This article accompanies Niall Whelehan’s piece “Saving Ireland in Juteopolis: Gender, Class, and Diaspora in the Irish Ladies’ Land League” in History Workshop Journal issue 90, where it is currently free access.
Migrant workers are vital to today’s textile industry and they are also a central part of the history of the industry. Recent reports have revealed appalling abuses and exploitation in British factories that recall earlier periods of industrialisation in the nineteenth century. Exploitative conditions in textile factories have a long history, and migrants frequently bore the brunt of them.
In the second half of the nineteenth century many Irish women emigrated to Dundee to find work in the city’s booming jute industry, which earned it the nickname ‘Juteopolis’. By the century’s end, there were over one hundred mills in the city that brought huge fortunes for the so-called Jute Barons, who lived on vast estates outside the city. The largest mill was the Cox Brothers’ Camperdown Works, located in the Lochee area. It employed some 5,000 people, mostly women, and at one point claimed to be the largest jute factory in the world. Lochee was also home to many Irish immigrants and their children who worked in the mills. As I argue in my article in History Workshop Journal (issue 90), they encountered grim working and living conditions.
Rents were high in Victorian Dundee due to a shortage of housing, but wages in the mills remained low compared to other cities. Dundee’s overcrowding problem was then the second worst in Scotland, after Paisley, and many migrants boarded with families in cramped rooms. The workday in the mills lasted from 6am to 6pm, with additional shifts on Saturdays, and many employees brought home sacks to sew at night. Danger and difficulty came with the work, ranging from the daily risk of accident to long-term illnesses resulting from conditions on the mill floor. The registers of Dundee’s Royal Infirmary reveal high rates of admission of Irish women suffering from ‘mill fever’, or chronic respiratory problems linked to the heavy dust and oil fumes. These high rates of hospital admission reflect the centrality of employment in textile mills for Irish women and the hazards of the work. Accidents were frequent, typically involving both adults and children who got their hands caught while cleaning machinery, resulting in broken fingers and hands and sometimes amputation.
Employment opportunities for women in the textile industry contributed to the distinctive gender profile of Dundee’s Irish community when compared to other Irish diaspora locations. Women represented just over half of all the emigrants who departed Ireland in this period, but in Dundee they outnumbered the men by two to one, and were often the main breadwinners in the home. The high numbers of female Irish migrants made Dundee a congenial environment for the Irish Ladies’ Land League, a transnational organisation that mixed nationalism, feminism and radical land reform in the 1880s. Activism in the organisation reflected emigrants’ desires to contribute to reform in Ireland, but it was also a means of expressing frustrations with their lives as migrant textile workers. The issues of rent and housing were central to the Ladies’ Land League. Membership of the organisation was intimately linked to the workplace and accommodation, with boarding-houses forming part of the ancillary networks of emigrant women’s associational and political culture.
The members of the Dundee Ladies’ Land League were a young group, typically in their early twenties. The majority were single, and they included a relatively even mix of first- and second-generation emigrants, many of whom had Ulster backgrounds. Most worked as weavers, spinners, reelers and cleaners in the city’s many mills and factories, notably in the massive Camperdown works in Lochee. Lucy Paterson was the first president of the Lochee branch of the league. She emigrated to Dundee with her mother and five siblings as a child in the 1860s. Before she was fifteen, she joined her siblings to work in a jute factory, which her brothers had entered aged eleven. Paterson and her sisters later moved on to New Jersey, serving as an indicator that Dundee was often not the final destination for Irish migrants who lived there.
When Marguerite Moore, a travelling organiser for the Ladies’ Land League, visited Dundee in 1881 to address a rally, she was joined on the platform by local committee members who all worked as weavers and spinners in the jute mills. Their presence was highly significant, first, because it illustrated how working-class representation was part of the public face of the city’s Ladies’ Land League, and second, because the appearance of five single women on the platform at a public political meeting indicated a change in perceptions of Irish women’s roles in the wider nationalist and land reform movement. The Dundee branches of the Ladies’ Land League were plugged into wider networks of Irish diaspora activism in Britain and North America through travelling speakers and the circulation of newspapers. At the same time, these branches had a particularly local character, one that was rooted in the migrant working culture in the jute mills.