The unrest among the journeymen weavers, and the frequent outbreaks of violence, led, in 1778, to the passing of an Act generally known as the Spitalfields Act. This was brought about by the masters in the hope that it would bring to an end disputes regarding wages, and that better relations would ensue. It provided that wages should be settled by local justices. In practice, the representatives of the masters and the men met together, and, after they had argued and reached an agreement as to what constituted a fair price of labour, the wages list was submitted to the magistrates. Upon ratification by them it became by law a fixed rate until altered by subsequent agreement. Masters paying more or less wages than that decreed were liable to a penalty of £50 which would be distributed among distressed journeymen. On the other hand, if the journeymen should ask or take greater or less wages, or enter into combinations to raise them, or assemble to petition on the subject of them in numbers of more than ten (except when going to the magistrates), they were subjected to a fine of 40 shillings.
The original Act, which applied to silk weavers, was extended in 1792 to those engaged in the manufacture of mixed goods, such as those which were formed of silk and worsted; and in 1811, to women as well as men. These Acts were intended to protect both masters and wage earners from injustice, but they incidentally involved restrictions on the conduct of the trade, and, being considered to have done more harm than good, they were repealed in 1824. Until then, the magistrates had the power of limiting the number of threads to an inch in the fabric, of deciding the widths of many sorts of work, and of determining the quantity of labour not to be exceeded without extra wages. In a petition to Parliament to repeal these statutes, it was set forth that "these Acts by not permitting the masters to reward such of their work man as exhibit superior skill and ingenuity, but compelling them to pay an equal price for all work well or ill-performed, have materially retarded the progress of improvement and repressed industry and emulation."
That the operation of these Acts was confined to a prescribed locality was extremely unfavourable to Spitalfields; for manufacturers were at liberty to undertake elsewhere the same kind of work and pay for it, without breaking the law, at a great reduction. There was also no medium between full regulation wages and the total absence of employment. The wages were only enough to eke out a bare existence, and there was a continuous state of distress, for the weavers were dependent on the fluctuating basis of trade in respect of the different sorts of material which included those of the richest quality - as well as the poorest and thinnest. Among the former were the costly brocades, damask, velvets, gauzes and satins, and those termed mixed goods, because of the fabrics being woven with the warp of silk and the woof, or shute of worsted such as bombazines and poplins, all of which employed intermittently a vast number of looms. About 1790 the industry began to spread to other parts of the country, at first to the Eastern Counties, where it could be carried on without statutory restrictions.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century attempts were made through the leaders of fashion to provide steady employment for the Spitalfields weavers by inducing the wearing of silk fabrics at balls and assemblies. A lady, if she had not a silk dress, felt she had forfeited her self-respect. Under the influence exerted for so good a purpose, bombazine, once used solely for the making of mourning garments, threw off its sombre hue, became gay in divers colours and adorned not only the living fair but those within the pages of the romances of the day. This fabric, with the poplins and the gauzes, once employed a vast number of looms in Spitalfields, but their manufacture respectively passed afterwards to Norwich, Dublin, and Paisley.
The fashionable demand for silk promoted smuggling on an extensive scale from France, the importation of which was prohibited. So audacious was this illicit trading, that the payment of a premium of £28 on stuff to the value of one hundred pounds would guarantee delivery in London. In 1826 the prohibition of their importation was removed and a duty of 80 per cent. imposed. It was perhaps better that the Customs should receive the money rather than that it should go into the pockets of the intermediate agents.
In 1831 there were working 14,000 to 17,000 looms in the Spitalfields district, which had a population of about 100,000 persons, half of which number were entirely dependent on the weaving industry. This district comprised parts of Mile End New Town and Bethnal Green where the erection of many one-storied cottages had been already begun for the weaving families who were employed as out-workers. By the invention of the steam engine, mechanical power challenged hand-loom weaving as a commercial undertaking, and the trade of Spitalfields suffered. Many weavers of technical skill in the spirit of enterprise went to Macclesfield, Coventry, Braintree and other places where, after 1880, steam machinery had been set up, by which the output was not only increased but cheapened, and where the drudgery of long hours of labour was removed and the uncertainty of irregular employment was to a large extent lessened.
This was followed by another blow in 1860, when in consequence of the commercial Treaty with France the English market became overcrowded with attractive and low-priced foreign-made fabrics. Thousands of Spitalfields weavers found their livelihood taken from them. Some migrated to the centre of textile manufactures in the North, but many remained in an impoverished state, to be relieved by public charity. The distribution of funds raised for this purpose attracted into the neighbourhood persons who claimed to be distressed weavers and who further pauperised the district.
A few large firms, who had adopted the factory system, and some master weavers continued to find work for some of the best skilled weaving families. They were engaged in the production of high grade fabrics, the manufacture of which was not so much affected by foreign competition. These employers gradually left the neighbourhood, and one of the firms last to leave transferred, in 1895, some sixty families to their works at Braintree.
This brief account of the Spitalfields silk industry is of a somewhat gloomy nature, but it is the aspect from the economic point of view. Another, and one more agreeable, will probably be presented if the reader will visit the Bethnal Green Museum where are shown pieces of brocade and figured silks which offer a fairly representative survey of the work done by the Spitalfields weavers between the years of 1698 and 1875. These fabrics, exquisitely designed and executed with technical skill, will bring to mind the thought that Art and Industry are not merely assessable in terms of money, but that there is a different kind of value to be found in the appreciation and enjoyment of beauty and craftsmanship.
by Sydney Maddocks
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.