Today in London’s fashion history; 1719: silkweavers begin ‘calico riots’ against imported clothes

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.

Calico printing

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.

Today in London radical history, 1771: an informer who sent insurgent silkweavers to the gallows killed in community punishment, Bethnal Green

On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke, a pattern drawer in the silk weaving trade, was chased by a crowd through the streets of Spitalfields, & then stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond. This came some 15 months after he had testified in the trial of silk weavers accused of being involved in organised sabotage and intimidation in a work dispute against their employers. The shocked reaction of the authorities to Clarke’s death was mirrored by a feeling among some East End locals that Clarke had deserved his fate. The incident was only the latest twist in a long-running war that had erupted into regular violence and brought the army onto the streets of the East End.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The Work of the Weavers

As previously related on this blog, the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End, fought a long volatile and violent class war against wage cuts, mechanisation and ‘dilution’ of skilled work, a struggle that lasted a century and a half. While it broke out sporadically between (roughly) the 1670s and the 1820s, the most intense battles were fought throughout the 1760s. The disputes were sparked by attempts by employers to reduce wages and pay rates, and organised attempts by their journeymen to maintain or raise them. The war came to a head as groups of ‘cutters’ came together to target wage-slashing masters, extending a campaign of threats, intimidation and assault to workers who worked for lower rates – such breaking ranks threatened the livelihoods of all by undermining the solidarity the journeymen weavers were trying to build.

The ‘cutters’ were so-nicknamed one of their favoured tactic was to slash silk on the loom, rendering the normally high-value fabric worthless. The silk-weaving trade was mostly conducted through home-work – weavers took silk belonging to a master to their homes, which doubled as workshops, and wove it there, and were paid by the piece finished. This method of mostly artisan production was, by the 1760s, beginning to evolve into a larger-scale more factory-based system, but in London’s East End, silkweaving was very much a complex mesh of self-employment, patronage, and interwoven relationships of work, friendship, and community. Journeymen could rise to be masters; though most did not. Attempts to replace long-established skilled work with more mechanised production methods that enabled hiring weavers at lower pay had been going on for a century, constantly resisted by a self-consciously skilled and sometimes well-paid workforce determined to extract the maximum from their labour (partly because periodic trade slumps and cloth imports made their position not always secure).
This situation was further complicated by the increase in middlemen and agents interposing themselves between workers and masters, a bit like the employment agencies of today, though often emerging from the ranks of the silk weavers themselves.

Like the later Luddites of the midlands and the north, the weavers’ battle to defend their livelihoods consistently involved collective violence; and like them, was viciously repressed by the authorities, who in the main lined up behind the master weavers. But the silkweavers’ struggles were complex and contradictory: 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.

After decades of skirmishing over prices, by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling had left 7,072 looms were out of employment. In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.

There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides. Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, riots, attacks on the houses of wealthy silk masters and politicians and justices seen as instituting repression against the weavers’ combinations or passing laws that threatened their position. As well as huge unruly demonstrations, secret subversive clubs of weavers were organised to conduct sabotage, and intimidate wage-breakers and employers. These were often run from the taverns of Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green where weavers gathered and drank (many trades were effectively organised through such establishments, which doubled as community centres, meeting places and union halls).

One committee allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), who met at the Dolphin Tavern. The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting funds for their dispute, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.” 

The violence of the weavers’ agitation through 1762-8 led to the army being sent in to occupy the Spitalfields area several times, and to an Act of Parliament being passed in 1765, declaring it to be a felony and punishable with death, to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture. This law was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay, further inflaming the situation.

Summer of ’69

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, a master on an increasing scale. Chauvet had set up a factory for silk production, which stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms.
Through the summer of 1769, cutters’ groups gathered in large numbers and visited workers weaving Chauvet’s silk, both to destroy their work, and to ask for contributions to the fighting fund. Fights broke out.

On the night of Thursday 17th August, cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, and in even greater numbers, cutters slashed the silk off more than a hundred looms. Throughout the month, the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air. Chauvet was eventually forced to pay a levy to the cutters to prevent further sabotage…

But he also advertised a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, from solidarity, because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows, or from fear of reprisals from the cutters. The atmosphere had become bitter, rife with confused anger and rumour – weaver against weaver. People who lived cheek-by-jowl and worked together were at odds; weavers who had accepted lower rates of pay or worked for masters like Chauvet were seen as scabs by others. Many who had no time for employers breaking wage rates were unnerved and scared by the vehemence of the cutters and their tactics; on the flipside, many who would not normally have endorsed law-breaking felt informing on their neighbours and their fellow weavers was beyond the pale. Everyone knew that the harsh penal code meant workers ‘combining’ for any aim of maintaining wages or work conditions was illegal, and that going disguised to intimidate or sabotage was a capital offence. Whether they approved of the cutters’ methods or not, many would not have dobbed them in. And given the closeness of the communities, many would have known who was doing what.

And community anger against informants was also a powerful and widely shared element of the social code, and this rage was often acted on, and violently – as we shall see.

Poor Show

However, on the 26th September 1769, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that a few weeks before in early August, their seven looms, in their home in ‘Stocking-frame Alley’ in Shoreditch, had been slashed by a group of cutters. Thomas and Mary Poor swore these men had come to their home/workshop about eleven at night and slashed to ribbons silk they had been weaving, belonging to Joseph Horton.

Altogether they identified seven men – John Doyle, Bill Duff, Joe Colman, (known as Jolly Dog,) Andrew Mahoney, Thomas Pickles, William Horsford  and John Valloine. All of these men had been known to the Poors beforehand for several years; as must have been common in the tightly knit communities where people worked with and for each other, often out of their own homes.

However, before giving evidence the couple had inquired with Lewis Chauvet about receiving the reward he had offered – and Doyle had already been arrested by the time they went to the magistrates. Possibly the Poors may have been prompted to name men already marked down as agitators… The accused were arrested, protesting their innocence of the sabotage. other men who worked for the Poors and had been present said they could not identify the men, as it had been almost pitch black when the incident took place.

Four days later, on 30 September, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

However, Valloine and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally; this was often done in an area seen as troublesome or crime-ridden, to put the fear onto others who might be thinking of breaking the law. The aim here was to overawe the rebellious weavers and intimidate them into backing down on their agitations.

Initially this attempt at a show of state force looked like it might backfire. An organised attempt to free the two was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valloine died proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting in question. After their execution an enraged crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory in Crispin Street, a clear threat to the man many saw as responsible for the two weavers’ deaths. An estimated 5,000 people gathered, smashing the windows of Chauvet’s premises and burning some of his furniture.

On the day the hanging took place, William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael went on trial. Horsford had also been implicated by the Poors in their evidence; however, Daniel Clarke, another Irish silk pattern drawer and small employer, had claimed Eastman, had slashed his work in a similar attack; Clarke had also received money from Lewis Chauvet’s reward to give evidence against him.

Clarke had already made himself unpopular with the East End weavers’ community, having previously tried to undercut collectively agreed wage rates. He had possibly also informed or given evidence against insurgent weavers before, in his native Dublin: a letter sent from weavers in Dublin to ‘The Committee of Silk Weavers London in London’ in 1768 refers to a Dan Clarke as an ‘ignorant master’, calling him a ‘cat’s-paw’ who had been ‘villain enough to swear false’. Chauvet also had been operating looms in Dublin and come up against organized workers there – whether Clarke and he had had a previous association there, and if this relates to the Dubliners’ accusations against ‘Dan Clarke’, is unclear.

Cutters had by Clarke’s account broken into his home and cut silk from his looms on 11 September 1769.  Although Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, after contacting Lewis Chauvet, his memory miraculously altered; medical experts say being offered large sums of money can have that effect. Clark changed his story, identifying the men who sabotaged his weaving as being part of a weavers’ combination organised out of the Red Lion Tavern, including William Eastman, locally thought to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees, and one Philip Gosset. It is possible Eastman, as a local cutters’ leader or organiser, was present at Clarke’s on the night in question, or it may be that he was an agitator that that Chauvet simply wanted out of the way. Philip Gosset, however, was never caught.

The evidence against Eastman, Carmichael and Horsford was contradictory and confused; but this was relatively unimportant when severe examples needed to be made to cow the rebellious workers. Protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valloine, the authorities made sure the three were executed outside the area. They were hanged at Tyburn on 20th December 1769.

Although the reaction to Doyle and Valloine’s hanging had been fierce, the vicious repression did in fact have its intended effect for a while. The cutters’ acts of sabotage largely stopped and the wage agitations died down for a couple of years.

But the bitter dispute and the rage fanned up by the hangings, perceived as a burning injustice locally, still had a twist to throw up. Fifteen months later, revenge would be taken against at least one informant whose testimony had made sure that the weavers would be convicted.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The Hare Street Pond

On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke, the grass who had sent William Eastman to the gallows, was spotted walking along Norton Folgate; a crowd quickly gathered, which seems to have mainly consisted of women and boys; among them Anstis Horsford, the widow of William Horsford. The crowd chased Clarke through Spitalfields streets, and, after some attempts to take refuge failed, he was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green. The crowd stoned and abused him, and soon after they let him out of the pond, he collapsed and died.

Benjamin West, a weaver of Fleet Street, gave evidence later that: “Clarke the deceased used to draw patterns for me: I saw him about twelve o’clock, the day he was killed, at his own house; he was coming with me up Half Nichols street, Spital-fields, to look at some work; we were attacked by two men, the people increased very fast; they called after him, ” There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal” or to that effect; he turned round to speak to them, and expostulated with them; I told him he had better come along; they threw stones at him; after he had turned up a little street, I saw two men knocking him down; we ran; I did not look behind me till I saw him upon the ground, after I came into Cock-lane.

Q: Which way did you run?

West. Strait forward; he turned up a little turning which leads into Cock lane: I saw him upon the ground: then he and I went different ways.

Q: But the way he and you went, both came into the same street again?

West. Yes, in Cock-lane; there I saw him down, with his hat and wig off.

Q: Was nobody with him when you saw him down?

West. I saw two or three men: I saw one man kicking him: I cannot tell what kind of a man he was; I saw Clarke get up, and he ran into Mrs. Snee’s house: that is all I saw of him; then I came away.

Q: Did they follow him to Mrs. Snee’s house?

West. I saw several people about the place.

Q: Where did you go?

West. I went to his house, and told the person he lived with, which I understand now is not his wife; that he was at Mrs. Snee’s, that he had been attacked and lost his wig: I desired her to take him a wig.

Q: Did you desire her to carry any thing else to him?

West. I told her I thought it would be necessary to take his pistols, for fear he should be attacked again; he was desired by the justices to carry pistols in his pocket, for fear of being attacked.

Q: Did any of the stones hit him?

West. I cannot say.

Q: What o’clock was it then?

West. Between twelve and one.

Q: What time was from the time he was attacked till you went off?

West. Not above half an hour.

Q: What kind of weather was it, that day?

West. Scorching weather, afterwards I fancy it rained.

Q: What o’clock might it be?

West. Near one: it was half past twelve when we left his house.

Mary Snee . I live in Cock-lane.

Q: You knew Clarke, I believe?

Snee. Yes; I had seen him five times.

Q: Do you remember his coming to your house?

Snee. Yes.

Q: What time was that?

Snee. I thought about twelve; my people tell me it was about one.

Q: Was your door open?

Snee. He opened my latch and ran in he was bloody: he was cut over his eyes, and had no wig on; I said Lord have mercy upon me what is the matter Mr. Clarke: he said, I beset; I said who has beset you? know says he: he walked about the house, we gave him water and washed him, he said when he came in,

“Lock the door, for God’s lock the door.” I did, and shut the inside shutters of my windows: he was very disconsolate. After he had been there some time, he desired me to send for his wife: he said, “this is the finishing stroke; this crowns “the work:” he desired me to send for his wife, for he had no wig, he asked me to let my daughter bring his pistols: my daughter went and met Mrs. Clarke coming in Shoreditch with his pistols; she brought them, he desired her to go back and fetch him a wig, and bring his powder box with his gun powder, which she did.

Q: How long was she before she returned again?

Snee. Half an hour, to be sure.

Q: In the mean time did you hear any noise at your door?

Snee. Yes, now and then; but they turned down the corner of the streets; and our door was pretty clear when she came the last time.

Q: Before that, did the people call out?

Snee. Yes; several times, they peeped thro’ the window and said,

“D – n him, there he is: turn him out, let us hang him, or burn him, or any thing, let us do something with him.”

Q: When the wife came, it was pretty quiet then?

Snee. Yes; and he came out then with his hands one in one pocket and the other in the other, upon his pistols; he went out with his wife.

Q: How long was he in the house, in the whole?

Snee. Upwards of an hour.

Q: Then he and his wife went out together?

Snee. Yes, and a little boy; they went a little way, not half a stone’s throw, and when the mob saw the corners of the streets beset they came running round him; I was at my own door, I saw a great mob, then he run back again.

Q: With his wife and boy?

Snee. No; they came back no more.

Q: I suppose that was but a few minutes after they had left your house?

Snee. Yes, a very few minutes; then he stood at my door, he took his pistols out; a fellow coming up to him, he said, “I will shoot you,” the fellow took his stick and held it up to his face, and said, “D – n you do.” Mr. Clarke could not let the pistol’s off, so he pushed into the house, and I shut the door and locked it.

Q: How many people might there be then?

Snee. I do not know; a great number of people.

Q: Were there some hundreds?

Snee. There were I believe, a hundred; I said, for God’s sake what must I do; the outside shutters were not shut at all; they throwed a great brickbat at the door, and when they had done that, they throwed another and broke four panes of glass and the frame, and all of the windows. They said, “D – n him, turn him out, and they would hang him, or burn him, or drown him, or do something or other to him; d – n him turn him out;” I asked Mr. Clarke whether he knowed them or not, that beset him, he said no I don’t, but I know them that does. They kept knocking and beating at the door and window, I did not know what to do; he said, “For God’s sake do not open the door;” then he asked me if I had any cellar; I said, yes; he went down into the wash house, and then down into the cellar; when he was in the cellar, I opened the door, one of the fellows came in; as soon as he came in he pushed into the kitchen to me, and said, “D – n you, where is he.” I said he is not here.

Q: Look at the prisoners and recollect if you saw either of them there?

Snee. No; I was in a great fright.

Q: How came you to open the door?

Snee. I opened it to let a friend in; I thought he was a pretty safe in the cellar; the man ran up stairs and met my daughter and said, “D – n my blood, if I don’t kill all in the house if they don’t find him; “my daughter said, as I hope to be saved, he is not up stairs; (for he was then in the cellar;) he saw my daughter go over a garden wall, which put him in mind to do so; the poor creature heard the man swear he would kill all in the house. While he was in the kitchen, the deceased came out and got over the wall. Then they called out in the street, “There he goes, there he runs;” then they left me, and run out into the garden.

Q: That is not a garden belonging to your house, I believe?

Snee. No; a great garden, belonging to a gardener; they all ran after him.

Q: Did they go over the wall too?

Snee. There is gates and places; they can go every way from the street.

Q: Did you hear a pistol go off after this?

Snee. I did not; I was so frightened I heard nothing more.

Q: How long had he been in your house; you say the first time he was in your house, about an hour; how long was it from the time he first came into your house, till he got over the wall?

Snee. About an hour, or upwards.

Q: Then the hour includes the whole time from his coming into your house till he finally went away?

Snee. Yes.

John Marsh of Norton Folgate “had just dined and heard an extraordinary noise, which occasioned me to look out of my window; there I saw a man, which they tell me, was Clarke; I saw him at the corner of White Lyon street, at Mr. Woodrow’s corner, surrounded by a number of people; I saw nobody strike him then; I went to my other window, and there I saw a man with a whip, like a carman’s whip, there was a circle of people; I suppose the man was under; I saw the whip up several times; it seemed to strike at some object below, that I could not see; but it was within a few yards of where I had seen Clarke before; I saw no more…”

Another Norton Folgate resident, Thomas Gibson, also observed Clarke being mobbed:

“he went and stood up at the corner, going to White Lyon-street, with his back against the wall; he dropt with his back-side upon the ground; a man came by with a dray, and said, Clear the way; he took a whip and began whipping of him.

Q: How long did he whip him?

Gibson. Perhaps a minute; I went away to my shop; I work in Blossom-street: he got up, how I know not; I lost fight of him then, I got fight of him again in about four or five minutes, in Wheeler-street, the next street to White Lyon-street; the people were pursuing him; they had got him up in a corner and were throwing dirt at him, and striking him, that was about one hundred yards from White-Lyon-street; then they went away down Quaker-street with him; he never seemed to try to get away, but seemed to go with them; he was in the middle of a great number of people: about the middle of Quaker’s-street somebody came and gave him a blow, and said, D – n your blood: and Clarke fell down. I followed him to the Broad way.

Q: What was done there?

Gibson. He kept going before the mob; I saw nobody meddle with him there; he was before that in a very deplorable condition; his head was bloody: then they went to Hare-street: he was going down Hare-street; somebody came and asked me what was the matter; I stopped to tell him it was Clarke: they stopped him against the brew-house; there they stripped him; it is about the middle of Hare-street; I cannot say how much they stripped him; he had his breeches and stockings; then they went into the field, called, Hare-street field, that is at the end of Hare-street: I went into Hare-street field with the mob: when he came into Hare-street field , whether they knocked him down, or kicked him down, I cannot say, but he was down, and they were beating him upon the ground while he was down; some got hold of his legs; some his arms, and they dragged him along upon the ground; then they said, “We will throw him into a pond, or a ditch;” one said, This is not deep enough; and another, This is not deep enough: at last they carried him into the Brick-field, where there is a pond, occasioned by digging out the bricks.

Q: What did they do with him then?

Gibson. They forced him into the water; whether they thrust him in by the back, or took hold of him by the arms, I cannot say.

Q: What distance might you be?

Gibson. One hundred yards, or farther.

Q: What number of people might be gathered together at this time.

Gibson. There might be two or three thousand; there were people out of number.

Q: How long did you stay after he was shoved into the pond?

Gibson. Till the very last of all. They kept pelting him with earth and brick-bats, and any thing they met with whilst he was in the water.

Q: How deep was this pond?

Gibson. Where he stood he seemed to be about three feet in the water: whether he stood, or kneeled down in the water, I cannot say.

Q: How high did the water come?

Gibson. About the middle of his belly.

Q: What kind of weather was this?

Gibson. It snowed at times as fast as I ever saw it in my life.

Q: How long did he continue in this pond?

Gibson. It was a considerable time; half an hour, or three quarters.”

Gibson and others pulled Clarke from the pond, but this was only a temporary respite:

“I got hold of him; we dragged him four or five yards from the place; some of them said, He is one of his confederates or some such word, and pushed the man in and all; and they were going to push me in with him; I slipped away at a distance from the mob; some advised me to go home, and said I should get myself ill used; but I staid.

Q: Where was Clark at this time?

Gibson. About nine or ten yards from the water.

Q: In what condition?

Gibson. He was down upon the sand-heap, and they were throwing sand on the top of him.

Q: How long did this treatment continue upon the sand?

Gibson. It might be a quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes.

Q: What became of him at the end of this quarter of an hour, or twenty minutes?

Gibson. They made a sort of a hallo themselves, and then they came and throwed him into the water again.

Q: How high was the water then?

Gibson. He was crawling like upon his hands and knees, at times, striving to keep himself from drowning; they kept throwing brickbats and stones at him; brickbats were the chief; there was not many stones; I saw half a brick, as it appeared to me, come and strike him on the left side of his temple, and the blood poured out as fast as if he had been pricked with a lancet, and the water was discoloured with the blood.

Q: Did you observe Clarke do or say any thing?

Gibson. He put his hand upon his head, and wiped the blood off and said, “Oh, gentlemen, you use me cruelly:” I went to get to the side of him to try to get him out of the water, but could not find any body to help me. Somebody cried, By and by; here is Justice Fielding’s people coming; with that they drawed back. Somebody said, No, it is not; it is the keeper or White chapel prison. I saw a man coming, a turnkey, or something belonging to the prison; then they drawed back; there was another man there, one Clarke; I asked him to help me to get the man out of the water; he was going to take hold of him; Clarke refused him; whether he thought he was going to push him in further or no, I do not know; but we got him out the second time; that Clarke is a fisherman.

Q: When you had taken him out of the pond, what happened then?

Gibson. We got him out of the pond five or six yards, I put him down upon the ground; he got up upon his backside; there I left him; I got away from him; by and by I came up to him again; I think he was leaning down upon his elbow, sitting upon one side; somebody said, Get him to an hospital; I said, It is impossible without a coach; I will assist for one; I left him: soon after somebody came up again, and said, He is dead; I said, How can that be, I saw him just now.

Q: Did he speak after you took him out the second time?

Gibson. I don’t remember hearing him speak.

Q: Did he groan?

Gibson. No; I thought he seemed pretty hearty.

Q: How were his eyes?

Gibson. He was pretty full in the eyebrows; his eyes were considerably swelled.

Q: Could he see?

Gibson. I did not perceive but that he could; I got in between the mob again, and looked, and then he was laying straight upon the ground, with both hands out; I stood awhile, and saw him fetch breath: the mob were very strong; I got away again; I could not stand it: somebody cried out afterwards, He is dead: when I went to look again, I saw he was dead; we drawed him away from there to the sand house.

Q: How long was it after he came out of the pond the second time that you observed he was dead?

Gibson. I cannot tell; but it must be after four o’clock.”

According to Francis Clarke, another witness, Daniel Clarke tried at the last to suggest the real villain was Lewis Chauvet, and that he would say nothing to the authorities if the crowd would let him go. Not unreasonably, given his record, the mob refused to believe him:

“Q: When he was pulled out where did they take him to?

Clarke. They left him near the side of the pond, about six feet off.

Q: it was at that time the people talked to him about hanging the cutters?

Clarke. Yes, and about Chevat; he made answer and said, Chevat is worse than me.

Q: Did they talk to him about any body else.

Clarke. He said, “Let me go home, for God’s sake; I will freely forgive you:” some of them said, “D – n you, you said you would swear against twenty.” Some of them said that to enrage the people the more, I believe; he said he would freely forgive them if they would let him go home, and shook his head; some of them d – d and cursed him; very saw was for him; all the mob were against him; I heard very saw people that were pitying of him; they said, “He was a very bad man, and would swear peoples lives away.”

Francis Clarke also alleged that Anstis Horsford had called out “Clarke, Clarke, I am left a widow, my child is fatherless on account of you, and more of your companions” and calling him to him ‘like a vengeful spirit; while he stood naked in the pond, asking him “Do you remember poor William Eastman?”

As with many community punishments there’s a feeling of a ritual element to the attack on Clarke; the questioning of him as he was being dunked evokes cross-examination in a trial setting; the dunking in water itself brings to mind the older ducking of scolds or witches. Whipping him through the streets and making him wear a halter around his neck were also legal punishments designed to humiliate an offender, engage the community in joining in chastising transgressors, and warn others. Self-consciously or sub-consciously, collective actions often adopt ritual elements – sometimes drawn from law, religion, even theatre; because people are looking for a form that legitimises their actions? Gives them a meaning they can get their heads around? Just because memory brings forward what you’ve known and seen? All of the above, mingled together, probably…

Revenge which the law would not admit of

In Spitalfields the killing of Clarke was clearly seen, at least by some, as community justice. Local Magistrate David Wilmot put out adverts asking for information on who had been involved in the attack on Clarke. The first response was not quite as hoped: Wilmot received a series of threatening letters. A missive dated 17 April signed ‘one of ten thousand’ informed the justice that ‘the fellow we kill’d on Tuesday swore away the life of my dearest friend and if he had a thousand lives I would with pleasure have taken them.’ It also suggested Wilmot, his home and family would be targeted if he pursued the case. A later letter (dated 21 April) firmly set the ‘lynching’ of Clarke in a context of a community morality which did not exactly line up fully with morality and law as imposed by the state, expressing the view that the crowd had ‘taken that just revenge which the law would not admit of [against] that detestable late object [Clarke] who was thirsting after their blood not thro’ any motive of justice but merely for reward.’

Informing for a reward was widely detested, especially among the poorer classes, most likely to be at the sharp end, but in fact, this sentiment extended to various levels of society. This alternative morality expressed both a sense of solidarity – there was nothing in fact wrong with what the accused were doing, or if there was, death was too severe a punishment – but also a practical objection – paying for information leads to people lying, for the money. This problem was not unique to late-18th century East London, and alternative moralities which reject grasses are alive and well… Whether punitive action is then taken against informers tends to vary. In eighteenth century London, the lively plebeian culture included a general willingness of large numbers to come out and take part in riots, disturbances and unruly activity, to try to achieve results that weren’t available to most of them through legal means. Large swathes of society saw nothing wrong in this, so long as it chimed with some form of consensus of what was right and what was wrong. So seizing consignments of food being sold at high prices during food shortages/had harvests, and ensuring it was sold at a more affordable price, was widely accepted as socially just, by all except those profiting from it. Action against informers may have a much less wide groundswell of support, but a substantial social base saw nothing immoral about having a go at someone who had given evidence that had led men to be executed – certainly, as in this case, where the hanged had proclaimed the evidence false and money had changed hands.

Obviously, however, the official ‘justices’ had to squash another blatant challenge to law and order: culprits had to be fund and severely dealt with. Despite the threats, names were named and fingers were pointed. two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law – and Robert Campbell, together with William Horsford’s widow, Anstis, were arrested by Wilmot, and charged with murdering Clarke. Campbell was held to be the man who had ducked Clarke and held his head under water. Stroud was identified as one of the crowd; witnesses claimed he had pelted Clarke with half bricks while he was in the pond.

Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, however. Those who gave evidence against the three at the trial were all paid; Francis Clarke, a fruiterer, and Sarah Scales admitted they had been paid a total of £80 to give evidence against Campbell. Joseph Chambers, David Higgins and William Watts identified Stroud; all were forced to concede that they had done so with the promise of sharing a £100 reward. Constable John Pagett also openly hinted he had been paid to testify. Reading the trial transcripts, it seems fairly clear that blatant bribery was at work: the accused were in the frame and no expense would be spared to convict them. As so often was when the justice system was loaded against the plebs, and money talked (how things have changed… wait…er…)

Campbell and Stroud were found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged on July 8th, 1771. Once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched at the scene of the crime, in Hare Street.

Anstis Horsford, however, disappears from view here; it is possible she received a lesser sentence than execution; or was executed but not so publicly; maybe she was maybe even acquitted. Frustratingly, the records seem to dry up.

As had taken place when Doyle and Valloine were executed, the hanging of Campbell and Stroud provoked a violent emotion locally, though reports are contradictory about whether there was similar trouble or not. A hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

As noted above, the repression of the cutters contributed to a lull in the silkweavers’ struggles for a while. Attempts were also made by magistrates to prevent more disorder by suggesting that masters keep to the wage agreements and listing the going rates for weavers’ work; a further agitation in 1773 (after some masters again tried to break these rates) led to this being codified and set into law. A series of Spitalfields Acts set out the agreed rate and also the punishments for masters or journeymen who tried to break them – up or down. The Acts largely kept the peace and ensured peaceful wage negotiations, until they were repealed in the 1820s, though they also hobbled weavers’ self-organisation.

Questions of Violence

The collective violence involved the silkweavers’ many disputes is hardly unique; this kind of collective bargaining by riot has not died away in our own times. In the 1760s the law was overwhelmingly and blatantly loaded in favour of the propertied classes, and without money or property your chances in the legal system were slim. Organising trade unions or any kind of ‘combination’ to even ask for higher wages or better conditions were illegal. Any attempt at getting together was by default outside the law, and the law was not only for sale to the highest bidder, but its higher echelons were by definition men of property, who stuck by their own.

Elsewhere we have written about the different kinds of physical force employed in disputes around Spitalfields silkweaving in the eighteenth century.

  • Disputes that engaged the rank and file of the weavers – in alliance with the masters, for instance against imports of cheap cloth; demonstrating and rioting with the tacit approval of their bosses, a cross-class industry-wide unity (an example being the Calico Riots of 1719-20, more on which we will publish in June)
  • The type of full-scale warfare AGAINST the masters described above
  • By the 1760s yet a third struggle emerges, as groups of workers start to fight between themselves, machine loom weavers against hand loom weavers.

If at some points employers were willing to back journeymen weavers’ violence and identify themselves as having interests in common (in defence of the East End whole silkweaving trade), this didn’t prevent them from shafting their workers when felt it was in their interests.

It’s worth remembering that the silk trade consisted of many different levels of manufacture; there were many small masters, operating just above the journeymen, sub-contracting for larger manufacturers like Chauvet. As with many craft-based trades from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, there also existed a mechanism for apprentices to rise to become small or even larger masters, through the recognised structures, which could complicate any naïve vision of a simple division of class interests. Sometimes small masters like Thomas Poor could be virtually united with a mass of journeymen, later they were driven by class struggle and the increasing bitterness of the 1760s into collusion with the major employers.

The masters’ drive to cut wages, notably through mechanisation, was partly driven by the need to reduce costs, itself stimulated by the strength of the weavers’ organisations and their preparedness to use force, and by the widespread resistance to work in the form of absenteeism. A further incentive was the increasing threat to their profits coming from silk and other fine cloth smuggling, which had reached a chronic scale: lowering wages and production costs through mechanisation was seen as a way to undercut the cheaper smuggled cloths, since protectionism and legislation was failing.

For the journeymen’s part, willingness to front for the masters on the one hand didn’t blind some of them to the fundamental difference in their interests; the emergence of cutters’ groups like the Bold Defiance shows their were elements capable and prepared to take defence of what they saw as their interests to fantastic levels.

If some cutters’ groups had drifted from collecting contributions to pay for organising costs, into extortion and intimidation? The suggestion that a violent and extreme minority are forcing other workers into supporting rebellious action by force is part of the armoury of your daily mails etc when ranting about any strike. These foaming mouths never reckon the violence done on the other side, or the processes of coercion by which poverty, the factory system, submission to dehumanising work are imposed; the morality runs only one way. Collective self-defence is often necessary – sometimes you have to get your self-defence in first. This was even more true in the 1760s, when even meeting to discuss wage levels could get you thrown in prison, and demonstrating could bring the army down on you.

And morality was subtly different to our own era; by necessity, bonds of community solidarity were often stronger, and many among the lower orders shared a common disregard for a legal system willing to openly and unhesitatingly shed blood for petty crimes. Two hundred years of careful social conditioning and calculated concessions have altered attitudes towards policing, the law, imprisonment and social/anti-social crime – interesting developments in class and society that we cannot for space reasons go into here. But there’s widespread and stubborn resistance among some strata of the working class even today to the ‘accepted’ moral codes of right and wrong…

Killing Daniel Clarke would not bring back the dead; whether or not the attackers meant him to die. To some extent the attack on him was a spasm of rage from people who had not only lost loved ones and neighbours, but also may have felt they lost the struggle those men had (allegedly) taken part in.

The journeymen in many cases did what they thought was necessary to defend their livelihoods; when you need to eat, morals come second. The law had backed Chauvet and his ilk, accepted the flagrantly bought testimony of Clarke and the other witnesses, and ruthlessly killed Eastman, Horsford and the others cutters… Whether the law had framed guilty men, or connived at the deaths of the innocent, thousands in Spitalfields had known there was no justice for them in the law; only their own actions would get any kind of justice.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@


An entry in
 the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar

 

 

 

Today in London industrial history, 1769: The Bold Defiance attack looms of silkweavers working below the agreed rate, Spitalfields.

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Luddites, although many people still have a misconception about the reasons why they destroyed machinery. The weavers of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Leicestershire smashed machine looms not because they were blindly opposed to progress, or afraid of new technology, but because the introduction of machinery was undermining the livelihoods of themselves and their communities. They viewed new technology through the eyes of artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy: from being well-paid workers working mainly under their own terms, often in their own homes, they were being reduced to poverty, and clearly saw that mechanisation was transforming them into wage slaves, increasingly forced into factories. Their challenge to new technology was based on both desperation and self-interest: machine-weaving was benefitting the masters and increasing their profits, at the workers’ expense, but machines could be used to improve the lives of those who created the wealth, if their use was controlled by the workers themselves.

It’s all about who’s making the decisions, and in whose interests… A question of control, how new technological developments change our work, strengthening us or those who live off our labour; a question that remains alive and crucial today.

Less well known than the Luddites, though, another group of workers also fought the imposing of machinery and the factory system against their interests – the silk weavers of Spitalfields, in London’s East End. Four decades before the Luddite uprisings, the silkweavers’ long battle against mechanisation came to a head in violent struggles. 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.

Spitalfields is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Described as City’s “first industrial suburb”, from the Middle Ages, Spitalfields, (together with neighbouring areas Bishopsgate and Shoreditch), was well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, the poor, criminals, and outcast and rebellious clustered here.

From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery-stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth-century pogroms in east Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s…

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.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members…

Silk production demanded much preparation before actual weaving began: throwing, where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, twisted and wound onto bobbins, employed thousands in London already by the 1660s, though later throwing was dispersed to other towns.

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.

A twentieth century account described the organisation of weaving in the area, based on reports from the previous century:

“The manufacturer procures his thrown ‘organzine’ and ‘tram’ either from the throwster or from the silk importers, and selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a sufficient quantity of the material, which he takes home to his own dwelling and weaves at his own looms or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer, being paid at a certain rate per ell. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners in 1837 Dr. Kay thus describes the methods of work of a weaver and his family:-

A weaver has generally two looms, one for his wife and another for himself, and as his family increases the children are set to work at six or seven years of age to quill silk; at nine or ten years to pick silk; and at the age of twelve or thirteen (according to the size of the child) he is put to the loom to weave. A child very soon learns to weave a plain silk fabric, so as to become a proficient in that branch; a weaver has thus not unfrequently four looms on which members of his own family are employed…”

“The houses occupied by the weavers are constructed for the special convenience of their trade, having in the upper stories wide, lattice-like windows which run across almost the whole frontage of the house. These ‘lights’ are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light on every part of the looms, which are usually placed directly under them. Many of the roofs present a strange appearance, having ingenious bird-traps of various kinds and large birdcages, the weavers having long been famed for their skill in snaring song-birds. They used largely to supply the home market with linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches, and other song birds which they caught by trained ‘call-birds’ and other devices in the fields of north and east London.”

The wide high windows that shed enough light for their work can still be seen everywhere on older buildings around Spitalfields.

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 skilful 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’.

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. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers, and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles.

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through the 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement of the 1830s. This support arose partly from obvious causes – the weavers’ precarious position and sometimes uneven employment were always likely to draw a sizable number towards radical politics. But radical activists, like leveller leader John Lilburne, also camapaigned and agitated on behelf of the silkweavers, and populists like Wilkes easily tapped into their grievances… Their fierce collectivity in their own interests extended, for some, to a wider class consciousness; but also made them vulnerable to exploitation by manipulation by bosses and demagogues.

Through the later 17th to the late 18th century, the silkweavers regularly combined to fight for better conditions, often attacking masters employing machine looms, which they saw as leading to reduction of wages and dilution of their skills. At other times, the journeymen and masters united tactically to press for parliament to pass protectionist laws that kept prices for their finished goods high…

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials,  and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms: “in riotous manner [they] broke open the house of one of their masters, destroyed his looms, and cut a great quantity of silk to pieces, after which they placed his effigy in a cart, with a halter about his neck, an executioner on one side, and a coffin on the other; and after drawing it through the streets they hanged it on a gibbet, then burnt it to ashes and afterwards dispersed.” [From the “Gentleman’s Magazine”, November 1763]

The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

Riots and demonstrations continued in 1764-5… As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture: this was to be used with devastating effect four years later.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: 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…”

The events of 1762-7 were, however, merely a curtain raiser, for the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, and executions.

In the Summer of 1769, some of the masters attempted to force a cut in rates of pay. In response, some journeymen banded together to organise resistance, forming secret clubs, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop). This group met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, (modern Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green).  The Bold Defiance started raising a fighting fund, as part of which they attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or worked a loom. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing-style notes: “Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

One major silk boss threatened by the cutters was Lewis Chauvet, whose factory stood in Crispin Street, Spitalfields. A leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin, Chauvet banned his workers from joining the weavers’ clubs or paying any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

But on the 26th September, a minor master weaver, Thomas Poor, and his wife Mary, swore in front of a magistrate that their seven looms had been slashed by a group of cutters led by John Doyle and John Valline. However, before giving evidence they had inquire with Chauvet about receiving the reward – and Doyle had already been arrested, so they may have been prompted to name them… Certainly Doyle and Valline later protested their innocence.

On 30 September 1769, after a tip off from a master weaver who had had the squeeze put on him, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled in an upstairs room, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two weavers (including a bystander) and a soldier dead; but the cutters escaped through the windows and over rooves. Four weavers who were drinking in the pub downstairs, and one found in bed upstairs were arrested, and held for a few weeks; though no-one was brought to court over the deaths.

But Valline and Doyle were convicted of the attack on the Poor’s looms and sentenced to death under the 1765 Act, despite very dubious identification evidence. They were hanged on the 6th December 1769, at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road opposite the Salmon and Ball pub. Though Tyburn was the usual place of execution, the major silk manufacturers pressured the authorities to have them ‘scragged’ locally, to put the fear of god on the rebellious weavers. An organised attempt to free them was planned, and the men building the gallows were attacked with stones:

“There was an inconceivable number of people assembled, and many bricks, tiles, stones &c thrown while the gallows was fixing, and a great apprehension of a general tumult, notwithstanding the persuasion and endeavours of several gentlemen to appease the same. The unhappy sufferers were therefore obliged to be turned off before the usual time allowed on such occasions, which was about 11 o’clock; when, after hanging about fifty minutes they were cut down and delivered to their friends.”

Doyle and Valline were offed, proclaiming themselves not guilty of the silk cutting. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows and burn his furniture.

Two weeks later on December 20th, more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford (or Horsfield) and John Carmichael. Horsfield had also been implicated by the Poors; Daniel Clarke, another silk pattern drawer and small employer, was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against Eastman, who he claimed had cut silk on Clarke’s looms. Clarke had previously tried to undercut agreed wage rates, and had it seems testified before against insurgent weavers, in his native Dublin. Clarke had originally told friends that he couldn’t identify the men who’d cut his silk, but after contact with Chauvet miraculously his memory changed. It’s possible Eastman was a cutters’ leader Chauvet wanted out of the way; Clarke also named one Philip Gosset, locally suggested to be the chairman of one of the cutters’ committees (Gosset, however, was never caught). Contradictory evidence, protests, a weavers’ march on Parliament to ask for pardon, all fell on deaf ears: the authorities were determined to make examples of the accused. This time, though, afraid of the local reaction after the riots that followed the deaths of Doyle and Valline, they were executed at Tyburn.

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a twist to come. On 16th April 1771, the informer, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford. He was finally caught, and dunked in the Hare Street Pond, a flooded gravel pit in Bethnal Green; the crowd stoned and abused him, and after they let him out of the pond he collapsed and died.

In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – but the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge to law and order. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’; once again, local punishment was deemed necessary to overawe the uppity weavers, and they were stretched in Hare Street. Horsford’s widow, Anstis, was also charged with murder, but wasn’t executed (possibly she was acquitted, I’ve had trouble following the case reports!). Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the justice of an angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices 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 Acts were renewed for 50 years, and ensured that some weavers, at least, had some security if income and protection for unscrupulous employers… The Acts’ abolition in the 1820s was a cause celebre for the laissez-faire capitalists of the days – and helped to drive silkweavers into catastrophic poverty and decimate the trade locally.

This post is a shortened version of ‘Bold  Defiance’, published as a pamphlet by past tense in 2012 and available from our website

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s history: splits deepen among silkweavers, Spitalfields, 1768.

As previously recounted elsewhere on this blog, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for organising 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 organised violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages

Throughout the 1700s, successive waves of struggles, often turbulent, had kept mechanisation at bay and contributed to laws restricting imports of cheap textiles from abroad considered threatening competition. But by the late 1760s a long-running wage struggle between masters and workers had evolved into all-out war.

Trade fluctuations, widespread smuggling of silks and other pressures had led to widespread unemployment and reductions in wages in East London’s silkweaving districts by 1762. 7,072 looms were out of employment. This led to mass discontent among journeymen weavers, manifesting as attempts to raise wages and impose their Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases).

They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with Irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: 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.

In November 1767 trouble also broke out between distinct groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads.

To some extent the machine loom weavers mentioned above can be described as identifying with their masters against fellow workers. In the ensuing fierce struggle of the cutters’ riots, organised weavers used intimidation and sabotage to disrupt the income of masters paying less than the agreed wage rate. Because of the nature of much silkweaving in Spitalfields, with piece-work often being allocated to workers weaving on looms in their own homes, these acts of violence inevitably meant targeting workers at home. This enflamed what seem to have been already bitter relations; the masters may well have been rubbing their hands at the angry splits opening up, as the prospects for lowering wages even further might have seemed rosy.

Although accounts of silkweavers’ violence often concentrate on the ‘cutters’ attacking looms of weavers accused of working for less than the rate, or blindly attacking machine looms, the machine loom weavers themselves were hardly passive victims in this struggle.

A month after machine loom weavers fought handloom weavers in Saffron Hill, another fight erupted on the edge of Spitalfields: an organised attempt by machine-loom workers to target others they accused of being behind recent sabotage of machine looms:

“On Sunday night great disturbances happened in Spital-fields, in regard to the masters having lowered the price of work four pence per yard; but at length a dispute arose among the journeymen, dividing themselves into two parties, when breaking of particular houses windows became general, several of whom were taken into custody, to be dealt with according to law, among whom was a publican charged as a ringleader in the affray….

“A large body of journeymen weavers well armed, having assembled on the Sunday night in Bishopsgate-street, they proceeded to the houses of many journeymen weavers, distinguished by the names of single-handed weavers, in resentment, as they declared, for the latter having been lately concerned in destroying the looms and works belonging to the engine-loom weavers. At these houses several of the journeymen single-hand weavers were seized by their antagonists and kept in custody most part of the night; but before morning they all made their escape, except three men, who were on Monday carried before Sir Robert Darling, knt. And George garret esq. at the Angel and Crown in Whitechapel. In the curse of a strict examination of the several parties, it appeared that the engine-loom weavers, who were the complainants, had acted in a very blameable manner, as they had not only assembled and taken people into custody without any legal warrant or authority, but that they had fired into several houses, and committed divers other illegal acts, to the great terror of many persons, and the disturbance of the public peace. Therefore, upon the conclusion of this examination,, which lasted near six hour (in which the magistrates, to their honour, acted with much discretion and impartiality) the above three men, who were charged with having been concerned with many others in destroying some of the engine-loom weavers works, upon giving sufficient security for their appearance, were admitted to bail, to answer the said charge at the ensuing sessions of the peace for county of Middlesex. The mob of journeymen weavers at both parties being the greatest almost ever known, during this long examination, obliged the magistrates to send a party of guards to keep the peace; and at the conclusion of the affair, the single-handed weavers carried off the above three men in triumph. And we are also informed, that the magistrates were unanimous in opinion, that no adequate remedy can possibly be applied to put a stop to these outrageous disturbances between the different branches of journeymen weavers, which threatens destruction to this valuable manufactory, until the legislature shall have established by law the standard prices of labour between the workmen in all the said various branches of business.”

A day later the army were sent in to ‘keep the peace’:

“Yesterday about noon, a party of guards was ordered to march from the Tower into Spital-fields, to preserve peace and good order in those parts, which so irritated a body of the weavers, that they foolishly opposed them, with old swords, flicks, and bludgeons, and even struck some of the soldiery, who were obliged to return the same in their own defence, by which several were slightly hurt on each side, and some of the offenders obliged to surrender at discretion, and were delivered over to the civil power.” (Annual Register, January 1768).

This wasn’t the last time the army was sent in to the area, as the above events heralded the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69 (the ‘Cutters’ Riots’): a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, executions, and the revenge killing of an informer. But in 1773, the weavers would win a measure of wage protection, arbitrated by local magistrates, which would last for 50 years.

It would be interesting to pursue research here, into who each side consisted of. To some extent, over previous decades, long-standing communities in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green and neighbouring areas had faced competition for work from new comers. In the 17th century some English weavers had resented the arrival of large numbers of French hugenots, protestants fleeing religious repression in France. Later, this community itself faced cheap labour, as weavers fleeing poverty in Ireland migrated to East London. How much of the division between machine work and handloom work was ‘racial’ in this way I am not sure – though for sure resistance united the descendants of Irish and French weavers, some of whom were hanged side by side in 1769. I hope to look more into this when I can…

If you are interested in reading more about the Spitalfields silkweavers and their collective violence, our pamphlet Bold Defiance, is available to buy on our publications page.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s industrial history: machine loom weavers fight handloom weavers, Clerkenwell, 1767.

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

Today in London’s radical history: 4 day silkweavers’ riot against machine looms erupts, 1675.

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

Today in London’s radical history: Spitalfields silkweavers win laws to protect their wages, 1773.

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

 

Today in London radical history: silkweavers attack the East India Company HQ, 1697.

The silkweavers of London’s East End had a long history of 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.

At other times, though, masters and journeymen would broadly be united, in an alliance to defend the whole trade; usually when threatened by cheaper fabrics imported from abroad. For decades in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries masters and weavers espoused protectionism against imported textiles, and put pressure, sometimes using riot and assault, on both parliament and other authorities to erect import bans or high tariffs, and social pressure on individuals caught wearing such garments… The extent to which there was manipulation of the mass of weavers by more powerful masters, to use them to extort favourable rulings in Parliament, is debatable – although encouraging collective violence was a dangerous game, as it was also turned on the masters regularly.

One of their most powerful enemies of the weavers in this was the mighty East India Company, a global capitalist enterprise, run from London, which had large holdings in India and other parts of the far east… The Company was a major importer of silks from India, and other textiles.

In 1697 silkweavers’ riots erupted, against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and on January 21st they attacked the HQ of the East India Company, (in Leadenhall Street, in the City: the site is now occupied by the Lloyds Building). They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.

These disturbances as well as pressure from silk-weaving manufacturers’ organisations (such as the Royal Lustring Company, which had taken advantage of a Hugenot workman bringing to England the secret of giving a lustre to taffeta) in succeeding years led to several protectionist laws being passed in parliament in the 1690s and 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths, especially French silks.

1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time 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.” 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.

In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 silkweavers, armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, paraded in front of St. James’ Palace with black flags, surrounding the Houses of Lords, after the Duke of Bedford engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. They then besieged and attacked the Bedford’s house, in London’s Bloomsbury. The fourth Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power. But he also had extensive interests in the East India Company, which was again engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles – also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.

The East India Company had also launched an imperialist war to seize economic power in India, defending trade monopolies with their private army. They caused mass starvation in 1769 and 1770 by cornering the market in rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Using genocide and mass starvation, they gained almost complete rule over in the sub-continent. Their control led to rebellion and mutiny, most notably in 1857; it also sowed the foundation of the British Raj.

Read more about the Spitalfields Silk weavers:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/bold defiance.html

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html

Today in London’s rebel past: the army sent into Spitalfields, 1768

… The army was sent into Spitalfields, to keep the peace, during silkweavers’ riots…

The silk weavers who lived and worked in large numbers around Spitalfields and Bethnal Green had a long history of organising to defend their livelihoods, whether threatened by wage cuts, by undercutting of pay rates by cheaper labour or mechanisation, or through the importing of cheaper textiles from abroad. They were notorious for tactics such as the smashing of mechanical looms which undercut their relatively high wage rates, boycotting or threatening employers who paid less than agreed rates for piece work, and slashing the clothes of the well-to-do who wore cheaper fabrics, such as Indian printed calico, rather than their woven silk. Several times in the 1760s disorder in the area became so constant that the government sent in troops or constables to repress the roving groups of ‘cutters’, who slashed silk on looms of offending masters.

In many ways the Spitalfields silkweavers’ tactics and the pressures they faced anticipate those of the Luddites of the north and midlands in the early 19th century, though in notable ways the outcome was, at least in the short term, very different.

From 1767-69 fighting and sabotage was almost a daily affair in Spitalfields, Bethnal Green and bordering areas. This would culminate in the raid on the Dolphin Tavern in September 1769, know as the HQ of the Bold Defiance, the most infamous gang of ‘cutters’…

Read more: http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/bold defiance.html