BBC Film The Silken Thread

My History of Silk Macclesfield to China


A HISTORY OF SILK with robes from my Chinese Textile Collection by Jenny Lewis

This is a personal history of my experience with silk on my life’s journey taking me from my birthplace of Macclesfield England to Suzhou China,where I learned the the history of silk and the process’s of weaving and embellishing silk for my designer garments..

It is always a great thrill for me arriving at London’s Gatwick Airport in the early morning off a direct Cathay Pacific flight from Hong kong. I was in England because I had been invited by the BBC to appear in a series about people who live unusual lives. My episode was to be about my silk road journey.The smell of the crisp cold air and the red and golds of early autumn stirred my excitement and nervous anticipation as I quickly familiarized myself with the hired Vauxhall car.I love driving it’s the freedom of having one’s own world on wheels and the ability to stop and start where ever you desire that I find so releasing and enjoyable.Hong Kong is where your driven in more ways than one, it’s a city with major traffic problems that are anything but relaxing. Now I was driving to my birth place of Macclesfield in the heart of England driving to my past roots that began for me 40 years earlier, having left at four years old it would be my first returning visit It would take me around three hours driving time.

Silk woven picture of 108 steps and the Church of St Michaels & all Saints  in Maccelesfield

Silk woven picture of 108 steps and the Church of St Michael

Available from Macclesfield Silk Museum

When I arrived it was as if the church bells were ringing to welcome my home coming, perhaps too my guardian angels had let those angels who have charge over the town know I needed assistance in the detective work to find my roots & the silk road roots I planned to research.

The numerous churches of Macclesfield tell the history of the town for they are dotted around every third street. The 11th century Norman church of St. Michael & All Saints is one of my favorites located in the center of the town which is still paved with cobble stones.The beautiful church I would attend was The Holy Trinity in Hurdsfields. wonderfully lit at nigh standing high on the hill side over looking the town and the old silk mills.

As I drove into the town seeing all these churches and old mills the words of the old christian hymn I sang at Sunday school came back to my mind. ‘And was Jerusalem build-ed here, among these dark satanic mills’

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I had chosen a Sunday to arrive and all was very quiet and peaceful in comparison to Hong Kong it was rather like a Noddy town and within an hour I had driven in and around it and had decided it was quite the most perfect medieval town to be born in.

Noddy Town

Noddy Town

It had been an interesting reminder by the prompting of the research BBC team that my birth place Macclesfield’s history was all about silk, because my life’s career had also been about silk. I designed and wore almost nothing else and my passion for collecting silk robes of the Chinese Ching Dynasty court was well known by the museums and auction houses of the world who specialized and auctioned Chinese textiles. While I was in the U.K. I intended to do some major research of the history of British Silk & especially Macclesfield’s silk production before I returned to Hong Kong.

The next two days were spent walking around Macclesfield making the BBC film & working on the commentary in the Silk Museum which building was once the first Sunday School in England.It was built because over 2000 children were working from the age of 7 in the silk industry all week.On their one day off if they were fortunate to have a place at the school they could learn the basics of reading writing & religion.

As I researched the early history of the British silk industry I discovered that the industry had been greatly boosted by talented people from other countries who were had been forced to leave their own countries because of power struggles and manipulation over religious beliefs which had caused terrible religious persecutions.

The persecuted were the Protestants who were driven from the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century and from France in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The reasons were the massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572 which brought the Huguenots from the silk producing regions of southern France. The british government allowed these refugees the safety of England.

The greatest number fifty thousand who were some of the most talented silk weavers came following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This edict had been a compromise allowing the Huguenots (calvinist protestants) religious freedom and political control of certain parts of the country. While Roman Catholicism remained the official religion of the country. Most of the protestants who left France in this period were professional craftsmen, France lost thousands of its most intelligent and hard working citizens as a result of this act.

The british government in 1572 had the foresight to open the doors of England to thousands of intelligent hard working French citizens, but in 1997 refused the intelligent hard working people of Hong Kong who were already British citizens!

The great part of Hong Kong’s commercial success was built on the backs of Shanghai’s professional skilled textile manufacturers who left Shanghai before the birth of communist China in 1949.
The weaving of Macclesfield’s Silk.

The earliest British centers of the silk industry were Spitafields Norwich and Canterbury. Silk had been worked in these places on a small scale since the middle ages but the trade took off with the many arts these new comers brought introducing new dyeing technology, throwing silk and figured weaving it was now possible to make rich brocades watered tabbies and black velvets.

By 1713 the output of the industry was twenty times greater than it had been in 1664. Using Italian technology when Thomas Lombert constructed a water powered throwing mill in 1721 it was another major boost to the silk industry and the next powered throwing mill was built in macclesfield in 1743.

In the same year he married the daughter of Samuel Lankford a prominent Macclesfield silk merchant gaining a business partner as well as a wife. The inherent vulnerability of the silk industry to outside interference and the effects of national and international politics was not understood in those days and within a short time of Roes mill being erected 12 other silk mills were established in macclesfield.

The thrown silk was mainly sent to Spitafields where weaving was successful until the end of the French wars in 1765. Manufactures began to get their silk woven outside Spitafields seeking the cheapest labour choosing Macclesfield and nearby Congleton to supply them.

These were speculative low cost ventures Most buildings were nothing more than brick boxes designed to house the workers and the machinery. Park Green Mill was an outstanding exception to the rule built in 1785 by John Ryle and Michael Daintry.

In 1765 Macclesfieldwith over 3500 silk workers was enjoying the exceptionally prosperous phase ever the history of England’s silk industry. Two years later the end of the seven years war with France brought these days to an abrupt end. Renowned foreign competition resulted in a severe depression in the silk industry. Events outside local control would always exert considerable influence on the vulnerable luxury fashion trade.

The government did respond to their petitions by erecting barriers imposing a total ban on manufactured silk imports and high duties on foreign thrown silk remaining in force until 1826. During this time many new amenities were built in Macclesfield the public library, the play house and in the same year 1770 Mr Charles Roe (the mill builder) instigated and paid for a new Christ Church.
The silk Museum..Macclesfield ,England’s one & only.
The towns first bank opened in 1787 and the non denominational Sunday school by the founder John Whittaker in 1796 the first in England and it is now the first and only silk museum in England.

The depression of 1826 was the result of the lifting of the prohibition of imported silk and replacing it with a 30% duty between 1826 ad 1832 forty silk firms failed in Macclesfield and over 8000 were thrown out of work.

Thousands were close to starvation. Emigration was encouraged by the government who wanted emigrants to establish settlement in the colonies which could then provide Britain with raw materials life overseas was seen as an alternative to the fluctuation of the silk industry.

A witness to the select committee on the silk trade in 1832 stated that transportation the punishment for a number of crimes was seen by some as being preferable to a life dependent on poor relief

Many of the attractions of emigration to Australia were advertised in the local Macclesfield newspaper. An advert that may of been seen by 25 year old William Woods, perhaps decided him emigrate to Australia to avoid a future which could mean living for at least part of the year on poor relief, although he was working for the largest silk mill in Macclesfield owned by the Brockehurst family the Albert mill in Hurdsfield. His diary tells of the terrible conditions he and his wife Sarah endured on the ship.

Friday 29th October 1852 (2 weeks at sea)

‘’Sarah is somewhat better but still she cannot retain any food upon her stomach she is most defeated poor girl fancying she will never be well, I cannot be surprised for I would scarcely risk another such journey for all the gold of Australia’’.

Thursday 4th Nov.

Our water is worse today than it has ever been as yet. It always smells and is bad tasting but this morning it was indeed foil. It generally signifies but little whether or not the water smells for our thirst is so great that we drink it most greedily

Silk in America

In June 1863 a Macclesfield silk weavers fund was set up for the needy to emigrate some went to Paterson New Jersey America where a silk mill had been set up by a Macclesfield silk owner John Ryle. He & his brother had bought out a silk business in 1846 and set up weaving dress silks.Now with the introduction of the dyeing trade silk became an important industry of the town. The tariff act of 1861 gave protection on to american silk allowing the town to develop as the centre of the american silk industry by the 1870’s it had become the centre of a well protected expanding silk industry.

As a result of Free trade with France the English industry had declined and little silk was imported into america. Machinery formerly in operation in Macclesfield was taken to operate the Paterson mills. By the late 1880’s 90% were from Macclesfield who had emigrated to Paterson.

The silk production industry as a whole survived the political difficulties of 1826 and 1845. Spitafields and Norwich suffered the most while the northwest silk towns survived and overcame.Even reaching new peaks in the 1850’s over 7,000,000 pounds of raw silk were imported.

Silk From China

It is also extremely interesting to find out where those seven million pounds of raw silk were coming from and with what they were purchased.

British and Scottish businessmen traded opium for silk with China.Opium was monetarily at this time the largest single trade commodity in the world and during the 18th century silk was the main trading product of the world.

In the late 1830’s opium sales to China had reached a crisis point for the chinese people & the Emperors son had died of his addiction to Opium & The last Emperors wife also died from her Opium addiction.


Lin Tse-hsü

Lin Tse-hsü

The Chinese official the Imperial Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu was put in charge of suppressing the opium trade he was based in Canton where the trading was done, Lin Tse-hse was the first Chinese official to advocate learning about the west. I have read a lot from both sides about his handling of the situation & realize that the diplomatic handling of the situation from both parties was handled very badly.Women who value lives more & having experienced the up bringing of children,which I believe makes them more insightful and a fairer diplomatic negotiator.It also takes integrity which is living out ones ethics without wavering.I believe China has many such women diplomats as good as our Margaret Thatcher whom the chinese admired so much.

Lin Tse-hsü [Zexu] was born on Aug. 30, 1785, in Fukien. In 1811 he received the chin-shih (the highest academic degree) and became a member of the Hanlin Academy. As an official in the provinces, beginning in 1820, he gained a reputation for his sincerity and dedication. Between 1820 and 1850, in any crisis situation involving flood control, sea transportation, the salt administration, or military affairs.

While in Canton, Lin collected every scrap of information he could about the West – mainly from Western periodicals which he had translated into Chinese. This material was later compiled under the title Gazetteer of the Four Continents and was the first book to provide the Chinese with any reasonably reliable information about the West. In Canton, Lin used a “get-tough” policy to bring the trade to a halt and force the foreign traders to surrender their existing supplies of opium.
A total of 2, 613, 879 pounds of opium, worth about $9 million, was turned over to Lin, which he promptly destroyed. In an attempt to persuade the British to stop producing opium in India, Lin also wrote his famous letter to Queen Victoria in which he admonished her, on moral grounds, to stop the practice.

opium ships

opium ships

Here is an extract from the letter.But It is doubted that Queen Victoria was ever given it to read
The Letter
Lin Tse-hsü’s letter interpreted by Ssuyu Teng and John Fairbank, China’s Response to the West

‘’We have further learned that in London, the capital of your honorable rule, and in Scotland,Ireland, and other places, originally no opium has been produced.
Only in several places of India under your control such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Patna, Benares, and Malwa has opium been planted from hill to hill, and ponds have been opened for its manufacture.
For months and years work is continued in order to accumulate the poison. The obnoxious odor ascends, irritating heaven and frightening the spirits.

Indeed you, O King, can eradicate the opium plant in these places, hoe over the fields entirely, and sow in its stead the five grains [millet, barley, wheat, etc.]. Anyone who dares again attempt to plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. This will really be a great, benevolent government policy that will increase the common wealth and get rid of evil. For this, Heaven must support you and the spirits must bring you good fortune, prolonging your old age and extending your descendants. All will depend on this act’’.

Painting of Lin supervising the destruction of Opium

Painting of Lin supervising the destruction of Opium

‘’Now we have set up regulations governing the Chinese people. He who sells opium shall receive the death penalty and he who smokes it also the death penalty. Now consider this: if the barbarians do not bring opium, then how can the Chinese people resell it, and how can they smoke it? The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? He who takes the life of even one person still has to atone for it with his own life; yet is the harm done by opium limited to the taking of one life only?

Therefore in the new regulations, in regard to those barbarians who bring opium to China, the penalty is fixed at decapitation or strangulation. This is what is called getting rid a harmful thing on behalf of mankind;’’

‘’before they come to China, in order to guarantee the peace of your nation, to show further the sincerity of your politeness and submissiveness, and to let the two countries enjoy together the blessings of peace How fortunate, how fortunate indeed!

After receiving this dispatch will you immediately give us a prompt reply regarding the details and circumstances of your cutting off the opium traffic. be sure not to put this off. The above is what has to be communicated’’.

Nemesis destroying Chinese junks 1841

Nemesis destroying Chinese junks 1841

He received no reply & In 1839 he tried to make a strong stand against the British to protect his people & stop the opium trade.He had no knowledge of the might of the British Empire.These opium trading businessman however stirred the British government into action to protect their poppy grown investments.

Opium for silk

William Jardine born in 1784 was the greatest Opium runner in history. He amassed a great wealth and helped found the settlement of Hong Kong, after the British naval fleet & the British military defeated the Chinese in this Opium War [1839-1842] and then demanded settlement for the cost of the battle which was the ceding of Hong Kong Island to the British in 1843 to continue trading without any interference from China’s laws. The war marked the end of China’s isolation and the Chinese were forced to trade with the west this was the beginning of modern China.

British Hong Kong 1843 – 1997

The British returned Hong Kong to China at the end of the agreement in 1997.When a great many of the British who had lived there for a great many years left, including myself, but not the talented hard working Chinese British citizens. Shanghai re-gained a wealth of talented people including my son, who now tells me Shanghai is the only commercial city to be open to and active with new trading ideas..

Back to England in 1860 another really disastrous treaty caused many silk mill closures and their workers to emigrate to Australia. The imports of raw silk slowly declined to only 800,000 pounds in 1924. In 1925 the government imposed duties which saw the rise of the silk throwing again. Then as a result of the demand for silk stockings raw silk imports rose to 5,000,000 pounds in 1938.

By the 1930’s Macclesfield had become England’s chief centre of silk power loom weaving. At the outbreak of war in 1939 all available silk was requisitioned by the ministry of supply for parachutes a parachute required 67 square yards.

Macclesfield’s silk parachutes.In 1945 my mother Betty who was pregnant with me was working on these silk parachutes in a silk factory in Macclesfield while her husband was away involved with world war II.

More on Silk See Film Below…

Written and Presented by Dr. Kevin-John McIntyre

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