Life In Spitalfields And Bethnal Green

On Tuesday the 25th of February, 1865, The Kentish Gazette published the following article about the hardships being faced by the Spitalfields weavers and their families:-


Amongst all the homes of the poor in the districts of Bethnal-green and Spitalfields, those occupied by the weavers are, perhaps, on the whole, the cleanest, though not always the least indicative of utter poverty.

There are, in fact, whole streets of old-fashioned houses (some of them of considerable size) where the upper floors are lighted by long leaden casements, extending for the whole width of the rooms.

Some of the old houses in Spitalfields.
Spitalfields Houses


Here the click of the shuttle may be heard all day long while the weaver has work to do.

When he is “at play” (the term used to express the period while he is waiting for a fresh “piece” or “cain” as the web silk is technically called), his time is spent waiting his turn at the warehouse of his employer till he obtains work again.

Unfortunately the cheapness of’ French and German silk and velvet, which is now exported free of duty, and the operations of the country factories as well those of the large towns, have combined to reduce the London weavers to a very deplorable condition.

The “play time,” which formerly denoted a time of relaxation while fresh work was being prepared, now signifies a fireless hearth and hungry children.


The boys and girls weavers who are unfortunate enough to follow the same calling, are first taught to wind silk on small pieces of reed placed on a spindle.

These, when covered with silk or cotton, are known “quilles” (perhaps from quenouille), and are placed in the shuttle to supply the woof.

When these boys and girls go out to work to assist other weavers they are known a “week” boys or girls (heaven knows this would generally be true if the word were spelled with an a), and their wages vary from a shilling to half-a-crown a week according to their ability, with the addition of a pint of tea or coffee morning and evening, but without food except such as they take with them.


Stale bread and butter, or dripping – pen’norths of that unctuous and pasty pudding which may be seen in all the cookshops of this neighbourhood, and an occasional (very occasional) basin of leg-of-beef soup, a saveloy, or plate of pieces, such as the trimmings, or coarse fat of ham and brisket of beef, are their ordinary articles of diet.

Their luxuries are baked potatoes, stewed eels, dispensed by teacupfuls at street-stalls, fried fish and whelks, which are eaten with infinite gusto at a dozen stalls about Brick-lane and Shoreditch.

I have already mentioned the shops for the sale of offal.

Many of these may supply some really good articles of food – amongst which may be classed cows’ heels and those baked sheeps’ heads, the appetizing steam from which, as they frizzle in the long japanned kettles, salutes the nostrils of many an expectant family who have been hungry all the week, and look forward to this as the crown and reward of their week’s work on Saturday night.


It may readily be believed that in a business where all the family must, if they are fortunate enough to obtain employment, help to keep the wolf from the door – the cookshop is a convenient substitute for the kitchens of more favoured households.

To leave the loom or the silk wheel, and to light a fire and cook a meal for a family in the room where work is going on, would often be a loss of time and no little inconvenience.

It would be difficult, too, in any way to obtain more than a taste of meat for the few halfpence which they have to spend.

No – the cookshop, with its mingled steams and mixed flavours of many meats; its great slabs of pease-pudding; its long rolls of “spotted” or “plain;” its baked potatoes and gravy; its ha’porths of “piecrust;” flat, damp, hot, flabby slabs of greasy dough, four inches square; its “faggots” and dense peppery saveloys, supplies the immediate wants of these people half the week at least, that is to say – with many of them – during the time that they are not absolutely starving on such slender additions they can make to the coarse workhouse loaf.


Their rooms are frequently tidy, although they are often badly ventilated, and pervaded by a strong ammoniacal smell from the animals which most of them keep, whether they be pigeons, white mice, cats, rabbits, fancy dogs, or singing birds.

Of these, pigeons and singing birds are the most common, the former being kept in the lofts, and flying from dormers on the tiles, where their masters spend a great part of their spare time, and notably their Sunday mornings.

The birds hang here and there upon the walls, in breeding-cages, or carol outside the long garret windows, trying to drown the click of the shuttle, or the whistle of the chutter as it severs the silk upon the long grooved wire used for making the velvet pile.


In one of these “long” shops a whole family and all their livestock will sometimes live, and yet the delicate fabric upon which they work will come out from the loom without a soil.

Amidst the turned-up stump bedstead or the roll of blankets on the floor, the few pieces of broken crockery, and the rickety furniture, some of which is generations old, there is often seen some sort of order and decency which is worthy of a better fortune; and as the patient men and women stand and remove from the long silken band every knot and burr, or sit at the loom, laboriously weaving in the bright soft tints, we cannot but wonder at the fortitude which such life demands, and at the honesty which, under such conditions, may be trusted with commodities so valuable.


It may be believed to what a state of depression a trade must have come, when those who follow it speak of it, and of themselves in connection with it, in sort of apologetic disparagement.

Meeting one of these people anywhere casually, and as casually ask him what calling he follows, the answer would be, in nine cases out of ten:- “Me! Oh, I’m only a weaver.”

While the same inquiry regarding a son or daughter would be met with:- “Well, sir, only follerrin’ my own trade if you can call it trade; but we’re in the hopes of a somethink better for ’em.”


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