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Silk workers and silk wearers

Messrs Brown & Moy (also known locally as Ipswich Silk Factory) was a large silk-winding factory in Woodbridge Road, one of several subsidiaries of their main factory in Colchester.  The business was operational between the 1840s and early 1880s.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the industry had spread from Spitalfields to country areas such as Suffolk and north Essex where wages were lower and the local workforce was deemed more biddable. At this time, the English silk industry prospered but, as the British market gradually became flooded with cheaper silk goods from overseas, prices fell and the industry went from boom to bust.  Who would be surprised to learn that, at the height of its commercial success, the Ipswich workers lived in abject poverty, while the factory owners enjoyed bumper profits?


Raw silk was imported into Great Britain, mostly from China.  At the Ipswich Silk Factory, skeins would be washed, graded and unknotted.  The silk was then wound onto bobbins, spun and twisted, ready to be sent by train to weaving towns such as Coventry to be made up into ribbons, parasols and fabrics for dress making. 






Silk workers

Even in the early days, Ipswich Silk Factory employed over 500 hands, many of them girls and young unmarried women, traditionally paid very low wages.  In 1846, most of shop-floor workers in the Ipswich factory went on strike for higher wages. It seems that the strike was unsuccessful. Sample weekly pay packets for the main Colchester factory for the 1840s are: male parasol silk weavers 9s 9d; women 5s 3d; and boys 4s 6d, with deductions for the loom (9d), lighting and other necessaries.  These figures are taken from an article about the Colchester factory (cited below) which does not give amounts for Ipswich, nor for young girls.  These meagre sums seem princely, though, compared with what nine-year old Salome Last was said to be earning in the early 1870s in Ipswich - 2s 2d for a full-time week, or 1s for part-time.


In the 1861 census, eighteen year old Charlotte Kettle (later Alderton) is listed as a silk winder of New Street, St Clement's parish.  Her job was to wind silk from cocoons onto bobbins. In neighbouring houses in the same street, there were three other girls (aged 12, 13 and 14) listed as silk winders; and so on, across this economically deprived parish.  (Thanks to John Alderton for this photo of his great-grandmother)






Children were favoured employees at the factory not just because they were cheap.  They tended to be physically dexterous which was useful for getting under the machines and repairing threads. Ipswich’s Ragged Schools, about half a mile away, were an important source of labour, with children both working at the factory and taking lessons at the school when they could.

Poor working conditions persisted throughout the life of Brown & Moy’s business, despite the owners being prosecuted under the Factory Acts on many occasions.  Machinery was often unsafe, shifts were long (sometimes illegally so),  and working conditions generally insalubrious. Particularly shocking, not to say illegal, were the early starts expected of the young children.  In 1859, the Suffolk Chronicle & Mercury printed a letter from a concerned businessman:

 ‘Going to my employment at 6.00 in the morning, I frequently meet little girls; and the other morning I accosted a group of three of these very poorly clad children.

-Where are you going this early?

To the Silk Factory, sir.

-How many of you are there employed there?

Above a hundred, sir.

-Can you gain admittance so soon as this?

We can get in at half past five, sir.

‘…  and a working man of my acquaintance tells me he frequently meets ‘little mites, scarce big enough to crawl along’ at 5.00 in the morning, they being under the impression that ‘steam’ is up [and they must start work]’  (‘Amicus’, Foundation St, Nov 24, 1859)

As late as 1871, the company was prosecuted by the Factory Inspector for employing young Salome Last of Bridewell Yard (off Cox Lane) – mentioned earlier - who was only nine years of age.  It had been illegal for nearly forty years to employ anyone as young as this and so it was no defence when her father said that she loved the job.

The Ipswich Journal, over the years, liked to comment about how badly behaved the girls were coming in and out of work.  They were depicted as a rowdy, swearing rabble  - and they were probably pretty unruly, just as a group of unsupervised children can be. In the late 1860s, a police constable would stand on duty near the factory in the mornings until the girls were in work 'to prevent flowers from being stolen' from neighbouring gardens.

On a happier note, sometimes the workers were treated to a day at the seaside.  The Ipswich Journal gave a full and fulsome account of such an outing in the summer of 1872 under the headline 'The Silk Worker’s Holiday':

‘Had anyone been passing along the Woodbridge Road at the usual hour for commencing work on Saturday morning last, he or she would have noticed that something unusual was about to take place. Flags decorated the entrance to the Silk Factory. Instead of the accustomed buzz of machinery, the girls would have been seen mustering near the gate, and as the clock veered towards half-past seven, a procession of the numerous hands [set off] towards the Railway Station. ...

‘It was the generous intention of the proprietor to give the children and girls employed in the Ipswich Silk Factory, together with those employed at the Colchester and Coggeshall branches, a thorough treat at Walton-on-the-Naze ... . At about eight o'clock a special train took the party, numbering about 300, from the Ipswich Station. At Colchester they were met by the Coggeshall and Colchester contingent, and the whole stall, approximating 1,000 persons, including the Ipswich Gas Works band and the band of the Essex Rifles Militia, journeyed towards Walton. The day was essentially fine, and was almost the last day which we could say belonged exclusively to Summer. ...

 ‘The Ipswich division was easily recognisable. Its distinctive mark was the Dolly Varden hat. These were trimmed in various manners, but were all finished with long blue streamers. There must surely be some pre-concerted arrangement in this. "How is it the Ipswich party has Dolly Varden hats and blue streamers?” A modest reply from one of the girls was elicited, “Mrs Gooding of Tacket Street made all the hats, and trimmed them as we wished. Mr. Brown made the arrangement; he also made us a present of the blue streamers.'

Once at Walton, girls found that the Pier had been reserved for their use only.  They could dance to the bands, walk on the beach, go out in a rowing boat or watch ‘a celebrated comic singer imported from Ipswich’.  Of course, the self-righteous Ipswich Journal had to comment on the girls' conduct again - but this time it was to say how surprisingly well-behaved they were on this occasion.

Such fun and frolics, however, did not usher in a new era of model employment practices.  Poor working conditions and low pay continued.  Eventually, economic recession and the lifting of restrictions on foreign imports meant that, in Ipswich as elsewhere, the silk industry went into a long decline.  The Ipswich factory was closed by the 1880s.

Silk wearers

This drawing (right) shows what was considered the height of fashion in 1859.  The woman on the right is wearing a crinolined silk dress with tight sleeves ornamented with plissé (fabric treated to give a permanent crinkled effect).  The model on the left is also wearing a crinolined dress, but made of popeline, a light silk and worsted mix.  Fashionable colours for silk dresses that year were Imperial lilac, mauve, 'cigar' and 'a bluish-green so very trying to the complexion'.  (Ipswich Advertiser, June 1859)

In the late 1850s,Tavern Street was a prime place for fashion-conscious middle-class Ipswich women to go shopping for new dress silks. Draperies such as Frederick Fish, R.H. Chilton and J.H Gatrell had showrooms of silk textiles and accessories and eye-catching displays of the latest designs.  Just across the Cornhill in Waterloo House, Footman, Pretty & Nicolson opened their first women's fashions department in 1858.

Sources include
Silk in Colchester: Lexden History Group (
Local newspapers