Our Patons Mill picture prompts eyewitness account

A PHOTOGRAPH in the Montrose Review revived memories of my days working in the stourie mill.

The mill was Patons Mill, a large building with the front facing the midlinks.

It stretched the length of Patons Lane on one side and Traill Drive on the other. It had massive front gates which were opened to allow the workers in and out at the beginning and end of their working day, and a smaller one inset for those seeking access during working hours.

I was 15 when I started work in Patons Mill. I’d worked for a short time in an office for the princely sum of £1.10s a week, so I was one of the elite.

At that time the mill workers were looked down on, they were an underclass, and no girl wanted to admit she worked there. However, when I heard that the mill wages were £4.9s.8d a week, three times more than I was earning as an office worker, I swallowed my pride and applied for a job.

I put my best coat on for the interview and I wore a hat, a little black hat with a red feather stretched out across the crown. I was interviewed in the gatekeeper’s room which was just inside the mill gates, and I got the job. I was to start in a week’s time as a trainee spinner.

At that time I lived in Patons Lane, in a house opposite the big mill lum. The workers were summoned to work by the mill bummer and they had to be in the gates which closed when the bummer stopped.

I was expert at running up Patons Lane when the bummer started and nipping through the massive doors as it ended. If you didn’t make it your wages were quartered, that is, you lost a quarter hour’s pay.

Inside the big gates was an open courtyard. The gatekeeper’s room, which was part of the front of the building, was on the left and the offices were situated there as well. The millworkers and the office staff didn’t really associate with each other.

Leading off the courtyard were three buildings.

The ones on the right and left formed part of the main mill building and the other one ran down the centre of the mill, with a road at each side of it.

I was only really familiar with the buildings that ran down the right hand side of the mill. This was where the hackling rooms were and where the roves were made. Further down was the high speed spinning room which was where I worked.

The spinning room was wide and extremely long. Down the centre were pillars to support the roof. At the left hand side of the entry door was the gaffer’s desk.

The gaffer was Davie Paton, a nice guy but quite strict. It was his job to ensure that the spinning frames operated at their maximum. Beyond him were the winders’ frames, and across from him down the length of the room were rows of spinning machines. Each machine stretched from the pillars to the wall where the windows were. Not that you were allowed to open the windows because that would be detrimental to the spinning process.

I don’t know how many spinning frames were in the room, just that there were lots of them. They were long iron frames which spun string from jute-filled roves. The loosely wound jute was passed down from the roves through rollers which twisted it into thread or string and from there down to the bobbins through a spinning metal cap. There were two rows of bobbins, each row holding over a hundred (I think). One row would be in the machine waiting to be filled, the other row would sit slightly forward, and it was the bobbin boy’s job to remove the full bobbins and replace them with empty ones.

The bobbins were circled by two iron legs with eyes for threading the jute through, and these spun at high speed when the frames were switched on. The rack of bobbins would go up and down while the iron legs spun round them distributing the string evenly on the bobbin.

When the bobbins were full the spinning frame was stopped, the full bobbins were brought to the front and the empty ones took their place. This was done by a manually operated mechanical process at the end of the frame, that is, it was part of the spinner’s job. It was the gaffer’s job to ensure this was done as quickly as possible.

If a jute thread broke as it was being spun onto the bobbin, it was the spinner’s job to repair it and set it spinning again. But you didn’t stop the machine, you did it while the frame was still spinning thread onto all the other bobbins.

To rethread a bobbin you had to stop the metal legs spinning round it, so in order to do this, you grabbed the metal cap firmly, any hesitation would result in a friction burn on your hand, then you poked a thin metal hook down the hole in the cap to pull the thread up and merge it with the jute flowing down from the rove. This was a dangerous operation, because if you lost your grip on the cap while your fingers were still between the metal legs, you could lose them. I still shudder when I think about it.

I made many friends when I worked in the mill and seeing them in the Montrose Memories photograph brought it all back. One notable absence from the photo however, was Auld Aggie, who was reputed to be in her 90s and still working as a spinner.

Things have moved on since then. Patons Mill is no more, and I wonder what has happened to all my millworker friends.

• Chris Longmuir is an award winning writer. She won the Dundee International Book Prize with her novel ‘Dead Wood’, in 2009. She is now publishing ebooks.

Her website is http://www.chrislongmuir.co.uk