The Songs of the Spitalfields Silk Weavers


Seeing as our all-female choir Women sing East will be exploring local protest songs with Bishopsgate Institute’s Tubthumping Chorus, we thought it would be a good idea to give you a brief history of the silk-spinning industry in Spitalfields and the songs that the weavers sung.

Silk has been produced in Spitalfields since the 15th century. The industry grew quickly and by the 18th century, large portions of the population were employed by ‘masters’ to work in their own homes. Typically, a family in this time may have had four looms in their house, one each for the husband and wife, and some for the children, if there were any. Children were expected to start working from the age of six, quilling and winding the silk, and by the time they reached 12, they worked on the looms.

From the 17th century onwards, the weavers faced a new threat. In the 1660s, machines began to replace looms and riots erupted in 1675. Instead of working from home, silk spinners were forced into factories with poor working conditions and many lost their jobs. Their suspicions of machinery were fuelled by the idea that the increase of machines led to a decrease in wages.

Handloom c.1825 made by Guillotte of Spitalfields, London © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

Handloom c.1825 made by Guillotte of Spitalfields © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

In 1719, tensions within the silk weaving industry were still high. Spitalfields saw a huge influx of imported cloths, namely calico, which again drove the price and demand of silk down. It was then that the Ballad of Spitalfields was written in protest against calico.

Ballad of Spitalfields

In the Ages of Old,
We Traded for Gold,
Our merchants were thriving and Wealthy:
We had silks for our Store,
Warm Wool for our Poor,
And Drugs for the Sick and Unhealthy:
And Drugs for the Sick and Unhealthy.

But now we bring Home
The Froth and the Scum
To Dress up the Trapes like a gay-Dame:
And Ev’ry She Clown
Gets a Pye-spotted gown,
And sets up for a Callicoe Madam.
O! tawdery Callico Madam…

Here they Stamp ‘em and print ‘em,
And Spot ‘em and Paint ‘em,
And the Callico Printers Brocade ‘em;
Hey cost little pay,
And are tawdery gay,
Only fit for a Draggle-tail madam.
O! this tawdery Callico Madam.

Ev’ry Jilt of the Town
Gets a Callico Gown;
Our own Manufack’s out of Fashion:
No Country of Wool
Was ever so dull,
‘Tis a test of the Brains of the Nation:
O! the test of the brains of the Nation.

To neglect heir own Works,
Employ pagans and turks,
And let foreign Trump’ry o’er spread ‘em:
Shut up their own Door,
And starve their own Poor,
For a tawdery Callico Madam.
O! this Tatterdemalion Madam.

Were there ever such Fools!
Who despising the Rules,
For the common Improvement of Nations:
Tye up the Poor’s Hands,
And search foreign lands,
For their Magpie ridiculous Fashions.
For their Magpie ridiculous Fashions.

They’re so Callico-wise,
Their own Growth they despise,
And without an inquiry,“Who made ‘em?”
Cloath the Rich and the Poor,
The Chaste and the Whore,
And the Beggar’s a Callico Madam.
O! this Draggle-tailed Callico Madam.

Nay, who would lament it,
Or strive to prevent it,If the Prince of Iniquity had ‘em:
Or if, for a bride,
They were heartily ty’d
O some Pocky Damn’d Callico Madam.
O some Pocky Damn’d Callico Madam.

Although women had played a huge role in the production of silk, when the Huguenots arrived in Spitalfields in the 18th century, female workers were assigned to pre-weaving duties such as quilling the silk which led to an immediate decrease in wages for women. The Book of Wages and Prices for the Work of Journeymen Weavers published in 1774 even tried to enforce a ban on the hiring of women in higher paid roles. With economic difficulties still present in the industry, male weavers began to lobby the government arguing that men were predominantly the breadwinners and that without a decent wage, the family unit would collapse. This was when The Weavers Address was written.

The Weavers Address

It is not Spitalfields alone, but the country all through,
In Coventry and Manchester there’s but little work to do,
What few their [sic] is employed their wages run so low,
They can’t maintain their families, their hearts are full of woe.

As the trade worsened in the 19th century, many weavers moved to other areas of the country, yet a lot of the original silk-spinning buildings are still visible in the area, albeit  re-appropriated (Raven Row art gallery is housed within a pair of 18th century silk merchants’ houses, and Dennis Severs’ House is a historical imagination of what life would have been like for a family of silk weavers).

If you’re interested in discovering East London through song, why not join Women sing East, or watch out for their performance in our Winter Festival.

The City of Rebellious Delight
Saturday 14 December
1.15pm – 2.30pm
Bishopsgate Institute
Book now


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