Jute, Jam and Journalism: When D. C. Thomson Dominated Dundee

When Ellie McDonald’s uncle organised a union at Dundee’s media powerhouse, the bosses blacklisted the family. It never kept them down.

In Dundee in the 1930s, unemployment was as familiar as the smell of jute which permeated the city. Among endemic poverty and lack of opportunity, my granny held a far-sighted belief in being well-educated. Apart from the jute industry and Keiller’s marmalade and jam factories, only the newspaper industry employed large numbers. Production of the newspapers and comics that covered much of the east coast was dominated by the offices and printing presses of D. C. Thomson.

The Thomsons saw themselves as benign father figures, with the staff encouraged to call their employers by names like Mr. Alistair, to foster a family atmosphere. They offered secure full-time employment to a carefully selected staff. Roman Catholics were not employed in any capacity and clerical staff from the junior ranks upwards were recruited only from the Academies. Most Dundonians read the Courier daily, digesting its Conservative stance and its portrayal of righteous indignation while the rise of Labour and Communist voters continued in Dundee.

Against this background my uncle was employed as a compositor with D. C. Thomson. Being raised to think for himself and with a belief in fairness he saw that trade unionism was the way forward. A few other men who worked alongside him agreed that they should gather support for a union. Management got wind of the troublemakers and they were immediately sacked and blacklisted. It was a swift and brutal response, especially as the families of the men were also blacklisted. My uncle went to Manchester to work at the Guardian and never came back to Dundee.

The company’s animosity continued through the years, and we would amuse ourselves by applying for jobs with D.C. Thomson for which we were suitably qualified but never got a reply. One of the other blacklisted men had a son who took a degree in maths from Dundee University. After a fine academic career in Britain and abroad he was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics at Dundee. When the Courier reported on three appointments at Dundee University, two academics were given the usual long blurbs and Ian Adamson was given two lines.

One of my cousins became a manager in the Bank of Bermuda and some time in the 80s a staff member came to tell him that a chap from Dundee was in the office on business and would he like to meet him. My cousin shook hands with one of the Thomsons with barely concealed amusement. The surname was no longer a barrier.

Ellie McDonald is a poet from Dundee, whose published collections include Pathfinder and The Gangan Fuit.