Dickens in Spitalfields 4, the silk weavers
In the first three installments of Charles Dickens’ article “Spitalfields” that he published in his weekly journal “Household Words” on 5th April 1851, we accompanied Dickens and his sub-editor W.H.Wills to a silk warehouse where they met the manager, Mr Broadelle, and the silk buyer of Messrs Treacy & McIntyre. With Mr Broadelle as their guide, they set out through the streets of the Spitalfields, dropping in to a Ragged School and eventually finding themselves at a weaver’s workshop…
Up a narrow winding stair, such as are numerous in Lyon or in the wynds and closes of the old town of Edinburgh, and into a room where there are four looms; one idle, three at work.
A wan thin eager-eyed man, weaving in his shirt and trousers, stops the jarring of his loom. He is the master of the place. not an Irishman himself, but of Irish descent.
“Good day!” Passing his hand over his rough chin, and feeling his lean throat.
“We are walking through Spitalfields, being interested in the place. Will you allow us to look at your work?”
“It is very beautiful. Black velvet?”
“Yes. Every time I throw the shuttle, I cut out this wire, as you see, and put it in again – so!” Jarring and clashing at the loom, and glancing at us with his eager eyes.
“It is slow work?”
“Very slow.” With a hard dry cough, and the glance.
“And hard work?”
“Very hard.” With the cough again.
After a while, he once more stops, perceiving that we really are interested, and says, laying his hand upon his hollow breast and speaking in an unusually loud voice, being used to speaking through the clashing of the loom:
“It tries the chest, you see, leaning for’ard like this for fifteen or sixteen hours at a stretch.”
“Do you work so long at a time?”
“Glad to do it when I can get it to do. A day’s work like that, is worth a matter of three shillings.”
“Eighteen shillings a week.”
“Ah! But it ain’t always eighteen shillings a week. I don’t always get it, remember! One week with another, I hardly get more than ten or ten-and-six.”
“Is this Mr Broadelle’s loom?”
“Yes. This is. So is that one there;” the idle one.
“And that, where the young man is working?”
“That’s another party’s. The young man working at it, pays me a shilling a week for leave to work here. That’s a shilling, you know, off my rent of half-a-crown. It’s rather a large room.”
“Is that your wife at the other loom?”
“That’s my wife. She’s making a commoner sort of work, for bonnets and that.”
Again his loom clashes and jars, and he leans forward over his toil. In the window by him, is a singing bird in a little cage, which trolls its song, and seems to think the loom an instrument of music. The window, tightly closed, commands a maze of chimney pots, and tiles, and gables. Among them, the ineffectual sun, faintly contending with the rain and the mist, is going down. A yellow ray of light crossing the weaver’s eager eyes and hollow white face, makes a shape something like a pike-head on the floor.
The room is unwholesome, close, and dirty. Through one part of it the staircase comes up in a bulk, and roughly partitions off a corner. In that corner are the bedstead and the fireplace, a table, a chair or two, a kettle, a tub of water, a little crockery. The looms claim all the superior space and have it. Like grim enchanters who provide the family with their scant food, they must be propitiated with the best accommodation. They bestride the room, and pitilessly squeeze the children – this heavy, watery-headed baby carried in the arms of its staggering little brother, for example – into corners. The children sleep at night between the legs of the monsters, who deafen their first cries with their whirr and rattle, and who roar the same tune to them when they die.
Come to the mother’s loom.
“Have you any children besides these?”
“I have had eight. I have six alive.”
“Did we see any of them, just now, at the – “
“Ragged School? O yes! You saw four of mine at the Ragged School!”
She looks up, quite bright about it – has a mother’s pride in it – is not ashamed of the name: she, working for her bread, not begging it – not in the least.
She has stopped her loom for the moment. So has her husband. So has the young man.
“Weaver’s children are born in the weaver’s room” says the husband, with a nod at the bedstead. “Nursed there, brought up there – sick or well – and die there.”
To which, the clash and jar of three looms – the wife’s the husband’s and the young man’s, as they go again – make a chorus.
“This man’s work, now, Mr Broadelle – he can’t hear us apart here, in this noise? – “
- “requires but little skill?”
“Very little skill. He is doing now, exactly what his grandfather did. Nothing would induce him to use a simple improvement (the ‘fly shuttle’) to prevent the contraction of the chest of which he complains. Nothing would turn him aside from his old ways. It is the old custom to work at home, in a crowded room, instead of in a factory. I couldn’t change it, if I were to try.”
Good Heaven, is the house falling? Is there an earthquake in Spitalfields! Has a volcano burst out in the heart of London! What is this appalling rush and tremble?
It is only the railroad.
The arches of the railroad span the house; the wires of the electric telegraph stretch over the confined scene of his daily life; the engines fly past him on their errands, and outstrip the birds; and what can the man of usage hope for, but to be overthrown and flung into oblivion!
There, we leave him in the dark, about to kindle at the poor fire the lamp that hangs upon his loom, to help him on his labouring way into the night. The sun has gone down, the reflection has vanished from the floor. There is nothing in the gloom but his eager eyes, made hungrier by the sight of our small present; the dark shapes of his fellow-workers mingled with their stopped looms; the mute bird in its little cage, duskily expressed against the window; and the watery- headed baby crooning a in a corner God knows where.
In “Household Words”, this interview followed directly from Dickens’ account of the ostentatious affluence of the silk buyer and the immense financial turnover of the silk warehouse, upon the previous pages. By strategically placing these accounts of the different components of the silk industry side by side, Dickens presents his readers with the impoverished weavers, who actually produce the cloth, uneasily contrasted with those who profit handsomely through trading the fruit of their labours. The reader is invited to draw their own conclusion upon the inequalities of the textile industry, a trade in which injustice persists. Except today, rather than being on the other side of the city from the privileged customer, the workers are likely to be on the other side of the world.
Next time, in the final installment of Dickens’ article, we shall accompany him on a visit to the studio of a young British artist in Spitalfields.
The rare photograph at the top shows a Spitalfields weaver’s workshop, taken in June 1885. Both illustrations were kindly provided by the Tower Hamlets Local History Collection.