Anna Murray, Learning and Audiences Officer at Verdant Works in Dundee, explains how women played a vital role in making Dundee the jute capital of the modern world.
Jute is a word synonymous with Dundee: the city was once nicknamed 'Juteopolis.' Jute changed the face of the city. In 1883, more than one million bales of raw jute were unloaded in Dundee and by the turn of the century, the industry employed more than 50,000 people in over 100 mills. The city was truly the jute capital of the world.
But the city was also known as 'Women’s Town' or 'She Town.' In the 1901 census, there were three women for every two men in the city. There was little alternative employment in Dundee at this time; two-thirds of the 39,752 workers employed in textiles in 1901 were female. The amount of working women in jute factories led to a unique social structure within Dundee, based on a matriarchal hierarchy. This was particularly unusual within Victorian society, which was based on the notion of a woman’s place being at home looking after the children. If a woman was to work, it was a widely-held opinion that this would be abandoned once she was married.
However in Dundee we see a high level of married female workers. For example in 1924, 24 percent of female workers were married compared to just 6 percent in Glasgow or 5.6 percent in Edinburgh. The level of independence work gave the women means we also see significantly more later marriages compared to the rest of Scotland. The unusualness of this situation - and just how much it went against accepted norms - is highlighted by the fact that middle class trade unions of the time weren’t campaigning for better living conditions for the people of Dundee, but rather for more jobs for men. Dundee's men were frequently dependent upon the earnings of mothers, sisters and daughters. The high male unemployment rate and a dependence on seasonal work led to a ‘role reversal’ in Dundee households. The men became known as ‘kettle bilers’, so called because they stayed at home to look after the children and complete household chores.
Despite difficult conditions, the mill girls were not meek or passive. There was a strong sense of community and friendship that grew between them. Frequently they developed their own ways of speaking and sign language to communicate over the din of the machines. This was often to the annoyance of their male colleagues who wouldn’t be able to understand what they said. The independence and power the women of Dundee gained from employment also gave them a distinct character. They were described as strong willed, loud and coarse. They were also known to drink and snort snuff to clear the jute dust in their noses, characteristics definitely against the notion of the respectable view of the Victorian lady!