‘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. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 8 (2 July, 1881)”

‘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]. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 7 (25 June, 1881)”

‘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. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 6 (18 June, 1881)”

‘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. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 5 (11 June, 1881)”

‘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. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 4 (4 June, 1881)”

‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 3 (28 May, 1881)

The following is the third 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 III.—The Spinning Flat.

Through a series of incidents which I need not particularise I by-and-by found my field of labour and sphere of observation in the spinning flat, that very place I had been so solicitous to see and know about. My work there was to oil the machinery. It is easy to see that where so much depends upon smooth and rapid motion, every bearing must be kept moist and sweet, and therefore an oiler’s duties are important. I had to undergo a course of pupilage at this for several days under a young man who was about to be promoted as second foreman; and as I received much patient kindness at his hand, I cannot but note how much of practical goodness is to be found among millworkers. Not but that the general features of mill manners are such as to impress one unfavourably—so much rudeness, duplicity, and profanity, hidden by the noise and activity of work, afford anything but a good school for the morals of young persons. But against so dark a background the guileless faithfulness of Harry, my predecessor, appeared all the more striking.

Tutored by him, I learned not only what was to be done, but the reason for its being carefully attended to. Neglect in my duty could not be hidden, for the rapid motions soon dried up the imperfect supply of oil, and induced heat and hindrance. Besides, what a disgrace as well would it be to hear some journal screeching out my remissness. An intelligent hint from Harry taught me a lesson in conscientiousness in the discharge of other duties than the more oiling of machinery—a lesson which has been of use to me all my life.

It was at the beginning of winter I made this change of work—the weather was becoming cold, and I was therefore the more struck by the warmth of the spinning flat as compared with the low mill. There we had a stone floor, and a good deal of openness about the whole apartment; but here the floor was of wood, and the room was pervaded with a pleasant kind of warmth, which felt as if one had suddenly gone into another climate. The heat of this place arises from the friction of so many shafts and spindles revolving at great speed. On the coldest day of winter we may find the spinner girls going about their work with bare feet, and yet quite comfortable. The heat is better than from steam pipes or stoves, and is very rapidly evolved, for ten minutes after starting, the whole place feels quite as warm as on a summer day. There was also a more agreeable smell in the place, the heavy towy flavour of the low mill was almost absent, an the fragrance of the lubricating oil (in which the mineral element was present) came in its place. The noise of the machinery, although deafening, was so steady and solid that after a little while I did not notice it at all. The workers are so little affected by it that they rather observe the unpleasantness when, from any accident during working hours, the machinery is stopped, and the room, instead of being pervaded by the deafening rush suggestive of silence, has sharp talking and noisy steps to strike them with disagreeable acuteness.

My duties led me over every part of this flat, and gradually made me aware of the whole process as well as the functions of the different parts of the machinery. I saw that the essential principle of the spinning frame was the same as that of the roving frame I had attended so long. The rove bobbins which were brought hither were set on pins on the top of the frame and the end drawn down between a pair of retaining rollers running at a slow speed, but immediately it was caught by another set going much faster, and the slack rove was drawn into a thin thread—the revolving flyer and bobbin in front giving it a twist, and it was then the finished yarn. At the end of the frame were pinions which could be shifted so as to adjust not only the reduction (or draw), but also the twist of the yarn, and a good spinning foreman could regulate this to any degree by an exchange of wheels. This I learned not only to assist at, but to do independently, and I wisely reckoned it a valuable lesson to me. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 3 (28 May, 1881)”

‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 2 (21 May, 1881)

The following is the second 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 II.—The Low Mill.

Soon after entering the full time list I was shifted—I may say promoted—to a place in the “Low Mill.” This part of the establishment is where the heaviest kind of machinery is placed, and almost always on the basement flat. I had observed long ago that the great barrow-loads of softened and scutched jute which had been removed from the batching house were always taken in here; and I was now about to have my curiosity gratified by learning what was done with it.

The particular duty assigned me was to attend a roving frame, with two boys as my companions, and as this much engrossed me at first, it was some time after, and only by repeated observations, that I learned the processes by which the great bunches of jute were gradually converted into the soft rope-like material which I saw wound on the big bobbins at our frame. The great room in which I was now employed contained two or three rows of heavy machines, standing about eight or ten feet high, and which were attended by a number of boys about my own age and a little older, and a few women. These were the carding machines, or more familiarly the “cards.” In the first row the jute was received as it came from the batching house, and after passing through came out in the form of a broad, soft ribbon or “sliver.” This sliver was received in long tin cans, which cans were speedily removed to the second row of cards, where a great many slivers were run in and treated so as to come out at the side as one. The first range of these cards get the name of breakers, the second that of finishers. One important service of the doubling of so many slivers was to make the texture of the composition as regular and fine as possible. It was some time before I could discover the processes by which their connection was effected, but one day being called away to assist at the removal of a lot of staves, I found one of the cards opened up, the shrouding cover being removed, and two mechanics busy unscrewing those staves from the surface of a large cylinder about 6 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. The cylinder surface was completely covered with sharp wire teeth, and which revolving and working into other smaller cylinders combed and separated the jute even as I had found it partially done in the scutching machine. The teased product I had already seen streaming down a great tin conductor and being drawn into slivers by smooth iron rollers. This was next conveyed to a range of “drawing frames,” through which it was passed, and the broad soft stuff reduced to a narrow and comparatively fine ribbon, about an inch and a-half in width. This was effected by being drawn out in passing over the hackle teeth, one part of the machine going faster than the other. The drawing frames were attended by boys whose duties were to keep the supply running regularly, or, in the technology of the mill, to “keep up the ends.” The cans thus furnished were then removed to the back of the roving frame, and the finished sliver carefully fed in, when it received a twist as it came out, and was wound on the big bobbins. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 2 (21 May, 1881)”