Wednesday 18 April 2018 - Sue Jackson

The Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields: from riches to rags

Welcomed at first with open arms and bringing luxury skills, the Huguenots’ fortunes fluctuated wildly.

After Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, thousands of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, came to England. Many of them were skilled craftsmen: clock makers, jewellers, shipwrights, glassworkers and fine silk weavers. The silk weavers gave a great impetus to the silk industry and established a French colony in Spitalfields.

Many were admitted to the Weavers’ Company, but it was not until the 1730s that immigrants began to be admitted to the Livery and Huguenot names began to appear on the Company records - like Duthoit, Ouvry and Ogier.

Eighteenth-century London was beset by problems of fluctuating trade, foreign imports and competition which caused severe distress and consequent disturbances among the silk weavers. The greatest threat to their livelihoods came from the East. Indian textiles had been imported by the East India Company since 1621. These were silks and dyed and painted calicos used for clothing and furniture. They soon became very fashionable and were a serious threat to the home silk weaving industry.

There were riots, attacks on East India House and violent disturbances. The Weavers’ Company deplored these and struggled to maintain order. It urged Parliament to restrict the imports. Acts were passed which attempted to help the silk industry, but with little effect.

By the middle of the eighteenth century Spitalfields was a centre of poverty and disorder. After years of disruption by desperate workers in the silk trade a special Act was passed in 1773 to regulate wages, prices and employment in Spitalfields after which there was a period of comparative calm.

about our lecturer:

Sue lectures for the National Trust, U3A, City Literary Institute and the Arts Society.
A qualified Blue Badge Guide, she gives guided walks on various themes and has published work on the lost world of the River Fleet.
A history graduate, Sue is a Fellow of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain.
With her background in art and art history Sue leads visits to many of London’s museums and art galleries.

Read more at her personal website