‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 7 (25 June, 1881)

The following is the seventh 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 VII.

The Overseer.

In every stage of my progress I was brought into contact with ignorance. Not only did I find the ragged, bare-footed urchins who shifted bobbins or ran with carts to be careless about anything beyond their necessary work or their dearly loved fun, but men, even men with families, in may instances I found quite in darkness as to the most ordinary book-learning; men who could not subscribe their own names, and who could hardly make sense of the plainest paragraph of a newspaper when they spelled through it.

Along with this unlettered condition there was generally the unthinking prejudice which leads the workman to imagine himself wronged because the master has plenty of money and he has little or none. This is a great folly under the sun, for while every man is free to make the best opportunities, and would show his wisdom by so doing, yet to some are thus afforded only skill and labour, while to others comes money, and so by labour and capital—the two hands of industry—the right balance is sustained. What would become of our great spinning and weaving establishments, and therefore of our remunerative industries, if the millmaster were only from hand to mouth with his money. A wise workman should see in the wealth of his employer the best guarantee for his own steady employment.

Fortunately for me my success at school had given me a relish for reading, and even an aptitude for study. To those books I could get at home I added others which I could borrow to read, and thus enlarged the extent of my knowledge. When I grew a little older I put myself to a night school to extend my acquaintance with arithmetic, and afterwards added a little algebra and geometry at home. At the mechanic’s bench I began to see a use for drawing, and therefore devoted a good many nights of a whole winter to practising it under a teacher. In all these things I was encouraged by my father, and even stimulated by my brother, who went still greater lengths in learning and practice. There were two manifest advantages from those pursuits of mine—first I was thereby all the better qualified for every stage of my progress, and never lost ground through ignorance or incompetence; and, second, the whole of life was made more pleasant, I being not a mere worker, but one who could think as well. Depend upon it every one who can see beyond the mere mechanical range of his work, and judiciously use such a power, makes a better, because a more intelligent, workman.

It happened on one occasion that I had got a job which required more than ordinary attention, and in my anxiety to comprehend all the relations of the parts I had to fit together I made a long calculation, helping it out with an algebraic equation. The board on which I had worked out my problems lay about the bench for a day or two, and who should lay lands on it but my master, who happened to be looking about the shop. I observed him pick it up and look over it curiously, then walk to the foreman and make some inquiries. By the glances they occasionally gave I knew that they were speaking about me and my figures, but they said nothing. The matter seemed not to be forgotten, however, for I found myself gradually getting into better, or at least more elaborate work, and trusted with the arrangement of machines, sometimes away from the traditional forms in which spinning frames and powerlooms were made. My companions, of course attributed this to being a favourite, and from some of them I got even ill-nature and annoyance in consequence, although others had sense enough to discern that only those were so trusted who were found capable. On more than one occasion I found my counsel sought, and month by month my value rose as a reliable wrokman [sic].

Nine years soon passed away, and the tenth found me at the head of the mechanical department of the mill. This position I occupied for a long time, still being as anxious as ever to master every several range of my business, and all along striving to reduce, as far as possible, the carelessness and consequent waste resulting from incompetent and heartless workers. This needed constant attention. Not that those workmen were more disposed than others to be wasteful; but certain it is that the constant, quick action of the mill machinery, and the need of it being sharply dealt with, tends more to a sleight-of-hand way of getting through work than the deliberate building of machines in a fitting-shop would do. This new position sometimes taxed my capabilities to the uttermost; but our employer was considerate, and while making allowance for an occasional disappointing failure, was never slow in awarding hearty praise for a decided success.

There was yet another change for me, and still in the upward direction. The long-continued illness of the manager threw a good deal of his duty on my shoulders for a time, and his death following necessitated a new appointment. To my astonishment I was asked to take his place. My experience had of late been considerable extended no doubt, but I feared that the novel circumstances would embarrass me too much, and therefore hesitated a while. Ultimately I was so pressed to the situation, and received so many assurances of assistance and consideration, that I accepted, and began my new career of mill manager. The relief from the anxieties of the workshop gave me a good deal more liberty than I had calculated upon, so that I was free for the new range of ideas which began to fill my mind and engage my attention. In time I mastered all the details of my position and duties, and habituating myself to a regular use of the notebook or all orders and requirements, I at last succeeded in confining the cares of the work to the work hours.

Those work hours, however, were sometimes long enough, for the reasons before stated. A good overseer should not only give his orders, but see them executed. Alterations and repairs of the machinery could not afford to be slovenly or tardily executed; and not infrequently I had to return at late hours to see that the work was properly advanced to meet the necessities of the morrow. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; “ but an overseer’s day has often to begin at 6 o’clock P.M.

The adaptation of means to ends, the survey of the whole range of the different “systems,” the fulfilling of orders in due time, and even the tempering of weights and qualities of material by reason of weather, besides the controlling of foremen, and the supplementing of their little failures formed for me a more intricate problem than the higher mathematics, to which I had of late been aspiring. It was an earnest game of moral chess, which needed all my wits. Other people might do all this in a perfunctory manner, but my desire was to give my heart to the work, and to do it thoroughly. Without exactly seeking the praise of my master, I was pleased to find that I not only pleased him, but that my work was successful; for things moved on smoothly, and the necessities of to-day were met by the preparations of yesterday. Much of the profit of millspinning and weaving depends on the uninterrupted flow of the work, small orders necessitating changes of weight and quality of yarn which go down to the very roots of the preparation. I trusted the employer to look out for long runs of one kind when possible, and when changes were necessary he was careful to disturb my arrangements as little as possible. The pride of an anxious and conscientious manager is to have a good “spin” form the mill and a long tally of yards from the factory, a shortcome in either of which probably affected me more than my employer, so much may a man, when well treated, become interested in the welfare of another.

I had long been aware that all extra-time work was unprofitable, and should not be resorted to except in extreme cases. How was it possible for men to work steadily a whole day and night without pause Still more unreasonable was it to expect them to be fit for ordinary duty the succeeding day, and as I had often seen men thus treated going about sleepily whiling away the time, I set myself to a reduction of it as far as practicable. I do not pretend to account for it, but I have observed that the immensely augmented earnings of such excessive spells of work never seemed to do any good to the workers themselves. Whether the act of being extra flush of cash leads to an improvident style of both household and personal expenditure, or that the physical and moral derangement unavoidable in such cases tends to slacken the tension necessary to secure good and economical life I cannot say. Perhaps for both reasons it turns out that those men who are most anxious for extra time are far from being the best members of society, or from not having the most comfortable homes and families.

The position and duties of an overseer require much wisdom, for on the one hand he has to consider the master’s interest and on the other that of the servant. In fact he has to sustain the character of master and servant in one person. Happy the man who can move in smooth orbit between the two contending forces, and happy the community which has so good a manager—one in whom skill and experience are controlled and tempered by the high morality of Christianity, recognising the Master in Heaven, and giving to all servants that which is just and equal.

(To be concluded next week.)

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