In a couple of weeks time I’ll be giving a short paper as part of a panel on Radical London at the Radical Histories conference at Queen Mary University in Mile End. I’m talking at 4.15 on Friday 1st July (program [pdf]) alongside Sarah Wise, discussing Soho’s Eclectic Hall in the nineteenth century, and Judith Walkowitz, examining feminism and prostitution in King’s Cross in the 1980s.
The abstract for my paper is below; the full talk will be posted here shortly, both as text and – all going well – in glorious technicolour audio, so you can here how flat my voice is.
“This Little Republick.”
Weavers in the debtors’ sanctuary of Southwark Mint.
“Of all the groups of workers who used such devices to coerce their employers, none had so long a history of struggle, none were so remarkably persistent, and, maybe, none so violent as the silk weavers of Spitalfields, Moorfields, Stepney, and Bethnal Green.” Rudé, The Crowd in History, 1964.
Although the weavers of the East End are well known for over a century of political and economic struggle, their involvement in the debtors’ sanctuary of Southwark Mint has so far escaped attention.
The Mint was the longest lasting post-restoration debtors sanctuary, an enclave outside the jurisdictions of the City of London and Surrey County, within which debtors sought to avoid imprisonment through taking advantage of jurisdictional anomalies and by physically resisting the bailiffs.
Finally abolished in 1723, an amnesty was offered to those of its residents owing less than £50. The resulting lists of minters published in the London Gazette reveal that a very significant proportion of them were weavers, many of whom came from the areas east of the City’s walls.
Taken together with the four amnesties relieving imprisoned debtors between 1712 and 1729, it can also be shown that the weavers made up a much smaller proportion of the prison population at the time the Mint gave refuge.
This paper argues that the East End weavers were not only significant numerically, but that they brought an organizational practice to the Mint, based on their collective experience. It was their system of clubs that maintained the defence of the refuge over many years, and their customary humiliations of bailiffs that asserted the rights of the place.
Through this they gave substance to Thomas Baston’s claim that the Mint was a “Little Republick.”