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Immigrants and the Industries of London, 1500-1700

Author(s):Luu, Lien Bich
Reviewer(s):Wallis, Patrick

Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Lien Bich Luu, Immigrants and the Industries of London, 1500-1700. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005. xiii + 366 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-0330-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Patrick Wallis, London School of Economics.

The aim of Lien Bich Luu’s study is to examine immigrants’ impact on the economy of early modern London. Taking as her starting point the standard problem of how a relatively backward country caught up with the more advanced industries of mainland Europe, Luu focuses on the transmission of skills via migration into London in the second half of the sixteenth century (there is relatively little here about the period after 1610).

The first half of the book is a solid survey of the literature on migration and early modern London. Luu begins by building a checklist of the economic effects of migrants. The end point is largely unsurprising — essentially, local context and demand matter. A supply of skilled migrants is not enough to ensure skills are transferred. One neglected point that she highlights is that many migrants move occupation when they move country.

The primary context for her story, the dramatic expansion of London, is set out in chapter two. The third chapter discusses the English crown’s varied and largely unsuccessful attempts to import skilled craftsmen to create new industries. Much more significant was the state’s not always graceful acceptance of mass religious migration. The communities where these migrants settled often became centers of textile production. These were often relatively short booms, however. Many migrants left soon after they arrived, in part because of local hostility, and whether many of these towns saw much skill transfer remains moot.

Chapter four discuses London as the focus of foreign migrant settlement in England throughout this period. Aliens made up over 12 percent of the city’s population in the 1550s. But many remained unsettled, hoping to return. Meanwhile, they lived in clusters, often in areas where the guilds were weak. Through a good study of the alien listings, Luu shows that immigrants engaged mainly in trades already practiced in London. However, they did employ English apprentices and servants, in part because of legal restrictions: as she shows in chapter five, compassion toward fellow Protestants never overcame fear of the threat of competition, and legal and institutional discrimination against migrants remained widespread. The repeated contrasts with Dutch cities’ openness to immigrants suggest that any skills that were transferred occurred in the teeth of institutional and social resistance to change.

The empirical core of the book is the three case studies that make up the second half of the book. The first is on silk weaving, a new industry to England in the sixteenth century. In 1593, 20 percent of alien households engaged in silk production. Exactly how silk weaving was established remains uncertain. Certainly, many aliens took up the trade only after arriving in London. Weavers were admitted to the London guild, but were required to take on English apprentices. This probably supplied the main mechanism for skill transfer, but Luu has no way to prove her case. By the early seventeenth century there is evidence of natives engaged in the trade, but silk weaving continued to be an area where migrants concentrated into the eighteenth century.

The second case study is of the silver trade. The silver industry in fifteenth-century London was relatively backward and relied on mobile foreign journeymen. By the eighteenth century, migrants who settled had made London a leader in silver production. Quite why English silversmiths did not acquire skills from medieval traveling artisans is debatable: Luu’s hypothesis of a permanent skill deficit comes close to begging the question. As with the weavers, alien silversmiths were kept in a subordinate position by the guild. Over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, increasing numbers of English worked as apprentices and servants with migrants, but it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that native work was of the same quality as that of aliens.

Luu’s final case study is beer brewing, which slowly displaced ale in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The themes are familiar: beer was produced in London by aliens in the fifteenth century, but it only became popular among the English in the sixteenth century. As beer production expanded the industry consolidated. Aliens were squeezed out by English entrepreneurs with greater access to capital. The English also used institutions, particularly the Brewers’ Company, to discriminate against rivals (whether or not aliens had weaker managerial skills, as Luu also suggests, is less convincing). Throughout this period, aliens remained a significant part of the brewing workforce. Again, the actual process of skill transmission remains vague: marriage, apprenticeship and service all offered a way to learn, but it is hard to identify which, if any, played a particular part. That London beer brewers produced a slightly different product to continental brewers adds a further ambiguity to this account.

Luu’s account of migrants and technological transfer is, in the end, somewhat inconclusive. This is, perhaps, inevitable, given the difficulties of observing or measuring the transfer of skills. Here, however, the overall impression is of the difficulties of transferring skills and the durability of native opposition toward alien artisans. Each case study describes transmission taking more than a century, leaving one wondering if mass migration really does facilitate the transfer of skills. In sum, Luu’s account is a useful and welcome addition to the literature, but one that will sustain rather than settle debate on immigration and economic change in early modern Europe.

Patrick Wallis is the editor of Guilds and Associations in Europe, 1100-1900, which will be published shortly by the Centre for Metropolitan History, University of London.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century