The Bower & Collier Family History

Research by Colin Bower

Silk Weavers named Collier

Background to the Silk Weaving Industry in East London 1685-1931

Some interesting background to the Silk Weaving Industry in the East of London has been obtained from extracts from a report, The Silk Weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, written in 1931 by Mr A. K. Sabin of the Bethnal Green Museum:

"The Silk Weavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green

The term Spitalfields silk refers to any specimen of silk woven upon a hand loom under the tradition of the Huguenot weavers, between the date of their coming to East London about 1685 and the present day (1931).

An account of the weavers -their settlement at Spitalfields, their gradual conversion of the hamlet of Bethnal Green into a thriving industrial area, the varying fortunes of their craft of silk weaving, its ultimate decline and practical disappearance -forms one of the fascinating stories of London growth during the last three centuries."

"....Attempts were made to induce Italian silk weavers to settle in France as early as 1480; but no great success was achieved until the French became masters of the Duchy of Milan in 1521, when noblemen returning from the conquest brought many weavers and other silk operatives back with them, and settled them at Lyons and Tours under extensive privileges.

They became acclimatised there; and gradually silk weaving developed and spread to other cities of the southern French provinces. Improvements in the technique of weaving took place under French influence; and the skill and ingenuity of design shown by the French operatives so enhanced their productions, that the art of silk weaving at Lyons and Tours in the sevententh century attained its highest point of perfection.

Most of the weavers and other silk weavers were Protestants, known by the Catholics as Huguenots; and it was at this time of the greatest accomplishment of their craft that the persecution, which immediately followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, drove these Hugeunots in vast numbers into exile, and resulted in the establishment of the weaving industry on a large scale at Spitalfields."

"....Within two years of the beginning of this persecution, more than a hundred thousand immigrants found refuge in England alone. Many arrived destitute of money and goods, landing from open boats at Sandwich, Rye and elsewhere along the southern coast...."

"These immigrants comprised skilled workmen in many branches of industry. There were silversmiths and jewellers, makers of clocks and watches, and of mathematical and surgical instruments.... but by far the greater proportion of the Huguenots were silk weavers from the region of Lyons and Tours, and they settled near Bishopsgate, in Spitalfields, Norton Folgate and the western borders of Bethnal Green.

"...Accommodation was provided for the silk weavers and their looms, and in an incredible short while the open ground outside the city wall at Bishopsgate was covered by a network of streets and alleys, with houses built specially to meet the requirements of the weavers, embroiderers, silk dyers, throwsters and other craftsmen of the immigration. Fleur de Lys Street, Blossom Stret, Fournier Street, Flower Street, Rose Alley, are some of the original street names, which, amongst others, still survive in the quarter where these workmen with their exquisite craft first made their home.

Previous to the eighteenth century, Bethnal Green was a small hamlet of the parish of St Dunstan's, Stepney, with only a few houses clustered around its ancient Green, and seemimg quite remote from London...."

"....from that date forward (1703)  so rapid was its growth, that forty years later the hamlet was converted into a parish, with a church of its own. The church of St Matthew was consecrated in 1743."

"....(in the 1740s) The houses were found to be eighteen hundred and the population fifteen thousand, by far the larger proportion of whom were weavers and their families...the prosperity of the weaving industry brought large increases in the families of the weavers, and the fame of Spitalfields silk drew to East London numbers of other silk weavers, many of them of Huguenot origin from Canterbury, Yorkshire, Cumberland and elsewhere, to share in its success.

Twelve to fifteen thousand looms were in use throughout the whole Spitalfields area in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when the industry had reached the height of its prosperity and as each loom represented the employment of at least three operatives in the various processes of production, the silk weaving industry at this time must have comprised upwards of thirty thousand workers."

"The fame of the Spitalfields productions kept the weavers in touch with private patrons as well as with mercers, and brought purchasers of every kind into the neighbourhood."

"....The prosperity of the industry was short-lived. There had been indications of decline befor the eighteenth century closed. Yet throughout this dark period from 1820 to 1830, the number of people employed in the craft was greater than 1831 there were seventeen thousand looms then working in East London and ....the population of the districts in which the Spitalfields weavers resided, comprising Spitalfields, Mile End New Town and Bethnal Green, could not be less, at that time, than one hundred thousand, of whom fifty thousand were entirly dependent on the silk manufacture, and the remainder more or less dependent indirectly."

"...The steady decline in the prosperity of the weavers during the early nineteenth century brought about an emphatic change in the character of the industry by the introduction of the factor who, in this instance, acted more as a petty employer than merely as an agent. When the weavers first set up their looms in East London they formed a cottage industry of individual craftsmen, working with members of their own families, and dependent for other phases of work, such as silk winding, dyeing, warp spreading and the making of looms....

This primitive state of things began to change at a very early date. Certain of the weavers rose rapidly to prosperity, and took into their houses several journeymen weavers and the proportional number of apprentices permitted them by law. They next extended their businesses by the employment outsideof other cottage weavers to make silks to their order and design.

Such master weavers had their own traditional designs; and it was inevitable that the mercers who sold the bulk of the silks to the public should wish for popular brocades, damasks or velvets in larger quantities than any limited family group could easily supply; thus the process of farming out work became more and more extensive as the number of weavers increased, and as capacity for the organisation of business was developed in those weavers best able to produce the most attractive designs, and see them carried out in large quantities in a perfection of material.

Before the end of the eighteenth century the community had become definitely divided into a section of master weavers dealing direct with the mercers and other customers, and a great body of craftsmen employed in their own homes by the master weavers, who provided them with patterns, weighed out skeins of silk to be woven, and paid for the amount completed at the end of the week."

"...But as the industry decined, and only those weavers producing very distinctive work remained in any way prosperous, the body of dependent weavers fell more and more into the hands of the factor-a middleman who made it his business to procure woven silks at the lowest possible rate so as to supply the demands of the wholesale dealers.

He was not a weaver, and had no inherent sympathy with the weaver and his work; but he made a convenient go-between with wholesale houses who wished to have stock materials collected for them in bulk for distribution to the retail traders, and with the working weavers, who were glad enough to have work, however ordinary, brought to their doors.

In the early Victorian period the greater part of the silk weavers were producing work of a light order for the factor and the wholesale business house at starvation rates of pay; and when the Commercial Treaty was made with France in 1860, thousands of them were told that from the day the Treaty was confirmd no further work would be given out, since foreign silks could be purchased at a cheaper rate than they could be made in England.

"....A few large firms which had adopted the factory system, and a small number of master weavers who produced work of a high order and kept on their books a number of families of first-grade operatives, were less affected by the Treaty and continued at work, but the industry generally, which had given employment in a more or less remunerative way to hundreds of thousands of silk weavers during nearly two centuries, was brought to an end, and the impoverished weavers were plunged into the direct distress.

The Spitalfields weavers never recovered from this blow. The more enterprising of the younger men went to the weaving districts of the north; a few emigrated; but there were many elderly weavers and their wives, friendless, and with no chance of obtaining other employment, who suffered in silence and perished in the general wreck, unhelped by private beneficience or public charity.

A few of the factories survived, though most of these in the course of time found it advantageous to move into the country, taking with them the weavers they employed and their families.....The last to leave the district was Warner & Sons, who acquired mills at Braintree in 1895, and shortly after transfered there sixty families of Bethnal Green silk weavers.

A few individual weavers remained, doing work of a distinctive character....,in 1914 there were forty-six workshops still occupid by weavers, mostly in the Cranbrook Street and Alma Road neighbourhood, in the extreme east of Bethnal Green.

In all one hundred and fourteen silk weavers were then working under the old cottage industry system. Since that time the number has steadily declined until there remained in 1931, a scattered group of eleven only, and those eleven all elderly persons, who would leave no successors to carry on the tradition of Spitalfields silk weaving when at length they ceased to toil at their looms.

Instead of the rich figured vestings, brocaded dress stuffs and heavy furniture silks of past times, the few remaining figure weavers, for the most part, now weaved handkerchiefs, tie silks, scarves and wraps of rich quality, which sell for a good price when retailed as Spitalfileds silk, though the smallness and uncertainty of the market still kept the weavers poor."

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Among the families affected were the Silk Weavers named Collier some of whom who hit hard times, see the following links:

Links to:

Some examples of Hard Times

Article "Decline of the Silk Trade"

One of the survivors, Francis Dearman

Colin Bower
24 January 2017

Links to:

Silk Weavers named Collier - Introduction & Index

Silk Weavers named Collier - The Story So Far

Collier Family - Progress to Date

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