One of the true time capsule moments on our nightly Jack the Ripper tour is when we make our way through a charming warren of streets – Princelet Street, Fournier Street and Wilkes Street – that are still lined by the 18th century houses that were built for the Huguenot silk weavers.
It really is a special and magical part of the tour, and it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to picture that you have been transported back to the 19th century East End and beyond.
But what happened to the weaving trade that was once such an integral part of the social structure in this little enclave?
On Saturday, 2nd May, 1885, The Graphic published the following article which provided its readers with a history of the trade and its decline:-
HUGUENOTS IN SPITALFIELDS
Some attention is just now being directed to the formation of a Huguenot Society in London, by which the descendants of French Protestant refugees who sought an asylum in this country during the persecutions may be brought into communication, for the purpose of compiling and publishing records, registers, and historical information relating to the Protestant churches and families, and the various institutions which were founded in England at different periods of the emigration.
A society of a similar kind already exists in America, and seems to be well supported, so that there is no reason to doubt that numerous descendants of Huguenots, who are to be found in Norwich, Canterbury, and other places, as well as in London, will respond to the invitation to maintain the traditions which have survived in several institutions of a benevolent character, of which the French Protestant hospital in Victoria Park, originally founded above a century and a half ago, and the French School for Girls, once in the Savoy, and now in Bloomsbury, are the most prominent.
DENATIONALISED BY PERSECUTION
As this year is the bi-centenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, immediately after which above 15,000 French refugees settled in England, there is something appropriate in the proposed memorial.
The forefathers of those who claim Huguenot descent were denationalised by persecution, and gave their energies, their gratitude, and their best sentiments to the country of their adoption.
They fought in our army and navy, and were among the most capable of our citizens.
They became English of the English, even, in numberless instances, to the extent of translating or transforming their names, and the result has been that the distinctions which existed even as lately as half a century ago have disappeared, and, except for the survival of several undoubted appellations, many of them belonging to people of considerable distinction, the recollection of their origin would have ceased.
Those among them who cherish the claim to Huguenot extraction regard it as their great grandfathers did only as a serious demand upon their reverence for steadfast faith, and upon their loyalty to the principles of civil and religious liberty.
REVIVING AN EXTINCT TRADITION
To many people the mere mention of the descendants of the Huguenots in London will appear like an attempt to revive some extinct tradition.
It will be asked, where are there any remains of the community of which the latest evidences are the two or three French Protestant churches in London and the service in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, which, by-the-bye, was originally the meeting of the Walloon weavers, and not of the Huguenots.
Who ever hears now of any remnant of the French Colony in Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and Hoxton, which, in the time that Chamberlayne made his survey of London, contained thousands of emigres, and a dozen churches or chapels where the pastors preached in French?
FIELDS NO MORE
The churches themselves have disappeared, and their books, containing the register of the Huguenots in London, have long ago been deposited in Somerset House.
There are no fields within miles of St. Mary Spital, and all the greenness was built out of Bethnal a generation ago.
The silk weavers of what was once the Eastern suburb have disappeared, in the fierce competition with foreign importations.
The descendants of the French in England have been beaten by the descendants of the French in France and by the Germans.
THE LOOMS ARE SILENT
The looms are silent have been moved off long ago. The click of shuttle and the whirr of wheel are heard no more, even in the few remaining poor and sordid streets, where the long leaded casements of the upper windows show that the houses were once the workshops for silk and velvet, and a ruined dormer, or a mouldering pigeon-house upon the roof, suggest the time when the whole district represented an industry that even then was deeply marked with the signs of decay.
There is so much of truth in this conclusion that some boldness is required to whisper the declaration that there are still some hundreds (probably two thousand) of weavers in Spitalfields, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green, and that a considerable proportion of them, as well as of people now employed in other industries in the same district, are descendants of the Huguenot settlers.
On Easter Monday (which has always been the weavers’ chief holiday) any competent observer walking amidst the beds and borders of Victoria Park, or strolling in the vicinity of the Bethnal Green Museum, might have noted faces of as distinctly a French type – and a good French type, too – as would be found in Rouen or in Nismes; and in the weavers’ books of the manufacturers whose warehouses are still in Spitalfields may be read names that have come down unchanged, and many more that have been only somewhat distorted in spelling, since the time when the Spitalfields weaver was a Frenchman, and sometimes a French gentleman of good birth and breeding, with a pretty knack for playing the flute or the violin.
A few relics of older and better days in the shape of delicate china, or a set of shoe buckles, or scraps of old point lace and quaint bits of furniture, were to be seen in the little parlours which in Bethnal Green, even as late as fifty years ago, overlooked small gardens gay with blooms of stocks, sweet Williams, dahlias, double pinks, and fragrant with pot herbs, and the materials for brewing tisane.
POOR AND GLOOMY HOUSES
Spitalfields was always a district of crowded tenements, narrow, close streets and alleys, and houses that were poor and gloomy.
But there were real fields not far off, and Easter Monday excursions were to the country beyond Bishop Bonner’s House, where the East London Hospital for Consumption now stands, and across the marsh land to the “White House,” “High Hill Ferry,” and “Temple Mills;” all three of which resorts survive, though they offer few temptations to the quiet holiday maker at Eastertide.
Fifty years ago the names upon the door posts of the principal manufacturers’ houses in Spitalfields were almost all French, and some of them, though very few, are there still.
In the roll of work people the women who wound the silk on bobbins, the “warpers” who prepared the warp for spreading in the loom, the weavers who made the exquisite web, even the boys and girls who helped in the workshops, were Dormers, Dupres, Soilleux, Poytons, Lesages, Rondeaus, and so on, through a list which included some scions of families about which history has not been silent.
Many of these names belong to the weavers of today, some of whom can have their pedigrees, or could do so if they set about it.
THE ERA OF POVERTY
But, alas fifty years ago the era of poverty had set in for Spitalfields.
The trade was smitten by protection, by competition, and by fashion.
In an evil hour the weavers, whose numbers had been greatly augmented by English workmen, began to strike for advanced wages, and the manufacturers agreed to a scale of what were called book prices to be paid for weaving. These prices were actually sanctioned by law at the Quarter Sessions, but they did not satisfy a number of turbulent workmen who, having entered the trade because wages were good, and the importation of foreign silks was prohibited, demanded what would have been exorbitant wages, and terrorised the less unreasonable operatives.
THE SHIFT IN MANUFACTURE
Then (in 1826) the prohibition on foreign silk was removed, and a duty of 15 to 45 per cent, imposed, with the result that the competitor of the Spitalfields weaver was the smuggler.
We were no longer large exporters but importers, and the power loom and the Jacquard loom were superseding hand labour, and taking the industry that remained in England from Spitalfields to the provinces.
In 1832, there were 16,000 looms in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, of which 6,000 had been standing idle for six months, and the majority of weavers could only earn ten shillings a week.
Fashion, too, was against the Spitalfields weaver. The smuggler had introduced French silks of different makes, and they were sought after when the duty was subsequently remitted.
THE DECLINE OF LONDON’S SILK INDUSTRY
The system in France and Germany, where the workpeople had a plan of co-operation in eating and drinking, which enabled them to live on reduced wages, also had some effect.
The silk industry in London declined, and has been declining till quite recently.
The descendants of the Huguenots, men and women, still sit at the looms, and may earn from six to twenty shillings a week, but they seldom bring up their children to a trade which, though it might yet be revived if fashion would relent, is among the poorest and least certain of skilled industries requiring unusual faculties of sight and touch.