It waited a long time for its place in the light,
and for about eight weeks I have had it on my desk - dipping in, trying to take notes. It was published around 1912, when colour prints are clearly something precious and rare; each one is faced with some transparent paper, as if the colour isn't quite fast and will smudge onto the facing page if not protected.
It's a huge volume of 664 pages, and it took a great deal of effort to glean the grains from the quite considerable amount of chaff, but what I loved most, I think, were the interviews with silk workers, and then the way the author explored their homes. I concentrated on the silkworkers of Spitalfields in London.
There were three classes of silk worker: the weaver who worked and lived alongside his loom on the upper floor of his house (this photo is from Macclesfield, but I am sure the houses in Spitalfields were very similar).
These people were poor. They were small, badly nourished, pale and ill. They worked continually, the parents and children each with specific tasks: punching out cards for the Jacquard looms, preparing the warp and weft, patterning, threading the looms and of course the business shooting the shuttle back and forth - all in servitude to queen silk. They ate where they worked, tied their children to their stations, and carried on until there was no longer enough light to see. Sundays were their only day of rest, and then the children played for a few hours outdoors while the mother made the only hot meal of the week.
At the other end of the social scale were the merchants. These lived in grand house in Spital Square. They organised the weavers and traded their cloth, and Sir Frank Warner describes going into one of these houses too. In the basement was spare machinery, on the ground floor a warehouse and a place where silk skeins and finished bales were brought in, weighed and then collected. Here the weavers waited on benches in a narrow corridor for their work to be examined. I imagine them nervous and subservient, completely dependent on the mood of the merchant.
On the first floor was where the merchant's family lived - in a room full of Victorian paraphernalia: inelegant large mahogany furniture, window seats, portraits of the family, a few books, and then, along one wall, the ultimate symbol of social advancement: a piano with a fancy silk rosette on the front. Another indication of their affluent life was the fortnight the family spent in Margate each summer in the same boarding house, year after year.
Only one of these houses survives - 37 Spital Square, and here it is on Street View in Google maps (the darker building) - it and its immediate neighbours sandwiched between the modern glass towers of that part of the East End.
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It is headquarters of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings established by William Morris (coincidentally a silk enthusiast and one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement).
Between the weavers and the merchants - geographically, socially and financially - were the skilled craftsmen and tradesmen who also served the silk industry. They made the looms, for example, or bought in supplies for the upper classes.
One thing that comes over clearly is that whatever their income these people were, in general, proud of what they did. They kept samples of their cloth - bits of velvet in rich colours, or a complicatedly patterned brocade, or a shimmering piece of satin - in boxes or in frames and stuck them on the wall.
They also loved the sounds of birds and kept linnets, canaries and fancy pigeons in cages where they worked or in the yards, which were devoted to another of their passions - flowers and mulberry trees. They were a peaceful, conventional and home-loving people - even though these homes became steadily more dismal and impoverished as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth. There were no drains or sewage systems and any rubbish was simply thrown out onto the unpaved dirt track of the street. As the population grew the gardens were converted into pigsties and chicken runs. Sir Frank Warner describes houses with more paper in the window frames than glass, where goods were bought with charity slips, and the only relief was in the escapism and dreams of astrological readings. But in the mid-nineteenth century things became even worse.
In 1861, despite protests from the London silk industry, the government agreed 'free trade' with France. This, in fact, was only free in one direction - no duty on goods going into the UK, but 30% on UK goods going into France. As predicted the effect was devastating on Spitalfields (although beneficial to the UK textile industry as a whole). Cheap silk from France flooded in and the East End could not compete. Only the craftsmen who wove the more expensive silk survived. The majority of weavers had to find other employment - in the textile factories in the northof England perhaps, or in some other trade entirely, and it was this that caused them to disperse: out of Spitalfields to adjacent parishes or to another area entirely.
Within a few years Spitalfields was no longer an area of silk, and two hundred years of a unique British industry ended.