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Jolyon Tibbitts, Upper Bailiff of the Worshipful Company of Weavers

April 22, 2013
by the gentle author

As part of the recent Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival, there was a service of thanksgiving at Christ Church in which Jolyon Tibbitts, Upper Bailiff of the Worshipful Company of Weavers stood up and read my story A Dress of Spitalfields Silk to the assembled congregation. First recorded in 1130, the Weavers is the oldest livery company in the City of London and so, fascinated by the history of this arcane body, I accepted Jolyon Tibbitts’ invitation to visit him at their headquarters in the Saddlers’ Hall, Gutter Lane, next to St Pauls.

The textile industry was the basis of the country’s economy when the Weavers’ Company began – before the first London Bridge was built in 1176 or the first Mayor took office in 1189, in an era referred to by Medieval writers as “a time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.” Through their charter, the members paid a sum to the crown in return for certain rights that protected the interests of their industry. In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes of “A Haberdasher, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Weaver and a Carpet-maker were among our ranks, all in the livery of one impressive fraternity.”

The Weavers’ Company sought to shield their members against competition at first from Flemish weavers in the fourteenth century and again, from Huguenot weavers, in the seventeenth century yet, on each occasion, the immigrants became absorbed into the company. Ultimately, more destructive to the industry were cheap imports introduced by the East India Company, reducing the Spitalfields weavers to poverty by the middle of the eighteenth century, although a few continued in Bethnal Green even into the last century.

Jolyon Tibbitts’ ancestors started as scarlet dyers and became silk weavers at least six generations ago in Spitalfields in the sixteenth century, founding Warner & Sons Ltd, and then moving to Braintree in the nineteenth century, where the mill stands today as a textile archive. By the time Jolyon was born, the family business had been sold into American hands, yet he has spent his life involved with textiles and, contradicting the familiar story of the decline of weaving in this country, I was delighted to learn the surprising news from him that for the first time in centuries our native industry is on the rise again.

“In the nineteen sixties, there was a wholesale movement of textile manufacturing from here to the Far East on the back of cheap labour and government subsidies. All that really survived here were the very high end manufacturers in fashion and furnishings. But in the past few years, we have seen a major change. The Far East has experienced inflation both in wages and materials, and government subsidies have ceased plus freight prices have escalated hugely.

Taking into account the monetary cost of the long lead times in the Far East, this situation has encouraged more foresighted buyers to refocus on British manufacturing. We can be price competitive now and the difference between manufacturing here and in the Far East is less significant. Consequently, the British mills are experiencing a true revival in fortune, not just in this country but in world markets, more and more mills are establishing themselves as brands now and selling direct to the customers.

The Weavers, in collaboration with the Clothworkers and the Dyers Companies, staged a conference in the City of London last autumn entitle ‘A New Dawn,’ at which Sir Paul Smith and Vince Cable were our key speakers among other industry leaders. We support an internship programme whereby we pay two-thirds of the salary for able graduates to work with weaving companies for six months. We are very careful in matching the skills of the graduates to the needs of the companies and most of the students end up being offered full-time employment by the company after these placements, and, in recent years, we have been able to double the number of these placements.

We make awards to individuals who have made significant contributions and this year’s winner of the Silver Medal was Donald John MacKay who has revived the Harris Tweed industry by persuading Nike to use it in their shoes, winning an order for more than a million metres, and the resulting media interest created a flow of orders that put the industry back on the map again.

My father was a livery man and uncle was a livery man, and so was my grandfather and great grandfather. I became a livery man after seven years apprenticeship in 1968 and  joined the council in 2005. Once, every livery company had an ‘Upper Bailiff’ but they all changed it to ‘Master’ over time yet, through eight hundred years, we have kept the original name.”

Charter of Henry II to the Weavers of London granting them their Guild and protection from interference in their trade, 1155-8. The charter is attested by Thomas Becket. Appended is a fragment of the Great Seal, with casts of the full seal on either side. “Know that I have conceded to the Weavers of London to hold their guild in London with all the liberties and customs which they had in the time of King Henry my grandfather.”

Early seventeenth century portrait of Elizabeth I in the possession of the Weavers Company.

Weavers’ Silver Loving Cup, 1662

Weavers’ Poore’s Box, 1666

Promise to contribute to the rebuilding of the Weavers’ Hall after the Great Fire

Nicholas Garrett Weavers’ Almshouses, Porters’ Fields, 1729

William Watson Weavers’ Almshouses, Shoreditch, 1824

Weavers’ Almshouse Wanstead, 1859

Samuel Higgins, silk weaver, in his loom shop at Gauber St, Spitalfields, 1899

Typical Weaver’s House, Spitalfields, 1825

Badge of the Upper Bailiff of the Weavers’ Company  - “Weave Truth With Trust”

Archive images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Portrait of Jolyon Tibbitts copyright © Jeremy Freedman

You may also like to read about

A Dress of Spitalfields Silk

At Stephen Walters & Co, Silk Weavers

8 Responses leave one →
  1. April 22, 2013

    It’s really interesting and encouraging to learn that the British textile industry is slowly rising from that period of long decline. Here in our corner of southern France the once pre-eminent industry is still in free-fall, so clearly the Worshipful Company of Weavers and others are working hard in difficult times to turn things round.

  2. Vicky permalink
    April 22, 2013

    I had no idea that weaving mills were returning to Britain and that home spun cloth was once again being manufactured here. Excellent news for a Monday morning. And wouldn’t it be good to see looms back in Spitalfields, after all, we have the windows!

  3. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    April 22, 2013

    In Alnwick castle the walls are hung with silk woven in Sudbury,Suffolk.

  4. April 22, 2013

    Glorious!

  5. Elaine Napier permalink
    April 22, 2013

    My family must have been some of the last weavers still working – they were still working as trimmings manufacturers in the early 20th Century, having worked as orris weavers from the earliest days of the 19th Century.

    I love to hear about weavers in the East End, especially ones with a British history.

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    April 23, 2013

    We live in a valley in the South Pennines where small mills still eked out an existence until the 1980s. The last one closed around 1990. Recently it re-opened and in conjunction with a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer further up the valley it appears to be prospering. Very encouraging!

  7. Ian Harrison permalink
    November 29, 2013

    I have traced an Ancestor a William Harrison of Grey Eagle Street Spitalfields born around 1700. Has anyone got a list of the Weavers in Spitalfields at thet time. His son, also William married a Mary Magdelen Direau, which I suspect is a Hugeunot name in 1755 at Bethnal Green
    Can any one help
    Thanks
    Ian Harrison

  8. Ken hill permalink
    August 16, 2014

    It was most interesting reading about Jolyon Tibbits. I was the export shipping manager for Warner and Sons Ltd for over 20Years although I have lost all contact with Warners.

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