‘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)”

‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 1 (14 May, 1881)

The following is the first 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 I.—The Half-Timer.

I was but a small boy when my parents determined to leave that quiet little village in the Howe of Fife where they had been struggling for years to gain a scanty subsistence at the handloom. The income from this was so small that I fear my reader would hardly give me credit for veracity were I to state its limited extent and unavoidable drawbacks.

My elder brother Tom was about to be set on the loom which my mother had formerly occupied, when matters took a turn, and it was that same Tom who brought it about. He had repeatedly heard and readily believed the reports current in the village that in the town of Dundee one could get a choice of employment and good wages, and it appeared to him much wiser to go thither than to drudge on in his native village for a pittance hardly sufficient to afford the bare necessaries of life.

When the thing was mooted at the fireside there was naturally an incredulous response; but happily a sensible neighbour backed up Tom’s energetic representations, and my father, beginning to reflect on the circumstances, and to weigh all contingencies of the case, at length determined to remove his whole family thither.

When we bade farewell to those scenes of my childhood, one cart was sufficient for the conveyance of our whole household effects, my mother, and sister, and me. Tom preferred to walk with my father beside the cart, and after some hours weary journeying we reached Newport on the Tay, and our eyes were greeted with the sight of the port of our destination—Dundee, which lay stretched along the opposite shore, and spread out on the heights behind.

The spectacle of so great a place, while exciting my interest and curiosity, also bewildered me, for sitting jolting in the cart I had exercised my youthful imagination on the kind of place to which we were bound, and had only got the length of a large village with a rivulet flowing through it, its clumps of trees, its tall steeple, and slightly multiplied streets; but that great town where chimney-stalks usurped the place of trees, and where ships added their bewildering fringes to the mighty sea which still separated us from the thousands of houses, dumfoundered [sic] me, and I almost cried with disappointment.

Our cart was taken on board the ferry-boat, and having dismounted I began to walk about the broad deck of the vessel, full of inquiring curiosity at all the wonders I saw. Before I had half exhausted my questions, we were landed on the pier at Dundee, and were walking on the hard causeway toward the town, followed by our cart of furniture.

My father had secured a house, and we were soon crowded into it. To me it seemed as if we had got into a prison, so close was everything. The alley up which I assisted to carry our effects was between dingy stone walls instead of bright green hedges, and the long stair we had to climb fatigued my limbs, so that I was fain to remain beside mother and watch her attempts to light a fire. When I looked out of the window I was surprised to find there was no green thing visible; instead of gardens or fields the only prospect was of tiled roots and chimney tops. Yet that night I slept soundly in my old bed, and next day we began our family life in Dundee. Continue reading “‘Sketches of Life in a Jute Mill’ Part 1 (14 May, 1881)”