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Silk weavers in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields

2012 March 16


weavers windows

Weavers’ windows in Princelet Street,Spitalfields


Making History in Bethnal Green: different stories of nineteenth century silk weavers

This article written with Bruce Wheeler was based on careful – pre internet – research by Bruce Wheeler into the census returns of several streets in Bethnal Green in east London from 1841- 1891. This includes one where my silk weaving ancestors lived – Squirries Street – which I write about at greater length in London Stories. (This is the same street where Mosley would have his Bethnal Green headquarters in the 1930s.)We were interested in exploring the ways in which the conventional materials of family historians such as censuses could be used in a broader sense to gain a picture of an area. In contrast to the generally held view that the silk trade declined suddenly we found evidence of women and men continuing in the trade long after the period in which they were expected to do this. It was almost as if they didn’t know that they were no longer  supposed to be weaving silk!  We wrote that the argument made by Raphael Samuel some 25 years before about the value of such records was still true – and that this was still being ignored by academic historians. It was accepted for publication but the approach didn’t go down too well so was placed in a section of the journal with lower status than the main part of the journal…

Making History in Bethnal Green: different stories of nineteenth century silk weavers (with Bruce Wheeler) History Workshop Journal 56, 2003

People often leave comments or write to me to access a PDF of this article which, although part of History Workshop Journal, does not seem to be found in an accessible library.

It can also  be useful  to look at  family history articles as I have edited them in various books, such as: 

Martin Bashforth, Absent Fathers, Present Histories in Public History and Heritage Today. People and their Pasts. ed Paul Ashton & Hilda Kean, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 , 2009 pp. 203 -222

Tim Brennan History, Family, History pp. 37 -50

and Sally J Morgan, My father’s photographs: the visual as public history pp. 19 – 36

both in Seeing History, eds. Hilda Kean, Paul Martin and Sally J Morgan, Francis Boutle Publishers, 2000.

I also recommend my  London stories. Personal Lives, Public Histories (Rivers Oram Press, 2004 pp 229).
This book is usually available at Abe books. It contains much material about ordinary people in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. It can also be of use in thinking about different ways of writing family history based on a range of items to hand. particularly those of relatives who seemed to have hoarded things!

The article on Making History will not necessarily give a reader the name of their own C19th relative but the footnotes can be useful in thinking of the range of material on the subject.

Email me if you would like a PDF for personal use and cannot access History Workshop Journal :

34 Responses Post a comment
  1. Catherine Murdoch permalink
    June 28, 2013

    I have just started to trace my family and was at first excited to find silk weavers in Bethnal Green,but when I started to look further on google was saddened at the descriptions of life in Bethnal Green.So I was pleased to see that you say there was still weaving going on and the entries on the census forms were perhaps right.Thankyou.

  2. Dorothy Reid permalink
    September 9, 2014

    I have enjoyed the pursuit of genealogy for many years. However, I have been unable to locate the Leagoe family who in 1841 lived on Matilda street in Middlesex. William Leagoe age 40 and his wife Sarah age 35 were silk weavers. Their children at that time were Sarah 14, Liza 11, Thomas 4, and Louiza 2 months old. Their address was in Tower Hamlets, Parish of St. Matthews, Bethnal Green (Registration District), sub registration dist. Hackney Road Ossulstone (Tower divison) Dist 31

    Elizabeth Stevenson, age 70, born Middlesex Eng. (ca 1771) was living at No. 49 Sclater St. Elizabeth was a silk winder and the aunt of Sarah I believe. This was found in the 1841 census Bethnal Green, Ossultstone (Tower Division) Middlesex.

    In the 1851 census Elizabeth Stevenson, head, widow, 84, pensioner, was living at 48 Sclater St., Tower Hamlets. (St. Philips) Bethnal Green, Middlesex.
    Sarah Leagoe, her niece, widow, 47, silk weaveress was enumerated here at this time, however, I found her children were living at 10 Goulden Place, Bethnal Green, as follows: Sarah 23, Narrow Silk weaveress, Hand Loom, Eliz’th sister 20 etc as above, Thomas 13, Louisa 10, and Catherine 4 months. I believe Louisa Leagoe is my great grandmother and emigrated to Canada about 1867.

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      September 10, 2014

      Hi Dorothy

      Thanks for your comment. I will send you a copy of an article I wrote on silk weavers of Bethnal Green that may help you track down the Leagoes through the references and materials I cite. Unfortunately the name does not ring any bells either from my own family that included Bethnal Green silk weavers nor from my wider research.

      If you can I would try and track down an online map for the earlier part of the nineteenth century- this might help you to look in different streets etc. The silk weavers that I researched did not move long distances.

  3. marian chalkwright permalink
    November 15, 2014

    I have been tracing my family tree and have got back to 1805 my family are George and Ann Bacchus silke weavers living in Bethnal green I cannot get back any further I know they were huganauts because I have a Huganaut family bible with documentation relating to the french protestants If anyone has information on the Bacchus family I would love to hear from you.

    • phaedra pamphilon-green permalink
      September 7, 2015

      Hello Marian, i too trace my family to George and Ann Bacchus and believe them to be Huguenots. I have felt so frustrated not being able to properly go back any further. have you found out anything else?

  4. Vicky Standing permalink
    November 17, 2014

    Hello Hilda

    I would be really interested to read further information on Bethnal Green Silk weavers that you could provide. I have traced 4 generations of my Frost Family working in the trade in and around Little York Street until two brothers left for Australia in 1862. Surprisingly, they returned in the 1870s…

    Many thanks


    • Hilda Kean permalink
      November 17, 2014

      Hi Vicky

      Good Luck! I will send you a copy of my article on the silk weavers – there may be references there that will help. I have written about my own ancestors and the area in my book London Stories that may also be of interest. Hilda

  5. Mary permalink
    April 5, 2015


    I am also excited to have found some silk weavers in my family… If you could please send me your article I would be most grateful!

    Many thanks, Mary

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      April 6, 2015

      I am happy to email you the article – there are copyright issues otherwise. I hope you find some contacts /material of interest – let me know! My London Stories book also contains stuff on silk weavers and how I went about finding about aspects of my ancestors’ lives.

  6. April 18, 2015

    I have just found out my ancestors were silk weavers, living in Weaver street, Bethnal Green. Their names were John and Eliza Sleath and others in the street from 1861 census,were Mr.Levy, a Polish Jew and tailor by trade. Also, their were fringe maker, shoe maker, silk weavers and treacle manufacturer. Please could you email me your article on the silk weavers, and tell me where can I find your book of London stories. I am researching further into this trade so will mail you any interesting information. Many thanks ! Mary

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      April 19, 2015

      Thanks, Mary. Good luck with your researches. You should find lots of material in the London Metropolitan Archives and the Bishopsgate Institute – if you are based near London. You can still buy my London Stories book from Central Books. More details about it here.

  7. Lisa Wilkins Schirmer permalink
    April 22, 2015

    Hello Hilda,
    I have been researching my family for many years and have found that I have two families, Alexander and Hill, that were Silk Weavers in Bethnal Green. I would love to have a copy of your article to perhaps glean more information on these two families and their way of life. Thank you.

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      April 24, 2015

      Happy to send you one. You might also find my book London Stories of interest from Central Books. Good luck with your research!

  8. Stu permalink
    October 13, 2015

    Hi Hilda,

    I have just found out that my ancestors were silk weavers living and working in Bethnal Green in 1850s. May be some more earlier than that! I would really appreciate a copy of your article so I could find out what life might have been like for them. Many thanks.

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      October 16, 2015

      I’ve sent the article. Good luck with the research – you might also find material of interest in my London Stories book.

  9. Katy Goody permalink
    October 13, 2015

    I have been researching my mother in-law’s family and have come across the sparrowhawk/frost family who were weaving on the 1841 census. i’d love to have a copy of your article if possible.
    many thanks

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      October 16, 2015

      Have just sent you a copy. Good luck with the research!

  10. Lori permalink
    October 14, 2015

    Hi, I am really interested in the silk weavers as my ancestors came from france and the surname was Toye

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      October 16, 2015

      Hope you caught the BBC programme on the oldest businesses in Britain that featured at least one family called Toye!

  11. Dee permalink
    April 11, 2016

    Hello, I wonder if you could email me your article. My family are the Allars, also silk weavers in the area. I wonder if their name was originally Allard. Thanks. Dee

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      April 11, 2016

      Thanks, Dee. I am happy to send you a copy. You might also be interested in my book London Stories which is also about how I went about researching my family history who included silk weavers and furniture makers. Good luck !

  12. Nadine Gordon permalink
    April 29, 2016

    Hello Hilda, I would love to have a copy of your article! I am descended from Bethnal Green weavers and am planning a trip to the area in June. It would enhance my visit to know some of the history and also possibly help me as I continue family history research. Thank you! Nadine Gordon

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      May 2, 2016

      You will find many houses that have restored their upper floor to re-create the same wort of windows experienced by C18th and early C19th weavers. Look upwards ! Good luck with your research. I will email you a copy of the article.

  13. Alison Benson permalink
    June 3, 2016

    I have been trying to locate where my Huguenot ancestors actually lived and have found some also living on Squirries St. John Samuel Mignot and his wife Esther Parsons were a silk weaver and dress maker respectively in 1851. If you have any interesting stories it would be great to hear them.

    Best wishes

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      June 8, 2016

      Hi Alison My ancestors Esther Keen (sic) (nee Mountford) a silk weaver and her husband William a hearth rug weaver lived at no 6 Squirries Street in 1851 with their 3 children. They shared the house with George Devine another hearth rug weaver.I will send you a copy of an article on material on silk weavers that may help but you will find some specific material about Squirries Street in my book London Stories.It was a street where silk weaving continued long after its apparent demise. At what number did your ancestors live?

  14. Sue Tulloch permalink
    October 6, 2016

    Hello Hilda
    I would love to read a copy of your article. I have traced my father’s line back to a George Bone born probably 1788 in Norton Folgate who was living in 1841 in Church Row Bethnal Green. Many of his children continued as silk weavers, often dying quite young.
    When the silk weaving declined many of them shifted to become Shoe Makers.
    Thanks so much

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      October 10, 2016

      Happy to send you one, Sue.You might also be interested in my book London Stories. Hilda

  15. Ann Wilkinson permalink
    March 27, 2018

    Very interesting. I am descended from the Provost family from the St Quentin area who settled in Springfield and Bethnal Green around 1680s. The earliest one was Jean Provost. Eventually they moved to Leek then Salford. I live in Australia and find it difficult to find information. I have the family tree but would like to put some meat on the bones.

  16. Ann Coyne permalink
    September 26, 2018

    Hi, I have recently discovered some of my ancestors as silk weavers in the Spitalfields and Bethnal Green area, notably living in Pelham Street and am trying to research this more. I would love a copy of your article if it’s still possible.

    • Hilda Kean permalink
      September 26, 2018

      I will be happy to send you an article. If you have a university library access point you should download it from History Workshop Journal for 2003 , volume 56.

  17. Caro permalink
    June 15, 2019

    Hello Hilda,
    I can see I am not alone in the search for our Huguenot ancestors!
    I should be very interested if there were any references to the Maze/David/Lambert families in your article.
    Many thanks.

  18. Sarah H permalink
    September 10, 2019

    Hi, I have recently tracked my husband’s family in the silk weaving industry, moving from Sudbury to Bethnal Green where they stayed for generations. I’d be really interested to receive a copy of your article if possible please?

  19. David Blackburn permalink
    May 19, 2020

    Hello – I look forward to reading your work. I just stumbled across your webpage having found one of my gt,gt,gt, grandparents was a silk weaver who lived at 37 Squirries Street in 1861. Very exciting! Regards David Blackburn

    Glad you have contacted me. I will send you an article BUT I note that your ancestors were working in the same street as mine which I have written about in my London Stories. As you probably know there were many silk weavers in that street off Bethnal Green Road and even some later. Best wishes Hilda Kean

  20. Dennis w Sholl permalink
    September 22, 2021

    I am tracing family history and have a noted relative that help create the GRAND NATIONAL FLAG for silk weavers. His name is Samuel Sholl (b. 1752). I am trying to find out if the FLAG still exists and if it is exhibited at a museum anywhere in London. Does anybody have any info on this.? Are there silk weaver museums in Spitalfields or elsewhere in London i could check with?
    He lived on New Turville Street, Bethnal Green and during that time was awarded a silver medal and thirty guineas (per the Transactions of Society of Encouragement of Arts volume viii, pages 166-71).
    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to find out more about this? Please advise

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