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Dundee, jute and empire
Dundee, jute and empire

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5.2 A ‘women’s town’

Figure 8 and Figure 9 (below) bring out another side of Dundee at the end of the century: its appalling poverty. The following quotation is Wentworth D’Arcy Thomson, appointed professor at Dundee’s new University College in 1884, recalling, fifty years later, his first impressions of the city:

Dundee was terribly poor. When I first came here the Greenmarket was full of idle men, walking to and fro, hungry and in rags. Of all those young professors who had come to Town, I doubt if there was not one who was not shocked and saddened by the poverty which Dundee openly displayed … Dundee was worse even than the slums of London, Glasgow, and Liverpool.

(Quoted in Lenman and Donaldson, 1971, p. 18)

D’Arcy Thomson went on to become one of the founders of the Dundee Social Union, a middle-class organisation that campaigned for reform. One of their great achievements was a widely read report on poverty in the city.

Figure 8
(Photo: Dundee City Council, Central Library) ©
Dundee City Council, Central Library
Figure 8 Alexander Wilson, Hawkhill, Dundee, c.1895, photograph from original glass negative
Figure 9
(Photo: Dundee City Council, Central Library) ©
Dundee City Council, Central Library
Figure 9 Alexander Wilson, Perth Road, Dundee, c.1895, photograph from original glass negative

Activity 13 (optional)

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Read the extract from ‘Report of the committee of the Dundee Social Union’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course) and answer the following questions:

  1. How would you describe the tone of this document? Why do you think this tone was chosen?
  2. What do the writers see as the main cause of the city’s problems?
  3. What link do they make in their final two paragraphs?


  1. The tone is resolutely objective. The authors are keen to present their findings as research led and not driven by emotions (although they let their views show in the final sentence of the first paragraph). As they explain, they hope to persuade ‘public opinion’ to address the problems they have identified; they evidently believe this tone is the most likely to succeed.
  2. No attempt is made to challenge the economic maxims of the day. To compete with India, labour must be cheap: this is ‘beyond the control of the employers’. Accepted, too, is that cheap labour means female labour. This is, however, the main reason for the city’s poverty. According to the report, nothing would help Dundee more than more work for men.
  3. In the final paragraphs, the report links the employment of women to the health of children. Figures for infant mortality are highlighted.

In highlighting health, the Dundee Social Union was choosing its arguments carefully. There was great concern about the ‘condition of the people’ following the Boer War, when it had been discovered that many volunteers were unfit for military duty. By linking poverty to infant mortality and ‘weedy, unhealthy men and women’, the Dundee Social Union hoped to capitalise on this mood. In focusing on women workers, the writers were drawing attention to one of the most striking facts about labour in Dundee. According to their estimates, 73 per cent of labour in the jute industry was female (and only 16 per cent adult men) (Dundee Social Union, 1905, p. 48). Wages were notoriously low, and employment uncertain – you will recall that Harry Walker & Sons laid off employees when business was slow. The emphasis here, however, is on women as mothers: for married women to go out to work was considered ‘unnatural’. Here too the Dundee Social Union was drawing on accepted conventions: while it was still widely held that the state had no role in relations between employers and male employees, the need to step in and protect female and child workers had long been established.

A consequence of this approach was that the female workers of Dundee’s jute mills (see Figure 10, below) were seen as victims.

Figure 10
(Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services) ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 10 Women weavers at their looms inside Dens Works, c.1908, photograph, 20 x 25 cm, photographer unknown

This view was for long also adopted by historians. The weakness of trade unions among Dundee’s women textile workers led many to conclude that they were too downtrodden and apathetic to organise properly. Eleanor Gordon, however, suggests an alternative interpretation. Between 1889 and 1914, she traced 103 strikes involving women jute workers in Dundee (Gordon, 1991, p. 190). Most involved just one firm, although a few spread across town, involving up to 35,000 workers. Most were spontaneous and were launched by the workers themselves rather than called by unions. News spread by word of mouth, supported by pickets at the entrance to the works (see Figure 4), ‘symbolic sites for both employers and employees, as the only point of entry and exit’ (Wainwright, 2005, p. 133). The following two extracts from the Dundee Advertiser (no friend of the strikers!) gives a flavour of how strikes might progress.

At Tay works, the great spinning and weaving establishments of Messrs Gilroy Sons and Company, there was also a gathering of malcontents who ‘demonstrated’ according to the accepted fashion. The general body of hands seemed undecided, but most of them in the end filed past the porter’s lodge. At the dinner hour, however, evidently impressed by the knowledge of what was going on elsewhere, their ranks were largely augmented.

(Dundee Advertiser, 24 February 1906, quoted in Gordon, 1991, p. 205)

Strikers invaded the Cowgate … ‘in a twinkling’, a circle, the diameter of which extended from the Queen’s Statue to the portals of the shelter was formed, and a couple of score of shrieking, shouting spinners spun round in the gyrations of jingo ring … ere long Panmure Street was thronged from end to end by an uproarious crowd of lassies. Number gave them boldness and they made a rush for the shelter, in which for the most part millowners seeking to escape personal allusion and recognition had taken refuge … A hooting band made a rush for the last door, but the police, who acted with commendable discretion intervened and the portals were closed.

(Dundee Advertiser, 27 February 1906, quoted in Gordon, 1991, p. 208)

Spontaneous action, Gordon argues, ‘maximized disruption by being unpredictable and, as a display of united action, could also serve to heighten the self-respect and self-regard of the women’; the public ridicule of the millowners ‘challenged patriarchal authority’ (pp. 206, 208). Such strikes were usually short-lived because the women’s low wages would not allow them to sustain a long strike, but this did not mean they were necessarily ineffective. Success depended on stopping one mill (when the others continued working) or bringing the town to a standstill. In such a competitive industry, firms could not afford to stand idle when demand was high. If demand was slow, however, firms such as Harry Walker & Sons were quite happy to sit strikes out. Success depended on the state of the market – as did so much else in Dundee.