Weaving Through the Silk & Slums of Spitalfields

While researching different parts of 19th century London for my book, I was specifically looking for an area with a higher concentration of French immigrants, and that is how I stumbled upon Spitalfields.

This East End London neighborhood got its name from St. Mary’s Spittel (hospital) for lepers in the 1100s. Up until the early 1800s it was a thriving neighborhood inhabited mostly by French refugees called the Huguenots.

So, who were these Huguenots? The Huguenots were a French Protestant minority that were persecuted in France between the 1500s and 1789. A lot of these religious refugees fled their homes to settle in the neighboring England where they thrived bringing their silk-weaving trade with them.

French was the most commonly used language on the streets of Spitalfields at the time. Even churches held their services in French. It was largest concentration of Huguenots in all of England. The houses were large and beautiful, and Spitalfields boasted a booming produce market. The successful Huguenots were soon followed by Irish weavers who immigrated after the decline of the Irish linen industry.

The silk-weaving industry began to decline in the early 1800s due to the stiff competition they received from Manchester textile factories, as well as, the import of cheap French silk. With less work and a constant influx of immigrants, the grand urban mansions of Spitalfields were divided up into tiny dwellings to accommodate more families. Skilled weavers had to give up their trade to work in the nearby London docks.

Later in the 1800s, Spitalfields became home to Dutch and German Jews followed by impoverished Polish and Russian immigrants. Up until the last century, this neighborhood had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe with over 40 synagogues.

Spitalfields did become a slum during the Victorian era, with a high crime rate, deplorable conditions and prostitution. Two of its streets competed for the title of “Worst street in London.” The first was Dean street and the second was Dorset street. Dorset street became notorious in the Autumn of 1888 when the mutilated body of Mary Kelly was found. The 25-year-old woman was in fact the last victim of serial killer Jack the Ripper.

In my book “A Gentleman’s Bidding” Genevieve’s mother escaped France during the French revolution and settled in Spitalfields. This would make a lot of sense if you were penniless and spoke only French! But I had depicted the decline of the neighborhood about 30 years earlier than it actually was.

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