West Hendersons Wynd, Dundee, DD1 5BT. Tel: 01382 225 282.
Fax: 01382 221 612. firstname.lastname@example.org. Open: April to October, Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sundays 11am-5pm, last admission 4.30pm. November to March, Monday-Saturday 10am-4pm, Su „
Dundee's textile heritage is displayed and explored in one of the Discovery City's prime attractions, the Verdant Works. Located in a disused jute mill in the heart of Dundee's old industrial district, a stone's throw from the university and within walking distance of the city centre, Verdant Works presents a fascinating exhibition of the past and tantalizing glimpses of the possible future.
Dundee had developed as a whaling and ship-building centre before the explosion of the jute industry in the early 19th century turned it into an industrial city.
The life of jute workers was unimaginably hard. Most of the mill workers were women and children, as their wages were lower than men's. Often boys were fired immediately on reaching 18 years of age, and unemployed Dundee men were "kettle boilers", looking after the home and babies while women and older children went to work. Infant mortality was horrendously high, with one in three children dying in infancy and the life expectancy of 33 years while nearby village of Glamis had 60. 12 year old Dundee boys were four inches shorter than boys from the surrounding countryside, and cholera, typhoid and TB were rife.
Jute barons, on the other hand, lived the lives of opulence and luxury, and satisfied their consciences by funding public buildings, institutions and parks.
Verdant Works' exhibits compellingly show the social history of the city, with a particular focus on the jute mill life. There are life-sized tableaux of mill workers (with audio tracks of their conversations) and slum dwellers, exhibits of machinery and galleries explaining the route of jute from the growers in India to the final product used for ropes, sacking and covers on the wagons that colonized the American West. Numerous audio stations have tracks of mill girls and their family members telling their stories, while several films make the past come alive with historic footage and pictures.
There are also hands-on exhibits, including computer games and multimedia programmes, samples of fibres and jute cloth as well as a look at the man made fibres that eventually replaced jute. The galleries present advantages of jute as a sustainable material (as opposed to the oil-derived polypropylene) and its possible revival in the current green-conscious era. The museum also touches on the wider aspects of Dundee's social history and possible directions of its future development. Of the three J's of jute, jam and journalism, only journalism remains, and the 40,000 textile workers in the 1920s have been reduced to 400. The post-industrial Dundee is only now finding its direction, and it lies in the research that flourished in the institutions funded by the jute barons and the industrial and shipping heritage turned visitors' attractions. The three Js are being replaced by the three Ts of tourism, technology and teaching as the newly confident Dundee looks into its future.
Verdant Works requires a minimum of an hour for a decent browse, and a seriously interested visitor could easily spend more than two hours there. The attraction has a gift shop with an adequate selection of Scottish and Dundee souvenirs as well as a small café that serves hot and cold drinks, soups and muffins.
The entrance fee is reasonable for what's on offer, with a family ticket under 20 GBP and and individual entry at 6.50 GBP at the time of writing in 2011. For locals, paying for one entry gives an annual pass and combined tickets with the HMRS Discovery are available.
There is free parking to the back of the building.
Dundee is famous for three things – the three ‘J’s which are Jute, Jam and Journalism. It is to the first of these, jute, to which I wish to turn in this opinion. The Verdant Works is a visitor attraction, in the centre of Dundee – it can be a little tricky to find, as the signposting isn’t always as good as it could be, and we had trouble finding the car park (it actually shares the carpark for Comet if you’re considering visiting!). The Verdant Works is a working jute mill, built in 1833, restored in 1991, and is designed for you to take a tour round, learning about the origins of this industrial process, the history of the mill, why Dundee was once the centre for jute manufacture, and why it has now declined. It costs £5.95 for an adult, and £3.85 for a child. To start off with in the Verdant Works, you are introduced to the mill by watching a film, known as ‘Juteopolis’, which sets out the history of the jute industry, and some of Dundee’s own history too. It’s quite short, about 15 minutes, and goes into enough detail without being too technical! The industry employed 50,000 people in the city at its peak and supplied much of the world's demand for jute. This particular mill, known as Verdant, since it was originally built on green fields, initially produced flax, until the demand for jute became so high, and more profitable. After this film, you enter the cobbled courtyard, and a volunteer comes to collect you to tell you some further information about the history of the mill, why it was built where it was (because of the water supply), and takes you into the clerks office, which has been recreated as it was in the C19th. The clerks were not allowed to sit down to work – they had to have one foot on the floor the whole time, I’m glad things have moved on since then! There was also a conversation between them which we heard, which as well as being ent
ertaining, taught us a bit about their working day. We were then allowed to move through the exhibition about jute ourselves. There was lots of information, and also some interactive exhibits – a computer touchscreen for example, which I spent quite a bit of time on (anything to do with ‘puters and I’m there!) learning about the conditions needed for the manufacture of jute. Further on, there were also some ‘hands-on’ activities for the children, demonstrating the process of rope making for example, and some other games and activities they could try. It was also amazing to learn just how many products jute was used for – as a backing for linoleum for instance. It was then on to the actual working machinery – where the carding, spinning and weaving takes place. There was a worker on hand to answer any queries, and the machines are placed well away from the visitors, so no accidents can take place. It’s quite noisy in there, but good to watch the actual processes for real, rather than just replicas or recreations. My Dad loves industrial history whereas I am less keen, but we both thoroughly enjoyed it here, and the information was at the right level – explaining all the processes in a way which even non-scientific me could understand! What I enjoyed most about the Verdant Works however was the social history exhibition upstairs. There were recreations of the living conditions of the workers, and information and displays showing the food they would have eaten, what they did for entertainment, and further aspects such as the politics of the time (including the impact that the suffragette movement had on the mill workers), religion, and the prohibition campaign. All of this was excellently presented, and rather than being too much information to take in, it was broken down into manageable chunks so that even the younger members of the family could learn something. Comparisons
were constantly made between the extravagant lifestyle of the mill owners, and the much poorer living conditions of the workers, where overcrowding was common. Poor diet and living conditions led to a high rate of infant mortality. Children as young as five years old used to work in the mills, since they were small enough to run in between the moving machinery and pick up all the waste materials on the floor (this was necessary so as to prevent fires). Because the machinery was moving continuously, there were many accidents, and with the working day being so long (sometimes up to 18 hours!), children could fall asleep over their work. However, even with such hard work, which began at an unearthly hour in the morning, many of the children continued to go to school as part-timers, and there was a recreation of a school room in the exhibition. There was also a short film and information about the role reversal which took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Dundee. Boys used to work in the mill, but were laid off when they reached the age of 18, as they then became too expensive to employ. It was the women who went out to work, with the men staying at home to look after the children – and I had always though that a house husband was a fairly recent occurrence! The men felt worthless, and consequently, when the first world war came, they were keen to join up. I found this fascinating – this idea of role reversal was something I had never associated with C19th Dundee! Back downstairs, amongst the machinery, it was possible to hear tales of the mill workers on headphones, these too were very interesting, although I found the Dundee accent quite strong and sometimes a bit tricky to understand! After hearing a few tales, I got more used to it however, and thoroughly enjoyed listening to them – it was the best way of understanding what life was like. The quick spreading of disease in the mills for e
xample was something I hadn’t considered. I also discovered that more women were hauled up in front of the magistrate for being drunk than men – something which surprised me. I think that hearing these personal reminiscences makes the mill come alive a bit more – history is far more interesting when you’re hearing it from a personal perspective, reading someone’s diary or hearing their tale is always much better than reading a dry history book. This attraction has won many awards, and is certainly well worth a look round – you’ll probably need to spend 3 or 4 hours here to see it all fully. Unfortunately however there are rumours that due to financial problems it is to close by the end of the year. I think this would be a great shame, as it really is very interesting for the whole family, and a lot of time and care has clearly gone into both its restoration and into the creation of the exhibitions. If you want to visit then I would advise you to go as soon as possible. Whilst Dundee itself may not be at the top of a tourist agenda, the Verdant Works is a must see – ignore the rest of the town by all means, but do come here!