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Take it to the streets

London’s turbulent history saw riots and protests of various type breaking out almost regularly in the last few centuries. Those carried out by the Spitalfields weavers are among the most iconic.

In the 1660s machine looms began to replace handloom weaving for the manufacture of silk. Feeling the threat to their working conditions and salaries, in August 1675, in a three-day riot, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the East End, smashing machine looms or burning them in the streets.

Silk weavers were at that time artisans accustomed to a certain amount of autonomy, well-paid and mainly able to operate under their own terms, often in their own homes: mechanisation could transform them into wage slaves forced into factories or literally reduce them into poverty. Although skilled workers, they could be indeed periodically reduced to poverty by continuous disputes about wage with their masters, by a depressions in the trade or by a simple change in fashion that would drive silk garments out of the market.

Not surprisingly, in 1697 riots broke out again, this time against the import of foreign silks. Weavers laid siege to the headquarter of the East India Company in the City, the major importer of woven silks from India and threatened to destroy the home of Josiah Child, the Governor of the Company.

But it's in 1719 when their most iconic protest takes place in the capital. The “Calico Riot” sees four thousands weavers - with their families - parade through the City and unleash their anger against women wearing calico or other cheap cotton. The Lord Major had to call the army to suppress the revolt.

By the 1760s the mechanisation of Spitalfields silk weaving was taking place at fast pace and was bringing the weavers to the point of starvation. In a desperate attempt to improve their situation they organised themselves into “combinations”, trade associations organised for mutual benefit to organise protests. In October 1763 a few hundred weavers assemble in Spital Square (roughly where now Spitalfields old market lies), break into the house of a master, destroy his looms, parade his effigy around and then burn it in the middle of the square.

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