History is More of Less Bunk: Henry Ford and Aberdeen Council: the sad case of the weaver’s shed on the Denburn

Guest Blog by Textor

Our current Aberdeen City Council is very good at extolling the virtues of wealthy men said to be coming to the economic, cultural and aesthetic rescue of the city. It has shown itself willing to put millions into a crass project at which even Ozymandias might have blushed.

And yet, at the same time as the Council trumpets its commitment to staying true to Aberdeen’s history and sense of place, it allows unique moments of its past to fall into rack and ruin. One glaring example of this is the small stone built shed-house on the south side of the Denburn near Mackie Place. Humble as this building is it is one of the last structures which points to what was once a key industry of the city, handloom-weaving. While there is no definitive evidence that it was a weaver’s shed-house its shape, location and period (c1800) leads to the conclusion that this is what it was. Regardless of proving absolutely that a handloom weaver worked there it was certainly part of the historic Denburn- Gilcomston community.

Some time in the 1980s the sadly neglected, but largely intact building, was made wind and water tight, including new pan tiling to the roof. The idea was floated that the shed might become a small museum marking the city’s important past as an area of textile production. Of course this came to nothing. Funding was never found for it.

It was then suggested it could become a centre for local crafts people to bring it back into use and preserve an important local landmark. It was a great idea but once again it came to nothing.

And so the shed has been left to decay. The stabilisation of it, making it wind and water tight, money spent for nothing. It stands in this most picturesque part of Aberdeen semi-derelict with a great hole in the roof and no obvious prospect of finding a useful life.

The Council has seen fit to restore Marischal College and it must be said that it has given us a sense what the building must have looked like in the Edwardian era. Apart from the rather anaemic mannie on a cuddy in front of the building we now have sight of a magnificent glistening piece of work. But it seems, that despite our civic leaders claims to be concerned with what is today called the heritage of the city they are not willing to maintain, let alone develop, one of the last remaining fragments from the early years of the industrial revolution.   

Of course, unlike garden projects and Marischal College the shed lacks grandeur; it is not a thing of classical beauty nor is it a shrine to wealth. It is simply a record of a central aspect of Aberdeen’s industrial past; a community’s way of life which deserves to be remembered for the vital part it played as the social and industrial backbone of the city.

Until the introduction of the power loom, handloom weavers were amongst the elite of craftsmen. Highly skilled, much in demand, especially after the invention of power spinning which vastly increased the availability of yarn without a corresponding increase in productivity in weaving: the output from the weaver was tied directly to the dexterity and the inclination of the craftsman rather than to the speed of factory machines.

In sheds such as the one at Mackie Place, the weaver would be supplied with yarn by a businessman who would late sell on the finished cloth. Weavers were often assisted by their families, including children who would ensure the bobbins were always at hand when needed. When there was no alternative to handloom production the weaver wielded power. It was never an easy job for it was arduous with long hours spent in cramped conditions which led to health problems. But these men were more than mere machine hands. They were highly skilled and could, at times, command relatively good prices for their output. Indeed, for a time a weaver was a person of some social standing. They had a reputation for being literate and politically active; many of them attached to movements calling for parliamentary reform such as the Chartists. But with the introduction of power looms, the handloom weaver’s income and social position fell away. The productivity from power looms was far greater than the handloom and it was cheaper for employers of factory hands working in the Green in Aberdeen or at Grandholm to pay unskilled rates.

By the 1840s handloom weavers and their families were becoming destitute. The Aberdeen weaver William Thom gave them a voice. In his Rhymes and Recollections in which he described the weaver’s reduction from what he called, “the daisy portion” of the trade to becoming a mere factory hand with no control over his working day:

…weaving, as it year after year declined, became at length an evendown waste of life – a mere permission to breathe…

The gradual changes at the Denburn and Gilcomston mirrored the weaver’s decline and the area became a byword for filth and disease. It wasn’t always so.

In the 1780s Francis Douglas described Gilcomston as a “fine village” and later Dr Kidd of the Chapel of Ease wrote that the area comprised “mostly weavers and shoemakers”. It was a distinct community but with Aberdeen expanding in population and geographically Gilcomston was gradually absorbed into the larger city. In 1818 Kennedy wrote that “the village may now be regarded as part of the suburbs of Aberdeen”. Later this process of assimilation became particularly evident for those handloom weavers forced to look for work in factories in, the Green or further afield, in other words, men were no longer labouring where they lived but were forced to travel to and from work like other factory hands.   With Gilcomston’s absorption into the city there was an increase in its population and an expansion of small industries working the area, particularly drawing upon the waters of the Denburn itself. Tanning, brewing, dyeing all found use for the burn’s once fine water. By the 1860s what had once been described as “clear and unpolluted as a mountain stream” was said to be an “offensive puddle” full of “horse leeches”.

The weaver’s shed is witness to this history. Its decay might be passed off as an inconsequential loss but this is to miss the point. Yes, weavers, and many other workers too, succumbed to the demands of an expansive industrial capitalism but before this they had carved a distinct culture marked by raising families, by attending church, by extolling the virtues of political reform and by practising their trade. There is little enough that remains as material witness to their lives.
Bedazzled by gold on offer from philistine benefactors, Aberdeen City Council turns a blind eye to a more worthy cause. Shame on the Council.

2 Comments to “History is More of Less Bunk: Henry Ford and Aberdeen Council: the sad case of the weaver’s shed on the Denburn”

  1. @rxpell another good one! Used to work just along from that shed. There’s a real whale’s jaw bone in a garden about 50m upstream too

  2. GordonWright Lovely article, is the house in the area zoned for redevelopment? Would be great to see something done.

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