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During the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain’s trade expanded dramatically. All sorts of goods were being shipped in and out of the country and the English Channel was a major thoroughfare for trade.

This shipping traffic included the mighty vessels of the East India Company with their huge cargo holds. (By 1779 the Company dominated the world market.) As they lay offshore in areas like the Medway and Sheerness awaiting their slots at the London docks, a trade built up between smugglers visiting the merchantmen. A Captain and his officers were given allowances to bring ashore but they could make a good income selling these offshore.

The smugglers were not necessarily the usual suspects we imagine. Very often they were ladies out shopping and in search of a little fabric at an attractive price. We briefly looked at this in one of our postings on Smuggling guidelines for Ladies.

Documents at the British Library reveal a newly affluent class, with an enthusiasm for imports such as cottons, silks, porcelain, tea and spices.

The 18th century in particular was a golden age of silk weaving in London. In 1721 the manufacture of silk in England had increased in value to £700,000. The expansion and success of the industry depended upon connections with other regions around the world. Supplies of raw materials and labour came into London from Europe, the Levant and India.

Although a substantial French Protestant community existed in London from the sixteenth century, by the end of the 18th century a new émigré French community emerged centred on Soho and Fitzrovia. These new émigré responded to the rhythm of European politics rather than to the click clack of the weaver’s shuttle.

The London silk weavers faced increasing competition from silk fabrics produced overseas. The capital also sent its silk out into the world where it found a ready market in North America and the West Indies. Europe and the Mediterranean were as important as the North Atlantic and South Asia. Both imperial and non-imperial connections were important, whilst state and market activities reinforced each other. Far from being a gradual long-term process, early globalisation was disruptive and required management. Skilled workers were as mobile and dynamic as the flows of exotic commodities. They also played an important role in constructing the regulatory framework that oversaw the globalisation of London silk.

As the silk industry in London was large and successful, profits were at stake and a sizeable labour force was liable to be thrown out of work. Therefore, policy responses were often required in several spheres: from the guild that represented the silk weavers, from organisations with interests in overseas trade, and from the British state with its control of war and taxation.

Both the Government and the East India Company became concerned about the loss of money caused by smuggling. Advice to the Unwary like the Notice published in the Hampshire Chronicle shown below, warns readers of the Act, and points to the damage caused to employment and the economy – but especially to the profits of the East India Company – brought about by widespread smuggling.

silk handkerchief contraband notice

This notice appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle on Mon 13 Dec 1779:

‘THE extensive Smuggling of EAST INDIA and FOREIGN SILK HANDKERCHIEFS, etc. into this Kingdom, having occasioned a great stagnation in the English manufacture, to the great injury of his Majesty’s Revenue, and of many industrious weavers, who with their wives and helpless children, are reduced to poverty and misery for want of employment.’

In the opening paragraph we can hear the dominant voice of the East India Company (this warning is not just about tax evasion but a vast organisation exerting its muscle). It also highlights the concerns of the powerful Spitalfields’ silk industry full of immigrants who had fought hard for their rights, and of course, we have the third part of the argument – lost revenue.

The silk industry was one that needed careful control. The demand for silk was rising in England – the trade was three times as big in 1713 as in 1664.

In the 18th century, silk was one of the most potent symbols of class division. It was ‘the fabric of power and class command…’ It was ‘The Age of Silk’ and a silk dress could cost £50 in materials alone.

monstrosities in the park 1824 cruikshank

monstrosities in the park Cruikshank

You are what you wear seemed to be the social guideline. ‘The ladies strolling in St James’s Park, adorned in cascades of silk contrived with cuffs, flounces and bows to capture the wandering eye … the gentlemen in their silk stockings and waistcoats, their brocaded jackets and silken knee-britches, bowing and scraping into lordly favour, awaiting the moment to give command of battle or to sign a death warrant…’

The producers were the thousands of men, women and children in the East End, “winding, throwing, dyeing, weaving, drawing, cutting, designing, stitching in hundreds of attics and garrets”.

A proverb summed it up: We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference.

The manufacturers of Silk Handkerchief in LONDON and MANCHESTER needed new measures to control this lucrative industry and a Prohibition Act of Parliament passed in the 11th and 12th years of the reign of King William the Third was an attempt to arrest the illegal purchase of East India Silk Handkerchiefs, whether printed or chequered, Taffaties, or any other Foreign Silk Goods.

It was a buyer beware notice. Anyone caught wearing a smuggled handkerchief would be prosecuted with the utmost severity.

Sellers also faced penalties of £200 and it’s in the breaking down of the penalty that we see how the government of the day were raising revenues. One third would be paid to the King, the other two thirds to the Prosecutor.


Citation: Farrell, William (2014) Silk and globalisation in eighteenth-century London: commodities, people and connections c.1720-1800. PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

British Library – Shipwrecks and Smuggling

Hampshire Chronicle, Monday 13 Dec 1779

Citation: Isaac Ashley, 2012 The Spitalfields silk weavers: London Luddites.

Proceedings of the Old Bailey

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