In the 1760s, the silk weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green were engaged in a protracted multi-fronted struggle, sparked by a fierce slump in their trade, widespread smuggling of fine cloth, and social and technological change in silk production. The disturbance and agitation around silk work involved vertical cross-class industry lobbying for protectionist measures to be imposed to support the trade, but also vicious class warfare between masters and journeymen, over wage levels and increasing mechanisation which was driving down pay and conditions. The second of these was complicated by attacks by hand loom weavers on some using newer machine looms, and vice versa.
All these struggles involved high levels of organised violence; on several occasions through the decade huge demonstrations filled the city, attacking Parliament and targeting ministers seem to be blocking the silkweavers’ interests; at other times secret clubs, proto-unions, formed armed gangs to sabotage the work of employers deemed to be paying too little, and of workers considered to be ‘rate-breakers’.
Amidst the ebb and flow of weavers’ aggro, with their economic hardship and their collective protest the talking point of London, some elements, most likely from a – class? caste? layer? – a couple of degrees lower of the social scale thought this was an opportunity to make a little cash:
‘Upwards of 500 fellows assembled in a riotous manner near Battle Bridge, the bottom of Grays Inn Lane, and insulted several persons, both on foot and horseback, passing by, from many of whom they extorted money; they pretended to be weavers, but it appeared at length that no weavers were among them.” Gentleman’s Magazine, 19th May 1765.
On the face of it (and this is pretty much all we know), this seems like a bit of sharp practice from what was seen loosely as the fraternity of beggars, villains and slum-dwellers, the inhabitants of London’s rookeries. Only a few days before, for several days, the East End silkweavers had besieged parliament, demanding new tariffs on imported cloths that were undercutting the silk manufacturing trade. Crowds of weavers had roughed up anti-protectionist ministers and aristos, and attacked the house of the Duke of Bedford, a leading politico and seen as the main mover in refusing to pass measures aiding the weavers. Why not get in on the act, while sympathy among some Londoners for the weavers’ economic plight was high, and while the authorities were to some extent on the back foot, dealing with angry crowds…?
Extortion is as old as the hills, and collective extortion of the wealthy by the less well off a long-established tradition. In the 18th century social crime was at a high level. If anti-social crime can be summed up as robbing everyone without any pretence of attempt at class consciousness or consideration of whether they are better off or worse off than yourself – then you could describe social crime as the poor stealing from the rich, knowingly helping themselves; for many, poaching, smuggling, but just as much pick-pocketting, burglary and other forms of robbery, could not only be a means of survival in a time of vast inequalities of wealth, upheaval and industrial development, enclosure of land… Poachers, for instance, often saw themselves as taking back what was fenced off and denied them, but had once been ‘all men’s birthright’. Smuggling was considered almost victimless, by virtually all classes – united in enjoying both the cheaper goods and thumbing your nose at hated government regulations…
Of course, some of the optimistic glow around ‘social crime’ is also to some extent backwards projection on the part of us modern types. We like the idea of Robin Hood because the myths built up around him play to our own prejudices. Highwaymen, for instance, are dashing figures when described by your history walk leaders, dandies with fine manners freewheeling through the woods, Adam Ant taking your purse but kissing your giggly hand… Whereas in reality blokes like Dick Turpin were nasty fuckers. Turpin, for instance, was probably a grass, maybe a psycho, definitely a bastard who would never have hung if he hadn’t shot a neighbour’s pet cockerel in a rage (so an animal abuser as well!)
The ‘500 fellows’ who exploited the silk-weavers struggle for a quick buck – 500? really? I bet it was less. Rumour only expands numbers when it comes to a ruck. ‘Pretending to be weavers… no weavers were amongst them?’ How does the writer know? Were any arrested? Interviewed? The journo definitely got down into the crowd and did a sociological survey – not. It is possibly true – but also possible that some weavers or ex-weavers, apprentices even, were among this crowd. On balance, artisans like the silk-weavers considered themselves to be a cut above your casual labourer or rookery-dweller, but the line between regular work, irregular employment, and crime was thin, and easily broken where wages were low, trade was seasonal or easily disrupted, where mechanisation was changing the expectations of solid employment at one trade for life. A fair number of silk weavers, or their partners, or their children, ended on the gallows at Tyburn, through the century, having turned to robbery in desperation. For many in the 1760s, a decade of depression, high food prices and political and trade upheaval, social mobility was all one way – down. And we know that at least one group of silk-weavers went from organising to maintain wage levels, to violent warfare against their employers, ending in a protection racket. The ‘cutters’ of the Conquering and Bold Defiance, a society of East End weavers, began by slashing the silk on looms where the accepted wage rates for piece-work were not being paid. By 1768 they had refined this to threatening employers, extracting a levy on the masters: be a shame if this nice silk got cut, guvnor, how about a quid for the weavers’ benevolence fund…
And why not? Overwhelming force was always there the other way, organised and collective ruling class expropriation of the land, the wealth created by the workers and peasants, was ingrained and constant. The terror of the gallows, the prospect of hanging for theft of a tiny amount (say, for nicking a silk hankie), the shadow of Newgate – violence was being used to discipline the lower orders into accepting new and harsher social relations. Some comeback on that was only fair… To get together, pretend to be poor weavers and then basically engage in a bit of mass aggressive begging, shows intelligence and cunning – it’s what you need to survive, duck and dive, think up a scam, carry it out, move on to another…
And it wasn’t the last time… mass class struggle opens up avenues for what some more straitlaced lefties might consider ‘lumpen’ elements to get a slice of the action. Maybe some of the same ‘fellows’ from 1765 were involved in a very similar incident a few years later, when ‘a number of fellows, pretending to be coalheavers, extorted money from gentlemen in London…’, during mass class warfare on the Thames in 1768.
And during the 1978-9 winter of discontent, when the lorry drivers strike was paralysing road transport, as mass pickets blocked roads across Britain – somewhere in Scotland, “a kind of drunken, beer can ‘collective’ of semi-alkies spread across a road and, on the tap, took some money from working drivers in imitation of the pickets!”
We’ll drink to that…
For more on the silk-weavers of London’s East End, their struggles and especially the 1760s, see Bold Defiance
On the Winter of Discontent: To Delightful Measures Changed
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.