Silk weaving had been established in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields since the 15th and 16th centuries and was one of the last industries in London that was localised in a particular area of the city. In the 1680s the French King Louis XIV’s persecution of the Protestant Calvinist minority, known as Huguenots, had led to a great exodus of skilled craftsmen. Many of them, including the family of my 3x great grandfather, William Vandome (1814-1887), were silk weavers who settled in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. William’s family arrived in London from Poitiers in 1681.

It was a highly successful and profitable industry, employing at its height, in the late 18th century, over 40,000 looms, which supported an estimated 400,000 workers and their dependents. By the 1830s, following the introduction of free trade, the number of looms had fallen to just over 9,000.  Throughout the 1840s and 1850s the trade was in terminal decline.

The model of production that developed among the handloom weavers in Spitalfields involved a hierarchy of masters (employers of varying sizes, wealth and capacity) and individual journeyman weavers. Masters subcontracted work to journeymen weavers who worked with their families at looms in their own homes; using patterns and materials provided by the masters, they produced the finished goods and were paid by the piece.

The economic model of masters and journeymen meant that there were always tensions between the interests of each group. There was a constant struggle for the weavers to maintain their living standards and the weavers often defended their interests with violence, riots and disruption. The weavers’ aims were to have the trade regulated so that the price of labour was fixed, and not subject to the whims of the market or the masters.

Those struggles led to the introduction of the Spitalfields Acts from 1773, requiring wages to be set by magistrates rather than the masters. Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50 and weavers could be punished if they demanded higher wages.

The role of the family in silk weaving was always significant. Women and children’s labour, though often unpaid, was crucial in delivering orders. Where weavers had more than one loom, they would usually be worked by wives and older children. Women who worked independently were restricted to narrow weaving as broad silk weaving was more lucrative and had a higher status. The Book of Wages and Prices for the Work of Journeymen Weavers from 1774 stated: “No woman or girl to be employed in the making of any kind of work, except such works as are fixed and settled at 5 1⁄2d per ell or 5 1⁄2d per yard, or under, for the making; and those not to exceed half an ell in width”. [An ell was equivalent to 45 inches or six handbreadths].

This arrangement worked reasonably well for 50 years or so but the masters became increasingly dissatisfied with its operation. They and Free Trade politicians, such as Sir Robert Peel, saw the Acts as discouraging innovation and mechanisation and restricting the free operation of the market. The economic argument then, as now, was that wages had to fall in hard times, regardless of the impact on workers and their families. Pamphlets such as the Observations on the Ruinous Tendency of the Spitalfields Act to the Silk Manufacture of London (1822) were very influential in Parliament. In a House of Commons debate in 1823, David Ricardo, a Whig MP, argued that the Acts were not only “an interference with the freedom of trade but they cramped the freedom of labour itself”.

Unsurprisingly, the journeymen weavers saw it in different terms. Over 11,000 people (all men, no women or anyone under the age of 20 were allowed to sign) in three days signed a petition against repeal of the Acts. On the day the Acts were repealed in 1824 Palace Yard at Westminster “was crowded with agitated silk weavers”. They and their families were the ones who bore the brunt of any downturn in trade; the hardship involved in the production of silk goods (long hours and arduous working conditions for the whole family), low wages and the destitution from unemployment was an issue that preoccupied the weavers’ union in the 1840s and 1850s. Repeal of the Acts led ultimately to the long-term decline of the trade in Spitalfields and the demise of the hand loom weavers. By the 1860s the trade was all but gone in Spitalfields.

In the 1820s the weavers formed a trade union, the Journeymen Broad Silk Weavers of Spitalfields, to negotiate with the masters. Contemporary newspaper reports from the 1840s and 1850s – when the situation was becoming increasingly desperate – give a vivid account of the silk weavers’ struggles against unemployment and the attempts by the masters to drive down wages. In contrast to the violence of earlier times, the weavers wanted a return to wages regulation, through local Boards of Trade; they were reluctant to engage in strikes or other action. Although they were organising at the time of the Chartist movement, the Spitalfields weavers, as a group, did not engage in radical politics.

The period of the Spitalfields Acts (1773-1824) was a prolonged period of settled work and wages for the weavers that allowed them to engage in a range of cultural activities. They formed a number of societies, including Floricultural, Entomological, Recitation, Musical and Mathematical. They were well-known for growing tulips and dahlias and for breeding spaniels, canaries and pigeons, as well as songbirds. By the 1830s those hard-working but relatively comfortable days had passed. Wages had halved between 1824 and 1839 and many were unemployed. Contemporary accounts of the conditions in Spitalfields in 1831 provides a vivid description of the weavers’ desperate poverty: “In whole streets…we found nothing worthy of the name of bed, bedding or furniture; a little straw, a few shavings, a few rags in a corner formed their beds – a broken chair, stool or old butter-barrel their seats – and a saucepan cup or two, their only cooking and drinking utensils”. Many could not afford clothes or to pay the rent. Newspaper appeals for charitable financial support from the “Gentry and Nobility” by the Union, in conjunction with local churches, went largely unheeded.

The trade union was well supported – membership in 1845 was said to be at least 1000. They held regular weekly meetings, usually on Saturday evenings, often in local public houses such as the Whittington & Cat in Church Row, Bethnal Green. My ancestor, William Vandome, was one of a small group of half a dozen or so men who ran the Union for several years between 1845 and 1859. These men were radical in their views but were clearly aware that the wider membership did not share their political radicalisation. It was said in a report by the Chartist Convention in 1839 that the weavers spent more time on “fancy such things as birds, dogs and skittle playing” than they did on politics. The union leaders saw the importance of political action to support their efforts to maintain the silk trade. They were also exposed to radical ideas for helping working class families in distressed areas and industries; these included taking over common lands, private estates and crown lands “to be appropriated to the establishment of home colonies” for the benefit of unemployed workers. One of the union leaders, John Ferdinando, had a strong sense of history in support of their cause, citing “that great statesman, Pitt” as saying that the first duty of government was “to protect the interests of the productive classes”. Ferdinando was clear about which side they were on; in speaking of “protection” he meant that “Labour should be encouraged and protected as well as capital; when the working classes spoke of protection, they alluded to a thing very different from that which Disraeli and others of that party referred to in advocating protection”.

The continued pressure on wages and increasing poverty had forced the weavers to make public appeals to the “nobility and gentry” for financial support, but these raised limited amounts. There was great anger among the weavers that no help was forthcoming from the government or the upper classes. The weavers were desperate but wanted help “not only to save the people from perishing, but to restore a better state of things, whereby the weavers could support themselves by honest labour”. They compared the lack of help being given to them with the generosity the government showed in giving “£20,000,000 as a compensation to the wealthy West Indian slaveholders” upon abolition of the slave trade in 1834. Their sense of unfairness and unequal treatment was very strong.

By the early 1850s, many of the weavers were on subsistence wages, being barely a quarter of what they had been, even though they worked 14 to 16 hours a day, including on Sundays. The language being used by speakers at Union meetings was becoming more angry, more desperate and more radical. John Ferdinando spoke of preventing “the sacrifice of the industrial classes to the idle consumer and commercial speculator” and of the “tyranny of the master class of the community”. Guest speakers to their meetings included Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1848. In a “most energetic speech” Mayhew explained that his investigations had led him to change his view of free trade. The Morning Post reported that Mayhew had been “a thorough free trader” but having “witnessed the soul-harrowing scenes of wretchedness and misery … he now condemned the system of free trade as ruinous to the interests and well-being of the native industry…” Mayhew was “loudly applauded” by the weavers.

For all the radical speeches at their meetings the weavers were not revolutionaries. In August 1854 a group of over 800 weavers held a rally to demand an advance in wages. The weavers were “well-behaved, decently clad and committed no breach of order”, presenting what they felt was a reasonable demand. Arguing that entire families worked 14 or 15 hours each day for low wages, they were concerned for the well-being of their children and families. Even those low rates of pay would only be achieved through “keeping their wives and children constantly at the machine, sacrificing every domestic comfort, and bringing up their children in a state of the grossest ignorance, and depriving them of all sorts of healthful exercise.” None of the masters pledged themselves to comply with the weavers’ demands.

The situation only got worse for the weavers. By 1859 80% of the looms were silent. At a meeting of the union’s General Committee on Saturday 29 January 1859, William Vandome, on behalf of the committee of the unemployed, could only report that funds to support members had almost run out. He sounded despondent, with none of the enthusiasm that his earlier contributions to meetings had displayed. There was very little work for the weavers and most of them had been entirely unemployed for some time. He and his comrades in the Union were coming to the end of what they could do. The Spitalfields weavers seemed to recognise the terminal nature of the decline; by the 1860s they were looking to join with other weavers across the city to form a new union, the Amalgamated Union of the Broad Silk Weavers of London. Subscriptions were 6d per month and members were to “receive benefits in sickness” and union was to “watch over the interests of the trade”. William would soon be forced to give up the trade completely and take on work as a painter, which he did until he died in 1887.

Although now long gone, there was a silk weaving industry in parts of Berkshire. A remaining remnant of that industry survives just over the county border in Hampshire. The Whitchurch Silk Mill can be found halfway between Newbury and Winchester, on the A34. This Georgian water mill, the oldest silk mill still in its original building, still weaves silk fabrics using Victorian machinery.

In Reading, there was Messrs. Baylis’s Silk and Crepe Manufactory. John and James Baylis had arrived in Reading in 1841, and were expanding their small silk manufacturing empire. After the death of Sarah Parsons, a worker in the factory, the Baylis  brothers were declared bankrupt and the Reading factory closed in 1843. The site was sold and the buyers were George Palmer and Thomas Huntley of Huntley and Palmer’s.

In 1830, Thomas Simmonds was manufacturing silk in Minster Street, Reading as well as in St Paul’s Churchyard, London.

Reading’s connection with silk weaving predates the above by 200 years, as 

‘in 1640 the first notice of the manufacture of silk appears when Robert Smart, a silk-weaver, was allowed to use his trade within the borough. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was fairly flourishing. In… the Oracle plain and figured silk dress materials were manufactured, some of which were from 18 to 60 inches broad.’

This continued for some time as, in the 1800s, Messrs. Williams and Simpson were making silk ribbons in The Oracle as well as in their London premises in Spitalfields.

Elsewhere in Reading, Brunswick Street is home to a surviving silk mill. The building in this image is that of the former 17th century silk mill built by Huguenot refugees from the German city of Brunswick (Braunschweig), hence the street’s name. The building has since served as a pub (the Brunswick Arms) and has now been converted into houses.

Wokingham boasted three silk manufacturers – one for spinning and two for weaving in the early 1800s. In 1830 one of the weaving factories was in Peach Street and was owned by Mr John Gower. 

‘Mr Westcott purchased the premises in the middle of the 1800s and recollected that there were looms in the upper storey for silk weaving. According to the evidence of old inhabitants of the town a number of silk-weavers lived in Rose Street and wove silk handkerchiefs.’

The factory burnt down soon after Mr Westcott purchased it and he replaced it with sawmills and timber stores. The silk industry in the town ended soon after.

Thatcham had a silk mill located in the manor of Greenham in the early 1800s and Kintbury had a small manufactory carried on by Jonathan Tanner, but this ended in the 1840s. Twyford was provided with a village industry of silk manufacture by George Billing who had come from Macclesfield, and the memory of the trade lives on in the Old Silk Mill development.

The decline in the silk weaving industry in Spitalfields and London was mirrored throughout  the county with a general decline seen across the counties.

Berkshire Family History Society

Berkshire Family History Society