New Publications from Past Tense

OK – first of all, hands up – these aren’t totally new. They came out in October, but we’ve been so busy with one thing and another that we haven’t had much time to publicise them as yet.

SO – Past Tense have published six new pamphlets, five for sale and one FREE.

The Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

£1.50 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-7-9

The Brixton Black Women’s Group, founded in 1973, emerged among women who had been active in the Black Power movement in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This pamphlet reprints two articles
originally published in feminist journals in the 1980s – an interview with three Brixton Black Women’s
Group activists about the development of the group, and an appraisal of the national Organisation
for Women of African and Asian Descent.


Dave Burn

£1.50 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-5-5

In 1960 over 2000 council tenants in the then London borough of St Pancras went on partial rent strike, against a new rent scheme introduced by the Conservative council. This pamphlet recounts the
causes and the history of the rent strike, examining the reasons the rent scheme was brought in, and the history of the tenants’ movement. A comprehensive but also compelling story of a community struggle, as well as a thoughtful analysis of its motives and possibilities.


The Anti Corn Law Riots of 1815

£1 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-4-8

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, corn prices fell to nearly half their war level, causing panic among British farmers – many of whom were also voters. In response the government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815; banning cheap wheat imports, to ensure the high incomes of farmers
and landowners.
This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high bread prices, and the high rents that they supported; knowing well enough this law meant penury for the
poor, who relied on bread to stave off starvation.
Riots broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds…


The North London Civil Servants Strike, 1987/88
Jean Richards

£1 P&P
ISBN: 978-0-9932762-2-4

An account of a strike by low-paid civil servants across North London Department of Employment offices in 1988, also involving Job Centre and Department of Health & Social Security staff who came out in solidarity
when they were asked to do the strikers’ work.

By a woman civil servant who worked for 10 years in one of the offices in dispute.



ISBN: 978-0-9932762-3-1
£1 P&P

In the early 1830s a building on Blackfriars Road became the most notorious radical political meeting places of its era. For a few short years, the Rotunda was the heart of radical London. The Rotunda entered
its golden age in 1830, when it was taken over by freethinker Richard Carlile, and was transformed into a centre of political and scientific education and theatrical anti-religious performances… It became home
to diverse radical groups and speakers, including the National Union of the Working Classes, Robert Taylor (known as the “Devil’s Chaplain’), and female atheist lecturer Eliza Sharples, the ‘Pythoness of the

The Rotunda was feared and hated by the political establishment, who saw it as influencing all radical and rebellious opinion. The reactionary Duke Of Wellington considered the battle for the future of society as
one of “The Establishment Vs The Rotunda.”


A6 pamphlet

£1 P&P

The 1381 Peasants’ Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. At its heart stands a figure of whom so littl4 is known… Wat Tyler. A man who appears for two weeks, is elected leader of a peasant rebellion, articulates a demand for the abolition of classes, and is killed… Who was Wat Tyler?


£1 P&P

Some thoughts on gentrification & resistance to gentrification in Brixton, with historical digressions, experiences, and some ranting… By a longtime Brixton resident now living in exile.


And don’t forget – the 2018 LONDON REBEL HISTORY CALENDAR is still
available, it’s not too late to order your coy for the year… Only £6
plus £3 P&P

All of the above are available from Past Tense

either via our online publications page

here you can pay by card or paypal

Or ooooold style by post from:

Past Tense, c/o 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street, London, SE17 3AE

These publications will also soon be available from radical bookshops in London, and some good local independent bookshops and the odd caff too!

If you’d like a list of bookshops that stock our output, email us and
we’ll let you know.


Today in London’s squatting history, 2013: the 491 Gallery closes. Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery now lies in a pile of rubble between Grove Green Road and the M11 Link Road…. …but for 12 years it ran as a squatted social centre and multi-disciplinary gallery in Leytonstone, Northeast London. Taking its name from its street number, 491 Grove Green Road was home to a community-led art organisation between 2001 to 2013, and served as an exhibition space for a diverse range of artists of different origins working in varied media. It contained a range of art and music studios, which were used to host workshops, classes and musical rehearsals. 491 was subsequently demolished in 2016.

The building was originally a factory – at one point making safes. (During its 2016 demolition the workers carrying out the heavy roof beams found there was still an enormous safe inside.) It was later used as a storage space and warehouse for materials being used to construct the M11 Link Road, the A12 that cut through Leytonstone and the surrounding areas. Hundreds of houses were demolished to make way for this road, despite mass squatting of the emptied buildings, and fierce resistance, including the famous stand at Claremont Road.

Unlike the rest of the surrounding buildings, 491 and a few neighbouring houses were not subject to compulsory purchase orders and demolition for the A12 site. When in late 2000 the building was abandoned, it became occupied by a group of homeless drug users, who remained in it for some six months. Within a month of their leaving, the building was reoccupied by a group of artists, who spent the next several years turning it into a community space. They found human shit, drug works, and swastikas daubed on the walls, along with a collection of bags and purses thrown into the backyard by muggers who dumped them there after emptying them. The squatters set about clearing up the mounds of rubble outside, cleaned and painted the inside and, once the repairs were complete, threw open the doors and invited the local community to use the space for artistic and environmental endeavours.

The neighbouring building, formerly houses, was also occupied, and named Vertigo, after the film by Alfred Hitchcock, a famous resident of Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery and Vertigo collectively collaborated on hosting regular exhibitions and offered studio space for musicians to use. They were maintained largely through small donations made by the public. Transport for London, the 491 building’s legal owner at the time, agreed to allow the continued use of the building, although no formal arrangement was made with the occupants. The owner of the Vertigo building allowed its use for an annual peppercorn rent of £1. The Gallery regularly hosted art exhibitions, themed events and film screenings, such as a Transition Towns screening of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Following a fire in 2008, the Vertigo building was rebuilt throughout by its residents, and in 2009 was decorated with an exterior mural of Hitchcock to add to the artistic tributes in the local area. Local artists as well as those from further afield exhibited art in the 491 gallery. Those who could afford paid a modest fee that subsidised those who couldn’t afford to pay to display. The building hosted conferences, concerts, art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and dramatic performances, and offer workshops in everything from life drawing to comedy, sculpting, yoga, technology, and photography; and had the area’s only music rehearsal studio for bands.

As one local commented after the demolition: “This kind of squatted social space links back to the London I knew when I first came to live here in 1989 and is slowly fading away. There are groups that still operate social spaces, sometimes in conjunction with the property owners using meanwhile leases, but they are necessarily temporary without time to grow roots into the community. The 491 Gallery was a real presence in the Leytonstone community and it’s very sad to see it go to be replaced with yet another uniform block of flats.”

There is more on 491 including lots of pictures at:


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London housing history: Elsy Borders goes to court in West Wickham mortgage strike, 1938.

Elsy Borders changed the course of legal and political history in the field of owner-occupied housing mortgages. The campaigns around rent control and investment in council housing that the Communist Party was noted for in the 1930s were extended by the Borders to home-owners who went on mortgage strike in protest at shoddy workmanship in the building of new homes.

A Communist Party member, Elsy played a prominent role in all this by taking her building society to court over its failure to ensure good building standards. Many homeowners were deeply concerned over the complicity of the building societies in accepting the low standards of construction from speculative builders and the campaign was successful in contributing to legislative change.

In the 1930s a ring of new built estates sprang up on the edges of London. Many were built by local councils, but there were a number of private developments too.

“Here was revealed one of the greatest rackets operating between the wars. The Conservative Governments were not prepared to grant assistance to the local authorities in order that they could build houses for the working class, to be let at reasonable rents. In fact, they deliberately cut down grants for slum clearance, slashed the housing programmes, and consciously encouraged building societies. There was therefore no competition, or very little, with the jerry-builders. What was their racket? Had they built houses to let, within a few years those houses, as the slums which many of them became, would never have been .. letable ” at the rents which the owners expected to receive in order to make them a profitable proposition. So developed the greatest racket of the time: … Own your own Homes “: … The Briton is an individualist.” Wonderful pictures were drawn and millions spent on advertising to show how glorious it was to be the complete master in your own home. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, lapped this up, bought their homes on … the never-never “, £50 down, 17s. 6d. a week. After a few years not only normal decorations but serious repairs were urgently needed for these houses were falling to pieces. The working-class folk who proudly inhabited these homes in the suburbs of London and other cities, and who could only make ends meet by account- ing for every penny, found themselves faced with the alternative of dilapidation, or of paying heavy repair costs. Meanwhile the payments to the building society had to continue or else. . . . I remember the time when working-class rent-payers of Stepney would envy the dwellers in these jerry-built suburban houses, and, of course, many of these people valiantly tried to keep up appearances. “

The 1930’s building boom – along with the rise of new consumer industries – was a vital initial factor in shifting Britain’s sluggish economy upwards (until pre-war rearmament came along).  But not all of the new buildings were well-built. Many of the new homes leaked, creaked, and crumbled. Building societies tended to be highly authoritarian towards borrowers and could even be considered beset with corruption and snobbery. A situation tantamount to renting emerged as societies employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default as more and more fairly ordinary working class people with secure jobs turned to mortgage-holding.

“As the tenure of owner-occupation opened up in the 1930s, building societies tried to create a situation very close to renting so that they could control their mortgagors. On the Coney Hall estate, as on many, the builders employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default…”

In March 1934, Elsy and husband Jim, a London cabby, bought a house on Coney Hall estate, twelve miles from Charing Cross in West Wickham, today firmly in the London Borough of Bromley but then thought of as being beyond and into the green belt of Kent. They moved in with their three-year-old daughter, Pamela, and, having a keen sense of humour, named their home “Insanity”. So, their address became, “Borders of Insanity”, Coney Hall Estate, West Wickham, Kent!! More formally and much later it was to become 81, Kingsway, Coney Hall, West Wickham, Kent.

Coney Hall estate was less than ten years old. One of many owner-occupied estates arising during the inter-War housing boom, it was built in the 1930s on hilly farmland south of West Wickham bought by the developers, Morrell Brothers, from Coney Hall Farm.

Following the death of lord of the manor Sir Henry Lennard in 1928, much of his Wickham Court estate was sold to building firm Morrell’s, which was also building on the western side of Petts Wood. Construction work on the estate’s 1,000 homes began in 1933 and the shops of Kingsway Parade were built on the south side of Croydon Road.

In the previous decade, opposition to road developments adjacent to West Wickham Common and Hayes Common had left the area accessible only by steep and narrow lanes. In Coney Hall’s early days. London Transport refused to provide a bus service, and a free private coach service connected the estate to the nearest railway station, Hayes. Many of the houses were in a standard style, with polygonal bay windows and half-timbered gables, and were priced more affordably than elsewhere in West Wickham, although this distinction has since diminished.

The Borders purchased the house, which was built by Messrs E. Morrell, through the Bradford Third Equitable Building Society. As a down payment, they paid £37 in cash – a considerable sum – and signed a mortgage for the remaining £693. The building society, in accordance with their usual practice, paid only £650 to the builders, keeping the rest as part of a pool to pay losses from defaulted mortgages.

Hardly were the Borders installed when they noticed cracks in the ceiling, squeaks in the floors. Soon plaster began to fall, dampness oozed through the walls, the roof sagged and leaked. Later, it was stated in court by Jim Borders that “…the house was in a bad condition.  The whole front … was damp, and the wallpaper fell off the walls by its own weight. The foundations were narrow and did not look strong enough to support the house.  There were cracks in the outer walls and windows in front did not fit.  Two of the windows would not shut and had been in that state for at least two years. The ceilings were cracked and the roof leaked.  The electric wiring was never safe, and the front of the house was cracked in several places and the eaves were open.  The glass on the front door has collapsed, the bath had dropped from its original place, and the fireplace had come away from the walls.  The chimneys were defective and the woodwork was infected by a small insect.  The party wall did not go up to the full height, and he had shaken hands over it with his next door neighbour. That was all he could think of for the moment, he added.” 

While the Borders grumblingly met their monthly four guineas payments, Elsy busied herself helping form first a local and then a national Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Association. Some 1,200 residents organised themselves into the Coney Hall District Residents Association and, as a result of the struggle, Elsy Borders later became a leading figure in the FTRA, along with Michael Shapiro as Secretary.

When, in a blaze of local publicity during 1937, the Borders began withholding mortgage payments until some remedy was provided about the building flaws, this prompted as many as five hundred of her neighbours on the estate to also intentionally defaulting on their payments to building societies. After three months, the Bradford Society brought a claim against Jim and Elsy, seeking repossession of the house on the simple grounds that the Borders were three months in arrears with their mortgage repayments.

In turn, the Borders hit back with a massive compensation claim of £500 to cover the accumulated costs of repairs already effected by the couple over the previous three years, a sum approaching the cost of the whole house. Their claim charged misrepresentation of the value of the house, questioned the legality of holding back part of the cost in a pool, while at the same time charging interest on the full amount, and charged the society that it had lent money on an insufficient security and had “wilfully and fraudulently” misled the couple into believing that the house was built of good materials and in efficient manner.

Unable to afford a lawyer, Elsy Borders spent several months reading law in the London School of Economics, and handled the case herself, winning national fame in the mainstream press as “the housewife Portia – the tenants’ KC”. [KC=King’s Counsel, today a QC, Queen’s Counsel.] The case began on 13 January 1938 and focused the attention of the whole nation upon the plight in which hundreds of thousands of house purchasers had found themselves.

Dubbing Elsy `the modern Portia’ was a nod towards Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and it was the strength of character that Portia displays on stage that made it a role always highly attractive to many notable actresses.  Elsy’s persona in court recalled such memorable stage performances. Portia’s role stresses that, irrespective of its formal legal merits or moral authority, an argument can be won through the employment of eloquence, loopholes and technicalities and the term had often been employed to denote a strong female advocate of sometime uncertain legal arguments. The term was made popular following the 1908 foundation of the New England School of Law, popularly known as the Portia Law School, and a women-only law school. The school’s nick-name was still in general currency until as late as 1969.

For 18 days at the beginning of 1938, the legal battle was fought out in the Chancery Court, which was permanently packed with crowds who came to see the “Portia, the tenants’ KC” in action. Elsy spoke for a stunning eight hours but, despite a great deal of fuss that made it seem as if they had achieved total victory, in fact, the Borders actually won only a part of their case, in so far as the Court’s judgment dismissing both actions gave them clear title to their house, without having to pay any more instalments, but rejected other claims.

The Bradford Building Society’s case failed, Mr Justice Bennett ruled, because it was unable to prove that the mortgage deed it produced as evidence was the one that the Borders had actually signed. But the Borders’ counter-claim failed too, because Elsy couldn’t prove that the building society was responsible for misrepresentation. She appealed, saying the case pitted the purchaser against the jerry-builder, the rogue who throws up a good-looking but poor-quality house and tries to sell it through a building society. Backed by a fighting fund – sympathisers subscribed the significant sum of 10 shillings a head – the Borders’ crusade gathered momentum with a packed public meeting on the Coney Hall estate. Jim Borders warned that their legal struggle might last as long as five years, involving as many as 40 building societies.

Indeed, following the first case, the Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations prepared writs against 24 “jerry” building societies, including Halifax and Abbey Road, the two biggest. “Portia” Borders now became the heroine for many Britons and aided the movement to found `Tenants’ or Residents’ Defence Leagues’, which were typically led by Communists. As many as 70,000 families were on rent or mortgage strike at one point. Mortgage strikes occurred in all parts of the country, including many suburbs of London, such as Hayes, Felton, Earlswood, Queensbury, Whitton, and Twickenham, and in scores of other places.

In 1939, on the centenary of the great working class Chartist Convention that demanded reforms such as universal suffrage and annual Parliaments, representatives of the 200,000 members of the booming Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations met for its first national convention.

Birmingham, the recent scene of a victorious strike by 46,000 families living in a municipal housing, was the convention city. The purpose of the meeting was to weld the scattered defence leagues into a national pressure group with a program of slum clearance, Government rent control, increased legal responsibilities for landlords. Although the Labour Party lawyers’ group, the Haldane Society, supplied the movement with free legal advice, no political party other than the Communist Party supported the Federation. Yet the NFTRA had 45 branches and membership of 45,000.

This was all a big deal; Britain had some one thousand building societies, with assets totalling £750,000,000. But the judgement had left all the major issues unresolved, whereupon in February 1939 some 3,000 owner occupiers in outer London went on mortgage strike, causing many houses to be repaired. A measure was rushed through Parliament to legalise the established practice of the building societies in respect of this collateral. Also, whilst it is true that the Borders’ ultimately lost their specific case, the endeavour did truly expose abuses of the building society system and was one of the factors leading to its regulation by an amendment in 1939 to the 1874 Building Societies Act. It was former Communist and left MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who introduced a bill in Parliament to reshape the Act. The 1939 Building Societies Act was passed with the co-operation of the Building Societies’ Association and the Government and it restricted the mortgage security that building societies could accept.

The “Tenants’ KC” was to return to court in March 1939 with a libel suit taken out by her husband Jim against the builders of the Coney Hall estate, Morrell Brothers, for describing him to his building society as “definitely a bad egg”.

Elsy’s opponent in this was Norman Birkett KC, no mean opponent in the least. At this point in time, pince-nezzed Birkett was mostly known as the man who got Wallis Warfield Simpson her divorce so that she could marry Edward VIII but he was also considered as Britain’s top criminal lawyer.  Described as “one of the most prominent barristers of the first half of the 20th century”, and “the Lord Chancellor that never was”, he was later to become Baron Birkett, a Court of Appeal judge and a member of the House of Lords. Birkett was noted for his skill as a speaker, which helped him defend clients with almost watertight cases against them. Birkett’s legal opinion helped shape the final judgment at Nuremberg Trial of the Nazi leaders in 1945.

Yet Birkett found himself more than matched for guile by Elsy, who won the case hands down, with the court awarding Jim Borders £150! Said Elsy, as Norman Birkett KC withdrew from an attempt to cut and thrust which was well parried by her: “I wiped the floor with him! He was bloody wild.” Elsy was described by one newspaper as “a brilliant and resourceful leader. She has insight, a cool head and, above all, a fervour which inspires her colleagues.”  Birkett’s opening observation on cross-examining Elsy was that she was “getting quite accustomed to litigation”. This drew a lightning response from her, widely and approvingly quoted in the newspapers: “This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr Birkett”, as laughter drowned the court.

Birkett sought to suggest to Jim Borders that he had only been put up to take the case to court by his domineering wife. “I put it to you,” he declared, “that Mr and Mrs Borders are one and the same person and that person is Mrs Borders.” In response, as Jim’s counsel, Elsy retorted: “There may not be any difference between Mr and Mrs Birkett but there is a difference between Mr and Mrs Borders.”  Birkett’s wife was widely portrayed by high society gossip columnists as a domineering woman, so even the judge burst out laughing and the court dissolved into momentary anarchy.

The Borders’ crusade against the power of the building societies was only finally extinguished as the phony war was began to turn to blitz.  The case was dragged to the House of Lords in 1940 by Bradford Third Equitable. There, the following year when judgement was handed down, predictably, the honour of building societies was redeemed and Bradford totally exonerated. The mortgage strikes promptly fizzled out. Nonetheless, this had been a moment of serious challenge to the conception of the property-owning democracy that was at the heart of Tory and Liberal thinking on housing – mass mortgage ownership would only be kick-started again in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Even though the legal outcome as regards collateral security, responsibility for the condition of mortgaged property, and for builders’ descriptions of new houses favoured building societies, remedies had to be found. In the short term, the campaign – and the associated struggles of rental tenants –  shook the very foundations of the political and economic basis of housing policy in Britain. As Claud Cockburn later wrote: “The whole freewheeling apparatus of the boom, the ramshackle financial machine which powered the productivity and profit of it, appeared to be in danger.”

Sadly, the Borders lost possession of their home through these crafty legal moves by the building society. In late 1940, as the blitz progressed, Elsy evacuated with daughter Pamela to Exeter, where she died in 1971. Her marriage to Jim ultimately failed, and neither ever owned a house again. Jim trained as a barrister, but died almost penniless in 1966.

He was uncertain about the long-term value of the struggle he and Elsy had gone through. When the people of Coney Hall presented him with a clock, he chose as an inscription lines from Southey which were intended in the circumstances to be ironic, although few appreciated this:

And everybody praised the Duke,
Who this great fight did win.
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

Elsy’s lasting legacy in the world of law is to be the by-word for what constitutes a fraud. In the case of Bradford Third Equitable Benefit Building Society v. Borders [1941], Viscount Maugham’s explanations of his view of what establishes the tort, or civil wrong, of deceit or fraud were not only accepted by the court, they have been used as precedent in countless cases from that time to this very day to establish liability or not.  Arguably, had Elsy not been previously so eloquent, the Viscount may not have been wheeled out by Bradford’s solicitors to issue his fine definition of fraud. Of course, the ultimate in judge-made law is the House of Lords and it was its judgement in 1941 that provides this `legacy’ of Elsy’s.

It is today taught in legal training that it was held in Bradford v Borders (1941) that the maker of a false statement must have intended for the claimant to have relied upon the statement if a tort is to be established. Moreover, the main difference between suing in deceit and in negligence was addressed by reference to the caps on remoteness of damages. In deceit, to mark the law’s disapproval of fraud, the defendant (in Elsy’s case the building society) is liable for all losses flowing directly from the tort, whether they were foreseeable or not.

But, Maugham’s definition also establishes that a common law action of deceit requires a representation of fact (her expectation that the home she was paying a mortgage on was sound) made by words, or conduct – but not silence or omission – made with a knowledge that it is wilfully false and with the intention that it should be acted upon so as to result in damage sustained by acting on a false statement. In other words, that it was necessary all along in English law to prove that Bradford Third knew that they were funding an unsound home. Effectively, the Borders’ claim that Bradford had “wilfully and fraudulently misled” them, was ruled by the House of Lords as something that could virtually never be established in the business of mortgage lending.

Elsy did not ultimately fail in her campaign, as some have suggested, but the British establishment did simply changed the rules to favour themselves. Restrictions were put on the ability of the developers to sell badly built homes – though this is a struggle new homeowners are still going through today. Mortgage strike anyone?

This post was partially nicked from Graham Stevenson’s excellent site


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London radical history: Richard Carlile jailed for supporting Swing rioters, 1831.

On January 10th, 1831, Richard Carlile was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment for sedition; specifically for advising agricultural labourers to continue their campaign of rioting, striking and destroying threshing machines.

Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.

Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)

Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… A culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ’40s.

In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out. In 1830 however he took out a lease on the Rotunda, a huge venue on Blackfriars Road in Southwark, which was to become – briefly – the most important radical social centre of the time.

In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. Across much of the country, working people threatened by increasing mechanisation attacked and destroyed the machines representing the changes in rural work. From farm to farm, village to village, the trouble spread, by word of mouth, rumour and by crowds marching to inspire action in the neighbouring areas… Like wildfire ripping through a prairie… The world of the workers is Wild…

This was a hugely threatening movement for the ruling classes – despite the massive changes undergoing Britain as the Industrial Revolution transformed work, life, and social relations, the majority of wealth and power relied on a landowning aristocratic class exploiting a reliable rural workforce… Swing showed the potential for that to be undermined.

The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances, and though some rioters may have picked up some radical ideas, it was not in itself inspired by any urban radicals. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be.

The Swing Revolt certainly inspired Carlile and his circle. Carlile’s charismatic collaborator, the blasphemous ex-clergyman Robert Taylor, put on a play at the Rotunda enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’. “Promoted by Carlile as a ‘politico-tragedy’, Swing! defended the agricultural labourers… Carlile’s paper the Prompter boasted to its readers of the literary and theatrical excellence of the tragedy, reporting that the ‘language is worthy of Otway, and the denouement of the plot beats that of any other popular tragedy’. The play, described as an ‘admirable tragedy’ in which the audience could ‘alternately cry and laugh’, was standing entertainment for two nights a week at the Rotunda and ran for several weeks.”

But in January the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.

Carlile had published advice to the insurgent labourers, in the third issue of his Prompter, dated 27 November 1830. In a letter addressed to the Insurgent Agricultural Labourers’ – a fairly minor article placed on an inside page – he extended a ‘feeling heart’ to the rural poor, “encouraging them to continue their strike and career or revolt. He told them that I was wrong to destroy wealth, but they had more just and moral cause for wasting property and burning farm produce than ever king or faction that ever made war had for making war. In war all destruction of property was counted lawful. Upon the ground of that, which was called a law of nations, Carlile told them theirs was a state of war, and their quarrel was the want of necessities of life in the midst of abundance. Further government severity of repression would warrant their resistance even to death… The issues Carlile impressed upon them in the following terms:-

‘You see hoards of food, and you are starving; you see a government rioting in every sort of luxury and wasteful expenditure, and you, ever ready to labour, cannot find one of the comforts of life. Neither your silence nor your patience has obtained for you the least respectful attention from that Government. The more tame you have grown, the more you have been oppressed and despised, the more you have been trampled on; and it is only now that you begin to display your physical as well as your moral strength that your cruel tyrants treat with you and offer you terms of pacification.’ “

Carlile’s advice to the labourers to ‘go on as you have done’ was interpreted by the authorities as a seditious call to arms. He later claimed that ‘neither in deed, nor in word, nor in idea, did I ever encourage, or wish to encourage…acts of arson or machine breaking’. In January 1831, however, Carlile was sentenced to two further years’ imprisonment, in Giltspur Street Compter.

The prosecution took Carlile and other radicals by surprise. Many of his past publications had been far more seditious and blasphemous than the Prompter letter. Indeed, Taylor’s performance of the Swing! tragedy contained far more seditious and provocative material than Carlile’s letter. Carlile had also previously regularly asserted his dislike of ‘mobs’ and ‘mob action’: he had written that a ‘few bullets’ should be distributed among the heads of rioters in Bristol, which ‘matched the most callous middle-class reactions.’ Carlile’s assertion that the prosecution was planned as a means to close the Rotunda was thus probably correct.

However, as his new prison address was relatively close to the Rotunda, Carlile was able to both continue to manage the venue, and publish his paper, the Prompter.

In the end, Carlile served about 8 months of this sentence, one of many he amassed during his life, mostly for publishing allegedly blasphemous and banned texts.


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Today in London’s penal history:John Smith gets 7 years in Newgate, for involvement in destruction of Dingley’s Sawmill. 1769.

On May 10th 1768, Dingley’s Steam-powered Sawmill in Limehouse was burnt down by 500 sawyers, who claimed it was putting them out of work.

This was a highly organised act; decided on collectively beforehand. When the sawyers marched on the Mill, Christopher Robertson, Dingley’s clerk, confronted the crowd and asked them what they wanted. “They told me the saw-mill was at work when thousands of them were starving for want of bread. I then represented to them that the mill had done no kind of work that had injured them, or prevented them receiving any benefit. I desired to know which was their principal man to whom I might speak. I had some conversation with him and represented to him that it had not injured the sawyers. He said it partly might be so, but it hereafter would if it had not; and they came with a resolution to pull it down, and down it should come.”

The mill, the first steam-powered sawmill to open in London, had been operating since early 1767, but the installation of new machinery there during a slack period in the trade when large numbers of sawyers were out of work pushed them into action. On May 6th, the sawyers had sent a communiqué to Dingley, announcing that they intended to stop the mill working. If he didn’t take it seriously, he soon learned his mistake…

Traditionally, sawyers had many privileges, perks of the job, notably the right to take and use offcut wood (especially in shipbuilding). This perk tended to be exploited liberally – management accused the sawyers of often abusing the custom, and making off with huge lengths of wood. Hence sawyers’ houses could often be better built than they financially could afford! However, sawyers’ wages were also generally considered relatively high.

The steam mill was clearly intended to gradually impose a more disciplined industrial process and do away with the perks and customary rights. While owner Charles Dingley received compensation from the government, and completed the rebuilding of the mill, it didn’t seem to re-open: in 1795 it was described as having been standing empty for many years. A generation passed before another such attempt to replace the sawyers’ labour was made in London.

Like the contemporary Spitalfields silk-weavers, and the Luddites after them, the London sawyers were able to clearly see how new technology was being used against them, and made rational decisions to defend existing wages, conditions and customs with a bit of sabotage: collective bargaining by riot and vandalism.

The mill’s owner, Charles Dingley, was considered an ally of the government, and had been ‘radical’ demagogue John Wilkes unpopular opponent in the Middlesex elections: he couldn’t even get near the hustings some days, being kept out and abused by Wilkes-supporting crowds, and was beaten up by Wilkes’ lawyer. He is generally said to have ‘died of shame’ at being so vilified.

On January 9th the following year, one John Smith was tried at the Middlesex magistrates Court (‘Hicks Hall’), for ‘riotously assembling with others’ to destroy the mill, and sentenced to seven years imprisonments in Newgate, to pay a fine, and to enter into recognisance for his good behaviour.

Interestingly, three years later, one John Green was petitioning the Treasury to receive a reward for having arrested John Smith.

Edward Castle had previously been tried in July 1768 for Riot and Breaking the Peace for the attack on the mill, but had been acquitted.


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All this week in suppressed military history: soldiers strike, demonstrate and riot, demanding faster demobilisation, 1919

When World War 1 came to an end, in November 1918, there were millions of men in uniform across Europe. After the initial nationalist fervour and pro-war enthusiasm that had seen mass enlistment in the first year or two, the war fever had largely abated. Mass slaughter, the stalemate of trench warfare, the horrors of soldiers’ experience – trauma, disease, cold, horrific wounds, as well as vicious military discipline, punishment of those who refused orders, were unable to fight any more… Many of those on the many fronts across the continent had been conscripted.

After over 17 million deaths and even more wounded, all most of those in the respective armies wanted to do was go home. Long years of war had left widespread cynicism and disillusion with the war aims, with the high command, with pro-war propaganda…

Out of this war-weariness, and inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, (itself a product of army mutinies and revolts from a population enraged by the privation and poverty the war had aggravated), French and British army mutinies had erupted in 1917-18. Revolts, mutinies and uprisings among her allies left Germany mostly fighting alone by the beginning of November, and German mutinies had played a major part in Germany’s decision to open talks about ending the war with the allies…

But celebrations of peace were somewhat premature. Several western governments, notably Britain, France and the US, were determined not to end the fighting, but to carry on the war – against their former ally, Russia.

After the October Revolution had overthrown the liberal government there, the new Bolshevik government had fulfilled one of the main aims of the revolution – to pull Russia out of the war.

This in itself enraged France and Britain, as it left Germany free to move large forces to the western front. But the overthrow of tsarism and then the bourgeois Kerensky government, and the beginnings of social revolution across Russia, also terrified governments worldwide. And the leading allied nations were among the most worried. What if workers across Britain took Russia as an example? There had already been a huge upsurge in workplace organising, strikes, and social struggles as the war progressed… The British and French establishments were determined not only that radicals inspired by the Soviet upsurge be repressed, but to organise military intervention in Russia, to support the anti-revolutionary forces already fighting a civil war there, and if possible help them restore a more acceptable regime and crush working class power.

By this time of course, in Russia itself, the processes were already at work that would hamstring working class control and produce a Bolshevik dictatorship which would largely destroy any real communist potential within 3 years… However, it was all one to the western powers.

Plans to mobilise some of the millions conveniently still under orders and turn them against Russia were already underway long before the Armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on 11 November.

An agreement had been drawn up in December 1917 between France, Italy and Britain to act against the Bolshevik regime, subsidise its opponents, and prepare ‘as quietly as possible’ for war on them.

Between February and November, British troops had already been sent to invade parts of Russia. Clauses within the peace agreement itself make it clear that troops were to be moved across Europe to the east, and ensured that free access to the Baltic and Black Sea for French and British navies would ease plans to invade Russian territory.

And immediately after the ‘peace’, plans were stepped up, along with a concerted propaganda campaign against ‘bolshevism’ in the press, designed to whip up support for military intervention.

But the plans involved reckoning on thousands of soldiers as pawns, and that British workers would have no view or no say in the matter. This was to be a serious miscalculation.

In the early months of 1919, there were still over a million British soldiers still in uniform, some in France but many more in army camps in this country. Many were expecting immediate demobilisation now the war was over; this expectation turned to frustration and then to eruptions of protest. Attempts to delay demobilisation in order to facilitate intervention in Russia were certainly going on, but bureaucratic delays and simple problems of scale were also for sure causing backlogs and a slow process of sending soldier home. But in January 1919, a number of mutinies, protests and demonstrations in army camps in southern England and around London, demanding immediate demobilisation, broke out, causing serious alarm in government circles; especially as industrial unrest was increasing. Mutinies, links between discontent in the armed forces and on the home front had led to the Russian Revolution and to revolutionary uprisings still then raging in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere…

Preventing millions of enlisted and conscripted soldiers from returning to civilian life when the war was over was bound to spark resentment – the only question was how this would be expressed, as grumbling, or active protest.

The answer soon came, appearing first of all in army camps in Folkestone and Dover, on the south coast of England.

“On the morning of Friday, 3 January 1919, notices were posted that 1000 men were to parade for embarkation at 8.15 a.m. and another 1000 were to parade for embarkation at 8.25 a.m. The men wrote across them: ‘No men to parade’. Word was passed along from rest camp to rest camp that men in one, nearly 3000 of them, had held a meeting and had decided not to march down to the boat, but to visit the mayor of Folkestone. Shortly after 9 a.m. a large body of men from No. 1 Rest Camp marched in orderly fashion to No. 3 Rest Camp at the other end of the town. There the column was heavily reinforced, and all marched down the Sandgate Road to the Town Hall. On the way they shouted in chorus: ‘Are we going to France?’ and answered with a louder ‘No!’ Then: ‘Are we going home?’ – and in response a resounding “Yes!’ Over 10,000 men assembled at the Town Hall. Several climbed on to its portico and delivered speeches: their complaints that many applications for demobilisation, in order to return to waiting jobs, were being ignored, were greeted with cheers. The mayor told the men that if they went back to camp they would hear good news: a remark answered by the singing of ‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story’! During the demonstration at the Town Hall the soldiers saw an officer taking photographs from the window. They entered the building and demanded an interview with him. He turned out to be an Australian taking the pictures as a souvenir, and offered the film to the soldiers – which they accepted. Finally, the town commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel H.E.J. Mill, promised the men that if ‘any complaints would be listened to’: and they then returned to their camps in a long procession, preceded by a big drum. At the camps they were told (1) that the pivotal and slip men who had work to go to could, if they wished be demobilised at once, from Folkestone; (2) that those who had any complaints could have seven days’ leave in order to pursue their case; and (3) that those who wished to return to France could do so. ‘They seemed reassured,’ reported the Times Correspondent, who underlined that there had been ‘no rowdyism’. He said that later a number of the men did return to France: however, the Daily News correspondent wrote that the morning mail boat to France had sailed without any troops.

On Saturday morning, 4 January, there was a new demonstration. Despite the assurances given the previous day, ‘a certain number’ had been ordered to France that morning. They refused, and a large number marched to the harbor to station pickets there, while other pickets were posted at the station, meeting the trains with men returning from leave: all joined the strike. Only officers and overseas troops embarked on the boats for Boulogne, which left ‘practically empty’. According to the Morning Post correspondent, an armed guard had been mounted at the harbour,

‘whereupon a representative of the soldiers threatened that, if it remained, they would procure their arms from their quarters at the rest camp and forcibly remove the guard. The latter was consequently withdrawn, and the malcontents placed pickets at the approaches to the harbour to prevent British soldiers from entering. Dominion soldiers were allowed to go.’

Probably about the same incident, a Herald investigator several days later said that the guard consisted of Fusiliers with fixed bayonets and ball cartridges. When the pickets approached, one rifle went up: ‘the foremost picket seized it, and forthwith the rest of the picket fell back’. Everywhere the feeling was the same, he said: ‘The war is over, we won’t fight in Russia, we mean to go home’.

The same reporter stated that the soldiers also tore down a large label, ‘For Officers Only’, above the door of a comfortable waiting room. The Times report went on to say that several thousand men, including the new arrivals carrying their kits and rifles, marched to the Town Hall, where they were once again addressed by their spokesmen. It was announced that a ‘Soldiers Union’ had been formed, and that it had elected a committee of nine to confer with the authorities in the Town Hall. There would be, immediately afterwards, a meeting with the general and town hall commandant at No. 3 Rest Camp. The whole mass of about 10,000 men marched there to await the report of the conference, which lasted into the afternoon. Finally, the delegation announced to the soldiers that the pledges made the previous day had been renewed. Late that evening, in fact, special staff from the Ministry of Labour arrived, and went to each rest camp to complete the necessary formalities.

One more the correspondent remarked that there had been ‘no rowdiness’, and that the townspeople spoke ‘in the highest possible terms’ of the soldiers’ behaviour. Thereafter everything proceeded as had been agreed.

It is not without interest that, as it turned out, one of the nine delegates was a solicitor in civil life, and another a magistrate. The composition of the delegation was: one sergeant of the Army Service Corps (chairman), a corporal of the Royal Engineers, a gunner of the Royal garrison Artillery, and the rest privates, several of whom were trade unionists.

After this unprecedented action at Folkestone, another took place at Dover on Saturday 4 January. About 2000 men took part, holding a meeting near the Harbour Station, at which a deputation was elected to see the military and civil authorities. The Daily Chronicle report gave further details:

‘A number of men had reached the Admiralty Pier , where transports were waiting for them, when suddenly there was a movement back, and men began to leave the pier. They streamed off along the railway, in spite of official protests, and on their way to the town met a train loaded with returning troops bound for the pier. The soldiers called on the newcomers to join them, and the carriages were soon emptied. Continuing their march, and all in full field kit and carrying their rifles, the troops mustered at Creswell, and from the railway bridge some of their number addressed the others on demobilisation grievances. They decided to send a deputation to the military and civil authorities, and the men then fell in and marched to the Town Hall, which was reached just before 10 o’ clock… The troops represented scores of different units, and a number of Canadian and Australian men.’

At the Town Hall, they formed up on either side of the road and in the side streets. The mayor admitted them into the Town Hall, and the overflow into the adjoining Connaught Hall. While waiting for a reply from the military authorities, the men sang popular songs, and the arranged for their free admission to the cinema. In the afternoon, at the Town Hall, they received promises that grievances would be ‘looked into’, and returned to their rest camps. A War Office statement printed by the Times said that the soldiers’ representatives were seen first by General Dallas, GOC Canterbury, and then by General Woolcombe, head of the Eastern Command. He had returned from leave when hearing of the ‘trouble’, and from Folkestone had telephoned he Home Army Command at the War Office for instructions. A report in the Times next day stated that ‘all cases had been enquired into’, and that soldiers were being allowed freely to telegraph their employers: if the latter replied favourably, the men could go home to start work at once.

Later on Friday, 3 January, the London evening papers had printed brief accounts of what was happening at Folkestone: which of course had become known at Dover. But almost immediately, in the words of the Evening News the following Monday, ‘the censorship came into action, with the result that all authentic news was stopped’ (though the Star, on Saturday, 4 January defied the ban). There can be no doubt about the military authorities’ reaction. The London letter in the Plymouth Western Morning News on 6 January, referred to ‘someone’s desire to conceal the truth: an attempt had been made on Friday and Saturday to hide the trouble at Folkestone… despite the efforts of the War Office to conceal it, nearly 10,000 men took extreme action’. The Birmingham Gazette on 8 January confirmed that ‘when the Folkestone trouble first arose, the War Office invoked what is left of the censorship system to keep the whole matter out of the newspapers.’ And on the same day The Ties, evidently more directly accessible to War Office pressure than the provincial press, revealed another aspect of the events by now occurring in many places when it stated in its leading article:

We are asked to publish, but have no intention of publishing, a great many letters on the subject of demobilisation which show the deplorable lack of responsibility on the part of the writers… fanning an agitation which is already mischievous and may become dangerous… These demonstrations by soldiers have gone far enough.

But The Times was too late. The demonstrations had certainly spread far beyond Folkestone, thanks to the reports in Friday’s evening papers: The Times itself had to report, on Tuesday 7 January, that the Folkestone and Dover demonstrations had been ‘followed by similar protests in other parts of the country’, and there might be more that day.

At other camps in Kent the demonstrations had already begun. At Shortlands, near Bromley, where there was a depot of 1500 men of the Army Service Corps, a committee of twenty-eight had been formed at breakfast on 6 January, including five NCOs [non-Commissioned Officers – officers who had risen through the ranks from private. Ed] and three cadets. Their chairman was a private from Canada, who had been at the front, and been transferred to the ASC. They marched in column to Bromley, where they held a meeting in the Central Hall. The chairman stated their main grievances: delay in demobilisation, and being held in the army to do civilian work. During the meeting a message arrived at the camp, saying that there would be no more drafts overseas, those men already out on a convoy would be sent back to the depot, and demobilization would start on Wednesday, 8 January. On their return, the commanding officer asked for names of the ‘ringleaders’, but this was refused, and next morning he had a two-hour meeting with the committee. Apart from the promises already made, he agreed to send to the War Office a ‘points system’ of priorities for demobilisation which the committee had drawn up. This provided: married men with work to go, and those running a one-man business – 1 point; years of service to be additionally credited a follows: 1914 4 points, 1915 3 points, 1916 2 points, 1917 1 point; men over military age, 1 additional point; those transferred from the infantry, 1 additional point. It appointed a sub-committee of five to visit other ASC Depots in the London area… On 8 January the committee issued a statement that all the other ASC depots had approved the scheme, but with 2 points instead of 1 for men with one-man businesses. Two days later demobilisation began.

At Maidstone on 7 January, a demonstration of several hundred soldiers of the Queens, 3rd Gloucestershire and 3rd Wiltshire Regiments, marched down the High Street at 10 a.m., and held a meeting explaining their grievances. Thence they marched to the Town Hall, where the mayor received a deputation from them and promised to forward their representations to the proper quarters. The demonstration had been preceded by interviews with their officers, at which the soldiers had demanded an end to unnecessary guard duties, drill and fatigues. During the afternoon demonstrations it became known that these demands had been conceded. The demonstrations had been renewed by 600-700 men of all three regiments.

At Biggin Hill, Westerham, on 7 January, some 700 men working on aeroplanes and wireless instruments refused to go on parade, and took possession of the camp. All its sections were placed under guard except for the officers’ quarters. They got ready twenty-eight motor wagons for a journey to Whitehall. They were persuaded not to see the plan through by the ‘tactful speech’ of their former colonel, who addressed them in a large hangar. The next day (8 January) he promised his help if they put their grievances in writing. This they did, complaining of: (1) insufficient food, badly cooked; (2) indescribable sanitary conditions, with eight washbasins for 700 men; (3) exploitation by officers, who required the men to do private jobs for them; and (4) delays in demobilisation. The ex-colonel offered to accompany a deputation to the War Office if required. On 9 January officials from the War Office visited the camp, and made immediate improvements in the sanitary and working conditions. On 10 January all except thirty-four men were sent home on ten days’ leave. Meanwhile, on 8 January, a number of RAF lorry drivers had refused to convey the 200 civilians working on the aerodrome from their homes in South-East London several miles away; this had been done previously by civilian drivers, and the RAF men demanded pay for this work at civilian rates. They resumed work on 11 January, after an investigation had been promised.

At Richborough ‘there was a demonstration by troops’ on 8 January’; but beyond this bare mention in Lloyd George’s own paper, nothing so far had been found.

As the London newspapers were already reporting the early strikes at Folkestone and Dover, unsurprisingly, the movement soon spread to the capital and its environs:

“At Osterley Park – a big manor house in its own grounds, west of London – at least 3000 men of the Army Service Corps were stationed. Most of them had served in France, and had been wounded, in the infantry; later they had been drafted into the ASC, and nearly all were ex-drivers of London buses, many with long trade union experience. They had recently laid their grievances about demobilisation before their commanding officer, but had had no definite reply. Accordingly, on Monday, 6 January, the soldiers broke camp, and about 150 took out three lorries and drove to Whitehall, intending to call on Lloyd George. They told reporters that more would have come with them, but officers had removed parts of the mechanism of other lorries. From Downing Street, where they were joined by man of other regiments, they went to the Demobilisation Department at Richmond Terrace, where a deputation of six was received by a staff officer of the Quarter-master-General’s department. He informed them that from Wednesday 8 January, 200 a day would be demobilised, adding that their complaints could not be investigated unless they returned to camp. This they did, followed by several staff officers and Ministry of Labour officials in a car. In the afternoon a second deputation of two privates came to Whitehall from a meeting of both ASC and other units. The War Office later issued a statement to the meeting saying that a beginning had already been made with dispersals for the Army Ordinance Corps, the Army Service Corps, the Army pay Corps and other military organisations. Meanwhile, at the afternoon parade in Osterley, a staff major had also told the soldiers that the Army Council, in session on Saturday 4 January, had decided to put the Army Service Corps on the same footing as other units, and that none of them would be sent on draft overseas.

The special significance of the latter assurance is underlined by a statement in the evening Pall Mall Gazette, on the day of the demonstration, that ‘the excitement among the Army Service Corps at Osterley and elsewhere is attributed in many quarters to oft-repeated rumours that plans are being prepared for the sending of a force to Russia’. In spite of assurances received on this score, all training ceased on 7 January, and 100 men were told they were being demobilised immediately. The demonstration of the others proceeded the following day.

At Grove Park (southeast of London), about 250 Army Service Corps drivers broke camp on 6 January and marched to the barracks half a mile away, asking to see the commanding officer. A sergeant-major who tried to stop them at the gates was knocked over in a scuffle, and the men entered. There they were ‘met in a conciliatory spirit’ by a senior officer, who, standing on a box, expressed sympathy with their grievances, and said everything in the officers’ power was being don to secure their release. A spokesman of the men said that many of them had had letters from their employers offering them re-employment, but nothing had been done, and they were being kept in the army doing no useful work. At the commanding officer’s request, they paraded again after dinner and filled in ‘Form Z16’ (for demobilisation). Fifty men who had been ordered to go to Slough, three hours journey by lorry to scrub huts, refused, saying it was unreasonable to expect men to stand closely packed in lorries for such a period.

At Uxbridge (North-West London), on Monday 6 January, 400 men from the Armament School (used as a demolition centre) broke camp at midday and marched along the High Street singing ‘Britons Never Shall be Slaves’ and ‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story’. At the market place they held a meeting, where they were addressed by the commandant, and then marched back. One of them told a reporter that, apart from the slowness of the demobilisation, ‘the food had been rotten since the Armistice, 1 loaf between 8 men, 5 days a week sausage.’ That morning the men had upset the tables, and gone out. On their return they formed a Messing Committee composed of 4 or 5 privates, 1 sergeant and 1 officer. Not satisfied, on Tuesday 7 January, they set up a Grievance Committee in each squad, composed of officers as well as men, to bring forward their complaints to the commandant. They also sent a deputation by lorry to the War Office.

From Kempton Park (southwest of London), on Tuesday 7 January, shortly before 3 p.m., thirteen large army lorries drove to the War Office in London, with forty to fifty soldiers in each lorry. General Burns had visited the depot that morning, but had not been able to give them any satisfaction. All were in high spirits, ‘determined to get what they called their rights. On the lorries they had chalked ‘No red tape’, ‘We want fair play’, ‘We’re fed up’, ‘No more sausage and rabbits’, ‘Kempton is on strike’. Held up at the Horse Guards (the War Office), they elected a deputation of eleven, which went into he War Office ‘amid ringing cheers’. The result of the interview was not published, but it could not have differed from what was secured elsewhere.

At Fairlop naval aerodrome (near Ilford, east of London), orders were posted on the morning of 7 January that eighty men were to proceed to other camps. All 400 men paraded and asked for a conference with the commanding officer, Colonel Ward: the transport men meanwhile got out their lorries to go to Whitehall, should the interview prove unsatisfactory. The colonel, however, came to a mass meeting held in a hangar, and agreed that every man with papers showing he had employment to go to, or who came from a one-man business, should have a day’s leave immediately, to get the papers endorsed, and could then go home pending demobilisation.

At the White City (well within the boundaries of West London itself), about 100 Army Ordnance Corps men on 7 January refused to leave barracks for the 1.30 p.m. parade, and sent a deputation to one of the officers demanding (1) speedier demobilisation, (2) shorter working hours, (3) no church parades on Sunday, and (4) weekend passes when not on duty. They asked for a definite answer within a week, and meanwhile resumed duty.

In the Upper Norwood Camp (in South-East London), there was a distribution centre for men discharged after lengthy illness. ‘After many previous discussions among themselves’, they sent a deputation on Sunday, 5 January, to interview the commandant. Then, on 6 January, they discussed with him complaints raised by the men, chiefly, that, even after twenty-eight days in hospital, they were being discharged.

But the most impressive demonstration of all in the London region, was that at Park Royal (in North-West London) on 7 January, where there were 4000 men of the Army Service Corps. That day a committee elected by the soldiers submitted to their commanding officer the following demands: (1) speedier demobilisation; (2) reveille to be sounded at 6.30 in the morning, not 5.30; (3) work to finish at 4.30 in the afternoon, not 5.30; (4) no men over forty-one to be sent overseas; (5) all training to stop; (6) a large reduction of guard and picket duty; (7) no compulsory church parade; (8) no drafts for Russia; (9) a committee of one NCO and two privates to control messing arrangements for each company; (10) a written guarantee of no victimisation. Most of these demands were agreed to.

However, at 1 p.m. on 8 January a big deputation arrived at Whitehall to present heir demands themselves. This had been agreed to by the committee: they left volunteers behind to look after the 300 horse at the depot. Their intention was to see the Prime Minister.

At Paddington, and again at the Horse Guards parade ground, they were met by General Fielding, commanding the London district, who tried to stop them, even threatening to use the police against them. Fielding promised them that demobilisation would take place ‘as soon as possible’: but as regards the assurance which they wanted that ‘they would not be sent to Russia’, he could give them none. This failed to satisfy them; they defied him, and marched in a body to Downing Street. Apparently the general told them ‘they were soldiers, and would have to obey orders’.

Finally Sir William Robertson, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, came out to speak to them and hear their demands. He agreed that the commanding officer of the Home Forces should receive a deputation of one corporal, one lance-corporal and one private for half an hour. The deputation returned with a group of officers, who announced that the outcome of the talk was satisfactory, and Sir William Robertson had promised to send a general to Park Royal to investigate their complaints. While all this was going on, crowds of the general public were watching the proceedings and encouraging the men. One of the offices invited the men to go back to camp. But they insisted that first of all they must hear a report from the deputation itself. Two or three of its members spoke. They confirmed that the same percentage of men at Park Royal would be demobilised as elsewhere: no one who had been overseas or was over forty-one would be sent on draft – ‘including to Russia’, added the Daily Telegraph reporter – and those already notified for draft were to be sent on Christmas leave, if they had not been already.

On their return, the men held a meeting in the canteen and expressed their satisfaction at the settlement.

Among the demonstrators at the War Office on 6 January were 259 soldiers due to return from leave to Salonika. They were nearly all time-expired men who had served in Greece (some for as long as three years) and before that in India. They were addressed by the Assistant Secretary for Demobilisation, General de Saumarez, who told them that those with demobilisation papers already prepared would be discharged immediately, and the remainder could go to the reserve battalions at home. If they could get their employers to send them the necessary form requesting their discharge, they too would be demobilised at once. Next morning, Thursday 9 January, after assembling at the War Office again, they were marched to Chelsea Barracks, and there either demobilised or sent on fourteen days leave for the purposes indicated.”

The events continued to spread around the country and among British soldiers stationed in abroad, including those already embarked for intervention in Russia. We don’t have space to detail all of it here, but there were protests, strikes and subsequent negotiations – at Lewes, Shoreham, Smithwick;

at Aldershot, Winchester, East Liss, Beaulieu Camp near Lymington, on the Isle of Wight… Bristol, Falmouth, on Salisbury Plain, Newport and Swansea… Felixstowe, Bedford, Kettering, Harlaxton in Lincolnshire; at Leeds, Manchester, Blackpool; in Scotland – at Edinburgh, Stirling, Leith, Rosyth and Cromarty…

In Southampton, in ‘mid-January… the docks were in the hands of mutinous soldiers and 20,000 men were refusing to obey orders… deserted troop ships picketed by soldiers’. Lord Trenchard, sent to sort the situation out, was shouted down and hustled when he went to speak to 5000 men in the customs sheds. He ordered 250 soldiers from the nearby Portsmouth garrison marched to the sheds and load their rifles, he forced the men’s surrender, and used water hoses to drench and subdue 100 others… More than some of the other protest, the Southampton situation scared the government, who saw it as an embryonic soviet, and repressed any mention of it in official papers or memoirs for decades.

The spirit of rebellion spread, if much more uncertainly, to the navy: at Milford Haven, where there was a ‘mutiny not accompanied by violence, on board a patrol ship, the HMS Kilbride: the men refused to carry out their duties on the pay they were receiving (in contrast to the way the army dealt with the protests, 7 sailors were court-martialled for this, 1 being sentenced to 2 years hard labour, 3 to 1 year and 3 to 90 days detention);
at Devonport, where the lower ranks elected a committee to air their demands;
at Liverpool…

The protests, rebellions and mutinies were not limited to Britain – because the majority of British soldiers were still posted overseas. British soldiers in France erupted in much the same way as the British-based squaddies had done. There was unrest and some rioting, across many detachments. The climax was an outright mutiny at Calais, on 27 January. After a private was arrested for making a seditious speech, railwaymen and Army Ordnance Corps men went on strike; although the private was quickly released, this sparked a strike among 5000 soldiers, who demanded immediate return to England, with leave to seek employment. The soldiers’ mutiny was heavily repressed with armed force, and the ‘ringleaders’ received long sentences at court-martial; the Army Ordnance Corps protest lasted longer, and won some concessions. But discontent went on, and there was some fighting after one of the most vocal was nicked.

Read a first-hand account of the Calais Mutiny

There were also similar rebellions at Le Havre, Etaples (scene a year and a half before of a serious wartime mutiny), Boulogne, and Dunkirk.

… and among troops already involved in the British-allied plan to intervene militarily in Archangelsk, in northern Russia to support ‘white’ (anti-Soviet) forces. British, French, American and Polish forces were under British command here, but socialist propaganda and discontent were rife, and news of the demob protests reached these troops via socialist papers. Troops in Archangelsk refused orders to advance, mass meetings were held, and committees elected, and the commanders of the invasion force reported back to London that they were not confident of the men’s reliability. Some ‘ringleaders’ had to be arrested… But a serious blow was dealt to the allied attempt to smash the Russian Revolution by force.

The soldiers’ strikes not only forced the government to speed up demobilisation and lightened wartime conditions for those awaiting release.

It also did make the government think twice about conscripting soldiers into an intervention force for sending to Russia. Clearly squaddies were not necessarily going to be happy to be pawns this time. Public opinion in Britain was already heavily against intervention in Russia… But the widespread and almost immediate concessions to the protests show the scale of the terror that the British government was barely managing to conceal – that the increasing industrial unrest, social weariness with war privations and dissent among the forces would link up, as they had in Russia… The idea of a British Revolution may seem ridiculous now, but it seemed a genuine possibility in 1919… If you lose control of the armed forces (not forgetting that the police also went on strike I 1918 and 1919…)

The soldiers strikes of January certainly scotched the idea that a mass military force could be sent to help smash the Russian Revolution. It wasn’t the end of the British government’s plans to support the ‘white’ armies fighting against the Bolsheviks: attempts to send arms and other aid to the white Russian forces continued for over a year and a half, but were eventually in practical terms scuppered by the organised action of workers on the docks.

In fact though the fear of the British authorities that the soldiers’ strikes could develop into revolution was very likely overstated. Overwhelmingly the demonstrations, even when they became more confrontational, was for immediate demands, and largely subsided when they were granted. As a leading historian of WW1 mutinies and dissent concludes:

“most of these affairs focussed on the men’s demand for immediate demobilisation. With few exceptions, notably the confrontations at Folkestone, Dover and Whitehall, the demobilisation mutinies were dealt with by local and regional Commands. Their cumulative effect was serious because it caused the Government to accelerate demobilisation. But even the most optimistic socialists never felt it was a prelude to revolution. For example, the British Socialist Party newspaper, The Call, on 16 January 1919, commented: ‘The soldiers’ strike has arisen primarily out of disgust with which the intelligent fighting man regards the attempt to deal with him on the question of demobilisation as with an unreasoning machine and that it is not the outcome of considered revolutionary opinions, it would be foolish to dispute.’ 

Though the Communist historian Andrew Rothstein has tried to politically inflate these events into a tribute to the Russian Revolution, where a mutinous flag was flaunted it was the Cross of St. George or the Union Jack, rather than a rebellious red banner. Furthermore, few politically significant links were sustained between the mutineers and their turbulent industrial counterparts.” (Julian Putkowski, A2 and the Reds In Khaki)

Interestingly, though, the text from which this quote was taken details the extent of British secret state spying on soldiers’ and ex-servicemens’ organisations that sprang up in 1919, most notably the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Union, which does seem to have been associated with the Folkestone mutiny, and was itself connected to the left through its links with the newspaper, the Daily Herald. It is really worth a read: A2 and the Reds In Khaki

We took the accounts above from Andrew Rothstein’s book, ‘The Soldiers Strikes of 1919’.

We also hope to type up the full accounts of all the January 1919 protests soon…


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London funereal history: William Curner buried, Brockley, 1888, after being killed by police.

‘ON Saturday, 7th, another Trafalgar Square victim was buried with the ‘honours of war.’ William Curner, member of the Deptford Liberal Club and N.S.S., was at Trafalgar Square, got bludgeoned, arrested, and in the approved law’-n’-order fashion sentenced to fourteen days for doing nothing. The inquest is not finished, and so we do not know all particulars, only enough to make it sure that his death lies at the door of the police. The society to which he belonged gave him a public funeral, in which the Law and Liberty League and Socialist League took part.’ (Commonweal, January 14 1888).

In November 1887, the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League organised a demonstration against ‘coercion in Ireland’ in Trafalgar Square. The day became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after a clashes with police left hundreds injured and at least three dead. (Read a good account of Bloody Sunday.)

Among those who died was a Deptford radical, William Bate Curner. In circumstances similar to the death of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 demonstration, there was a dispute about the cause of his death. The inquest, held at the Lord Clyde pub in Deptford on 16 January 1888 heard that ‘he was stated to have received injuries to the head, inflicted by a policeman’ described as ‘barbarous and cruel’. However a verdict of ‘death from natural courses’ was returned, after medical evidence that he also suffered from heart problems. (Times January 17 1888). As with Tomlinson it is surely hard to believe that the injuries sustained at the hands of the police didn’t contribute to the death, even if there was an underlying health problem.

Curner’s funeral in Brockley Cemetery was a major event, reported in The Times on the 9th January 1888 (although they call him Curwin):

‘The remains of William Bate Curwin, stonemason, of 58, Henry-street, Deptford, who had died suddenly after undergoing a sentence of 14 days’ hard labour for taking part in riotous proceedings in Trafalgar Square, in the course of which he received certain injuries, were interred in Brockley Cemetery on Saturday. The circumstances of the death are forming the subject of an inquiry by coroner’s jury, the case standing adjourned.

The funeral procession reached the cemetery about 4 o’clock. It consisted of a hearse and two coaches and a walking party numbering about 1,000, and was made up of representatives of the Deptford and Greenwich branches of the National League, the Deptford branch of the Social Democratic Federation, the East Greenwich, Deptford, and Woolwich Radical Clubs, the West Deptford Reform Club, the Home Rule Union, &c.

The bands of the local branch of the National League and the East Greenwich Radical Club played the ‘Dead March’. The hearse bore the inscription ‘Killed in Trafalgar Square’. On banners draped in mourning were such inscriptions as ‘Honour to the Dead’ and ‘Assist the Widow. There was a very large gathering at the grave and a number of torches were used while the burial ceremonial adopted by the Secularists was performed by Mr Robert Forder. Addresses were then delivered by Mr W T Stead, Mrs Besant, and Mr J J Larkin, and a ‘Death Song’ having been sung by a Socialist choir, the proceedings terminated’ (Times, Jan 9 1888).

As can be seen from these two reports there is some confusion about the name of the dead man. The Times report of the inquest has the surname Curner, but in their funeral report gives it as Curwin. The former name seems, however, to be correct; genealogy sites have a William Bate Curner in Deptford, but not Curwin. Also the name Curner is used elsewhere – in the Socialist League’s report (below), and in E.P Thompson’s biography of William Morris (Romantic to Revolutionary).

Morris wasn’t at the funeral but he did write the Death Song which closed it – it was first used at the funeral of another of those who was killed in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Alfred Linnell. The line up at Curner’s funeral was quite impressive though. Annie Besant was already well known as a socialist and secularist, and later in 1888 was to play a key role in the famous Match Girls Strike. W T Stead was a prominent campaigner and journalist – he was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette at the time.
Robert Forder was secretary of the National Secular Society.

Henry Street, Deptford, is probably now part of Childers Street. Efforts to locate Curner’s grave in Brockley Cemetery aa few years ago brought no result: if anybody else knows its whereabouts please comment.

Commonweal, newspaper of the Socialist League, also reported the funeral, on January 14 1888:

“Last Saturday afternoon William B. Curner, who died from injuries received from the conflict with the police on Sunday 13th November, was buried in Brockley Cemetery. The deceased was a Secularist and Radical, and as such occupied a somewhat prominent position in the borough of Deptford, where he resided. The occasion of his burial was marked by a public funeral, and the whole line of route from his residence in Henry Street, Deptford, to the cemetery was lined with sympathetic spectators. Blinds were drawn and mourning borders were displayed from houses, one of the chief. tradesmen displaying over his shop black flags, two with mottoes, ” Honour the Dead,”  and “Let all assist the Widow.” The funeral hearse bore Radical, Irish, and Socialist flags, and also a shield with the inscription “Killed for Trafalgar Square’. A band playing the “Dead March” preceded the hearse, the whole procession to the cemetery being most imposing.

At the grave R. Forder, surrounded by a dense throng of people, among them being representatives of Secular, Radical, and Socialist bodies, read the secular burial service. After which Mrs. Besant made a most impressive speech, in which she urged her hearers not to shrink back from the struggle for freedom in which their brother in the grave had fallen, for in their efforts to make life worth the living some must fall. Let them go from the grave the more determined than ever to carry on the fight for which, he had given his life. Mr. Stead followed with a most fervid speech, and speaking as a Christian at the grave of an Atheist dwelt on the necessity for the sinking of mere minor differences of opinion: the cause of the people was the cause of humanity, and all its lovers would unite for the overthrow of its enemies.

Mr. Larkin then made a brief speech, and the choir of the Socialist League brought the proceedings to a close by singing William Morris’s ” Death Song,” written to commemorate the death and burial of Linnell.

This is the second public funeral that has taken place within a month, the dead in each case being martyrs to the cause of freedom of speech. How many more are to be sacrificed ere “liberty the parent of truth” shall triumph?”

Good question – still waiting on the answer…

The majority of this post was lifted from our good friends at Transpontine (hope they don’t mind…)


Appendix: William Morris’s Death Song

As noted above, written by socialist poet and artist William Morris, for the funeral of Alfred Linnell. Linnell was not in fact killed at Bloody Sunday, but was beaten by police a week later, on November 20th, in further clashes in Trafalgar Square as radicals attempted to re-establish public meetings there.

Linnell was buried in a huge radical/socialist funeral in December 1887, which tens of thousands attended, and Morris was one of the orators. he later led the crowd in singing the Death Song.

What cometh here from west to east awending?
And who are these, the marchers stern and slow?
We bear the message that the rich are sending
Aback to those who bade them wake and know.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

We asked them for a life of toilsome earning,
They bade us bide their leisure for our bread;
We craved to speak to tell our woeful learning;
We come back speechless, bearing back our dead.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

They will not learn; they have no ears to hearken.
They turn their faces from the eyes of fate;
Their gay-lit halls shut out the skies that darken.
But, lo! this dead man knocking at the gate.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

Here lies the sign that we shall break our prison;
Amidst the storm he won a prisoner’s rest;
But in the cloudy dawn the sun arisen
Brings us our day of work to win the best.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.

EP Thompson’s book gives a good account of Linnell’s funeral.


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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London squatting history: Vortex jazz club squatted, Stoke Newington, 2007

“On Sat 6th Jan a group of local people, along with others, occupied 139-141 Church Street with the intention of opening it up as a social centre. Previously the home of the famous Vortex jazz club the building is set to be demolished by notorious landlord Richard Midda to make way for a Starbucks on the ground floor with luxury apartments above.”

A new squatted social centre opened up in January 2007, in Stoke Newington, North London, in the empty building formerly used by the Vortex jazz club. The new space featured a daily cafe, radical cinema, club nights, talks, workshops and meeting space for various groups (the club proving especially popular). The centre garnered some support from some local folk, particularly as plans for the vacant building mainly featured demolition and redevelopment for the (oh yes of course) obligatory luxury flats and a branch of Starbucks. Thousands signed a petition to keep the building reserved for community use…

“The Vortex Jazz Club had had its origins in an art gallery set up in 1984, which became a secondhand record and bookshop and then started outing on live jazz. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Vortex established itself as an essential destination for contemporary music in London, noted for its community atmosphere and groundbreaking performances, with music every night of the week. David programmed all the music himself, with the exception of nights run by musicians or friends of Vortex. In the early 1990s saxophonist Elton Dean (1954-2006) started Rumours, a weekly Avant-garde music night. At around the same time, Jazz Umbrella also started as another regular night to help promote young musicians, fostering talent such as Christine Tobin and Julian Siegel.

Programming at Vortex also diversified in the early ‘90s with the arrival of Pirate Jenny, a weekly night of opera, cabaret and song, featuring the works of composers such as Gilbert & Sullivan and Kurt Wile. When it came to programming music, David said the best nights would come from musicians who had projects they were really excited about. “These great musicians would come to me with ideas and I’d let them do anything they liked, and it was always brilliant . . . I’d tell them there was no money in it, but they’d say that was fine.” In 1996 Derek Drescher, who then worked as a producer at the BBC, began to record sessions at Vortex for the program Impressions on Radio 3.

However, by 2000 there was trouble on the horizon. The lease for the building on Church Street was approaching expiry, and given the burgeoning competition for property in the increasingly fashionable area, it became apparent that Vortex might need to move to a new location. A large-scale new development, Ocean, was in the planning stages nearby at 270 Mare Street. The Ocean project proposed to build a vast new arts centre housing three live music venues, however the developers lacked the local community networks required by Arts Council funding application criteria. A marriage of Ocean and Vortex seemed like an ideal solution to secure a future for both organisations. In the discussions that followed Vortex was offered full-time usage of one of the three venue spaces and with the help of Vortex team the Ocean project managed to secure funding from the Arts Council. But differences between the two organisations led them to part ways and for the time being Vortex remained on Church Street.

The Vortex Jazz Foundation was set up in November 2001 to protect the Church Street venue, and the initial plan was to raise funds to purchase the building. Efforts included a comedy fundraiser in 2002, which included performances by prominent comedians like Jenny Eclair and Johnny Vegas. The fundraiser was held for free at the Union Chapel in nearby Islington. However, in the end the building was purchased by another buyer in what was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for in 2003 Vortex began discussions with Hackney Co-Operative Developments, who were seeking tenants for their new Dalston Culture House development.

The club took a one year hiatus while the Dalston location was being completed and in 2005 Vortex moved into its current location in Gillett Square where it has been at the heart of Dalston community and culture through the Gillett Square partnership.”

Meanwhile, the prospect of the now abandoned building being replaced by the dreaded Starbucks had not only outraged Stoke Newington’s keenly localist middle classes; also woke up the slumbering local squatting scene, a long standing feature of the area. Admittedly by that time squatting was seriously dwindling as the well-to-do had long bought up all the old run-down victorian houses and were well underway with turning Church Street into the sheeshy and hideously expensive boutique/coffee bar heavy tedium it is today (with a couple of exceptions).

With the support of locals, they managed to repel an eviction attempt by private goons on Jan 26th (photos and video at… 

Despite several attempted (unlawful) repossession attempts being seen off, the Vortex was of course evicted:

“The Vortex social centre in Stoke Newington, London, was evicted earlier this week. First thing in the morning high court bailiffs and police moved in and turfed everyone out, eventually removing the one enterprising soul who’d hid in the attic and begrudgingly allowing most of the equipment inside to be removed.”

Around 40 people protested later that week on Church Street in solidarity with the ex-Vortex Social Centre. Many of the ex-residents and local supporters were present, as leaflets were handed out to the community explaining the reasons for the occupation and the plans for the future. Church Street was closed to traffic for at least five minutes (maybe 10) whilst those present took to the road to walk from the meeting point to outside the (now well and truly) ex-Vortex.

The chant of “What do we want … free space” was the call of the day and discussions were rife about plans for the future.

The Vortex occupation in some marked what to date seems like a possible final hurrah for the Stoke Newington squatting community – once a massive part of the area’s culture, a reflection of a collision of a long dissident ethos and lots of run-down housing…

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists, due to being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. From defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War, radicals and Unitarians…

The area’s religious dissidence lasted into the nineteenth century; hence Abney Park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried, including Chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… (On the other hand, also interred here are the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of those vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation Army).

Run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting here from the late 1960s. Hundreds of houses were occupied, and many larger buildings used as social centres, music venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creativity was built on squatting.

Another development also characterised Stokey: a growing afro-Caribbean community, which faced battles with racism, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots in 1981, and the organised resistance against racist murders, police harassment…

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s. But in common with many other areas of London, this has been changing, for decades now.

The process generally labeled gentrification covers a number of different, if linked, processes. In Stokey, the area’s bohemian ethos attracted middle class dropouts, some of who in turn helped change the area into the kind of place they wanted to live in. Gradually this attracted less boho middle class people, and so on in turn. If middle class people had broadly wanted to leave the city for decades, from the 70s on this went into reverse; by 2007 much of the area was virtually unrecognisable.

So in recent decades, the neighbourhood has slowly filled up with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. And Church Street with artisan bakers, extortionate kids clothes boutiques and chain-store wholefood porn like ‘fresh and wild’. Which is neither fresh nor wild, but has fooled the muesli belt into imagining themselves radical alternative and right-on.

Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

Interestingly in Dalston’s Gillett Square, where the original Vortex moved to, regeneration is broadly substantially more genuinely based in the local black community than much of what usually passes for cultural regeneration projects, which can often often be mere window dressing for gentrification; and the square does have some independent character, though how long that will remain as the area is being rapidly colonised by new developments for young trendy white things…

After the Vortex squat eviction – did the building’s owner. parasitic property developer Richard Midda keep his promise to locals to that any new tenant in the property would reflect the character of Church Street, a busy shopping area made up almost entirely of independent traders?

Er, no. As a local commentator pointed out:

“To be fair the writing was on the wall after he tore down the building to rebuild it, without planning and breaking his other promise to keep the original facade of the place in tact.

And now, to howls of outrage from the genteel residents, battery chicken peddlars Nandos have opened up.

…one blogger repeatedly lied about the social centre, needlessly and repeatedly called the old bill and generally made a tit out of herself.  Strangely enough the very same blogger then went on to whinge about Nandos moving in, when she was so helpful to Midda whilst the building was occupied.  Seems some people want it both ways.

But that’s by the bye, you can read about the whole ex-Vortex saga here.

Back to Nandos, a local campaign established to oppose the corporate take over of Church Street.  Nevertheless Richard Midda ran roughshod over local sentiment in the name of making a quick buck.

Now the plight of Hackney’s middle classes is hard to get too upset over, the latte slurpers took over that part of Stoke Newington a long time ago and even the Angry Brigade couldn’t save it now.

But it does offer a timely warning to the ciabatta munching chinless ones.  The final stage of gentrification is that the big corporations move in and that lovely little deli becomes a Tescos and the simply wonderful Thai restaurant turns into Pizza Express.

That’s capitalism folks.”


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s history: splits deepen among silkweavers, Spitalfields, 1768.

As previously recounted elsewhere on this blog, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for organising collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organised violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages

Throughout the 1700s, successive waves of struggles, often turbulent, had kept mechanisation at bay and contributed to laws restricting imports of cheap textiles from abroad considered threatening competition. But by the late 1760s a long-running wage struggle between masters and workers had evolved into all-out war.

Trade fluctuations, widespread smuggling of silks and other pressures had led to widespread unemployment and reductions in wages in East London’s silkweaving districts by 1762. 7,072 looms were out of employment. This led to mass discontent among journeymen weavers, manifesting as attempts to raise wages and impose their Book of Prices, in which they recorded the piecework rates they were prepared to work for (an increase on current rates in most cases).

They had the Book printed up and delivered to the masters – who rejected it. Increasingly masters were turning to machine looms, and hiring the untrained, sometimes women and children, to operate them, in order to bypass the journeyman and traditional apprentices and their complex structure of pay and conditions.

As a result of the rejection of the Book, two thousand weavers assembled and began to break up looms and destroy materials, and went on strike. There followed a decade of struggle by weavers against their masters, with high levels of violence on both sides.

Tactics included threatening letters to employers, stonings, sabotage, riots and ‘skimmingtons’ (mocking community humiliation of weavers working below agreed wage levels: offenders were mounted on an ass backwards & driven through the streets, to the accompaniment of ‘rough music’ played on pots and pans). The battle escalated to open warfare, involving the army, secret subversive groups of weavers, (known as ‘cutters’ for their tactic of slashing silk on offending masters’ looms), and ended in murder and execution. Some of these tactics had long roots in local history and tradition – others could have been imported with Irish migrants from the Whiteboy movement in Ireland.

As a result of these riots, an Act was passed in 1765 declaring it to be felony and punishable with death to break into any house or shop with intent maliciously to damage or destroy any silk goods in the process of manufacture.

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

In November 1767 trouble also broke out between distinct groups of workers: single loom weavers and engine looms weavers were now at loggerheads.

To some extent the machine loom weavers mentioned above can be described as identifying with their masters against fellow workers. In the ensuing fierce struggle of the cutters’ riots, organised weavers used intimidation and sabotage to disrupt the income of masters paying less than the agreed wage rate. Because of the nature of much silkweaving in Spitalfields, with piece-work often being allocated to workers weaving on looms in their own homes, these acts of violence inevitably meant targeting workers at home. This enflamed what seem to have been already bitter relations; the masters may well have been rubbing their hands at the angry splits opening up, as the prospects for lowering wages even further might have seemed rosy.

Although accounts of silkweavers’ violence often concentrate on the ‘cutters’ attacking looms of weavers accused of working for less than the rate, or blindly attacking machine looms, the machine loom weavers themselves were hardly passive victims in this struggle.

A month after machine loom weavers fought handloom weavers in Saffron Hill, another fight erupted on the edge of Spitalfields: an organised attempt by machine-loom workers to target others they accused of being behind recent sabotage of machine looms:

“On Sunday night great disturbances happened in Spital-fields, in regard to the masters having lowered the price of work four pence per yard; but at length a dispute arose among the journeymen, dividing themselves into two parties, when breaking of particular houses windows became general, several of whom were taken into custody, to be dealt with according to law, among whom was a publican charged as a ringleader in the affray….

“A large body of journeymen weavers well armed, having assembled on the Sunday night in Bishopsgate-street, they proceeded to the houses of many journeymen weavers, distinguished by the names of single-handed weavers, in resentment, as they declared, for the latter having been lately concerned in destroying the looms and works belonging to the engine-loom weavers. At these houses several of the journeymen single-hand weavers were seized by their antagonists and kept in custody most part of the night; but before morning they all made their escape, except three men, who were on Monday carried before Sir Robert Darling, knt. And George garret esq. at the Angel and Crown in Whitechapel. In the curse of a strict examination of the several parties, it appeared that the engine-loom weavers, who were the complainants, had acted in a very blameable manner, as they had not only assembled and taken people into custody without any legal warrant or authority, but that they had fired into several houses, and committed divers other illegal acts, to the great terror of many persons, and the disturbance of the public peace. Therefore, upon the conclusion of this examination,, which lasted near six hour (in which the magistrates, to their honour, acted with much discretion and impartiality) the above three men, who were charged with having been concerned with many others in destroying some of the engine-loom weavers works, upon giving sufficient security for their appearance, were admitted to bail, to answer the said charge at the ensuing sessions of the peace for county of Middlesex. The mob of journeymen weavers at both parties being the greatest almost ever known, during this long examination, obliged the magistrates to send a party of guards to keep the peace; and at the conclusion of the affair, the single-handed weavers carried off the above three men in triumph. And we are also informed, that the magistrates were unanimous in opinion, that no adequate remedy can possibly be applied to put a stop to these outrageous disturbances between the different branches of journeymen weavers, which threatens destruction to this valuable manufactory, until the legislature shall have established by law the standard prices of labour between the workmen in all the said various branches of business.”

A day later the army were sent in to ‘keep the peace’:

“Yesterday about noon, a party of guards was ordered to march from the Tower into Spital-fields, to preserve peace and good order in those parts, which so irritated a body of the weavers, that they foolishly opposed them, with old swords, flicks, and bludgeons, and even struck some of the soldiery, who were obliged to return the same in their own defence, by which several were slightly hurt on each side, and some of the offenders obliged to surrender at discretion, and were delivered over to the civil power.” (Annual Register, January 1768).

This wasn’t the last time the army was sent in to the area, as the above events heralded the cataclysmic struggles of 1768-69 (the ‘Cutters’ Riots’): a prolonged struggle, with bitter violence, rioting, intimidation of workers and threatening letters to employers, and hundreds of raids on factories and small workshops. Strikers in other trades joined in the mayhem: 1768. Crowds of weavers also forcibly set their own prices in the food markets, in defiance of high prices. It would end in shootouts in a pub, executions, and the revenge killing of an informer. But in 1773, the weavers would win a measure of wage protection, arbitrated by local magistrates, which would last for 50 years.

It would be interesting to pursue research here, into who each side consisted of. To some extent, over previous decades, long-standing communities in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green and neighbouring areas had faced competition for work from new comers. In the 17th century some English weavers had resented the arrival of large numbers of French hugenots, protestants fleeing religious repression in France. Later, this community itself faced cheap labour, as weavers fleeing poverty in Ireland migrated to East London. How much of the division between machine work and handloom work was ‘racial’ in this way I am not sure – though for sure resistance united the descendants of Irish and French weavers, some of whom were hanged side by side in 1769. I hope to look more into this when I can…

If you are interested in reading more about the Spitalfields silkweavers and their collective violence, our pamphlet Bold Defiance, is available to buy on our publications page.


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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in labour history: Mary Macarthur, womens TU leader, dies, Golders Green, 1921.

Mary Macarthur, the daughter of John Macarthur and Anne Martin, was born in Glasgow on 13th August 1880. The couple had six children, but only three survived, all of them girls. Mary attended the local school and after editing the school magazine, decided she wanted to become a full-time writer.

In 1895 the family opened a drapery business in Ayr and Mary was taken on as a book-keeper. John Macarthur was a supporter of the Conservative Party and an opponent of trade unions and sent his daughter to observe a meeting of the Shop Assistants’ Union.

Mary was converted to the cause of trade unions by a speech made by John Turner about how badly some workers were being treated by their employers. Mary became secretary of the Ayr branch and at socialist meeting in the town, she met and fell in love with Will Anderson, an active member of the Independent Labour Party.

In 1902 Mary became friends with Margaret Bondfield who encouraged her to attend the union’s national conference. She later recalled: “I had written to welcome her into the Union, but, when she came to meet me at the station, I was overcome with the sense of a great event. Here was genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument.” Mary was eventually elected to the union’s national executive. Mary’s political activities created conflict with her father who had a strong hatred for socialism. Anderson proposed marriage but Mary decided to pursue a career instead, and in 1903 moved to London where she became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League.

As well as her trade union activities, Macarthur was an active member of the Independent Labour Party in London where she worked closely with two other Scots, James Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. Macarthur was involved in the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and the formation of the Anti-Sweating League in 1906. The following year she founded the Women Worker, a monthly newspaper for women trade unionists. Later it was transformed into a weekly with a circulation of about 20,000.

Angela V. John has argued: “Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for founding the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. She began as president, but then exchanged offices with Gertrude Tuckwell (1861–1951) to become general secretary. By the end of its first year the NFWW boasted seventeen branches in Scotland and England and about two thousand members. Mary Macarthur was especially concerned about the relationship between low wages and women’s lack of organisation.”

Mary Macarthur was an inspirational figure and recruited many women into the movement. This included Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence, who both went on to become Labour Party MPs. Active in the fight for the vote, she was totally opposed to those women in the NUWSS and the WSPU who were willing to accept the franchise being given to only certain categories of women. Macarthur believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working class and feared that it might act as a barrier against the granting of full adult suffrage. This made Macarthur unpopular with middle class suffragettes who saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote.

Mary Macarthur sat on the executive of the Anti-Sweating League and gave evidence to the select committee on homework in 1908. Macarthur also campaigned for a legal minimum wage. In the summer of 1911 she supported the estimated 20,000 women involved in twenty concurrent strikes in Bermondsey and other areas of London and helped them win their demands.

Will Anderson followed Macarthur down to London and the couple married on 21st September 1911. Their first child died at birth in 1913 but two years later a daughter, Anne Elizabeth, was born. Anderson was elected to the House of Commons to represent Sheffield Attercliffe in 1914 but was defeated in 1918. Macarthur also stood as a Labour candidate in Stourbridge, but like the others who opposed the First World War, she was defeated in the 1918 General Election.

Mary was devastated when Will Anderson died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. She continued her work with the Women’s Trade Union League and played an important role in transforming it into the Women’s section of the Trade Union Congress.

Mary Macarthur developed cancer in 1920 and after two unsuccessful operations died at home, 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green on 1st January, 1921. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium three days later.

(post nicked, due to holiday malaise, from spartacus schoolnet, bar one tiny change, taking emphasis off Mary ‘organising’ the women workers of Bermondsey – they were already on strike when she got involved to support them.)


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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