A ravelled skein : the silk industry in south west Hertfordshire 1790-1890
Cotton and wool have long dominated studies of the English textile industries, relegating silk manufacture to no more than a minor role in the British economy. Regional studies have likewise tended to concentrate upon areas dominated by a single feature or single industry. This thesis aims to address the economic and social impact of a silk industry established in the predominantly rural area of South West Hertfordshire. Here the indigenous population had other opportunities for employment, agricultural labour of various kinds forming the greatest occupational group. The straw plait absorbed female and child labour in the districts of Berkhamsted and St Albans, in direct competition to the silk mills, while the rag factories supplying the paper industry offered competition to the silk mills of Watford and Rickmansworth. Any industry dependent upon imports is especially vulnerable to external pressure, and an overview of the national situation regarding the silk industry in England, and of the particular problems besetting manufacturers during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is therefore essential to an understanding of the situation in the rural semi-industrial districts. The chapters of this thesis therefore follow the story of silk production from the wider context of the national industry to the specific mills of Hertfordshire, asking first, why the establishment of an English silk industry was so important. Themes explored in later chapters are already discernible in the early history of the silk industry: the high involvement of women; the apprenticeshipo f children; the interventionist role of government; and the problem of the poor. The extent to which these factors impinged upon the relationship between master, worker, and the local district, and ultimately upon the viability of the Hertfordshire mills, form the central core of this study.