Whichever way I try and say it, it just sounds plain geeky – so here goes (deep breath!): over the past few months I’ve been ‘collecting’ Acts of Parliament, but not any sort of Act, just those that relate to the textile trade up to and including the 19th century.
If you’ve not clicked off the page yet, bravo – and here’s a quick rattle through some of the reasons why I’m finding them quite so intriguing… Ever wondered how wearing a kilt could have landed you in prison (or even get you transported)? That would be the Dress Act from 1746 (penalising Highlanders following the Jacobite Risings). Did you know you could have been fined for wearing purple? See the Sumptuary Laws of the High Middle Ages? Know that men and boys needed to wear a woolly hat to church on Sundays and holidays, 1571-1597? That’d be ‘Cap Money’. Realise by 1566 that getting caught smuggling wool out of Britain could result in having a hand chopped off? See the much-amended statute of Edward III’s much-earlier reign. Moving nearer to our own times and there was the 1799 Combination Act – which made it a criminal offence to band together to try for better hours or wages – and the raft of 19th century Factory Acts of course.
The more Acts that I gather, I begin to see just how clearly they tell the history of the textile trade and industry in Britain and reflect the views of the wider society (or the ruling elite at any rate) too – sometimes dictatorial laws aiming solely to shore up the king’s finances or protect the interests of the business elite, while at other times supporting the craftsmen, and later aiming to improve the lot of the factory employees.
Now that I’m beginning to grasp quite how diverse the textile-related Acts are, I’m going to be a bit more methodical and make a thorough search and study to try to track down every last one. But, as it states on the Parliament ‘Industry and Community‘ web material relating to textile manufacture: ‘In 18th century Britain, textiles were the largest single economic interest after grain’. So I guess my collection of textile Acts is going to get pretty extensive. Anyway, here’s what I’ve found so far, in addition to the ones mentioned above: Navigation Acts 1699, Buried in Wool Act 1678?, British Weights and Measures Act 1824, Weavers Acts 1555 and other 16th century dates, Calico Acts 1690 to 1721, Wool Act 1699, Factory Acts 1802 to 1850, Statue of Apprentices 1563, and the 1736 Manchester Act.
Then, once I’ve found all the Acts, I’d also like to look at what each prescribed and then to discover the forfeits – just how serious was it for our ancestors when they broke these rules and regulations?