The Jute works, like the Tay Works with its very elaborate pediments and Cox Brothers' Camperdown Works, were not designed by architects, but by engineers. Cox's stack was a notable symbol and, at its height, the works covered 35 acres with its own railway and stables and even an engineering shop to produce the company's own machines. 5000 people were employed in processing raw jute to finished product.
In Dundee, three distinct areas gave access to the necessary water supply for steam engines: Blackness, drawing upon the now culverted Scouring Burn; Lochee; and along the Dens Burn. Some mills in these areas had been relocated from earlier sites outside the town along the Dighty. Mills had been built in Blackness from 1793 and, as time went on, an incredibly dense collection of mills, factories, foundries, steam forges and card works became established there. Baxter Brothers' Dens Works, on the Dens Burn, was the world's largest linen works from about 1840. For many years the chief output was sailcloth for the Admiralty. The sailcloth they made for the RRS Discovery stood up to the demanding conditions in the Antarctic.'Baxters remained faithful to flax as their standard material when the majority of local manufacturers were changing to jute.
By the beginning of the 18th century Dundee was already Tayside's pre-eminent port, primarily because of the town's location but also because of the development of better inland communication with the hinterland, including the towns in Forfarshire. Growth of the textile industry created the need for improved the harbour facilities in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this period flax was being imported mainly from ports in Russia and around the Baltic. Locally-made finished cloth was exported from Dundee to London and elsewhere. Developments at the docks included the building of warehouses which helped to cope with the seasonal nature of jute imports. A great deal of money could be made by speculating in the raw product: buying when the price was low and storing the crop in the hope of a profit as the raw material price rose. Jute barons, particularly the Gilroys and the Coxes, could afford to construct warehouse space and add to the fortunes made from the sweat of their workers by buying and selling at the right time.
By 1912 the harbour area occupied something like 119 acres with three and a half miles of quayside. In the late 1830s only some 1136 tons of jute came to the city in a year, but by 1900 that figure had risen to 300 000 tons. One million bales of jute arrived in the city in 1883, so a colossal amount of shipping was using the port.
The jute industry also stimulated local Dundee shipbuilding. By 1870 nearly a mile of shoreline was completely taken up by this trade. The associated skills made available were utilised by the jute industry. The very first ship to bring jute directly to Dundee arrived in 1840. Earlier deliveries had arrived in London, where the jute was trans-shipped to coasters to complete the journey. One wonders why the Dundee textile manufacturers did not seek to control jute transportation from an early date. William Cox and others only started to build their own ships about 1874.
The Locheil made the famous record breaking trip from Calcutta to Dundee in 1882, shaving twenty days off the journey time. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the clipper was really fading out as steam ships took over.
The discovery that jute fibres could, be softened in a mixture of whale oil and water came at just the right time for the Dundee whaling industry, which had been in serious decline since the introduction of gas lighting, about 1830, reduced the need for whale oil for street lighting. The jute industry created a new demand for whale oil, requiring some 2000 tons by 1857. A new fleet of whaling ships was built and the industry reversed its decline. The increase was sustained until the First World War when mineral oil was introduced as an alternative to whale oil in jute manufacture.
Expansion of the textile and related industries led to a huge influx of people into the city. The population, which had been about 45000 in 1841, rose four-fold to around 165 000 by 1901 and Dundee was Scotland's third largest city. The incomers came from across Scotland, including many from the Highlands, from countries such as Lithuania on mainland Europe, and, in the largest numbers, from Ireland. Many of the Irish immigrants settled in Lochee. The massive influx of people was not matched by a boom in building to provide them with housing. Many were swallowed up in existing properties to create terrible problems of overcrowding: whole families commonly lived in a single room. Such conditions prevailed well into the twentieth century, with 70% of people still living in one or two rooms in 1911. Improvements took a long time to come to areas such as Blackness where vast numbers of people followed the common practice of living close to their workplaces.
Overcrowding led inevitably to poor sanitary conditions. Diseases such as cholera, typhus and smallpox were rife and contributed to Dundee having one of the highest death rates in Scotland and the highest infant mortality rate. Evidence of the very poor general state of health of the population was provided in 1904 when 50% of the men who volunteered at the local army recruiting office were rejected as being unfit for military service.
An observer, who came to the city in 1853, found 'spectacles so disgusting that one could scarcely conceive their existence possible in a civilised country'. Certainly, contemporary accounts might suggest that Glasgow and Dundee were in competition to create the worst living conditions for their citizens.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, some 50 000 people, half the working population of the city, were employed directly in the jute industry and more were involved in subsidiary industries. Women jute workers outnumbered men by three to one and the city developed the reputation of being a women's town, where the women were strong and would speak their minds. This role reversal was not engendered through choice but though the payment of lower wages to the women. Boys who had begun work in the mills were commonly paid off when they reached the age of 18, when, by law, they would have had to be paid an adult wage.
Wages in Dundee were possibly the lowest in Scotland, although the cost of living was highest. Families needed the money that children could earn for their very survival and so very many youngsters worked in the mills. The Dundee School Board was notorious for providing more 'exceptions' than any other city, allowing children to work at an early age. Other children borrowed" certificates from older siblings to get to work at an earlier age than was allowed. They then laboured for long hours in poor working conditions with little consideration for safety standards. In these dangerous conditions, accidents were common.
Dundee has often, quite rightly, been called a one-industry city: a city dominated by and reliant upon jute. Other undertakings, such as shipbuilding, whaling and textile engineering, depended heavily on the jute industry.
From the very beginning, the industry had always been characterised by periods of boom and slump. Demand for jute products was greatest in times of war, when packing and sandbags were required in large quantities. Wages might be raised in wartime but workers faced a reduction in income with the return of peace, if they stayed in a job. The inter-war years of the twentieth century, therefore, saw a difficult period for employment in the industry, which faced increasing competition - particularly from Calcutta. Trade declined further after the Second World War and, although it continued to be the largest employer in the city until the early 1950s, the jute industry has now completely dissapeared from Dundee.