NOW logo for 2nd level page


The following is a summary of a talk given by Dr Hilda Kean on Saturday March 12 2005 as part of NOW's one day forum on 'Sweated Labour: Women Workers in the Garment Trade'

The unusual circumstances of Spitalfields weavers

Silk weaving in London had had its origins in a livery company within the nearby square mile of the city. It was based here both because of closeness to imports of raw silk in the Port of London and because London was a place of consumption of silk. Spitalfields was a particular location for silk weaving since it had been protected by legislation in the 1700s covering wage levels and the numbers of apprenticeships allowed. Silk weavers working here were protected both against foreign competition and under-cutting by other areas outside London. The trade had been revitalised, however, by migrant Protestant weavers who had been forced abroad from their native France after religious persecution first at the St Bartholomew's Massacre of 1572 and, subsequently, when the freedom to practise their religion was rescinded by the Edict of Nantes in 1685. They settled in Spitalfields, the name first given to the north east area just outside the boundary of the City of London, which was the oldest industrial suburb in London. By the nineteenth century the words Spitalfields and silk weavers had become almost synonymous, although most of the weavers had moved further north and east into the area now defined separately, Bethnal Green, in search of cheaper accommodation. In the nineteenth century many contemporary commentators chose to emphasise the Protestant nature of the area, which the Huguenots had configured with their reputedly hard work and thrifty habits. Indeed so significant was their religious influence that it was stabilised geographically by the erection of the French Protestant church in Spitalfields.

The geographical proximity of Spitalfields to the centre of financial and political power had given the authorities specific cause for concern. The area had become famous in the C18th for direct action to protect the trade being undercut by cheaper French imports. During the 1760s Spitalfields weavers had marched in their thousands, rioted and smashed looms. As the Hammonds summarised it, 'the journeymen weavers were bold, determined and strongly organised.' As a consequence both state repression and executions followed, as well as the Spitalfields Acts, initially of 1773, that protected the area as the key location for silk making in England. In the same period in which repressive Combination Acts would outlaw trade union activity, here was a form of collective bargaining, through negotiation between 'masters' and weavers, enforced by the courts.

In contrast to the weaving of cotton and wool in the north of England most work was carried out on looms in people's homes. The looms were large requiring large and lofty rooms and good light. Today only occasionally do we see restored houses with these horizontal windows for example in Princelet street near Spitalfields market. The looms were heavy machines with wooden parts. Some of these were directly owned, others hired from a silk master. The work was undertaken as a family unit with different members of the family involved in different stages of the process. Silk winders - as which women often worked - wound skeins of silk onto bobbins and thence into warp threads and then placed into the loom. There was a continued division of labour, a breaking down of the weaving process into separate tasks long after this sort of working processes had disappeared in the northern wool trade. One family would weave the same design for many years or even a lifetime. With introduction of a Jacquard machine this meant different designs could be introduced more easily. The Jacquard machines was first used in Spitalfields in the 1820s, essentially cutting down on the different processes and leading to a more industrialised process, with people working outside their own homes. But handloom weaving still continued for many decades. As George Dodd described the Spitalfields weaving process in 1844:

'The weavers work in their own houses, and employ the hand-loom for their silk goods. There are no large factories, no power-looms, no steam-engines, but everything (with the exception of the Jacquard machine) goes on pretty nearly as in the past.'

Women's work in the Spitalfields silk trade

Women worked in the weaving trade and had a status that was not common at this time in other jobs. In contrast, say, to the exclusionary position of male power loom carpet weavers in Kidderminster, Spitalfields female silk weavers were permitted to complete regular apprenticeships as weavers and to be paid the same as journeymen once their apprenticeships had been completed. Wage levels were legally controlled and this regulation of wages applied both to men and women.This legal protection of wage rates remained in force until 1824, when it was removed,' in the first free trade budget of the century,' despite much local vociferous protest.

However, even in the hard times of the 1840s, women continued to weave the finest velvets and jacquard brocades and to receive the same piece rates as men. In the 1860s there was still a demand for dress silks and rich furniture silks by the end of the C19th small items such as silk ties and handkerchiefs. Under the aegis of the Weavers Company there were prizes for silk weaving - women as well as men won prizes. For example, prize winners included Emma Macaree in 1889 working for the firm of Buckingham; in 1895 Francis Dearman and his daughter Rose who worked in figured silk received prizes for their work. In his work on the trade in London Alfred Plummer - writing in the 1960s - describes the work of Rose Dearman, who had left school in 1899 and who was still alive, continuing to weave silk until forced into the millinery trade through hard times.

How has the silk trade - and women's role within it - been written about?

Throughout the C19th - and even straggling into the first years of the C20th - women were winding and weaving silk. But you are unlikely to know this from reading some of the books on the trade. The writing which has covered the silk industry has approached the topic in different ways. Academic Studies by L D Schwarz or David Green, for example, have concentrated on silk weavers as an homogeneous group in economic decline, with the writers differing only on the precise date of such demise . David Green has argued that decline had been drastic in the 1840s; others such as Gareth Stedman Jones or Frank Warner have argued that the 1860s was the time of sharp decline - this was when the total abolition of duties on French imported silk was scrapped in 1860. Decline of a more aesthetic character has also featured in the analysis of textile historian Natalie Rothstein who has declared that, after 1832 and the opening up of the English market, 'the English silk industry can be studied from an economic or social viewpoint but, sadly, not an aesthetic one.'

But the role of women in the trade has been largely ignored by historians of the late C20th century. It's not the case that no material exists for the writing of women's history in this trade. Throughout C19th contemporary materials in writing and visual representations that show the work women did.

For example there are several parliamentary reports and royal commissions that explored the specific circumstances of the weavers' existence. They were documents for a national debate about the value - or not - of state intervention into the economy. In the course of a century during which Whigs (and then Liberals) advocated the merits of free trade the Spitalfields weavers became a metaphor for the efficacy, or otherwise, of laissez-faire economic policy. It was this wider, national, debate that provided the context for much of the extensive official literature on the silk trade.
One of the parliamentary commissions was conducted in 1840. In part it was concerned with combating the national (and local) influence of Chartism, the militant campaign for the vote and political representation for working men, and with the problem of unemployed male handloom weavers in the north of England, who had lost work through industrialisation.2 This particular inquiry had been set against the earlier knowledge, on all sides, that Spitalfields had formerly been a regulated industry. In the Reports of the Assistant Hand-Loom Weavers' Commissioners individual weavers describe their own experiences and tell their personal stories. The stories included in the pages of these long reports are full of motifs of hard work, dedication and low wages, told in response to the largely unstated questions of the commissioners. Government inspectors & investigators were concerned that women undertaking paid work, often in circumstances injurious to their health, were undermining Victorian ideas of femininity. The story tellers - like their interrogators - were all male. Female stories, told by women, were neither wanted nor included in these reports but fathers and husbands spoke about the work of their daughters and wives. As William Bresson, an experienced silk weaver, testified to the parliamentary inquiry, 'there are few trades in which a woman is able to earn as much as my daughter gets by working at the loom.'

However, the women who worked at the loom were silenced from presenting themselves as articulate, as potential creators of their own life stories, in a public arena. In addition to individual stories, the parliamentary reports contain a statistical breakdown of the number of looms being worked in different districts of Spitalfields and by whom - men, women, boys, girls (and a separate category of boy and girl apprentices). Some might read this as an acknowledgement of the hard work of women and their evident skill in this trade; but it might also be set alongside the contemporary idea that a reason for weavers' poverty was not the squashing of laws protecting the industry, but the very numbers of people, including, of course, women, seeking to eke out a living in a shrinking market. Because of The scrapping of the Spitalfields Acts and changes in the tax on silk imports had led to an overall downturn in the local industry, those who continued to weave were frequently portrayed as out of time and living in a pre-industrial era. This depiction was often found in nineteenth -century visual images which contain common iconography. They usually show women, men and children working together in the trade: they defy later written accounts that ignored the presence of women .Various images can be found in The Queen of October 1861 or Godwin's Builder, of 1853. Similar images, albeit in photographic vein, continued up to the 1930s, always defining the workers as of an earlier age, or the 'last weaver'. Journalist and chronicler of London life, G. Holden Pike, described his walk through Spitalfields in 1892 as a journey out of time, 'the weavers, who are fewer in number now than they have been for some generations ... may possibly become extinct before very long'. In similar vein Pall Mall Magazine of 1905 represented an apparent conversation with an old silk-trimming weaver proud to create very expensive trimming for opera cloaks. The response of the journalist's companion is to admire the skill and 'true humility' of the elderly woman preserving, 'between the pages of a dog-eared hymn-book a little piece of silk fringe, very elaborate in pattern and exquisitely wrought'. But amazement is reserved in anthropological vein for the very existence of this elderly woman 'surely their day has gone!' Even if one believed that sketches and photographs were simply representations of historical reality, surely the observant would notice the common iconography of these images over a time frame of decades - and clear presence of women. This is also evident in images on the EVA website project, part of the London Metropolitan Archives.

However the presence of women in the silk trade can be found through looking at nineteenth century census returns. A study of various streets in Bethnal Green, south of Bethnal green road indicated that the silk trade, with women at its core, was still surviving in the later 1800s. By the 1890s families from decades before were still in residence, not moved and still working as silk weavers. Many of the silk weavers remaining in the craft were older workers, but this was not a linear and simple form of 'dying out'. The individual census returns suggest that this was a trade which one dropped out of but also in to. Young people, especially women, moved into the trade. Thus we see young women, in say the Lamy family of Robert Street, joining the family silk weaving tradition in the 1870s or the young Nials girls starting their working life in the 1870s as silk trimming finishers. Some moved from jobs directly in the silk weaving business to the related trades of clothes making (for example, Esther Poulson of Squirries St turned to waistcoat making), or upholstery.

Some from these streets seem to have been employed by the firm of Warners in Hollybush gardens in Bethnal Green road which had a revival in silk trade due, in part, to a woman. In the 1890s the Duchess of Teck and her daughter, soon to be Queen Mary visited the firm and had silk for Mary's wedding dress made there. On coronation of King Edward, Warner's provided gold silk for the King's mantles. Warners then moved to Braintree in Essex in 1895. We find romantic accounts of their work in the Daily Mail of Feb 24th 1902 where a journalist described the 'girls' who worked in the mill 'rosy cheeked' 'of good appearance' - 'I could not but compare the good appearance of these girls with the factory 'hands' one sees thronging the cotton mills in the North, and shawls tied over heir heads.' The journalist continued 'The clanking of the handlooms, a sight which would have done the heart of William Morris good, was not exactly seraphic music, but about the workers was an air of subdued importance'.

A focus on the minutiae of census returns has suggested different patterns in the silk trade: a diversifying, but also a return to a former trade; a moving into trimmings and trifles but also a continuation of the work of winding raw silk. The consideration of the census material has also given prominence to the work of women largely ignored in studies of historians looking at the bigger picture .

I looked in particular at one street, Squirries St, where in 1851 Esther Keen, my grandfather's grandmother, like some 8999 other women over 20 in London, continued to work in the silk industry, which, according to Sally Alexander, was less than 1.2 per cent of the total female workforce in London. Of these 9000 women, 50 lived in this very street. In Squirries street, at least, weavers continued to ply their trade and silk continued to dominate the livelihoods of occupants. Of those men and women over 21 living in the street, 60 per cent of the jobs were in the reputedly moribund silk trade. In 1851 this was not only an older person's job but a woman's job. While the silk trade represented just over half the jobs that men in the street carried out, three quarters of the Squirries street women were employed in this trade. For young people in the street, however, silk represented less than 30 per cent of jobs. Nevertheless the trade was not merely an older person's job, for weavers moved both in to and out of the trade. Many worked in the textile trade, making fringes or trimmings, or hoods and cloaks. Some ten years later in 1861 jobs in Squirries Street were still dominated by silk. Certainly many of the inhabitants were the same residents of 1851 working in the same job. In 15 of the 64 houses not only was silk weaving still the main occupation but the self- same families were working in the trade as they had done a decade before. The street as much as jobs seemed to mark out the life span of local individual families.

It is not the case that there are no records of women's role in the silk trade, nor that there is no knowledge of this. Certainly family historians know much about this. Those working in local or family history are more likely to find this material - and find it interesting - than those historians simply looking for the broad picture. But as the material exists it does mean we can write about these women's lives, and make new histories today - if we want to.

Dr Hilda Kean Tutor in History, Ruskin College, Oxford:

For further reading and details of references please see:

Hilda Kean and Bruce Wheeler, ' Making History in Bethnal Green: Different Stories of Nineteenth-century Silk Weavers, History Workshop Journal , vol. 56, 2003, pp. 219 -232
Hilda Kean: London Stories. Personal Lives, Public Histories, Rivers Oram Press, 2004

For details of Ruskin history courses from short courses in writing family history to a MA degree in Public History see or ring 01865 554331.