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The Cutter's Story  
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The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms, by William Hogarth. It shows the interior of a weaver's workshop. 1747.

Weavers at their looms

In the summer of 1769, there was an attempt by some of the masters who were involved in the manufacture of silk handkerchiefs to cut the rates they paid to their workers. The weavers reacted by demanding a subscription of sixpence per loom, to finance their fight to keep payments from dropping.

Lewis Chauvet was a leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs. He forbade his workers to join the union or to pay the sixpences.

As a result, the cutters, as the organised weavers were called, gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet's workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt.

Chauvet's silk slashed

Hare Court, Spitalfields. Eighteenth century weavers' cottages.
Weaver’s cottages

Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet's workers. They cut the silk out of more than fifty looms.

Four nights later, on Monday 21st August, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air. The cutters did this to deter anyone from interfering with them. The people of the neighbourhood were terrified, though no one was actually hurt.

Rocques Map of London showng the location of the French Church on Old Artillery Ground, 1746.
Rocque’s map of London showing Spitalfields, 1746.

Here is a newspaper account of this episode.

Reward offered

One of the leaders on these occasions was a weaver called John Valline. Valline was probably a member of the handkerchief weavers' committee. Another of those involved was a weaver called John Doyle.

Lewis Chauvet's response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

The Poors come forward

On 26 September a couple of people appeared in front of a magistrate to give evidence in a silk-cutting case. These were Thomas Poor, a small master weaver with seven looms, and Mary his wife. They were not part of Chauvet's workforce. However, as Mary Poor admitted, later on, before she and her husband had come forward to give evidence, she had first been in touch with Chauvet to inquire about the reward.

Here is the evidence of Thomas and Mary Poor, given to two separate magistrates:

At the time they gave it, John Doyle was already in custody. If you look at the first statement, you will see that the magistrate, or his clerk, has become rather confused as to whether he is taking evidence from Thomas Poor or the man whom Poor is accusing, John Doyle.

To scrag someone: 1) to hang someone by the neck 2) to give evidence against someone that will get them hanged

    – Eighteenth-century London slang

Doyle may or may not have been involved in the silk-cutting incidents at the home of the Poors. At the gallows, as we have seen, he swore that he had been falsely accused. Whether this was true or not, there is no doubt that the Poors had taken a calculated decision to 'scrag' him, to send him to the gallows for the sake of the reward.

A Typical Hanging Scene in London.

A 'Wanted' advertisement

At this point, Sir John Fielding, the energetic and ruthless Bow Street magistrate, became involved in the case. He arranged for a reward to be advertised for information leading to the arrest of several other cutters whom Poor and his wife had named.

Here is the advertisement that appeared on 30th September. It includes descriptions of the wanted men.

Valline's name is not on the list. He had already been arrested by that time.

The raid on the Dolphin

On the afternoon of 30th September, a silk manufacturer brought Sir John Fielding a note he had received. It instructed the manufacturer to appear that evening at the Dolphin alehouse in Spitalfields. It told him he must pay four shillings for each of his looms to 'the Conquering and Bold Defiance'. (This was one of the names that the weavers gave their union.) The usual sum the cutters demanded for each loom was sixpence. It sounds as though this manufacturer was one of the ones who were refusing to pay up.

That evening, Fielding sent about thirty 'peace officers', most of them untrained parish constables, to the Dolphin alehouse to arrest the weavers' committee. They were accompanied by a magistrate and a detachment of soldiers. The constables were so afraid of the violent cutters that many of them melted away on the journey to Spitalfields. By the time they arrived at the Dolphin there were only about eight or nine of them left.

The weavers' committee was holding its meeting in a first floor room. Two or three of the peace officers went upstairs, together with several of the soldiers. On the way up they met several weavers coming down. These men said that they had just been in front of the committee to pay their money. They begged the soldiers not to hurt them.

The shooting of Adam McCoy

The members of the committee were ordered to surrender, but instead they opened fire through the door of the room, killing a soldier, Adam McCoy.

Here is an eyewitness account of the death of Adam McCoy, by his fellow soldier Sergeant Thomas Yates.

After McCoy was killed, the officer in charge of the soldiers withdrew most of his men into the street. However, he left two of them stationed at the doors of the taproom (bar), to prevent anyone's leaving. A number of people were drinking in there, many of them weavers who had come to pay their money to the committee.

The shooting of Haseldon and Briggs

The soldiers began to fire at the alehouse; not only at the windows of the first floor room where the cutters were, but also at the windows of the taproom. Two of the Dolphin's customers, Adam Haseldon and James Briggs, were killed at this point.

Rioters and Soldiers, c.1780.
Soldiers and crowd

Here is an eyewitness account by James Dass, a weaver, who was unfortunate enough to be trapped in the taproom. At one point a bullet went through his hat.

The cutters escape

None of the cutters were arrested. They escaped either through the windows or through a trapdoor in the roof.

Two of the soldiers found a man called Daniel Murphy in bed in an upstairs room, his head covered with the bedclothes. He claimed to be a lodger in the house and to be a sick man, but they arrested him just the same. Murphy, a journeyman weaver, was charged with the murder of Adam McCoy. He spent two and a half weeks in jail. When his case came to court, on 18th October, no evidence was brought against him and he was allowed to go free. He was luckier than Haseldon, Briggs and McCoy.

The trial of Doyle and Valline

Murphy was also more fortunate than Doyle and Valline, who were tried on the same day. The evidence against them was thin. The witnesses did not even agree on exactly which date in August the silk-cutting incident had taken place.

Thomas Poor swore that he had recognised Doyle and Valline 'by the light of the window': this was the workshop window, 'five yards long' we are told. Weavers' workshops always had large windows to give a good light for the work.

However, it was half past eleven at night when the cutters came. Another witness, Thomas Riley, was in bed in Poor's workshop at the time. He refused to identify any of the cutters, stating that he had pulled the bedclothes over his head.

After the cutters had left, Riley emerged from under the bedclothes. He said that at that point it was so dark in the workshop that it would have been impossible for him or anyone else to identify any individual. Given the time of night, this sounds more than likely.

Riley knew Valline slightly. He swore that he had not heard Valline's voice that night, though Mary Poor stated that she and Valline had exchanged some words.

Riley's evidence was ignored. Doyle and Valline were condemned by the jury on the evidence of Thomas and Mary Poor. They were sentenced to death.

You can read the full details of the trial of Doyle and Valline at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. The trial reference number (which is the easiest way to find it in the database) is Ref: t17691018-22

Doyle and Valline hanged

The execution of Doyle and Valline was held up for several weeks. This was because there was a big argument about where they were going to be hanged.

The usual place of criminal execution was Tyburn, on the other side of London from Spitalfields. However, some of the big silk manufacturers urged the government to have Doyle and Valline hanged in Bethnal Green. They wanted to make an example of them in their own community. They were determined to ram home the message that silk-cutting would not be tolerated.

Horwood's Map of London, 1799.
Horwood’s map of London showing Bethnal Green, 1799

Executions were the responsibility of the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex. In 1769, the two Sheriffs were men who had certain sympathies with the weavers' movement. They argued that executing Doyle and Valline in any other place than Tyburn was technically illegal. But in the end they were overruled.

On 6th December, John Doyle and John Valline were hanged near the Salmon and Ball public house in Bethnal Green. A huge crowd of local people came to watch them die. Some of them threw stones and bricks at the men who set up the gallows.

Doyle and Valline both proclaimed their innocence of the crime for which they were hanged. Afterwards part of the crowd moved off to Lewis Chauvet's house, at 39 Crispin Street, Spitalfields. They smashed his windows, broke his window frames and damaged some of his furniture.

Here is a account, taken from the newspapers, of the execution of Doyle and Valline.

The trial of William Horsford

On the day Doyle and Valline were hanged another man was tried for the same crime. He was an Irish weaver, and his name is spelt several different ways: William Horsford, or Horsfield, or Osfort. Once again, the sole evidence against him came from Thomas and Mary Poor, who swore that they had identified him by his face and voice on the night that the cutters made their raid. Thomas Riley, who had cast doubt on their evidence at the trial of Doyle and Valline, was not called as a witness.

William Horsfield ... is a fine handsome young fellow, not 23 years of age, who declared in the most solemn manner, That he was not guilty of the facts sworn against him.

    – Report in the Gentleman's Magazine

News items relating to the activities of silk cutters in 1769
The Gentleman’s magazine, 1769

Thomas Poor admitted that he and his wife had received charity from various 'gentlemen'. He also admitted that some of these gentlemen had made promises to him. However, he claimed not to know who they were. Asked about her links with Lewis Chauvet, Mary Poor agreed that before she and her husband had given evidence to the magistrate, she had applied to Chauvet for a reward.

Thomas Sykes, who collected rents for the Poors' landlord, told the court about a conversation in which Mary Poor had said that 'she knew seventeen of the cutters, and she would hang them', unless they gave her thirty pounds. However, if they were prepared to pay up, she would withdraw her evidence.

There can be no doubt that Thomas and Mary Poor gave evidence against the cutters because they were expecting to be well paid. Unfortunately for poor Horsford, the jury convicted him anyway. He was sentenced to hang.

You can read the full details of the trial of William Horsford at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. The trial reference number (which is the easiest way to find it in the database) is Ref: t17691206-34

The evidence of Daniel Clarke

The same day, 6th December, another man appeared in court accused of a similar offence. William Eastman was tried for cutting silk and damaging weaving equipment in the house of Daniel Clarke.

Clarke, like Thomas Poor, was a master weaver in a very small way of business, doing piece-work given out to him by the big manufacturers. He too was Irish; in fact, he had only recently come to London from Dublin.

The Dublin silk-weavers, like those of Spitalfields, were involved in pay disputes with the big master weavers who controlled the trade. In the summer of 1768, a group of Irish weavers had written to the leaders of the weavers in London to keep them up to date with the news about their struggle. The letter contains a warning about a weaver called 'Dan Clark', a dangerous man, 'who swears what the master weavers require'.

The silk-cutting incident at Clarke's house in London had taken place on 11th September. Clarke had come forward to give evidence on 3rd November.

Here is his account of the night the silk-cutters came to his house. One rather fishy aspect of this witness statement is the way, a day after giving it, he suddenly remembered, it seems, that the cutters had stolen some silk from him.

In his original statement, Clarke accused three weavers by name: William Eastman, Philip Gosset and a man named Bantum. Gosset's name shows that he was of Huguenot descent. According to evidence Clarke gave in court, he was the chairman of one of the weavers' committees. Gosset was never caught.

The trial of William Eastman

When Clarke gave evidence at Eastman's trial, he added a new detail to his evidence. He claimed that it was definitely Eastman who had called out 'Here goes!' when the cutters had slashed his silk; that he had often had conversations with him and that he had recognised his voice. (In his original statement, Clarke had merely stated that he had heard the words spoken by the men who were up in his workshop.)

It came out at the trial that Clarke, like the Poors, had been in touch with Chauvet. James Williams, a friend of Clarke's, stated that Clarke had been promised 'security'. Presumably what he meant was a sum of money to set against the risk that Clarke was taking in giving evidence.

Williams swore that five days after the silk-cutting incident, Clarke had told him that he hadn't been able to recognise any of the men who did it. Several other people also stated that Clarke had said originally that he had no idea who the cutters were.

William Eastman was convicted and sentenced to death on Clarke's unsupported evidence that he recognised Eastman's voice.

You can read the full details of the trial of William Eastman at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. The trial reference number (which is the easiest way to find it in the database) is Ref: t17691206-31

Sexism in the weaving trade

Clarke and his wife Elisabeth made it clear they believed that the silk had been cut because the cutters knew that it was Elisabeth Clarke who had woven it. This may well have been true. There is other evidence that the men who ran the weavers' organisations wanted to prevent women from weaving the more elaborate silk fabrics and earning top prices for their work.

Weaver in a Garret, 1910.
Woman weaving

This is a passage from the Book of Wages and Prices for the Work of Journeymen Weavers (Strong Plain, Foot figured, and Flowered Branches), published in 1774:

No woman or girl to be employed in the making of any kind of work, except such works as are
fixed and settled at 5d. ½ per ell or 5d. ½ per yard, or under, for the
making; and those not to exceed half an ell in width.

Horsford and Eastman hanged

The Spitalfields journeymen organised to try to save Horsford, Eastman, and John Carmichael, a third weaver convicted of cutting, from ending their lives on the gallows. Here is an account of a meeting they held on 18th December. Afterwards, a number of the weavers marched to Westminster. They handed in a petition, begging the King to grant the men a pardon.

The government was not in a mood to show pity. Two days later, on 20th December, Horsford, Eastman and Carmichael were hanged at Tyburn, the usual place of execution. The authorities did not want to risk provoking the local crowd again with a second hanging in the Spitalfields district. The execution took place without incident.

On the Road to Tyburn Gallows (from William Hogarth's 'The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn), 1747.
On the way to Tyburn

'Chauvet is worse than me': the dying words of Daniel Clarke

The government was right to fear what the people of Spitalfields might do if provoked too far. On 15th April, 1771, more than a year after the trial of William Eastman, Daniel Clarke, the man who informed against Eastman, was sighted on the street. Someone shouted, 'There goes Clarke, that blood-selling rascal!' A mob began to gather. Stones were thrown.

Clarke took refuge for a while in the house of someone he knew. He sent someone to his wife, to fetch his pistols. Showing a desperate courage, he tried to face down the mob at the front door. However, his pistols misfired. Not long afterwards he went out of the back of the house, over a garden wall.

The mob soon caught up with him. He was half dragged, half hounded through the streets of Spitalfields and out into the fields near Bethnal Green. Most of the people who went with the mob, even those who took part in roughing Clarke up, were probably expecting nothing more serious to happen than a brutal beating.

I heard very few people that were pitying of him; they said, "He was a very bad man, and would swear peoples lives away."

-Evidence given by a witness at the murder trial

Once in the fields, Clarke was pushed into a flooded gravel pit. The water came up to his waist. The mob bombarded him with bricks and refused to let him get out.

A middling sized man came up and looked at him and said, 'Now damn your eyes! Where is Chauvet?'
[Clarke] answered, 'Chauvet is worse than me'.   

Statement made by a witness to the killing of Daniel Clarke

After the mob relented and let Clarke out of the pit, he collapsed and died. It is not clear whether he died from shock or the effects of the blows that landed on his head.

Horwood's Map of London, 1799.
Horwood’s map of London showing Bethnal Green, 1799. A flooded gravel pit can be seen.

One witness reported that the mob that hounded Clarke through the streets was mostly made up of 'women and boys'. Among those who took part was Anstis Horsford, the widow of William Horsford. A witness described at the trial how she stood by the pond and cried.

[Some]one said, 'What do you cry for? You see satisfaction.'
     She said, 'What is that for the loss of my husband, and for my fatherless children?'

Evidence given by a witness at the murder trial

On 3rd July 1771, Anstis Horsford, Henry Stroud and Robert Campbell were tried for the murder of Daniel Clarke. Stroud and Campbell were found guilty and hanged near Bethnal Green five days later. Stroud was the brother-in-law of William Eastman, who had gone to the gallows on Clarke's evidence.

You can read the full details of the trial of Anstis Horsford, Henry Stroud and Robert Campbell at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. The trial reference number (which is the easiest way to find it in the database) is Ref: t17710703-59

Peace comes to Spitalfields

In 1773, almost a decade of trouble in Spitalfields was brought to an end. A special act of Parliament, the Spitalfields Weavers Act, was passed. From now on, the wages for silk weavers would be fixed: in Middlesex by the magistrates, and in London by the Lord Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen. It would become illegal for any master to pay more, or any workman to accept less, than the established rates.

In practice, the masters and journeymen of the different branches of the silk-weaving trade sat down together and hammered out agreements on the rates to be paid. Then they went to the magistrates together to ask them to rubber stamp these agreements. Wages and prices, 1774

The rates were published in printed booklets. Some of these booklets survive in London Metropolitan Archives. Here is the booklet of Wages and Prices for the 'strong plain', 'foot figured' and 'flowered' branches of the silk-weaving industry, published in 1774.

Petition to the JPS to set weavers' wage rates and booklet of agreed prices, with amendments  Petition to the JPS to set weavers' wage rates and booklet of agreed prices, with amendments
Petition to the JPS to set weavers' wage rates and booklet of agreed prices, with amendments, 1774.

The names of the masters and journeymen who sat down together as representatives to draw up the document are listed together at the end. The booklet records that in the course of reaching their agreement they met together on twenty-three occasions.

The Spitalfields Weavers Act stayed in force until 1824. It did not solve all the problems of the Spitalfields silk-weavers. Their industry was in a slow but unstoppable decline. There continued to be many poor weavers in the East End of London who struggled to make a living and survived, at best, from hand to mouth.

However, from this time on there were no further
  • incidents of silk-cutting
  • shoot-outs with soldiers
  • convictions of cutters on dubious evidence
  • executions for silk-cutting
  • murders of dodgy informers

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