- courtesy of BBC
Jute is one the most versatile natural fibres known to man and in 1820, the first twenty bales arrived on the Dundee docks. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it became well-known for its strength, low cost and versatility and therefore very important for making sacking, ropes, boot linings, aprons, tents, satchels and tapestries among other necessities.
Three vital parts of Dundee’s jute industry were weaving, whaling and shipbuilding. As far back as the 16th century, weaving was an important industry in Dundee so the skills for adaptation to jute processing were already in place and the local whaling fleet provided the whale oil that softened the jute, which made it easier to work with. Dundee’s shipbuilding industry constructed the big ships that brought the jute from India.
Verdant Works was built in 1833 and then other buildings were added, completing the site in 1870. Originally, it was a flax mill of 50,000 square feet with 500 workers making coarse linen for sacks and baling cloth for cotton. They ran three steam engines driving 70 power looms and 2,800 spindles. Verdant Works got the name from its building being in an area surrounded by green fields and with the nearness of The Scouring Burn, a ready supply of water, it made for a perfect mill location.
Most of the workforce was women and the working conditions were ruthless. They outnumbered men three to one in the mills, creating a tough, independent breed of women who were the main providers for the family. Everyone was covered in dust, clogging up eyes, mouths and noses, as well as the ever-present, very loud noise of the machinery which caused many workers to go deaf. Children also worked in the mills and from under the age of nine, they would work as “pickers”, clearing out the dust from beneath the machines. Requiring only a low wage and their smallness meaning they could pack the machines closer together made them ideal employees. “Mill fever”, a condition caused from the heat, grease and oil fumes would lead to respiratory diseases like bronchitis.
Fastforwarding to the late 20th century, there were a lot of derelict mills in the city and in 1985, Dundee Heritage Trust was formed. In 1991, the Verdant building was purchased and by 1996, the first phase of the museum was opened with the second phase opening a year later. In 1991, the Dundee Heritage Trust restored 25,000 square feet of the jute mill, taking a total of six years to finish. Many of the original features remained hidden under the floor and as much as possible, historic materials and techniques were used to restore the building.
There is a specially commissioned film “A Common Thread” now showing in the Indian Gallery at Verdant Works, covering the links between Dundee and India and includes some incredible footage of jute mills in India today.
There used to be around 100 mills in the Dundee area but roughly half of these were demolished. Some mill buildings are still intact today and have been made into social clubs, offices and housing.
The information and photos here have been obtained from the Verdant Works site http://www.rrsdiscovery.com/index.php?pageID=130 and from the BBC site http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/taysideandcentralscotland/.