Love in the Jute Factory

Sarah Jane McHugh was the only member of her family who stayed behind in Scotland. I believe she must have stayed to be with her sweetheart, Thomas Adams.

In 1911, Sarah’s sister, Mary McHugh, was ready for adventure. She decided to leave Dundee, Scotland and set out for Canada on her own to work as a domestic. Mary arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1911.1 She must have liked her new home because her widowed mother, Sarah McLaughlin, and her three brothers, Thomas, Edward, and Francis, followed in May 1912.2 Thomas’ wife, Elsie Orrock and their seven children, Annie, Elsie, Sarah, Thomas, Francis, Mary and Adam also came later that year.3

But Sarah? Sarah, a young woman of 24, stayed behind in Dundee. The McHughs had been workers in the jute factories of Dundee for three generations. When the McHughs left for Canada, leaving behind Sarah, the jute mills were the biggest employer in the city. Almost half the city worked in the jute industry. 4 But the working conditions were difficult. The wages were lower for women and children than for men. The constant noise from the machines was deafening and the dust damaged the lungs. Wages in Dundee were the lowest in the country and Dundee had the highest cost of living, possibly due to the pressure on housing, caused by overcrowding. Mill workers had a bleak future ahead of them.5 Only a compelling reason could make Sarah stay and that reason must have been Thomas.

OpenLearn, Open University, Photo courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services 6

Sarah and Thomas probably met at mill where they worked. As they lived close to each other, they would have worked at the same mill.7 Both Sarah and Thomas would have started working in the mills as soon as they finished school, at age 13. Although it was not uncommon for younger children to work alongside their mothers. Children under nine worked as pickers, cleaning the dust from beneath the machines.8

But Sarah and Thomas did not work in the mills all their lives. By the time they were in their mid twenties and Sarah’s family had left to settle in Canada, Thomas and Sarah had also moved away from Dundee to Glasgow. Glasgow is about 130 km from Dundee, so this would have been quite a move. It is probable that Thomas went first as his parents and siblings also moved to Glasgow. 9

From left to right, Thomas Adams, Sarah Jane McHugh, Ronald Maddocks (cousin)

  1. Ancestry, Canada, Arriving Passenger Lists, 1865-1935, Library and Archives Canada, Mary Ann McHugh, The Grampion, July 1911.
  2. Ancestry, Canada, Arriving Passenger Lists, 1865-1935, Library and Archives Canada, Thomas McHugh, The Grampion, May 21, 1912.
  3. Ancestry, Canada, Arriving Passenger Lists, 1865-1935, Library and Archives Canada, Elsie McHugh, The Grampion, October 1912.
  4. Dundee and the Jute Industry, Natural Bag Co. website, https://naturalbagcompany.co.uk/jute-news/dundee-and-the-jute-industry/, accessed February 23, 2021.
  5. Dundee History Archive, Workers of the mills, September 16, 2014, https://www.ddtours.co.uk/archive/workers-of-the-mills/#:~:text=Constant%20noise%20from%20the%20machines,breathing%20problems%20were%20also%20common, accessed February 23, 2021.
  6. OpenLearn, Dundee, jute, and empire, https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/dundee-jute-and-empire/content-section-5.2, accessed March 3, 2021.
  7. Scotland’s Places, Ordnance Survey Name Books, Watsons Lane, https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/digital-volumes/ordnance-survey-name-books/forfarshire-angus-os-name-books-1857-1861/forfar-angus-volume-34/20, accessed February 23, 2021, and Taits Lane, https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/digital-volumes/ordnance-survey-name-books/forfarshire-angus-os-name-books-1857-1861/forfar-angus-volume-33/8, accessed February 23, 2021.
  8. Verdant Works web site, Dundee Industrial Heritage Ltd., Working in the Mills,https://www.verdantworks.co.uk/exploration-article/working-in-the-mills/, accessed March 3, 2021.
  9. Scotland’s People, Death registers, Thomas Adam (father of Thomas), accessed February 23, 2021.
  10. Scotland’s People, Marriage registers, Sarah McHugh and Thomas Adam, January 1, 1915. Thomas is a railway engine driver and both Sarah and Thomas are living with Thomas’ widowed mother in the Possilpark District of Glasgow City, accessed August 21, 2019.
  11. Family Search, History of the Railways, https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Occupations_Railway_Employees_(National_Institute), accessed February 23, 2021.
  12. Scotland’s People, Statutory Births, Sarah Jane McHugh, accessed August 20, 2019.
  13. Scotland’s People, Statutory Deaths, Adams, Thomas, accessed February 2, 2021.

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