words by Sandra Noon
Silk ribbon weaving was introduced to the area in the early 17th century. It was commonly believed that the first people to bring this skill to England were the French Huguenots escaping from religious persecution. However, evidence has been found that predates this. The silk weaving trade then spread from Coventry to Nuneaton, Bedworth and surrounding villages.
By the 1800’s Silk Weaving was a growing cottage industry, in 1818 there were an estimated 2872 silk weavers in Nuneaton alone, by 1831 that had grown to 4081, and by 1851 it was estimated that more than 50 per cent of those Employed in Nuneaton were silk weavers. I have discovered many in my own family history research.
The first recorded ribbon weavers were William Oswin, and Andrew Randall. Mr Randall is recorded as owning a warp mill and silk valued at £180 as well as looms, which suggests it was the first large scale business. This was taken over by his widow, and there is evidence in her inventory to suggest that this business was also the first to distribute silk to workers, a person known as an undertaker, to undertake this work. The work was carried out by the weavers, who had hand looms set up in the front room of their cottages, some of these cottages were designed for this purpose, and could be easily recognised by the large window at the front, which was needed to let as much light in as possible,there was only candle light available at that time, as electric lighting wasn’t introduced till the late 19th century.
The entire family were often engaged in work, with the father or mother working on the loom while the children and elderly relatives threaded the looms, wound the silk and picked up any silk from the floor, in order to free the weaver to make as many lengths of ribbon as they could, only the weaver would be paid, and that was only for completed work. This form of weaving carried out on handlooms was very skilled and intricate, but could only produce a single length of ribbon at a time, which made it very difficult to produce enough to feed all the family.
The silk was imported to London, the silk merchants would purchase the silk and transport It to were there weavers were, and then the finished articles were transported back to London. Early on, this was carried out by carriage, later by canal barge. In Nuneaton this was via the canal system set up by Roger Newdigate. There was a Wharf in the Bull Ring Chilvers Coton were the barges used to tie up while they were being loaded.
There was a great demand at the time for ribbon to decorate fashionable dresses
and hats, particularly in London.
1813 -1815 fashioned dictated that a border be incorporated at the sides of the ribbon, this gave rise to the term ‘Big Purl’ time, and was a prosperous time for the silk trade in England. However this was short lived due to the removal of import tax on French imports.
In order to compete changes were made in production methods and the weaver’s wages were reduced, some even working for half pay many of them children.
With the change in production methods came larger looms, which could produce more lengths at a time, they were called Jacquard, and required a card with holes in to produce the patterns, however Jacquard looms weren’t introduced till 1825, and in 1831 the first steam powered loom appeared in Coventry. A Jacquard loom can be found in the Herbert Museum In Coventry were they have a ribbon weaving display and samples of work.
Factories were also introduced and rows of cottages turned into ‘top shops’ these were two story living accommodation, with a long room across the top of the cottages were the looms were keep, later some were fitted with steam engines, running the length of the top floor to power the machines. The Albion buildings in Attleborough are an example of ‘top shops’ although the top has now been removed, another one of these used to stand in Regent street. However despite every effort to compete with the French imports, there wasn’t enough work to go around and many weavers were starving, soup kitchens were set up to help them but it wasn’t enough, riots started, and there was a major strike in 1860. Some even feared the new factories, and the first one in Coventry was set on fire. There is a book, unfortunately I can’t remember the name, which relates a story based on a true account about a silk merchant and his workers in Chilvers Coton, and refers to a demonstration outside the Fleur de Lys, the person addressing the crowd, which spread all across the street was hanging out of the widow of the pub.
The larger factories such as J J Cash in Coventry resorted to making things such as Masonic regalia and book marks in order to stay in business, J J Cash still exists today.
Nuneaton and Atherstone industry turned to hat making to survive, several were built in Atherstone such as Vero and Everitts, and Hall and Philips, Hall and Philips factory later relocated to Meadow Street, Nuneaton.
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