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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

Working Conditions

59. In the Dundee Mills, 1830s

Texte intégral

1In the following passage James Myles, the author of Chapters in the Life of a Dundee Factory Boy, reflects on his first day at a Dundee mill.

2J. Myles, Chapters in the Life of a Dundee Factory Boy, Edinburgh: Black, 1850, p. 12-13.

  • 5 The Factory Act of 1833 was an attempt to establish a regular working day in the textile industry. (...)
  • 6 A whang is a thong or whip of hide or leather.
  • 7 A bothy is a hut or small cottage. Also see text 64.
  • 8 Oatmeal or pease porridge, sometimes with butter or fat added.

It was on a Tuesday morning in the month of ‘Lady June’ that I first entered a spinning mill. The whole circumstances were strange to me. The dust, the din, the work, the hissing and roaring of one person to another, the obscene language uttered, even by the youngest, and the imperious commands harshly given by those ‘dressed in a little brief authority,’ struck my young country heart with awe and astonishment. At that time the twelve hours’ factory act5 had not come into operation, and spinning mills were in their glory as huge instruments of demoralization and slavery. Mercenary manufacturers, to enable them to beat more upright employers in the markets, kept their machinery and hands active fifteen, and in many cases, seventeen hours a-day, and, when tender children fell asleep under the prolonged infliction of ‘work! work! work!’ overseers roused them with the rod, or thongs of thick leather burned at the points. The lash of the slave driver was never more unsparingly used in Carolina on the unfortunate slaves than the canes and ‘whangs’6 of mill foremen were then used on helpless factory boys. When I went to a spinning mill I was about seven years of age. I had to get out of bed every morning at five o’clock, commence work at half-past five, drop at nine for breakfast, begin again at half-past nine, work until two, which was the dinner hour, start again at half-past two, and continue until half-past seven at night. Such were the nominal hours; but in reality there were no regular hours, masters and managers did with us as they liked. The clocks at the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night, and instead of being instruments for the measurement of time, they were used as cloaks for cheatery and oppression. Though this was known amongst the hands, all were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a watch, as it was no uncommon event to dismiss any one who presumed to know too much about the science of horology. In country mills, a more horrific despotism reigned than in Dundee. There, masters frequently bound the young by a regular contract, which gave them a more complete control over their labour and liberties than taking them from week to week. In one establishment in the vicinity of Dundee, the proprietor, a coarse-minded man, who by accident had vaulted out of his natural element into the position of a ‘vulgar rich’ man, practised the contract system, and had bothies7 where he lodged all his male and female workers. They were allowed to cook, sleep, and live in any dog and cat manner they pleased, no moral superintendence whatever being exercised over them. His mill was kept going 17 and frequently 19 hours per day. To accomplish this all meal hours were almost dispensed with, and women were employed to boil potatoes and carry them in baskets to the different flats; and the children had to swallow a potato hastily in the interval of putting up ‘ends.’ On dinners cooked and eaten as I have described, they had to subsist till half-past nine, and frequently ten at night. When they returned to their bothies, brose8, as it is a dish that can be quickly made, constituted their suppers, for they had no time to wait the preparation of a different meal. They then tumbled into bed; but balmy sleep had scarcely closed their urchin eyelids, and steeped their infant souls in blessed forgetfulness, when the thumping of the watchmen’s staff on the door would rouse them from repose, and the words, ‘Get up; its four o’clock,’ reminded them they were factory children, the unprotected victims of monotonous slavery. At this mill, and indeed all mills, boys and girls were often found sleeping in stairs and private places, and they have been seen walking about the flats in a deep sleep, with cans of ‘sliver’ in their hands. When found in this state, they were caned or kicked according to the mood of their superiors. One poor boy is still alive, and who, by force of mind, great persistency and rectitude, rose to be a mercantile clerk in Dundee, and now fills a responsible situation on one of the principal railways in England, was for some time in this factory. One day he was carrying an armful of bobbins from one flat to another. When ascending the stair, he sat down to rest himself, as his legs were sore and swollen by incessant standing. In a few moments he was fast asleep. Whilst enjoying this stolen repose, the master happened to pass. Without the least warning he gave him a violent slap on the side of the head which stunned and stupified him. In a half-sleeping state of stupefaction he ran to the roving frame, which he sometimes attended, and five minutes had barely elapsed when his left hand got entangled with the machinery, and two of his fingers were crushed to a jelly, and had to be immediately amputated. His unfeeling taskmaster gave him no recompense—in fact never asked after him; he was left to starve or die, as Providence might direct.


5 The Factory Act of 1833 was an attempt to establish a regular working day in the textile industry. The basic Act was as follows: no child workers under nine years of age, employers must have an age certificate for their child workers, children of 9-13 years to work no more than nine hours a day, children of 13-18 years to work no more than 12 hours a day.

6 A whang is a thong or whip of hide or leather.

7 A bothy is a hut or small cottage. Also see text 64.

8 Oatmeal or pease porridge, sometimes with butter or fat added.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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