‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 8 (2 July, 1881)

The following is the eight and final part of a series of 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 VIII

More than Mere Work.

Heretofore I had devoted my chief attention to my own personal improvement both in education and circumstances; now my heart was engrossed in advancing the work, in economising processes, and securing order and efficiency for my employer’s benefit. And as all these severally were in a fair way, I began to bethink me of what I might do for the benefit of the workers. My endeavours in that direction originated thus:—

It chanced that a that a thunderstorm had displaced a few bricks at the top of the chimney-stalk and twisted the lightning rod, and so Steeple Jack had to be engaged. One day he occupied with his kite and cord to secure a connection with the top, afterward he rigged up his pulley and climbing apparatus, and set to work with as much coolness as if he were employed on a parapet wall in a back yard. Those dangling ropes and that swinging seat of his attracted great attention, especially at meal hours, and forthwith we had never so much talk among the loungers at the gate about climbing in all places. One old sailor had yarns about mastheads and yard-arms, and even the lads from the country had feats on cliffs and tree-tops equally wonderful to relate, and for the nonce it looked as if every one was a Steeple Jack. What was the result? Next morning our Dick Daring scrambled up the jagged face of the rock overhanging the pond and secured a huge bunch of yellow broom, which had been glowing in the summer sunshine for a whole week, and reaching the court again in safety was the hero of the hour. Soon his floral spoils were seen in every place—twisted round and tied to a gas pipe in the low mill, it threw a gleam of sunlight in a dark corner; the warping-mill banks wore sprigs on the top; and lo! Taglioni coquettishly adorns her hair with a bright morsel. And thus Dick’s fame was blazoned through the whole work in glowing colour. A reprimand from his foreman went a far way to render him still more heroic in the eyes of the other boys, and thus the Steeple Jack episode awakened interest which lasted several days.

I was not displeased to see the happy aspect thus imparted to the everyday course of the mill life. It reminded me that while the existence of many might consist in no more than steady work and good wages, yet there were susceptibilities to something else, perhaps something better. There were hearts to please and minds to cultivate, there were social and personal interests which, although not brought into public light, were yet largely affected by public circumstances. Was it not possible to do something for them? All those men and women, those boys and girls, could look after their summer entertainment; their trips at the June Holidays and their little fetes on Saturday afternoons gave nobody any trouble; but what of their winter pleasures. Yes, thought I, what of their winter profit, for I had not forgotten how precious the long winter nights used to be to me for both study and pleasure.

Full of these thoughts, I began to make inquiries and prepare my plan, and by October had all fairly set on foot. I ferreted out a few musical folks, and, by the help of an amateur precentor who worked in the factory, got them taught a few pieces of part-music, found others who could sing a song or two, and one whom I remembered figuring as a reciter. To these I added some choice readings from my own library, and made up in my imagination a programme of a pleasant evening. A hall was got at little expense, and November opened with our first experiment in the form of a literary and musical evening. We sought no publicity beyond our own circle, but there the matter was so popular and successful that a general request was for a repetition. It did not, however, appear to me wise to repeat that too often or too soon. I meant it as the inauguration of something more substantial; and working as carefully as I could I tried to keep hold of those I had secured, and enlist even more in a scheme for instruction in various things. With the assistance of a gentleman who was forward in every good movement for the working people, I managed to hold a weekly meeting for instruction in geography and natural science, which we endeavoured to make as plain and instructive as possible. Although the attendance ultimately fell off considerably, I yet had the satisfaction of receiving several inquiries from hopeful youths as to means and methods of mental culture. These I tried to set on the track which I had myself pursued, for I felt persuaded that the pre-occupation of the mind with good thoughts and useful pursuits is the best way to counteract the degrading influence of loose and drunken workfellows and companions.

My friend the precentor was able to induce a good number, principally of the factory workers, to join music and other classes outside the work, so that when the time for another concert and readings came round we were still better furnished in every way, and even more successful than before. Our great difficulty was the maintaining of interest by the charm of novelty. An occasionally magic lantern night, the loan of an electric battery, or an impromptu exhibition of models and curiosities served us well, but erelong even these failed to draw. It was very difficult to popularise what is called science, and those who really began to feel their ignorance of the most rudimentary things we encouraged to attend night schools. This of course thinned our numbers, and by-and-by it appeared as if all those really anxious to learn had got sifted out and transferred to their proper schools, so that the effort did not fail in doing some good.

It is much to by desired that not only employers but overseers of public works should give every facility and encouragement to means for mental culture and improvement. The public school, the private class, the Literary Club, the Choral Society, and the Church in Dundee are all indebted to those mill and factory workers for pupils and members. But many more are available, and might at least be prepared for higher class studies by social gatherings among themselves where their powers may be educated. Intellectual culture leads to moral improvement, and moral improvement results in good handicraft. If systematic efforts were made there is no doubt but that each work might maintain its own Mechanics’ Institute, its own class for domestic economy, even its own musical associations, and all to raise the tone of the mill-worker, and check that unruly and vulgar style which at present characterises life in a jute mill.

This is no chimera. Forty years ago the cotton mills of Lowell, in Massachusetts, were not only useful in the augmenting of wealth to the proprietors, but as a place of resort for workers who sought to retrieve their fortunes and to cultivate their characters. There, as elsewhere, the bulk of the workers were young women, many of whom were farmers’ and tradesmen’s daughters. Perhaps they brought with them a more intelligent and refined manner, perhaps the New England homes in which they boarded were better managed; it may have been from both of these causes but certainly while there those factory girls exhibited a degree of polish and culture not at all familiar to us among the bulk of our workers. In almost every lodging they found a small library and a musical instrument which they used, the factory girls availing themselves of the piano as well as the book for their entertainment in hours of leisure. Not only so, they actually started, and for a long time maintained, a periodical called “The Lowell Offering,” containing essays, poems, and the stories written by themselves, and which showed no mean degree of literary ability and taste. Those who are curious in this matter may find a selection from this work in a volume compiled and published by the late Charles Knight, of London, and entitled “Mind Amongst the Spindles.”

Now what is possible in the United States is not impracticable in Scotland. We boast much about our education and solidity of intellectual attainment. I am certain that if steady efforts were made to develop and organise what ability exists among our jute mill hands it would be possible to effect very much real improvement. I do not say that improvement would be universal, for there are many persons quite beyond all ordinary effort, being surrounded with degrading circumstances outside, to which they yield themselves with more relish than to the restraints of moral and intellectual discipline. But it is even so in all human society, and this should not deter those who have it in their power to try; so that the spinning mill and weaving factory might prove not only sources of individual wealth and national prosperity, but nurseries of intelligence, benevolence, and honour.

The End.

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