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Dundee, jute and empire
Dundee, jute and empire

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5.1 Maps and photographs

So far, the focus has been on the development and the organisation of the jute industry. The next section turns to how Dundee was shaped by the industry, and in particular to a number of contemporary views of the city. For this, a range of sources are available, including non-textual ones. Visual sources can be used to understand past societies. By the nineteenth century, photography provides a new medium.

Activity 11 (optional)

Timing: 0 hours 5 minutes

To start with, read ‘A tourist description of Dundee’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course) and click on Plate 2 (below). ‘A tourist description of Dundee’ is a brief description of Dundee from Murray’s Handbook for Scotland, the sort of guidebook a tourist might have taken on a visit to Scotland. Obviously, most of this guide is devoted to tourist areas (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs are well covered), but Dundee is also described. The map in Plate 2 is also taken from the Handbook.

Click to view Plate 2: ‘Plan of Dundee’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , from Scott Moncrieff Penney, Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 8th ed. Remodelled, London: Edward Stanford; Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1903, between pp. 276–7 (PDF, 1 page, 20 MB)

‘A tourist description of Dundee’ highlights the way that Dundee was perceived by contemporaries: as a centre of industry, dominated by jute. The map helps us understand this perception. At the foot of the plan, the docks and railways dominate the waterfront: the early nineteenth-century harbour near the town centre (Earl Grey and King William IV docks) had been extended eastward with new docks and wharves in the 1860s and 1870s. The plan names many works (such as the Caldrum and Manhattan works near the top of the map, and the Ward and Tay works to the west of the centre). The area west of the Tay works was also largely industrial, and many of the streets between the harbour and Seagate were lined with warehouses. In nearly all parts of the city, factories and housing were mixed – note, for instance, how close the houses with gardens north of Victoria Road are to the Dens and Wallace works. Such houses were middle-class islands in what was a predominantly working-class town centre. The grey blocks between most of the streets contained tenements, the three- or four-storey buildings of flats that were the standard housing in urban Scotland. Several of the public buildings and spaces in the city – such as the Baxter Park in the east – were named after their industrial benefactors. Just before the First World War, Dundee acquired a new town hall, the Caird Hall, named after another textile baron. In Dundee, jute was inescapable.

Activity 12

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Turning now to some early photographs of the city, click on Plates 3 and 4 (below). These were both taken by Alexander Wilson in 1888.

What do these photographs tell us about Dundee? As with other images, think also about how they are composed.

Click to view Plate 3: Alexander Wilson, Five Ships in Dundee Docks, c.1888, photograph from an original glass negative. (PDF, 1 page, 4.6 MB)

Click below to view Plate 4: Alexander Wilson, ‘Loch Garry’ in Dundee Harbour, c.1888, from an original glass negative. (PDF, 1 page, 5.0 MB)


The ships in both photos are clearly cargo vessels and are moored in front of warehouses. It is striking that there were so many sailing ships still in use; by the 1880s one would expect steamships, like the Loch Garry, to be more common. One imagines that they were bringing the flax and jute on which Dundee’s industry depended. Both photos show the tall chimneys of a factory town; there are at least eight in the second photo, although the murk, probably itself the result of the chimneys, makes it difficult to see.

The lines are perhaps the most striking compositional feature. In Plate 3, the lines of the mastheads, the horizon, and the ships’ hulls lead towards the main activity in the picture – the ship that is raising or lowering its sails. In Plate 4, the roof of the warehouse cuts straight across the photo, dividing the city from the harbour. This might have the effect of cutting the view in two, but certainly does bring out the sleek lines of the steamship. Both photos are also surprisingly quiet for harbour scenes, with almost no people to be seen.

Such effects were not accidental: we can assume that Alexander Wilson organised these photos carefully. The stillness of the photos was not a result of the methods used: by the 1880s, a photo could be taken in seconds. If there are few people in the photos it is because Wilson chose to photograph the harbour so as to avoid activity. Although we know relatively little about Alexander Wilson, his interests and style suggest that he was influenced by the Record and Survey Movement of the 1880s, which set out to faithfully photograph images such as buildings about to be demolished or vanishing handcrafts. Five ships in Dundee Docks is far more likely to be the result of a desire to capture a disappearing age than to show a working harbour.

Flax and jute continued to be transported by sail longer than most goods since they were bulky, low-price and non-perishable commodities. Nevertheless, by the early 1890s, this was changing. In 1885, fifty-eight jute ships from Calcutta docked at Dundee, of which only seven were steamships; by 1892, of the forty-one Calcutta ships, twenty-five were steam. The steamships carried more and were faster; after 1901, there were virtually no sailing ships left on this route. Wilson’s collection contains hundreds of photos of sailing ships, but relatively few of steamships. We do not know whether Wilson sold these particular photos, but he did work for Valentine’s, one of Scotland’s largest producers of the picture postcards that were so popular at the turn of the century. Such postcards often featured the old-fashioned and ‘quaint’.

There is always a temptation with old photographs to assume that they will simply reveal how the past looked, and it is important to ask the same questions as for other primary sources. They were created according to artistic conventions and with specific purposes in mind. These conventions operate like scaffolding. They provide necessary support during construction but are no longer visible in the finished work. Although Wilson photographed an actual scene, his choice of framing (what to include or exclude), lighting (light and shade determine mood) and timing allowed him to impose his interpretation on what we see.

Bearing this in mind, please click on the photos of Dundee in Plates 5 and 6 (below). These are taken from The Photographic Survey made by the Dundee and East of Scotland Photographic Society and supported by the town council.

Click to view Plate 5: Camperdown Jute Works, Dundee, c.1908, from the Dundee Photographic Survey, Volume 1, Industry. Photographer unknown. (PDF, 1 page, 4.0 MB)

Click to view Plate 6: Upper Mill Court, Dens Works, c.1910, Dundee, from the Dundee Photographic Survey, Volume 1, Industry. Photographer unknown. (PDF, 1 page, 3.0 MB)

According to a report in the Dundee Yearbook:

The purpose is to have for preservation in the Dundee Museum a vast collection of photographs of Dundee at the present day. While antique buildings that still survive will be duly chronicled, modern structures that show the style of the time, churches, public buildings, streets, and all that exhibits the social life of the early twentieth century will be included.

(‘The Photographic Survey’, Dundee Yearbook, 1905, p. 122)

There are a number of points I would like you to focus on in these photographs:

  • Plate 5 shows the Camperdown jute works in Lochee. The text that accompanies the photograph explains that the works covered 30 acres and employed almost 5,000 (Murray’s Guide listed the same facts!). ‘Built upon a definite plan, throughout they present uniformity of design and harmony in detail. Each department is equipped with the most up-to-date appliances, and all details involved in the technique of manufacture receive scrupulous attention. The photograph contains a fair reflex of these extensive works’ (Photographic Survey, p. 11).

  • The way the photograph has been taken serves to accentuate this emphasis on size and function. The ornate clock tower on the spinning mill may be in the centre of the photo, but the dominant impression is of the functional loom sheds to its right and storehouses to its left. The clock itself emphasises the importance of time in an industrial age. The photo must have been taken from the 282-foot chimney, Cox’s Stack, which dominates the site and is still standing today.

  • This photo might be contrasted with Plate 6 of Baxter Brothers’ Dens works, also from The Photographic Survey. Dens works were much closer to the town centre and the buildings were crowded together. With less space to expand, the mills were built higher. Here too, however, they are functional and largely unornamented – it is hard to distinguish the mills in the foreground from the tenements in the back left.

  • Neither photo includes people, which must have required careful planning in the case of Plate 5. This is indeed true of virtually all the photos of works in the Survey collection. This, and the way sky is largely excluded by the angle chosen, serves to create a grimly utilitarian impression.

Some of the other photos in this course are from the records of Dundee jute and flax firms. We do not know exactly why such photos were collected, but it seems probable that the companies wanted them either as a record or for publicity purposes. In these cases too, even if we cannot always know answers, we need to think about composition and purpose when considering what such sources tell us about contemporary perceptions of Dundee.