Mary Brooksbank ~ Revolutionary, Poet, and Songwriter

Mary Brooksbank (Soutar) (1897-1978) was born 15 December 1897 in Aberdeen. Her father, Alexander Soutar (1867-1953) had help to found the Aberdeen Dockers’ Union. By 1907 the Soutars were in Dundee but living in poverty. Mary’s youngest brother died of diphtheria during this time and she was often taken out of school to support the family. In 1912 Mary joined her mother, Roseann Gillan, in a jute mill and was then involved in her first strike. working long hours in mills, Mary also picked up part-time agricultural labouring. She joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. When three days of rioting broke out in Dundee the following year, Mary Brooksbank was in the thick of things. Unemployment led to her moving into domestic service in Glasgow. Whilst in Glasgow she attended John MacLean’s last meetings at the Scottish Labour College. In 1924 she wed Ernest Brooksbank a journeyman tailor. Until 1933 Mary Brooksbank was a very active member of the Communist Party. As a consequence of her direct actions she spent three periods in prison; the longest sentence being three months. Mary Brooksbank spent time at Perth Prison and while incarcerated there was supported by the Railway Women’s Guild of Perth who brought her in food. In Perth Prison the authorities placed her under psychiatric observation, but could only conclude that she was indeed sane. The governor of the prison lent Mary a book on women in politics and this inspired her to write her first poem – Cycling Days. A key area of her political activity in the 1930s was the Means Test. During a demonstration and rally organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in 1931 the police attacked the crowd and the platform. Mary Brooksbank was amongst those arrested and charged with rioting. After her release she helped form the Working Women’s Guild and continued her activism. Mary Brooksbank stood as a Communist party candidate in Dundee on two occasions. She became disillusioned with the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin, especially on women’s issues. She attempted to go to the Soviet Union to see for herself but could not get permission to go. This caused conflict within the party which was added to by the work of the Women’s Guild within the Communist Party organisation. Brooksbank was not a supporter of Leon Trotsky but nevertheless her position in the Communist Party was considered unacceptable by its leadership. She was eventually expelled. Music was an important aspect of Mary Brooksbank life. She played the violin and sang. When she gave up work in 1948 to look after her ailing mother, Mary Brooksbank also started writing poetry and lyrics in earnest. She was published for the first time in 1966. Some of her songs have been recorded by well-known musicians such as Ewan MacColl. Her songs were political and included those about Dundee; life in the textile mills; women’s issues; major political events; and, historical and literary milestones. Her most famous song is Oh Dear Me (The Jute Mill Song). Another well-known one is Hoose Prood. Mary Brooksbank died at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee on 16 March 1978. A library in Dundee was named in her honour. Her autobiography was written in 1971.

Jute Mill Song

Oh dear me, the mill’s gannin’ fast
The puir wee shifters canna get a rest
Shiftin’ bobbins coorse and fine
They fairly mak’ ye work for your ten and nine

Oh dear me, I wish the day was done
Rinnin’ up and doon the Pass it is nae fun
Shiftin’, piecin’, spinnin’ warp weft and twine
Tae feed and clad my bairnie affen ten and nine

Oh dear me, the warld is ill divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
For there’s nae much pleasure livin’ affen ten and nine