Page last updated at 13:14 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009
The history of mills in Dundee
Women working in a Dundee mill
Life in the mills has been preserved in photographs and personal testimonies

Dundee and the surrounding area has long been associated with mills.

The once thriving industry has seen a dramatic change in fortune as advances in technology and changing tastes have seen many mills close.

All is not lost as the way of life has been preserved in print, and through oral tradition.

One of the most unique examples of this is the former working mill buildings in Dundee run by Dundee Heritage Trust as Verdant Works.

Original features

The first part of the works was built in 1833 for David Lindsay. Other buildings were added and the site was completed in 1870. During the mid 1800s, the mill switched to the production of jute like other flax mills in the city.

Originally, a flax mill spanning 50,000 sq ft; 500 workers manufactured coarse linen for sacks and baling cloth for cotton. The workforce was mostly women and children who were paid less than men.

Verdant Works exterior, photo courtesy of Dundee Heritage Trust
Verdant Works is now a museum dedicated to Dundee's jute trade

John Ewan, Lord Provost of Dundee, was the owner in the 1850s and by the mid 1880s it had ceased to function as a jute mill. Alexander Thompson and Sons then operated the site for jute waste products in mattress flocks. Up to 50,000 cured rabbit skins were hung before being exported to America.

During the 1970s various companies rented office space. By sheer luck, there was no modernisation of the mill meaning the original features were retained by the time Dundee Heritage Trust acquired the site in 1991.

Calcutta jute mills

Business records don't survive from the time of the jute although there is evidence which suggests a strong relationship between Dundee and parts of India.

Jute in Verdant Works, photo courtesy of Dundee Heritage Trust
Jute, jam and journalism were the three main industries in Dundee

Dundee College of Technology, which is now part of the University of Abertay, ran a textile course for almost 100 years before closing in the mid 1980s.

The City and Guilds was aimed at supervisors, managers and technicians. Between the 1940s and 1960s, people moved from India and Bangladesh to Dundee before returning home.

In the early 1900s Calcutta overtook Dundee in the jute industry. There are Scottish place names in Calcutta as people continued to move to India from the area. Jute mills in Calcutta are still operating today and many export to Scotland.

Personal memories

Lily began working in the mills as a weaver when she was 14 years old. Aged 15 she moved to Thomson and Carter in the carpet industry, then to jute and J.F. Robertson. As a weaver, the working day began at 0730 and finished at 1730 with an hour in between for lunch.

Lily's mother, grand-mother, brothers and sisters also worked in the mill.

The work was hard and if an apron strap or shuttle broke hitting the wearer in the face, it would lead to: "A lot of lumps and bumps", as Lily puts it.

Hilda and Jessie, who worked in a flax mill in nearby Arbroath, have similar memories:

Jute was very flammable and fires were common, requiring six or seven people to put them out.

After almost 20 years in the mills, Lily left. By this time plastic replaced jute and India became dominant in the industry. As mills closed people stayed in the area although Dundee as a city felt much quieter until new industries moved in.

And Lily's lasting memory of the mills: "The good atmosphere. If my loom was off somebody would help you. Everyone was the same. You were working for a living, not luxuries."

Derelict mills

The machines in Verdant Works came from the college when the course closed. In 1984 people clubbed together to buy the machinery.

The following year, Dundee Heritage Trust was formed at a time when there were lots of derelict mills in the city. In 1991 the building was purchased and by 1996 the first phase of the museum opened before the second phase was completed in September 1997.

Items in the museum are mostly donated by the public. Gill Poulter, Director of Verdant Works, says that it is the ordinary objects which are most special. Once commonplace, there are only two cop aprons in the collection. Out of the thousands which would have been in use at the time, it is their rarity which makes them very special.

At its height, there were around 100 mills in the Dundee area. Roughly half of these were demolished. Mill buildings still survive and have been redeveloped into social clubs, offices and housing. Today there are no working mills in Dundee.

In pictures: The mills of Dundee
03 Dec 09 |  History



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