Leaving the Jute Mill

James Barrowman reviews a recent exhibition in Dundee, leading us back through the factory gates.

The Cooper Gallery’s show Consider Labour is the first major exhibition of work by the late filmmaker Harun Farocki in Scotland, and places Dundee within the international network of cities that have hosted the ‘Labour in a Single Shot’ workshop that Farocki developed with partner Antje Ehmann. Dundee is well-placed to undertake an exploration of work and industry; the exhibition is explicitly framed around ‘the political activism of working class culture in Dundee’ and giving ‘this most radical of cities an emotive relationship with all others who labour.’ The work on display includes Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory, taking what is widely regarded as the first motion picture, Workers Leaving the Lumiére Factory, as the starting-point for a journey through cinema history focusing on the factory gates. The exhibition’s workshops encourage the creation of new films inspired by this motif.

In an essay of the same title, Farocki insists that ‘leaving the factory is not a literary theme’, but it was an occasional subject for the poets of industrial Dundee. It receives moving treatment in William Thom’s Rhymes and Recollections of a Hand-Loom Weaver. Thom recounts the moment he resolved to escape the factory walls in 1826, ‘when banks were falling like meteors, but rather oftener’ and ‘the world seemed hurrying to ruin.’ He penned a song which gained popularity among the workforce, even ‘without the gates’, and from then on he moved forward with one eye shut and the other ‘immovably fixed on Parnassus’, the fabled home of poetry and literature. The notion that he could write to bring joy to his fellow weavers beyond the confines of the workplace led Thom to a new conclusion: ‘Why should his powers live and die in this black boundary? His song not be heard beyond the unpoetical brick walls of a factory? It was settled. He is off. The shuttle for a time may go rot.’

But leaving the jute mills was a compicated matter. The Parliamentary Papers of 1831-32 record the case of one mill girl who spent seven months in Dundee gaol for deserting her post, then was beaten on return while working to make up her employer’s legal expenses. A generation later in 1863, Ellen Johnston was employed at Verdant Works, only to be discharged without explanation. She took her dismissal to court and won back a week’s wages. Though leaving the factory had been involuntary for Johnston, she faced an uphill battle to enter back into the workforce. She describes how prior to dismissal she was ‘envied’ by her ‘sister sex’ for her weaving talents, while after the lawsuit they treated her with a ‘perfect hatred’. Johnston was ‘persecuted beyond description’. Lies were spread about her and she was assaulted in the street, where the assailants ripped her clothes and spat at her. Letters were circulated among the foremen and tenters that warned against employing her, so that she ‘wandered through Dundee a famished and persecuted factory exile.’ Eventually Johnston secured a position at Chapelshade Factory, and as she developed her craft as a writer she became known in Dundee as ‘the Factory Girl’. But she was unable to make her writing into a means to leave weaving behind. In Gilfillan of Dundee, Aileen Black describes the Reverend Gilfillan’s ‘prejudiced and lukewarm endorsement’ of Johnston as a writer, and discusses how she he lacked the ‘networks of influential friends’ that had enabled Thom to remove from his black boundary.

Johnston’s account of her victimisation is indicative of the divides within Dundee’s labouring classes. In an article from the People’s Journal in 1926, Reverend Henry Williamson describes the opposition between the factory girls in their ‘be-ribboned hats’ and the mill girls with ‘shawls over their shoulders, all bare-headed and some even bare-footed.’ It is said of the Scouringburn that the mill girls took one side of the street and the factory girls the other. This split is captured in Employees Leaving Gilroy’s Jute Works, a motion picture shot in 1903 that echoed the Lumières’ 1895 film. In one clip, one of the veiled mill girls spits at a factory girl in a hat. This sequence illustrates a point that Farocki made in his original analysis: ‘The appearance of community does not last long. Immediately after the workers hurry past the gate, they disperse to become individual persons […]. If after leaving the factory the workers don’t remain together for a rally, their image as workers disintegrates.’

In the Dundee Year Book of 1884, the gates of Gilroy’s jute works are described as the threshold of a ‘miniature town’ removed from the ‘bustle and confusion of the street’. It was this position as a boundary between two worlds which made the factory gates an important site for protest. In these cases, they doubled as a proscenium arch, the frame surrounding a stage space separating the public from the players. In 1912, a march brought 400 strikers in masks and fancy dress to ‘besiege’ the Baxter Brothers gates with stones. Emma Wainwright’s PhD thesis ‘Gender, Space and Power’, uses these examples to portray Dundee’s factory gates as spaces where ‘the messiness of domination and resistance’ erupts and ‘the distinction between actor and audience is blurred.’

The factory gates remained a site of workforce resistance up to the Timex strike in 1993, when locks were glued shut to delay buses full of scab labour. Today, the gateways to former mills and factories remain thresholds to other worlds and miniature towns, be they in heritage attractions, the urban ruins of deindustrialisation, or the gentrified ‘luxury’ of boutique hotels and converted flats. These boundaries retain their power through their potential for performance, and as we leave the jute mill, we can reflect on and momentarily embody the workers that passed through the gates in centuries past. The expression, ‘Leaving the Jute Mill’, is used in a letter from Groucho Marx to his daughter, describing her release from institutional care for mental health difficulties. It is a useful phrase to adopt when considering labour in Dundee, as we strive to resist efforts to pit workers against each other, and depart from orthodoxies that depict the working class as a homogenous block.

Harun Farocki’s ‘Consider Labour’ ran at the Cooper Gallery from 3rd February to 1st April.

James Barrowman is a writer and PhD researcher, looking at James Wedderburn’s lost plays and literature in Dundee. He also works as a tour guide.