One of the consequences of rapid industrialisation during the Georgian period was a rise in popular protest at the human cost of economic change. Silk weaving, for example, was a highly important part of the metropolitan economy for much of the 18th century, centred around the activities of French Huguenot and Irish families based in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. Silk was woven by families in their own homes as part of the ‘putting out’ system, with perhaps as many as 50,000 people employed by masters at the height of the trade’s prosperity.
Silk weaving was, however, a relatively unsophisticated, poorly paid occupation. Workers suffered badly when trade was slack and if wages dipped. Journeymen weavers prepared to work for lower wages were often attacked by fellow tradesmen when their activities were discovered, with silk ‘cut’ from their looms by protesters (as described in this newspaper article from 1763). The introduction of mechanical weaving ‘engines’ also increased levels of antagonism in the East End to fever pitch and signalled the end of a once traditional cottage industry.