In a paper for the North American Conference on British Studies 2016,  William Farrell provides valuable background to the silk smuggling industry that was feeding London.

He argues that much of the 18th century free trade in silks was highly organised. This involved legitimate channels working in collaboration with the free traders. However, there was also a small but nevertheless lucrative trade amongst individuals and small enterprises like the Seasalter Company.

The silk trade had been heavily controlled from the outset. As part of protectionist policy in eighteenth-century Britain, imported silks were banned from being sold. Although it is known that bans on imported textiles were widely broken, there have been few systematic studies of the contraband trade in silks. Using customs’ records, this article shows how smuggling supplied the demand for imported consumer goods.


French silk waistcoat c1780

Farrell makes the case for a diverse illegal trade in silk from Asia and Europe. The trade with Asia supplied “populuxe goods” in the form of handkerchiefs that appealed to a broad, middling customer base. These were brought into the country by the East India Company’s trading network.

By contrast, continental Europe provided contraband for the high-fashion market. These silks were distributed in more informal and personal ways—travelers and diplomats being the main offenders. The official response to these black markets differed, with silks from Europe posing particular problems for enforcement. Finally, the article provides a reassessment of the transnational influences—specifically the relative importance of Asia and Europe—on production and consumption of consumer goods in Britain.


Journal of British Studies, Volume 55, Issue 2 April 2016, pp. 268-294 Material copyright: © The North American Conference on British Studies 2016