As we have related a number of times on this blog already (here, and here), the silkweavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green fought a long battle against mechanisation, to preserve their wage levels and standard of living.
Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.
The 1760s saw the silkweavers’ struggles gradually rise to fever pitch. And while earlier battles had been fought between masters and journeymen, or sometimes between masters and journeymen united against cheap fabric imports that threatened to undercut the industry as a whole, sometimes the growth of mechanised techniques in silkweaving brought the machine loom workers into conflict with the older, handloom weavers, who partly blamed the latter for wage cuts and layoffs.
In 1767, amidst wage disputes, masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.
Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief. Some of them were apprehended, and being examined before the justices at Hicks-hall, it appeared that two classes of weavers were mutually combined to distress each other, namely the engine weavers and the narrow weavers. The men who were taken up were engine weavers, and they urged… that they only assembled in order to protect themselves from a party of the others who were expected to rise. As they had done no mischief, they were dismissed with a severe reprimand…”
Tensions would only rise however, between insurgent groups of ‘cutters’ – angry weavers bent on sabotaging looms of masters denying them the wage and work they expected – and those weavers, whether working by hand or machine loom, who worked beneath the agreed wage level. In 1768-9 these disputes would lead to stepped up violence, pitched battles, murder, executions, and the occupation of the area by the army.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online