The text and illustrations below are taken from Volume II, Chapter
XLIX, Pages 385-400
of "London", published in 1842 by Charles Knight & Co.
The quotations within it are taken from a satirical pamphlet written in
1652 by J B
"A Faire in Spittle Fields", reproduced in full here.
in Booth Street
|Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version of that picture.|
WERE we to speak of the "philosophy of the roofs of houses," it would doubtless be deemed an odd innovation on the established range and scope of philosophy. Yet, though odd, it is not worthless: the busy scenes presented in our streets, the diversity of purpose to which the lower stories of our houses are appropriated, the changes in form and fashion observable in house-architecture, the varied adaptation to the extended wants and tastes of the inmates, - have all been prominent objects for study, on the part of the painter, the poet, the statesman, the topographer. But is there nothing to be gleaned from a more elevated point of sight? Is the region of attics and garrets, roofs and chimneys, a barren one? Let us see.
We will suppose the reader to be accompanying us in a short trip on the Eastern Counties Railway, which, commencing in Shoreditch, cuts through a densely-populated mass of buildings before getting into the open country, and which, from the necessity for leaving space for the street-traffic beneath, is elevated to the level of the roofs. During the very few minutes consumed in the passage through this district, an active glance around shows us a remarkable similarity in the upper parts of the houses. House after house presents, at the upper stories, ranges of windows totally unlike those of common dwelling-houses, and more nearly resembling those of a factory or a range of workshops. Many streets are seen, some parallel with the railway, and others intersecting it, in which every house without exception possesses these wide, lattice-like windows; more frequently at the upper than the lower part of the house. The rapidity of our movement prevents any distinct cognizance of the purpose to which these wide-windowed rooms are devoted; yet it is not difficult to detect here and there indications of the frame-work of a loom, and of woven substances of different colours. The windows tell their own tale; they throw light upon the labours of the Spitalfields Weavers, who, almost without exception, inhabit the houses here spoken of. In some Cases, particularly northward of the railway, the upper stories only are lighted by these wide windows; but in glancing southward the eye meets with many clusters of houses, every story of which exhibits the indication of a weaver's home.
But the roofs of the houses; what of them? Many and many a roof exhibits a piece of apparatus which on steady inspection is seen to be a kind of bird-trap; or else another specimen of mechanism, which, resembling a pigeon-house in appearance, seems to be used as a large cage. Other districts in London are sparingly decked out in at similar way, but so thick are the instances in Spitalfields, that they form one of the characteristics of the spot; - a characteristic expressed in other words by saying that the weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green are the most famous bird-catchers in or near London. These men supply the greater part of the singing-birds, such as linnets, woodlarks, goldfinches, greenfinches, and chaffinches, found in London: sometimes spreading their nets in the fields northward of the metropolis; and at other times finding a market for their birds in the eastern part of London. The erections on the roofs of the houses have reference to these bird-fancying, bird-catching propensities of the weavers.
On leaving the railway, and the bird's-eye view which it has afforded us, and traversing the mass of streets which it intersects, the sight presented is not a cheering and pleasing one: it tells too largely of misery and wretchedness; of human beings cooped up in narrow streets; and it presents but a slender number of churches and chapels, of squares and open places, of institutions and public buildings, all of which, in various ways and in different degrees, would exercise a humanizing effect.
It is not easy to express the general idea respecting Spitalfields as a district. There is a parish of that name, or rather having the name of Christchurch, Spitalfields: but this parish contains a small portion only of the silk-weavers; and it is probable that most persons apply the term Spitalfields to the whole district where the weavers reside. In this enlarged acceptation we will lay down something like a boundary in the following manner:- Begin at Shoreditch Church, and proceed along the Hackney Road till it is intersected by the Regent's Canal; follow the course of the Canal to the Mile-end Road; proceed westward from thence through Whitechapel to Aldgate; from Aldgate through Houndsditch to Bishopsgate Street; and thence northward to the point whence the tour was commenced. This boundary encloses an irregularly-shaped district, in which nearly the whole of the weavers reside; and as these weavers are universally known as "Spitalfields" weavers, the entire district is frequently called Spitalfields, although including large portions of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and Mile-end New Town.
By far the larger portion of this extensive district was open fields until comparatively modern times. Bethnal Green was really a green, and Spitalfields, like Goodman's-fields and Moorfields, were really covered with grassy sward in the last century. But towards the south-west corner of the district in the nook bounded on three sides by Bishopsgate Street, Houndsditch, and Whitechapel, are many antiquated buildings, and associations connected with others still more ancient. Some of these have especial reference to the name and the early history of Spitalfields; and to these we must devote a brief notice.
Bishopsgate Street is separated into two at the part where the gate formerly stood; the southern section having the appellation "Within" appended to its name, and "Without" to the northern. The continuation of the latter street is called Norton Folgate, and at the junction of the two is a small street leading eastward into Spital Square. Let the reader visit this quiet, unobtrusive, irregularly-shaped "Square," and look around him. He will see none but sober-looking brick houses; yet is there much material for thought. He is in the heart of the silk-district of London, the centre from whence that employment springs by which the weavers are supported. A large proportion of the houses in this square are inhabited by silk-manufacturers, who purchase raw and thrown silk from the merchants, and employ throwsters and weavers to bring it into those forms so familiar to all; the humble operatives living for the most part eastward of this spot. By carrying the thoughts back to the middle of the last century, we may view this Square as Spital Yard, nearly surrounded by houses as at present. A farther retrospect of another century presents the Square to our view as an open plot of ground, with a pulpit standing in the north-east corner, and a house near it for the accommodation of the Lord Mayor and Corporation during the preaching of the Spital sermons. A still more remote view exhibits this open area as part of the burial-ground immediately adjacent to the Spital or Priory from which the district takes its name.
Passing from Spital Square towards the north, we enter upon the mass of streets which occupy the space between it and the Railway; and among these White Lion Street, and portions of the adjacent streets, together with the northern side of Spital Square, point out pretty nearly the spot where the Spital once stood. The erection of this house of charity - for such it appears to have been in many respects - is dated more than six centuries back. Stow tells us in his 'Survey' - "Next I read in a charter, dated in the year 1235, that Walter Brune, citizen of London, and Rosia his wife, having founded the priory or new hospital of Our Blessed Lady, since called St. Mary Spittle without Bishopsgate, confirmed the same to the honour of God and Our Blessed Lady for Canons regular, the nineteenth of Henry III." Although the institution thus appears to have partaken of a monastic character, yet there are indications, scattered through the writings of our early chroniclers, that provision was made for poor travellers, and persons in sickness or distress. The names of the successive priors have been preserved, as have likewise those of many eminent persons who were buried within its precincts. From time to time wealthy and benevolent citizens presented sums of money to the priory, either in aid o fits general funds, or for some special purpose. But the time at length arrived when this - like most other establishments of the kind in England - suffered from the ruthless hand of Henry VIII. In the year 1534 the Spital was dissolved; and at its surrender evidence was shown of the good offices to which the revenues had, at least, been appropriated: for "besides ornaments of the church and other goods pertaining to the hospital, there were found standing one hundred and eighty beds, well furnished, for receipt of the poor of charity; for it was an hospital of great relief." By the time that Stow wrote, the ground on which the Spital had stood and which had been given to one Stephen Vaughan by Henry VIII was occupied by "many fair houses, builded for receipt and lodging of worshipful and honourable men." When or by whom the priory itself was pulled down does not clearly appear. Bagford, in a letter to Hearne, in Lelands 'Collectanea,' – speaks of the priory as being then standing, and as being strongly built of timber, with a turret at one corner. At various periods in the early part of the last century portions of the priory ruins were discovered in or near the houses adjacent to the northern side of Spital Square, one of which houses was occupied by the celebrated Bolingbroke.
The Square itself, which is so named by a most ingenious misapplication of terms, is nearly coincident with a plot of ground once belonging to the Spital, and devoted to open-air preaching. A pulpit existed there nearly five centuries ago and, according to Mr. Ellis, ('History of Shoreditch,') stood at the north-east corner of Spital Square, nearly facing the spot now occupied by Sir George Whelers Chapel. From this pulpit were originally preached the celebrated sermons known as the Spital sermons, forming three out of five which were wont to be preached at Easter time, one at Paul's Cross, on Good Friday; on the subject of the Crucifixion; three on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Easter week at the Spital pulpit, on the Resurrection; and one, a kind of summary of the others, at Paul's Cross, on the Sunday after Easter. Near the south side of the pulpit was a house for the accommodation of the Lord Mayor, the Aldermen, their ladies and persons of distinction from the court end of the town. A curious display of outward adorning took place on these occasions: for it seems that the city magistrates wore violet robes on the Good Friday, scarlet robes on the Monday and Tuesday, violet again on the Wednesday, and, lastly, scarlet on the following Sunday. The boys of Christ's Hospital, from the time of its formation, were accustomed to attend the Spital sermons; and did so annually until the pulpit was destroyed in the time of the civil wars. We meet with occasional announcements of distinguished persons having attended to hear these sermons, among whom were, on April 21, 1617, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the great Lord Bacon On such occasions these distinguished persons became the guests of the Lord Mayor for the rest of the day, and were - as we are expressly informed, and may readily believe - "lovingly and honourably both welcomed and entertained with a most liberal and bountiful dinner." For the subsequent history of the Spital sermons a few words will suffice: from the Restoration to the year 1797 they were preached at St. Bride's Church, and since that time at Christ Church, Newgate Street.
The destruction of the Spital pulpit seems to have been soon followed by the erection of houses around the open spot in which it had been placed; and many of these houses, by the cruel and most impolitic persecution of the Protestants by Louis XIV., became after a time the abode of the master silk-manufacturers, driven from home and country by that proscription. Of this persecution and its effects we shall have more to say in a subsequent page: let us then shift the scene, and move a little to the south of Spital Square. Duke Street, Steward Street, Sun Street, and some others in the immediate vicinity, occupy the site of an old artillery-ground, once known as Tasell Close, where the tasells or teazles used in the cloth manufacture were cultivated. It was afterwards let by the Priory, to whom it belonged, to the cross-bow makers, for exercise in the art of shooting. Through the medium of Henry VIII the last prior granted a lease of the ground for "thrice ninety-nine years" to the Artillery Company. The Artillery Ground was in Stow's time used by the gunners of the Tower, who repaired thither every Thursday to exercise their great artillery against a mound of earth which served as a butt. A century afterwards Pepys narrates:- "April 20, 1669, in the afternoon we walked to the old Artillery Ground, near the Spitalfields, where I never was before, but how by Captain Deane's invitation did go to see his new gun tried, this being the place where the officers of the ordnance do try all their great guns." The word "old" used here, may be explained by stating that the Artillery Company removed from Spitalfields to Finsbury in or about the year 1640: so that for many years there were the old and the new Artillery Grounds. The former, however, ceased to exist in our maps in the early part of the last century, although the street called Artillery Lane still remains to point out the locality.
It may now not unreasonably be asked, where and what is Spital-fields? We must go farther eastward to arrive at what once was the field of the Spital. A street called Crispin Street, on the western side of Spitalfields Market, is nearly coincident in position with the eastern wall of the old Artillery Ground, and this wall separated the ground from Spitalfields, which stretched out far eastward. Great indeed is the change which this portion of the district has undergone. Rows of small houses, inhabited by weavers and other humble persons, and pent up far too closely for the maintenance of health, now cover the greater part of the green spot once known as Spitalfields. Thanks to the improving spirit of the times, there will ere long be a Victoria Park, to let in a healthy breeze upon the busy world of the east end. This projected park, although somewhat eastward of the district in which the weavers' reside, will be an important improvement to this part of London, and is under the management of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who obtained an Act, empowering them to purchase, with the proceeds of the sale of York House, a large area of ground near Bethnal Green (now occupied principally by fields), for the purpose of converting it into a park. The plot of ground, which is of irregular shape, is a little larger than St. James's Park, and is bounded on the south by Sir George Ducket's Canal (sometimes called the Lea Union Canal); on the west by the Regent's Canal, which here tends southward towards the river; on the cast by Old Ford Lane, leading from Old Ford to Hackney Wick; and on the north by an irregular line of fields. It is intended to build elegant houses at different parts of the boundary to the park, in some degree resembling those of the Regent's Park; while the interior area will be laid out in shrubberies, grass plats, walks, drives, etc. According to the plans, which we have seen (given in the 'Westminster Review' for October, 1841), there will be no ornamental water in the Victoria Park, although in other respects no pains will be spared to render the spot picturesque, healthy, and satisfactory to all.
In the 'Map of London in the time of Queen Elizabeth,' we find the "Spittle Fields" at the north-east extremity of London, not only fields properly so termed, but quite "in the country," free from houses on all sides, excepting the few buildings on the site of the Spital. Of the state of this field in Elizabeth's reign Stow writes, "On the east side of this (i.e. the Spital) churchyard lieth a large field, of old time called Lolesworth, now Spittlefield, which about the year 1576 was broken up for clay to make brick." A century later, as indicated in the 'Map of London at the Time of the Great Fire,' we find the spot still under the name of Spittle-fields, but greatly altered in externals. It is represented as a square field, with the Artillery Ground on the west, and a boundary of houses nearly surrounding it. There is a small pamphlet in the British Museum called 'A Faire in Spittlefields', which throws a light on one, at least, of the purposes to which this field was at that period appropriated. The pamphlet is a kind of satirical account, in verse, of a day's proceedings at Spitalfields about the year 1658. It appears that the populace, having become somewhat chary in their belief in astrologers, conjurors, and mountebanks, were more loth than before to part with their money to such worthies; and the latter, before it was too late, determined
A sagacious resolve, but not a successful one. The pedlers deck out their stalls with "pritty whimsies," the crier opens the fair, and William Lilly appears, announcing his astrological wares, among which was "a prediction whether or no we shall have a monarchy." But no customers appeared, and Lilly made way for Nicholas Culpeper, contemptuously termed the "Vicar of St. Fools," who,
"with a handful of conceited knowledge,
He entreated the spectators to buy, urging them to
"bid money, tho' but little,
But in vain; he departed, and made way for Bowker, "whose face would fright a razor," and who announced certain secrets relating to the zodiac, etc.; with what success the last two lines inform us:-
"None would buy; wherefore they left the faire,
If we pass over the interval of another generation or two, we find the "Spittle-fields," or the small streets which had by that time sprung up around them, the abode of a new race - a new knot of persons - who have ever since formed the most characteristic dwellers in the vicinity, Louis XIV little thought that he was laying the groundwork for the establishment of the silk-manufacture in England when he drove his Protestant subjects from France at the point of the bayonet there is something like a moral retribution in the result, which furnishes a lesson not wholly unprofitable. In order to understand the effect of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in giving a spur to manufacture in England, and laying a foundation for the present system of operations in Spitalfields, it will be necessary to glance at the previous state of things in relation to the silk-trade.
It seems to have been about the thirteenth century that a large quantity of silk goods (then a rarity in Europe) first made their appearance in England. The novelty and splendour of the article seem to have excited general interest among our nobility; but the only means we have of knowing that the manufacture was commenced within a century afterwards in this country, is afforded by an Act of Parliament passed in the year 1363, in which certain restrictions were passed upon the merchants, shopkeepers, and artificers, as to the mode in which they should carry on their avocations, but with exceptions in favour of "female brewers, bakers, weavers, spinsters, and other women employed upon the works in wool, linen, or silk." From this time forward there appears to have been females designated "silk-women," employed in weaving small silk wares, such as ribbons, etc.; and for the protection of this class a law was passed in 1454 prohibiting, for the period of five years, the importation of foreign articles similar to those which were made by the silk-women of London. We have not been able to ascertain whether these silk-women inhabited any particular part of London; but it is quite certain that the districts now known as Spitalfields and Bethnal Green were at that time entirely in the country, and almost free from houses.
In 1463 a further protection was given to home manufacture by the prohibition of imported articles; among which are enumerated "laces, ribbons, and fringes of silk, silk twine, silk embroidered, tires of silk, purses, and girdles." At various times these restrictions were removed, a step which invariably led to the distress of the English silk-women: from which we may infer that the home manufacture, either in cheapness or quality, or both, was inferior to the foreign. There is evidence that down to the year 1500, and even later, the silk goods manufactured in England were small wares: for by an act of 1502, while it is made un-lawful to import "silk ribands, laces, girdles, corses, and corses of tissues or points, upon pain of forfeiture of the same," any persons are permitted to import silk in other forms, whether manufactured or not. It was, indeed, more than a century after this that the manufacture of "broad-silks" (lustrings, satins, velvets, etc.) commenced in England. James I., after having in vain attempted to introduce silk-worms into this country, was more successful in advancing the manufacture: for, by affording some encouragement to Mr. Burlamach, a merchant of London, he induced some silk-throwsters, silk-dyers, and broad weavers to come to this country. A beginning being thus made in the manufacture of raw silk into broad silk fabrics, the workmen increased so rapidly, that, by the year 1629, the silk-throwsters of London formed a body of sufficient importance to be incorporated.
Several Acts of Parliament were past during the reign of Charles I, having reference to the silk manufacture. One in 1630 related to certain nefarious practices in the dyeing of silk, with precautions for its amendment; another, in 1638 laid down rules as to the dye materials which should be employed; a third enacted that the Weavers' Company (one of the oldest of the City Companies, established when the woollen manufacture formed the staple of English industry) were empowered to admit into their body a certain number of broad-silk weavers, provided the latter were "conformable to the laws of the Realm and to the Constitution of the Church of England". By the year 1661 the Company of silk-throwsters in London are said to have employed about forty thousand men, women, and children;* and an enactment was at the same time made, that no one should set up in that trade without serving an apprenticeship of seven years, and becoming free of the Throwsters' Company.
[* A gentleman, recently a partner in an eminent silk firm, informs us that this must be a gross exaggeration.]
We now arrive at that period when the silk manufacture in England received its most marked change. The sad and dismal tale of the persecution of the Huguenots in France we are not called upon to narrate here: suffice it to say that the Edict of Nantes, made by Henry IV, in 1598, in favour of the French Protestants, was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, and that the revocation was followed by the expatriation of vast numbers of that ill-judging monarch's best subjects, the number being variously estimated at from three hundred thousand to a million. Of these a considerable portion came to England, and those who made London their place of refuge are spoken of by Stow with equal good feeling and good sense. "The north-west parts of this parish," (Stepney, to which Spitalfields then belonged,) "Spittlefields and parts adjacent, of later times became a great harbour for poor Protestant strangers, Walloons and French; who, as in former days, so of late, have been found to become exiles from their own country for their religion, and for the avoiding cruel persecution Here they have found quiet and security and settled themselves in their several trades and occupations, weavers especially; whereby God's blessing is surely not only brought upon the parish, by receiving poor strangers, but also a great advantage hath accrued to the whole nation, by the rich manufacture of weaving silks, and stuffs, and camlets, which art they brought along with them. And this benefit also to the neighbourhood, - that these strangers may serve for patterns of thrift, honesty, industry and sobriety." It appears that in the year 1687 no fewer than thirteen thousand five hundred of the refugees were sheltered and relieved in London alone, of whom there were about five hundred families of the nobility, lawyers, divines, physicians, and merchants, and the rest artizans and husbandmen. £40,000 was collected for them in one year; and four years afterwards Charles II ordered that all such Protestant refugees should be allowed to come to any port of England with their goods and chattels free of duty; that they should receive letters of denization without charge; that an act should be passed for their naturalization; that they should have liberty to pursue their several avocations; and that they should have equal privileges with British natives.
The silk manufacture at Spitalfields, having received an extraordinary impulse from this occurrence, began to acquire considerable importance. The refugees introduced the weaving of the various silk fabrics then known by the names of lustrings, alamodes, brocades, satins, black and coloured mantuas, black padua-soys, ducapes, watered tabbies, and black velvets; but no sooner had the strangers made a firm footing in England, than, like their predecessors, they cried out for protection, and under the name of the Royal Lustring Company obtained an Act, prohibiting the importation of foreign lustrings and alamodes. The "Lustring Company" was however defeated - not by Acts of Parliament or foreign competition - but by a change of fashion, which drove lustrings and alamodes out of the markets. In 1718 the silk manufacture underwent an important change through the labours of Sir Thomas Lombe, who introduced from Italy the process of organzining (or preparing for the weaver) raw silk by machinery, and who received from Parliament a reward of £14,000 for his ingenuity.
We cannot follow the history of the silk manufacture throughout England: it will be sufficient to say that in Spitalfields it advanced with great rapidity. The Weavers' Company of London, in a petition which they presented to the House of Commons in 1713, stated, that, owing to the encouragement afforded by the Crown and by divers Acts of Parliament, the silk manufacture at that time was twenty times greater in amount than in the year 1664; that all sorts of black and coloured silks, gold and silver stuffs, and ribbons, were made here as good as those of French fabric, and that black silk for hoods and scarfs, which twenty-five years before was all imported, was now made here to the annual value of more than £300,000. (Mr. G. R. Porter's 'Treatise on the Silk Manufacture.')
When Lombe's machine became used in England, it was confidently expected that the manufacture might be carried on wholly in this country, receiving from abroad nothing but the raw silk: it was found, however, that the importation of Italian organzined silk was indispensably necessary for the warp in the weaving process. To understand this, it will be necessary to glance at a few details relating to the manufacture. Most silk goods, like those of cotton, have obviously threads crossing each other at right angles and interlacing; and the same may be said of velvets and of woollen cloths, although the subsequent production of a pile or nap nearly conceals the threads. Those threads which extend length-wise of the woven fabric are called the warp or web, while the cross-threads are termed the weft or shoot. Employing the terms warp and shoot, we may now state that in weaving silk these are made of different kinds of threads, the warp being formed of threads termed organzine, and the shoot by other threads called tram. The raw silk is imported from Italy, India, China, and a few other countries, in the form of skeins, and must pass through the hands of the "throwster" before the weaver is employed upon it. The throwster, by means of a machine, twists the silk into a slight kind of thread known as "singles," and these singles are combined to form tram or organzine. Tram is formed of two or three threads of silk lightly twisted together; but organzine is the result of a larger series of operations, which may be thus enumerated:- the raw silk is unwound from the skeins, and rewound upon bobbins; the silk so wound is sorted into different qualities; each individual thread is then spun, twisted or "thrown;" two or more of these spun threads are brought together upon fresh bobbins; and finally these combined threads are twisted to form organzine. The whole of these operations are included in the general term "silk throwing," and are entirely distinct from the weaving: nearly all the Spitalfields population engaged in the silk manufacture are weavers ; the throwsters being spread over various parts of the country, and working in large factories known as silk-mills. The reader will understand, therefore, that when the weavers are stated to have preferred Italian organzine, even after the introduction of Lombe's machine, the preference relates to some particular quality in the Italian production, which fitted it to form the warp or "long threads" of silk goods, the shoot or "cross-threads" being sufficiently well made in England. This preference is said to exist even at the present day, notwithstanding the advance of English ingenuity; and Mr. Porter suggests, as a probable explanation of the alleged inferiority of English thrown silk, "that the climate may influence the quality of a substance so delicate, since it is well known that, during certain states of the atmosphere, the throwing of silk is performed in this country at a comparative disadvantage: or it may be that the fibre of the silk is injuriously affected by its being packed before twisting, or by the lengthened voyage to which it is subjected in its transit to this country; and the higher estimation uniformly evinced by our throwsters for silk of the new crop, over that which has lain for some time in the warehouse, would seem to indicate another cause for the alleged superiority of Italian organzine. It is owing to this preference of foreign thrown silk that, in the face of a high protecting duty, it has always met with a certain although limited demand from the English silk-weavers."
During the reigns of Anne, George I, and George II, the Spitalfields' weavers appear to have increased in number, and to have been employed in various qualities of silk goods, principally those known as "broad silks," but nevertheless, whether through any superiority in foreign manufacture, or through the influence of fashion, French silks continued to find their way into England, either by smuggling or by open trade, according to the state of the import laws. The English weavers then began to clamour for "double duties" on the foreign articles; but as the legislature did not seem disposed to grant the request, the weavers became more importunate, and went to the House of Commons on January 10, 1764, with "drums beating and banners flying," to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. With this, of course, the legislature could not comply; but acts were passed, lowering the import duty on raw silk, and prohibiting the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves. The next year more demands were made, and to some extent granted, to prevent threatened outrage.
The celebrated "Spitalfields Acts" had their origin in disputes between the masters and men in regard to wages. The yielding of the legislature to the demands of the men had so emboldened them, that they took summary measures to compel an advance of wages from their employers, destroying the looms and the houses of those masters who refused to comply with the demands. To settle these disputes, an act was passed in 1773, empowering the aldermen of London and the magistrates of Middlesex to regulate, at the quarter sessions, the wages of journeymen silk-weavers, penalties being inflicted upon such masters as gave, and upon such journeymen as received or demanded, either more or less than should be thus settled by authority, and prohibiting any silk-weaver from having more than two apprentices at one time. In 1792 this act was made to include those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials; and in 1811 the female weavers were brought under this regulation. These three enactments constituted the "Spitalfields Acts," which continued in force till 1824. In the present day, when the principles which regulate trade and commercial dealings are so much better understood than in the last century, the impolicy of such acts is very manifest. They were passed to get rid of an evil, but they originated an evil of a different kind: they were intended to protect both masters and men from unjust exactions on either part; but they imposed such restrictions on the mode of conducting the trade as drove many branches of the silk manufacture altogether from Spitalfields. A petition, which was presented to the House of Commons on May 9th, 1823, had so much effect in bringing about the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, that we will extract from it a few passages showing the operation of these enactments. The aldermen and magistrates, up to that time, had the power of "limiting the number of threads to an inch in silk goods; restricting the widths of many sorts of work; and determining the quantity of labour not to be exceeded without extra wages." The petitioners stated that "these acts, by not permitting the masters to reward such of their workmen as exhibit superior skill and ingenuity, but compelling them to pay an equal price for all work, whether well or ill performed, have materially retarded the progress of improvement, and repressed industry and emulation." In consequence of an order from the magistrates that silk made by machinery should be paid for at the same rate as that made by hand, few improvements could be introduced; and "the London silk-loom, with a trifling exception, remains in the same state as at its original introduction into this country by the French refugees." Mr. Huskisson and Mr. Ricardo warmly supported the prayer of the petition for the repeal of the obnoxious acts, which accordingly took place in the following year. This circumstance, taken in conjunction with the introduction of the Jacquard loom,* (by which figured silks can be made with much more facility than under the old method,) has placed the manufacture on a more healthy footing.
* We may here remark that at the present time, according to a statement in the 'Penny Magazine', vol. x. p 478, the better class of Spitalfielda weavers are engaged in fabricating a piece of silk, by the aid of the Jacquard loom, which will eclipse, not only everything that has yet been done in this country but even the finest production of the Lyonnese weavers, among whom the art has attained great excellence. The design is an elaborate allegorical picture, all the minute details of which will be produced by weaving.
The mode of conducting the transactions between employer and employed in the silk manufacture deserves a passing notice, as giving rise to many of the peculiarities observable in the Spitalfields population. We have said that silk-throwing is effected in mills conducted on the factory system; but silk-weaving in Spitalfields partakes of a different character. The manufacturer who procures his thrown "organzine" and "tram;" either from the throwster or from the silk importers, selects the silk necessary to execute any particular order. The weaver goes to the house or shop of his employer and receives a certain quantity of the material, the "tram" being generally wound on bobbins, and the "organzine" in the form of what is called a cane (derived from the French word chaine, and so called from the silk being taken off the warping-mill in loops or links): this cane or warp varies from one to two hundred yards in length. The weaver takes the material home to his own dwelling and weaves it at his own looms, or sometimes at looms supplied by the manufacturer. He is paid a certain rate per ell for his labour; but, as the weavers are not remarkable for provident habits, even in the best of times, they are accustomed to "draw" money on account while the work is in progress, and to receive the remainder when the woven material and overplus material are returned to the manufacturer.
The customary arrangement of a weaver's family, in regard to work, are thus described by Dr. Kay, in a Report to the Poor Law Commissioners, in 1837:- "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 thus, not unfrequently, has four looms on which members of his own family are employed. On a Jacquard-loom a weaver can earn 25s. a week on an average;* on a velvet or rich plain silk-loom from 16s. to 20s. per week; and on a plain silk-loom from 12s. to 14s., excepting when the silk is bad and requires much cleaning, when his earnings are reduced to 10s. per week; and on one or two very inferior fabrics 8s. per week only are sometimes earned, though the earnings are reported to be seldom so low on these coarse fabrics. On the occurrence of a commercial crisis the loss of work occurs first among the least skilful operatives, who are discharged from work. "In the Evidence taken before a Committee of the House of Commons on the Silk-trade in 1831-2, it was stated that the population of the districts in which the Spitalfields weavers resided, comprising Spitalfields, Mile End New Town, and Bethnal Green, could not be less at that time than one hundred thousand, of whom fifty thousand were entirely dependent on the silk manufacture, and the remaining moiety more or less dependent indirectly. The number of looms seems to vary from about fourteen to seventeen thousand; and of these four or five thousand are often unemployed in times of depression. As there are on an average, children included, about thrice as many workpeople as there are looms, it results that ten or fifteen thousand weavers are sometimes out of employ at one period.
* The gentleman to whom we have before alluded informs us that he frequently, soon after the introduction of the Jacquard-loom, paid weavers as much as fifteen shillings per day for the best kinds of work.
The vast body of weavers spoken of in the last paragraph are to be found principally in the district marked out in an earlier page; and the poverty of this district has been increased by the location of a large number of dock-porters, labourers, and others in a humble station of life. This latter circumstance has given great complication to the arrangements of certain well-meant but injudiciously, bestowed charities in the district. On account of the fluctuations in fashion, of impolitic enactments, and of unthrifty habits on the part of the weavers, they have been much subject to distress, and large funds have been almost yearly subscribed for their relief. These funds, although intended for the weavers, have not always been confined to them, so that "the distribution," as Dr. Kay has remarked, "attracted to Spitalfields a considerable number of casual applicants, who hired rooms or lived in the lodging-houses during this period, in order that they might become recipients of the public bounty." Such a plan would, if persisted in, obviously create paupers instead of removing them. The recommendations of Dr. Kay, as to the most legitimate mode of relief in case of future distress, we shall not enter upon here.
It seems probable, as far as the means exist of determining it, that the weavers are principally English, and of English origin. To the manufacturers or masters, however, the same remark does not apply, for the names of the different parts of the weaving apparatus, and those of the partners in many of the firms now existing, point to the French origin of the manufacture in that district, however subsequent events may have produced an amalgamation. The Guillebauds and the Desormeaux, the Chabots and the Turquands, the Mercerons and the Chauvets, can doubtless trace their connexion with the harassed and persecuted refugees of 1685.
We have said that a characteristic employment or amusement of the Spitalfields weavers is the catching of birds. This is carried on principally in the months of March and October, and by the means of a kind of apparatus totally unknown in most other parts of the country. They train "call-birds" in a most peculiar manner, and conduct the whole of their operations in a very original way. There is an odd sort of emulation among them as to which of their birds will sing or "jerk" the longest. "The bird-catchers frequently lay considerable wagers whose call-birds can jerk the longest, as that determines the superiority. They place them opposite to each other by an inch of candle, and the bird who jerks the oftenest before the candle is burnt out wins the wager. We have been informed that there have been instances of a bird having given a hundred and seventy jerks in a quarter of an hour; and we have known a linnet in such a trial persevere in its emulation till it swooned from the perch." (Encyc. Metrop. 'Bird-Catching.')
If we have, on the one hand, to record unthrifty habits and odd propensities on the part of the weavers, let us not forget to do them justice in other matters. A Mathematical Society has long existed in Spitalficlds, the members of which include many of the weavers. In passing through Crispin Street, adjoining Spitalfields Market, we see on the western side of the way a humble building, bearing much the appearance of a weaver's house, and having the words "Mathematical Society" written up in front. Lowly and inelegant the building may be; but there is a pleasure in seeing Science rearing her head in such a locality, even if the temple be a humble one. It must also be mentioned, to the credit of the weavers, that they are very ready to exhibit and explain their operations to strangers. Mr. Porter speaks of "the cheerful alacrity with which the humble class of mechanics have uniformly contributed their aid by supplying information upon points which they are peculiarly qualified to explain;" and he gives the following picture of a Jacquard-weaver's family which he happened to visit:- "It once occurred to the author of this treatise, in the course of his visits among the operative weavers of Spitalfields, to visit a family consisting of a man, his wife, and ten children, all of whom, with the exception of the two youngest girls, were engaged in useful employments connected with the silk manufacture. The father, assisted by one of his sons, was occupied with a machine punching card-slips (certain pieces of apparatus in Jacquard-weaving), from figures which another son, a fine intelligent lad, was 'reading-on.' Two other lads, somewhat older, were in another apartment, casting, drawing, punching, and attaching to cords the leaden plummets or (lingos; which form part of the harness for a Jacquard-loom. The mother was engaged in warping silk. One of the daughters was similarly employed at another machine, and three other girls were in three separate looms, weaving figured silks..... An air of order and cheerfulness prevailed throughout this busy establishment that was truly gratifying; and, with the exception of the plummet-drawers, all were clean and neatly clad. The particular occupation wherein each was engaged was explained most readily, and with a degree of genuine politeness which proved that amid the harassing cares attendant upon daily toils of no ordinary degree, these parents had not been unmindful of their duty as regarded the cultivation of their children's minds and hearts."
It is evident that Mr. Porter has here sketched a family placed under very favourable circumstances, in which the work was of a good kind, and plentiful enough to employ all. It would be pleasing to think that such were the average state of things; but this pleasure is denied. The homes, the amount of employment, and the general circumstances of the weavers are, now at least, of a far lower grade, as will be seen from the following brief sketch, which illustrates what we believe to be the average condition of the humbler but numerous class of weavers in a season of low wages and bare employment. In passing through the districts inhabited by the weavers, with an endeavour to view the processes of the manufacture, our inquiries were too often met by the sad reply - "I have no work at present;" but at one house, situated near the northern side of the Railway, we mounted a dark staircase to the upper floor or room, occupied by an elderly weaver and his wife. The room formed the entire upper story, and was approached, not by a door, but by a trap in the floor, opening a communication with the stairs beneath. At each end of the room, front and back, were windows, of that peculiar form so characteristic of the district, and which are made very wide in order to admit light to all parts of the looms placed adjacent to them. At each window was a loom, the husband being at work at one, and the wife at the other. Near the looms were two "quill-wheels," a sort of spinning-wheel, at which the "weft" or "shoot" threads are wound upon the quills for using in the shuttles. In the middle of the room was a stump-bedstead, covered with its humble, but clean, "patch-work" quilt; and near it - some on the floor, some on shelves, and some hanging on the walls of the room - were various miscellaneous articles of domestic furniture (for the room served as parlour, kitchen, bed-room, workshop, and all). A few pictures, a few plants, and two or three singing-birds, formed the poetical furniture of the room. The man was weaving a piece of black satin, and the woman a piece of blue; and, in reply to inquiries on the subject, we learned that they were to be paid for their labour at the rates of sixpence and fourpence halfpenny per yard respectively, which, at close work, would yield about seven or eight shillings a week each. The man was short in stature (as most of the Spitalfields' weavers are), grey-headed, depressed in spirits, but intelligent and communicative. When, after descending from this room, we looked around at the mass of weavers' houses in the vicinity, we could not but feel that most of them bore a saddening similarity to that which we had entered.
A ramble through Bethnal Green and Mile-end New Town, in which the
weavers principally reside, presents us with many curious features
illustrative either of the peculiarities or of the poverty of the
district. We must leave Spitalfields, strictly so called, altogether to
the west, in order to witness the scenes to which we allude. We will
suppose, for instance, that the visitor enters Spital Square from
Norton Folgate, and proceeds through Crispin Street to Spitalfields
Market. Here he will find some of the usual arrangements of a vegetable
market, but potatoes, sold by wholesale, form the staple commodity. He
thence proceeds eastward to Spitalfields Church, one of the "fifty new
churches" built in the reign of Queen Anne; and along Church Street to
Brick Lane. If he proceed north-ward up the latter, he will arrive,
first, at the vast premises of Truman, Hanbury and Buxton's brewery,
and then at the Eastern Counties Railroad, which crosses the street at
a considerable elevation; if he extends his steps eastward, he will at
once enter upon the districts inhabited by the weavers. On passing
through most of the streets in this district a visitor from other
parts of the town is conscious of a noiselessness, a dearth of bustle
and activity. The clack of the looms is heard here and there, but not
to a noisy degree. It is evident at a glance that in many of the
streets all the houses were built expressly for weavers; and in walking
through them we noticed the short and not very healthy appearance of
the inhabitants. It was rather painful than pleasurable to remark the
large number of "Benefit Societies," "Loan Societies," "Burial
Societies," etc. whose announcements are posted about the streets; for
it is well known to those who have studied these subjects that the poor
generally pay ruinous interest for any aid which, as generally managed,
they receive from societies of this kind. Here and there we met with
bills announcing that coals were to be had "at twelve pence per cwt."at
a certain place during the cold weather; and at some of the bakers'
shops were announcements that "weavers' tickets are taken here in
exchange for bread," in allusion to tickets given by a Benevolent
Association. In one street we met with a barber's shop, at which, in
addition to the operations usually conducted at such places, persons
could have "a good wash for one farthing;" and in another street a
flaming placard announced that at a certain public-house the advertiser
would attend every evening, to match his bird against any linnet or
goldfinch in the world, for "one thousand guineas!" Here we espied a
school, at which children were "taught to read and work at twopence
a-week," there a chandler's shop, in which shuttles, reeds, quills, and
the smaller parts of weaving apparatus were exposed for sale in the
window in company with split-pease, bundles of wood, and red-herrings.
At another place was a bill, emanating from the parish authorities,
warning the inhabitants that they were liable to a penalty if their
dwellings were kept dirty and unwholesome. In one little shop,
"patch-work" was sold at "10d. 12d. and 16d. a pound;" and in another -
which we regretted more than anything else - astrological predictions,
interpretations of dreams, and nativities, were to be purchased, "from
three pence upwards," as also extracts from 'Moore's Almanac' for the
last seventy years. In very many of the houses the windows numbered
more sheets of paper than panes of glass; and no inconsiderable number
of houses were shut up altogether. - We would willingly present a
brighter picture, but ours is a Dutch copy from the life.