The Spitalfield Riots occurred between 1765 and 1769, during a downturn in the silk weaving industry, centred on Spitalfields in the East End of London. The weavers organised to attempt to ensure that the rates of pay paid for their piece work was not cut beneath the level at which they could feed themselves, and their families.
Spitalfields had been a centre of the silk-weaving industry since the early seventeenth century. Towards the end of the century, at the time when the Huguenots arrived from France, large numbers of Huguenot silk-weavers settled in the district. During the 1760s, there were still many weavers in Spitalfields whose French surnames showed their Huguenot descent. Irish weavers came slightly later, but by the middle of the 1730s there were many people from Ireland, or of Irish origins, working in the Spitalfields silk industry.
Relations between the groups were not always good. There were times when the Irish weavers were blamed for working for too little money and bringing down the rates of pay. The conflict of 1769 cut right through the middle of both communities, the Huguenots and the Irish. Journeymen were involved in a struggle to keep the rates that the master weavers paid for their work from falling below a subsistence level. They organised in unofficial, and highly illegal, trade unions. 'Silk-cutting', slashing up a weaver's work, was used as a punishment for weavers who accepted a lower rate of pay, or master weavers who refused to pay money into the funds that were collected to support union activities.
Riots among the Spitalfields weavers were common. Any decline of prices, or opposition in trade, would lead to violence. When printed calicos came to be imported into England, they would sally out in groups and tear the gowns from women wearing them. In 1765, when the king attended parliament to give assent to the Regency Bill, the weavers formed a procession of red flags and black banners to protest the importation of French silks. The House of Lords were terrified into an adjournment, and in the evening, Bedford House was attacked, the mob claiming that the Duke of Bedford had been bribed into making the Treaty of Fontainebleau allowing importation from France.
An Act was passed in 1765, making it a felony punishable by death to break into any house, or shop, with the intent to maliciously destroy, or damage, any silk in the process of manufacture. The 'cutters' continued rioting in 1767, 1768 and again in 1769; attacking workshops and wounding any who stood in their way.
In September 1769, an attempt was made to arrest an entire meeting of weavers. An officer with a party of soldiers invested an alehouse, the Dolphin, in Spitalfields, "where a number of riotous weavers, commonly called cutters, were assembled to collect contributions from their brethren towards supporting themselves in order to distress their masters and oblige them to advance their wages". Meeting with resistance, the soldiers fired on the weavers and killed two, and captured four. The remainder fled and lay concealed in cellars of houses and in the vaults of the churches throughout the night of terror not only for them but also for their womenfolk.
John Doyle, who had an Irish surname, and John Valline, of French origin, were arrested for being involved. They were convicted on the evidence of two Irish weavers, Thomas and Mary Poor, who also gave evidence in the trial of William Horsford, an Irish weaver. At the latter trial, it emerged that a master weaver, Lewis Chauvet (Huguenot), had paid money for them to give evidence at both trials and that the same master had paid money for Daniel Clarke to inform against William Eastman. Horsford and Eastman were also executed.
A newspaper reporter recorded the words that John Doyle spoke to the crowd, as he stood on the hangman's ladder with the rope round his neck:
I John Doyle do hereby declare, as my last dying words in the presence of my Almighty God, that I am as innocent of the fact I am now to die for as the child unborn. Let my blood lie to that wicked man who has purchased it with gold, and them notorious wretches who swore it falsely away.
Doyle's companion, Valline, also swore his innocence of the crime for which the two of them were hanged.
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References and notes
- 'Spitalfields', Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878), pp. 149-52 accessed: 8 February 2007
- Industries: Silk-weaving, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton (1911), pp. 132-137. Date accessed: 4 March 2009.
- The Annual Register, 1769
- London Metropolitan archives accessed 8 Feb 2007