Among the picturesque features which remain in the neighbourhood and remind the passer-by of its days of prosperity is, notably, that of the beautiful shop front - a grocer's - of 56 Artillery Lane. As there are few frontages of the kind left to be seen in London, it is hoped that this attractive specimen will be long preserved. The large house to which it belongs contains much of architectural beauty, and it suggests that the original occupant must have been a cultured merchant. Besides, there is Elder Street, full of tall, staid-looking houses with distinguished doorways showing variety and charm of design. This street has an air of detachment, not to say aloofness, as though it did not desire the acquaintance of the market which has contributed to the disfigurement of Spital Square. All that is left of the latter place presents a melancholy sight, yet it can still be proud of the fine house in which for a while lived Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a famous figure in the political world of his day, whose writings, once freely quoted, are well-nigh forgotten. His name will always be associated with that of Alexander Pope, of whom he was friend and patron.
It was in another house in the Square which, by the way, had never the shape of one, that Thomas Stothard, R.A., whose mother lived on Stepney Green, served his seven years' apprenticeship as a designer of silk fabrics. He became a profuse illustrator of many popular books such as Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress, and his pictures are known to many who do not know the artist's name, though it appeared often enough below the steel engravings in publications issued in the early nineteenth century. He exhibited numerous pictures at the Royal Academy, of which institution he became librarian. Of all his pictures, his "Canterbury Pilgrims" is perhaps the best known.
When Spitalfields became a parish (in 1729), nearly a half-century had passed since the coming of the Huguenots, and in the meantime not only had the aspect of the neighbourhood been altered in its appearance, but the inhabitants themselves had undergone a marked change. Of the refugees a few remained, and they were mostly represented by adults who as young children had accompanied their parents from France. The descendants of the old people formed the majority of the population, and those of the artisan class particularly were fast losing the characteristics of their foreign origin, except an excitability which may be taken into account when considering their subsequent excesses against law and order.
The manufacture of silk was esteemed, and rightly so, to be of national importance. It was the solitary industry of the Metropolis, and the centre of it and of the trade generally was Spitalfields. From the earliest days, Parliament was constantly agitated by proposals to assist it against the danger of foreign competition. In order to encourage it, high protective duties were imposed not only against the goods from France but also those from India. From the latter, the East India Company not only imported beautiful silks but printed calicoes which became fashionable.
"Our Ladies all were set
After these Toys they ran a-madding.
And like gay Peacocks proudly strut it,
When in our Streets they foot it."
Weavers attacked in the open street wearers of cotton stuffs - the "Calico Madams" - even tearing the clothes off their backs. In petitions to Parliament the calicoes were denounced "as a worthless, scandalous, unprofitable sort of goods embraced by a luxuriant humour among the women, prompted by the art and fraud of the drapers and the East India Company to whom alone they are profitable." In 1721, to encourage the woollen and silk industry, Parliament passed what is known as the Calico Act which prohibited the use and wear of all such printed stuffs. (This Act was repealed in 1774.) The protection from importation of fabrics from the East, except silk and velvet from India, and crepe and tiffany from Italy, gave rise to much turmoil among the woollen weavers who exported their goods in exchange. It also caused dissensions among the other branches of commerce whose vested interests were at variance with those of the weavers.
It must not be thought that the silk industry was merely confined to weaving, for all branches of the trade were represented in Spitalfields. There was the silkman, or merchant, who bought and sold raw silk, and who was the actual importer of it - principally from Italy and Turkey, and after 1741 from Persia, Russia and China. Then there was the throwster to whom reference has already been made.
Some silk was thrown or spun locally, and some at Braintree, Bocking, and other places in East Anglia. After 1720, silk mills worked by water power began to be erected in various parts of the country. The establishment of these mills originated the factory system which years afterwards spread to other industries on the application of steam power to machinery. It may here be remarked that the English spun "organzine" was not considered by the weavers of high-class material to be as good as that supplied from Italy. Then there was the dyer, a man of importance in the locality. To these are added the designer and the pattern maker. Finally, there were the master weaver, the journeyman weaver, and the persons engaged in a number of subsidiary occupations. Some were skilled - highly skilled - and some were engaged in work to which no apprenticeship was necessary.
The relations which had formerly existed between masters and journeyman became with the new generation which had grown up less cordial, and were at times strained. The master weaver might be one who employed many operatives, or he might be in quite a small way of business, but each existed side by side in distinction to the journeymen. The latter, if he were fortunate, might acquire a loom, but usually he was too poor to possess one of his own.
There was a progressive tendency as time went on towards capitalisation, somewhat due to the fact that the mercers who bought the wrought silks demanded long credit - usually not less than twelve months. There were slight banking facilities in those days for the small man, and at times it would happen that the master weavers were straightened for money, and payment of wages was withheld. This economic condition brought into the industry certain persons who were solely, and for the time being only, financially interested in the production of the goods for a monetary return, which relaxed the once close interests between master and man. It may be added, however, that the manufacture while it was carried on in Spitalfields was never organised into large units, and perhaps it would have been well if this had been possible, at least if there had been some co-operation between the master weavers for the pooling of their resources.
The industry was subject to the fluctuations produced by the demands of fashion, and it was often arrested by the difficulty of obtaining raw silk, a fact that may appear surprising until the uncertainty of the passage of sailing ships is brought to mind. A sudden stoppage of a number of looms would cause immediate distress throughout Spitalfields. The wages were never high enough to enable the journeyman weaver to tide over periods of unemployment. Time of prosperity due to the expansion of trade attracted into the neighbourhood persons who worked in the less skilled branches of the industry, many of whom had not served an apprenticeship, which added to the difficulties of affording relief to the unemployed when work was scarce.
The work of the old craft weaver engaged on plain fabric included three distinct operations: First, the winding or quilling, which was the initial operation; secondly, the pulling of the warp on the loom beam; and thirdly, the actual weaving or passing the shuttle through the warp. The first two operations required considerable skill, but the last demanded little more than reasonable ingenuity. It was said that an apt person who had never seen a loom would be able to figure out the nature of the operation in the course of an hour without any help, and with a week of practice might become a journeyman worker. If this were so, and it would appear to have been the case, it is not surprising that an invasion by Irishmen at the time of pressure, and their subsequent swelling the ranks of the distressed, should have provoked resentment and ill-will.
The rivalry of England and France in America and India, and the efforts of both nations at colonial expansion produced open hostilities between them during the years 1740-48 and 1756-1763, which stopped the importation of French silk fabrics and gave the great opportunity for the development of the industry in Spitalfields. At the end of the war in 1763 trouble occurred by the appearance of French goods in large quantities in the English market despite the high duties levied upon them. In fact, for the greater part they were smuggled. A commission was appointed to inquire into the grievances of the Spitalfields silk-weavers, and it recommended the exclusion of foreign silks. A bill to that effect was brought into the Commons and passed by them, but it was rejected by the Lords. The disappointment of the weavers took the form of a riot. A deputation waited on the King with a petition representing the miserable condtition of the silk manufacture from the clandestine importation of French silks, praying for relief. They were kindly received by the King, and soon afterwards a large number of French patterns were seized by the Government, containing several thousand patterns ranging in value from 5s. to £5 a yard, which were being handed about to the mercers by French emissaries. As the weavers appeared ready to commit any kind of outrage, the principal silk mercers, fearing riot, undertook to countermand all their orders for foreign silk. The discontent of the weavers, which was encouraged by the masters, was only at length pacified by the promise of the redress of their grievances, and in the following year a Bill passed through Parliament prohibiting the importation of foreign silks.
The journeymen had for some years, under the guise of their benefit societies, combined with the object of compelling the masters to raise wages, and on one occasion several thousand journeymen assembled in Spitalfields, "and in riotous manner broke open the house of one of their masters, destoyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed." [From the "Gentleman's Magazine", November 1763] Throughout the years 1765-70 there was serious trouble. The protection from foreign competition did not bring about the increase of wages as immediately expected, and this, and certain dislocations in the industry, disturbed the centre of the trade and caused it to be in a state of ferment and riot. In 1768 an Act was passed declaring it to be a felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with the intention of maliciously damaging or destroying silk goods in the process of manufacture, but the frequent acts of violence upon the employers continued.
Some evidence of the organisation among the journeyman weavers is afforded by the incident in September 1769, when an attempt was made to arrest an entire meeting. An officer with a party of soldiers invested an alehouse, the "Dolphin," in Spitalfields, "where a number of riotous weavers, commonly called cutters, were assembled to collect contributions from their brethren towards supporting themselves in order to distress their masters and oblige them to advance their wages." (Annual Register, 1769.) Meeting with desperate resistance, the soldiers fired on the weavers and killed two, and captured four. The remainder fled and lay concealed in cellars of houses and in the vaults of the churches throughout the night of terror not only for them but for their womenfolk. Two of the captured weavers were sentenced to death and were hanged at the cross roads on Bethnal Green.
by Sydney Maddocks
Reprinted with permission of David Rich, Tower Hamlets History On Line.