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Silk Weavers

Silk weaving is often found in census returns as the occupation of an ancestor. The object of this project is to give some background to the industry. Please link any silk weavers that you come across in your research to this project, and share information on the subject with others.

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Spitalfields and Bethnal Green

As a result of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, French Protestants, driven by persecution from their own country, took refuge in England in large numbers. Silk weaving was one of the main occupations/skills of these migrants.

Silk-weavers from abroad had settled in England long before 1685. During the reign of Henry VIII a considerable number of silkworkers, mainly from Rouen,came to Britain. During the reign of Elizabeth, French and Flemish refugees had crowded into England, but do not appear to have settled in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

A large number of the refugees of 1685 occupied the large district of Spitalfields in London which includes large portions of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and Mile End New Town. Most brought very little with them beyond the knowledge of their occupations.

On 16 April 1687 an Order in Council prescribed a general collection in England, Scotland, and Ireland. About £200,000 was raised, forming the fund known as the Royal Bounty. A lay French committee composed of the chiefs of the immigration was entrusted with the annual distribution of a sum of £16,000 amongst the poor refugees and their descendants.

The first report (December 1687) of the French reveals that 13,050 French refugees were settled in London, most probably located in Spitalfields.

The main source of information about Spitalfields weavers is found in the registers of the various Huguenot churches. A cluster of eleven of these congregations existed from the latter part of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th, in Spitalfields, Shoreditch, Petticoat Lane, and Wapping.

The registers of one of these churches, 'La Patente,' which after various migrations settled in Brown's Lane near Spitalfields Market, have been printed by the Huguenot Society. They cover from 1689 to 1786, when the congregation was merged in the London Walloon Church, and show that the French population of the district consisted very largely of silk weavers and their allied trades.

Skilled weavers from Lyons and Tours set up their looms in Spitalfields and manufactured many types of silk (velvets, brocades, satins etc.) of the highest quality, previously only available from the famous looms of France. The refugees soon taught the people of Spitalfields to produce these and other goods.

A refugee named Beaudoin was the artist who supplied the designs. A workman named Mongeorge brought the secret of giving lustre to silk taffeta enabling Spitalfields to obtain a large share of the trade for which Lyons had been famous. Up to that time large quantities of black lustrings specially made for English use, and known as English taffetas, had been annually imported from France. The manufacture of lustrings and alamode silks, then articles in general use, was developed by the Spitalfield weavers. In 1692 these weavers were incorporated by charter under the name of the Royal Lustring Company. The company engineered the passing of an Act prohibiting the importation of foreign lustrings and alamodes, alleging as a ground for passing such a restriction in their favour that the manufacture of these articles in England had now reached a greater degree of perfection than was obtained by foreigners.

In spite of the prohibition the importation of French goods continued; the company received a confirmation of their charter by Act of Parliament in 1698. The sole right 'of making, dressing and lustrating of plain and black alamodes, renforcez, and lustrings' in England and Wales was granted to them for fourteen years. Howewver, before the fourteen years passed a change in the public taste had set in, fabrics of a different texture had become fashionable, and the company lost all its money and was finally broken up.

The weavers in 1713 presented a petition to Parliament against the commercial treaty with France, in which they stated

'that by the encouragement of the Crown and of divers Acts of Parliament, the silk manufacture is come to be above twenty times as great as it was in the year 1664, and that all sorts of as good black and coloured silks, gold and silver stuffs and ribands, are now made here as in France. The black silk for hoods and scarfs, not made here above twenty-five years ago, hath amounted annually to above £300,000 for several years past, which before were imported from France. Which increase of the silk manufacture hath caused an increase of our exportation of woollen goods to Turkey, Italy &c.'

The silk industry received a boost from the actions of Sir Thomas Lombe, who introduced from Italy the process of preparing raw silk for the weaver by machinery, for which he was granted a patent in 1718. When his patent ran out in 1732 he applied for a renewal on the grounds that it was owing to his ingenuity that silk was now 5s. a pound cheaper in England. Such outcry, however, was raised by the cotton manufacturers and others, who wished to use his apparatus, that Parliament refused the renewal, but voted him £14,000 as compensation.

In 1718 John Appletree (1622-1720) set up the Raw Silk Company. His idea was to make England independent of importing Italian raw silk by extensive silkworm farming. He was granted a patent and he issued a prospectus inviting the public to subscribe to the amount of a million pounds. A plantation of silkworms was actually made in Chelsea walled park. The apparatus included an evaporating stove and 'a certain engine called the Egg Cheste.' The English climate was not suitable for silkworm farming, and the experiment soon proved a complete failure.

The Spitalfields industry grew rapidly.Foreign competition, in spite of the prohibition legislation, increased, and was encouraged by the preference shown for French materials and fashions over local design.

The growing fashion for wearing Indian calicoes and printed linen caused disturbances in 1719. On 13 June a mob of about 4,000 Spitalfields weavers paraded the streets of the City attacking all females they could find wearing Indian calicoes or linens, and sousing them with ink, aqua fortis, and other fluids. The Lord Mayorwith the help of the Trained Bands suppressed the rioters, two of whom were secured by the Horse Grenadiers and lodged in the Marshalsea Prison, but the mob re-assembled as soon as the guards left. The weavers tore all the calico gowns they came across. The troops returned and new arrests were made. The weavers then tried to rescue their comrades. The next day four of the mob were committed to Newgate for rioting, and on Sunday night two more were sent there for felony in tearing the gown off the back of a woman.

In 1721 the manufacture of silk in England had increased in value. An Act was passed in the same year to encourage the industry. High duties on foreign silk led to smuggling.

In the rebellion of 1745 the silk manufacturers of Spitalfields were especially prominent in loyally supporting the throne; they waited personally upon the king and assured him of their unswerving loyalty and readiness to take up arms in his cause if need required. Each firm tried to pursuade their workers to do the same - a total of 2919 Spitalfields men. The list of these men consists of the manufacturers' names, with the number of workmen 'who have been engaged by their masters to take up arms when called thereto by His Majesty in defence of his person and government,' includes eighty-four masters, most of them bearing French names.

In 1763 attempts were made to stop smuggling, and the silk mercers of the city are said to have recalled their orders for foreign goods. An inquiry made by a Committee of the Privy Council appointed in 1766 reported that that smuggling was then carried on more than ever, and that 7,072 looms were out of employment. Riots broke out in the beginning of October 1763, when several thousands of journeymen assembled in Spitalfields and broke open the house of one of the masters. They destroyed his looms, cut to pieces much valuable silk, carried his effigy in a cart through the neighbourhood and afterwards burnt it, hung in chains from a gibbet.

Although the English silks were considered to be superior to foreign silks, these found a ready market in England. The weavers petitioned Parliament to impose double duties upon all foreign wrought silks. Their petition was not granted and the London weavers went to the House of Commons on 10 January 1764 to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. This was the day of the opening of Parliament, and its members were besieged by the weavers with tales of the great distress which had fallen upon them and their families. Parliament lowered the import duty on raw silk and prohibited the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves. The dealers in foreign silks then undertook to countermand all their orders for foreign silks, and a contribution was made for the immediate relief of the sufferers. As a result the weavers were appeased for a while.

An Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture. This was the result of an outbreak on 6 May when a mob of 5,000 weavers from Spitalfields armed with bludgeons and pickaxes marched to the residence of one of the Cabinet Ministers in Bloomsbury Square, aired their grievances and then marched away threatening to return if they did not receive redress. Rioting followed.

The famous 'Spitalfields Acts' of 1773, 1792, and 1811.

The first Act empowered the aldermen of London and the magistrates of Middlesex to settle in quarter sessions the wages of journeymen silk weavers. Penalties were inflicted upon such masters as gave and upon such journeymen as received or demanded either more or less than should be thus settled by authority, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.
The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.

The 'Spitalfields Acts' remained in force until 1824 with disastrous results. They were passed to get rid of an evil, but started an evil of a different kind; they were intended to protect both masters and men from unjust exactions on either part, but they brought about a paralysis of the Spitalfields trade which would have resulted in its ruinif it not been repealed. The effects of the Acts were not immediately apparent and they were at first popular. After 1785, however, the substitution of cottons severely affected the manufacture of silk, and the weavers then realised the true nature of the Spitalfields Acts. Being forbidden to work at reduced wages they were totally thrown out of employment, so that in 1793 more than 4,000 Spitalfields loomsbecame idle. In 1798 the trade began to revive, and continued do so until 1815 and 1816. The Spitalfields weavers then experienced suffering far more extensive and severe than before. At a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the Spitalfields weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that 'some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.' At the same meeting Sir T. Fowell Buxton stated that the distress among the silk weavers was so intense that 'it partook of the nature of a pestilence which spreads its contagion around and devastates an entire district.'

The repeal of these Acts was largely brought about by a petition presented to the House of Commons on 9 May 1823. The petitioners stated that

'these Acts by not permitting the masters to reward such of their workmen as exhibit superior skill and ingenuity, but compelling them to pay an equal price for all work whether well or ill performed, have materially retarded the progress of improvement and repressed industry and emulation.' In consequence of an order from the magistrates that silk made by machinery should be paid for at the same rate as that made by hand, few improvements could be introduced, and 'the London silk-loom with a trifling exception remains in the same state as at its original introduction into this country by the French refugees.'

The repeal of this restrictive legislation gave immediate relief to the local industry. The introduction at this time of the loom invented by Marie Jacquard (1752–1834) a straw-hat manufacturer at Lyons, for the manufacture of figured silks, helped to restore the falling fortune of the Spitalfields trade. The elaborate brocades which were previously made at Spitalfields were produced only by the most skilful among the craft. The most beautiful products of the Jacquard loom are executed by workmen of moderate skill.

Evidence taken before a committee of the House of Commons on the silk trade in 1831-2 stated that the population of the districts in which the Spitalfields weavers lived was at least 100,000, of which 50,000 were entirely dependent on the silk manufacture, and the remaining more or less dependent indirectly.

The number of looms at this period varied from 14,000 to 17,000 (including 100 Jacquard looms), and of these about 4,000 to 5,000 were generally unemployed in times of depression.

As there were on average, (including children) about three times as many operatives as looms, during the recession of trade at least between 10,000 to 15,000 people werein a state of unemployment and destitution.

In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay described the work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed. On a Jacquard loom a weaver can earn 25s. a week on an average (fn. 37) ; on a velvet or rich plain silk-loom from 16s. to 20s. per week; and on a plain silk-loom from 12s. to 14s.; excepting when the silk is bad and requires much cleaning, when his earnings are reduced to 10s. per week; and on one or two very inferior fabrics 8s. a week only are sometimes earned, though the earnings are reported to be seldom so low on these coarse fabrics. On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work.

Notable weavers


Macclesfield originally made its name through the manufacture of silk buttons. The industry was booming by the mid 17th Century. The raw silks were imported from the Far East - the raw silk skeins used in weaving were unwound from the imported silk moth cocoons.

The raw silk was wound by "Winders" onto bobbins. "Throwsters' then strengthened the thread by twisting it by hand. Macclesfield silk yarn also supplied Spitalfields silk weavers.

References and Sources

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