Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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The Priory of St. Mary, Spittle—A Royal Visit—The Spital Sermons—A Long Sermon—Roman Remains—The Silk Weavers—French Names, and Modern Versions of them—Riots in Spitalfields—Bird Fanciers—Small Heads—"Cat and Dog Money."
The original Priory of St. Mary Spittle was founded by Walter Brune and Rosia his wife, in the year 1197. It was surrendered at the dissolution to King Henry, and at that time the hospital which belonged to the priory was found to contain one hundred and eighty beds. In place of the hospital many large mansions were built, and among these Strype especially mentions that of Sir Horatio Pallavicini, an Italian merchant, who acted as ambassador to Queen Elizabeth; and in the reign of James I. we find the Austrian ambassador lodging there.
In the year 1559 Queen Elizabeth came in state from St. Mary Spittle, attended by a thousand men in harness, and ten great guns, with drums, flutes, and trumpets sounding, and morris-dancers bringing two white bears in a cart.
Long after the dissolution a portion of the large churchyard of the hospital remained, with a pulpit cross within a walled enclosure, at which cross, on certain days every Easter, sermons were preached. Opposite that pulpit was a small two-storeyed building, where the alderman and sheriffs came to hear the sermons, with their ladies at a window over them. Foxe, in his "Book of Martyrs," repeatedly mentions these Spital sermons.
The preaching at the Spittle seems to have been a custom of great antiquity. It is said that Dr. Barrow once preached a sermon on charity at the Spittle, before the Lord Mayor and aldermen, which occupied three hours and a half. Being asked, after he came down from the pulpit, if he was not tired, "Yes, indeed," said he, "I began to be weary with standing so long."
In 1594 a gallery was built near the pulpit for the governor and children of Christ's Hospital; and in 1617 we find many of the Lords of King James's Privy Council attending the Spital sermons, and afterwards dining with the Lord Mayor, at a most liberal and bountiful dinner at Billingsgate.
"It appears," says Bingham, speaking of the Spital sermons, "it was usual in those times that on Good Friday a divine of eminence should, by appointment, expatiate on Christ's passion, in a sermon at Paul's Cross; on the three days next Easter, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, a bishop, a dean, and a doctor of divinity, should preach at the Spital concerning the resurrection; and on Low Sunday another learned divine was to rehearse the substance of the other four, in a fifth sermon. At this the Lord Mayor and Corporation always attended, robed in violet gowns, on Good Friday and Easter Wednesday, and on the other days in scarlet. This custom continued till the great rebellion, in 1642, when it was discontinued. However, it was revived after the Restoration, except that instead of being preached at Paul's Cross, which had been demolished, the sermons were in the choir of the cathedral. After the Great Fire they were discontinued, both at St. Paul's Church and at the Spital, and the Easter sermons were delivered at some appointed church, and at last at St. Bridget's, in Fleet Street, where they continued invariably till the late repairs of that church, when they were removed to Christ Church, Newgate Street, where they still continue."
In 1576, says Stow, in treating of a brick-field near the Spital churchyard, there were discovered many Roman funeral urns, containing copper coins of Claudius, Vespasian, Nero, Antoninus Pius, and Trajan, lachrymatories, Samian ware lamps, and small images, also Saxon stone coffins. Dr. Carrsatmalsa found there a skull, which he believed to be a giant's, though others took it for an elephant's. Some of these stone coffins are still preserved in the vaults of Christ Church.
Bagford, in Leland's "Collectanea," mentions the Priory of St. Mary Spittle as then standing, strongly built of timber, with a turret at one angle. Its ruins, says Mr. Timbs, were discovered early in the last century, north of Spital Square. The pulpit, destroyed during the Civil Wars, stood at the north-east corner of the square. In the map of Elizabeth's reign the Spittle Fields are at the north-east extremity of London, with only a few houses on the site of the Spital. A map published a century later shows a square field bounded with houses, with the old artillery-ground, which had formerly belonged to the priory, on the west. Culpeper, the famous herbalist, occupied a house then in the fields, and subsequently a public-house at the corner of Red Lion Court.
This is the great district for silk-weavers. "Spital Square," says Mr. Timbs, "at the south-east corner, has been the heart of the silk district since 'the poor Protestant strangers, Walloons and French,' driven from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, settled here, and thus founded the silk manufacture in England; introducing the weaving of lustrings, alamodes, brocades, satins, paduasoys, ducapes, and black velvets. In 1713 it was stated that silks, gold and silver stuffs, and ribbons were made here, as good as those of French fabric, and that black silk for hoods and scarves was made actually worth three hundred thousand pounds. During the reigns of Queen Anne, George 1., and George II., the Spitalfields weavers greatly increased; in 1832, 50,000 persons were entirely dependent on the silk-manufacture, and the looms varied from 14,000 to 17,000. Of these great numbers are often unemployed; and the distribution of funds raised for their relief has attracted to Spitalfields a great number of poor persons, and thus pauperised the district. The earnings of weavers, in 1854, did not exceed ten shillings per week, working fourteen to sixteen hours a day. The weaving is either the richest, or the thinnest and poorest. The weavers are principally English, and of English origin, but the manufacturers, or masters, are of French extraction, and the Guillebauds, the Desormeaux, the Chabots, the Turquands, the Mercerons, and the Chauvets trace their connection with the refugees of 1685. Many translated their names into English, by which the old families may still be known: thus, the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the Leblancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird."
Riots among the Spitalfields weavers, for many a century, were of frequent occurrence. Any decline of prices, or opposition in trade, set these turbulent workmen in a state of violent effervescence. At one time they sallied out in parties, and tore off the calico gowns from every woman they met. Perhaps the greatest riot was in 1765, when, on the occasion of the king going to Parliament to give his assent to the Regency Bill, they formed a great procession, headed by red flags and black banners, to present a petition to the House, complaining that they were reduced to starvation by the importation of French silks. They terrified the House of Lords into an adjournment, insulted several hostile members, and in the evening attacked Bedford House, and tried to pull down the walls, declaring that the duke had been bribed to make the treaty of Fontainebleau, which had brought French silks and poverty into the land. The Riot Act was then read, and detachments of the Guards called out. The mob then fled, many being much hurt and trampled on. At a yet later date mobs of Spitalfields weavers used to break into houses and cut the looms of men who were working with improved machinery. Many outrages were committed by these "cutters," and many lives lost in scuffles and fights.
The older houses inhabited by the weavers have wide latticed windows in the upper storeys, to light the looms. Being nearly all bird-fanciers, the weavers supply London with singing-birds, and half the linnets, woodlarks, goldfinches, and greenfinches sold in the metropolis are caught by Spitalfields weavers in October and March. They are fond of singing-matches, which they determine by the burning of an inch of candle.
Spitalfields weavers are said to have extremely small heads, 6½ or 6¾ inches being the prevailing width, although the average size of the male head in England is 7 inches. We do not know whether the weavers still continue the old clothworkers' habit of singing at their looms, as mentioned by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. "I would I were a weaver," says Falstaff; "I could sing all manner of songs." And Cutbeard, in Ben Jonson's Silent Woman, remarks, "He got his cold with sitting up late, and singing catches with clothworkers."
Spitalfields was a hamlet of Stepney until 1729, when it was made a distinct parish, and Christ Church consecrated. Among the parochial charities, says Mr. Timbs, is "Cat and Dog Money," an eccentric bequest to be paid on the death of certain pet dogs and cats.