I was surprised some years ago when interviewing an old chap, Joseph Lloyd Royal, for a book, when he said his sister-in-law had been an overseer at a silk mill in Muspole Street, and that he himself had made ivory combs for the mill to help separate out the fine strands as they went through one of their many processes. I had no idea then that there had been silk mills in Norwich, they sounded far too exotic and, of course, I knew nothing of the renowned Norwich Shawls that warrant a separate article to themselves.
I wrote up the old man's biography and after his death, was given his late wife's simple Guinivere-style wedding dress made of Norwich silk which I in turn donated to the Norwich Textile Museum.
There are of course, no such mills any more, and no weavers living in the city since the trade in hand-woven fabrics first diminished then died altogether. The heyday of weaving in Norwich seems to have been the 19th century when an amazing array of cloths were woven in different locations. In 1838 there were 5,075 looms in Norwich, the vast majority worked by hand in private houses within the city walls and concentrating on the more fashionable fabrics traded in the hub of commerce. Country weavers were generally more involved with coarser-type fabrics.
By and large the weavers and their families led an impoverished life in conditions hard to imagine today and it is truly heart-wrenching to read of the dire conditions under which these people lived. This is part of an account of a male Paramatta weaver, living in Dible’s Hole, St Paul’s, Norwich.
‘I have only two rooms in this piggery – a place not fit to live in. My eldest child is eleven years old, my youngest was born yesterday. My wife is confined upstairs, in the room where the loom is.
Three of my children, myself, my wife, and the young babby sleep together; the other two children sleep in a small crib by the side of us. I have been obliged to keep the loom at work although my wife is lying there. The noise of the loom has made her very poorly.
....I have always been suffering ever since I was married, and I am never without some trouble; some of my children are always ill, and when some are born others of them are dying. I have only five out of the eight we have had. I have got nothing at the pawnshop, and before I would go to the pawnshop I would lay down and be trampled on. What little I have got I mean to keep as long as I can.
For the last five or six years I have not been out of my house except to go for work. I cannot go to church if I would, for I’ve got no clothes fit to go in. After paying for the candles, the winding of the bobbins, and the ‘beaming-on,’ I don’t think I make more than 8s. a week.
Very often when I go out of doors the fresh air seem to be too much for me, and I often stagger and roll about as if I was drunk.’
The account of this man’s earnings was fully corroborated by a reference to the pay-book of the person by whom he was employed, though the report goes on to say, 'The furniture and everything about the house was more cleanly and comfortable than might have been expected under the circumstances in which the family were placed.'
These beleaguered folk worked from first light until dark in the summer (6 a.m. to 11.00 p.m.) and in winter by candlelight until about 9.30 p.m. Usually men did the weaving with wives and children helping out by winding bobbins. The going rate for winding seems to have been a penny for a dozen skeins, each of 560 yards, or 6,720 in the dozen. This quantity of yarn had to be transferred from the hank to small bobbins for the shuttle, by means of a little wheel turned by hand. It was a job for the nimble-fingered to try to minimise time spent on breakages of the fine threads and constant changes of bobbins when full. At the winding it was physically impossible to earn more than 2s. to 3s. per week.
So, a chance remark from my old man, a bit of research, and a very grateful sigh from myself that though I am a very ordinary citizen of 21st century Norfolk, my comforts are those of a queen compared to the workers of yesteryear...