As I mentioned last week, London’s small silk weaving industry was based in Spitalfields in the East End. In its infancy, it employed mostly Irish weavers.

When the Huguenots settled there, they were able to expand England’s silk weaving industry. It wasn’t long before Spitalfields was known as ‘Weaver Town’. Exodus (“Movement of the People”) explains that more silk coupled with French styling proved fashionable with the British upper class. It wasn’t long before Weaver Town’s Huguenot owners of silk weaving workshops became wealthy men with hundreds of employees. Their large family homes are still standing today.

From the time of the first arrivals in London, Huguenots quickly established their own churches and charities. One church, La Patente, was in Spitalfields. Another, the French Church, was further west in Soho, in present-day central London. The French Protestant Hospital, La Providence, in Old Street came later, having been established in 1718. It took care not only of the sick but also the destitute. Institutions such as these provided an informal job network, particularly for those who arrived with no contacts, such as would-be apprentices.

A Birkbeck (University of London) PhD thesis by William Farrell, Silk and globalisation in eighteenth-century London: commodities, people and connections c.1720-1800, tells us how many were employed in textiles from the records of the three aforementioned institutions (p. 85 of the document). In the 18th century, La Patente’s register showed three-fifths textile employment, the French church in Soho four-fifths and La Providence hospital 48%.

Farrell writes that earlier Huguenot records with regard to silk industry employment are unclear. However, his research reveals that the more successful weavers and artisans settled in East London between 1610 and 1694 (p. 81). Not surprisingly, Spitalfields became a nexus for Huguenot silk weaving and a century later, was a well-established community where new arrivals could seek employment.

The same was true in Ireland, although their initial settlement in the 17th century was easier than that of the Huguenots in England. William of Orange facilitated this in two ways. He recruited Huguenots who had fled to the Netherlands to his army to fight the Battle of the Boyne. He also appealed to them through the Statute of King William for Encouraging French Protestants to Settle in Ireland (p. 81).

Whilst many silk industry workers were successful, movement was sometimes fluid for those who were less in demand or beset by bad luck in short-term employment. Some moved from Ireland to London. A few dared to travel back to France for work when the British silk seasons were slow. In any event, migrations were undertaken quickly once a worker determined where he wanted to go next (pp 81, 82).

Natalie Rothstein’s Canterbury and London: The Silk Industry in the Late Seventeenth Century tells us that Huguenot silk weavers came from Normandy’s Pays de Caux region which comprises the cities of Dieppe and Le Havre. She notes that those settling in Canterbury would have found a familiarity about the region. Kent’s topography is similar to the Pays de Caux’s with its fertile farmland. In terms of employment, there was a rich market to be plumbed. The seat of the Church of England is there and, at the time anyway, there were many wealthy farmers and members of the landed gentry in the surrounding area.

Huguenot and Walloon weavers in Canterbury established a workshop in the 16th century. Edward VI granted them the whole of the western crypt of Canterbury Cathedral for worship purposes. The workshop was in steady use until 1830.

Rothstein’s paper puts together the pieces of the puzzle with regard to the workshop’s closure and the death of the silk industry in Canterbury. It must have been quite a challenge. What is available says that the original records are difficult to come by and some have even been destroyed.

However, in the mid-18th century, the War of Austrian Succession disrupted the shipment of raw silk from Asia, Italy and Turkey (Farrell, p. 83). Dublin’s silk industry shrank dramatically between 1730 and 1763. Many weavers moved to London.

Another serious challenge came around the same time: mechanisation. Punch card looms put many weavers out of work, not only in Britain but also elsewhere in Europe. By 1801, embroidery had been mechanised, too.

Yet another difficulty, despite Huguenot expertise, was that the climate in the British Isles was never going to be conducive to a large-scale silk industry.

In the end, finished Indian and Chinese silks took over.

The Exodus article says that 30,000 workers in the 18th century were affected by the downturn. Violent clashes took place between owners and employees. The 1801 Spitalfields Acts attempted to calm things down by improving wages and conditions as well as protecting the English silk market.

However, the Huguenots of Spitalfields ended up moving to what were then London’s suburbs (likely to be in the centre of the capital today). Another chapter of artisanal history had come to a close.