To borrow an Ernie Wiseism ‘the play what I wrote’ (ref previous post to cyberspace black hole) has the full title of ‘O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin’. The Halflins are gone now of course but the Hecklers the Weavers and the Weemin of the Jute story are of course still powerful presences above the Tay. But having referenced the origins of the word ‘heckler’ in the Dundee Jute Industry I’d better say a little about the Weavers and Women of the play.
One of the reasons Jute came to the Tay was what we might today call a skill set in the area of textiles going back centuries. The William Wallace story -‘Escape from Dundee’ – from Blind Harry’s epic poem references textiles – and it was only written a Century and a half or so after Wallace’s death! The Weavers’ Craft of Dundee was formed 1512 and in the 1690s the Hilltown area of the City was incorporated into the then burgh partly as a result of some Weavers dealing in dodgy cloth!
The arrival of Jute in the early 19th Century also meant industrialisation and the factory system for many hand loom Weavers. Though some bucked the trend. There was one in particular name of McGonagall who…(That’s enough on that – Ed!)
Women weavers and spinners and batchers and more, along with Halflins constituted around 75% of the Jute workforce at the late 19th/early 20th Century peak. The Jute Barons would not employ men because they were (slightly) dearer and many former Halflin boys had to move to gain employment. One of my own grandfathers for example ended up working in a linoleum factory in Kirkcaldy. But it is this period that has given us the twin monikers of She Town and Kettle Boiler. And helps explain why Dundee has produced so many women of character strength and spirit in the face of dehumanising odds. Mary Brooksbank or Mary Slessor anyone?
There were too men in the area whose first ‘job’ was going to the Trenches – trenches which in the words of Professor Tom Devine ‘would have been impossible without sandbags made from Dundee Jute’. As well as no women 40% of men didn’t have the vote prior to 1918 and so some of them would have fallen without having the franchise – at which point words begin to fail me.
‘O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin’ will be premiered in the High Mill at Verdant Works Museum Dundee this June.