The history of the silk trade in Nuneaton has been overlooked by generations of local historians. For the last one hundred years little has been written about it and new research into the subject has been insignificant. There is much to recommend further research. The most important fact is that if you can trace your family back far enough locally you will find that nearly all had silk weavers in them. Silk weaving was to North Warwickshire, for a time, the staple trade.
Our story starts in our neighbouring city of Coventry. According to Defoe the first ribbons made in Coventry were "chiefly black, of the neatest kind," their weaving at best being second in importance only to the manufacturer of tammies, in which the city was then 'driving a very great trade'.
The manufacture of silk goods had been carried out for many years before 1700 but it appears the French influence either in imported fashion, or the techniques employed by itinerant Huguenot silk weavers seeking employment in the weaving shops of Coventry brought about something of a revolution in the trade with greater emphasis being given to narrow woven goods. The period at the end of the Seventeenth century was important as ribbons were in fashion and worn in great profusion. The weaving of broad silks had been carried on as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century and in Coventry an Act of Leet in the Manorial Court brought about the formation of a company of silk weavers. The trade in broad silk form carried on unchanged until the last quarter of the 1600's.
There is much conjecture as to the influence of French migrant workers on the narrow silk trade. The exodus of Huguenots from France has largely been attributed to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This brought about a sudden impulse of these highly skilled artisans into the Coventry area, leading during the first half of the Eighteenth century, to a gradual migration towards the villages and towns of North Warwickshire.
There is growing evidence that skilled Huguenots were established in the Coventry-Nuneaton corridor, perhaps as early as the early 1600's or before that.
I am of the opinion that people were leaving France, probably the Low Countries and Germany for several hundred years before 1800 and this manifests itself in French, Flemish and Germanic sounding names, which have, in many cases over the years, been so completely Anglicised to be thought of as thoroughly English today.
F. Warner, in his book published in 1921 "The Silk Industry of the United Kingdom" mentions several names found in the Coventry area indicative of French influence: Beaufoy, Burgess, Weir, Cockerell, Higgins as well as direct translations into English from such names as "le Jeune, Young," "Le Blanc, White", "Lacroix, Cross", and "Leroy, King" etc. It seems that our Huguenot ancestors, in order to blend in to the local communities they lived in Anglicised their names. This has, of course, confused researchers in later years trying to find Continental influence amongst the surnames of Nuneaton and Bedworth families.
It was said that even as late as the latter half of the nineteenth century there were strong facial likeness amongst some Nuneaton and Bedworth silk weaving families with those from the South Eastern part of France. There are many problems related to surnames, which are difficult to resolve. There were, of course, some Huguenot names before the supposed exodus in 1685. It is certain that people of French descent were well established before that date, and that numbers of French immigrants who adopted or had similar names arrived afterwards to add to the confusion.
By 1570 there was a community of Dutch and Flemish Protestants living in Coventry engaged in the manufacture of Flemish cloth. Although this type of weaving was short lived, there is no reason to suppose that these Europeans did not take up other trades. Silk weaving is an obvious one. There was a group of Flemish silk weavers in Barcheston in the south of Warwickshire, six miles south of Stratford Upon Avon, weaving silk tapestries, the Barcheston tapestries, from about 1569 to sometime after 1684.
Continental influence may have been brought about as a result of the flight of 100,000 refugees from the low countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and from Germany, who fled the persecution of the Spaniards after William 1st. (Prince of Orange)(1553-1584) led an army to displace the Spanish influence under the leadership of the Duke of Alba, Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo who was given unlimited powers as Captain General of the Netherlands in 1567. William Prince of Orange's campaign failed and the Spanish Duke is said to have executed 18,000 people in five years. Large numbers of local people were displaced and forced to flee. England was a refuge for these unfortunate people, bringing with them their various native skills.
It was said that when the Spanish sacked Antwerp in 1585 that one third of the manufacturers and merchants of that city fled to England. Amongst these were many skilled weavers of Damask. Another incident, which drove, out in this case, French people, was the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572.
At that time French immigration into London was well established. William Shakespeare lodged with one by the name of Mountjoy whose house was in Cripplegate, where he lived from 1598-1604. Cripplegate was adjacent to Bethnal Green where in the last quarter of the 18th century twelve to fifteen thousand looms were employed. The silk industry there employing upwards of thirty thousand people at that time and by 1831-2 over 50,000 people entirely dependent on it in the slums and alleyways of Bethnal Green.
There are several local families, which do seem to display continental influence in their names. The Nuneaton family of Wheway for example may well be of Low Country (or possibly German) origin. A Wheway family researcher living in Sussex, Albert Wheway, has the belief that they came from the continent sometime in the 16th. Century, archive sources have yet to prove this, but another researcher has discovered a village in Germany called Wehweh, early members of the family spelled the name Whewae/Wewha before Wheway became the standard spelling, and believe it or not over 90% of all Wheways that are known in England up until the mid 1850's lived in Nuneaton.
Another family in Bedworth of possible Low Country (particularly Belgian) origin is the Edmands family formerly of Tower House, Bedworth. Their family archivist, John Edmands, has written giving details of his researches. Several branches of that family have come to the conclusion that they are from the continent in centuries past. There were branches of the Edmands family, silk shirt manufacturers in the silk merchants area of Wood Street, Cripplegate, London and another in Manchester, manufacturers of silk small wares. The Bedworth family made silk trimmings. Another branch were located in Derby, clustered around the north end of town all within a short distance of the Derby silk mill on an island in the middle of the River Derwent. There are records in the Huguenot library of a John Emmans, refugee from the persecution in the Low Countries. A Similar sounding name, could there be a connection?
A number of Nuneaton silk merchants had premises in Wood Street, London for example: Hood & Ward; Ferguson Hood and Jacombs; William Kirby; and Thomas Botterill whose benefaction led to the reconstruction of St. Mary's Abbey Church, Manor Court Road, Nuneaton in the late 1870's. Local names such as Eab(u)ry, Jakes (Jacques), Pickard, (from Picardy), Daffern, Jacombs, and Botterill might have continental influences but as far as I know no-one has established their early origins.
In 1878, the Victorian Nuneaton local historian Alfred Lester Scrivener (1845-1886) wrote an article for the Nuneaton Observer, entitled: "AMONG THE LOOMS".
"I can hardly walk through the streets in our old town without finding buildings falling into decay, which, years ago, were filled with the merry clamour of looms. Abbey Street, in particular to those who know the story of its buildings is a history of the ribbon trade written in bricks and mortar. In the street and its courts old cottages are still fitted with the long windows by which stood, and sometimes yet stands, the single hand loom, while later and loftier houses have large shops in the upper story, which were once filled with engine looms.
It is a singular fact that the rude single hand loom, making but one breadth at a time, which was first employed in the Warwickshire ribbon trade, still holds its own in the production of certain classes of goods. The richest plain ribbons, the many coloured tartan plaids, are still made in the clumsy looms which linger by our cottage windows.
The weaver sitting and leaning forward against a rest, raises and lowers the alternate threads of the warp by the action of treadles beneath her feet, while with marvellous quickness and dexterity, she throws the shuttle from hand to hand. A weight is required to unsteady the winding of the warp, and so rude is the loom that this weight is generally a common brick so long used as to be half eaten away by the cord on which it hangs. The shuttle containing the "shoot" or weft being thrown by hand, requires no fixing, and the weaver can, therefore, lay down one colour and take up another without loss of time. It is this facility, which finds employment for the single handloom whenever the many coloured Scotch Tartans are in fashion. "When plods are in, they can't do wi'out us," is still the boast of the single hand weavers. About 1770 the "plain engine" or Dutch loom was introduced,; a loom still worked with treadles, but weaving several breadths at a time, and having the shuttles sliding along a "batten," which the weaver threw back with one hand, while the other he drove the shuttles through the warp, which was opened by the action of the treadles, the batten falling back by its own weight, and tightening the fabric. Here and there the single hand loom linger by the cottage window, and the patient housewife helps out her husband's income by its aid whenever she can get a warp from the warehouse, but the engine looms have entirely disappeared. Could we recall them from the ashes into which they have been consumed, of from the garrets where they perish of the dry rot, they would appear clumsy and strange to a generation which has almost forgotten that its forefathers worked in them, and lived by them.
The ribbon manufacture has always been largely carried on by the weavers in their own homes, or as journey hands in the shops of the undertakers. When England was yet straining every nerve to beat down the menacing power of Napoleon, the buildings on the right of Abbey Street, just beyond the Burgage, were occupied by a gentleman named Green: "Crack Green" he was nicknamed, after the fashion of the time. The shops were filled chiefly with plain engine looms, with some few single hand. This was the first ribbon factory as distinguished from the small undertakers shops in Nuneaton. Old weavers can recollect the scare when England stood in hourly dread of an invasion, how the overlooker planned to hide them in the garret, between the ceiling and the tiles, if the dreaded "Boney" should come. How many, or rather how few, will now remember the name of Green's three shops, "The Dockyard", the "House of Commons", the "House of Lords".?
This factory was in full work during the famed "big pearl time". From 1812 to the close of the great war when English ships swept the seas, blocking the ports of France, and compelling the produce of the world to be carried from port to port in English bottoms, there arose, by some freak of fashion and extraordinary demand for ribbons with wide pearl edges. Manufacturers were full of orders, and wages rose: a weaver getting 24s. per length could earn £2 a week. The early part of the week was often employed in spending at the Weavers Arms and elsewhere the wages of the week before, and the fighting spirit which then possessed the English man delighted in the prize fights which took part continually in the Coton Road fields. In Coventry during the "big pearl time" trade was bad among the watchmakers and a mocking placard was issued advertising for 50 distressed watchmakers to shell peas for the weavers. After the piece the demand suddenly collapsed and for many years great distress prevailed upon the weavers, which they strove to overcome by combination among themselves and between themselves and the manufacturers to regulate wages and prices. Parliament was petitioned to give sanction of law to the hard and fast "list" which had been agreed upon. This was, of course, refused, but a Commission of enquiry into the silk trade led to the repeal of the Spitalfields Act, and under Mr. Huskisson's administration the silk duties were largely modified. Before I pass on to the next period in the history of the ribbon loom I can only learn that one "figure" loom was to be found in Nuneaton. It was an engine loom owned by a man named Fred Barr, and worked with 32 treadles.
In the revival of the trade which followed Mr. Huskisson's free trade legislation, new men, new modes, and new forces came to the front. Fashion had changed, the days of the "big pearls" were ended, and our gay young grandmothers adorned their caps with love ribbons and satins. Old weavers recall with pleasure the quality of the silk and perfection of workmanship in old satins, and one has told me that so smoothly did the warps come down that in a gross he has not had a dozen gouts. Again, ladies changed the fashion of their headgear, and love ribbons partly gauze and partly satin stripes were supplanted by plain and figured gauzes. In the flush of the gauze trade the lofty block of buildings at the corner of the meadow, in Abbey Street, now a Baptist chapel, but originally known as "Gauze Hall" was built by the late Thomas Hood "in the London style "for warerooms, for the bulk of weaving was still executed at their homes by undertakers assisted by journey hands.
The Jacquard machine fitted to the a-la-bar loom, together with the application of steam power, effected another and still greater revolution. The jacquard machine was introduced from France about 1820, but it was many years before it came into general use. Wasnidge and Atkins, a firm of cutlers and ironmongers, who came to Nuneaton from Sheffield, are said to have made experimentally the first jacquard machine in Nuneaton; but the first in operation was worked by a man named Truswell. Then the shops over Stow's buildings in Wheat Lane were filled with a-la-bars. The weaver no longer sat in the loom, beating rhythmical measures upon the treddles with his feet. A wheel turned by hand or by steam power at one end of the loom drove the shuttles, and threw the batten backwards and forwards by means of cranks below, while a rod or bar, which gave the loom its distinctive name, connected this wheel with the machine at the top of the loom, and at each successive revolution raised and lowered the alternate threads of the warp. Some a-la-bars were only fitted for plain goods, but the jacquard machine which cannot be explained without diagrams, would open the warp for the passage of the shuttle, now in this place, now in another, as required to produce any figure in the body of the fabric. The workers in the single hand and engine looms believed their industry to be threatened with destruction. Stow's buildings were only saved from being wrecked by an excited mob by the somewhat disingenuous promise of a magistrate, who, while brickbats were flying about him, told the angry weavers that the a-la-bars should not be allowed to work, and persuaded them to disperse to their homes. Soon factories were built, with steam power specially suited to these improved looms. Mr. Greatorex building the factory in Wheat Lane, and Mr. Hood the factory in the Meadow, long known as Hood and Ward's. The weavers made another lawless effort to intimidate the manufacturers, and the windows of the Gauze Hall were smashed by the mob; but the large factories held their own, and so long as the ribbon trade lasted gave employment to hundreds of hands. The engine looms disappeared altogether, but about 1850 the more provident artisans began to buy a-la-bars of their own., and from then to 1858 houses with shops attached, which would hold one or two looms, were built in all directions. An a-la-bar cost from £40-£50, and the savings of the weavers were helped out by loans money clubs, on the security of looms, to be repaid by instalments. A prudent man with a growing family could earn a good livelihood, without subjecting his children to the demoralising associations of the large factories. The lad could turn the loom, the wife could "fill the shoot", the daughter could "pick up" broken threads of the warp at the back of the loom, the weaver himself watching for fault or flaw as it was woven, and renewing from time to time the exhausted shuttle.
We draw near to the collapse of the ribbon trade in 1860. The removal of the protective duties on foreign silk manufacturers by the commercial treaty with France spread dismay among weavers and manufacturers. A disastrous strike for the regulation of wages, the virtual closing of the American market, and revulsion of fashion which substituted other trimmings in place of ribbons combined to paralyse the staple industry of the district. In 1859 there were in Coventry, Nuneaton and the Ribbon weaving district 80 manufacturers and the amount paid in weekly wages was £12,000. After the treaty, the number of manufacturers dwindled from 80 to 12., and the weekly wages from £12,000 to £3,000. In the eight years next before the treaty £8000 was expended on poor relief in the Coventry district. In the next eight years, the significant sum of £40,000 was distributed from the rates, in addition to £40,000 more from voluntary subscriptions.
Happily the industries which since then have been planted among us have not been dry nursed by legislative protection and do not stand in danger of collapse from its withdrawal. Hats and elastic web, worsted weaving, wool dressing, cotton spinning, cotton doubling, calico weaving, with the development of our mines, and the remnants of the old ribbon and trimming trade have held their own without government protection. In spite of temporary depression we may yet believe that not only will these trades, in whose variety there is safety, prosper among us, but that the natural resources of the district will lead to the investment of capital in other directions. The changed spirit which has come over our industries is shown by the eagerness with which the children of those who threatened the first factories with destruction now listen for the renewal of the unmelodious but welcome sound of the Cotton factory "Bull".
An assessment of the plight of Nuneaton weavers can be assessed by reading the minutes of evidence given to the Select Committee on the Silk Trade on the 28th March 1832. This was a period of collapse and great distress for the ribbon trade locally and Mr. William Jacombs gave evidence on behalf of the Nuneaton trade.
In his opening submission he said that in the year of 1830 soup was given to 2500 poor inhabitants four days each week and in the present year (1832) to over 3000 three days each week. This out of a population in 1831 of 7799 persons including the outlying districts of Attleborough and Stockingford. (Chilvers Coton was returned separately with a population of 2494 and presumably in a similar plight). 3240 received some kind of relief from the parish. Of this 7799 people living locally over 6000 were in some way dependent on the silk trade of which upwards of 4000 would have been directly employed given that they had the opportunity to work. There were approximately 3000 looms available in the town and outlying districts, but presumably many were out of use. There is no doubt that the re-introduction of French ribbons into the trade after the embargo on these goods due to wars and political problems led to the decline in the homespun trade. William Jacombs said in his submission: "if we introduce ever so beautiful an article the French fashion is preferred, and our goods are considered unsaleable and useless, if not exactly like theirs."
Things had barely improved by 1835 when a Nuneaton resident,Mr. David Shaw, was asked to give evidence before a Select Committee. He submitted that by then, and out of a similar population, the dependency was:" nine-tenths of them on the ribbon trade". And - "they are in a state of unutterable distress." and Mr. Charles Hood, called to give evidence said: "the parish of Nuneaton is in as bad a state as ever it was in the very worst times."
In 1879 Alfred Scrivener visited one of the remaining weavers shops in Nuneaton and wrote of his conversation with an old dame that lived there:
"Oh, yes-you may come up into the shop and welcome. There ain't much to look at, Its hardly worth your while. Mind the stairs; they're awkward to anybody as isn't used to em!"
We followed the old lady up the two flights of stairs into the large attic in the top story. It was a dusty dilapidated, desolate looking room, but for the plants which survived amazingly in the long windows, occupying the whole length of the room on either side. The pot of fragrant musk luxuriated in the ample light. There were several old fashioned but thriving geraniums, and a fuchsia of rare beauty. Here in this dreary room, in the top story of a house in a back yard, with a dreary outlook across a dirty court on to a waste of house tiles and chimney pot, these few simple plants, so carefully tended seemed to tell their own pathetic story. The old lady loved them because she loved them. They were as threads of heavenly light inwoven with the sombre warp of a hard and narrow existence. Let those scoff who cannot understand. To us the simple love of this old lady for her few flowers seems akin to that passionate devotion to the beautiful and the true which Spenser has sung in the Hymn of Heavenly Beauty:
"That with the glorie of so goodly sight
The hearts of men, which fondly here admire,
Fair seesoning shewes, and feed on vain delight,
Transported with celestial desire
Of those fair formes may lift themselves up here,
And learn to love with zealous humble dewty,
The' Eternall Fountaine of that heavenly beauty."
However we are more concerned now with the other contents of the room. There are in this old weaver's shop four single handlooms, a small winding engine, and a filling wheel. The batten of an old Dutch engine loom stands in one corner, and the harness is laid across the rafters. It will be best to let the old lady tell us nearly as may be in her own words, her own story, which illustrates one phase of local industry which is fast dying out.
'Yes we had three engine looms of our own once. I remember when all the shops along this row and the front houses as well were all open and filled with looms by the window and engine looms down the middle. That was maybe fifty years ago, before the a-la-bars come up. No we never had an a-la-bar, beggar 'em, they were the ruin of everything. Our engine looms have been burnt for firewood, all but that one batten as stands there. My old man worked in this loom with the Jacquard machine up till the time he died - that was when he could get a bit of work. It hasn't been touched since they cut out the last bit of work he did. That's the only figure loom; the other three are just plain single handlooms. They are worth nothing to sell. I've worked in this one, on and off since I was a child. I dare say that brick, as bangs at the back for a weight, is as old as I am - you see the cords has nearly cut the brick in two. There aint much about the looms-you just treadle with your feet and throw the shuttle with your hands-but I've seen some beautiful work turned out of 'em, clumsy as you think 'em. You see the eye was always on the work.
I can show you some bits of ribbon as you'd hardly think were made in this shop. Here's a brocade as rich as a flower garden, and look at this oriental-it will almost stand on end for all its forty years since it was woven. An them gauzes you've picked up-there was good money made on them at one time, till the trade was spoilt by the rubbish that was made. Yes it's a bit of wool scarfing in my loom now. My sights too far gone I can't manage silk now, but I get on pretty well with the wool when there's any to be had. What wages can we get? -Well when its a bit of good yarn I could make seven or eight shillings in a week by keeping to it pretty close-a younger person might maybe would earn half as much again, but the work is only to be had by fits and starts. It's much the same with silk-that is for us outdoor hands-you get a warp, and it lasts a week or two, and then you might stand at play for a month before you get a bit more. It don't matter so much where the man's a collier, or something of that in regular work, and the wife earns a few shillings as well in the loom every now and then. That comes in like extra. But a lone old woman often finds herself in close straits if she'd only got the loom to work on, even when she helps out with a bit of washing and charring. Well it won't last much longer. I hope when my warp comes down, and I have to take the work of my life in, that the great Master will mercifully let it pass."
In this account we have some insight into what remains of the one industry on which Nuneaton depended for the first half of this century. There are some few manufacturers of ribbons, as the Messrs. Ebery, and Messrs. Cornell and Co., who still maintain the reputation which Nuneaton once possessed, for the excellence of its silk manufactures. There are others who have introduced amongst us the manufacture of Woollen Scarves, which has given great employment to many a single hand and a-la-bar loom that otherwise would have been broken up for firewood.
One circumstance related by an old weaver seems to carry our industrial history back to a still earlier time. An old man who has long been past work, assures us that his grandfather was a plush weaver at Nuneaton, that he kept the Old Cock Inn, at the corner of Chancery Lane in the Market Place, and that he had a couple of looms for weaving plush in the circular room above the old Market Cross, which fell into decay and fell down in the year 1810. - It is even so:
"The Old order changeth yielding place to new,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."
I acknowledge the assistance of my fellow researcher, Alan Cook, together with the staff of Nuneaton and Coventry Libraries, Warwick County Record Office, and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum Coventry. The British Library, Newspaper Section, not least the late Alfred Scrivener (1845-1886) for his eye witness account documented at the time the last few looms were working in the cottages of Nuneaton; and his descendents Michael Napier and Mrs. Pat. Roberts. Also family historians including Albert Wheway, John Elliott, John Edmands and Mrs. Madge Edmands.