Working from Home: England’s Domestic Textile Industry

Working from home is now a fact of life for many of us. It’s also something our ancestors were familiar with.

In the 1950s, the historian J. M. Prest photographed houses used for domestic textile production. This ‘cottage industry’ survived long after the industrial revolution transformed the working lives of most people. 

Read on to explore the story of these industries, the buildings that housed them and the people who worked within them – with a focus on Hillfields, a suburb at the heart of Coventry’s ribbon weaving industry.

Topshops

A ‘topshop’ with women sewing © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP00901

In 1828, Hillfields was established as Coventry’s first suburb. It expanded rapidly during the 19th-century, becoming a hub of industry. Many of its residents earned their living from silk ribbon weaving.

Despite the widespread adoption of the factory system elsewhere, the houses in Hillfields were built for both living and working. They contained ‘topshops’ on their upper floors.

Looms filled these spaces, flooded by light from large, weavers’ windows.

This photograph shows the distinctive weavers’ windows at 27-28 Queen Street. The ‘topshops’ are identifiable by an arcade of windows quite out of character with the dwellings beneath. The houses in Queen Street, along with many others in Hillfields, were demolished in the 1970s. Image © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP00960

Similar houses were found all over the country, including Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire and London.

Cottage factories

The cottage factory of John & Joseph Cash at Kingfield’s in Coventry, approximately half a mile north-east of Hillfields (now Grade II listed). Image © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP00951

Construction of weavers’ cottages in Coventry continued up until the 1860s.

Almost 100 years after the industrial revolution, homeworking was still the norm. Here, a middle ground developed between cottage industry and conventional factory. ‘Cottage factories’ operated within Hillfield’s dwellings – their looms powered by steam.

2 Berry Street, Hillfields, Coventry, showing the drive shaft of the communal steam engine entering the top floor workshop of one of Eli Green’s houses in Berry Street (since demolished) © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP00964

One of the most famous of these cottage factories belonged to Eli Green. It included 67 houses clustered around Vernon Street, Berry Street and Brook Street, all powered from a central steam engine.

The weavers paid rent for their dwelling, workshop and the power for their looms. In return, they received payment for the ribbons they produced.

The suburb of Hillfields viewed from the north east, showing rows of weavers’ houses in 1939 © Historic England Archive. Ref: EPW061101

Decline of the weavers

In 1860, shortly after the construction of Brook Street Eli Green’s cottage factory, Britain signed the Cobden Treaty with France.

The treaty allowed free trade between the two nations. As a result, French silk ribbons flooded the English market, hitting Coventry’s silk weavers hard.

With each passing year the proportion of weavers declined and by 1881 they formed a minority of Brook Street’s inhabitants. More and more of Hillfield’s workers turned to the traditional trade of watchmaking or the newly established bicycle factories.

Miss L Arlidge With Bicycle in 1900 © Historic England Archive. Ref: AA97/05581

In the latter half of the 19th-century, cycling became increasingly popular. The Coventry Machinists Company, founded in 1863, began life as a sewing machine manufacturer.

Within a few years, it was also mass-producing bicycles and by the 1890s Coventry had the largest bicycle industry in the world employing around 4000 of the city’s inhabitants.

Lost and Listed

Many of the buildings which housed domestic workshops have been lost. Others have been altered or adapted for other uses.

A few have been recognised as significant elements of our national heritage, listed to protect and preserve them for future generations.  

Lost: Castle Terrace, Nottingham

Castle Terrace, Nottingham in 1955 © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP00946

Nestled beneath Nottingham Castle, the houses in Castle Terrace were originally home to framework knitters who worked in Nottingham’s hosiery trade.

In the early 1800s, Nottinghamshire saw a movement from stocking manufacture to lace. Castle Terrace reflected this trend. Just a handful of framework knitters were still plying their trade from its houses in 1841. By 1851 only Robert Derrick remained – aged 66 and described in the census return as a pauper.

Demolition had already begun by the time Prest visited in 1955.

Lost: Seabright Street, Bethnal Green, London

Seabright Street, Bethnal Green, London in 1956 © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP01081

Silk weaving became established in Bethnal Green in the 17th-century.

Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in France, settled in the East End of London bringing with them the skills with which to create beautiful silk fabrics. 

This part of Bethnal Green was heavily bombed during the Second World War. Post-war redevelopment led to the loss of many of the area’s weavers’ houses – including those on Seabright Street.

Fittingly, Weavers’ Field Park now occupies the site. The name commemorates Bethnal Green’s historic silk industry.

Listed: 22-24 Newtown, Trowbridge

22-24 Newtown, Trowbridge, Wiltshire in 1954 © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP01050

The woollen trade became established in Trowbridge during the medieval period.

By the late 18th century the spinning of woollen yarn had been industrialised. The weaving process proved harder to mechanise and as a result handloom weaving continued into the 19th century.

Many of Newtown’s weavers’ houses are now listed

Listed: 17 Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, London

17 Wilkes Street, Spitalfields, London © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP01073

Spitalfields developed as a centre of silk weaving from the late 17th century driven by the arrival of Huguenot weavers from France.

In the early 18th-century, Wilkes Street was home to merchants and master silk weavers. During the latter half of the century, its social status began to dwindle. Its middle-class inhabitants abandoned the once fashionable street.

Journeymen weavers moved into the homes vacated by their former bosses. The houses became workshops or were divided into multiple dwellings. In the 19th-century, the decline continued.

View looking south along Wilkes Street from Hanbury Street in 1956 © Historic England Archive. Ref: OP01083

In the 21st-century, Wilkes Street’s fortunes have gone full circle.

Its Georgian houses are once again desirable – home to the middle classes along with those who work in the creative industries. Actors Jonathan Price, Keira Knightley and Samantha Morton all own, or have owned, homes in Wilkes Street.

The recent return to home working mirrors, in part, the street’s 19th-century history, though it is no longer a hub of silk weaving.

Explore more of the J M Prest Collection

Further reading:

2 responses to Working from Home: England’s Domestic Textile Industry

  1. artculturetourism says:

    Fascinating! So glad you mentioned Nottingham streets! My grandmother, then Lily Thompson, worked for Birkins at Broadway Nottingham and Mrs Birkin looked after our Lily (a clerk) donating her dresses and hats that she could keep or sell on to make some money. Lily LOVED the hats so she kept them and would walk grandly down the avenues! My grandfather Fred Nelson and uncle Alan Nelson also worked all their lives in Nottingham’s textile industry. Though Uncle Alan was sadly killed in his Spitfire while training in 1941, aged 26.. Such family heritage memories and social history. Thank you!

    • Historic England says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, we’re so pleased you enjoyed this blog.

Leave a Reply