Spitalfields had been a centre of the silk-weaving industry since the early seventeenth
century. Large numbers of Huguenot silk-weavers settled in the district. The Irish
weavers came slightly later. 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 two communities were not always good. The Spitalfields Riots
story unravels the history of this troubled time in London’s East End.
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Dirty work in Spitalfields
On 6 December 1769, two men were hanged in Bethnal Green. One of them, John
Doyle, had an Irish surname. The surname of the other, John Valline, was of
French origin. Valline was one of many eighteenth-century Londoners who were
of Huguenot descent.
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.
Doyle and Valline were silk-weavers. They were convicted of the crime of 'silk-cutting':
destroying the half-woven cloth on another weaver's looms.
That crime, and their execution, were only two of a series of violent incidents
which disturbed the peace of Spitalfields and nearby Bethnal Green in the year
1769. These events left an ugly legacy. In the spring of 1771, a man was murdered
because of them.
During the time these events were happening, many people in Spitalfields and
Bethnal Green found themselves taking sides. Both sides believed that they
were in the right, and that they were fighting for their survival. One side
was supported by the government. The other side had a lot of support from ordinary
workmen and their families.
The Huguenots and the Irish
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.
The Irish weavers came slightly later. However, we know that 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 Irish silk-weavers on the one hand, and those of Huguenot
or English descent on the other, 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.
Illegal trade unions
However, the conflict of 1769 cut right through the middle of both communities,
the Huguenots and the Irish. Doyle and his companion Valline were journeymen
silk-weavers. Together with many other journeymen they were involved in a struggle
to keep the rates that the master weavers paid for their work from falling
below a reasonable level.
The journeymen were 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.
Rewards for giving evidence
Doyle and Valline were convicted of silk-cutting on the evidence of a couple
of Irish weavers, Thomas and Mary Poor. The Poors also gave evidence in a later
trial that led to the execution of William Horsford, also an Irishman.
During that trial, it emerged that Lewis Chauvet (pronounced Chauvette), a
rich master weaver of Huguenot descent, had paid them a reward for this. Chauvet
also paid a reward to another Irish weaver, Daniel Clarke, whose evidence led
to the execution of a weaver called William Eastman.