For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.
For two hundred years, through the 17th and 18th centuries, the Silk Weavers of the East End conducted a long-running battle with their employers over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry.
Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade (one of the earliest recorded being that of 1620-40). “On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skillful operatives, who are discharged from work.” This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.
From its early beginnings silkweaving in the East End was a cottage industry, with workers mainly operating handlooms in houses doubling as workshops, at piece work rates, employed by small masters or through middlemen and dealers. Silk clothing and products were highly desirable, and profits were to be made, but the independence and skill of the weavers brought inevitable pressure to find ways to cut labour costs.
Machine looms began to replace handloom weaving for the manufacture of silk ribbons in the 1660s. But in August 1675, in a three-day riot, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, smashing machine looms or burning them in the streets; they also attacked french weavers who were accused of competing for jobs. Outbreaks of class violence often bubbled over with competing complaints and motivations, and we know today nationalist or xenophobic resentment often sits side by side with more clear-sighted recognition of where the power really lies.
Some of the crowds in the 1675 riots wore green aprons, then a suspect colour politically, having been associated with English Civil War radical grouping the Levellers. Following so soon after the 1668 Bawdy House Riots, where wearing of green had been accompanied by more overtly seditious slogans about liberty and tearing down parliament, the weavers’ movement scared the authorities; although they quickly realised the weavers were centrally motivated by solely economic grievances. However the government worried that such movements could be manipulated by the scattered republican and fifth monarchist underground, still sporadically attempting to launch uprisings or assassination plots.
The powers that be seized a former Fifth Monarchist radical and silkweaver, John Mason, whose interrogation produced “desperate words”, where Mason is said to have looked forward to a time when men would not “labour and toyl day and night… to maintain others that live in idleness.” But he had also been more of a victim than a ringleader (having had an engine loom of his own smashed). Perhaps he was expressing a dream of an end to wage labour… or maybe he saw in mechanisation a vision of an easier working life.
The insurrection was suppressed by the army, but a result of the riots was that full mechanisation was delayed in the Spitalfields silk industry for a century.
But the pressure to reduce costs would remain, and the need would be met eventually, by slow expansion and technical innovation, by gradual employment of ‘unskilled’ workers (often women, migrants or children) to ‘mind’ the machines; in some cases by moving production away from London to other town where workers could be found outside the reach of the East Londoners’ powerful moral code. The issue could be put on hold but not deferred forever.
The 1675 events also left the authorities with a healthy fear of the effects of poverty among the weavers. When recession in 1683 caused great ‘distress and desperation among the journeymen weavers”, it was suggested that a troop of cavalry be stationed in Whitechapel as a precaution against disorder. Again and again the riotous nature of the weavers would necessitate state violence to put it down. Just as often, however, Parliament or the local state (in the form of the magistrates), would find ways to accommodate the weavers’ demands – sometimes from a desire for social peace, sometimes as winds of political and economic theory chimed with the voice of the silkweaving trade.
The riots also showed the silkweavers the power they could exert if they acted collectively, and collective organization, not always expressed through violence (but often enough, as seemed necessary), became a hallmark of their struggles to maintain a good standard of living. This would emerge as struggles to impose decent wages and conditions on their employers, to force restrictions on imports of cloths and fabrics that competed with silk, and to prevent under-cutting of the wage rates by mechanized weaving. As with John Mason’s case, this led to confused and seemingly contradictory movements within the same moments. For over a century and a half after 1675, though, the East London silkweavers fought for their interests with a determined collectivity.
More on the Spitalfields silkweavers and their struggles can be read here
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online