Mary Brooksbank (nee Soutar) was born in Shiprow, Aberdeen, Scotland on 15th December 1897, in what Mary recalled was “one of the worst slums in the city”. Mary was one of ten children of Sandy and Rosie Soutar. Her father was from St Vigeans, Abroath, near Dundee, and had been an active trade unionist amongst the dock workers, working with James Connolly (Sandy Soutar died in 1953, aged 86), while her mother Rosie Brown was a `fisher lassie’ and domestic servant. It was said that the Soutar family was effectively blacklisted in Dundee because of their trade union activities.
As well as being born into a slum, Mary was born blind but recovered her eye sight at 14 months. Aged 8, she and the family moved by boat from Aberdeen to Dundee; to Pump Close, in the Overgate to be precise. Mary’s mother secured her daughter work just prior to her 14th birthday and the day after the sinking of the Titanic (April 16, 1912), as a shifter of bobbins at the Baltic Jute Mill, working 12 hour shifts, 6am to 6pm, for 7s/6d a week. She, therefore, witnessed the plight of the Dundee Jute workers first hand.
The life of the Dundee jute worker at the turn of the century was very hard, with long hours and dangerous working conditions. At Lochee, Cox’s jute mill employed 5,000 on 1,000 looms. Irish immigrant workers who sought work in the mill, lived in a close environment, squeezed into tenements managed by the mill owners. Unsurprisingly infant and maternal deaths were the highest in the country. Dundee was known as a women’s town as so many women were employed in the jute factories in preference to men, primarily it was said because of their aptitude but undoubtedly mainly because women’s wages were less. Any young men employed were laid off on reaching their 18th birthdays to prevent them earning higher wages.
Despite her diminutive stature and alleged deafness, Mary’s experience in the jute factories gave her a lifelong drive to improve the working conditions of her community, and she did this through her Communist convictions, her poetry and songs. She was an active spokesperson for the working class in general and the jute mill workers in particular.
Mary seems to have become a socialist during World War One and was arrested on several occasions (presumably for anti-war activities) and eventually sentenced for breach of the peace on Armistice Day to Perth jail in 1919 After her release, she founded the Working Women Guild to fight for better health and social services in Dundee, securing a membership of over 300. She also became active in the Women’s Railway Guild (the women’s section of the main railway workers union).
In early 1923 Cox’s Jute Mill, not only the largest but also one of the most profitable jute factories in Dundee, saw the introduction of new spinning frames requiring less staff (two instead of three). The factory was owned by Mr J. Ernest Cox, who was also a leader of the employers’ organisation, the Associated Companies of Jute Industries. A campaign against the introduction of the new machines was lead by the militant Dundee Jute & Flax Workers Union. This was established in 1906 by workers dissatisfied with the male-dominated main textile workers union; in the new union, half of the Executive Committee had to be women. The response to the union’s campaign from the employers was swift and within days 30,000 Dundee jute workers were locked out and reliant on parish relief.
The plight of the jute workers, coupled with the unemployed, lead to a 50,000 strong demonstration in Albert Square, Dundee. It was what Bob Stewart called the “largest and noisiest and possibly the most successful” demonstration ever seen in Dundee. A ten-strong delegation was elected to meet the Parish Council to discuss unemployment relief. Those elected included, Baillie Tom Stewart, Councillor John Ogilvie, Alf Maloney (AEU), McGuire and Bob Stewart. The 1923 Dundee Jute workers lock out lasted eight weeks, when, finally, the Minister of Labour, Montagu Barlow, intervened and set up an inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir David Shackleton. While the inquiry inevitably backed the owners, it did increase pay in the industry.
Mary moved to Glasgow to try her hand as a domestic servant in the West End and it was while living in the city that she meet and married Ernest Brooksbank, a skilled tailor. They married on 3rd October 1924 and moved back to Dundee. With Sandy’s tailoring skills they lived comparatively comfortably for a working class couple in Dundee. (Ernest would later die relatively young on 12th October 1943, aged 52.)
Ever active, in 1927 Mary was imprisoned again for heckling. In late 1931, a welcome home march of several hundred for Bob Stewart led to six, including Bob, being arrested, The working class of Dundee, incensed by his treatment, fought back for over a week, culminating on the 25th September 1931 with a huge demonstration being brutally baton charged by the police on horse back. Mary gave evidence in court on the `riot’ and was asked as she did so, by Sheriff Malcolm, to sit along side him because he had heard she suffered from deafness. Typically, she is alleged by Frank McCusker to have replied: “That’ll be the last thing on earth I would do, sit wi’ you.”
Along with the large band of dedicated Communists in Dundee, Mary was heavily involved, in October 1934, with the National Unemployed Workers Movement county march to Forfar, to lobby the County Council; contingents were raised from Dundee, Blairgowrie, Montrose, Ferryden, Arbroath. The period was full of such liveliness, locally. At a Dundee NUWM demonstration in February 1935, five men and one woman were arrested, (Bob?) Stewart, McCaffrey, Edward Mathers, George Stalker (NUWM organiser, NE Scotland) and his wife Mrs Stalker. Whilst in March 1935, a 25,000 strong demonstration from Dundee waved off a Hunger March which had marched from Aberdeen, Fraserburgh, Peterhead on route to Glasgow under the slogan `down with the slave act’.
As well as Mary, other key Communists involved in the campaign against unemployment in Dundee included Frank McCusker (later an International Brigadier), Johnny Rourke, James Littlejohn (leader of the Dundee NUWM contingent) Jimmy Weir, Jimmy Hodgson, Duncan Butchart and Tom Clarke; the latter, like Mary, worked in the jute mills.
Mary made up `wee rhymes’, as she called them, from her earliest days at work and secured a reputation for creating songs and poetry about the plight of her class and her City, the most famous being the Jute Mill Song, probably written around 1920:
Oh, dear me, the mill is running fast
And we, poor shifters, canna get no rest.
Shifting bobbins, coarse and fine,
They fairly make you work for your ten and nine.
Oh, dear me, I wish the day were done;
Runnin’ up and down the pass is no fun,
Shiftin’, piecin’, spinnin’, warp, weft and twine,
To feed and clothe my babies off of ten and nine.
Oh, dear me, the world is ill-divided;
Them that works the hardest are the least provided.
But I must bide contented, dark days or fine;
There’s no’ much pleasure livin’ off o’ ten and nine
Mary Brooksbank was recorded in an interview with Hamish Henderson in 1968; she stated: “And then inside work, they used to sing the Jute Mill song you know and when I grew up I put the words, the verses to it that wis – Oh, dear me – they used to go aroond ‘the mill’s gaen fest, the puir wee shifters canna get a rest.”
Hamish Henderson: And how much of that was what they were singing in the mill and how much did you add to it?
Mary Brooksbank: Only the ditty, ‘Oh dear me, the mill’s gaen fest, the puir wee shifters�’. The verses are all mine. And that verse, ‘to feed and cled my bairnie’ was brought to me by a lassie who was worried. It wis hard lines if she hid an illegitimate child and you had to pay for it aff that meagre wage, you know what I mean? And she used to say, `oh, I wish the day was done. And eh, tell me her troubles, her trackles, what she hid tae dae for her bairn and that; nae help that sort o’ thing, and that brought that tae mind. And then I used to think on my own aboot how ill divided the world wis. My mother put me into service for a period; tried to make me genteel you know. She gave me a lovely outfit but it did’na suit me; it was the worst thing she could have did because I saw right away the contrast between their homes and ours, you know, thon’s o’ the gentry and ours.”
`Ten and nine’ (ten shillings and nine pence) referred to what the jute workers earned; interestingly it was this song that Norman Buchan Labour MP credited with turning him into a socialist. In the 1950s, Ewan MacColl had visited Dundee and had commented on the seeming lack of Dundee songs. Mary approached MacColl and soon after she was appearing regularly in folk clubs and even on TV, where she performed her own song, The Jute Mill Song, or Oh dear me as it was also known. Later a collection of her poems entitled Sidlaw Breezes (the Sidlaw Hills are near Dundee) was printed.
Mary’s later interest in Scottish nationalism lead her into conflict with the Communist Party, as did the manner of her condemnation of the excesses of Stalin, which lead to her expulsion from the Party.
A fragmented autobiography was started by Mary called No sae Lang Syne – a tale of this City (1971). Mary Brooksbank died 16th March 1978 (not 1980 as sometimes stated elsewhere) aged 82, and after her death a library was named after her. When the library was closed, a new premises, the Brooksbank Centre was named after her. Mary also had a song dedicated to her The Bawbee birlin, written by Michael Marra and Rod Paterson.
Mary Brooksbank has become the first woman (and the first Communist) to be quoted on walls of Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament. A quote from a verse in `Oh Dear Me (The Jute Mill Song)’ has been transcribed on to its walls:
“Oh dear me, the world’s ill-divided
Them that work the hardest, are wi the least provided
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
But there’s no much pleasure livin affen ten & nine”
Sources: Interview with Mary Brooksbank by Hamish Henderson: SA 1968.317, Mary Brooksbank, A4, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh; The Sunday Herald November 15th 2009
Further reading: thesis on Mary Brooksbank by Siobhan Tollard, “Bonny Fechters”; also, “Women in Scotland, 1900 – 1950” by Sheila Livingstone; Dundee Courier – Obituary 17th March 1978. Thanks to Tim on Mudcat web site and Mike Arnott of Dundee Trades Union Council.
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