The Calico Riots of Spitalfields, 1719 – 1720
The glorious revolution of 1688, which reasserted the Protestant ascendancy in England and saw William and Mary of Orange take the throne, saw many changes. One of which was that the Dutch royalists introduced the fashion for wearing printed calicoes. For the uninitiated – I include myself here – calico is a textile made from unbleached cotton. Because it had an unfinished appearance its principal advantages over the more traditional woollen clothing was that it was cooler and considerably cheaper. This fashion trend posed a considerable threat to the traditional woollen industry.
In an attempt to protect the weaving industry in 1700 an Act was passed banning the importation of printed calicoes. However, as there was no equivalent ban on plain calicoes, these became the garments of choice for the fashion conscious and thrifty female.
Silk weavers, many of whom concentrated around the Spitalfields area of east London, were particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. Silk threads were imported and their availability was subject to the vagaries of Anglo-French relations – dire, pretty much of the time – and the activities of smugglers. The period between 1717 and 1719 saw another economic downturn and many silk-weavers were thrown out of work. If the law wouldn’t suppress calico, they would take matters into their own hands.
Civil unrest broke out initially in June 1719 and then in the following month. Women who had the audacity to walk the streets flaunting their calico were set upon by groups of weavers who were wandering the streets looking for trouble. One victim was Dorothy Orwell who was set upon on June 24th 1719. In her testimony to the courts she claimed “she was assaulted by a multitude of weavers in Red-Lion-Fields in Hoxton, who tore, cut and pull’d off her gown and petticoat by violence, threatened her with vile language and left her naked in the fields.”
There are always two sides to a story and one of the leaders of the rioters, by the name of Rey, in an interesting piece of sophistry claimed that the fault lay with the women; “these petit disturbances are properly with the women themselves; which proceeds from the foolish fancy of some and the madness and rage of others.” The lightness of the calico clothing led to suggestions that the morals of their wearers were equally light and loose. The Spitalfields Ballad from 1721 contained the uncompromising lines “none shall be thought/ a more scandalous slut/ than a tawdry Calico Madam.”
Disturbances in the street and attacks on calico-clad women only died down in the autumn when woollen clothing came out of the cupboards. In an attempt to solve the problem a bill was put to Parliament banning the wearing of calico but it was bogged down in the House of Lords. Come the spring of 1720 when the weather had warmed up and calico was again a viable option to wear, there were more attacks on women. Although these were condemned by the weavers’ guild and suppressed by the authorities, it was decided that the only course of action was to legislate again.
The Calico Act was passed in 1721 banning men and women from wearing and using calico for clothing and in household interiors. Fines of five pounds were imposed for wearing the fabric and twenty pounds for selling it and the statute was in force until 1774. However, there was a loophole in the legislation – it did not include domestic furnishings already fitted with calico. Those who really wanted to wear calico simply chopped up their curtains and made clothes out of them!