The Spitalfields Weaver
Today I publish these excerpts of Arthur Armitage’s text for Illustrator Kenny Meadows’ The Heads of the People or, Portraits of the English, 1840 concerning The Spitalfields Weaver
Holidays are red letter days for the Spitalfields Weaver. When holiday-making, he attires himself in his best suit which, being characteristic, we shall attempt to describe. His upper garment is a frock coat with a very long waist and prodigious long skirts. Two parallel cords run down either side of his trousers, at the termination of which he displays a pair of highly-polished high-lows, secured across the instep with a strap or a buckle. His throat is confined by a loose bandanna handkerchief tied with studied negligence. His hair is a pale canary tortured into two pensile ringlets of the Corinthian order and surmounted by a glossy silk hat.
The Spitalfields Weaver expresses notions of gallantry at once peculiar and original. For example, he will walk for miles with his ‘betrothed’ on his arm and his hands quietly deposited in his breeches pockets. His favourite suburban resort is Clay Hall, a sort of tea gardens in Old Ford. As might be supposed from his sedentary occupation, the Weaver is more of a meditative than a mercurial temperament. Rural felicity with him is sitting in a close box, exhaling the fumes of tobacco, imbibing copiuos drafts of mild ale and picking shrimps.
The Spitalfields Weaver is by hereditary predilections, a pigeon fancier. Let his family be ever so numerous, his privations ever so great, he must have a pigeon trap on the roof of his domicile, where twice a day, at dinner and tea time, for ten minutes he exhibits the capabilities of his highly-trained covey pouters, tumblers, dragons, Jacobins and carriers. He flaps a long cane and the pigeons fly off and describe concentric circles in the air. Anon, he puts two fingers between his teeth and gives a shrill whistle, when the sagacious creatures immediately return to their lawful habitation.
The Spitalfields Weaver is a passionate lover of harmony. Every Monday night, he attends a concert on the free and easy principle at the ‘Cheshire Cheese.’ His taste in singing, as in everything else, is eccentric. His favourite melodies those which he calls ‘sentimental’ generally relate to shipwrecks and disasters at sea. They never consist of less than fourteen verses of eight lines each and usually occupy from ten minutes to a quarter of an hour in the delivery. He laughs immoderately at comic songs, especially those which touch upon itinerant vendors of greengrocery. Unlike the tailor, who handles with equal dexterity the fiddle and the sleeve board, the Weaver rarely performs upon any instrument. When he does feel musically inclined, he patronises the mouth organ.
If we may credit the assertion of the Weaver, some twenty years ago there was no more flourishing branch of industry in existence than that of the silk weavers of Spitalfields. The introduction of machinery, the multiplication of journeymen, and other causes, have conspired to reduce it to a state with which the situation of a scavenger must be truly eligible. Surprisingly as it may appear, the Weaver while deploring the depressed condition of his trade, as soon as his children are capable, puts them as a matter of course in the loom. The Spitalfields Weaver, whose portrait heads this article, afford a similar example of blind fanaticism. His attachment to weaving being on the grounds of being able to sit all day long.
In the palmy days of weaving, the most-favourite recreation of the Spitalfields Weaver was bull-baiting. A bull, smoking-hot from Smithfield on a Monday afternoon, was looked for by the sporting gentry of Mile End New Town, as regularly as the London mail by the ostlers of a country inn. The streets were lined at an early hour by young gentlemen in their shirt sleeves, each equipped with a knobby club and all on tiptoe of expectation. As soon as the animal appeared in sight, a wild shout of triumph suddenly rent the air, and apprentices – deaf to the call of duty – sprang out of their looms and scampered off to join the melee.
Fairlop Fair has, from the period of its instigation, been annually honoured by the elite of Spitalfields. Early on the first Friday in July, light commodious vans covered with red bordered canvas and tastefully decorated with green boughs, start for Epping Forest, each capable of conveying a double row of ladies and gentlemen, varying in age from one score to three score and in number from twenty-five to thirty-five. Large stone bottles are carefully deposited between the legs of the sterner sex, in order that those who may experience on the road a sudden depression of spirits can be furnished with prompt means of alleviation. A hamper or two secured on the outworks of the conveyance and heavily laden with cold legs of pork affords scope to the imaginations of the silent.
The Spitalfields Weaver when his trade has been particularly stagnant has endeavoured to give it a stimulus by angling for the patronage of royalty. One of the most expensive baits that ever was thrown out to hook a crowned head was a magnificent robe presented by the Weavers of Spitalfields to the fourth George. His majesty, of course, felt highly flattered by this proof of affection in his industrious subjects and pronounced it to be an exquisite piece of workmanship, promised to recommend that the gentlemen of his court abjure India and use pocket handkerchiefs only of home manufacture, and having retired to his dressing room, threw the robe to his valet.
The Spitalfields Weaver next resolved to make a desperate experiment upon the gratitude of female majesty. Accordingly, a bevy of ingenious vestals with spotless hands was elected from the virgin operatives of Spitalfields and dedicated to fabricate a specimen of their ability in reconciling warp and woof for the adornment of their beloved sovereign. The work was finished and taken with all due ceremony to the palace. Her majesty at once candidly confessed that she had never seen anything one half so beautiful. The ladies of her court (like gentlemen of the former) were one and all instructed, on the spot, to provide themselves with articles of apparel from a similar source with all convenient expedition.
To facilitate the execution of this benevolent design, a proclamation was issued commanding all the housemaids in the royal establishment to cast aside any dress of silken fabric they might have in their use or possession, and assume forthwith the more-becoming garb of merinos, stuffs and printed cottons. The Weaver’s bosom was filled with joy and the housekeeper’s room with indignation.
The poor Weaver saw in his sleep a vision of St James glittering in the effulgence of Spitalfields silks, while the persecuted housemaids saw nothing but degradation. At length, the royal household began to talk of the imperative necessity for republican institutions and, meanwhile, the Spitalfields operatives discoursed calmly on the serene beauty of the monarchy. Time flew on, the housemaids knew not what course to pursue and the weaver pointed to himself and and bade them learn a beneficial lesson of resignation.
Illustrator Kenny Meadows and his Portraits of the English
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