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.
In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.
Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.
Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade. 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’.
For decades, the silkweavers fought a long battle against mechanisation and low wages. 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.
Silkweaving was also notable for an occasional kind of cross-class unity: masters and journeymen, often at each others throats, instead joining together to press for protectionist measures in support or defence of their trade… The calico riots were one example…
1719-20 saw a prolonged Silkweavers’ agitation 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.”
In a pamphlet and broadsheet war, the issue was debated; among broadsides from the wool weavers, a well known “Ballad of Spittlefields, or the Weavers Complaint Against the Calico Madams”, sold on a penny broadsheet, summed up the textile weavers case against calicoes:
In the Ages of Old,
We Traded for Gold,
Our merchants were thriving and Wealthy:
We had silks for our Store,
Warm Wool for our Poor,
And Drugs for the Sick and Unhealthy:
And Drugs for the Sick and Unhealthy.
But now we bring Home
The Froth and the Scum
To Dress up the Trapes like a gay-Dame:
And Ev’ry She Clown
Gets a Pye-spotted gown,
And sets up for a Callicoe Madam.
O! tawdery Callico Madam…
Here they Stamp ’em and print ’em,
And Spot ’em and Paint ’em,
And the Callico Printers Brocade ’em;
Hey cost little pay,
And are tawdery gay,
Only fit for a Draggle-tail madam.
O! this tawdery Callico Madam.
Ev’ry Jilt of the Town
Gets a Callico Gown;
Our own Manufack’s out of Fashion:
No Country of Wool
Was ever so dull,
‘Tis a test of the Brains of the Nation:
O! the test of the brains of the Nation.
To neglect heir own Works,
Employ pagans and turks,
And let foreign Trump’ry o’er spread ’em:
Shut up their own Door,
And starve their own Poor,
For a tawdery Callico Madam.
O! this Tatterdemalion Madam.
Were there ever such Fools!
Who despising the Rules,
For the common Improvement of Nations:
Tye up the Poor’s Hands,
And search foreign lands,
For their Magpie ridiculous Fashions.
For their Magpie ridiculous Fashions.
They’re so Callico-wise,
Their own Growth they despise,
And without an inquiry, “Who made ’em?”
Cloath the Rich and the Poor,
The Chaste and the Whore,
And the Beggar’s a Callico Madam.
O! this Draggle-tailed Callico Madam.
Nay, who would lament it,
Or strive to prevent it,
If the Prince of Iniquity had ’em:
Or if, for a bride,
They were heartily ty’d
O some Pocky Damn’d Callico Madam.
O some Pocky Damn’d Callico Madam.
In June 1719, thousands assembled in Spitalfields and the Mint, and marched in protest over calico imports; this developed in to rioting, attacks on calico print works, and somewhat dodgily, tactics included attacking any women walking in the City wearing calico, or printed linen.
Obviously this tactic is not without its, er, issues, and one woman, at least, did respond in print, denouncing “a gang of audacious rogues to come and fall on us on the streets, and tear the clothes off our backs, insult and abuse us, and tell us we shall not wear what they do not weave; is this to be allowed in a Nation of Liberty?” Class and gender relations tangled here in confused ways: the weavers were poor workers, the women targeted mostly middle to upper class; but male power and violence was clearly involved too. The pamphlet war also muddied the water, as not only was the wearing of calico portrayed by some writers (for instance famous author and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe), as unpatriotic, but there was a suggestion that female servants formed a chunk of the market for calico, and some of the agitation seems to have been infected with middle or upper class desire to control these women’s ‘uppity’ dress sense…
Old fashioned harassment of women (widespread in London’s streets regardless of dress) also often got mixed in with economic grievance, and all sorts got involved in the general ruckus for the hell of it. Although women weavers were also prominent in the calico riots. Hmmm. Discuss.
The Lord Mayor of London called in the ‘Trained bands’ – citizens enrolled in City militias – to keep the crowds off the streets. Arrested weavers were sent to South London’s Marshalsea Prison, but the mob avoided the militia, attempting to rescue the arrestees; the militia wounded several weavers firing on them, and more were nicked and sent to Newgate Prison.
In 1720, weavers rallied in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, and more attacks on calico wearers followed. 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. The London Weavers’ Company for a while brought court proceedings against calico-sellers, and paid informers to bring calico-wearers to court, but eventually gave it up as uneconomic. But as late as 1785, people were still having gowns sabotaged: “Last week a gentlewoman of Mile-end had a new linen gown entirely destroyed by pouring spirits on it, by some wicked fellows, supposed to be Spitalfields silk-weavers. This practice is grown so common at the eastern end of the town that most of the females are fearful of leaving home in cottons and linens, especially in the evenings.”
So there was an attempt to deflect the direct action of the weavers, as contradictory as it was, into a legal process, though it didn’t end calico-madam taunting completely. At the same time heavy sentences were imposed on some caught attacking those wearing printed fabrics, running up to seven years transportation of the penal colonies…
High import duties were also imposed in the 1720s on the importing of French made silks, the main competitor for Spitalfields cloth; this led however to a widespread trade in smuggled silks from France. As with the Calico producers, the Weavers’ Company spent a great deal of effort trying to prevent and punish smuggling, with limited success.