The mill girls looking out from this photo are to be found in Verdant Works Scotland’s Jute Museum in Dundee. Verdant Mill was one of over a hundred which operated in Dundee at the peak of the industry around 1900 when the majority of the workers were women and children. Verdant Works in the Blackness area of Dundee opened in the 1830s and got the name because it was actually on the edge of green space at the time. And today the paint on the doors and the not entirely natty uniforms we tour guides wear are of course a symbolic green. As for mill boys like my grandfathers they faced the heave when they got to eighteen as the Jute Barons (owners) would not pay a full adult man’s wage in keeping with the practices of the time.
The amount of wealth created on the back of this female and child labour is quite staggering. In the 1930s by which time the industry was ‘downsizing’ the Dundee Jute Barons had an investment trust worth nearly £30 million.Doing the maths isn’t really necessary. Today they would have been billionaires. It was claimed that because of jute money Dundee encompassed the richest square mile in Britain between West Ferry and Broughty Ferry. Elsewhere in the city there was a legacy of cholera typhus infant mortality and life expectancy in the 30s. So you probably don’t have to do any maths to work out my view of the barons’ legacy.
Vast amounts of the wealth made by the industry was in fact invested abroad particularly in the 19th Century in ranches and railroads in the expanding United States. Including the then biggest ranch in Texas……the Matador! Which is sort of resonant. Because though the mill girls are no more and the last working mill in the city closed in 1999, it is still something of a red rag to millworkers’ descendants (like me) to talk about what the owners did or rather didn’t do for the city!