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She Town & Kettle Bilers: Dundee Women and the mills

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

As we celebrate International Women's Day, it’s a good time to look back on why we call Dundee ‘She Town’, and how women were the backbone of industry in the city for nearly a century.

With near-non-existent labour laws on equality in the 19th century, it was far cheaper to employ a women than men. The mills in Dundee were investing in jute fibres from India, a far cheaper alternative to flax fibres which had been previously favoured for its softer texture. The pursuit of jute left barons with an increased incentive for cost-cutting, and so they hired women were legally paid less.

As the jute industry exploded in Dundee in the early-mid 1800s, the women outnumbered men in the mills three to one. The first jute mill opened in 1838, and for the next 50 years or more, and over half of the town’s population was employed by the mills, or a jute-related industry. Women became the backbone of industrial Dundee, earning its nickname ‘She Town’.

With smaller hands, the women were well-suited to operating the mill machinery. Dundonian women rightfully earned a reputation for being skilled workers, nimbly working the weaving looms that put Dundee on the map in the global Pursuit of Jute.

As women and children were sought after to operate the machinery, the men were found wanting of gainful employment. Staying at home to look after the kids and boil the kettle, they were quickly dubbed ‘kettle bilers’, a term which can still be heard used today. The women of She Town experienced an empowerment from their husbands that was rare for the time, breeding a culture of self-assured, loud and fiercely independent who were as tough as the steel machines they worked.

But, the workers health also suffered. The raucous noise of the machines would leave many of the mill-workers near deaf, drowning out even the most major of background noises. The clatter and drum of machinery created a working environment that made it difficult for workers to hear, and sign language was used to communicate across the factory floor. A commonly held belief is that the distinctive ‘EH’ vowel-sound found in the Dundonian accent originated as it was easier to trumpet across the sound than softer vowel sounds.

But just because it didn't likely originate from the mills makes it no less unique. Dundee’s distinct dialect, oary, and its accent was the orthodox language of the mills. The class separation was extremely wide and as the jute was earning millions for the barons who spoke 'proper', the authentic Dundee culture and language was practiced by their lowly-paid employees.

Realising the gold-mine they were sitting on, Indian suppliers undercut the Dundee barons and started manufacturing their own jute and over time Calcutta (now Kolkata) became the heart of jute-manufacturing. Despite this, Dundee’s links with textiles are still strong. It has become a city known for creative innovation and education, with the art college Duncan of Jordanstone developing the textile designers of tomorrow.

The Dundee Tapestry looks to honour the women of Dundee by dedicating an eighth of the project to their stories. If you have an amazing story about Dundee women and would like to share it with us, go to the Contact page and drop us a line!

Further reading

To learn more about women in Dundee's mills, visit the Verdant Works.

To hear native Dundonians talk about language, culture and identity. Listen to this podcast on BBC voices.

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