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George Dodd’s Spitalfields, 1842

May 30, 2014
by the gentle author

George Dodd came to Spitalfields to write this account for Charles Knight’s LONDON published in 1842. Dodds recalls the rural East End that still lingered in the collective memory and described the East End of weavers living in ramshackle timber and plaster dwellings which in his century would be “redeveloped” out of existence by the rising tide of brick terraces, erasing the history that existed before.

Spitalfields Market

It is not easy to express a general idea respecting Spitalfields as a district. There is a parish of that name but this parish contains a small portion only of the silk weavers and it is probable that most persons apply the term Spitalfields to the whole district where the weavers reside. In this enlarged acceptation, we will lay down something like a boundary in the following manner – begin at Shoreditch Church and proceed along the Hackney Rd till it is intersected by Regent’s Canal, follow the course of the canal to Mile End Rd and then proceed westward through Whitechapel to Aldgate, through Houndsditch to Bishopsgate, and thence northward to where the tour commenced.

This boundary encloses an irregularly-shaped district in which nearly the whole of the weavers reside and these weavers are universally known as “Spitalfields” weavers. Indeed, the entire district is frequently called Spitalfields although including large portions of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Mile End New Town. By far the larger portion of this extensive district was open fields until comparatively modern times. Bethnal Green was really a green and Spitalfields was covered with grassy sward in the last century.

It may now not unreasonably be asked, what is “Spitalfields”? A street called Crispin St on the western side of Spitalfields Market is nearly coincident in position with the eastern wall of the Old Artillery Ground and this wall separated the Ground from the Fields which stretched out far eastward. Great indeed is the change which this portion of the district has undergone. Rows of houses, inhabited by weavers and other humble persons, and pent up far too close for the maintenance of health, now cover the green spot now known as Spitalfields.

In the evidence taken before a Committee in the House of Commons on the silk trade in 1831-2, it was stated that the population of the district in which the Spitalfields weavers resided could be no less at that time than one hundred thousand, of whom fifty thousand were entirely dependent on the silk manufacture and remaining moiety more or less dependent indirectly. The number of looms seems to vary between about fourteen to seventeen thousand and, of these, four to five thousand are unemployed in times of depression. It seems probable, as far as the means exist of determining it, that the weavers are principally English or of English origin. To the masters, however the same remark does not apply, for the names of the partners in the firms now existing, point to the French origin of manufacture in that district.

A characteristic employment or amusement of the Spitalfields weavers is the catching of birds. This is principally carried on in the months of March and October. They train “call-birds” in the most peculiar manner and there is an odd sort of emulation between them as to which of their birds will sing the longest, and the bird-catchers frequently lay considerable wagers on this, as that determines their superiority. They place them opposite each other by the width of a candle and the bird who sings the oftenest before the candle is burnt out wins the wager.

If we have, on the one hand, to record the unthrifty habits and odd propensities of the weavers, let us not forget to do them justice in other matters. In passing through Crispin St, adjoining the Spitalfields Market, we see on the western side of the way a humble building, bearing much the appearance of a weaver’s house and having the words “Mathematical Society” written up in front. Lowly and inelegant the building may be but there is a pleasure in seeing Science rear her head in  a locality, even if it is humble one.

A ramble through Bethnal Green and Mile End New Town in which the weavers principally reside, presents us with many curious features illustrative of the peculiarities of the district. Proceeding through Crispin St to the Spitalfields Market, the visitor will find some of the usual arrangements of a vegetable market but potatoes, sold wholesale, form the staple commodity. He then proceeds eastwards to the Spitalfields Church, one of the “fifty new churches” built in the reign of Queen Anne and along Church St to Brick Lane. If he proceed northward up the latter, he will arrive, first, at the vast premises of Truman, Hanbury & Buxton’s brewery, and then at the Eastern Counties Railway which crosses the street at a considerable elevation. If he extends his steps eastwards, he will at once enter upon the districts inhabited by the weavers.

On passing through most of the streets, a visitor is conscious of a noiselessness, a dearth of bustle and activity. The clack of the looms is heard here and there, but not to a noisy degree. It is evident in a glance that many of the streets, all the houses were built expressly for weavers, and in walking through them we noticed the short and unhealthy appearance of the inhabitants. In one street, we met with a barber’s shop in which persons could have “a good wash for a farthing.” Here we espied a school at which children were taught “to read and work at tuppence a week.” There was a chandler’s shop at which shuttles, reeds and quills, and the smaller parts of weaving apparatus  were exposed for sale in a window in company with split-peas,  bundles of wood and red herrings. In one little shop, patchwork  was sold at 10d, 12d and 16d a pound. At another place was a bill from the parish authorities, warning the inhabitants that they were liable to a penalty if their dwelling were kept dirty and unwholesome, and in another – we regretted this more than anything else – astrological predictions, interpretations of dreams and nativities, were to be purchased “from three pence upwards.”

In very many of the houses, the windows numbered more sheets of paper than panes of glass and no considerable number of houses were shut up altogether. We would willingly present a brighter picture, but ours is a copy from the life.

Pelham St (now Woodseer St), Spitalfields

Booth St (now Princelet St), Spitalfields

Images courtesy © Bishopsgate Insitute

11 Responses leave one →
  1. May 30, 2014

    The drawings and report are most interesting, thanks for sharing. Valerie

  2. Peter Holford permalink
    May 30, 2014

    A hard life. My great-great uncle, Jesse Pound, left an autobiography lamenting the lot of his younger sister who had the misfortune to marry a silk weaver, George Holford, in 1822. He wrote “My sister Amelia, two years younger than myself, married young, and very unfortunately. Her husband was a silk weaver of the name of Holford, of low habits, and a harsh disposition. They have had a large family and slender means. Her trials have been numerous, severe, and long continued. But as I have not heard from her these six years past [he was living in New York as the Methodist minister for Greenwich Village], I know not whether she is living or dead.”

    It’s just as well that she did marry the silk weaver or I wouldn’t be writing this response!

  3. sbw permalink
    May 30, 2014

    How interesting, thank you.

  4. sprite permalink
    May 30, 2014

    It’s almost as if I had been waiting for this kind of post describing the life as it was happening during the silk weavers apoge and putting a bit of green back in Bethnal Green.

    Ever since my first ever encounter with a huguenot descendant, Monsieur Préou, a patient at Mile End Hospital during my nursing training, I’ve wondered about the French link to this part of London. I can’t describe the effect of this post but it’s made so much come alive in my imagination and who knows, in past lives memories.

    Lyon, silk capital, in parallel time was undergoing revolts because of the poverty of the silk weavers. As nowdays, brand names clothes are manufactured in Bengladesh and other poverty strickent areas of the globe, only to be noticed when it all goes up into flames!!! It would be interesting to have a connection of Huguenots celebrations with today’s Bengladesh immigration history in this part of London.

    The following song describes the plight of the Canuts (silk weavers of Lyon) going bare-arsed whilst weaving cloths of gold for the Greats of the Church. It ends though with:

    but our reign will arrive
    when yours will finish
    we’ll weave the shroud
    of the Old World
    as we can already hear
    the rumbles of revolt
    we are the Canuts
    we’ll no longer walk naked

    For some reasons the following sentence
    ”There was a chandler’s shop at which shuttles, reeds and quills, and the smaller parts of weaving apparatus were exposed for sale in a window in company with split-peas, bundles of wood and red herrings.”

    makes me think of the back of the Taj Store in Brick Lane where farming tools implements are displayed next to the spices and other commodities, including split peas, and if not red herrings, dried and/or salt fish.

    The derelict aspect of the paneless windows is also reminiscent of Brick Lane in the 80s where budleia was seen in virtually all houses in the street and pigeons were flying in and out of windowless first floors.

    Strange to feel nostalgic for an area so full of hardships for so many! … but nostalgia is a strange thing.

    treading lightly
    in ancestors footsteps
    gossamer threads
    weave in and out and in
    of hemp and coton lives

  5. May 30, 2014

    What a great joy to see what was there before the 18th century terraces and merchant houses that in turn led us to where we are all today!

  6. Gary Arber permalink
    May 30, 2014

    When you look at those old buildings and think of the weavers working in dim light for long hours you wonder about the state of their eyes.
    When I was young an old lady lived opposite me who had been a court dressmaker straining her eyes in those conditions, she was so blind that she could not see to her front gate.

  7. Barbara permalink
    May 31, 2014

    Very interesting to see Spitalfields Market, where my great-grandfather was a potato merchant – at least his widow was described as “potato merchant” in the phone directory. Apparently Charles Harper, according to family story, “owned half of Spitalfields Market, and his son James gambled it all away”. Are there any more Harpers in the area? – I think mine lived in North Street – must look it all up – Alice Ada Harper, who had about four sisters and two brothers, married George Robert Walker in late 1800s.

  8. Vicki Lovell permalink
    March 16, 2015

    How wonderful, what fabulous drawings and story. My Great great grandfather was living at 24 Pelham Road when he was 16, and fatherless, as an appretice to a man who was a Chair Maker. My ggrandfather went on to become a Cabinet maker employing his family and others. I am so pleased to find this drawing and details. I wonder, is Pelham Road in any way connected with the book/movie “The Taking of Pelham 123”. I have seen an American version but I think the first version I saw was from the UK and wondered if this is where the name comes from?
    Cheers from Oz.

  9. July 11, 2015

    Oh this has answered decades of confusion for me. You see, I spent my first five years living at 186 Pelham Street Buildings, Woodseer Street. I moved with my parents as part of the slum clearances at the end of the 1950s.

    Over the intervening years I have often tried to research where I came from but I have never found mention of Pelham Buildings. I’ve found the odd mention of Pelham Street but believed it to be an adjunct to Woodseer Street, not a former name. I still need to find out more about the buildings, if anybody knows anything but I can rest easier just knowing the answer the Pelham Stree/Woodseer Street mystery. Thank you.

    Dianne Sandland nee Batham

  10. David Levy permalink
    November 10, 2017

    I was born in 1933,
    My grandparents owned a grocery shop at 41 Artillery Lane.
    I lived at that address for several years and also in a flat at 56 Artillery Lane which has the best Georgian shop front in London.
    I attended St. Joseph’s school in Gun Street.

  11. Ms Terry Ashton permalink
    July 19, 2022

    Does anyone have much information about Booth Street? My GG Morris Shumofsky was living there according to the 1901 UK census. I would love any information about the street.

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