indirect influence on the condition of their homes.

In the matter of salubrity the jute mill is much superior to the flax mill, there being none of that small dust flying about, which in the other case is apt to be injurious both to eyes and the lungs. The appearance of the workers is such as to confirm this verdict. An interesting sight it is to see the throngs of women and girls flocking to work after the breakfast hour—every one with blooming face and tidily-dressed hair (bonnets are unknown). Their dress is generally plain and neat, and their shoulders enveloped in a small woollen shawl. Scarcely a pale face or a stooped figure is to be seen, and among the jute spinners and weavers you will not see the sunken eyes or the sallow countenances occasionally found among the workers in flax.

To meet the necessary medical treatment of such large numbers of people, an arrangement is made with the Town Infirmary whereby millowners become Governors, and therefore have a right to propose a certain number either as out-patients or inmates of the Hospital. Each work is regularly provided with a suitable number of schedules to fill up for entry. To meet the expenses connected with this arrangement a small sum—something like a penny a month—is levied on the workers. This, along with such sums as the employers themselves contribute, entitles them to the honours and privileges of the Institution.

The present condition of the factory workers is thus in very happy contrast to what it was fifty years ago. Then there were no regular mill hours. In almost every cases they were cruelly protracted, and young people were employed during those hours without one o the ameliorating circumstances which national legislation has now secured them. Instead of children of eight or ten years of age working from 5 A.M. till 8 or 9 P.M., and liable to be beaten and abused for the most trifling offences, every child now employed must be ten years of age before he is allowed to work half-time, no full time is allowed till he is fourteen, and even from that to eighteen his hours of labour are watched and restricted. The same restriction also extends to women of all ages.

(To be continued.)

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