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A walk around... Dundee

Updated Monday, 23rd November 2009

The jute industry brought Dundee great prosperity and a huge population explosion in the early part of the 20th Century, but when the industry died it brought the city to its knees. Find out about Dundee’s rise, fall and subsequent resurgence with Neil Oliver and guests.

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Welcome to a walk around the Blackness area of Dundee City. When the jute industry took off in the late 19th Century, Dundee grew massively, both in ambition and in population. However, so much dependence on one product meant that when the industry died out, Dundee was in big trouble. This is the story of how the city reinvented itself after the jute mills closed.


Copyright The Open University


Neil Oliver: Welcome to a walk around Dundee. It’s a city known for being built on jute, jam and journalism, but of the three trades that make up that tagline it is jute which has most shaped Dundee. From the 1830s into the 20th Century, the jute industry flourished. Grown in India, jute was imported to Dundee for weaving and then exported all over the world. Today, the jute industry has gone but many, many of the mill buildings remain.

On this walk, our destination is Blackness at the heart of industrial Dundee. With the help of experts and local residents who have long watched the jute trade we’ll discover how Blackness has changed over the past century, and we’ll explore the lasting impact of the rise and fall of the jute industry on the Dundee you see today.

Before you go, make sure you have a good map of the town. As you listen to this audio walk listen out for the following sound [beep]. When you hear it, press ‘pause’ and move on to the next destination. Once you’re there press ‘play’ again.

Point 1: Dudhope Park

The walk starts above the town centre, at Dudhope Park. The castle here was once owned by James Graham of Claverhouse, ‘Bonnie Dundee’, but it’s the modern city we’ll be looking at today. To the front of the car park, overlooking the town, is a viewpoint marked by a cannon and a bench. From here, the area you’ll be walking through is spread out in front of you. Gill Poulter from Dundee Heritage Trust.

Gill Poulter: Well, we’re looking out from Dudhope Park over the Blackness area of Dundee, which was the area in the city that had the densest concentration of industrial activity, mainly textile works but also foundries, steam forgers, warehouses, hackle makers, you name it, the activity was going on here.

Charles McKean: You’re looking out over effectively a sea of shiny tin roofs, and it’s really a landscape of missing chimneys. There’s only one chimney left but there were about twenty chimneys about twenty years ago, and if you go back a hundred years you wouldn’t have been able to see anything because of the smoke.

Neil: Charles McKean, Professor of Architectural History at Dundee University. At the height of the jute industry, the air would have been thick with the smoke billowing from scores of mill chimneys. There was no escaping the impact of jute on the city.

Gill: In much the same way that Manchester became known as Cottonopolis, Dundee became Juteopolis because it really was the dominant industry in the city and employed half the working population. I mean, there was over a hundred textile works in the city, and they employed about fifty thousand people at the industry’s peak, and then there was all the other associated trades like textile engineering and the shipbuilding and the merchants and the traders. Every family in the city probably had a connection with this one industry, so when it disappeared - although it wasn’t an overnight thing, it was a gradual thing - it did leave a gap in the city.

Lily Thompson: My gran was in it. My mum was in it. All my brothers have been in it. You grew up in the family, you’re going to jute mills more or less, and that’s where we all went, and it was your livelihood, and it wasn’t a case of “I don’t want to go,” it was a case of “you’re going,” and that was it, but it put bread on the table and it paid the rent and that was the main thing in those days. I was brought up in poverty so you needed the jute work to keep you going.

Neil: Lily Thompson was employed in the jute mills as a weaver. For her, this part of Dundee was both home and workplace.

Lily: Just down there in front of me, that’s where I spent most of my life, in the Bower jute mill, which isn’t there now, and just at top of the street was my house. I lived at the Westport area, and it was all so central from when I grew up.

Gill: But that’s the one thing that’s missing from this area now, is housing. There used to be a lot of tenement housing around and about because people tended to live very close to their work, and would be able to possibly nip home at lunchtime as well for their lunch, but a lot of that was cleared in the slum clearances in the 1960s and ’70s, so it’s very difficult now to get a sense that this was not just a working community but a living community as well.

Charles: We’re looking at what must have been one of the densest parts, not just of Dundee but of Scotland if not Britain, and there were mills and there were residences, later tenement flats, scattered throughout this, so the place would have been a humming thrive of activity. A lot of these new sheds you can see now are storage, or very very low density employment or museums, but looking at this street ahead of us there’s nobody on the pavement, and here we are in the centre of a major city and nobody on the pavement. This place is characterised by emptiness.

Lily: This whole area, it was just all hundreds of people all going and coming and lorries delivering the bales of jute or carpets and things like that, and they had horses and carts that brought in the jute, which you don’t see now but just these big main roads.

Gill: There are people coming back to live in this area now because some of the redundant and derelict jute works have now been converted into flats, into housing. So you know, it’s just starting to become a community again on some of the edges, on some of the sites and, you know, there’s also mills that have been converted to student accommodation, to a Travelodge hotel, to retail use, to leisure use, pubs and clubs, so there is life in the area yet but different from how it was a hundred years ago, obviously.

Neil: So it’s not just the past life of the town that you’re looking out on to but some of its present. For Dundee University Historian Jim Tomlinson, that’s an important element of this view.

Jim Tomlinson: The other thing you can see from here is you can see some of the new things which have replaced the mills. You can see quite a bit, particularly from here, of the University, both the bit which was built in the 1950s and the most modern bit which dates from the turn of the 20th Century. So you can see from here some of the things which have come into the city, most of which from here is very much related to the University.

Neil: It’s now time to move on to your next location, Tay Works, one of the grandest mill buildings left in Dundee. Leave the park and head down onto the main road of Marketgait which borders Blackness to the east. Take care of the traffic on these very busy roads. As you go, let Gill Poulter explain why the industrial areas of the city grew where they did - it’s all down to water.

Gill: Early industrial activity in Dundee took place outside the city alongside the Dighty Burn, which was a much more powerful supply of water, and that was in the era of water wheel power, but once you had got the invention of the steam engine and steam power, then the three burns that were actually within the city boundaries of Dundee were powerful enough to be able to supply the water for the steam engines, and so the mills in Dundee grew up around those three burns. So you had the Scouringburn, which is the area we’re in now, Blackness, you had the Dens Burn, and you had the Lochee Burn, so you do get clusters of mills and industrial buildings around these three areas in the city, and all the mills would have drawn water supplies off those burns with lades and sluice gates and things to provide water for their power needs.

Neil: Although it’s now underground, as this walk progresses, you’ll come across traces of the Scouringburn, but for now, as you walk down Marketgait, take in the impressive structure of Tay Works, the long building which dominates one side of the street. When you reach the pedestrian crossing, cross the road and head through the archway, which takes you to the rear of the jute works.

Point 2: Tay Works

You’re now within Tay Works. Today, home to a mix of student residences and various businesses, but in the past this quiet space would have been very busy. Charles McKean.

Charles: Well, we’re in the courtyard behind Tay Works. Tay Works is the enormous mill that faces what’s now called Marketgait, leading onto Lochee Road, and we’re behind it, and this was the old courtyard of Tay Works, so originally there would have been all sorts of buildings. So the thing expanded over about a thirty year period; you’d be expecting to find sheds, storage, there’d probably be a millpond or a cooling pond, there’d be boiler houses, engine houses, everything effectively you needed. What you’ve now got is most of the clobber has gone, there’s no pond anymore, and they’ve left some of the buildings at the rear. One of which, lovely round-headed windows, is possibly the earliest building here, so that would put it about the 1820s, and I think it might have been an engine building.

Gill: Tay Works is probably one of the biggest industrial complexes in Dundee still surviving. It was owned by the Gilroy Brothers, who were one of the main families of jute barons in the city. Probably, in pecking order they were below the Coxes and the Baxters, but it’s a huge, huge site, probably the longest textile mill in Britain at six hundred and fifty feet long, and the mills in Dundee had to be big because jute production was really only profitable if you could do it on a massive scale. So it reflects that, but it also reflects the huge demand for jute products that existed, and Dundee was supplying the entire world, so it had to be able to produce a huge quantity of material.

Neil: Of all the mills in the area, Tay Works is the one which gives you that sense of scale, it’s huge, and as you’ll have seen from its front, it’s also very grand, something which was characteristic throughout the city.

Gill: The other thing to mention about the Dundee jute mill buildings is that they’re not just sort of plain functional boxes, the owners took great pride in their buildings, and I suppose reflecting the pride in their industry and their success, and they ornamented the buildings with beautiful archways, with sculptures, with pediments, with beautiful sort of window detailing, so they’re actually very interesting buildings architecturally, you know, which obviously a lot of modern factories you couldn’t say that of today.

Neil: So what was produced inside these great walls? Today we only really see jute in the form of hessian shopping bags, but when the mills were working it was a widely used product.

Gill: One of the main products that jute was used for was sacking, and any product you can think of, whether chemicals or flour or sugar or potatoes, they were all transported all around the world in Dundee jute sacks. Another key product was carpet-backing, linoleum-backing. Jute had thousands of uses, often hidden away as the lining or the backing for things. It was very useful around industry and around the home. Windbreaks, the soles of espadrille sandals, all sorts of strange things, but sacking and carpet-backing were the main two.

Neil: The success of the jute industry was dependent on the demand for jute products and even in its heyday the industry’s fortunes were mixed, as historian Jim Tomlinson explains.

Jim: The industry really comes to dominate the city in the late 19th Century and reaches its peak of output in the years before the First World War, but it was never a straight expansion and decline story. First of all, even at the time when it was very prosperous there were enormous fluctuations. Most of the bags which were produced, jute bags, were used for international trade, for transporting commodities around the world, so fluctuations in international trade would have a big impact on the city, so in economic terms what I would stress is that Dundee in the late 19th, early 20th Century was tremendously globalised in the sense that its fate was dependent on what was happening right across the globe in terms of selling the products of the city.

Neil: And the changing fate of the jute trade in turn determined the fate of the people who lived and worked in Dundee.

Jim: In the boom period, obviously in the middle, late 19th Century there was a very large influx of people. There were quite substantial Irish migration but also large numbers of people from other parts of Scotland, and the population grew very rapidly in the second half of the 19th Century and reached its peak around the First World War, roughly at the time when the industry itself reached its peak, and then from the peak time in the Edwardian period there’s been a decline.

I mean, the really bad times in Dundee were in the 1930s. I mean in the 1930s, without probably exaggerating, this is one of the worst-hit cities by unemployment in Britain. It’s difficult to know exactly what the rate of unemployment was, but it certainly seems to have edged over 50% simply because of the concentration of jobs in this one industry, so it’s a tremendously vulnerable city.

Neil: Fluctuations in the jute trade didn’t just affect if and where people worked but also where they lived. Packed in with all the mill buildings were the workers’ homes, and it’s time to move on to see traces of them. You can cut through the courtyard of Tay Works and come out the back into Guthrie Street. Walk along past all the old industrial buildings and when you reach Blinshall Street, turn left into it. Stop opposite the church, now in use as a climbing centre.

Point 3: Blinshall Street

You’re now on Blinshall Street. If you look back down it, just to your left are some warehouses. These were originally built as flax storage and are now used by another Dundee institution, DC Thomson, for paper storage, but it’s the wall of these buildings next to the new flats which should be looked at closely, for here there is the ghost of a house, with its chimney, visible in the gable of the warehouse in front of you. It’s evidence of the housing which used to exist in this area, and the condition of Dundee’s housing was infamous.

Gill: The development of the jute industry basically saw the city’s population explode. I mean, it sort of tripled in the space of fifty years, and there wasn’t really any major new housing built for this huge influx of another sort of a hundred thousand people. What happened was that the tenements were subdivided and subdivided into smaller units, so you’ve got whole families of eight, ten people living in one or two rooms.

Lily: I just grew up in this; it was one great big tenement. We were three stairs up. There were six in my house, and we only had one bedroom. There was a house next door, it had about seven in their house, and next door again there were three in this. We called them, now they were passages, but we called them lobbies if you belonged to Dundee, ours had two, so you’re talking about a dozen people using one outside toilet, and that was the whole tenement. It was all dark passages and families and families, but some of them had a room, and my sister lived in the attic and she didn’t even have a sink. She had to go outside on the stairs, and they didn’t have a sink. It was just a big, big empty room and that’s all the family grew up in.

Neil: Tenements in Scotland have a bad reputation for their cramped, insanitary conditions, but architectural historian Charles McKean is ready to defend them.

Charles: During most of the 20th Century, the Scottish tenement got this bad reputation. The poorest in Dundee didn’t live in them. They couldn’t afford to, they lived in the old medieval buildings in the town centre doubling up, so the buildings you’re seeing out here, the Victorian buildings, were for very self-respecting people, very often double-income families, and they usually offered something like two rooms and a lavatory on the stairhead. If you look at where these people are coming from, particularly those who are coming from Scotland, their conditions in rural Scotland were far, far worse. This was something to be aspired to. I think the critical thing that goes wrong is in the 20th Century, in the 1930s, because what happens is people lose their jobs, and what was effectively a small flat for one family doubles up and becomes a small flat for two families, and maybe even three families, and then the conditions would really go bad.

Lily: The whole area was all just tenements, and at the foot of the street, across the road, that’s where the public washing house was, or ‘steamy’ as somebody called it, and you had the public scrubbing baths as well, so when everybody came up from Henderson’s Wynd on a Friday they used to all queue up at the public baths, because there was no such thing as baths in the house, you only had the cold water and the black sink. But this was really, really all tenements here.

Neil: Lily lived on Westport, one of the streets behind you. Some of the tenements remain further up the hill along Blackness Road, but in this area most of the housing was cleared to make way for the University and a new road system. As the Council stepped in to provide new accommodation, the people who lived here moved to estates on the outskirts of town.

Jim: What you’ve got is the beginning, obviously, of public housing provision, which is obviously going to become absolutely dominant in the middle years of the 20th Century, and that becomes coupled eventually to widespread demolition, so you get a real enormous change in the kind of housing provision. But it also means that physically the city is spreading out; the population is becoming more dispersed and people are having to travel from longer distances into the centre for work.

Lily: We must have moved away in about the late ’50s. My mum was the last out of this tenement because it was my grandmother’s house, and she’d just loved it because it was central and you had the GRI, you had the mills, you had the pictures, you had everything at your doorstep. To up and leave after that, to go away on the buses to outside schemes, she wasn’t happy about it, but she had to go because we could have had a house long before we did, because I was only a girl, with the four boys, you know, in the one bedroom, but she just wouldn’t move, she just loved her one-bedroom house.

Gill: Living cheek by jowl in the tenements obviously wasn’t easy and brought associated health and privacy issues, but there was a sense of camaraderie and community spirit in them. That’s a cliché but it’s true, I mean, people living so close together had to rub along together. They established friendships between families that lasted for generations. They looked out for each other, they looked after each other’s children and, you know, that way of life changed once people were moved out to the housing schemes and things in the city, and for a lot of people it was a wrench, it was a move from the area that they knew and had grown up in and their families had lived in for generations.

Neil: The houses may have gone but the mill buildings in which those generations worked still remain. Walk now to where you can get a glimpse of the past; the restored mill buildings of Verdant Works. Head back into Guthrie Street, continue along it for one block, and then turn right into West Henderson’s Wynd. Verdant Works is about halfway down.

Point 4: Verdant Works

This is Verdant Works, today a museum dedicated to the jute industry. Gill Poulter from Dundee Heritage Trust reveals its history.

Gill: Well, like a lot of the Dundee jute mills Verdant Works originally started life as a flax mill, that is producing linen cloth, coarse linen cloth, the sort of things that jute went on to be used for like sacking and bagging materials, and it was built, the oldest part of the site, the high mill dates from 1833, and the arched windows there that now takes you into our shop and café, that’s where the engine house was, and the site was gradually added to around this cobbled courtyard until about 1870 when the site was complete.

It’s an ‘A’ listed building of national architectural importance, and when Dundee Heritage Trust bought the site in 1991, it was classified as derelict, basically, and we’ve spent much time fundraising to restore the buildings. We’ve done about the half the site so far, and what was great about Verdant was how many original features survived that, you know, hadn’t been sort of messed about with in the 1960s and ’70s, and a lot of the original fittings and fixtures survive, which is fantastic.

Neil: In the courtyard here you can get a glimpse of the Scouringburn - look out for the large well - and it’s here that Lily Thompson maintains a connection with the jute industry, working as a volunteer and telling visitors about her working life.

Lily: When you think that generations and generations of people before you had probably stood at the same loom that I stood at, but you went in every morning, you oiled the springs on your loom, you put your shuttle in the box and that was you. That was you until lunchtime, and then after lunch that was you until you finished. It was the same thing day out and all the time. I went in at fifteen, and it’s the only job I’ve ever worked at until the mills begin to close, and by that time I just got a job as a cleaner, and that did me until I retired.

Neil: Conditions in the mills were tough. It was hard work and the mills were dusty, dirty and noisy. Lily remembers well the sights, smells and sounds.

Lily: Oh, the noise was unbelievable. I mean you couldn’t hardly hear yourself. You couldn’t, used to talk with your fingers, and the smell, because jute had oil, and oil made it smell; but the noise was the biggest thing because the majority of people my age now in Dundee they’re all deaf, obviously, because of the noise of the jute mills.

Gill: In the museum here at Verdant, we’ve obviously got working machinery and Lily operates the loom for us, and the noise of just one loom going is incredibly noisy for most of our visitors, and you look behind and there’s photographs of the mill interiors with row upon row of looms. I mean, Camperdown Works had, I think, nearly a thousand looms in one building, in one room. It’s no wonder the mill workers developed a simple sign language so that they could communicate to each other. You know, simple things like “what time is it” or to warn each other the gaffer was coming or to ask if you were going to the dance tonight, simple sign language, but it was essential, it was necessary.

Lily: You put your finger and your thumb on your chin, and you rubbed it together, and that was the foreman coming. If you put your hand on your head, that was the big boss, so then you put your head down. You told the time with your knuckles on your finger. You brought your finger down, and it was half past or quarter to, half past, and you did it all with your fingers.

Neil: Lily’s generation was the last to work in the mills, and they witnessed the disappearance of the industry. In the last few decades, the area of Blackness has had many ups and downs, as the mills closed, fell into disuse and now are gradually being redeveloped. Just up the road is an area where you can see all of these elements. Head to the end of West Henderson’s Wynd and turn left into Douglas Street, and then turn left again into Milne’s East Wynd.

Point 5: Milne's East Wynd

Milne’s East Wynd, although a short street, has two lives to it. Further along it opens out, surrounded by new buildings and conversions, which give you a flavour of the new Blackness, but this narrow end where you’re standing is evocative of the past.

Charles: Well, we’re in Milne’s East Wynd, and this is really the heart of the Blackness area, where the land is rising up towards the Dudhope slopes, and you really do get a sense, an echo of what this must have been like, because we’re surrounded by mill buildings on all sides, although very often the roofs are off, all you’ve got is the first floor windows, and they’re all blocked up, but you get this dense feeling of all we’re missing now are the cobbles on the streets that have been covered in tarmac.

Neil: Walk a little way along the road to where things open up. On your left is Douglas Mill, now partly converted into office space for small businesses. If you take the time to walk down, opposite Douglas Mill, if you look closely there’s a drain cover. Listen and you may hear the Scouringburn as it passes underneath, and then look up on your right. There, with trees growing out of it, boarded up and behind fencing, is the Queen Victoria Works, one of the last mills in the City to close.

Lily: It’s sad to see it like that. Somebody should buy it and do it up, bring it back to life. It looks really, really dead.

Gill: Yeah, this is, we’re looking at the Queen Victoria Works, which was one of the last jute mills that kept going in Dundee until, I think, about the early 1990s, so it’s quite ironic that it was actually functioning and in good repair until relatively recently but its decline has been quite dramatic over the last few years, and it is a shame to see the buildings like this. Obviously, in this economic climate I’m not sure that many people are going to be perhaps speculatively buying buildings to turn them into housing at the moment, but it’s obviously been done very successfully in Dundee in the past so hopefully one of these days it’ll find a new life.

Neil: In the later years of the jute industry, many measures were taken to keep the mills going. Faced with competition from India, the Dundee factories specialised in carpet backings and high-end products, and some started weaving an artificial fibre, polypropylene. If you look closely at the fenced-off buildings you can see evidence of an industry in flux.

Charles: If you look at the Victoria Works now, which is a very large mill and it’s totally derelict, it’s clear that they didn’t sit down and, as it were, die because you’ve got the original mill buildings and during the 20th Century, it’s very evident in the buildings you can see, you can see new asbestos sheeting and the cladding for some new elevator or moving machinery up and down, then there’s a new power source. They’ve clearly amended it and adapted it for each new attempt to save their business. Didn’t work, there it is, each generation of activity fossilised.

Neil: There are other industrial fossils around you. On the other side of the road, behind a fence, is the site of some old mill ponds. Look around and you can see the shortened chimneys of mills, capped to keep them safe once the mills fell into disuse. As the mills closed, this area emptied. The industry was dwindling away and jute workers had to seek employment elsewhere. In the middle of the 20th Century multinational companies like Timex and NCR set up plants in Dundee, to an extent providing new jobs, but like the city’s new housing these too were away from the old industrial areas like Blackness. Historian Jim Tomlinson.

Jim: The new jobs which were being created in Dundee, predominantly, were in new factories which were being built on the outskirts of the city. Partly because that was what was needed in terms of the technologies at those factories used, but also I think because this was seen as attractive to incoming investors, which did actually come here in some number, than trying to persuade them to accommodate to the existing stock of buildings, which were obviously very old and seen as a symbol of the past which you wanted to get away from.

Charles: In 1910 Dundee had built the first ring road in Britain, the Kingsway, and it became part of the, if you like, the new imagery of the new city, and it’s along the Kingsway that you first of all got things like the ice rink, and then you’ve got, that’s when we got NCR and Timex, and these are very fine dominant buildings, so there was an image thing. It was almost like saying “the new Dundee, the new world with this dual carriageway is out here,” but again there was this negative side that it was, of course, sucking people out of the centre of the city.

Lily: One of my brothers, he went into NCR, and other one went into Scottish & Newcastle Brewery, he become a lorry driver, and the third one, he went into the Salvation Army. They all wanted out of jute because it was failing, you know, so they all moved into these different jobs.

Neil: It has taken a long time for Blackness to regenerate. Let’s move on now to see more of the modern life of the area. Head to the end of East Henderson’s Wynd and turn right into Brook Street. Your destination is one block along at Pleasance Court, past the empty buildings which were last used as mill offices and, before that, a pub. This was once a notorious area of the city. The street was once called The Scouringburn and was renamed Brook Street in the early 1900s in an attempt to overcome its reputation for lawlessness. As you walk, let Charles McKean explain the other reputation Dundee had to overcome, the popular image of the city as a broken one damaged by industrial decline. It was a legacy that Dundee is only now leaving behind.

Charles: The picture of Dundee after the Second World War is one of great empty spaces, and by the ’60s this sort of character of the city meant that this is where people came to film, Hitler’s Berlin was filmed in Dundee, and all sorts of desolate films about destruction, Dundee was the place to film it, and only probably in the late ’70s, early ’80s was the first tentative steps to convert some of these old buildings, particularly into accommodation.

Point 6: Pleasance Court a.k.a. the Coffin Mill

Neil: You should now be in Pleasance Court, still known by its old nickname the Coffin Mill, and an example of the most popular form of redevelopment of these buildings, the creation of housing, and for Lily Thompson that’s meant a return to the jute mills and the part of the Dundee in which she’s always felt most at home.

Lily: We’re in the courtyard of the Coffin Mill, called the Coffin Mill because, what I was told, the courtyard used to be in the shape of a coffin. There’s a bridge from one end to the other because this was Logie Spinners, spinning works, and there was a spinner got her hair caught in the machine, had to run out, she died on the bridge. It’s supposed to be haunted, but it’s not, my husband must have moved in and frightened her. But this is now, it’s all been modernised. Half of it’s privately owned, the other one’s owned by a housing association, and that’s where I live.

Neil: These buildings were Logie Works, the first of Dundee’s really big mills, built from 1828 onwards. When it was at its height, two thousand five hundred people were employed here. After years of dereliction, developments like this are bringing people back to the area and gaining the approval of the historians who have traced industrial Dundee’s fortunes.

Charles: I think it’s brilliant, because we’re in the centre of a courtyard and you’ve got flats all around you and the atmosphere is just terrific. A really ungreen courtyard, it’s mainly cars rather than trees, but there’s an atmosphere of quality and of security in here. It would be a nice place to live.

Lily: Now at one time, there was a paint shop at one of the wee bit units at the bottom and a leather place. There was units but the rest of it was just all rooms. Even the bridge didn’t have a bottom on it. It was just the end of the bridge you know, but they’ve made them all into beautiful flats. I think so, I love it.

Neil: As well as showing off the new there are still hints of the old in this conversion, as Gill Poulter discovered when Lily took her to explore.

Gill: What you can see in the garage here, which they’ve used the ground floor as a sort of underground carpark I suppose, is you’ve got the cast iron columns, and all the Dundee mills have cast iron columns to support the ceilings. You’ve got the brick ceiling arches, which again is another typical architectural feature of what we call ‘fireproof mills’, and then at the top of the columns you can see the remnants of the brackets that would have held the line shafting that would have powered all the machinery. So you can see sort of remnants in here of that, and really, you know, most of the mills in Dundee were of this type of construction, and it was necessary, it’s what they call ‘fireproof construction’, cast iron and bricks and metal and stonework, because jute was a very flammable or is a very flammable material, it can spontaneously combust, and mill fires were very common, very regular, so you wanted to try and protect your building.

Lily: It could be a light bulb above your head, it just broke, and the next thing it would just go “woof,” the loom would go right up, and it was so dusty it used to travel through, forward to the next loom, you know, and you had to be quick at getting it out, and every loom had a bucket, a pail of water, and if you helped to put it out you got seven and six. You’ve never seen a lot of people running except for these pails of water! Whenever that fire was out, the looms all went back on, except the two that was on fire, until they got them all up and running again. There was no “oh that’s a fire so we all stop,” you keep working. Whatever happened you had to keep working.

Neil: Architectural historian Charles McKean is pleased to see the mill buildings being valued once more, and for him the success of redevelopments in Blackness are down to not just a change of attitude towards the past but also of the present.

Charles: Dundee was left with a very fine inheritance of mill buildings without any use, and they decayed and they were burnt and so on, but then society changed. For a start, Dundee’s university started to expand hugely. The fastest higher education expansion in the whole of the UK happened in Dundee over the last thirty years of the 20th Century, and society itself is changing. We’re getting far more single households or non-family households, and these are the people who will usefully occupy nice apartments in a place like this so, if you like, the availability of the buildings, on the one hand, and society or change on the other come together to create it, and then suddenly you find yourself in a place that is very echoing of Victorian industrial Dundee.

Neil: Gill Poulter from Dundee Heritage Trust agrees.

Gill: When the Trust bought Verdant Works we were in the midst of quite a depressed industrial area. The Blackness was the sort of place that you maybe would only go to to get your car MOT’d or your car fixed because there’s quite a lot of these little back-street garages, and, you know, it has changed dramatically with conversion of mills to housing, the construction of a huge amount of new housing in the last five years, so it’s still quite a mixed bag of different businesses and derelict buildings and restored buildings and new structures. So it’s a pretty diverse area, but if you’re interested in the city’s history, particularly its industrial history, if you’re interested in architecture, if you walk around with your eyes open there’s lots of interesting features to look out for.

Neil: The history of Dundee’s mill areas has been a mixed one, but as you’ll have discovered today, if you’re willing to look a walk through its streets will reveal the story of jute and how it shaped and continues to shape the city and its people.

This audio walk was made in collaboration with the Open University. Further information and other walks can be found at

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