Low Wages High Risks
Work in the Dundee jute mills of the 19th century offered little but drudgery, exhaustion, low wages and constant danger. Most of the workers were women and children (they cost less to employ) and employment law was virtually non-existent.
In this day and age it’s hard to imagine the working conditions. Everybody would be covered in dust or ‘stour’, clogging eyes, mouths and noses. The noise of the machinery created an ever-present, ear-splitting din, with the result that many workers went deaf.
Women outnumbered men three to one in the mills, an imbalance in the labour market that gained Dundee the nickname of ‘she town’. It created a unique and tough breed of women, born out of being the main providers for the family. The mill girls were noted for their stubborn independence. “Overdressed, loud, bold-eyed girls” according to one observer and often ‘roarin’ fou’ with drink – characteristics that caused consternation among the ‘gentlefolk’ of Dundee.
Working alongside the women would be thousands of children. Again they commanded only low wages, and being so small meant they could pack the machines closer together. Children under nine would work as ‘pickers’, cleaning dust from beneath the machines.
Health hazards were unavoidable. The heat, dust, grease and oil fumes caused a condition known as ‘Mill fever’, which would lead to respiratory diseases like bronchitis. And there was always the risk of accidents with the machines, graphic descriptions of which were common reading in the local newspaper.