In those times when open country lay around the City, it was, in fine weather, a pleasant walk of a little less more than four miles by lane and field path, from Stepney to Islington. The Red Lion inn by the Spital Field was known as the Half-way House, but when all around was built over, it stood at the corner of Red Lion Court, east of Spitalfields Market. Nearly three hundred years ago in this rural spot lived Nicholas Culpeper. He was born of good family, and after studying at Cambridge, became an apprentice to an apothecary in Bishopsgate. To the study of physic he added that of astrology, and in 1640, when he was twenty-four years old, set himself up here as an astrologer and physician. He joined the Parliamentarian army and in one of the battles was wounded in the chest, which contributed to his untimely end in 1654 at the age of thirty-eight years. He was a writer and translator of several books, of which the most known is The Complete Herbal, a work "being an astrologo-physical discourse of common herbs of the nation; containing a complete Method or Practice of Physic whereby a Man may preserve his Body in Health, or cure himself when sick with such things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English Constitutions."
As an astrological doctor, many came to him for advice which he gave to the poor without fee or reward, although he appears to have been in necessitous circumstances. Of him, Dr. Johnson said, "the man that ranged the woods, and climbed mountains in search of medicinal and salutary herbs, has undoubtedly merited the gratitude of posterity." This statement, however, is not borne out by facts, for Culpeper lived the greater part of his brief life in the eastern part of London.
When the Huguenot weavers landed at the various English seaports and resorted to Spitalfields, preparations had already been made for their reception and their immediate relief. The concourse comprised over 13,500 persons, including women and children, besides which there were a number of ministers of religion, lawyers and physicians. To understand how this settlement came to be made in a new neighbourhood, and by whom it was arranged, a few references will have to be made to the silk industry in England previous to that time.
Until the latter part of the sixteenth century the weaving of silk in this country was confined to the production of small wares such as laces, girdles, fringes, ribands and the like. The religious troubles in the Netherlands at that time caused many merchants and artizans who were engaged in the silk manufacture to take refuge in England where they pursued their occupation. The raw silk, which was imported from the Continent in skeins, had to pass through the hands of the throwster before the weaver could be employed upon it. The throwster, by means of a machine, twisted lightly the silk into a slight kind of thread known as singles, and these singles were combined to form tram. By a larger series of operations the raw silk was unwound from the skein; each individual thread was spun, twisted or "thrown," and two or more of these spun threads were twisted to form organzine. All these operations are included in the general term "silk throwing" and are entirely distinct from weaving.
Before the arrival of these Dutch refugees, the fabrics known as broad silks, such as lustrings, satins, brocades and velvets, had been imported. With the object of introducing into England this flourishing industry, for the advancement and the benefit of the realm, James I warmly supported a project for the culture and rearing of silk worms, and with this end in view he encouraged the planting of mulberry trees. The project, similar to that which had proved profitable in France, failed, but the king succeeded in inducing many silk throwsters, dyers, and broad silk weavers to come to England.
In 1629 the Silk Throwsters were incorporated, and no one was allowed to set up in that occupation without serving an apprenticeship of seven years and becoming free of the Company. Ten years later, the Weavers Company (one of the oldest City Companies, founded when wool was the staple of English trade) admitted into their body a certain number of silk weavers. In 1661 the Company of Silk Throwsters, it was said, employed 40,000 men, women and children, but this statement doubtless was exaggerated. Many so employed lived and worked in the immediate vicinity of Aldgate, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, from whence they gradually spread towards Spitalfields. The Act of Parliament empowering the erection of houses there by Sir George Wheler was the result of the increase of the population engaged in the industry, for the building over the fields lying outside the City was prohibited in the absence of statutory authority.
The appearance of the neighbourhood in 1669 can be inferred from an Order in Council made in that year, which states "the inhabitants of the pleasant locality of Spitalfields petitioned the Council to restrain certain persons from digging earth and burning bricks in those fields, which not only render them very noisome but prejudice the clothes which are usually dryed in two large grounds adjoyning, and the rich stuffs of divers colours which are made in the same place by altering and changing their colours." In 1681 Charles II, constrained by public opinion, which was partly based on religious sympathies and partly on the knowledge of the advantages that would ensue to trade and commerce from the exercise of "a noble and valuable industry," ordered that all Protestant refugees should be allowed to enter the country with their goods free of duty, and that they should enjoy the same privileges as his own subjects. The way was thus prepared (though the event itself, of course, could not be foreseen) for the influx of French weavers six years later, when the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes drove so many Huguenot families of Lyons and Tours from their native land.
In April 1686 an Order in Council authorised a public collection for the relief of French Protestants, and in one year £40,000 was raised, and this sum was subsequently increased to over £63,000; single persons giving as much as £500 or £1,000 each. Most of these immigrants were in a destitute condition on their arrival in England, but as generous assistance was forthcoming for their immediate wants, and the means were provided to earn a livelihood, it is apparent that the arrangements for their welfare had been made carefully beforehand by the Protestant throwsters and weavers and their co-religionists.
The refugees showed that they were determined to help themselves, for, being industrious, thrifty, and self-reliant, they soon settled down to work in a strange land. With a roof over their heads, a warm hearth and a stewpot on the fire, they were content and happy. They knew the art of cooking, that of obtaining the greatest amount of nutriment and at the same time presenting the food in a savoury manner. To them is owed the introduction of eating ox-tail, for before their coming the tails were thrown away by London butchers as offal. Being foreign folk, and therefore having no claim to relief under the poor laws, they formed mutual benefit societies against sickness and for burial. These societies were the first of their kind, and years afterwards suggested the formation of Friendly Societies now so widespread. They were a simple and gentle people, loving flowers and birds. On Sundays they took their children to church where the French tongue was spoken, and it was hoped that they would thus retain familiarity with their native language. At their religious devotions and in family intercourse French remained long in the the expression of love and affection, but it gradually gave way to the English speech when the old generation passed away.
The Huguenots brought with them the art of weaving many kinds of fabrics including those which were then in everyday demand, such as lustrings and alamodes, but which, unfortunately, soon went out of fashion. Another blow was the discontinuance of the use of tapestry and hangings in the interiors of great houses. These were manufactured in the district before the settlement of the refugees. The result was that the skill of the weavers was for some years afterwards principally confined to the production of silks and velvets. In 1713 it was stated that silks, gold and silver stuffs and ribbon made here were as good as those from France, and that £300,000 worth of black silk for hoods and scarves was made annually. In 1721 the value of the silk manufactured in England amounted to £700,000 more than in 1688, when wrought silks were imported from France to the annual value of half a million sterling.
The prosperity of Spitalfields reached its height about the time when it ceased to be a hamlet of Stepney and became the parish of Christ Church, Middlesex. It was then that many of the large commodious houses were built for the weavers and the silk merchants. The church, an imposing edifice designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Wren, was consecrated on 5 July 1729. Its spire, one of the loftiest in London, is 225 feet high, or twenty-three feet higher than the Monument.
Previous to the erection of the parish church, English inhabitants attended a chapel built long before by Sir George Wheler. It stood in the street that was named after him. When the parish became separated from Stepney it had its own Vestry, which numbered 195 members. In Quaker Street, where on the south side the Friends had their meeting-house, there was a charity school for thirty boys and thirty girls. The boys were taught to read and write and to "cast accompts," and the girls to read (nothing is said about writing), knit and sew. In Rose Lane and Crispin Street were the almshouses of the poor. In Bell Lane (which led from Wentworth Street to Crispin Street), stood the workhouse, wherein the poor, about 120 in number, were employed and maintained. Their chief work was winding silk for throwsters. A surgeon attended twice weekly, and was allowed £12 per annum for physic. To the credit of the French inhabitants there was in Grey Eagle Street, adjoining their chapel, a hospital in which they maintained their own poor.
by Sydney Maddocks
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.