Union Songs

The Jute Mill Song


A song by Mary Brookbank

O, dear me, the mill is running fast
And we poor shifters canna get nae rest
Shifting bobbins coarse and fine
They fairly make you work for your ten and nine

O, dear me, I wish this day were done
Running up and doon the Pass is nae fun
Shiftin', piecin', spinning warp, weft and twine
To feed and clothe ma bairnie offa ten and nine

O, dear me, the world is ill-divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
There's no much pleasure living offa ten and nine


First recorded by Ewan MacColl: Steam Whistle Ballads

Mary Brookbank herself a jute worker wrote:
"The life of the women workers of Dundee right up to the thirties was ... a living hell of hard work and poverty. It was a common sight to see women, after a long ten-hour-day in the mill, running to the stream wash-houses with the family washing. They worked up to the last few days before having their bairns. Often they would call in at the calenders from their work and carry home bundles of sacks to sew. These were paid for at the rate of 5 pence for 25, 6 pence for a coarser type of sack. Infant and maternal mortality in Dundee was the highest in the country."

When folklorist Hamish Henderson asked Mary Brookbank how much of the song came from mill workers she replied:
"Only the ditty, 'Oh dear me, the mill's gaen fest, the puir wee shifters…' The verses are all mine. And that verse, 'to feed and cled my bairnie' was brought to me by a lassie who was worried. It wis hard lines if she, ye hid an illigitimate child and you had to pay for it aff that meagre wage, you know what I mean, and she used to say, oh I wish the day was done. And eh, tell me her troubles, her trackles, what she hid tae dae for her bairn and that, nae help that sort o' thing, and that brought that tae mind. And then I used to think on my own aboot how ill divided the world wis."

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