Nantes Passage (also Church Passage) was built for Huguenot weavers.
Since the late 15th century many of the houses situated around the area of Spital Fields had been occupied by Flemish protestant weavers. They had built up a reputation for fine quality products and a century later the number of workers in the trade had increased. An order proclaimed by the French authorities in 1598 – the Edict of Nantes – gave religious freedom to French protestants, known as Huguenots. Its revocation in 1688 caused thousands of refugee Huguenot silk weavers to leave France and set up their workshops near to the Spital Fields.
By the early 1700s the number of weavers employed was over 30,000 and it is estimated that there were some 15,000 looms in operation. The weavers adopted as their spokesman and campaigner, a local landowner by the name of George Wheler. Having recently returned from France, he understood the lives of the Huguenots, showed sympathy to their needs and built them a small chapel on the site of this Passage. It was the first of twelve places of worship built over the following years for the sole use of the silk weavers.
As fashions changed and cheap imitations were imported from the Continent the prosperity of Spitalfields went into decline, forcing workers and their families to move to cheaper housing. Further gloom hung over their heads as technical advances lead to automation in the weaving industry, spelling out very clearly the numbered days of the handloom. Steadily the French population decreased. One by one the chapels were sold off or demolished and by the beginning of the 19th century there were over 40,000 silk weavers without any form of work. The last of the chapels, on the corner of Fournier Street
and Brick Lane
was taken over by the Wesley
an congregation, and in 1899 it was modified as a synagogue to serve the increasing Jewish community.
Alas Nantes Passage is no more in its original form. Spitalfields Market has moved to another site and the area redeveloped.