Industries: Silk-weaving

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.

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, 'Industries: Silk-weaving', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911) pp. 132-137. British History Online [accessed 30 May 2024].

. "Industries: Silk-weaving", in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911) 132-137. British History Online, accessed May 30, 2024,

. "Industries: Silk-weaving", A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton, (London, 1911). 132-137. British History Online. Web. 30 May 2024,


The origin of this important industry as located in Spitalfields dates from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, when the French Protestants, driven by persecution from their own country, took refuge in England in large numbers. Long before this, however, silk-weavers from abroad had settled in England, and during the reign of Henry VIII a considerable number of silkworkers, principally from Rouen, made their homes in this country. 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, which were at that time mere country hamlets.

A great body of the refugees of 1685 occupied a large district which is usually called Spitalfields, but which includes also large portions of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and Mile End New Town. The great majority brought with them little beyond the knowledge of their occupations, and being in great necessity, subscriptions for their immediate relief were procured to a large amount by means of the King's Briefs. On 16 April 1687 an Order in Council prescribed a fresh general collection in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The amount thus obtained was about £200,000, which formed a 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. A second committee composed of ecclesiastics under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and the Lord Chancellor, was formed for dividing amongst the distressed pastors and their churches an annual sum of £1,718 drawn from the public treasury. (fn. 1)

From the first report of the French committee, dated December 1687 and published in the following year, it appears that 13,050 French refugees were settled in London, the greater part of whom were probably located in Spitalfields. The editor of Stow's Survey of London pays a high tribute to the character and industry of the refugees. Speaking of Spitalfields he writes: (fn. 2) 'Here they have found quiet and security, and settled themselves in their several trades and occupations; weavers especially. Whereby God's blessing surely is not only brought upon the parish by receiving poor strangers, but also a great advantage hath accrued to the whole nation by the rich manufactures of weaving silks and stuffs and camlets, which art they brought along with them. And this benefit also to the neighbourhood, that these strangers may serve for patterns of thrift, honesty, industry, and sobriety as well.'

The principal source of information as to the Spitalfields weavers themselves is contained in the registers of the various Huguenot churches to which they belonged. A cluster of eleven of these congregations existed (fn. 3) 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, that known as 'La Patente,' which after various migrations settled in Brown's Lane near Spitalfields Market, have been printed by the Huguenot Society. (fn. 4) They extend 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. A great preponderance of weavers over those engaged in other trades is found in the settlements of foreign refugees; and the editor, Mr. William Minet, (fn. 5) suggests in explanation that the new religion may have spread specially among the men of this trade.

The strangers were skilled weavers from Lyons and Tours, who set up their looms in Spitalfields and there manufactured in large quantities lustrings, velvets, brocades, satins, very strong silks known as paduasoys, watered silks, black and coloured mantuas, ducapes, watered tabies, and stuffs of mingled silk and cotton-all of the highest excellence, which previously could only be procured from the famous looms of France. The refugees soon taught the people of Spitalfields to produce these and other goods of the finest quality for themselves, and their pupils soon equalled and even excelled their teachers. Weiss says (fn. 6) that the figured silks which proceeded from the London manufactories were due almost exclusively to the skill and industry of three refugees, Lauson, Mariscot, and Monceaux.

The artist who supplied the designs was another refugee named Beaudoin. A common workman named Mongeorge brought them the secret recently discovered at Lyons, of giving lustre to silk taffeta: this enabled Spitalfields to obtain a large share of the trade for which Lyons had long 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 rapidly brought by the Spitalfield weavers to a state of great excellence, and the persons engaged in this industry were, in 1692, incorporated by charter under the name of the Royal Lustring Company. (fn. 7) The company then procured 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.

An anonymous writer in 1695, (fn. 8) who declaims against the tricks of stock-jobbers and the great number of joint-stock trading companies, makes exception in favour of (among other undertakings) the Royal Lustring Company, which he says has 'throve, and will so long as they keep the stock-jobbers from breaking in upon them.' In spite of its prohibition the importation of French goods still continued, and for its greater protection the company received a confirmation of their charter by Act of Parliament in 1698, (fn. 9) and an important extension of their powers and privileges. 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. Before the expiration of its charter, however, 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 (fn. 10) 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 great impetus from the exertions of Sir Thomas Lombe, who introduced from Italy the process of organzining (or preparing for the weaver) raw silk 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 also a certain John Apletree conceived the notion of rendering England independent of importing Italian raw silk by a system of silkworm farming upon an extensive scale. A patent was granted him, 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.' (fn. 11) But the English climate not being suitable for silkworm farming, the experiment soon proved a complete failure.

The Spitalfields industry now advanced with great rapidity; but foreign competition, in spite of prohibitory legislation, continued to increase, and was much encouraged by the preference shown to French materials and fashions over those of native design. On the other hand, the tide of fashion in France set with at least equal strength in favour of English goods. (fn. 12)

The growing fashion for wearing Indian calicoes and printed linen was the cause of serious disturbances in 1719. (fn. 13) On 13 June a mob of about 4,000 Spitalfields weavers paraded the streets of the City attacking all females whom they could find wearing Indian calicoes or linens, and sousing them with ink, aqua fortis, and other fluids. The Lord Mayor obtained the assistance of the Trained Bands to suppress the rioters, two of whom were secured by the Horse Grenadiers and lodged in the Marshalsea Prison. As soon as the Guards left, the mob re-assembled, the weavers tearing all the calico gowns they could meet with. The troops were hurried back from Whitehall, and new arrests were made. The weavers then attempted to rescue their comrades, and were not deterred by volleys of blank cartridge fired by the soldiers; one of the troops then fired ball, wounding three persons. 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 one Mrs. Beckett. (fn. 14)

In 1721 the manufacture of silk in England had increased in value to £700,000 more than formerly. (fn. 15) It is described as 'one of the most considerable branches of the manufactures of this kingdom' in an Act passed in the same year for the encouragement of this industry. (fn. 16) This Act granted on the exportation of wrought fabrics a drawback, or repayment of part of the duties exacted, on the importation of the raw material, which was practically equivalent to a bounty. The high duties on foreign silk led to smuggling on a most extensive scale. French writers estimate the average exportation of silks from France to England from 1688 to 1741 at about 12,500,000 francs or £500,000 a year in value.

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 had endeavoured to induce their workpeople to give a like promise, and the total number of men which Spitalfields thus offered to furnish was 2,919. The address to King George (fn. 17) presented by Mr. Alderman Baker is followed by a list of the manufacturers' names, against each of which is placed 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,' amounting to 2,919 as above. The list includes eighty-four masters, the greater proportion of whom bear French names.

In 1763 attempts were made to check the prevalence of smuggling, and the silk mercers of the metropolis are said to have recalled their orders for foreign goods. It appears, however, from an inquiry made by a Committee of the Privy Council appointed in 1766 that smuggling was then carried on to a greater extent than ever, and that 7,072 looms were out of employment. Riots broke out in the beginning of October 1763, when several thousand 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. (fn. 18)

Although the English silks were now considered to be superior to those of foreign make, the latter found a ready market in England, and their importation caused great excitement among the weavers, who petitioned Parliament to impose double duties upon all foreign wrought silks. Their petition not being granted, the London weavers went to the House of Commons on 10 January 1764 'with drums beating and banners flying,' to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. (fn. 19) 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. Some relief was afforded by Parliament (fn. 20) by lowering the import duty on raw silk and prohibiting the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves. The dealers in foreign silks also undertook to countermand all their orders for foreign silks, and a contribution was made for the immediate relief of the sufferers. By these means the weavers were for the time appeased, and the only violence committed was that of breaking the windows of some mercers who dealt in French silks.

The agitation was increased rather than suppressed by these concessions, and an Act was passed in 1765 (fn. 21) 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 occasioned by an outbreak on 6 May when a mob of 5,000 weavers from Spitalfields (fn. 22) armed with bludgeons and pickaxes marched to the residence of one of the Cabinet Ministers in Bloomsbury Square, and having paraded their grievances marched away threatening to return if they did not receive speedy redress. Next day serious rioting began, and to the end of the month kept London in such a state of general alarm that the citizens were compelled to enrol themselves for military duty. 'Monday night,' says a contemporary newspaper, (fn. 23) 'the guards were doubled at Bedford House, and in each street leading thereto were placed six or seven of the Horse Guards, who continued till yesterday at ten with their swords drawn. A strong party of Albemarle's Dragoons took post in Tottenham Court Road, and patrols of them were sent off towards Islington and Marylebone, and the other environs on that side of the town; the Duke of Bedford's new road by Baltimore House was opened, when every hour a patrol came that way to and round Bloomsbury to see that all was well.' In 1767 (fn. 24) the 'culters,' as they were called, again became rioters, breaking into workshops, cutting the work off the looms, and dangerously wounding several who endeavoured to arrest their progress; similar outbreaks occurred in 1768 and 1769.

These outbreaks and those which soon afterwards followed were caused by the bitter disputes between the journeymen and master weavers on the subject of wages. Their differences gave rise to the famous 'Spitalfields Acts' of 1773, 1792, and 1811. (fn. 25) 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' continued in force until 1824; (fn. 26) and their effect can only be described as disastrous. They were passed to get rid of an evil, but they originated an evil of a different kind; they were intended to protect both masters and men from unjust exactions on either part, but they only brought about a paralysis of the Spitalfields trade which would have ended in its utter ruin but for their repeal. But, as the effects of the Acts did not immediately manifest themselves, they were at first exceedingly popular. After 1785, however, the substitution of cottons in the place of silk gave a severe check to the manufacture, and the weavers then began to discover the real nature of the Spitalfields Acts. Being forbidden to work at reduced wages they were totally thrown out of employment, so that in 1793 upwards of 4,000 Spitalfields looms were quite idle. In 1798 the trade began to revive, and continued to extend slowly till 1815 and 1816, when the Spitalfields weavers were involved in sufferings far more extensive and severe than at any former period. (fn. 27) 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 (fn. 28) 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.' (fn. 29) On the effect of this important legislation McCulloch remarks: (fn. 30)

The monopoly which the manufacturers had hitherto enjoyed, though incomplete, had had sufficient influence to render inventions and discoveries of comparatively rare occurrence in the silk trade; but the Spitalfields Act extinguished every germ of improvement. Parliament in its wisdom having seen fit to enact that a manufacturer should be obliged to pay as much for work done by the best machinery as if it were done by hand, it would have been folly to have thought of attempting anything new. It is not, however, to be denied that Macclesfield, Norwich, Manchester, Paisley, &c., are under obligations to this Act. Had it extended to the whole kingdom it would have totally extirpated the manufacture; but being confined to Middlesex it gradually drove the most valuable branches from Spitalfields to places where the rate of wages was determined by the competition of the parties, on the principle of mutual interest and compromised advantage.

During the continuance of the Acts there was in the Spitalfields district no medium between the full regulation prices and the total absence of employment, and the repeal of this restrictive legislation gave immediate relief to the local industry. The introduction at this time of the loom invented by Jacquard, (fn. 31) a straw-hat manufacturer at Lyons, for the manufacture of figured silks, largely helped to restore the falling fortune of the Spitalfields trade. The elaborate brocades which were previously made at Spitalfields (fn. 32) were produced only by the most skilful among the craft, who bestowed upon them an immense amount of labour. The most beautiful products of the Jacquard loom are executed by workmen possessing only the ordinary amount of skill, whilst the labour attendant upon the actual weaving is but little more than that required for making the plainest goods. In 1846 the figure weavers of Spitalfields engaged in the production, by the aid of a Jacquard loom, of a piece of silk which was to surpass everything hitherto made in England, and to rival a masterpiece of the Lyons weavers pro duced in the previous year. The subject of the design was partly allegorical, introducing Neptune, Mars, Time, Honour, and Harmony, with medallion portraits of English naval and military heroes, and figures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (fn. 33)

In the evidence taken before a committee of the House of Commons on the silk trade in 1831-2 it was stated that the population of the districts in which the Spitalfields weavers resided could not be less at that time than 100,000, of whom 50,000 were entirely dependent on the silk manufacture, and the remaining moiety more or less dependent indirectly. The number of looms at this period (fn. 34) 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 an average, children included, about thrice as many operatives as looms, it is clear that during stagnation of trade not less than from 10,000 to 15,000 persons would be reduced to a state of non-employment and destitution. (fn. 35) An excellent account of the condition of the silk trade, written in 1868, will be found in Once a Week. (fn. 36) From the census of 1901 it appears that the number of silk weavers in the various processes of the trade in the entire county of London reached only 548, of whom 48 were employers. The relations between the employer and the operative deserve a passing notice. The manufacturer procures his thrown 'organzine' and 'tram' either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of 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.

Porter in his Treatise on the Silk Manufacture gives a pleasing picture of the home life of a Spitalfields weaver and of his happy and prosperous condition; but a writer in Knight's London (fn. 38) paints in much more sober colours the condition of a weaver and his family. (fn. 39) Each account is taken from personal observation, and the difference is probably to be explained by the state of trade at the time of the visit, and the class of workman visited. The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These 'lights' are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large bird cages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained 'call-birds' and other devices in the fields of north and east London. The treaty with France in 1860 which allowed French silks to come in duty free, found Great Britain and Ireland unable to compete with France, and in a short time the trade dwindled immensely with disastrous results to Spitalfields and other centres.

The progress of the decay of the Spitalfields silk trade from 1860 onwards and the recent attempted revival of its silk brocade industry are well treated in an interesting article by Lasenby Liberty contributed in 1893 to the Studio on 'Spitalfields Brocades.' (fn. 40)


  • 1. For an exhaustive account of the sums raised for the relief of foreign Protestant refugees and the distribution of the amount, see an article by W. A. Shaw, in Engl. Hist. Rev. (1894), ix, 662-83.
  • 2. Stow, Surv. of Lond. bk. iv, 48.
  • 3. Burn, Hist. Protestant Refugees in Engl. (1846), 159-80.
  • 4. Publications, xi (1898).
  • 5. Ibid. p. xx.
  • 6. Charles Weiss, Hist. of French Protestant Refugees (1854), 253.
  • 7. G. R. Porter, 'Treatise on the Silk Manufacture,' Lardner's Cab. Cycl. (1831), 60-1.
  • 8. Angliae Tutamen, or the safety of Engl. 31.
  • 9. Stat. of the Realm, vii, 428.
  • 10. S. W. Beck, Draper's Dict. 309.
  • 11. H. D. Traill, Social Engl. v, 148-9; T. F. Croker, Walk fr. Lond. to Fulham (1860), 90-1.
  • 12. Porter, op. cit. 63.
  • 13. William C. Sydney, Engl. and the English, ii, 195.
  • 14. Orig. Weekly Journ. 20 June, 1719.
  • 15. C. King, Brit. Merchant (1721), ii, 220.
  • 16. Stat. 8 Geo. I, cap. 15.
  • 17. Proc. Huguenot Soc. ii, 453-6.
  • 18. Gent. Mag. xxxiii, 514-15.
  • 19. Knight, Lond. ii, 394; Porter, op. cit. 66-7.
  • 20. Stat. 5 Geo. III, cap. 29, 48.
  • 21. Porter, op. cit. 68.
  • 22. Sydney, Engl. and the English, ii, 197.
  • 23. Lloyd's Evening Post, 22 May 1765.
  • 24. Sydney, loc. cit.
  • 25. Knight, Lond. ii, 394-5.
  • 26. Repealed by 5 Geo. IV, cap. 66.
  • 27. McCulloch, Dict. of Commerce (1882), 1279.
  • 28. Knight, op. cit. ii, 395.
  • 29. Porter, op. cit. 78.
  • 30. Dict. of Commerce (1882), 1279.
  • 31. Thos. R. Ashenhurst, Weaving (1893), 61.
  • 32. Porter, op. cit. 245.
  • 33. Penny Mag. (1841), x, 478.
  • 34. Badnall, A View of the Silk Trade (1828), 93.
  • 35. Hogg, Weekly Instructor, 1854 (new ser.), ii, 38.
  • 36. Vol. xviii, 228, 250, 276.
  • 37. For the best kind of work weavers have been paid as much as 15s. a day. Knight, Lond. ii, 396 note. See also Eclectic Mag. 1851, xxiii, 268.
  • 38. Vol. ii, 397.
  • 39. See also for the darker side of the picture, Dr. Hector Gavin, Sanitary Ramblings (1848), 42; Hogg, Instructor (Ser. 2), ii, 96.
  • 40. Studio, i, 20-4.