Category Archives: Dundee

Great Uncle James Went to Reform School

James Orrock, my two-times great-grandfather, was a farm labourer in Scotland in the mid 1800s. Agricultural labourers did not work all their lives on one farm. It was common for farm servants, both men and women, to attend farm hiring fairs. They would then hire themselves out to the highest bidder.1

Hiring Fair

According to the 1851 census, James worked on a farm in the village of Marykirk, Kincardineshire.2 His wife-to-be, also a farm servant, worked on a different farm located in the same village. They married two years later. By then they had moved to Kirken, in County Angus.3 Mary and James went on to have seven children and it is no surprise that their children were born in different villages, as James would have moved from job to job, always as a farm servant. The various censuses indicate that James worked as a ploughman, farm servant, or agricultural labourer. His family followed him as he moved for work. In 1863, their daughter, Martha Linn died of small pox at the age of three.4 Two years later tragedy struck again when James died at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.5

When Mary became a widow, her situation would have been precarious. James had been sick for a long time and had been unable to work. Mary had to find a way to provide for her children. Farm servants were usually lodged at the farm where they worked. Families often had small dwellings, with a small yard, where they could have a garden and a henhouse.  With the death of James, Mary would have also lost her home. It is no surprise that she moved to Arbroath, perhaps in the hope of working in the jute and sailcloth mills. At the time of James’ death, demand for jute was high due to the American Civil War6 and work was available in the mills. Mary would soon learn that, while Arbroath provided employment, it also provided additional worries about her son, James.

The 1871 census shows Mary living with four of her six remaining children in Arbroath.7 Her eldest son, Alexander, 17, worked as a farm servant in a village about 10 km away, in Kirkden.8 Ann and Jemima, 16 and 14, would have been working. David and Jane were in school. But where was James, only 12 at the time?

I found James in the 1871 census listed as an inmate at the Mars Training Ship for Homeless and Destitute Boys, about 35 km away from his family.9 This ship was moored on the river Tay at Woodhaven Harbour, Wormit, Fife from 1869 to 1929.10

The HMS Mars was built in 1848 and saw military service in the Crimean War. Deemed surplus in 1869, it became a training ship with space for 400 boys with the objective to take destitute and homeless boys off the streets of Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow and train them for service in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Marine at their discharge at age 16.11 

The Mars Training Ship was an initiative put forth by Lord Provost William Hay and members of the elite. Truancy and vagrancy were rife in the cities of Scotland, due to overcrowding, unemployment, and poverty. The inmates of the Mars were often picked up for truancy or for begging and were sent to the training ship for five years by magistrates. The boys were poor, orphans, beggars, or homeless or sometimes they had just fallen in with the wrong crowd.12

Mars Training Ship Institution 13

The move from farm life to a bigger urban centre would have been difficult for James. He was 12 when he shows up as an inmate in the Mars Training Ship and he was probably sent there at the age of 10 or 11. There is no way to know why he ended up there. We know that his family was poor. It is probable that he wandered the streets while his mother and two sisters worked long hours in the jute mills. He may have been a difficult child as he suffered from mental illness later on in life.14

The Mars Training School was an industrial school, as opposed to a reform school. The boys did not have a criminal record; however, in some ways they were prisoners. All of the boys were very poor and many of them were homeless. For those who did have homes, they were deliberately given very little opportunity to maintain connections with family and friends.15

Upon arrival on the ship, a medical officer examined the boys once they were stripped. The children then washed, put on their uniforms, and were assigned a number. From then on, they were only referred to by their number. Even the boys called each other by their numbers.16

The day on the Mars ship would begin early, at 5:30 a.m. The boys scrubbed the deck, had breakfast, and then said their prayers. In the morning they learned English, arithmetic, geography, and music. The afternoons were dedicated to practical skills such as shoe repairing, clothing and sail-making, woodworking, metalworking, tailoring and seamanship. The boys were attended by doctors and dentists and were well fed. There was less disease onboard than in the crowded and unsanitary cities of Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. To further reduce the chance of disease, the boys would make an annual trip to Elie, a coastal town, allowing a skeleton crew to fumigate and clean the ship. 17

James would have been discharged from the ship when he was 16. Records of his later life did, indeed, indicate that he worked as a seaman.18

  1., accessed 15 March 2023. Picture of the engraving of a hiring fair courtesy of History Scotland website.
  2. National Records of Scotland, 1851 census, Parish of Marykirk, County of Kincardineshire, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 27 March 2023.
  3. National Records of Scotland, Old Parish Registers, Church of Scotland marriages, Kirken, James Orrock and Mary Watson, Scotland’s People, downloaded 27 March 2018.
  4. National Records of Scotland, 1863 Deaths, Parish of Dunnichen, County of Forfar, Martha Linn Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 8 March 2023.
  5. National Records of Scotland, 1865 Deaths, Parish of Dunnichen, County of Forfar, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 9 April 2018.
  6. The Textile Industry of Arbroath since the Early 18th Century, Turner, W.H.K., The Abertay Historical Society, 1941, p.15
  7. National Records of Scotland, 1871 census, St. Vigeans, Arbroath, Mary Orrock (Watson), Scotland’s People, downloaded 16 March 2023.
  8. National Records of Scotland, 1871 census, Kirkden, Angus, Alexander Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 23 March 2023.
  9. National Records of Scotland, 1871 census, Woodhaven, Forgan, Fife, 1871 census, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 15 March 2023.
  10. Wikipedia, HMS Mars,,July%201848%20at%20Chatham%20Dockyard.&text=She%20served%20as%20a%20supply,the%20River%20Tay%2C%20off%20Woodhaven, accessed 19 April 2023.
  11. The Mars Training Ship and Elie, Gordon Douglas, 13 January 2017,, accessed 23 March 2023.
  12. Maritime Trail Dundee, Mars Training Ship,, accessed 23 March 2023.
  13. The Herald Scotland, From Mars to Dundee: The prison ship that shaped generations, Ron McKay,, accessed 24 March 2023.
  14. General Registers of Admissions in Lunatic Asylums, 1888, James Orrock, downloaded 22 March 2023.
  15. Whyte, Christine, HMS Mars: An industrial school in the late 19th century, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, Volume 20.2,, accessed 11 April 2023.
  16. Ibid
  17. The Mars Training Ship and Elie, Gordon Douglas, 13 January 2017,, accessed 24 March 2023
  18. National Records of Scotland, 1930 Deaths, Parish of Liff and Benvie, County of Angus, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 8 March 2023.

19th Century Tenements in Dundee

The McHugh brothers were just in their early twenties when they left County Sligo, Ireland to try their luck in Dundee, Scotland.1 When John and Edward McHugh arrived in Dundee, they had lodgings on Scourin Burn. Edward was a tinsmith and John, my 2X great-grandfather, was a sailcloth weaver. 2 A burn is a watercourse and the name Scourin Burn, or ‘cleansing burn’ probably referred to the process of scouring (textile term for cleaning the yarn) the yarn before dyeing as the nearby jute factories used the burn for this purpose. Scourin Burn no longer exists in modern Dundee and is now called Brook Street.3

Malcolm’s Pend, from the Scouringburn, Dundee, Photograph James Valentine (1815-1879), created 1877, Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery, no copyright infringement intended

The McHugh brothers were part of a wave of Irish immigrants to Dundee, a city with a thriving jute industry, which had earned the nickname “Juteopolis.” By 1850 there were 47 spinning mills and eight power-loom factories employing some 11,000 people, as well as 4,000 handlooms. Linen goods, especially canvas, were exported to the Mediterranean, Australia, America, and the West Indies.4 Jute was a versatile fabric and used for everything, including the ropes made by the British Navy, sacking, tents, gun covers, sand bags, and horse blankets.5

Work in the mills was grim with the workday lasting twelve hours, from 6:00 a.m. to 6 p.m., with additional shifts on Saturday. It was not unusual for workers to bring sacks home to sew at night. 6 Three quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed at cheaper rates than the men. Injuries and accidents were commonplace. Dust would be everywhere and the machinery produced heat, grease and oil fumes, leading to a condition that was known as “mill fever.” The constant noise of the machinery led to many workers going deaf. 7 The booming jute industry provided plenty of work, but there was a shortage of housing due to the large influx immigrants.  Wages remained low. Overcrowding meant that many migrants boarded with other families in cramped rooms.8

John settled in Dundee and married Mary Garrick, also from Ireland, in 1845. They both worked in the jute factories. It is no surprise that John and Mary raised their family close to the jute mills. In 1861 they still lived very close to Scourin Burn, in Henderson’s Wynd.9

West Henderson’s Wynd, looking towards the Scouringburn [Dundee]. 1877, James Valentine Photographic Collection, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: VGA-122-40a

John and his family lived in tenement housing all their lives. Tenement housing was hastily built to accommodate the rapid growth of the city due to the influx of workers. The construction quality was poor and the living spaces were small. It was not uncommon for families to share flats. As it was not profitable for landlords to build brand new affordable housing for the workers, pre-existing tenements were subdivided into smaller rooms, making living space even more crowded.10

In 1861 with 91,664 inhabitants Dundee had only five WCs, and three of them were in hotels. All water in the city was drawn from wells of which the chief, the Lady Well, was heavily polluted by the slaughterhouse. Of the total housing stock of Scotland 1% had no windows, which meant that 8,000 families were without access to natural light. “11

Tour Scotland website, no copyright infringement intended

In the photograph of the tenement above, people are gathered on the outside staircase and the platforms or “platties.” Outside staircases were a way of saving space inside the building. In the photo, you can see how tiny each of the flats are.

In the 1800s, several cholera epidemics swept Dundee. Poor sanitary conditions were a direct cause of these epidemics. Dundee was a crowded and smelly city and, as in the above photograph, toilets were outside the flats and shared by many families living in the same tenement block. There were very few public facilities available for bathing. Disease was everywhere and it was believed that foul smells carried the disease. Inadequate sewerage and drainage facilities, and poor water supplies contributed to the increasing unsanitary conditions in Dundee and with its rapidly growing population.12

By the early 20th century, housing in Dundee continued to be problematic. Even though houses without windows had disappeared by 1881, overcrowding continued to be a problem. The 1911 census reveals that 72% of Dundonians lived in crowded conditions, in a one or two roomed home. Only 32% of the population of London lived in a one or two roomed home.13  In 1911, my grandparents had seven children and were living in a two roomed flat in Dundee.

My McHugh ancestors lived in Dundee about 72 years, from around 1840 to 1912. During their time in Dundee, every member of the family worked in the jute factories. In 1912, they emigrated to Canada and found jobs in other industries.

  1. Death of brother Thomas McHugh in Sligo, Ireland, 1871. Deduced from Ancestry public member tree. To date, this cannot be confirmed.
  2. 1841 Census, Scotland, Scotland’s People, entry for John McHugh, National Records of Scotland, referenced January 2, 2021.
  3. Leisure and Culture Dundee, Streetwise: Scourin Burn, Dundee Names, People and Places’ – David Dorward,, referenced March 24, 2022.
  4. National Library of Scotland, Ordnance Survey Town Plans 1847-1895, Dundee, Background,, referenced March 27, 2022.
  5. Dundee Heritage Trust, Genealogy Guide,, referenced March 24, 2022.
  6. Whelehan, Niall, History Workshop, Migrant Textile Workers and Irish Activism in Victorian Dundee, April 9, 2021,, referenced March 24, 2022..
  7. DD Tours, Workers of the Mills, September 16, 2014,, referenced March 24, 2022
  8. Whelehan, Niall, History Workshop, Migrant Textile Workers and Irish Activism in Victorian Dundee, April 9, 2021,, referenced March 24, 2022.
  9. Statutory death registers, Scotland’s People, entry for Mary McHugh, National Records of Scotland, referenced March 24, 2022.
  10. Kolesnik, Seva, Dundee – Scotland’s Lost Industrial Empire, May 14, 2021,, referenced March 24, 2022.
  11. Knox, W.W., A History of the Scottish People. Urban Housing in Scotland 1840-1940, SCRAN,, referenced March 27, 2022
  12. Leisure and Culture Dundee, Cholera in the 19th Century,, referenced March 27, 2022.
  13. Knox, W.W., A History of the Scottish People. Urban Housing in Scotland 1840-1940, SCRAN,, referenced March 27, 2022