Ribbon has long been regarded as one of the oldest of decorative materials. During the Middle Ages merchants travelled throughout Europe trading ribbons of silk and other expensive fabrics from the East. Geoffrey Chaucer mentions ‘ribbands’ in the Canterbury Tales. Originally only the well-to-do could afford such a luxury item but by the 1800’s ribbons caught on in the fashion world and were popular among poorer folk and women’s clothing and accessories were profusely decorated with ribbons.
During the early nineteenth century much of the production of ribbons was centred in North Warwickshire and particularly in the city of Coventry. It has been estimated that this quite small area housed thirteen thousand looms and provided employment for more than thirty thousand weavers. Half the population of Coventry were engaged in ribbon weaving, much of the production being carried out as a cottage industry; a system known as ‘Homework’. A prohibition on the import of ribbons had led to a great degree of complacency and resistance to modernisation within the weaving industry but the Industrial Revolution was to change that. Coventry’s first steam powered looms appeared in Josiah Beck’s factory which was burnt down in 1832 by an angry mob but a worse fate than industrialisation would soon befall the weavers and their families. In 1860 a piece of legislation known as the Cobden Treaty was enacted and this removed the tariff on imported ribbons which had sustained the local industry for decades. The result of this for the Coventry weavers was nothing short of catastrophic. Many weaving firms were bankrupted and tens of thousands of weavers and their families were left destitute without any means of earning a living. Local newspapers including the Leamington Courier devoted many column inches to the fate of the unfortunate weavers and to their relief. Local and national relief funds were set up with Lord Leigh the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire the prime mover.
In 1861, in the year when four thousand people left Coventry to emigrate, the aristocratic ladies of Leamington came up with a rather novel way of supporting the impoverished weavers. The Illustrated London News of 12 January 1861 carried a wonderful woodcut engraving of Lady Somerville and Lady Aylesford over the caption “Coventry Ribbon Quadrilles at the Warneford Hospital Ball, Leamington”. The full-page article accompanying the engraving explains how the local ‘ladies of high rank’ would support the Coventry ribbon business by henceforth decorating their voluminous ball gowns with different colours of Coventry ribbon. They rather hoped the idea would catch on but the article concludes with this injunction to the well-intentioned “Ladies must of course rely much, if not wholly, on the honesty of their silk mercer, or milliner in this matter, as without an intimate knowledge of ribbon manufacture, they cannot perceive the difference between Coventry and French ribbon.”
I wonder how many of them established the provenance of their ribbons?” It was in any event an astute piece of public relations by the local aristocracy which ensured that they got their pictures in the august pages of the Illustrated London News.
Alan Griffin, February 2105