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Dundee, jute and empire


This free course, Dundee, jute and empire, focuses on the economics of empire, and, in particular, of the British empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. It starts by introducing some of the debates surrounding the economics of British imperialism. It then goes on to explore how empire and imperial trade shaped economic structures and urban society in late nineteenth-century Britain.

To complete this course fully, you will need to buy Rachel C. Gibbons (ed.) (2006) Exploring History 1400–1900. An Anthology of Primary Sources, Manchester, Manchester University Press. However, the activities relating to this book are optional.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of level 2 study in History.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand some of the debates surrounding the economics of British imperialism

  • describe how empire and trade shaped economic structures and urban society in late nineteenth-century Britain

  • give examples of how Dundee’s jute trade was influenced by British imperialism.

1 Dundee: a case study

Throughout this course you will focus on a case study of one town, the city of Dundee in eastern Scotland, and its close connection with jute, a fibre grown in Bengal that was widely used for packaging in the nineteenth century. Exploring such a huge subject as empire through an apparently rather narrow study may seem unusual, but this approach is one historians often use to examine broad issues in greater detail. The case study also makes it possible to look at a range of sources used by economic and social historians.

2 Introducing the historical debate: industry, empire and gentlemen capitalists

In this section, you will explore how historians have written about the relationship between Britain’s economic and imperial expansion. It discusses a very influential work on the subject – P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins’s British Imperialism.

2.1 Industry and empire

That there should be a link between Britain’s early industrialisation and the British empire is something that we take for granted, unexamined. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Britain was the first country to industrialise, giving it a dominant position in the world economy that was to last for more than a century. During the same period, it acquired the largest empire ever. Surely there must be some relationship between these two developments?

In a textbook entitled Industry and Empire, first published in 1968, Eric Hobsbawm discussed this relationship. He starts by highlighting the importance of the Industrial Revolution and the power it briefly gave Britain:

There was a moment in the world’s history when Britain can be described, if we are not too pedantic, as its only workshop, its only massive importer and exporter, its only carrier, its only imperialist, almost its only foreign investor … Much of this monopoly was simply due to the loneliness of the pioneer … When other countries industrialized, it ended automatically.

(Hobsbawm, 1968, pp. 13–14)

He then considers the unique role in the world economy that this situation created. Britain became:

the agency of economic interchange between the advanced and the backward, the industrial and the primary-producing, the metropolitan and the colonial or quasi-colonial regions of the world … [T]he world economy of nineteenth-century capitalism developed as a single system of free flows, in which the international transfers of capital or commodities passed largely through British hands and institutions, in British ships between the continents, and were calculated in terms of the pound sterling.

(Hobsbawm, 1968, pp. 13–14)

Hobsbawm goes on to point out that Britain was quite prepared to force poorer regions of the world to participate in this economic system. Yet his emphasis in this passage is not on coercion, but on Britain’s central role in the world trading system: it is this role, rather than Britain’s overseas dominions, that is presented as central to empire. Britain long remained the world’s most important international trader, exchanging, broadly speaking, manufactured goods for raw materials and foodstuffs. Yet, throughout the nineteenth century, most British exports did not go to the empire and most British imports did not come from it. For some foreign countries – Argentina is an oft-cited example – trade with Britain and, later, investment by Britain dominated the economy. As a result, such countries were very sensitive to British wishes and historians have used the term ‘informal empire’ to describe this British sphere of influence beyond the boundaries of the formal empire. Yet, on the whole, Britain did not use this influence to enforce exclusive trading agreements. From the 1820s on, British policy at home was to lower tariffs, and abroad too it encouraged free trade. Britain’s early industrialisation gave it such an advantage that free trade made British goods competitive in most markets.

This way of looking at empire therefore captures an important dimension of Britain’s imperial history. Where it is less helpful is in explaining territorial expansion. The last decades of the nineteenth century saw Britain acquire many new colonies, but it is quite difficult to show, even in the case of so valuable a colony as South Africa, that this had economic causes. Many of the new colonies were of very limited economic value. Moreover, the late nineteenth century was precisely the period when Britain’s industrial leadership was coming under challenge. Was territorial expansion perhaps defensive, because informal empire was no longer enough? Did Britain acquire colonies precisely because its manufacturers were no longer so dominant?

2.2 The Cain and Hopkins thesis

In the early 1990s, the debates about the economic dimension to British imperialism were transformed by the work of two economic historians, P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins. In two massive volumes (British Imperialism. Innovation and Expansion, 1688–1914 and British Imperialism. Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914–1990) they reviewed the entire history of the British empire from the Glorious Revolution to the fall of Mrs Thatcher (Cain and Hopkins, 1993a,b).

You will now read two reviews of their books: one by Martin Lynn, which appeared in the English Historical Review and one by David Cannadine, in Past & Present. Book reviews are an important part of academic journals and indeed of intellectual debate. At one level, they function as an information service: academics turn to reviews to find out about new books. It is therefore important that they include a fair summary of the contents. But a good review should do more than describe: it should also set the book in context (how does it fit with what has previously been written?) and evaluate it (how well does it achieve its aims and the needs of the field?). A ‘review article’, such as that by Cannadine, may be an extended essay that engages with the book’s central arguments. Book reviews can therefore be an effective way to obtain an overview of the main arguments of a book and the questions it raises.

In the following activities, you will read and analyse the reviews by Martin Lynn and David Cannadine. Reading the articles and working on the two activities is likely to take you about 2 hours. You will return to the points given in the specimen answers in a later activity.

Activity 1

1 hour 15 minutes

Click on Reading 1 (below), the review by Martin Lynn, ‘Review of British imperialism’, and then Reading 2 (below), sections I and II of ‘The empire strikes back’ by David Cannadine. When you have read them, consider the question: what do they see as the key points in Cain and Hopkins’s argument? Try to pick out a few key issues and build your answer around them.

Click to view Martin Lynn’s review.

Click to view sections I and II of David Cannadine’s article.

  1. Empire is central to British history. Lynn and Cannadine emphasise that Cain and Hopkins are writing about both British and imperial history. Each starts by placing British Imperialism in the context of debates about empire. In describing these debates, explicit links are made between theories about empire and what was happening to the empire at the time. Lynn starts with the decline of the old-style imperial history during the 1950s (the period of decolonisation), and refers to the ‘Area Studies’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which shifted the focus away from Europe to the regions colonised. Cannadine provides rather more detail on the various theories of imperialism, but also notes that the subject went out of fashion in the 1970s. Both reviews place Cain and Hopkins’s work in the context of a renewed interest in the history of empire, an interest in ‘the reintegrating of the metropole into the history of Empire’ (Lynn).
  2. The British empire was more than a territorial empire, it was a global economic system centred on and dominated by Britain. Lynn and Cannadine both highlight that, in discussing empire, Cain and Hopkins are not only talking about the territories that Britain ruled, but also areas of influence, such as Latin America, China and the Ottoman empire. As Lynn puts it ‘[Cain and Hopkins] stress the need … to examine the totality of British influence, formal and informal, around the globe’. In this, therefore, they follow Hobsbawm.
  3. British policy was shaped not by industry, but by ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. Both reviews emphasise the importance Cain and Hopkins attach to the financial sector. During the eighteenth century, ‘a new class of merchants, financiers and businessmen, … established themselves as junior partners to the ruling aristocracy’ (Cannadine). Over time, these mercantile and aristocratic elites became increasingly integrated. The term ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ is used by Cain and Hopkins to denote the alliance between landed interests and the City of London. ‘Gentlemanly capitalists’ shared values and attitudes, and moved in the same social circles. With direct access to Britain’s governing elite, it is their influence that explains the chronology and direction of Britain’s imperial expansion. By contrast, industrialists remained provincial, socially inferior, and politically ineffective. As a result, promoting and safeguarding investments overseas was more important to the government than acquiring raw materials or markets.
  4. We need to rethink the conventional chronology of British empire. Whereas historians used to contrast developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cain and Hopkins stress continuity. More surprisingly, they do not see decline setting in from the 1870s on. Instead, British expansion after 1850 was that of a ‘dynamic and ambitious power’ (quoted by Lynn). Far from being defensive, British expansion at the turn of the century was a sign of strength. Nor did 1914 mark a turning point; Cannadine notes that in the interwar years, and even after 1945, Britain’s ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ were still seeking to use the empire to their advantage.

I have asked you to identify a few points from what are already very condensed summaries. Inevitably, we will have formulated points differently, but I hope you identified some of the same issues. Both Lynn and Cannadine emphasise the important contribution that Cain and Hopkins have made to debates about empire. At the same time, there have also been criticisms of their arguments. In the second half of his article, Cannadine discusses some of the most persistent concerns: let us look at these now.

Activity 2

0 hours 45 minutes

Click on Reading 3 (below), sections III and IV of Cannadine’s article, and identify his major criticisms.

Click to view sections III and IV of David Cannadine’s article.


In section III Cannadine raises three concerns about their arguments:

(A) How useful is the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’? Cannadine questions the sharp distinction Cain and Hopkins draw between manufacturing and finance. Can one really talk of an ‘industrial sector’ and a ‘financial service sector’ as coherent and distinct groups? Did industry speak with one voice? Is it really possible to categorise businessmen as either ‘industry’ or ‘finance’?

(B) How well does the theory fit the non-English nations in the United Kingdom? Cannadine notes that Cain and Hopkins do not really discuss whether Scotland, Wales or Ireland, or, indeed, the English provinces, fit into this thesis. For, he argues, the empire provided many opportunities for individuals from outside the charmed circle of the ‘gentlemanly capitalists’. Why do we talk of English gentlemen and a British empire, he asks?

(C) Does the theory fit certain periods better than others? Despite the titles of the books, Cannadine feels that the coverage of the eighteenth century is inadequate and is not convinced that their thesis really explains the end of empire. Indeed, he argues that the thesis is too focused on the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

He raises a further point in section IV:

(D) Is the whole theory simply too mono-causal and, perhaps, rather dated? In section IV, Cannadine raises his most sweeping criticism. Historians must simplify to understand, but have Cain and Hopkins been too brutal in forcing so complex a phenomenon as the rise and fall of the British empire into one explanation? Cannadine finishes by suggesting that ‘the Empire was always an imaginative construct, existing as much (or more) in the minds of men and women as it existed on the ground or on the map’. Are the questions that Cain and Hopkins are asking simply old-fashioned?

Many of the points made by Cannadine are ones raised by other reviewers (you may, for instance, have noticed that Lynn also notes that the significance of ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ has been questioned, and this indeed is one part of the thesis that has been hotly contested). Cannadine’s concerns about chronology are also significant. In particular, historians now attach a great deal of importance to the expansion of the British Empire, particularly in India, in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. This, however, was not the imperialism of free trade, but was driven by military power, the desire to increase tax revenues, and mercantilist economic ideas (Bayly, 1989).

Nevertheless, even if many historians have not agreed with all or part of Cain and Hopkins’s theory, few would deny that it has provided an enormous stimulus to debate. Our understanding of broad historical processes is enhanced by such bold theories. At the same time, history is also about the particular. How well do broad theories explain individual cases? Do more in-depth studies confirm, develop or even challenge them?

In the rest of this course, the focus will be on one town, Dundee, and the role played by empire in its economic and social development. Cain and Hopkins argue that empire was about the metropolis as well as the colonies: how well does their theory help us understand Dundee? In working your way through the course, therefore, I would like you to keep in mind what you have read about the Cain and Hopkins thesis and jot down any points that strike you. Does their work provide insights? Are there points that do not fit? At the end of the course, we will consider how this debate has added to our understanding of Dundee and empire.

3 Dundee and the jute industry

This section introduces Dundee and explains the rise of the jute industry and its later difficulties.

3.1 Why jute? Why Dundee?

To British people in 1900 – and for long afterwards – Dundee was associated with one product: jute. Dundee was ‘Juteopolis’ – synonymous with its main industry. This association of place and product was not unusual. We still link Clydebank with ships, Sheffield with steel, Stoke-on-Trent with pottery, even if such industries have now dwindled to a fraction of their former size or disappeared completely. Such associations reflect the extent of regional specialisation in Britain in the industrial era. But Dundee’s association with jute was an unusually close one. Throughout the late nineteenth century, over half of Dundee’s workforce worked in the textile sector, which, from the 1860s on, was dominated by jute (Rodger, 1985, p. 37). The industry was also extremely concentrated. Raw jute was produced in significant quantities in only one region of the world: the deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in Bengal in India (see Figures 1 and 2, below). And for a short period – long finished by 1900 – Dundee and the surrounding district had a near monopoly on its manufacture. As a local merchant put it ‘Dundee supplied the whole world’.

This achievement was all the more astonishing considering the distances involved. Even after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Calcutta (Kolkata), the main city and port of Bengal, was over 9000 miles from Dundee. Nor was the jute industry unimportant: as world trade grew in the nineteenth century it became an essential commodity. Jute was the cheapest of fibres, but it was tough. As such it was the ideal packing material. Jute bagging and jute sacks were used to carry cotton from the American South, grain from the Great Plains and Argentina, coffee from the East Indies and Brazil, wool from Australia, sugar from the Caribbean and nitrates from Chile. How did Dundee come to play such an important role?

Figure 1
(Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services) ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 1 Cutting jute, West Bengal, c.1900, photograph, 19.4 x 13.4 cm, photographer unknown
Figure 2
(Photo courtesy of Dundee University Archive Services) ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 2 Loading jute from wharf into export steamer, Calcutta, c.1900, photograph, 18.6 x 13.7 cm, photographer unknown

Activity 3 (optional)

0 hours 25 minutes

Read ‘Booms and slumps in the Dundee textile industry’ from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course. It is an extract from a book by Alexander Warden about industry in Dundee written during the first jute boom. Warden suggests some reasons for Dundee’s success. Read the extract now and answer the following questions:

  1. What great changes in the linen industry does he describe?
  2. To what does he attribute the success of the industry?
  1. Warden describes two important changes: the switch from handlooms to powerlooms and from flax to jute.
  2. In a word: war. He describes two booms and an intervening slump. In the 1850s, the Crimean War brought great prosperity to Dundee, but it was followed by a crash in 1857. The American Civil War brought renewed prosperity. Warden makes it clear that in both wars Dundee supplied both sides, even though in the Crimean War Britain was one of the combatants (and indeed its opponent was Russia, the source of much of the flax). In the American Civil War, the demand for linen was stimulated by a shortage of cotton as the North tried to block exports of raw cotton from the South to Lancashire. Warden has some concerns about this dependence on war (‘production was extended greatly beyond the legitimate wants of consumers’), but does not deny the benefits to the town.

We usually associate linen (which is made from flax) with fine textiles, but it was also used in coarse materials such as sailcloth and sacking, much in demand during wars. Traditionally, linen was the main textile industry in Scotland, particularly in Dundee and the surrounding counties which concentrated on coarser products. Enormous social tensions were created by the expansion and mechanisation of the textile industry. In every textile industry, spinning was the first process to be mechanised and this created a great demand for handloom weavers until powerloom weaving was perfected. The switch to powerloom weaving (as indeed the earlier switch to mill-spinning) came much later in linen than in cotton. Flax was not an easy fibre to work with and a great deal of experimentation was needed before the correct techniques were found. Successful adaptation was a combination of imitating machines seen elsewhere, careful observation and on-the-job adjustment (Miskell and Whatley, 1999, p. 183).

Dundee’s background in flax was essential to the success of the jute industry. Dundee spinners were used to working with a tough, brittle fibre and were able to adapt machines and techniques. Dundee was also a centre of the whale industry and whale oil was found to be good for softening jute. The city had a long tradition of selling low-price, coarse textiles and knew what buyers would look for. Jute first appears to have been used in the 1830s when flax prices began to rise. However, its use really took off during the Crimean War when demand was high and the supply of flax was threatened (Gauldie, 1987). Once its advantages were discovered, its advance was irresistible. Although some manufacturers continued to spin flax, jute soon became the dominant fibre. The combination of technical expertise in machine spinning and weaving and a tough, cheap fibre gave Dundee jute a competitive advantage over any other producer, including the substantial handloom jute industry in Bengal.

In explaining the switch from flax to jute, I have so far concentrated on the qualities of the new fibre and of Dundee as a manufacturing centre. But the switch was also one from a crop that was mainly grown outside the British empire to one grown within it. Although flax had been grown in Scotland and was still grown in Ireland, most flax came from Europe and especially from Russia’s Baltic provinces. Jute, on the other hand, came from Bengal, which had been a British colony since the 1750s. Did British rule in India make jute more attractive to Dundee?

One way to answer such questions is to compare the flax and jute trades. In terms of production and transport, there were many similarities. Jute, unlike many tropical products (such as West Indian sugar), was never a plantation crop. It was grown by peasants, known as ryots, working small plots of land in the wet plains of the Ganges delta. Jute growing and preparation was very labour intensive and peasant farming drawing on labour from all the family was unbeatably cheap. Flax was also labour intensive and was mostly cultivated by peasants working their own land. There were also parallels in the organisation of the trade. In both cases, trade inside the country was organised by local merchants. Scottish merchants bought the flax or jute in port cities such as Riga or Calcutta.

How about the state? Here, of course, there was an important difference: Russia was independent while India was a British colony. Yet, in the mid-nineteenth century, the policies they followed were not dissimilar. Bengal had been a British colony for a century before it started exporting jute to Dundee, and, as Bayly emphasises, the needs of British industry were not the reason for its conquest (Bayly, 1989). Once the jute trade developed, however, the colonial government was happy to encourage it. The Russian state took much the same view. It needed pounds sterling to buy British manufactured goods and flax exports were a good way to earn them. Does this mean Russia should be regarded as part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’? The question reveals the ambiguity of the term. While it might fit a country such as Argentina, where British influence was dominant, it makes little sense when used on a country that was strong enough to resist British pressure. If Russia exported jute, it was because the Russian government saw this as advantageous. If this was no longer the case, it would change its policies. Russia’s high import tariffs were a constant irritation to the British government.

Activity 4

0 hours 10 minutes

What do you conclude from this discussion? Can the switch from flax to jute be explained in terms of empire?


I have not supplied a specimen answer here as this question allows for more than one answer. If you concluded that the evidence presented suggests that imperial rule in India did not help make jute a more attractive raw material, you would be quite justified. It is hard to show that Dundee merchants or manufacturers secured a direct benefit in this way.

However, perhaps (thinking back to Hobsbawm, Cain and Hopkins) you took a broader view. There was one respect in which empire did contribute to both the flax and the jute trade. The rapid growth of international trade in the nineteenth century was based on safe shipping lanes, exchangeable currencies, the enforcement of legal agreements and low trade barriers – in short, a world of trust. Britain’s naval and commercial power contributed substantially to this. The mid-nineteenth century was in many ways the golden age of free trade – sometimes, indeed, referred to as the first age of globalisation.

3.2 Competition from Calcutta

Activity 5

0 hours 10 minutes

Now click on Plate 1 below, which charts imports of jute and other fibres. How much does this graph tell us about the development of the Dundee textile industry?

Click to view Plate 1: ‘Jute and other fibres, in tons, retained for consumption in the United Kingdom, 1855–1915’. Based on Figure 20 in Oliver Graham, The Dundee Jute Industry, 1828–1928, no date, unpublished typescript in the possession of Dundee University Archive (PDF, 1 page, 0.1 MB)


We need to be cautious in using this data. The graph charts how much raw jute, flax and two other commodities was ‘retained for consumption’; not what industry used.

The graph reveals a dramatic increase in net jute imports from the 1850s on. In 1855, it stood at around 30,000 tons; 60 years later, in 1915, it peaked at just short of 300,000 tons. Two phases in this process can be identified. From the 1850s until around 1883, the curve is mostly upward, although there were two dips in the late 1860s and the mid-1870s. After 1883, there is more fluctuation and some of the ups and downs are quite dramatic. Between 1903 and 1904, for instance, net imports almost halved. Overall, however, there is little increase: imports in 1883 were not much below those for 1915.

The graph also shows that jute imports came increasingly to Dundee only. In the 1870s, up to 20 per cent was used elsewhere; later the gap between national consumption and Dundee’s narrowed. When Dundee (and the surrounding towns that used Dundee as a port, such as Forfar and Blairgowrie) was described as having a monopoly of the British jute industry, this was almost literally the case.

Finally, the graph shows that Dundee continued to use around 25,000 tons a year of flax and other fibres throughout the period until 1914. Jute may have been the growth industry, but it did not drive out flax.

If you noted that the table shows imports and not production, well done. The figures are derived from import and export data collected by customs officials. Production figures were not recorded so carefully. Historians must use what quantitative data is available even if it does not precisely match their interests.

It is worth pausing to consider if there are reasons why import figures might not equal use in industry. Some jute imported to Britain was immediately re-exported for processing elsewhere, but this has been excluded from this table. A little was used for purposes other than textile manufacturing. More important was buying ahead. If prices fluctuated – and jute prices did – it might make sense to buy when it was cheap and store it for later. Such speculative buying was frequently condemned, which rather suggests it was common. However, although speculation might accentuate the peaks and troughs, it should not affect long-term trends: speculation only made sense if there were reasonable prospects that stocks would sell. Most raw jute imported to the UK was processed in Dundee, but despite dramatic fluctuations, imports ceased to grow after the mid-1880s.

Activity 6 (optional)

In view of these trends, it is perhaps not surprising that the heady optimism we encountered in the passage from Warden did not last. By the 1900s, the mood had changed, as ‘Summary of evidence presented to the Tariff Commission, 1905’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course) reveals. Read it now and think about the problems faced by Dundee.

Spend just a few minutes on this exercise.


Dundee essentially faced two problems. First, as the passage describes, competitors, often using Dundee know-how, arose in other European countries and also in the United States. High tariffs, which pushed up the price of British goods, were often used to protect these industries. Dundee manufacturers also claimed that foreign manufacturers resorted to ‘dumping’, by which they meant selling in third countries at below the cost of production. They claimed that foreign manufacturers were able to do this because, behind their tariff barriers, they agreed on high fixed prices in their own countries (hence the reference to ‘Kartells’) and used the profits to subsidise sales elsewhere so as to capture the market.

The second problem is only hinted at in the text. Perhaps you noted the references to Calcutta. From the 1860s on, jute mills and factories were built on the Hooghly (Hughli) River, near Calcutta. Again, the machines and the men who set them up often came from Dundee. Once the industry was established in Calcutta, it enjoyed enormous advantages. Transport costs were cut – not only for the raw materials, which no longer needed to be shipped to Scotland, but Bengal was also closer to key markets such as the East Indies, Australia and Pacific North America. And labour was also much cheaper in Bengal. During the 1890s, Calcutta overtook Dundee; by 1914 it produced perhaps four times as much sacking (Stewart, 1998, pp. 2–3).

How could Dundee meet this threat? Throughout the late nineteenth century, Britain had resolutely stuck with its policy of free trade, but in 1903, Joseph Chamberlain raised the issue of tariff reform. He proposed that a system of imperial preference be introduced which would favour trade within the empire by imposing a tariff on imports from other countries. Ties between Britain and the colonies would be strengthened, revenue raised for spending on defence and social reform, and British markets protected for British manufacturers. Chamberlain’s speech launched a national debate: rarely has an imperial issue played such a prominent role in British politics. For Cain and Hopkins, the defeat of tariff reform is one of the key victories of the City over industry (Cain and Hopkins, 1993, vol. 1, pp. 202–24).

Activity 7 (optional)

1 hour 0 minutes

In Dundee, the national debate was contested in local terms. ‘The protectionist revival: letters by Dundee merchants’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course) includes three extracts from correspondence in the local newspaper and one from a debate in the chamber of commerce. Read them now and consider the following questions:

  1. What answers to overseas competition do the four writers see?
  2. What comments do they have on the proposals made by others?
  3. How do they view the relationship between ‘home’ and colony?

I have given you a fuller specimen answer than I would expect you to provide, but do go back to the documents as you read my answers to see for yourself how I have arrived at them.

  1. In letter (a), Victor Fraenkl focuses on foreign competition. His solution is an ingenious one: an export tax on all raw jute exported from the British empire. He argues that jute was effectively an imperial monopoly and Britain should exploit it. An export duty would force up the price of jute products made elsewhere thus making them less competitive (he in fact hoped that the threat of such a tax would force competitors to negotiate tariff reductions).

    George Thom (letter b) is more concerned by the Calcutta industry and, in particular, by what he sees as the ‘unfair’ advantage of the lower standards required by the Indian Factory Acts.

    If (a) and (b) suggest legislative changes, letter (c) argues that Dundee’s salvation lies in concentrating on those areas where it still possesses competitive advantage. In his final paragraph, the writer points to a number of ways in which Dundee was still more competitive than Calcutta.

    The final passage (d) is from a speech by John Leng, MP for Dundee (and also the editor of the Advertiser). Surely, rather a brave speech for the local MP to make! Leng’s vision is an austere one and pure free-trade economics. Dundee once led in jute, but had now lost its advantage to Calcutta. There is no point in regrets – Dundee should move on. ‘One trade rises and another decays.’

  2. Two proposals for reform are made: an export tax on raw jute and reform of Indian factory legislation. Both draw comment – the writers did not mince their words! Thom (b) argues that an export tax will not help against Dundee’s biggest competitor, Calcutta. Furthermore, both (b) and (c) highlight the risk of retaliation. Jute manufacturers in both Dundee and Calcutta wanted to export jute, not protect their home markets. They had a lot to lose in a tariff war; furthermore, Calcutta had nothing to gain. Jute manufacture in Calcutta was so cheap that it was competitive in most markets, even some of those with tariffs. At this stage in their history, they were as confident of their ability to compete as Dundee had been 40 years before. ‘A Calcutta Dundonian’ (c) has a cutting phrase about ‘50 or 60 manufacturers in a Scotch town’.

    The idea that a tougher Factory Act in India would benefit Dundee is also dismissed in (c). It argues that conditions for ‘women and children’ are better in Calcutta anyway (this is a clever debating point, as we shall see later in the course). Furthermore, if factory hours were equalised, it would do little to diminish the difference in production costs. (Leng would probably have agreed. He wrote a report on a visit to Calcutta, which was very complimentary about factory conditions.)

  3. So far, we have focused on their arguments. The last question asks about the underlying assumptions. Phrases in (a) and (d) suggest rather different ideas of the relationship. Fraenkl’s position is perhaps the most straightforward. India is a British colony – it should be used to benefit Britain (and, in this case, Dundee). Leng takes almost the opposite position; ‘the Mother Country’ has duties towards its dependencies. His language suggests a parental relationship, but one which involves duties on the part of the parent. What of the other two? Thom also uses family images (‘the children of our own household’), but India here is not a dutiful child worthy of protection but a cuckoo in the nest. In this text, India is a threat – a surprising way of looking at a colony! Finally, our ‘Calcutta Dundonian’ – can he be read as a champion of India? The title he has chosen makes clear that he is a Scot. If India deserves fair treatment, the equality he seeks is for expatriate businessmen. This is the empire not as a market for British goods but as a field in which Britons (or Scots) might make good.

The advocates of protection won the debate in the Dundee chamber of commerce by 92 votes to 45. But in the nation as a whole, tariff reform was less successful. In the 1906 election, the Liberal party made great play of the cost of tariffs (‘a tax on bread’) and won by a landslide.

In fact, there was never much chance that tariffs would be manipulated to benefit Dundee. Some of the weaknesses of the case for protection have already been identified. Tariffs may help to protect a home market, but jute, like many British industries, was export oriented. Imposing British tariffs risked retaliation, which would harm Britain – the world’s greatest exporter. Moreover, Dundee’s main competitor was inside the British empire. Chamberlain’s proposals were supposed to bring the empire together, but many in the dominions were anxious to protect their fledgling industries. The leaders of the tariff reform movement could not afford to be associated with proposals, such as those emanating from Dundee, where imperial rule was to be exploited for Britain’s benefit. Furthermore, in contrast, say, to the Lancashire cotton industry, Dundee was just too small to count on the national stage. Whereas Lancashire had 60 MPs in the House of Commons, Dundee had just two. Moreover, their rivals in Calcutta were closer to power. The Bombay cotton manufacturers who challenged Lancashire were mostly Indian; all the jute mills on the Hooghly were still owned and managed by British expatriate firms and the jute ‘wallahs’ of Calcutta had far better connections in London and New Delhi than Dundee did (Stewart, 1998, pp. 10–12).

There is another reason why the British government was unlikely to do anything that would limit the Calcutta jute industry. By the end of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the American and German economies, Britain’s trade deficit was growing rapidly. The deficit was a trade deficit only: Britain imported more goods than it exported. However, Britain also earned money abroad on ‘invisible exports’ (such as insurance) and enjoyed considerable revenues from investments overseas. Added together, these sources of revenue left Britain with a healthy surplus overall, but the trade deficit was a source of concern in a country that had long prided itself on being ‘the workshop of the world’. As rising tariffs excluded British goods from foreign markets, imperial markets became more important and, among these, India was one of the largest. India, in turn, had a trade surplus with the USA, and raw and manufactured jute were important exports. There was thus a trade triangle between the three countries that helped maintain Britain’s trading position and so made Britain, as London was well aware, dependant on Calcutta’s export performance (Sethia, 1996, pp. 94–8).

3.3 Summary

This section has looked at the rise of the Dundee jute industry and its subsequent difficulties. Overseas links have been emphasised: the raw material came from India and markets were global. Yet, the benefits of empire to Dundee remain hard to define. There is little to suggest that the switch to jute was facilitated by British rule in Bengal and imperial government was not used to protect Dundee’s staple.

4 The organisation of the jute industry

Next, you will explore how the industry was organised and, by looking at the example of one firm, how firms survived in highly competitive and volatile trading conditions.

4.1 Firms and competition

So far, we have discussed the jute industry as a whole. But any industry is composed of enterprises. Further insights into Dundee’s links to empire can be gained from taking the case study approach a stage further and looking at how individual firms adapted to the demands of an industry based on global networks.

The following is a description of the jute and linen ‘market’ in Dundee:

Almost all the day to day business was carried on between merchants and manufacturers in a ‘market’ shelter which had been built next to the Chamber of Commerce building about 1889. In fine weather this overflowed into Panmure Street outside, regardless of the effect this might have on the passing traffic. Contracts were all verbal, to be confirmed later in writing, and this system worked well until 1939 when it ceased on the outbreak of war in that year. Markets were held daily (Monday to Friday) between the hours of 3 pm and 4 pm and one could usually tell on arrival from the hum of conversation whether business was active or the reverse.

(Halley, 1980, p. 20)

The writer was born in 1900 and took over the running of his family firm, William Halley & Sons Ltd, in 1925, and so his memories are likely to be of the market as it was in the interwar years rather than earlier. Nevertheless, his description tallies with what we know for earlier periods. Figure 3 shows Panmure Street and one can see a crowd of businessmen, many in bowlers, behind the park railings. Although the photo caption provides few details, it seems likely that this was the market in action. The ‘market shelter’ (a more solid building than the word ‘shelter’ might suggest) can be seen in the background.

Figure 3
(Photo: Dundee City Council, Central Library) ©
Dundee City Council, Central Library
Figure 3 Alexander Wilson, Panmure Street, Dundee, 1900, from original glass negative. Note the crowd in front of the Royal Exchange (home of the Chamber of Commerce) behind the park railings. The ‘market shelter’ is the building to the left of the Exchange

What was going on? Halley talks of ‘merchants and manufacturers’. In 1900, the Dundee Directory lists fifteen shipping companies, fifty-four brokers, fifty-four commission agents, and over 150 merchants. The jute trade was one with many participants. From the peasant producers in Bengal, to the buyers of jute sacks in Argentina or the Mid-West, jute passed through many hands. At each stage – transportation to Calcutta, compressing the bales, shipping to Dundee, spinning, weaving, preparing the cloth for sale, and selling overseas – there were many competing firms offering the same service. William Lazonick contrasts Britain’s nineteenth-century ‘market-coordinated industrial economy’ with American managerial capitalism in the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century British firms, he argues, were specialists who relied on external networks for supplies and marketing (Lazonick, 1991). Most Dundee enterprises only engaged in one part of the process of jute trading and production – relying on the market for supplies (in the case of a spinner, raw jute) and sales (yarn). Hence the importance of the Panmure Street market.

Activity 8 (optional)

0 hours 15 minutes

Warden’s book includes a list of textile manufacturers in Dundee in 1864. You will find this in ‘Textile manufacturers in Dundee, 1864’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course). Examine it now and consider the following questions:

  1. What does this list tell you about the scale and structure of the industry?
  2. What does it tell you about the manufacturers?
  1. Sixty-one companies engaged in the same industry is a large number for a small area; all the firms listed had their factories within three miles of the town centre. Some of the firms are very large. Using the number of employees (‘hands’ as Warden terms them), nine firms are listed as having 1,000 workers or over, with the largest (Baxter Brothers & Co.) employing 4,000 – a large workforce in any period. However, there are also many smaller ones – there are twenty-four firms with 200 workers or fewer.

    The columns headed ‘Spindles’ and ‘Power looms’ denote the two major branches of the industry: spinning and weaving. Some of the firms are engaged in both – thus Baxter Brothers has 19,744 spindles and 1,200 looms. But many of the smaller firms, and one or two of the larger ones, were only involved in one part of the process. O. G. Miller, for instance, has the third largest number of spindles but no looms. Most of the very smallest firms were only engaged in weaving. Firms that only spun or wove would, of course, need to sell or buy yarn.

  2. There is not a lot to go on here. However, the names of the firms are interesting – every name on the list is that of one or more individuals. In many cases, the name suggests that the firm was owned by a single individual or by a family – brothers or a father and son. In other cases, the name suggests a partnership between unrelated individuals. None of the firms have ‘Ltd’ after their names.

It is possible that not all the firms were owned by one or a few individuals and that the names disguise more complex ownership patterns. However, legislation allowing limited liability had only existed since 1856 and was long not widely used. It is therefore very likely that all the firms were unincorporated, which would mean that the owners or partners were fully liable for the debts of their firms. Under such circumstances, trust was important, and this often meant that businessmen preferred to enter partnerships with closely related individuals.

Warden wrote his book at a time of great change and it is perhaps not surprising that there were so many textile firms in Dundee in this period: many may have been keen to try their luck in the boom industry. Powerlooms were also new in 1864. It is often the case that barriers to entry are low in a time of rapid technological change – think of the boom at the turn of the twenty-first century. Many of the smallest firms in Warden’s table were only weavers and it seems likely that the new technology was seen by new men as an opportunity to make their fortune. But the boom was followed by a slump and many of the new firms failed. What happened in Dundee when conditions got tougher?

Frustratingly, I was not able to trace a comparable list for a later period. In general, firms were regarded as the private property of their owners in nineteenth-century Britain and, as a result, we have rather less information on British businesses than is the case for many other countries (including, interestingly, India). So I used the valuation rolls (a list of property for local taxation) for an industrial ward in the city to explore which textile companies were there in 1864, 1880 and 1900. Table 1 summarises what I found.

Table 1: Textile firms in Ward 8, Burgh of Dundee

1864 1880 1900
Firms there in 1864 20 14 8
New in 1880 9 2
New in 1900 12
Total 20 23 22
(Source: Valuation rolls for the Burgh of Dundee (ward boundaries as in 1900))

The table shows no reduction in the total number of firms. Only eight of the firms survived throughout the period, but as some firms dropped out, others replaced them. This continued to happen after 1880, even though, by then, the boom conditions of the 1860s and 1870s had passed. Interestingly, more of the firms that had survived 1864–1880 survived to 1900 than did new ones.

If the value of the property can be taken as a measure of the size of the firm, then the largest firm in 1864 was still the largest in 1900. But the second and third largest in 1864 (no.2 was O. G. Miller) had disappeared by 1900. The survivors in 1900 included some that had been quite small in 1864, and, although most had higher valuations in 1900 than in 1864, many were still in the middle ranks of the table. If most new entrants started small, some were able to start big by taking over factories. The failure of O. G. Miller in 1884 put its five mills on the market and these were taken over by other firms, including some newcomers.

These patterns – high exit and entry rates, the survival of the biggest firms but also of many smaller ones, business failures creating opportunities for new men – appear to have been true of Dundee as a whole. There was no consolidation in the industry by merger and takeover (as was to happen in the even tougher trading conditions after the First World War).

4.2 A high-risk trade

Activity 9 (optional)

0 hours 30 minutes

Why was there so much turnover in the stock of companies? You will recall the peaks and troughs in Plate 1. ‘The Dundee local trade in 1892’ (from the Rachel Gibbons book referred to in the Introduction to this course) is a look back on a year that included one of the downturns; read the document now. What happened in 1892?


In the early part of the year, fears concerning the supply of raw jute from Bengal pushed up prices; this was made worse by a ‘bull market’ in which every rumour raised expectations – and prices – further. When more accurate information about the size of the jute crop reached Dundee, it became clear that there would be plenty of jute available and prices fell. The whole process was made worse, in the opinion of the writer, by speculation: the buying and selling of raw jute, not for manufacture, but because it was hoped that a profit could be made on trading.

This is not an easy text to follow and this is, in itself, interesting. It was obviously felt that readers would have a certain understanding of local markets. The passage brings out two important constraints on the jute industry. First, raw jute was an agricultural commodity and supply depended on harvests. The fact that nearly all jute was produced in just one region of the world, and one subject to extreme weather conditions, meant that the supply could vary dramatically from year to year. Secondly, the nature of the trade meant that information was often poor. With so many peasant producers, it was difficult to find out in advance how good the harvest would be. The distances involved, and the number of market participants, meant that rumours abounded and could not easily be checked. The result was ‘violent fluctuations’ and ‘rash speculation’. At one point in 1892, prices fell so far that it was not worth shipping jute and supplies threatened to dry up. Buying and selling at the right price often made the difference between success and failure. Looking back on the interwar years, a businessman could recall:

Going each day to the market at the Merchant’s Shelter and attempting to buy yarn one ninety-sixth of a penny cheaper than it was offered because efficiency of production hardly affected profits – all depended on the price of the raw material.

(Quoted in Gauldie, 1987, p. 114)

These were tough conditions for manufacturers, and the risks were high. Remember that partners in an unincorporated partnership were fully liable for the debts of their firm. You might expect that entrepreneurs would be cautious about entering such an industry and that many firms would fail. Yet, as we have seen, there continued to be new entrants into the jute industry and some firms, including small ones, survived. In the following example we will explore how this was achieved.

4.3 Harry Walker & Sons Ltd

Harry Walker & Sons, jute spinners and manufacturers, was founded in 1873 by Harry Walker, after he had split up with his brother (J. & H. Walker is no. 60 in Warden’s 1864 list). A modern factory, the Caldrum works, was built (see Figure 4). The firm became a limited company in 1892 with a paid-up capital of £150,000, divided between 10,000 £10 ordinary shares and 5,000 £10 preference shares. The directors were Harry Walker, his sons, and later his grandsons, and they and their spouses and daughters held virtually all the shares.

Figure 4
(Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services) ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 4 Workers (including women in shawls) leaving Caldrum Works, Dundee, c.1900, photograph, 25 × 20 cm, photographer unknown

Among the business records that have survived, the most informative are probably the balance sheets and annual reports for the period after incorporation. Balance sheets need to be seen as a primary source like any other: the same questions about authorship, purpose and audience are relevant. In the case of a company like Harry Walker & Sons, with no outside shareholders, such questions throw up some interesting answers: the ‘authors’ (officially, the directors) and the ‘audience’ (the shareholders) were virtually the same. Although accounts had to be audited, in this period there was no requirement to publish them. In the case of Harry Walker & Sons, the balance sheets that have been preserved are handwritten and amendments have been made on the documents. They give every appearance of being for use within the firm only. The balance sheets of public companies in this period were notoriously unreliable, but, in a privately owned firm such as this one, there were few advantages to be gained from concealing results (Arnold, 1995). We can perhaps see them as the directors’ own assessment of their situation.

Figure 5
(Source: based on company records from Dundee University Archive, MS66/VI/7/1)
Figure 5 Harry Walker & Sons Ltd: profits, value of works and investments, 1892–1914
Figure 6
(Source: based on company records from Dundee University Archive, MS66/VI/7/1)
Figure 6 Harry Walker & Sons Ltd: ordinary dividends, 1892–1914

Activity 10

0 hours 20 minutes

Figures 5 and 6 (above) are charts based on figures from the balance sheets and annual reports.

  1. Do the charts suggest that Harry Walker & Sons was profitable?
  2. What happened to the value of the works, as compared with ‘cash and investments’?
  3. What do the charts suggest was done with the profits?
  1. Yes, Figure 5 shows that profits were made in every year except 1909; 1907 and 1913 were particularly good years.
  2. The value of the works declined gently until around 1900 and were then roughly stable until a big drop in 1912. The value of cash and investments, on the other hand, rose irregularly to around 1908. By 1914, they had exceeded the value of the works for seven of the last nine years. A curious inversion for a manufacturing company!
  3. Figure 6 shows the amount the company paid out to ordinary shareholders. From 1895 to 1905, ordinary dividends were held steady at 7.5 per cent and later 10 per cent. (10 per cent dividends meant that the company paid out 10 per cent of the face value of the ordinary shares, i.e. £1 per share). As we know from Figure 5, this was a period when ‘cash and investments’ were rising. The figures suggest that not all profits were paid out and money was kept in the firm for the first 15 years. After 1906, policy seems to have changed. Higher dividends were paid, transferring profits from the firm to the family.

We do need to treat the figures with caution. In particular, too little allowance was probably made for depreciation in the value of the works. It is possible that concerns about this led to the big drop in 1912, when £25,226 was suddenly written off. The figures also do not tell us what turnover was required to generate these profits, but there can be no doubt that Harry Walker & Sons was profitable. When things were going well, big profits were made and even in years of crisis, such as 1892 (remember ‘The Dundee local trade in 1892’ document in Exercise 9), they still broke even. From 1895 on, despite the ups and downs of the jute industry, they never missed a dividend.

How did they do it? The balance sheets and the annual reports suggest a number of factors:

  • They were good at holding down costs. The annual reports in the 1890s often report short-time working and machines kept idle. When demand was slack, they reduced the hours worked and their wages bill. As Figure 5 shows, in most years more was written off the value of the works than was invested in them. With little investment and few debts, they could afford to sit out downturns in the trade.
  • They held large and fluctuating stocks of jute. We already know that good buying was essential to success. The company’s large cash reserves mean that it could afford to buy when prices were good and hold stocks. The figures in their balance sheets suggest they held, on average, 8,000 tons of jute – 45,000 of the bales in Figure 7 – in the years between 1892 and 1914. Interestingly, the only loss followed a decision to write down stocks – presumably following a wrong guess on price movements.
  • Since all the shareholders were family, pressure to pass on profits through high dividends may have been less. Directors could choose to hold profits in the firm, or, as after 1906, transfer them to the family.
Figure 7
(Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services ©
University of Dundee Archive Services
Figure 7 Jute on horse drays at Victoria Spinning Co. Ltd., 1920s, photograph, 19.9 x 15.1 cm, photographer unknown. Each bale weighed around 400 lbs.

4.4 Summary and implications

Consider what we have learned about the structure of the Dundee jute industry. It was composed of many firms, most of them carrying out only one part of the process of buying, transporting, manufacturing and selling jute. New entrants gave the industry dynamism: they saw opportunities and took risks that might well end in disaster. Harry Walker may have started in this way, but by the 1890s the firm was no longer taking big risks. Reserves gave the firm resilience; experience of a highly competitive and volatile industry made it cautious. One might describe their strategy as prioritising survival (and waiting for opportunities – in 1914, the First World War broke out and the demand for sandbags soared).

Bruce Lenman and Kathleen Donaldson have suggested that the legacy of the jute industry was disastrous for Dundee. Big profits were made in jute, but these were invested overseas rather than in the local economy. From the 1870s on, investment trusts launched by Dundee businessmen channelled enormous sums into foreign investments and particularly into American railway, land and cattle companies. Dundee’s ‘jute barons’ preferred to invest in American stocks rather than in developing new industries in Dundee. The result left Dundee dangerously dependent on an industry in trouble (Lenman and Donaldson, 1971).

Interestingly, some of Harry Walker & Sons’ capital was held in American trust funds, which would have given a return of around 6 per cent. This suggests that the directors saw this as a better return (or at least a safer investment) than could be obtained at home. In this they were not alone: the wills of Dundee businessmen often reveal large overseas investments. And Britain as a whole between the 1870s and the First World War invested heavily abroad, in the empire (particularly Canada, South Africa and Australasia), but also in Latin America and, above all, the USA. One-fifth of all overseas investment in 1865–1914 went to the USA alone. On the whole, economic historians have calculated that this was of benefit to Britain – the return on investments overseas was higher than could have been obtained in the UK (Edelstein, 2004, p. 194). What of Harry Walker & Sons? Could they have invested more in Dundee? Remember how narrow was their business experience. The complicated networks built up to bring jute from Bengal, manufacture it, and sell the products to markets all over the world could not easily be switched to a new industry. Dundee did jute. For business families like the Walkers, the choice was jute or a safe investment overseas.

5 Picturing Dundee

You will now consider the impact of jute on Dundee, focusing on how it was perceived by contemporaries.

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)

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’, 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

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.

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)

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.

5.3 Summary

In this section, we have looked at some of the ways contemporaries perceived Dundee. One striking feature is the importance of production in these perceptions. The tourist guide, the photos, and the Dundee Social Union report on the city all highlight aspects of the process of production. When pickets blocked factory gates, or mill girls mobbed manufacturers, they were drawing on identities defined by their role in the manufacture of jute.


You have now reached the end of this free course, Dundee, jute and empire. Consider this final activity to complete your work.

Activity 14

0 hours 30 minutes

Before starting on the case study of Dundee, I asked you to keep a note of points where you felt the Cain and Hopkins thesis provided insights or raised questions. I would now like you to reflect on your notes. You may find it helpful to look back at the discussion of Cain and Hopkins (see Section 2.2).


There are many points that could be made and I will not attempt to provide a specimen answer. But perhaps you will have come up with some of the following (the numbers and letters refer to the points given in the specimen answers in Activity 2.).

  • Although this course has focused on just one industry, we have seen how the ramifications of the global jute trade reached into every aspect of Dundee life, from the ships in the harbour to relations between men and women. Business success or failure or the wages paid to employees could be affected by events on the far side of the globe. To study Dundee without taking empire into account would indeed be absurd (1).

  • We need, however, to consider what we mean by the term ‘empire’. If only the territories ruled by Britain are meant, then only some of the overseas dimensions to Dundee’s jute trade are captured. The industry was no respecter of imperial boundaries. Dundee did switch from Russian flax to Indian jute, but not because the latter came from within the empire. Markets were found all over the world. When jute is described as an imperial industry, we are following Cain and Hopkins (and Hobsbawm) in using the term empire to describe a global economic system dominated by Britain (2).

  • You may, however, have been struck by how few tangible benefits the Dundee jute industry seems to have gained from the British empire. The term ‘informal empire’ does not really help us understand the Baltic flax trade. Nor, later, when Dundee’s jute industry wanted help, did the British authorities in India manipulate trading conditions to favour Dundee (although they did aid Lancashire). To Dundonians, it seemed at times a distinct disadvantage that its main competitor was also within the empire. Admittedly, imperial and ‘informal empire’ markets offered Dundee merchants some protection when foreign countries put up tariffs to exclude Dundee goods. But this was a poor recompense for the more lucrative markets from which Dundee was excluded (2).

  • Returning to Cain and Hopkins’s thesis, we should perhaps not be surprised by this. The manufacturers of Dundee were certainly no ‘gentlemen capitalists’! Cain and Hopkins argue that industry had little influence on government and this was certainly Dundee’s experience. The discussion of tariff reform showed that Dundee counted for little in government circles (3).

  • Tariff reform divided the city. As the texts we have studied reveal, the Dundee jute merchants and manufacturers certainly possessed a strong sense of communal identity. Yet, when it came to one of the key issues of the age, industry did not speak with one voice. Does this undermine the idea of a ‘jute lobby’ let alone an industry one? (3 and A).

  • Dundee capitalists were investors as well as producers. However, I am not sure we should attach too much importance to this: the Walker family would certainly have seen themselves as industrialists. But note that their main investment destination was the USA. Again, business did not stop at imperial boundaries (3, A and a bit of 2).

  • By the 1890s, the Dundee jute industry was on the defensive: the pattern of its trade fits more closely to Hobsbawm’s ‘retreat’ into empire than Cain and Hopkins’s image of Britain as a ‘dynamic and ambitious power’. Yet in this Dundee was unusual: competition from what is now termed the ‘Third World’ affected jute before almost any other industry. What Dundee experienced in the 1890s would affect Lancashire cotton in the interwar years (4 and C).

  • What of Cannadine’s concern that ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ does not explain Scottish participation in empire? There is little in this course that supports this concern. However, Marshall, who argued that ‘Scottish interests and Scottish sympathies were very deeply involved in Empire’ and that the idea of an imperial partnership with England formed a key part of Scottish identity in this period, is more enlightening here (Marshall, 1995, p. 387). Empire provided opportunities for many Scots, both at home and abroad. Only a minority, of course, will have joined Britain’s imperial elite, but this was true of England too (B).

What of Cannadine’s final point (D)? Since this course has concentrated on industry and empire, there has been little that is relevant to Cannadine’s concern with empire as an ‘imaginative construct’. One point, however, might be made. This course has focused on producers and consumers. It has examined Dundee’s consumption of raw jute and production of jute sacking, and the organisation of this process. It has also explored how the city was shaped and defined by the process of production. The theme of beliefs and ideologies has, however, also intruded in places, for instance when discussing tariffs versus free trade or the employment of women in the mills and factories. When contemporaries discussed such issues, the debate was framed by beliefs about how trade should be organised or the proper role of women. One such set of beliefs concerned empire. As we saw in the debate about tariffs, to justify their arguments participants drew on imagery that defined the proper relationship between colonies and metropole. I picked out the way their language used parent–child images; on other occasions, discussions might be framed in terms of ‘master and servant’. Part of the fury of some of the participants in the debate surely came from a feeling that Calcutta was not fulfilling its function of serving Dundee. Their ‘imaginative construct’ of the empire placed Dundee at the centre and Calcutta on the periphery, even though, by 1900, Dundee was very much the smaller of the two.

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Bayly, C.A. (1989) Imperial Meridian. The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830, London, Longman.
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Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G. (1993b) British Imperialism. Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914–1990, London, Longman.
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Except for third party materials and otherwise stated (see terms and conditions), this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this course:

Course image: Archives New Zealand in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.

Cannadine, D. (1995) ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, Past and Present, no. 147, May 1995, pp. 180–94. © Oxford University Press.

Lynn, M. (1996) Review of Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G. ‘British Imperialism’, The English Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 441, April 1996, pp. 501–3. © Oxford University Press.

Figure 1 University of Dundee Archive Services

Figure 2 University of Dundee Archive Services

Figure 3 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Figure 4 University of Dundee Archive Services

Figure 7 University of Dundee Archive Services

Figure 8 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Figure 9 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Figure 10 University of Dundee Archive Services

Plate 3 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Plate 4 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Plate 5 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Plate 6 Dundee City Council, Central Library

Photographer unknown, Loading jute from wharf into export steamer, Calcutta, c.1900, photograph, 18.6 x 13.7 cm. Photo: Dundee University Archive Services.

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