Spitalfields Weavers, Three Threads and Porter


(Image is author’s “three-threads”, one part Guinness “FES”, two parts Sleeman Porter from Ontario)

Based on further thinking and reading, I consider it quite plausible now that “three threads” and the other thread beers of circa-1700, as well as porter itself, derive their names from weaving and specifically silk weaving terminology. I first raised a possible connection, one to my knowledge not previously advanced, in my 2010 Notes on Three Threads and Numerical Variations. (Blogger and noted beer writer Ron Pattinson kindly published it for me as I had no blog at the time). In a few posts earlier this week, I developed my thinking, but my research has now progressed to the point where I feel confident to reach the conclusion stated.

The inferred application of weaving terms to mixed beers was an informal or slang usage intended to order and label different qualities amongst them. Beer quality, invariably related to price, rose with thread number, as we know from Edward Denneston’s 1713 investigation into the beers of the east London pub, Fortune Of War. I discuss Denneston’s essay in the 2010 article above and give other citations, circa-1700, for various thread beers.

Each such mix of beers was itself a porter, therefore. I now believe the long-held theory that porter was named after ticket porters because they favoured the drink is not correct, nor is the idea that street porters vending beer announced themselves with the cry “porter” and people associated the new brown beer (which wasn’t new) with the cry.

In the weaving industry, textiles and woven materials were graded and priced by the number of threads in the warp. The warp is the threads which hang vertically from the beam of the loom and are held in suspension so threads can be interleaved across them, this is the weft. The result forms the web of the fabric. Lowlands Scottish mills used the porter system, meaning a given width of reed held a variable number of porters. Each porter held a number of splits, alternately called a dent in some places, and each split held two or more threads.  The standard reed in Scotland was 37 inches and each porter held 20 splits. Each split or dent held, I have read, up to eight threads.  So, at two threads per split, a 20-porter reed would mean 800 threads. You would divide that by 37 to get the number of threads, or ends, per inch. The reed length and number of splits per porter could vary depending on the mill and its location, but this was the general idea. Under the References below I append a couple of examples of the system from 19th century textile manuals.

In my recent posts, I expressed uncertainty whether this system of measuring a fabric’s warp threads applied to hand-looming, in other words, did it pre-date the machine-driven looming which was introduced in Britain increasingly from the 1840’s? Well, it did, I quote the evidence below. I also queried whether jute fibre was loomed in the early 1700’s in England. It wasn’t, but linen, wool, and silk were. Linen was made early in the 1700’s for sailcloth for example, and for cheaper clothing, and was imported earlier. Significantly, apart from the separate “throwing” stage in silk manufacture, there is no significant difference between weaving of silk, cotton, linen, wool: the basic operations in hand-looming were similar. Mechanization made them more efficient and regular but did not fundamentally alter them. Much of the earlier terminology, from hand-looming days, continued therefore into the machine era.  Also, hand-looming was still common in some parts of the textile industry in the 1800’s and even into part of the 1900’s. This is important as in 1700, looms were hand-operated, automation had made almost no impact.

There were silk weavers in London for centuries prior to 1700. However, after 1685, Huguenots dominated the trade who had come en masse to Spitalfields, East London. They came from France after a sharp increase in persecution by the French king. England welcomed them as many were skilled tradesmen, bankers, and intellectuals, and it gave a chance for Albion to stand against Catholicism.

Crucially, the Spitalfields weavers were a raucous bunch, known to love drink and to frequent pubs. Numerous London pubs were named in reference to various occupations or terminology associated with nearby silk weaving. Consider this extract from Isaac Ashley’s 2012 article (linked below) on the history of Spitalfields silk manufacture:

Spitalfields silkweavers were often attacked in print for their and [sic] drunkenness. ‘Saint Monday’, taking Monday off (with a hangover, or just to carry on partying), was usually celebrated, and work in the week was often interrupted by talking and tippling. And while Saturday morning was officially a work day, it was usually the day to get piece work together, take it to the master and get paid; another day involving much hanging about, chewing the fat and getting a few bevvies in. There were many weavers’ alehouses in the area: the Crown and Shuttle, the Mulberry Tree, the Three Jolly Weavers, the Throwers Arms, the Dyers, the eight different pubs called the Weavers Arms … as well as hundreds of other drinking places. Spitalfields for centuries was known for drink, disorder and poverty: “a land of beer and blood”, its prurient vicar would call it in the 1880s.

In Ned Ward’s famous circa-1720 “malt worm” public house guides, he mentions a pub frequented by “Weavers and Porters”. Ward’s also-famous “in porter’s liquors skilled” statement shows that porters (carriers or messengers) of goods and articles were already connected to the drink. I am arguing that the less visible weaving trade, concentrated as it was in Spitalfields, was the actual source of the name porter for the beer. The fact that ticket porters liked three threads and similar mixes simply made it easier to think of them as origin of the name.

The thread beers appear exactly at the time the Spitalfields weaving industry was rapidly expanding, from the end of the 1600’s to about 1721. In that year, porter, the beer type proper, is first referenced, in a short publication by Nicholas Amhurst, collected in his book Terrae-Filius in 1726.

Now, the objection may be heard, but was the weaving sense of “porter” used in London in 1700? I think the evidence is pretty clear that it was. The term as used in numerous 19th century and late 1700’s books on textile manufacture must originate with the French “portée“, a term used early in London to describe qualities of silk in French. Below, I attach an English article from 1699 which uses the French word to explain how silk is graded. I also attach an all-French text from the 1700’s which discusses the function of the “portée” in relation to the loom and silk weaving. I can’t pretend to understand all the details of this period technology, but it is obvious that the term porter in Scots weaving is a corruption of this French “portée“. This is made more clear in that, in some Yorkshire mills (see evidence listed below), the term “portie” was used for what Scotland called the porter. Portie is clearly an English way of saying “portée“. In fact, in Alfred Spitzli’s book referenced below, he explains that porter too was used in some English mill districts, along with portie and portit – these are all obviously derivations from the French “portée“.

Why originally a French term? Surely because the Huguenots, who dominated silk weaving in London by then, were mostly French. They had introduced to London, not silk weaving itself – it existed there long before the Edict of Nantes was revoked by the French crown which led to a Protestant exodus from France – but a higher quality product and more sophisticated approach to the silk business.  Even if the French term was used in London before the Huguenots came in, the fact that they settled in large numbers from 1685 and were known to frequent public houses suggests strongly that they dubbed the thread beers “porter”, a term that is not recorded for or in connection with beer before the first years of the 1700’s. Note in the French text I cite, the term “dent” (tooth), called a split in Scotland. A dent in English was used in some places to mean a split including America, and must come from the French word.  This suggests a general influence of the French silk trade on Anglo-American terminology after the silk business really got going in England after the Huguenot influx. Portée means entrance or space, indeed that is what a weaving porter is, it is an interval between wires or other dividers for dents or splits to contain the yarns or threads.

The more threads per dent or split, the more threads in a porter and the stronger or (at any rate) higher quality the web or the cloth. The higher the thread number for the beers sold at Fortune Of War in 1713, the more costly the beer was. It had more quality and texture, as good beer always does and as good cloth has.

Using silk terminology to grade beers was a bit of trade humour, an in-joke by a crew known to haunt pubs. Maybe an ex-silk weaver who bought a public house started it. Also, good rich beer can be silky, the term has appeared in at least one pre-craft era review of an Imperial Stout for example. One can foresee that a six threads dark brown beer would be soft and rich… Of course, the term thread is age-old in weaving, so I needn’t argue anything in its regard. English folk memory held, too, that beer and ale were like cloth, the old expression went, as I’ve mentioned earlier, “ale is meat, drink and cloth”. Add to this that brewing equipment was often called a loom in the late 1600’s, which made it more natural for weavers in their “Weavers Arms” to apply their trade terms to the landlord’s different beer mixtures.

The clincher to all this is, why is the porter and portie of Scots and Yorkshire weaving called (generally) beer or “bare” (further south in) England? Because the very dark, bitter porter was beer in London at the time. If the Huguenot Frenchman beside you at the loom referred to the “portée” when hanging the warp from the beam, you might say, “oh, you call it beer, eh?  So it’s the beer then, I’ll call it that”. A bit of English humour might have been at work there, too.*

This explanation makes more sense in my view than considering that thread is a corruption of third: I explain in my 2010 article why that makes no sense without labouring to make the argument fit. Also, the idea that thread means, in a beer context, thin stream, suggested (see 12th paragraph) here, seems to me not to fit beers called three threads, four threads and higher. It seems likely only two beers were mixed if we take the Denneston essay at face value, and also, the idea of a thin stream seems hard to square even with the idea of a two-beer blend.

Pre-porter terms such as “porter’s liquors” and “porter’s guzzle”, which appear in the early 1700’s, were likely attributed by people, Ned Ward included, who were not privy to the original naming system. Every trade has its lingo, its cant. In 1700, trade knowledge was secret and largely promoted, not by books of instruction, but by the closed apprentice and guild or corporation system. It is not surprising that, even contemporaneously, people would be confused on how the name arose. The fact that the porters of articles and goods bore a name similar to a weaving term used in a small circle in east London, and happened to like the beer, made it easy for casual observers – almost everyone not involved in the silk trade – to go awry.

The above is separate from the question why porter became, at least for a time, a non-mixed drink from about 1720. My interest is to show where the names, both three threads and porter, came from. However, the fact that porter was, as I infer, synonymous with the thread drinks suggests to me entire butt beer was introduced by the brewers to replace three threads. In other words, if people called porter what the brewers called entire butt or entire, that is because it tasted the same. This is in line with Obadiah Poundage’s 1760 article in which he said the brewers brought in porter, meaning a single or “entire” brew, and not mixed but receiving some aging, to even out the extremes. The thread beers were a good example of extremes, being mixes of strong and weaker beers and probably also of different types (styles) of beer. Whatever the specific reason an entire porter was introduced and the mixed ones fell out, and different theories have been offered, the fact that it was called porter from the early 1720’s suggests people thought it was similar to three threads which was (under the theory I propose) a form of porter too. This is strengthened by the fact they were both three pence the pot, indeed the post-1721 porter stayed at that price for much of the 1700’s.

NOTE TO READER: Please see my three addenda added in the Comments below which add to and round the argument.


*I later abandoned this point, see last addendum below.



1)The Packaging User’s Handbook, Frank Paine (date unclear, apparently 1991 but probably earlier).

Gives simple example of the porter-and-thread system in a jute context, but the main principle is applicable to linen, silk, wool, etc.

2) Manual for Managers, Designers, Weavers, and All Others Connected With The Manufacture of Textile Fabrics..., Alfred Spitzli, 1881

Gives a good example of porter thread measurement system with comparative terminology in 1880’s.

3) The History Of Brechin, David Black (1880’s).

Indicates thread-and-porter system was used for linens in Scotland.

4) The New Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences (1807).

The thread-and-porter system is described for cotton, note pre-power looming date.

5) Society and Economy in Modern Britain, 1700-1850, Richard Brown (1991).

Fine linens were imported in 1700 to England and linen was weaved from early 1700’s.

6) Reports from Commissioners (1841).

The thread-and-porter system used for sailcloth and sacking in regard to handloom workers.

7) The Spitalfields Silk Weavers: London’s Luddites? Isaac Ashley (2012).

Shows that silk was made in London’s east end for centuries, given a fillip with Huguenot influx to Spitalfields from 1685, and that the trade was significantly associated with drinking and public houses. Quite a few houses named after the trade are mentioned.

8) Philosophical Transactions, Vol. XXI, ed. By John Martyn and others (1699).

Discussion in learned journal of aspects of silk manufacture using the French term “portée” in regard to assessing silk quality and characteristics.

9) L’Art du Peigner, ou Faiseur de Peignée, tant pour la Fabrique des Etoffes de Soie…., by M. Paulet (described on frontispiece as a designer and producer of silk fabrics).

Discussion in French manual on silk and other fabrics’ production and the function of the “portée” in the loom. See from, “D’autres divisent leurs Peignes par portées…).






8 thoughts on “Spitalfields Weavers, Three Threads and Porter”

  1. Link below to 1770’s French mechanical arts repertory discussing the composition of velvets and different types or qualities. Once again, the portee (I am using a contemporary English spelling) is the system to describe the thread content of a given length of cloth. There are so many portees for each type, so many dents per portee and so many threads per dent (or split). This is multiplied for two and more ply (“poil”) velvets.


  2. This is a series of images from a U.K. development company showing different perspectives of Goodman’s Fields, where the Fortune Of War was located in 1713. An old map is included as well. One can see how close was Commercial Street, just the other side of what is now Aldgate East station. This ran through the heart of Spitalfields and the Huguenot weaving community. http://www.berkeleygroup.co.uk/media/pdf/l/3/berkeley-homes-goodmans-fields-host-brochure-1.pdf

    Conscious of the history of the area, the developer has named one of the Phases Silk House, and another Satin House.

  3. I’m compelled to add, a propos pronunciation, who knows how porter, the beer, was ordered in 1721? Maybe, in fact I’m starting to think it’s likely, Nicholas Amhurst heard it as “portay” and rendered that as the verb form in French. The move to a hard r ending may have occurred later.

    Gary Gillman

  4. Third Addendum. https://books.google.ca/books?id=ZtdEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA383&dq=portee+loom&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAGoVChMI9Ny5-rqLyAIVUAuSCh20hg8H#v=onepage&q=portee%20&f=false

    (See p. 383). 1748, London, re wool manufacture, “…threads of the Portee“. (No accent aigu). The translator – the book is a translation of a French text – could have used “beer“, he doesn`t. He uses what has become an English word, anglicized from a French one. In 1699, the (English language) Philosophical Transactions still uses the French spelling, by 1748 it`s an English word as is evident in parts of the English milling industry into the later 1800`s.

    If the word is rendered in English in 1748 in London, it had to be in use there from the time the citations first appear re porter`s liquors, porter`s guzzle (1698-1720 but terms like this also appear later). It was clearly a term London weavers would have used in the first half of the 1700`s.“Porter“, for the beer, on its own had to be in use before Nicholas Amhurst used it in 1721, and so was “portee“ in weaving…

    Pronounced verbally, the French word sounds like the French verb “porter“ and anyone of English earshot (non-Huguenot) in 1700 who knew some French might easily render the word as “porter“ in English with the hard r. Also, some English accents add the r consonant to a word ending in a vowel. Paul McCartney a few years ago released a version of the classic show tune, Accentuate The Positive. In this lyric: “To illustrate my last remark, Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark“, he pronounces “Jonah“, “Joner“. Noah is still Noah though, not No-er. So portee, porter, easy to see how that happened.

    Gary Gillman

  5. Second Addendum: I am just drawing out implications of what I wrote above, but I think it`s useful to add the following. Faced with a range of beers priced simply as 2p, 3p, 4p, etc.,* the Huguenot weaver, speaking a mixture of English and trade French, said, I`ll call the 2p* one Two Threads, the 3p* one, Three Threads, etc., paralleling the cloth quality from my loom in which the “portee“ holds, two threads in the split or dent, three threads and so forth. And so each pot is a “portee“ holding its particular number of beer threads. I project further that “portee“ (accent aigu on first e) became corrupted to “porter“ as it did in many parts of the British Isles in the textile industry. When, circa-1700, the term “porter`s guzzle“ was used, I believe this was a slight but misleading change from porter guzzle or porter drink. Same thing for “porter`s liquors“ in Ned Ward`s pamphlets.

    Since there were lots of porters (movers of goods or articles) in London who liked the thread beers, it seemed logical to think the beers were “theirs“ and that finally porter the beer took its name from them, but I think it put people on the wrong path for hundreds of years.

    When entire butt beer came in, a non-mixed beer said to have replaced three threads, the people (not the brewers) dubbed it porter surely because it tasted like three threads did, the main type of thread beer. This was the “Tom Man`s entire“ also referred to in Ned Ward. I believe too the term “plain porter“ (see my 2010 article for a very early mention) was entire as well, it was plain because unblended, unadorned with a measure of stout or other type of beer. (It might have been though a thread beer but referred to by its generic name rather than the specific thread (price) number).

    This reasoning is inferential as much historical interpretation is, but the case ties very well together in my view and gains its strength notably because it accounts for the meaning of the term thread in relation to beer, which no other theory does nearly as well.

    Gary Gillman

    *Phil in the comments has pointed out this should read 2d,3d,4d, etc. Thanks again to Phil.

  6. Addendum: In the 1675 Universal Etymological Dictionary, “beer” is included in its weavers sense. Three threads is not, but is included in the same dictionary when issued in a 4th edition in 1756 (meaning half common ale, half stout or double beer). Thus, the weaver’s beer probably was not named after the French “portée” to signify a similar term with a double meaning. Perhaps the sense of the weaver’s beer is “bear” (to carry or hold), which in a sense a textiles porter does, it is a space where the splits or dents are located holding the threads.

    Thus, I think the meaning of beer in textiles is not likely connected to the double meaning I believe “portée” had in 1700 in London. The influx of Huguenots after 1685 resulted (I would argue) in a partial implantation of the French term “portée” in some of Britain’s fabrics production areas, but in London, arguably it survived in its metaphorical application to the black beer of the city.

    Gary Gillman

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