THE term Spitalfields at an early period of the history of London designated the suburban meadows situated between the ancient highway of Bishopsgate Street and the High Street of Whitechapel. In the year 1197, one Walter Brune, a citizen of London, founded in these fields a large hospital for poor brethren of the order of St. Austin; hence the surrounding pastures were called Hospital-fields, and ultimately "Spitalfields." This district was formerly one of the hamlets of the ancient manor of Steben Heath, now called Stepney.
In 1740, according to the Act of Parliament for making it a distinct parish, and erecting a parish church, the, hamlet contained only 1800 houses and 15,000 people. The population in 1841 was, in round numbers, 74,000, and the number of inhabited houses just upon 12,000, or very nearly seventeen houses to each acre. The average number of houses per acre throughout London is 5.5, so that each acre of ground has twelve more houses built upon it than is usual in the metropolis. From this we should naturally infer that the generality of tenements in this district would be of a small and low-rented character, and accordingly we find from the returns of Mr. Bestow and the other parish officers that the number of houses rated under 20l. was about 11,200 out of the 11,700 and odd existing in that locality. Hence, we see the truth of the remark, that there is no parish in or about London where there is such a mass of low-rented houses.
"The houses of the weavers," says Dr. Gavin, in his valuable "Sanitary Ramblings," "generally consist of two rooms on the ground floor and a workroom above. The workroom always has a large window for the admission of light during their long hours of sedentary labour." Whole streets of such houses, indeed, abound in Bethnal Green, where the greater part of the population is made up of weavers. There are some, but not a great number of dwellings consisting of one room only. Such houses are always of the worst description. With a very few exceptions, the dwellings of the poor are destitute of those structural conveniences common to the better classes of houses. There are never any places set aside for receiving coals; dustbins to hold the refuse of the houses are exceedingly rare, and cupboards and closets are altogether unknown. There are never any sinks, and the fire-places are constructed without the slightest regard to the convenience or comfort of the inmates."
The history of weaving in Spitalfields is interesting, and tends to elucidate several of the habits existing to this day among the class. Upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, numerous French artisans left their native country, and took refuge in the neighbouring states. King James II. encouraged these settlers, and King William III. published a proclamation, dated April 25, 1689, for the encouraging of the French Protestants to transport themselves into this kingdom, promising them his royal protection, and "to render their living here comfortable and easy to them."
For a considerable time the population of Spitalfields might be considered as exclusively French; that language was universally spoken, and even within the memory of persons now living, their religious rites were performed in French, in chapels erected for that purpose.
The weavers were formerly almost the only botanists in the metropolis, and their love of flowers to this day is a strangely marked characteristic of the class.
Some years back, we are told, they passed their leisure hours, and generally the whole family dined on Sundays at the little gardens round the environs of London, now mostly built upon. Not long ago there was an Entomological Society, and they were amongst the most diligent entomologists in the kingdom.
Their tastes, though far less general than formerly, still continue to be a type of the class. There was at one time a Mathematical Society, an Historical Society, and a floricultural Society, all maintained by the operative silk-weavers, and the celebrated Dollond, the inventor of the achromatic telescope, was a weaver; so, too, were Simpson and Edwards, the mathematicians, before they were taken from the loom into the employ of the Government to teach mathematics to the cadets at Woolwich and Chatham.
Such were the Spitalfield weavers at the beginning of the present century, possessing tastes and following pursuits, the refinement and intelligence of which would be an honour and grace to the artisan of the present day, but which shone out with a double lustre at a time when the amusements of society were almost of a gross and brutalizing kind.
The weaver of our own time, however, though far above the ordinary artisan, both in refinement and intellect, falls far short of the weaver of former years.
Of the importance of the silk trade, as a branch of manufacture to the country, we may obtain some idea from the estimate of the total value of the produce, drawn up by Mr. McCulloch "with great care," as he tells us, "from the statements of intelligent practical men in all parts of the country, conversant with the trade, and well able to form an opinion on it." The total amount of wages paid in the year 1836 (" since when," he says, "the circumstances have changed but little,") was upwards of 3,700,000l.; the total number of hands employed, 200,000; the interest on capital, wear, tear, &c., 2,600,000l.; and the estimated total value of the silk manufacture of Great Britain, 10,480,000l.
Now, according to the census of the weavers of the Spitalfields district, taken at the time of the Government inquiry in 1838, and which appears to be considered by the weavers themselves of a generally accurate character, the number of looms at work was 9000 and odd, while those unemployed were not quite 1000. But every two of the looms employed would occupy five hands, so that the total number of hands at work on the silk manufacture in Spitalfields at that date must have been more than double the number above cited, or about 20,000. This would show that they were then engaged in producing nearly one-tenth of the silk goods manufactured throughout Great Britain; and hence the total value of the productive power of the district must have been upwards of one million of money, and the amount paid in wages 370,000l. per annum.
Now, from inquiries made amongst the operatives some years back, I found that there had been a depreciation in the value of their labour to the extent of 15 to 20 per cent. since the year above mentioned; so that at this rate the total amount paid in wages to the Spitalfields weavers would have been between 300,000l. and 320,000l. per annum.
According to Mr. McCulloch's estimate, the average wage in 1837 would have been 18l. 10s. a year each man, or a fraction more than 7s. a week; whereas, about ten years after that date, the weekly earnings had fallen to as little as 5s. 6d. for each of the hands employed.
This appears to agree with a printed statement put forward by the weavers themselves, wherein it is affirmed that "the average weekly earnings of the silk weavers in 1824, including the whole body of the operatives employed, as well as partially employed and unemployed, were 14s. 6d. Deprived of legislative protection," they say, "there is now no means of readily ascertaining the average weekly earnings of the whole body of employed and unemployed operative silk weavers; but according to the best approximation to an average which can be made, the usual gains each week amount for the entire operative portion of the trade, employed and unemployed, to but 4s. 9d." Hence it would appear that the estimate before given of 5s. 5d. for the weekly average wages of those employed regularly throughout the year is not far from the truth. It may, therefore, be safely asserted that the operative silk weavers, as a body, obtain 50,000l. worth less food, clothing, and comfort per annum than what they did in the year 1839.
Now let us see what was the state of the weaver in that year, as detailed by the Government report, so that we may be the better able to comprehend what his condition must be at present.
"Mr. Thomas Heath, of No. 8, Pedley Street," says the Blue Book of 1839, "has been represented by many persons as one of the most skilful workmen in Spitalfields. He handed in about forty samples of figured silk done by him, and they appear exceedingly beautiful. This weaver also gave a minute and detailed account of all his earnings for 430 weeks, being upwards of eight years, with the names of the houses and the fabrics at which he had been engaged. The sum of the gross earnings for 430 weeks is 322l. 3s. 4d., being about 14s. 11¾d. - say 15s. - a week. He estimates his expenses (for quill-winding, picking, &c.) at 4s., which would leave 11s. net wages; but take the expenses at 3s. 6d., his earnings are still only 11s. 6d. He states his wife's earnings at about 3s. per week. He gives the following remarkable evidence:- Have you any children? No; I had two, but they are both dead, thanks be to God! Do you express satisfaction at the death of your children? I do! I thank God for it. I am relieved from the burden of maintaining them, and they, poor dear creatures, are relieved from the troubles of this mortal life."
If this, then, was the condition and feeling of one of the most skilful workmen ten years ago, earning 11s. 6d. per week, and when it was proved in evidence by Mr. Cole that 8s. 6d. per week was the average net gains of twenty plain weavers, what must be the condition and feeling of the weaver now that wages have fallen from 15 to 20 per cent. since that period?
I will now proceed to give the result of my own inquiries into the subject; though, before doing so, it might be as well to make the reader acquainted with the precautions adopted to arrive at a fair and an unbiassed estimate of the feelings and condition of the workmen in the trade.
In the first place, having put myself into communication with the surgeon of the district, and one of the principal and most intelligent of the operatives, it was agreed among us that we should go to a certain street and visit the first six weavers' houses that we came to. Accordingly we made the best of our way to the place.
The houses were far above the average abodes of the weavers, the street being wide and airy, and the dwellings open at the back, with gardens filled with many coloured dahlias. The "long lights," as the attic window stretching the whole length of the houses are technically termed, showed that almost the entire street was occupied by weavers.
As we entered the thoroughfare, a coal-cart, with a chime of bells above the horse's collar, went jingling past us. Another circumstance peculiar to the place was the absence of children. In such a street, had the labour of the young been less valuable, the gutters and the door steps would have swarmed with juveniles.
We knocked at the door of the first house, and requesting permission to speak with the workman on the subject of his trade, were all three ushered up a steep staircase, and, through a trap in the floor, into the "shop." This was a long, narrow apartment, with a window back and front, extending the entire length of the house, running from one end of the room to the other.
The man was the ideal of his class - a short spare figure, with a thin face and sunken cheeks. In the room were three looms and some spinning-wheels, at one of which sat a boy winding "quills." Working at a loom was a plump, pleasant-looking girl, busy making "plain goods." Along the windows on each side were ranged small pots of fuchsias, with their long scarlet drops swinging gently backwards and forwards as the room shook with the clatter of the looms.
The man was a velvet-weaver. He was making a drab velvet for coat-collars. We sat down on a wooden chair beside him, and talked as he worked. He told us he was to have 3s. 6d. per yard for the fabric, and that he could make about half a yard a day. They were six in family, he said, and he had three looms at work. He got from 20s. to 25s. weekly for the labour of five of them, and that only when they were all employed. But one loom is generally out of work, waitng for fresh "cane." Up to 1824 the price for the same work as he was then doing was 6s. a yard. The reduction, he was convinced, arose from the competition in the trade, and one master cutting under the other. "The workmen were obliged," he added," to take the low prices, because they had not the means to hold out, and they knew that if they didn't accept the work others would. There are always plenty of weavers unemployed; and the cause of that is owing to lowness of prices, and the people being compelled to do double the quantity of work that they used to in order to live. I have made a stand against the lowness of prices," he went on, "and have lost my work through refusing to take the sum named. Circumstances compel us to take it at last. The cupboard gets low and the landlord comes for his weekly rent. The masters are all trying to undersell one another. They never will advance wages. 'Go, get my neighbour to do it,' each says, 'and then I'll advance.' It's been a continuation of reduction for the last six-and-twenty years, and a continuation of suffering for us just as long. Never a month passes but what you hear of something being lowered. Manufacturers may be divided into two classes - those who care for their men's comfort and welfare, and those who care for none but themselves. In the work of reduction certain houses take the lead, taking advantage of the least depression to offer the workmen less wages. It's useless talking about French goods. Why, we've driven the French out of the market in silk for umbrellas and parasols; but the people are a-starving while they're driving of 'em out."
A little while back this man had only one loom at work for eight persons to subsist upon, and he lived by making away with his clothes. Labour is so low, he told me, he couldn't afford to send his children to school. He only sends them of a Sunday, for he can't spare the little things on a work-a-day.
At the next house the man took rather a more gloomy view of his calling. He was at work at brown silk for umbrellas. His wife worked when she was able, but she was nursing a sick child. He had made the same work as he was engaged upon at a shilling a yard not six months ago. He was to have 10d. for it, and he didn't know that there might not be another penny taken off next time.
"Weavers were all a-getting poorer, and masters all a-getting country houses. His master had been a-losing terrible, he said, and yet he'd just taken a mansion out of town. They only give you work just to oblige you, as an act of charity, and not to do themselves any good. Oh, no!" He works fifteen hours and often more. When he knocks off at ten at night, he leaves the lights up all round him, for many go on till eleven. All he knows is he can't. Those who work half through the night are possessed of greater strength than he has. In the dead of night he can always see one light somewhere - it's some man "on the finish." He wakes at five, and even then he can hear the looms going. Low prices arise entirely from competition amongst the masters. The umbrella silk he was making would most likely be charged a guinea. What would sixpence extra on that be to the purchaser? and yet the extra sixpence would be three or four shillings a week to him, and go a long way towards his rent. Isn't exactly able to tell what is the cause of the depression; "I only knows I suffers from it - ay, that I do! I do! and have severely for some time," said the man, striking the silk before him with his clenched fist. "The man that used to make - this here is dead and buried; he died of the cholera. He had 11d. for what I get 10d. What it will be next, God only knows, and I'm sure I don't care - it can't be much worse." "Mary," said he to his wife, as she sat blowing the fire while the dying infant lay motionless in her lap, "how much leg of beef do we use? four pound ain't it, in the week, and three pound of flank on Sunday, lucky to get that, too, eh? and that's among half-a-dozen of us. Now, I should like a piece of roast beef with potatoes under it, but I shall never taste that again. And yet," said he, with a savage chuckle, "that there sixpence on this umbrella would just do it. But what's that to the people? What's it to them if we starve? - and there is many at the game just now, I can tell you. If we could depend upon a constancy of work, and get a good price, why we should be happy men; but I'm sure I don't know whether I shall get any more work when my 'cane's' out. My children I'm quite disheartened about. They must turn out into the world somewhere, but where Heaven only knows. I often bother myself over that more than my father bothered himself over me. What's to become of us all? What's to become of us all - nine thousand of us here, besides wives and children - I can't say."
These two specimens of the class will give the reader some conception as to the feelings and state of the rest of the weavers in the same street. In all there was the same want of hope, the same doggedness and half indifference as to their fate. All agreed in referring their misery to the spirit of competition on the part of the masters - the same universal desire to "cut under." They all spoke most bitterly of one manufacturer in particular, and attributed to him the ruin of the trade.
One weaver said he was anxious to get to America, and not stop "in this infernal country," for he could see the object of the Government was the starva ion of the labouring classes. "If you was to come round here of a Sunday," said he, addressing himself to us, "you'd hear the looms going all about; they're obliged to do it or starve. There's no rest for us now. Formerly I lived in a house worth 40l. a-year, and now I'm obliged to put up with this damnable dog-hole. Every year bad is getting worse in our trade, and in others as well. What's life to me ? - Labour! labour! labour! - and for what? Why, for less and less food every month. Ah, but the people can't bear it much longer! flesh and blood and bones must rise against it before long."
Having, then, seen and heard the opinions of six of the operatives taken promiscuously, I was desirous of being placed in a position to study different classes of the same trade. I wished to be placed in communication with some of the workmen who were known to entertain violent political opinions. I was anxious, also, to be allowed to see weavers who were characterized by the possession of such tastes as formerly distinguished the class. Unfortunately, however, although I was kindly taken to the houses of two or three individuals of known scientific tastes and acquirements, the parties were all absent from their homes.
I was conducted, however, in the evening, to a tavern where several weavers who advocated the opinion of the People's Charter were in the habit of assembling, and found the room half full, and immediately proceeded to explain to them the object of my visit, telling them that I intended to make notes of whatever they might communicate to me with a view to publication. After a short consultation amongst themselves, they told me that in their opinion the primary cause of the depression of the prices amongst the weavers was the want of the suffrage. "We consider that labour is unrepresented in the House of Commons, and king unrepresented, that the capitalist and the landlord have it all their own way. Prices have gone down amongst the weavers since 1824 more than one-half; so that, in order to live, the hours of labour have been lengthened in proportion. The weavers now generally work one-third longer than formerly, and for less."
"I know two instances," said one person, "where the weavers have to work from ten in the morning till twelve at night, and then they only get meat once a week. The average time for labour before 1824 was ten hours a day; now it is fourteen. In 1824 there were about 14,000 hands employed, getting at an average 14s. 6d. a week, and now there are 9000 hands employed, getting at an average only 4s. 6d. a week, and that at increased hours of labour. This depreciation we attribute, not to any decrease in the demand for silk goods, but to foreign and home competition. We believe that the foreign competition brings us into collision with the foreign workman; and it is impossible for us to compete with him, at the present rate of English taxation. As regards home competition, we are of opinion that, from the continued desire on the part of each trader to undersell the other, the workman has ultimately to suffer. We think there is a desire on the part of every manufacturer to undersell the other, and so to get an extra amount of trade into his own hands, and make a large and rapid fortune thereby. The public, we are satisfied, do not derive any benefit from this extreme competition. It is only a few individuals, who are termed by the trade slaughterhouse men. They alone reap any benefit from the system, and the public gain no advantage whatever by the depreciation in our rates of wages. It is our firm conviction, that if affairs continue as at present, the fate of the working man must be pauperism, crime, or death."
It was growing late; and, as I was anxious to see some case of destitution in the trade which might be taken as a fair average of the condition of the second or third-rate workman, I requested my guide, before I quitted the district, to conduct me to some such individual if it were possible at that hour. He took me towards Shoreditch; and, on reaching a narrow back street, he stopped opposite a three-storied house to see whether there was still a light shining through the long window in the attic. By the flickering shadows, the candle seemed to be dying out. My guide thought, however, that we might venture to knock. We did so, and in the silent street the noise echoed from house to house; but no one came. We knocked again, still louder. A third time, and louder still we clattered at the door. A voice from the cellar demanded to know whom we wanted. He told us to lift the latch of the street door. We did so, and it opened.
The passage looked almost solid in the darkness. My guide groped his way by the staircase wall, bidding me follow him. I did as bidden, and reached the stairs.
"Keep away from the banisters," said my companion, "as they are rather rotten, and might give way." I clung close to the wall, and we groped our way to the second floor, where the light shone through the closed door, in one long luminous line. At last we gain the top landing, and knocking, were told to enter.
"Oh, Billy, is that you ?" said an old man, sitting up and looking through the curtains of a turn-up bedstead. "Here Tilly," he continued, to a girl who was still dressed, "get another lamp and hang it up again' the loom, and give the gentleman a chair." A backless seat was placed at the foot of the weavers bedstead; and when the lamp was lighted I never beheld so strange a scene.
In the room were three large looms. From the head of the old weaver's bedstead, a clothes-line extended to a loom opposite, and on it a few old ragged shirts and petticoats were hanging to dry. Under the "porry" of another loom was stretched a second line, and more linen drying. Behind me, on the floor, was spread a bed, on which lay four boys - two with their heads in one direction and two in another, for the more convenient stowage of the number. They were covered with old sacks and coats. Beside the bed of the old man was a mattress on the ground without any covering, and the tick positively chocolate-coloured with dirt.
"Ah, Billy, I'm so glad to see you," said the old weaver to my companion; "I've been dreadful bad, nearly dead, with the cholera. I was took dreadful about one o'clock in the morning; just the time the good 'ooman down below were taken. What agony I suffered to be sure! I hope to God you may never have it. I've known four hundred die about here in fourteen days. I couldn't work! oh, no ! It took all the use of my strength from me, as if I'd been on a sick bed for months. And how I lived I can't tell. To say the truth, I wanted - such as I never ought to want - I wante for common necessaries. I got round as well as I could; but how I did it I don't know. God knows; I don't, that's true enough. I hadn't got any money to buy anything. Why, there's seven on us - yes, there's seven on us, all dependent on weaving here - nothing else. What was four shillings a yard is paid one and nine now, so I leaves you to judge, sir; ain't it, Billy? My work stopped for seven days, and as I was larning my boy, his stopped too, and we had nothing to live upon. I pawned my things - and shall never get 'em again - to buy some bread, tea, and sugar for my young ones there. Oh! its like a famine in these parts just now, among the people, now they're getting well. It's no use talking about the parish; you might as well talk to a wall. There was hardly anybody well just round about here, from the back of Shoreditch Church, you may say, to Swan Street. The prices of weving is so low that we're ashamed to say what it is; because it's the means of pulling down other people's wages and other trades. Why, to tell you the truth, you must needs suppose that ls. 9d. a yard ain't much, and some of the masters is so cruel that they gives no more than 1s. 3d. a yard. Wretched is their condition! The people is a being brought to that state of destitution that many say it's a blessing from the Almighty when it comes to their time to be took from the world. They lose all love of country - yes, and all hopes; and they prays to be tortured no longer. Why, want is common to a hundred families close here to-morrow morning; and this it is to have cheap silks. I should like to ask a question here, as I sees you a writing, sir. When is the people of England to see that there big loaf they was promised - that's it - the people wants to know when they're to have it? I'm sure if the ladies who wears what we makes, or the Queen of England herself, was to see our state, she'd never let her subjects suffer such privations in a land of plenty. Yes, I was comfortable in '24. I kept a good little house, and I thought, as my young ones growed up, why, I thought I should be comfortable in my old age. I could live by my labour then; but now, why it's wretched in the extreme. Then I'd a nice little garden and some nice tulips for my hobby when my work was done. There they lay, up in my old hat now. As for animal food, why it's a stranger to us. Once a week, maybe, we gets a taste of it, but that's a hard struggle; and many families don't have it once a month. A jint we never sees. Oh, it's too bad! There's seven on us here in this room; but it's a very large room to some weavers' - their's ain't half the size of this here. The weavers is in general five or six, all living and working in the same room. There's four on us here in this bed - one head to foot, one at our back along the bolster, and me and my wife side by side; and there's four on 'em over there; my brother Tom makes up the other one. There's a nice state in a Christian land! How many do you think lives in this house? Why, twenty-three mortal souls! Oh! ain't it too bad? But the people is frightened to say how bad they're off, for fear of their masters, and losing their work; so they keeps it to themselves, poor creatures! But oh, there's many a one wuss than we are. Many's gone to the docks, and some's turned costermongers; but none goes stealing, or a sojering, that I hears of. They goes out to get a loaf of bread. Oh, it's a shocking scene ! I can't say what my thoughts is about the young 'uns. Why, you loses yer natural affection for 'em. It's wretched in the extreme to see one's children want and not to be able to do to them as a parent ought; and I say this 'ere after all you've heard me state - that the Government of my native land ought to interpose their powerful arm to put a stop to such things. Unless they do, civil society with us is all at an end. Everybody is becoming brutal - unnatural. Billy! just turn up that shelf now, and let the gentleman see the beautiful fabrics we're in the habit of producing, and then he shall say whether we ought to be in the filthy state we are. Just show the light, Tilly! That's for ladies to wear, and adorn their figures with, and make theirselves handsome."
The fabric alluded to was an exquisite piece of maroon-coloured velvet, that, amidst all the squalor of the place, seemed marvelously beautiful, and it was a wonder to find it unsoiled amidst the filth that surrounded it.
"I say, just turn it up, Billy, and show the gentleman the back. That's cotton, partly, you see, sir, just for the manufacturers to cheat the public with. All they want is to get a cheap article, and have all the gold out of the poor working creatures they can. But Death, Billy, Death, gets all the gold out of them after all ! They're playing a deep game, but Death wins in the end! Oh, when this here's made known wont the manufacturers be in a way to find the public put up to their tricks! They've lowered the wages to that extent that one would hardly believe the people would take out the work at such a price. But what's one to do? The children can't quite starve. Oh, no! Oh, no!"
by Henry Mayhew