Today and tomorrow, in London’s shopping history: bread riots in Whitechapel, 1861

The winter of 1860-61 was grim: freezing weather and lack of work, leading to mass poverty among working people in London. ‘The district of Old Street, Goswell Street, Barbican, and Whitecross Street’, wrote a correspondent of the Morning Post on January 20, 1861, ‘are the boundaries, in a maze of courts swarming with people in a state of starvation.’

The low temperatures led to a lack of work: “Owing to the continuance of the frost, and all out door labour being stopped, the distress and suffering that prevail in the metropolis, particularly among the dock labourers, bricklayers, masons, and labouring classes at the East End, are truly horrible. Throughout the day thousands congregate round the approaches of the different workhouses and unions, seeking relief, but it has been impossible for the officers to supply one-third that applied. This led to consider able dissatisfaction, and hundreds have perambulated the different streets seeking alms of the inhabitants and of the passers-by.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

“THE one domestic question at present uppermost in the public mind is the social condition of the humbler classes. It has been forced upon us by a winter of unexampled severity; by an amount of national distress, not at all exceptional in the cold season, which has gone to the very verge of bread riots; and by agitations in the press and on the platform for an immediate improvement in labourers’ cottages. The chief streets of the metropolis have been haunted for weeks by gaunt labourers, who have moaned out a song of want that has penetrated the thickest walls. The workhouses have been daily besieged by noisy and half-famished crowds; the clumsy poor-law system, with its twenty-three thousand officers, its boards, and its twelve thousand annual reports, has notoriously broken down; the working clergy, and the London magistrates, worn out and exhausted, have been the willing almoners of stray benevolence; Dorcas societies, soup-kitchens, ragged-schools, asylums, refuges, and all the varied machinery of British charity, have been strained to the utmost; and now we may sit down and congratulate ourselves that only a few of our fellow-creatures have been starved to death. The storm to all appearance has passed, but the really poor will feel the effects of those two bitter months -December, 1860, and January, 1861 – for years.” (Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861.)

The extreme poverty provoked collective action – proletarian shopping – taking the necessities of life by force without the politeness of paying. Over the nights of 15/16 January 1861, there were bread riots in Whitechapel.
Several bakers’ shops in the East End of London were emptied by a mob of 30 to 40 people on the evening of the 15th. The next day, things escalated: on the 16th, between seven and nine o’clock at night, thousands gathered, many of them dockers and their families, and cleared bakers’ shops and eating-houses. Outnumbered, the mounted police were powerless to stop the desperate spectacle.

“On Tuesday night much alarm was produced by an attack made on a large number of bakers’ shops in the vicinity of the Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road East. They were surrounded by a mob of about thirty or forty in number, who cleared the shops of the bread they contained, and then decamped. On Wednesday night, however, affairs assumed a more threatening character, and acts of violence were committed. By sonic means it became known, in the course of the afternoon, that the dock labourers intended to visit Whitechapel in a mass, as soon as dusk set in, and that an attack would be made on all the provision shops in that locality. This led to a general shutting up of the shops almost through out the East End – a precaution highly necessary, for between seven and nine o’clock thousands congregated in the principal streets and proceeded in a body from street to street. An attack was made upon many of the bakers’ shops and eating-houses, and every morsel of food was carried away. A great many thieves and dissipated characters mingled with the mob, and many serious acts of violence were committed. The mounted police of the district were present, but it was impossible for them to act against so large a number of people. Yesterday, the streets were thronged with groups of the unemployed, seeking relief of the passers-by. In the outskirts similar scenes were observed, and in some instances acts approaching intimidation were resorted to to obtain alms.” (Morning Star, January 18, 1861)

The bread riot was a not irregular feature of life both before and after industrialisation in England, with bread prices at the mercy of many factors including bad harvests, greedy price-raising by hoarders and artificial price-hiking in the interests of landowners by use of legislation like the Corn Laws. Although these laws had been repealed in 1846, economic slump or seasonal conditions could reduce whole areas to near-destitution. There had been bread riots across London in 1855, including in Whitechapel…

In the January 1861 riots, East End dockers were prominent: dock work was precarious and unstable at the best of times, with men engaged day to day at the whim of the gangmasters; frozen weather caused ships not to be able to be unloaded and work to slacken.

The grim conditions continued into February and March: “It is doubtful if there was not more real privation in February than in January of the present year; and the registrar-general’s return of deaths from starvation – the most awful of all deaths – for the mild week ending February 16, had certainly increased. There has been no lack of generosity on the part of those who have been able to give. The full purse has been everywhere found open, and thousands have asked to be shown real suffering, and the best mode of relieving it. A local taxation, cheerfully and regularly paid, of 18,000,000l. per annum, beyond the Government burden, is either inadequate for the purposes to which it is applied, or applied in the most wasteful and unskilful manner. The sum, or its administration, is unable to do its work. The metropolis, not to speak of other towns, is not “managed,” not cleansed, not relieved from the spectre of starvation which dances before us at our doors.”

(Ragged London in 1861, John Hollingshead, 1861)

Today in London religious history, 1819: Followers of millenarian prophetess Joanna Southcott ’cause a riot’ in Cannon Street

The Woman Clothed with the Sun

Joanna Southcott  (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born in the hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon, England.

Originally in the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Methodist Church in Exeter, becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6). An apocalypse was coming, she announced, where the ‘satanic powers’ would be overthrown, and a messiah would return, to launch a Millennium of peace.

Moving to London, Southcott began selling paper “seals of the Lord” (at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea) – basically ‘Get Out of the Apocalypse Free’ Cards which supposedly ensured the holders’ places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life. She spent the 1790s recording a series of prophecies communicated to her, she maintained, by a ‘Spirit of Truth’; worldly events (war, famine, etc) signalling the impending end of days. The theology she developed set out a role for herself, partly identifying her with ‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’ described in the Book of Revelation (which features in a famous engraving by William Blake); empowered with the redemptive power of God, who would tale part in a war on heaven; she also foretold that a ‘Shiloh’ or prophet would appear immediately before Jesus’ return (again derived from Biblical writings)

The World Turned Upside Down

Southcott’s prophecies began to gain her followers, as her writings became wider known across the country. By 1814 she had gathered at least 12,000 adherents, although the movement was estimated as influencing many more; accurate figures are hard to nail down. Many of her followers had previously cleaved to Methodism, like herself, to other fringe Christian churches and to prophets like her near-contemporary Richard Brothers, The millenarian ferment could take wildly divergent forms: on one hand millenarians could by politically quietist, avoiding action for reform or social change in the immediate because they viewed the Second Coming of Jesus as imminent and that would sweep worldly structures away, but just as easily, millenarianism could evolve into the urgent compulsion to bring the Second Coming about by collective action. As Southcott was beginning her career this dangerous dichotomy had already landed Richard Brothers in prison, Brothers having spooked the authorities after predicting the downfall of Parliament and king George III in apocalyptic language so violent that it came close to echoing the revolutionary agitation of France. As during the years of the English Revolution, religious fervour and dreams of the apocalypse and everyday social change went to some extent hand in hand. Millenarians hanging out in London taverns rubbed shoulders with very earthly radicals, with ideas mingling at the fringes, producing individuals like James Hadfield, who tried to shoot king George III in 1800, convinced it would help bring about the Millennium. Figures like William Blake, who mixed religious millenarianism with radical desires for social justice, are not unusual in this evolving, fertile brew of milieu.

Many of Southcott’s followers (in common with the adherents of other prophets, Methodists and other sects) were of plebeian origins; the dream of overturning society appealing most obviously to those whose lives were often bitterly hard, faced with oppression, poverty and arbitrary powers above them. The massive social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the dislocation caused by enclosure, the political cataclysm represented by the French Revolution, were all combining to give birth of a varied, shifting, many-faceted sense of a world changing being turned on its head. Southcott herself, however, specifically opposed radical politics and warned her readers against following the reform-minded and republican paths. ‘Rebellion is as iniquity and Idolatry’, she wrote, urging her followers to ‘not trouble themselves about politics or parties and have no connection with desperate Men… avoid contention or strife’. She wrote a book in reply and opposition to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, and declared her support for the English monarchy.
Nevertheless among her following were a number of former radicals of the 1790s; on the other hand, after her death, a portion of the Southcottian scene did take part on reformist or radical politics.

Her followers created a network of Southcottian chapels (taking advantage of new easings on the opening of dissenting meeting houses), to hear sermons and sing hymns on the subject of the Millennium.

At the age of 64 Southcott let it be known that she was pregnant and would give birth to the new Messiah, the Shiloh mentioned in the book of of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was announced that Southcott was in a trance.

She died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it seems that she died the previous day, but her followers retained her body for a day or two, believing that she would soon be raised from the dead. They agreed to her burial only after the corpse began to decay.

Her death, without giving birth to the Messiah, didn’t completely disillusion her following, though the movement splintered into sects with diverging explanations for what had ‘happened’ at her death (had the Shiloh in fact been born but was taken up to God etc). The kind of rationalisation that generally takes place in cults when Millennial dates pass without visible sign of Apocalypse or Rapture… Elements of the Southcottian tradition continue to exit today, though much declined in number. Successor prophets including George Turner, John Wroe, and John ‘Zion’ Ward held sway in some parts of the Southcottian movement; other factions felt she could have no earthly successor.

‘A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm’

Engaged with radicalism or not, the movement attracted both the distrust of the authorities and something of the more general contempt and mockery that dissenting religious sects aroused among a section of the populace. Southcottians became occasional targets for mobs and general abuse.
At least once this led to a mini-riot. In January 2019 a family of Southcottians were arrested in the City of London after triggering a barney in the street. An account of their trial exists in the Newgate Calendar:

“SAMUEL SIBLEY; MARIA CATHERINE SIBLEY; SAMUEL JONES; his son; THOMAS JONES; JOHN ANGEL; THOMAS SMITH; JAMES DODD and EDWARD SLATER

Deluded followers of Joanna Southcott, the sham prophetess, tried for rioting, 13th of January, 1819

   A MOST lamentable instance of the effects of infatuation and religious enthusiasm was exhibited before the sitting magistrate, at Guildhall, London, on the 13th of January, 1819, when Samuel Sibley, and Maria Catherine Sibley, his wife; Samuel Jones; his son, a boy of ten years’ old; Thomas Jones, John Angel, Thomas Smith, James Dodd, and Edward Slater, a boy of twelve years’ of age; were brought up from the Compter, by two officers of the Cordwainers’ Ward, who had with great difficulty, and at the hazard of their own lives, rescued the prisoners from the fury of an immense mob, in Budge-row, Cannon-street, about ten o’clock on the previous morning.

   These deluded people, it was ascertained, were disciples of the lately famous Joanna Southcott, of whom the public have heard so much, and conceived themselves directed by God to proclaim the Coming of Shiloh on Earth: for this purpose they assembled at the west end of the town, in order to enter the only gate of the great city (Temple-bar), through which they marched in procession about nine o’clock in the morning, They were each decorated with a white cockade, and wore a small star of yellow riband on the left breast; Sibley, who led the procession, bearing a brazen trumpet adorned with light blue ribands, and the boys carried each a small flag of blue silk.

   In this manner they had proceeded through Fleet-street, up Ludgate-hill, and along St Paul’s Church-yard, to Budge-row, a great crowd following them, increasing continually as they proceeded. Having arrived, as they supposed, in the middle of the great city, they halted, and began to perform their ceremonies. Sibley sounded the trumpet, and proclaimed the second coming of the Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, on earth; and his wife cried aloud, “Wo! wo! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the coming of the Shiioh!” This cry was repeated several times, and joined in with a loud voice by the others of the company.

   The crowd was by this time immense, every avenue was stopped up, and the passage of carts and carriages rendered impossible. The mob began with laughing and shouting at these miserably deluded people, and at length proceeded to pelting them with mud and every sort of missile they could procure; they, on their part, being most of them stout young men, resisted; the fight became general and tremendous, the flags were torn down, and Sibley and his associates with great difficulty preserved, by the exertions of the officers, from falling victims to the infuriated rage of the mob, and conveyed to the Compter. Their appearance, when put to the bar, bespoke the danger they had gone through; the men had been all rolled in the mud, and Sibley bore evident marks of violence in his face. The tattered remnants of the paraphernalia used on this singular occasion were also produced, and excited in the minds of all present a mixed sensation of pity and disgust at the assumption of holy functions and heavenly agencies in which the deluded fanatics had so impiously indulged.

   On being called upon by the magistrate, Mr. Alderman Bridges, to give an account of their conduct, in thus disturbing the public peace, Sibley, with an air of authority, directed the others to be silent, and, addressing the alderman, said, he regretted there was no time for him to enter into the particulars of the mission of God to him. He had been commanded by a voice, through the boy Slater, to announce that the Prince of Peace was come upon earth. He was commanded to proclaim the Second Coming of Shiloh, in the same manner, and with the same authority as John the Baptist had proclaimed his first coming. This proclamation he was to make three times in the midst of the great city, by the sound of the trumpet. He and his companions were obeying the commands of God, and in so doing had conducted themselves peaceably, and interfered with no one, when they were attacked by the mob.

   He was proceeding to explain the nature of the visions with which the boy had been favoured, and his wife was raising her voice to bear testimony to the fact of the Shiloh being on earth, whom she said she had had in her arms four times, when the magistrate interrupted them, and observed, that it was evident, if they were not insane, that they were acting under a strong delusion, and pointed out to them how much better they would have been employed in pursuing their regular avocations, than in being the cause of public riot, and endangering their own persons; recommending them to desist from any repetitions of their gross absurdities and delusions.

   The men in reply said, it was right they should obey God; but they would do whatever the magistrate directed, and desist from any further proclamation, assuring him at the same time that nevertheless the Shiloh was come.

   The Alderman said he would not rely on their promise, and should detain them all in custody till they could procure him some better assurance than their own words for their peaceable demeanour in future. They were accordingly conveyed back to the Compter in two coaches to protect them from the mob: one of the men on stepping into the coach, unbuttoned his coat, displayed his yellow star, and placing his hand on it, proclaimed that it was God’s colour.

   On the following morning, the whole party of these self-created heralds of heavenly news were again brought up before the sitting magistrate, Alderman Christopher Smith.

   Sibley was again the spokesman, and, in reply to the magistrate, who inquired if he had ever been in Bedlam, said, the gentlemen might laugh, but he was not mad, but had investigated the business thoroughly before he was convinced. He believed the Bible from cover to cover, and could point out the prophecies which were now fulfilling. He then went into a long rhapsody of nonsense respecting the visions with which the boy had been favoured by God, and declared he had witnessed miracles performed by him. In the course of his long address, he quoted the Scriptures very fluently, and concluded by referring, in justification of his belief, to the passage in which it is said, “in the latter days your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions.” Being asked what place of worship he attended, he replied, his church was his own house, No. 3, Gooch-yard, Upper Whitecross-street; there were about thirty of them who met there frequently, to read the Bible and receive commands of the Lord. He had now received command from God to desist from any further proclamation; and if the Prince Regent were to collect all the money in the world, and lay it at his feet, he dared not do it; the magistrate might therefore rely there would be no repetition of their previous conduct.

   In this declaration he was joined by his wife and the rest of his associates, who all declared aloud, that they dared not now proceed any further in this business. On this assurance on their parts, they were discharged with a suitable admonition from the worthy Alderman, and thus terminated this very singular mission.

   The leader of this redoubtable troop, Sibley, held the dignified station of watchman, in the neighbourhood of St. George’s Fields; and the rest of the maniac band was composed of journeymen mechanics and labourers, with their wives. The whole were grossly ignorant and stupid, but most inveterate1y conceited, and evidently acted under a full impression of the divine nature of the cause in which they were embarked.”

As noted above, the popular millenarian movement founded by Joanna Southcott enjoyed a complex relationship with political radicalism in early nineteenth-century Britain. Southcott opposed radicalism during her lifetime, encouraging her followers to await a messianic agent of the millennium. But within two decades of the prophet’s death, some surviving Southcottians became political radicals, most notably, John ‘Zion’ Ward (1781-1837) and James Elishama Smith (1801-57). Ward was a popular preacher during the agitations around the Reform Bill, speaking regularly at Carlile’s Rotunda; Smith was a utopian socialist lecturer, editor of Robert Owen’s journal Crisis, active in the co-operative movement’s attempt to create a ‘general trades union’ in 1833-34. The influence of Ward and Smith drew several hundred Southcottians into engagement with politics.

Historians have differed widely on the relationship of Southcottianism and religious millenarianism more widely to political radicalism. ‘Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism’ by Philip Lockley (published 2013) look like an interesting recent discussion of this interaction.

What’s In the Box? What’s In the Baaax?

The most intriguing myth of the Southcottian tradition centres around ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box. On her death, she left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England (who were to spend time beforehand studying Southcott’s prophecies). Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of the reluctant suffragan Bishop of Grantham, but this box was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. However, historians and followers of Southcott disputed Price’s claims to have had the true box; modern Southcottians the Panacea Society claim THEY have the real box, and ran an advertising campaign on billboards and in British newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, to try to persuade the twenty-four bishops to have the box opened, on the grounds that “War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.”

However, Southcott’s prophesy that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004 appears not to have come to pass, and her followers’ campaign for the contents of the box to be been studied beforehand (so that the world would have had to meet the Second Coming unprepared) fell on largely deaf ears…

 

Today in London history, 1987: Michael Delaney killed by scab TNT truck, Wapping.

The 1986-7 Wapping Dispute claimed many jobs – and Michael Delaney’s life.

Traditionally newspaper printers on Fleet Street newspapers were well-organised, with a long history of militancy and support for other workers (dating back to the 1926 General Strike and beyond). Not a history calculated to endear them to their bosses…

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch’s News International, producers of the Sun, Times, News of the World etc, in a well-prepared move, provoked a printers strike by demanding drastic changes in working conditions and promptly moved production from Fleet Street to a fortified plant in Wapping, sacking 500 printers & introducing new technology – all with the carefully laid plan to break the printers’ power over the presses.

Cue a year-long battle, fought out on the streets of Wapping, with daily mass pickets, blockades and attempts to stop the lorries leaving with papers, and battles with police round Wapping & the Highway, as well as mass sabotage, solidarity actions and occasional arson against News International, their papers (and the scab TNT lorries carrying them) all round the country…

A high-tech plant was built in Wapping, the union-busting plan disguised with false claims that a new title, The London Post, would be printed there. Secret deals were then drawn up to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; members of the EEPTU (electricians) union were quite happy to shit on the printers and line their own pockets doing this work.

News International blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum – work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded the new East London headquarters.

When this provoked strike action and mass sackings among printers, Murdoch hired the transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.

Picketing repeatedly erupted into riots, barricades were built several times (on occasions holding up paper delivery for hours). Spoof versions of the Sun and an independent satirical Wapping Times paper were brought out by strikers and their supporters.  The printers were well supported, especially locally, with police tactics  – such as towing locals’ cars away to allow lorries movement, raiding local pubs and blocking people off from their homes – alienating residents. Many of who were never big fans of the Met; alot had trade union backgrounds, and general anger at LDDC/Council-sponsored yuppification in the area was held to be linked to the dispute. TNT vans and distribution points became targets for strikers and their supporters.

The leaderships of the then-existing two printers unions, Sogat and the NGA, constantly tried to control and limit the struggle, especially when it (necessarily) turned violent – union officials went to the lengths of identifying and grassing up rioters.

Have a read of issues of Picket, the unofficial bulletin of the Wapping strikers.

Eventually despite widespread support and mass action, the print unions gave up the fight, leaving sacked workers high & dry and encouraging similar moves by other newspapers. The printers were the latest in a long line of workers with strong traditions of solidarity & standing up for themselves to be battered by the capitalist class in the ‘80s.

The dispute would also claim the life of one local teenager.

On the evening of 10 January 1987, 19-year old Michael Delaney was on his way home after drinking with friends to celebrate his birthday of the previous week.

At the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys, the lads spotted a TNT lorry used by News International to distribute papers during the bitter Wapping dispute that had been going on for a year.

There was a red light at the junction and Michael Delaney tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, Delaney got close enough to slap the door but, as the lorry moved off, he was dragged underneath and crushed by the wheels.

The lorry did not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.

At Delaney’s inquest in Snaresbrook, Essex, in April 1987, the driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub – in the company of one Inspector Pickard of Leman Street Police Station. Was there collusion with police to prevent any evidence coming out that would lead to a prosecution of the driver – embarrassing for News International?

The inquest coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Instead, they decided it was a case of unlawful killing. Afterwards, the director of public prosecutions ruled against launching a prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A year later the inquest verdict itself was quashed in the high court. (The first the family heard about this was on the TV news).

As then Wapping resident Mike Jempson (who knew Michael from his youth), later pointed out, (in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking):

“Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.

Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.

Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.

These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Sun could hit the streets.

The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.”

Heartbreakingly for Michael’s family – we will probably never know.

Policing of the Wapping dispute became a day to day issue – with 100s of police drafted in to bash pickets and defend Fortress Wapping. But policing was also going on behind the scenes – Special Branch were keeping a keen eye on those organising picketing, and their Special Demonstration Squad department – consisting of undercover officers infiltrating protest can campaign groups – were there on the picket line, pretending to support the dispute. At least one SDS spycop – Bob Lambert – regularly attended Wapping demos. Now well known as having acted as an agent provocateur in animal rights groups and initiated the plot to fire bomb Debenhams stores in July 1987. Wonder if he also acted an agent provocateur down Wapping too?

Check out the Special Branch files revelations on their surveillance of the Wapping strike

In memory of Michael Delaney. 

 

Today in London’s anarchist history, 1993: Leah Feldman, veteran of the Russian Revolution, cremated

A Rebel Spirit (obituary of Leah Feldman)

Albert Meltzer

Leah (Leila) Feldman, who was cremated at East London in the presence of some fifty comrades from DAM, ABC, Black Flag and the feminist movement, on January 7th 1993, was a history lesson in herself. She merits more than an obituary.

She was born (she always said) in Warsaw around 1899. Her British passport says she was born in Odessa, but in view of her problems through life, she must have had many occasions to “change” birthdays, names, birthplaces and nationalities. The problems faced by a woman just in travelling independently in the old days were immense, apart from her anarchist activities. While she was still a schoolgirl she become interested in anarchism (her mother used to hide her shoes so that she could not attend meetings, then illegal). Finally she ran away to her sister in London to earn her own living at the sewing machine.

Working in the sweatshops of the East End, she become active in the Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement that flourished at the time and vanished. She was possibly the last survivor of that Jewish workers’ movement. When the Russian Revolution was thought to have come about and the army was in rebellion the overwhelming majority of Russian Jewish male anarchists, who had resisted conscription up to then, joined up to return to Russia. The women Anarchists had a more difficult problem – many with husbands or companions who were able to go back, arranged to follow later but that was the last they heard of their menfolk, overtaken by the triumph of Bolshevism. This Jewish (in the sense they used, neither racial nor religious but language) anarchist movement, gradually dwindled away over the years. A few remaining males survived until the early fifties, and the women, often married into English dockers’ families, ended with Leah so far as this country is concerned.

Leah, however, independently made her own way back, a tremendous task. Viewing Russia from the train, a comrade jestingly remarked she was like Madame Butterfly watching for her lover (we played “One Fine Day” at her funeral, and also Paul Robeson singing the equally appropriate “Joe Hill”). Unfortunately it was no fine day and Leah, as a working woman, was one of the first to see what would be the effects of Bolshevism, something one [none] of the intellectuals who visited could see.

She attended Kropotkin’s funeral, the last permitted anarchist demonstration before the long dark night (they stole the flowers from Lenin’s tribute in the House of the People, but all those paroled from prison for the day returned to jail).

Leah left Moscow to join Makhno’s army in the Ukraine (perhaps that was when she decided she was born in Odessa), which fought into the last against Tsarism, Bolshevism, the Social Democratic oppression and foreign intervention. She was one of a number of Jewish Anarchists who were living testimony to the lie started by the Soviet historian Yaroslavsky and accepted by academics universally (including many encyclopaedists copying each other) about Makhno’s pogroms. Though she did not actually fight, as a few women (who could ride horseback) did, she joined the train that followed the army and prepared clothes and food for the orphans and strays they picked up everywhere. For the rest of her life she was to follow the pattern of behind-the-lines support for revolutionary action.

When the army was defeated, Leah took advantage of one ‘privilege’ offered to women – she changed nationality by a formal marriage to a German anarchist, and left the country. They did not meet again. She made her way to Paris and then back to London. She still wanted to travel and was involved with the Anarchist movement in many countries. She was however tied by her German “marriage” once she had left Russia, but was later free to contract another formal marriage to a British ex-serviceman, named Downes. In a deprecating obituary in ‘Freedom’, which takes into account only her selling of ‘Freedom’ during and a few years after the war, it is said he was her lover. This is rubbish. He was a derelict, like many wounded old soldiers after 1918, found for her by Charles Lahr and paid £10 for his services, lent by the Workers’ Friend group and repaid by Leah over a period. (Typically, Charlie joked that to find a real husband would cost a lot more). They never met again until Leah found by official communication her ‘husband” was in a geriatric hospital and she used to visit with presents of tobacco. When she was abroad, Polly Witcop (sister of Milly Rocker and Rose Witcop) undertook the visits for her.

Leah visited both Poland and mandated Palestine once she was a British citizen, working her way to both places. In Palestine she organised a federation of Anarchists, mostly old friends from the old country. One surprise was her old friend Paula Green, who had been pressurised into marriage in Russia, so had decided on an atheistic Socialist-Zionist with whom she was in love. Forced into exile he had obviously chosen (Ottoman) Palestine. Paula knew he was into active Socialist politics but thought it as impossible he would ever be in government as he thought her ideas impossible. Green changed his name to Ben Gurion, and after 1945 become Prime Minster. His wife did not leave him but did not take part in any public activities, and the whisper in Socialist-Zionist circles was that she was mad and could not be taken on an official platform. (‘Because he becomes the baker do you have to be the baker’s wife?” Leah asked her back in 1935, ten years before Paula faced the final humiliation as Premier’s wife though a still believing if passive anarchist, getting the reply, with a shrug, “So what do I get but the smell of the bakery?”).

Eventually Leah decided there was nothing she could do in Palestine and returned to London at the end of 1935 when I met her for the first time. She helped raise finance for the German sailors who organised a resistance group in the thirties, and took a tremendous part in activities for the Spanish movement when the civil war broke out. I used to go to her flat in Lordship Park (Stoke Newington) and hump great parcels of food and clothing which she had collected from her fellow fur machinists. She could never understand why I could “only raise pennies among my friends when she raised pounds” and never appreciated I was still at school, which for some obscure reason I was somewhat abashed at mentioning in then mostly ageing anarchist circles.

She took part in the selling of “Freedom” after the war and still thought of it as Kropotkin’s paper until her death, but a lot of people made that mistake. She could never understand in later years why they persistently ignored her except when she gave them money, and never visited her when she was ill, but the truth was they resented her criticism that Kropotkin intended it for the Anarchist movement not for a few cronies of one man who had seized control. When “Black Flag” come along she supported it equally always saying to me, “How is it that the people in this group are so different from the Freedom Group?” – I always answered “Because they’re Anarchists” but I fear she didn’t want to hear that.

Leah was associated with Spanish women anarchists in a joint working collective of different Anarchist women in Holborn (London) with Marie Goldberg, Suceso Portales and others, ever since 1939. How, with the confusion of tongues, broken English, Yiddish, Polish, bits of French, Spanish and Catalan, Indian-English of one and broad Scots of another, plus the total lack of verbal communication of two Cypriot women, one Greek and the other Turkish, they could ever have understood each other was a mystery to many, but they made up for it in volume, and maybe that’s how new languages are born. (The postman once said to me on the stairs, ‘I can never work out what nationality those ladies are – they told me they come from somewhere in Anarchy but Christ knows where that is.”) Leah had to give up work when her eyesight went after an operation (she was blind in one eye thereafter and increasingly so in the other),

She wanted to give aid to the Spanish Resistance in spite of all, and during the turbulent sixties, with the International First of May Movement, helped in taking care of the armoury, even taking it with her luggage into Spain. She was known affectionately by Catalans, always prone to giving nicknames, as “la yaya (granny) Makhnowista”.

In her seventies she revisited Warsaw in a vain attempt to find her relatives. A Polish journalist took her round as she refused to believe everything and everybody in the ghetto had vanished. “Maybe the neighbours know something,” she said and they had to show her visual proof that the neighbourhood had been flattened, the Polish inhabitants dispersed and scarcely one of the Jewish residents remaining anywhere in Poland other than those who had come in after the war. Presumably this episode appeared on local TV or radio as the journalist took enormous trouble in convincing her of the reality.

Her last years were sad. Not only were all her family and early friends dead, there was nobody left to whom she could even talk in her own language. She still supported anarchist meetings and went on holiday independently but in the last years of her life accompanied by Margaret, Jessica, Peter, Terry from Black Flag. One of us used to take her to the annual Anarchist Book Fair whenever her health permitted – she always sat at the Freedom Press stall in the hope of meeting some of the people she knew in Freedom who only appeared on the scene that day of the year, if at all, stubbornly refusing to admit it was now quite a different ball game.

As she got increasingly deaf and almost totally blind, she had to surrender some of her cherished independence and allow people to do things for her. She became paranoiac, argumentative and even aggressive in her nineties, after a series of horrendous street accidents, feeling her best friends were trying to kill her by driving cars or motorbikes straight at her, The fact that these dedicated young people still persevered week after week looking after her, being fond of her, and remembering all she had done in the past, says a lot for them especially, in addition to those already named, the feminists Ann and Cathy, and DAM people like Ken and Helen.

George Cores said that “most of the work that was done (in building the Anarchist movement) was due to the activities of working men and women, most of whom did not appear as orators or writers in printed papers”. Cathy and Margaret, and our late comrade Leo Rosser, obtained in a series of interviews, and a video, notes of her life which have been transcribed but are voluminous though chronologically jumbled. We hope that these can be edited into a coherent volume, which will be well worth publishing, far more so than the oft-repeated hagiographies of the ‘secular saints’ of the movement in the past. [Not sure is this ever got done? -Past Tense ed.]

Nicked from KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 4, 1993.

 

Today in London Black history, 1787: anti-slave abolitionists, the Sons of Africa, write to Granville Sharp

Britain’s central role in the global slave trade is well known. For over 300 years, the abduction of millions of Africans to be used as forced labour, largely in America and the Caribbean, formed a major element of the British economy and was integral to the spread of the British Empire.

The end of Britain’s historical role in the slave trade is usually portrayed as a glorious moral campaign, of heroic upper class white philanthropists like William Wilberforce, gently and nobly persuading the authorities to abolish first the kidnapping and buying and selling of Africans (in 1807) and then, 30 years later, to abolish the slave plantations themselves and ‘grant’ slaves their freedom. Their charitable and altruistic motives are held up as another example of the civilising and beneficial influence of the Great British Empire…

Only in recent years has a counter-narrative been gaining voice, uncovering the vast history of slavery and of the slaves’ resistance to it, a resistance that took many forms, from physical rebellion and mutiny, armed warfare, through to an involvement in the campaign for abolition from below.

The constant resistance of slaves helped to slavery increasingly uneconomic as a way of guaranteeing labour in the West Indies, which was a major factor in the eventual acceptance of the slave-owning classes that slavery needed to go (the huge wodges of compensation paid to those who lost their ‘property’ also helped).

The usually accepted narrative also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists as activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London. The latter is achieving more recognition in recent years, though much still lies buried.

There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned the capital’s black population at 20,000 in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly…

The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Some sailors would themselves have been runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (see for instance Olaudah Equiano, below). There were also musicians – many serving in English military and domestic orchestras and bands.

The work the black population could do was restricted, especially after 1731 when the lord mayor of London issued a proclamation banning them from being taken on as apprentices – the first known, though not the last, colour bar in the history of employment in Britain.

Many Africans of both sexes worked as domestic servants. This left them still in a difficult legal position, at the mercy of their employers, as even after 1772 (when transporting slaves was outlawed in England and they could not legally be deported by their owners) they were not really protected from being kidnapped and shipped abroad. Others worked as city porters, watermen, hawkers, and chairmen (carrying the rich from place to place, some employed directly, others touting for business in the days before cabs).

Black women also worked as nurses, or became basket women selling small items round the streets. But many were forced by poverty to turn to prostitution.

And a huge number ended without work at all, begging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not offer much support for incomers into parishes, which included most black folk. Many of course would arrive in London with nothing, whether slave, runaway or servant; many were reduced to extreme poverty. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 17th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the rebellious and ‘criminal classes’. The black community was overwhelmingly male; many black men married local women and merged into the pre-existing plebeian world.

Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors… this of course made them useful to runaway slaves or black servants.

Despite being from many countries and backgrounds, divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself. This manifested on the various social levels which black people inhabited. Black servants certainly gathered together informally, partly to discuss information and common problems. Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them. A friend of Samuel Johnson’s was startled when, in the doctor’s absence, he discovered Francis Barber with ‘a group of his African countrymen . . . sitting around a fire in the gloomy anti-room; and on their all turning their sooty faces at once to stare at me, they presented a curious spectacle.’

A late 18th century skit on uppity servants, including a black servant satirised for ‘getting above his station’

Larger social gatherings with dances and music in taverns were also organised. About 57 ‘Black domestics’ of both sexes, for instance, “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”

But the plebeian black community also showed solidarity for its number – for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”… Out of place means on the face of it ‘out of work’, but also has a wider sense, of those inhabiting spaces they didn’t quite feel at home in… This solidarity also took the form of support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover, and encouragement for slaves who wanted to escape bondage. A common complaint among the slave-owning classes was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. Edward Long, a virulently racist ideologue, raged that “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”

The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, alleged they had succeeded in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the teeming, contradictory armed wing of the rebellious working people of London. This alliance bore angry fruit: ex-slaves were involved in the 1780 Gordon Riots, some coming to fore as rabble rousers and temporary leaders. Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the climatic moment of the Riots, the successful attack on Newgate; Black woman Charlotte Gardiner was sentenced to be hung for leading a crowd in the Riots.

The support of ‘native’ poor and working people for fugitive slaves came not from simple sentimental or abstract humanitarian feelings, as it did with the middle class anti-slavery abolitionists – though these feelings existed. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many in the slums saw as also being their own enemies; alliances were a matter of class solidarity. Long-established and strong traditions of resistance to the authorities were part of the culture in London slums and rookeries – fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established and instinctive, matters of self-defence and extended to support for runaway slaves.

There was also contact between fugitives in Britain and those still in chains in the Carribbean. Ex-slave rebels from Belize and Jamaica; and involvees in the American Revolution, also brought the spirit of freedom to England. Numbers of black people in London were swollen by an influx after 1784 of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves, who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists during the war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, at the meagre reward for their loyalty; others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and taken on many ideas about liberty and equality… The authorities became so concerned at the ‘problem’ of black London they supported the plan to ‘re-patriate’ them to Africa in the Sierra Leone scheme.

The environment that sparked blacks involvement in the abolition movement, was thus twofold: a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a more elevated level of servants, more educated and literate… We know more about the latter, but there were clearly crossovers between these strata, and links between both may well have existed. Interestingly, there prominent individuals we know about do in some ways cross over both milieu, especially Robert Wedderburn.

These embryonic Black communities were sharply conscious of legal and social developments – they followed Mansfield’s judgement in the Somerset case in 1772, (which ruled that transporting  slaves in and out of England was illegal, the first legal advance in the slow progress towards abolition). They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgement was given… And a few days later this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub… Seemingly better off servants as tickets cost 5 shillings!

Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time was that slaves were struggling to be paid wages! Pay not only helped black people gain economic independence – wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could prevent deportation. The social and political self-confidence of working for a wage also fed into political organising; Individual and collective resistance thus sparked off campaigning for the abolition of slavery from within black communities themselves.

One group who took part in the campaign to abolish the slave trade from the heart of the beast itself were the Sons of Africa.

The Sons of Africa were what was clearly an organised group, at the centre of which appeared to be ex-slave activists Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano.

Olaudah Equiano is best known for his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, published in 1789, which told the story of his life, from the time he was taken as a slave as a child, through his years in slavery, on sailing ships and in the plantations. He later gained his freedom, buying himself out, and served various ships, eventually settling in London.

Olaudah Equiano

Equiano became involved in the rescue of slaves; a turning point in his life in London was his attempt in 1774 to save ex- slave john Annis, who he had recruited as a cook on a ship, from being seized by his former master. Equiano got in touch with famous abolitionist Granville Sharp, who took legal cases for slaves fighting seizure by old masters to court. Equiano had had to whiten up his face to swear a writ of habeus corpus. However, the case failed, and Annis was shipped off to the West Indies and flogged to death.

Equiano also wrote on slavery for various sympathetic newspapers, on several occasions reviewing pro-slavery tracts by plantation owners and their apologists… Later he published his life story, which was republished several times and had a huge influence on public opinion… ‘The Interesting narrative’ has been called the single most important document in abolition of the salve trade. Equiano built on his writings with public speaking, setting off round the country to talk at public meetings on slavery, which had a powerful affect, especially on the emerging radical and working class movement. Equiano not only worked with (and influenced) Granville Sharp and more mainstream abolitionists, but met many of the activists in the nascent radical scenes, including the reformist Constitutional Societies; he became friends with, and stayed with Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society, and joined the LCS himself. He served as a pivotal figure in many ways, linking self-organised black movement, radical societies and more liberal lobbyists.

Ottobah Cugoano was originally from Ghana, had been abducted from Africa aged 13, transported to Grenada; but had then been brought to Britain and freed, aged 15.

Cugoano got himself baptised to prevent being seized and resold (based on the belief that adopting Christianity prevented you from being enslaved – more of a superstition than actual defence…!) He became a preacher, and then servant to Richard Conway, and became involved in abolition campaigns.

Like Equiano, Cugano went on speaking tours around country; and like him, played his part in direct support of slaves and ex-slaves. In 1786 he was involved in the rescue of Henry Demane, a black man who had been kidnapped and was due to be shipped to the West Indies. Cugoano got Granville Sharpe involved, who managed to get Demane released.

In 1787, Cugoano wrote “Thoughts and Sentiments On the Evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species” – possibly the earliest published black counterblast against slavery, based on the “Natural rights and liberties of men”.

A drawing of Ottobah Cugoano

This text demolished pro-slavery arguments about divine sanction for slavery, of justifications for it based on the fact that Africans also took slaves, that Africans were inferior and only fit to serve whites, or that slaves ‘lived better off lives than many among the European poor’.

The book not only advocated the total abolition of slavery, not just the slave trade, but disputed the emerging racist theories that justified slavery, dismissing talk of separate races, talking in terms of “many shades of the rainbow: All of us are fellow creatures, Africans free born…” He linked slavery to private property, and echoing the radicals of the English Revolution, spoke of a desire to “turn the world upside down”. Cugoano also asserted that slaves had a moral duty to resist slavery, and also posited the idea of it being a ‘crime against humanity’, and that all Britons were responsible for its continuation unless they opposed it.

Cugoano and Equiano together formed the Sons of Africa, a black abolitionist group, based in London. Besides these better known activists, several other black men signed Sons of Africa letters and public statements in late 1780s – including Yahne Aelane (who also used the anglicised name Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (aka George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Sons of Africa letters, statements and letters appeared in print around 1787-89, notably in the Diary newspaper.

Equiano and others of the Sons of Africa went to Westminster to listen to parliamentary debates on slavery. Like the white Abolition Committee, they too embarked on letter-writing and public-speaking campaigns, and made public appeals. Writing to the MP Sir William Dolben in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, they discussed their position in England and elsewhere:

“Our simple testimony is not much, yet you will not be displeased to learn, that a few persons of colour, existing here, providentially released from the common calamity, and feeling for their kind, are daily pouring forth their prayers for you, Sir, and other noble and generous persons who will not (as we understand) longer suffer the rights of humanity to be confounded with ordinary commodities, and passed from hand to hand, as an article of trade.

We are not ignorant, however, Sir, that the best return we can make, is, to behave with sobriety, fidelity, and diligence in our different stations whether remaining here under the protection of the laws, or colonizing our native soil, as most of us wish to do, under the dominion of this country; or as free labourers and artizans in the West India islands, which, under equal laws, might become to men of colour places of voluntary and very general resort.

But in whatever station, Sir, having lived here, as we hope, without reproach, so we trust that we and our whole race shall endeavour to merit, by dutiful behaviour, those mercies, which, humane and benevolent minds seem to be preparing for us.”

Dolben thanked them and hoped their behaviour would recommend them to the British government, but ‘he must earnestly desire to decline any particular address upon the occasion’. (Though he had been so upset by what he saw on a slave ship anchored in the Thames in 1788 that he immediately proposed a bill limiting the horrifically cramped shelving of slaves being transported.)

They were always immensely grateful to Sharp and others in the Society for the Abolition of Slavery for their unflagging energy in the battle, calling Sharp ‘our constant and generous friend’, they wrote to him, in a public letter published on 15 December 1787, that ‘[w]e are those who were considered as slaves, even in England itself, till your aid and exertion set us free’. They requested him to collect his writings ‘for the benefit and good of all men, and for an enduring memorial of the great learning, piety, and vigilance of our good friend’.

There’s clearly more to be discovered about the Sons of Africa – and many questions that their existence throws up. What happened to the group? Equiano died in London in 1797; nothing is known of Cugoano after 1791. Was the group already defunct or did it survive them? Given the turbulent nature of the times they emerged in, with revolution, rebellion against slavery, theories of universal human rights coming to the fore – were there any black women active in London around this time on this issue? What relations did these figures have to the burgeoning reform and radical movements (as noted above, Olaudah Equiano bridged both scenes)…?

And did the ideas and thoughts the Sons of Africa were developing pass on to later generations? In London or wider afield? Certainly, there were later figures associated with radical movements that contained former members of the London Corresponding Society, who may have known Equiano and possibly others of the Sons, who later emerged to prominence – most notably Robert Wedderburn. Wedderburn blended English radicalism with an apocalyptic abolitionism, fired by his background, having been born a slave in the West Indies, and served as a sailor, before becoming a disciple of Thomas Spence. He mingled with the post-Napoleonic underground that launched the abortive Cato Street Conspiracy, besides lecturing and preaching blasphemy and egalitarianism. Others in the same radical scene included Cato Street Conspirator William Davidson.

Much more historical digging is needed here, as there’s almost certainly more fascinating evidence out there on these black abolitionists… Africans who refused to be passive pawns either for slavery and who give the lie to the idea that it was nice white posh people alone who generously ‘freed the slaves.’

The Silvertown Tunnel can be prevented – like the East London River Crossing back in the 1990s

Climate Change – the most pressing issue of our times; Global crisis that demands global solutions. Declarations of a climate emergency by councils or governments are all very well – but the profits of big business depend on continuing destruction of the natural world and exploitation of its resources, as well as mass exploitation of people. A global solution can only be based on LOCAL action, local change, from the grassroots.

In East London, locals are opposing the planned building of a new Thames river crossing which will increase pollution, congestion and emissions. Transport for London proposes to build the Silvertown Tunnel road tunnel under the Thames, from the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks, under the river, just to the east of the A102/Blackwall Tunnel.

TfL say East London needs a new river crossing to relieve the over-congested Blackwall Tunnel. But building new roads only attracts new traffic, resulting in higher emissions and more pollution. The building of the second Blackwall Tunnel in the late 1960s saw traffic double within a year – its new approach roads were jammed within a decade. The M25 keeps filling up each time it’s widened. The Silvertown Tunnel would be no different.

It’s true that the Blackwall tunnels are regularly rammed and even shut due to congestion, with queues of vehicles backed up as far as the Sun in the Sands roundabout in the morning… And halfway up to Leyton in the evening… But adding more lanes only opens up for more traffic…

Air quality around the A102 and its approach roads on both sides of the Thames already breaks legal limits, putting locals’ health at risk, especially children. The effects of poor air contributes to the deaths of hundreds of local people; children who grow up near polluted roads have their lungs damaged for life. The solution to transport problems is better public transport, not more roads and more cars.

At best, the Silvertown Tunnel will be an expensive waste of money. At worst, it’ll blight the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: local people have prevented such disastrous roads being built before. The A102 itself is a legacy from the failed London Ringway proposal, a plan to encircle London with urban motorways – fought off in the 1970s by angry residents. [Interestingly for those as remember the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway – the M41 in Shepherds Bush, squatted for this event, is the only other part of the Ringway apart from the A102 that ever actually got built…]

And just downriver from where the Silvertown Tunnel is proposed today, the East London River Crossing was defeated in the 1990s.

Originally scheduled in the 1980s, the River Crossing faced opposition from the start. It faced the longest Public Inquiry ever held into a road scheme; an inquiry 194 days; the transcripts of the proceedings contained 9.5 million words!

Planned to run across the river from Beckton through Greenwich and Eltham, to link the A2 and A13, plans for the new road would have meant bulldozing through some beautiful southeast London woodlands, including the 8000 year-old Oxleas wood, and Shepherdleas wood, Woodlands Farm, and demolishing several hundred homes in Plumstead. Government policy at the time involved a massive new roadbuilding program – developers and some local authorities strongly supported the scheme.

In the words of one of the organisers against the scheme,the odds against stopping it were getting bigger all the time. To achieve victory, a concerted strategy was needed to make Oxleas Wood a big issue locally and give it wider significance – a strategy to make it a symbol of the environmental damage that the road programme was causing and a rallying point for the environment movement. If that could be done, then, given Oxleas Wood’s proximity to Westminster, it might force the Government to back down rather than risk confrontation with a united community and environment movement, in its own “back yard”.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas – playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

‘Like all the best campaigns we fought on every level. There were letter-writing stalls at the popular Greenwich market, politicians were systematically lobbied and a well-presented public transport alternative was drawn-up. We organised an “Adopt-a- Tree” scheme; the aim here was to get every tree in Oxleas Wood adopted. As well as bringing in funds and publicity, it would give supporters a real stake in the campaign. And if the worst came to the worst we could invite tree adopters to turn up to defend their tree.

In order to make Oxleas a “line in the sand” for the environment movement, we got some of the large environmental non-government organisations (for example the Wildlife Trusts and World Wide Fund for Nature) to take part in an Oxleas Strategy Group. This helped lock them into a campaign that was ultimately run by local people, but which made the best use of the resources of the national campaigns.

A couple of legal lines of last resort helped propel the campaign into the national news. The Government had failed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the scheme, as required by European Community law. The heroic European Commissioner for the Environment, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took up this complaint causing Prime Minister Major to hit the roof and interrupt a Commonwealth conference to condemn the EC’s action. The complaint was never seen through by the EC, but the publicity was invaluable, as was that which resulted from a High Court case where the “Oxleas 9” (nine local people) put their assets on the line to take the Department of Transport to court over their failure to provide adequate land in exchange for the damage to Oxleas woods. The case was lost, but Oxleas had caught the public imagination and the pressure on the government was intensifying.

Meanwhile, campaigners were preparing for the worst. A “Beat the Bulldozer” pledge was launched, with the aim of getting 10,000 people to pledge to be there if the bulldozers went in. With the TV pictures of direct action at Twyford Down fresh in their minds, as well as the vivid pictures we had painted of what would happen if they violated Oxleas Wood, the Government backed down.”

In the end, the pressure of the campaign paid off. In July 1993, the government withdrew the plans. The River Crossing was abandoned, unbuilt.’

The East London River Crossing was a turning point: part of, and helping to inspire, a growing movement against the government’s road building program. Community campaigns, protest camps, occupations and sabotage resisted roadbuilding at Twyford Down, against the M11, at Newbury, among many others. Mass resistance led to the whole roads program being cancelled by the New Labour government in 1997. Acting together – WE CAN WIN.

Check out the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition on twitter: @SilvertownTn

More info on Silvertown Tunnel campaign: https://silvertowntunnel.co.uk/

Pagans and magick folk played a significant part in the fight against the East London River Crossing in the 1990s – check out this account

What was really great to see was the local Extinction Rebellion action against the proposed Silvertown tunnel this year. There have been many criticism of XR (our post on Reclaim the Streets, XR and more here has some thoughts) – but this was practical and pressing action, addressing the burning issues on the ground and in daily life… A good step forward.

The Silvertown Tunnel has now been approved for go ahead… But this does not mean the struggle is over! The story of the East London River Crossing and the Saving of Oxleas Wood shows the show ain’t over if we get our act together…

In memory: Liz Willis

Liz Willis (born Elizabeth Ann Smith) has died in hospital in London with family around her, age 72, following diagnosis of pancreatic cancer last year.

Past Tense knew Liz through her contributions to the Radical History Network of NorthEast London (RaHN), of which she remained a stalwart through its (intermittent) existence (even now, is it defunct?). Liz edited the RaHN blog – brilliantly and consistently… it remains a great resource of radical causes.

Below we repost a brief obituary of Liz written by her son Mark (with some links to Liz’s own family biogs and writings about her history).

Liz was born in Stornoway, daughter of Margaret (Peggy Flett) and Calum ‘Safety’ Smith, joined four years later by sister Alison. Her early childhood is recollected as a time of street games and unsupervised freedom on long summer days and it was this vision of Stornoway that stayed with her in later years. Her parents, large extended family, the wild landscape and stifling social mores of the island provided an ongoing source of inspiration and rebellion. An outstanding and prize-winning student, she developed a facility for languages and history in particular. The family moved to Dingwall in 1959, where younger sister Marjory arrived just as Liz was preparing to go to Aberdeen University to study history in 1964 at age 16.

It was in Aberdeen that her interest in politics crystallised, as she became an active member of Youth CND and left-wing societies, attending regular meetings and hops. She developed her lifelong internationalist, libertarian socialist outlook, joining Faslane protests, a peace march to Paris, and hitch-hiking across Europe to an anarchist camp in Italy in the summer of 1967. After attaining her MA in History, she chose Belfast to pursue a course in library studies, because it “seemed like an interesting place to be in 1968” and found herself on her second day in the province helping Bernadette Devlin up during a civil rights march. It was in this heady atmosphere that she met her future husband, Roy Willis. They married in 1969 and Janetta was born in 1970.

As the political situation deteriorated, the young family moved to London, where Mark was born in 1972. Roy’s social work course took them to Muirhouse housing scheme in Edinburgh, where Liz found time to get involved with tenants’ rights and demos in support of the miners and other causes. Returning to London in 1974, they settled in the borough of Ealing, where she spent the majority of her life. She found her political home in the shape of Solidarity for Workers’ Power, remaining an active member until its demise in 1992. Amongst her many contributions was the pamphlet ‘Women in the Spanish Revolution’, which remains a key text on the subject.

While looking after young children she stacked shelves in Sainsbury’s before finding a position at the Medical Research Council library at Hammersmith Hospital. Some of her most treasured memories were family holidays in Europe, allowing her to practice her proficiency in several languages and absorb her interest in the history and culture of places that she could still recollect clearly 40 years later. Her thirst for knowledge continued as she collected four diplomas and her activism was undimmed as she took on new causes such as the Polish Solidarnosc movement and provided support to an Iranian refugee friend. In the 90s, divorce and grown-up children allowed her more time to concentrate on her writing, research and book reviews, joining Medact’s Medicine, Conflict and Survival journal editorial board in 1991, which she served on until her final year, and for which she wrote well over 100 items. She also participated in the London Socialist historians’ group, Anarchist Research Group and other radical history forums. As grandchildren appeared in the new century, she proved to be a devoted grandmother, from knitting baby clothes to excavating archive materials to help them in their studies.

She started the ‘Smothpubs’ blogspot in 2011, (so named after a mix-up when helping police with their enquiries), with articles on a range of subjects including local and family history and including a mine of material on conscientious objectors. When diagnosed with cancer last year, she carried on through chemotherapy and a clinical trial, taking it as an opportunity to learn about the latest medical research and the state of the NHS, for which she was always committed but for most of her life never had much cause to use. She was appreciative of the NHS staff’s efforts to treat and support her in this time. Over the past year living in Walthamstow, she showed little sign of slowing down, continuing her trips to the British Library, Housmans bookshop and local libraries. She continued to collect material for her blog and the Radical History Network blogspot, and even found time to do translation work for an anarchist research project and take part in the E17 Art Trail. She managed regular trips to Scotland, including a flying visit to Stornoway to see her uncle Donald Smith’s retrospective exhibition and retrace childhood footsteps. It was only in the last month or so that the disease took hold, but she remained a ‘free rebel spirit’ to the end.

Liz Willis (21.10.47-10.11.19)

There’s much more to the story… Someone out there knows the full story of Liz breaking into nuclear bunkers in Scotland in the mid-1960s (around the time of Spies for Peace?) and nearly getting expelled from university… Anyone with other memories of Liz please do get in touch.

No-one who leaves their work behind them is truly gone.

Today in London riotous history, 1887: police attack demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’

Public meetings held in the open used to be one of the main venues of propaganda and winning converts in the early socialist movement. Local ‘speakers corners’ were to be found in many working class areas, in London’s inner city areas and later suburbs. But larger demonstrations and rallies obviously targeted more central meeting places, nearer to the centres of power of the state. Of these, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park were favourite rallying places in the 19th century, as they still are today.

But the government feared and hated large demonstrations of working class people thronging the centre of the capital, and discussing dangerous and subversive ideas…. The police were regularly ordered to prevent demonstrations and meetings. In the 1850s Hyde Park, in particular Speakers Corner, was the centre of a fierce fight for the right to assemble and speak, a right which was eventually won.

But if Hyde Park was a bit farther from Parliament and power, allowing meetings in Trafalgar Square was felt to be too dangerous, from the 1840s, when it opened, but especially after a mass meeting there in February 1886 led to riots and looting in the West End. In November 1887 government and police determination to keep the plebs out of the Square would lead to a traumatic and violent episode of repression – Bloody Sunday.

Unemployed processions and meetings in Trafalgar Square in October 1887 would again (as In February 1886) led to violent events – but this time, however, the authorities were not about to allow a repeat of the looting and rioting of a year and a half earlier. 1887 was a year of deep recession; large numbers were out of work and in the latter part of the year seasonal layoffs made people’s situation worse.

“Of the misery here in London I do not think even you can form a faint conception” Eleanor Marx wrote to her sister,”Thousands who usually can just keep going at any rate during the first months of the winter are this year starving…”

Groups of unemployed had taken to gathering in the square daily, and had begun to form precession from there, carrying black flags, through the West End, sometimes down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey.

According to socialist leader William Morris’s diary, on October 14th, a Black flag-led procession to the Lord Mayor was dispersed by police; (the same day, a joint meeting in Trafalgar Square protested against the sentence on the Chicago Anarchists).

On October 16th, a Sunday, the unemployed paraded at Westminster Abbey.

Between October 16th and November 3rd, Socialists and the unemployed  met in Trafalgar Square almost every day.

Trafalgar Square had been built in the 1840s, and had been contested by the authorities and radical crowds ever since. But the government and the police now insisted that Trafalgar Square was Crown property and that the right of meeting there did not exist.

On October 17th, another  Unemployed deputation in Trafalgar Square was cleared by charges of mounted police, after a struggle. Socialists spoke to the crowds.

On the 18th, Trafalgar Square was again cleared; there were also disturbances in Hyde Park.

The 19th saw Trafalgar Square cleared by police again.

On the 20th, a deputation went to the home Office, to protest the actions of the police, and to demand a bill to introduce an eight hours working day, measures for ‘outdoor relief’ (benefits) for the unemployed, and public works to employ 10,000 men. A crowd following the deputation was itself attacked by police at Piccadilly.

On 23rd October 1887 400-600 unemployed managed to elude large numbers of police and Grenadier Guards and invade the Abbey demanding charity. Police Commissioner Charles Warren ordered police to detain anyone trying anything similar the following weekend…

On November 3rd,  a meeting of shopkeepers took place at nearby Exeter Hall, protesting against use of Trafalgar Square by the unemployed. As the Illustrated London News put it. “That locality… contains shops and hotels rented at high prices the owners of which must lose a great part of their custom by such occurrences frightening away their visitors at the best time of the day… it cannot be doubted that many families from the country who would spend money on London would be deterred from coming up at the season by fear of annoyance.”

The following day, the police again cleared Trafalgar Square, making two arrests, and seizing a red flag taken.

On November 6th, a meeting in the Square in the morning was banned, but an afternoon meeting allowed.

On November 8th, Police Commissioner Charles Warren issued an order prohibiting all public meetings and speeches in Trafalgar Square, on the grounds that it was Crown property.

This spurred an alliance between elements of the Radical clubs and the socialists. Reynolds News and the Pall Mall Gazette, the leading Liberal-radical magazines of the time, championed the cause of free speech and denounced polices ‘excesses’. William Morris wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette on November 10th, proposing the formation of a Law and Liberty League to defend the rights of free speech.

This was supported by the Metropolitan Radical Association, elements of the Secularist leadership, including Annie Besant, and Irish Home Rule supporters… A call went out, sponsored by the Irish groups and the Radicals, for a large demo to the  Square on Sunday 13th November, to protest coercion in Ireland and the prison mistreatment of Irish MP O’Brien, and to assert the right of free speech and assembly in the Square.

On the  11th, an English Land Restoration League meeting in the Square led to arrests.

On the 12th Police Commissioner Warren announced he had banned the Irish coercion procession from entering the Square the next day. But the organisers planned to go ahead, with a rally to take place in the Square at 4pm.

On the 13th, huge crowds attended the demonstration. Irish Londoners came in their thousands. The SDF, Socialist League and other groups supported several marches assembling at various meetings points, including several in East London. William Morris and Annie Besant addressed one contingent, numbering around 5000 or 6000, which gathered at Clerkenwell green, long a public meeting point for radicals and workers’ protests. There were many red flags and caps of liberty in the Clerkenwell contingent, which numbered “Most of those who joined the Clerkenwell contingent,” recorded a Times reporter, “had the appearance of respectable artisans … in the most cases neatly dressed … they assembled without noise or disorder.”

 

However, the authorities had fully prepared their forces to prevent Trafalgar Square being re-appropriated. Approachable from many directions (especially the east) only by marching in narrow files, far from the working class areas, Trafalgar Square was easily defended in numbers, especially if you seized it in force. Sir Charles Warren had turned the Square into a fortified stronghold by 9 in the morning. 4000 police, 300 on horseback, were supplemented by soldiers – 300 from the Grenadier Guards and 350 Life Guards of the Household Brigade. The main force of foot police and soldiers lined the sunken area of the Square; squads of mounted and foot police guarded every approach. Extreme violence was used to disperse the demonstrators.

The Clerkenwell contingent marched from Clerkenwell Green, along Theobald’s Road, Hart Street, across Oxford Street to Seven Dials: here they were attacked, beaten up and dispersed by the police before reaching St. Martin’s Lane:

“It was all over in a few minutes: our comrades fought valiantly, but they had not learned how to stand and turn their column into a line, or to march on to the front…. The police struck right and left like what they were, soldiers attacking an enemy…. The band instruments were captured, the banners and flags destroyed, there was no rallying point and no possibility of rallying and all that the people composing our once strong column. could do was to struggle into the Square as helpless units…”

Morris himself was in the centre of this group. The Socialist League banner was seized from the hands of one Mrs Taylor who was holding it; flags and musical instruments grabbed and destroyed.

The western contingent had already marched without incident from Paddington and Notting Hill, their flags and banners fluttering and their own bands playing. At the Haymarket they too were stopped and found themselves embroiled in a street melee, attacked by police who had been concealed in the theatres, who were determined to allow no demonstrator near the square. Some marchers did inveigle their way into Trafalgar Square, where a vicious street fight continued all day.

Another march from Rotherhithe and Bermondsey was attacked as they approached the Strand. This section was forced into Wellington Street and into Covent Garden.

An 8000-strong march from South London (uniting processions from Peckham, Bermondsey, Deptford and Battersea) marched over Westminster Bridge and via Parliament Square. They were attacked by Big Ben, the police attacking with their staves and demonstrators using their flag and banner poles, as well as lengths of gas pipe, oyster knives and iron bars  to defend themselves.

Eleanor Marx wrote:

“I have never seen anything like the brutality of the police; the Germans and Austrians, who know what police brutality can be. have said the same to me…. I was in the thick of the fight at Parliament Street, and afterwards in Northumberland Avenue I got pretty roughly used myself My cloak and hat (which I’ll show you) are torn to shreds; I have a bad blow across the arm from a policeman’s baton…”

They fought their way up Parliament Street and around 400 reached the southern end of the Square.

Others of the battered contingents regrouped in the Strand, to be repeatedly baton charged.

At four o’clock, Warren still held the Square but at that moment 400 men led by John Burns (later ILP MP for Battersea) and the socialist MP Robert Cunninghame Graham (North-West Lanarkshire) attempted to march into the Square, and made a strike for Nelson’s Column.

Cunninghame Graham and John Burns were arrested and Graham’s head was cut open.

Both Graham and Burns, surrounded by police and standing still, were violently beaten up by their captors. Graham’s wife noted they ‘stood perfectly quiet to be murdered’ and a witness in the nearby Morley’s Hotel (the site of South Africa House), Sir Edward Reed MP, confirmed the unnecessary force used, which amounted to assault by police officers.

“After Mr Graham’s arrest was complete one policeman after another, two certainly, but I think no more, stepped up from behind and struck him on the head from behind with a violence and brutality that were shocking to behold. Even after this, and when some five or six other police were dragging him into the Square, another from behind seized him most needlessly by the hair… and dragged his head back, and in that condition he was forced forward many yards.” (Sir Edward Reed MP)

At this point 150 Life Guards rode into the Square ,with a magistrate, who read the Riot Act. Soldiers with their bayonets also entered the Square. They were jeered at by the crowd but the soldiers pushed protesters into the police who pushed them back against the rifle butts of the soldiers. Other mounted troops rode up from Whitehall, as police repeatedly charged the southern end of the Square to clear it.

“The tops of the houses and hotels were crowded with well-dressed women who clapped their hands and cheered with delight when some miserable and half-starved working man was knocked down and trodden under foot. This I saw as I stood on almost the identical spot where a few weeks ago the Government unveiled the statue of Gordon. . . . We are so completely accustomed to bow the knee before wealth and riches, to repeat to ourselves we are a free nation, that in the end we have got to believe it.”

“At ten minutes to five,” recorded a Reynolds’s News reporter, “the Grenadier Guards . . . wheeled down into the square . . . with their rifles on their shoulders, their bayonets fixed and twenty rounds of ball cartridge in their pouches . . . in front of the National Gallery they … drove the crowd … on to the pavement. where they came into contact with the police.”

By early evening 200 people were injured, of whom three died, two – WB Curner and John Dimmock – soon after and one – a man named Harrison – a few days later of injuries sustained that day. ‘Bloody Sunday’ had been an unmitigated disaster for socialism and a triumph for police order. 300 were arrested, 126 summarily charged at Bow Street Police Court, of who 99 were jailed. By the end of the resulting trials some 160 people went to prison. Many of those arrested on Bloody Sunday were jailed with hard labour, with sentences ranging from a month up to one year.

The arrested were kept awake all night in police cells as the victorious cops sang repeated choruses of ‘Rule Brittannia’.

The Times, as ever the mouthpiece of law and order, triumphantly celebrated the defeat of the demonstrators:

“Putting aside mere idlers and sight-seers… and putting aside also a small band of persons with a diseased craving for notoriety… the active portion of yesterday’s mob was composed of all that is weakest, most worthless, and the most vicious of the slums of a great city… no honest purpose… animated these howling roughs. It was simple love of disorder, hope of plunder, and the revolt of dull brutality against the rule of law…”

Crucially the paper hit on the central point at issue – control of the central space of the city could not be ceded to working people: “If this meeting had been permitted, no other meetings, even if they had been held day and night, could have been put down.”

For more than a fortnight, Trafalgar Square was in a state of siege; thousands of special constables – middle class volunteers – were sworn in. The struggle again drew Radicals and Socialists together. The Law and Liberty League was inaugurated on November 18th (“the first organisation in which Socialist delegates as such are seated at the side of Radical delegates” was Engels’s delighted comment) and many did good work providing legal aid and looking after the homes and families of those who had been injured and jailed.

Eleanor Marx, W. T. Stead and Annie Besant went bail for many prisoners; the barrister, William Marcus Thompson, known as ‘the People’s Attorney General’ for his legal defence of people arrested in strikes and demos, took on many cases.

John Bums and Cunninghame Graham, M.P., defended by young Mr. H. H. Asquith, were sentenced at the Old Bailey on January 18th, 1888 to six weeks’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly (charges of conspiracy were withdrawn); a stonemason, George Harrison, accused of trying to stab a policeman, was given five years’ penal servitude.

Bloody Sunday wasn’t the end of the troubles in the Square. Despite the traumatic events of the 13th, some among the socialist and radical movements were determined to keep trying to meet and assert free speech and assembly… Other felt this was to provoke further beatings. Animated debate consumed the radical clubs all week, with some of the prominent Radical spokesmen advocating a legal challenge to the Commissioner’s order, rather than another demo; others, including Eleanor Marx, felt further demonstrations necessary, and thought that the police repression was useful, in that it helped some of the Radicals shed illusions about the government and constitutional campaigning. In the event on the 20th, a meeting did take place in Hyde Park, which the Commissioner had undertaken not to ban so long as it came nowhere near Trafalgar Square. Some 40,000 attended. Most drifted away early on (it was an especially cold and gloomy day) – but a large crowd found its way to the Square, where 1000 special constables, and large numbers of police again battered the demonstrators.

As a week earlier, the police violence on the 20th was to lead to death. A workman, Alfred Linnell, maybe attending the demo, but possibly simply a bystander, standing at the corner of Northumberland Avenue, was ridden down in a charge of mounted police. His thigh was smashed; he died in Charing Cross Hospital on December 2nd. The funeral procession of Alfred Linnell on December 18th, organised by the Law and Liberty League and headed by a red banner, was the greatest seen in London since the funeral, in 1852, of the Duke of Wellington. The Square and Northumberland Avenue being forbidden ground, the procession, eventually a mile and a half long and comprising 120,000 people, went from Great Windmill Street via King Street, Covent Garden and the Strand to Bow Cemetery. Three flags flew side by side on the shield surmounting the funeral car: the green flag of Ireland, the crimson yellow and green flag of the Radicals, the red flag of the Socialists. At the graveside, reached at dusk in pouring rain, the Death Song written by Morris was sung.

WB Curner’s funeral in January 1888 also saw a significant turnout.

Bloody Sunday left a long bitter scar in the minds of many radicals and socialists. In the more immediate, it dented William Morris’ belief, for one, of the easy possibility of a mass revolutionary uprising ushering in a social change. While he didn’t abandon his belief in revolution, his vision of how soon it might occur underwent serious revision. Already, earlier in 1887, Morris had been rethinking his belief that social revolution was imminent; Bloody Sunday confirmed that the time was not yet ripe. He began to feel he would not see it in his lifetime. He was depressed and shocked at how easily a co-ordinated body of men could disperse the larger mass of demonstrators, and gloomily recounted the failure of attempts to coordinate people’s fightback on the day. “I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in concert and each knowing his own part…. Sir Charles Warren has given us a lesson in street-fighting.” The authorities’ response had shown the true face of reaction, and against this the workers movement were not yet strong enough.

‘Free speech’ movements in the capital and elsewhere featuring socialist and radical speakers would continue; in contrast to Bloody Sunday, some would ultimately force the police to back off (mainly because the local speakers’ corners were located was in working class areas where the movement was on its own ground, better prepared and outnumbered the police). Fights for free speech would remain a central plank of socialist life, however…

Demos of course still begin and end in Trafalgar Square – and in our own time serious rioting as cataclysmic as Bloody Sunday have taken place. Eg the poll tax riot in 1990 – but his one WE won, on balance…

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There are good accounts of Bloody Sunday in ‘William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary’, by EP Thompson, and the biography of ‘Eleanor Marx’ (Volume Two)’, by Yvonne Kapp.

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

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fancy a date… here’s the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar!

back despite popular demand:

the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar is out now!

 Time to get your copy of Past Tense’s (mostly) annual rebellious calendar: 366 radical, subversive and riotous anniversaries from the streets of the Great Wen – ranging this year from 1262 to 2019…

We love to celebrate London’s centuries-long traditions of rebellious culture, resistance to
authority, and freethinking… remembering and discovering the mosaic of collective and individual contributions to transforming the world for the better. Feminists, anarchists, socialists, strikers,
rioting kids and dancing rebels… and much more…

It’s what this blog is based on – digital and paper hand in hand…

We try to commemorate the grassroots, self-organised and anti-hierarchical; the diverse communities that have evolved & migrated here, social movements, the stolen moments of liberation… … as well as never forgetting the repression inflicted by the rich and powerful, & the institutions that defend them.

And our own histories are here too… our daily lives, the small actions and events that shape us, as vital as the ‘great moments of history’.

The calendar didn’t appear in 2019, for one reason and another, partly ‘cause its hard work collecting dates, laying it out, printing it – all of which we do ourselves… partly as there was other things to do…

If you like our work…
help out! please send us more dates for future editions, from the capital’s history, and from your own past times… no event is insignificant. Even if you think we must already know what you have to say… we probably won’t.. We’re here to learn, as much as to spread the little we know, and to inspire…
We’ve limited the calendar to the London area, ‘cause we live here…

Now and again we get things wrong… the proof readers’ union’s on a work to rule. We hope the odd mistake doesn’t spoil your enjoyment – but please tell us if you spot things on the wrong date…

Where can you get it?

It’s available from the Past Tense website

only £9.00 plus Post and Packing

And available soon in lots of radical and independent bookshops in London…

Today in London radical history, 1865: Thomas Willingale asserts common rights in Epping Forest

November 11th – long before Armistice Day, this was a date associated with the asserting of common rights…

Known as Martinmas, this date was for many centuries see as the start of winter proper. As with many old feast days, customs and traditions became associated with this day.

One custom that evolved for November 11th was linked with the right in some places to ‘lop’ wood for use as fuel over the winter. ‘Commoners’ were entitled to cur branches seven feet from the ground every winter, a right that lasted from November 11th till April 23rd.

In 1865, one man’s actions on November 11th in defence of common rights was to begin a series of events which preserved Epping Forest as an open space for all…

Epping Forest is London’s largest open space; though now split into several separate areas, and criss-crossed by many roads, it was once a huge wood running from Essex down close to London’s eastern edge. Enjoyed today by 1000s of walkers, mountain bikers, mushroom pickers, picnickers, occasional wild campers… presumably the odd dogger or two…

… However, but for two hundred years of resistance to attempts by landowners to fence off and develop parts of the wood, Epping Forest would be a lot smaller – or would not exist at all.

The name Epping Forest is first recorded in the 17th century; prior to this the area was considered part of the larger Waltham Forest (which gives its name to the present-day London Borough of Waltham Forest, which covers part of the modern forest).

The forest is thought to have been given legal status as a royal forest by king Henry II in the 12th century. This status allowed commoners to use the forest to gather wood and foodstuffs, and to graze livestock and turn out pigs for ‘mast’… However, only the king was allowed to hunt there. “Forest” in the historical sense of a royal forest meant ‘an area of land reserved for royal hunting’, where the forest laws applied, and did not imply that it was all necessarily wooded. The royal forests were set aside by successive kings for their exclusive use; or at least for them to exercise the right to grant any access and use. Separate laws applied in the royal forests to protect game for hunting and trees and undergrowth which facilitated the chase. At one time most of the county of Essex was effectively a royal forest.

Half of Epping Forest was enclosed by the local landowners between 1851 and I871, for development; mainly as housing. This took place illegally but not without the knowledge – or tacit approval – of the Government. What remained was eventually opened to the public in 1878, when the old Royal Forest became the People’s Forest. This came about through successive waves of resistance to the enclosures. The opening up of the woods to all was sparked specifically by the actions of Thomas Willingale in November 1865.

Struggles in Epping Forest were old as the forest…

There were battles here over grazing rights, between locals of Waltham and the powerful Abbots of Waltham Abbey, went on for years. In 1229, men of Waltham killed some of the Abbot’s mares grazing on marshes and drive some off the land. In 1230 they demanded his grazing animals be removed, from land supposed to be reserved for the townsfolk’s cattle. When he ordered them off they again drove off his livestock and beat some of his servants.

Demand for wood made mass treefelling lucrative; but the Forest Laws in fact set maintenance of a forest’s environment to ensure good hunting at odds with the exploitation of the forest for wood, which led to conflicts between local landowners or users, and sometimes involving the crown or others with an interest in preservation of a suitable space for game.

Around 1572 one Bernard Whetstone, who had inherited the Manor of Woodford, was granted a license to fence off a quarter of the woodland in his manor, which led to rioting. The Whetstone family re-appear regularly as antagonists in enclosure disputes. 50 years later, now Sir Bernard and an MP, he provoked rioting again, after he ordered the felling of fifty trees in ‘Rowden’s Grove’, Woodford. Sir Bernard was the sitting Verderer, a court official charged with judging cases to do with Forest Law, and seems to have sued this position to pursue his own agendas (how unusual!). Whether his motivation for felling much of the Grove was financial, (it’s possible he sold the timber, the bark alone amounting to 12 cartloads fetching £20, a princely sum), but the curt over which he presided had ruled that the Grove should be felled in the interests of deer management. However, Robert Hillary claimed Rowden’s Grove as part of his copyhold, and launched litigation; he and his relatives and friends were also accused of starting an ‘affray’ with Sir Bernard’s son (also confusingly called Bernard!) at midnight on 13 May 1622.

Exploitation of the forest by landowners was sometimes so blatantly destructive, higher authorities were occasionally forced to take an interest. In the 1580s a Royal ‘Commission to survey’ was appointed to look into possible offences against the Forest Laws by Robert Wroth. Wroth had bought ‘Moncke Wood’, felling a great part of it, and sold the wood, but it seems he cut down more trees than he had said he would, leaving a ‘greate spoyle and waste’.

Grants to enclose land in the Forest had been made by licence from early times. These enclosures are shown on old maps; but before 1850 only about six hundred acres had been enclosed in more than two hundred years. When the right to enclose was granted, only low fences were permitted, so that the deer should not be denied pasture. In the first year of the eighteenth century another Sir Bernard Whetstone, lord of the manor of Woodford, was sued for making illegal fences, and in defending himself complained that the deer did so much damage that the landowners were forced ‘to give over ploughing and sowing their arable land, of which the greater part of the demesne of his manor consisted’. He was still obliged to pay compensation, in wheat and oats, to the King’s household for the land enclosed; ‘though not a foot of the demesne had been ploughed for the last ten years, by reason of the number of deer, which would utterly destroy the corn; and the cessation of ploughing caused the increase of deer, by reason that the barren and dry fallows were converted into sweet and fresh green pastures to layer and feed the cattle.’

Epping Forest sheltered poachers, highwaymen, smugglers, rebels, gypsies, squatters, marauders, for centuries. Rumours of these ne’er-do-wells combined partly genuine reality and partly a continuation of ancient the distrust of forests and those who hid in them… In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Forest housed a number of ‘Maroon Villages’  (a name was taken from the Carribean, from the underground/rebel West Indian villages of fugitive slaves, & sometimes native americans and white renegades) – unlawful communities in the commons & woodlands, refuges for runaways, ex-slaves, ex-servants, and also, by repute, political radicals from the defeated movements of the English revolution,eg the Fifth Monarchy men, ranters, leveller and digger groups. In 1666 rumours spread of an alleged Fifth monarchist conspiracy in the Chase and Epping Forest.Writing to his friend Francis Manley, in 1666, Henry Eyton could not resist mentioning his fears regarding

“… restless enemy amongst us … I mean the whole fanatic party, the head of which serpent lies in and near London especially upon the confines of Essex and Hertfordshire … taking either side of the Ware river from Edmonton down to Ware and particularly those retired places of Epping Forest and Enfield Chase … About the road near Theobalds there is a crew of them lie concealed … that should there be the least commotion in London we should find to our cost that they would be too ready to second it.”

The fugitive communities were said to behind to many of the ‘Blacks’ – poachers and deerstealers, who waged war on keepers and helped themselves to the game in theory reserved for their ‘betters’. In the early 18th century, the Lord Chief Justice signed a warrant to clear the Forest of these squatter villages.

Pubs and taverns on the edge of the forest were also viewed with suspicion by authority, seen as the hangouts of the various ne’er-do-wells listed above, and venues for plotting of nefarious actions as well as for the disposal of loot (‘half an ‘aunch of vension, mate? Fell off the back of a cart…’)

Romany travellers were also well known in the Forest, and the centuries-old fear, hatred and discrimination against them operated here as elsewhere – continuing today…

The Map of Waltham Forest c.1641 shows Woodford Wood, Knighton Wood and ‘Munkom Wood’ to the north of the parish of Woodford; but during the 18th century much of Monkham Grove was felled, as this was a legally enclosed, coppiced wood. Woodford Wood remained intact until the 1830s. The Epping and Ongar Highway Trust cut their new road to Epping through the forest in 1830-4, and in 1832 the parish vestry authorised a new road through the forest to Chingford (now Whitehall Road). This was built as a means of providing work for local men who might otherwise have been sent to the workhouse. This was conveniently arranged through the fact that local Overseer of the Poor at that time, Richard Hallett, was also Surveyor of Highways. Once the road had been constructed houses were soon built beside it on land taken from the forest.

Up until the 19th century the Forest Laws had ensured that land was not enclosed without proper payment to the Crown. Unfortunately, the chief officer or Lord Warden of Epping Forest was a position held by Earl Tylney of Wanstead House. When William Long Wellesley took over this role, he openly flouted the system and allowed small enclosures. Indeed he was in favour of the complete abolition of the Forest system, which would have enabled him to build freely on much of his own manorial lands in Wanstead and Woodford. The Crown needed to enforce the Forest Laws to obtain the revenue from enclosures, but with its chief officer only concerned about his own best interests, the system rapidly declined.

Attempts had been made to enclose Knighton Wood as early as 1572, but although the lord of the manor had been licensed to fence part of the woodland, his action led to riots and the fences were thrown down. In 1826 Thomas Russell sold ‘the freehold estate known as Knighton Wood’ and the documentation traces previous owners back to 1712. In the early 1830s Richard Hallett (the overseer of the plots & surveyor of highways mentioned previously) bought Knighton wood and contested the limitations put on him as owner by the Forest Laws. This legal wrangle lasted 12 years and was eventually settled by a compromise. In the early 1850s Hallett built Knighton Villa and, eventually, quite a number of other houses here.

In 1863 Knighton Villa was bought by Edward North Buxton who extended the house for his large family. He, however, along with his brother, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton of Warlies at Upshire, and their cousin, Andrew Johnston of The Firs at Woodford, were leading members of the Commons Preservation Society. This was formed in 1865 to help in the fight to preserve open spaces like Berkhamsted Common and Hampstead Heath. It was the determination of the members of that society, combined with the might of the City of London Corporation, which eventually led to the saving of Epping Forest. Another influential figure from Woodford Wells, Henry Ford Barclay of Monkhams, was also involved as one of the Commissions appointed by the Crown to consider the whole problem and put forward a practical solution.

The vast mass of documentation collected by the Commission provides a wealth of information about the forest in the 1870s. At Woodford Wells most of the wood had been cleared and what had not been covered by houses and gardens was grassland or rough grazing. There was considerable controversy when Diedrich Schwinge of Hanover House (at the junction of the High Road and Whitehall Road) tried to enclose the land in front of his house, much as many of his neighbours were doing. In his case the land was known as “Roundings Green” and was regarded as part of the village green in front of the Horse and Well.

With the passing of the legislation which preserved Epping Forest, all land not actually enclosed as house or garden was purchased by the City of London Corporation and put back into Epping Forest. The ancient Woodford Wood had been destroyed and the forest land here today is largely grassland, scrub or secondary woodland.

Thomas Willingale

The events that eventually sparked the defeat of enclosures in the Forest began in Baldwin’s Hill, now part of Loughton. Squatter communities displaced from Woodford by the expansion of middle class homes there began to settle Baldwin’s Hill in the mid-18th century. A number of the inhabitants were romany. These marginalised folk and their descendants were involved in the anti-enclosure struggles in the Forest over several decades.

In the 1820s, a man named Whetstone (presumably relative of the enclosing lord of Woodford, see above) & his servant John Rigby had a contract to fell trees around Loughton, but reckoned without local opposition. There were several riots sparked by protests against treefelling; 300 people were involved in one. Especially troublesome were 13 local women who “beat Rigby’s workmen and took from them their axes… and detained them.”

By the 1860s, as in many parts of London and it’s suburbs, pressure for land for building was immense, and the profits to be had from clearing and developing land were very tempting to the local landowners.

Local people had long had the customary right of lopping timber for winter fuel, and the poor inhabitants of Baldwin’s Hill were keen beneficiaries of this custom. November 11th, known as Martinmas, was the traditional day for start of winter proper; since the calendar was altered in 1752, lopping rights kicked in this day every year, having previously been set for November 1st on All Saints Day.

Locals celebrating the opening of lopping rights at Staples Hill

By local tradition, someone had to actually observe the custom on the 11th, for the right to click in. Martinmas was marked at Staples Hill in Loughton with an annual bonfire and pissup; by the mid-19th century, the night started with getting wazzed in the Kings Head in Loughton and launching lopping rights at midnight. Branches could not be cut below 7 feet off the ground (allowing the deer to munch on the lower limbs), so stepladders were de rigeur. Any wood cut was strictly for your own use, not to be flogged.

Thomas Willingale lived at Baldwin’s Hill, so may have been a squatter, ex-squatter or descendant of squatters… His family had apparently been foremost proponents of the ancient customary right of cutting wood for years over several years: it’s worth noting that in many areas one or more families were sometimes seen as archivists of particular rights or customs, having evolved the responsibility for remembering the rules and parameters of what was due and taken on the role of prime defender of old rights. In any case Tom Willingale took on this role. By local accounts, he had been active in asserting lopping rights for several years. As early as 1828 he was fined for lopping in the Forest Court for cutting down an entire tree on land directly owned by the lord of the manor (usually exempted from lopping rights). There’s no doubt he stretched the rules of what was traditionally allowed by common right, since he blatantly sold wood from his year in Whitaker’s Way that was obviously lopped under customary right (ie not meant to be sold). In 1859, the story goes, the Lord of manor of Loughton, William Maitland, (who had enclosed much land at Woodford) attempted to get local men pissed on November 11th in a local pub, in the hope they’d forget to go lopping at midnight (thus debarring them from lopping all winter), but canny Tom Willingale had a few drinks on Maitland, then went out anyway and cut off a branch, returning to the pub to present it to Maitland’s agent, “Bulldog’ Richardson. Burn.

In 1865, William Maitland’s son and heir, the Reverend John Whitaker Maitland, Rector of St John’s Church Loughton, enclosed 1300 acres of Epping Forest, with the intention of selling this on for building or agriculture. Maitland felt all previous common rights had been extinguished; he bought out some of the locals with traditional common rights, and sold off bits of land to others, who began to build fences themselves. Maitland announced he would prosecute anyone ‘trespassing’ on the enclosed land.

Stout fences were put up, and Maitland started felling trees in Forest, planning to sell off the land for development or horticulture.

Determined to uphold the tradition, on November 11th 1865, with his two sons, Willingale broke down Maitland’s new fence & started cutting wood. He and his sons were arrested and hauled up in Waltham Abbey court, in front of the local magistrate – one John Whitaker Maitland! Yes, as was usual then, local lords of the manor and landowners were often the chief instrument of law and order in the district. Handy when your tenants are rebelling… While the initial case was dismissed, Willingale and his relatives continued to assert lopping rights. Convicted of malicious trespass, Willingale’s son Samuel and two of Tom’s nephews, Alfred Willingale and William Higgins, were jailed in Ilford jail after refusing to pay 2s.6d. fines for ‘damage’ to trees. Tom himself was fined.

Alfred Willingale

The case led to much discontent in East London. Local opponents of enclosure, backed by the Commons Preservation Society, launched a legal case in 1866 with Willingale, claiming that Loughton was within the royal forest, for which Elizabeth I had granted lopping rights, and seeking an injunction to prevent Maitland chopping down more trees. The local Epping Forest anti-enclosure society held its meetings in the Crown Inn at Loughton. Attempts were made by Maitland to buy Willingale off, but when they failed, Maitland bought Willingale’s cottage and evicted him. Willingale was also deprived of work & housing by the local establishment, who backed the landowner.

Willingdale also took out a case against Maitland, over the loss, during the enclosures, of his house at Baldwin’s Hill, together with the land he had acquired by the traditional forest squatter’s rolling fence method (gradually and almost imperceptibly extending the fence outward over time!) over his 27 years there. Maitland had offered him rehousing, but Willingale stuck it out for his rebuilt cottage. But he died about 1870 with the case unresolved.

Samuel Willingale

The legal case was however was taken up by the Corporation of London, at the behest of the Commons Preservation Society. The Society’s investigations had led to the discovery of a web of old rights of common; on the basis of which the Corporation opted to sue 19 lords of various Essex manors who had enclosed parts of the Forest. In 1874, the Master of the Rolls ruled for the Corporation and the Society, ordering the enclosers to take down existing fences and not erect any more. 1000s of acres of land were opened for public access. The Corporation of London went on to buy the land & manage it for public recreation, as it still does today.

The Willingales still managed to cock one final snook at Maitland. When the Corporation took over the Forest in 1878, it ruled that the enclosure fences Maitland had put up were to be removed at his expense. However, Thomas’s son William Willingale happily volunteered to carry this task out, spending four days riding round tearing the fences round, in alliance with another opponent of the enclosures, George Burney.

The outrage over the enclosures partly gained massive publicity throughout East London, partly because the wider Forest was well known to many Londoners having long been a traditional destination for East Enders to journey out for jollities picnics and pissups.

Thomas Willingale is commemorated in Loughton by the street name Willingale Road, the Thomas Willingale School, and formerly had a pub named after him in Chingford (renamed “The Station House” in 2006). The Lopping Hall in Loughton was paid for out of compensation money for extinguishment of the lopping rights. It contains a carved hornbeam memorial tablet to Willingale and its north entrance includes a terracotta pediment illustrating loppers at work in the forest. There is a blue plaque on the wall of St John’s Churchyard, where Willingale is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. There is no known likeness of Willingale. Those extant in the town are of his son, also Thomas.