Streatham's French Connection at the Streatham Silk Mill

Two hundred years ago saw the end of the Napoleonic wars with the battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815. The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire led by Emperor Napoleon I against an array of European powers formed into various coalitions. However a Streatham resident, Stephen Wilson was running his own campaign with France. His was not a military conflict but an industrial drive to bring from France the newly invented (Jacquard) silk weaving loom to Gt Britain. The jacquard loom was a millstone step in silk weaving technology. Stephen Wilson was a Spitalfields silkman who moved to Streatham to establish his business outside of London’s regulations.

The wage rates of the Spitalfield's silk weaving industry were fixed by the local magistrates following negotiations between the masters and the weavers. The larger firms, like that of Stephen Wilson, put out most of their work to independent weavers who worked on hand looms in small workshops or garrets.

Stephen Wilson, however, was a driving force who wished to see the industry modernised and mechanised. Thus, in Stephen Wilson, we have a shrewd manufacturer looking for a reform of the London silk weaving industry along free trade lines.

In 1801, the new Jacquard loom was exhibited at the National Exhibition in Paris. The invention of this loom was a step in weaving technology, which greatly decreased the time required for weaving complicated patterns. The Jacquard mechanism, which was mounted above the loom, consisted of a series of linked punched cards which advanced with each movement of the loom, thus setting the next pattern. The Jacquard loom also did away with the need for the weaver's assistant, the drawboy. It has been estimated that, after 1806, when the Jacquard loom was declared public property in France, there were already 11,000 looms in use there.

Stephen Wilson had been aware of the potential of the French Jacquard looms from about 1810 and possibly earlier. He travelled in France in 1803, and was held under house arrest in Fontainebleau. After his transfer to Verdun his wife Sarah petioned Napoleon 1 for his release which finally took place in 1807. From 1810 to 1820, he was engaged in finding a Jacquard loom for his business.

Stephen's attempts to introduce the Jacquard loom into his company are seen in a letter sent to him, in August 1820, from Paris, by a Thomas Smith. The letter has all the appearance of being from an industrial spy. Smith described his visit to one of the largest manufactories in the environs of Paris and his examination of "the machine". He described the technology of "the machine" and concluded by saying, "I have also obtained a Hook as you desired - and also a small bit of the Paste-board to show its texture"

Certainly Stephen possessed a Jacquard loom by July 1821, when he was granted a patent for its improvement under the title, "Pattern Machines and Looms for Weaving Figured Fabrics". It is therefore reasonable to suggest that he introduced the machine into this country.

In 1823, Wilson reported, to a House of Lord's Select Committee on the Silk Manufacturers' Bill, that, "I have now in my possession a French ribbon loom .... and a man came over to this country to set it to work for me.

In 1815, Stephen Wilson was living in Streatham in Surrey. It can be suggested that, having acquired a Jacquard loom about 1820, or just before this date, Wilson decided on a bold plan. He erected a new factory, in 1820, across the road from his house in Streatham. He installed the new looms in his possession there, which could be operated by the less expensive workforce in Surrey and, to some degree, were away from the watchful eyes of his competitors. Stephen understood the requirements for the new loom. It required extra height between the floors, as is present in the purpose built Streatham mill, to accommodate the Jacquard mechanism mounted above the loom.

Finally Pierre Marie August Rougier is listed in the Streatham 1831 census and we know from later records he was a Jacquard machine maker. He is described in detail in the 1851(Spitafields) census as a 59 year old having been born in Lyons, France. It can be deduced that he married a local girl who records her birth place as Croydon (1851census) or Streatham (1871census). Their youngest daughter, Louisa Ann Rougier, was born in 1831 in Streatham. In 1833 their son Henry was born in Bethnal Green so it appears that Pierre and his family left Streatham about this time. Pierre died in 1852 and is again recorded on his death certificate as a Jacquard machine maker. Pierre’s birthplace, Lyons, was the town in France in which a William Hale had informed Stephen Wilson as having seen the Jacquard loom.

Thus, there is very good evidence to suggest that the silk mill at Streatham, now Sainsbury, Streatham Common, is the site of the first attempt to industrialise the silk weaving industry of Great Britain and that Streatham was the site where the innovative Jacquard loom was first used successfully. We have also an extremely rare building of its type, in a unique location, representing the first and only silk factory in the London area.

In Stephen Wilson we have a successful businessman, a dedicated citizen and a technical innovator for whom the preservation of the mill is a worthy memorial.

A fuller history of Silk Weaving in Streatham is in the booklet “From Silk Mill to Superstore” by Brian Bloice: £2.60 (including postage) from the Streatham Society

Photo of Streatham Common Sainsburys cafe, the modern site of the Streatham Silk Mill