You can’t fool the youths: Paul Gilroy on race & class formation in 1981

You can’t fool the youths …

Race and Class Formation in the 1980s

Paul Gilroy

Theoretical/analytical responses to Brixton and the other urban riots of 1981 – Part 1. An article written in 1981, originally published in Race & Class, Winter 1981/2.

…………………………………………………………………………

You teach the youths to learn in school
that the dish ran away with spoon
You teach the youths to learn in school
that the cow jumped over moon
So you can’t blame the youths of today
you can’t fool the youths
(Pete Tosh)

There is nothing more to organise. you can organise workers as workers. You can create a special organisation of revolutionary workers. But once you have those two you have reached an end. Organisation as we have known it is at an end.
(C.L.R. James)

Where marxist science has stooped to provide accounts of racial conflicts, it has been at best race blind, and at worst eurocentric. Socialist politics driven to the edge of popular nationalism by the crisis are incapable of solving the complex problems posed by the articulation of race and class. yet the-economic, ideological and political struggles over the meaning and relevance of .race, have effects on the formation and reproduction of classes.

Racism is not a transhistorical essence, and not least because the biology of racial characteristics has no relation to ‘races’ in political struggle; there can be no general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’. The 128 racial classifications of the French Imperial code noir, the structured racism of today’s South Africa and the popular racism which forms the backdrop to the latest legislation on British citizenship do not make for theory. Different racisms are found in different social formations and historical circumstances. To paper over the specifics of each historical conjuncture with a general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’ is misguided; to acknowledge simultaneously that the biology of racial characteristics has nothing to do with races as constituted in politics is dishonest. In each case, racial differences, whether wholly imaginary or anchored in the raw material of biology, are magnified, systematised and rationalised into vehicles of political dominance. And it is this ‘malleability of the concept of ‘race’ which qualifies its use as a scientific category of social analysis. Its very meaninglessness, on the other hand, should continually refer us to the precise but changing conditions in which racial groups become possible in politics, ideology and economic life. And it is to this unique dialectic of race and class at the centre of contemporary British politics that this article addresses itself
– not so much for what it reveals of how real structural phenomena are misrecognised and distorted by racial prisms, but for what it enables us to perceive about our historical period. It is precisely because race binds the processes by which ethico-political hegemony is presently reproduced that focusing analysis around it offers a privileged view of unfolding state authoritarianism, the stage of capital accumulation and the balance of forces in political struggle.

Unlike the sociologists, the British left has remained reluctant to concede any depth to racial divisions in the working class, let alone approach that Pandora’s box. With few exceptions, it has been cheerfully unaffected by sixty years of black critical dialogue with marxism, presented, most notably, by Garvey, Padmore, James and Wright. The theoretical and political contributions of these authors, particularly their early critique of Stalinism and their dogged anti-reductionism fashioned in the awareness that black liberation required more than economic transformation, make recent European discovery of non-economistic socialism less than startling. Yet their insights have been bypassed, and the left has adopted a peculiar national perspective which obscures the role of black struggles in the development of the British working class, all the way from abolitionism to the factory gates of Imperial Typewriters. It has remained stubbornly blind to the fact that, even though rendered invisible, black labour power has conditioned the most intimate structures of British daily life. ‘It is the sugar you stir, it is in the sinews of the infamous British sweet tooth, it is the tea leaves at the bottom of the British cuppa.’1

Having waved away the political analyses of autonomous black groups with a few fashionable insults such as ‘economistic’, ‘reductionist’ or ‘abstentionist,2 the left’s recent writings on the subject of racial politics remain paralysed by an inability to conceive race and class as related. Race is either shorn of all determinacy and allowed to ascend to the rarified heights of ideological autonomy, from where it ‘only subsequently’ intervenes at the level of the economy, or it is subsumed entirely to class. The experience of racial domination is so distorted that its class character evaporates. Variations on the latter theme present the struggle for black liberation as a ‘democratic’ issue to be secured by the simple assertion of a ‘pluralist national identity3 or more predictably, as a divisive danger to the achievement of true class consciousness parallel to the threat posed by fascist organisation.4

On the contrary,

The class relations which inscribe the black fractions of the working class function as race relations. The two are inseparable. Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced.5

That is not to say that ‘race’ can be miraculously hitched on like an extra railway carriage to the locomotive of non-reductionist marxism.The extent to which blacks have become part of the working class demands more than that the left should simply note their presence and register the resultant ‘multi-cultural tones of metropolitan class struggle. Though even this may have polemical value, it woefully underestimates the transformation of political culture brought about
by post-war black settlement.

Marx’s famous remark that ‘the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ acquired new poignancy as the great-grandchildren of martyred slaves and indentured labourers set up home in the land of those who had tormented their progenitors. The mass of black people, who arrived here as fugitives from colonial underdevelopment, brought with them legacies of their political, ideological and economic struggles in Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub continent, as well as the scars of imperialist violence. Far from being fixed or unchanging, the accumulated histories of their far-flung resistance have brought a distinct quality to class struggles in their new metropolitan home. For, as Cabral points out: ‘If imperialist domination has the vital need to practise cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.6

Developing this theme, Sivanandan has argued that a disorganic articulation of capitalist relations of production with vestigial political and ideological forms tends to generate a contradiction between the political regime and the people, with culture as the expression of their resistance. And it is cultural resistance which … takes on new forms … in order fully to contest foreign domination.’7 It is in the embers of that furnace that the now-transplanted political consciousness of post-war black settlers was forged. It is with that tradition that they and their British-born children have preserved organic links, in their kitchens and temples – in their communities. Though their new struggles at the centre are diffused throughout a different structure in dominance, the lingering bile of slavery, indenture and colonialism remains, not in the supposedly pathological forms in which black households are organised, but in the forms of struggle, political philosophies and revolutionary perspectives of non-European radical traditions, and the ‘good sense of their practical ideologies. The contradiction is, of course, between the people and the power bloc8 – but because in this case it is bounded by racial division, culture assumes a central importance. Hence, in opposition to those theorists who would reduce ‘race’ to custom or “ethnicity’, we must locate racist and anti-racist ideology as well as the struggle for black liberation in a perspective of culture as a terrain of class conflicts – in the same way that Richard Johnson does for the working class as a whole:

‘working-class’ culture is the form in which labour is reproduced … This process of reproduction, then, is always a contested transformation. Working-class culture is formed in the struggle between capital’s demand for particular forms of labour power and the search for a secure location within this relationship of dependency. The outcomes of such necessary struggles depend on what ideological and political forces are in play.’ 9

Except that – and it bears repetition – the struggles of ‘black’ people appear in an intensely cultural form because the social formation in which their distinct political traditions are now manifest has constructed the arena of politics on ground overshadowed by centuries of metropolitan capitalist development, thereby denying them recognition as legitimate politics.

To put it another way, the politics of black liberation is cultural in special sense: Coons, Pakis, Nig-nogs, Sambos and Wogs are cultural constructions in ideological struggle. Cultures of resistance develop to contest them and the power they inform, as one aspect of the struggle against capitalist domination which blacks experience as racial oppression. This is a class struggle in and through race. Black struggles to refuse and transform subjugation are no ready answer to class segmentation, but because they are ‘against capitalism, against racism’, they do attempt to constitute the class in politics where ‘race’ is no longer relevant; whereas the racist ideas and practices of the white working class become ways in which the class as a whole is disorganised.

The division of humanity into social classes explains its history infinitely better than its division into races or peoples. Yet the racial fragmentation of the British working class is a powerful warning against any view of classes as continuous or homogeneous subjects which, once formed, develop in a linear manner as political actors on the historical stage. The marxist concept of class refers primarily, but not exclusively, to the location of groups in production relations. The effect of capitalism’s tendency to generate surplus labour power which is excluded from employment by revolutions in the productive process and changes in accumulation should emphasise this.10 At the social formation level, this labour power is actual men and women expelled from production – ‘black’, ‘unskilled’, ‘old’, ‘young’. But there are intense political struggles over the composition of this surplus population. It is never determined mechanistically by the objective conditions (development of productive forces, phase of accumulation, etc.),
which only delineate the range of possible outcomes. Even the commonly understood definition of unemployment itself reflects this. For example, at present it refers disproportionately to males, while the possibility of waged work for women is suppressed by ideologies of domesticity. Patriarchal capitalism can accept the ‘unemployment of women marooned at home, but as the crisis bites, black youth on street-corners become a ‘visible political problem’ which prompts new forms of state intervention and social control. The way in which this surplus population becomes organised politically has implications for the segmentation of the working class, and is clearly relevant to racial politics. It serves to remind us that the privileged place of economic classes in the marxist theory of history is not the same as a simple assertion of their political primacy in every historical moment.

“We cannot conceive of the class struggle as if classes were simply and homogeneously constituted at the level of the economic and only then fractured at the level of the political. The political level is dependent – determinate – because its raw materials are given by the mode of production as a whole.”11

Marx makes it clear that there are periods in which the proletariat is unable to constitute itself as a class in politics, even though “the domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests’.12 Recognising the problems in the effective entry of classes into politics is the first step to understanding that: ‘Classes must be viewed as the effects of struggles structured by objective conditions, that are simultaneously economic, political and ideological.13

These objective conditions change, and the unity between the ‘economic movement and the political action of the working class not the same in 1981 as it was in 1871. The working class is different. This is a place where we can restore some of the determinacy which class struggle has lost in much recent marxist writing. We must re-draw the boundaries of the concept “class struggle’ so that it includes the relentless processes by which classes are constituted – organised and disorganised – in politics, as well as the struggles between them, once formed. In this way, to synchronise the movement of different class fractions with discontinuous but related histories becomes an object of struggle itself. This unity is now less than ever pre-ordained in economic positions. A complex view of class formation which gives due weight to the struggle to organise classes in politics takes us far beyond the simplistic ‘class in itself/class for itself’ dichotomy. It poses the question of forms of struggle and political organisation. This has become important not simply because blacks have introduced new political traditions into the British social formation, but also because in many instances in the 1970s the immigrant workers have not only participated in labour’s struggle: they have led it. They have not only participated in existing forms of struggle, they have invented new ones.14

Working-class black communities

Following in the well-trodden footsteps of Castles and Kosack,15 recent avowedly marxist approaches to analysis of the black working class have centred myopically on the shop-floor. Phizacklea and Miles16 have shown a dogged determination to impose their own restricted conceptualisations of political organisation on the blacks whose political consciousness they have quantified on the basis of questionnaire material. In doing so, they ignore the fact that the specific character of the black struggles they describe has often resided in the support such struggles have drawn from the surrounding black community.

Localised struggles over education, racist violence and police practices continually reveal how black people have made use of notions of community to provide the axis along which to organise themselves. The concept of community is central to the view of class struggle presented here. For it links distinct cultural and political traditions – which have a territorial dimension to collective action and consciousness, and operates within the relations of ‘economic patterns, political authority and uses of space’.17 The idea of a racially demarcated collectivity of this type underlines the fact that community cannot be viewed as either static or as determined by the essential characteristics of the class or class fractions which have come to constitute it.

The cultural institutions which specify community have not been a continual feature of working-class life. The history of working-class communities, into which we should insert the particular experiences of post-war immigrants and their children, is entwined with the processes of industrialisation and social discipline18 which established the city as a site of unique political conflicts. The form and relevance of community have therefore fluctuated with the changing social character of capitalist production. Even while the British proletariat was still being formed, attempts to assess the political relevance of community required that attention be paid to the dynamics of class formation and political organisation . The history of the Minters, the Costermongers, the Scuttlers and their Molls19 all show the strengths of the working class organised on the basis of community in urban struggles long before blacks became a replacement population in areas which, despite the demand for labour power … failed to attract sufficient white population.20

In an influential discussion which anticipates the direction of the argument here, Gareth Stedman-Jones has pointed to a growing separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere as an important determinant of both the cultural and political life of urban workers in late nineteenth-century London.21 His example of the disruption of community in fact illustrates the concept’s value in connecting the spheres of waged and domestic labour. To make this connection pays dividends not only where leisure practices are found to impinge on the labour process,22 but also where political organisation forged outside the immediate processes of production (for blacks with police, racists or profiteering ghetto landlords) has effects on the struggle at work and vice versa.

The making of classes at work is complemented by the making of classes where people live; in both places adaptive and rebellious responses to the class situation are inevitably closely intertwined.23

The notion of community is also important for the way it can be used to re-establish the unity of black people in answer to the divisions which state policy, race relations sociology and common-sense racism have visited on their experience of domination. All of these fragment the cohesion of black people, united in their opposition to the power bloc by cultures and languages of resistance. In its place, they have created the image of the respectable and hard-working first generation of black immigrants locked in struggle with their children, whose ‘identity crises’ and precarious position between two cultures’ impel them into deviant behaviour. Rejecting the parental culture while reproducing its pathological characteristics, these young people, whether of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin, are presented as divorced from their parents’ concerns. This powerful stereotype unites self-proclaimed radical and openly racist theories of black life. It must be met with a concept of community which reveals the ties between the struggles of blacks outside the workplace and those who remain within the wage relation. Unemployment is increasingly affecting all black people, regardless of age, and where community has broadened the base from which they successfully fought the unholy alliance of employers and racist trades unions, there is every reason to suppose that it may now provide the means to take on the state itself in defence of local services and amenities. Where generational conflict is visible, it expresses deep debates over political strategy rather than aberrant familial practices.
Such conflicts are always premised on the fundamental unity of the community in question and conducted within the repertoire of its political traditions, which make the common ground on which discussion is possible. Tension between Asian youth movements and the Indian Workers’ Association organisations is a clear example of this process. It reveals the struggle between corporate and autonomous modes of struggle in a complex fashion, informed and affected by the peasant political traditions in which both aspects of the movement have been formed.

The interrelation between production and the political space in which community develops is not satisfactorily understood at the level of production’s immediate processes. The need to periodise class struggle and relate it to phases of accumulation requires detailed consideration of the organisation of surplus labour power. This is inextricably fused with the formation of workers into a class. It should be obvious that the move from full employment to structural unemployment heralds fundamental changes in the way surplus labour power appears as surplus population. In the context of organic crisis, the importance of community in these processes is highlighted by the use of new mechanisms of social control and surveillance which, recognising the strength of communities, attempt to penetrate them in new strategies for containment24 – ‘control is shifted from the criminal act to the crime-inducing situation, from the pathological case to the pathogenic surroundings, in such a way that each citizen becomes, as it were, an a priori suspect or a potential criminal’.25

The political traditions of black people expressed in the solidarity and resistance of their communities have determined such a territorialisation of social control. This is visible in the use of ‘Sus’ laws to confine black youths to particular areas,26 and in the particularly brutal police operations which have become commonplace in black neighbourhoods. In the past, community relations apparatuses fused political representation with state intervention to channel black grievances into ‘quasi-colonial institutional structures which would deal with the issue of race outside traditional political arenas’.27 Now, ‘community policing’ initiatives reveal new dimensions to the urban struggle in their attempt to redefine community so that it is counter-posed to ‘crime’ rather than to the police.

Corporatism vs autonomy

All this means that forms of struggle cannot be taken for granted. Mass unemployment generated by crisis and the microprocessor revolution demands reassessment of the institutions of political representation. These must be understood as historical phenomena. Posing the problem of political organisation in direct form invites the separation of corporatist modes of struggle from the diverse attempts to repoliticise the process of class formation. All this is taking place in the face of a new imposition of authority, new ideologies of the crisis and the mobilisation of the law in political struggle. Corporatism is defined as:

“political structure within advanced capitalism which integrates organised socio-economic producer groups through a system of representation and cooperative mutual interaction at the leadership level and mobilisation and social control at the mass level. Corporatism is understood here as an actual political structure, not merely an ideology (emphasis added).” 28

Black political traditions fall outside the ‘contradictory unity’ of corporatism/parliamentarism. There is also overwhelming evidence to support the view that the political institutions of the white working class have consistently failed to represent the interests of black workers, both abroad29 and at home, where black rank-and-file organisation has challenged union racism at every level since the day the Empire Windrush docked. Nor are blacks alone in the marginalisation they suffer. The experiences of female, young, unemployed or even unskilled workers present similar examples. The growth of rank-and-file militancy and conflict between the shop floor and union bureaucracy only hints at the struggle in these institutions. Indeed, they do not represent the class as a class at all. Their failures must be set beside the rapid growth of new movements with an autonomy from capitalist command as well as from the disabling political perspectives of the labour movement. The movement of the black communities is but one place among many where a patient listener may discern:

The dialogue between a young social movement, still searching for its identity, and the movement which preceded it but which is now growing old, dying, or being converted into its own antithesis by becoming an agent of the authorities.30

Such a claim requires that we demonstrate that black struggles are not merely political in a broad sense, but approach the task of social transformation not from a transplanted disorganic politics alone, but in forms and with ideas which relate directly to the immediate historical conjuncture in which they have developed. Rastafari, which appears where blacks are supposedly least class conscious, provides useful but by no means unique evidence of this.31 It is an example which must be treated with care if it is not to reinforce the peculiarly powerful racist image of intransigent black youth, whose previous incarnation, ‘the mugger’, has been brought up-to-date in a new folk-devil, ‘the criminal Rasta’. Sociologists who identify the movement exclusively with young men have done nothing except reinforce this view. Their definition of the movement is crude and empiricist – offering a shopping list of dogmatic tenets to which the true ‘cultist’ is subsequently found to subscribe. Instead, we should locate the symbols of dread-head wraps, long skirts, Ethiopian colours and dreadlocks – by which researchers have identified ‘cult affiliates’ — at one end of a continuum of belief which encompasses both age and gender difference. Avowed Rastas maintain that all black people are Rasta whether they realise it or not. This points to a broader idea of the movement than sociological orthodoxy allows. To see it as a distinct expression of the contradiction between black people and the power bloc lays bare its real structure as a movement organised around a political and philosophical critique of oppressive social relations – identified by the Rastas as a cohesive human creation – ‘Babylon system’. That this critique appears partially in religious form should not lead us to underestimate the degree of political transformation it represents. Though religion has always supplied weapons in the struggles of the colonised, downtrodden and enslaved, the ‘religious’ elements in Rasta discourse comprise a sophisticated criticism of a people’s paralysing encounter with religion. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than by the Wailers:
Preacher man don’t tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know
what life is really worth …
Most people think great god will come from the sky
take away everything make everybody feel high
but if you know what life is worth
you will look for yours on earth
now you see the light you stand up for your rights.

The Rastas’ insistence that heaven is on earth and nowhere else, and the denial of god which comes with their belief that ‘God is I and I and has always been’ are the kindling of the process in which: ‘The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.32

The sharing of linguistic devices and political concepts marks the limits of a community bonded by a particular conceptualisation of the people’. The confrontation in style which has developed where open signification of dreadness transforms the unacceptable attribute of blackness into a source of collective strength and inspiration acts as a focal point for dread and baldhead alike. The immense scope of the movement is obscured by continual preoccupation with the stylised and flamboyant defiance of its younger adherents. Once dread style has been abandoned as the essential qualification for ‘cult’ membership, it becomes clear that many older people share the movement’s pan-Africanist sentiments and take pride in its rejection of racial domination. For older West Indians have encountered the discourse of Rasta before.

Black culture, white youth and class struggle

The ‘youth culture’ dimension to Rasta mobilisation has created an important space for dialogue between youth from different racial backgrounds. Asian youth movements have been as inspired by the combativity of Afro-Caribbean young people as the Afro-Caribbeans have been by the Asians’ tenacious defence of their communities, however much this has been concealed by a persistent stereotype of their passivity. At a demonstration against racist violence in Coventry in May 1981, which was under-reported for this very reason, young Asians chanted ‘Brixton, Brixton’ as they charged the ranks of police who protected the racists. And in Southall in 1979, Afro-Caribbean youth came out with the Asians against the Nazis (and the police who protected them) in the defence of their common community.

The effects of West Indian culture in general, and, through reggae, Rastafari in particular, on white youth are seldom considered. It seems that this may have had a profound impact on the racism of young Britons who were not, like their parents, weaned on an unadulterated diet of Empire. There are new limits to the adequacy of racial explanations for the ravages of the crisis. The arrival of black settlers proved to be both catalyst and inspiration to the grandchildren of jingoism who were quick to ape, absorb and adapt the styles and cultural practices which were black relics of a distant colonial engagement with their foreparents. Dick Hebdige has established the connection between white youth cultures and the presence of black citizenry: ‘We can watch played out on the loaded surfaces of the British working-class youth cultures a phantom history of race relations since the war.33

By extending this argument, we can begin to see the fundamental class character of black cultural struggles in a different dimension, and the articulation of ‘race’ around the contradiction between capital and labour in ways obscured by the dominance of corporatist political representation. Since the incorporation of reggae into the sub-cultural repertoire in the late 1960s, political themes began to displace moral and generational conflict as the raw material for the cultural expressions of young whites. The progression from The Who’s ‘My Generation to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK’ and, more recently, the self-conscious anti-racist politics of the ‘Two Tone’ movement ex-emplifies this process. It has been fuelled at each stage by youth’s own perceptions of economic crisis and the consequent crisis of social relations. The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, which was the number one record during the unprecedented week of rioting in British cities in July 1981, provides a chilling image of national decline observed from inside the oppositional culture of urban youth.
This town is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving youth on the shelf
This town is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more, people getting angry
This town is coming like a ghost town.

The mass mobilisations of white youth thrown up in this process, though always both cultural and political, have not always been anti-racist, like the important but short-lived Rock Against Racism alliance. Though it contains no guarantees of a progressive outcome, the fact that neo-fascist and nationalist attempts to win young whites have been forced to recognise the political power of black culture as an obstacle to their success indicates the relatively precarious nature of the youngsters’ commitment to race and nation. 34

Regardless of the ultimate direction of the popular struggle of white youth, we should recognise that its forms have been prefigured in the resistances of black communities – in much the same way that the movement of black Americans in the 1960s determined the patterns of autonomous protest which followed it:

Without Black Brotherhood, there would have been no Sisterhood; without Black Power and Black Pride there would have been no Gay Power and Gay Pride. The movement against the abuse of powers of the state … derived much of its strength and purpose from the exposure of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of the Black Panthers and Black Muslims … only the Environmental Movement did not have the Black Movement as a central organisational fact or as a defining political metaphor and inspiration.35

The mass politicisation of youth cultures, which has followed from their encounter with black cultural forms and leisure practices, bears witness to the survival of African traditions which do not recognise the separation of politics from other spheres of life. Armand Mattelart has reminded us that: “Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom. It is a question of transforming what used to be used exclusively for pleasure and leisure into a means of instruction.”36 Non-European traditions have never recognised this separation in quite the same way, and consequently do not have to be readjusted.

Rastafari is a sophisticated expression of the critical consciousness which informs black struggles, commentating on society and the state and extending into analysis of the post-colonial scene as a whole:

Africans a bear the most pressure, because you find that the people that are controlling them are the white people them. They try to be superior over black people. Not all of them, but certain of them ones as is gods and seat up in high places: All those system, you just see them big notches who a control. Certain of them captains and them big pirates from long time is them family. Some of them people really have the world in their hands, so them keep up various kinds of isms now. Them stop slaving the Africans alone, but them slaving everyone else still. Is the people them to come and unite now, that’s the only way. 37

The consciousness of exploitation provoked in the experience of racial oppression, both inside and outside production, is not some preliminary phase in the development of a mythically complete class consciousness sometime in the future. Though for the social analyst ‘race’ and class are necessarily abstractions at different levels, black consciousness of race and class cannot be empirically separated. The class character of black struggles is not a result of the fact that blacks are predominantly proletarian, though this is true. It is established in the fact that their struggles for civil rights, for freedom from state harassment or as waged workers are instances of the process by which the working class is constituted politically, is organised in politics. Classes are not static or continuous subjects of history, they are made and remade in a continual struggle. It is only the ancient heresy of economistic marxism which stipulates that the relations of commodity production alone determine class relations. The struggle for hegemony
cannot be reduced to economic determinations or vulgarised to refer to solely cultural phenomena, and class analysis cannot be restricted to those positioned in the immediate processes of production.

Conclusion

The resistance and oppositional symbols provided by Afro-Caribbean political culture are central reference points for the struggles of other young people. Like feminist organisation, the anti-state movements which have been at the heart of urban communities’ opposition to increasingly authoritarian forms of social control demand critical self-scrutiny from the left. In both cases, distinct political practices force the ‘heretical realisation that the movement for human liberation and social transformation must itself be viewed as an historical phenomenon.

The young people who set British cities alight are no more a ‘reserve army of labour’ or a “lumpenproletariat’ than they are the criminal hooligans’ that the state has branded them. Their situation exists where are of many of Marx’s concepts – which were themselves historical limited use. Their actions must be examined on their political merits, as far as possible outside the moralistic categories which so much contemporary socialist thinking shares with common-sense ideologies. Racial segmentation places this problem at centre stage: too often the working class is divided into reputable and disreputable strata, personified, on the one hand, by the honest trades union stalwart and, on the other, by black youth whose alienation is manifest in their criminal inclinations. This is dangerous because it dovetails with the state’s own strategy of criminalisation as a response to these new political challenges. The urban ‘race rioters’ strike out at oppressive power materialised in the particular institutions and structures in which it bears down upon them, ‘[in] its capillary form of existence, at the point where power returns
into the very grain of individuals, touches their gestures and attitudes, their discourses and daily lives.’38

The simple point here is that power is not confined to the labour process. Understanding new political movements new class struggles requires analytic concepts historically appropriate to the new forms they take. These spontaneous struggles may sometimes become violent, but this does not render them irreconcilable with a strategic long-term ‘war of position’. The workers’ movement has always struggled with laws and law officers pitted against its own interests.

Bearing in mind the way that C.L.R. James has demonstrated the interrelation of spontaneity and organisation,39 we must also realise that forms of political action and organisation developed in previous struggles offer no guarantees of efficacy in new circumstances and relations of force. The ahistorical fetishisation of organisational forms which have outlived their adequacy in the dogmatic prescriptions of omniscient bureaucrats and party officers is both a fetter on progress and a set of blinkers preventing useful analysis of the present. From this perspective the struggle for black liberation and the related struggles of black and white youth may assume a place parallel to popular feminism and, at a greater distance, political ecology and anti-militarist initiatives. They are not the same, but their critiques of the movement which preceded them are similar. The marginalisation which they suffer at its ageing hands may even be the basis of new alliances and collective actions. Each group’s powerlessness is potentially resonant for the others. All these group’s discourse of movements extend the boundaries of politics beyond the social democratic focus on policy. They represent themselves in politics and denied by corporatist political institutions and patterns of state intervention. The ‘cultural character they share signifies the way each reaches into the future, as a dynamic complex unity of political, ideological and economic concerns, from which heterogeneous struggles form a new working class inside and outside the workplace.

References

This article is based on ‘Steppin’ out of Babylon’, chapter 7 of The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (in press) CCCS/Hutchinson 1982. I would like to thank
Kathy Bor, John Solomos and Vron Ware for their comments and criticisms.
1 – Stuart Hall, ‘Race and moral panics in post-war Britain’, in Commission for Racial Equality, Five Views of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1978).
2 – J.G. Gabriel and G.S. Ben-Tovim, ‘Marxism and the concept of racism’, Economy and Society (Vol. 7, no. 2, 1978).
3 – Martin Rabstein, ‘Why Britain needs national liberation’, in G. Bridges and R. Brunt (eds), Silver Linings (London, 1981).
4 – Annie Phizacklea and Robert Miles, Labour and Racism (London, 1980).
5 – Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis (London, 1978), p. 394.
6 – Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (London, 1973), p. 43.
7 – A. Sivanandan, ‘Imperialist and disorganic development in the silicon age’, Race & Class (Vol. XXI, no. 2, 1979).
8 – Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London, 1977).
9 – Richard Johnson, “Three problematics: elements of a theory of working-class culture’, in J. Clarke et al (eds.), Working-Class Culture (London, 1979).
10 – Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (London, 1969), Vol. I, ch. 4.
11 – Stuart Hall, ‘The political and the economic in Marx’s theory of classes’, in A. Hunt (ed.), Class and Class Structure (London, 1977).
12 – Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow, 1975), p. 159.
13 – Adam Prezworski, “Proletariat into a class: the process of class formation from Karl Kautsky’s the class struggle to recent controversies’, Politics & Society (Vol. 7, no. 4, 1977)
14 – Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Authority and foreign labour: some notes on a late capitalist form of capital accumulation and state intervention’, Studies in Political Economy (No. 2, 1979), p. 50.
15 – S. Castles and G. Kosack, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe (London, 1973).
16 – Phizacklea and Miles, op. cit.
17 – Ira Katznelson, ‘Community capitalist development and the emergence of class’, Politics & Society (Vol. 9, no. 2, 1979).
18 – A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), pp. 296-8.
19 – R. Roberts, The Classic Slum (Manchester, 1971); E.P. Thompson, Whigs and
Hunters, (London, 1975); Henry Mayhew, London Labour and London Poor, Vol. 1 (New York, 1968).
20 – Ceri Peach, West Indian Migration to Britain (London, 1968), p. 62.
21 – Gareth Stedman-Jones, “Working-class culture and working-class politics in London, 1870-1900′, Journal of Social History (Vol. VII, no. 4, 1974).
22 – Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Farnborough, 1977).
23 – Katznelson, op. cit., p. 232.
24 – J.C. Alderson, Policing Freedom (Plymouth, 1979); see also G. Howes and J.
Brown (eds), The Police and The Community (Saxon House, 1975).
25 – Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London, 1978), p. 186.
26 – Institute of Race Relations, Police Against Black People (London, 1979) and Clare Demuth, ‘Sus’ (London, 1978), pp. 37-8.
27 – Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities (London, 1973), p. 178.
28 – Leo Panitch, ‘Trades unions and the state’, New Left Review (No. 125, 1981); see
also ‘The development of corporatism in liberal democracies’, Comparative Political Studies (Vol. X, 1, 1977).
29 – D. Thompson and R. Larson, Where were you brother? an account of trades union imperialism (London, 1978), and P.S. Gupta, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-64 (London, 1975).
30 – Alaine Touraine, ‘Political ecology – the demand to live differently now’, New Society (8 November 1979).
31 – See Horace Campbell, ‘Rastafari: culture of resistance’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII,
no. 1, 1980), and Colin Prescod, ‘The “people’s cause” in the Caribbean’, Race & Class (Vol. XVII, no. 1, 1975).
32 – Karl Marx, ‘Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right’ in Early Writings (London, 1979).
33 – Dick Hebdige, Subculture: the meaning of style (London, 1979).
34 – See Bulldog (paper of the young National Front), issues 7, 10, 16, 17, and 18.
35 – David Edgar, ‘Reagan’s hidden agenda’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII, no. 3, 1981).
36 – Armand Mattelart Mass Media, Ideologies and the Revolutionary Movement (Hassocks, 1980), p. 54.
37 – Hugh Mundell, interviewed in Black Echoes (8 November 1980).
38 – Michel Foucault, interviewed in Radical Philosophy (No. 16, 1977).
39 – C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics (London, 1980), p. 115.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The April 1981 Brixton Riot (2): The Aftermath, and Defence Campaigns

After years of street crimes and brutality, and despite the infiltration from outside of thousands of paid provocateurs. the Brixton police have finally been taught a short, sharp lesson by the local community. It has been a constant source of amazement to observers just how long the local population have allowed these professional scare-mongers to roam the streets unchecked, harassing and heating up the youth and terrorising the residents.

Over the last three years, there has been a marked increase in the street crime and violence carried out by these so-called ‘protectors’. The local population has stood by helplessly while their children been snatched off the streets by these over by racist and sexist gangs of thugs – kidnapped under the sinister ‘sus’ law which they operate.

At least one recognised public execution * has already been carried out by these murderous thugs’ paramilitary wing, the Special Patrol Group, whilst dozens of unsolved murders, which have happened behind the closed doors of police stations and prisons, are readily attributable to these state-styled stormtroopers and their cronies.

Relative calm returned to the streets on Sunday only after they adopted their by now unfamiliar ploy of following an afternoon of unbridled mayhem with a swift withdrawal at twilight. (Lewisham residents are all too aware of this tactic). But the remarks of one of the thugs ‘guarding’  Stockwell station sums up the measure of their defeat; in a dejected tone he muttered to his mates. ‘The whole world will be laughing at us..’ But he was wrong. The world is not amused at having these gangs of thugs strutting around its street under the guise of law ‘n’order. The world will want to know:

¥ WHO ARE THE SINISTER BRAINS BEHIND THE BRIXTON RIOTS WHO PLANNED AND EXECUTED MASSIVE ACTION AGAINST THE COMMUNITY?

But above all, the question remains:

¥ JUST HOW ARE WE PREPARED TO PUT UP WITH THESE ARROGANT, MARAUDING THUGS WHO ANSWER TO NO-ONE BUT THEMSELVES??”

FROM THE FRONTLINE BRIXTON BULLETIN Monday 13 April 1981

…………………………………………………………………………………

In the immediate aftermath of the April 11th 1981 Brixton Uprising, while the media teemed with racist nonsense, and Lord Scarman was hired by the government to launch an Inquiry into the events, the most pressing question in the area was supporting the 285 people arrested on the day (though a fair number were nicked and released without charge, mainly as there was no cell space to hold them all. More people were arrested later: between April and July there were some 70 raids on local homes). Interestingly, given the police and press hoohaa about the riot being planned and carried out by outsiders coming into the area, 90% of the arrested proved to be from Brixton; 65 % were Black. Other bare statistics: 50% were under 25. In the end some 18 % were jailed for ‘offences’ arising from the uprising, 17% acquitted.

The Brixton Defence Campaign was formed to organise a political defence of the arrested. It was formed mainly by the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Black People Against State Harassment (BASH). BASH had been launched in 1978, partly as a result of the repeated Special Patrol group invasions of Brixton (see In the Shadow of the SPG).

In its own press statement, the Brixton Defence Campaign stated that it formed to ‘co-ordinate the defence of those arrested during the Brixton Uprising and to support those who continue to be victimised’. The campaign group worked alongside the Brixton Legal Defence Group.

 “The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

The Defence Campaign held regular meetings, help the arrested collected evidence for their defence, contacted lawyers, helped defendants and witnesses get connected, collected images to help people.

Viewing Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the cause of the April Riot as a whitewash, aimed at legitimising characterisations of the riots as ‘blameless forces of law and order [battling] mainly black criminals’, the Brixton Defence Campaign called for a boycott of the proceedings. Their position was that any support for or even taking part in the inquiry would alienate the ‘sections of the community we are interested in mobilising’, and thus it ‘must be totally discredited’.

“The Brixton Defence Campaign says Boycott the Scarman Inquiry

The Brixton Defence Campaign calls for a total boycott of the state’s inquiry into the Brixton Uprising of 10-13 April 1981 set up under the chairmanship of Lord Scarman with terms of reference: To inquire urgently into the serious disorders in Brixton on 10-12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations.
There is no escaping the fact that the Scarman Inquiry, but particularly Phase 1, very seriously prejudices the legal position and therefore endangers the liberty of all defendants yet to be tried.
Lord Scarman has seen fit to divide his inquiry into two phases: Phase I – Examining the ‘immediate causes’ of what happened in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981; Phase II – Assessing the ‘underlying reasons, looking specially at the problems of policing multi-racial areas’.
Why do we say that Phase I is but a deadly weapon aimed at our hearts?
First: Because Lord Scarman himself had positively to agree, that Phase I will ‘prejudice the rights of fair trial to those who have yet to come before the courts’. His promise to take evidence in such a way that individuals will not be named or identified cannot be carried out.
Second: What, it must be asked, are these ‘immediate causes’ into which Scarman is going to investigate so urgently in Phase I. It was the MP for Norwood (John Fraser) who said, quite correctly, that the immediate causes of what happened in Brixton are well understood’.
Third: Instead of looking at the real ‘immediate cause of the Brixton Uprising, Scarman will be seeking to give subtle legitimacy to the totally racist views so dramatically put by Margaret Thatcher – that the Brixton Uprising was simply a confrontation between, on the one hand, fundamentally blameless forces of law and order, and, on the other, mainly black criminals!
The Brixton Defence Campaign is satisfied that Lord Scarman is disposed to be used by the state to provide it with a basis for re-writing the Riot Act and to provide justification for dramatically increasing repressiveness in policing methods which are already massively racist, lawless and brutal as well as substantially uncontrolled. In the past five years there have been repeated requests to the Home Secretary for a public inquiry into police brutality and malpractice. To none of these calls was there a positive response by the state.
There are no benefits to the black community to be derived from Phase II of Lord Scarman’s inquiry. First, it is not aware that Lord Scarman has any expertise in the field of social policy and is not satisfied that even were he to have both the necessary expertise and sympathy that these would be sufficient given the other factors which apply. Second, there are no good reasons to hold that ignorance on the part of the state is a major cause/force determining the present direction of its policies in the field of housing, employment, education, etc. Third, the Campaign is satisfied particularly that where the black communities’ grievances over the racist, brutal, lawless and uncontrolled policing methods used against them are concerned the state has no basis for even claiming to be ignorant. A mountain of evidence has been ‘submitted and ignored.”

The Campaign wrote to organisations and individuals intending to provide evidence to Scarman’s inquiry, warning them against doing so and criticising them for betraying the community. However, some notable Brixton activists, and many community organisations, did co-operate with the enquiry.

There were proposals for an inquiry that could take a more alternative approach.
A joint statement from local organisations – the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisation, the Melting Pot Foundation, and Brixton Domino Working Men’s Social Club – claimed that an alternative inquiry that included ‘one or more… Privy Councillors from the Black Commonwealth’ would have ‘allayed the scepticism of many members of the Black Community’.

There was also the fear that anything said in evidence given to Scarman’s inquiry might help incriminate defendants when it came to court cases.

“On the fifteenth day of the Inquiry hearings, 3 July, the Brixton Legal Defence Group notified the Inquiry that application was being made to the High Court for an order to prohibit Lord Scarman from hearing any further evidence or submissions in public or from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 until the various criminal proceedings pending against the applicants arising from the disorders had been tried. Application was also made to prohibit the Home Secretary from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 pending conclusion of the criminal
proceedings. On 10 July Mr Justice Webster dismissed the application saying that ‘it has not been established either that the continuance of the Inquiry in public or that the publication of the report which follows is in either case an act calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice’.”

However, the Brixton Defence Campaign was not without its own contradictions, as the following article recounts (This was published in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, by a group of Brixton anarchists, 1982)

FROM OFFENCE TO DEFENCE TO….?

Where?

Recognising the centrality of black resistance to racism in the uprisings, we describe how such resistance became a larger entry point for our own refusal of mere survival as waged or unwaged workers, as women, etc. Although we have experienced exploitation, harassment and coercion in somewhat different ways than black and Asian people, we came to fight the same battles in the streets against the same enemy – the police. At the same time, we are all too aware that tensions between blacks and whites, men and women, persist after the uprisings.

This section approaches the problem in view of the aftermath of the uprisings. Although a riot can’t continue indefinitely without a general revolutionary upheaval, it can nevertheless contribute to bringing about such a situation. However, so far we have seen our riots followed mostly by repression, isolation and division among those who, for a while, joined together as an insurgent community. How do we get beyond this dead-end cycle?

Just after the July 81 riots, for example, the crowd in a Wolverhampton courtroom almost succeeded in freeing their mates from the dock. However, during the winter, hundreds of people faced prison sentences in the same kind of isolation which prevailed beforehand. Capitalism will continue to defeat us if rebellion remains confined to the warmest months, to special anniversaries or to counter-attacks against only the most blatant police provocations – ultimately leaving the initiative with the state.

With these problems in mind, the article looks at the inability of the Brixton defence groups to sustain the ‘creative moments’ of the revolts, instead expressing a disorganisation and powerlessness which limited the July uprising as much as did the advance in police tactics then. The article makes tentative suggestions for possible new organisational forms for defending the targets of state repression and for generalising the rebellion of the oppositional community. Whenever we do reach a point of confrontation leading to the next uprising, the groundwork could already be laid for taking it beyond defence of ghetto territory, towards transforming the whole of daily life, destroying the rule of capital and the state.

Looking back, it is now apparent that what was absent from last year’s struggles was the development of organisational forms which fully corresponded with the new practices made explicit at the height of the fighting. Certainly there were organizations – the defence committees – but subsequent events have revealed that none of these encouraged the development of the new relations already created. Of course they solidly did the work of obtaining speedy legal assistance for those arrested, issuing information and acting as rallying points, etc. However, by and large they applied stale orthodox models of resistance to the fresh tasks confronting metropolitan proletarians when such models had, to a certain extent, become already superseded by the very events upon which the organisations based themselves.

For what had started out in April as an attack on racist policing developed into an attack on policing as such, on commodity exchange as such and, by implication, on the whole process of production and consumption in capitalist society. Also, the mode of the attack was itself a living critique of the usual mediations by which political parties and trade unions contain and regulate class struggle. Further, it enabled us to break through the usual roles and half-rotted ideologies and, for a brief but ecstatic moment, to transform social relations. Such transformations which remain at the heart of the communist project and which, within the limits of time and space of Brixton, that weekend, became a form of mass practice needed a broad-based and flexible form of organisation in which to bloom. (For example, in times of social upheaval this form has very often been that of general assemblies or councils, soviets. But the organisational forms which arose in Brixton did so on the basis of only partial critiques, only limited visions, seeking to defend those arrested without having to delegitimise the state which was criminalising them in the first place.

Undoubtedly the defence committees’ criticisms of the racist state were expressed more forcefully than previously, but this was largely a difference of degree and did not mark a qualitative shift in oppositional critique or practice. (For example, they might have identified the ways in which the uprising went beyond an attack on racist policing methods, so as to incorporate the knowledge gained into their defence strategies.) Their limitations suggest that, of all the proletarian layers which participated in the fighting, none had a thoroughgoing awareness of the significant changes which had taken place in the composition of the proletarian groupings themselves. So when those of us who took to the streets concretised the latent and embryonic aspects of ourselves shaped by this recomposition of social relations, we were unable to grasp and develop that process collectively. Overtaken by the enormity and rapidity of events, we nevertheless were inspired by the forces unleashed to create practices of struggle in which we found ourselves confronting the now-realised aspects of ourselves. Yet, as in a dream, we did not fully recognise ourselves. Therefore, we fell back upon analyses and their corresponding forms of organization which our very own actions had rendered obsolete. This is understandable insofar as consciousness often lags behind events, especially events of such qualitative rupture.

But what were these ‘new aspects’? In short, the practical unity of black and white proletarians forged in action against both the state and the reign of commodities. There were no cries of ‘black and white unite and fight’ as we were too busy doing exactly that to bother with such sloganising. Moreover, we were not just ‘fighting the state’ but were transforming social relations, making real the communistic project by realising the communistic potential of ourselves, albeit briefly. At that point in the process, the struggle went beyond a physical confrontation with racist policing by (mainly) black youth, even if that had been the detonator and main component of the struggle. However, that step beyond was not reflected in the committees which reproduced fragmented and partial analyses. The temporarily visible, concrete relations receded from consciousness, back into invisibility. After one step forward on the streets, two steps backwards were taken in the committee rooms.

‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things. in creating something which has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.’ -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

it was at the point when the decisive actions on the streets had broken down many (though not all) of the ideological barriers that keep black and white proletarians in close but different orbits that the whole spectrum of political activists stepped in with their ‘traditional’ analyses. In the heat, speed and confusion of the moment, the regressive aspects of their intervention went un-noticed and prevailed by default.

The first ‘spirit’ that was ‘conjured up’ was the division on colour lines. The quickly-formed Brixton Defence Campaign (BDC) was open only to blacks. While that restriction could be seen as an attempt to curtail the influence of the (predominantly white) party-builders and to exclude possible police agents, its immediate social effect was to divide the streetfighters. Furthermore, the BDC itself immediately divided on class lines between the street youth and the older professionals & politicians on the platform. These differences resulted in one faction of the ‘leadership’ cancelling the public rally called for the following weekend – fearing, no doubt, to lose control of the situation to the streetfighters eagerly anticipating the rally. Falling on an Easter weekend, the rally would have ensured broader participation by local people and also supporters from elsewhere, thereby providing an opportunity to extend the struggle and overcome Brixton’s isolation. As it happened, that weekend – just a few days after the uprising – passed in silence. (The BDC opened itself up to white participants shortly afterwards, but only temporarily.)

These initial divisions by colour and geography from within the proletariat had a ‘domino effect’ as they strengthened – not weakened – the left groups, who now had a fragmented and confused mass to pick over and recruit. Soon there were no less than five defence group s/committees: The BDC included most black people. The Brixton Legal Defence Committee (BLDC), although formed essentially to cover court cases, reflected the involvement of leftist professionals/politicians, mainly Labourites. The Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton came from the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party. South London Workers Against Racism (SOLWAR) was the local branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in another form. Lastly, People Against Police Occupation (PAPO), by far the smallest group, consisted of socialist-feminists, radical gays and libertarians.

The BDC saw the uprising only as a black issue. While it is clearly undeniable that it was police racism which sparked the uprising, and that this was but one more example of the manifold attacks made on black people – economic, legal, social, physical, etc. – it should also be clear that the surge of (mainly black) proletarian anger in response went far beyond the initial objective of attacking racist police. The BDC’s attempt to contain the struggle within a solely ‘black people vs. the racist state’ framework turned out to complement the state’s own strategy of delegitimising any protest outside the scope of a narrowly defined ‘racial discrimination’. It is precisely within such terms that the state, especially its would-be reformers, have attempted to contain the struggle.

Another problem with the BDC’s approach was that it did not take account of differences within ‘the’ black community. As soon as the BDC was formed, the class differences surfaced and persisted as the campaign developed. An explicit proletarian standpoint from the start (which would have included the vast majority of black people anyway) could have avoided the confusion surrounding such issues as the collaboration with Lord Scarman by certain petty-bourgeois black groups and the collaboration with the police by such ‘community leaders’ as Courtnay Laws and Ivan Madray. Also, in order to advance the struggle on the ground, perhaps more faith could have been put in mobilising black proletarians in Brixton than in lobbying Caribbean diplomats.

Of course the BDC, as the biggest of the defence groups, helped the most defendants, and its limitations in no way detract from that achievement. Also, these criticisms should not been seen as a criticism of black autonomy. The ‘multi-racial’ developments of the uprising did not challenge the basis of black autonomy; on the contrary, they reaffirmed the need for autonomous organising by everyone. However, we need to re-think the ambiguity between autonomy and separatism, so that autonomous organisation strengthens everyone’s autonomy from the state rather than facilitating the state’s containment strategies. Perhaps future developments will bring some practical clarification to this delicate area.

What of the other defence groups?

The Brixton Legal Defence Committee made interventions only on the legal level. The most notable was the attempt to halt the Scarman Inquiry on the grounds that the proceedings endangered defendants in certain court cases. As there was no chance that the legal establishment would stop Scarman from performing his liberal exhibitionism, the Committee’s attempt failed.

The Militant Tendency, wearing the ‘costume’ of the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton. used the ‘borrowed language’ familiar to most of us by now. According to them, the uprising was due to the policies of Thatcherism and ‘uncontrolled’ policing; therefore, more public expenditure on social welfare programmes, the disbandment of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) and police ‘accountability’ would somehow keep the lid on. This committee, too, assisted defendants financially. Also, it was the only committee willing to sink ideological differences by offering at least some assistance to the arrested anarchist Patrizia Giambi – so far the sole explicitly ‘political’ case to result in conviction from the uprising.

SOLWAR applied to the situation a class analysis containing a critique of racism (both in the state and in the labour movement). They called for resistance to the Police raids which happened after the fighting, with the resistance to be carried out by ‘militia’ similar to their anti-fascist squads in Fast London, but that proposal was not implemented. SOLWAR also helped defendants financially and – with the slogan ‘Police in the Dock’ – assisted some black families to prosecute police for assault.

Like the proposal to resist police raids, this was another attempt to take the struggle onto the offensive against the police.

PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. Like SOLWAR, they too sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people.

Even this brief look at the approaches of the defence committees & groups gives us a glimpse of the potential which a general assembly could have had, especially one which recognised the historically new aspects of the uprising. But what we had instead was a proliferation of groups which precluded open political debate about the nature of the uprising and the formation of a collective ‘ strategy. These divisions reflected not only the divergences on the local political scene but also an (unconscious) acceptance of the state’s divide-and-rule tactics.

In the uprising the state’s tactics were made explicit in the ravings of Commissioner McNee (and in July in those of Kenneth Oxford and James Anderton), who attributed the uprising to ‘black hooligans’ (common criminals) and to ‘white anarchist agitators’ (political criminals). That political line was followed through into the courtroom and can be seen in the more or less straightforward criminalisation of black youth and the more overtly political criminalisation of, for example, the anarchists Patrizia Giambi in Brixton and Simon Los in Nottingham (For the charge of ‘threatening behaviour’, Patricia Giambi was sent to prison for a month and almost deported. In her appeal against the court’s recommendation for deportation, it became even more obvious that the police wanted to see her deported because she was an anarchist, whose deportation would provide prima facie ‘evidence’ for their conspiracy theory of the riots. In Nottingham, Simon Los was sent to prison for 3 years for ‘inciting to riot’, i.e. putting anarchist leaflets into people’s mailboxes.) Of course, the state is trying to have it both ways with the Bradford 12 conspiracy charges *, which themselves reflect the state’s growing fear of organised black proletarians.

The most negative effects of the insurgents’ fragmentation were the competition between defence groups and the attempts by some of them to appropriate the struggle as their own. An example: When the Scarman Inquiry opened at Lambeth Town Hall, the BDC called for a picket. This call was supported by all the other defence groups. However, SOLWAR brought along their own banner and, when asked by BDC stewards to take it down, refused. This refusal was heavily criticised by the other pickets and was seen as RCP vanguardism. But it can be seen another way as the BDC attempting to limit the struggle and subordinate other initiatives, such confusion was due to the lack of prior debate. The lack of open political debate meant that, whatever differences in political approach did exist (and such differences are always bound to exist), they got expressed in terms of crude competition. Thus it appeared that such competitive divisions were consciously desired, or at least self-perpetuating, rather than resulting from everyone’s earlier failure to come together for mutual clarification and collective decision-making. In effect, then, the BDC, which was seen as the ‘authoritative’ defence group, became the superior arbiter and sole source of legitimacy for initiatives. (Hence the absence of the BDC as the BDC from the PAPO picket of the police station.)

A second example: It became impossible to discern the pattern of, much less to resist collectively, the police raids which continued for months after April, largely because there was no common reference point for information about them. The information which was gathered was not made freely available. During the raids in June, people seemed gripped by a sense of powerlessness which in turn heightened the feeling of fragmentation and isolation. So, when there was street fighting again in July, it was not simply the fact of the police being better armed (than in April) which enabled them to clear the streets so easily. The events in July were an example of one way in which the proliferation of defence groups had compounded the decline of the April solidarity.

It is worth dwelling further on the differences between the July fighting and that in April. The main difference was that in April the police were taken by surprise. That gave streetfighters the time and space in which to gather for large-scale confrontations, which became the material basis for the unity. By contrast, in July there were uprisings taking place throughout the country but the police everywhere were better prepared – with riot helmets, short & light shields for extra mobility, the possible backing of water cannon and CS gas (used in Liverpool) and the political instruction to ‘go on the offensive’. In Brixton their chief tactic was mobile squads racing around attacking any semblance of group formations. That tactic kept those of us on the street running around in circles and prevented any large-scale gathering. Hit-and-run tactics were the only feasible form of resistance. (As used in St. Paul’s and Toxteth in early 1982.) There was little scope for united collective action like that of April. And now that police riot squads have been formed in all the large Metropolitan Police divisions with the back-up of gas and water cannon, the tactics of ‘isolate and disperse’ will again undoubtedly be the order of the day should there be any more streetfighting. Should this prove to be the case and should they succeed, then it may be even more difficult to recover the ground lost since April.

But, to return to the proliferation of defence groups – how did this come about?

Of all the social changes of the 1970s, one of the most significant was the growth of black people as an organised force. Black groups organised themselves around opposing the many attacks from the state and racist groups. A combination of the two – the Nationality Bill and the New Cross Massacre – meant that, at the time that the police implemented their ‘Operation Swamp ’81’, black people were on a combative footing and in no mood to tolerate yet more provocations. But this process goes back to the period immediately after World War 2  and is connected with other relevant historical developments.

The changing needs for new types of labour power by post-war capital gave rise to two trends. Black people were invited over here as a source of cheap unorganised labour at a time of a shortage. Also, with the decline of traditional industries (coal, steel, ship-building and so on) and the growth of service and light industries, women – another source of cheap, unorganised labour – became a larger part of the labour force and structurally more integrated into it. (For a concise account of this, see lrene Bruegel, ‘Women as a Reserve Army of Labour’, in Feminist Review no.3.    Also, A. Sivanandan, ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’, in Race and Class, Autumn/Winter 1981 and his ‘Race, Class and the State: The Black Experience in Britain’, Race and Class pamphlet no. 1. See also the series in Race Today by Darcus Howe, ‘Bobby to Babylon’.)

Both groups also received a large impetus from the liberation movements of the late 1960s – the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Linked with appositional developments of the late 1960s was the growth of a whole range of revolutionary groupings, from Trotskyists through to anarchists. Also, since the mid-1970s there has been a growing reserve army of young people, black and white, excluded from the labour process. Unlike the reserve army of the 1930s, however, there is a tendency to turn its exclusion into a rejection of normal ‘success’ models. Many of these people feel themselves to have little stake in reforming capitalism and have proven themselves willing to defend physically any encroachment upon their ‘non-work oriented’ subcultures.

All this reflects changes in the composition and self-perception of the working class. Such changes are inevitable given that classes are not fixed groups but social processes. For example, the large expansion of office jobs has ‘bourgeoisified’ traditionally working class people and has ‘proletarianised’ traditionally middle class people. The expansion of higher education has given some of the working class a passport into the middle class. Black people (especially first-generation immigrants) have been doing menial jobs while a certain portion of the white working class becomes upwardly mobile. The welfare state – designed to individualise class conflict and isolate people – has been nevertheless used by refusers of wage-labour to gain time and space in which to move outside the wage-slave cycle and develop their opposition through new practices. And so on.

What all the above-mentioned groups have in common is that they organise and express themselves outside of the usual channels of political parties and trade unions (even if the organised left tends to channel people back in again). To a greater or lesser extent they are all marginalised politically, socially or economically – and, in the case of most women and blacks, in all three spheres. This is due mainly to objective conditions, some of which – for example, the structured individualisation of officially ‘unemployed’ people – were challenged by last year’s uprisings.

But the forces at work are not only objective. In such a world, people who are antagonistic to the norms are only too pleased to find like-minded people. Such groups become the reference points for identity, safety and support. Gradually, people come to accept their marginalisation, and this ‘self-ghettoisation’ cuts off people from other oppositional groups, and not merely on ‘Ideological’ grounds. That is, there is a certain degree of (unconscious) complicity with the tactics of divide-and-rule. Friction occurs among groups as each either explicitly or implicitly claims to hold the key to real social transformation, to be the subject of history. (Isolation and vanguardism are often mutually inclusive.)

So, despite changes in social relations that had taken place in the streetfighting, when the task of organising presented itself there was an in-built tendency for people to revert ‘automatically’ to the roles they knew best, thus reproducing the old divisions. However,

‘Since the Leninist model assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section of the class can express the experience and interest and pursue the struggle for any other section. The formal organisational expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.’ (Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’, Falling Wall Press/Race Today, 1975.)

Since those words were written almost a decade ago, this problem has become even more pressing. Yet one major attempt elsewhere at its resolution – the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ conferences – is doomed to failure. ‘Beyond the Fragments’ failed not just because it attempted to create unity only on an ideological level, but also because it sought to ‘breathe life into some Frankenstein monster constructed of the decaying remains of the political movements of the last two decades’. (Beyond the Fragments Or Beyond the Left, in Authority, 1980)

That is, it failed to recognise what is new in the general proletarian refusals of this society and especially the role of the left in domesticating such refusals. What is needed most is an attempt at unity on a practical and continuous basis, a basis which recognises the new and breaks through old ideological barriers. (Last year’s uprisings could well provide the beginnings of such a basis.)

But these are not the sole reasons for the proliferation of defence groups and partial analyses. The spontaneous nature and the scope of the actions took most people by surprise. Before events and their potential could be fully grasped, the moment had passed, the state had regained control of the streets, and the resulting ‘vacuum’ favoured the people with worked-out analyses and organisational models – almost any analyses and models. As the focal point of the struggle shifted from the streets to the committee rooms, it became blurred and less intense through that process. And here is a perennial problem of periods of social rupture – the division between ‘fighters’ and ‘organisers’- which can be seen as the ‘division of revolutionary labour’. We must constantly identify and challenge such division. However, it is not enough to challenge it formally, because it persists by default, from our failure to articulate the historically new needs expressed in insurrectionary practice yet still lacking the new language required to counterpose those needs to the old ‘socialist’ models.

For all those reasons, the earlier suggestion of ‘general assemblies’ is not without problems. The main difficulties to be surmounted would be: the different histories of the various members, the different levels of commitment, the different goals desired, the fear and mistrust among member groups, and now the more dispersed ‘guerilla’ tactics required to counter a better-equipped police force. Yet we need to tackle these problems – now if we are to cease reaffirming our ‘marginalised’ misery and instead advance ourselves as a class, to advance from defence yet again to offence.

– M. Brique, March I982

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Also published in We Want to Riot, Not to Work

THE CASE OF PATRICIA GIAMBI

To be deported for possession of anarchist literature

(text of leaflet circulated September 1981)

We want to bring to your attention the case of Patricia Giambi, which arises out of the events which took place in Brixton on April 1lth. Her story began, like many others, on Saturday April 1lth, when she was caught up in a police charge near her Brixton home and charged with having an offensive weapon and of using threatening behaviour and words. Here again her situation was similar to hundreds of others, police accusations resting on contradictory elements of identification in what was a crowd situation in a narrow unlit street.

It did not take police long to single her out for special treatment, however, when they discovered that she was living in the same house as someone on whom they had a political file and who was also arrested that evening. From that moment on, there has been a deliberate and unconcealed attempt to single out these two women and frame them in the role of outside agitators in an event which has been widely recognised as a popular uprising against survival conditions and police provocation. The role attributed to Patricia, prompted by her Italian nationality, is that of the imperative ‘foreign link’ – an Italian one to boot – where police, through the organs of the daily press, have made repeated references and innuendos to the Red Brigades, international terror links and so on.

As an EEC citizen, she left her local government post for a year, using her full rights of mobility as laid down in the Treaty of Rome, to find employment here and to study the English language. Language difficulties and ever-increasing unemployment made it difficult for her to find work, but she was eventually engaged as a cleaner in a local hospital, where she worked six mornings a week. She has also gained an intermediate English certificate at Westminster College, which she has attended since January.

Over the past few months, since her arrest in April, she has appeared in court on numerous occasions and while on bail was granted her passport to go to Italy to visit her sick father. She returned early in September to face trial and now finds herself serving a sentence of 28 days in Holloway Prison and on completion faces deportation. This is as a result of being found guilty of threatening behaviour under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Upon conviction police presented the magistrate with an album of enlarged colour prints of the study of the flat where Patricia was living. The photos had been taken during a raid following her arrest and showed bookshelves containing, among others, books dealing with anarchist theory and history which are freely available in libraries and bookshops. These, plus a photograph of a poster in the same room with the slogan (in Italian) Bread, love and struggle, were taken as being conclusive evidence that she was a national security risk, so justifying the deportation order. Patricia made no attempt to conceal her interest in anarchism which, as far as she knew, was not illegal in this country.

When the deportation order was contested by her barrister, lan McDonald, police overtly reinterpreted EEC law by saying that she was not a bona fide worker (an expression which does not appear in the act) or student, and therefore could benefit from no rights. She has been working for over four months and studying at Westminster College in the evenings. She was also at one time part of a libertarian book collective and worked voluntarily one afternoon per week. This was distorted by police and presented as further evidence as to why she should be deported.

She is appealing against her sentence and in the meantime we feel her case should be brought to the widest public attention, as it sets an ominous precedent.

-Friends of Patricia Giambi

September 1981

Postscript to the leaflet (1982):

After she went back into prison upon being sentenced on September 17, Friends of Patricia Giambi distributed the above leaflet (among others) to organise a support campaign for her appeal against the Magistrate Court’s recommendation, that the Home Office deport her. Finally on October 15 she won her appeal at the Inner London Crown Court. Thus her case did not go to the next step, where the Home Office would have decided to accept the Magistrate Court’s original recommendation that she be deported.

Despite that victory, we should not forget the precedents set by this case for criminalisation of revolutionaries, in particular: 1) Of all the EEC nationals who were arrested on similar charges in the Brixton uprisings, Patricia Giambi was the only one who received a recommendation for deportation in addition to a prison sentence. Obviously, then, that overtly political treatment was due not to the criminal charge as such but to her choice of housemate. It’s not what you’ve done but who you are, how you live. 2) The courts’ refusal to grant bail meant that there was little point in pursuing an appeal against the prison sentence, as Patricia completed the 28 days before the date of her appeal anyway. The prosecution arguments against bail were that she might abscond and that ‘there is evidence to show she is an anarchist’. 3) Even though she completed the 28 days before her appeal date, she wasn’t permitted to leave the prison until she won the appeal – apparently on grounds that she might evade an eventual deportation order. Since it is common practice for the British state to imprison potential deportees only after they have received a deportation order, the judicial system was treating Patricia as if the Home Office had already decided to deport her – indeed, almost as if her appeal could not succeed. Thus her additional imprisonment served in effect to confirm the police theory that she was a politically dangerous person.

4) When the magistrate at the appeal hearing incredulously challenged the respondant’ (the prosecution) to prove their suggestion that Patricia was part of a dangerous anarchist conspiracy, the police declined to make their accusation any more specific but instead went as far as to argue that she should be deported as an ‘undesirable’ because of her association with other people who are themselves ‘undesirable’. (Unfortunately for the police, most of her London friends hold British citizenship and so cannot themselves be deported.)

Although the courts ultimately did not accept the wilder police innuendo about Patricia having organised the riots, this was partly because of the support which had to counter not only the police but also the mass media, (See for example the Daily Mail 17 October 1981, in which a journalist enthusiastically promotes the police arguments – quoted in full – as to why she should have been deported.) Furthermore, the police succeeded in setting the terms of reference: on the key issues of bail and deportation, they forced the defence case to refute grave criminal accusations (e.g. organising riots), yet without the police having to mount a normal prosecution case on such charges. So the entire affair, especially Patricia’s imprisonment while awaiting the appeal hearing, served to lend credence to the conspiracy theory of the uprising, even in the absence of any concrete evidence. Instead the police pressed forward their case entirely on the basis of Patricia’s life, particularly her ‘associations’. Perhaps the British police are following the lead of developments in Italy, where the state (especially the Italian Communist Party) is putting away thousands of revolutionaries into prison on charges of ‘subversive association’ – for which they can be kept imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial. Upon a later visit back to Britland she got a xmas tree of alarms at Customs courtesy of Special Branch and stooges.

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Brixton before the Riots, part 3: The Brixton Plan & Squatting

Three main elements contributed to the eruption of rioting in Brixton in 1981. In parallel with the development of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, the racism it faced from the police, and the resistance this provoked, the other crucial factor was the heavily squatted nature of housing in the area, which had the effect of producing the third factor – the proliferation of radical and liberation projects.
Mass squatting in the Brixton area was a product of a combination of a failed planning project, a spike in homelessness and the emergence of the modern squatters’ movement in 1969.

The Brixton Plan

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath. While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Ted Hollamby launching a development. Behind him, 3rd from the right, then Lambeth councillor Ken Livingstone. Whatever happened to him?

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this subsequently never built motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!

Artists impression of Brixton town centre as it was to become

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was Compulsory Purchased.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised (much of the Ringways project was defeated by local opposition), and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.


By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population. Admittedly he attempted to mix conservations with the massive developments, though its the bulldozing that dominated. He’s remembered fondly in Brixton for his part in the design of estates like Cressingham Gardens…

Oh My God they’ve Moving in Next Door

Squatting came to Lambeth in March 1969, when a group occupied an empty five-storey office block in Brixton Road in protest at housing shortage.

A Lambeth Family Squatters Group quickly developed, housing mainly families stuck in overcrowded or badly repaired homes or waiting for council housing.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with its local Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognising they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurise people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organised resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too  – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

Lambeth Self-Help, like many ‘70s housing co-ops, slowly evolved from a DIY activist group towards a larger more bureaucratic set-up. By 1977 they had a paid workforce of ten; by the 1990s they were managing hundreds of homes, often Council street properties that had been in poor nick. They housed many people over the years, but like many such groups, some of the people who ran the group were either power-mad or corrupt on a small scale. Abraham Korten, who evolved to become LSH’s supremo, became a notorious power-monger; just one example being how he attempted to persuade the Council to hand over Rushcroft Road and other shortlife properties to LSH in 1999, without even consulting the Rushcroft Road residents themselves. At other times, leading co-op activists secured large properties for themselves ahead of other needy members…

As noted by an observer elsewhere: “The squatting movement of the 1970s contained a number of middle class activists… it tended to be these people who became most active in organising short-life groups and co-ops to negotiate deals with local councils… Large shortlife organizations… gradually developed a bureaucratic structure run mainly by (these) middle class professionals, who were quick to recognise a new job market for their class… Housing activists who were willing to function as an extension of the local state housing bureaucracy were soon to be seen doing the council’s dirty work.”
(anonymous leaflet, circulated within Shortlife Community Housing, (a Camden Housing Co-op) reprinted in No Reservations, 1988.)

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton; St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St all in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell… and  many more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions, Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions… and many more. Many of these squat nexi became housing co-ops and some survive in that form today. And 100s of other squats existed, on their own or in ones and twos, with 1000s of flats on estates also being squatted.

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up…  Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In may cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Many buildings were occupied for social centres, housing a dizzying spectacle of alternative projects and community spaces. There was a social centre/ squatters advice at 119 Railton Road next door around 1973-4, part of a large Frontline squatting (a Railton Road squatters group was still going in 1975). The radical People’s News Service operated from no 119.

The shopfronts (since demolished) at no 78-80 Railton Rd, in front of the St George’s Residences, included a squatted Claimants Union office, the South London Gay Centre and a women’s space, around 1974-6…

Communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were set up…

Young, Gifted and Homeless

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ was in Vining Street (and was attacked by racists in August 1983).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Black magazine Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Some of the black Squatters’ actions had longer term effects than anyone could have foreseen. In January 1973, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, two black women squatting in a flat above a disused laundry at 121 Railton Road, were illegally evicted by agents of the private landlords. They broke back in, only to be dragged out by 5 cops; Olive however escaped the filth, climbed back in and spent several hours on the roof, supported by a crowd of people outside. There was some scuffling between cops and this group, and black youth worker, Ivan Madray, was nicked; (in the way recuperation gets ya, he was later one of the “community leaders’ discredited during the riots in April 1981, accused of collusion with the police.)

The council and cops failed to get her down with offers of accommodation, and they eventually left. She re-occupied the flat, staying there for ages. Later Sabaar Collective took over the building for a black bookshop; when they left in 1980, anarchists who had used Sabaar as a postal address squatted the building, founding the 121 Bookshop, which squatted there for 19 years, getting evicted in 1999.

Olive Morris had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager; women were vocal and active in the Movement. As a result tensions had arisen, and women activists had begun to meet and discuss the problems; as a result a sense of the need to organise separately developed. As part of this process Olive was later a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, the Brixton Black Women’s Centre and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent; she was a fearless fighter against the powers that be. She died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Lambeth in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department (recently demolished).

Villa Victory

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups –  one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help.  Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect.  The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor Terrace, Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…There was a plan for a demo when the Queen came to visit on 30 June 1977: what happened? Hope she had a torrid jubilee visit…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers.

Fighting off the wreckers in St Agnes Place, January 1977. The child in her mother’s arms would go on to fight Lambeth taking the street till 2005…!

In St Agnes Place, squatters had first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses, although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. These houses remained squatted for decades, to be finally evicted and demolished in 2005.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with Trotskyist Ted Knight, a and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Brixton Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist Policing, Resistance & Black Power in 1970s Brixton

Part 2 of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

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“It is no exaggeration to say that thousands and thousands of young blacks have grown up in British society having little contact with any other section of British society but the police and courts. They have developed in the shadow of the SPG, the Vice Squad, the Flying Squad, the Starskys and Hutches of the panda car brigade, the Old Bailey, Inner London Sessions etc.” (Race Today, 1982)

In the early 1960s, Brixton experienced a swelling of the West Indian population, mainly in the form of the children of the first generation, who had begun to settle in the area from the late 1940s. Numbers of the original migrants had left young kids in the Caribbean, with relatives, partly thinking they would soon be returning from the UK. For most, forced into low paid jobs, any thought of saving up and moving back were largely scuppered. The ’50s had been a time of sparse isolation and discrimination for many, and the expense of sending money back home for support was biting. Gradually many came round to the idea of bringing their offspring over; an added urgency was given by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The Act aimed to restrict non-white migration into Britain by setting quotas for workers with particular skills or lack of them; basically it was aimed at West Indians and Asians. As economic boom times began to come to an end, fears were being whipped up about competition for jobs.

Many young Afro-Caribbeans then arrived here around this time, often just coming into teenage years or a bit older. Many couldn’t get school places, or went into very different schools when they arrived; older ones found it hard to get work. The experiences they had, in education, on the dole, with the police, were to create a generation that began to go beyond mere existence, survival, endurance, and fight back…

The Coach and Horses pub, Coldharbour Lane, the earliest Black-owned pub in Brixton, & its owner George Berry, after a racist firebomb attack.

Racial harassment was a daily occurrence for Brixton’s black community in the fifties. “In those days, there was a lot of racism was the teddy boys. I used to work in Effra Road, and one day I was going to work and it was very foggy. I knew these chaps behind me were white. The one of the came up alongside me and felt my hair. My hair was straightened at the time, and he said, ‘This one’s hair feels white, so leave her alone.’ Then one of them shouted, ‘There’s a nigger over there.’ Whoever it was, she really got some kicks – you could hear her screaming. But things like this helped us to band together. We were all West Indians! When the teddy boys beat up a Black person from another island, some people would wait until a white person came into our area, pick up the milk bottles and beat them up. It was vicious but they were desperate times.”

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation, hitting West Indian families in the large crumbling Victorian homes in areas like Brixton.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm. Others stuck their heads above the parapet. In March 1958, the West Indian Gazette was founded in Brixton. Their office was above Theo Campbell’s record shop at 250 Brixton rd, and later at 13 Station Avenue (now Station Road). It was founded by Claudia Jones, a communist deported from the US, and Amy Ashwood, widow of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The Gazette was produced monthly, with very limited resources, though supported by international Black communist superstar Paul Robeson and other black radicals. The paper covered race relations, discrimination, police harassment, campaigning all the time for equality for the new migrants, but in the context of a wider sense of social change and justice… It was Claudia Jones, who did most of the work, as manager, editor, main writer and fundraiser.

Claudia had been born in Trinidad in 1915, moving with her family to Harlem in 1926. Claudia grew up in poverty, facing racism and inequality, which led her into a life of campaigning and journalism. In 1936 she joined the US Young Communist League, a hugely brave step when even the CP was heavily chauvinistic. Claudia became Negro Affairs Editor on the US edition of the CP paper the Daily Worker, and became involved in campaigning on wage freezes, voting rights, lynching, poll tax, women’s conscription… she was imprisoned on several occasions. As a result of her sterling work in the land of the free she was deported in 1955, and chose to come to Britain. On arrival she joined the Communist Party here, (though she had a fractious relationship with the party, being sidelined and virtually ignored – the CPGB was even more racially backward than its US counterpart) and set to work campaigning here for the same causes… As well as setting up the Gazette, she became active in the Coloured People’s Progressive Association, and also helped to set up first Notting Hill Carnival in 1959. Claudia sadly died too young in 1964 aged 49. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

SUS and SPG

As early as the 1960s, police attitudes towards local black people were openly hostile, and this expressed itself in violent persecution. Police openly labelled their operations against black people in Brixton ‘nigger hunting’.

“If things go on like it is going on now, twenty years time, or forty years time, our children may be marching from Liverpool and Birmingham coming to London singing ‘We Shall Overcome’…” Nameless Jamaican, during a 1964 conversation in Brixton about prejudice and the US civil rights struggle. Quoted in Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion‘).

It took less than 20 years, and they weren’t singing we shall overcome…

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids.  The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…” Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.” In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

In Brixton, to this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

National Front paperseller in Brixton

At least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Loughborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road  – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewisham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

State Paid Gangsters

“War…War… All we doin’ is defendin’…”
Linton Kwesi Johnson

On top of the day-to-day community policing of the type just described, Lambeth and Brixton in particular was regularly graced by large-scale invasions of the Special Patrol Group (later re-branded the Territorial Support Group or TSG, after its operations had aroused massive outrage); basically the paramilitary unit responsible for large operations and responding to/policing public order situations.

“Between 1975 and 1979 there were six attacks by the SPG on the people of Lambeth.  Every time the same general pattern was followed – roadblocks, early morning raids and random street checks. In 1978 over half the total strength of the SPG, 120 officers, supplemented by 30 extra officers from Scotland yard were drafted into the Lambeth police area because of its alleged ‘high crime rate’. Over 1000 people were stopped on the streets and 430 people arrested; 40% of those arrested were black, more than double the estimated black population of the local community. The SPG operation was concentrated around four housing estates, all with high black populations.”

On top of this several CID, Serious Crimes Squad, Flying Squad and Fraud Squad officers would be drafted in to take part in operations. SPG activities were heavily influenced by policing tactics in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Occasionally SPG could be seen walking the streets, eyeing up black people and hanging around outside squats and blues clubs; more often they cruised the streets in their transits, up and down the Frontline, stopping cars and searching, setting up roadblocks, swooping onto estates, hauling in groups of kids under ‘sus’, raiding, intimidating. One SPG operation centred around an alleged Bomb Squad car that had been stolen and supposedly pursued to Railton road. The area was sealed off. More than 30 police, including the Bomb and Anti-Terrorist Squads, were involved. Although the official story was that there were detonators in the car for controlled explosions, is was widely suspected at the time that this was in fact a dry run for a counter-insurgency operation. Many SPG ops at the time consisted in no small part of low-level intelligence gathering, ie collection of names, addresses, details, of people who for one reason or another the police believed to be suspicious.

Grandiose claims were made for the SPG’s affect in reducing street crime, the main excuse given for their presence. Figures were bandied about, Reports issued, but little real hard evidence could ever by brought to bear. The anger the squad’s heavy-handed tactics created built up throughout the decade. Across the country, the SPG were increasingly being used to police (attack) strikes & demonstrations; they had evolved from an anti-crime unit into a paramilitary force. Police methods in Brixton more and more seemed to be the actions of an occupying army against the local people. And this wasn’t just a Conspiracy theory  – that’s how the cops themselves saw things.

Commander Adams hit the nail on the head when asked (on TV) about an SPG operation in Brixton: “No good general ever declares his forces in a prelude to any kind of attack.”

As an ex-police officer revealed: “You are told that you are the Law, you control the streets, you don’t give way to others. You make them give way. You’ve got to demonstrate your authority.” The police believed for many years in Brixton that they were involved in a war for control of the streets – a view mirrored on the other side. A statement from a social worker claimed (around 1979-80) that “When talking to these young people one gets the impression of guerrilla – young people believe they are winning the war.”

Raids got worse when the SPG came to town: “During November 1978, when the SPG were in Brixton, the activities of the Youth Project were severely affected. Our chief club night, on Thursdays, was reduced to a handful of attending members. Through January and February, it recovered to the usual 100 mark.”

SPG operations in 1973-5 led to the creation of Lambeth Campaign Against Police Repression; in 1978, All-Lambeth Anti Racist Movement, the Black Parents Against SUS, the Trades Council, the Anti-Nazi League and other groups campaigned against the SPG presence, culminating in a demo through Brixton In November ’78.

If there was a war going on for the control of the streets, clearly Brixton Police/the SPG saw community spaces and youth centres as an extension of the battleground. The effect of continuing attacks on clubs drove more young people ONTO the street, where confrontations were increasing.

… And the Resistance

“those days of the truncheon and those nights,
of melancholy locked in a cell…
were well numbered,
and are now at an end…

All we doin’ is defendin’…”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

“The revolt of Brixton’s young blacks against the police did not begin when the media and the rest of British society discovered it on the weekend of April 10th to April 13th [1981]. In the last ten years, young blacks in Brixton engaged the local police in minor skirmishes, organised protests, violent street confrontations and hand-to-hand fighting in youth clubs and other social haunts. Add to these the string of one to one incidents, characterised by the hostility and violent outbursts of the participants. Much of this history has taken place behind the backs of the rest of British society, often unrecorded.”
(Race Today, 1982)

From the late 1960s on, this constant war between black youth and the police was fought not just physically, but politically. In November 1969, black people protested in the market, after a Nigerian diplomat was attacked and arrested by Brixton Police (who accused him of nicking his own car, an old old tactic familiar to any black person who dared to own a vehicle); predictably, the rozzers steamed into this demo: “three brothers and a sister were again beaten, one of them (Bro Tex) received a broken arm.” Olive Morris (later a Black Panther) had been arrested during the diplomat’s own arrest.

Many first generation West Indians who moved into Brixton, responded to racism, police attacks, discrimination, by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) “Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.”  (Race Today, 1982)

Many young blacks opted not to enter into crap low paid jobs,  even if they could beat the constant low-level racism of employers; but drifted into permanent unemployment, and the street life that was increasingly taking over central Brixton.

This rebellious generation produced community organisations that gathered the anger in the area together and forged it into a weapon.

Earlier organisations had taken on institutional racism – the League of Coloured People, etc… In the mid-1960s, a number of groups had federated to form the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), but the alliance of older black organisations, newer and more radical groups, had foundered on political differences, soon splintering.

“What the Black panther movement did initially was to give people, mostly the children of working immigrants, a place to belong, an identity and a feeling that we are a force; we are somebody, we are a dimension in the world, we’re not just somebody’s servants.”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Younger black activists were increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, CARD and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967 by Nigerian playwright and poet Obi Egbuna in Stoke Newington, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. The UCPA politicised black young people through meetings and study groups. Ogi Egbuna had been a speaker at Speakers Corner: “he was also giving these kind of militant speeches at Hyde Park Corner. We were quite impressed, we thought, ‘At last somebody is standing up and, you know, not just taking it, not just taking the crap.’ “ (Farrukh Dhondy).

Egbuna had travelled in the US and met some of the Black Panthers there. Heavily influenced by Marxism, he stressed the importance of an international struggle against capitalism, as a part of the global struggle against racial oppression. In a speech from 1967 at Trafalgar Square, London, Egbuna stated: “Black Power means simply that the black of this world are to liquidate capitalist oppression of black people wherever it exists by any means necessary”.

The UCPA’s early activity focused around support for the struggles in Rhodesia, Vietnam, liberation struggles in Africa, and the Chinese Cultural revolution… At home it became increasingly active around police racism and harassment. In 1969 the Association held a black poser rally against ‘organised police brutality’ in Brixton, as well as joining in protests against paki-bashing in the East End. While not directly advocating violence except in self-defence against racist attacks, UCPA speakers did urge direct action to paralyse the economy. Roy Sawah, in a speech 1968 at Speaker’s Corner, urged “coloured nurses to give wrong injections to patients, coloured bus crews not to take the fare of black people and Indian restaurant owners to ‘put something in the curry’.”

Speakers denounced ‘white devils’, ‘anglo-saxon swine’ and the like, and were prosecuted… Egbuna himself later that year ended up in prison accused of threatening to kill police and certain politicians – charges that were dismissed when it came to court. They had been prosecuted under the new Race Relations Act – ironically at a time of increased racist attacks and violent incitement against black people. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. He wasn’t prosecuted (though he was sacked from the tory government).

The UCPA only lasted from 1967 to 1971. It foundered on the lack of a unifying idea of its purpose. “Within that single organisation, there were members who believed that the answer to the black man’s problem lay in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and there were others who felt it lay in the Black man going to the House of Lords; there were some who saw themselves as part of the international Black revolution, and there was a faction who believed that the Black man in this country should concern himself only with what goes on in this country… in short, it became all too clear that what we had was not one movement, but movements within a movement.” (Egbuna).

Egbuna resigned from the UCPA, together with others dissatisfied with the disunity of the group he formed the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the  British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the dissolving UCPA.

The Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

Education, self-education, was at the heart of the movement. “The Black Panther movement wanted first to educate black people, you know, let them know where they’re from. In those days people like my parents, you know, that generation didn’t believe that they came from Africa… deep down they believed but they just cut that off… in schools, like in my school, Tulse Hill here… we had history from 1066 and the Normans and the Stuarts… but there was no history about Africa, how we as black people left Africa and end up in the Caribbean and America into slavery… So the Black Panther movment wanted to educate people about where they from and their culture, and they also wanted to tell us about capitalism, and communism, and socialism… why we work as slaves, why slavery was abolished…”

Increasing educational opportunities for local black children was one of their most practical activities:

“We had a Saturday school. During that Saturday school, the parents had a chance to do other things. They were very happy to have us. We were so idealistic. We’d go and collect the children and take them off their parents’ hands all day. We would feed them. I still see some of the parents of those children. They were very grateful for that. I don’t know how supportive they were of us but they certainly tolerated us. I think they understood what we were trying to do. I think those were the first supplementary schools. After that they became increasingly institutionalised.”  (Beverley Bryan)

Beverley Bryan, a teacher at Santley Street primary School in Brixton’s Acre Lane, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to become a pre-eminent dub poet, were two of the early panthers particularly involved in the supplementary education classes, often held at 38 Shakespeare Road – picking up Black kids from their homes, holding classes in english, maths, black history, drama, and more…

Groups of black activists formed Black Studies groups, sometimes in schools: “We went to the Head and asked her to let us set up a Black Studies debating society. She was really shocked and upset by it all. She kept saying, ‘But why, we’re all one here.’ So we went off to join the Black Studies programme at Tulse Hill School, until she gave in. That’s we began to come into our own. We started with the black berets and carried it through, right down to black socks and shoes! That’s also when I went to my first Black meeting. I heard a Black woman there, and I was really impressed with her. Seeing a Black woman up there on the platform made me feel even more enthusiastic.”

Such groups fed into the Panthers; while the debating society at Tulse Hill School drew pupils Linton Kwesi Johnson into the Party youth section, after Panther leader and lawyer Althea Jones-Lecointe came to speak to a debate.

The Black People’s Information Centre

“Well in those days black people wouldn’t be allowed to meet in public places like the Town Hall in Brixton, and other public places, so the only way they could meet is if they were to meet in their own homes. So the Panthers decode to buy the building…”

Barred from meeting in most public spaces or buildings, the party moved into 38 Shakespeare Road, a 3-story building they had managed to buy, with help from donations; some of it money given by sympathetic left figures: “leftwing intellectuals, you know, like Vanessa Redgrave was a donor”. The party also had a HQ in North London, a building in Barnsbury Road, which was replaced later by a house in Seven Sisters, 37 Tollington Park, bought with money given by author John Berger.

The Panthers also regularly met and organised social events at Oval House, the arts centre in Kennington Oval.

To understand who I am

“I had the idea, right at the beginning, that culture was the only way out of this mission to complain. The mission to complain was, you know, ‘we are poor, sad blacks, beaten down, you discriminate against us, racism, racism, racism, complaint, complaint, complaint”, and that wouldn’t end until one said ‘Look, forget about the sadness, here’s what I can do.’ We could have an intellectual culture, and I’ve always thought that was the way forward…”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Militant as it was, Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups… The cultural element helped to draw people in, but also participation in the movement opened people’s eyes to their own cultural heritage, as Linton Kwesi Johnson relates:

“My real interest in poetry began when I joined the Black Panthers. Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature, because going to school here I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that black people wrote books.

In the Black Panthers they had a library and all of a sudden I discovered all these wonderful books written by black people. One book in particular was a book called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ written by an African American scholar by the name of W.E.B DuBois. And this book was not a book of poems, it was prose, but it was a very poetic prose and the language was very moving, And that book just stimulated my interest in poetry, and made me went to discover more poetry, and made me want to try and articulate in verse how I felt, and how the black youth of my generation felt about our experiences growing in this racially hostile environment.

I learnt a lot about my culture and I was able to locate myself in the world, and to understand myself more fully. Who I am, where I am coming from, and why I am where I am now.”

Here to stay, here to fight

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists  – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into the Black Panthers.

A notable campaign was launched in November 1970, in support of Joshua Francis, a middle aged West Indian, whose house in Brixton was invaded by four white men, one an off-duty cop, who beat him up so he needed 30 stitches; upon which the police arrived and nicked Francis for assault (for which he was later sentenced to nine months inside).

Danny Dacosta and Neil Kenlock, who were taking on the role of movement photographers, in fact had to sneak into the hospital past the police, to take pictures of Francis’ injuries.

In contrast to most previous cases of police violence, the mould of silence was broken: Joshua Francis’ case was taken up, and made into a high profile Joshua Francis Defence Committee, later renamed the Black People’s Defence Committee, which met at the Brixton Neighbourhood Centre, at 1 Mayall Road, bringing together black community activists from the more moderate flank as well as strong presence from the Black Panthers, the Black Unity & Freedom Party and others. The Committee organised demonstrations in central Brixton, as well as fundraising for Francis and his family, and later similar cases of police violence.

And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants’ and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In 1970 four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by Sgt. Ridgewell,  at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested.

Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment

However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Apart from state repression and everyday police hassle of this kind, the Panthers also experienced its unofficial reflection – the racist attack. In 1973 the group squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, Freedom News and so on.

“So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building… So [we] put in toilets and showers and we made it decent.” (Farrukh Dhondy). Dhondy and two others were living in the building as well as the bookshop. “On 15th March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking…. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick…” Dhondy managed to jump out of the building in his underwear: “by that time some neighbours had had gone and called the people at Shakespeare road… and they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he put a coat around me… The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass.”

Five other similar targets had been fire-bombed that night, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another. “the police never did anything about it.” Shock. “the place was a shell, it was burnt out.”

Inevitably the constant repression had its effects: membership of the Panthers dwindled.

“it was like a meteor. It just rose and then by 1973 it had just fallen apart. Some people went to prison. At those demonstrations some people were picked out by the police and there were trials. We had big trials, publicity trials, which we attended. There were also smaller cases where people would get nine months. So people were getting records out of that period and people were beginning to ask questions.” (Beverley Bryan)

The Panthers evolved into the Black Workers’ Movement, around 1973; part of the impetus for this was a change in some people’s analysis of how class and race fitted together, and a developing Marxist consciousness: “The Black Workers Movement were organised around issues to do with racism within the workplace: equal opportunities, equal promotion, equal pay and so on…” Not only fighting the employers, but also in many cases, fighting to get recognition from established trade unions here, many of whose members saw black workers as a threat to pay, and conditions, thinking they would drive them down through competition. “So we had to fight, for example, to get ourselves into the trade union movement, and to be involved… and to build solidarity with white working class people…” (LKJ)

Though the BWM later fizzled out around 1975, in hindsight, some saw the Panthers and BWM as a movement that had served its purpose, that its decline allowed people to move on to other projects and stages of the battle. But others do point out that some of the groups taking a direction towards co-operation with white working class or left organisations didn’t carry a big section of the early activists with them; people who had come in to a black power movement, and saw white working class support for Enoch Powell, the National Front, or how trade unions etc had excluded black people, weren’t always convinced of this new turn, that this was where black people’s interests lay.

The Race Today office

Among the other Black organisations and spaces that arose in the 1970s, there was the Collective around the magazine Race Today. Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), became a strong voice in the 1970s and ’80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

Living above Race Today from 1981 till his death in 1989 was a man who had a most powerful influence in its politics: CLR James, (Darcus Howe’s uncle), Trinidadian Marxist, writer, and cricket correspondent! Politically he had moved through anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism to Trotskyism. During the 1930s he wrote the classic ‘The Black Jacobins’, about the 1790s Caribbean revolutionaries who fought off the Brits, the French and the Spanish.  James broke with Trotskyism when he rejected Trotsky’s ludicrous theory of the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerated workers state’. Gradually he had come to reject the idea of a vanguardist party, and was more enthusiastic over autonomous struggles developing among oppressed minorities and encouraged support for black nationalism.

James exercised a practical influence on some of the Panthers: “We used to write all this stuff [in Freedom News], theoretical stuff, in the magazine, about… what black people or immigrants in Britain need and so on, and one day Darcus brought his uncle, CLR James, to the meeting and James said, ‘Who is it, writes all this newspaper…. Why are you writing all this theoretical stuff, nobody cares for that. Why don’t you write about what you do?’ Then he asked somebody in the room, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m a bus conductor.’… ‘What goes on at the garage? …What disputes are there? What fights are there? What day-to day stuff goes on?… Write about that, it’ll instruct people.’ …” (Farrukh Dhondy)

Like the Black Panthers, the Black Unity and Freedom Party emerged from the earlier Universal Coloured People’s Association (after the Panthers had splintered off, the core of the surviving UCPA forming the BUFP). Although stronger in the early ’70s in other parts of London – notably Peckham – and in Manchester, the BUFP also had a presence in Brixton, and unlike the Panthers, survived the period,  continuing their activity into the 1990s at least. Founded in 1970, (45 Fairmount Road in Brixton Hill was an early contact address) the BUFP adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology – unlike the UK Panthers, they “sought more actively to work with white radical groups than most black groups did, not because they were white but because these groups shared or had similar ideological orientations as the group, that is to say, they placed the emphasis on class, not colour/race or gender.” Whereas the Black Panther Movement ‘placed the emphasis on cultural awareness and the unity of all blacks, and were therefore regarded  –  using the American term popular at the time  –  as ‘cultural nationalists’.  This meant that African history, culture, dress, hairstyle and so forth were of predominant importance to them.  So too were events in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World.

Looking back, ex-members could see how this manifested in a more rigid format:

We were much more Marxist and we had a different ideology. Our discussions would be about the Russian Revolution and about things which were completely alien really to who we were… We chose Russia and then China as the way. Whereas the Panthers didn’t have that much of a Maoist ideology.” (Leila Howe).

Perhaps the difference in emphasis partly explains why the Panthers had largely fragmented by the mid-70s, and the BUFP lasted a couple of decades longer; a question Harry Goulbourne considers in Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain. ‘Cultural nationalism’ perhaps had a stronger appeal at the time, but its susceptability to being co-opted, funded, and institutionalised by the leftwing element of the local state was maybe much greater than the more uncompromising class positions of the BUFP. Did the latter survive by refusing to be gradually assimilated into the local authority-GLC supported hinterland? But on the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes the most exciting and forward thinking projects do rise up and collapse quickly; there’s a role for refusing to concrete yourself into a long, rigid existence, but instead moving on to other battles and pushing new boundaries.

The BUFP were still going in Brixton in the 1990s, still involved in community organising, for instance in the Orville Blackwood Community Campaign around 1993-4, protesting the killing of local man in a mental health prison and supporting similar cases.

The onslaught of government funds

Hand in hand with the stick of state repression, came the carrot of state funding:  “The government had unveiled their Urban Aid program in 1968, at first, without much impact. Slowly, they filtered small sums of money into the black community, aimed, they said, at ameliorating the problems of young blacks. The programme was conceived in the home office Children’s Department, and its major thrust was the social control of young blacks in revolt. The funds cascaded, eventually, under the Inner City Partnership and the Community Relations Self-Help programme. Millions of pounds have been poured into the black communities. By 1973, these radical Black Power organisations, now considerably weakened by state repression, crumbled before this onslaught of government funds. Young cadres, once headed for the Panthers, now gathered around government financed projects. Organisations, which were once autonomous and politically vibrant, were now transformed into welfare agencies which extended the crippling welfare state into every area of the black existence.”
(Race Today)

A plethora of black organisations emerged in Brixton, some operating in complete rebellion against what they saw as racist white society, some attempting to make their way within the existing structures, and numerous shades of opinion in between. Many eventually gained recognition, and official funding from either Lambeth Council, the GLC, or other bodies. This caused its own problems and dilemmas: there’s no doubt many worthwhile projects survived longer and expanded, doing much useful local work, through these grants. There’s also no doubt that it caused fierce divisions (as Race Today‘s comments, below, illustrate); council funding did tend to handicap activity that challenged the council, eg on its policies regarding black people, re housing, jobs etc., as well as the thorny questions of who gets the money, and who doesn’t – not in itself unconnected to class relations and ambitions within the black community. But another abyss remained, that autonomous projects that started with nothing, became used to operating with state handouts, and was in many cases unable to carry on or return to a hand to mouth existence when the moneybelts tightened. This applied across the board, with black, women’s, gay projects, and much more. It is also however true that the funding often ceased in the 80s or 90s, when wider change had overtaken many of these schemes – their struggle to survive was as much about a radically altering social landscape, with a gradual decline in the hope and grassroots autonomy that the 60s and especially the 70s has seen spring up.

Just some of the local alternative/radical black groups that emerged in Brixton specifically included Melting Pot, whose squatted HQ in Vining Street helped hundreds of black youth to squat locally among other projects; the black radical bookshop, Sabaar Books, which initially ran as a squat at 121 Railton Road in the late 1970s, then in 1981 moving to 378 Coldharbour Lane, having gained council funding.

There was also the Abeng Community Centre, in Gresham Road, which is still there. In the late seventies, the Abeng hosted an important national conference of black women. It was the first such event of its kind, which hundreds attended.

Later, in the 80s, there was Meridian Bookshop, at 58 Railton Road, another Black bookshop, and the Ujamaa Centre at 14 Brixton Road…

“Three paces behind the men”

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The UCPA had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late 60s and early 70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’ oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 70s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was a influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and so on…

Black women pioneers included the legendary Olive Morris, who had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. Fro it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of the Nigerian the police were harassing (mentioned above), was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabaar Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Olive Morris climbing into the back of 121 Railton Road, from the cover of the Squatters Handbook

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out. The building was then re-squatted by others and was used as a black bookshop…’ 121 was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when the anarchist centre was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)

Initially the Panther leadership was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…”

After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, (based at 121, then 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to Stockwell Green).

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…

We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s Group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

Later on Olive went to study in Manchester, where she also became heavily involved in community organising and student politics, and visited China – like many of the early Black power activists (and white leftists too!) she was heavily influenced by admiration for the Chinese revolution (as well as ‘national liberation’ movements in the developing world).

Olive died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Hundreds of people came to her memorial ceremony a few weeks later, testimony to the impact she had on people’s lives.

Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department. An insult to her memory? A radical remembered by a Bureaucratic Hellhole, where many of us have withered many weary days trying to get them to sort out our HB claims… Ironically, however, this was one of Olive’s battlegrounds: “The first time Olive made a real impression on me was during my early days in the Movement. It was on a demonstration of residents from the the tenants concerning housing conditions – there had been a lot of fires Ferndale Road flats. Beverley Bryan and Olive had been working with in the flats caused by the use of paraffin heaters and the tenants were demanding that the Council install some form of heating. A demonstration of about 30 tenants made up mainly of women and children, together with members of the Movement, set off one weekday morning from the
flats in Ferndale Road to the Housing Office on Brixton Hill. It was the first demonstration I’d been on. When we reached the Housing Office the tenants demanded to see the Head of Housing to discuss the issues and were told by the housing office staff that this would not be possible and we were to leave the premises or they would call the police. The tenants were unsure about what to do next until Olive spoke to the women and told them that, yes, we
would leave the premises but that they should leave the children behind, saying that if the Council would not meet with them then the Council had better look after their children because it was not safe to take them back home. The women were naturally nervous about this course of
action as they feared the Council would take their children into care but after further persuasion from Olive they agreed to do so and all the adults left the building leaving the children in the care of the Housing office staff. We were not outside the offices for more than ten minutes
before the head of the housing office agreed to come and meet with the demonstrators and the outcome was that the issue of heating provision would be looked into as a priority.” (Liz Obi)

(This building was actually demolished in 2020) The small park in Myatts Fields estate also named after Olive was a slightly less ‘orrible memorial, though it has now been destroyed by the building of a new health centre.)

Dem a Black Petty Booshwah?

dem wi´ side wid oppressah
w´en di goin´ get ruff
side wid aggressah
w´en di goin´ get tuff

dem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flawdem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flaw……..

dem a seek posishan
aaf di backs of blacks
seek promoshan
aaf di backs af blacks…

(Linton Kwesi Johnson, Di Black Petty Booshwah)

A whole subculture of state funded black organisations sprang up, according to some observers forming a buffer layer, attempting to impose quiet solutions on the rebellious youth. In Brixton as elsewhere, elderly conservative self-appointed ‘community leaders’ took the queen’s shilling to ‘keep the peace’, ie channel anger and reaction into complaints to MPs, cases to corrupt solicitors, to dissolve rebellion. Race Today condemned them roundly:

“Failed business men and women of the older generation, they have sought social elevation by way of government grants; ruthless in their fraudulent acquisition of government funds for personal use; official society needs them and is willing to use them.  And then, there are the born again blacks who are distinguishable from the mass of blacks by educational attainment. Plunged into the fiercely competitive world of the meritocracy, they cry racial discrimination at the slightest opportunity in order to cover up their individual inadequacies, “they sound radical enough, but on close inspection their hostility to the white working class disguises an even greater hostility to its black counterpart._ Instead of campaigning against police repression, they sat on Police Liaison Committees, but ” It is the most vulgar whitewash. The police representatives are not representing the police and black representatives are not representing the black community. It is merely a cloak to cover up the continuing escalation of the struggle”.

But it’s also fair to say that one decade’s radical can easily be the next outbreak’s respected community leader, co-opted by the police or the Council to help pacify rebellious youth (the next generation…) Early 70s Brixton activists turned up as effective mouthpieces for the police in 1981.

Though repression had been a factor in the demise of Brixton’s Black Panthers, internal divisions had also played its part. Apart from the tensions between men and women (see above), some former Panthers pointed out that class divisions had always been present in the organisation. A number of the founders had been children of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, some of whom had come here a it older, to study; some of these did have a tendency to see themselves as an intellectual leadership, heading up a larger mainly working class membership. “It was started by these middle class children from the Commonwealth and they only came here to get a degree so that they could go back to get very god jobs in their country… So the Black Panther Movement wanted a revolution, but of course, we couldn’t do a revolution in this country… once we were educated and get to a level to understand the system, people wanted to go further, and those middle class children didn’t want to go any further, because they had their jobs to go back to, you know, they had their life cut out for them unlike us who were left here being a plumber, bricklayer, whatever… So they just said look, we don’t want this anymore, and they just went back to their posh position, in Jamaica, in Soto, in India… and that is why it dissolved.”

Tensions had grown up between leadership and membership, sometimes over what seems like disapproval and ‘morality’, attempts to control the behaviour of some of the members, over issues like sex: “you have to be very careful you do not become what you’re fighting against… They [the central committee] would summon people from the organisation who were kissing in the back of Shakespeare Road, and have them before the central committee and suspend them… The youth group, within the panthers, were always very hostile to the central committee…” Some of the core leaders left, partly in opposition to  ‘kangaroo courts’ of members for what seems like either sleeping with the wrong people, or of being too interested in sex.

According to another ex-member: “you know the idea of young people who are doing all the kind of grassroots work but you also had the leadership, they start to fight amongst themselves…”

Another factor was the pressure to increasing militancy. The glamour of the US Panthers, who had made a great play of going armed, wearing uniforms, posing with guns, in military formation and giving themselves grandiose titles, exercised a strong pull; understandable, perhaps, when back people were facing attacks and police repression (though the fate of the US Panthers,  large numbers of who were shot and killed, and hundreds jailed, would show that it is difficult to take on a highly organised and militarised state on its own terms in this way… not to speak of the elitist, macho and authoritarian dead end you can end up). “Some of the young people in the movement wanted to turn militant like the IRA… some of them wanted to wear berets and uniforms… they wanted to arm themselves with guns and raid places… A guy called Wesley… he got hold of two other guys who were on the fringes of the movement, they got hold of guns and they held up a Knightsbridge Spaghetti House on a Friday afternoon (wages day)…” After a six-day siege, with the three armed men (calling themselves the Black Liberation Army) inside, holding several hostages, they were forced to surrender and received long sentences (17, 18 and 21 years each). Allegedly the money they hoped to seize was intended for the setting up of a black school (at least one of the men had been involved in the panthers supplementary schools program.) The fallout from this event also helped to disillusion Panther Party members about the work they were doing.

With the collapse of the BPP, some ex-members allege both of the buildings owned by the party fell into the hands of leading members, in whose name it had been registered legally, who took personal control of it… “Two of the central committee people… we didn’t even know they’d bought houses where we had parties and changed it to their own names and they took it. They’re still renting one, the one in Shakespeare they sold.”

Many of the Race Today collective also went on to do very well for themselves – eg Farrukh Dhondy, even LKJ and Darcus Howe, became very successful cultural figures and/or pundits in themselves. Farrukh Dhondy also sees a consistent trajectory in the early 70s activism and later work inside the cultural establishment. Which is obviously debatable! Was there a difference between the path they took and that taken by some of the less prominent organisations around Brixton that grew up in the 70s? There’s a measure of truth in the accusation that black groups ‘took the man’s money’ and sold out – but another way of looking at it is that they survived into a harsher economic era, became stable, and used some of those state/GLC/local authority grants in ways that did enable lots of grassroots and radical projects to make more space and autonomy for people. If some grants did buy off radicalism and temper anti-council actions; others used that cash to carry on the struggles they were involved in., for as long as the money lasted.

A more pertinent question might also be; who got the money, who controlled the purse-strings? Class, self-confidence, the ability to work the system, knowing your way around the knotty corridors of funding applications, played a part in how certain groups and individuals ‘rose’ in those years. As did a certain amount of lefty back-scratching; witness the connections at grassroots between Labour activists, community activists, some black radicals and feminists, even squatters (or more accurately, a section of all these), in the early ’70s. Grassroots links in the early ’70s evolved into networks of power in 1980s/90s inside councils, the Labour Party, the charitable and NGO sectors…

Activists shared not only demos and meetings, but also a language, and often a perception of the world and how things worked. If moderation as you get older, or a more realpolitik approach, is somewhat inevitable, those connections can also help the right people find comfortable niches in the structures that they began by fighting… To some extent people see this as achieving something of the change they demanded (and in small ways this may even be true); but change sometimes means only change for YOURSELF. For those without the connections, much of daily life remains the same.

The moderation of aging, being convinced that compromise sometimes can allow you to do some good, the urge to get on, ambition for a cushier number, simply being tired of constant aggro or unpaid social work – the offers of what seem like useful positions on police consultative committees – many factors draw people from one side of a barricade to another. It happens gradually in most cases, people are often not aware of the shift in their own dynamic; though Race Today weren’t wrong to point out that some people are always out to rise on the backs of others.

Living on the frontline

The Black Panthers may have succumbed to police repression and internal tensions; but their militant and organised opposition to the police reflected, and itself, influenced, the culture that had grown up, a culture based in the street and the blues clubs of the Frontline; a culture of opposition to the repressive machinery of the state and largely of disregard to the traditions of employment and respect for the Law, work and ‘getting on’ in life.

As the economic recession hardened, young people of all colours increasingly saw less and less hope in ‘the system’_; for black people especially even the promise of dead end jobs vapourised. The strong street culture that the first West Indian migrants had recreated in the 50s grew and grew, until it became the dominant hallmark of the area – a constant to and fro of young blacks, hanging out, dealing, talking, playing heavy dub, smoking spliffs and drinking.

Increasing numbers of people hanging out on the streets increased the number of confrontations with the filth, who could be relied on not to be major fans of this type of streetlife. Each skirmish wound the tension up a notch.

There was the case of the Railton 4, arrested in Railton Road in June 1971, and brutally assaulted by the police; this provoked large pickets and street meetings in response.

On June 19th 1973, after the Brockwell Park Fair, a running fight broke out between 300 youths and the police. Cops had aggressively steamed through the fair “looking for a black youth who had stabbed someone in a Dulwich road chip shop”. An angry crowd gathered and it kicked off. In response, cops swarmed in from all over South London. Robin Sterling, Lloyd James and Horace Parkinson, were nicked at random, beaten in the copshop, charged with affray, Assault on Police, Possession of offensive weapons. They were found guilty in March 1974, and got three-year sentences. There was an  outcry; especially about Robin Sterling, who was only fifteen. While community leaders like Rudy Narayan and Courtney Laws launched appeals and mitigating pleas, a mass meeting of 70 schoolkids, very militant, aged 9-15, called by the Tulse Hill Students Collective (based around pupils at Tulse Hill School), organised a 1000-strong kids demo from Kennington Park past Camberwell Magistrates Court, through Brixton, past Tulse Hill School to Brockwell Park, and sparked a strike in several South London schools. The Tulse Hill Collective was influenced by the local Black Panthers; including the school’s most notable radical ex-pupil, local Dub poet, former Black Panther, member of the Race Today Collective  – Linton Kwesi Johnson… Other former Tulse Hill pupils include ’80s reggae legend, the Cockney Translator, Smiley Culture, deceased in 2011 in dubious circumstances while being arrested at his home in Surrey, and former Lambeth Councillor, GLC supremo and London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Robin Sterling of the Brockwell 3 was later freed on appeal.

Throughout 1974 there was battle after battle: hand to fighting at the Railton Youth Club, as the cops raided it; in September, at the Swan in Stockwell, cops stoned windows, then invaded the Swan Disco Club, resulting in a running battle. Seven young black people were nicked, charged with affray, assault on police, possession of offensive weapons. three were found guilty, four got off. A month later there was yet another bundle at Stockwell Tube: a group of black teens coming back from a disco at Caxton Hall were forced off the train by cops who then nicked youths at random, which led to a fight. They were charged with affray, possession of offensive weapons; nine were acquitted, one found guilty of possession of an offensive weapon.

During the 1975 SPG campaign in Lambeth, a pitched battle broke out, after cops beat up a fourteen-year old boy, leading to several arrests.  Police harassment of individuals regularly provoked reprisal. On Tuesday June 1st 1976: Mr Johnson, a 61-year old West Indian, was stopped by police after shopping at Railton Road Cash & Carry. They accused him of nicking the shopping. As he reached for his receipt they pushed him and jostled him; several passers-by intervened and were also assaulted and abused. This led to a confrontation as a crowd of a hundred black youth protested and police reinforcements poured into the area.

During August Bank Holiday 1978, a number of black youth setting off to Notting Hill Carnival were  assaulted and frisked by plainclothes cops, who neglected to introduce themselves before wading in.

In November 1978, the SPG nicked 10 kids on trumped up charges at Stockwell Manor School.

In response to all these events, a politically very moderate Council for Community Relations in Lambeth was set up, to try and bridge the gap between police and the black community. This attempt to shore up normality ended in farce, when in February 1979, the police even raided this Community Council’s office, and fitted up three members of its staff for the stabbing of two cops and a barman in a bar brawl several days before, on the basis that the three men wore sheepskin coats, as did a suspect in the incident. Case solved! As a result the embryonic Police-Liaison Committee collapsed, sparking a Lambeth Council Report into police-community relations. These were the days of the first Ted Knight administration: a leftwing Labour Party group, dominated by young energetic councillors who had emerged from the activist scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, had taken seized control of the Council. As a result, the Council was taking on a left aspect, funding and supporting black organisations, and being critical of the police forays into paramilitary head-cracking.

“Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said!”

On the 18th of January 1981, 13 young black people aged 15 to 20 were killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road, in New Cross, Southeast London. The police initially stated that they believed the fire was caused by a firebomb, though they later backed away from this, instead targeting black kids present at the party. The fire was widely thought to be a racist attack, and that police were covering up evidence and dragging their feet in the investigation. Family members of the dead received abusive racist letters afterwards.

Black people were enraged at the lack of official action, or even  attention or recognition of the tragedy; politicians and worthies ignored the dead and the relatives. As the banners said: “Thirteen dead: Nothing Said”.

The following Sunday a mass meeting of 1000 people at the Pagnell Street Community Centre (formerly the Moonshot), a black youth centre in New Cross (often raided by police itself, in similar fashion to the SPG antics in Brixton) led to a demo to no 439, which blocked the A2, the main road out of Southeast London, for several hours. From weekly meetings of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, came the Black People’s Assembly, which organised the Black People’s Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981; 20,000 black people and supporters marched from nearby Fordham Park through Peckham, Elephant & Castle, across Blackfriars bridge and up through the West End to Hyde Park. There was some minor skirmishing; nothing especially unruly, but the press went ape, splashing headlines about ‘Blacks on the rampage’. The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

After the Day of Action, police operations in Brixton (as elsewhere in the capital) were stepped up. The police presence throughout March and early April ’81 was unusual. Even ‘respectable’ residents commented on it. In the first week of April, the police launched Operation Swamp ’81, timed for completion at the weekend. This was intended to foreshadow Operation Star, a London-wide production. Brixton had been chosen for the experimental run. Uniformed police officers were pulled out and sent in again in plain clothes. 943 people were stopped and questioned in the four days immediately prior to the riot, 118 nicked, 75 charged. The police claim that Brixton was chosen because it has high figures for street crime. But to young blacks in the area, the operation was a show of police strength – a boast (partly a response to the New Cross march) that no one but the Met would rule the streets.

It was obviously calculated that the people of Brixton would accept it. The boys in blue were winding things up to an unbearable pitch. At one youth club, the general view was put into words: “Retaliation MUST come soon, this is too much.”

The inevitable result was the April 1981 Brixton Riot.


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More Reading

This is an admittedly inadequate article, conceived as a chapter in past tense’s so far unfinished project on the past and present of rebellious and underground Brixton. It’s a work in progress, which was put aside in 2007, and is yet to be finished. A longer, more researched version is hopefully to appear in the near future, though we haven’t yet completely worked out in what form.

For now, people interested in reading more about police-community relations in this period, would benefit from looking up:

  • The Final Report of the Working Party Into Community/Police Relations in Lambeth, London Borough of Lambeth, January 1981. (A ‘Final Report’… produced 3 months before the April ’81 Riot…the irony!).

Periodicals

  • Race Today magazine, numerous issues.
  • The Leveller magazine.

Newspapers

  • South London Press.
  • Brixton’s Own Boss, a radical community newspaper in the 1970s.

Books

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, Trevor & Mike Phillips
  • Heart of the race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online here
  • A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, A. Sivanandan.

Articles

  • Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain, The David Nicholls Memorial Lectures, No.2, 2000, Harry Goulbourne.
  • Writing our own History: Talking Personal, Talking Political (on history of the Brixton black Women’s Group), in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife no 19, 1990.

Changing, Always Changing: Brixton before the Riots, part 1

“I think the old man told me he was eighty years old, and that when he was a boy, the green hedges ran from the pastures of Kent, Sussex and Surrey through Brixton to the abattoirs in Smithfield. He remembered the drovers driving their sheep down the heavily verdured Brixton Hill. He was sitting on the rear nearside three-seat of a 109 bus and I was wedged between the stairs and the entrance to the lower saloon. He sat with his legs wide apart, his hands resting one above the other on the curved handle of his stick. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, the type which encourages conversation! He looked away from me and muttered, ‘Changing, changing, always changing!’” (Donald Hinds)

As an introduction to our series of posts on riots, radical politics and underground culture in South London’s most disorderly suburb, here’s a kind of introduction to Brixton’s early history (pre-the 1960s). It’s only a sketch, its vastly inadequate, and could do with being fleshed out a lot. We’ll add to it when we can…

Although Brixton has been used as a name for the northernmost Hundred (the administrative district as the Saxons organised them) for a thousand years, there was no real village or even hamlet in Central Brixton until the 1800s. The area now covered by Brixton was divided for centuries into lands belonging to various Manors, and estates owned by gentry such as the Angell family, the Archbishops of Canterbury, the Dukes of Bedford etc. A network of roads ran through the estates, with a smattering of coaching inns along what are now Clapham Road and Brixton Road, respectively the major roads to the South West of England and the South Coast. Until the 18th Century there were small groups of houses at Stockwell Green and Coldharbour (now Loughborough Junction). The whole area was farmland, commons and woods. Brixton ‘Town Centre’ as it is now known was waste land, part of Rush Common (which was then much larger).

From the mid-eighteenth century, well-to-do people started to move out from London, to the comparative peace and quiet of what was then North Surrey. They built houses along the main roads. Houses spread south from Stockwell, as landowners enclosed waste and Common land and divided it into plots for building, or sold off their lands altogether. In 1800, a long terrace called Brixton Place was built along what is now Brixton Road, between Beehive Place and Coldharbour Lane. A well-to-do suburb sprang up; many of the houses had rooms in the basement or attic for live-in servants.

This rash of building swallowed up many fields and also open spaces, some of which had a history as gathering points, places to meet. One such space was Stockwell Green, an open space which lay around half way between Brixton and Stockwell tube station. By the nineteenth century fairly small, the green space was used for local recreation – some of which apparently got quite rowdy. Possibly the disorderly nature of the Green was linked to Stockwell’s position: the village was known as a smugglers’ stronghold, located as it was on the smuggling routes from the south coast via Croydon…?

As the area got built up, the increasing more up market local residents started to object to the ‘nuisance’ caused by plebs hanging out on the green. In the 1850s, a local gentleman named Mr Barret, bought up the land, built railings around it & planted it over. Other locals who objected to this enclosure broke down the fence to resume their partying. In 1855 a committee of worthies erected a new fence, excluding the public. Eventually a case went to court in 1874, but the Green was built over and lost. Other local green spaces faced pressures for enclosure and taming: like the famous Kennington Common were not lost, but were landscaped, in the 1850s, fenced in and the crowds that had met there for radical demonstrations or enjoyed unruly games there were excluded (There were complaints in following years that the rowdy crowds had moved to Clapham Common). The notorious fair at Camberwell Green was shut down and the space similarly landscaped in the same decade.

A few decades later Brockwell Park, once the grounds of a private house, was saved from creeping development and builders by a public campaign, begun in 1889 to buy the land for a park.

The river Effra, which flows through Brixton to Kennington and the Thames, was also covered over as a sewer in the nineteenth century, though it had once been navigable by boat allegedly as far as Brixton…

The arrival of the railways in Brixton in the 1860s, as in other London suburbs, changed the social nature of the area. Partly for profit and partly to get parliamentary approval, railway companies had to provide cheap workman’s fares, which meant workers no longer had to live in crowded lodgings in the centre of London, they could now travel in to work. Wages for skilled workers were also rising in the late nineteenth century. As a result, around Brixton station, new streets of terraced housing for clerks, artisans and skilled workmen started to spring up, more closely packed together.

But in the late 19th Century, Brixton was still seen as reasonably up-market, and with the development of the shopping area around Brixton Road, which became “the Oxford Street of South London” with pioneering stores like Bon Marche, Britain’s first department store, it was the place to be. Electric Avenue famously was the first shopping street lit by electric lamps in 1888. But the process of social change accelerated as trams and horse- and then motorised buses spread; more and more houses were built. Around 1900 many of the earlier leases on the big suburban villas lapsed, and most were pulled down and replaced by flats or smaller houses.


Several cinemas were built, of which only the Ritzy is still going as a cinema, although the
Academy was built in 1929 as a spanking new posh picture theatre. Its rival, the Empress Theatre, in Brighton Terrace, behind Red Records, had previously been a Music Hall. In 1906 a strike of music hall performers against big employer Fred Karno, led to a demo outside the Empress which then marched to Karno’s office in Camberwell. They won a 5 shilling a week pay rise. The Empress eventually became a Bingo Hall, then closed (to be squatted in a mass squat by 40 odd people in Summer 1989, for about 4 hours before the cops stormed in and kicked everyone out. It was later knocked to build flats.) Variety artists were still fighting their corner here 50-odd years later:  Dale Martin, boss of Joint Promotions, of Brixton, was one of several wrestling promoters opposed by Variety Artists Federation in a 1962 dispute, over terms of wrestling employment… The VAF were supported by Trades Councils, who called upon boroughs to refuse to let halls (such as Camberwell and Dulwich Baths) to Joint Promotions. (A larger VAF strike followed a few months later).

The street market began in Atlantic Road in the 1870s: originally, like many street markets, it began unofficially, and Lambeth Vestry (the precursor to the Borough Council) tried to ban it in 1881 because of the crowds it attracted. The market was originally held in a wide open space between Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane, but  it was moved into Station Road (1921) and Electric Avenue (1949): the open space was built over by a widening of the road in 1935 (though the space in front of the Ritzy/ the new Windrush Square alterations have revived an open space here). Market and cinemas gave the centre of Brixton an increasingly working class character, although the area continued to be considered South London’s top shopping spot into the 1930s. (These days, the long West Indian character of the market is being eroded, and the long-term direction is for the market to be gentrified out of all recognition.)

Radicalism and strike action

The increasing working class presence was reflected in the appearance of radical organisations… Although in the radical upsurge of the 1870s there doesn’t seem to have been a Radical Club in the area in those years.

There was a later Star Radical Club at 8 Mayall Road, by 1889, at which William Morris was advertised as speaking on ‘Socialism’, on the 24th November. The Sociali Democratic Federation had a branch in Clapham.

By 1907 the revolutionary communists of the Communist Propaganda Groups had a Brixton branch. The Groups were set up originally by the Clerkenwell-born anarchist-communist Guy Aldred; this was the first time the word ‘communist’ had been used in the name of a British organisation.

Brixton was not, like say Deptford or Battersea, a major centre of working class activity: during the May 1926 General Strike the area was said to be very quiet. There was a recruiting centre here for special constables (the mainly middle class volunteers used to break the Strike), many were sent to other areas where there was more trouble, such as Camberwell. Brixton and Streatham were said by the South London Press (setting a fine example by running a scab edition) to have a full bus service running by Tuesday 11th May, in contrast to more organised areas: Lambeth Trades Council were a bit belatedly organising a Joint Transport Committee meeting on the 11th to try and put a stop to this. The Trades Council did hold a “very successful demo” on May 9th in Brockwell Park, attended by 20,000 people. Strikers also played several games of cricket in the Park – though not with the police; no Plymouth-style football-with-the-enemy here.

Although Brixton was quiet, there was fighting in Clapham High Street on the evening of Friday 7th May, when a number of lorries occupied by strikers and sympathisers tried to block the traffic… foot and mounted police charged crowds and cleared the street. There was also fighting in the Vauxhall on  the 8th of May. Local people built barricades on south side of the Bridge… police fought strikers in the streets, chasing them through back streets near Embankment, where women rained down bottles on the cops heads! Groups of strikers gathered outside pubs… Graham Greene was a special on Vauxhall Bridge, was a student then. Later in life he thought better of it and said he should have been on the other side.

In the era of defeat and depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, local unemployed were active in trying to force concessions from the local Board of Guardians, who grudgingly gave out ‘relief’ (ie dole). In 1932 the Public Assistance Committee, based in Rushcroft Road (beside the library) was besieged by a crowed of the unemployed. Rushcroft had already developed into a Speakers corner for local socialists.

From the First World War, the standard of private housing for rent began to decline; not only was the Government forced to order a freeze on private rents (mainly due to pressure from huge wartime rent strikes in Glasgow, the East End and elsewhere), but few new houses were being built privately. Landlords squeezed more and more tenants in to maximise profits. In Brixton many houses had been split up to provide flats or boarding houses, especially for music hall/theatre performers and backstage workers, who could easily get back to Brixton late from work in the West End, and also workers in Brixton’s many shops. (The theatre veterans could still be found in the 1990s: my 87-year-old neighbour in St Matthews Estate in the mid-90s had been a stagehand, her flatmate was a minor music hall star.) By the 30s, the posher residents had mainly moved out into rural areas.

Local authority and London Country Council housing meanwhile grew, after the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1901. From the first LCC block in Briscoe’s Buildings (now Renton Close, in front of the prison), many blocks were built in Tulse Hill, Loughborough Park, Cowley Road in the 1930s.

Fascists in Brixton

Brixton’s already cosmopolitan community were not prepared to tolerate the incursion of race hate mongers. Fascist groups sprang up in the late 40s in many parts of London… They used to sell their literature and speak in the street… They achieved some success and support in Bethnal Green, Hackney and West London, but South London was always a thorn in their side… they continually failed to gather much support for their racist and anti-semitic crap darn sarf.

Brixton may have become a BUF target as there was a small but obvious Jewish community there. The fascists came on occasion to hold public meetings in the street; some places in the area they used to speak in were in Brockwell Park, on Clapham Common, in Brixton Station Road, and Rushcroft Road (The end of Rushcroft Road by the library operated as a speakers corner of sorts: in the 1930s, the National Unemployed Workers Movement held street meetings there, as did other leftwing groups).
In 1948, Oswald Mosley’s post-war far right outfit, the Union Movement, were holding 5 meetings a week in Brixton and Clapham; but they were usually bussed out under escort by the police, due to angry hostility from local people. The mainly Jewish 43 Group, which was breaking up fascist rallies and meetings, infiltrating their HQs and harassing their papersellers, formed a South London branch around this time.

One Union Movement meeting at this time ended badly for the would-be stormtroopers. They arrived in Station Road to find 43 group activists had nicked their pitch and were holding a lively anti-fascist meeting. The narked Nazis set up round the corner, but as Jeffrey Hamm, one of Mosley’s extreme-right-hand-men, was speaking, his giving a nazi salute enraged hostile local onlookers who rushed the platform. The Union Movement goons were defended by the police, who escorted them to Stockwell tube, but they were ambushed by 43 Group commandos at Victoria and battered.

After another stormy Union Movement meeting, several hundred locals spontaneously marched to the Labour Party rooms, to try and demand action against the fascists from local MP Marcus Lipton… (he was out).

The Mosleyites were still active in Brixton in May 1952, when 50 marched to Rushcroft Road to hold a rally.

After the Wars

Although Brixton didn’t suffer as much bomb damage as many other areas of London in World War 2, the post-War housing shortage had long-term affects all over London. Much of what was damaged was rebuilt as council housing. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, new estates, either GLC or Council-built, replaced whole neighbourhoods of terraces. Meanwhile many privately rented houses continued to decline, as leases ran out, few repairs were done, no private stock was being built, and rent freezes continued to piss off greedy landlords. Other houses were sold to owner occupiers or compulsory purchased by the Council for slum clearance. Many streets of private housing began to decay.

Brixton became an area where cheap housing could be found. The area was used to a transient population, even a slightly disreputable community, such as the music hall workers who had always found digs here. The area was even then home to a wide variety of races.

‘Dark Strangers’

Attitudes to renting rooms to those not easily tolerated elsewhere were looser.

This was vitally important in the 1950s to the future of Brixton, as Jamaican and other Caribbean immigrants coming to London began to settle in the area. The first 1948 pioneers arriving on the Windrush were temporarily housed by the government in a Deep Shelter on Clapham Common; nearby Brixton was one of the first areas some of them found places to live. The ‘50s especially was an era where the “No Irish No Blacks No Dogs” policy was vigorously pursued by many private landlords.

Lambeth however positively welcomed the new arrivals, officially at least. Once fledgling communities were established, newer arrivals tended to gravitate there, where neighbours, friends, and people they felt at home with, already lived.

The area around Somerleyton Road and Geneva Road (now lost under the Moorlands Estate) became the heart of the early Caribbean settlement in Brixton, known as Little Jamaica. The housing rapidly became overcrowded, as people unable to find accommodation elsewhere accumulated; the Council was suspected of collaborating with this, turning a blind eye to overcrowding to avoid black people getting rehousing in council properties. In 1951, white residents were petitioning the Council to put a stop to the growth of the small black community, claiming it was having an adverse affect on the neighbourhood… By 1954, councillors had decided to pressure the Colonial Office to set up transit and reception centres nationwide, in an attempt to channel some of the Caribbean migrants elsewhere.

Discrimination in housing met with a community response from the outset… Afro-Caribbeans pooled savings in the ‘pardner’ or ‘sou-sou’ system, where a group (often hailing from the same island or town in the West Indies) would save collectively, and lend out a lump sum in turn to each individual to buy a house or flat… At inflated prices, and inflated interest rates, which led to more overcrowding and multi-occupation. Which later brought the Public Health Act down on their heads.

This overcrowding was perceived from the outside by racist whites, as “look at the way they live!”, the old self-fulfilling prophecy.

The new arrivals were for years pushed into the most menial jobs, nursing, transport, factory work, as bus conductors, like Donald Hinds:

“We had just passed Raleigh Gardens with its well shaded area where the houses stand well back from the street behind tall trees and a blush of greenery, as if hinting at a snobbish past… where Sir Walter Raleigh might have lived and entertained the great Queen Bess, I wondered about Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh, Gloriana, England, Africa, the West Indies and slavery. Was I angry with the ‘guardian’ spirit of colonialism, cynically bringing two or three of those illustrious people to view the prospects of Brixton on the banks of the River Effra, for a people who were to come after them; but whose antecedents they uncompromisingly shackled into slavery, all those centuries ago before the River Effra was forced underground?”

Tensions in pubs and clubs, with hostile whites, the impossibility for many black people to get licences, led to the growing up of a largely separate social culture from white society.

A sense of the experience of Caribbeans living in Brixton is evocatively summed up by Donald Hinds:

“We stood with our backs to the Labour Exchange in Coldharbour Lane, and looked slightly to the left towards the grim tenements of Somerleyton and Geneva Roads. Those decaying edifices, the refuge of people from the Caribbean, stood with their backs to each other as if they had been engaged in a feud for generations, now with the bitterness weakened by a plague of dry rot and neglect, they wished to hide from each other the excrescences of time! West Indians did not create the ghetto. They were caught, as in the statutory scene in films, where if you are discovered standing over the corpse, you must be the murderer. Rice and peas and ‘scobeech’ (escoveitch) fish, or souse pork cooked on gas rings in passages and on top of landings, of course, did the walls very little good, but still, no-one has proven that Fish an’ Chips cooked under the same conditions would have improved the situation. The kernel of the fact was, that those old houses were goldmines to their owners in the final years before the council’s compulsory purchase order was enforced. When one’s white fellow workers were paying less than twenty shillings per week, the going rate for a single room [for Caribbeans] was fifty shillings. Quite often where two or more people shared a room, each occupant was required to pay thirty shillings or more. In these days of spacious if still unsalubrious accommodation, the rooms shared in the fifties are remembered as being quite small, with a double bed, always a double bed, a hope, it seemed, that a man and a woman would eventually share the room. There were wardrobes, a big one and a small one, a dressing table. The tenants provided their own radiogrammes. On top of the wardrobes were always stacked suitcases. We were a transitory people!”

As Hinds points out, West Indians came here seeking a better life…

 “Now the rapidly contracting world was offering the subsistence farmer and the yardboy the chance of breaking out of the economic swamp water they and their fathers before them had been trapped in.

Initially at the invite of British Government departments:

“Advertisements were being placed in Caribbean newspapers emphasizing Britain’s need for workers, and the South London Press could be bought at Hildalge’s Drug Store near West Parade in downtown Kingston, Jamaica…”

“When I was demobbed I came to Brixton because a friend who got out of the service before me had found a place to live in Vassall Road… He was able to find me lodgings in the house where he lived. At that time there were no more than three propoerties in Brixton which were owned by coloured people. One was in Mostyn Road, one in Geneva Road and the other in Somerleyton Road. I helped a buddy when was demobbed a few months later. He in turn got digs for another friend, and within a year eight of us boys were living in Brixton. From then on the thing must have just snowballed…” (Larry Wilson)

We were not ignored nor were we welcomed… What should be done with less than 100,000 blacks dressed in baggy cotton suits and dresses, straw hats and brightly coloured headkerchiefs? Officialdom glanced hypocritically at black immigration: ‘They are British citizens, free to come and go, as they please.’… The West Indies, which had been created for exploitation, have always looked elsewhere for its own economic salvation! Earlier in the century British Caribbean migrants had helped to build the Panama Canal, and had planted the bananas in the Central American Republics, and the sugar cane in Cuba. During the Second World War, West Indians were recruited to work on the farms in the USA. Others went northeastward to fight in Hitler’s war. Nothing here laid claim to privileges, but coming from a corner of the empire where the four senior colonies, Barbados, Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad were collectively linked to Britain by four hundred years of colonialism, it was crushing to be considered ‘dark strangers’!”

The migrants brought with them a street culture which they transplanted to the chilly streets of Brixton – a collective, outdoor toing, froing and talking that to this day is still seen as threatening by the more uptight respectable British…

“My guide to Brixton had warned me that, as soon as I had finished my business at the Labour Exchange, I should go immediately to my room in Geneva Road. It was a shared room, but at that time of the day the others would be at work. His cautious counselling was wise for at the time it was being pointed out that groups of ‘coloured’ men (coloured, was such a polite descriptive word then) numbering fifty to hundreds were sitting on walls, standing around, leaning against fences and generally making the place look depressingly untidy. But few looking on understood the crushing loneliness, which could prompt a man to cross a busy street to talk to another man for no other reason than the man was also black. A distinctive minority will forever be in exile. So they congregated outside the Labour Exchange to talk, to remember and to forget…

But we were an outdoor people! We hailed each other from a distance and stood around in groups chatting and waving our hands in the excitement of it all. We talked about jobs or the lack of them, of rooms with less than four occupants, or of someone who was about to buy a house and did not want more than two people sharing rooms – a major social advancement at the time… more young men were sending for their women and older men for their wives… the cinema and the Saturday night parties were balms to the aching souls…

 With a colour bar excluding them from many pubs and clubs, the Carribbeans built their own social life:

“The Saturday night party was the universal form of immigrant entertainment… These parties were indeed noisy, robust with a tantalising touch of eroticism as bodies touched in a slow grinding mento. In the beginning drinks were free. The parties were smaller then, and everybody was known to the host, and the following weekend he would be at one of his guest’s party. By the end of the fifties, it no longer made economic sense to adequately provide drinks for nearly a hundred people. Most of these ‘guests’ would prefer a more personal choice by buying their own drinks… Drinks were sold and the parties became illegal. Police raids were intensified as more and more neighbours complained about the noise next door. It seemed that if you were enjoying yourself after midnight, you were beating your wife, up to no good, indulging in illicit pleasure and generally beyond the law. The neighbour was always worried about the soul of the people next door…”

A.G. Bennett sarcastically commented that it was always someone else that was racist, never the person refusing you work or a flat:

“Since I come ‘ere I never met a single English person who ‘ad any colour prejudice. Once, I walked the whole length of a street lookin for a room, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. was the neighbour who was stupid. If we could only find the neighbour we could solve the entire problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble! Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country.” (Bennett, Because They Know Not)

“Living besides reluctant neighbours in the years between the birth of Rock ‘n ‘Roll and Punk has eroded many myths. The Banana Boat Man, the migrants who crowded the decks of the S. S. Empire Windrush, the S.S. Auriga and the S.S. Castel Verde, are middle aged or near retiring now… Was all this then, any more than a threat, at best, a pattern, woven on the fabric of British society? And now pushed into the mounds of time as bulldozers have wrecked the houses from Crawshay Road, Ackerman, Bramah, Villa and Geneva Roads?” (Hinds, op. cit)

The ‘race riots’ of 1958 in Notting Hill, and Nottingham, whipped up by Mosleyite fascists (back with a new boogeyman since their defeat in the late 40s), fear of the new migrants finding easy root in xenophobic communities afraid of competition for jobs and houses,  teddy boys looking for people to fight, and and resenting  “too many white women paying too little attention to the colour bar!” White mobs rampaged through Black-dominated streets and attacked people von the street, houses, clubs and shops.

Although there were not disturbances in Brixton in 1958, prominent Black radicals who lived in Brixton like Claudia Jones were involved in the aftermath, supporting Notting Hill West Indians arrested for trying to organize resistance, and eventually launching the Carnival as a way of building cross-community relations. But the 1958 riots also left a legacy, among the generation who lived through that time of fear, who in many cases continued to fear that a violent white backlash would come again. For some, the memory lead them to keep their heads down and try to work hard and fit in so as not to attract hostile attention.

Other communities enriched the irrepressible life of Brixton: of old there had been a sizable Jewish community (the old synagogue in Effra Road was only converted into the Eurolink Business Centre in the 90s, after years of dereliction); Irish, for many years, as in all of inner London’s working class communities; Portuguese in Stockwell Road; later squatting brought all sorts of people in from all over. Aussies, Kiwis, Spanish, South Americans, Dutch, Italians, later Yugoslavs, Poles, Yanks, South Africans.  In the 80s there were always a number of young squatters dodging military service, from all over Europe (France and Spain especially), but also from Israel, South Africa, etc. More recently it’s Nigerians, Somalis, Poles… The area was always full of transients, people on the way somewhere else, settling here for a while. London is a city of shifting sands anyway, for many.  But due to its international reputation and the libertarian/alternative scene there was a constant wash of young rebels, refugees from various crap regimes or mind-numbing suburbs/small towns. The chaotic pub life: sometimes bizarre, you never knew you’d get talking to next.

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm.

Meanwhile Black culture grew and developed, in many ways isolated from parallel white British society. Later this would produce the illegal clubs, the blues, that came to dominate the social life of black Brixton, and gave birth to the Frontline.

Bass Culture

The Blues, the toasting and verbal duelling of the MCs in the 1950s, mixed with the new sounds of ska and reggae coming in from Jamaica in the ‘60s, gradually evolved into a complex culture of sound systems, DJs and MCs.

Brixton, like a number of London areas, hosted a web of wildly interesting music scenes, which merged into each other, splintered off into new genres and cross-fertilised with new influences… In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Brixton ‘soul boys’ got down to some serious ska, at the Ramjam Club

Named for Geno Washington’s Ram Jam band, a regular headliner here – the club was at 390 Brixton Road, in a basement under a gas showroom… (Interestingly the original Fridge nightclub, now internationally famous, started in the same building in 1984, but on the first floor…)

 “Every Sunday between 3 and 6 o’clock we used to go to this club in Brixton, the ram Jam Club… and listen to [ska, reggae and rocksteady] and socialize…” (Linton Kwesi Johnson)

(In a postscript to this: a late ‘60s white nazi skin gave this account of conflict with the ‘soul boys’ to Roger Hewitt: “[Skinheads] formed a big massive movement. We had control of a place called the Locarno, it’s up Streatham. There were thousands of skinheads come from all over the place. And the Old Bill never touched us. And one night the nig-nogs came up. They were called “soul boys” then, the niggers them days, and they came, about five hundred of them, from a place called the Ram Jam. Do you know Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band? Well that was their scene—Brixton. And our area was Streatham—a white man’s area. And we run that place, doing the Skinhead Moonstomp and all that. And they came up and reckoned they wanted to take it over. Our place. So we said, “Fair enough.” The word got around London and thousands of skins drove down. By nine o’clock there was 1,000, 500 in. By ten o’clock there were 3,000 skins. The nig-nogs started then and we ran them all the way to Brixton and we walked through Brixton after that. We didn’t touch their area before but we ran through Brixton and you couldn’t see a nig-nog on the street. Any nig-nog walked on the street was dead. We could smash em to pieces. That’s the way it should be today.”

Did this really happen? Such skinhead rampages weren’t uncommon – in Brick Lane a few years later, for example.)

An alternative view exists of these tensions between Locarno and Ram Jam; according to ex-Black Panther Danny Dacosta: “Ram Jam was quote a ‘black club’ and Locarno was ‘ a white club’. So we shouldn’t really mix. I think that what happened is that guys were looking for girls, as they do at that age, and the Locarno had an abundance, and the guys were reasonably successful which caused resentment with the local guys. And of course the bouncers and the security people, now they sided with the local guys against us. So when we were eventually banned from going in, I suppose that was one of the first actual demonstrations, yes, unofficial, you know, there was nobody really behind it but we just felt so incensed that we were being denied entry that we were boycotting it, you know. So we went up there and dissuaded people, black guys going in… and I suppose maybe that’s where it started.”

The Locarno later became Caesars, which is still a huge and popular nightclub on Streatham Hill.

As unemployment grew in the 1970s, black people were among the first to get laid off, a generation grew up that had NEVER had work; the alternative economy of growing/dealing hash rocketed, and this fed into and was fed by a burgeoning self-created musical subculture.

Reggae and Rastafarian Culture, hitting London in the early 70s, formed a powerful unifying cultural force for some blacks, in the face of the police oppression, educational bias and racism they faced… The MCs created a social commentary in their toasting of their oewn lyrics over the instrumental dub b-sides of imported Jamaican singles, often dealing with the harshness and conflict of streetlife, relations with the boys in blue etc…

“Very, very important, the only thing that pull us together is our colour and the music; and the only thing that take us away from the day to day jobs of life was the music on a Saturday night… we form a band way back then, called the Black Volts, in Battersea. We used to rehearse in places like Brixton. In those days it was the Black Volts and another band from Battersea called Matumbe, and we used to play all the local clubs… We used to entertain black people and I mean it was strictly Reggae, trying to play the type of music that was coming out of Jamaica. So we did that for about ten, fifteen years. I remember the first Reggae promotion to be done in south London, with live band from this country, was done by us in conjunction with Matumbe. We hired a church hall in Lavender Hill and we decide to promote our first show, and we put on that show and we were playing things like “Liquidator”. And the whole community turned out because, in those days, once you have a get together, everybody turned up and, believe it or not, we didn’t make a penny. But it was one of our most enjoyable experience because we had about four or five hundred people in there, even though they knock the door down and they didn’t pay. But they had a great night and the experience was our first as far as playing live, and it stay with me until this very day. I suppose it will stay with me for ever. … You walk around in south London and everybody used to call to you, “I saw you on Saturday. Wicked! Wicked!” and we develop and we start to play and we just take off from there… there weren’t that many bands. They had people like ourself and Matumbe in south London. You had the Cimarons over in Harlesden… that was before people like Aswad and Maxi Priest and all these people come about. So we were the predecessor, we set the standard for these guys.” (Mike Nesbitt)

As migration from Commonwealth countries increased in the 1960s, there was pressure for legal controls on immigration. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act restricted immigration from ex-colonies. While making clucking noises at racial violence on the streets, the State nationalised racism, determining that the proper authorities would be the ones to regulate any need and supply of cheap workers. There was a growth in discrimination at work against black people, as fear was whipped up… There is no doubt that the growing institutionalisation of racism led the police to feel freer to attack black communities, on more organised levels.

But Black and Asian political and campaign groups also began to organise against Immigration Acts, racist attacks, and inequality…

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Coming tomorrow: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Resistance and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

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Part 2 of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.


2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

A Very Large Ground: enclosure, resistance and disorder on Hounslow Heath

Hounslow Heath was originally part of the Forest of Middlesex, extending as far west as Heathrow, and south to Bushy Park and Hampton.

The public open space now known as Hounslow Heath, which covers 200 acres (80 ha), is all that remains of the historic Heath, which covered more than 4,000 acres (1,600 ha).

In 1545 Hounslow Heath extended into the ‘fields, parishes, and hamlets’ of Isleworth, Brentford, Heston, Hounslow, Twickenham, Teddington, Hampton, Hanworth, Feltham, Bedfont, Cranford, Harlington, Harmondsworth, and Stanwell. All of which parishes intercommoned on the heath.

The heath was created in the 13th century, when a stretch of royal forest between Hounslow and Staines, sometime known as the ‘Warren of Staines’, was cut down.

The old extent of Hounslow Heath, show in purple. The small area in red is what is left of the Heath as open land today

In Saxon times it was free to hunt there, but after the Norman Conquest, severe restrictions were introduced. The king brought in Forest Laws to save the game and the trees for the rich (as with other crown forests) and ban the plebs from hunting. Special courts were convened to try poachers, leading to bitter struggles. Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest curtailed some of these laws in 1217, and in 1227, much forest was declared freeland. Many poor folk built houses on the land at this time. But later in the century the Forest Laws were renewed.

Open wastes and heaths and common land were vital resources: places to graze animals, gather foodstuffs and wood, and hunt small game. Depriving people of access was a matter of life and death. John Norden described Hounslow Heath as ‘a very lardge grounde which yeldeth comfort to one small companye of people who without theayde ther ys could hardly relieve themselves
And surely great woe is pronounced agaynst such as dyminishe the Comons of the Poore.’

Although Henry VIII still hunted here in the 16th century, over 1700 hectares was common land.

Resistance began here in the early days of the long bitter process of enclosure that gradually shut working people out from free access to much of the land. There was some form of unspecified trouble when gates were set on Hounslow Heath when an act was passed to enclose Hounslow Heath, 1545-6, though the enclosure was said to be largely ineffective.

The land comprising the Heath was divided administratively at this time, being split between the 14 parishes named above.

Some inclosures on the edge of the common south of Whitton seem to have been made at this time, though they may not have been maintained later. Three warrens, two on the edge of the heath and one by the river, had also been planted, possibly quite recently. Much of the land around the open fields and to the east of Whitton may have been inclosed during the later Middle Ages, and in the next century and a half most of the remainder was inclosed piecemeal and converted to market-gardens and orchards or to pleasure-grounds for the big houses which were being built around the village.

In 1583 one John Newdigate was accused of acquiring a parcel of land ‘lately enclosed from the Common called Hounsloe Heath’.

Hounslow Heath’s proximity to other areas of Middlesex with traditions of rural rebellion/anti-enclosure action is notable. The lands of the king’s brother saw enclosure fences torn down in Isleworth as early as 1264. Heston experienced rioting in the Peasants Revolt, and there would be incidents in 1830 during the ‘Swing’ wave of rural revolt there, as well as in Hounslow and Lampton. Harmondsworth Moor (the arena for a two-century long war between the landowner – in this case the church – and tenants through the middle ages), and Osterley Park – where there was an anti-enclosure riot in 1576 – are within a few miles of the Heath. Ideas, inspiration, the flame of action, often spark from one neighbourhood to another, and individuals or groups often nip over to support and join in with rebellious activities the next valley over.

The English Civil War brought new pressures to Hounslow Heath. An increase in poverty, trade disruption, caused food shortages and need for land use changes… Many large landlords ended up on the wrong side in the war, and fled the country after 1646, so their land was confiscated and going spare… But there were contradictory urges on the parliamentary side. If the parliamentary leaders and generals represented a victorious puritan class, often proto-capitalist interests in many cases, who encouraged enclosure and agricultural improvement (as well as being keen to acquire the estates of dispossessed royalists), many of the poorer classes who has enlisted against the king were enraged by enclosures and the dislocation that rural upheaval had crated in the country. Many soldiers became radicalised, started to demand more access/land of their own. The political struggle led to an upsurge in radical ideas which led to questioning of traditional assumptions about social relations and land use…

In many areas enclosure had been a major bone of discontent before the Civil War, and the outbreak of hostilities provide opportunity to reverse some of the changes that had taken place. In 1641, royal grounds enclosed on Hounslow Heath were attacked and entered by irate peasants. The House of Lords ordered a special enquiry and ordered a search ‘in and about the several Towns and Hamlets adjoining near. Hounslow Heath) for all such tumultuous Persons as have, in a very riotous Manner, endeavoured the disquieting of the said Possession, by pulling down the pales of the said inclosures… ‘

Around 1650, the ‘Diggers’ said to have tried to establish a colony on the Heath. Again – proximity to other areas where such radical ideas were flourishing is possibly key. it’s only a few miles from both Iver, Buckinghamshire, where a group had published the Digger-like ‘A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ in 1648, and the True Levellers’ original commune at St George’s Hill was not so far away either. The Heath was classic ‘Digger’ country: open Heath land, lots of poor, squatters, a precarious population.

Like many open spaces and woodlands on London’s edge, or within a few hours travel, Hounslow Heath became home to the marginal, the rebellious and the dodgy.

Around 1697-8, during a brief peace between the many European wars of the time, bands of demobbed soldiers turned marauders – since many squaddies would still be owed army wages after war ended, often years in arrears, or had spent it in credit while still in uniform. One such large band roamed Hounslow Heath, masked up, collectively robbing rich folk ambushed on their way to Windsor Castle to see the King. Among those who lost their horses, money, jewellery or simply their credibility to defend themselves, were Lord Ossulston, the Duke of St. Albans, and his brother the Duke of Northumberland. Military patrols were established on all local main roads…

Artistic imagining of highwaymen on the Heath.

But the heath remained a popular spot to ambush travellers and relieve them of their possessions through the eighteenth century (generally considered the classic era of the highwayman).

William Snowd and Joseph Wells were indicted for stealing seven shillings from Robert Hull as he was travelling over Hounslow Heath in December 1739. Bull had been travelling on the Hillingdon Coach as the two highwaymen struck. One of the prosecution witnesses claimed that Snowd and Wells had carried out at least two earlier robberies on the heath before the Hillingdon Coach arrived.

In 1751 the Bishop of Hereford was passing over Hounslow Heath when his coach was attacked by two mounted highwaymen. They robbed the bishop and the party which was accompanying him and made their getaway across the heath towards the Staines Road, presumably to lose themselves on Staines Moor. In 1774 Horace Walpole wrote that: “Our roads are so infested with highwaymen, that it is dangerous stirring out almost by day. Lady Hertford was attacked on Hounslow Heath at three in the afternoon. Dr Elliot was shot at three days ago without having resisted”.

In the 18th Century, the heath was a major stopping-off/storage/rendesvous point for smugglers bringing stuff into London from the west, much like Croydon and Stockwell in South London, and Epping Forest in the east.

The eighteenth century also saw a revival of struggles over enclosure on and around the Heath.
Some insight into the importance of the various parts of the heath in the subsistence and livelihoods of local people can be gained from mid-century accounts.

In 1744 it was reported that the commoners of the village of Stanwell made a lot of use of the common fields, lammas meadows and pasture rights on Hounslow Heath. They kept ‘…mares and foals, cows and calves, hogs and geese without stint, some of them doing without any work at all’.  At neighbouring Staines the inhabitants relied heavily on the customary pasture rights of Staines Moor. John Newman, a Stanwell Farmer and ex-Staines parishioner recorded the rights of Staines inhabitants in 1756, possibly when those rights of common pasture were being disputed.

In 1766/7 Stanwell locals defeated landowners – who included the local vicar, the Lord of the Manor – in an attempt to enclose Hounslow Heath. Opposition came mainly from the owners/occupiers of local cottages, defending traditional common rights, supported by other parishes with some interests on the heath. The enclosure bill was defeated in Parliament, on 3rd March 1767, leading to a joyous parade of the opponents, who had marched to Westminster. The victorious villagers paraded along Pall Mall, before they went home… “On Tuesday evening a great number of farmers were observed going along Pall Mall with cockades in their hats; on enquiring the reason, it appeared they all lived in or near the parish of Stanwell in the county of Middlesex, and they were returning to their wives and families, to carry them the agreeable news of a bill being rejected for inclosing the said common, which, if carried into execution, might have been the ruin of a great number of families.” (Annual Register, 1767).

Local resistance to enclosure may have been beginning to link into a wider radical or at least reformist politics, namely the pressure for political reform, expressed often in support for populist agitators like John Wilkes.Two prominent signatories of the petition against the Stanwell Enclosure Bill of 1767 were to be notable Wilkite supporters in the Middlesex elections of 1768-69, a campaign that was centred on the hustings in Brentford, only a short distance from Hounslow. These were John Bullock Esq. and George Richard Carter Esq., both substantial property owners in the parish’. Longtime resident of Brentford, John Horne Took, sometime Vicar of St Laurence’s church, Brentford High Street,  had persuaded John Wilkes, who he met in Paris during the latter’s exile, to stand for election for Middlesex. Tooke also opposed local enclosure acts, possibly the same 1767 Stanwell Bill. [Tooke later supported American colonists in run up to War of Independence (for which he was jailed), and was a founder member of London Corresponding Society, acquitted in the LCS treason trial of 1794.]

Although the Stanwell struggle was successful for a couple of decades, this was not to last. In 1788/9, much of Hounslow Heath was enclosed. 500 acres of the Heath were enclosed by the Stanwell Enclosure act in 1789. Maybe the opposition was less organised, or the enclosers more determined, or planned their strategy better.

In 1793 the first Middlesex reporter to the Board of Agriculture described commoners on Hounslow Heath and Enfield Chase as people ‘who seem to live on air, without either labour or any obvious advantage from the common’. A curious assertion, given the accounts of how much use the commoners did use the open space quoted above. It can be read as both a claim that the Heath was under-used and would be more productive if enclosed and ‘improved’, but also a moral judgment in the residents, suggesting they are idle and living too easy, off the fat of the land. The 1790s Board of Agriculture surveys covered the country nationally, being carried out by various ‘reporters’. Who they were is a good question – enclosers, their allies, employees, friends? There was a widespread assumption from the ruling elites and from the agricultural establishment that enclosure, ‘improvement’, more intensive agriculture and exploitation of land was not just a matter of profit for landowners, but a moral question. Leaving land idle, under-used, or wild, was an offence, almost a waste of the riches God had given humanity.

Enclosure often caused bitterness and resentment between parishes, and led to great care being taken over borders and boundaries. As resources shrank and became scarcer, some people got more narky as to ‘outsiders’ grazing cattle, for instance. While this may seem mean, it’s worth looking at the Ham Vestry attempts to control and regulate use of common land, which show a long term approach to making sure locals got a fair share and no-one over-exploited the collective resources. They took the view that limiting access to known locals helped ensure that all got at least some use out of the shared space.

Enclosure caused a tightening up of boundaries on Hounslow Heath, which had long given shared common pasture to several west Middlesex parishes. In November 1793 the Harmondsworth vestry ordered the cattle drivers who were appointed at the manor court ‘… to pay due care and attention… ‘ to the problem of Stanwell cattle coming into the parish via Hounslow Heath and grazing on the Harmondsworth waste and commons. This follows earlier orders to impound stray Stanwell cattle in July 1789. This resolution comes only six weeks after the Stanwell enclosure act in May 1789; prior to this time intercommoning on Hounslow Heath had caused no complaint between the two parishes.

Other struggles were continuing on open space that had previously been accounted part of the Heath before it was divided between parishes. An attempt to enclose land at East Bedfont in 1801 was defeated. Opposition to enclosures at Hanworth and Harlington continued into the 19th century.

Enclosures in the area were causing hardship, however. At Cranford in 1815 Samuel Hampstead, a farm servant, complained that due to the recent enclosure of land at Isleworth, Twickenham and Heston, he had been reduced to buying fuel for the first time in forty years, as the best part of Hounslow Heath for digging fuel was now enclosed. Although wholesale enclosure at Cranford and Harlington seems to have fallen through in 1802, it was enclosed by act in 1818.

1818 was the year much of the remainder of open heath at Hounslow was enclosed, under an 1813 Act of Parliament, sponsored by the major landowners meeting in Isleworth.

Army encampment on Hounslow Heath

A portion of the heath was to be sold to the government as a military review ground, for use by the Army,
who had long carried out manoeuvres, training (including the development of pioneering mapping and surveying techniques) on the Heath, bought a chunk of the land to keep it for their purposes. Ironically, that land that remains open today in Hounslow, where most of the surrounding land was enclosed.

“Hounslow Heath,” wrote William Cobbett in 1830, “… is a sample of all that is bad in soil and villainous in look. Yet this is now enclosed, and what they call ‘cultivated’. Here is a fresh robbery of villages, hamlets and farm and labourers’ buildings and abodes!” Sand and gravel mining began in the mid-19th century, wreaking further damage on the natural habitat.

By 1867 this area was leased to a Mr Brewer who was preserving a rabbit population for game shooting.

But the enclosure did not end the bitterness of local people, or the resistance to the land theft. People had long traditions of hunting for small game, as we have seen they went back to the thirteenth century. Enclosing the land turned this into poaching. Mr Brewer had employed a gamekeeper to combat these ‘poachers’; the keeper was accused of using abusive language against people using a right of way across the heath. For this the keeper was legally censured and fined. lt was also found that the lease was bad in law as the tenant of the holding was in fact charged with the task of destroying rabbits and not employed to preserve them.

The court’s decision, not to fully back up the party claiming private property rights, saw the word spread that the land in question was open to all. The findings of the court led to “… a portion of the public – the majority not of the most respectable class – determined to cross the heath, fearless of opposition, because of the findings of Saturday last. At twelve o’clock they entered and past over the heath in large numbers, and on Monday (the next day) hundreds of people of all sorts again took possession, and made a complete battue, hunting down the rabbits and killing them by the aid of various weapons some of them of the wildest description”.

This access to the heath, and a supply of fresh meat in the form of rabbits, was short lived as keepers came under strict orders to prevent further trespass. Those who continued were indicted although poaching probably continued after this incident in much the sane way as before.

In 1872 the caretaker of Hounslow Heath was badly beaten by three local inhabitants when he challenged their right to walk on the heath. The three claimed they had simply ‘raised the question’, that is to say to protest against any perceived illegal encroachment through a supposed trespass which could then be tried in law. Two of the men were sentenced to 18 months and the third 6 months hard labour.

Illegal poaching continued on the Heath into the 1970s.

Gravel extraction continued until about 1976, and the resulting craters were filled with domestic refuse. A regeneration programme has subsequently restored around 200 acres of heathland, with gorse, broom and rushes. In 1991 the majority of the site was designated a statutory local nature reserve. A municipal golf course was laid out on the heath’s western edge – this closed in 2016.

The space that remains called Hounslow Heath today is a tiny remnant of what was was an immense stretch of open land (see the map earlier). What is left is very lovely, a wild space with a small but beautiful nature reserve, well worth visiting – but you can imagine what a wander of the old Heath would have been like…

Since the 1940s, Heathrow Airport has gradually been swallowing up more and more of the old, larger pre-16th century Hounslow Heath. Continued expansion for a new runway threatens to eat up the villages of Sipson, Harmondsworth, Longford; despite fierce opposition from local residents, and from environmental campaigners at Grow Heathrow. Covid might have temporarily put a spoke in that, but for how long?

And at nearby Isleworth, locals are still not taking the theft of space lying down: allotment tenants are still fighting 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! Support their campaign 

Modern day enclosures continue… But do does resistance… 

‘Zone of Transition’: A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

Zone of Transition

A radical history walk around Spitalfields and Brick Lane

START: Christ Church, Commercial Street 

“a land of beer and blood”.

The area this walk covers is one of the oldest inhabited parts of London’s East End, and one of the earliest areas outside the City Walls to be built up as the fringes of the City of London spread outward. Brick Lane’s origins go back some 2000 years, to an ancient roman cemetery at Lolesworth Field, Spitalfields. In 1576 this field was broken up for brick manufacture, hence the name of Brick Lane.

From the Middle Ages, the ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

Map showing the Tower of London and the ‘Spital Field’, 1633

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

In 1580 the population of east London was estimated to be 14,000. A third of these were in Whitechapel, and the rest in Stepney, which seems then to have included Spitalfields. Fifty years later in 1630, numbers had nearly quadrupled to 48,000. As land in the City and other central areas was redeveloped for commercial use and railways and new roads were built, working class people displaced from these neighbourhoods moved gradually eastward, joining refugees from rural ‘improvements’ and the persecuted from abroad.

John Stow’s Survey of London in 1603 referred to the building of “filthy cottages” to the north of Aldgate. At the end of the 16th Century there were already complaints about the numbers of lodging houses in the area. Spitalfields district was built up further around 1700.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

[Partly because the area was known for housing breweries: The largest operator was Truman Hanbury & Buxton. This company’s brewery stood at 91 Brick Lane: T.H. & B. appear to have had a virtual monopoly of Spitalfields tied pubs east of Commercial Street, and gave their names to some of its central streets. Another major brewer was Mann Crossman & Paulin in Whitechapel Road, and further east where it became Mile End Road was Charrington & Co.

There were still some small, independent brewers, such as in nearby Spellman Street, into the late 19th century.]

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Almost always they have been dissenters, or identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of immigrants had struggled to gain a foothold on the urban economy.

Disorder has often been a regular feature of life here; from the 16th century, when London archers & youth gathered to demolish fences erected by the richer citizens of the City and outlying villages to try & enclose traditional recreation grounds. The open fields here were also place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution.Poverty, partly caused by periodic depressions in cloth trade (eg that of 1620-40), and other issues could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

These aspects of local life led Spitalfields and the majority of its inhabitants to be seen as a ‘problem’ by those in power and the better of classes of London. Their poverty, the way they lived and often their attitude to work, caused them to be generally labeled immoral; the poverty and crap housing they lived in was perceived to be their own fault; their tendency to drink, crime and riot made them a threat. The area has for centuries been subject to plans, redevelopment, demolition, the removal and re-ordering of its population; whether to bring order or better housing to the poor, or to move them out so as to take over the space they lived in, as more recently.

These then are some of the central themes of our walk: the relationship of the City and Spitalfields’ industry, and the poor workers employed by it; migration and new incoming communities; and living space, how people live together, especially their housing, its quality and but also pressure from their betters seeing them as a threat, and wanting to control their environment, or wanting the land they live on and trying to move them on.

Christ Church

Hawksmoor’s grandiose Christ Church, Spitalfields, built in the early 18th Century, was deliberately located here, at a time when Spitalfields’ population of transients, migrants and dissidents was starting to worry the authorities. The power of the state was inextricably bound up with the power of the official Anglican church, not least in the minds of those in charge of both. Not only were there growing numbers of non-anglicans in Spitalfields, like the Hugenot refugees, as well as other non-conformists, but the constantly flowing movements of the poor meant it was hard to impose religious discipline. In order to advertise the overweening authority of Anglicanism to the inhabitants,  Christ Church was one of 50 new churches commissioned by an Act of parliament in 1711 (though only twelve got built, as the money ran out).

Homelessness was and still is, endemic in Spitalfields:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the gardens behind the church, then much larger, were a popular crashpad for the local homeless, known as Itchy Park.

Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) describes his visit to the gardens at three o’clock one afternoon:

“A chill, raw wind was blowing, and these creatures huddled there in their rags, sleeping for the most part, or trying to sleep. Here were a dozen women, ranging in age from twenty years to seventy. Next a babe, possibly of nine months, lying asleep, flat on the hard bench, with neither pillow nor covering, nor with anyone looking after it. Next half‑a‑dozen men, sleeping bolt upright or leaning against one another in their sleep… On another bench a woman trimming the frayed strips of her rags with a knife, and another woman, with thread and needle, sewing up rents.”

London notes that as the iron railings prevented people from sleeping there at night, the homeless were obliged to sleep by day.

A large homeless population still frequents the area, due to the Salvation army hostels and Providence Row hostel; and the gardens were still popular with the homeless in the 1980s, when they used to come into a sharp class conflict with the visitors to the classical music concerts taking place at the church:

“This is the derelict congregation of the crypt. Its members attend a hostel and soup kitchen famous from the days when the church yard was known as Itchy Park and that, for many of the post‑war years which the church above stood semi‑derelict, provided the only regular service offered here. Ignoring the ancient injunction on bidding them to ‘Commit no nuisance’, these time‑honoured figures stage a vile performance of their own. They hurl insults at the concert‑goers, begging money from them obscenely and urinating on their smart cars. My sleeve was taken by a man who dragged me through the hellish narrative of twenty‑two years spent in gaol, shuddering with horror at the deteriorated company into which he been released, this fellow declared his own outlaw ethic in words should be cut into the stone of Hawksmoor’s building: ‘I’ve never mugged. I’ve never robbed a working‑class home’. As he sank away towards the underworld of the crypt, we ascended hierarchical steps to hear music by Messaien and Hans Werner. The frisson was undeniable.” (Patrick White)

The Irish

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields; frequently they were poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was frequently noted. The radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers. Irish workmen were being used for the building of Christ Church, and there were anti-Irish riots in Spitalfields in 1736:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, 6 there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry.

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him ‘ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass. fly … 1 heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘..

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

There were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved).

Commercial Street: The Wicked Quarter Mile

For centuries there was a slum here, a “rookery” as they called them in the 19th Century: a notorious area of narrow alleys and dark yards; many of the buildings here were overcrowded, teeming with the poor; a good number were lodging houses, dosshouses, where the hungriest of the homeless scrounged a living, and of these most were identified by the police as haunts of criminals, thieves, prostitutes and other undesirables.  A double bed would cost 8d, a single 4d and when the all the beds were taken a rope might be fixed down the middle of the room with residents sleeping against it back-to-back for 2d. Those without the money for their lodgings were evicted nightly.

Commercial Street was built in the 1840s, partly as a way of breaking up this dangerous area, filled with the poor & desperate. “Wide new roads” were built around this time throughout London, partly to improve traffic and trade, but also were driven through rookeries to “let in air, light, police, and most important of all, disturbing the inhabitants from their old haunts.” Commercial Street’s commercial value was exaggerated:  for twenty years as it didn’t extend far enough northwards to be of much use as a highway; but this wasn’t its main aim. 1300 poor people were evicted here (with no right to rehousing in those days) and many of the most infamous areas knocked down… Each side of the new throughfare, tenement blocks were build by Model Dwelling Companies, (Rothschild Buildings and Lolesworth Buildings to the east, Wentworth and Brunswick Buildings and Davis Mansions to the west) sponsored by middle class housing reformers, built by pioneering Housing Associations like Peabody. Although an important motive for their construction was a desire to improve working class living conditions, and thus help stave off class violence and rebellion, and drag the immoral poor out of the gutter, in the long run the new Dwellings failed in their purpose. Rents were deliberately set high enough to make sure only most respectable of working class could afford it; certainly excluding the very poor who mainly inhabited the rookery.

More on the building of roads in the 19th century to deliberately socially cleanse the poor

Walk south down Commercial Street to Flower & Dean St or Lolesworth Close

But thirty years later Flower and Dean Street area, two streets south of here, was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course. The 1870s saw a revived campaign of middle class reformers to demolish it, a huge propaganda war waged at portraying the inhabitants as immoral, ‘unsavoury characters’ crims, prostitutes etc. This was a time of great fear among the middle classes, after the Paris Commune rising, that the disorderly poor would, if not controlled/pacified by charity and coercion hand in hand, rise up and destroy them. Also that they were immoral, vice-ridden, responsible for their own poverty, etc and that if you put them in a different more moral and orderly environment, moral reform and improved social conditions would make them less shiftless, respectable, and less likely to riot and rebel. Many of the age’s greatest middle class reformers, celebrated pioneers in the development of housing associations, charity etc, acted partly from this fear. Repeated attempts of charity, police, religion, sanitary reform and coercion having constantly failed to control the Flower and Dean Street area, only demolition would do. But it took the Jack the Ripper murders to provide the push that led to the demolition of the “foulest enclaves” of Flower & Dean Street. Three of the ripper’s victims had lived lives of dire poverty in the street, and the media storm the killings roused focussed a spotlight on the area. The Four Per Cent Dwelling Company bought up the north-east side of the street and built Nathaniel Dwellings; on the north side of Wentworth Street, Stafford House was erected (thanks to the guilt-ridden landowners the Hendersons, in an attempt to banish the bad publicity the murders were spreading). Through the 1890s other blocks went up in the old rookery, between Lolesworth and Thrawl Streets.

Ironically 120 years and more later these model blocks had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Only this time the tenants resistance would change the outcome… We will return to this…

Walk across Commercial Street to White’s Row, and walk down to the corner of Tenterground.

The area immediately south of here, known as the Tenter Ground, between Wentworth Street on the south, Rose Lane (since disappeared under Commercial Street) on the east and Bell Lane on the west, was the last part of Spitalfields to be formed into streets. The bounding streets on the south, east and west were built up by the 1640’s and the northern boundary was formed into the south side of White’s Row in about 1650. The central plot of ground remained open, however, until the second decade of the nineteenth century, being a space where ‘tenters’ could be set up – frames to stretch dry newly woven cloth.

On 4th March 1702, Jack Sheppard was born somewhere here. Growing up poor, he spent some of his childhood in the local workhouse, later being apprenticed to a carpenter. He jacked this in to become a thief, but as the prison escaper extra-ordinaire of the 18th century, breaking out of the Clerkenwell New Prison, the Bridewell, and Newgate Prison, in various ingenious ways, he earned enduring fame in his short lifetime. For a hundred years after his death many working class people uninterested in the name of current monarchs and prime ministers could retell Jack’s story in detail.

In some ways Jack could be held to be symbolic of the disorderly nature of this area. Although his rebellion was individual, it chimes with the poor and rebellious Spitalfields folk of many centuries, resistant to authority, hostile to attempts to govern them. As another example, from two streets north of here: in 1763, after Cornelius Sanders was hanged for stealing £50 from her, a Mrs White’s house was attacked by a large crowd: “great numbers of people assembling, they at last grew so outrageous that a guard of soldiers was sent for to stop their proceedings; notwithstanding which, they forced open the door, pitched out all the salmon-tubs, most of the household furniture, piled them on a heap, and set fire to them, and, to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, pelted them off with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed.” (Annual Register, 1763)

Walk down White’s Row To Crispin Street

Lewis Chauvet’s silk factory stood here in the 1760s, at no 39.

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bethnal Green.

Silkweavers were incorporated as a London City Company in 1629. But many foreigners or weavers from northern England or other areas were not allowed to join the Company, and had problems working or selling their work as they weren’t members… Spitalfields had a small-scale silk-weaving industry from the fifteenth century, based on early settlements of foreigners outside the City walls, which increased gradually as protestant refugees from Netherlands congregated here, especially during the Dutch Wars of independence from Spain in the 1580s-early 1600s.

In the early years weaving here was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Compnay were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

Silk dyeing in the fourteenth century

Silk Weavers conducted a long-running battle with their employers in the 17th and 18th centuries, over wage levels, working conditions and increasing mechanisation in the industry. One early method of struggle was the ‘right of search’: a power won over centuries by journeymen weavers and eventually backed by law, to search out and in some cases destroy weaving work done by ‘outsiders’, usually those working below the agreed wage rates, or by weavers who hadn’t gone through proper apprenticeships, by foreigners etc. Silkweavers used it, however, at several points from 1616 to 1675, to block the introduction of the engine loom with its multiple shuttles. At this point the interests of masters and journeymen converged, for the engine loom was being used by total outsiders, and restriction on this technical innovation kept both wages and profits high. But tacit backing of workers violence by master-weavers was always a risky strategy: class conflict kept breaking through. And continued agitation to keep wages high gradually pushed masters seeking to drive profits and productivity up into increased mechanisation…

The journeymen weavers also had a history of support for radical groups, from the Leveller democrats of the English Civil War. through 1760s populist demagogue John Wilkes, to the extreme Chartists of the 1830s.

In 1675, in a three-day riot against machine looms, dozens of bands of weavers roamed the city, some clothed in green (a suspect colour politically, being associated with the Levellers), beating drums, waving flags & setting on the masters who used new engine looms, burning the looms in the streets. The Army suppressed the ‘insurrection’. As a result of the riots full mechanisation was delayed in the industry for a century.

After 1685, Hugenot refugees from France swelled the ranks of the weavers, in Spitalfields, West Bethnal Green and Norton Folgate. Some French co-religionists already there, and many of the migrants were clothworkers, eg weavers from Tours and Lyons. They brought new techniques, designs and materials, working top quality silks with high levels of skill;  their methods, designs and materials spread from them to wider population here.

In 1697 there were further riots against imports on foreign silks, widely seen as undercutting prices for East London cloths. Again masters encouraged crowd violence. Weavers besieged parliament, marched on Lewisham’s silks mills to smash machine looms operating there; and attacked the HQ of the East India Company, major importer of silks from India. They also threatened the house of Joshua Childs, the East India Company’s dictator.

These disturbances and others in succeeding years led to protectionist measures being passed in parliament in 1700 to protect the industry from competition from foreign cloths.

In the 18th Century, silk and the wearing of it, was one of the most potent symbols of class divisions. According to Peter Linebaugh “it was the fabric of power and class command…”; he describes this century as ‘The Age of Silk’. A silk dress could cost £50 in materials alone (a huge sum then), but there was a great contrast of consumer and producer: “the ladies strolling in St James’s Park, adorned in cascades of silk contrived with cuffs, flounces and bows to capture the wandering eye…the gentlmen in their silk stockings and waistcoats, their brocaded jackets and silken knee-britches, bowing and scraping into lordly favour, awaiting the moment to give a command of battle or to sign a death warrant…” The producers were the thousands of men, women and children in the East End, “winding, throwing, dyeing, weaving, drawing, cutting, designing, stitching in hundreds of attics and garrets”. A proverb summed it up: “We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference.”

Silk reeling

Huge fluctuations in silk trade meant intermittent poverty for weavers, the whole area could be plunged into periodic depression and desperation. As a result crime was rife; Spitalfields was the home parish for 64 of the men and women hanged at Tyburn between 1709 and 1783; many were silkworkers, and overwhelmingly a larger proportion of those executed hailed from Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

1719-20 saw another prolonged agitation, this time over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, very fashionable then, which weavers widely perceived as causing reduced demand for silk (calico was quite a bit cheaper…) In June 1719, thousands assembled in Spitalfields and the Mint, and marched in protest over calico imports. Somewhat dodgily tactics included attacking any women walking in the City wearing calico.

Obviously this tactic is not without its, er, issues today, and one woman at least, did respond in print, denouncing “a gang of audacious rogues to come and fall on us on the streets, and tear the clothes off our backs, insult and abuse us, and tell us we shall not wear what they do not weave; is this to be allowed in a Nation of Liberty?” Class and gender relations tangled here in confused ways: the weavers were poor workers, the women targeted mostly middle to upper class; but male power and violence was clearly involved too. Hmmm. Discuss.

In 1720, weavers rallied in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, and more attacks on calico wearers followed. The protests of 1719-20 were successful, leading to a ban on calico. High import duties were also imposed on the importing of French made silks, the main competitor for Spitalfields cloth; this led however to a widespread trade in smuggled silks from France.

The weavers and their morals

Their penchant for violence in their economic interests was not the only attribute that earned the silkweavers denunciations from their ‘betters’. Being relatively highly paid, for the time, (at least when trade was good), if many silkweavers could subsist on three days work a week, they would. Spitalfields silkweavers were often attacked in print for their idleness and drunkenness. ‘Saint Monday’, taking Monday off (with a hangover, or just to carry on partying), was usually celebrated, and work in the week was often interupted by talking and tippling. And while Saturday morning was officially a work day, it was usually the day to get piece work together, take it to the master and get paid; another day involving much hanging about, chewing the fat and getting a few bevvies in. There were many weavers alehouses in the area: the Crown and Shuttle, the Mulberry Tree, the Three Jolly Weavers, the

Silk weaving, from Hogarth’s ‘Idle Apprentice’ series of etching. Hogarth’s series tells a moral tale of a lazy, unruly apprentice weaver who neglects his work, falls in with bad company and ends on the gallows.

Throwers Arms, the Dyers, the eight different pubs called Weavers Arms, and the three Robin Hood and Little John Inns.

If the politicians, journalists and other worthies who every so often express their disgust, thought that “the scandal of public drunkenness” was anything new… they should think again.

For centuries the life of all classes was steeped in alcohol; up to the eighteenth century public carousing was enjoyed pretty freely, and the English were famed for drink and violence. It was only really in Victorian times that the question of the inebriated state of the poor became the favourite subject for the chattering classes. There were three main reasons:

a – increasing overcrowding in cities, due to enclosure etc pushing people off the land…

b – the growing industrial Revolution: the need for more effective work discipline to force people to work in factories;

c – fear of the disorderly poor, dating from the 18th century mobs, but made more urgent by events like the French revolution: plebs could overthrow society if they weren’t kept in line/taught to respect authority, etc.

Growing campaigns for ‘moral reform’ was the result. Overall a population which sweated out its beer by performing long hours of hard, physical work appears to have held its drink well. However drunkenness was a common problem, especially at weekends and in the lowest districts. Given the moralistic nature of Victorian society this inevitably gave rise to considerable debate amongst the chattering classes. Often this was conducted through the columns of the newspapers, which had become obsessed with the condition of the underclass in what would now be described as ‘the inner cities’. The question as to whether people were poor because they drank, or drank because they were poor was well aired. In fact this debate pre-dated the Ripper murders by a few years. Early sociologists such as Charles Booth (who performed studies in the East End) had already investigated the subject. Booth had reached the unfashionable conclusion that it was the poor socio-economic conditions of the area that caused excessive drinking.

Whatever the cause, newspaper reports and court records of the time show a constant stream of offenders being dealt with by magistrates. A study of the penalties for being drunk and disorderly shows a full range of sentences, from fines to jail sentences with hard labour. Miscreants were frequently imprisoned because they could not afford to pay the fine.

Calico printing

Although the Calico Acts protected the silkweaving trade for a few decades, increased smuggling, gradual exporting of skills and methods to other parts of the country, slowly eroded the Spitalfields  stranglehold on the industry. Sporadic flashes of aggro broke out. In 1739 a master weaver’s house in Spital Square was besieged by workers, who tried to destroy it – they were dispersed by guards.

But by the 1760s tensions between masters and workers had grown to eruption point. Dissatisfaction over pay among journeymen silkweavers was increasing; and 7,072 looms were out of employment, with a slump in the trade partly caused by smuggling (carried on to a greater extent than ever). In 1762, the journeymen wrote a Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases). They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. As a result two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike.

There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, and ended in murder and execution.

In 1763 thousands of weavers took part in wage riots & machine smashings, armed with cutlasses and disguised, destroying looms. They broke open one of the master’s houses,  destroyed his looms, cut to pieces much valuable silk, carried his effigy in a cart through the neighbourhood and afterwards burnt it, hung in chains from a gibbet. The military occupied parts of Spitalfields in response.

The following year, with the slump worsening, weavers petitioned Parliament to impose double duties upon all foreign wrought silks. This petition being rejected, crowds of weavers went to the House of Commons on 10 January 1764, ‘with drums beating and banners flying,’ to demand the total prohibition of foreign silks. This was the day of the opening of Parliament: its members were besieged by the weavers with tales of the great distress which had fallen upon them and their families. Parliament did pass some laws lowering the import duty on raw silk and prohibiting the importation of silk ribbons, stockings, and gloves, and dealers in foreign silks gave assurances they would reduce orders for foreign silks, and a contribution was made for the immediate relief of the sufferers. These actions appeased the weavers for a while, and the only violence committed was that of breaking the windows of some merchants who dealt in French silks.

In 1765, however, wage riots broke out again; at a time of high food prices & unemployment. In May 8000 weavers armed with bludgeons and pickaxes, besieged and attacked Bedford House in Bloomsbury three times, after the Duke engineered the defeat of a bill in the House of Lords designed to protect the  silkweaving trade by placing high import duties on Italian silks. The 4th Duke of Bedford was a whig politician, in and out of various positions of power; leader at one time of a political faction nick-named the Bloomsbury Gang; his extensive interests in the East India Company, which was engaged in importing cheaper Indian textiles, also undercutting the weavers’ livelihoods, made him an even more hated target.

Continued rioting by the weavers all month in Spitalfields and elsewhere kept London in such a state of general alarm that troops were stationed in the area and in Moorfields, and the citizens enrolled themselves for military duty. As a result of the May riots an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

In 1767 wage disputes broke out again: masters who had reduced piece rates had silk cut from their looms. At a hearing in the Weavers Court, in November that year, a case was heard, in which a number of journeymen demanded the 1762 prices from their Book be agreed. The Court agreed that some masters had caused trouble by reducing wages and ruled that they should abide by the Book. However this had little effect, and trouble carried on sporadically.

Trouble was also breaking out between groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads. On 30 November 1767, “ a body of weavers, armed with rusty swords, pistols and other offensive weapons, assembled at a house on Saffron-hill, with an intent to destroy the work of an eminent weaver without much mischief.” On the authorities arresting and questioning some of them  it turned out this was a dispute between hand loom weavers and machine loom users.

The events of 1762-7 however were merely a curtain raiser for 1768-69 though. The ‘Cutters’ Riots’ saw a prolonged struggle with bitter violence, rioting, threatening letters to employers, hundreds of raids on factories. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices.

In the Summer of 1769, an attempt to cut wages by some masters led some journeymen to organise a levy on looms, to raise money to fund organised resistance. Secret clubs were formed, including one allegedly called the Bold Defiance, (or Conquering and Bold Defiance, or the Defiance Sloop), which attempted to levy a tax on anyone who owned or possessed a loom. They met at the Dolphin Tavern in Cock Lane, Bethnal Green. Their methods of fund-raising bordered, shall we say, on extortion, expressed in the delivery to silk weaving masters of Captain Swing style notes: ”Mr Hill, you are desired to send the full donation of all your looms to the Dolphin in Cock Lane. This from the conquering and bold Defiance to be levied four shillings per loom.”

Which brings us to Lewis Chauvet, a major silk boss, whose factory was here in Crispin Street: leading manufacturer of silk handkerchiefs, who had already been involved in bitter battles against striking weavers in Dublin. He forbade his workers to join the weavers’ clubs or to pay any levies, and organised a private guard on his looms. As a result, the cutters gathered in large numbers and tried to force Chauvet’s workers to pay up. Fights broke out and many people on both sides were badly hurt. Then, on the night of Thursday 17th August, the cutters assembled in gangs and went to the homes of Chauvet’s workers, cutting the silk out of more than fifty looms. Four nights later, on Monday 21st, they gathered in even greater numbers and cut the silk out of more than a hundred looms. Throughout the night the streets of Spitalfields resounded to the noise of pistols being fired in the air.

Chauvet’s response to this episode was to advertise a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. But for several weeks the people of Spitalfields remained silent, either for fear of the cutters, or because they did not wish to give evidence that might send a man to the gallows.

This was going way too far for the authorities. On 30 Sept 1769, magistrates, Bow St Runners and troops raided the Bold Defiance’ HQ at the Dolphin Tavern, finding the cutters assembled, armed, and “receiving the contributions of terrified manufacturers.” A firefight started between the weavers and the soldiers and runners, which left two cutters and a soldier dead; four weavers were arrested.

As a result, two weavers, John Valloine & John Doyle,  implicated by witnesses who claimed a reward from Chauvet, were convicted of murder and hanged on the 6th December 1769, despite an organised attempt to free them, and attacks on the men building the gallows with stones. Doyle and Valloine were hanged at corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road. After their execution the crowd tore down the gallows, rebuilt them in front of Chauvet’s factory/house here in Crispin Street, and 5,000 people gathered to smash the windows & burn his furniture. Two weeks later on December 20th,  more cutters were executed: William Eastman, William Horsford and John Carmichael. Daniel Clarke, a silk pattern drawer and small employer was paid by Chauvet to give evidence against some of the hanged men. He had regularly tried to undercut agreed wage rates and had testified before against insurgent weavers.

Loom with a Jacquard pattern head. The cards with holes in to guide the loom into weaving particular patterns pre-figured early card-driven computers

Although the repression quietened things down for a year or so, these hangings still had a grim epitaph. On 16th April 1771, Daniel Clarke was spotted walking through Spitalfields streets, and chased by a crowd of mainly women and boys, including the widow of William Horsford, and finally stoned to death in the Hare Street Pond in Bethnal Green.  In Spitalfields this was widely seen as community justice – the official ‘justices’ had to squash another open challenge. Two more weavers, Henry Stroud – William Eastman’s brother in law –  and Robert Campbell were hanged in Hare Street on July 8th for Clarke’s ‘murder’. Witnesses had to be bribed to testify, and were attacked; Justice Wilmot, who arrested the two men, only just escaped the angry crowd, and a hundred soldiers had to be posted to ensure the hanging took place.

Although prices were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal. This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.

The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.

The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved up north where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard;  at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that ‘some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.’

One major result at least between 1773 and 1824 seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken place in the food riots of 1795… [Interestingly local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, had the stated aim of preventing the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, and important forerunner of the Met.]

So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement.

The division over the Acts can be seen then as a traditional split in ruling/employer attitudes to workers militancy: either pacify them and reduce trouble, or reduce their wages savagely regardless and repress any resistance. In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition in any case, however.

It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom–cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.

Repeal led to or coincided with terrible poverty in area: (see Buxton Street, below).

After 1830, the London silkweaving industry went into a terminal decline,. Although in 1831 there were still 17,000 looms in the East End, and some 50,000 people in Spitalfields, Mile End New Town and Bethnal Green were directly dependent on silk weaving, 30,000 were said to be unemployed here in the 1830s. The steam-powered loom gradually took over from handloom-weaving. Although some weavers migrated to other silk-working areas, most remained, many taking to casual work in spells of unemployment, especially on the docks. An 1837 Poor Law Report stated that ‘a considerable number of the weavers are fellowship porters and are employed in unloading vessels at London docks during seasons of distress.’  Many weavers worked half in and half out of the trade through the 1840s and 1850s, hopeful that the good times would return. But the fate of the industry was finally sealed by the Cobden free trade treaty with France in 1860, which allowed cheaper french silks in without duty.  In the twenty years, the numbers dependent on the silk trade fell from 9,500 to 3,300. A deputation of silk weavers to the Board of Trade in 1866, stated that in the previous six years, their wage rates had been reduced by 20 per cent, and the price paid for weaving standard velvet had fallen front 4s. 3d. per yard in 1825 to 1s. 9d. per yard. A dwindling band of ageing workers remained in the trade, sharing out the limited work that continued to be available.

But the clothing trade has remained a major employer in the area, though today it has moved on from silkweaving, (through different branches of tailoring), to wholesaling and retailing clothing. Clothes are still made here, overwhelmingly in small workshops or people’s homes, for low pay, usually the province of migrant workers or their children. New communities moving into the area could be hired to work at lower rates than existing workers. The Irish were hired to work power looms to undercut the rebellious descendants of the hugenots…

Although the Spitalfields Acts said by historians to have kept weavers out of food riots during the various crises of the French/Napoleonic Wars, at the same time, reforming and radical groupings met in Spitalfields and had support in this area through the 1790s to the 1830s.

In the late 1790s, the various splinter groups variously called the United Britons, United Englishmen or the True Britons were active here. These groups emerged from the wreckage of the London Corresponding Society, a reforming organisation formed in 1792 among London artisans and workers. The LCS had campaigned for an extension of the vote for working men, but even this simple reform had scared the British government in the atmosphere following the French Revolution: they saw the shadow of the guillotine in even the most polite of working class organisation. The LCS became more radical as it faced increasing government repression, mass surveillance by Home Office spies, arrests, treason trials, and as laws were passed attacking freedom of expression and association and removing legal protection from detainees.
LCS Division 17 formed November 1792 met at the Black Swan, Brown’s Lane, Spitalfields; Brown’s Lane changed its name to Hanbury Street in 1876. The Black Swan was at 23 Hanbury Street until 1899, on the north side of the street.

Faced with massive repression, the failure of the LCS’ main tactics of the monster rally and gradual education, some frustrated radicals gave up on demands for reform, and decided that only a revolution by force would achieve any gains at all for the lower classes. By 1797, small fractions of the LCS were organising in secret, making links with like-minded groups in other cities (and in Ireland, which was ready to explode). Leading lights included former LCS Secretary Thomas Evans, and Dr Crossfield. The United Englishmen attempted to create grassroots divisions in late 1797, and local societies existed in Spitalfields and other parts of the East End. After a crackdown and some arrests in 1798, the underground groups revived in 1799, as part of a structure based on cells, centred on former soldier Colonel Despard, who had recently been released from detention. In the East End they effectively merged with the Sons of Liberty, another radical splinter group. The Seven Stars Pub was a Sons of Liberty/United Englishmen rendesvous in 1798-99. (possibly in Seven Star Yard, off Brick Lane). These groups attempted to plot an uprising, with support from disaffected soldiers, radical groups nationwide and irish republicans, culminating in an abortive insurrection in 1802, for which Despard and others were executed.

Later, during the economic slump that followed the end of the Napoleonic War, mass unemployment (as hundreds of thousands were suddenly demobbed from the army and navy, and the war economy collapsed), food shortages and high prices led to unrest all over the country. 1815 saw riots all year, including against the new ‘Corn Laws’, Acts of Parliament designed to guarantee maximum profits for the English landed aristocracy (who then dominated Parliament) by banning cheap imports of corn; in times of bad harvest this meant high bread prices. The government cracked down, sending in troops and passing new repressive laws. 45,000 people were said to be ‘in want’ in Spitalfields at this time; how many weavers were involved in the Corn Law riots and the battle of Spa Fields (where rioters looted gun shops) is not known… But local taverns again saw heated gatherings of the ultra-radicals, plotting insurrection and rebellion: some of them even veterans of the 1790s movement. The Golden Key Tavern, the Red Lion (possibly 92 Commercial Street?, on the east side, at entrance to modern Puma Court, then Red Lion Court) ), and the Spotted Dog, were all said in 1817/18 to be regular meeting places of the insurrectionary revolutionaries.

The National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) had a Spitalfields and East End branch. The NUWC formed as an alliance of metropolitan radicals, mainly artisans, and campaigned for political reform, mainly through demanding the vote for working men.

Later, the East London Democratic Association, a ‘physical force’ Chartist organisation, was strong in Spitalfields, with alot of support among the silkweavers.

Walk west down Artillery Lane, then north up Gun Street, to the corner with Brushfield Street

Jewish immigration in Whitechapel and Spitalfields

In 1881 the assassination of the russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to leave Russia. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s.

Anti-semitism has a long history, but large-scale Jewish migration into the area sparked a new and specific campaign against it. There was fierce anti-immigrant agitation; and not just from right-wingers. Central figures in this campaign included people like Major Evans-Gordon, the MP for Stepney, (whose speeches and writings are remarkably similar to those of Enoch Powell later), the Reverend Billing of Spitalfields, the local vicar; and Arnold White, but also from East End trade unions. An early rally against Jewish immigration produced a resolution to Parliament calling for bans on migrants, signed by 43 unions including the Dockers Union; pioneer socialist and much revered dockers leader Ben Tillet was outspokenly very anti-immigrant.

Much of the writing and speechmaking Invasion’ described them as being of inferior race of humanity, and tried to establish a causal link between the Jews and poverty, and the creation of social evils in the areas they inhabited. Arnold White’s symposium The Destitute Alien in Great Britain was published in 1892. Books like  WH Wilkins’ ‘The Alien Invasion’ described them as being of inferior class, questioned whether they in fact brought Russian persecution upon themselves, and campaigned for strict immigration laws.

Locally the Jewish migrants, overcrowded like most new-coming communities into the worst housing, were blamed for the squalor, overcrowding and poverty they lived in; accusations repeated by other working class people barely escaped from a similar position, but most vehemently by those of the class that profited nicely from renting slums at over-inflated rents. The same accusations had been levelled at the Irish, wherever they had ‘colonised’, and were later repeated against West Indians in Brixton and Notting Hill in the 1950s and ’60s.

In 1901 Major Evans-Gordon and others formed the British Brothers’ League, basically a nationalist and racist organisation, to help build up  anti-immigrant activity. Every Conservative candidate in Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Haggerston – districts where organised racism remained a major feature for decades – exploited anti-immigrant attitudes in elections from 1892 to 1906. This pressure paid off, contributing to the passing the first Aliens Act. restricting immigration, in 1905.

Local working class people from older communities often saw the Jews as direct competition in the daily struggle for jobs. The East End had long depended on casual, low paid work, where you might compete day by day to get work ahead of your neighbours. Others were ‘self-employed’ in precarious circumstances; for instance many of the incomers either were or became street pedlars, selling in the street, which was a direct threat to the livelihoods of the mostly irish costermongers (street-traders) of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. many of these  organized their own agitation against Jewish immigration; much as their ancestors had also been attacked in earlier centuries.

Anti-semitic traditions passed down to 1930s Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, strong in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and parts of Stepney.

The local Irish population were ironically strongly anti-semitic, despite the story of the jews echoing their own experience in the area 100-150 years earlier. (the powerful influence of the Catholic Church in Irish communities would be a powerful factor, “the Jews killed Our Lord blah blah”…) This echo is a regular feature of life here: migrant communities struggle to gain foothold, provoking fear of difference and economic competition, but when they establish themselves, they often turn on the next migrants to arrive, who they see as threatening their own barely established hold. Many East End Irish were to become strong supporters of Oswald Mosley and his fascists; long-cockneyfied Irish descendants in more recent decades took a dim view of incoming Bangladeshis.

Facing such a hostile reaction, the migrant Jews tended to respond in one of three ways: religious isolationism, a turn to more orthodox judaism; working hard and attempting to assimilate; thirdly, to radicalism, trade unionism and ideas of class solidarity, usually across ‘religious’ lines.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers.

East End tailors, 1913.

Like the silkweaving industry of old, the tailoring trade was subject to many fluctuations. Annually there were two seasons, busy time and slack time: in busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, working very long hours; in slack times, there was little or no work, resulting in great poverty and hunger. Pawnbrokers would be the only ones booming, and 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets, waiting to hear about work, gossiping, discussing…

A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

In May 1876, the Hebrew Socialist Union was founded here in Gun Street, at no 40. (The current building at no 40 replaced the building they met in, which was demolished in 1976). The HSU’s founders included Aaron Lieberman, who had emigrated to London the year before, having been involved in populist and socialist politics in Russia, and Isaac Stone. The Union aimed to organise among the Jewish working class, spread socialism among Jews and non-Jews, and to support workers’ organisation and struggles; they held educational classes on philosophy, history, revolution, socialism. Although they organised Jewish workers separately from ‘native’ workers they were not separatist, and they did make a noble but ill-fated attempt to approach Irish workers locally, who were often very anti semitic. The HSU also promoted the formation of a tailors union in August 1876.

But the group was paralysed by constant doctrinal disputes; over whether small masters and peddlars were workers and should be allowed in to the HSU; but mostly over religion, assimilation and observance. Liebermann was very anti-religious, but many of the members combined some radical views with religious belief.

Hebrew Socialist Union pamphlet

As well as internal division, the Hebrew Socialist Union also faced hostility from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Many Jews in established communities, which had more or less made themselves acceptable and respectable to British society, were worried or even opposed to the influx of poor Eastern Jews, especially with so many being of the radical persuasion; would the latent anti-semitism always present here be provoked and would they older more assimilated communities also become targets? The great and good among the more accepted Jews adopted a dual approach: charity towards the new migrants, but accompanied by pressure to settle down, work hard, integrate into ‘normal’ British life, and not make trouble. On the other hand they attacked the HSU in print, trying to discredit them by suggesting they weren’t Jewish, and found support for this among local bosses. Workers found to be HSU members were sacked. Rabbis denounced them, and the Jewish Chronicle accused them of being secret Christian missionaries. Union Meetings were infiltrated by religious jews incited by this, and degenerated into rowdy argument.

Partly as a result, and partly due to dissensions between the more intellectual Lithuanian socialists, and practical-minded workers (mainly from Galicia), both the HSU and its offshoot tailors’ union were shortlived; the HSU collapsed in September 1876, the tailors union split from its socialist founders but collapsed when the treasurer ran off with its funds.

Aaron Lieberman left for America, where he was to kill himself in 1880; but he had influenced the growing Jewish socialist movement in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe through his writings in the journal Vperyod, which helped form Jewish socialist movements in those countries.
And brief as its life had been, the Hebrew Socialist Union had laid some foundations for the movements of Jewish radicals, socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists, which continued for decades. Jews formed the basis of East End tailors unions, the movements against sweating in the clothing trades, of the strong East End anarchist movement before World War 1, and later of the strong Jewish element among the Communist Party long into the 20th Century.

Walk west down Brushfield Street to the corner with Fort Street

29a Fort Street was the original editorial address of the Arbeter Fraint, or Workers Friend, a hugely influential and long-running Yiddish language newspaper based in the East End.

The Arbeter Fraint had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, a socialist paper that was initially based nearby at 137 Commercial Street. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.

The Poilishe Yidel (meaning the little polish jew, which in itself was a dig an anglo-jewish establishment) was the first socialist paper in Yiddish, founded by Morris Winchevsky, who had arrived in London around 1879, and worked as a book-keeper in the City. He had met up with ex-members of the Hebrew Socialist Union, and took careful note of the religious problems that had dogged the HSU; he laid off from attacks on religion!

Winchevsky launched a socialist paper (sponsored by his mate E. Rabbinowitz) with a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people, to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.

The Yidel employed a strong use of religious language, using quotes directly from religuous texts as headings, etc. This reflected the  background of Winchevsky (and several other jewish radical editors) in a religious training they had later rejected.

But this language of religion was also obviously a common point of reference with their audience, as well as often being powerful imagery in itself.

16 issues of the Poilishe Yidel appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived naive Jews), problems with bosses and landlords… The paper continually advised Jews to get involved in the formation of trade unions.

Poilishe Yidel also kept a watch on anti-semitism in the press, meetings, encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English.

However, the group putting out the paper split in October 1884: initially this was caused by Winchevsky’s resentment of Rabbinowitz’s insertion of adverts, both religious and commercial, espeically an ad for the Liberal Jewish candidate (later local MP) Samuel Montagu. Under Rabbinowitz’s influence the paper was renamed ‘Zukunft’, went anti-socialist, concentrated on local affairs & ended in 1889…

Winchevsky, however, founded a new paper, the Arbeter Fraint, again published in Yiddish. Initially this was a non-partisan socialist paper, “open to all radicals…  social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”.

This paper always held a global view of socialism, rejecting jewish nationalism along with anti-semitism, and advocating  revolution… but Winchevsky remained committed to helping the Jewish poor.

It gathered a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, (obsessed with debunking religion), wrote anti-religious satires. Evolving from the Yidel’s abstaining where religion was converned, the Arbeter Fraint began to attack on religion: constantly denigrating the Jews’ own ancient faith, sometimes through the parody of religious texts.


Initially the AF attacked trade unions as merely a sop to the workers, as there could be no real improvements under capitalism. Revolution was the only solution and was imminent… But fairly soon realities of conditions in the tailoring sweating trades forced them to concede to necessity, and from 1886 the paper helped the drive toward unionisation.

From a monthly, the paper went weekly in June 1886, and came under control of activists at the Berner Street International Workingmans Educational Club, off Commercial Road, Whitechapel, where it was based till the club closed in 1892.

Gradually the group hardened into a more anarchist position, and recruited several libertarian writers and poets. The group that published it were heavily involved in the agitation among tailoring workers that helped lead to the 1889 tailors strike, 6000 tailors struck for a reduction in hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours…120 workshops were closed down.

The strike was won after much agitation, but the master tailors started to break the subsequent agreements immediately.

We’ll return to Arbeter Fraint later

Dino’s café, on the corner of Brushfield Street/Crispin Street was apparently used as an impromptu shelter all night by the many homeless who frequented the area in the 1960s/70s, as it was open all hours for market workers; also mods used to gather here, as it was a hangout for speed dealers in the early ‘60s…

There was also a legendary homeless flame on Brushfield Street, somewhere behaind the market: a leak in a gas pipe possibly?), popularly remembered as the “Spitalfields Fire’, around which the homeless also used to gather. The legend claimed the flame had a charter, that it had burned forever…

People around a fire, Spitafields Market

Apparently there was a Jewish Co-operative Bakery established in Brushfield Street, in September 1894; Yanovsky and Wess of Arbeter Fraint were involved. We have no more info…

 Walk down Brushfield Street to the entrance to Spitalfields Market

A regular market has been held on this spot for centuries. In earlier centuries it was a popular spot for selling off materials knocked off from work by dockers, shipyard workers and tailors.

Socking – flogging off tobacco lifted off the docks – was widely practised here… very similar to the selling of smuggled fags & baccy at Brick Lane in more recent times…

The 1880s saw the first attempt to close the market: it was opposed by locals and radicals, successfully. But in 1885 acres of ‘unused ‘land here which the Metropolitan Board (explain) had taken over, were beginning to be built on with warehouses. There was, according to the local Rector, some working‑class anger that new housing was not being built instead: some organised protest meetings took place.
The current Market building was built in 1890; the buildings were extended in 1928.
Fruit and veg market ended in 1980s, when the City of London relocated the market, selling the site to developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG). Despite the building being partly listed, there have been several attempts to get it demolished, or partly, as the land’s worth a fortune esp with expansion of office blocks into Spitalfields since the 80s.

As an interim measure, while it honed plans for new office blocks, the developers Spitalfields Development Group (SDG) started a Sunday market at the site, with stalls offering everything from organic food to tarot readings. The irony is that the interim market was such a huge success that it was seized upon by opponents to City encroachment as a much better option for Spitalfields than more office blocks. Spitalfields Market Under Threat (Smut) is supported by organisations as disparate as the East London Mosque, the local Georgian house-owners’ association, the local community council and prominent individuals such as Sir Terence Conran, Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. And the  battle between it and the City, the Corporation of London and SDG grows ever more bitter. Smut took its campaign to the heart of the City where members unfurled a “Don’t Demolish Neighbourhood Assets” banner outside the Bank of England, where the Corporation of London was hosting a debate on East End regeneration.

Two-fifths of the market – built in 1890, listed and, therefore, protected – is now in the hands of Ballymore developers who are promising to preserve a reduced stall market in their new commercial development.

Ironically much of the support for the campaigns against demolishing the market is centred on newer occupants, buying in to cheap property prices but driving up land values… another case of one wave of gentrification resisting the one that follows them?

We’ll return to gentrification later on…

Walk across Commercial Street into Fournier Street, walk east, then north into Wilkes Street

Wilkes Street is named for John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment), through the 1760s and 1770s, 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’…

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 in 1763 criticised a royal speech in which King George III praised 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 and, when he fled into exile, he was declared an outlaw in 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.

On 27 April 1768: John Wilkes was brought to the 3 Tuns Tavern in Wilkes Street by a crowd & spoke to a vast mob…

Within a couple of weeks he was in prison and the authorities were shooting his supporters at the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’.

The weavers seized on the popular figure of Wilkes at a time of fierce class struggle in their trade, and gave him mass support…

Like many another popular leader, Wilkes eventually made his peace with the establishment and ended up Mayor of London, and commanded troops against later rioters in 1780.

An anarchist group called ‘proletariat’ was said by a hostile press report to meet in Wilkes Street in 1891…

Walk down to Wilkes Street to Hanbury St: Stop at Christchurch Hall 

Christchurch Hall, Hanbury Street, was used for many strike meetings and radical gatherings from the 1880s;  including the famous striking matchgirls in 1888, anti-sweating rallies, by striking tailors during the massive strikes in 1889 and the 1890s, by anti-development campaigns in Brick Lane (1919); also by the local anarchists: the Arbeter Fraint group held public meetings and anti-religious balls here.

1891: An anarchist mantlemakers union briefly existed in Hanbury Street, possibly the same ‘Knights of Freedom’ said to have had a club in Hanbury Street in 1891… not sure where? But could have been at the Sugar Loaf pub…

Walk down to Brick Lane, across and down to eastern end of Hanbury Street

After the demise of the Berner Street anarchist club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings at the Sugar Loaf Public House, then no 187 Hanbury Street, somewhere at eastern end… In a building since demolished.

They met in in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.

According to Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”

The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.

But increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who became an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…

In 1905 Rocker was accused of being a German government spy and was called to answer the charge at a meeting of London-based anarchists in a large back room of a pub at the corner of Old Montague Street and Osborne Street – now called The Archers. The meeting ended in uproar but Rocker’s innocence was established.

The Arbeter Fraint Group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906. This emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, led to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. A strike committee was set up in a HQ in Independent Tailors & Garment workers Union office in Old Montague Street (since demolished). There was mass picketing, and scabs were kidnapped and released to their families on payment of a fine into the strike fund! But workers were driven gradually back to work by hardship, and though it was settled with concession on hours and abolition of piece work, the terms won were ambivalent, masters also forced concessions on the workers, and union membership suffered.

The effects of this strike were not totally reversed till the massive 1912 Tailors Strike, when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a (mainly non-Jewish) West End strike, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel. 13,000 Jewish tailors came out and made their own demands; this time Rocker and other Arbeter Frainters were on the strike committee. Demands were formulated for a 9 hour working day, payment by day work not piece work, higher wages, closed union shops, an end to bad conditions at work… Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed, and the workers won all their demands – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions… Rocker and the AF group encouraged support for 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers children into homes in 1912… They made links that lasted years, bearing fruit into the 1930s and the battle of Cable Street…

The Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with World War 1; Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ for the duration of the war, and many Jews went back to Russia with the 1917 revolution… Many anarchists and syndicalists joined the Communist Party under the influence of the Soviet victory, others left the movement as Jews gradually moved to other areas of London.

Walk east down Hanbury Street to Greatorex Street, turn right, walk down Greatorex Street to Chicksand Street

In 1917, Isaac Glassman ran a coal depot in Chicksand Street. After the Russian Revolution, Poplar socialists Glassman & Edgar Lansbury allegedly stashed the Russian Crown Jewels (smuggled into Britain by Russian socialists) here, while they tried to flog them, to raise money for the socialist Daily Herald paper! But Edgar’s dad George Lansbury, then running the Herald, quashed the idea; the jewels eventually ended up in the US but it’s not clear what happened to the money…

Continue down Greatorex Street to Old Montague Street, turn right

Housing Struggles

 Housing conditions for the working classes in Spitalfields were notoriously terrible for centuries. A 1837 outbreak of fever among silkweavers was blamed on their bad housing. The People of the Abyss damns the state of housing here… Little had changed by the 1970s. Local housing was overcrowded, especially in the privately rented tenements and terraces, but also in council flats; often there was no hot water, no heating, bad sanitation, no baths, no inside toilets… lots of bugs and damp.

Many houses were traditionally combined with workplaces, from the weavers through to the Jewish tailors who took piecework in their homes.

Spitalfields didn’t feature in the 1944 County of London Plan to improve housing, or get much rehousing post WW2, especially in the then Jewish areas. Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward (south of Whitechapel Road, around Parfett Street) were two local wards left out of the post-war plan; much of the buildings there into the 1970s were hangovers from a century or more earlier.

From the building of Commercial Street to County of London Plan 1944, middle classes have always seen it as legit to force people out of an area when they didn’t fit the plan… This continues…

By the 1960s, locals, including the Jewish communities, were often moving on from this part of the East End. The more affluent Jewish often moved to Stamford Hill, Tottenham, Finchley, Golders Green etc… Those with less cash ended up rehoused in LCC/GLC housing, often in Becontree and Ilford estates (the LCC had managed to buy 1000 acres of Ilford land before WW2) .

Left unimproved by the bulldozing planners, Spitalfields and St Mary’s Ward where were cheap private rents were available for early Bengali immigrants moving into the area in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many first moved into private housing as they couldn’t get into council housing; but private also was not easy – in 1966 a third of all ads for private housing specified ‘no coloureds’.

The earliest Bengali settlers were men, migrant workers; most crowded into a few houses in Settles Street (off Fieldgate Street), Princelet Street, Old Montague Street, Heneage Street, and Wilkes Street …

The men came first, arriving from the nineteen-fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…

Their settlement followed patterns, overcrowding, multiple occupation houses and flats, in a bad state of repair, many buildings containing houses and workshops.

Spitalfields by the 1970s and 1980s had nearly the highest overcrowding, nearly highest unemployment levels, nearly highest percentage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in London. The Bengali migrants were generally working in the clothing trade, having gradually taken over as the workforce where the older Jewish tailors moved on. As previously noted, the East End clothing trades relied heavily on proximity to West End, and a quick response to fashion and seasonal changes. Fast turnover was crucial to supply shops in the West End and further afield, as were low overheads: home workers represented a major cost saving for employers. Around 1989, 12 per cent of the Spitalfields population was working in the home.

There was little contact between Bengalis and the older white population (which was itself far from homogenous, encompassing not only British, but also the descendants of Irish, Maltese, and Jewish groups: many of who were considered ‘less than white’ and targeted for discrimination and racism for decades)

White people mainly lived in the best of local council housing, and mainly worked for the council or in service industries by the 1980s, while 2/3 of Bengalis were in clothing trades. But a quarter of white population were pensioners by the 70s. Many younger and more mobile whites had moved out of slums, taken housing further east or out in Essex. Much of the local Council housing was pre-war, and had no lifts, heating or bathrooms; even the more modern 60s stuff was at its worst (like some flats in the Chicksand Estate) badly designed. unheatable, damp, with warping timbers, and leaks…

Many white tenants wanted to leave, but others had long roots in area, felt a sense of community, and wanted to stay and fight for improvements. Some of their activities were based on racism, however; the age old local dynamic that the last community in are the scum of the earth and the descendants of the previous waves of migrants will give them hell, forgetting their own forbears’ experience (of course there were exceptions to this).

Some white tenants mounted resistance to Bengalis being rehoused in council flats. White tenants on the Holland Estate tried to prevent a Bengali Community school being resited in neighbouring Denning St; white tenants in Chicksand Estate tried to stop new houses in Davenant Street being built for Bengalis.

Both of these did go through in the end.

In 1974, mounting anger over housing conditions led to mass leaflettings and a mass meeting in the Montefiore Centre, which led to the creation of Spit Community Action Group. Discussions among the Bengali community around this time also led to the birth of Spitalfields Bengali Action Group.

Many tenants in old mansion blocks had to campaign to get rehoused. The blocks, often built as model dwellings to replace the rookery housing in the 19th century, and seen as prestigious enough in their day, had themselves fallen into decline.

In Brunswick Buildings, Petticoat Lane, walls were collapsing, postmen wouldn’t go in; the bin men couldn’t drive their cart in due to overparking from the array of Jags and Opels of businessmen working in nearby offices. The tenants fought for a council CPO and got themselves rehoused…

Similarly two years of campaigns at Pelham Buildings, Howard Buildings , Albert Family Dwellings (all off Deal Street and Buxton Street) by tenants action committees got people rehoused.

Often campaigns for rehousing in the same local area, or for modernisation of the existing blocks, was turned down; the council had longer term plans to sell land off for office developments, as at Brady Street Dwellings, which contained well built flats which could have been modernised.

Amidst the housing struggles, the Bengalis and other community groups united to resist plans to ghettoize them… especially vital for the Bengalis, as they tended to get left behind when white tenants were rehoused, or faced racist attacks and harassment when rehoused into council estates in other parts of the borough. Which often led to them fleeing back to the areas where the Bengali community clustered already, for self-defence, community, to avoid being isolated and attacked. Young Bengalis were in the forefront of the anti-ghetto movement. Ironically, given the isolation and hostility Bengalis faced when rehoused on overwhelmingly white estates, institutions like Tower Hamlets Council and the GLC were worried about areas or streets becoming exclusively Bengali.

Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC in the late 1970s, expressed “extreme disquiet” about proposals to rehouse Asian families together, rejecting “ absolutely the kind of social engineering which could result in all-Asian estates or blocks.

Squatting

The complex struggle for better housing conditions and rehousing was further refracted by the emergence of squatting in the early-mid 1970s.

From 1969-70 onwards, right across London squatters were invading housing that had been left empty, often by over‑ambitious council development programmes that had backfired. Tower Hamlets was no exception. Although many of the early squatters were young, white and single, Bengali families were quick to join in. Some were homeless families who’d been rehoused on white estates, and had been punched and stoned back to E1 by systematic racist violence. Others were looking for places to squat to avoid this fate, as the council was offering them nothing through the waiting list, and they had exhausted the goodwill of friends and relatives who had been putting them up. These were some of the very first Bengali families to join their men in London.

The squatting began in Bromley Street, Aston Street, Whitehorse Lane, Belgrave Street in East Stepney, then Adelina Grove near Sidney Street, and Parfett Street, Myrdle Street and Fieldgate Mansions off Whitechapel Road. Students mixed in with Bengali families.

The cutting edge of the movement was an organisation which called itself the ‘Faceless Homeless’. They escalated the confrontation in 1974 by seizing a decanted council block in Bow called Sumner House, and held it despite everything the council could do.

Tower Hamlets Council accused squatters of ‘jumping the waiting list’. However, the council itself was sponsoring its own way of  jumping the list: the Housing Ballot, where young couples ‘won’ a council house if their names were picked out of a Bingo drum. This ended any pretence that housing was being allocated according to need; if housing were allocated on the basis of need, Bengalis stood a chance, as they were living in the very worst housing. The Bingo Ballot was a thinly disguised way of giving white working‑class families, who weren’t living in the worst slums, a chance to beat Bengalis to rehousing.

Bengalis, living in desperate, overcrowded conditions, faced no priority for council housing, and so had to take action for themselves. In the summer of 1975, the first mass Bengali squat in Spitalfields opened up the empty houses of Old Montague Street, housing  twenty‑two adults and 50 children. This kickstarted a rush of squatting in the area: empties in Varden Street and Nelson Street were taken over. And the more houses were squatted, the collective strength helped make everyone safer from individual eviction. Many of the homes had been recently vacated by tenants who had struggled collectively for rehousing.

A council attempt of a show of force against the Faceless Homeless in occupation of a block in Corfield Street, Bethnal Green, in 1975, where gangs were sent in to knock the block down with the squatters still inside, faced stout resistance, including the petrol‑bombing of the  demolition equipment, and the Corfield Street squatters were given permanent rehousing as a Tenant Management Co‑operative in Wapping.

February 1976 saw the various Bengali squatted streets unite as the Bengali Housing Action Group, known as BHAG (bhag is also Bengali for ‘tiger’!) Largely a creation of Abbas Uddin, one of the organisers of the Bengali squats (and later the first Bengali Labour councillor), Terry Fitzpatrick, one of the Faceless Homeless, supported of the editorial collective of the magazine Race Today. At its peak BHAG was several hundred families strong, with a core of 150 in the four main squatted streets. Under BHAG’s auspices another block was taken, this time the recently emptied Pelham Buildings in the heart of Spitalfields. Bengali squatters controlled a large chunk of the housing at the heart of the council’s local development programme. They were in a strong position to demand terms for proper council rehousing for its membership.

Homes were rewired, replumbed, reglazed by the squatters. But many of the homes had degenerated into near- slum conditions, which was why they lay empty, and a lot were in a poor state. DIY utilities had their limits and dangers: one cable ran from the electricity board head to supply all 60 flats in Pelham Buildings. On a cold winter’s night, the outside insulation of that cable would be too hot to hold. Terry Fitzpatrick nearly had his head blown off trying to replace the main fuse after the London Electricity Board removed it.

BHAG also had to step in to take control of squats after profiteering by mini-gangsters and dodgy characters to charge rent for squats… With nowhere new to squat, and conditions getting worse, some of BHAG’s momentum was lost.

The editorial collective of Race Today which had helped set up BHAG had become increasingly distanced from it. Members were concerned that BHAG as a provider of housing would lose its political direction. For them, ‘all it could succeed in doing was recreating in a squalid ghetto block some of the feudal relations of the Asian village’. Race Today saw BHAG as ideally

“A body of people who would promote the independent organisation of the black working class to win, through a determined campaign, the physical, social space our community needed. We were not a group to make general moan about the neglect of the East End by the state’s welfare authorities.”

Race Today felt that BHAG’s membership needed to be built round political demands and not simply round those of the Bengali squatters which could be defused by GLC offers of rehousing on derelict estates.

The poor condition of many of the squats, even after DIY repairs, meant that the thrust of BHAG activity became more and more towards demanding council rehousing for the residents. A second generation of people asking to be moved out of the very same slum properties which tenants had fought to be rehoused from just a few years before. BHAG was learning from the experience of previous clearances in demanding local rehousing, while it used strength in numbers to negotiate, as the Faceless Homeless had.

In 1976 the Labour-run GLC Housing Committee had summarily dismissed the Bengalis squatters’ claims for rehousing. But the Tories who took over the GLC in 1977, came forward with a London‑wide amnesty for squatters ‑ guaranteeing them all rehousing. The GLC had realised how difficult it would be to evict several hundred Bengali families who had nowhere else to go, which would put massive pressure on Tower Hamlets Homeless Persons Unit and leave hundreds of houses would be left empty, open to more. Evicting then smashing up the houses was politically unpopular after Lambeth Council’s disastrous defeat trying just that, at St Agnes Place in 1977.

BHAG voted to endorse the amnesty helped register all the Bengali squatters it knew about. The GLC hired the Montefiore Centre for a whole day with a team of interpreters and the squatters poured through.

BHAG drew up a list of estates where their members would be safe from racist attack, and the new GLC in trying to arrange local rehousing.. Each estate was voted on by show of hands at a mass meeting and a list of 13 was given to the GLC with a guarantee from BHAG that no reasonable offer on any of those estates would be refused.

Walk west back down to Brick Lane, turn right and down to no 59 (mosque)

A symbol of the immigration in East End, and the religious changes migration has brought.

Built as a Hugenot protestant church, then taken over by Methodists, and later the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. Ironically in the light of this last, in 1898 the former chapel became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, and the self-styled ‘fortress’ of religious Orthodoxy of Anglo-Jewry. Since …. it has been a mosque, serving the Bengali community that now dominates the area.

Religion is often a double-edged sword for migrant communities. On the one hand it can act both as a comfort and a centre, binding people closer together in strange environment, allowing them to feel support and solidarity of people like themselves; and continuity with their life in the place they came from. But religion also often marks them out as different, ‘other’, alien; and is used to target them as outsiders, or even subversives, terrorists. The Irish and Catholicism, Jews and Judaism, Bangladeshis and Islam: the threat of the foreigner has commonly been bound up with their worshipping the wrong god(s), which continues today. The  British Establishment has often attacked groups holding to a different religion as undermining social order (remember the building of Christ Church in Commercial Street); in response, being targeted can drive migrants, or their children, into more fundamental and radical forms of belief. While some younger or second generation migrants become influenced by the secular society around them; others take on even more hardline forms of worship than parents – both these processes are currently underway among the Bengalis to some extent.
Religion is also used as a means of control within migrant communities to reinforce traditional hierarchies in uncertain situations.

The radical Eastern European Jews seem to have been unique here, in that they already had, or rapidly developed, a strong overt secular strand within their ranks, which was expressed in provacative atheism and outrageous public rejection of the tenets of the Jewish faith.

Thus this building, as the Great Synagogue (Machzzke?’ Ha Dath), became a target for the strong Jewish anarchist and socialist anti-religious sentiment in the early 1900s. On one occasion this led to a riot. It was occasioned by the Anarchist balls, deliberately held on Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish festivals, which even marginal Jews generally respect. Young political Jews flaunted their contempt for tradition by marching in column to the Synagogue, smoking or brandishing ham sandwiches as gestures of defiance and rejection of their creed. The service over, angry worshippers, sometimes in full regalia, would rush out and attacked the atheists with any weapon they could seize.

Walk Round corner to Princelet Street

In 1904, the annual skirmish between religious and anti-religious Jews erupted into a full‑scale riot. Round the corner at no 3 Princelet St (then called Princes St), in premises once used by Jacob Adler and his troupe for the first ever Yiddish theatre, the Socialists had established a Volkskuche (People’s Restaurant), which supplied cheap meals and was, therefore, heavily patronised. Come Yom Kippur, this became the focus for the Yom Kippur battle. The East London Observer reported what followed:

“Thousands of Jews were walking along the streets, when they were met by a body of Socialist Jews, who had driven a van containing food along the streets. All the Orthodox Jews were fasting and they at once resented this unseemly display. The Socialists being driven into their club responded by throwing glass bottles out of the windows. Several cases of minor injury occurred and the disorder thus started to spread quickly. Within half an hour the whole area round Princelet Street was in a state of great agitation. Excited groups of Orthodox Jews were parading the streets threatening the Socialists with dire penalties for their insults and stones were thrown at the home of prominent Socialists… It is alleged that the Socialists pelted a Synagogue which stands adjacent to their club, and that they had arranged a concert for the day of fasting – invitations to which they had sent to the principal Rabbis”.

The historian Rollin told a slightly different story:

“I was making my way towards the Club with a young woman comrade in Princelet Street, where a threatening crowd had gathered. As we approached some men in front sprang at the girl like tigers, threw her to the ground and started beating her, whilst I was hurled against the wall and pinned there. The Club members, hearing our cries, rushed to our defence and brought us in. The girl was torn and bleeding and laid semi-conscious on the floor … We sent a messenger begging help from the Anarchists, who were holding their ball in a hall at Rhondda Grove, Bow…”

This message brought Arbeter Frainter Sam Dreen and a score of young bloods to the rescue: they jumped a train to Gardiners Corner, and rushed up Brick Lane in time to relieve the beleaguered Socialists. They apparently beat off the invaders, as a large force of police arrived and quickly dispersed the crowd, arresting some men and boys in the process.

The magistrates attributed the cause of the disturbance to the so-called orthodox. Of the eight brought up for trial, two Socialists who declared that, being non-religious, they could not observe Yom Kippur, were summarily discharged; and the bench commented that it was deplorable ‘that a class of persons who for centuries had been distinguished as the victims of the fiercest persecutions should, when in the one free country of the world, turn upon those who disagreed with them on religious points, their own co-religionists, and stone and persecute them’.’

But Rollin suggests that there may have been another motive for the trouble: the Volkskuche prices, such as bread, a penny a piece, soup threepence a plate, sixpence for soup with meat, were half those charged by local private restaurateurs, who naturally resented this ‘unfair’ competition. Under the guise of protecting religion, the latter had prepared an attack on the Volkskuche on Yom Kippur, led by hired thugs.

Walk back to Brick Lane, turn right, walk up to Buxton Street

The repeal of the Spitalfields Acts (see above) led to or coincided with terrible poverty in this area : resulting in at least some collective social crime in response. In Autumn 1826, 500-600 strong groups met in Brickfield, Spicer St, (now Buxton St), to cook food stolen from shops en masse. They also ambushed animals going to Smithfield & Barnet markets & drove them to the marshes. The Horse Patrol were sent in to break up the party.

Walk up to Cheshire Street, and east down to the corner of Kerbela Street

Racism & racist attacks:

From the 1960s racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.

Skins in Brick Lane, 1978

“Paki-bashing”; seems to have been first recorded on April 3 1970 when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26,1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.

In Tower Hamlets at that time it was generally felt that little of this wave of racial harassment was directly attributable to extremist political groups.

But: there was a clear link to fascist/far right groups in the area, who had been active for decades in this part of the East End.

In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green. Mosley’s post-war fascist outfit, the Union Movement, used to meet in Kerbela Street, off Cheshire Street, in the late ‘40s.

Cheshire Street and Brick Lane later became a prime meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed an East London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This NLP and later merged into the original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.

This BNP was a constituent of the National Front in 1967, a merger of several rightwing groups into what was to become the largest far right organisation in Britain for decades.

Outside the National Front HQ, 1978

During 1976, National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased, as the NF attempted to gain a base in East London; it based its tactics on provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane, the heart of the Bengali area. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”

The NF later (from 1978) had its national HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.

The more overtly nazi (though smaller) British Movement was also active in Bethnal Green and Hoxton).

The role of the National Front and the British Movement in the area exploited the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change. They have entered into a vacuum left by the collapse of a strong socialist movement based on vision and principle, and by the weakness of organised religion, Jewish and Christian.

Both built upon the small but important tradition of fascism which has survived in the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch areas since the days of Mosley. They also organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims.

Resistance to racism

In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.

On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets’. Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to government.

During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups began to occupy the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur.

From the police, local Bengalis largely experienced at best apathy, or actual collusion with racists. Cops would escort racists around, and basically tended to arrest any asian opposing racists…. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station.

The Bengali community self-defence groups had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.

But in 1977, there were more racist attacks: gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates roaming Brick Lane targetting asians. In 1978 events stepped up: beginning with the murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This “triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London”. 7000 marched in protest from here to Downing Street.

On June 11th (following considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”) 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars.

June 18, in response,  saw an anti-racist march, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

On September 24, 1978, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, drawing 100,000 people far from the action…

In the early 1980s, the National Front lost support as the tory government nicked their thunder… But locally a lot of good work was done to prevent racist attacks, though police activity seemed mainly aimed at defusing self-organised self-defence (never popular with the state). Local or national state support for Bengali political and cultural projects helped draw much of the community away from the self-organised militancy.

But racist grouping never went away. In the later 80s, from the various splinters that the NF fell apart into, a new British National Party began to emerge as the largest far right group. Through 1990-93, a renewed struggle over nazi papersales in Brick Lane, mainly organised by Anti-Fascist Action and its allies, saw stand-offs and pitched battles between fascists and anti-fascists; BNP papersellers were chased off; pubs used by fash before papersales – including The Sun pub- blockaded.

Meanwhile, the continuing tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence produced organisations such as Youth Connection,  a young Bengali action group, in the early 1990s.

Although locally the racial attacks situation calmed down alot, hard right propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane in 1999: on 24 April that year, nazi sympathizer David Copeland planted a bomb here (a week after bombing Brixton), aiming at the multi-racial mix of the area, something he hated. Seven people were slightly hurt in his attempt to to kickstart a race war. A week later his bomb in a gay pub in Soho killed three people.

More recently control of social policy and the focus of welfare, housing etc, has again become an issue, as older white working class communities claim to see migrants as getting a better deal, bigger flats and so on. Also resentment of ‘middle class do-gooders’ from outside championing migrant communities against local white working class – not just an East End perception.
Leaving aside myths (and not a few white residents have thought Bengalis shouldn’t be getting anything), the extent to which outside ‘do-gooders’ have responded to migration by supporting Bengalis is open to question… Although since the 1970s, there has been a notable alliance of community leaders with Labour politicians, which has led to some dubious developments…

Some see it as not so much an individual competition for work, as a community competition for welfare, housing, cultural and social resources (or at least the perception of those, locally): not so much a case of ‘they’re taking our jobs’ as they’re taking our flats.

But you’d be hard pressed to deny that those on high who make social policy, have, for 160 years and more, used the East End as a laboratory for social experiment, from which national social policy especially on housing welfare, etc, has been often guided. As to how much the state either locally nationally, or the ‘middle class’ has taken side of foreigners against white working class – this is debateable. 1970s Bengalis would have laughed at this idea: but in recent decades some commentators have seen change, with the promotion of political measures and institutions that have consolidated rights of migrants while increasing sanctions against ‘white working class’ if they question it – to the extent that the political situation in the East End (as elsewhere, though to different extents?) is dominated by quote ”a political class, drawing power from its operation of state services and mobilised around the ideology of cultural tolerance and social and economic inclusiveness and with a mission to integrate subordinate culturally specific communities into a common national system.”

While this is matter of debate, its partly true that there is an exclusion of white working class… But it is in fact also partly mirrored by how the kind of community leaders, activists, organisations that have made alliances with local and national state and benefited most have done so by hierarchy and power relations firmly in place in the migrant communities, and pledging to keep order against unruly and politically or religiously subversive elements among their “own”…

 

Walk back west down Cheshire Street to Brick Lane, south to Quaker Street, west down here and across  Commercial Street into Elder Street, down to Folgate Street, then west to Spital Square

Parallel to the housing struggles described above, other processes were at work in the area around buildings…

Conservation as gentrification: the Spitalfields Trust.

The Spitalfields Trust was founded as a campaigning group with a mission to preserve ‘18th century Spitalfields’; mostly large local houses threatened with demolition and development.

The trust themselves were well-connected, and media savvy:

“In early days this took form of art‑historical activism, of squats, activism, of squats, occupations, and sit‑ins undertaken by the trust’s members as they showed ‘greedy’ developers, bungling municipal authorities, and housing associations like Newlon that, still unaware of the vital distinction between ‘housing’ and true ‘houses’, planned to erect new buildings where listed (but decayed) eighteenth‑century houses still stood. In those days, the trust’s members kept their sleeping bags rolled in case another emergency came up. ‘Denied even a hot bath’ as Douglas Blain, the secretary of the trust, has put it, they developed the unlikely look of squatting hippies, communicating with Press through nearby telephone boxes, and applying the time honoured local tradition of the soup kitchen to themselves. John Betjeman came down to visit ‑people were invited to join him for drinks at home’ in a half‑demolished and squatted house. One of the most cherished photographs from this time shows the almost indistinguishable faces of Mark Girouard and Colin Amery staring out from within the padlocked wrought‑iron gates of a threatened school hall in Spital Square. This was certainly a ‘Top Person’s squat’,
(Patrick White)

Their squatting to preserve Georgian houses started in Elder St with two houses that Newlon Housing Trust planning to demolish for rented housing…

Their policy after occupying houses to prevent their demolition was to raise money to buy, restore and then sell on these old Georgian, houses.

“From these romantic beginnings the trust went on to bring credit facilities into an area that had been ‘red‑lined’ by banks and building societies. It emerged as a campaigning property company with charitable status, able to buy houses, and then to repair and resell them under covenants designed to ensure that they would be refurbished with a care for the minutest period detail.”

They published a newsletter with available houses, advising people to “go through the trust to avoid undesirable price competition”. Most of houses filled with middle or upper class, members or connections of the Trust, family, sympathisers etc, some as second homes. Anyone who bought or obtained a house stood to make huge profits, as prices rose astronomically.

The Trust’s vision was head-on incompatible with the struggles of Spitalfields residents, mainly Bengalis, for cheap housing and with the clothing trade that sustains them… The town houses would have been ideal for large Bengali families, who have always had a hard time getting social or even private housing big enough.

The Trust took some houses directly out of public ownership (helped by the council who gave them their houses in some streets, and refused to take over private houses which could have housed Bengali families, eg Tarn and Tarn houses, leaving them to be sold privately), some of which were already squatted (eg by BHAG) and some which were part of plans by residents to implement viable schemes for social housing.

Many of the houses had had clothing workshops in them, which the Trust obviously lost when restoring them to their ‘original use’, – ironically, as many had been weavers houses and had old weaving rooms in them, the multi-use housing/work of Bengali occupants had in fact been closer to ‘restoration’ in social terms than the Trust’s.

“The Spitalfields Trust resents the charge that it has merely reduced conservation to gentrification, claiming in its own defence that it has never evicted a tenant and that it has gone out of its way, when buying houses that were in ‘unsuitable’ industrial use for conversion back into private homes, to find alternative premises for displaced enterprises.’ “

The Trust did pay lip service to clothing trade, including buying some land to build workshop space to replace that lost in their restorations.

The process of the Trust and its allies taking over houses was accelerated by a recession in the clothing trade in the 1980s: more buildings with workshops became empty.

Influenced by the Spitalfields Trust’s success at rehabbing houses, developers who owned houses sold them off for huge profits, eg Tarn and Tarn, who owned 40 houses, were refused planning permission to knock them down and build an office block, so they sold them off for homes around 1981-82 (slowly, so as to maximise their take). All this led to huge price hike in prices.

This had also left any schemes trying to get social housing built up against it – facing huge increases in land values, making it harder to get things going. It hiked prices, which had a knock-on effect in neighbouring areas too…

“But if it takes conservationists, avant‑garde artists, gays, and other Bohemian or single‑minded types to put up with the years of chaotic living that are needed to re‑open dishevelled areas like Spitalfields, the estate agents and financiers are never far behind. Like the first loft dwellers in Manhattan, these early settlers are the pioneers of a larger revaluation they may detest and even manage to [deter?] for a bit, but that is soon enough sweeping over their cars. West of Commercial Street the sanitisation already looks complete. To the east in Fournier Street sensitively refurbished houses have been coming on to the market at prices approaching £500,000. In the late seventies the Spitalfields Trust may have had to hunt for eccentric willing to buy into a decayed immigrant area without such public amenities as parks or tolerable schools but, in reality, as hindsight would soon show, it was handing out personal fortunes to its chosen purchasers, and it is not surprising that questions have times been asked (and not just by frustrated would‑be purchasers) about the Trust’s way of selecting buyers.”

“As the anniversary meeting of the Trust was told by an early and now dissenting member, Raphael Samuel, the conservation of Georgian buildings and the total clearance of local ways of life turn out to be two sides of the same coin.”

Since the 1980s Tower Hamlets Council has been encouraging big business to move in and buy land for offices…

But Brick Lane and the streets around it have also seen a massive hipster and art influx since the 1990s, which have hugely changed the ethos of the area. (To some extent, this is one of the central nexuses of the colonisation of working class London, particularly a vast swathe of East London, a process of gentrification that is helping to create an unstable and febrile precariousness for the lives of many of us…)

“… in 2007, Tower Hamlets Council designated Brick Lane a tourist area, with the converted Truman Brewery and more recent retail activities marked out as part of its “creative and cultural focus”. The introduction of a new range of activities and actors to the wider area has led to the displacement of established businesses, such as those in Banglatown. The report vividly maps the turnover of shops within the same category (that is, changes from one kind of food offering to another). So along Brick Lane, a niche economy has come to the fore, with many of the restaurants now selling fusion foods or offering vegan options oriented to either the tourist market or a changing demographic that includes an expanding student population as well as middle-class consumers. Few of the traditional curry houses revamped their look or re-worked their menus to appeal to the latest trends. 

Historically the upper floors of restaurants were places of work, but due to the demand for more housing and the lucrative residential market, Brick Lane has seen a huge increase in planning applications to change the class use of upper floors so they can become dwellings. The dramatic shifts in residential property prices accompanied by steep increases in housing rentals suggest that such alterations will further add to the influx of higher-income residents or Air B&B guests, accompanied by the dispersal of existing residents to suburbs in London’s more affordable peripheries.”

The Sunday Brick Lane market, once an early morning resort for cheap clothes, food, tools, junk and nicked goods, a vital resource for the subsistence economy for many across the city, has been transformed into a playground for trendy weekend jaunts by the toffee-nosed. The economy of the area – admittedly in decline by the 1990s – could have been regenerated for the benefit of the communities who lived in the area, but instead the concentration has been largely on replacing them.

This has increased the pressure on those less affluent folk who still live here; especially as council and housing associations collude to slowly remove social housing from the area and replace it with private housing to service the middle classes wanting a pad in trendy east End and prop up the tourist industry

It remains a zone of contention and transition, with many of the same old processes being enacted – the bulldozing of the rookeries to clear ‘unprofitable’ and sometimes troublesome residents is echoed in the demolition of council blocks to be replaced by developments called ‘Kensington’ and ‘Sloane’ Apartments. Names are a bit of a giveaway, eh…?

It is Ground Zero for Hipster projects, many of them vanity affairs like the Cereal Killer Café, often funded by inherited wealth. All of this in a backdrop of graffiti, which is everywhere in the area now, so that any wander round is jammed with tourist ticking off guidebook-marked ‘street art’. Brick Lane is not so much a land of beer and blood any more as a land of (spray) paint and cereal…

We’ll finish here. If you want to retire to a good pub, the Pride of Spitalfields in Heneage Street is worth a pint

 

Today in London industrial history, 1975: Workers occupy Crosfield Electronics, Holloway

At clocking out time on March 6, 1975, 300 workers at Crosfields Electronics factory in Archway were told they were to be laid off as from that moment. Some, thinking there was no alternative, accepted the redundancy money. Others, however, decided not to take this kind of treatment and occupied part of the factory on March 26. They began a sit-in which they kept up, 24 hours a day, for the next two months.

Crosfield Electronics was a British electronics imaging company founded to produce process imaging devices for the print industry. The firm was notable for its innovation in colour drum scanning in its Scanatron (1959) and later Magnascan (1969) products.

Crosfields produced photo-scanning equipment for the print and newspaper industry, developing the first digital scanner for the printing industry in the mid 1970s. They had a factory at 766 Holloway Road, on the corner of Elthorne Road (possibly now where Whittington House is today?).

The company was bought in September 1974 by the De La Rue Group – a big multi-national company. The workers were assured there would be no redundancies, But De La Rue had decided to run down and close Holloway Road and transfer production to its Westward factory in Peterborough. The 300 redundancies might only be the first step in a gradual shutdown of De La Rue’s London Workings.

In March 1975, 300 employees at Crosfields Holloway plant were informed that they were to be made redundant in accordance with management’s decision to transfer production to the company’s factory at Peterborough.

On March 26th, some of the workers began a a sit-in with the intention of saving their jobs. The fitting-shop building which was to be imminently closed, was occupied. Workers from other parts of the factory assisted in barricading the building. Around 30-40 workers were involved, a mix of male and female employees. They occupied the whole workplace, some bringing their children into the factory during the occupation.

Many of the workers involved had previously experienced similar redundancy – some three, four or even five times.

1970s Britain saw a large wave of factory occupations by workers, as restructuring and decline caused massive upheaval, threats of closure and management attacks on wages and conditions.

The sit-in lasted 49 days.

These were far from the first jobs in North London lost in this way. 30,000 Jobs, for instance, were lost in Islington alone between 1966 and 1971. The government was offering subsidies to firms which moved development areas outside the capital, and there had been an enormous flight of industrial capital from London. At the same time there were few major developments in manufacturing in London, and no plans for any.

For many who lost skilled industrial jobs, they were unlikely to find new ones, and ended up seeking lower paid work in the service industries.

The attempt to close down production at the Holloway plant should be seen in context of two growing trends at the time: a shrinking of the UK manufacturing sector, partly as a result of restructuring and ‘rationalisation (notably after takeovers of smaller firms by larger, often transnational companies)  – and a particular move to close down factories in London and move production elsewhere, often to cut wages and costs.

There was a notable rising rate of redundancy in London, and new manufacturing industry was not opening up to replace pants that were closing. What happened to Crosfields’ workers illustrated vividly the fate of employees at many smaller firms which were subjected to ’rationalisation’ when incorporated into bigger companies by take-overs and mergers. Many workers were faced with the choice of redundancy or moving out of London to keep their jobs.

The question was asked at the time, Why was this plant being shut down? Was it because of economic difficulties? Was it because of lack of orders? Was it because of ’cash flow’ problems? Had Crosfields been a bad acquisition for De La Rue? Or was it because Crosfields had, over a period of time, become a highly organised factory, with high trade union membership…?

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell interviewed some of the twelve women involved in occupying Crosfields about their fight:

“How many women worked here?
— About 90, in the whole factory.
How many are here now?
—There’s only about 12 of us fighting it. Occupying. What were your exact jobs?
— We were classed as wirewomen – wiring is when you use a soldering iron and make up chassis.
Have many of the other women been able to get jobs?
— No, there’s very few of them working. I meet them outside walking around.
The ones who have got work, where have they got it?
— They’ve not got it in wiring, there’s nothing like that left in London, you have to go away outside.
Are you all from Islington?
—Well, I’m from Islington, most are Islington or area.
—One woman who left’s working in a cafe round the corner. She was a deputy supervisor —wages must have been £75 a week. She’s lucky if she’s getting £30 now. I wouldn’t let the governors see me come down in the world like that.
—Some are working in the hospitals and taking home less than £20. Some are charwomen.
Have any of the women moved to Peterborough?
—No, there were only about ten out of 300 offered jobs in Peter­ borough. That was a lot of rubbish, them saying it.
—Really they just weren’t interested, they just wanted to get rid of all this building.
You’d had a few fights here to get your wages up before the occupation, hadn’t you?
— We had good money here because we had a good union and they fought and got us good rates. I think we were the best paid factory for this area round here. And listen, we’d have been up to equal pay in April, because that’s when it was to start from. But you see they have got us out, they gave us redundancy in March.
When you first had notice of redundancy, what did you feel?
—Oh, it was terrible, terrible. That’s the reason why a lot of the women went, you know, they were getting harrassed, they were getting a bit pressurised to get out.
—I think there was a lot of confusion because you must remember this came right out of the blue, nobody was expecting it.
—At the end of the day, they got you into a meeting and then they sent the line managers to tell the workers they were going to be redundant because the factory was closing down. It was shocking. People cried.
Did you spend a long time casting round to think what to do?
—There was no time
—it was late on when we were told, everyone was clearing the shop. There was a bit of bribery if you went straight away.

—I believe a lot of the managers were getting bonuses to get the shop cleared quickly.
Did any of you have families who reckoned you shouldn’t fight it, that it was a losing battle?
— No – my husband asked me two questions; ‘Had you a good job there?’ I said I had a smashing job. He said, ‘Were you happy?’ I said I was happy in that job. He said, ‘Then it’s worth fighting for.
So get back there.’
What about problems with kids and childminding now?
—My children are at school.
—Mine are grown up.
—Those with younger children used to pay to have them minded, it used to come from the woman’s wage. Now they can’t afford it. They find it hard to get down here and hard to manage.
When some of you decided to stay and fight, did you feel isolated?
—No. It doesn’t worry us. They call us things. ‘Militants.’
—They were traitors to walk away, those who left. Because we all voted not to Accept redundancies.
Do you get criticised by neighbours and friends?
—Yes, I was called a militant.
—No, my personal friends say ‘I agree with you.’
What about the women who left?
— I don’t see them. Even if I see them, love, I don’t speak to them, I hold my head up high.
Some women must be really pleased you’re fighting, thinking about their own jobs?
—Aye, I think it’s good. I feel happy fighting it. I think I would have
been miserable if I’d walked away with my tail between my legs.
How long do you think you can hold out for?
—Don’t know. If it takes a year, a year and a half.
—You see, if you don’t fight to stop them taking the jobs out of
London, they keep doing it. So you have to do something to draw the line somewhere.
What are you surviving on economically?
—The union is giving us some. £5.
—When donations come round he gives us some money.
Why can’t you get the rest made up by Social Security?
—See, you can’t —before you get redundancy money you must lodge your cards with the Labour Exchange. The governors have put the stop around – even the married men can’t get any for their wives and children.
—Crosfields slipped the word down to the SS offices. So to anyone who comes along they say you must lodge your cards, you’ve got to take your redundancy slips to show that you’ve accepted redun­dancy —so that would mean your fight was finished.
How do you manage on £5 a week?
—When I was working I saved. We just have to use our savings. —We have to cut down too.
Do you think you’ve got stronger and more confident as women since you’ve been occupying?
—See, I wear trousers to work now. I feel I’m one of the boys now. —Aye, we’re all pals now. We’ve got a great friendship, that we never had when we were working, with the women and the fellows. We never spoke to anyone much before, just saw them.
How do you think this affects your husbands?
—My husband says he saw more of me when I was working, because we come here evenings now.
Who makes the tea and the meals?
—The women all do a bit. The women have been doing most of the cooking though. We’re always washing dishes and cleaning up.
—We’ve tried to get the men to do it too.
[During the occupation a large notice appeared on the wall, stating: ‘If you have some very good reason for not washing your cup, you may leave it here.’]
What do you see as exactly what you’re fighting for?
—Our jobs back. If I wanted redundancy money I’d have walked away at the beginning. We all want our jobs back, there’s plenty of work —I was in the middle of a job.
—I think it’s better to have your job than to be on the dole.
Will you all stay as long as the occupation lasts?
—Yes, we can’t back out now.
—We must stay till the end.
—And just think how these governors have been dirty, in a lot of ways. They’ve probably blacked us. 
What will you do if you finally get defeated?
—We don’t think of defeat, we’re hoping to win.
—We’re talking about a victory party —I’m going to buy a new
dress for that. Why not, I’m no defeatist.
—One man says to me why don’t you take your money and go? But we’re hoping to win.
(Spare Rib, no 37 (July, 1975), pp. 9-10., interview by Lynne Segal and Alison Fell)

The workers raised a weekly levy to supply food to those in occupation. The dispute was well supported by fellow trade unionists. Lorry drivers refused to cross picket lines. Electricians refused to disconnect the electricity supply.

Crosfields occupiers

Deputations to MP’s, ministers and councillors proved that these merely passed the buck from one to the other, and did nothing to help the occupiers save their jobs. The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) had a meeting with the parties in April, but no agreement was reached. Instead, the police force were used to escort finished products out of the factory in the middle of the night, and social security benefit was denied to workers’ families. The firm launched tortuous legal processes to serve writs on those in occupation.

On May 5th the employers secured a High Court originating summons claiming possession under RSC Order 113. The Summons was heard on May 9th, just four days later. A Possession Order was granted to the company, delayed only slightly by an appeal on a question of law regarding the way the summonses had been served. However, the consummate legal servant of capital, Lord Denning, ruled that there was nothing wrong with the methods used.

De La Rue used the added leverage of threatening to sub-contract out its sheet metal production, laying off more Crosfields workers.

The Crosfields workers were faced with the agonising decision of whether to attempt to remain in defiance of the court order, or to cut their losses and leave. In the end, they decided on the latter, in the face of the strength of the state forces employed against them, and because of insufficient time to rally support from wider sections of the trade union movement.

After long negotiations, shop stewards finally put it to a factory meeting that morning, that the seven reinstatements and the increased redundancy pay offer they had wrung out of the management should be accepted. The vote carried it.

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell went back to find out what the women occupiers felt:

“—They agreed to take seven, all together, back – one wireman, an electrical inspector, one labourer, two wirewomen, a plumber. What about the new redundancy offer?
An extra £175 for every year worked. It’s all right for the people who’ve been here 10 or 15 years, not the others.
How do you feel about it all?
—It’s sad, we could cry.
—We’re all sad, because there are people who fought who won’t be getting any vacancies. The convenor’s not getting reinstated. It wasn’t money we were fighting for, it was our jobs.
Do you think it’s all been worthwhile?
—Yes! We put up a good fight. We nearly bankrupted him!

—We occupied this building for eight weeks — tell me how many could do that?
Do you think you’ll be out of work for a long time?
—Yes
—I’ll try one of these government re-training things for redundant women. Huh! Fourteen pounds a week.
Will you see each other again?
Of course we will. We’ve got all the names and addresses.”

While many factory occupations in the 1970s were successful, the sheer economic power of De La Rue robbed the workers of what security they had won – they lost the fight for their jobs. As Spare Rib put it: “Despite support from other sections of the factory and from the Labour movement locally, the odds were still completely unequal; De La Rue’s cynicism in all these doings was bulwarked by the profits and power of its status as a multi-national combine, and by the laws of the land. The workers were negotiating merely with their whole lives and futures.”

De la Rue was eventually taken over by Fujifilm Japan and named Fujifilm Electronic Imaging, now FFEI Ltd. following a management buy-out in 2008.

A Short History of UK Public Order Acts

The proposed policing Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts bill currently stirring up large scale opposition is just the latest in a long line of repressive legislation aimed at restricting protest and limiting the effectiveness of political campaigning.

Whether or not the next stages of the Bill are postponed for a few months, as seems likely now (largely due to the fierce opposition to some of its clauses, displayed on the streets this week) – it will probably re-appear. Pulling legislation for a while till fuss dies down when people are looking at other things, then bringing it back often works.

The sections of the Bill that have aroused the fiercest criticism include:

  • Widening the range of conditions that the police can impose on static protests, to match existing police powers to impose conditions on marches; including impose the power to make conditions such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels on static protests. The police already have the power to impose such conditions on marches.
  • Broadening the range of circumstances in which police may impose conditions on a protest
  • Restating the common law offence of public nuisance in statute
  • Preventing blockading of entrances to Parliament
  • Creating a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
  • Amending the existing police powers associated with unauthorised encampments to lower the threshold at which they can be used. Amendments would also allow the police to remove unauthorised encampments on (or partly on) highways and prohibit unauthorised encampments moved from a site from returning within twelve months.
  • Increasing penalties for criminal damage to memorials – sparked obviously by collective removal of slaver Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last year.

There is a long history of government action trying to control and shut down demonstrations and direct action. There is an equally long history of resistance…

Here is a short summary of some of the most prominent public order laws and tendencies in policing and repression. It is not comprehensive… Many innovations on other areas of policing and the law are not covered here, nor are the parallel developments in undercover policing and spying on activists and campaigners.

The Riot Act

English kings passed a series of Riot Acts in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries – in response to rebellion and protest. Unrest in the wake of the Black Death and the punitive laws passed to prevent serfs taking advantage of the subsequent labour shortage (by demanding higher wages or leaving to find better pay) led to Acts in 1361 allowing justices to demand sureties from people involved in protest, and constables or local officials to arrest protestors & hold them pending the arrival of a justice. None of which helped the authorities much in the face of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

Henry V passed a Riot Act in 1414, making taking part in a serious riot punishable by a year in prison. This was possibly sparked by the Lollards Revolt of January that year.

Later, king Henry VI renewed the Riot Act in 1495 and 1503, after he faced a series of revolts against excessive taxation in Yorkshire and Cornwall.

A Riot Act was introduced in 1549, which made it high treason for 12 people or more to assemble and attempt to kill or imprison any member of the King’s council or change the laws, and refuse to disperse when ordered to do so by a justice of the peace, mayor or sheriff ordered them to do so. This was prompted by mass unrest of the years 1548-9, when rebellions against the growing enclosure of open land spread across southern England, climaxing in an armed rebellion in Norfolk.

This Act was renewed by successive monarchs (though penalties were reduced in the 1550s).

The famous Riot Act of 1714 again authorised local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled and to disperse or face punitive action. The act’s long title was “An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”, and it came into force on 1 August 1715.

The introduction of this Riot Act was  sparked by a period of civil disturbances including the Sacheverell riots of 1710, the Coronation riots of 1714 and the 1715 riots in England. The preamble makes reference to “many rebellious riots and tumults [that] have been [taking place of late] in diverse parts of this kingdom”, adding that those involved “presum[e] so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences”.

The act was specifically aimed at implementation by local officials, who could make a proclamation ordering the dispersal of any group of more than twelve people who were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together”. If the group failed to disperse within one hour, then anyone remaining gathered was guilty of a felony without benefit of clergy, punishable by death.

The proclamation could be made in an incorporated town or city by the mayor, bailiff or “other head officer”, or a justice of the peace. Elsewhere it could be made by a justice of the peace or the sheriff, undersheriff or parish constable.

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

Our sovereign lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

The Riot Act was read and thus implemented at some of the most turbulent moments of insurgence and radical agitation: in the St. George’s Fields Massacre of 1768, during the Gordon Riots of 1780, at the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 (though this is disputed) and the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821 as well as before the Bristol Reform Bill Riots at Queen’s Square in 1831.

But for the authorities the Act in practice proved impractical and unwieldy. The ‘failure to  disperse within one hour’ deadline caused confusion. Rioters often believed that the military could not use force until one hour had passed since the reading of the proclamation. Hence demonstrators at the Massacre of St George’s Fields kept on provoking the soldiers present, thinking they couldn’t shoot yet. The Act also had to be read out to the gathering concerned, in theory be heard (above crowd noise etc, though people’s ability to hear was generally ignored) and had to follow the precise wording detailed in the act; several convictions were overturned because parts of the proclamation had been omitted, in particular, leaving out “God save the King”.

Using the Riot Act didn’t save many of the wealthy and powerful being targeted in the 1780 Gordon Riots, and it too several days before troops could effectively re-take the streets from “His majesty, King Mob’.

Original Red Scare

If the Gordon Riots of 1780 put the fear of the Mob into London’s rich, this was nothing to the scare that was to follow in the following decade. The French Revolution of 1789, and the overthrowing of the monarchy and guillotining of several hundred royals and aristos had the British ruling class shitting itself that something similar could erupt here. They saw the evolving movements campaigning for reform of the political system in Britain as a potential revolutionary movement in embryo, and introduced new laws to repress it, mainly aimed at publications and meetings.

Thomas Paine’s classic book ‘The Rights of Man, and the massive interest in it from the artisan and working classes, led to the book’s banning, and Paine having to flee the country to avoid prison or a death sentence. Spies paid by the Home Secretary’s Office were infiltrated into radical groups, particularly into the fertile and expanding London Corresponding Society, and every method was used to disrupt them: landlords of pubs where they met were threatened with loss of their licences; agent provocateurs tried to take control of their activities.

But popular opposition to the war against France led to riots against military recruitment, and a panicked government arrested LCS leaders, who had spoken out against the War, and radicals who had met in Scotland to set up a British Convention (revolutionary alternative government..), The Scots radicals were transported, but the LCS treason trials backfired, resulting in high profile acquittals.

This only led to further government repression… The law of Habeus Corpus, which guaranteed the right of a prisoner to a trial, was suspended in 1793. This ‘relaxation’ of the law would allow for numerous pro-reform activists, publishers issuing radical texts, and others influenced by the French Revolution, to be imprisoned, including members of the LCS. Several were to remain in detention for a number of years until the lack of a trial was challenged.

The Act against Unlawful Combinations and Confederacies was passed in 1799, aimed at restricting the activities of radical secret societies. Membership of the LCS, United Irishmen, United Englishmen, United Britons and United Scots were all banned by the Act. To prevent similar societies springing up, it was made illegal for any society to require its members to take an oath. Societies were also required to keep lists of members available for inspection. A magistrate’s licence was required for any premises on which public lectures were held or any fee-charging public reading room (many of the LCS chapters and other radical groups met in pubs and coffee houses). Printers were closely regulated, because one of the main problems in the Government’s view was that seditious pamphlets were widely circulated and untraceable. Anyone possessing printing equipment was required to register, while all printed items were required to carry the name and address of the printer on the title-page and/or the final page and printers were required to declare all items they had printed to magistrates and retain copies for inspection.

During the passage of the Bill exemptions were introduced to avoid this broadly-drafted law affecting the publishing of newspapers that Parliament itself had ordered to be printed, or causing hassle for weirdo clubs like the Freemasons, who required members to swear oaths upon joining. In the end any Masonic lodge existing at the time of passage of the Act was exempted, so long as they maintained a list of members and supplied it to the magistrates.

The Act was not particularly effective, as radical political organisations continued in more secret or less formal ways.

London Corresponding Society rally on Copenhagen Fields, Islington, 1795

Crowds meeting for political purposes were also dispersed. LCS tactics notably included the ‘monster meeting’ – huge rallies on open spaces on the edge of the city. The later meetings were ordered to be dispersed by the Home Secretary, using forces of Volunteers, run by local worthies and concerned middle class citizens, set up ostensibly to resist invasion by France, though only ever used against home grown radicals. These militias were often farcical (the only fatalities they ever experienced was from friendly fire), but they expressed the organised class hatred that would later be institutionalised in the police.

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars agitation around working conditions continued; despite two Combination Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800 prohibiting trade unions and collective bargaining by British workers. The Pitt government of the time feared Jacobin influences could cause large scale strikes; the juggernaut of industrial change was imposing more and more unbearable conditions in factories, and imposition of work discipline and loss of rights to organise were needed to drive more productivity. Although repealed in 1824, restrictions on union organising remained heavy after that.

The Six Acts

After the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars ended the pressure for political reform revived; large demonstrations calling for changes to the franchise began to be organised around the country. After a demo at Spa Fields erupted into rioting in 1816, and poverty and starvation led to the march of the blanketeers and the Pentrich Uprising, legislation aimed at political movements and ideas was again introduced.

These took the form of the Six Acts:

  • The Training Prevention Act, now known as the Unlawful Drilling Act 1819 made any person attending a meeting for the purpose of receiving training or drill in weapons liable to arrest and transportation. Military training of any sort was to be conducted only by municipal bodies and above. [This was because radicals were actually practising with pikes in preparation for an uprising…]
  • The Seizure of Arms Act gave local magistrates the powers, within the disturbed counties, to search any private property for weapons and seize them and arrest the owners.
  • The Misdemeanours Act attempted to increase the speed of the administration of justice by reducing the opportunities for bail and allowing for speedier court processing.
  • Most relevant to today’s proposed bill: The Seditious Meetings Act required the permission of a sheriff or magistrate in order to convene any public meeting of more than 50 people if the subject of that meeting was concerned with “church or state” matters. Additional people could not attend such meetings unless they were inhabitants of the parish.
  • The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act (or Criminal Libel Act) toughened the existing laws to provide for more punitive sentences for the authors of such writings. The maximum sentence was increased to fourteen years’ transportation.
  • The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act and increased taxes to cover those publications which had escaped duty by publishing opinion and not news. Publishers were also required to post a bond for their behaviour.

The Habeus Corpus law was also suspended again in 1817.

The pinnacle of repression at this point was reached in August 1819, with the charging of a crowd meeting to hear speeches on political reform at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, which was attacked by a mounted force of Yeomanry, ordered by the Cheshire magistrates to arrest radical orator Henry Hunt. Up to 18 people were killed and several hundred injured.

No legal justification had been found to ban the Peterloo meeting beforehand, despite the rising climate of radical agitation, and an air of imminent trouble obvious to all. If the Riot Act was read (as the Cheshire magistrates later claimed) to the crowd, it was possibly afterward and in nobody’s hearing; no warning was given before the charge.

Nevertheless the government and local authorities backed the Massacre to the hilt, and followed it up by ratcheting up repression, and arresting and sentencing almost every leading radical figure to imprisonment. The enraged atmosphere among working people following the Manchester events almost backfired on them, however; uprisings and plots for revolution in London, Yorkshire and Scotland were foiled.  Peterloo was possibly the defining moment of the 19th century – thinking it was smashing a radical meeting, the reactionary establishment in fact ensured that the movement for political reform had martyrs, a central uniting moment to refer to; a moment of legend that still arouses passion.

Move Away From the Street

Use of troops, yeomanry, militia or the newly-founded Metropolitan Police in 1829, the authorities continued throughout the 19th century to consider street protest and organised political action as a direct threat to its existence.

Many tactics were employed, generally under existing laws (though readings of the Riot Act did become fewer):

Police also used the law to attack political meetings on streets and in open spaces.

Attempts to prevent demonstrators from entering Hyde Park led to riots in 1855.

Reform Riots, Hyde Park, 1866

The development of Speaker’s Corner, at the edge of Hyde Park, arose as it became the focus of a battle over the right to speak publicly here. In October 1855 a carpenter addressed a meeting at modern speakers corner, not being arrested (because he had not asked police in advance) .. he did the same next Sunday… and over next the few weeks was joined by militant and radical speakers and cops intervened to quell “riotous behaviour’ (people getting together). Police supervision prevented any more meetings till 1859, when a large crowd gathered to demonstrate support for the French emperor Napoleon III’s invasion of Italy… This led to the Garibaldi riots… After the reformers tree in Hyde Park became the centre of a 1866 meeting for political reform, (its branches were torn off and it was set on fire, reducing it to a charred stump) it became a symbol of the right to meet and speak freely.

After much struggle, a space for political meetings was allowed but 150 yards away on the corner of the park, at Speaker’s Corner.

But many areas also evolved their own traditional Speakers Corners. Often in the centre of town or suburb, on an open space or at a monument, landmark or junction. Radicals, socialists and reformers would have to take turns with other, often christian evangelists, or fight to take the pitch first.  In the late 19th century, the struggle for free speech for political ideas was transported to these local speaking pitches. Police harassment of speakers, especially socialists and anarchists, was a weekly feature of these outdoor meetings. Often police simply used the common law offence of obstruction of the highway to arrest speakers.

Just some examples in London: In Dod Street, Limehouse, in 1885, local Social Democratic Federation supporters used the waste land as a speakers corners. Police repeatedly arrested the speakers. Supported by the other socialists they persevered, suffering a police attack on 20th September 1885, when 8 socialists got nicked. When the case came to court the blatant bias of the magistrate caused a mini-riot in the court. The following Sunday, an alleged 50,000 people flocked to Dod Street: the cops from then on leave the meetings alone.

Bell Street, Marylebone was another centre of a long struggle over free speech with the police. In July 1886 socialists Sam Mainwaring and Jack Williams were arrested for obstruction when addressing a crowd in Bell Street. A year later William Morris was summonsed to court for addressing an open-air meeting at Bell Street sponsored by the Marylebone Branch of the Socialist League. The summons claimed he ‘Wilfully [did] obstruct the free passage of the public footway and Highway at Bell Street, Marylebone, by placing yourself upon a stand for the purpose of delivering an address thereby encouraging a crowd of persons to remain upon and obstruct the said Highway and footway at 12 noon.’ With arrests, fines & jailings, the pitch was closed down in July, but the Marylebone branch of the League started another nearby. Most local speakers corners saw something of this kind – an organised attempt by police to prevent dissemination of radical ideas.

Bloody Sunday 1887 was in some ways the peak of 1880s attempts by police to bash and arrest socialists off the streets… Banning political meetings in Trafalgar Square only incited larger crowds to attend demos there, which the police simply used overwhelming force to disperse, with extreme prejudice.

Local speakers corners remained an arena of dispute into the 1890s, for instance at Wanstead flats, which saw the arrest and imprisonment of local anarchists in 1891-2 and Peckham the following year.

The Riot Act being read during the 1911 transport strike

Public Disorder

Police action against suffragettes and post-World War 1 unemployed hunger marchers mostly relied on harassment, direct violence and assault, rather than modifications to the law (legal innovations regarding suffragettes were more notable in allowing them to release hunger striking women from prison when their health was threatened and then re-arrest them when they recovered, under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act’).

In the 1930s, the rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), their violence against Jews, and the staunch opposition to them from anti-fascists, led to calls for controls on demonstrations.

The Public Order Act 1936 was ostensibly drafted against the BUF, which its clauses against marching in uniform were clearly aimed at, but much of it was also really aimed at preventing physical anti-fascism. The victory of East Londoners in preventing a BUF march at Cable Street in October 1936, despite the attempts of the cops to push through their barricades, was worrying to the government, partly because it was only one of a series of mass mobilisations against fascism in London and beyond.

The Act banned the wearing of political uniforms in any public place or public meeting. It also required police consent for political marches to go ahead (now covered by the Public Order Act 1986). The Act also prohibited organising, training or equipping an “association of persons … for the purpose of enabling them to be employed in usurping the functions of the police or of the armed forces of the Crown”, or “for the use or display of physical force in promoting any political object”.

Fascists in Hyde park, 1834.

In terms of the BUF, it may in fact have had the indirect result of actually improving their fortunes. The party’s forced abandonment of paramilitary and armed tactics improved their relations with the police and, by making it more “respectable”, increased the BUF appeal among traditionally conservative middle-class citizens, who became the party’s main base in the years after the Public Order Act 1936 was passed.

But a powerful reason for the introduction of the Act was the autonomy it gave to police chiefs to act against demonstrations, on their own initiative, bypassing police authorities, who were increasingly becoming controlled by elected Labour politicians, who were less likely to authorise repressive action. Tory central government saw more reliability for control of disorder in giving the police their head. (The 2021 legislation in some senses again grant more autonomy to police discretion to crack down.)
There’s some good background to the Public Order Act in this account of the BUF and opposition to them.

Ironically, given the fears of the government that loony lefty police authorities would prevent police banning demos & busting heads, in 1936, the Labour Party welcomed the ban on uniforms and paramilitary organisations, and in the end supported the Public Order bill in parliament, though some MPs disliked the new power of the police to determine the route of marches and processions.

[Obviously Keir Starmer would probably go for the current bill if he thought it wouldn’t undermine his, er, popularity (?), after all was fine with the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill… ]

Some Labour MPs even spoke of ‘dictatorial powers’ for chiefs of police. Labour radical Aneurin Bevan vigorously defended the freedom of heckling, which he feared the bill would erode: ‘As there is so little humour left in politics, do not let this right be taken away.’ And while most Labour amendments were rejected, at Labour’s request the government withdrew a provision which would have given the police the authority to regulate or ban the use of flags and provocative slogans in demonstrations. Still, within Labour circles, the Public Order Act remained controversial. Especially as the authorities used the new legislation particularly to regulate and ban left-wing manifestations. The Public Order Act did not end the presence of the BUF on the streets of British cities. Although the movement lost much of its popular appeal in the final years before the outbreak of the Second World War, it was still able to organise public meetings and demonstrations.

Bastard Squad

Demo defending the Mangrove 9

Until the late 1970s, the police approached tackling public order without any specialist training or equipment… But from the mid-1960s, specialist units were created to take on public order situations ,especially demonstrations and strikes – the Special Patrol Group. Set up as a para-military unit of the Metropolitan police to provide a centrally-based mobile squad for combating public disorder and crime. The SPG gained a notorious reputation through the 1970s, being involved in the killing of two young Pakistani men in 1973, (who had been holding toy guns, demonstrating at India House), in the raids on the Mangrove restaurant and Metro club in Notting Hill, in in 1974 when Kevin Gately died during a demonstration against the National Front in Red Lion Square, in mass operations in Lewisham in 1975 over a spate of ‘muggings’, in policing the Grunwick dispute of 1976-8, and the mass mobilisation against the fascists in Lewisham in August 1977.

Southall and the death of Blair Peach in 1979 brought this to a peak. Peach was killed during an SPG operation against an anti-fascist demo in April 1979; the resulting outcry led to inspections on SPG lockers, which revealed extra-curricular weaponry and National Front regalia among officers. Quite apart from doing the state’s public order job, police often represent the layer of rightwing, moralistic, usually racist and misogynist upper working class/lower middle class which hates foreigners, lefties, poofs and sees women as fair game. A set of ideas the state is happy to sponsor so long as it doesn’t get too blatant at the wrong times.

Before the introduction of the Public Order Act 1986, policing public order was based on various relevant common law offences, and the Public Order Act 1936. Several factors influenced the introduction of the Public Order Act 1986. Significant public disorder, such as the Southall events in 1979, the innercity riots in Brixton and wider afield in 1981, and the miner’s strike 1984-85 – in particular the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984.

The Police & Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 codified and increased some of the police’s powers relating to stop and search, controlling public order and intelligence gathering, all of which provisions were aimed at making the kind of challenge to authority & police as expressed in 1981 riots more difficult, as well as making action against strikers and demonstrators easier. Some of the provisions in the Act were specifically aimed at legitimising actions the police had taken in 1981 but on dubious legal grounds (such as mass searching of premises on the mere suspicion that evidence of a crime might be within – see the Brixton riot of July 14th 1981)

The Public Order Act 1936 was used extensively against the flying pickets during the 1984/5 miners’ strike. Preventing mass picketing and movement of miners around the country to picket other pits was the crucial battleground – the authorities main aim was to prevent a repeat of the victories strikers had won in the 170s through mass picketing.

The mass disorder during the miners’ strike led to the government concluding that new public order arrangements needed to be made. Instead they oversaw a new regime where specialist uniforms, helmets and riot shields, as well as other equipment, were available to the police and significant training was developed to help officers control public order situations. This new style of paramilitary policing rapidly became the norm, and this modernised style of policing needed a new legal structure to support it. The SPG was upgraded, rebranded as the Territorial Support Group.

Even prior to the Miner’s Strike the Law Commission had recommended that the law on public order be modified, and following the strike the Government introduced a Bill into Parliament that in due course became the Public Order Act 1986. The Law Commission had concluded that public order laws as they currently stood, comprising a mix of common law and statutory offences, was inadequate and ineffective, and that a comprehensive statute was required to bring the law up to date; The Public Order Act 1986 was the result. This formed the basis for what most people nicked on demos and riots are charged with today.

The Act as originally drafted contained five main offences relating to public order: riot, violent disorder, affray, threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct:

Section 1 of the Act creates the offence of riot. For a riot there needs to be at least 12 people involved who must be present together and must be acting with a “common purpose”. They must use or threaten unlawful violence and this must be of such a level as would cause a person of reasonable firmness to fear for their personal safety. This is a test that occurs on a number of occasions in the Act. Riot is an indictable only offence and carries a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. It is the most serious public order offence under the act.

Violent disorder: Section Two of the Act. This requires the involvement of at least three people and again has the requirement that there is a use or threat of unlawful violence. The reasonable person test again applies. Violent disorder can be tried either at the magistrates or the Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment.

The most serious public order offence that can be committed by a person acting alone is affray under Section Three of the Act. This is an offence that can be tried at the Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment.

The final two offences under this part of the act can only be tried at the Magistrates’ Court. These are threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct. The maximum sentence for threatening behaviour is six months imprisonment and disorderly conduct is non-imprisonable. These offences differ from the more serious ones in that the requirement that the defendant used or threatened unlawful violence is not present, and the reasonable person test does not apply.

The 1986 Public Order Act also contains sections very relevant to the current legislation we face today, in Part 2 – Processions and assemblies:

Section 11 – Advance notice of public processions requires at least six clear days’ written notice to be given to the police before most public processions, including details of the intended time and route, and giving the name and address of at least one person proposing to organise it; creates offences for the organisers of a procession if they do not give sufficient notice, or if the procession diverges from the notified time or route

Section 12 – Imposing conditions on public processions, provides police the power to impose conditions on processions “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”

Section 13 – Prohibiting public processions a chief police officer has the power to ban public processions up to three months by applying to local authority for a banning order which needs subsequent confirmation from the Home Secretary.

Section 14 – Imposing conditions on public assemblies provides police the power to impose conditions on assemblies “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The conditions are limited to the specifying of:

  • the number of people who may take part,
  • the location of the assembly, and
  • its maximum duration.

Section 14A – Prohibiting trespassory assemblies added by section 70 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to control raves.

Section 16 – Public assembly: Originally meant an assembly of 20 or more persons in a public place which is wholly or partly open to the air.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 amended the act to reduce the minimum numbers of people in an assembly to two, and removed the requirement to be in the open air.

There was a Campaign against the Police Bill in 1986-7, but it was small and not very effective. Fairly limited groupings of anarchists, socialists and campaigners organised a vocal campaign and even held illegal marches that breached the terms of the Act when it came in (in January and April 1987). But the campaign did not catch fire or receive widespread support and momentum.

The other notable changes in the 1980s that affected public order involved anti-trade union laws. Along with tightening rules about ballots for strikes and political funds, a series of anti-trade union laws introduced by successive tory governments in the 1980s/early 90s brought in bans on secondary picketing – ‘sympathy strikes’, or supporting other workers on strike. Police had powers to impose restrictions on numbers on picket lines, reducing the impact of strike action and facilitating scabbing.

The incoming New Labour government in 1997 did not so much as amend the tory anti-union or public order legislation, happily inheriting the powers to fuck over workers and repress protest if they needed to.

The Criminal Justice Bill 1994

If opposition to the Public Order Act had been limited, the next massive legislation addressing public order was to spark much larger resistance.

Among many other repressive sections attacking travellers, squatters, ravers and anti-roads protestors, Part V of the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill was subtitled ‘public order: collective trespass or nuisance on land’. It redefined trespass  – in terms of where it could be applied, and in relation to particular groups that the state regarded as deviant or dangerous at the time, notably new age travellers, the outdoor rave movement, and environmental and animal rights protesters.

This also aroused the ire of groups like the Ramblers Association – who feared the definition of ‘aggravated trespass’ could be applied in a hostile environment to their actions, for example defending rights of way against being stopped up by a landowner.

Section V outlined a new definition of ‘aggravated trespass’ under section 68 of the Act. Section 61 increased police powers to remove trespassers on land, replacing previous powers in the 1986 Public Order Act. Sections 63 and 65 applied specifically to raves, codifying directions to leave land. Section 69 provided the police with the power to stop people whom they suspected were on their way to trespass. Section 77 empowered local authorities to remove unauthorised campers from land.

Opposition to the CJB coalesced into a powerful coalition of ravers, squatters, travellers and any more, who produced a huge wave of protest culminating in three massive demos in London, the last one ending in a riot in October 1994. Local demos against the Bill also faced attacks from police. While not preventing the passing of the Act, this diverse movement ensured that resistance to it and its implementation was strong and continuous, in a way that previous legislation had not really seen.

Conclusion

Are there lessons of previous legislation that can help with those trying to oppose the 2021 Bill?

Public outcry is all very well, and publicising the clauses in the Bill is always useful at making people aware. But how likely is it we can prevent it passing? Unlikely. Even if Labour maintain their shaky opposition, pretty much all the tories will vote for it. It becomes a question of how to resist the new law in its implementation. More probable is some cosmetic changes will be made and it will pass. Labour have – as we have seen above – supported the 1936 Public Order Act (although anyone could see it would also be used against the left), mostly failed to vote against the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill, and failed to repeal other public order and union laws when in power…

Repressive laws pass. It’s vital not to let activity diminish or get depressed, and to find ways to continue our activity, to defend people targeted and stand together to prevent the police using their power when ever we can. to learn how to subvert the law. Yes law can be challenged in court, but also the ways that people learn to duck and dive in the face of legal restrictions are crucial. The main lessons of struggles against the 1994 Act are not to let ourselves become divided into ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ protestors, splitting ourselves to do their work for them. Too much energy was spent in the mid-90s debating methods – in fact greater unity comes from an acceptance of diverse and multi-headed tactics.

The Riot Act, the Public Order Acts and the CJB never prevented us and those who came before us from fighting for – and winning – social change.

Today in London Black herstory, 1979: Organisation for Women of African & Asian Descent hold National Black Women’s Conference, Brixton

“Nearly 300 black women met together in Brixton on March 18 to take part in the first ever National Black Women’s Conference.

It was an historic occasion, both in that it was the first time that Asian, Caribbean and African sisters had got together in such numbers, and from so many different areas, to discuss the issues and campaigns concerning us; and in that it marked an important stage in the develop­ment of an autonomous black women’s movement here.

The conference was organised by the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), which was set up in February 1978 and hopes to develop into a national umbrella group made up of local black women’s groups and individuals who are active in anti- racist, feminist and community campaigns.

A number of talks were given, raising such issues as racism and sexism in immigration laws and education, the racist use of Depo- Provera, black women’s participation in campaigns against “SUS” (Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, which is widely used by police to harass and arrest black people, claiming that they are “persons sus­pected of loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence”);and “Sickle Cell”(an hereditary blood disease, suffered mainly by black people, and widely ignored by the NHS). We also discussed the establishment of black women’s refuges and supplementary schools. All those who attended, from the elderly black woman of 60 to the young black schoolgirl, played an active part in the day’s discussions.

In addition to the talks, poetry and short play, sisters had the opportunity during the breaks to buy books, posters and badges on black/feminist issues, to view the photo exhibition on black women in Britain, and to listen to progressive music by or about black women.

The atmosphere and concerns of the conference were recorded by OWAAD sisters, who filmed the entire day on video. We hope to have the film ready for hiring out to interested groups within the next few weeks. The talks given will also be available soon, in an illustrated pamphlet, and we plan to produce a regular newsletter.”
(Spare Rib,
June 1979)

On Sunday 18 March 1979, around 300 black women from all over Britain met at a conference at the Abeng Centre, in Brixton, South London. Attracting a variety of individuals, bringing together existing local black women’s groups and encouraging the formation of more, the conference is often hailed as marking the start of the Black Women’s Movement in Britain.

The conference was organised by the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), which had been formed a year earlier, with the aim of establishing an organisation that would unite smaller groups and individuals into a collective movement. Acting as a forum, OWAAD helped black women from come together to plan, discuss and issues concerning them in Britain , and organise support for liberation struggles across the world. OWAAD held another three conferences, produced a bi-monthly newsletter, FOWAAD, and was successful in mobilising women behind practical protests. Underpinning the women’s political organisation was the assertion of a collective identity as ‘black women’.

The organisation specifically united students from West Indian, African and Asian countries with women who had grown up as migrants or children of migrants in Britain. Experiences of racism and involvement in racial politics were important aspects in the political consciousness of many of those organising under OWAAD. In 1948, passenger liner Empire Windrush arrived in London carrying 492 Jamaicans, responding to the call of the 1948 Nationality act for citizens of the commonwealth to claim British citizenship and work for the ‘motherland’. Migration to Britain occurred mostly from the West Indies, India and Pakistan.

Although certainly not the first non-white population, migrant workers and their families became increasingly visible, contributing to the emergence of modern British race relations. Political movements sprang up to combat racism and inequality, and express emerging concepts of Black Power and black liberation. In parallel with this, black workers found themselves fighting to establish themselves both in the trade union movements (often themselves rife with racism) as well as fighting discrimination from employers. At the same time, the Women’s Liberation movement was also erupting, as women began to organise themselves against male supremacy.

The women who founded OWAAD found themselves facing oppression on various fronts – as women, as black people, many as workers – caught between the various movements, none of which adequately addressed their needs and desires. The black women’s movement evolved an intersectional approach to find their way forward.

OWAAD was formed in 1978 when women in the UK African Students Union initiated a meeting at Warwick University. Recognising growing numbers of black women organising locally, they discussed the formation of an organisation that would take a more national position. Those present were nearly all involved in black organisations and community groups. They asserted that as black women they faced a ‘triple oppression’, concerning their race, gender and class, and required their own organisations to fight on all three fronts.

One of the founding groups whose work contributed to the building of OWAAD, the Brixton Black Women’s Group, later wrote an account and analysis of OWAAD’s development, the problems that it faced and how it dealt with them, and its ultimate demise.
We reprint this below.

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent

A critical look at the growth, contradictions and eventual demise of Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent in the late-1970s/early 1980s, as well as the lessons to be learnt from it, by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a now defunct group begun in 1978, sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. It was an important chapter in the history of Black women organising.

OWAAD initially provided a national link between Black women in Britain. But the task of uniting so many diverse and differing elements, particularly in the absence of a fundamental grounding and appreciation of the concrete experiences of each particular grouping, proved too much. Its demise in 1982 was important however, because of the opportunity it presented to analyse and assess and hopefully to learn something about where we are as Black women organising.

Growth of OWAAD

In February 1978 African women who were becoming active in the African Student’s Union (UK) launched the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. These origins do not reveal the far-reaching implications of its birth and development It was not the first or the only Black Women’s organisation. In other areas African women, such as ZANU Women’s League were forming separate caucuses to their national liberation organisations. Black women resident or born in England were beginning to meet in study groups; still others had begun self-help groups like the Manchester Black Women’s Co-op[1]; others were spearheading the ‘Stop Sus’ campaigns. OWAAD performed a different function. It presented as a possibility a chance for Black women from all over England to meet with each other, share ideas and give help and support to what each were doing.

The guiding forces behind the first OWAAD meeting were women who had already been active in the few local groups there were. In the earliest months, African women students from Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea, for example, were prominent in the discussions about how best to organise a network federation of Black women. After a short while, women activists from the indigenous Black community became involved, and the proposal for a national Black Women’s conference was developed. As the organisation of the conference progressed, it soon became clear that the main thrust of the conference was to be the position of Black women in Britain.

Few of us expected the 250 women who turned up at the first conference. We in the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) had made informal links with other women organising, but did not imagine there were so many ready and eager to begin to organise and articulate around the specific oppression of Black women. The conference discussed a wide range of issues around health education, the law and immigration; as we saw these to affect us. The women who came were greatly inspired and went away to form Black Women’s groups in their own communities in places like Hackney, east London, west London, Southall and others around the country.

With this growth, we realized the need for a newsletter to ensure links were maintained with women who were intensifying their activities in their communities. There were many important issues and campaigns that had to be fought. The newsletter FOWAAD was launched to ensure that women from OWAAD knew what other women were doing, and could be called upon to give practical support. An example of this was the protest over the use of virginity tests at ports of entry. As soon as we were alerted to the use of this offensive practice on Asian women, OWAAD organised a sit-in protest and picket at Heathrow Airport. This later culminated in a demonstration in central London against State harassment organised by women from AWAZ (Asian Women’s Movement) and Brixton Black Women’s Group.

In other cases, women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example Futters[2]); women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions; women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation. OWAAD had all the energy and vibrancy that the Black Movement needed at that time.

By the end of the second conference of 1980, the organisation, which was becoming very large, had developed a structure which we had hoped would facilitate the widest participation by both groups and individuals. Committees responsible for the coordination of the different aspects of OWAAD’s work were set up. These were the newsletter, calendar and diary, media, and so on; each was then accountable to a large collective coordinating group, which was the final decision-making body. Ostensibly, there were no appointed leaders or spokeswomen.

Because the organisation was made up of groups, campaigns and individuals, leadership was exercised according to the demands of each situation. Between the second and third conferences, some contradictions started to surface. Some were structural, the umbrella structure proving unwieldy; others were centred around Black women’s sexuality; whilst still others dealt with the complexities of putting the political principles of Afro-Asian unity into practice.

By the third conference, these cracks in OWAAD presented themselves visibly as major rifts. Meanwhile, the internal contradictions of some local groups led to their demise. Moreover the third conference, held in 1981, coincided with the uprisings in the Black communities nationwide. Consequently, much energy, time and organisation was devoted to the coordination of legal and political defence campaigns. The urgency of the situation reinforced the drift away from involvement in women’s groups.

At the conference itself, the major points of friction were over sexuality and the general line of organisation. Both of these were political questions which it was impossible to discuss properly, let alone resolve, without any agreed political framework to guide the debate, and any necessary re-organisation. The impact of the breakdown of political consensus was particularly acute at this time. Consequently, OWAAD, as an organising body, was left with virtually nothing for the year. Attempts were made to draw the organisation together and to reconstitute the coordinating committee with the few groups and individuals that continued to attend meetings. The result was the fourth conference in 1982 which was inevitably a debacle. Few of the older founder members were left. Moreover, the theme of this conference – ‘Black Feminism’ – brought angry criticism from newer members, who did not understand the history behind the theme, and/or were ‘hostile to feminism’, and therefore saw its choice as a retrogressive step.

The failure both to discuss the differences and develop a way forward for OWAAD was illustrative of our inability to explain the historical trajectory of OWAAD and to integrate a feminist analysis into our practice, whilst retaining socialism as our major foundation stone.

Since then, several attempts have been made to revive OWAAD, but the organisation is in fact now dead.

Contradictions

The demise of OWAAD is very important because it exemplifies in specific terms, the general difficulties that Black women face when organising. In its very early history, an issue which appeared to us a relatively small, became crucially important, since it highlighted the way in which concrete political situations affect the specific kind of analysis developed by a group. The issue at hand was that of Afro-Caribbean and African unity. This became important in itself because, whilst we all recognized such unity as an objective reality, we were unprepared to deal with the kinds of differences between us, which resulted from our concrete experiences.

At one level, such differences of approach revolved around the form of struggle we could wage. There were sisters from the African continent who were involved in liberation struggles there, which they wanted us to focus on. On the other hand, those of us from the indigenous Black community saw the need to integrate these issues into our overall work. We were also concerned to keep a focus on Black political struggle in Britain and the Americas. How could we all come under one banner? How could our primary fight against racism and sexism be reconciled with our African sisters’ fight?

Differences over emphasis raised analytical questions such as the place of Black Consciousness[3] in situations outside Europe, the Americas and apartheid States. What we were beginning to learn very quickly, was that the concept ‘black’, had very different meanings for those of us living in white-dominated societies and regions, compared to those of us from societies which were ostensibly independent. Whilst all of us were dominated by imperialism, the manifestations of this domination were obviously very different in the two types of situations. In our attempt to develop a political analysis and practice which recognized the anti-imperialist base of all our struggles, we had failed to take account of the subjective impact of specific situations and their practical implications. Thus, the fact that our aims and objectives were all-embracing, might have avoided rather than confronted the problem.

Paradoxically, it was the recognition that we had to be more specific on our platform, coupled with the involvement of even more local women, that led to our concentrating on Black women’s lives in Britain, that a second, but related, contradiction emerged.

In focussing on Britain, it became clear that an organisation of African and Afro-Caribbean sisters could not take up the issue of racism without responding to the questions being raised by Asian sisters. The aims and objectives were seemingly contradictory, even when applied to the British situation. In one sense, we were all-embracing, but in another, more practical, way we had not widened our base consciously to include all of those who could and should be involved.

It was not until the Winter of 1978 that OWAAD became the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent. Perhaps it was because the issue of Afro-Asian unity had not been there from the beginning that it was problematic. More fundamentally, perhaps, it was problematic because our political line, whilst basically correct, was still unable fully to realize itself in our practice. Just as our practical focus had led to the de facto exclusion of African sisters, so too was our line to prove unable adequately to deal with cultural differences within the indigenous Black community. There seemed to be a fear that recognizing such differences between us would lead to a breakdown or denial of the objective unity which contemporary British racism and historical colonialism imposed on us. Thus, when some sisters raised the cultural aspects, differences between us were seen by others as divisive.

Consequently, the unwitting exclusivity of OWAAD’s focus, which resulted from the numerical strength of Caribbean sisters in the organisation, became symbolic of our inability to grasp the fact that recognition of cultural differences can be a political strength which helps us to transcend the divisions which our colonial and neocolonial masters (and mistresses) and their agents attempted to foist on us.

Sexuality

Another issue that played a major part in exposing our differences was that of sexuality – the questions of our relationships with men, with other women and society at large. From the first conference there had been questions asked about the absence of a debate on sexuality. We who had been founder members of OWAAD attempted to defend ourselves, and thereby deflect the criticism, by showing how we had attempted to widen the definition of Black women’s sexuality by relating it to the way in which imperialism structured women’s lives.

Our argument was that imperialist relations structured and determined not only our role in production – in factory and field – but that these relations also determined the emotional, sexual and psychological aspects of Black women’s lives. Consequently, we could only understand our sexuality in terms of the interplay between, on the one hand, class and race relations, and on the other, those relations between men and women. It was inevitable, therefore, that the specificity of our social, psychological and emotional dependence on men would lead to a different kind of feminism from that of white, European women. The struggle for a new and self-defined sexuality was therefore part of the anti-imperialist struggle, since such self-definition, centred around the nexus of relations of production and relations of gender, involved a challenge to both our traditional cultures and cultural imperialism.

The potentially explosive issue of sexuality was now taken out of the realm of sexual activity or sexual preference, and into the wider more ‘politically respectable’ terrain of gender relations.

This was, however, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many of us felt (and still feel) that this was a positive development for two reasons. Firstly, we felt that we had begun to place gender relations and women’s oppression onto the political agenda of black organisations. This was certainly a progressive step since, as feminists, we knew that revolutionary analysis and practice had to address itself to the fact of women’s oppression and particularly, to the structures and processes which reproduced the conditions of that oppression. Secondly, we also felt that a full understanding of women’s sexuality could only be gained in relation to, and as an aspect of, the total complex of social relations of class, race and sex. Such an approach could keep us from falling into the trap of making sexual orientation the basis of organising, or the basis of divisions between us. On the other hand, however, this approach served as a guise NOT to discuss the construction of sexual orientation (rather than sexuality in its broadest sense) at all. We thereby rendered sexual preference to the realm of the ‘private’, even though our argument was that ALL aspects of life were social. There was, therefore, an inconsistency in our approach.

The fact of the matter was that we were unsure how to deal with an issue that, more than anything else, showed the weaknesses which became exposed when oppressed women try to organise around both the ‘traditional’ areas of struggle and those issues specific to our oppression as a sex. Stated bluntly, we became the unwitting victims of our own and our communities’ ‘homophobia’.

It was felt that sexual activity, as it came to the fore, was too sensitive to be discussed publicly. The question was constantly posed as to how could we ‘waste time’ discussing lesbianism, heterosexuality and bisexuality when there were so many more pressing issues. It was, besides, a weapon the brother could use against us, as supposedly illustrative of our lack of seriousness. Political men who had witnessed the disintegration of the Black movement and felt threatened by a vibrant Black women’s movement could, and did, use it against us. Perhaps the favourite and most effective line of attack against Black women organising has been, and still is, that we are all ‘frustrated lesbians’. And Black ones at that! A charge which was effective in the sense of undermining our sense of legitimacy, since it nurtured either our own belief that such issues were irrelevant, or our lack of confidence in raising these issues at a political level. Moreover, the irony in this situation was that it was supremely illustrative of the dependence on men, which we argued was a part of women’s sexuality and oppression.

Another popular way of undermining Black women organising consisted of accusations about ‘dominant, middle class bourgeois women’, who are isolated from the ‘woman on the streets’. We succumbed and continue to succumb to the fraudulent and divisive analysis that ‘women on the streets’ could not discuss, articulate and somehow begin to fight their oppression. The argument goes that because we are organised, we are no longer ‘typical’ of Black women; and therefore, the campaigns and issues we take up are misguided. This was based on the assumption that we are middle class because we are all supposedly the recipients of higher education. It would be facile to attempt to refute this notion by giving a head count of how many of us had done so. But two points do need to be made. Firstly, since when were we in the business of attacking Black people for gaining access to higher education. It seems somewhat contradictory to accuse us of selling out or being irrelevant when some of those same people are actively engaged in the struggle to ensure that Black children ‘achieve’ in the education system. Secondly, since when did access to education and the fact that we may occupy ‘middle-class’ jobs automatically lead to petty-bourgeois politics. Our opponents are guilty of conflating two issues in the attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility to challenge women’s oppression. But at the time these kinds of attacks seriously undermined the early unity of OWAAD.

At a practical level, events such as the uprisings[4] had an enormous effect on many women. Black women took a leading role in some defence campaigns. Women were arrested and involved on the streets. Many had fathers, brothers and lovers who were arrested, while others had to contend with their homes being broken into and destroyed in the aftermath. Despite this, the input of women – as women – somehow became marginalized. Part of the reason for this was that when women became involved in defence campaigns, we could not devote the time to our own women’s groups, and many felt they should not. Consequently, the strength we gained from our women’s groups, did not play the major role it should have done. Why was this and what input should we have made?

What these developments pointed to was some uncertainty about what we were struggling for – or more correctly, what our priorities were. Overt feminism, that is, raising the question of women’s specific oppression, seemed sometimes inconsequential, eclipsed by the larger Black struggle. These ideas went back to the heyday of the Black movement, when it was felt that women’s issues or ‘the woman question’ was a secondary matter that could divide the struggle.

One other difficulty that OWAAD highlighted was the internal weakness in our organisations and groups. Many of us had rejected the male idea of leadership through the totem pole. The backward idea that had existed in the Black movement was that leaders were singularly the baddest, toughest towards their own comrades; and that leadership was the prize after a cockfight. What could we put in its place that was less destructive and individualistic?

OWAAD provided the alternative of co-operative organisation without positions of leadership to be fought over. Working through committees provided women in OWAAD with the supportive ground to develop their political consciousness. However, it left too much space for dissension – for political shifts from the anti-imperialist base. It was open for any small group to attempt to take over the organisation and try to move it in a different direction.

The problems highlighted here seem large. It might cause some to wonder how OWAAD lasted so long, and how Black women are still able to organise. It is clearly because the problems of women organising are not insurmountable; and we still need to form strong organisations. We should, however, learn some lessons from the demise of OWAAD.

Lessons

The first of these involves the need to develop political unity without minimizing the differences between us as Black women, whether these be of a cultural or tactical nature. Such differences have come about as a result of the different colonizing influences we have experienced. These need not and should not continue to be viewed in a negative way, but rather accepted and made use of, so long as there is no major difference in ideological perspective.

The oppression we have suffered (and continue to suffer) as Black women, whether in Britain, the Americas or Africa, serves to keep us divided, but this oppression must also be the objective basis of our unity. We must learn to appreciate our different cultures, understand our different experiences and distinguish between these differences and objective political differences. It is from this perspective that we can then attack the various forms of oppression which divide us. Only in this way can we facilitate our continued growth as Black women and thus be in a better position to react against the source and substance of our oppression in a strong, informed and concerted fashion.

Another important lesson to be learned from OWAAD’s demise must be the acceptance that we must continue to stress the importance of keeping the question of gender relationships on centre stage. This will inevitably involve an understanding of the relationship between sexuality and women’s oppression; but the traditional resistance amongst the Black community to such an examination, must not prevent us from publicly declaring the need to look at the construction of sexuality; and to publicly support lesbian women.

Similarly, our focus on gender relations is the only way in which we can ensure that the question of Black women’s oppression is not relegated to a secondary level of political consideration. As Black socialist feminists, it is incumbent upon us to point out that women’s oppression is inextricably bound up with the issues of race and class; and that it is right and necessary to tackle all three simultaneously, and with equal determination.

However, having declared the inextricable links between sex, race and class, we have the responsibility to carry through the political arguments with regard to feminism. This means that the thrust of our work will have two strands. On the one hand, we will continue to organise autonomously and address the issues we face as Black women. On the other, we must bring a feminist perspective to the work of our comrades in mixed, progressive Black organisations. In this way, we will be raising the consciousness of the Black community within the context of the totality of Black socialist politics.

Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC) is at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aims to give help and support to Black women in the community. We do this by: providing a welfare rights information and referral service; participating in a health group; providing meeting facilities; holding open days on themes reflecting Black women’s lives and struggles; having a small but growing library; running children’s projects at Easter and summer holidays.

In the near future we intend to develop a craft centre; a girls’ project; a film group; regular women’s socials; relaxation sessions. If you have any ideas and/or want to participate come and join us. For further information, phone 01-274-9220.

Originally published in Feminist Review, No. 17, 1984.

Notes

1 – Manchester Black Women’s Co-op: Set up in the late 1970s, by “the late Ada Phillips, Kath Locke and Olive Morris who was at that time a student at Manchester University and a founder member of The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). […]”. It maintained a political and campaigning outlook as well as doing practical work, and reformed itself as Abasindi Housing Co-op a few years later:

“The Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative] was established to create a self-help educational programme within the community geared especially to the needs of young mothers. From this basis of concern there developed an office skills training programme and opportunities for young people to become involved with various community based initiatives. In turn, this situation exposed the author and other young women to a range of political actions on behalf of the community.

During 1979 the members of the Black Women’s Co-operative undertook a lengthy and critical review of the organisation’s achievements and developments. The women concluded that in spite of some of the activities, the project was not as effective as it should be in significantly involving black women in the development of their community. Hence the need to widen the Co-operative’s activities and areas of interest. Furthermore, it was agreed that the group should show itself to be both autonomous and self-determining.

With these objectives in mind, the membership decided to reform as Abasindi. On the 1st January 1980, Kath Locke, Duduzile Lethlaku, Yvonne Hypolite, Maria Noble, Popgee Manderson, Madge Gordon, Abena Braithwaite, Shirley Inniss, and the author were among the local women who founded the Abasindi Women’s Co-op. Two of the women were born in this country of English and Nigerian parentage and the others were from Barbados, Trinidad, Aruba, South Africa and Jamaica. For a number of years, Abasindi was based in the Moss Side People’s Centre, formerly St. Mary’s Primary school and now the site of a privately run children’s nursery. The People’s Centre at that time also housed a number of community groups including the Moss Side Adventure Playgroup, The Family Advice Centre and a project for young people. Approximately one year after Abasindi was formed, Moss Side’s reputation as an inner city area with particular social problems was the subject of much media attention. This was in 1981 when alongside cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, London and Liverpool; it became the site of four days of social disturbance.”

2 – Futters: South Asian women went on strike in 1979 at a Harlesden factory, Futters, a family owned light engineering firm that was only a couple of miles from Grunwicks; the dispute was in protest at low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate toilet facilities and victimisation of union activists.

3 – Black Consciousness: Originally the Black Consciousness Movement developed in apartheid-era South Africa as a radical black movement opposing apartheid, which rejected the idea of garnering white liberal opinion and support, and determined to develop a black-led autonomous political rebellion against not just apartheid, but ‘white values’. The Black Consciousness Movement helped bring cohesiveness and solidarity to the black anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, despite itself being banned and repressed, and the murder of its leader Steve Biko by SA police in 1977.
The BCM were both influenced by and had influence on black power movements in the US and beyond, and the term ‘black consciousness’ is used in the text here in a wider sense, to clearly mean a set of ideas centering black experience and black action to free themselves from oppression, rather than any reliance on winning white approval or courting whites to change things on their behalf.

4 – ‘The uprisings’: known in the more mainstream media as the 1981 riots that broke out around the UK in Spring-Summer 1981, beginning in Brixton in April, many provoked by police violence and racism.

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More reading

Material relating to OWAAD has been well preserved at the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton: a collection of organisational papers was given to the archive by a founding member, Stella Dadzie.

‘The Heart of the Race’, a classic book, containing testimonies of women involved in the 1970s UK Black Women’s Movement and OWAAD, has recently been re-published.

Amrit Wilson, Finding a Voice: struggles of South Asian women

Bethany Warner’s dissertation, The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent: constructing a collective identity’ is also well worth a read.

Here’s a brief film discussing OWAAD’s campaigns