It was once the city’s biggest industry.
But a new book has revealed how competition from thousands of miles away may have contributed to the eventual downfall of Dundee’s jute mills.
The city’s jute industry connections with Calcutta at the end of the 19th century gave it one of the most diverse, but fragile, economies of the time.
And the issues that faced the city during that period are discussed in Professor Jim Tomlinson’s book Dundee and the Empire: ‘Juteopolis’ 1850-1939.
Prof Tomlinson, formerly of the University of Dundee, is now based at the University of Glasgow, but still lives in the city.
He said: “The book is all about Dundee and the British Empire. It focuses on the problems Dundee faced in dealing with new competition from around the world.
“Globalisation isn’t always necessarily a good thing. It shows a lot of connection with the rest of the world, but it’s also a very fragile thing because it relies so heavily on elsewhere.
“From the middle of the 19th century, Dundee was successful in building up its own jute industry, but it was also making an industry in Calcutta.”
Dundee’s links with Calcutta were first formed by Scottish businesses exporting raw jute material from the Indian city, but as the industry prospered at home, more people went to India to set up mills there.
By the turn of the 20th century, that new industry had overtaken Dundee’s, and the two cities went into direct competition.
The Dundee industry survived well into the 1960s, although on a much lesser scale than it had once been, with modern production focussing on materials other than jute, which became almost entirely dominated by India.
At its height, just before the Calcutta jute mills really took off, the Dundee factories employed 50,000 people. However, with cheap labour in India, unemployment here was inevitable, and there was a 62% reduction in the number of women employed by the factories in just a matter of years.
“Dundee was so fragile because of Calcutta,” said Prof Tomlinson.
“To a degree, if India had already been an independent country, then there would have been more scope to deal with the issues that came from its mass jute production, which swamped Dundee’s industry.
“I wouldn’t say that this competition was what caused the demise of Dundee’s jute industry, but it’s certainly an interesting addition.”
Prof Tomlinson’s book looks at all the issues facing Dundee’s industry up until the start of the second world war, and caps a series of articles and contributions he has made about the jute industry in recent years.
He began his research several years ago, and described the city as the perfect place to research globalisation.
He said: “There are such good archives in the city. Dundee is a fantastic case study of early economies like this, and it has the added twist of the Empire.”
Prof Tomlinson’s book will be launched at a lecture he will give in the D’Arcy Thompson Lecture Theatre at the University of Dundee tomorrow at 6pm. Copies of the book will be on sale at the event with a 50% discount.