Wandering Lyonnaise II

Goodness, how time flies. Work has been a little crazy so I have been a little negligent here, but here we go with the second installment of our trip to Lyon.

As we usually have little time to explore Lyon and we pass through, we decided to put this right as we had a few days this time, so we went exploring. Part of this exploration was around the Croix-Rousse a hilltop area that has great views over Lyon and some interesting buildings. This area was the centre of Lyon’s silk production in the 18th and early 19th century. The buildings in the area were increasingly built with 4m high ceilings to accommodate newer larger mechanical looms.

The hierarchy of silk production also provides an insight into early industrial production. In Lyon there were approximately 1,400 fabricants or silkies who were bankers and traders who controlled and financed silk production. Below them were about 8000 Canuts who owned their own workshops with 2-6 looms and who were paid by the order or by the piece. At the bottom of this hierarchy were the 30,000 apprentices who were paid by the day and generally lived with their employing Canut such that their board and food were provided by their employer. Women and children employed on this basis were paid at lower rates than male ‘apprentices’.

This area also has an important role in industrial and social history of France as the inherently harsh working conditions, and the fluctuations in silk prices in the 1830s which worsened them further, led to a series of revolts.

The first Revolt in 1831 followed the establishment of a fixed price for silk overseen by a panel of owners and Canuts and to be enforced by a labour court. However, refusal to comply led to weavers taking strike action, erecting barricades, taking weapons from the police barracks and occupying the town hall. 20,000 troops were sent to quell the disturbances and re-take the city. The fixed rate was abolished.

By 1834 however, increases in the international price for silk had led to economic boom in the industry and prosperity, perhaps not the usual context for a workers revolt, until you consider that the fabricants felt that wages had risen too high as a result and wanted to impose reductions. This led to renewed conflict and strikes, of which the leaders were tried and the town was occupied, precipitating widespread resistance. Again the army was brought in and after they fired on an unarmed crowd, workers again stormed the police barracks and took weapons. This was the start of the ‘bloody week’ as the military gradually took back the town. Whilst estimates suggest that 100-600 people were killed a further 10,000 were captured, put on collective trial and sentenced to deportation or heavy prison sentences.

There was a further Revolt in 1848 stimulated again by local working conditions but this was overshadowed by revolts across France and Europe in that year.

One building that exemplifies Lyon’s silk history and gives a sense of both the scale and claustrophobia of working conditions is the Cour de Voraces/Maison de la Republique. With my compact digital camera I struggled to capture it’s enormity and sense of scale:

The picture on the left shows the full height of the building with an added on wooden loft, whilst the picture on the right gives a sense of scale with P, his sister and niece at ‘ground level’. You can also just see P’s head below the top step leading down from the main courtyard in the picture on the left. What the pictures don’t capture is the dank dampness at ground level or as the stairs go down under the building.

This picture may give a sense of this.

The building is part of a large network of traboules – alleyways that link across from one street to the next whilst the streets themselves run from the bottom to the top of the hill.

These traboules not only provided places to hide or routes of escape during the revolts, but also later for those avoiding occupying forces during the second world war so are also now associated with the resistance.

At the bottom of the staircase is a plaque:

1831 – In the Cours de Voraces, hive of silk workers, Canuts struggled for their lives and their dignity

1948 – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the fundamental rights of the human standard of living, adequate housing supply, health.

1998 – we remember

(please excuse my rather literal translation)

Thus this plaque memorialises the buildings past and draws a connection to the present. In 1995 the building was bought by Habitat et Humanism and refurbished as social housing.

For those with an interest in either the development of public health, or of textile history, the silk industry of Lyon also informed the observations of Louis-René Villermé a founding figure of public health and author of Study of the Physical and Moral Conditions of the Workers Employed in the Cotton, Wool and Silk Factories (1840) which linked working conditions to poor health and low life expectancy. He also launched a damning attack on the use of child labour in these industries which some believe led to public concern that enabled the passing of Child Labour legislation in 1840.

Perhaps the plaque should also reference the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically Article 32:

States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

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