Dundee in the 1860s and the subscribers to the Albert Institute.

By Jim Tomlinson

The drive to raise money for the Albert Institute in the 1860s took place against the background of one of the most rapidly changing decades in the town’s history.

More people were added to the town’s population in this decade than any other, the total rising from 92,000 in 1861 to 121,000 in 1871. Most of the increase came from inward migration, largely from elsewhere in Scotland, with the influx from Ireland considerably slower than in the two previous decades. The main attraction of Dundee was fast-growing employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in jute, linen and all the activities related to the buying and selling, as well as manufacture, of these goods.

These industries, and the whole local economy, were subject to a sharp ‘bust-boom-bust’ cycle in these years, and, as so often in Dundee’s history, this pattern was linked to war. The war that mattered to Dundee in this decade was the American Civil War.  At its beginning in 1861 it disrupted the already huge US market for jute and linen goods, but once the war was underway it drove up demand (and prices) of Dundee’s exports, which were widely used for tents, wagon coverings, sandbags etc., all things that the war effort need in ever-expanding amounts. Then, at the end of the war, demand collapsed, and ‘bust’ returned to Dundee.

The 1860s was not only a decade of major demographic and economic change, but also of political and social reform. After the Reform Act of 1867, Dundee gained a second MP, and even more importantly, many thousands more (male) parliamentary electors. The vote was now given to a significant proportion of the skilled worker or artisan classes. The growing role of the organized working class can be seen in the formation of the Dundee Trades Council in 1868. But perhaps more characteristic of the age was the formation of the Dundee Working Men’s Association, set up ’for the social and moral elevation of the working classes’. Its broad membership (and mainly Liberal political outlook) is suggested by its commitment ‘to co-operate with other classes to that end’. A hugely important reform, also at the end of the 1860s, was to the Town Council, which had long been criticised for its oligarchic structure and narrow sense of its role. The new, more democratic structure underpinned a much more active and reforming approach in the years ahead.

Thus the subscribers to the Albert Institute came from a rapidly-expanding town, enjoying at least a number of years of booming economy. They were overwhelmingly drawn from the ‘middling sort’ whose numbers expanded as the range of economic activities in Dundee grew. At a minimum they subscribed £5, equivalent to over £500 today, even if we only take into account inflation, (and ignore how much better off we are today). This was a sum equal to around 10 weeks wages for an ordinary worker in a jute or linen mill. So to investigate the Albert subscribers is to try and understand the lives of a relatively affluent, heavily commercial, and publicly-active middle class who lived in a place becoming conscious of its dynamism and its potential for improvement.

Published on 22 November 2017