The silkweavers of London’s East End had a long history of organizing collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organized violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages.
At other times, though, masters and journeymen would broadly be united, in an alliance to defend the whole trade; usually when threatened by cheaper fabrics imported from abroad. For decades in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries masters and weavers espoused protectionism against imported textiles, and put pressure, sometimes using riot and assault, on both parliament and other authorities to erect import bans or high tariffs, and social pressure on individuals caught wearing such garments… The extent to which there was manipulation of the mass of weavers by more powerful masters, to use them to extort favourable rulings in Parliament, is debatable – although encouraging collective violence was a dangerous game, as it was also turned on the masters regularly.
One of their most powerful enemies of the weavers in this was the mighty East India Company, a global capitalist enterprise, run from London, which had large holdings in India and other parts of the far east… The Company was a major importer of silks from India, and other textiles.
In 1697 silkweavers’ riots erupted, against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and on January 21st they attacked the HQ of the East India Company, (in Leadenhall Street, in the City: the site is now occupied by the Lloyds Building). They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.
These disturbances as well as pressure from silk-weaving manufacturers’ organisations (such as the Royal Lustring Company, which had taken advantage of a Hugenot workman bringing to England the secret of giving a lustre to taffeta) in succeeding years led to several protectionist laws being passed in parliament in the 1690s and 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths, especially French silks.
1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, which had become very fashionable. Silk, wool and cotton weavers widely perceived calico as causing reduced demand for their products (calico was quite a bit cheaper. than silk..) Calico printing was now becoming an industry of size in London.
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.” The protests of 1719-20 were to some extent successful, leading to a ban on calico, enshrined in the Calico Act, as well as penalties for anyone convicted of wearing printed calicoes.
In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 silkweavers, armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, paraded in front of St. James’ Palace with black flags, surrounding the Houses of Lords, after the Duke of Bedford engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. They then besieged and attacked the Bedford’s house, in London’s Bloomsbury. The fourth Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power. But he also had extensive interests in the East India Company, which was again engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles – also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.
The East India Company had also launched an imperialist war to seize economic power in India, defending trade monopolies with their private army. They caused mass starvation in 1769 and 1770 by cornering the market in rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Using genocide and mass starvation, they gained almost complete rule over in the sub-continent. Their control led to rebellion and mutiny, most notably in 1857; it also sowed the foundation of the British Raj.
Read more about the Spitalfields Silk weavers:
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online: