It used to be said that the story of Dundee was the story of "Jam, Jute and Journalism". Jute? At its peak in the 1860s and 1870s the jute processing industry in Dundee employed some 50,000 people in over 60 factories scattered across the city.
Today there are just a handful of working textile factories in Dundee: the remainder having been demolished or converted to other uses. Not quite all of them, though. The Verdant Works lies just to the west of Dundee city centre. It was once home to three steam engines running 70 power looms and 2,800 spindles. And 500 people were once employed preparing and spinning jute here and weaving it in another factory across the road.
Today the Verdant Works serves as a remarkable museum remembering, celebrating and explaining Dundee's jute industry. Different areas look at the background to jute, and the processing of the raw material into a wide range of products essential to daily life in the 1800s, while a series of displays give a real insight into the everyday lives of the people who worked in the jute industry.
Verdant Works is run by Dundee Heritage Trust, who also look after Discovery Point and the RRS Discovery elsewhere in the city. Dundee Heritage Trust bought Verdant Works in 1991. Though by no means the largest of the disused jute mills in the city it retained a number of original features, especially the factory office, and it was a rare example of a jute works built around a courtyard.
But otherwise it was 50,000 square feet of rotting building in need of a great deal of care and attention after many decades of neglect. Restoration work began in 1992. The first phase of the museum was opened to the public on 16 September 1996; the second and final phase being opened just a year later.
So why did jute become so important to Dundee in the mid 1800s? Well the city was already home to a textile industry that could easily be adapted to the new raw material, and to workers who could quickly be retrained to process it. And flax supplies were becoming increasingly problematical. Meanwhile the whale oil needed to soften jute was readily available in the city; the East India Company was looking for new markets for its jute; and Dundee could build the ships needed to transport the jute from India at speed, and the products to every corner of the globe.
Dundee's jute industry went into a long decline from 1914, mostly because the material could be processed more cheaply in India. Only one jute spinning mill survived in the city until the end of the 1900s.
Verdant Works has its own visitors' car park at the back of the factory. A visit starts by passing through the factory courtyard to the reception and shop. Detailed information is set out on the right, but it is worth remembering that joint tickets are available for Verdant Works and Discovery Point.
From the Reception you cross the courtyard again to begin your tour proper in the offices of the Verdant Works. Here the original furniture and screens remain, giving an insight into a totally different world when the height of technology was a typewriter.
From the offices you are led through an exhibition area providing background information about jute itself and the enormous impact the industry had on the world in the Victorian era. Then you pass a wooden contraption that turns out to be a hand loom from the pre-mechanisation era, before moving into the most impressive part of the museum. A large area is given over the real machines used to carry out each step in the process. This is not so much a recreation of the look and feel of an actual jute factory, more the use of a jute factory for a museum about jute.
Other highlights include an interactive area in which you are positively encouraged to play with the exhibits, including a fascinating rig showing how rope is made: while nearby are the machines that did the job for real.
The 50,000 people who worked in the industry are not overlooked. A separate exhibition area above the reception and shop gives an insight into the - often pretty miserable - lives of the jute workers, who spent their long days in unhealthy and often dangerous conditions, before going home to usually totally inadequate and overcrowded housing.