In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for 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; in some ways the silkweavers foreshadowed the later struggles of the Luddites.
The 1760s had seen silkweavers fighting a constant violent war to keep their wage levels up, which had ended in riots, secret clubs of weavers engaging in sabotage and extortion, responded to with executions, military occupation of the area, and murder of informers. Most accounts of the struggles of the weavers end with the hangings of the ‘cutters’ in 1769… But ironically, following on from this catastrophic defeat, the silkweavers were about to win one of their biggest victories.
Although as a result of the battles of the 1760s, wage levels for silkweaving were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.
This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, 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.
However the Acts also correspondingly imposed fines on the journeymen for attempts to combine together… The Spitalfields weavers did manage to form a Mutual Aid Society, a Friendly Society in effect, in 1777: “some Mutual zealous, spirited and virtuous men proposed to form Aid themselves into a Society in the year 1777, or thereabouts. Society, for mutual assistance should any of their masters oppress them or refuse to abide by the prices for work authorised by the Justices according to Act of Parliament. The Society or Committee was known by the name of the Union, and was held for many years at the sign of the ‘Knave of Clubs’, in Club Row, Bethnal Green… it took the form of a Committee of delegates from each of the Benefit Clubs and Friendly Societies which were so numerous among the Spitalfields weavers.”
Its aim was “To secure the price of labour in the broad silk weaving trade, and to defray the expenses of law should any master or journeyman transgress the provisions of the Act of Parliament passed in 1773.” Run by an elected Committee and a paid secretary, met regularly at an appointed “House of Call,” in order to receive reports from the trade and weekly subscriptions from the membership, who paid a penny a week. This was the first of many attempts to form a united society of weavers, that all foundered after a shorter or longer existence, over the next hundred odd years, which according to most accounts achieved little for their members, due mainly to the decline in the East London silk trade. (Unions in silkweaving in other towns met with more success.)
The Acts did enable peaceable bargaining between masters and workers: “In 1795 a Committee, consisting of delegates from the Union of Journeymen and from a Trade Society which the masters had formed, met and agreed on a general rise of prices. They also decided the rates for newly introduced works of silk mixed with other materials which had by the Act 42 George III, Cap. 44, been brought within the scope of the original Act. This list the justices sanctioned…”
The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved to other silk manufacturing towns (Macclesfield, Norwich, Manchester, Paisley and Glasgow among them); the Acts were confined to the County of Middlesex, so they shifted to where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates, while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work, to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard; at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the 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.’
The writers of some pamphlets attacking the Acts claimed that the interference of the magistrates ensured that all work was paid the same rate, machine-woven silk just as hand-woven; this, it was suggested, was handicapping masters, preventing any incentive for technological improvement… The same old argument, which again can be heard today every time workers combine to try and win higher wages – small businesses can’t afford to pay a living wage, it’ll cripple them and hobble the economy, the state should abolish as much regulation and red tape as possible; the market will set decent wages by its own mechanisms… We all know what happens when the market takes over…
By conscious and collective class struggle, the weavers forced the stare, at least locally, to guarantee a measure of living standards. Obviously the interests of the authorities was partly in social peace; but the ruling elites were divided at the time as to the merits of paternalist intervention in industry, or laissez faire, allowing manufacturers carte blanche to exploit where they would, regardless of the consequences for the workers. Rival factions in the magistracy and London merchant classes could even enter in semi-alliance with rebellious workers or sponsoring strike-breaking gangs, as in the Wapping coalheavers and sailors dispute of 1768.
But it’s also true that the gains for the weavers were partial; some workers were protected; others my have starved; and the local nature of the struggle meant that manufacturers were able to up sticks and transfer mechanised weaving elsewhere, eventually contributing to the doing-in for the Spitalfields silk industry. Limited gains are worth celebrating, but now, even more so than then, capital is always mobile, seeking ways to undercut our achivements; especially if we sit back. You have to keep pushing out the boundaries – or else they will push you back. Although there were some communications and solidarity expressed between silkweavers in different cities in the 1760s, over the next few decades the masters were able to move operations without a concerted movement to resist them. We have to be more mobile, more international, even, than them, to even resist the erosion of the little we have – never mind seizing more…
A STATE OF QUIETITUDE AND REPOSE
One major result of the Acts, at least between 1773 and 1824, seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… or any strikes at all. It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were also diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken part in the widespread food rioting of 1795. Local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen in Spitalfields. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, stated that the aim of doling out free food was to prevent the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, an important forerunner of the Metropolitan Police.
Whether the weavers were bought off completely is debatable though, as they were also said to be a significant element in the London artisan radical scene in the 1790s: including the London Corresponding Society and its more conspiratorial offshoots. However it may be relevant that when Leicester framework-knitters met London trade unionists in 1812 during the Luddite upsurge, the Londoners pointed out how the workers in London weree all organised, ‘combined’, “the silkweavers excepted, and what a Miserable Condition are they in.” The Acts may have exerted some quietist influence on Spitalfields workers, keeping them from coming together again in their own interest, with the magistrates claiming to be acting for them. By 1812 certainly the silkweavers of London were allegedly involved in abortive conspiracies for an uprising with Luddites and others – they and tailors were in fact said by government spies to be the chef London end of a nebulous revolutionary organisation…(although this was possibly invented by spies to justify their pay, and eagerly believed in by authorities and manufacturers as a justification for repression.) Later Fergus O’Connor was to call the Spitalfields weavers “the originators, the prop and support of the Chartist movement.”
So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement. It’s also a factor, that although the rebelliousness of the weavers pushed the local state to step in and acts as an arbitrator, in the end this disempowered the workers. By the time the Spitalfields Acts were withdrawn, the immense pressure the organised weavers could put on the masters had been dispersed, replaced by a reliance on the Magistrates; this collective power couldn’t, as it turned out, be rebuilt when it was needed.
As we said above, the division over the Acts reflects a split in attitudes to workers militancy from the autorities: whether to pacify them and reduce trouble, or condone the reduction of wages regardless, and savagely repress any resistance. Sir John Clapham noted that many masters supported the Acts, because they ensured that “the district lived in a state of quietitude and repose.”
In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may well have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition however, whether the Acts had existed or not.
It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly largely gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom-cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.
The East End’s silk weaving trade went into a serious decline in the mid-nineteenth century, although remnants lasted into recent times… But the collective power of the silkweavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green deserves to be remembered.
This post is largely an excerpt from the past tense text: ‘Bold Defiance’
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar