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19 February 2013

Book explores Empire’s influence on Dundee

The birth of modern Dundee is inextricably linked to the reach and influence of the British Empire, according to a new book written by a tutor from the University of Dundee.

‘Empire, Industry and Class: The Imperial Nexus of Jute, 1840-1940’, written by Anthony Cox, will be officially launched at the Dalhousie Building on Thursday, 28th February. The book analyses the everyday lives of the jute workers of Dundee and how the experiences of the Dundee mechanics, engineers and managers who ran the Calcutta jute industry impacted upon them.

Anthony, a tutor in the University’s Continuing Education programme and the lead tour guide with Tayside Historical Tours, has shown how the informal support networks that were developed by the city’s jute workers were vital to helping them survive the sometimes brutal working and living conditions of jute workers in Victorian and Edwardian Dundee.

Furthermore, the book explores how more progressive and modern domestic arrangements evolved as a necessary means of coping with the challenges that working class Dundonian families faced at this time.

It goes on to demonstrates how and why Empire was able to provide an opportunity for industrialists to test and perfect ways of controlling the lower classes of Dundee. Although primarily aimed at an academic audience, ‘Empire, Industry and Class’ is written in a lively and accessible style and it is hoped that a paperback version will be released at a later date.

"The central position of the book is that the British Empire is fundamental to the development of Dundee and it becoming an industrial cul-de-sac by the late Victorian period," he said.

"The book also outlines how the era of Juteopolis gave birth to what I call Dundee’s "oary culture" as a result of the melding of the separate and distinctive oral and song traditions of those groups from Angus, the Perthshire Highlands, and Ireland who came to Dundee in search of work.

"As this was happening, the people who had left Dundee to work in the jute industry in Calcutta were coming back with their beliefs altered by their experiences in India, particularly in relation to their attitudes to the urban working poor.

"The increasingly competitive relationship between Dundee and Calcutta created a sometimes desperate situation for workers in the Dundee mills. For example, by the early years of the twentieth century adult male jute workers in Dundee were thought to weigh less than prisoners in Uttar Pradesh Prison in Northern India, an incredible situation for working men in what was deemed to be the world’s most prosperous country.

"As a survival mechanism, informal social networks were created to keep heads above water and the support that Dundee families offered each other helped them to cope with sometimes desperate conditions. The way that they managed to carve out niches for themselves and survive, as well as their tenacity in fighting back against the worst aspects of what I call jute dependency, is the most inspiring part of the story for me.

"One unique development in Dundee was a move away from patriarchal to more democratic domestic arrangements within many households headed by unskilled and semi-skilled male workers, which, at the time, were frowned upon by many middle class commentators as being unnatural. Often one spouse was unemployed while the other was working and so domestic roles might be reversed with the men making meals and looking after the children."

"But, while the distinctive social structure of Juteopolis has been noted by other historians, the extent to which markedly local characteristics, such as the male ‘kettle boiler’, the female headed household and the widespread use of child labour, was encouraged into being by British imperialism has not been fully appreciated."

Anthony’s research will also form the basis of a course commencing in April entitled ‘The Imperial Nexus of Jute and the Making of Modern Dundee, 1840-1940’ that he will lead as part of the University’s Courses for Adults programme.

The course of nine lectures will provide a wide-ranging investigation of the nature and development of the century long Dundee-Calcutta relationship, as well as the survival strategies that ordinary Dundonians adopted in order to cope with the sometimes brutal consequences of jute dependency and the imperial nexus of jute.

'Empire, Industry and Class: The Imperial Nexus of Jute, 1840-1940' will be officially launched at the Dalhousie Building at 6pm on Thursday, 28th February. The evening will begin with an introduction by, local historian and journalist, Norman Watson before Anthony delivers a short presentation and takes part in a question-and-answer session. A wine reception will follow.

Anyone interested in obtaining further information about the University of Dundee’s Courses for Adults programme should email Susan Norrie on conted@dundee.ac.uk or telephone 01382 381125.


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Grant Hill
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University of Dundee
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