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Brick Lane

Huguenot Brick Lane

For centuries, Brick Lane has taken in newcomers, often fleeing from persecution in their native lands. The late 17th century saw the coming of the Huguenots, as French Protestants were nicknamed by their Catholic enemies. The Huguenots described themselves as “réfugiés” (seekers of refuge) which has given us our word, ''refugee''.

In 1685, the Catholic King Louis XIV of France outlawed the practise of Protestantism. The Huguenots' services were banned and their churches torn down. All French children were now required to be raised as Catholics. Yet it was illegal to leave the country, and Protestant men caught trying to escape abroad could be executed or sentenced to serve as galley slaves, while women risked imprisonment.

Despite such risks, around 200,000 French Protestants, mostly Calvinists, fled abroad, smuggling themselves out hidden in bales of straw or empty beer barrels and wine vats. Around 50,000-80,000 of them settled in London, in Soho and in Spitalfields. London's traditional anti-Catholicism, and stories of French atrocities against Protestants, ensured them a warmer welcome than was usually given to foreigners.

Silk Weavers

Silk Weavers
Spitalfields silk weavers winding and reeling thread, 1893
Many of the Huguenots who made Spitalfields their home came from Lyons, centre of the French silk industry. They set up business as silk weavers, using handlooms to weave raw silk imported from Italy. The Huguenots brought with them a newly invented technique which allowed them to give thin silk taffeta a glossy lustre.

They also had a Calvinist belief in the virtues of hard work, thrift and self-discipline, and saw business success as a sign of God's grace. As a result, they prospered, building large and handsome houses around Brick Lane, with glass-ceilinged workshops in the attics, where they set up their weaving looms.

By 1700, there were nine French churches in Spitalfields. William Hogarth's 1738 engraving, Noon, contrasts a well-dressed Huguenot congregation leaving a French church in London, with surrounding English squalor. See Hogarth's engraving here

We can still see the legacy of the Huguenot settlers in the East End's French street names, including Fournier Street, Nantes Passage, French Place and Princelet Street. The silk industry is also recalled in Fashion Street, Silk Street, Loom Court and Shuttle Street, and in pubs named the Weaver's Arms and the Crown and Shuttle.


Fournier Street
The Fournier Street home of silk designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763)
Cognitive Applications/Maria Gibbs
In the 18th century, the industry was threatened by a new fashion for wearing printed calico, from India. This led to riots in June 1719, when 4,000 Spitalfields weavers rampaged through the city, attacking any women they saw wearing calico. They ripped the women's calico dresses and splashed them with ink. It took the troops two days to restore order.

The Spitalfields silk weaving industry continued to decline following the introduction of mechanised weaving in the mid-18th century. By the mid-19th century, this was one of the poorest parts of London. Charles Dickens, who visited Spitalfields in 1851, described its “squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches... where sallow, unshaven weavers... prowl languidly about, or lean against posts, or sit brooding on doorsteps.”

The last record of the silk industry in Spitalfields was of four weavers in Fournier Street in 1930.