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Dickens in Spitalfields 2, the silk warehouse

February 2, 2010
by the gentle author

You may recall reading in last week’s opening installment of Charles Dickens’ feature “Spitalfields” published in his weekly journal “Household Words” on 5th April 1851, how he and his sub-editor W.H.Wills climbed the stair to enter a silk warehouse in Spital Sq. As soon as they had introduced themselves to the manager, another character entered the scene…

Somebody mounts the stairs, and enters the apartment with the deliberate air of a man who has nothing whatever to do, but to walk about in a beautifully brushed hat, a nicely fitting coat admirably buttoned, symmetrical boots, and a stock of amazing satin; to crush his gloves tightly between his hands, and to call on his friends, to ask them – as this gentleman asks our  friend (the manager) – how he is getting on; and whether he has been down “yonder” lately  (a jerk eastward of the glossy hat); and, if he hasn’t whether he means to go down next Sunday, because if he does, he (the visitor) means to go too, and will take him down in his “trap”. He then, in a parenthetical, post-scriptum sort of way, alludes to a certain “assorted Glaces, ” and indicates the pile of silks he means by the merest motion of his ring finger.

“The figure is – ? “ says he.

“Two and seven,” replies the vendor; “How many pieces shall I put aside?”

“Well- fifty. By the bye, have you heard?” – Mr Broadelle (our friend) has not heard, and the visitor proceeds to announce, from impeachably authority, that the match between Mr Crumpley of Howell’s, and Miss Lammy of Swan’s, is to come off at last: in fact, next Thursday. Cordial “good bye;” graceful elevation of the polished hat to myself; and the departure of, as Mr Broadelle informs us, one of his best customers.


“Yes? You heard? He has just bought fifty pieces of silk of various or ‘assorted’ colours.”

“At two shillings and seven-pence per yard?”

“Just so. And there are eighty four yards in a piece.”

Our organs of calculation are instantly wound up, and set a-going. The result brought out when these phrenological works have run down, is, that this short, easy jaunty gossip began and ended in a transaction involving a sum of five hundred and forty-two pounds ten shillings. No haggling about the price; no puffing of quality, on one side, or deprecation of it on the other. The silks are not even looked at.

How is this?

“Our trade,” says our friend, in explanation, ” has been reduced to a system that enables us to transact business with the fewest possible words, and in the easiest possible way. The gentleman who has just left, is Messrs. Treacy and McIntyre’s silk-buyer. In like manner, the different branches of large houses are placed under the control of similar buyers. At the end of every half-year, an account is taken of the stewardship of each of these heads of department. If the Buyer have narrowly watched the public taste, and fed it successfully, – if he have been vigilant in getting early possession of the most attractive patterns, or in the pouncing on cheap markets, by taking advantage, for instance, of the embarrassments of a ‘shaky’ manufacturer or a French revolution ( for he scours the country at home and abroad in all directions), and if his department come out at the six-monthly settlement with marked profit – his salary is possibly raised. Should this success be repeated, he is usually taken into the firm as a partner.”

“But no judgement was exercised in the bargain just made. The Buyer did not even look at your goods.”

“That is the result of previous study and experience. It is the art that conceals art. He need not examine the goods. He has learnt the characteristics of our dyes to a shade, and the qualities of our fabrics to a thread.”

“Then, as to price. I suppose your friend is lounging about in other Spitalfields warehouses at this moment. Perhaps by this time he has run his firm into debt for a few thousand pounds more?”

“Very likely.”

“Well; suppose a neighbour of yours were to offer him the same sort of silks as those he has just chosen here, for less money, could he not – as no writing has passed between you – be off his bargain with you?”

” Too late. The thing is done, and cannot be undone,” answers Mr Broadelle, made a little serious by the bare notion of such a breach of faith. “Our bargain is as tight as if it had been written on parchment and attested by a dozen witnesses. His very existence as a Buyer, and mine as Manufacturer, depend upon this scrupulous performance of the contract. I shall send in the silks this afternoon. And I feel as certain of a check for the cash, at our periodical settlement, as I do of death and quarter-day.”

It is difficult to reconcile the immense amount of capital which flows through such a house as this – the rich stores of satin, velvets, lutestrings, brocades, damasks, and other silk textures, which Mr Broadelle brings to light from the quaint cupboards and drawers – with the poignant and often-repeated cry of poverty that proceeds from this quarter.

What says Mr Broadelle to it? He says this :

“Although most masters make this locality their head-quarters, and employ the neighbouring weavers, yet they nearly all have factories in the provinces: chiefly in Lancashire. The Spitalfields weaver of plain silks and velvets, therefore, keeps up a hopeless contest against machinery and cheap labour, and struggles against overwhelming odds. Will you step round and see a family engaged in this desperate encounter?”

“Is there a remedy?” we ask, as we go out together…

Let us conclude this installment with Dickens’ understated appeal to the reader’s political sympathy, knowing that next time we shall be able to accompany Dickens as he sets out ,with Mr Broadelle as his guide through the streets of Spitalfields, to learn at first hand of the living conditions of the weavers who manufactured these luxurious fabrics for the rich the enjoy. In the meantime, please do not try to trace the silk warehouse in question through the archives, because “broad ell” is a measure of cloth, Dickens invented this moniker, Mr Broadelle, for the manager of the business in his article.

One Response leave one →
  1. gary permalink
    May 28, 2013

    great blog

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