'Blows on the hand with a strap': The story of Barking's women jute weavers

Eliza and Joseph Roe

Eliza Roe worked in the jute industry. She is pictured here with husband Joe. The couple had 10 children and Eliza lived until the age of 96. - Credit: By kind permission of Martin Robb / eastendlivesblog

Heritage volunteer Felicity Hawksley reveals the role a type of fibre played in Barking's history, drawing workers from up to 500 miles away.

Many stories surround the women who worked at the Barking Jute Works, which opened in Fisher Street, now Abbey Road, in 1866. It was one of the largest jute factories in Britain.

At Barking Jute Works, also known as the Abbey Works, jute fibre imported from India was spun and woven into ropes and sacks.

plan of Barking Jute Works

A plan of Barking Jute Works which opened in Fisher Street, now Abbey Road, in 1866. - Credit: Valence House Archives

About 1,600 people were employed in the factory, almost a quarter of the town’s population.

There were around 300 outworkers who sewed bags and sacks at home. Most of these jobs were for women and children.

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The 1881 census showed that half of the female workers were under 21.

At first, skilled workers were brought in from Dundee. Away from their homes and families, the young women had a reputation for drinking and fighting at weekends and holidays, making the town notorious in the 1880s and 1890s.

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The recollections of resident Miss Steane painted a vivid portrait of the women:

"Well do I recall the tramp of women in their clogs over cobbled stones as they were marching to their work.

"Many of the weavers came from Dundee. The spinners were mostly local or Irish.

"The roughest lot and the poorest paid were the sack sewers. The weavers were by far the best paid.

"They wore white shawls and covered their heads with tiny clad shawls.

"The greater number of women, when at liberty, wore flounced and highly-coloured dresses, braid and coiled hair, and were hatless and shawled!"

A resident who worked in the jute industry was Eliza Bailey from Wall End, a hamlet just across the River Roding.

The 1871 census recorded her as a jute worker at the age of eight. It was likely she was an outworker.

In 1881 she was a jute spinner aged 17. Two years later she married Joseph Priestley Roe.

Eliza and Joe had 10 children and Eliza lived in East Ham until her death at the age of 96.

Working conditions would have been very hard with 12-hour shifts from 6am to 6pm.

The environment was hot, dusty, very noisy and dangerous, with whale oil used to soften the jute often causing the looms to catch fire.

It also made the factory smell very strongly.

Discipline in the factory was strict and there are reports in the Times of a case brought at Ilford Petty Sessions in 1870 by 15-year-old Hannah Andrews against the factory’s forewoman.

Although her case was dismissed, it was reported that: "[A] lady had charge of the girls, who appeared to have imported from Dundee a practice of administering some amount of personal chastisement if the girls and children were idle or misconducted.

"That chastisement consisted of a certain number of blows, generally three or four, inflicted on the hand with a strap... but certainly the infliction of any amount of such punishment, however slight, was altogether illegal."

In 1891 the factory was closed down as it could no longer compete with the emerging jute factories in India.

The impact on the town was devastating and churches tried to help the unemployed women.

The St Margaret's Church Magazine noted that during July, 165 coal and grocery tickets were issued.

Twenty-three girls were sent to Dundee to work in jute factories there.

The Reverend T Davis, the congregational minister, appealed for work and clothes for the 800 destitute girls in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Some of the redundant girls were found places in domestic service assisted by a charitable group called the Ladies Committee and some had assisted passages to Canada.

As part of a Heritage Art Trail, the women jute workers will be commemorated by a mosaic plaque by artist Tamara Froud.

This will be placed near the East End Women’s Museum, which is due to open at Abbey Quay next year.

Volunteers supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund have been researching the borough's history as part of a town centre heritage project.

Northbury House - which was home to one of Barking's fishing boat owners - has featured in a series of projects.

An interactive heritage trail has also been launched on the streets of Barking, which can be accessed with a smartphone using the Street Tag app.

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