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.
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)”