Part of The Dundee Oral History Project
The opening segment of the interview touches on aspects of her childhood and of her family business. Sandra Thomson remarks that she lived a “spoiled” childhood when living in Calcutta, but that all changed when she went to boarding school. Her father and grandfather were both involved in the Jute industry which operated between Dundee and Calcutta and she discusses some of the networks of that industry.
Sandra reminisces about her time in Calcutta – her friends, her nanny, and her first memory (suffering from dysentery). Sandra’s mother was involved in a lot of voluntary work in Calcutta. St. Johnsons was her primary school, which catered to British immigrants. She later revisited her childhood home on Lovelock Street, Ballygunge, Calcutta. Here she describes more of her memories, of the staff who worked there and what it was like growing up in the house.
They begin to discuss the lifestyle of the British people who lived there. They enjoyed lots of activities such as golf, cocktail parties, tennis, etc. They talk more about the staff living in the house, describing them as part of the family. Sandra briefly discusses the living conditions of the mill workers. The interview moves to the family’s return to Scotland. Sandra discusses the transition from boarding school in Calcutta to a state funded school here in Scotland.
The interview discusses the jute industry in Dundee and its final closure in 1999, with the closure of Tay Spinners. There is mention of the history of jute trade and what has come after it – such as, the conversion of the mills into housing or exhibition spaces. Sandra then talks about the process and history of the jute industry (jute being vegetable fibre). Sandra tells of why the jute industry came to Dundee – because of the whale industry, a reputation for being good weavers, and the East India Company wanting to expand the uses for jute.
Sandra tells of her involvement with the jute industry and where she learned about the industry. She was good at speaking Hindi so she would order supplies from India and help with the selling. However, they were undercutting their own market and profits were so small that it was obvious the industry was in decline. The arrival of plastics and strikes in India had a massive impact. There was also increased competition from other markets, like Turkey and Belgium. This forced her to re-evaluate her own business and she tried to move into bag making and selling to supermarkets. Unfortunately, Sandra was not successful in this venture, but she is credited by someone who came after her and was successful selling to supermarket chains. She still works with jute, making paper, coffins, plant pots, and shrouds. Sandra is very confident that jute will have a revival.
Sandra is asked about life in India and how much has changed from her childhood. She did not see much poverty when she was a child, but is more aware of it now, despite the economic developments. Her experience of being a woman in India was that it was not much of an obstacle, but she credits her father for why she did not experience much chauvinism. They discuss the ongoing connections between the generations of Brits that lived and worked in India.
Weavers and the nine trades. 500 years of male exclusivity until Sandra Thomson, Sheena Wellington, Janet Foggy, and Lily were asked to join. They hold meetings, dinners, and tea parties. They had 200 at Caird Hall in 2012, which was televised. Sandra does a lot of jute talks and visits schools and colleges.