Today in London’s satirical history: the traditional date of mock elections for the Mayor of Garratt

In the eighteenth century, Garratt was a tiny village in the fields between Wandsworth and Tooting, now part of South West London. It had little political significance whatsoever and certainly no parliamentary representative.  But from the 1740s to the 1800s mock elections for the fictional office of “Mayor of Garratt” attracted huge crowds to this tiny (now vanished) South London hamlet.

Garratt Green and its Leather Bottle Inn were the centre of a huge rowdy satirical pisstake of the election process of the times. Elections normally coincided with actual parliamentary elections and, at first, two Mayors were elected each time.

Eighteenth-century elections were noisy, chaotic and often violent.  Only a tiny percentage of the population, the property-owning upper class and small numbers of the middle classes were eligible to vote. Many areas had no representation in Parliament, while many rotten boroughs with little or no residents elected MPs. There was huge pressure for reform of this farcical system, especially from the rising middle class, who were pushing for political clout to go with their increasing economic power.

Despite lacking the vote, huge crowds would often gather at election platforms, to cheer or jeer, fight, drink and generally take the piss…

Popular candidates were often feted and pulled around the streets in procession… Not so favoured would-be MPs might be pelted with mud or dung and chased out of town!

The whole electoral process overflowed with riot, drunkenness, theatre and an element of farce, which all classes appreciated and took part in. Elections were the subject (and were themselves riddled with) satire; this found its most extreme expression in the bizarre annual ritual of the election of the Mayor of Garratt, where the world turned upside down for a day to allow comic speeches, vulgar banter and political impersonation.

In its heyday up to 80,000 people assembled to take part in or enjoy the fun.

The first recorded election was in 1747. There are disputed views as to how the event originated… According to a 1754 account by a leading local Quaker, the first Mayor had been elected in about 1690 by some watermen who were “spending a merry day at the Leather Bottle”. A 1781 description of the election, however, claimed the elections had begun about 30 years earlier as a result of successful local opposition to the illegal enclosures on Wandsworth Common, the leader of this opposition becoming known as the Mayor of Garratt.

“The inhabitants of the hamlet of Garrat, situated between Wandsworth and Tooting, in Surrey, had certain rights in a small common, which had been encroached upon; they therefore met in conclave, elected a president, resisted, and obtained their rights. As this happened at the time of a general election, it was determined that their president, or mayor, should hold office during parliament, and be re-elected with a new one. It was impossible that the ridiculous pomposity of the whole affair should not be felt and joked upon. When, therefore, party-spirit ran high, its effervescence was parodied by ‘the storm in a tea-pot’ of a Garrat election.”

This fits with the date of the first recorded election, though there doesn’t seem to be any surviving evidence of a 1740s campaign against enclosures. Garratt elections thereafter were held to coincide and mock the national General Elections.

The fame of the Garratt elections was spread by Samuel Foote’s farce, The Mayor of Garret (1764), and from 1768 candidates often came from London and its surroundings rather than just the Wandsworth area.

The candidates were always poor tradesmen, usually with a drink problem and sometimes with a physical deformity. The main qualification was a quick wit. They assumed such titles as Lord Twankum (a cobbler and gravedigger), Squire Blowmedown (John Willis, a waterman of Wandsworth) and Sir Trincalo Boreas (a fishmonger), Squire Gubbins (James Simmonds, keeper of a public-house known as the ‘Gubbins’ Head,’ in Blackman Street, Borough).

A somewhat large and curious collection of handbills and broadsides, were printed during these elections. In 1747 the campaign of Squire Blowmedown was endorsed in ‘a letter sent from an elector of the borough of Garrat to another,’ and dated from St. James’s Market, in which we are assured that ‘the greatest stranger must look upon himself as void of reason, entirely barren of wisdom, extinct of humanity, and unworthy the esteem of men of sense and veracity, should he neglect any opportunity to testify how ardent his wishes are that this Phaenix may be unanimously chosen.’ For, ‘as our worthy candidate judiciously observes, if drinking largely, heading a mob majestically, huzzaing eloquently, and feeding voraciously, be merits in any degree worthy the esteem of the good people of this land, a Garrat, I must ingeniously confess, is too mean an apartment for such a worthy; for Envy herself must confess, if the above qualifications are of any efficacy, the universal voice of the whole realm of Great Britain would not be equivalent to his wondrous deserts.’

The candidates first walked or rode in procession from Southwark, and then paraded in Wandsworth, sometimes in carts shaped like boats.

“’None but those who have seen a London mob on any great holiday,’ says Sir Richard Philips, ‘can form a just idea of these elections. On several occasions a hundred thousand persons, half of them in carts, in hackney coaches, and on horse and ass-back, covered the various roads from London, and choked up all the approaches to the place of election. At the two last elections, I was told that the road within a mile of Wands-worth was so blocked up by vehicles, that none could move backward or forward during many hours; and that the candidates, dressed like chimney-sweepers on May-day, or in the mock fashion of the period, were brought up to the hustings in the carriages of peers, drawn by six horses, the owners themselves condescending to become their drivers.”

In 1747, the “clerk and recorder” from a nonexistent town hall announced an election contested between Squire Blowmedown and Squire Gubbins (in fact a waterman and pubkeeper, respectively). Both candidates issued handbills full of their own merits and deriding those of their opponent, in the style of political leaflets of the day. These two candidates fought the next election in 1754, again abusing each other and their supporters in their handbills.

In 1761 the number of candidates rose to nine; in addition to Gubbins and Blowmedown, there were Sir John Crambo, Kit Noisy (waterman), Lord Lapstone (shoemaker), Lord Paxford, Lord Twankum (cobbler), Lord Wedge and Beau Silvester. The candidates promised prosperity if they were elected and foreseeing disaster if their opponents should be favoured instead. Beau Silvester cannily stood on a platform of resisting extra tax on ale and giving orders to increase the number of local pubs.

From the 1760s the elections were associated with radical politics, and the hero of the bourgeois reform party and darling of the “London mob”, John Wilkes, and his supporters wrote some of the candidates’ addresses. The candidates usually stressed their patriotism and loyalty to the King, while protesting economic hardships and the lack of liberty for the labouring classes.

Gradually the Mayoral election became more and more seditious, especially in the turbulence of the increasingly radical and rebellious 1790s.

In 1763 candidates Lord Twankum, Kit Noisy and Sir John Crambo mocked each other in electoral contest. In 1768 there were seven candidates; Lord Twankum, Sir Christopher Dashem, Sir George Comefirst, Sir William Airey, Sir William Bellows, one “Batt from the Workhouse”, and Sir John Harper – the last being elected. Lady Twankum promised a huge party to entertain the populace. The 1775 election introduced Sir William Blaize, “Nephew to the late Lord Twankum” and Sir Christopher Dashem.

In 1781 there were “scaffoldings and booths erected in Wandsworth at every open space; these were filled with spectators to the topmost rows, and boys climbed to the topmost poles, flags and colours were hung across the road, and the place was crowded by a dense population full of activity and noise”. The candidates then rode in procession along Garratt Lane, accompanied by the Clerk, the Recorder and the Master of Horse, who in 1781 rode at the head of the ‘Garratt Cavalry’, a troop of 40 boys mounted on ponies. At the hustings, on Garratt Green, each candidate had to swear an oath (their right hand resting on the sign of the mob – a brickbat!), “handed down to us by the grand Volgee, by order of the great Chin Kaw Chipo, first Emperor of the Moon”.

This oath was too rude to be repeated by Victorian folk historians; it scrutinised voters’ property qualifications (the test to see if you had enough property to be eligible to vote) in the language of sexual innuendo:

That you have admitted peaceably and quietly, into possession of a freehold thatched tenement, either black, brown or coral, in hedge or ditch, against gate or stile, under furze or fen, on any common or common field, or enclosure, in the high road, or any of the lanes, in barn, stable, hovel, or any other place within the manor of Garratt; and, that you did (Bona fide) keep (ad rem) possession of that said thatched tenement (durante bene placito) without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatever; or without any ejectment or forcibly turning out of the same; and that you did then and there and in the said tenement, discharge and duty pay and amply satisfy all legal demands of the tax that was at that time due on the said premises; and lastly, did quit and leave the said premises in sound, wholesome and good tenable repair as when you took possession and did enter therein. So help you…

The huge crowds, said in 1781 to be 20,000, but at other times to have been as many as 100,000, blocked the streets for hours. Pub landlords donated funds to provide the candidates’ lavish costumes, and were well-rewarded: on one occasion the pubs ran dry and only water was left, selling at 2d per glass. Local and later London publicans also sponsored candidates and supported the event, to boost their own profits.

In 1781 there were nine candidates:

“About three o’clock the candidates proceeded with their several equipages towards the hustings; his Lordship [Lord Viscount Swallowtail, a basketmaker] was elegantly seated in a wicker cage, which was mounted on a cart and driven by a servant in a laced livery. The next in order was Sir John Harper [in reality James Anderson, a breeches-maker & inkle-weaver] who rode uncovered in a phaeton drawn by six horses, and was dressed in white and silver, with a blue ribband round his shoulder; this worthy knight recruited his spirits every furlong by a glass of Geneva [gin] … After him came Sir William Blaize [a blacksmith] mounted on a cart-horse, with a pack-saddle and halter, and paper ears reaching to the ground. Sir Christopher Dashwood [a waterman] rode triumphantly in a boat drawn by four horses and filled with many emblematical devices.”

Also standing were Sir Buggy Bates (chimney-sweep), Sir John Gnawpost, Sir Thomas Nameless, Sir Thomas Tubbs (waterman) and Jeffrey Dunstan. In the counter-claim of ther candidates handbills, Swallowtail and Buggy Bates were accused by their rivals of holding government contracts, of baskets and soot, respectively. The press of carriages, wagons and horses prevented several candidates reaching the hustings, but Dunstan, “proceeding without noise or ostentation’, arrived at the Green on his own and proceeded to address the electors until interrupted by the hustings platform collapsing. ‘The other candidates then not appearing, and a message being received from Sir John [Harper] that he was too drunk to attend, [Dunstan] was declared duly elected”.

In fact both Harper and Dunstan were elected.

Dunstan, the most celebrated of the Mayors, was a second-hand wig seller in the West End. He was a foundling who took his name from the parish of St Dunstans-in-the-East in the City of London, where, in 1759, he was discovered on the step of the churchwarden’s house. He was brought up in the workhouse, had knock-knees and a disproportionately large head, and only grew to a height of 4 feet … He had “a countenance and manner marked by irresistible humour, and he never appeared without a train of boys and curious persons whom he entertained by his sallies of wit, shrewd sayings and smart repartees”. Dunstan’s lively sallies made him popular with the crowd, who twice more returned him to office. He became a close friend of controversial populist MP John Wilkes. A man fond of his drink, Dunstan became too outspoken against the establishment and in 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, he was tried, convicted and imprisoned for seditious expressions. Dunstan remained Mayor until 1796 and died the following year, allegedly as the result of a drinking spree.

Dunstan’s successor was Henry Dinsdale (Sir Harry Dimsdale), described as “a deformed dwarf, little better than an idiot, who used to sell muffins in the streets about St Anne’s Soho”. He lived in a small attic near Seven Dials (a notoriously poor and rowdy area north of Covent Garden). He was almost as deformed as Dunstan, “but by no means so great a humorist. The most was made of his appearance, by dressing him in an ill-proportioned tawdry court suit, with an enormous cocked hat.

In 1804, he stood as the Emperor Anti-Napoleon, addressing his subjects as the ‘Emperor of Garratt’. This being the same year the French revolutionary hero Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French, this was a nice raspberry – possibly aimed at the radicals who had previously supported Napoleon, as Dinsdale was championed by the more reactionary elements, where Dunstan had been a figurehead for the radicals),

Dinsdale died in about 1810. “He was ‘the last’ of the grotesque mayors, for no candidates started after his death, the publicans did not as before sub-scribe toward the expenses of the day, and the great saturnalia died a natural death.”

The Garratt election seems to have declined in popularity from the 1790s, losing both its patronage by the aristos and its support from political radicals. There were several reasons for this. In its heyday, the whole grand show had been a spectacle for people of all backgrounds: many of the better-off to come and enjoy the rough and tumble of lower-class rowdiness: and even sponsored the candidates. The wealthier classes were attracted to the rowdiness and the edginess of mingling with the plebeians at Garratt or the many local popular fairs; at least while there seemed to be no political implications to the gatherings (although middle class and even aristocratic reformers wrote speeches and used the Mayoralty to further the cause of reform).

Like many carnivals, festivals, fairs Garratt had become a letting of steam, a release for social and political tensions in a relatively harmless satirical free for all. This wasn’t unusual for the times, according to long-established codes, even a certain level of violence and direct action could be acceptable, as in bread riots, when crowds forcibly redistributed bread at times of high prices. This has been labeled a “moral economy” by some radical historians, who identify the prevailing paternalistic social system as allowing for a certain amount of ritualistic rebelliousness – to keep food prices reasonable for example, or curb anti-social, adulterous or marginal behaviour – as long as it stayed within traditional and expected boundaries. Exceed these limits and the powers that be would crush you: as striking and rioting silkweavers and coalheavers found out in the 1760s.

As the 18th Century went on however, not only did pressure for reform from below grow, but the authorities fear of “the Mob” and plebeian rebelliousness increased. The riots of the 1760s in

support of Wilkes’ campaign against corruption in Parliament, increasing economic violence, and above all, the shattering events of the Gordon Riots in 1780, when rioting crowds virtually took over the city and drove the rich into flight, terrified the upper class. Any occasion for crowds to come together became a potential riot situation. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and the violent social upheaval it created, inspired many radicals in England – and further alarmed those in power.

Certainly from 1793, the year of the height of the radical violence of the Revolution, the Garratt elections were frowned upon (Dunstan was jailed for sedition in ‘93). Through 1794-5, radical reformers like the London Corresponding Society (as well as many similar societies in other cities) were holding mass rallies and pressing for changes in political structures – and often this was linked to economic actions by the growing working class, as well as rioting in times of hardship (especially during the long war with France 1792-1815). Popular protest was increasingly vocal and repression increasingly violent. In this context Garratt was less of a harmless show and took on a more threatening aspect.

Hand in hand with this of course, a moral trend was developing which was aimed at driving society, especially the poor, away from rowdiness and drunken troublemaking, and towards hard work, sobriety, respectability. This found its expression in the mass growth of Christian sects like the Methodists, but also in the springing up of repressive middle class societies such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and many local campaigns which were set up to press for the banning of Fairs and closing other local trouble spots.  Between 1768 and 1855 most of the large London Fairs, as well as many further afield, which were traditionally held once a year, and often became rowdy, bawdy riotous free for alls, were restricted or banned. Morally Fairs and other licentious gatherings were a danger to the working classes because they distracted them from the true path of hard work, religion and sacrifice; the cost of policing and repressing the riots that erupted was also falling more and more on the ratepayers who controlled the local Vestries. Even the very open spaces where such events were held were disappearing, as London spread into the surrounding fields, profitable developments replaced commons and Greens where such events could be held; to the relief of the gentry who often identified un-landscaped open spaces as immoral in themselves, requiring fencing, landscaping and ordering if they were to remain unbuilt on – an ordered park was held to have a civilizing effect on the disorderly poor in its own right.

Not only were the authorities keen to get rid of fairs, mass gatherings etc where the plebs’ baser passions could break out, but reformers and radicals themselves also more and more internalised the drive for a respectable, sober, orderly and educated movement for change. Artisan radicals increasingly saw such unruly traditions as embarrassments to their properly directed political efforts to improve their lot.

This movement developed into the powerful London artisan radical scene, which produced the London Corresponding Society, Owenism, the Cooperative Movement and the Chartism. Although these were strong and important manifestations of the self-organised working class, you can’t help feeling that leaving behind wild outbreaks of carnival and satire like the Garratt Elections, something was lost…

Interestingly many radical artisans and working men did in fact use the structure or name of a ‘Parliament’, in the Working Men’s Institutes and Radical Clubs, to describe their debating societies and political discussions. This seems to have been more of a gesture towards respectability and legitimacy, not questioning or mocking the institution of the Election but affirming it and seeking to extend it into their own political experience.

What with repression and changes in working class culture, there were no more Mayor of Garratt elections after 1804, apart from an unsuccessful attempt to revive the custom in 1826:

“After a lapse of thirty-four years, when the whim and vulgarity of a Garrat election was only remembered by a few, and recorded by Foote’s drama, the general election of 1826 seems to have induced a desire to resuscitate the custom. A placard was prepared to forward the interests of a certain ‘Sir John Paul Pry,’ who was to come forward with Sir Hugh Allsides (ono Callendar. beadle of All Saints’ Church, Wandsworth), and Sir Robert Needall (Robert Young, surveyor of roads), described as a ‘friend to the ladies who attend Wandsworth Fair.’ The placard, which may be read in Hone’s Every-Day Book, displays ‘a plentiful lack of wit.’ The project of revival failed; and Garrat has had no parliamentary representative ‘out-of-doors ‘ since the worthy muffin-seller was gathered to his fathers at the close of the last century.”

The year after this failed attempt to bring the Garratt election back, there was however, a mock election held in the Kings Bench Prison 

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in Thames history, 1973: Canvey islanders sail ‘Oil armada’ to parliament

In 1973 a campaign began in order to stop 2 oil refineries being built on Canvey Island. It was to last 14 years.

Secretary of State for Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, had given the all clear for a second oil refinery to be built on the Island by Occidental Petroleum, over-ruling his own inspector’s initial decision.

In response, the Canvey Islanders built a grassroots campaign, “a peoples’ organisation and non-political. It was successfully conducted, with George Whatley at its head, at a time when there was no computer or mobile phone technology – so no emails, Facebook, twitter etc. Photocopiers were also few and far between, so printers like Roneos were relied on. The protest group had to continually think of ways of keeping their protest as high profile as possible in the media. This involved amongst other things going on marches in London.”

From the start, the opposition took the offensive against the oil company, choosing to discredit their corporate image. Their aim was to delay the start of building the oil refineries so long that it would cost the companies a lot of money; this was successful, in that the campaign delayed the start of building so long that it became no longer a viable proposition, especially as they were unable to get planning permission for expansion after they would have started building the refineries. But the campaign also had to fight the government establishment and bureaucracy.

Part of the deal that they built the new road off the Island ‘Canvey Way’. Land down Northwick was sold for the refinery and Northwick Road itself was widened to make way for tankers.  But Canvey Islanders would have none of it.

Canvey Island residents managed to benefit from the first ever risk analysis of a proposed refinery project. This officially recorded that Canvey people were 5 times more at risk of lung disease than coal miners. After that, the planning fight “was turned on its head. It was no longer the case that residents or an individual had to prove that a company’s activities were dangerous, rather that the company had to prove that it activities were safe before planning could be granted. Therefore Canvey’s residents were instrumental in the change to Societal Risk Analysis Reports which became the first chapter in today’s Health and Safety Regulations.”

A short chronology of the battle against the Castle Point Refinery

A 14 Year Battle – Part 1 (Janet Walden)

1965 – 2 million ton refinery on 232 acres. E.N.I. (Later United Refineries). Public Inquiry. Opposed by Essex County Council, Benfleet Urban District Council, Southend Council and numerous other objectors including the Refinery Resistance Group. Canvey UDC supported application after being flown to Italy by oil company to view their refineries. Inspector found against application but was over-ruled by Secretary of State, Richard Crossman, after taking decision to the Cabinet (see Crossman Diaries) E.N.I. allowed application to lapse probably as 2 million tons not big enough. Laid road to site and marked out tank positions.

1970 – 6 million ton refinery 325 acres. Occidental. November Public Inquiry. Opposed by Benfleet and Canvey U.D.C. and Thurrock Council and numerous other objectors including Refinery Resistance Group. Essex C.C. supported application with conditions. Inspector found for the application which was approved by Secretary of State Peter Walker.

1971 – 4 million ton refinery on 541 acres. E.N.I. (U.R.L.) Public Inquiry. Opposed by all the local authorities, residents’ associations and Refinery Resistance Group. Inspector found against application and was supported by Sec. of State Peter Walker who said that ‘ a site in a more easterly position would receive sympathetic consideration’.

1973 – 4 million ton refinery on 314 acres. U.R.L. (E.N.I. and Murphy Oil). Public Inquiry. Opposed by all local authorities, residents and Refinery Resistance Group. Inspector found against application but was over-ruled by the Sec. of State Geoffrey Rippon. Massive protest.

June – Occidental started work.

1974

June – Flixborough explosion – Chemical cyclohexane stored on Canvey

September –Anthony Crossland announced inquiry into possible revocation of U.R.L. planning permission.

1975

February – Inquiry into revocation. Castle Point District Council (formerly Benfleet and Canvey U.D.C.) and Essex C.C. support revocation together with other objectors and Refinery Resistance Group.

March – Occidental announces review of their refinery – all work ceased.

1976

February – Inquiry into refusal of Castle Point D.C. to determine detail of U.R.L. refinery.

March – U.R.L. inspectors revocation report issued. Inspector recommends revocation. Sec. of State Peter Shore  announces examination of North Thameside Petro-Chemical industry before he will decide on revocation.

June – Sec. of State will not determine U.R.L. detail plans until Health and Safety Executive has reported.

 November – U.R.L. obtain judgement in the High Court stating that their 1965 planning permission is still valid – Essex C.C. who fought the case are not going to appeal.

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Thousands of Canvey and district residents took part in demonstrations against the refinery. At one of the protests, on 5th May 1973, a huge crowd  – 5,000 protestors – assembled at the local Council offices, and took part in a “funeral” procession. Young children wore gas masks, adults smog masks and black

Canvey oil protest 27 Aug 1973

armbands. Members of Canvey, Benfleet and Rayleigh Councils were among the protestors. They surged up Long Road, at times eight abreast, sing­ing and chanting their opin­ions of Mr. Rippon. Among the placards read: “JACK the RIPPON, the ENVIRONMENT BUTCHER” and “R.I.P. – P.O.N.” At one stage during the march oil tankers going to a local depot passed the demo and were met with a storm of boos. Marching to the refinery site, they planted white crosses and laid coffins there. Musician Norman Smith sounded The Last Post.

On the following Monday (May 7th) Canvey “housewives” travelled to London to demonstrate. They were met at Westmin­ster by Sir Bernard Braine, Conservative MP. for South East Essex, and met the Min­ister’s Personal Private Sec­retary. A letter was handed in at No. 10 Downing Street asking Prime Minister Ted Heath to reverse Mr. Rippon’s de­cision and renew faith “in the rights of the people”. It was “a plea from the fright­ened people” implacably op­posed to the refinery.

On Saturday 19 May 1973 700 Canvey Islanders organised an “oil-mada”, hundreds travelling by ship, boarding the boat at Tilbury, with banners and posters and ‘graveyard’ crosses, sailing up the Thames, to put hand a protest letter to the prime minister at 10 Downing Street. Geoffrey Rippon also agreed to speak with a deputation from the protest groups, (this was after Canvey Council gave the protestors an outright ‘no’ to proposed talks three weeks prior). “there was more than one boat involved this armada being just one of many protests the people of Canvey embarked upon.” (Ken Burgess)

Canvey oil protest 19 June 1973

Following this protestors stormed the ENI Building in London on 19 June. Before Occidental looked to build a refinery on Canvey in the 1970s, ENI Italian refining (United Refineries Ltd) had looked to build a refinery on Canvey where the West Canvey Marsh RSPB nature reserve is today. ENI aimed to build the refinery in 1964 and gained permission in 1965 but it did not come to fruition. It was expected to be completed by 1967, but pollution and vicinity to houses in case of emergency was a great pressure on the plans for the refinery. It would also appear United Refineries submitted an application to build around 1971-73 at the time of the refinery protests as Occidental were also taking an interest.

45 Members of Canvey Oil Refineries Action Committee stormed the building in Park Lane in a ‘secret’ demonstration, keeping the target secret all those taking part were aboard the coach. An Action Group spokesman explained: “About forty-five took part. They were a family group. Mr A Abbott Anderson, of E.N.I. said in the past that the people of Canvey were welcome and we took him at his word (“We barged into a board room meeting and took them by surprise.”) After discussion with him we withdrew”. Police were called to the scene.

Eventually demands changed and fewer installations were needed. Occidental had spent £65 million, of which £10 million went on the longest jetty in Europe at a mile in length. It was never used. The United Refineries’ land was also left unused.

An account of the fight from one of its main activists:

“Canvey people fight and win. (George Whately)

This was a massive David and Goliath fight, a clash of the Titans, with the ordinary people of Canvey Island on one side and the might of 2 oil companies, Occidental an American oil company and URL a subsidiary of ENI an Italian state owned oil company plus the might of the establishment.

Up till then no oil company had been beaten. There was no Health and Safety, there was no MOT on shipping (shipping flew flags of convenience), there was little or no information on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) in a background of national economic interest where oil companies were bringing foreign investment to the Thames-side energy industries. Taking the impact to the local community into consideration and to be an environmentalist were considered anti-establishment.

Canvey oil protest march 14 May 1973

2000 acres of Canvey Island’s approximate 4200 acres would have been taken over by the 2 foreign oil companies and the existing energy companies. On Canvey and in its vicinity there were already:

Fisons – a chemical plant, Mobil – an oil refinery, Shell – an oil refinery, London and Coastal – an oil storage depot, British Gas – a liquid natural gas processing and storage plant with in ground and above ground storage facilities and ammunition loaded off and on at Chapman’s Point and then the threat of 2 more oil refineries Occidental and United Refineries Limited.

There was and still is one access and egress point on Canvey Island that is Waterside roundabout. There was then and still is today no fit for purpose evacuation plan.

The oil refinery fight was a fight by the people for the people that started with 4 people in my kitchen.

That day I was going to work totally oblivious of what was going on around me, wrapped up in my own world of bringing up a family. As I waited for the bus I saw a great number of white wooden stakes planted in the ground on the site of URL. I was shocked to find out it was the site for an oil refinery and a public enquiry was going on in Benfleet that day.

I took the afternoon off work and attended the inquiry where I met 2 men standing over a large map of Canvey Island with nearly half the map showing where the site of the oil refineries were going to be.

I asked them “What is the dark area?” They stated “That is where we are going to build our oil refineries, he is from Occidental and I’m from URL”. I stated “You can’t put oil refineries there, I live there”. They said “go away little man you can’t and you won’t stop us”. Those were the first shots fired in the Oil Refinery War. Subsequently planning permission was granted by the government to Occidental and URL to build 2 oil refineries.

As apathy is the biggest killer for any protester or campaigner, bad publicity is the one weapon the big corporate companies can’t fight as they will spend millions of pounds protecting their corporate image.

I was fortunate enough to be trusted by the people of Canvey Island to lead the publicity war against the 2 oil companies.

A spear is a powerful weapon. I was the point of the spear in the oil war, the strength of the spear was the ordinary people driving it forward. Without the ordinary people standing firm the fight would have been lost. It was like being a bundle of twigs bound together in one cause. One twig can be snapped very easily but if you bind a bundle of twigs together no matter how powerful you are you will never break them.

The Canvey Island Resistance Group was the most successful environmental group in Europe. The ordinary people stood alone and took on the power of the establishment and the power of the energy world and won against impossible odds.

There were many public meetings that galvanised the people into opposing the oil refineries plus there were many peaceful demonstrations and marches to publicise the plight of the people of Canvey Island, it was an all-out fight by the people for the people.

At first the full council was not listening to the people and would not let them speak to them at a council meeting, so the people invaded the public gallery and locked the council in the council chamber until they were heard. The police and the fire brigade had to release the councillors.

There was the ‘Cross for Canvey’ march where thousands carried white crosses and planted them on the proposed oil refinery site.

Open top buses went to London full of people to protest at 10 Downing Street and Westminster delivering a petition.

There was an ‘Armada’ of boats taken up the Thames to Westminster to coincide with the lobbying of Members of Parliament.

Road tankers used to come out of the Texaco depot 2 or 3 at a time making it very difficult to get past them in rush hour. Letters of complaint were ignored so very early one Saturday morning people used their own cars and blockaded the tankers which had been sent out in convoy. After that protest road tankers never went out in convoy again.

After the petition was presented to 10 Downing Street it was decided to do a referendum because a referendum is more powerful than a petition. We used sealed sweet jars with a slot cut in the top and went door to door giving the voting population a chance to say yes or no to the oil refineries. Needless to say the count was 98% did not want the oil refineries. This also gave the Oil Refinery Resistance group a mandate to speak on behalf of the people on this issue.

Sir Bernard Braine led many delegations of the committee to 2 hour meetings with the Secretary of State and other ministers during the fight. He along with others also gave evidence at a number of hard fought public enquiries and meeting with the newly formed Health and Safety Executive. He gave the longest speech in the House of Commons by an MP on the issue.

There were countless radio and television interviews I participated in. Two in particular, namely the ‘Today’ program and ‘Panorama’ type programmes also after the 6 o’clock TV news programs.

Canvey oil protest 7 May 1973

The Flixborough disaster was a turning point in the oil fight campaign. At Flixborough there was a ‘Nypro’ plant using Cyclohexane. This plant exploded killing 28 people due to an ‘unconfined vapour cloud explosion’. At the time I exposed on the ‘Today’ program that at one of the storage depots on Canvey Island 5 times the amount of Cyclohexane was being stored as well as a whole witches’ brew of other volatile fuels.

After a lot of pressure was put on the government the Health and Safety Executive was born. The first 2 studies undertaken by this group of scientists into high risk fire industry and the societal risks they impose was the Canvey 1 and the Canvey 2 reports. These reports took 2 years each to complete and cost £400,000 each. These reports are no the corner stone of societal risk and planning law.

During this time there were a number of notable incidents such as a gas road tanker which crashed near a holiday camp in Spain, an ammunition ship which rammed Canvey sea wall, a petroleum  fire incident at Langley in Slough, a terrorist bomb which exploded on a tank at a depot on Canvey, a large spill of high octane fuel at the Texaco depot at Canvey, a gas ship collision in Tokyo harbour, shipping collisions on the Thames and many other incidents. The publicity of these and other incidents were used to gain a number of public enquiries where the peoples’ voice could be heard.

The oil companies employed top legal eagles and the ordinary people took on top barristers at these enquiries which took many weeks. You don’t often score points off these very big QCs, when you do it’s memorable. For example I can remember a man by the name of Bill Deal. He was a fireman union representative being cross examined by a QC. The QC said to Mr Deal “You have told the enquiry it takes 20 minutes to get a foam tender from Basildon to Canvey. Are you a fire officer, do you have this qualification or that qualification?” Bill replied” No,sir”. The QC then said “So how can you tell this enquiry that it takes 20 minutes to get a foam-tender from Basildon to Canvey?” “Quite easily sir”, replied Bill, “I drive the tender”. (I have never forgotten that).

During this time the Richard Crossman diaries (he was Secretary of State for the Environment) were being published in the Times on Sunday. What they exposed was that there was a deal done between the British Government and the Italian government so that BP could build a refinery in Italy as foreign investment and ENI subsidiary URL could build a refinery in the UK as foreign investment. This was a done deal before the inquiry was convened. I tried to use this information at the public inquiry but the QC stated that it wasn’t admissible and it was upheld by the inspector. I left the inquiry stating that I had been gagged. I phoned Sir Bernard Braine at the House of Commons and he said he would raise he matter that day at Prime Ministers question time in Parliament. As I only had a limited amount of annual leave which I used to attend these inquiries, I went back to work at the Bank of England. The next day I got a call at 10 o’clock to attend the Establishments with immediate effect. Apparently Sir Bernard Braine raised the matter at question time to the Prime Minister who in turn questioned the Secretary of State who then stated that my evidence was admissible. They knew I worked at the Bank of England and so they contacted the Governor to give me leave with immediate effect so that I could attend the inquiry.

When I entered the inquiry the QC for the oil companies was in full flight doing his summing up. The Inspector stopped the proceedings and called me into chambers. The inspector said my evidence was now admissible and therefore I was not being gagged and he would take it as written evidence. I challenged him stating that “Is this a public inquiry or not? He was taken aback. I then said that there are hundreds of people I represent and they deserve to be heard in what I have to say in my evidence otherwise I’m still being gagged. He agreed to let me give my evidence in full. We went back to the inquiry and the Inspector told the QC of his decision. The QC could either finish and then they would hear my evidence or he could hear my evidence and then finish his summing up. The QC chose the latter and as my evidence took over 4 hours we went into an evening session. Then the QC finished his summing up and in doing so stated that he and the company he represented objected to me being able to present my proof of evidence. I challenged the QC saying’ you a QC deny me my judicial rights?’ The Inspector intervened telling the QC he was the one who ruled the inquiry not him. (The QC is now a judge. If I ever go up before him I’ll be going down for a long stretch). During the campaign I know I upset a lot of powerful people, but to me the truth had to be heard.

The Occidental Oil Company put up 9 professional public relations officers to combat one spokesman, me, for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group. As I told them when we clashed, you are professionals and I do it part time and weekends.

Canvey oil protest 11 Oct 1973 – councillors locked in their offices by protestors

My favourite incident was when we took 2 coach loads of protesters to the Occidental Offices in London. When we got off the coach to meet the president of Occidental and their PRO man we surrounded them with 4 crying women. Men can’t talk to crying women. At the same time some bright spark in their office decided to put 2 fingers in a ‘V’ sign under a copy machine and then run off loads of copies and throw them out of the window. As they cascaded down I grabbed one and making sure I had the attention of the press photographers I cast it in front of the president and said ‘that’s your answer to the people of Canvey. Needless to say the president stated it was not true and he would sack whoever did it. Their corporate image never recovered from that incident as it went global.

There were lots of stories like this during the campaign and those who stood there and were counted have their own memories.

Both oil companies were held up for long enough for the building of oil refineries to become a non-viable proposition. Ironically when the half constructed refinery was being dismantled for scrap, the taking down of the chimney was going to be done by world famous steeple jack Fred Dibnah with all the local dignitaries watching. After all the years of hard work there was no room at the inn for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group, they were refused an invitation by the council to the celebration.

The day before this celebration, the prepared chimney fell down on its own with no one watching. Eventually the dog leg jetty was also stripped of its wealth.

It’s the first and only time that oil companies were beaten in Europe. That was by ordinary people saying ‘NO’. URL company died that day and Occidental Oil Refinery site RIP – Rust in Peace.

Yes I went on to stop Calor Gas processing and storing liquid natural gas at a later date, but that’s another story. Of all the Thames-side terminals that were in existence at the start of the Oil Refinery Campaign only 2 are left, namely Calor on the old British Gas site and Oikos which is on the old London and Coastal Oil Wharf site.

Canvey is a safer place than it was, but people still need to be vigilant.”

This was largely sourced from this great Canvey island history site, which has loads more and great photos

The abandoned site

 

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This was not the last Thames protest armada either: there were at least docklands armadas in the 1870s to protest against highhanded redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs in the interests of capital and business, ignoring the local people and the destruction of their jobs.

During the campaigning of the eighties against the London Docklands Development Corporation, representatives of both the Joint Docklands Action Group (JDAG) and Docklands Community Poster Project (DCPP) would attend the different meetings of the federated tenant and action groups around the Docklands area, as well as inviting representatives to their own meetings. A comment was made at one such event, that it was time to take another petition to parliament to challenge the imposition of the government appointed Docklands Development Corporation, which had effectively removed powers from the democratically elected local authorities.

Another delegate pointed out that since both Docklands and parliament were both situated on the river, that made it a potential route for delivery of the petition. Someone else spoke up to say that he was a lighterman in Wapping, and owned a barge – perhaps an appropriate means of transport for this journey? There was a further proposal that this barge could be decorated. The idea was taken up by JDAG and taken around the meetings of other Dockland groups, and in this way grew from a petition to a major event. People wanted to go from each Docklands location, so the hiring of pleasure cruisers was planned. These could also be decorated. And what would all these people do when they arrived at parliament? The Greater London Council (GLC) were approached. They provided funding for the event, plus use of Jubilee Gardens close to the pier opposite parliament where the pleasure boats could discharge their passengers.

Jean Lowe from JDAG together with Stewart Luck of the North Southwark Community Development Group undertook the organisation, while the DCPP co-ordinated East London arts groups and provided imagery, design and publicity. The main barge was decorated with a 24’ x 12’ banner with an image that was to become the emblem of the community fight back. This was a dragon in the shape of the river as it runs through Docklands, the dragon of myth and legend, a force of the underworld, and the power of repressed emotion. The symbol caught the imagination of local groups and a wealth of ephemera was generated – T shirts, mugs, letter headings, badges, balloons, posters and more banners.

The Basement Arts Workshop printed local area banners for the barge and pleasure boats. However first the barge had to be prepared. This was co-ordinated by Graham Downes of Cultural Partnerships, who worked with a host of young people to paint the barge, hoist the banners, ensure their safety on the voyage and provide tannoy and music. A thousand people took to the river. They sailed to parliament broadcasting their message and heralded by music and songs. It was a moving moment to hear the Armada’s progression up river, cheered on by crowds identifiable by their banners and balloons in the blue and red that had come to symbolise the Docklands fight back. At Jubilee Gardens more music, dancing and banners welcomed those who disembarked at an event that combined arts festival with political rally.

Ken Livingstone welcomed all, and members of the Labour shadow cabinet were asked to address how they would address the issues affecting the people of Docklands from day one of coming to power. Each politician was presented with a copy of the People’s Charter for Docklands, reminding them of their pledge.

This was not the end. There were three People’s Armadas to Parliament between the years of 1984 and 1986. Poems and songs were written about the issues and at a later Armada, Cultural Partnership co-ordinated an enormous barge of musicians, whose contributions filled the air on both sides of the river. They were also pyrotechnics experts, and at another Armada the flotilla of boats circled at North Woolwich by the LDDC offices to the sound of cannon fire. These were events that brought lumps to the throat and tears to the eye. Thousands of people, old and young, who would not have otherwise taken part in political campaigning, took part in this, then continued in an unprecedented involvement. The politicians continued to speak in support of the Docklands communities. Miners leading the strike of 1984/5 held meetings with the Docklands groups, and launched a campaign entitled ‘Don’t let the Mines go the same way as the Docks’. They were so impressed with the Docklands dragon, that they created their own ‘pit dragon’ as a massive carnival costume worn by young people, and attended the Armada celebrations. Though events such as this could not on their own enable the major shift in political focus that only a change in government would bring, much was achieved on the way. The Armadas also marked a shift from activism to pro-activism in the Docklands political campaigning that became a hallmark of this time, and would be further developed through such campaigns as the People’s Plan for the Royal Docks. They also marked a moment for the artists where their cultural interventions had moved from the margins to the centre of the agenda of resistance.

The above was nicked from here

Today in London’s anti-enclosure history, 1751: a crowd force entry into Richmond Park

On May 16th 1751, a group of local residents climbed over the wall into Richmond Park, to carry out the traditional ‘Beating the bounds’ ceremony – an annual walk around the borders of a parish. This act was an act of defiance of the enclosure of the park and the restriction of rights of access; one incident in a hundred-year long history of the public’s exclusion from this huge open space. Within seven years rights of access had been restored…

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King Charles I was fond of creating vast new hunting parks (his father James I had passed stringent game Laws preventing poor folk from hunting game animals on royal hunting land, (Charles II was to renew them in 1671). In the 1630s, Charles I oversaw the creation of Richmond Park.

Previous kings had already established a royal hunting ground in this area, by the 16th century this was known as Shene Chase; this was conveniently close to Shene Palace, re-built by king Henry VII at Richmond, and a favourite residence of the Tudor and Stuart rulers. Charles enclosed land which the crown already owned, but also appropriated some waste land, as well as common land from several local parishes – Richmond, Petersham, Kingston, Mortlake, Ham, Putney and Roehampton – together with two local farms, Hill Farm and Hartleton Farm. He also ‘persuaded’ local landowners to sell him more land – almost half the new park had previously belonged to someone else… many of whose families had lived there for generations, and provided a livelihood for many more, whose rights or interests in the land were not reflected by any ‘legal’ ownership rights. Others living and making a living in the area Charles wanted to enclose were crown tenants, who could and apparently were leant on, to give up their tenancies…

The king’s actions created a great deal of local resentment. Access to some traditional common rights for many of the local poor were almost certainly lost when the park was enclosed.

Even for those landowners forced to sell, the king’s price may have been high and fairly attractive, but several were apparently not happy to relinquish the land. In the end, though, who was going to say no to the king? Most acquiesced in the sale, but a stubborn minority held out. Charles responded by building a brick wall to separate out the park; many dissenters reluctantly gave in after this, as the wall would have in most cases cut them off from their lands inside.

Even the king’s most ardent supporters thought this kind of land grab was tactically a bad move. Laud, Bishop of London (later an Archbishop), and Lord Cottington, Chancellor of the Exchequer, both advised against such high-handed actions; not just because, as one advised him, that such behaviour was creating anger likely to bring about rebellion (Which of course it did), but because the expense of building a brick wall around the entire new park was huge. Cottington and Laud actively opposed the enclosure, trying to persuade Charles to drop the whole idea; without success.

Resistance having eventually been worn down, by 1635 there is evidence of Charles signing an agreement with several freeholders, copyholders and other inhabitants of Richmond, Kingston, Petersham, Ham, Mortlake and Wimbledon, to buy their lands for £4000. This amounted to 483 acres belonging to the manor of Ham and 265 acres belonging to the manor of Petersham.

It’s possible the king didn’t actually pay for all the lands he acquired. In Mortlake some locals who refused to sell had their land compulsorily purchased anyway; in retaliation they cut down all young trees and bushes on the land in question – over half of the land in Mortlake. The only recompense they seem to have received was an abolition of Ship Money [the tax Charles imposed nationally to raise money for the navy, a major grievance in the build up to the ‘great rebellion’ of the 1640s] for a year in the late 1630s.
The grievances created by the king’s high-handed actions burned locally for over 100 years.

There is some possibility too of canny politicking: the local poor’s right to access to the land for woodcutting & other fuels, was maintained. Unlike elsewhere, disgruntled well-to-do commoners or even landowners would be less likely to call on violent support from the poor if the latter’s own traditional usages were unaffected. Two rights of way were also apparently left open.

When Charlie lost his head, Richmond Park, like other royal property, was confiscated by the Commonwealth. Much royal property thus seized was sold off in the 1650s; however, Parliament granted the recently enclosed Richmond Park to the City of London, to keep the rich merchants on their side and providing cash too possibly (other lands were sold off, eg Hyde Park was flogged off to a private owner who proceeded to charge entrance fees). But with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the park was enclosed again.

In the 18th century, Richmond Park was farmed out to rich politicians & royals, successively appointed ‘Park Ranger’, a nominal post (implying no actual work done) which however guaranteed a large income for them (around £6,500 a year, a huge sum then) and for the crown.

Robert Lord Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was appointed Ranger in 1740. His father, the Prime Minister, though, was widely regarded as effectively holding the position, making all the decisions, with his son as a mere figurehead. The elder Walpole spent a fair amount of money doing the park up, but to improve his enjoyment of the space, he restricted the rights of access that king Charles had left in place, removing a number of the ladders and closing some gates. He also had lodges set up at the remaining gates, with keepers, who had orders to admit, during the day, only “respectable persons” on foot, and carriages with the correct ticket. It is said that some ladders were replaced by mantraps, vicious devices usually aimed at injuring and trapping poachers; (I have not yet found evidence of this, though.)

The Park had, from a royal hunting ground, gradually become a resort of the nobility and royalty, for cavorting, riding, taking the air; the absence of plebs making the place look untidy was an obvious selling point for these nobs. But since the woods and fields there were full of deer, rabbits and hares, poaching in the park was a way of life, locally, especially as such good meat was expensive for the lower orders. Neighbouring Wimbledon Common being a notorious haunt of poachers, deer-stealers & other robbers. Between 1723 and 1725 there was a mini-war between deer-stealers & gamekeepers in Richmond Park, involving arson of keepers’ houses, and ‘diverse outrages and disorders’. At least two poachers were executed. John Huntridge, landlord of the Halfway House Inn on the wall of the Park, near Robin Hood Gate, was charged with harbouring deerstealers, but he was acquitted, to popular acclaim. Walpole had backed the case against Huntridge, and the landlord’s acquittal was widely seen not only as a local matter but as one in the eye for the rotten system of patronage and legal extortion Walpole and his class exercised though their control of public offices (like the Park Rangership).

The next Ranger of Richmond Park was Princess Amelia, favourite daughter of king George II, and a particularly hedonistic and self-centred royal with a strong sense of her entitlement to pretty much whatever she wanted. This included the desire to enjoy Richmond Park without the chance of ever coming across anyone of a lower social class than herself (ie almost everyone). Under her Rangership, the simmering local hostility broke into the open.

Shortly after taking up her appointment, in 1751, Amelia reduced access to the park even further, closing it completely to all except personal friends, and a few others; prospective visitors were required to obtain special permits, which weren’t easy to get hold of. She also blocked an old road from Kingston to Shene that had served as a footpath, and ignored legal warrants requiring the erection of stiles and ladders near Richmond Gate.

Local people reacted first of all by petitioning the Lord Chancellor (who, ironically, had supposedly himself been refused entrance!); but their petition was knocked back.

On Ascension Day 1751, the traditional annual “Beating of the Parish Bounds” ceremony, led by a Richmond clergyman, took place [I wonder if this local cleric was Thomas Wakefield, later a supporter of John Lewis’ campaigns to open up the Park?]. Ascension Day fell that year on 16 May – just over six weeks after Amelia had taken office as Ranger. Whereas in previous years, the Beating the Bounds’ party had been granted permission to enter the Park, this year they were refused. However, access was eventually obtained, albeit “with difficulty”. In fact, they entered by climbing over the wall, having either knocked down part of the wall, or taken advantage of an already damaged section. A publication later that year included an illustration of the incident, (see above) in which three of the Princess’ men can be seen sitting astride the wall, watching as a crowd clamber through a breach in the wall near Sheen Common. It is not known whether that the participants broke down the wall, but the walls were not always kept in a good state of repair, as a report in 1754 by the Deputy Ranger noted. It is possible, therefore, that the ‘trespassers’ simply exploited an existing defect. There is no legal record of anyone being prosecuted over this invasion of the park.

It is also uncertain quite how this Ascension Day incident – which clearly acquired a certain notoriety – related to Amelia’s closure of the Park. It may have been the trigger which led her to step up restrictions on access, or it may have been the first protest against actions which she had already taken at the very start of her Rangership.

The ‘Breaking the bounds’ incident was in effect an assertion of old rights of access to the old commons. It seems this ceremony had been allowed in previous years, but had been uncontroversial while some limited access was granted.

Further break-ins apparently followed the Ascension Day ‘trespass’. however. This incident was the effective beginning of a campaign of agitation and legal challenge through the 1750s.

The princess’ restrictions on access to the Park caused much inconvenience and resentment in the neighbouring parishes. Some political and legal opposition was launched in response: this included a  number of petitions, “memorials” (ie formal memoranda or addresses), press notices and pamphlets. The 28 July, 1752 edition of the Post Boy contained a memorial to the Princess from the owners of estates in the parishes adjoining the Park, asking for rights of roads and highways, stiles or ladders at the gates, supplies of gravel (sometimes dug in the park) to maintain high roads in the neighbourhood, access to water and watercourses, and to furze and underwood for burning as fuel. They also suggested doors in the wall for parish officers to perambulate the bounds. This and other petitions were ignored, however.

Failure to win concessions by publicity and campaigning led to legal action.  A trial took place in 1754, arising out of an incident where a group of gentlemen had apparently asked for admission to the Park from Deborah Burgess, then Deputy Ranger. As ordered by Princess Amelia, Shaw had refused admission, which sparked the case of Symonds v Shaw, which was heard on 12 & 13 November 1754 by Sir Dudley Ryder, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Denison and Mr Justice Foster, sitting with a jury.  The attempt to enter the park had clearly been intended to provoke refusal as part of carefully planned strategy, as £1,095 had been collected by the inhabitants of East Sheen for the costs of the legal action.

The trial appears to have been a shambles. The prosecution called 27 witnesses, who gave evidence of rights of way for vehicles and pedestrians. No fewer than 37 witnesses were then called by the defence; these included many noblemen, Lord Palmerston among them. The inhabitants’ case was however dismissed.

John Lewis (1713-1792), who lived in Richmond, and owned a brewery near the Thames close to where Terrace Gardens now are, now took up the struggle. A stroppy character. It’s not known if he attended the 1754 trial, but he was clearly aware of it, and decided that a more focussed line of attack was needed.

In 1755 Lewis went with a friend to Sheen Gate and waited until a carriage approached. The carriage’s driver produced a ticket to the gatekeeper, Martha Gray, and was allowed by her to enter the Park. Lewis then tried to walk in through the gate before it could be closed. Gilbert Wakefield, (brother of Thomas Wakefield, the minister at Richmond Parish Church), recorded the brief exchange that followed:

MG: Where is your ticket?
JL: What occasion for a ticket? Anyone may pass through here.
MG: No – not without a ticket.
JL: Yes, they may; and I will.
MG: You shan’t.
JL: I will.

Martha Gray then pushed Lewis, who allowed the gate to be shut against him.

Lewis then brought an action against the keeper (in reality aimed at princess Amelia). The case of Rex v Gray was born. Lewis cleverly based his case on a narrow legal issue: Charles I’s concession of rights of way for pedestrians only, in contrast to the 1754 case, which had sought unrestricted access for walkers and carriages, and his case was not clouded by the mass of evidence which seems to have led to the dismissal of the earlier claim.

Another local controversy may have inspired Lewis’ when he made his legal challenge in 1755. The year before, Timothy Bennett, a shoemaker of Hampton Wick, had successfully challenged a similar situation in nearby Bushy Park (which lies just over the river from Richmond). The Earl of Halifax had erected a wall round Bushy Park in about 1734, resulting in local people having to undertake a much longer walk between Kingston and Hampton, where they had previously been able to cut through the park. In 1754, Bennett, then in his late 70s, made representations to Lord Halifax, who restored the rights of way without any court action being necessary. [In Sandy Lane, Bushy Park, a memorial was erected in 1900 to Timothy Bennett. A footpath is also named “Cobbler’s Way” in his memory.]

Lewis’s case over Richmond Park initially came on for hearing at the Summer Assizes in August 1757. However it was nearly scuppered by the appearance of a pamphlet which attacked Amelia and asserted the public rights of access to the Park – a “Tract in the National Interest”, published anonymously. This reminded reminded readers that “The right of the people to a free passage through Richmond Park was a privilege they always enjoyed until the late Sir Robert Walpole audaciously divested them of it” and that the signs of the existence of ancient highways were there for all to see who were not deliberately blind.

The judge, the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, considered the pamphlet a libel, and its distribution sub judice and thus in contempt of court. He halted the trial and ordered those concerned with writing, publishing and distributing the pamphlet to be found. Lewis and his co-prosecutor, Shepheard, who were in court, were strongly suspected of being involved in the publication of the tract… However, in August, 1757, Lewis swore an Affidavit, denying being concerned in “printing or publishing the Pamphlett”. He also denied “dispersing any Copys” of it, and stated that he disapproved “of the printing or publishing any Matters which may have any undue influence on the minds of witnesses or the Jury”. However, he did not make any reference to the actual authorship of the pamphlet, leading Mansfield and many others to suspect he may have written it, if not more... Lewis was however not included in charges brought against some of those alleged to have been concerned with the publication of the offending pamphlet.

Lord Mansfield decided that the outcome of that trial would not have a bearing on the hearing of R v Gray, so he ordered that the substantive case involving the rights of access to the Park should be resumed at the next Assizes.

The case against Martha Gray eventually resumed at the Surrey Assizes, sitting at Kingston, on 3 April 1758. The court consisted of Sir Thomas Denison, Sir Michael Foster – who had been on the bench for the 1754 trial – and a jury.

After all the evidence was heard, the judges came down clearly in Lewis’s favour. He was asked by the court whether he wished to have gates made in the wall or step-ladders to go over it. Lewis decided that a door, which would have to be kept closed when not in use, so as to prevent the escape of deer, would give the impression that access was not freely available; and he also feared that, in time, a door might have a bolt fixed to it. So he opted for the erection of ladder stiles.

On 12 May 1758 ladder stiles and gates were affixed to Sheen Gate and Ham Gate; these were opened to the public on 16 May, when a “vast concourse of people from all the neighbouring villages climbed over the ladder stiles into the Park”. This re-opening occurred (by coincidence?) exactly seven years to the day after the Ascension Day trespass in 1751.

However, outraged at her defeat in court, princess Amelia ordered the rungs on the ladders to be widely spaced apart, so as to prevent people from using them. Lewis, however, went back to court over this, and Amelia was ordered to amend them so old people and children could use them.

Although people were supposed to keep strictly to the paths, it was reported that many simply started to wander the whole park, some reputedly declaring it to now be theirs ‘in common’. Initially carriages were still only let in with tickets. Another court case in 1760, attempting to open up the park for carriages was again lost; allegedly however, large-scale forgery of these tickets resulted.

Princess Amelia, clearly unable to stomach the invasion of a private playground by the hoi polloi, and unwilling to share the space, lost interest in the Park, and resigned the Rangership in 1761 (in return, according to Horace Walpole, for an annuity of £1,200).

John Lewis became a local celebrity. His portrait was painted by T. Stewart, a pupil of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The picture currently hangs in the Reference Library at the Old Town Hall, Richmond. An engraving was later made by Robert Field, a copy of which was said in the 18th century to hang in many homes in the area. On the engraving were the words of Rev. Thomas Wakefield: “Be it remembered that by the steady perseverance of John Lewis, brewer, at Richmond, Surry” [sic] “the right of a free passage through Richmond Park was recovered and established by the laws of his country (notwithstanding very strongly opposed) after being upwards of twenty years withheld from the people”.

But Lewis’ legal campaigns had left him pretty skint, and since his means of livelihood was lost when his brewing business was wrecked when the Thames flooded, he faced great poverty later in life. Local vicar Thomas Wakefield, another supporter of the campaign to open up the park, organised locals in the setting up of a small annual grant to help Lewis out, on which Lewis survived for some years, in recognition of the huge part he’d played in regaining popular access to the Park. A further effort to secure money for him was being made at the time of his death in 1792. Lewis was buried at St Mary Magdalene, the parish church of Richmond. The horizontal gravestone can be seen outside the church’s South side. The inscription, now in a poor state, reads:

“Here lie the remains of Mr John Lewis Late of this parish who died The 22 of October 1792 Aged 79 years”

It’s worth noting that despite Lewis’ achievement in legally confirming the right to cross the Park, this really only reclaimed pre-existing rights of way. The “right to roam” freely did not come about for another century at least. Public access continued to be restricted during the first half of the 19th century: although pedestrians could enter freely, they were largely confined to the roads and the defined footpaths. However, he had established the principle of public access, following failed attempts by others.

The enactment in 1872 of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act marked a new official approach to public access, (though in Richmond Park, a more relaxed attitude had prevailed from around 1850).

Ironically, it’s not impossible that king Charles I’s enclosure of the park, the outright bullying used to acquire the land and wall it off, is what has in fact preserved a massive tract of open space for what is in effect public use for us today. If Charles had not been so determined to over-ride the ‘rights’ of smaller landowners, their descendants would in all likelihood have developed their own parts of it, piecemeal, although it’s not impossible that parts could have survived here and there (as did Petersham Common and Ham Common, later). For instance – William Murray, Earl Dysart, was one of the major landowners ‘persuaded’ to sell lands to the king in the 1630s; much of his manor of Petersham was included in the New Park (in fact after petitioning the king in 1639, he was granted a perpetual title to Petersham, as partial recompense). His nineteenth century descendants were therefore still in possession of common land here – which they attempted to enclose, in the face of stiff local resistance (to which we will return another time).

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London traffic history, 1995: Reclaim the Streets block Camden High Street to party against car culture

“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more… A festival of resistance!’ (Reclaim The Streets leaflet 1998)

The current Extinction Rebellion protests around the planetary climate change crisis have galvanised huge numbers, as well as sparking vital discussions about tactics, participation and decision-making.

How it reminds some of us of our own youth… specifically the previous great wave of eco-action from the 1990s. Of course the ‘historical’ anti-roads movements, Reclaim the Streets etc are not separate from today’s movement – there are continuous threads through Earth First!, Climate Camp, Rising Tide and so on that have carried on through the intervening years. But in many ways Reclaim the Streets represented the last high profile mass environmental movement before XR. Some examination of RTS, its development, actions and significance, could be interesting when compared to XR, and discussion of its successes and failures could contribute to today’s debate and decisions…

This is as much a personal account as a history, and may well miss out much others would have covered. I’ve nicked/quoted other people’s work where it made sense… If it’s a bit rambly its because I have rushed to write it, but will update and tidy it and hope to include it in a longer piece about J18 and other things…

From the start it should be said that it is written from the perspective of someone who did have some involvement in Reclaim the Streets but (partly for reasons of time, work, family and other pressures) is not significantly involved in Extinction Rebellion, though I have been on some of their actions. Critiques of them here may well be influenced by lack of full knowledge; just as critiques of RTS may be coloured by way too much hindsight…

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It was 25 years ago today…

On 14 May 1995, two old cars deliberately crashed into each other, in the five-way intersection  in Camden High Street, the heart of one of north London’s busiest trendy shopping areas. Both drivers, in a seeming paroxysm of road rage, jumped out and started to abuse each other. This was much to the annoyance and disbelief of onlooking drivers, now in a traffic jam because of the altercation. The two drivers got so irate they proceeded to smash up each other’s cars with sledge hammers. The street was blocked: usually rammed with cars, the high street was suddenly-traffic free. A crowd poured into the street, sound systems powered by electricity generated by the constant pedalling of bicycles began to pound out dance music, and the road becomes a party venue. There were about 300 people present (though some onlookers joined in)…

“Every car entering the intersection was gridlocked. Shoppers and market goers joined the party, which lasted five hours. The smashed cars became the focus for all to vent car-anger on; they were attacked throughout the party. The police merely directed traffic. What else could they do?”

The cars were second-hand bangers bought to be trashed and used as barricades; the brainchild of Reclaim the Streets. The Camden street party launched RTS’s classic period of huge street parties, taking over larger and higher profile spaces, and inspiring similar groups which sprang up all around the world.

As someone wrote at the time:

“Thus arises the modus operandi of occupying urban zones with spontaneous and illegal celebrations that appropriate the public space for a number of hours. Food is given away, toys are brought along for children and banners are arranged which proclaim the changes that have been brought about in the space: ‘BREATHE’, ‘CAR FREE’, ‘RECLAIM THE STREETS!’ Camden Town, an area of London largely dedicated to the commercialization of ‘alternative’ culture, is turned into a place of free leisure. This piece of the urban landscape temporarily changes its function in a carnivalesque inversion of social order. The absence of authority, the system where everything is free: the street becomes a place to play, eat, drink and dance – without money and without permission. If the car has become a symbol and celebration is a medium, this ‘form’ is more utopian than the conventional rally because it refers to other possible forms of organization. The interruption of motorized traffic represents an act of collective civil disobedience against the city’s traffic norms. On top of the aim of anti-road movement to prevent the construction of new motorways, RTS proposes a temporary blockade of those that already exist, trying to sketch out the vision of a city without cars.”

Origins

Reclaim the Streets (RTS) had originally been founded in 1991, and as a small collective carried out small-scale ecologist actions: painting cycle lanes on the roads during the night and picketing an automobile industry fair. It declared itself: ‘FOR walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them.’ On a spring day in 1992 the group brang traffic in part of London to a halt with a small illegal party in the street. The police evicted them, but warned: ‘Protest is gonna get bigger: the car culture is growing constantly! This is just the first stage.’ A few months after this event, the group disbanded.

RTS was then reborn, three years later, in the heat of a large anti-roads movement which had been evolving and increasing in profile and activity across the UK in the early 1990s; but RTS also absorbed huge wodges of ideas and spirit from the diverse movement that came together to oppose the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill; behind that, lay a mass of rave culture, squatting, traveller scenes, party crews, sound systems and various eco-protest groups.

Two huge protests in particular had raised the profile of the anti-roads movement  – the Twyford Down camp and direct action against the construction of the M3 motorway link, the “No M11 Link” campaign occurred in North East London’s suburbs of Leytonstone and Wanstead. Twyford focussed on protecting rural beauty spots and saw alliances between travellers and self-styled ‘tribes’ like the Dongas. The M11 in contrast was urban, in defence both pf thousands of trees being torn down for the M11 link road, as well as the loss of hundreds of homes. Resistance to the M11 involved constant direct-action resistance for 18 months, culminating in the eviction in December 1994 of the squatted street at Claremont Road.

ALARM U.K. (Alliance Against Road Building) recounted in its newsletter, “The government was taken aback that a protest against the M11, a motorway being built in an unfashionable part of East London, resulted in the longest campaign of direct action against a road in British history. Pictures were flashed around the world of masses of people old and young, conventional and alternative, taking on bulldozers in an awe-inspiring defense of homes, urban spaces and communities.”

Here a working-class community, in alliance with an influx of activists, many young but already seasoned in the anti-roads/anti-CJB scenes, not defending green spaces, homes and community.

The campaign against the M11 kicked off when the Old Chestnut Tree of George Green, Wanstead, to the community’s surprise, was to be removed. The residents, angered by being misled by the government, found themselves pushing down fences built to keep them from defending the tree. During the next year, houses were squatted and work constantly disrupted. But it became obvious in the summer of 1994 that Claremont Road, a strip of houses in the path of the motorway, was to be the main focus of the campaign. A community formed around these houses that included local residents, squatters and activists from around the country. The campaign strategy was to “dig in” and make it as difficult as possible for the authorities to remove protesters. It took four days in November, 1994, to evict everyone.

The street was painted and filled with psychedelic sculptures, and barricades. Above them the nets, tree houses, aerial walkways and towers went up; inside the houses bunkers and lock-ons and tunnels were hidden in tons of rubble.

After Claremont Road was lost, much of its energy and cheeky spirit went into Reclaim the Streets (RTS), which had already existed, but was revived to step up the campaigning from specific roads to opposition to roads in general and “car culture’. RTS aimed to move the debate beyond anti-road protest, to highlight the social and environmental costs of the car and the political and economic forces behind it and to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be done when people re-occupy their streets and turn them to alternative uses.

RTS’ advocated  “direct action, but not just as a tactic. [We advocate] a society in which people take responsibility for their own actions, and don’t just leave it to the politicians.” This wasn’t just about pressuring an existing establishment into action – it was about everyone taking action in our own collective interests.

Reclaim the Streets’ events were organised very much along the lines of how raves had been planned and attracted participants over the past 6 or 7 years: people were invited to gather at an underground station and, once there, a small group lead them to the final destination, which had been kept secret. The RTS parties explicitly politicised the rave, although the oppositional culture of raves had been bothering the authorities for a while. Parties were based around sound systems, rhythms of techno and acid house, although the older free festival scene that had evolved from the 1970s also had something of an influence. But the RTS parties also wanted to “create situations that are fitting for a better world”.

How street parties were seen by RTS was later summed up thus
“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more.
The Street party, itself reclaimed from the inanities of royal jubilees and state ‘celebrations’, is just one recent initiative in a vibrant history of struggle, both to defend and to take back collective space. From the Peasants’ Revolt to the resistance to the enclosures, from the land occupations of the Diggers to the post-war squatters, on to the recent free festivals, peace camps, land squats and anti-roads movement. Everywhere, extra-ordinary people have continually asserted not only the need to liberate the commons but the ability to think and organise for themselves.
For the city, the streets are the commons, but in the hands of industry and power brokers the streets have become mere conduits for commerce and consumption – the economic hero of which is, of course, the car. A symbol and a symptom of the social and ecological nightmare that state and capitalism create, the car which promises individual freedom ends up guaranteeing noise, destruction and pollution for all. For Reclaim the Streets, the car is a focus – the insanity of its system clearly visible – that leads to questioning both the myth of ‘the market’ and its corporate and institutional enforcers.
With a metal river on one side and endless windows of consumerism on the other, the streets’ true purpose: social interaction, becomes an uneconomic diversion. In its place the corporate-controlled one way media of newspapers, radio and television become ‘the community’. Their interpretation out reality. In this sense the streets are the alternative and subversive form of the mass media. Where authentic communication, immediate and reciprocal, takes place.
To ‘reclaim the streets’ is to act in defence of and for common ground. To tear down the fence of enclosure that profit-making demands. And the Street Party – far from being juts anti-car – is an explosion of our suppressed potential, a celebration of our diversity and a chorus of voices in solidarity.

A festival of resistance!’ {RTS leaflet 1998.}

Upper Street

After Camden had hit the news with a bang, the second Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London. It was a huge success, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two months, the number of people who took part in the first street event increased tenfold.

John Jordan, one of the co-founders of RTS, talked of how the street celebration seeks to prefigure an ‘imagined world… a vision in which the streets of the city could be a system that prioritised people above profit and ecology above the economy’… the ‘perfect propaganda for the possible’. (In Upper Street Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World sounded out through the loudspeakers.)

The experience of being during the party is different from life away from it: ordinary norms disappear and people express themselves by dancing, playing music or making artistic interventions on any available surface. The economic system of the celebration is abundance and generosity. It is about thinking of the emergence of a world where things are free and where there is a celebrating community, a world of shared goods and freed space. Earth First Do or Die suggested that ‘inherent within its praxis – its mix of desire, spontaneity and organisation – lie some of the foundations on which to build a participatory politics for a liberated, ecological society.’

A week later, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma are going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.

The M41

The following year RTS returned with a bang. 1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”. RTS made that into the Year We Squatted a Motorway

July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush  – the shortest motorway in England – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you… Three thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. Some 7,000 turned up… At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall panto dame figures dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane.


Liverpool Dockers 96-97

After dockers in Liverpool were locked out after refusing to work for a lower rate than they were prepared to accept, a long-running dispute evolved, involving 500 dockers. This became a major cause celebre in Liverpool and across the UK, with mass solidarity, international support…
Reclaim the Streets in London were approached by London supporters of the dockers, and launched a 3-day protest/party/occupation in September 1996 to mark the first anniversary of the dispute. Hundreds of activists attended and joined dockers on the picket line, and occupied a dock office block, as well s cutting the fence around Seaforth Dock and invading the facility…

heres’ an RTS leaflet on the dockers’s struggle

And an interview with Chris Knight, who linked up the two groups

April 12th 1997

Following the Liverpool actions, RTS and the Dockers collaborated on a demo/action/party in April 1997 to coincide with the run-up to the general election – variously known at the March for Social Justice, Reclaim the Future, the ‘Festival of Resistance’ and Never Mind The Ballots…

On 12th April 1997, some 20,000 people took part in the March for Social Justice, called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers and their families, jointly with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers. The gathering at Trafalgar Square was big but most of the Dockers, other strikers and their families left soon after the rally (mainly because of their long journeys home). The numbers were beginning to drop when a van containing the sound system managed to enter the square – the music and the huge street party then began. The dancing went on for hours,  but by late afternoon, the cordon had successfully reduced the numbers in the square and riot police – some on horseback – stormed in to clear the area battering us out of the Square and over the bridges, with lots of extreme prejudice.

IN November 1997 RTS squatted an empty petrol station in Islington

By 1998 RTS had evolved into something not just about cars and roads, but about taking back everything:

“We are basically about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as pubic inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” (RTS leaflet 1998)

In May 1998 RTS held a party in Birmingham, then hosting a G8 summit. Here’s a report

And some Video footage

Think global, act local

After Birmingham, 1998, RTS decided to put on simultaneous ‘local’ street parties in different areas of London; after much of the usual debate, this came down to two, one in the north. One down south, on June 6th – to coincide with hundreds of RTS parties going on around the world… The North London party met at Kings Cross and then went on a long march to Tottenham, where the party took place. In South London, we settled on Brixton, where a majority of south London RTS folk lived anyway. Unlike at other actions, there was no plan B and instead of meeting in one place and moving to another, we double-bluffed the cops, amassing in front of the Ritzy cinema and taking over the street in front of us when our four old bangers of cars smashed into each other. This remains one of my favourite RTS parties, because it took over the street I actually lived in, in my manor; a great feeling.
See Neil Transpontine’s account of the Brixton party

A report on the June 1998 North London party

here’s some film of this North London street party

There were some problems with these parties:  notably differences between Brixton and the North London party – the former was rooted in people who lived here, the North London less so – not even opening discussions with local activist groups in that area. Also it seemed less happy in its conclusions somehow, some people involved with it got upset by accusations of anti-social behaviour from some locals and had to go back, hand out an apology leaflet and tidy up…

London RTS had several discussion over the summer of 1998 about where to go next. There were two main strands of thought. 1, that the ever larger RTS group in the capital could break up somewhat into more local groups but employ similar ideas, tactics, spirit in local actions around more local and daily targets. There was a suggestion that not only had the police begin to get the measure of large parties but that it was old news, becoming less effective, and making a ‘spectacle’ of itself, in the situationist sense – rather than addressing where capital and eco-change could really be fought over – in people’s daily lives where they lived, worked, played. Others countered this with the idea that large parties/actions had been successful so far and what was needed was a harder bigger target, linked much more to international capitalism and finance, rather than concentrating on car use, general eco-protest…
It was the second group that won the argument, in the short term at least, which was to usher in June 18th, probably the highest profile of all the RTS events; it also launched in many ways the UK arm of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, a distinct development from both the RTS/90s eco-scene and the anarchists who had enthusiastically embraced it (not all did by any means).

J18 1999

A product of the 98 discussions, the J18 day of action in June 1999 came out of the growing merger of anarchists and RTS ideas, but also linked more and more to ‘anti-capitalism’ and the antiglobal summit movement. Plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-98, and more and more older anarchos who remembered events like Stop the City were putting their oar in. [we hope to post some of the history of Stop the City soon on this blog]

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at the Liverpool Street train station. Organisers distributed masks in four different colours and the participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; a spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolise the liberation of the river beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor, and nearly succeeded in destroying the London Stock Exchange itself. In response, police attacked the general public with tear gas and horse charges and ran over one demonstrator with a riot van,
breaking her leg.

There’s some reflections of June 18th, published after the event.

The events of June 18, 1999 set the stage for the historic demonstrations against the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle later that year.

(RTS and others put an event, ‘N30’ to coincide with Seattle)

After J18, RTS did partially fragment; many older/founder activists splintered off into other activities, other burned out for a bit. A number went into other eco-related direct action groups like UK Earth First!, into a growing network carrying out anti-genetically modified crop actions… In London, some parts of RTS remained involved in large spectacular anti-capitalist events, most notably the annual Mayday protests which ran from 2000 on, and were best attended in the early 2000s.

Links to reports on early 2000s Mayday actions in London

From RTS, Maydays, the anti-capitalist scene evolved other projects – social centres eg the London Action Resource Centre & others around the UK… the WOMBLES, Dissent  and the Disobedience network against the Iraq war

Mad hippies… middle class wankers…

When RTS burst onto the scene there it led to a mix of opinion on the older ‘class struggle’ anarchist scenes (the milieu past tense emerged from and was then immersed in) and the left… Many had had some involvement in the anti-CJA campaigns, many had been squatters, ravers since the late 90s, and embraced the mad frolics with a will… Others were very po-faced and dismissed it all as hippy nonsense. Not serious and working class enough. Within much of the CJA, anti-roads scenes, there had been an extremely diverse mix of views, politically ranging from class struggle anarchism, through pacifist, Green Party, to hippy ‘lifestylism’ (and on the fringe, frankly to some dodgy conspiracy theory types).  Lots of the class struggle anarcho wing had spent years in their youths ‘growing out’ of pacifism, learning that the police were prepared to kick in heads and trusting neither in the state or in politicians of any stripe. We’d seen and felt the truncheons and experienced the left in power, as well as getting tired of what we saw as drongo drop out laziness and anti-social selfishness which infected many squats and projects, and the kind or moralising politics that had pervaded pacifism, CND etc. The naivety of some of the 90s scenes (some of it down to youth but not all by any means) was frustrating, and there were some among us who said it was all middle class hippy wankers. It wasn’t, though there were a number of middle class hippy wankers, and a lot of ‘what are you doing to save the Earth’ moralising which gets right up yer nostrils. But some of us were really up ourselves in many ways, convinced of our politically advanced ideas, dismissive… RTS though had such energy that it pulled us in, especially as many of the ‘community-activist’ projects we had built in the wake of anti-poll tax movement were in reality struggling to survive. The M41 and RTS alliance with the dockers convinced many suspicious minds that there was some real potential here (arrogant as that sounds now). There was also a sense of a kind of (funny) desperation to be where the action was… As well as a gradual disintegration of anarcho-snobbery into a respect and appreciation. (Of course lots of anarchos had also been involved early on too) But in the end, an influx of anarchists and other types into RTS synthesised something new – for a while. This helped spark new directions – for instance discussions and memories about the story of Stop the City from some of those who had taken part helped create J18 in 1999.

Others remained critical, including some on what you could call the post-situ or left communist scenes, which had a close relation in practice to anarchists while always holding up lots of issues. Some of this was acid and niggly, other points were interesting and useful. An interesting critique of RTS and anti-summit movement/anti-capitalism: You Make Plans we make History

RTS’s critics from the post-situ or ‘ultraleft’ scenes did have some interesting points about activism, and what they saw as the difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The latter comes out of people’s needs, own experience and desires, they reckoned; the former they saw as something disconnected, artificially set up and directed at something outside of ourselves. If struggle was suggested as effective in addressing social & economic conditions that hold us down directly, protest is shown almost as diversion, complaint, remote from ourselves, addressing ‘issues’ and demanding someone else do something about them. Now there’s a kernel of truth here – this tension does exist, and there are a growing number of professional and academic activists institutionalising campaigning, creating niches and leadership roles for themselves. ‘Activism’ as a construct IS a separation of sorts, splitting off those who protest about issues from those who don’t, creating a spectacular conception of yourself as a fighter, whether or not it’s about what you yourself need or desire… there was a tendency to see yourself as a hero if the planet. There was also a dynamic of organisers and attendees, to some extent, a kind of vanguard that us older more anarchic types thought too elitist, leadershippy. Some of it was necessary – if 7000 people know all the details of the secret party location it’s gonna get blown – but also, when RTS became a big weekly meeting with interminable wrangling and debating, breaking into small groups and reporting back,  a certain amount of behind the scenes ‘get it done’ undemocratic sorting does become vital… else nowt happens. However; there was a tyranny of the capable, and a kind of showing up to the party by others who wanted to consume RTS – sometimes. RTS did fight against that, and had some conceptions of his to get around it, which didn’t entirely get realised… None of these problems are anything like unique to that group: but there were a lot of arguments around it, at the time (I do remember a lot of us who turn up being bemused in Liverpool in September 1996 by how we were expected to turn up somewhere without knowing what was going to happen, a bit like soldiers being given sealed orders… sparking a long and rancourous debate the night before the big action. In retrospect some of what we said was a bit naïve, but the point that it felt not self-organised…)

But it’s more complex than all that, and I’m not completely convinced of the absolute difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The possibilities of breaking down separation are myriad…

Another objection to RTS, and the wider eco-movements, was to do with their class composition. This was in fact linked to the previous point about protest – ‘struggle’ was what the working class did, and it was implied (though not strictly said) that ‘protest’ was a middle class construct… Again this discussion is in fact very interesting and I cannot do it justice here (hopefully we’ll return to it). The implication is that RTS’s ways of organising was intimately derived from the class background of those who created and ran it. Well yes, as with almost everything, and yes, this did produce contradictions and shortcomings.
RTS was dominated by the middle class, yes, and even some of the upper class, realistically. Not all though by any means, and it did evolve and change. Unlike many on the class struggle anarchist scene they didn’t pretend to be eh up mate types… Their conception of capitalism was not based on a class analysis, and thus was, yes, wishy-washy in what the group actually saw capital AS. Analysis wasn’t the strong point of RTS and the wider scene it arose from/helped create, which had a multi-farious mishmash of definitions of capitalism, a lot of which was contradictory and sketchy.

Class is there. it exists, it underpins everything about capitalism and how it was born and sustains itself. It may not look like 1880s class or 1930s class or even 1970s class, but class divisions are fundamental and can’t be ignored, and you can’t take on a world social and economic system without understand what it is based on. Yes we want to abolish class but it can’t be wished out of exitnesnce, least of all in the movements we create in opposition… Both RTS and Extinction Rebellion have suffered from this lack of understanding…

Luckily there were/are a legion of serious thinkers on hand to tell them where it all fell down! …Joke. (Partly.) In fact the eventual partial merger of parts of RTS with class struggly anarchists, autonomists and other ‘proper’ political tendencies created more analysis, but not that much more, and did water down the fun bits…
It was pointed out that ‘middle class people mostly organised the parties but mostly working class people got arrested.’ (when the police attacked them usually, near the end). True (see below), though not particularly intentionally, more in naivety and lack of forethought, or for lack of how to adequately deal with police attack and how to end the events.
People within RTS milieu did rise to become career professionals, trading on their activism to achieve entry into cultural fashionability; there was some criticism of this from some of who were very suspicious of such things as filming demos (due to being burned by police taking control of footage after events like the anti-poll tax riot and others, and journalists/film crews happily collaborating with this). This did lead to uneasy times in RTS as people didn’t all get it.

Some have said that RTS was actually ineffective, in that it did not achieve its stated aims. Apart from taking over a few streets for a few days it didn’t break ‘car culture’… The effect of RTS wax compared unfavourably to the 2000 fuel protests – as was pointed out, that movement had an infinitely huger effect, paralysing road traffic, if only for a short while. It also had lots of contradictions, class alliances and political dubiousnesses, but did produce a crisis and cleared the streets of cars… Again, though, it didn’t last, and things returned to normal (though I haven’t seen any discussions on longer term developments among those that carried the blockades out…)

… and more recently, there’s the French Yellow Vests – a sustained movement much more combative, taking on the state in a way RTS never managed and dwarfing XR’s impact … (Again, the politics are very mixed, but when are they not?)

No RTS did not fundamentally alter capitalism, car use, help turn the world green… Some struggles on very limited territory can win outright, others achieve partial victories; others seem to fail of splutter out. Few know what effect they have in the end, as influences mutate, ideas mingle and merge, individuals and groups wend their ways and diverge… RTS had many limits.

RTS left a long legacy in the UK and wider activist scenes, with the group in London carrying on for several years, taking part in the mayday organising, as well as lots of those who passed through it setting off into many other campaigns, projects, etc, the anti-Afghan/Iraq war movements, Occupy, social centres and anti-G8 etc summit protests… you name it.

I don’t know if anyone has really discussed it anywhere, but it would be interesting to talk about the development of RTS into the anti-capitalist movement and wider points about these movements, and of protest movements generally. While J18 was fun and high profile, and thousands of activists turning up to surround and attempt to disrupt summits of the G8 and other meetings of the rich and famous – it represents a specific interpretation of how capital is organised and where it exists, is controlled, can be challenged etc. Concentrating on central points, the obvious target of world leaders and economic movers. But capital is a world system that pervades down to the very marrow of every aspect of our lives; to some extent challenging it is not about the world leaders, but in the everyday. RTS in its origins recognised this and at its best was moving towards the idea of taking over our lives from within where we live them. To me J18 and the anti-summit movements diverted away from that; this was at the heart of our discussions in Summer 1998, and without wanting to say ‘we went the wrong way’, I do think now (and said then) that this may have been broadly a narrowing of RTS’ vision. To radically alter the world you have to organically build from the edges where you are, till the centres collapse because you have already taken over everything. The anti-capitalist movement obsession with summits seemed to me to want to build everyday rebellion outward from the middle by attacking what they saw as the centres of power. Does capital even have a centre?
There’s a partial critique of the anti-capitalist movement’s focus on attacking summits in Where is the Festival: Notes on summits and counter-summits

Extinction and evolution

Extinction Rebellion have in some ways reproduced elements of RTS’ approach, but differ in other ways. The main similarities are obvious – taking over streets and public space, the initial concentration on climate change, the emphasis on people taking action. However, there are major points of departure, some positive, some worth examining critically.

RTS took space as a one-off, usually, where XR at least in the last actions in April 2019 tried to keep up the pressure by remaining in the streets of central London for as long as they feasibly could. This is more resonant of the Occupy movements of post-2008 radical protest, and has both its strengths and its weakness implicit in it, in that it does seem to pile on more sustained involvement by extending the action, but also begins inevitably to become separated out from those not involved, an end in itself. This is a problem with almost everything you can do where protest is concerned, and is difficult to avoid. RTS did celebrate the very fact of taking over space ourselves as very much the point, the action being the destination, as well as the road, a moment of liberation by the very nature of occupying space. XR actions, like Occupy, achieve this by default, as taking over space in defiance of the usual day to day creates its own dynamic. What comes out of such actions on the future may be radically different from what they set out to do, more subversive and challenging even. Both RTS and XR actions at their best, like all moments of struggle, produce consequences primarily in the people involved in them, whether or not the ‘campaign’ itself wins what it fights for. The difference – so far – is that RTS was/became conscious of this. Whether XR will remains to be seen.

Their Morals and Ours

XR’s call for people was primarily to occupy the streets in order to get themselves arrested to put pressure on government to act, although this had now come under fierce discussion. RTS neither saw putting pressure on politicians to act on our behalf or mass arrests as the aim. Although there were often arrests at RTS parties, often in the earlier days near the end of the event as the organisers made an attempt to wrap events up (this was a point that was initially criticised by those of us experienced in legal defence work from poll tax days and LDMG, that RTS at first took little account of this side of the day. This did evolve positively over the group’s lifetime). Arrests in themselves though as an aim is a debatable tactic, which has been used for many years, most notably in the peace movement – a kind of shaming and publicity-seeking tactic, where the sheer numbers arrested and speeches in court etc become the point of the action. (eg early Committee of 100 actions)

Clearly people carefully considering things with experience of arrest, police, and courts have made something of this approach – the Ploughshares anti-missile saboteurs who break into bases, do millions of quid’s worth of damage to planes and weaponry then give themselves up, for instance. Personally I would say its better for people to remain out of prisons and be able to carry on their activities, and concealing your identity and escaping to fight another day is better than handing yourself in – but their choice, However, Extinction Rebellion are leaning on people to get themselves arrested, and concentrating lots of their propaganda on young folk, kids, teens, some of whom are not yet ready for what arrest and conviction can mean. The kind of moral pressure to ‘get nicked for the planet’, does depend on XR’s insistence that the police are basically OK and will be nice, and can be won over to the side of the ‘people’ by being nice to them. It does reflect the wilful ignorance of the social role of the police and their function in relation to protest – to control and if necessary repress, with violence when required. Dancing to a sound system in Marble Arch by some officers does not negate the institutional violence of the boys and girls in blue, as many of us have learned painfully from an early age.

RTS may in its beginnings have been naïve about legal defence and arrests – XR are being much more irresponsible. In many ways some of the main organisers have inherited the worst aspects of the wider green/eco movements – moral blackmail, class blindness to the realities of the social order, a concentration on one issue without managing to observe how it is vitally and necessarily linked to the whole social and economic structure, and naivety towards the enforcers and controllers of those structures. They have now thankfully withdrawn their terrible advice to people being arrested as to how to survive prison, after a massive outcry from those who have experienced pokey that it was dangerously downplaying the pressure of going down and encouraging illusions in the friendliness of screws. But liberal illusions in the police, prison, the authorities and the social system remain.

Morals, individual blame are no basis for any movement. There’s too much of this in pro-environmental politics, and a hierarchy of greenier-than-thou-ness and finger-pointing at people for not doing enough. When this emphasis on the responsibility of the individual goes along with calls for the state to take action, it’s just bizarre. The closeness of ‘it’s your fault’ to ‘let’s all take it on ourselves to change it’ involves laving moralising behind to move towards something else – a sense of common interests. Now not all people in social movements have the same interests, when it comes down to class, background, race, and any number of levels of power relations. Lots of people are saying that XR are all middle class white privileged folk and the movement’s attitude to colour, migration etc has been shoddy at best. Some anarchists and others also said very much the same about RTS in the early days, and like many protest movements (those that don’t initially come from BME origins) it remained pretty white, though class was much more nuanced.
Neither morality or hyper-activist ego rankings or dominance by the white moderately well-to-do is anything like unique to either XR or RTS, though. Anarchist scenes, the left, for instance, remain ultimately run on visible or invisible hierarchies and overwhelmingly white. It was funny in hindsight that so many anarchists dissing RTS for not being class struggly enough were being slightly truth-economical about how proley their background was. Either way, there was also a snideness about how working class is seen, and how struggle is hard and serious. In the midst of parties you could also hear people complaining that some people were just partying and not either fighting the police on the edges or seriously talking politics. I know, I was one of them sometimes. The arrogance of youth.

All of these issues within XR are of course being furiously debated and is evolving, and only a daft haporth would expect the movement to be either homogenous in its ideas or to stick to some of these shibboleths: XR and the people involved will change and adapt in response to reality and experience.

Illusions in the bourgeois state’s potential to reverse climate change without the dismantling of capitalism as a world-exploiting system are, of course, nothing new, and XR are far from unique in that. But it remains true, that the wider ecological movement is divided by those who think you can have some nice democratic non-ecocidal market economy, and those who recognise the reality: reversal of the climate cataclysm can only mean overthrowing the classes that profit from it and organising our lives worldwide for the needs of all – people and planet – not for the profit of a smaller and smaller minority and the consumer comfort of a slightly larger group. It’s the exploitation of the earth, its resources, its animals and if the vast majority of US that is destroying the climate, and that has to be fundamentally altered. Green capitalism and green politicians are just pot plants on the deck of the titanic.

XR’s potential is obvious but whether it will fizzle out, outgrow the liberal illusions of some its leading voices, is yet to be seen – and fought for from within, I guess. Some people will learn re the police, as people tend to do when faced with the blunt end of a truncheon: this discussion is already being had. (Some won’t learn, class background, white privilege and the blindness of ideology being what they are.) Although it’s also hard to know where such movements GO when they don’t quickly achieve their aim, many involved go off and take their spirit and experience into a myriad of other activities – as the thousands who passed through RTS groups and parties did.

One point relevant to both RTS and XR – in common with activists the world over – is the separation of the high points of parties, actions, occupations, from a daily life that is other, or rather the actions are the other. Some of us within RTS at one point argue for a dissolving of the group as such, but trying to employ the tactics, sense of fun and occupation, to our daily lives, to break down how ‘activism’ and ‘activists’ become separate from ‘our daily lives’, work, raising kids, etc, and from ‘ordinary people’ (ie non-activists). This in itself was naïve, like a lot of activists who develop a critique of activism, we really meant moving on to another kind of activism, an artificial change, if well-intentioned. Looking back (as someone who used to be a full-time activist but now isn’t an activist, really) this was groping towards what I still think is a useful path – breaking down walls between different parts of your own self and between people involve in politics and those who aren’t, in order to radically alter the whole separation and alienation of people from their own desires and needs. It’s questionable I suppose whether that can be done in isolation or as an ideological shift. And perhaps you can’t ‘abolish activism to create communism’ in that way anyway, or not as a small group. It’s the kind of shift that might happen in the context of massive upheavals and struggles. Ironically, climate-chaos inspired social breakdown might provide an opportunity for that, though to make an ideology of that possibility as some eco-activists do is repulsive and anti-human.

There’s a partial archive of links and pix on RTS parties (not by any means complete)

Watch Reclaim the Streets the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2snn3XDbLg

 

 

 

Today in London riotous history, 1768: the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’

The turbulent career of John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, seems to connect the eras of eighteenth century political libertarianism and opportunistic opposition to government corruption with the more collective movement for political reform.

Wilkes served as a figurehead for a collection of varied and almost contradictory political and social urges – the national pressure for reform of the electoral franchise, the struggle for ‘liberty’ of the subject, the teeming resentments of the artisans and apprentices against their ‘betters’… His skill in enlisting disparate elements in his personal cause was matched only by his own seeming lack of principles, and his unwillingness to push forward to the full social conclusions of his rhetoric…

Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement. He tapped into widespread desires across the country for electoral reform, among a middle class frustrated by their exclusion from political representation.

But he could also excite a rowdy mob… Several times in the years from 1763 to 1772 his supporters thronged the city of London and terrified the ruling elite.

After Wilkes, writing in The North Briton magazine (issue number 45), in 1763, criticised a speech by King George III praising the Treaty of Paris (ending the Seven Years’ War)  he was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying. This got him locked up in the Tower of London for a while. However, Wilkes challenged the warrant for his arrest and the seizure of the paper, and won the case. His courtroom speeches kick-started the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty!”, which became a popular slogan for freedom of speech and resistance to the establishment. Later in 1763, Wilkes reprinted the issue, which was again seized by the government.

The ensuing uproar caused Wilkes to be flee across the English Channel to France; he was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.

Wilkes returned from exile in February 1768, a move which was to spark a huge agitation across the capital. Wilkes petitioned for a royal pardon, an appeal that went unanswered, but he was left free by the authorities. Despite still technically being an outlaw, he attempted without success to win election to the House of Commons in Westminster; when that failed, he stood for election in Middlesex in late March. Accompanied by a great crowd from London, Wilkes attended the hustings in Brentford, and was duly elected as MP for Middlesex. This result, a slap in the face for the government, caused outbreaks of wild celebrating among elements of the ‘London Mobility’, who rejoiced in the streets, harassing householders (especially the well-to-do) into lighting up their houses ‘for Wilkes and Liberty’ (smashing windows of those who refused). Despite Wilkes appealing for calm, demonstrations and riots followed for nearly two months.

The government were split as to how to deal with the situation, though ‘indignant that a criminal should I open daylight thrust himself upon the country as a candidate, his crime unexpurgated’. Wilkes then announced he would surrender himself as an outlaw to the Court of the King’s Bench, which he did on 20th April. He was initially released on bail, then committed a week later to imprisonment at the Kings Bench Prison, on the edge of St George’s Fields in Southwark, which sparked a renewal of the rioting. The Prison was surrounded daily by crowds, crying ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, ‘assembling riotously, ‘breaking, spoiling, demolishing, burning and destroying sundry wooden posts’ belonging to the prison gates and fence. On May 8th, “a numerous Mob assembled about the Kings Bench Prison exclaiming against he confinement of Mr. Wilkes, and threatened to unroof the Marshal’s house”. Wilkes made a speech from a window and persuaded the crowd to disperse, though they gathered again on the following day, demolishing the prison lobby. The 9th May also saw several riots and protests by striking workers.

May 10th however was to bring fiercer disturbances still. Being the day Parliament was due to open, the government feared that the crowds would get out of hand again, and ordered a troop of Horse and 100 Foot Guards to the Prison. Having received information that “great numbers of young persons, who appear to be apprentices and journeymen, have assembled themselves together in large bodies in different parts of this City… for several evenings last past”, the Mayor of London ordered master tradesmen to keep their journeymen and apprentices off the streets. However, from 10 in the morning, crowds gathered in St George’s Fields from all over London, estimated around 15-20,000 people were present. Various rumours were doing the rounds – that Wilkes would be released to take his seat in Parliament, that he would be removed for trial; that an attempt would be made to break into the Kings Bench and set him and the other prisoners free…

St George’s Fields in he 18th century

Sometime around 11 o’clock, the Southwark magistrates, sitting in their Rotation office in St Margaret’s Hill, received word from the Prison Marshal that the crowds were getting unruly. Magistrate Samuel Gillam and three other justices arrived at the Fields to find that demonstrators had broken through the ranks of the soldiers, who were lined up by the railings surround the prison. Someone had pasted up a poster bearing a poem:

“Venal judges and Ministers combine,
Wilkes and English Liberty to confine
Yet in true English hearts secure their fame is
Nor are such crowded levies in St James
While thus in prison Envy dooms their stay
Here’ o grateful Britons, your daily homage pay

Philo Libertalis no. 45.”

 Justice Gillam ordered the paper torn down, which stirred the crowd up; there were reportedly shouts of ‘Give us the paper!” and ‘Wilkes and Liberty for ever!’, ‘Damn the king, damn the Government, damn the Justices!’, ‘This is the most glorious opportunity for a Revolution that ever offered!’ (which will never catch on as a demo chant). Someone even, allegedly and perceptively, shouted ‘No Wilkes, No King!’

Justice Gillam read the Riot Act, which ordered crowds to disperse or force could legitimately be used against them… in response Gillam was jeered and pelted with a volley of stones, one of which, supposedly thrown by ‘a man in red’, injured him in the face. He ordered the soldiers to pursue his assailant; Captain Murray and three grenadiers chased the man, lost him, and then shot dead William Allen, the son of a publican, in nearby Blackman Street, taking him for the men they were chasing.

The death of William Allen

Meanwhile the Riot Act was read a second time, and the foot soldiers and Horse guards were ordered to fire into the crowd, which they did, killing at least five or six people and injuring 15 more. Some of these were aid to be bystanders or passers by.

A list was later drawn up, listing eleven people killed or wounded-

William Allen (as mentioned above)
William Redburn, weaver, shot through the thigh, died in the London hospital;
William Bridgeman, shot through the breast as he was fitting a haycart… died instantly;
Mary Jeffs, who was selling oranges, died instantly;
Mr Boddington, baker of Coventry, shot through the thighbone, died in St Thomas’s hospital;
Mr Lawley, a farrier, shot in the groin, died on the 12th May;
Margaret Walters, of the Mint, pregnant, died on the 12th May;
Mary Green, shot through the right-arm bone;
Mr Nichols, shot through the flesh of his breast;
Mrs Egremont, shot through her garment under her arm…

Two men were also stabbed with bayonets.

One of the constables guarding the prison was disgusted with the soldiers, who has said had aggravated the situation by their presence, then “fired a random. A great number of them loaded three times, and seemed to enjoy their fire; I thought it a great cruelty.”

The Justices spent all day trying to get the crowds dispersed from St George’s Fields, but in the evening, “some hundreds of disorderly persons detached themselves from the Mob in the Fields” and marched to attack the houses of two of the Southwark magistrates, Edward Russell and Richard Capel, in revenge for the shootings. At Russell’s house, at the foot of London Bridge, saw the crowd break in and smash windows, stove in the front door, and steal a large twenty-gallon cask of spirits, which they drank. Russell home arrived to read the Riot Act; meanwhile Capel drove rioters off from his home in Bermondsey Street, before marching off with soldiers to join Russell and arrest some of the crowd.

There had been trouble in other parts of the capital… A crowd gathering in Palace Yard had rioted outside the House of Lords, shouting for Wilkes and that they were hungry and ‘it was as well to be hanged as starved!’ Another mob had attacked the Mansion House (the home and seat of power of the Lord Mayor)…

The day also saw demonstrations, sabotage and rioting by some of the numerous groups of workers attempting to win wage rises or protect/improve their working conditions  – an explosion of workplace struggle was taking place at this time, overlapping with, sometimes feeding into or taking inspiration from, the Wilkesite movement (though sometimes rejecting it)… eg on the 10th sailors took part in a mass demo at Parliament demanding a wage rise, while in the East End, Dingley’s mechanical saw mill was torn down by sawyers whose livelihood it threatened

The events of the 10th quickly became a cause celebre, nicknamed the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’, and William Allen’s death especially was widely condemned. A hastily conducted inquest concluded the two soldiers who had shot him were guilty of ‘wilful murder’, and their commander, Alexander Murray, of aiding and abetting murder. Warrants for their arrest were issued, and one for Justice Gillam soon followed, for ordering the shooting. In the end all four were acquitted, however.

Thirty four people were arrested in connection with the events of the 10th, on charges of riotous assembly, unlawful assembly invading the Justices’ houses, obstructing the Justices, and similar offences, but the government may have decided in the circumstances to tread lightly, as most were discharged without trial, and only three fined or jailed (compare this to some of the much heavier sentences for silkweavers and coalheavers arising from their strikes)… The shootings reflected badly on them, particularly as Wilkes was a few weeks later able to publish a letter from Lord Weymouth to magistrates ordering them to make more use of troops in putting down riots, enabling him to present the firing on the crowd at St George’s Fields as part of a concerted plan by a brutal and tyrannical government to repress the ‘rights of true Englishmen’.

William Allen’s death in particular aroused sympathy and outrage among Wilkes’ supporters and in the population more generally.

Distressed at the loss of his son, William’s father began a private prosecution of the three soldiers accused of his death. At this time, the majority of prosecutions were initiated and paid for by the victim and could be costly. Donald Macleane, the man who fired the musket, was tried for wilful murder at Guildford Assizes in August 1768. He was acquitted and his accomplices, Maclauray and Murray, were discharged. This only fuelled the suspicions of Wilkes’ supporters of the authorities and the government.

William Allen the elder then decided to petition the House of Commons. On the 25 April 1771 John Glynn MP, a friend and supporter of Wilkes, begged leave to bring up the petition. While the petition was the appeal of a grieving father, a greater concern was the threat of what appeared to be an increasingly oppressive government led by the king’s ministers. They had supported Macleane’s defence and through ‘oppressive and collusive acts’ had ‘entirely defeated [Mr Allen] in his pursuit of justice’. The Secretary at War, Viscount Barrington, had also commended the soldiers and rewarded Macleane. Mr Allen hoped that by petitioning parliament ‘his great and unspeakable loss should be confined to himself, and not be made a precedent, for bringing destruction and slavery upon his fellow subjects.’

The petition prompted a debate on the floor of the House of Commons. The prime minister, Lord North, opposed it being brought up, while Edmund Burke, a critic of North’s ministry, suggested the setting up of a parliamentary inquiry to look into the matter. Sir George Savile MP also spoke in favour of the petition ‘with great energy’ as it ‘came with greater propriety from a father, as he complained of the loss of a son, for which loss he was prevented by power from paying his last duty.’ A division was called by the Speaker and members voted on whether or not to accept the petition. It was decided by 158 votes to 33 that the petition should not be brought up.

The text of the petition was published shortly after being put to Parliament in the Annual Register, a publication edited by one of its supporters. It was accompanied by a letter from Mr Allen, which expressed his disappointment while thanking the MPs who supported his cause.

The death of William Allen played into the hands of critics of the King and his ministers at a time of crisis and boosted popular support for John Wilkes. He was buried in Newington Churchyard, Southwark and a large monument was erected in memory of ‘An Englishman of unspotted life and amiable disposition […] murdered […] on the pretence of supporting the Civil Power, which he never insulted, but had through life obeyed and respected.’

Wilkes himself shortly had his outlawry reversed, but was almost immediately jailed for 22 months for the various earlier charges that had got him outlawed. There followed a bewildering series of successive elections for Middlesex, as he was disqualified, re-elected, declared ineligible, a supporter elected instead… all accompanied by rioting and fights between his supporters and heavies hired by pro-government candidates.

On his release Wilkes was elected an alderman of the City of London, and gradually built up his support there, eventually convincing Parliament to allow him to take his seat as an MP. He did speak in favour of political reform and an extension of the franchise, even to ‘The meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day labourer’. His attempts to encourage legislation along reformist lines was however, defeated by the power of the political class allied against him.

Historians have questioned the extent to which Wilkes was ever truly committed to the programme he laid out in his March address. Some have concluded that his speeches amounted to little more than grandstanding…

Eventually he would rise to command soldiers repressing the 1780 Gordon Rioters, shooting down those who would have been his ardent supporters ten years before, and become Lord Mayor of London.

But the forces who backed him would remain in play, and as he faded into comfortable accommodation with the status quo that once excluded him, new social movements would arise to assert the demands Wilkes and his supporters had articulated, and take them even further…

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London fashion history, 1768: hatters strike for a wage rise

“This day the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised…”
(Annual Register, 9th May 1768)

This is an interesting snapshot, exposing a glimpse of a struggle; little is then heard of the hatters strike. We know it went on for at least five weeks though, as on 21st June, John Dyer, hatmaker of Southwark, swore that ‘on Thursday last, a gang of Hatters, to the number of thirty, came to his house in the Maze in the Parish of St Olave’s, Southwark, about one o’clock at noon, in a riotous manner, and insisting this informant turn off the men he then at work, which he refused; and, upon such refusal, the gang of Hatters threatened to pull his house down and take this Informant thereout. And this informant saith they would have begun to execute such threats if it had not been for one Mr Phillips who accidentally was at this Informant’s house and did prevail on them to omit it. And this Informant saith there was one Thomas Fitzhugh present aiding and assisting among ye said mob, and came and asked this Informant, and came and asked this Informant whether he would turn off his men which refused; and upon that the said Fitzhugh declared, if he would not, ”damn them who would not have you out(meaning this Informant) and the house down.’ Thomas Fitzhugh was later charged with a breach of the peace and a misdemeanour at the Surrey Sessions, and bailed to appear on 21st July… there is no other record of what happened to him… or of the outcome of the strike. Did they win a wage rise?

The hatmakers appeared to have used the common tactic, where work was organised in small workshops, of marching from workshop to workshop to ensure the workers were paid the going rate, or the rate they were trying to win… This generally involved some intimidation of the masters, and on occasion, any of the workers who were working at less than the rate…

Interestingly,  this is a very early use of the term ‘strike’ by a non-sailors to mean a work stoppage… since the origin of the term is said to have come from the sailors’ strike of the same year, 1768, when they showed their refusal to work by ‘striking’ the sails (cutting the ropes to drop them to the deck).

Hatters are mentioned in reports of the Wilkite riots of 1768-71, as being prominent among Wilkes’ supporters. 1768 was a year of turbulent political rioting, in support of Wilkes’ vague program of reform and liberty, and protests and strikes by numerous groups of London workers… these two intertwined and merged, and sometimes diverged… The trades disputes inspired others, spreading like a wildfire…

On the same day as the hatters struck,  9th May, there were demonstrations by a ‘body of watermen’, complaining of their working conditions to the Lord Mayor, and a protest, probably pro-Wilkes, both at the Mansion House, in the City. The next day. 10th May, was to be even more uproarious, with the Massacre of St George’s Fields, on the hatters’ door step, and across town in Limehouse, Dingley’s sawmill pulled down by angry out of work sawyers.

The Annual Register entry doesn’t specify the location of the hatters’ dispute, but given the later reports about intimidation, it was almost certainly based in Southwark or Bermondsey, London’s main areas of hatmaking for centuries. Hats were manufactured ‘to a greater extent in London than anywhere else’… at least 50 years after the 1768 strike, there were 3500 hatters, pretty much localised to Southwark.

From at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Parish of St Olave’s, Bermondsey, was once the centre of hat-making in London and was called the “Hatters’ Paradise.” There were many hatters, or felt-makers, who had premises on Bermondsey Street; they had, at least in the 1590s, a willingness to riot in defence of each other.

In 1770, there was a strike of journeymen hat-dyers in Southwark, again accused of forming a mob to enforce wage rates: ‘at all shops they came to they obliged the men to strike in order to have their wages raised’.

Around 1800, the ‘Maze’, Tooley Street, the northern end of Bermondsey Street, and other streets in the  immediate vicinity, formed the grand centre of the hat-manufacture in London; but in the following decades, the hatmaking scene shifted farther westward. By the 1840s this meant the hat-making trade was mostly concentrated between Borough High Street and Blackfriars Road (though some hatters remained in Bermondsey). Note the name Hatfields, a street west of Blackfriars Road where many hat manufacturing companies were based in the 19th century. It forms the boundary between Southwark and Lambeth.

Being a fashion trade, subject to extreme variations in demand, hat makers could be busy or idle depending on the season, which made it difficult to earn a consistent living. Changes in fashion could mean new hat styles, which could mean having to quickly learn new skills, working with new materials, new techniques… Very much like the Spitalfields silkweavers at this time, and later the East End tailoring trades, haymaking was very much dependent on its proximity to the well-to-do customers in the City and Westminster.

A lot of workers were “out workers”, collecting materials from a ‘master’, carrying out the work at home, and then delivering the finished goods for payment.

The job was unpleasant and dangerous. An important chemical during the shaping of the hats was dilute sulphuric acid, a highly poisonous substance – hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Hatters had been active in wage disputes in Southwark in 1763 – a Hatters Society organizing hatters had possibly formed in 1759, later existing as the union of silk hatters.

In 1777, master hatmakers complained to the House of Commons that the journeymen of the trade had entered into a combination, which they called a Congress, passed bylaws, prevented the hiring of apprentices, and threatened strikes to raise wages.

This union exercised what was described as a ‘despotic power’ in the trade in the 1840s; it was involved in inter-trade political organising, and sent money in support of a hatters’ strike in Lancashire in 1840.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London parklife, 1576: locals attack fences enclosing common land, Osterley park

Osterley Park, West London, used to be the grounds of a large country house, built here for Sir Thomas Gresham in the late 16th century.Gresham was a merchant and financier who acted on behalf of King Edward VI, queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, the founder of the Royal Exchange in the City of London.

There were attempts to enclose land in the Heston and Isleworth area from as early as the 12th century, when Richard Duke of Cornwall enclosed land in Isleworth (only for Londoners to throw down the fences in 1264). Until the fifteenth century, and for some time afterwards, the arable lands in Heston and Isleworth lay mainly in open fields, though there were always some enclosed lands. In the 16th century some lands were thrown open for common grazing between Michaelmas and February. The earliest large enclosures may have been of the meadow and pasture lands round Syon Abbey in the 15th century: the abbey’s park north of the London Road may have also lain partly on former arable. In the later 16th century several people tried to enclose different bits of land. This, as elsewhere, represented a threat to the livelihoods of many of the local poor, who used common land for grazing animals, collecting fuel to burn during the winter, and also gathering some food stuffs.

Osterley Park was enclosed by Thomas Gresham under a licence granted to him in 1565 to ‘impark’ 600 acres. The trespasses that followed (see below) demonstrate that this was not very popular with the locals. Gresham included up to 140 acres of tilled lands in the park, though all of this was probably already enclosed, if not also used as pasture. Some at least had probably been enclosed assart (land converted from forest to arable use) from the beginning. Most of the land which Gresham ‘imparked’ was previously known as Osterley farm, which he already owned – some 200 acres stretching westwards from the house in Osterley Lane nearly to Heston village.

Queen Elizabeth I stayed with Sir Thomas Gresham at Osterley House, in early May 1576 (though elsewhere said to be the 10th-12th, this isn’t totally consistent with the accounts given in the letters written afterwards, see below, which suggest the enclosure riot took place overnight May 6th-7th). Queen Elizabeth was said to be impressed with Sir Thomas’s new posh gaff – however, her stay there was not uneventful.

During her visit, there was a protest by local people against his enclosure of common land. A crowd of villagers from Heston and Norwood gathered, and some women tore up the palings round his park and ‘diabolically and maliciously burnt’ them. It’s unclear whether the protest was deliberately timed to disrupt the queen’s visit, or was merely a coincidence. In any case, she was ‘greatly disquieted’ by the protest.

Good Queen Bess ordered that some of the rioters must be punished.

On May 22, the Privy Council wrote to Justice Southcote and the Recorder of London (William Fleetwood): ‘advertising them that where certain persons are committed to the Marshalsea, whose names are Joan Ayre, Mary Harris, George Lenton and George Bennet, for burning Sir Thomas Gresham’s park pale at that time when the Queen’s Majesty was there, wherewith her Highness was very much offended, and commanded that the offenders should be searched out and punished according to their offence. They are therefore required to take some pains therein and to appoint some time and place to have the prisoners brought before them, and severally to examine them and to induce them by all means they can to open the truth, and for their better instructions therein Sir Thomas Gresham will instruct them for that purpose, and Mr Attorney is appointed also to join with them if he conveniently may, or at least to send them such examinations as he hath heretofore taken in that matter’.

The Council also wrote to the Attorney-General [Gilbert Gerard] on June 18, ‘on May 6 [sic] at about 10 p.m. Joan Eyer wife of Nicholas Eyer of Heston husbandman and Mary Harris of Heston spinster broke into a park enclosed with pales and posts for the preservation of deer and other animals of Sir Thomas Gresham (the Queen with her Privy Council and many others in attendance on her being in ‘Osterley Park House’ within the park) and tore up and threw down posts and pales of the park. These posts and pales the said Joan and Mary on May 7 at 2-3 a.m. maliciously, diabolically and wickedly burnt, to the very great disquiet and disturbance of the Queen and her attendants. Also a True Bill that Joan, Mary, and about 20 other men and women, at the command and instigation of George Lenton tailor and Nicholas Hewes husbandman, all of Heston, on May 7 with staves, two-pronged forks, spades and axes at Osterley Park (the Queen being at Osterley House), broke down the enclosure. Adjourned to June 19.’

There are no extant records from July 19th however, and no indication of what happened to George Lenton, Nicholas Hewes, Joan Eyre and Mary Harris after they were sent to the Marshalsea Prison.

In the meantime, it seems the locals had got together a petition against Gresham regarding the enclosures, according to another letter from the Privy Council:

July 19, St James’s, Privy Council to five gentlemen, ‘with a petition exhibited to the Queen’s Majesty in the behalf of certain poor men complaining to receive wrong by an enclosure made by Sir Thomas Gresham of certain common ground, parcel of his Park’. The Queen has referred the matter to the Council, who now refer it to them to confer with both parties and to enquire into what rights were and are held over the common by the lord, the tenant and the cottager, and to examine ‘what detriment the poor men do receive by the means of this enclosure, what cattle they might keep afore, and what they may keep now’, and to give their opinions how ‘this controversy may be most reasonably compounded to the satisfaction of all parties’.

The queen’s outrage is consistent with her attitude (in common with all the Tudor monarchs) that poor folk should keep their place and be punished for questioning their betters; however, it would have doubtless been given extra spice both by her close proximity to the violent events, and by her own memory of the enclosure rebellions of 1548-9, which threatened the social order considerably when she was a young woman.

Enclosures were beginning to form a major issue in the mid-late 16th century. The destruction of much of the effective welfare system with the dissolution of the monasteries, was being compounded by the increasing rural upheaval, the acquisition of land by new and greedy classes, who saw profits from enclosure of open land into larger farms, often to enable larger flocks of sheep. As more people were driven to the social margins, more of the land available for subsistence was being fenced off; a vicious spiral that would only speed up over the next 200 years.

There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited he house.

Two other attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

Whether because of local resistance, or other factors, agriculture in Heston was relatively little affected by enclosures for centuries; and the open fields, in spite of enclosures on their edges, remained largely untouched until 1818.

There was a long rebel tradition locally; quite apart from the resistance to enclosure. Heston folk were involved in riots during the 1381 peasants Revolt.

And in 1830 several farmers in Heston received threatening letters during the Swing Rebellion.

And the locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: only last year, residents of nearby Isleworth defeated the attempt by the aristocratic Duke of Northumberland to destroy their allotments to build flats… Keeping up the old traditions of fighting to keep some land out of the hands of the wealthy!

Today – and yet not today – in London festive history: the first UK Workers May Day held, 1890

In the late nineteenth century a new layer of meaning was added to May Day, as the first of May became associated with the international workers movement.

For the early workers’ movement internationally a key demand was for a reduction in the length of the working day. The 1884 Chicago congress of the Federation of Organized and Labor Unions (which later become the American Federation of Labor) declared that from May 1st 1886, it would impose an eight-hour working day in the United States by industrial action. Unlike most strikes which respond to particular events, this date was set several years in advance.

It is unlikely to have been a purely arbitrary date – but why the first of May? In parts of the United States May 1st was known as Moving Day, the date when leases expired and when new terms and conditions of work were set for building tradesmen and others who worked outdoors. This would make it an obvious date for setting new hours of work. Of course the notion of May 1st as effectively the start of a new year might itself be related to older seasonal traditions. It is also quite possible that for some within the workers’ movement at the time the date had a symbolic value as a time of renewal, related to these traditions. Immigrants to the USA brought with them various May Day customs from their home countries. For instance a Maypole was famously set up at Merrymount in New England by Thomas Morton in the 1620s.

There does also seem to have been a precedent for radical movements to regard May 1st as significant. We have already seen that the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’ was published on 1 May 1650. The proposed French Revolutionary Calendar renamed the month Floreal, with the opening day envisaged as a celebration of love and nature. The utopian socialist Robert Owen announced in 1833 that the New Moral World should begin on 1 May 1834 – Owenite ideas certainly had their influence in the US so this may have been a factor.

Whatever the factors involved in choosing the date, the events of Saturday 1 May 1886 and the succeeding days are well documented. The eight hour day strike went ahead in parts of the USA, and by May 3 1886 perhaps 750,000 workers had struck or demonstrated. In Chicago police killed two people when they opened fire on Monday 3 May during clashes outside the McCormack Reaper Works, where workers had been on strike since February. The following day a policeman was killed by a bomb thrown at a protest meeting in Haymarket square in the city. Eight anarchists who had been in the forefront of the 8-hour-day agitation in Chicago were convicted of murder, of whom seven were sentenced to death.

There was an international outcry against the trial and the sentences. In London those who spoke out included William Morris, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, E. Nesbit, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Nevertheless, four of the accused were hanged. The deaths in Chicago had a powerful impact across the world, not least on Jim Connell who was inspired to write ‘The Red Flag’ anthem in 1889 on a train to New Cross, after attending a meeting about the Chicago martyrs.

The movement for a shorter working day did not die with those who became known as the Chicago Martyrs. In December 1888 the American Federation of Labour called for a national day of demonstrations and strikes on 1 May 1890, and this call was echoed in July 1889 by the international socialist conference in Paris.

In London, May Day 1890 was marked by a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, a venue that was to become the focus for May Day protests for many years to come.

From the start, though, there was a division over whether to mark the day on May 1st it, or at the nearest weekend. Most of the socialist parties and trade unions in Europe and the US were going ahead for May 1st, and many UK socialists and trade unionists were in favour of holding a demonstration on Mayday, feeling it would be more powerful for workers to stop work, and to be in step with their comrades internationally. A meeting in late March 1890, organised by the Labour Electoral Association, attended by delegates of 50 trade unions, discussed the proposal for “a general public demonstration in favour of the legislative enactment of an Eight Hours Day.” This meeting voted, after some debate, for May Day; a resolution was passed that “where the workmen’s organisations were strong enough, all men should leave work, except such as were certain of being dismissed altogether if they did so; and that where they were not strong enough, there should be a meeting in the evening and a petition should be signed.”

However, nine days later, another, larger, meeting, with 94 attending, again under the auspices of the Labour Electoral Association, reversed this decision, and voted instead to hold a demo on Sunday 4th May, beginning in Hyde Park.

Despite their reservations, many socialists fell into line behind this, including the Bloomsbury Socialist Society (dominated by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling), who had previously pushed hard for May Day. Others, like the radical newspaper, the People’s Press, blamed the hidebound conservatism of some of the older craft-based trade unions for bottling it:
“It is unfortunate that this year the English workers could not see their way clearly to falling in line with their continental brethren on 1st May, for which the ‘apathy and abstention’ of the older and richer unions were held responsible.”

A May Day Central Committee was set up, representing the federated radical clubs, trades unions, and various socialist groups and societies. But even when May 4th was agreed on, there were divisions, with the London Trades Council (suspicious of the Marxist links of some on the Committee, and not yet committed to a legally legislated 8-Hour Day) insisting on separate speaking platforms, and on marching separately.

While the Mayday Central Committee was committed to the statutory enactment of the eight-hour day, the London Trades Council in 1890 would go no further than to declare itself in ‘favour of the principle of reducing hours of labour, leaving the precise method to the future’. It was dominated by an older generation of trade unionists who were nervous about supporting even the Sunday demonstration. However, as one of the old guard of trade unionists, George Howell, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green, put it, “Goaded by the attacks of the Socialists and New Trade Unionists, the London Trades Council found itself obliged to participate in May Day celebrations in favour of ‘solidarity of labour’, Eight Hours and other idealist proposals”. Tom Mann, a leading socialist and New Unionist, succeeded in getting round the majority’s opposition to a legal, eight-hour day by proposing that the London Trades Council hold a separate demonstration on May 4th. Hence the Trades Council made its own separate arrangements, including marching to Hyde Park by a different route from the Central Committee’s procession and having seven separate platforms for its speakers in the Park.

Meanwhile, support from the two main socialist organisations was also sketchy… the Social Democratic Federation dithered as to whether to take part. SDF leader, the strange tory-Marxist HM Hyndman, was bitterly sectarian towards anything not originated by himself, and particularly opposed to anything that had been resolved by the 1889 Paris socialist Congress He also held a grudge against Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, who had split from the SDF due to his jingoistic and dictatorial behaviour). In the end, Hyndman arranged with the London Trades Council for the Federation to speak from two of its seven platforms in Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, the smaller, more puristic Socialist League, as usual a bundle of contradictions, enthusiastically supported May Day as an international Day of working class solidarity – but disparaged the issue of an 8-Hour Day as of lesser importance, and a mere ‘palliative measure’ distracting from the fight for a socialist society. The League also stuck to the letter of the international resolution and declared they would support only an event on May 1st itself.

May 1st 1890 actually fell on a Thursday: the Socialist League and London anarchists marked the day by holding a meeting at Clerkenwell Green (still a venue for a mayday march today!), which attracted a few thousand people. It also attracted the hostility of the police, who hated the socialists, and harassed and attacked both a contingent of Soho socialists & French anarchists, marching to Clerkenwell Green, and women strikers from a Clerkenwell envelope factory, also on their way to the Green. (Polie violence against socialist open air meetings was a regular occurrence at the time, and they would continue to target Mayday events in later years).

The main demonstration took place on the following Sunday – May 4th – and saw contingents heading towards Hyde Park from all over London. Reports credited the demo with attracting over 300,000 people.

There were, as detailed above, two demonstrations even on the 4th, with the Trades Council, supported by several unions (including the dockers), marching up Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park, while another demo began at the Embankment and marched through Holborn and Oxford Street…

The following description from the South London Press of the attendance of the North Camberwell Radical Club and Institute provides an insight into how local groups organised themselves for the march:

“A goodly contingent went from this club to take part in the monster eight-hours demonstration. The procession was headed by the club’s excellent band, which discoursed some well-chosen music on the way. A large banner followed, bearing the device in front, ‘The Proletariat Unite’, and on the reverse side the legend, ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ pay; Eight hours’ rest, eight bob a day’. Mr Oodshorn devised and executed the banner, which was very effective. Mr J. Harrison (chairman of the club) headed those who marched in front, and Mr. H.J. Begg accompanied the contingent until it took its place in the general ranks. Two breaks followed the pedestrians – one full of ladies, and one containing those of the sterner sex who were not equal to a four-hours march on a warm day. Messrs. Benstroke and J.Sage (chairman of the Political Council) acted as marshalls. The breaks, which added greatly to the effectiveness of the procession, were under the charge of Mr A. Boreham (chairman of the Entertainment Sub-Committee). The contingent arrived in the park in time to hear some good speaking from No.7 Platform, and afterwards Mrs Besant’s stirring speech from the Socialists’ platform. The whole affair was excellently managed, and good humour and good order prevailed throughout'”(South London Press, 10 May 1890).

The various speaking platforms spread out around the park, centred on the famous Reformers Tree. Platform 1 featured Miss Robertson of the Women’s Trade Union League, WM Thompson, Radical candidate for Deptford, and John Turner of the Shop Assistants Union. From Platform 2, Robert Bontine Cunningham-Grahame, the Liberal but socialist MP for North West Lanarkshire, Irish land League leader Michael Davitt, and George Lansbury (then an SDF member but later Labour MP and leader) spoke. Platform 3, organised by the Gasworkers Union, hosted several of their members, as well as Eleanor Marx, German Socialist leader Eduard Bernstein, and others. Platform 4, with Bloomsbury socialist Edward Aveling as MC, included Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak, French Marxist Paul Lafargue, and the representatives of various radical clubs as speakers. Platform 5, was also run by the Gasworkers Union, and their leader Will Thorne, the SDF’s John Burns, and several women trade unionists spoke. George Bernard Shaw and others spoke from platform 6. Finally platform 7 included representatives of various small trade unions.

Friedrich Engels reported on the demo in a letter to the German socialist August Bebel:

“The demonstration here on 4th May was nothing short of overwhelming, and even the entire bourgeois press had to admit it. I was on Platform 4 (a huge dray cart) and could catch sight of only a part – a fifth or an eighth – of the throng, but it was head upon head, as far as the eye could reach. 250 or 300,000 people, of whom over three-quarters were workers demonstrating. Aveling, Lafargue and Stepniak spoke from my platform – I was but an onlooker… Stepniak, and also Ede [Eduard Bernstein] on the platform where Tussy [Eleanor Marx] was, had a brilliant reception. The seven platforms were 150 yards apart, the last some 150 yards from our end of the Park, thus over 1200 yards long and our meeting (that for the introduction of the 8-Hour day by international legislation) was at least 4 to 500 yards wide and all tightly packed, and on each side the 6 platforms of the Trades Council and the two of the Social Democratic Federation, though not even half as well attended by the public as ours. All in all, the most gigantic meeting that has ever been held here…”

From the numbers of banners, contemporaries assessed the May 4th demo as being hugely strengthened by members of supporters of ‘new unionism’, the recently born organisations, mainly born among poorly paid ‘low skilled’ workers. This wave had begun in the East End of London with the matchwomens’ strike in 1888, followed by the gasworkers and dockers’ strikes of the following year, all of which had inspired a flush of strikes and unionisation among industries generally ignored by the longer-established, craft unions. Based as they were in the skilled workforce, almost exclusively male, conservative in their outlook and tied to political parties, the craft unions observed new unionism with suspicion. The London Trades Council, created by the older unions, was slow, ponderous and cautious, and not keen to associate with some of the radical elements who were emerging.

The London Trades Council’s attempt at separate organisation didn’t go well. The Leicester Daily Mercury’s correspondent gave the following assessment:

“The fact is that the Trades Council were beaten by their very numbers. They marched into the park in straggling detachment, and all interest in the demonstration had died away and the crowd had gone before the last detachment arrived, weary and forlorn, at ten minutes to six. Thus the Eight Hours Bill party gained a triumphant victory. They showed their full strength, and their opponents, the numerically stronger, never even looked imposing. They occupied the ground first and engaged the interest of the crowd. They had excellent and well-known speakers, whereas their opponents confined themselves to working men orators. Last, but not least, they had a clear and definite proposition to make.

The only Trades Council platform which drew a large crowd was the main one, at which Tom Mann and Ben Tillett of the Dockers’ Union spoke. This was surrounded by dockers, barge-builders, ropemakers and railwaymen. Mann, though he was a well-known advocate of the legal eight-hour day, loyally spoke to the Trades Council motion.

The Central Committee’s organisation coped better with the huge number of demonstrators. At 4.00 p.m. a bugle sounded, and their speakers, standing on the seven wagons serving as platforms, began.”

However as The Times correspondent noted: “Procession after procession came streaming into the park, bands played through speeches and it was a medley of sounds.”

The biggest crowd gathered around platform five, the Gas Workers’ Union’s platform, to hear John Burns, then at the height of his radical reputation, who gave a fiery speech, which included very blunt criticism of the older generation of trade union leaders on the TUC and London Trades Council. He said that he and the men on that platform ‘had done more for unionism in the last twelve months and had formed more trade unions in that time than all the Broadhursts and Shiptons put together. Burns said that although the gas workers “had got an eight hours day by voluntary effort and by combination”, they knew that “directly trade declined and the boom was past” the employers would take such gains away unless they were protected by an act of parliament.

While the main theme on the Central Committee’s platforms was the eight- hour day, it was not the sole one. On their second platform Thomas Sutherest, then Radical prospective parliamentary candidate for Doncaster, gave a vigorous speech against sweated labour. Michael Davitt, the great Irish Nationalist advocate of land nationalisation, also spoke from that platform, urging not only that “the land should belong to the people” but also that, “It rested with the people themselves to send to Parliament men from their own ranks who were really representatives of labour, and the working classes would never achieve any satisfactory reform until they realised and acted upon this fact”.

While the massive London demonstration of May 4th, 1890, received international attention, there were others elsewhere in Britain. These were held in places with marked SDF, Socialist League or New Union activity or a blend of these. Within England, the largest May Day demonstrations appear to have been in Northampton and Leeds.

In Northampton, in spite of pouring rain, there was a large procession headed by a temperance hand. The Times reported that:

Nearly 10,000 working men assembled in the market square, representing almost every branch of labour in the town and district, including about 2,000 agricultural labourers from adjacent villages.

In Leeds some 6,000 workers marched in procession, with a band playing the Marseillaise. At their head was a banner of the Leeds Jewish Tailors, Pressers and Machinists, and those in the march included 1,100 Jewish tailors, 900 slipper makers and 800 gas workers, followed by contingents of dyers, maltsters, teamsters and general labourers. There were also sizeable demonstrations in Bristol and Plymouth.

In Scotland the largest demonstration was in Aberdeen on Saturday, May 17th. Some 6,000 trade unionists took part in the procession and between 10,000 and 20,000 heard H.H. Champion speak at the open-air meeting. In Edinburgh, in spite of the opposition of the trades council to a demonstration, between 400 and 600 people turned out to hear Keir Hardie and other speakers on Sunday, May 4th.

The question of whether to go for a working day or not was more than one of caution and practicality however, and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s assessment of the argument concludes that the decision to plump for the weekend actually did damage the prospects for May Day as a festival of working class resistance in Britain (in contrast to some countries on the continent where it became a huge part of workers’ cultural tradition):

“The crucial matter at issue was whether the workers should be asked to demonstrate in working time, that is to go on strike, for in 1890 the First of May fell on a Thursday. Basically, cautious parties and strong established trade unions – unless they deliberately wanted to be or found themselves engaged in industrial action, as was the plan of the American Federation of Labor – did not see why they should stick their own and their members’ necks out for the sake of a symbolic gesture. They therefore tended to opt for a demonstration on the first Sunday in May and not on the first day of the month. This was and remained the British option, which was why the first great May Day took place on 4 May. However, it was also the preference of the German party, although there, unlike Britain, in practice it was the First of May that prevailed. In fact, the question was to be formally discussed at the Brussels International Socialist Congress of 1891, with the British and Germans opposing the French and Austrians on this point, and being outvoted. Once again this issue, like so many other aspects of May Day, was the accidental by¬product of the international choice of the date. The original resolution made no reference at all to stopping work. The problem arose simply because the first May Day fell on a weekday, as everybody planning the demonstration immediately and necessarily discovered.

Caution dictated otherwise. But what actually made May Day was precisely the choice of symbol over practical reason. It was the act of symbolically stopping work which turned May Day into more than just another demonstration, or even another commemorative occasion. It was in the countries or cities where parties, even against hesitant unions, insisted on the symbolic strike that May Day really became a central part of working-class life and of labour identity, as it never really did in Britain, in spite of its brilliant start. For refraining from work on a working day was both an assertion of working-class power – in fact, the quintessential assertion of this power – and the essence of freedom, namely not being forced to labour in the sweat of one’s brow, but choosing what to do in the company of family and friends. It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour. And, of course, in the circumstances of 1890 it was also a celebration of victory, a winner’s lap of honour round the stadium. Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope.” (Birth of a Holiday: The First of May Eric Hobsbawm)

Two weeks after the events of May Day 1890, this article was published in the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal, written by William Morris, artist, designer and communist. It pretty much expresses the League’s disapproval of not observing May 1st itself, bit spends more time expounding their view of the 8-hour agitation as a waste of time, a mere sop to ‘slaves’. This was their theoretical approach to most campaigns for immediate daily improvements in working people’s lives (though many League members in practice also took part in such work). Their purist disdain for everyday struggles was only one of the reasons the SL never really took off; within a couple of years the organisation had dwindled to nothing.

The ‘weekend’ Maydays continued to be held in Hyde Park for a number of years through the 1890s, moving to Crystal Palace in 1900…

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Some more on the history of May Day:

Peter Linebaugh: The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Some of the history of Maydays in South London (from which some of the above article was nicked.

Other bits were lifted from Hayes Peoples History

Other useful reading on this:
Eleanor Marx, Volume Two, By Yvonne Kapp

Edward Aveling’s account of the organising of the 1890 May Day

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London striking history, 1834: huge London tailors strike begins

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the tailors working in London had a long tradition of organisation and struggle in their own interests.

The ‘Knights of the Needle’ had, by the 1820s, an organisation that could be fairly described as ‘all but a military system’. But it was weak due to its division into two classes, called Flints and Dungs – “the Flints have upwards of thirty houses of call, and the Dungs about nine or ten; the Flints work by day, the Dungs by day or piece. Great animosity formerly existed between them, the Dungs generally working for less wages, but of late years there has not been much difference in the wages… and at some of the latest strikes both parties have usually made common cause.” (Francis Place)

In 1824 Place, himself a tailor of long-standing, estimated a proportion of one ‘Dung’ to three ‘Flints’; but the ‘Dungs’ ‘work a great many hours, and their families assist them.’ The upsurge in tailors’ union activity, after the repeal of the Combination Acts, led to the founding of a Grand National Union of Tailors in November 1832. It was a general union, containing skilled & unskilled tailors and tailoresses. It affiliated to Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

By the early 1830s the tide of the cheap and ready-made trade could be held back no longer. In 1834 the ‘Knights’ were finally degraded only after a tremendous conflict, when 20,000 were said to be on strike under the slogan of ‘equalisation’. But the 1834 strike was unsuccessful, which led to the collapse of the Union and reductions in wages.

The following account is a (slightly edited) article derived from the reports of Abel Hall, a spy sent into the Tailors union by John Stafford, Chief Clerk and magistrate at Bow Street Police Station. Stafford had a long history of controlling spies targeting radicals – he had been the man behind sending John Castle to infiltrate the Spenceans planning the Spa Fields demonstration/revolt, and handling George Edwards, who had orchestrated and blown the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. Abel Hall had been a radical around the Cato Street Conspiracy, but was either always a spy or turned informer under questioning, becoming another of Stafford’s stooges spying on the radical milieu in the 1820s, at the Rotunda, as well as on the National Union of the Working Classes, and into the 1830s.
Just as in the 1830s, trade unionists were targeted by intelligence gatherers on behalf of the authorities, using the same methods as political groups – often by the same officers – more recent spycops of the Special Demonstration Squad and National Public Order Intelligence Unit have also targeted trade unionists were targeted using the same methods. [for instance, Mark Jenner, Peter Francis and Carlo Neri among others, all spied on trade unionists and left and campaigning groups].

For space reasons we have not included all the authors’ notes, but they can be read in the original article,  here

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THE LONDON TAILORS’ STRIKE OF 1834 AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE GRAND NATIONAL CONSOLIDATED TRADES’ UNION:
A POLICE SPY’S REPORT

by T. M. Parssinen and I. J. Prothero

The tailoring trade was typical of London industry in being unmechanised, organised mainly in small businesses, and characterised by homework. By the end of the eighteenth century there were a number of large employers in the West End producing high-quality, bespoke garments, but even these tended not to have a permanent labour force. Loss of working time was consequently a problem for tailors, both in waiting for work and travelling to get it, and in the seasonal character of the trade, with twice as much work from April to June as from August to October. Even in a prosperous year, a tailor could be out of work for five months. To meet these problems some public houses early in the eighteenth century became “houses of call”, where tailors who wanted work registered their names and waited, and masters applied when they needed men.

The demand for labour in the brisk period of the year kept up earnings and tailors were able to afford benefit clubs. These and the houses of call developed into trade unions. The seasonal nature of the work strengthened the unions’ position and put a premium on unified action. The societies could, and did, make high wage demands in April and then collect funds from their members for relief payments to be made during the later period of under-employment. Unemployment relief was very unusual among London trades, who on the whole tended to rely on “tramping” [wandering the country in search of work, relying on local tailors’ meeting places, often in known pubs], and is a measure of the tailors’ strength. Moreover, many of the top employers, in Westminster, were favourable to the men’s organisation, and granted requests for wage rises to keep a monopoly of the best men.

The shortage of labour created by the wars with France from 1793 further raised the tailors’ wages, to a peak in 1813 of 36/- per week for six twelve-hour days. They enforced the twelve-hour day to share out work. And so by the end of the wars the tailors were in a very strong position, with about twenty-five houses of call that had monopolies of the best workmen; for if any man was complained about three times by masters, he was excluded from the house. But each wartime rise was gained in the face of growing opposition from some masters, especially small ones, and so from the 1790’s the tailors’ organisation grew more secret and military, controlled by the “Town”, the powerful secret executive of five. The tailors had the strongest of all the London combinations, and it took the masters thirty years to break it down.

However, troubles developed even during this prosperity. The men’s insistence on a high standard of work and the heavy fines led to exclusion and bitterness, and the appearance from 1793 of an important number of excluded men, called “dungs” as opposed to the superior “flints”. The former were less skilled, often worked at lower rates and so undercut flints, and above all were often paid by the piece instead of by the day. Under piece-work it was harder to control the rate of work, and the result was often over-work, with the consequent shortage of work for others. The dungs developed some organisation of their own, and the demand for labour during the wars prevented this schism from being too serious, but this changed with the depression at the end of the wars. Thereafter all organisation among the dungs collapsed and they undercut the flints. The latter maintained the 1813 day-rate, but employment and therefore actual earnings were declining.

A more serious threat that developed during the war was the rapid increase in the number of units of production to meet the growing demand. This mainly took the form of small “chambermasters” working at home, but some new large businesses arose as a result of government contracts, and towards the end of the war they began to employ cheaper female labour, a practice long prevented by the men and bitterly resented now. These capitalist developments continued after the war, to the detriment of the men. Firms with contracts for government, army and police work employed cheap female and child labour. By the early 1820’s much of the trade was in the hands of “slop-shops”and “show-shops”, selling inferior and, in the case of the former, readymade articles. If they employed labour directly, it was cheap labour; and as the owners were often not tailors, they employed foremen, who sometimes ruled in a tyrannical way. But usually they did not have large premises and so gave orders to small masters, and because they could place orders they enforced competitive tendering.

The small masters or “sweaters” had to undercut one another. Many of them were chambermasters, working at home and employing no-one but their families. Many others employed women and children, paying them from 3/- to 8/- per week, often for a working day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. And many others acted as middlemen and gave work to journeymen to be done at their own homes at low rates. Homework meant losing more time in travel and bearing the cost of firing for irons, candlelight and sewing trimmings, which in a proper workshop were borne by the employer. Such workmen might earn 3/6d to 4/- in a day, but sometimes 2/- or even 1/- for fourteen to sixteen hours’ labour. They were forced to use their wives’ and children’s labour to help them. Low earnings led workmen to compensate by overwork, which even further increased the competition. These journeymen and chambermasters lived in a state of unrelieved poverty, in which long periods without work alternated with periods of intensive work night and day.

The cheaper, ready-to-wear sector grew rapidly in relation to the bespoke side, and the flints inevitably suffered from competition and loss of work. Periods of unemployment reduced earnings, and even though the old day-rate of 6d per hour remained, this was in fact often only 5d through various devices. The depression of 1826 severely drained the flints’ unemployment funds. A strike in 1827 against female labour was beaten, the first that the tailors had lost in at least sixty years. The power of the flints was broken in the late 1820’s by schism, a further drain on funds, and the growth of show-shops, slop-shops and sweaters. Another unsuccessful strike in 1830 emphasised their loss of power.

In the early 1830’s the tailors’ weakness and the need for regrouping were obvious. Their chance seemed to come with the economic recovery of 1833. Efforts at union began at least as early as September, and in November the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors of London was founded. The problems of the trade and the remedies were clear enough. Because of the weakness created by the hostility between flints and dungs, and even among the flints themselves, because of preference given to more senior members in obtaining work, all tailors must be united in one unexclusive association. Uniformity was impossible when there was so much home work, and so all work would have to be done on employers’ premises. This would also prevent poor women from doing work cheaply at their homes. Because some tailors had no work while others were working excessively, hours must be limited in order to share work and reduce unemployment. Piece-work led to overwork and lack of uniformity, so should be abolished. Distress should be reduced by raising the day-rate. These were the aims of the new union.

The reduction of hours would mean that earnings would actually be reduced for the top men, those paid at the full rate and working a full twelve-hour day. But the aim of the union was equalisation, and the need to end the great fluctuations in employment seemed far more important than possible maximum earnings. To outsiders, the insistence on day-work instead of piece-work seemed to mean that men would be paid the same however hard they worked. But in most of the old trades there was a well-established traditional rate of work, a “stint” that was well understood, and there was a stigma attached to slacking. The London tailors had their “Log”, the amount of work a skilled man could manage, so day-work did not mean a slower pace but the avoidance of over-work. Some older and inferior workmen would not be able to keep up with the Log, and the union accepted that they should be paid at a lower day-rate provided that a union committee gave its approval in each case.

The events of 1834 mark an important stage in the history and decline of the trade, and it must be emphasised that the character, objectives and actions of the union are wholly explicable in terms of the tailors’ experiences and past history, and need not be attributed to outside influences.

The significance of the strike was far wider than the tailoring trade. The tailors had been instrumental in organising the Consolidated Trades’ Union, which they had conceived as an agency for inter-union aid. Tailors’ delegates had attended the London Co-operative and Trade Union Congress in October 1833. The London Grand Lodge of Tailors called the meeting of delegates from town and country that met from 13 to 19 February and founded the Consolidated Union. Of the thirty delegates, five were London tailors, and one of them, MacDonald, was in the chair. The tailors’ committee submitted preliminary propositions, resolutions based on them, and regulations for the union, all of which were unanimously adopted. The tailor John Browne was made grand secretary of the new union. The bulk of the union’s membership came from London, and the two largest member-groups were the London tailors and cordwainers [shoemakers – another group of workers with a long tradition of fighting their bosses, and often known like tailors, for radical politics]. Tailors like George Petrie were active missionaries for the union, and of the twenty-eight towns that had lodges, eight had lodges of tailors and six of cordwainers.

The Consolidated Union must be related to several factors. First, 1834 was a year of economic recovery, when the position of labour was stronger and hopes of wage-rises were well-founded. Efforts to raise wages in good times were typical of the older artisan trades, from whom its membership was largely drawn. Second, joint action and help among such trades was traditional enough. Third, such action was always increased when a large or spectacular dispute arose and evoked widespread feelings of solidarity; in this case the Derby silk-weavers’ dispute, with the resultant enthusiasm and relief committees, provided an emotional focus for the union. Fourth, ideas of general union were particularly widespread in the early 1830s; and there were examples in the National Association for the Protection of Labour of 1830, and the Operative Builders’ Union of 1833, both of which had a federal structure that the GNCTU copied. Fifth, many of the leaders of the union came from the London United Trades’ Association, a group of producers’ co-operatives in which the tailors had been involved. This contribution helped strengthen the idea of co-operative production. Sixth, the union’s main support in London came from those declining and militant trades of tailors, shoemakers and silk-weavers. The four chief aims of the union are not surprising: mutual support over strikes; benefit payments (sick and superannuation); employment of out-of work members; and co-operative production during strikes.

The union grew rapidly after February. At the end of March the sentence on the six Dorchester labourers threatened the whole trade union movement; but its result was to reinforce trade-union solidarity,

Large demonstration in Islington to call for quashing of sentence on transported Dorchester labourers, April 1834

strengthen the Consolidated Union, and bring it radical support. At the head was the five-member Executive, clearly a copy of the “Town” of the London tailors. Below this were to be the District Committees composed of delegates from all the trades in an area belonging to the union. But in fact only two were formed, at London and Birmingham. Yet from the start the Executive was in a weak position, with the union still immature and the opposition strong from both the public and the employers. The Executive proved unequal to their task, even failed to keep records properly, and virtually abdicated leadership of the whole union to the London District Central Committee. This Committee, with sixty-three delegates from twenty-one trades, including builders’ representatives, was the active body. It organised the great demonstration on 21 April against the Dorchester labourers’ conviction, with help even from country delegates. The Committee was much more familiar and acceptable to the London trades than was the Executive.

The Executive, as well as others, felt a great respect for Robert Owen, a man who had given years and a fortune to efforts to end poverty, had devoted himself to industrial reorganisation in 1833, and in 1834 had supported the GNCTU and come out against the Dorchester labourers’ conviction. By March Browne was in correspondence with him. Owen’s “Institution of the Industrious Classes” in Charlotte Street was always available for use by trade unionists. His lectures were always well-attended, and he identified himself with industrial movements in the North. Moreover, a certain William Neal, an Owenite, helped Browne with letters, accounts, and circulars of the tailors’ union. At the tailors’ request, Neal drew up the documents for the February Congress, with the proviso that they should be approved by Owen, and thereafter wrote the initiation ceremony, general laws, petitions and letters of the Consolidated Union. The various addresses of the Executive suggest Owenite influence in their general tone, plans to open a general bank for the working classes, abolish money and replace great employers by Boards of Labour and Committees of Industry, and their offer to negotiate with the governments of Europe and America in order to establish a terrestrial paradise.

A further characteristic of the Consolidated and other unions was their reliance on Owenite periodicals, the fate of the earlier co-operative movement as well. Late in 1833 the tailors were encouraged and supported by the Man, run by the Owenites Lee and Petrie, and Crisis, originally owned by Owen and now edited by his associate James Smith. To these was added the Pioneer, edited by the Owenite James Morrison, which became the official organ of the Consolidated Union. Morrison and Smith strongly supported the trade-union movement of 1833-34, especially the moves to general union. They were especially aroused by Derby into hostility to employers and government, and advocacy of very far-reaching social changes, in which trade unions were to be the instruments. These “syndicalist” opinions steadily divided them from Owen, and this growing antipathy has been emphasised by most historians who have written about the Consolidated Union.

Robert Owen

While Morrison and Smith propounded an increasingly violent theory of class conflict, and sought to turn the union into the instrument whereby the “producers” would win a general strike against the “non-producers”, Owen refused to abandon his strategy of class reconciliation and non-violence. Yet at the same time, Morrison and Smith’s theories also tended to divide them from trade-union opinion. Few historians have emphasised this even more fundamental split between the Owenite spokesmen and the rank-and-file members. However penetrating the social analyses of Smith and Morrison, however acute their suggestions and blueprints for total social reorganisation, for most trade unionists they were as irrelevant as the utterances of the Executive. While a few leaders saw the union as an agency of social transformation, the ordinary members saw it as a way to broaden their financial base, and thus strengthen their position in individual strikes to improve wages and working conditions.

When the tailors went out on strike they expected, and were promised, financial support from the London Central Committee of the union. They themselves had been among the heaviest contributors to the Derby men.1 Instead they received denunciations from their supposed champions, who saw the tailors’ strike as an irresponsible deviation from their far-reaching plans for the union. Owen specifically advised against using the union as a support for local strikes:
“The attention of the unionists ought now to be withdrawn from all their little petty proceedings about strikes for wages, or, in plain English, at what weekly sum in money, continually varying in value, they shall sell themselves, their birthright, and their happiness, and the birthright and happiness of their posterity, to their masters and the non-producers”.

Smith and Morrison claimed that even if the tailors won, it would only make clothes more expensive and so improve their position unjustly at the expense of their brother unionists. They had in fact totally misunderstood the objectives of the strike, and persisted in seeing it solely as an attempt at higher wages, not realising that the claims resulted from clear understanding of developments in the trade and were really meant to bring about industrial reform. This very comprehensive attempt to remove the distress and abuses of the trade was regarded by Smith as destructive, while Morrison called it “unsocial”. Both condemned “partial strikes”, and Morrison did not believe that the tailors could win. He saw the only solution in a general strike. Even the Executive condemned individual strikes, claiming erroneously that “this association has not been formed to contend with the master producers of wealth and knowledge for some paltry advance in the artificial money-price in exchange for their labour, health, liberty, natural enjoyment, and life”.

In great contrast was the unequivocal support given the tailors by the leading radical periodicals, the True Sun and the Poor Man’s Guardian. They saw trade unions as organisations to defend the poor, and possible bases of support for radicalism. As such, they accepted them as they were, unlike Smith and Morrison, who wished to change them in accordance with their social theories. The real press champions of trade unionism in 1834 were the daily evening True Sun and Sunday Weekly True Sun, not the Crisis or Pioneer.

Abel Hall had ceased sending regular reports to John Stafford in October 1833, when political agitation waned. But in February 1834 Stafford asked him to resume his duties. Acting on these instructions, Hall joined the tailors’ union at No 2 Branch Lodge. The initiation ceremony of the tailors’ union combined ritual forms similar to those used by freemasons with elements of economic analysis and propaganda. The total strength of the London tailors’ union was variously estimated at 9-13,000. By May there were thirty-one lodges, most of which were located in the West End, where the better-paid men worked in bespoke shops. The branch lodges met every Thursday. Each had a president, vice-president, secretary and delegate. The last attended the weekly meeting of the Grand Committee and reported the proceedings to his branch lodge. Every Wednesday was the general meeting of all members, in Grand Lodge. Every Monday was a special meeting of the Grand Lodge for the initiation of new members.

Hall sent several reports in March. Further help for the striking Derby silk-weavers was agreed on, and £200 was sent to help them begin co-operative production. Meanwhile the efforts to strengthen the tailors’ organisation did not progress well. Hall reported: “Our Funds are very ‘Low’ and many are dissatisfied by the calls for so much subscription.” The tailors’ committee took the lead in encouraging the London Central Committee to call a public meeting on 24 March at Owen’s Institution about the Dorchester labourers. The main speakers were Owen and radicals like the parson Arthur Wade, the journalist William Carpenter, John Savage, and also some unionists like Duffey, James Morrison, and the coopers’ leader, Abraham. Twelve thousand packed in and agreed to send a petition to both Houses of Parliament, requesting a select committee of inquiry into the Consolidated Trades’ Union, and an address to the King, praying for mercy for the six Dorchester labourers. Some speakers, including Morrison and Abraham, called for simultaneous meetings, a general strike, and the convening of an anti-parliament. However, nothing came of these plans, and the tailors began to plan their own strike.

In spite of the weakness of the union and the depletion of their funds, the tailors hastily drafted a list of demands for presentation to their masters in April, the beginning of the brisk period in the trade. While Hall claims that the tailors had the full support of the London Central Committee for their strike such a categorical promise seems unlikely. When the strike began, the Consolidated Union was slow to help, while the cordwainers complained bitterly that it had been decided that they would strike first, and the tailors had pre-empted them. During the first two weeks of April the tailors, like unionists in other London trades, were still engaged in raising relief funds for the Derby strikers and petitioning the King on behalf of the Dorchester labourers, as well as planning their own strike. By the end of the month, the rank-and-file were clearly anxious for the strike to begin, whilst the leaders were trying to restrain them.

The London Central Committee seems to have agreed to support the tailors when the strike began with a fund raised by loans from other trade unionists in the Metropolis. In addition, the tailors tried to strengthen themselves during the strike by co-operative production of garments for sale by the union itself. This was a familiar tactic among the London trades, as the sale of goods lessened the drain on funds. But in the early 1830’s the tailors had also found that cooperative production was a partial solution to the problem of unemployment. There had been several tailors’ co-operative societies in these years that employed some of their members, and two had flourished as contributors to Robert Owen’s National Equitable Labour Exchange.

On 25 April, the tailors’ union issued a circular to all masters which set forth their demands. The True Sun of 4 June stated that 1,000 men were able to return to work when their employers agreed to the men’s demands, and that another 1,000 left London to seek work in the country. But most master tailors were adamant. On 29 April, they met at Willis’ Rooms, where they voted to reject the unionists’ demands and to recruit strike-breakers. At the tailors’ houses of call, the strikers were obliged to attend regular “call times” at intervals from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This was to prevent any men from doing work secretly, as absentees were fined for non-attendance.

Once the strike began, the tailors were denounced by the entire press, with the exception of a few radical journals. The tailors’ action was inevitably seen as part of a general combination, and their leading part in the founding of the Consolidated Trades’ Union underscored this charge. The tailors were accused of tyranny and violence towards non-members and non-strikers, and of seeking equal wages for all, regardless of individual skill. It was alleged that their demands, if conceded, would raise the price of clothing enormously. The Times was particularly hostile to unions in general, and to the tailors especially. It rejoiced in the defeat of the Derby men, and supported the master tailors, urging them to defeat the strike by importing German workers. Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, also castigated unionists at the outset of the tailors’ strike. Rowland Detrosier, the London radical, responded to the tailors’ enemies, and the union issued “An Appeal to the Public on Behalf of the Journeymen Tailors of the Metropolis”, published in the True Sun of 12 May, which attempted to answer its opponents’ charges.

By the end of the first week of the strike, the tailors had acquired premises. They soon opened business there to sell directly to the public, and by the next week several hundred tailors were said to be employed in co-operative production. However, according to some newspaper reports, strike pay on 4 May for the second week was only 7/6d or 8/- instead of 10/-, which produced dissatisfaction. Some tailors went back to work in the City, although the West End remained solid. Perhaps because of this shortage of funds, on 5 May the Executive of the Consolidated Union ordered a levy of l/6d on all of its members to support the striking tailors. This was not, however, well supported.

Meanwhile Hall’s branch lodge moved from the Roebuck to the larger White Magpie, where the delegate was now Freestone instead of Taylor. By the end of the second week of May, the tailors were very much on the defensive. At a meeting of the union at Owen’s Institution they passed resolutions which were meant to answer the continuing attacks on them in the press. The tailors denied that the price of clothes would be much affected if their demands were met, and they were at pains to stress that the 6/- day-rate was only meant to apply to fully competent men; aged and inferior workmen would receive less. Contrary to the strikers’ expectations there was no pay at all for the third week of the strike, beginning 12 May. On Tuesday 13 May Hall’s branch lodge split, with one group, including Hall, joining a branch lodge at the Bell in Smithfield while the other group stayed at the Magpie.

The striking tailors agreed to negotiate with the masters beginning 14 May, presumably because of the weak and deteriorating condition of the union. A stumbling-block was that the masters preferred piecework and felt that under day-work they would not get a satisfactory rate of work. The union attempted to counter this in a circular issued on 16 May, in which they asserted that the union would enforce a fixed rate of work. Meanwhile these negotiations dragged on. The tailors continued to hope for financial support, but received only a pittance from the Central Committee. By 20 May, about a thousand tailors had seceded from the union and gone back to work on the masters’ terms. To add to their miseries, the tailors discovered that their funds had been embezzled, and their co-operative workshop robbed. By the end of the third week of May, the tailors apparently reached an agreement in their negotiations with the masters to return to work on the old terms on Monday 26 May. However, the Masters’ Committee seized the opportunity to crush the tailors’ union. On 27 May they met and voted by 532 to 8 to refuse to re-employ the men until they had signed the “document”, abjuring trade-union membership forever. This was unacceptable to many men. No doubt recourse to the document prolonged the strike, and introduced a new element into it. The document alarmed other trades, for it portended an assault on trade unionism generally. Hence the meetings of the London Central Committee at the Rotunda, beginning on 26 May, and a furious denunciation of the document by the Executive, printed in the Weekly True Sun on 25 May: “Let no man or woman from one end of the Kingdom to the other, sign this document.” In this new crisis, the idea of the general strike reappeared.

From the last week of May to 2 June, the tailors who remained on strike waited and hoped for relief from the Consolidated Union. On 2 June the Central Committee recommended that all trade union members in work contribute one day’s wages per week, and that all tailors in work contribute 1/- per day to the strikers. But this was not widely honoured, and the financial situation of the union continued to deteriorate. By 4 June only 5,000 of the original 9,000 tailors still remained out on strike. At a meeting on 9 June of all the London trades, Owen and the Executive of the Consolidated Union tried to rally support for the tailors, whose strike was now critical in the face of the militant anti-unionism taking hold among the masters in other trades. But this was too little, too late. Most of the original strikers had gone back to work, and those who remained out denounced their leaders for having mismanaged the strike. The strike dragged on, with minimal support from the Consolidated Union. On 22 June, the final blow was struck when the London Builders’ Union refused to assist the tailors, no doubt because the builders were preparing for their own coming struggle. The tailors responded by seceding from the Consolidated Union.

The tailors’ failure and their subsequent withdrawal from the Consolidated Trades’ Union gave it its “mortal wound”. The Operative Cordwainers, the second largest member union, angry with both the tailors and the Executive, withdrew at the end of June to conduct their own unsuccessful strike. The final demise of trade unionism in London came in August and September with the defeat of the builders and the break-up of their union. Although the Consolidated Union lingered on until August 1835, it was no more than a relic. Its power and its promise had been shattered by the tailors’ strike. As the union collapsed, Smith reflected that the tailors’ strike “proved to possess a more dissolving, decomposing virtue than any other chemical ingredient of which the Union is composed”.

After the 1834 strike, the tailoring trade continued to decline, with the spread of piecework, sweating, homework and cheap labour. The tailors played very little part in the trade-union activity of the rest of the decade, though they did play a leading part in Chartism. Some houses of call remained in the West End, and the “honourable” men there earned twice as much as the sweated men. In 1843-44 a final attempt was made to rally the tailors into union, based on the old houses of call. As in 1834 the aims were uniformity of rates, equalisation, and the end of homework. But its impact was limited, and 1843 marked the beginning of a rapid decline in the position of the honourable men in the West End. Though they remained somewhat better off than those further east, all were sinking to the appalling condition revealed by Mayhew and others in 1849-50.

William Cuffay

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One tailor involved in the 1834 tailors’ strike, who was sacked in the aftermath, was William Cuffay, descendant of African slaves, who had been born in St Kitts in the West Indies. Cuffay went on to become an active and leading London Chartist, heavily involved in the preparation for the great Chartist demonstration in April 1848, and then in the plans for an armed uprising that followed. Arrested at a late stage in these plots (again, due to penetration by spies acting for the police), Cuffay was transported to Australia for ‘levying war on the queen’.

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Abel Hall’s reports to his spymaster concerning the 1834 strike follow, reproduced as written, including Hall’s grammatical and spelling errors.

As Prothero and Parssinen comment “The present document is important and very unusual in consisting of a commentary on events at the rank-and-file level. It includes forty three of ninety-one pages of reports made in 1834 by a single police spy that are filed in the Public Record Office, Home Office papers, eighty-one of them in 64/15, six in 52/24, and four in 64/19. The HO 64/15 reports are not only on the tailors but include reports on various radical organisations. From the reports on the tailors we have selected only some which pertain to the strike, and especially to the relationship between the tailors and the Consolidated Trades’ Union. All these but two are from 64/15. The reports are not filed in chronological order, and many are undated, but most can be placed on the basis of internal evidence and the day of the week, which is almost always noted. The author is never given.

Scattered through the Home Office papers in various series, mainly 40, 52 and 64, is a large number of reports for the years 1830-33, forming a continuous series, in the same handwriting and with the same style and type of content. They mostly deal with the National Union of Working Classes, and are a major source for anyone studying that body. They contain a great deal of information, and indicate that the informant was known to and trusted by many of the leading radicals, and was a member of the committee. The reports are perceptive and accurate, and the spy is not an agent provocateur.

Usually the reports are unsigned, and when the name was given it has been erased. There were several spies in the NUWC, including Samuel Dean, Clements and the notorious Popay, who was exposed in 1833. It is often assumed that some of these reports are by Popay. But they cannot all be, as it is known that Popay was not employed at the time of the earlier reports, being appointed a policeman on 3 September 1831. The theory that the reports are not all by the same person is only compatible with the fact that they are in the same handwriting by regarding them not as the originals but as copies all made by the same clerk in the Bow Street Police Station. But this is only speculation, and it is much simpler to accept that they are originals in the informer’s hand, especially as on the back they often bear the name of the recipient, John Stafford, Chief Clerk at the Bow Street office. There is no evidence at all that any of the reports are by Popay, and it was never so alleged at the Select Committee investigation of his case.

There is other evidence to suggest that the reports are all by the same person. All through there is a special familiarity with radical groups in East London. Several times the informant indicates that he is closely acquainted with men, like Thomas Preston, who were members of Arthur Thistlewood’s group. Twice he recalls details of the Cato Street conspiracy, and in one report he says he first got to know Stafford at the time of that affair.3 One of the earliest reports is endorsed on the back “Information of Abel Hall 1£ per week”. In another report the informant says that his name is advertised in the Poor Man’s Guardian with Preston and others to attend a meeting in Islington; the names in the Guardian are Preston and Hall.1

Abel Hall is mentioned several times in reports of informers in Thistlewood’s conspiracy. He was present in the loft at Cato Street the night they assembled, but managed to escape as the soldiers and magistrates closed in. He was soon arrested, along with fourteen others. Stafford interviewed him, and found him disposed to tell all he knew. But Hall was not needed for the trial of Thistlewood and four others, as the prosecution had the testimony of Robert Adams, another conspirator who had a change of heart and was willing to testify against his erstwhile fellow plotters. Hall swore a deposition, outlining his activities on 8 May 1820.2 He, Thomas Preston and three others were later released, and Hall managed to retain the confidence of the London ultra-radicals. He apparently sent regular reports to Stafford throughout the 1820’s, but only a few of these were passed on to the Home Office and survive. Similarly not all his reports in the 1830’s were passed on.

There are reports on the Consolidated Union in 64/15 from two informers. One of these is known to be G. M. Ball, of the Gardeners’ Lodge. The other, from whose reports this document is drawn, is the same as the NUWC spy. The handwriting is the same. He reports on the same groups as before, including the NUWC. He is familiar with Thomas Preston; he is a tailor, as was Hall; and, in one of the reports not included in the document, the informant explains the tailors’ modified initiation procedure. In giving an example of the oath, he uses initials which are probably his own: “The Words ‘In the presence of Almighty God I A— H— Taylor do promise to keep &c’ is substituted as I have before stated.” And so we are confident as to the accuracy of the document, as Abel Hall was a trustworthy reporter.”

I

“Since I last wrote having been desired to attend to the “Trades Union” I found ‘from Neesom who is a Taylor and very active among them as well as from several others who belong to it that in the Taylors Lodges who are the most numerous they are very particular in who they admit in consequence of having discovered that Policemen in disguise and others who are known to be Spies have tried to be “Initiated” into their Lodges and they will not now admit anyone who is not recommended by two “Brothers” who become so after they have been initiated and who know the party to be only of the Trade he professes. [The irony of this note in a report itself written by an informer is both sad and telling.] The Trades Unions have been established for some Months both in London and the Country and have much increased in both by nearly all Trades joining them. There are Carpenters, Bricklayers, Painters, Coopers, Cabinet Makers, Taylors and others in great numbers whose object is to raise a fund to support all Trades who belong to them in a Strike for Wages, to oppose all tyrannical Masters who are insolent to or resist any of their Workmens commands, to form themselves in their separate trade into bodies who will also form their own plans as to not Working for any Master who employs any other but Union Men and to oppose all systems of tyranny. For this purpose they have established Lodges similar to Free Masons and are sworn to maintain their Rights. The Rotunda in Black Friars Road is the principle or Grand Lodge and there also the Delegates from all parts of London and the Country meet.

Monday evening last was and is Weekly the night for Taylors being initiated and I having been much persuaded by Neesom and Dove who proposed me went there w[h]ere there was during the evening at least three thousand Taylors met. On going in there are two persons sitting who take down the name of the person to be admitted and the two who propose him and he is then ordered into a Room adjoining the large theatre which is very closely kept out of view either to wait while others are being made or until about 100 is assembled to be made. 130 was in the number I was among and previous to entering you are given a piece of string to tie your Hat to the upper button hole of your Coat and you are to Blind your eyes with a Handkerchief. At three loud knocks at a door inside which is answered without A Question is asked who it is who is wishing to interrupt our Great Lodge and the Answer is given that 130 good Men and who are without wish to enter to be made Members of their Grand Lodge and we are led Blindfold into the large Theatre where after order is obtained by loud knockings on the Floor the President either reads or rehearses several passages from the Psalms the Creed and the Gospels, all of which are selected as bearing on the Equality of Man and his right to oppose tyranny. Several Verses of a Union Song is then sang by the Brothers previously present and we are addressed as strangers for us to say whether we are willing to solemnly swear on our oaths to keep the Unions Secrets and to maintain them at the risk our lives to which we answer yes, and after a long address is spoken as to the Slavery Working Men have for years endured by the tyranny of Governments of all ages and the Masters employing Workmen by their combining to extract from them and their families their labour and bread we are ordered to kneel down to place our right hand on our naked left breast and our left on a stool before us on which is part of a leaf of the bible, but which we do not see. At this moment by a given motion of the President (which he after we are sworn shows us) all the Brothers present about 1500 loudly clap their hands and stamp their right foot once which is very loud indeed. We are then ordered to untie our handkerchiefs which discovers the Gas nearly extinguished. The President and Vicepresident behind him standing on a table with White Surplices on and Red Sashes round them and each has a Bible in his hand. Just before them is a Black Ground Transparency well light and on which is painted the perfect Skeleton of a Man. The President then takes a Sword in his hand the point of which he directs your attention first to the Skull and then to the heart the Arms, Legs and Body and in a short address goes to prove that when a Man is in work and in full vigour he soon becomes a skeleton by being tyrannized over by his Governors and Masters who employ him who rob him of substance – themselves to live in luxury on his Vitals. Over the head or Skull is inscribed Beware of your latter end, to which he directs your attention by stating that such end will soon by yours if you do not by Uniting prevent it and that if you after you are sworn do anything to injure the Union or be a Traitor to it Death will surely be your reward. There are also 8 Brothers who have naked Swords in their hands and wear red Sashes and several others who carry large Wooden Axes and Battle Axes and who surround this Skeleton and the President with his Sword and Vice with his go round to each person saying and at the same time putting the edge to your neck and taking your left hand in his what are you, the answer is a Taylor, he then says you are willing to swear to protect the Unions to the risk of your life to which you answer I will. The right hand being still on your left breast you then return your left hand to the Paper and being again darkened by the Officers or Tilers who stand close to hear you the President order each to repeat after him the Oath, which is I most solemnly swear that to my life’s end I will protect and act upon and with the Laws and Brothers of the Trades Unions in any what that I will never reveal their Laws or secrets to any one, that I will never write or cause to be written or printed any of their proceedings or secrets, but will do all I can to discover any one who does and to assist in all my power every act they do So help my God. This being done we rise and are told we are now Brothers, that our Monthly Subscriptions would be One Shilling and that as the Union at Derby had been requested by the Masters to sign a Paper to return to their work on grounds derogatory to their principles and had nobly refused it was intended to further assist them by each member giving SI/- as well as getting what they could from non Members. I should state that on entrance to be initiated we pay Seven-pence. We were then told that to know any Member the Universal Sign was by placing the Right hand thumb and finger to the top on the left side of your waistcoat and carry it from thence across the body to the right thigh and if it was not answered by the same signal on the reverse side the Party so asked was no member. That every trade had its own signs to enter their lodges and that ours was on our approaching the door at which the first Tiler stood with a drawn Sword you are to use the right hand Sign and say slowly to him A. On getting to the second you use the same sign and say Z. You then are admitted to the Lodge where an open Bible is laid on the Table on which you are to place your right hand open from thence to your left breast and making an obesiance to the President and Vice you take your seat. He stated also that near 10,000 were already Members of our Union the Grand Lodge of which would meet on Wednesday night at Eight O’Clock and that Branch Lodges were held at most of the Houses of Call at the West End of Town and at the Sun in London in London Wall, the Kings Head in St. Pauls Chain, the Ship in Lime St. and at the Three Lords in the Minories for the City who all corresponded and acted with the Grand Lodge and after two more Union verses of a Song was sung to the tune of God save the King and the President had said The Grace of our Lord &c he stated that the Lodge was dissolved and we separated at Twelve O’Clock.

On Wednesday evening at 8 O’Clock I again attended and having passed the above signs entered the large theatre which at that time had about 1200 Taylors in it. The Floor was not in anyway decorated as above, but there was a table at which the Secretary to deliver Cards and receive Monies for them and Subscriptions. About | past Eight the President who is a Taylor named Woodford, the Vice and Brown the Warden of the Lodge having we proceeded to business the first of which was to place Woodford on the table with his Surplice and Sash has had al the Vice and to read the Minutes of the last Meeting which was done by Gutheridge who has acted as Secretary for sometime, but has resigned and from which it appears that a dispute having arisen sometime ago between him – Gutheridge, Duffey and Petrie it was referred to the General Committee who met on Friday night last to decide what steps to recommend. The Committee of all Trades are chosen from the body of the Union in their own Lodges and meet privately. Ours met on that night at the Blue Posts a house of call for Taylors in Brewer St. Golden Square and there decided that as Duffey had made charges against Gutheridge he should be suspended for three Months, but in Six weeks if he made an Apology he should be reinstated. Duffey, Gutherie and Petrie are the same persons who caused much confusion in the National Union, and this decision caused a very great confusion all the night by each of their partys proposing and reproposing Resolutions condemning each, so much so that no business was done, but I find that on Monday next Six Delegates from our trade upwards of Nine Thousand of whom belong to us are to go through England to Initiate members and Concentrate our Union and that other trades are doing the same. I find also that at several Shops at the West End the Men have struck to their Masters who would either “insult or not agree to our Union Plans” to regulate the work and the Men have thrown themselves on the Protection of the Union who have received them. The Confusion existed up to one O’Clock when the Lodge was dissolved, to meet again next Monday and Wednesday nights. I tried to get a copy of our Private Laws and the Laws of the Trades Unions generally, but the Secretary had none by him they being all sold and as I do not wish to be seen too forward I did not Press my wanting it, but will get them and send them as soon as possible. During the night 2812 Taylors met here and we separated at half past One. Thursday Feby. 27th. 1834.

II

On Wednesday evening I attended the Grand Lodge of the Taylor Trades Union at the Rotunda, at which about 1200 Taylors met. After the usual ceremony of opening the Lodge had been gone through George [sic; John] Brown the Grand Secretary read the minutes of the last Meeting which were confirmed. He then stated that as Lord Melbourne had not written an Answer to the Deputation who waited on him on last Sunday as he had promised to do he had been ordered to write his Lordship to know what the King had done as to the Six Convicts and that he had that day received a letter from Lord Howick which he read and which stated that his Majesty had not yet given any orders on the subject, at which a great deal of disapprobation was expressed, but he stated that the Central Committee of all the trades Unions was then sitting to determine on what we should next do in their case and that that would be made known to us at our Branch Lodges. Six of our Committee attended with Brown and stated that the Central Committee of all the Trades in London had agreed that our trade should from being the largest in number Strike First and that their Funds should assist us if we wanted them. The Plan is that as at this time of year our trade is mostly called into action we should strike about the middle of this Month – April of which notice is to be given to all the Branch Lodges. That all our Work is to be day work, that no man is to work more than 10 Hours p r day for which he is to be paid 8d pr hour, that from the first Monday in April to the last Saturday in July he is to be at his work from 7 in the Morning to 6 in the evening and the remaining 8 Months in the year from 8 to 5 leaving 1 hour for refreshment and not to work in any shop unless well ventilated and comfortable to his health. That no Master be allowed to pick his Men, but to go through the book which is to be one throughout the trade as the names stand1 and no Apprentice to be bound before he is 13 years of Age nor remain so after 18, and this is to extend 4 Miles from Covent Garden Market. The Bye Laws which he read are the same in substance and are in a stage of printing for us. As soon as I can get them I will send them. A Deputation from the Cordwainers waited on us to know what we meant to do as to the Six Convicts and they were told as I above state as to the Central Committee Sitting. Bills were Posted at the Rotunda as to the Second Meeting of the Unions to take place to day in Charlotte S* Rathbone Place on the Six Convicts, but from what we were requested by Brown and from what I learnt from him I shall attend my Branch Lodge – the Roebuck in Aldgate to night and Report to morrow. We are also requested to attend a Brothers Funeral on Sunday next at two O’Clock and to assemble in Finsbury Square. A letter from Bradford in Yorkshire was read wishing us to send a Delegate there to initiate which was referred to the Committee and this being the only business the Lodge was closed about Eleven O’Clock.- Thursday April 3rd 1833 [sic; 1834]

III

On Wednesday evening I attended the Grand Lodge of the Taylors Trades Union at the Rotunda, at which about 1200 Taylors attended and a great deal of anxiety prevailed as to when we should strike. The Lodge having been opened in the usual form about Nine O’Clock Brown the Head Secretary read the Minutes of the last Meeting which were confirmed and a letter which was that day brought to him by a special Delegate from Derby stating that their funds would be quite exhausted this week and that it would be impossible to hold out any longer unless they were further assisted as the Masters were assisted by the Government. The Central Committee had sent him back with £30 and we as well as all the Trades were particularly requested to pay our Derby Levy and to enter into Subscriptions at our Branch Lodges to assist and keep them up as on this their Strike would depend a great deal the fate of the Union. He stated also that the Committee had sent a Delegate with £30 to the Wives and Families of the Six Convicts and had also determined that a Levy of 2d should be immediately made on every Brother throughout all the Unions to place them above the taunts of a Tyrannical Government and that that sum would be quite sufficient. He also stated that the Central Committee of Trades were still deliberating what to do as to Petitioning the King or to get the Men back and all the Petitions left at Branch Lodges of all the Trades for signatures or anywhere else is ordered to be sent to the Hercules Pillars Lincolns Inn Fields by Saturday night as the Central Committee were to determine on Monday what the Unions should do. He read the new Articles 34 in numbers which are to be submitted to the Branch Lodges for inspection or amendments and stated that all the Branch Lodges were to send in the names addresses &c of all their Men by the 14th of April and again of their numbers and how many of the Lodges were houses of Call by the 22nd in order that they may be able to regulate when to Strike. The Articles are nearly the same as I stated of the Bye Laws. A good deal of disappointment and dissatisfaction manifested itself among the Brothers at the delay of the Committee as to the Strike and several expressed themselves largely on this, but they were told by Brown and some of the Committee that we were not yet in a fit state to Strike both for want of Funds and numbers for many had joined who had not paid either their Levy or Subscriptions, at this a desultory conversation and some confusion took place of no particular importance amid which Fisher the President closed the Lodge and we separated about half past Eleven.- Thursday April 10th 1834

Last night was our last at the Rotunda our initiations will be in future at the Union – Union S* Whitechapel, The Blue Po[s]ts Brewer S* Golden Square and the White Hart Windmill S* Haymarket.-

Tuesday Morning [22 April] Sir/ I was yesterday a good deal among the Taylors at the Branch Lodges in the City. The Kings head S* Pauls Church Yard, Bulls Head Jewin Crescent, Sun Londons Wall and the Ship in Lime Street. I found a great many about at these places and they all still seem very sanguine as to the Strike and wish it soon, but as yet from the causes I stated last week The Committee have not decided. Last night the Grand Initiation took place at the Peacock Houghton S* Clare Market at which I attended when 103 were sworn as Brothers. Nothing new was stated nor will the Committees proceedings by known till Wednesday or Thursday. I shall attend to it and report.-

V

Friday Morning [25 April] Sir/1 last night attended the Roebuck and found the Central-Committee have decided that a Special summons should be issued to all the Branch Lodges of the Trades Unions to meet to night, That every trade is to pay as a loan either 2s/6d or as much as he can afford, to be repaid to him again. I being a small Master shall take the lowest rate, and as we are to meet to night I shall not be able to see you. I send this by Brand and will thank you to send me as usual by him. The additional expence is 3s/-. They talk of a Strike on Monday and as I shall attend to night I will report by him to morrow – morning Mr [name cut out]

VI

On Friday evening I attended my Branch Lodge at the Roebuck – Duke S* Aldgate. As I have daily sent notes to Mr [name purposely obscured = Brand] stating that no positive determination was yet come to as to our strike, but when it did I would Report truly. On my attending at the same place on Thursday night, I found that no particular business would be done that night, but that the whole trade were especially summoned for Friday night, to hear the decision of the Committee. On my going there I found the greatest assemblage of Brothers I have ever seen there. Previous to Taylor the Delegate coming Campbell the landlord stated that as it was expected by the Committee that Government would object to Public Houses being either Lodges or Houses of Call1 as well as the Masters it was intended to take Large Buildings, Chapels or upper Parts of Houses for the Men to work in when we strike. About half past Nine Taylor came and stated that the Committee had decided that we should strike this Morning — that every man who had work to finish should go and do so at his shop, but not take another job either cut out or basted up unless on the principle of the Master agreeing to pay the Wages and abide by the Rules and Laws of the Union as to time and Comforts which I have before stated. That every Branch Lodge should meet again at Eight O’Clock on Sunday evening to hear how they got on. That every man should be employed by the General fund two days in the week at 6s/- p r day, and if not so employed liberty to do what work he could get on his own account and be allowed 10s/- pr week, but not to work for any Master struck against. That any Brother may work for another as he can afford to pay him. That all Brothers do pay to their Branch Lodges the most money they can afford as a Loan to be repaid to them in order to assist the funds, by the Work done by those unemployed. That as it was thought Equal Rights for all was our Motto no man would object to do all he could by assisting in this Loan and that no brother do enter his Lodge without giving his Christian [name] surname and place of Residence and his Card payed up to the end of March. He also stated having brought the proof sheet with him that the whole of the General and Bye Laws were in a last stage of being printed and would soon be ready for our use by purchasing and he hoped by Sunday. During the evening I went with a Brother named George Stokes downstairs and in the passage was a Soldier of the First Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards with his Side Arms on. He came with a Porter and another the first of which is employed two doors from Howards Coffee House in Dukes Place. Stokes shew him his Card when he said I know that well I Glory and so does our Regiment in your proceedings on Monday. If we had been called out we should all have Grounded our Arms. He has a broad Scotch accent and was tipsy. I shall attend to morrow night and Report on Monday.- Saturday April 26th 1834

VII

25, Little Queen-street, April 25, 1834 SIR – By direction of the Friendly Society of Operative Tailors, I have to acquaint you, that in order to stay the ruinous effects which a destructive commercial competition has so long been inflicting upon them, they have resolved to introduce certain new Regulations of Labour into the Trade, which Regulations they intend should commence from Monday next; and I beg herewith to enclose you a copy of them.

As the demands there specified are of so reasonable a nature; and as, moreover, they are unquestionably calculated for the ultimate benefit of employers, as well as employed, the Society confidently hope that you will accede to them, and that henceforward a mutual confidence may be sustained between masters and men, and that their interests may be no longer separated, and opposed to each other.

It only remains for me to add, that your workmen, members of this Society, will cease to be employed by you, should you decline to act upon the new regulations; and further, I think it right to apprize you that, in that case, they will no longer consider it necessary to support your interest; but will immediately enter into the arrangements prepared by the Society for the employment of such Members for the benefit of the Society.

I am, sir, your most obedient humble servant,

JOHN BROWNE. Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Operative Tailors

REGULATION

No Brother shall be allowed to work more than ten hours per day from the third Monday in the month of April to the last Saturday in the month of July; nor more than eight hours per day the remaining eight months of the year; and for such labour the remuneration shall be 6s. per day for the ten hours labour, which is to be performed between the hours of seven o’clock in the morning, and six o’clock in the evening; and 5s. per day for the eight hours labour, to be performed between the hours of eight o’clock in the morning, and five o’clock in the evening, out of which time, in either case, he shall leave his employer’s premises one hour for refreshment. Nor shall any Brother work for an employer any where but on his (the employer’s) premises, which shall be healthy and convenient, or on any other terms than by the day or hour. And no Brother shall be allowed to solicit employment, or to work for less than the regular wages within four miles of Co vent Garden.

VIII

On Tuesday evening I attended my Branch Lodge N° 2 at the Roebuck in Duke S* Aldgate (I have attended there at the Regular Call-times since Monday Morning) and on going found that an order had been sent from the Committee that a special Meeting was to be held there at Six O’Clock but it was again determined that the Lodge Room was not sufficient for all of us and we again adjourned to the White Magpie. The Lodge was opened there about Eight and was filled to nearly suffocation and a long complaint was made by one party against the Secretary – Haynes — his own party supporting him, the result of which was that he wished if any complaint against him existed (none particular was stated) he would wish it to be sent to the Grand Committee and he would abide by their decision. A great deal of confusion and nearly rioting took place throughout this and it was at length agreed as he wished. From all I see or hear of the Complaint against him is that a party exists who wish their friend in his place and say of him that he neglects to mark those who do not answer to their names at call time. About Nine O’Clock Taylor the Delegate from the Committee came with his Report and read it. It was short and in substance stated that the Committee had heard of nearly 100 Masters who had ordered from different Lodges Men on our principles. That a Suggestion had been made a few days ago to the Central Committee of Trades Unions as to every Branch Lodge of all the Trades being made Taylors Clubs to be attended on their Lodge Meetings by one Delegate or more to act as Taylors taking orders and that they all have Clothes from no other persons but us thus keeping us as well employed as possible they subscribing according to what Garments they want, with this being sent to us we buy the Materials – make the Articles and after employing our men at our Wages we strike for the Profits to go to a Consolidated Fund for our support and for the support of any other trade that should strike. This the Central Committee have agreed to and it is to be made a law this week in all the Unions, they say that if our Masters hold out “this will defeat them for ever.” that Mr Detrosier has agreed to lecture at the Rotunda to night on the principles of Unions Gratuitiously for our benefit that one penny each is to be taken for admission, that none but Taylors be admitted and that all the Lodges – Taylors do meet at their Lodges at 7 O’Clock and go from thence to the Rotunda to be there at 8 in procession as near as possible. That as the plan of having Clubs was to be resorted to those men who had not been able to pay up their Loan of 4s/6d need not do so until they had work and then at 6d pr day, that already 1000 thousand [sic] Coal Whippers had stated that to be first they were ready anytime to give us an order for as many Jackets, that if any Master or deputy call at any Branch Lodge to compromise in any way not to answer them, but refer them to a Committee always sitting at the Albion in King S* High Holborn. This being the substance of his Report a Desultory conversation of no importance took place and the Lodge closed to attend to night to hear Rowland Detrosier at the Rotunda and the business of Grand Lodge about 12 O’Clock. Wednesday April 29*h [sic; 30th] 1834

IX

On Wednesday evening I attended at the Rotunda where the Grand Lodge of Taylors was held and at which as I stated yesterday Rowland Detrosier was to lecture on the Principles of Union. About 8 O’Clock the Large Theatre was very full and in about half past Hundreds of Taylors was seen coming from all parts of London in branches but not in procession. Detrosier came about this time and there was not less than 3000 – Taylors present, indeed the place was so full you could not without much pressure obtain a place. The Lodge was then opened in the usual form and he began a Lecture verbally on first the Principles of Union which he took from the reign of Edward the 3rd, and in which he went to prove that from that time it had been the Maxim of Kings first Princes next, Aristocrated Noblemen next, Religion next, Navy and Army next and thus led to Middle men called Masters who all formed one Aristocratic Body to live on the labour which was the Property of the Working Man. His lecture was a very clever illustration (in his way) of producing the most determined hatred towards Masters and in which he justified us in our strike and implored us to keep steady in our plans and we were sure to succeed in obtaining that which was our just rights. He then made a severe attack on the Times Newspaper for having in its leading Article in its Tuesdays Publication on us and designated the Writer as the most willing Prostitute to Power that ever existed. He then made a most furious attack on the Lord Chancellor for his speech as to trades Unions and stated that he had by the Union of the People been raised to his present situation and that since he had been in power had proved himself the most determined Profligate in Principle ever yet known. He strongly impressed on us not to put the least confidence in any professor of Principles, but to look to ourselves. He was listened to with very great attention and is to give Lectures weekly throughout the whole Trades Unions.- Thursday May 1st 1834.-

X

Friday Morning.-

[2 May] Sir/1 was yesterday among a great many Taylors and visited the Bulls Head in Jewin Crescent, I there found that “Nothing New” had been stated after I left the Rotunda. I went last night to the Roebuck to attend my call and all I could learn from Hayes the Secretary was, that the Committee were busy in collecting the different – Reports of the Newspapers as to our Strike in order to contradict them in the True Sun next Week. We are ordered to attend to night and Sunday night at the Roebuck to hear the Delegates Report from Committee, and thus we stand at Present. I shall attend and if anything occurs will Report it. I send this by Brand and will be thankful if you will send the money by him. Not that I immediately want it this morning, but I shall not be able to call on you this evening. I have paid since last Friday 4s/6d as a Loan to the Union and with Pamphlets, Entrance Monies and Subscriptions my charge this week is 8s/-.

XI

To THE GRAND National Consolidated Trades Union: Whereas our Brothers, the United Operative Tailors of the Metropolis, being forced into their present position by the many grevious attacks and encroachments of the Masters, and we being fully aware of the great danger and inconvenience of large masses of Men remaining in Idleness,
We do therefore require that all and every of the members of the Consolidated Trades Union, do forthwith contribute the sum of one Shilling and Sixpence as Levy, in three payments, for the purpose of giving employment to the members of the above Trade. The first payment to be made on or before the 9th day of May; the second payment to be made on or before the 16th of May; and the third payment on or before the 22nd of May, 1834: and further it is desired that all Secretary’s will see the said money transmitted to Mr. E. C. Douglas,1 213, High Holborn.

May 5th , 1834

By Order of the Executive Council

XII

Saturday 12 0’Clock [10 May] Sir/I have been from Nine to this moment at the Magpie, and have had to keep with many who are walking about. I find that No Money has been sent by the Committee except that last night Sixpenny Tickets were given by Freestone by order of the Committee to each Man for refreshments, and Hayes the Secretary has gone to the Committee for the Money. They are all still waiting and expect his arrival, but there is no certainty when they May get it.- Mr. Stafford.

XIII

Wednesday Morning [14 May] Sir/ I attended my Branch Lodge the Magpie last night and found there had been a Meeting of the Taylors at Owens Institution that day and that a Deputation from the Committee was to meet us there at Nine O’Clock, but up to Eleven no one came and though there was a great many waiting for their Money None came. Freestone kept us in suspense until that time and a great deal of discontent was manifested by the people waiting. We were at Length ordered to meet at the Bell in the Pig Market Smithfield at Nine this Morning, and the Hand and Shears-Cloth Fair. No Report was made, but it is expected the Committee will send one to us to morrow. Thus I cannot yet say how we stand, but will do so as soon as I can.

XIV

Thursday Morning.- [15 May] Sir/1 attended at the Bell in Smithfield yesterday Morning at Nine and found that the only Report known from Committee was that every thing was going on well, This did not give any satisfaction and after a long discussion among about 300 Men we deputed Barnsley and Brown to go to Committee to know more and I with several others was walking the Streets all day waiting their Return. I could not get away from them & about Nine last night they returned and stated that all they could learn was that we were still going on well and that the Committee had no doubt but that we should obtain our Strike by Saturday Week, and impressed on us all to particularly attend our Branch Lodges to night to hear their full Report and what has taken place between them and the Masters at their Meeting Yesterday. We then agreed that those Men who had been drawn from the Magpie should join the Bell this Morning and as soon as possible move as a Branch Lodge in a Body to either the White Horse Cripplegate or the White Swan Coleman Street being more Central for the City. We are I assure you in a deplorable state. The only money sent yesterday was that the Secretaries of each Lodge was ordered to give each Man on the funds a ticket by which he could get Sixpennyworth of refreshment at the Bar and Sixpence in Money and the Men expect the same to day, but there is no certainty in that. I must therefore Report to morrow.-

XV

The Committee of Operative Tailors,
25, LITTLE QUEEN STREET, HOLBORN,
Having received requests from various Masters, for a more explicit statement as to what security they would have, that a proper amount of Labour would be performed in the 10 hours, if they were to accede to us; we beg to say that it never was contemplated by us that an idle and inefficient Man should have this rate of wages, and for which purpose we had a regulation which we intended to have submitted to them, the Masters, for their concurrence, but being denied that friendly intercourse which we think should always exist between Master and Man, and in obedience to the above requests, we are now, or at any other time ready to shew a Statement of what Labour we were willing to perform in the 10 hours, to the whole of the Masters as a body or to any individual Master, that may think proper to demand the same, and for which purpose the Committee sit daily at 25, Little Queen-street, Holborn. SIGNED ON BEHALF OF THE COMMITTEE,
Stevenson, A. O’Connell, J. Elliott, May 16, 1834 R. Pryer.

XVI

Friday Morning [16 May] Sir/I attended at the Bell yesterday the whole of the 8 Call Times and was about with many of the Men all day expecting the Delegate to come with the Committee’s Report. He came at 5 O’Clock and stated that the Committee had been sitting all day on the Masters Proposals and was likely to continue so until late last night and that as he had to go to the different Trades Lodges to gather Money he could not attend last night but would come this Morning about Nine. I shall attend and either send you to day or bring what I have with me this evening.-

XVII

Tuesday Morning [20 May] Sir/I should have wrote you yesterday as to our funds and proceedings, but waited and am still without any real information on them. Up to Saturday night One O’Clock though numbers were waiting, No Money was sent and not until 10 on Sunday Morning with a promise that all would be paid on Monday Morning. The Men at the Bell in Smithfield received 3s/6d each — those at the Magpie ls/6d. I have attended since I saw you to my Lodge and up to the last night 11 O’Clock No Money came, but at 4 in the Afternoon Fawne the Delegate came with an order from Committee that each Lodge was to depute three Men to meet at the Rotunda this Morning at Nine to meet a deputation from Committee to hear and know what was to be done with the Men. It is not certain when we shall see them to day but I shall attend to it and send again to morrow. A great many I find has seceded from us and I have no doubt many more will.1 We are I assure you in a very dissatisfied state and until we are in some way settled I cannot send you a Report. Many Projects have been started among us but Nothing is as yet settled.

XVIII

The True Sun of last night has a long Article on our Trade and up to half past Eleven last night No Money was sent to the Lodge I belong, though it was promised at 5 O’Clock and many was waiting. They at last decided to meet again this Morning. As to the Men going to work to Morrow Morning, from all I can learn No real decision has as yet been come to. I expect to hear more to night.- Sunday May 25th 1834.

XIX

Sunday Morning [25 May] Sir/ I had just returned from attending the Bell when I received your Note. At that place as I have before stated a great deal of confusion existed and a Report had been made as to Browne’s resigning and absconding, but it is not true that he has Absconded. He has resigned in consequence of the Investigation Committee having found that he is deficient in the funds he has received and a further investigation is now proceeding in as to it, but from all I can learn No one knows the deficiency. It is said by some that £400. which was to be sent to Derby passed through his hands and has not been accounted for, but that has not been proved yet. He still says it has and it is still under investigation. As to the Robbery and Scramble for the Money the latter is not true. It is true that the Establishment was Robbed on Sunday last of 13 Coats (made) and Goods to the amount of £70. as well, and though the Committee applied to Hatton Garden they have not succeed [sic] in by their Officiers. In obtaining who did Rob the place, but from all I can learn two Men of the Committee named Walford and Stevenson are the only persons Suspected. As to the General Meeting; No such thing was intended last Night, but we are all ordered to attend our Lodges to Night at half past Seven. As to the Men going to work on Monday, it is not true that they have agreed to do so, but many have done so on the principle of 6d pr Hour and it still remains to be decided to night, What is to be done. I shall attend and Report to morrow.-

XX

Monday Morning. Sir/ I attended the Bell yesterday and found that about two O’Clock yesterday the Men received 3s/6d each with a promise of more to day. We met again last night and from all that I can find The Men generally are going back to their Shops at the Old day work system 6d the Hour very fast without the allowance of time, but it is expected that to morrow they will be ordered to Strike again for the time 10 Hours. All this depends on a Meeting of Delegates of all the Trades who are to meet at the Rotunda either to day or to morrow “to consult on our case”. Browne is still at his house N° 25 Great Queen S* and is to be met with at anytime. He says the Finance Committee are the Thieves and he is ready to meet them at any time to prove his Balance Sheet correct. This is still pending and as I shall attend to it I will Report.- Monday May 26th 1834

XXI

During Monday I attended my Branch Lodge, but found Nothing new occurred except that a great many Men had gone to work and a great many seceeded from us. We waited until \ past Nine for our Delegate to Report the Proceedings of the Rotunda Committee when he came and Reported to us that they had broke up in consequence of not agreeing to the plans which the Masters have proposed as to the Men signing a Document not to belong to any Union, and that the other Grand Committee had ordered that at each Lodge on Tuesday night the Lodges were to send One Man each to still form another Investigation Committee. No further Monies came that day as promised, but more was promised on tuesday and I learnt from the Delegate and Secretary that though they last week as well as the others in Committee waited on many trades to get money the whole collected was £70 which was divided among the 31 Lodges. On Tuesday I again attended when Nothing new occurred until evening except that very few attended their Calls and it was well known that a great many had gone to work on the Old System and a great many had signed the document. About Nine the Delegate came from Committee and the Lodge was opened when instead of about 180 there was but 42 present. He had no Money and stated that the Committee had expected some from other trades but it had not come and they had not one farthing even to pay themselves at present, but they expected some to day. He stated also that the Delegates had no Report to make as yet as to Brownes Accounts, but were still sitting and that Browne had tendered his Resignation to the Executive, but it was not received at present until his Accounts were presented by the Investigation Committee and they had appointed – Douglas in his place. That Browne himself was to be examined by Committee to day which he has agreed to and that we were requested to attend a special Lodge to night. He brought a Resolution with him for us to pass which had been passed at a General Meeting of all the Trades of Steel, Iron, farriers, Engineers and others who are in London which had that day sent a Deputation to our Committee stating that they were determined to support us if we kept up the Strike by Striking themselves. There is in their Union about 8400 in Town and the Country who include all the above branches (they have a Lodge at the Bell) and there is but 8 of those Trades in London who are not in Union. They say particularly an Engineer named Reynolds that if we are firm (he is one of the Principles) They shall Strike and in one week or two they will stop “All the Commerce and Trade in London and all the Bloody Towns in the Country for they can see that the Masters and the Government are determined to put down the Rights and Liberties of the People.” We passed the Resolution which was also read in other Lodges and agreed to meet in Lodge again to night.- Wednesday May 28th 1834.

XXII

During Wednesday I attended the Bell in Smithfield and the Sun in London Wall – two Branch Lodges where I found that Nothing had occurred more than fresh Reports of many more of the Men leaving us and going to work on the old system and of many signing the Masters Bond who had gone to work. About 8 in the evening our Delegate came to the Bell where not more than 20 met. He stated that he had no Report from Committee as they had heard of many of the Men having gone to Work they were still sitting on what was to be done and he expected they would be so all the week. He brought No Money, but thought he should be able to do so by Saturday. The Committee requests that all the names and residences of the Men who keep out be sent them in order to know our number by Saturday Morning. The Finance and Investigating Committees are still sitting examining Brownes Books and Papers and he is with them and from all I can find there is several who think he has been Guilty of some Embezzlement and several do not. It is expected they will sit until Saturday at least.- Thursday May 29th 1834

XXII

During Thursday and up to Five O’Clock on Friday evening I attended my Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield and several other Lodges – The White Magpie Skinner S* Bishopsgate – The Sun in London Wall – the Pauls Head Pauls S* Finsbury and The Three Tuns Smithfield, at all of which Places I found that a great many Men had gone to Work on the Old System of Working many of whom had signed the Masters Bond and others had got work where no Bond was necessary and have seceeded from us not having been able to get the Promised Money. I find this is the case also at the West end of Town. About the above time The Delagate came from the Committee to the Bell and stated that the disposal of the Funds expected to be received from other Trades to morrow (Saturday) was taken out of our Committees Hands and are to be placed in the Hands of the Executive, or the whole of the Trade Union Committee and that it was fully expected by to morrow night that each Man who still stood out would get the whole Money due to him. He stated also that the Executive had heard the Masters of all the Trades were to hold a Meeting at the London Tavern on Saturday evening that is those Masters who employ Men belonging to the Union “and as many more as they could persuade” to join them in forming a Union for the purpose of not employing any Unionist who would not sign a Bond to seceede from it – and a Security for his not doing so again. They the Executive have therefore ordered a Meeting of all the Delegates and Secretaries of all the Trades on Monday next to determine whether there shall be a General Strike of all the Trades in Union immediately, or what else is to be done, and on their decision depends whether we hold out any Longer.- Friday May 30*h 1834

XXIV

During Saturday and Sunday I attended My Branch Lodge – the Bell in Smithfield. All day on Saturday the Men were waiting for Money from the Committee, but none came. On Sunday Morning at Nine Griffin the Delegate came and stated that all he could get for them was 45 shillings and that he did not (with all the other Delegates from other Lodges) get until near Three O’Clock on Sunday Morning. This was not enough to pay the Landlord for what Beer and Bread and Cheese Knight the Secretary had been answerable for during the week for the Men and Griffin borrowed 8s/2d from the Lodge of Smiths held there. Thus the Men got no money at all, but were promised that as the Delegates of all the Trades were to meet to day at 2 O’Clock at the Rotunda they would have Money either to night or to morrow night. In the evening I was with Griffin Delegate of the Bell. Travers of the Sun London Wall Campion of the Pauls Head Finsbury and Freestone of the White Magpie Skinner Street all Delegates and from them I find that at their Lodges the Men are very dissatisfied at not getting their Money and are determined to day to leave and get Work where they can. They say also that they have no doubt but that the Delegates at their Meeting to day will decide that we must give way to the Masters, but it is not likely their decision will be known until Lodge night to morrow (Tuesday) night. Monday June 2nd 1834

XXV

During Monday I attended My Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield and we expected our Delegate Griffin to come to inform us as to the decision of the Trades Delegates, He came about half past Ten last night and stated that at present the Delegates deliberations was in our favour, but they had adjourned to this day and we were to have their Report through All the Branch Lodges to night. I shall attend and Report to morrow.- Tuesday June 3rd 1834

XXVI

On Tuesday evening I attended My Branch Lodge the Bell in Smithfield. (It was Lodge night with all the Lodges in our trade throughout London.) There were present 86 Men to hear the Delegates Report. About half past Nine he Griffin came and stated That the Committee of the Trades Delegates who had met at the Rotunda had decided that rather than we should fail in our Strike for want of funds Every Member of their Trades in the Union who are in Work should give One Days Wages pr week to support us which they calculate would be at least £6000 pr week, and that each Taylor at Work on Honourable terms should pay 1/- p r day to the Funds out of his Wages all of which monies shall be paid to the Executive Council for them to distribute to our Committee for the Men Weekly who still stand out and this they promise to do for Twelve Months. They also examined the Books of Browne the Secretary, the Finance and other Committees of our Trade [met] and passed a Resolution which is in the True Sun of last night which states that there is no truth in the Report so much circulated of Embezzlement of the Funds and that all the books and Papers have been proved to be correct. Our Committee instead of sending their Report to the Lodges last night have ordered a Meeting to be held of all our Trade who are out to day at two O’Clock at Owens Bazaar in Charlotte S* Fitzroy Square to hear the Report and sent a special order through the Lodges last night for our attendance and that No one would be admitted without the New Pass Words. To the first Tiler, “Yet.” To the second- “Firm.” I shall attend and Report to Morrow – Wednesday June 4th 1834

XXVII

On Wednesday at two O’Clock I attended a Meeting of Journeymen Taylors at Owens Bazaar N° 14 Charlotte S* Fitzroy Square. Called by the Taylors Committee to Report the Proceedings of the Delegates of All the Trades in Union in London who met at the Rotunda on Monday and Tuesday last to consider what was to be done in our case. By the above time about 3000 Men met and soon after the Committee with Browne our late Secretary having arrived – Jenkins was called to the Chair. He stated that at the Delegates Meeting on Monday all the other Trades in Union by their Delegates had agreed to propose to their Trades that in order to keep up our Funds and defeat the Masters Bond (knowing as they did that the Masters of all Trades were forming a Union to make all their Men sign a Bond similar to ours and which was to take place on the 10th of June) they proposed that All the other Trades in Union should give One days Wages support Weekly to us. This was for our decision as to accepting the offer to keep us out which was agreed to unanimously by us and they are to Report to our Com mittee on Saturday how such Proposition will be received by the Lodges of their Trades during this Week. A long and confused conversation took place by several of the Committee speaking on this subject some of whom thought it was useless to stand out any longer depending on such promises as this and one – Newby proposed that a special Lodge Meeting be called that night to know the opinions of the Men through the Lodges as to their seceeding at once or waiting the Delegates Report on Saturday, but Stevenson proposed a Resolution of the Committee That No Secession or difference do at present be allowed to exist in the Lodges, but that we do wait the Issue of Saturday, and if not favourable to us we should withdraw from the Consolidated Union – keep our Lodges still and do the best we could as a Body of ourselves and this was carried Unanimously. Another Resolution That we give no concession to Masters from our Original Bond was put and carried also. Another that the Men do still keep attendance on their Lodges particularly this Week, to still keep firm in order that if we fall We will fall Nobly. This was also carried and after a good deal of confusion by the disagreement of the Speakers in their opinions A Vote of thanks was voted to the Chairman and we separated at Five O’Clock. From what I found among the Men there and at several of the Lodges I have attended, Vety Great dissatisfaction and no great expectations exists as to our keeping out after next Saturday. A great many present will not wait longer than that time and many not till then. We have been so bouyed up with promises that it is no longer believed we can exist in longer keeping out. We have and still are decreasing fast in Number by Men going to work daily and from all I can see we cannot keep out but a few days longer having No Funds and scarcely any of the Promised Funds of the other Trades to support us. Browne tried to Vindicate the “Calumny” so much heaped on him, but was not allowed to speak much. He is not now charged with Embezzlement, but with being the cause of our Striking prematurely and saying he had the Sanction of the Consolidated Trades Unions in doing so whereas it had been proved he had not, for this he is much hated and blamed for our failure if we do fail. Thursday June 5th 1834

XXVIII

Since I wrote on Thursday last I have continued to attend to the proceedings of our Strike and should have wrote before, but as I then stated we were to wait until Saturday night or Sunday Morning to know what decision the other trades had come to as to their Delegates plan at the Rotunda Meeting, and what Monies was sent from them for our support. Our Committee (Taylors) sat nearly all day on Saturday and up to near 12 on Saturday night they had received No positive decision as to our being supported and all the Money received was £152. This they sent by the Delegates to their Lodges and which amounted to 2s/- each Man1 with a promise that they would have more on Sunday Morning and that each Lodge was to meet on that Morning at Nine O’Clock. They did meet and about Ten they each received Sixpence. At this the Greatest dissatisfaction prevailed and in all the Lodges the Men declared they would wait no longer and get work w[h]ere they could under any circumstances. They were also told that a General Meeting of the Trade would take place on Monday Morning at Owens Institution in Charlotte S* at 8 O’Clock, but in the evening this Meeting was put off to join the One at 5 O’Clock of all the Trades at the same place as Advertised by order of the Executive in Placards and in the Trades official Gazette which I sent on Friday. During Monday I visited with others many of the Lodges of our Trade and found in all of them that a great many of their Men had left in disgust and had gone to work. About Five O’Clock I attended at Charlotte S4 where about 2000 Members of different Trades met among whom was several Women (the smallest Meeting I have ever seen there and still less of Taylors.) About Six Goldspink one of the late National Union Committee was called to the Chair and Mr Owen read Six Resolutions the Executive had framed for the Meeting the substance of which was that as the Masters of all the Trades had determined to do away with Unions by not employing Men who would not sign their Bond the Unions seeing the distressed state Men with Families were in should pity those who did so and that a Meeting of Delegates of all Trades throuhout the Kingdom should be held in London on the Blank Day of Blank Month to deliberate how to supercede the Signing such Bond. Owen in a long speech proposed these and George Petrie who has just returned from the Country seconded them. Petrie has been several weeks in all parts of the Country Initiating Taylors (I stated when he went) and I find from him that “the Spirit of Union in the Country is very strong, but their Funds are very weak.” A Great deal of confusion existed in the Meeting by several Taylors charging the Executive with Misleading them and long before the Meeting broke up many left in disgust. Savage, Neesom, Stevenson, Lane and others addressed the Meeting on the necessity of still keeping in Union and all I could learn from our Committee was that they are to sit to day to settle what we can now do and as this is Lodge night through all our Trade in London they expect to decide and Report to all the Lodges. From this and from all I see daily I am certain that our Strike may now be called lost and those who propagated and have had the Management of it are blamed, Marked and will never again be depended on on this or any other occasion. Tuesday June 10th 1834

XXIX

On Tuesday evening I attended and was appointed Vice President of my Lodge of Taylors — the Bell in Smithfield. As I stated yesterday all the Lodges were summoned to meet, and in continuance of my Report yesterday as to the secessions of our Men instead of 182 who were Members of this Lodge 21 only attended. About Nine O’Clock Griffin our Delegate came from Committee and all he had to state was that they the Committee had ordered all the Lodges to decide two Motions. The first was “Whether The Taylors should secede from the Consolidated Union and form a Union of themselves,” and the second was whether we should still keep out until next Saturday and wait to see what the Trades would do for us. Both these were carried, but still the Men present were determined not to trust them any longer. Thus we remain depending on the Decision of Committee and from all I can see I shall not have to Report until after Saturday. I however shall attend and amid the confusion we are in I doubt not, but before this week ends our Strike will end.- Wednesday June ll«i 1833 [sic; 1834]

XXX

On Tuesday evening I attended my Lodge of Taylors at the Bell in Smithfield. In my Report yesterday I stated that Our Committee was to Report to our Lodges the Decision of the Executive as to supporting us in our Strike. Up to Ten O’Clock No one came, but at that time Brindley the Delegate of the Sun in London – Wall, Griffin the Delegate and Knight our Secretary came and stated to us that our Committees had not received that support from the Consolidated Union as they expected and advised that the City Lodges should form themselves into Districts of 100 each so as to be prepared to form 1000 to be at the command of the Committee to divide them either to Work in the City or the West end of Town. There was but 18 present and those amid the dissatisfied manner as to not being better supported created great confusion and the consideration of those propositions were adjourned to Thursday Night. Griffin our Delegate who was Foreman to Mr Stafford – the corner of long lane in Smithfield has now left our Strike and gone to work for Mr Solomans in the same Lane and proposed myself to be the Delegate of the Bell and recommended us all to go to work under any circumstances. I expect to have to attend Committee as his motion was agreed to as to me and when I do so I shall then be able to give a more faithful Report of our Proceedings than from the confused manner we are in than I have done.- Wednesday June 17th [sic; 18th] 1834

XXXI

In my Report on Saturday I stated that on Monday I would Report as to the Proceedings of the Union, but I have not since I stated in my Report last week received a Note from Griffin that I then stated I expected. I have not been able to see him to converse with him until last night and I find from him that the Whole Builders Union through their Secretary Wilcox had decided up to One O’Clock on Sunday Morning that they had No Funds to support our Trades Strike (Taylors) and that their Committee had decided that we had better get work in the best way we could. At several other Lodges of our Trade I find this is acted upon and not having One Farthing sent to them from the Executive last Saturday night many of the men at the Lodges are so exasperated that they are determined to revenge themselves on the Committee Men. As to our Trade Committee Griffin our Delegate says he has totally left them and instead of myself put Staples in his place, and that we are to know their as well as the intentions of the Union or Executive to night – Lodge Night. Tuesday June 24th 1834

XXXII

From all I have seen or heard since I wrote on Thursday as to the Consolidated Union and particularly as to our trade (Taylors) I do not see that I have any thing of any importance to state of it. We (Taylors) as I then stated had withdrawn from the Union and our Committee are still trying to form a Union of our own trade, but as yet Nothing has been positively done. There are now a few Men who remain at the Lodges we used to meet at in Union which are considered Houses of Call, but from all I can learn very few calls for Men come to those Houses and I account for it by knowing that five out of every six who struck have got work wherever they could under any circumstances and are determined not to join any Union again. Thus, though my Reports have lately part through illness been not so frequent as usual I am certain that what I now state is the truth and that as I first stated The Union would fall. New projects are in agitation in many places and opinions in the old Members of the Union, but from all I can see and I beg to again repeat it I do not at present see anything of importance to Report.

 

Today in London diplomatic history, 1967: the Greek Embassy occupied protesting military coup

On 28 April 1967, one week after the Colonels’ coup in Greece (which was to lead to a 7-year rightwing military dictatorship in the country), the Greek Embassy in London was occupied, by about 60 people, in solidarity with the Greek working class and calling for resistance to the Greek junta.

Greek socialist Maria Styllou, one of the occupiers, describes the background to the coup:

“On 21 April 1967 a group of colonels launched a coup in Greece. They formed a military junta, with the backing of the monarchy and capitalists, which would last seven years.

This power grab was a last resort against a rising workers’ movement.

It meant victory for the ruling class. Ship owners, bankers, industrialists, and construction magnates all celebrated. It opened a period in which resistance was crushed and the ruling class were able to go on the offensive.

The day the junta began I was in Paris. Straight away there was an evening rally with a lot of people, not just students. The same thing happened in Italy, where there were many Greek students.

In London, in collaboration with the British revolutionary left, just a week into the dictatorship we occupied the Greek embassy.

By 1967 the ruling class was desperate for an alternative to workers taking power.

The Greek working class was on the march again, after its crushing defeat in the civil war of 1944-1949—when the British intervened, brutally putting down the left.

Throughout the 1950s the Greek ruling class had sought to modernise the government and develop Greek capitalism.

To this end the right wing National Radical Union (ERE) party was formed in 1955, aiming to defeat the resurgent left politically on behalf of the bosses.

They started out confident, but it quickly became clear it would not be so easy.

They encountered two problems.

The first was conflict within the ruling class, over strategies to deal with Cyprus as well as with the old mechanisms and institutions of the previous period, such as the army.

The second was the resistance which was becoming emboldened and increasingly confrontational.

From 1953, and particularly from 1956, there was an explosion of struggle. For a lot of people the hope that had seemed to be killed off by the end of the civil war was reborn.

These two factors led to an unexpected electoral success for the left. The United Democratic Left (EDA), largely an electoral front for the banned Communist Party, became the leading opposition party in the 1958 election, winning 24 percent of the vote.

The political crisis reached the point where MPs were resigning from parliament.

After 1958, the electoral success of the left brought a new enthusiasm that fuelled the workers’ struggles and their struggles for democracy.

It also brought the student movement back into the frontline.

The GSEE trade union federation grew to include 115 unions. And within schools the left began to take over the student unions.

The ruling class tried to stop these developments by preventing free elections in unions and launching a crackdown on democracy in schools and colleges.

But as the 1961 election loomed these attacks couldn’t match a resurgent movement.

The murder of left wing MP Georgios Lambrakis in 1963 sparked a second explosion of the movement. Prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis called and lost an election and was then forced to flee the country.

The right wingers of ERE were effectively destroyed electorally.

The small social democratic party Centre Union, led by Georgios Papandreou, went on to win the1964 election. Before then it had just 20 MPs.

The Centre Union hoped to fill the void left by the collapse of ERE at the same time as controlling the labour movement.

It leaned on the left in order to govern. And large sections of the left gave Papandreou the chance, hoping that supporting the centre would win some concessions and influence.

But ironically it was the efforts of the ruling class to regain control of the situation which pushed the left into the foreground. Right wingers attempted to force their way into Papandreou’s government.

The king vetoed Papandreou’s cabinet in July 1965. There was an explosion of anger and people rose up, transforming Greek politics for a decade.

For 70 days a mass movement, known as the “July Days”, raged in the streets. This forced the ruling class to realise the only way to halt the momentum of the movement was through Papandreou and his social democratic project.

Within the space of 70 days Papandreou moved a great distance—from defiance to arguing that protesters should avoid creating problems. The Centre Union put down strikes and demonstrations, and put a huge effort into getting people off the streets.

But two critical years passed with both ERE and Centre Union facing a problem that was not going away.

This opened the way for the army, the palace and their allies to gain confidence.

In early April 1967, the King asked ERE leader Panagiotis Kanellopoulos to form a government—even though ERE was not the largest party.

But after both main parties failed to find a way out of the political crisis, the dictatorship was formed a few weeks later.

The leadership of the EDA was caught napping. It had told people not to worry, promising there would be no coup.

1965 had been a crucial moment in the process. The right was in power but the working class was almost in open revolt. By pulling their own forces back the Left gave an opportunity to the other side to go on the counterattack…”

The occupiers of the London embassy were a mix of members of the libertarian Marxist organisation Solidarity, the peace direct actionist Committee of 100 (two groups whose membership crossed over in many cases), and London School of Economics Students.

According to Solidarity’s account of the occupation:

“There are strong ties of solidarity between the radical direct action movement in Britain and the movement in Greece. This tradition has grown out of a number of events, of which the occupation of the Greek Embassy on April 28, 1967 was only the most recent.

In April 1963 Pat Pottle, a former of the Committee of 100 and one of the main defendants at the Wethersfield Trial, was arrested with others and beaten up by the Greek police when he attended the Marathon March. The following month Gregory Lambrakis, a left-wing Greek MP with many friends in Britain was murdered. His murderers were closely associated with the Greek Royal Family and with reactionary ruling circles in Greece.

In July 1963 the ‘Save Greece Now Committee’, an ad hoc group, organised a series of mass protest demonstrations against the state visit of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece. The CND and the ‘League for Democracy in Greece’ (a Communist Party front organisation) quickly backed out of this committee when they realised it really meant business. Peter Moule and Terry Chandler were later both sent to prison for organising these mass demonstrations. There were a number of other arrests. Some of those arrested had half-bricks planted on them by police. This led to the famous Challenor affair. (The police station involved at that time – West End Central – is the one responsible for the Greek Embassy case. Already there are many similarities: police violence, perjury, conspiracy to pervert the course of ‘justice’. It remains to be seen whether the future course of events will carry the parallel still further.)

In the Autumn of 1963 the Committee of 100 organised a convoy which went across Europe to participate in a demonstration in Athens. They were finally stopped at gun point on the Greek border.

Following this sequence of events it was only logical that a group of people should come together at the news of the recent coup in Greece, with a view to effective counter-action.

Problems of Entrism

The Royal Hellenic Embassy in Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, was a difficult nut to crack. It is only some 30 yards from the American Embassy, on which there is a permanent and often substantial police guard. The Embassy is in a one-way street and there is nowhere nearby where a crowd could gather without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. The door of the Embassy is always locked and precautions have been re-doubled since the coup. To overcome these technical snags it was obvious that both secrecy and split-second timing would be necessary. Once occupation had been achieved it was going to be difficult to get basic information out. So there had to be a strong liaison group reaming outside. Plans were laid for diversionary activities to draw the police away from the immediate vicinity of the Embassy. The action also had to be carefully phased to fit with the newspaper and television deadlines. It also had to fit in with the Greek Orthodox Easter, traditionally a time for demonstrations in Greece.

To be able to organise a demonstration on this scale, with well over a hundred people ‘in the know’, without the Special Branch getting as much of a whiff of what was cooking, is a victory in itself. People have learned a great deal since the early 1960s. The entry party itself contained a very wide range of views indeed: everything from ultra-pacifist quaker to blood and thunder revolutionary – and everything in between. Many people who had been inactive for three years or more re-emerged to participate in this project. Action forged an unity which no amount of talk could have done.”

Pat Pottle, Michael Randle and two Greek LSE students, Maria and Felita, formed an advance party; approaching the embassy, to defuse suspicions of their intentions, they carried bunches of daffodils… One of the women asked to see the ambassador, but as the door of the embassy opened, a goods van pulled up, the doors opened and a large group jumped out and pushed past the caretaker into the building, running up the stairs [the moment is caught exactly in the image at the head of this post!]

“What the Butler Saw

Entry to the Embassy was obtained by a group of three carrying a large bunch of daffodils. They rang the bell and the butler opened the door. They presented him the flowers. While he was sniffing and admiring them, over 50 people who just happened to be around poured through the door. Others entered through the basement. The Greeks, in turn, should now learn to beware of people bearing gifts.

The butler and the other staff inside the Embassy were told not to worry (both in English and Greek). There would be no damage and no violence. They could stay or have the evening off. The front door was wedge shut. The demonstrators then spread out throughout the building. Public address equipment was set up on the first floor and bilingual meeting was started explaining why we were in the Embassy/ Others climbed onto the roof and hung a banner with the slogan ‘Save Greece Now’. Others occupied rooms and locked themselves inside, wedging the doors.”

The would-be occupiers were carrying a “large quantity of food etc., prepared for a prolonged stay”, according to police notes. Around 100-200 people were later said to be present by police though less than that got into the embassy.

The occupiers had in fact expected only the caretaker and his wife to be there, and had hoped to prevent them from leaving and alerting the police, giving the demonstrators time to telex out messages to Greek embassies throughout the world, urging them to declare themselves against the new fascist dictatorship. That weekend was a holiday in Greece, and there was hope that news of the occupation would spark resistance further afield. Three activists had flown down from Glasgow on the night for the ‘action’, which the organisers would not tell them fully about till we got to London) – as a result they were unprepared for it and acted only as ‘lookouts’ outside Embassy. The occupiers barricaded themselves on the first floor.

However, a number of other embassy staff were in the building, including an au pair, and allegedly the ambassador’s daughters (who the police said later hid under a table). One of the staff present escaped via a basement door, informing a copper stationed outside the US embassy just down the road. Within minutes there were police everywhere, smashing windows and bashing down doors to get into the building.

“Son of Challenor

The police panicked. They had been caught on the hop. An emergency radio call was sent out to all divisions and police cars from all over central London converged on Upper Brook Street. They filled the whole street, causing a considerable obstruction and interfering with spectators indulging in the normal execution of their duties. Superintendent Butler of the Murder Squad was put in charge. The police gained access through the basement of the embassy. They then had to break into, enter and empty each individual room of demonstrators.”

Several cameras carried by demonstrators were destroyed in the fighting. One copper had been slightly injured in the melee: “One policeman rushed headlong into an empty room and was promptly himself locked in it by one of the demonstrators who was outside. The prisoner had to smash the door down to get out.” The injury to his shoulder was thus very likely self-inflicted!

“The police were very violent. So were one or two of the Embassy staff. Terry Chandler was repeatedly punched by an attache while he was held by a policeman. (He was later charged with assault on a police officer!! Presumably if Terry had been killed he would posthumously have been charged with murder.) Ken Weller was punched in the stomach by one constable, because he had protested at the way the policeman had handled a girl. He was later dragged down stairs and repeatedly kicked in the testicles.”

The occupiers were carried out one by one after some fighting and general running amok:

“About 60 demonstrators entered the Embassy. But in the general confusion the number actually in police hands dwindled rapidly. Some simply walked away out of the Embassy stating they were plain clothes detectives…”

All the demonstrators in the building were arrested, and carted off in vans to West End Central police station. The hasty arrests backfired, however, as during the journey, Pat Pottle noticed that the back door of the meatwagon carrying him and several arrestees had not been completely closed, and when the van pulled up at the next traffic lights, he kicked the door open, and yelled ‘Everybody Out!’, and everyone in the van jumped out and legged it… A couple got nicked but fifteen got away! (The Met later denied that this escape took place!)

The rest of the occupiers spent the weekend in police custody, and were charged under Section 1 of the 1936 Public Order Act, with charges of Affray and Conspiracy to Trespass soon added.

“The original charges were ‘affray’ and insulting behaviour under section 5 of the Public Order Act. These charges were soon changed to ‘riot’ and ‘forcible entry’. The latter offence is covered by an Act which dates from 1381. It as the advantage (from the police point of view) of carrying no alternative sentence to imprisonment. The Marylebone magistrate refused to commit on this latter charge. He accepted the defence’s submission that the 1381 Act was anti-eviction legislation, aimed at stopping the illegal seizure of land and property belonging to soldiers away at the Crusades.”

42 people were charged – 30 men and 12 women. At first eleven (9 men and 2 women) were designated as the ‘Principals’ on the basis of being political activists, ‘well known agitators’: famous left-libertarian/peace-movement names here included Terry Chandler, Andy Anderson, Ron Bailey, Del Foley, Mike Randle, and Heather Russell. Police papers from the National Archives reveal police labelling most of these as “Political agitators and would join anything likely to cause disorder…  note disorders have occurred whenever these individuals have appeared in court.”

Items seized from the arrested included “holdalls, tools, provisions; transcript of broadcast; phone nos including venue of a ‘Solidarity meeting’ and that of Nicolas and Ruth Walter”… Among this was property of one Ken Weller, which they withheld from him: “2 screwdrivers, 1 torch, 2 batteries, 2 packets of tea and an ear phone wire and Weller said “They are my working tools. I am an electrician.”   

All but 4 refused to be finger-printed, which was then ordered; the 38 were remanded in custody. Terry Chandler was held longer in custody because he was said to be wanted on a charge of forging US currency…

On October 3rd 1967, all 23 LSE students arrested were given two-year conditional discharges; the following day, the rest were fined between £20 and  £100, apart from three with previous convictions – Terry Chandler, sentenced to 15 months inside, Del Foley, who got 6 months, and Michael Randle to 12 months.

The invasion of what in diplomatic terms constituted the sovereign territory of Greece caused much gnashing of teeth and frothing at the mouth by people not notably upset by a fascist-inspired military putsch. Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown called the occupation an ‘outrage’. Tory MPs called for more militarised protection of London embassies (code for calling for military intervention against radicals, hippies and other lowlives) There are a number of Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers revealing telling exchanges between the British and Greek governments. The Greek Ambassador can be read complaining that “such things did not happen even in Cuba and Albania” and suggesting that the UK Secretary of State issue statement deploring ‘hooligan acts” and demanding better protection for the embassy in case of future demos about the coup.

Solidarity saw the demo as having generally aroused positive responses:

“There was a huge response to the action. Every paper had front page headlines. The BBC led its news bulletin with the story. In Greece the Government-controlled press had long reports of how a ‘gang of hooligans’ had occupied the Embassy. There were demonstrations at Greek Embassies in Italy and Denmark. George Brown sent a grovelling letter of apology to the new regime. Repercussions spread. Instructions were issued to the police from the very highest authority to clamp down on leftwing activities. This led to arrests in Oxford and Luton. In both these cases the charges brought forward by the police were dismissed by the magistrates. Even Peggy Duff was so nauseated by the attitude of the Foreign Secretary that she resigned from the Labour Party in protest! (Other CND Labourites reacted differently. Francis Noel Baker, owner of estates in Greece, came out four square in support of the Colonels, describing them as ‘modest and sincere men.’

The League for Democracy in Greece reacted in a predictable way. It refused to allow a speaker on behalf of the 42 arrested to appeal for funds at one of the League’s meetings. It made no reference to the demonstration whatsoever at other meetings. It also attempted to exclude some of the Greeks who had participated in the demonstration from a broadly-based anti-fascist committee. These are the people who keep prattling on about ‘unity’!

There are several lessons to be gained from the seizure of the Embassy.

  • That many people, of quite diverse views, are prepared to work together on projects involving radical action.
  • That effective demonstrations can be organised without the knowledge of the police. Intelligent planning, good timing and reasonable determination can overcome most tactical problems.
  • that demonstrations can still have an impact, and that internationalism is not dead…

It would be a tragedy if he sacrifices of the 42 should be in vain. The big stick of the police must not be allowed to deter future action. We in this country can influence the course of events in Greece (the 1963 demonstrations brought about the fall of the Karamanlis government). It is most important that the campaign should continue. Those interested get together and plan future activities.”

As Maria Styllou recounts, the Greek military regime was to last 7 years before being overthrown in the face of rising resistance:

“After the coup, the junta moved quickly to crack down on the working class, increase the profitability of Greek capitalism and confirm the Greek state’s control of Cyprus.

The Greek ruling class reckoned that by controlling Cyprus it could be the primary force in the plans of US imperialism and its allies in the region towards Turkey.

Popular composer Mikis Theodorakis and others created the National Anti-dictatorship Front. New organizations also came out against the Junta. Some were inspired by Che Guevara, others by Mao Zedong or Leon Trotsky.

The revolutionary left, although small, would go on to spark the Polytechnic uprising in 1973.

This saw universities occupied across Athens in a roar of defiance to the junta, which would fall a year later. Tanks were sent onto campuses to crush opposition, killing student protesters.

In the same year the crew of a Greek navy ship mutinied against the junta.

This resistance forced factions within the junta to confront each other about how to deal with it, contributing to the regime’s downfall.

The final straw was the junta-backed coup in Cyprus on 15 July 1974, which resulted in Turkey invading the island and its eventual partition.”

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This post was largely sourced from archival documents about the occupation compiled on the Radical History of Northeast London blog

thanks to Liz Willis!