The silk industry in Europe started in Italy followed by France. To protect the nascent English industry, Parliament passed protective laws in 1766 which continued until repealed in 1826. That repeal added to a depression in the home industry leading to ‘extreme distress’ and as a result, an 1832 Select Committee inquired into the causes.
They found that the quantity of raw (unthrown) silk imported into England rose from 544,000lbs (544k lbs) in 1787 to 3075k lbs in 1831. Roughly ⅓ of raw silk was imported from India, ⅓ from China and ⅓ from Italy. The amount of thrown silk imported during that period was fairly constant at between 300k lbs and 370k lbs.
However, it was the volume of imports from France following the 1826 repeal which was the principal cause of the distress. Within a year, the volume of imports to England had become 978k lbs, where it roughly remained until the time of the Select Committee. The data in the report suggests that rather than replacing English manufacture, there was actually an increase in demand. For example, total production of English cloth in 1826 was 4342k lbs, whereas production in 1832 was 4272k lbs; clearly not a significant decline.
However, the clothiers took the opportunity to reduce or rationalise or mechanise their production such that in Macclesfield, for example, in 1824 there were 276k spindles in use in the town and 10,229 people were employed, whereas in 1832, there were 117k spindles and 3622 people were employed. One can speculate that the spectre of the threat of imports from the ‘old enemy’, France, was a powerful way to drive change. In any event, there was a consequential increase in the country-wide amount paid in the Poor Rate and, of course, behind each recipient is a story of poverty and family break-up.
We are still researching the exact number of looms in Shepton, but the Select Committee includes a reference to the town: collectively, in ‘Taunton, Shepton Mallet and Dassell (Darshill), Devises, Reading, Haslemere and Hammerpond, Macclesfield, Kettering, Bullock Smithy and Leigh’, in 1825 there were 1450 looms and in 1831, 1185 looms, a reduction of 18%.
We know there was a pretty stable population in Shepton throughout the 19th century and, so, if there was in fact a reduction in employment here by 18% or thereabouts in the years 1825-31, many poor and desperate people and their families would have been forced either into the workhouse or face destitution.