Oh Dear Me (The Jute Mill Song)

by Mary Brooksbank (1897 –1980)
except for the first 3 lines of the chorus, which were already sung in the mills

Oh, dear me, the mill’s gaen fast,
The puir wee shifters canna get a rest,
Shiftin bobbins coorse and fine,
They fairly mak ye work for your ten and nine

Oh dear me, I wish the day was done
Rinnin up an doon the pass is nae fun
Shiftin, piecing, spinnin, warp weft an twine
Tae feed an cled my bairnie affen ten an nine

Oh dear me, the warld's ill-divided
Them that work the hardest are aye wi least provided
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
There’s nae much pleasure living affen ten and nine

Affen: Off of
Bobbins: spools holding thread
Cled: clothe
Pass: passage between frames or machines in a factory
Piecers: mill workers -children who had to join the ends of broken threads
Shifters: mill workers – often children who had to move in amongst machinery to change the bobbins on the frame
Twine: twist (into a thicker fibre)
Warp: threads on a loom through which the crossthreads are passed
Weft: the crossthreads of a web of material, the woof

Mary Brooksbank in Chapbook Vol 3 no.4 said about this song:
“The original of that went like this:
Oh, dear me, the mill’s gaen fast,
The puir wee shifters canna get a rest,
Shiftin’ bobbins coorse and fine,
Wha the hell wad work for ten and nine.’
“That was a’ there was of it, just one verse. I first heard it in 1912 … they used tae sing it in the street and up and down the Passes between the frames in the mills.”
Mary can be heard singing this song and talking to Hamish Henderson about life in the mills on the website http://www.tobarandulchais.com/

Gatherer in Songs and Ballads of Dundee says that the Brooksbanks were a singing family, and that it was “while Mary was nursing her sick mother that she began writing poetry and songs, which she eventually published in 1966, in a collection called Sidlaw Breezes. The cost of the book was covered by Mary herself, and she lost money on it.” It was reprinted after her death by David Winter and Son Ltd., at the instigation of Dundee writer David Phillips but it is currently out of print again.

Dundee journalist and writer Maurice Fleming interviewed Mary Brooksbank in 1966 for Chapbook vol 3, no.4 when she was a tiny, stocky woman in her sixties, who sang and played the fiddle at Dundee Folk Club. He recorded and collected her songs.

He says that she was born in a single-end in Aberdeen where her father worked on the docks and helped to establish the Dockers’ Union. Next door lived “a happy gallus family, who travelled all summer and came back to roost in winter. One of the McPhail boys played the squeeze-box and they sang like linties.” From this traveller family Mary’s mother, herself a fine singer, picked up the tune to which Mary was later to put the words of “As I Cam Ower Strathmartine Mains.”

Mary said that she hadn’t a stitch when she was born : “My mither had nothing for me – nothing. But all the neighbours rallied roon and gave her this and that. They rigged me oot. And they bathed my eyes. Afterwards my mither blamed that for me bein nearly blind for so long. ….Maybe it was something these women did, even though they meant well.” She was nearly blind for her first year.

When Mary was eight, the family sailed on the “Princess Maud” for Dundee. A coal merchant carried their belongings to the boat, and her mother gave him a yellow canary for his trouble. Nigel Gatherer says her mother was originally a fisher lass, but worked in the jute mills in Dundee, often leaving Mary to look after the younger children. Mary was largely self-educated. Her father was often unemployed and away for weeks looking for work.

Mary started work as a shifter at thirteen in the Baltic Jute Mill and became a spinner at fifteen. She became politically active very young and “led protest marchers through the streets of Dundee in the Twenties.”

There was much more to this self-educated former mill-worker than first appeared. and Hamish Henderson was to describe her as “a heroine of the working class movement in Dundee, and a free-spoken, free-thinking old rebel who got thrown out of the CP for denouncing Stalin in the early thirties.”

Tim Neat, Hamish’s biographer, tells how “in 1970, at the age of 73, she went out to Hanoi to tend the wounded and help rebuild a city being bombed ‘ round the clock’ by B52 bombers.” From Hanoi she sent Hamish a postcard saying that, in spite of the poverty of the people, their life had a quality which made it seem to her like paradise – “like the dreaming of all great revolutionaries.” According to Neat, Mary Brooksbank “gave her life to peace campaigning and the communist cause.”

She figures in the website: http://www.dundeewomenstrail.org.uk/