Why Is Tailoring So Significant in the City of London’s History? | History Hit

Why Is Tailoring So Significant in the City of London’s History?

Dan Dodman

12 Aug 2020

Having just finished a set of articles on the history of the City, why am I starting a whole new series now while lock-down is lifting and I might actually be able to leave the house? The motivation came from a series of photographs I took through the windows of closed TM Lewin stores so I’ll explain.

Over the last weeks, I have very much enjoyed putting together five articles looking at how the City dealt with major crises in its history whilst wandering around the deserted streets of the Square Mile. It has been a delve into the past and one of my lifelong passions; the odd titbit that stretches across the centuries to bear us ceaselessly into the past.

But it struck me almost immediately that there is a whole series of stories that have not been told (and that are just as interesting – I promise).

Image Credit: Daniel Dodman.

Heavy industry in the City

My last historical jaunt really rammed home the varied, adaptable and unpredictable face of the City. We are often tempted to view the financial heartland of the capital as unmovable and always fixed – it suits us to do so; stability and confidence being the bedrock of our entire monetary system.

But it hasn’t always been fixed and, for most of its history, the entire built up area of London has sat within the city walls that make up the Square Mile. It was only in the late 1700s that buildings began to sprawl out of the Square Mile like a human ink blot.

So, what does this mean? Two things:

(1) the role that the City has adopted as the financial and legal centre of London is relatively new; and (2) up until late in it’s history, the Square Mile housed all of the normal business and life of the capital.

It was not set up as a series of offices that people commute to daily. Instead, it was a residential area, a location of heavy industry, a centre of distribution and a den of iniquity (Saffron Hill, where I used to live around the back of Hogan Lovells and next to the Bleeding Heart was the location of Fagin’s fictional hideout).

This article and those following it are going to explore some of these hidden industries that have been replaced by the steel and glass edifices across the skyline. Which brings me back to the sorry store fronts of TM Lewin across the City.

Image Credit: Daniel Dodman.

The company is an old client of mine and, although I haven’t worked for them in many years, I have always felt an affinity for them dating back to my trainee years where all-nighters would be followed by a trip to the local store to pick up a new shirt and tie. Walking past their shops two months ago I wondered how they could possibly survive the lock-down period and it is perhaps inevitable that they haven’t.

I am not convinced that their move into a solely internet business is viable given the saturation in the market but we will see and it would be a shame to see a business that opened in 1898 disappear entirely. Indeed, Mr Lewin himself has a prominent role in modern tailoring as the individual widely credited for the popularisation of button-up shirts (the previous, traditional, design being ones that were pulled over the head).

We now associate Savile Row and Jermyn Street as the centre of the tailoring industry in London but that’s actually a relatively new development. These were both originally residential streets, Isaac Newton lived at number 87 Jermyn Street and Thomas Wall (of ice cream fame but bizarrely a sausage maker before taking on the sweet stuff) was born in number 113.

Savile Row was no different with the Royal Geographical Society having its base here (Dr Livingstone lay in state there before being buried in Westminster Abbey). It was only in the 1850s that tailors began setting up shop in the once fashionable houses, Jermyn Street was even later coming at the turn of the century.

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Before this, tailoring lived in the City and it has always largely been associated with Spitalfields and the Huguenots. The Huguenots were French protestants who fled the country following the revocation by Louis XIV of the edicts of Nantes (which guaranteed them certain civil rights). Fearing persecution an estimated 400,000 fled across Europe with many ending up in England (originating the word “refugee” in the process).

25,000 Huguenots came to London (at a time when the city only had 600,000 inhabitants) and many started to work as silk weavers in the Spitalfields area. Their work was incredibly impressive with many examples still being kept in the museum of London.

It was also blisteringly expensive, the fabric alone of one particularly impressive dress, worn at a ball at the Mansion House, cost the equivalent of 16 years of a weaver’s typical pay.

Spitalfields still bears some of the hallmarks of the Huguenots’ arrival in London. Some of the grand early Georgian townhouses around the district were their houses. On Fournier Street, numbers 17 to 25 have enlarged attic windows to enable more light to better assist the weaving process.

The skylights in Fournier Street

Perhaps more importantly, the area also shows the signs of the religious tolerance that so marks British society. At the corner of Fournier Street at Brick Lane stands a building that was set up in 1743 as a Protestant chapel (La Neuve Eglise). In this non-conformist area of London, it survived as a Huguenot chapel for more than 60 years before becoming a Methodist chapel.

Image Credit: Daniel Dodman.

Its history didn’t stop then as, in the late 19th century it was converted into the Spitalfields Great Synagogue to support another wave of refugees, this time from Russia and Central Europe fleeing a series of pogroms.

As the Jewish community moved to other areas of London the building changed use one final time and was converted into a mosque in 1976 to reflect the increasing Bangladeshi community that was flourishing in the area. A neat reflection of the changing face of the City and a further reminder that not a great deal stays the same.

Brick Lane Jamme Masjid

So, although we will be missing TM Lewin from the streets of the City (I’m now a Harvie and Hudson man really) I feel certain that, as the tailoring industry has adapted over the years, so will the empty spaces left by this latest crisis.

Image Credit: Daniel Dodman.

Dan Dodman is a partner in Goodman Derrick’s commercial litigation team where he specialises in civil fraud and shareholder disputes. When not working, Dan has spent most of lockdown being taught about dinosaurs by his son and tinkering with his (growing) collection of film cameras.

Dan Dodman