Dundee has been involved in textile processing for hundreds of years and during the second half of the nineteenth century it was the world capital for jute.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries Dundee had a thriving flax industry and many mills were built to process the raw fibre into yarn which was subsequently woven into canvas. At this time Dundee firms were heavily involved in trade with India and ships sailed regularly between Scotland and eastern India. The merchants who travelled there had long noticed a crop which grew abundantly and could be bought very cheaply. They could see the possibilities of using it to produce yarn but in all their experiments they found this jute plant too hard to work with. Unlike the flax fibre which was soft and pliable this newly "discovered" jute fibre was hard and coarse.
The next series of events may be an early urban myth but lets go with it anyway!
At this time Dundee also had a thriving whaling industry and this meant an abundance of whale oil. It is said that one day some of this oil was spilt on a batch of jute and it was immediately noticed that the hard, wirey fibre became soft and malleable. From that day on expensive flax fibre was largely replaced by much cheaper jute and the industry in Dundee had begun. In 1838 the first jute mill was opened and from then until the mid 20th century Dundee was dependent on this industry.
At its height almost half of the city's population worked in jute or jute-related industries. The workforce was predominantly female as this kept the costs down. As a result, Dundee had very high male unemployment - the men who stayed home were known as kettle bilers (kettle boilers).
From the start of the industry until the late 19th century Dundee produced almost every piece of jute cloth that was used anywhere in the World. From the covers on the wagons that were used to push into the wild west of America to the humble sand bag - they all came from Dundee. In 1900 Dundee had over 100 working jute mills. The largest mill was Camperdown Works which was owned by the Cox Brothers. Not only was this the largest jute mill in Dundee it was also the largest in the world. Covering an area of 30 acres and employing 14,000 workers it even had its own railway, foundry and school. It also had the tallest industrial chimney in Scotland (it is still standing and at 85m still holds this record). Our family company which started in 1911 made one of its first sales to the Cox Brothers - a copy of the original sales ledger can be seen here.
All the jute for the Dundee mills came from the Bengal region in eastern India, centered on the city of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). From around 1870 Indian businessmen started to open their own jute mills knowing that they could undercut the Dundee industry by employing cheaper labour and also because the raw material was right "on their doorstep". Dundee had the experienced workers though so for the next 90 years a steady stream of Dundee mill workers would travel out to work in and manage the Calcutta mills.
Today the jute industry is concentrated in Kolkata and also in Bangladesh. There is no British involvement any more but if you ever happen to visit Kolkata you will see the tremendous architectural legacy that has been left.
As the only company still working with jute in Dundee we are proud to keep the tradition alive albeit on a slightly smaller scale!