PNP256386 The Bread Riot in Richmond, Virginia, 1863 (litho); by American School, (19th century); lithograph; Private Collection; Peter Newark American Pictures; American, out of copyright

Today in London’s rebel history: bread rioters in the East End seize food, 1855.

“Yesterday some bread riots took place in Whitechapel and the mob did a considerable deal of damage to the workhouse…

There’s this idea that we have progressed from mid-Victorian times, and in many ways this is true. You know, like in gender equality, the NHS, not jailing people for being gay or hanging them for nicking a pint of milk, and trying not to electrocute each other…

And some other stuff. Much of it the result of long social struggles.

However, in some ways, we have regressed since the mid-19th century. De-evolved.

One example of this is the modern unwillingness to riot when faced with extreme provocation. When rational reaction would in fact be to gather as a mob and take it out on some property, and fit a bit of wealth re-distribution while we’re at it.

This is where out ancestors were way ahead of us.

For centuries food riots were a regular feature of life. When poor harvests, shortages, recession or war caused the price of food, particularly staples like bread, to rise, 1000s of the poorest could not afford to feed themselves. Instead of taking this lying down, in many cases people rioted, seizing food they needed from the shops, markets or food transports. A certain ‘moral economy’ operated, so that on many occasions, the crowd would not merely loot food, but would force shopkeepers to sell at the usual lower price.

Other times mobs would just take it without paying.

A poor harvest in 1853, followed by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, fuelled steep price rises in Britain, and heralded a period of sharply rising expenditure. The total number of ‘outdoor’ paupers in Middlesex, for instance, rose by nearly 40 per cent, from 33,869 in 1853, to 47,097 in 1855. London’s riverside districts registered the harshest poverty. The winter of 1854-55 was very severe, and the Thames froze over in February, stopping all work in the docks and river work.

A report in Reynolds Newspaper noted that “there are fewer than 50,000 men out of employ, who have been for several days past subsisting on the scanty relief doled out by the parishes and unions.”

“Tens of thousands of the poor are deprived of employment by the severity of the weather, especially in all vocations connected with the river.”

In early February the St George-in-the-East Workhouse ran out of bread… “Measures have been taken by the Guardians and Police Magistrates to supply the destitute at least with food ; but the number of applicants was so great that the officers could not relieve them fast enough.”

A few days later, as the Whitechapel Workhouse refused to give out any relief, a crowd built up, and ransacked food shops in the area. Bakers’ and chandlers’ shops were plundered of bread and coal. Food riots spread to other parts of the East End, and to Bermondsey in South London.. Meanwhile other parts of the country were also rioting, especially in Liverpool.

“Mobs collected, under the leadership, for the most part, of stalwart and turbulent Irishmen; who, loudly demanding ” bread,” paraded the streets, and pillaged the shops, not only of food but of money. In this alarming state of things, most of the shops were shut ; and a kind of terror prevailed from ‘White- chapel to Hackney. The Police, however, regardless of numbers, rushed upon the ringleaders and arrested many. All day on Thursday, the Magistrates in Stepney, Worship Street, ‘and Southwark—for there was some rioting in Bermondsey—were engaged in dealing with the fellows under arrest, and several were committed for trial. They also received deputations from the inhabitants asking for protection, begging that special constables might be sworn in. The Thames Police Magistrate declined to grant the latter request; but Superintendent Howie was present, and assured the applicants that he had a large and increasing force at his disposal, and that he would be able to maintain order. It was evident that the example of Liverpool had not been without effect, for it was spoken of with zest by the rioters.”

Extra police were drafted in, and some rioters were lifted, and sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Luckily for the authorities a sudden thaw eased conditions on the river, and the riots subsided as fast as they’d arisen…

But the vast overwhelming poverty of many residents of the East End and other parts of London remained a looming menace for the authorities. Dockers marched to the Whitechapel Workhouse in March 1855 demanding bread. Food rioting would break out again in East London and Clerkenwell in 1857, 1861 and 1866… and in Deptford in 1867.

Today the ratcheting divide between rich and poor is increasing pressure again. 1000s cannot afford to feed themselves. Food banks are all very well. But perhaps its time for some backward evolution. Can we rebuild a sense of our own ‘moral economy’ – and start taking back the products of our labour… from those who steal it from us?


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

Attempt to assassinate the Emperor of the French, the Orsini Plot. Illustration for The Life of William Ewart Gladstone by George Barnett Smith (Cassell, c 1890).

This week in radical history: British govt forced to resign over its attacks on refugees, 1858. Really.

The UK state unable to deport or imprison asylum seekers because of political pressure from all levels of society? A British government forced from office over the issue? Seems unlikely in 2017… But 159 years ago today the prime minster had just resigned after resistance to minor changes to conspiracy law made his position untenable.

As related in earlier posts (on Italian anarchist exiles, the Communist Club…) nineteenth century London was home to thousands of exiles, mainly from other European countries, and often forced to leave their home countries for their political activities or beliefs.

Bizarrely as it may seem in the current climate, political refugees flocked to Victorian Britain as it tolerated their presence, if often uneasily, and almost never deported them back where they had come from. This was pretty much unique at the time, (and wasn’t to last.)

Interestingly, this was not because there was a recognisable right in the law at the time to appeal for political asylum – in fact it was the absence of law that was significant. The government was unable to extradite political exiles, or imprison them for simply being here, because there was no law that allowed them to do so. At the time there was a consensus that ‘everything is lawful that the law does not prohibit’. Whereas in other nations it seemed to work the other way around – ‘nothing is lawful but what law permits.’ ‘Politicals’ were also generally seen as a different category from say murderers of other crims on the lam. On top of this, ironically, British xenophobia also worked backhandedly in the exiles’ favour: British courts were unwilling to even consider sending them to face what was seen as unfair and arbitrary ‘foreign’ justice. In reality, a weird contradictory mingling of liberal sentiment and suspicion of all foreign institutions at grassroots level in British society made it very difficult for the authorities to make large-scale change to this situation.

Other European countries observed this with disbelief. At first they responded to Britain’s failure to surrender refugees incredulously, concluding that it amounted to a refusal. Surely Britain was sheltering these rebels and radicals to allow them to plot against and undermine other countries, particularly her rivals. Gradually it dawned on them that Britain was in fact incapable of deporting or locking up these undesirables; this resulted in a rash of dire predictions that Britain would soon be destroyed because of this tolerance.

When a government did attempt to make some moves towards altering this legal loophole, they were often not put into practice. In 1848, the government passed an Alien Act, which allowed it to expel any (importantly, only newly arrived) ‘foreigners’, if they threatened the peace and tranquility of the realm. A short-lived panic about a wave of exiled Frenchmen arriving in London as a result of the 1848 French Revolution sparked this major legal change. However, it was never used, and it was not renewed in 1850.

Mainstream British society generally viewed many of the ‘foreigners’ taking shelter on their shores with contempt and disdain, avoiding them if at all possible, but did not call for them to be expelled. However this did not mean they were not under surveillance. In 1850 or thereabouts, Scotland Yard set up a small department to keep tabs on the international political networks holed up here. But the department’s main work seems to have been to re-assure the political establishment that the exiles posed no threat to the realm at all (in weird contrast to later secret police policy, eg Special Branch’s bold mission to inflate the threat posed by radicals and provoke them into arrestable offences, which has continued into our own time.

Later attempts to even tinker with the legal situation were to backfire on them. In 1858, the government attempted to prosecute in Simon Francois Bernard, a political refugee who had been implicated in the plot by Italian nationalist Orsini to assassinate French Emperor Napoleon III. Orsini planted a bomb which exploded under the emperor’s carriage. The attack killed eight people and a horse, the Emperor’s military escort taking the brunt. Estimates of the wounded ran to 150.

Orsini had spent periods in England, and had made numerous contacts with radicals and liberals. Orsini had been a known associate of Italian nationalist leader Mazzini (if latterly estranged); the plot was generally aimed at furthering the campaign for Italian unification – in the hope that the result would be a republican government in France which would help kick the Austrian Empire out of Italy (Ironically, in this the plot was partly successful, in some measure due to Orsini’s last testament, published after his death, which swayed many on France to support the ‘Risorgimento’, and strengthened Napoleon’s already broadly pro-Unification stance).

(Interestingly Orsini’s plot did involve English radicals. He learned about the chemistry of explosives from William Mattieu Williams, whom he met in 1857. More centrally involved were Thomas Allsop and veteran Owenite co-operator George Jacob Holyoake. J. D. P. Hodge, a disciple of Orsini to whom he entrusted the care of one of his children, was also involved, as was Simon François Bernard, an expatriate French surgeon and socialist.)

Allsop arranged for the manufacture of “Orsini bombs” with a firm in Birmingham, and others tested them out in the countryside. Furthermore Allsop provided Orsini with an old British passport under which to travel to France.)

The British government did feel the heat that arose after this failed ‘attentat’ – pressure from France to act against exiled anti-empire plotters became extreme, and British politicians looked for a way to do something without bringing in new laws. The Attorney General suggested extending the Treason law so it covered treason against foreign monarchs, but this was impractical. A new extradition treaty with France was also discussed but dropped, and a new Alien Act was even drafted, but the cabinet was reluctant to approve it, either because it would be very unpopular, or hard to implement, some even disagreeing out of principle.

The only concession to French diplomatic outrage Palmerston’s government felt able to introduce was the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, an alteration of existing criminal legislation, making conspiracy to commit murder abroad a felony, rather than a misdemeanor (which would increase the maximum sentence from two years to life imprisonment). It was clearly a fudge intended to appease continental pressure over exiles, while not pissing off liberal sentiment – who could object to harsher punishments for plots to kill someone, which didn’t even mention foreigners specifically. However, as often happens with attempts to please everyone while doing nothing, even this small gesture was wildly unpopular, both with Liberals and radicals throughout the country. Part of the problem was that the government had to pretend to foreign governments that the bill was a bigger deal than it was, but to domestic opinion that it was no real change. In practice the french were persuaded that it was a real action against ‘incendiaries’; but so were radicals and liberals in Britain, and they were incensed. There is also no doubt that an unhealthy dose of anti-french sentiment (always a card on the table on British politics) played a part too…

A mammoth demonstration was planned for 21st February 1858, to protest the planned bill as it was going through Parliament. and Liberal, and even some Conservative, MPs protested, and introduced wrecking amendments; the reaction left Palmerston’s government no option but to resign, on the 19th.

The incoming administration of Lord Derby did however continue the prosecutions Palmerston had set in motion. Allsop had escaped after the event to America, as Hodge did to Piedmont; Holyoake however escaped suspicion (though shamefully appears to have offered to grass up his mate Allsop for a government reward).

Simon Bernard was an expatriate French follower of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier. It was alleged against him that he had introduced two of the plotters, Pierri and de Rudio. He was arrested, on a charge of conspiracy; but with the change of government he was put on trial for involvement in one of the murders in Paris. Because the death had been abroad, a Special Commission was required. In addition, a publisher, Edward Truelove, and a bookseller, Stanislaus Tchorzewski, were prosecuted for producing and selling pamphlets advocating tyrannicide generally and justifying Orsini’s attack, respectively.

The state trials turned the Orsini affair into a cause célèbre supported by British radicals outside the courtroom. Radical physician John Epps stood bail for Bernard. Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh started a fund for the defence of Truelove, and subscribers included Liberal heavyweights Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, and Francis William Newman.

Bernard was prosecuted by Sir Fitzroy Kelly in a jury trial before Lord Campbell. Edwin James spoke in Bernard’s defence, emphasising the theme that the trial was a result of pressure from ‘foreign governments’. The jury acquitted Bernard, rejecting the tenor of the judge’s summing-up. The evidence was fairly strong that Bernard had played a part in preparing Orsini’s bomb, though he may not have known of the specific target; the acquittal was blatantly a political choice.

In the light of this reverse the government decided prosecuting Truelove and Tchorzewski would be unwise, and the cases were dropped.

The whole business was of mixed parentage, really, part Liberal-Radical defence of the liberty of the exiles, but part snook-cocking at the ‘frogs’ across the channel. It would be inaccurate to trumpet any kind of ‘British values’ as being at the heart of the affair. However, in the 1850s, there was a widespread suspicion of policing in general, and political repression, and a healthy disrespect for the law when it came to resisting both – whether on the streets in this country, or (for a fair proportion, if not the majority) by somewhat more forceful methods as regards other countries.

In these Brexity times, this seems long way off… The legal frameworks which did not exist in 1858 are many and complex now, and the social context very different. Movements of solidarity with political refugees exist, though, and active resistance to deportations, detention and oppression of asylum seekers are growing… Twould be fun if in a couple of years we could reverse things as far as to see Theresa may forced out after some gross xenophobic violation… Let’s get on it…


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


Today in London’s legal history: Kyd Wake found guilty of heckling the king, 1796.

“In the kings bench came on the trial of Kyd Wake, indicted for a misdemeanor in hissing and booing the king as his majesty was going to the parliament-house, on the first day of the present sessions, and likewise crying “down with George, no war,” &c. Mr Stockdale, the bookseller, and Mr Walford, the linen draper, who acted as constables on the day, were examined, and fully proved the facts charged in the indictment; upon which the jury without hesitation, found a verdict, guilty. A great number of person attended on the part of the prisoner; but as they could only speak to his general character, and not to the case in point, Mr Erskine, the prisoner’s counsel, declined calling upon them, reserving their testimony to be offered in mitigation of the punishment, on the first day of next term, when the prisoner will be brought up to the king’s bench to receive judgment…

Kyd Wake, who was convicted at the sittings… of having… insulted his majesty in hos passage… received the judgment of the court; viz ‘That he be imprisoned, and kept to hard labour in Gloucester gaol, during the tem of five years; that during the first three months of his imprisonment, he do stand for one hour, between the hours of eleven and two, in the pillory, in one of the public streets in Gloucester, on a market-day; and that, at the expiration of his sentence, he do find security for £1000 for his good behaviour for ten years.” (Annual Register, 1796.)

The early days of England’s long wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France coincided with a growing movement for radical political reform in Britain. As the 1790s wore on, the war brought hardship and recession, and resentment from the lower orders mingled with calls for political change. There were riots against the activities of the ‘crimpers’, who kidnapped men for the armed forces; food riots, and general tumults against war, the government and the king. In response, the government engaged in charging leading radicals with treason, and targeted printers who published anything questioning the status quo – and anyone caught expressing opposition…

In October 1795, while riding to Parliament in a glass-enclosed royal carriage, King George III became the target of a crowd protesting the war and demanding bread. “Like Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the U.K. throne, and his consort, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, riding to the theatre in the glass-enclosed Rolls Royce, royalty embodies the sovereignty which led to war and hardship.” Kyd Wake, a bookbinder, hissed and grimaced at the King shouting, “No George, No War,” while the carriage windows became subject to a barrage of pebbles and sticks from a hungry and protesting crowd. Wake was sentenced to five years hard labour – a severe sentence for a moment of angry protest. An example was being set. Wake may have had some background of association with reformers and attending radical meetings.

In prison Wake “had his head shaved, and wore the prison dress, consisting of a blue and yellow jacket and trousers, a woollen cap, and a pair of wooden shoes.”

Kyd Wake’s wife made an engraving to raise money to provide extra food for her husband who was imprisoned in Gloucester Penitentiary. This was captioned with Kyd Wake’s plea against solitary confinement:

Five years’ confinement, even in common gaols must surely be a very severe punishment; but if Judges or Jurors would only reflect seriously on the horrors of solitary imprisonment under penitentiary discipline!! If they would allow their minds to dwell a little on what it is to be locked up, winter after winter.. for 16 hours out of the 24, in a small brick cell -without fire -without light -without employment and scarcely to see a face but those of criminals or turnkeys. No friend to converse with when well; or to consult with or to complain to when indisposed. Above all -to be subjected to a thousand insults and vexations, almost impossible to be described, and therefore scarcely to be remedied; but by which continual torment may be, and often is, inflicted. If they would but consider what an irreparable misfortune it is to have a considerable portion of life so wearisomely wasted; they would surely be more tender of dooming any man, for a long time, to such wretchedness. It is a calamity beyond description, more easily to be conceived than explained.

Wake survived his sentence to become a printer again, but died tragically in 1807, being crushed to death between a post and the wheels of a wagon in St Paul’s churchyard. In his obituary it was suggested that he possibly only served two years. A much more reasonable sentence for heckling, methinks…


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


Today in London’s radical history: Eileen House, Elephant & Castle, squatted as anti-gentrification centre, 2013.

“As Self-Organised London Social Space, we have now been squatting Eileen House at 80-94 Newington Causeway in Elephant & Castle for three weeks against welfare cuts, gentrification and the privatisation of space.”

Eileen House – an empty office block at Elephant & Castle which was the subject of one of London’s most controversial planning applications – was occupied by squatters in February 2013.

Then Mayor of London Boris Johnson was due to adjudicate on developers Oakmayne’s plans to redevelop the site of the 1960s office block on Newington Causeway with a 41-storey tower; a plan opposed by the adjacent Ministry of Sound club and other local groups.

The squatters who took over the building, a coalition of collectives calling themselves the Self-Organised London group (SOL), included people involved in the recent local squats at the Colorama buildings in Lancaster Street and the former Holy Trinity Centre next to Archbishop’s Park.

“Residents of Elephant & Castle are sick of having so-called regeneration plans imposed on them by developers, Southwark Council, and now Boris,” said Emma Jennings of SOL.

“These plans for luxury flats and fancy office towers have seen local residents forced to leave the area by their own council, in the case of the Heygate Estate, and by sky-high rents.

“Gentrification and Government cuts to housing benefits are tearing our communities apart – we hope that by taking over Eileen House and returning it to the community, we can provide a space for us to come back together again and organise against Boris and for housing which meets our needs.”

“The past week has shown what a forceful impact squatters, activists and residents can have against gentrification. Our wide range of events and activities covered people’s kitchen, film-screenings, talks and discussions on housing and welfare cuts, an anti-gentrification walk, a Latin American night, live music events, and much more. Instead of being an empty and neglected space on a main road, Eileen House is now buzzing with activity! A big thanks to all of the many locals and Londoners who attended our events in huge numbers, every day! Do continue to visit us, to suggest events, to support us in solidarity!”

Events at the SOL included Spanish-English language exchange, weekly political theatre and tango lessons from Library St London, as well as the new Queer Cinema from London Queer Social Centre.

After 6 amazing weeks of self-organisation, hosting events and supporting communities, Self-organised London was evicted by High Court Bailiffs and Cops in early April. At 4am in the morning, they stormed Eileen House, kicking in the front door of the social centre and causing mayhem. Luckily, the squatters were well prepared; no one got arrested and personal belongings and most of the social centre equipment was safely moved out of the building.

The planning application envisaged the construction of a 41-storey biggie with 335 flats, NONE of them socially rented, not even 20% of them shared ownership. While SOL was trying to provide a space for the public, for the communities of the Elephant, for London activists, Eileen House is now sealed off and inaccessible to the public, awaiting its demolition.

As they said after the eviction: “Another building in perfect condition that is rather left empty for those who have plenty than put to good use for those who have none. To us, it shows once more that the law and state authorities uphold an unjust and absurd system, to the benefit of corporate profit, to the disadvantage of the people.

The collectives and individuals who set up SOL are now taking a break, to organise our homes, to regain our strength. Whatever we decide to do in the future, what networks we form, what projects we start, let’s keep self-organising, let’s keep resisting, let’s keep squatting!

A big, massive and warm thank you to all of you, all of the groups and individuals that made SOL a vibrant and buzzing hub of activities. Thanks for coming along, for donating stuff, for enjoying the view from the roof, for showing support and love. We could not have done this without you.


Struggles against development and gentrification of course continue in the Elephant & Castle/Walworth areas, with the  decanting and ongoing destruction of the Heygate Estate, the so-far only partially successful attempts to empty the Aylesbury of social housing tenants and the massive redevelopment plan for the Elephant area. Once a working class area of densely occupied social housing, Southwark Council is merrily handing the area to developers with the aim of imposing a different ‘social mix’. Code for replacing working class people with a better sort. Tis a dynamic at work all over the city…

Resistance continues.

Check out Southwark Notes 


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


Today in London’s medical history: Rioting Tyburn crowd tries to rescue body of executed soldier from dissection, 1770.

• This was mistakenly entered in the hard copy of the calendar as the 15th February… one day out. Oops.• 

“Thomas Dunk, formerly of Bath, late a soldier in his majesty’s foot guards, now nineteen years old… being tired of the army, he solicited his discharge, determined to work at his trade; which proving very dull, he was easily led on to seek money in an unlawful way, for the supply of his necessities. And at the instance of Thomas Marshal, whom he unfortunately got acquainted with, when a soldier, he, in company with him, committed several robberies, for one of which he suffered.

Soon after his being apprehended, he was sent to Newgate, where he, with several others, formed a design to break the goal open, and set the prisoners at liberty; which they partly executed, and would in a very short time have compleated, were it not for the great attention, and watchful care of the master of the prison, to whom the thanks of the public in general, but more particularly of this city, is justly due, not only upon this account, but for his constant assiduity in discharging every part of his duty with justice to his employ, charity and humanity to the wretched criminals who come within his limits. Neither are his servants and turnkeys unworthy of notice, for their secresy and prudent behaviour till the particulars concerned were detected. Some of whom, notwithstanding the mercy and lenity of our most gracious sovereign, are found to be respites from death, not under confinement only for transportation, but full with sanguine hopes of a free pardon, from the pity and compassion of the best of princes, whose mercy and goodness is universally extended, not to his faithful, true, and loving subjects alone, but to those who, by transgressing both the laws of God and man, have forfeited their title to that life, which no mortal man on earth can restore.

This scheme of a general goal delivery, was first planned and attempted in manner following: while the goal smith was fixing and putting a lock on the door of an uninhabited room, one of the parties (under the pretence of curiosity) took the key to look at, and while the smith was at his work, with one of the turnkeys present, he, without the knowledge or notice of either, quickly took off the impression, by which afterwards a key was made, which admitted him and the accomplices (of whom Dunk was one, whose mother, as he confessed, brought in a small crow or tool of iron, for the said purpose) into this apartment, at convenient and fit times for their design, where they filed and cut almost every bar in the window, through which their escape was intended, and would have been accomplished, were it not for the divine favour and protection of almighty God, who always brings to light the hidden things of darkness, and by just and wise providence doth bring sin to shame and punishment, disappointing the hopes of wicked men, visiting their sins upon them in this present life, that he may deter others from their evil ways, and save their souls in the day of our Lord Jesus.” (John Wood, Ordinary of Newgate, 1770).

“After the execution a great disturbance happened, in consequence of a hearse being placed near the gallows, in order to receive the body of Dunk the soldier, which some of his comrades imagining was sent there by the surgeons, they knocked down the undertaker and after beating his men, drove off with the body along the New Road, attended by a prodigious concourse of people till they came to Gray’s-inn-lane, where they buried the corpse, after first breaking its legs and arms, and throwing a large quantity of unslacked lime into the coffin and the grave.” (Annual Register, February 1770)

From at least 1500s, until 1783, Tyburn was London’s main arena for public hangings. Today Marble Arch occupies the place feared and hated like no other in early modern London.

“Death by hanging, like most kinds o f death in the eighteenth century, was public. Not isolated from the community or concealed as an embarrassment to it, the execution of the death sentence was made known to every part of the metropolis and the surrounding villages. On the morning of a hanging day the bells of the churches o f London were rung buffeted. The cries of hawkers selling ballads and ‘Last Dying Speeches’ filled the streets. The last preparations for death in the chapel at Newgate were open to those able to pay the gaoler his fee. The malefactor’s chains were struck off in the press yard in front of friends and relations, the curious, the gaping and onlookers at the prison gate. The route of the hanging procession crossed the busiest axis of the town at Smithfield, passed through one of the most heavily populated districts in St Giles’s and St Andrew’s, Holborn, and followed the most-trafficked road, Tyburn Road, to the gallows. There the assembled people on foot, upon horseback, in coaches, crowding near-by houses, filling the adjoining roads, climbing ladders, sitting on the w all enclosing Hyde Park and standing in its contiguous cow pastures gathered to witness the hanging. By the eighteenth century this crowd had become so unruly that the ‘ hanging match’ became well known to foreign visitors and English alike as both a principal attraction of the town and a periodic occasion of disturbance.
The efficacy of public punishment depends upon a rough agreement between those who wield the law and those ruled by it. Whipping, ducking and the pillory, like public hangings, depended upon the public infliction of ignominy, execration and shame. As hangings were attended with disruptions, threatened rescues, disorders, brawls and riot, by the time of the eighteenth century order at them rested less upon community consensus in the justice of the sentence or in the manner of its execution than by the force of arms and the spectacular terror in the panopoly of a state hanging.”

By the spectacle and terror of public hangings, the authorities were trying to overawe the teeming disorderly lower classes, to impress on them that rebellion, crime, dissent would end badly, that the power of the state was so great and over-arching that to oppose it was futile.

Although this was the intention, resentment, resistance and subversion from below was constantly undermining the shock and awe of public executions. One notable aspect of this was the struggle to keep the bodies of the executed ‘felons’ out of the hands of the dissecting surgeons.

Eighteenth century anatomists struggled to get hold of bodies to dissect. And more and more hospitals in London were being to train students in dissection. Advances in medicine were sprouting all over the place, resulting in pressure for scientific investigation of the human body.

All of which led to an explosion in the demand for corpses. Legally it was difficult to obtain nice warm dead bodies. By a law passed in Elizabethan times and renewed by Charles II the Royal College of Physicians was allowed the bodies of six executed criminals a year, and the Company of Barber-Surgeons were allotted four, for anatomical dissection. Other hospitals and private medical schools had to rely on illegal and dangerous methods – graverobbing, physically fighting the agents of the Company and the College to grab their corpses; or hanging about outside Newgate Prison on a hanging day, offering to buy the bodies of the condemned. A considerable trade in bodies existed.

“With the advance in understanding of anatomy and the corresponding development of private trade in corpses, we can find in the early eighteenth century a significant change in attitude towards the dead human body. The corpse becomes a commodity with all the attributes of a property. It could be owned privately. It could be bought and sold. A value not measured by the grace of heaven nor the fires of hell but quantifiably expressed in the magic of the price list was placed upon the corpse. As a factor in the production of scientific knowledge, the accumulated rituals and habits of centuries of religion and superstition were swept aside. Bernard de Mandeville, himself trained as a physician, but known mainly for demonstrating that ‘private vices are public virtues’ in The Fable of the Bees, wrote a series of articles for the British Journal in the months before Jonathan Wild was hanged in 1725. Addressed to ‘men of business’, they provide the first utilitarian defence in eighteenth-century England of the dissection of condemned criminals.”

Repeated petitions and complaints from the Royal College and the Barber-Surgeons Company, that they just couldn’t get enough bodies, couldn’t pay enough to compete with their rivals, eventually persuaded the government to legislate to increase their ration. The 1752 ‘Murder Act’ introduced dissection as part of the sentence. This was not only a generous concession to the need for medical advance, but was an attempt to introduce an extra deterrent:

“It is become necessary that some further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy be added to the Punishment.” Provision was made for dissection as an added punishment after death; and for denying Christian burial to murderers.

“The combined demands o  the Physicians and the Surgeons on one hand and the surgeons of the schools and the hospitals on the other produced an intolerable situation to the ‘loose and disorderly Persons’ gathered beneath the gallows’ tree, whose violence against all types of surgeons intensified. Such were the factors causing the disturbances at Tyburn. The relative peace which settled at the gallows after mid-century resulted from the partial satisfaction of the interests of all parties. The Physicians, as appears from their records, ceased to obtain bodies from Tyburn by the third decade o f the century. After 1752 the Company of Surgeons received a regular supply of them.”

From the perspective of the poor, the people who ended up on the gallows, this ignominy was too much. : “the simple, direct desire for a decent Christian burial, with its concern for order, propriety and the peaceful translation of the soul from this life to the next. Hanging removed a man by violence from this life. At least his soul should be allowed to enter the next in peace.”

“So obvious was the need for proper treatment of the dead for the peaceful departure to an afterlife that it hardly needed to be mentioned. Exceptional and unusual beliefs, however, required stating and do survive in the evidence. Some regarded the resurrection of the flesh in ways quite different from those of the Church of England…. The belief that the dead possessed the power ‘to come again’ was the last revenge of the dead upon the living; as such, it provides us with indications not only about the popular conception of death but also of popular notions of justice.”

“No evidence has come to light to show that the Tyburn crowd thought that somehow the dissection of felons impaired the specific powers of the spirits of the dead to return to the living. However, a belief in life after death, especially in the forms which we have described, was connected with beliefs about justice, the law and the value of life. In these cases therefore the added humiliation of the surgeon’s scalpel to the hangman’s noose rendered the injustice of the law all the more loathsome.”

The condemned appealed to friends, family and wider that their bodies should be saved from the agents of the surgeons… Riots, pitched battles and running fights erupted around the gallows and the hospitals, as crowds fought to rescue the corpses of the hanged from the surgeons knife.

Condemned felons appealed for help through “five kinds of solidarities” – their family, personal friends, fellow workers, the Irish and sailors – though these overlapped, of course, and divisions were often transcended in the general passion of struggle.

Samuel Richardson writing in 1740 described a Tyburn riot:

“As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters, and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed . . . and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at.”

This final act of friendship, of family feeling, of workplace or national solidarity, became a matter of honour and pride as well as solidarity. Just as workers, and some masters, joined a friendly society to save against the danger of lay-offs, sickness or death, the struggle against the surgeons reflected “solidarity in the face of death”. Thus “brick-makers came out to defend the bodies of two felons with several years of good standing in the trade against the surgeons, when bargemen came down from Reading to guard one of their own at his hanging, when the Hackney coachmen rallied to keep the body of a fellow coachman ‘ from being carried off by Violence’, or when the small cottagers and market people of Shoreditch surrounded the tumbril of Thomas Pinks their neighbour in the village, ‘declaring they had no other Intention, than to take Care of the Body for Christian burial’ ”.

The Irish, also appealed to each other, and sailors to their fellow seamen, and since the Irish formed 16 percent of those hanged at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, and sailors around 25 percent, these were no idle allegiances.London’s Irish were generally among the City’s poorest, and already disposed to violence and collective disorder; sailors too were usually skint, to the fore in crowd trouble and riotous occurrences, and also hated the medical profession: “For one, hospitals were used as crimping houses [where men were kidnapped for the armed forces] and detention centres for impressed and runaway sailors. For another, the chief killer of seamen was neither combat nor the hazards of the ocean, but diseases (‘ black vomit’ , ‘ague’ , ‘ship fever’ and ‘the bloody flux’) which were made worse by the tetanus and gangrene caused by the ships’ surgeons. Tobias Smollett, who sailed as a surgeon’s mate to the bloody action at Carthagena (1741), ‘was much less surprised that people should die on board than that any sick person should recover’. In eighteenth-century sailors’ slang the surgeon was called ‘crocus’, an elision of ‘croak us’, meaning to ‘kill us’.

On occasions, crowds gathering at Tyburn to rescue the bodies of the hanged threatened order to the point where hundreds of constables and soldiers were mobilised to prevent them.

But it could cost you – “John Miller was captured and incarcerated in Clerkenwell New Prison for attempting to rescue the body of his friend George Ward from the surgeons. John Clark lost his life for trying to save the body of his friend. He had been to Tyburn ,’ he said, ‘ to assist in carrying off the Body of my Friend, Joseph Parker from the Surgeons, and was seen by the Prosecutor.’ ” He was also condemned to hang.

Beyond the simple defence of the bodies of the dead, there was also always the hope of reviving the corpse. “During the first half of the eighteenth century the cause of death at Tyburn was asphyxia, not dislocation of the spine. A broken neck was decisive. Asphyxia, however, could result in temporary unconsciousness if the knot was tied, or the noose placed around the neck, in a particular fashion. incomplete hangings without fatal strangulation were common enough to sustain the hope that resuscitation (‘resurrection’ as it was called) would save the condemned. In the sixteenth century ‘resurrections’ were so frequent and the costs incidental to them so substantial that the Barber-Surgeons ruled that the expenses thus entailed should be borne by those who brought the body to the ‘Thanatomistes’. William Petty in the seventeenth century attained considerable notoriety when he began to anatomize Anne Green, a murderess, and found that she revived under his scalpel.” John “half-hanged” Smith lived ten years after reviving post-hanging in 1709. In 1724, when famous prison escaper and hero of London’s poor was hanged, a crowd attempted to seize his body to save it from the surgeons, amongst whom were a group of Sheppard’s mates who had promised him they would grab his body and attempt to revive him – a plan that failed when during the riot the hall containing his body, obtained by the surgeons, was surrounded by a crowds. However, some ‘gentlemen’ did rescue his body and he was buried (though his resurrection was prevented).

To the modern mind, there does come the occasional complaint, reading the above – rescuing hanged bodies for proper burial is all very well, but why didn’t the crowd do more to rescue the condemned while they were, er, still alive…?

It’s complicated… Apart from the massive armed force often wheeled out to ensure hangings took place – it is also true that numerous attempts to rescue prisoners did take place, more often when people were arrested, or in aiding escape attempts from Newgate and other prisons; easier to achieve than escape on a hanging day. On occasion the crowds did mob the hangman and beat him up, at least once preventing the execution.

However, a complex set of mores was at work; did the majority in the London crowds accept execution in itself? Was a distinction was made between accepting the death sentence as the righteous judgement of the law and the cutting up of their corpses, which was perceived as crossing a line? There seems to be some evidence that this was the case. But the London crowds were never homogenous, and a wide range of opinion thronged the streets, often evolving and swinging one way and another.

As said earlier, many superstitious people may have believed that the spirits of the dead could exact revenge on the living – but the ‘mobility’ were also capable of embodying that spirit of vengeance themselves., on behalf of the deceased:

“Cornelius Saunders, blind from birth, came to London from Amsterdam at the age of ten in 1740. For years he lived from hand to mouth in the outer eastern and northern parishes of London. In the spring and summer he was casually employed by street carters to call out vegetables and greens. He assisted the white coopers in making wash-tubs during the winter and autumn months; not regular work certainly, but it earned him a few pence and perhaps meals and drink. Even a scratch-as-scratch-can existence if implanted in a network of permanent acquaintances and membership in particular neighbourhoods had its own kind of security. He lodged in Lamb Street, Spitalfields, where he did domestic duties in the household of Mrs White, a victualler, in return for a place to sleep and the important perquisite of the empty wooden packing crates. These he supplied to the coopers in the Minories who remade them into wash-tubs, bathing-tubs, casks and household containers. In the summer of 1763, while fetching salmon kits from Mrs White’s basement he came across her cache of savings, some thirty guineas hidden in a shoebox, and stole it. Blind Cornelius Saunders was well known in the neighbourhood ; so the next day when he paraded himself in Moorfields decked in a new suit of clothes and silver knee-buckles, the constables sent out by Mrs White had no trouble in finding him and recovering the money. W e cannot get closer to the resentments bred of thirteen years’ service and dependence which led to this foolish theft, nor to the venomous spite of his benefactress which seems to have informed her day-to-day dealings with him. We do know that to the inhabitants of Spitalfields, Aldgate and the Minories Mrs White’s prosecution at the Old Bailey was far more brutal than the case deserved, where a ducking at the conduit or a thrashing in the street (an extra-judicial and commonly administered direct punishment) would have been more usual. The strength of feeling against this recourse to the justice o f the Old Bailey showed itself in the attempted rescue o f Saunders on the way to Tyburn (it came to nothing) and again after his body was cut down from the gallows. ‘The giddy multitude’ protected his body from the surgeons and then ‘for the purpose of riot and misapplied revenge’ carried it across London to Spitalfields and Mrs White’s house in Lamb Street. ‘ Great numbers of people assembled’, forced open her door, carried out all her furniture and all her salmon tubs, and burnt them in the street before her house. A guard of soldiers was called; but ‘to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, the populace pelted them with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed’ ”.

Much of the above was derived from the classic The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons, Peter Linebaugh, from where the quotes are mostly taken.


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


Today in London’s squatting history: Hackney Social Centre squat opens, Lower Clapton, 2008.

The Hackney Social Centre grew out of meetings through the Northeast Squatters Network, which was working to strengthen solidarity and skill-sharing locally between the squats in north-east London. The decided to occupy the former Chimes nightclub at 231 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, to create a non-commercial social space, planning activities such as free language lessons, a donations-only cafe, a free shop, meetings of local groups, skill-share sessions and a bike workshop – “a place to imagine and build alternative futures for our neighbourhood. This building is a small step, but we make the road by walking.”

After squatting the building, the group faced three weeks of violent attacks and attempted illegal evictions – twice by the owner of the property, and once by the police – before the Hackney Social Centre opened on February 14th 2008.

“We’ve opened in spite of early challenges because we’re tired of yuppie maisonettes forcing up to housing prices, while buildings are empty and affordable housing is eaten away. We’ve opened because we’re set to resist and oppose the threats posed by gentrification, capitalism and the upcoming Olympic Games. We’ve opened because Hackney needs free spaces – spaces to escape the divisions of capitalism and the profit-hungry rat-race… After four weeks in the building we were shocked by two sets of violent attacks – first by purported representatives of Howun Estates Ltd (the company the owns the property) and then by the Hackney Metropolitan Police! The attacks of last week (on the 22nd and 23rd of January) definitely shook the building and its occupants, but have only left us more convicted and committed. Within 11minutes of the first attack nearly 30 members of the local activist community had arrived on the premises. Our network is strong, and we look forward to many many days exploring the potential and possibilities of Hackney’s newest autonomous zone.”

Meetings, a feminist gathering, discussions, film showings, regular meals and benefits, graffiti workshops, open mike nights, practical workshops on many topics, self-defence classes, were just a few of the numerous events the centre hosted in its few months of existence…

The Social Centre’s scheduled eviction was successfully resisted on Monday 21 April by over 60 people – both inside and outside the building.

The Hackney Social Centre was eventually evicted on May 16, 2008, after two unsuccessful eviction attempts in April. Many of the people living at the Social Centre have since returned to their countries, others are still in London, involved in different projects. The Social Centre was a brief but valuable experiment in active resistance and active defence of a large autonomous space in Hackney.

Read more

The centre has since re-opened as the White Hart pub…


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


Today in legal history: six Committee of 100 activists go on trial, for breaching Official Secrets Act, 1962.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as the Cold War arms race increased stockpiles of nuclear missiles across the world, and superpower tensions brought us to the brink of World War 3, movements arose protesting the existence of such irrevocable weaponry and campaigning for disarmament. In Britain, organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament focused on marches, petitioning and demonstrations. However, a more radical wing emerged, dissatisfied with this approach, which launched campaigns of direct actions to blockade and disrupt nuclear missile bases and the government institutions responsible for ‘defence’. First through the Direct Action Committee, from 1957, and through the more high profile Committee of 100, from 1960, this more radical wing of the anti-nuclear movement organised sit-down protests in Whitehall and outside the US embassy, and at missile bases.

Police were ordered to take a hard line against them from the start. Hundreds were arrested on the demos in central London; but the 1961 campaign targeting bases brought fiercer repression.

ON 8th December 1961, six leading activists from the anti-nuclear direct action organisation, the Committee of 100, were arrested as they prepared for demonstrations at Wethersfield NATP base and other nuclear sites. Ian Dixon, Helen Allegranza, Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Terry Chandler and Trevor Hatton were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and remanded on bail.

Their trial began on February 12th 1962.

“Despite the Attorney General’s assertion at the outset that it was not a ‘political prosecution… They are being prosecuted… on account of their conduct which…. Amounted to the commission of a criminal offence,” the trial was above all else a highly charged confrontation between the ideology of the Committee of 100 and the ideology of the state. The contrast between the refusal of the judge to allow evidence relating to the beliefs and motivations of the Committee and the overtly political nature of the prosecution’s case brought into sharp relief the already extant move of the Committee activists towards an anarchist or libertarian socialist analysis.

… Early in the trial the Judge ruled that, whilst the purpose of the accused in going to the base was relevant, their motives of beliefs were not. In his opening statement the Attorney general had outlined three questions for the jury to decide, the last of which was to decide whether the protestors’ purposes were prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State. In his submission, he had added, any interference with the defence system of the country must obviously be so. Mr Jeremy Hutchinson, who acted for all the defendants save Pottle, based his defence on three basic points: that the defendants did not intend to prejudice the safety and interest of the State by their actions; that their beliefs were reasonable and well supported by the evidence; and that their actions were not in fact prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State.

By his ruling that evidence relating to motives and beliefs was inadmissible, and his further statements that any evidence which sought to challenge the defence system of the country, and any evidence about the effects of nuclear explosions, dangers of war, etc., were also to be disallowed, the judge effectively ruled out of order the whole defence case.

The defence case rested ultimately on the moral duty of using non-violent resistance to oppose genocide through nuclear war. Parallels were drawn with Nazism and the Nuremberg judgments. (In the circumstances, Pat Pottle’s achievement in establishing that the prosecution witness, Air Commodore Magill, would, if ordered, ‘press the nuclear button’, was nevertheless a telling point in the defendants’ case.)

In an exchange with the judge, for example, Randle argued:

Every individual must finally decide whether millions of lives are threatened by a particular act, and in that situation I think they have the right to make that decision… There were people in Germany during the Nazi regime who were ordered to commit what have since been defined as crimes against humanity. They would have ben going against the law of their country by disobeying their order. I feel they have a moral duty to disobey that order in that situation.

Judge: As far as I can see it means this doesn’t it, if you disagree with the law you break it?

Randle: Not in general, only in particular situations… Where I think it is flouting basic human rights I will certainly disobey it, and I feel it would be a moral obligation to disobey… I feel that the use of nuclear weapons is always contrary to basic human rights. I cannot see any situation in which they would be justified against human beings.

Randle went on to put forward the Committee’s objective of filling the jails so that the Government ‘would have to face up to the logic of being prepared to commit genocide, If they are prepared to do it against people they must be prepare to do it against us. That is the position we want to put them in.’

There was a conceptual, ideological and cultural gulf between the Attorney-General and the defendants that was unbridgeable. Sir Reginald [Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General] appeared genuinely baffled: ‘What he [Randle] said amounted, did it not, to this: “we have decided what laws we broke, after very careful consideration… And where we see fit, we break the law.” It really is an admission of rather an astonishing character.’

Ultimately the case turned on these rival conceptions – which were fundamental, moral, and political – and not upon legal niceties. The legal smokescreen merely disguised, somewhat ineffectively, the clash of ideologies and cultures. There was never any doubt that the judge would virtually direct the jury to find the defendants guilty. Even so, the jury was out for four hours before entering a ‘guilty’ verdict, and even then recommended leniency. The sentences were harsh… All five men were sentenced to eighteen months in prison and Helen Allegranza to one year.”

Although the six defendants acquitted themselves well in court, the trial had a disastrous effect on the movement. “Not only was the movement deprived of its most able and experienced leaders for a long period, but the deterrent effect of the sentences was certainly a major factor in the Committee’s decline during 1962. The trial brought home to the Committee its inadequacy when faced by the might of the state. It was probably this more than anything else which brought about the demoralisation which… affected the Committee increasingly through 1962 and into early 1963. The trial indicated that the use of Non-Violent Direct Action alone, on the lines advocated and practiced by the Committee of 100, was neither powerful nor sophisticated enough to challenge seriously and in the long term the power of the State.”

Many of the leading elements of both the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 identified themselves as coming from an anarchist or libertarian socialist standpoint, and this influenced their emphasis on direct action, rather than the appealing to the state that had characterised CND. Committee of 100 activists would go on in 1963-4 to investigate and release details of the secret command systems for civil defence, under the name Spies for Peace.

Well worth reading: Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1964, Richard Taylor, from which quotes in this post are taken.

A parliamentary publication on the history of the Official Secrets Act.


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


Today in London’s legal history: Robert Nixon, bomber of parliament, jailed for 5 years, 1737.

It wasn’t much of a bomb…

In July 1736 an explosive device went off in the Court of Chancery in the Houses of Parliament. Little damage was done; but the explosion projected an attached package of seditious handbills throughout the House of commons. The papers, condemning five recently passed Acts of Parliament, were scattered across the lobby of Westminster Hall. Peers and judges flew into a panic, climbing over each others backs to escape the smoke and confusion, tearing their ornate gowns and losing their wigs in the chaos.

The paper, mocking the language used by Parliament when publicly burning seditious books, read:

‘By a general consent of the citizens and tradesmen of London, Westminster and the borough of Southwark, this being the last day of term, were publickly burnt, between the hours of twelve and two, at the Royal Exchange, Cornhill, at Westminster Hall… and at Margaret’s Hill, Southwark, as destructive of the product, trade and manufacture of this kingdom and the plantations thereto belonging, and tending to the utter subversion of the liberties and properties thereof, the five following printed books, or libels, called Acts of parliament.”

The authorities were worried this was the opening of a popular revolt, especially since the act that headed the list was the Gin Act, introducing heavy excises on gin, and licensing/restricting its production (to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’), which had aroused popular rage.

A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers suddenly had the opportunity to spend excess funds on liquor. By 1721, however, Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.

As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson (who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’). Prominent anti-gin campaigners included magistrate and author Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.

However, it was the work of Robert Nixon, described as “an unbalanced non-juror” (someone who had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the king). Nixon was in fact probably attempting to exploit this discontent for other aims; he was the leader of a small bunch of Jacobites, followers of the rival royal claimant to the throne, James Stuart.

This ‘very extra-ordinary insult… a wicked and traitorous design’ and ‘most impudent and daring insult’ embarrassed the authorities, striking at the heart of the kingdom, puny as the device had been.

Although James Stuart’s father had been driven out of England by a concerted coup backed by a more or less popular movement (at least in London), there was a lingering residue of support for the Jacobite cause.

In many ways, as the likelihood of actual restoration of the Stuarts receded, English Jacobitism became muddied with a more general resentment of the authority, so that Jacobitism came to the fore to express discontents and protests of the day, often about more day to day matters. The cause of the ‘king over the water’ became a kind or romantic dream of a better life; “a way of withholding support” from the hated regime of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Wearing white cockades (a Jacobite symbol) or toasting king James became a satirical way of winding up the establishment.

Nixon and his mates printed another paper proclaiming James the rightful king, which they flyposted everywhere; but they were all nicked, and Nixon was tried in February 1737, and jailed on the 10th, for five years, fined heavily and ordered to provide sureties for life for his good behaviour.

In the meantime, however, anger at the Gin Act sparked rioting, attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules and lynchings of informers grassing up unlicensed distillers… Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… Rumours of an impending revolt fuelled by gin terrified the government (In fact it didn’t materialise, though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested in the Gordon Riots). But it took fifteen years for gin consumption to substantially decline, after several Acts of Parliament, it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal…


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


Today in London radical history: the legendary Communist Club starts life, Soho, 1840.

The Communist Club was essentially a political social club, primarily for German émigrés, which, under a variety of names, operated out of various central London premises during the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Left personages of the era had some association with the Club, but the most important was Karl Marx. The Club formed an important institutional link between Chartism, utopian socialism, the First International, early anarchism, the Social-Democratic Federation (the first socialist group in Britain) and the new wave of ‘pure’ Marxist socialism of Edwardian times (the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Labour Party). The Club also formed an important connection between the British and Continental European (German, Russian) socialist movements.

The Communist Club started life as the Deutsche Demokratische Gesellschaft (German Democratic Society) founded on 7th February 1840 by seven members of the Bund der Gerechten (League of the Just) including Karl Schapper, Joseph Moll and Heinrich Bauer.

The League of the Just itself had been formed in Paris in 1836 as a split consisting of the “most extreme, chiefly proletarian, elements of the secret democratic-republican Outlaws’ League, which was founded by German refugees in Paris in 1834” (Engels). Originally democratic-nationalist in ideology, under the influence of Wilhelm Weitling the League of the Just soon became utopian socialist.

Schapper and Bauer had been exiled to London after having been arrested following an insurrectionary action in Paris in May 1839.

According to Schapper “…the founders of this society decided to make education the foundation of their movement and not to let themselves be guided by leaders…” This was a reaction to the defeats of the workers’ movement in the 1830s, which were blamed on the lack of political education of the working class, which had left it open to opportunistic leaders.

The Club was also a front for the secret League of the Just, serving as a recruiting ground and propaganda vehicle.

Until the early 1880s) the Society was known by a rapidly changing variety of different but similar names. However, the most fitting and commonly used name was the Deutsche Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (German Workers Educational Association). The DABV rapidly became the main organisation of the German workers in London, its numbers rapidly grew from not more than 30 members before 1844 to around 500 by February 1847. The Association acted as an educational and social club for German workers, of which there were then many in the capital, many exiled leftwingers. In 1845-46 business meetings were held on a Sunday, political discussions (e.g. reading and commenting on contemporary political and philosophical literature) on a Tuesday night, with Saturdays reserved for cultural activities – such as song and dance – and classes in elementary education (e.g. English lessons). There was also a choir and a library, and leftwing newspapers could be read in the reading room. Literature, mainly socialist and communist, from Switzerland, France and Belgium, was also sold. In the autumn of 1846 the Club acquired a press for printing announcements of meetings and the like, and the following year had the intention to produce a journal provisionally entitled Proletarier.

However, many of the club membership were more interested in the practical benefits than the politics (this dynamic was to increase over the years).

Initially utopian socialist ideas, primarily those of Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling, predominated. Gradually utopianism was replaced by a more class conscious approach. By December 1844 the Club was pressing atheism, opposing nationalism and had generally grown far more radical.

The Association met in the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street from 1840 to 1846. Merging with French exiled groups, the Association became more cosmopolitan; Engels remembered the clientele including “Scandinavians, Dutch, Hungarians, Czechs, Southern Slavs, and also Russians and Alsatians” as well as “a British grenadier of the Guards in uniform”.

After Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, in the summer of 1847 it was reorganised as a democratic propaganda society and renamed the Communist League. It was for this organisation that the famous Communist Manifesto was issued. The reading and adoption of this probably happened in the upstairs room of the Association premises in Drury Lane (rather than the Red Lion as indicated by Liebknecht and others).

Correspondingly the open social club was renamed the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein (Communist Workers Educational Association), de-emphasising the Germanic element. Engels noted that its “membership cards bore the inscription all men are brothersin at least twenty languages, even if not without mistakes here and there”. Germans, however, remained the largest section of the Association.

After the 1848 revolution in France many exiles returned to Germany where the League played a significant part in the struggles of that year, but with the defeat of the 1848-9 uprisings, most gradually drifted back to London. Marx and Chartist socialist Ernest Jones lectured to the club at this time.

The German Workers Educational Association is believed to have supplied the choir which sung at the foundation meeting of the International Working Men’s Association (the famous First International) on 28th September 1864 at St Martins Hall, Long Acre. However the DABV did not formally affiliate until 10 January 1865. At this time the DABV was meeting at 2 Nassau Street, Soho (now Gerrard Place off Shaftesbury Avenue), the tavern of Heinrich Bolleter. Members of the Association who were on the General Council of the First International included Schapper, Bolleter, JG Eccarius and Friedrich Lessner (the latter two tailors associated with Marx).

Although clearly the German element was dominant, internationalism was not dead; the DABV taking an active part in commemorations held for the 24th June 1848 massacres in Paris.

On 15th December 1868 the General Council of the IWMA reported that the membership of the DABV was now 1,800.

The next that is heard of the club, once more known as the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein, is in the late 1870s, when it seems to have been part of what was known as the Social Democratic Club. This ultimately consisted of five sections of various nationalities.

The English section, originally known as the English Revolutionary Society, had been formed on the initiative of Frank Kitz during the summer of 1877. Charles Murray, a longtime acolyte of Chartist Bronterre O’Brien, and Johann Neve were also present. By November the group was known as the Social Democratic Club and was meeting at the Grafton Arms in Fitzroy Square. It had now acquired ‘international’ sections, the German section apparently being the CABV. The emphasis appears to have again been on the Communism rather than the Germanity of the group. Around 1878 the Social Democratic Club took premises in 6 Rose Street, Soho (now Manette Street). The building was demolished for the 1929 extension of Foyle’s bookshop.

Important practical work of the CABV at that time included involvement in a masons’ strike, raising money for the strikers and ensuring that imported German masons understood the situation and left the country. The Rose Street premises was used to house fugitives from the German Anti-Socialist Laws: “The club was crowded with refugees; our hall at times resembled as railway station, with groups of men, women, and children sitting disconsolately amidst piles of luggage”.

The CABV had extensive contacts with the English socialist movement at this time. These include Joseph Lane’s Homerton Socialist Society which was then affiliated to the CABV. This later became part of the Labour Emancipation League, which later merged into the Socialist League. Rose Street holds a particular place in the history of British Marxism, as it was here that the first meeting which was to lead to the formation of the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist organisation in Britain) took place. On 2nd March 1881, Henry Myers Hyndman and HAM Butler, a Conservative MP, called a meeting of Radical MPs and workingmen opposed to coercion in Ireland. This proposed a federation of Radical clubs based on a Chartist-like program of reforms and a committee was formed to make further arrangements, which ultimately led to the formation of the Democratic Federation.

As well as the social democrats the CABV was extensively linked to the anarchist movement at this time, being involved in the ‘Revolutionary Congress’ of 14-19 July 1881; the organising committee of this included Sebastian Trunk representing the CABV. Although designed to unite anarchists and socialists, it essentially became an anarchist affair. More importantly the CABV subsidised Johann Most’s Freiheit, a German language paper issued from 1879 to 1882.

The club split between anarchists and social democrats. The anarchist section associated with Most stayed in Rose Street, while the Social-Democrats moved to 49 Tottenham Street as the Second Section of the Communistische Arbeiter Bildungs Verein. The Second Section prefix was soon dropped, afterwards there being no more name changes (although the short English version – the Communist Club – became used in common parlance.) The anarchists later moved to Stephen’s Mews, Rathbone Place as the International or German Club. The premises here were the scene of a police riot on 9 May 1885.

In its final phase the Communist Club was less of a political body and more of a social club. Frank Kitz disparaged it as a mere West End dining room, but it remained an important focus of Left wing life in the capital. Several aged radicals lived close by, including Lessner at no. 12 Fitzroy Street around 1888, and William Townshend, veteran O’Brienite, who lived at the Club’s premises at no. 49 Tottenham Street. The Club band was particularly noted and performed at many left wing events.

The Club retained its importance as a venue for lectures and events. Friedrich Engels, George Bernard Shaw, Keir Hardie and William Morris all spoke at no. 49. One of the most notable was the Sixth and final Annual Conference of the Socialist League, (William Morris’s semi-anarchist split from the SDF) held at the Club on 25th May 1890. This Conference saw the ousting of William Morris and marked the beginning of the transformation of the League into an anarchist group. 49 Tottenham Street is still standing.

In 1902 the Communist Club moved to 107 Charlotte Street. Shortly thereafter Stalin and Lenin visited. This was probably in connection with the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This took place at a variety of locations. The first London sitting took place on 29th July 1903 at the “English Club” in Charlotte Street.

After 1900 the SDF renewed its acquaintance with the Communist Club. In 1903 the delegates to the Annual Conference were formally welcomed as guests to the club. This was made a festive occasion with songs and speeches – in effect the Conference’s ‘social’. The Conference had been marred by the expulsion of several leading impossibilists (anti-reformists) and shortly after the Socialist Labour Party was formed.

In April or May 1903 this newly Party held its first meeting in London at the Club; as were future SLP conferences. The SLP is most known because of its contribution to the foundation of the Communist Party. This was far from its roots, which lay in the industrial unionist ideas of Daniel De Leon.

The other Impossibilist party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, also a split from the SDF, was also greatly connected to the Communist Club. The Club was the first headquarters of the SPGB (June 1904 to September 1905) and other meetings were also held here.

The Communist Club would have been severely affected by the First World War, when most German nationals returned to the Fatherland to fight or were interned. Its end came shortly after the war.

In most sources it is stated that the Club was closed down after police raids in 1918. However the SPGB was still holding meetings here in late 1919 (which were recorded in the minutes as taking place in the Communist Club). Weller gives the date of closure as 1920. Secretary of the Communist Club during its last six months of existence was Harold Edwards. Born in 1900, this young anarchist, a friend of Errico Malatesta, dropped out of political activity in the 1920s to become an antiquarian bookseller.

The premises continued to be used as a meeting place until at least 1922. The building was destroyed by bombing during the 1940-41 Blitz.

Finally the existence of the International Socialist Club during the early 1920s should be noted. Based at 28 East Road, off City Road, this was promoted as the successor to the Communist Club and was the venue of a number of important meetings connected with the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, including the second day of the Unity (Foundation) Congress.

This is an excerpt from The Communist Club, by Keith Scholey, published by past tense. 


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


Today in London’s theatrical history: Demolition Decorators go on trial for obstruction, 1978.

‘Today is the trial of four defendants – Jisimi, Tony Allan, Jonathan Graham and Alan Boyd. They were arrested and charged with causing an obstruction to the highway. Court Four at the Wells St. Magistrate’s Court is a fountain of wood panelling. The judge has a built-in desk raised above the rest. The scribe and secretary sit below him, silent and powerless, seemingly content with their lot. And there, in dark seats, are the Leicester Square Four, young eccentric and fearless challengers of the law. The judge is firm and fair with a sense of humour. He makes all this clear to the court by making fun of both the police and the defendants. The young, almost adolescent, policeman and woman are tense and alert in their starched uniforms. They have prepared well and corroborated their stories. A good defence, though, would have had them both in tears. Jisimi is out to upset. He plays with his proud hair, and tells the court how he dislikes NOT being talked about. Jonathan is a goat, he prances and prattles around. His confusion is obvious. Only Tony, I feel, is on top of the situation, and is able to challenge the prosecution. The prosecution proves to be cool and generous, but the judge wins the day by, not only, keeping the court under excellent control without being condescending, by being funny without being carefree, and fair without pretentions. At 4:30, he gave the defendants a five minute lecture, advising them very strongly to get a lawyer. The case continues on 15 May.’ (Paul K Lyons, Diary entry, 6th February).

The Demolition Decorators were a collective of musicians and comedians’ based in London 1977-81. They managed to amass 24 arrests for performing in the street, had a kamikaze suicide squad and squatted the main stage at the Bath Festival to hold a ‘people’s event’ complete with laundry service’.

The Decorators called themselves ‘incidentalists’, apparently because many of their performances comprised confrontations: ‘Audiences could not be neutral and many outdoor performances involved an appearance by the police. At one gig, some of the audience were so incensed, they firebombed the hall. Although very political, they were never fanatical or bitter. There was a mystical quality about them.’ The Decorators also claim to have ‘single-handedly‘ won buskers the right to play in the London Underground system (raises eyebrows).

Initially a street theatre group, they staged a number of impromptu ‘happenings’. Apparently they were banned from performing in the street in Covent Garden at one point for being ‘outrageously offensive.’ International Times (it) relates some street theatre that ended in arrests:


FOUR more street performers – two from Rough Theatre and two from Demolition Decorators were busted as they performed to an audience of several hundreds on the paved precinct of Leicester Square at the end of last month. They were part of an ad hoc buskers cabaret protesting about the arrest of two fellow-performers (members of Ashes) who were lifted on previous occasions. Three police squad cars and two black marias answered the call for help from two Bill-on-the-beat who had met with unanimous opposition when they tried to arrest the buskers’ MC and halt the entertainment. The other three were arrested in the fracas that followed (surprisingly well filmed by BBC2 News). About 150 people went to Bow Street nick where there was dancing, juggling, singing and storytelling in the street, all interspersed with constant chants demanding the release of the performers.

They were freed on bail charged with obstruction (three of the highway, one of an officer) and the fun continued until midnight when the police finally broke it up with no further arrests. The four appear at Bow Street al 2.00 p.m. of 5 September.

The previous week, when the Ashes’ performers appeared at Bow Street, police were faced with a demonstration of street entertainers outside including clowns, musicians and unicyclists and capped by a member of the Demolition Decorators surreally lying in a bath of rotting fruit who, when questioned, said, “I’m just the ordinary man in the bath.”

He was whisked away by friends before the police could discover a suitable offence.

Inside the court the Ashes case was remanded a further six weeks until 21 September due to lack of time.

Ashes, also charged with obstructing the free passage of the highway (the Leicester Square pedestrian precinct) were performing a story play for children when arrested and, like Rough Theatre and Demolition Decorators, would welcome your support at Bow Street and at the various guerrilla support gigs. Buskers are especially welcome. (Call BIT – 01-229 8219 any hour of the twenty-four for details.)

On 25 August Twelve Clowns, mobilised by Demolition Decorators were arrested in Leicester Square while walking along singing “We all live in a Free Society” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine”. They continued to sing as they were obstructed by Agents of the Crown who hustled them away to the vans which had been lying in wait for some time. The police had been informed beforehand by the entertainers that there would be a performance and there was a verbal understanding that there would be no trouble (i.e., arrests) which just goes to show how few people you can trust nowadays. There are now a total of 18 entertainers being prosecuted. All are pleading not guilty. Donations for the Defence Fund welcome.

Demolition Decorators plan more guerilla theatre in the near future in their Campaign for Fun.” (it, Vol 4 issue 11. 1978.)

In 1978-9, the collective and other alternative organisations (including international times) were squatting in a building at 13-14 James Street, Covent Garden, where they held what have become legendary parties/performances. “They would decorate the rooms, the themes changing with every show. They would then invite performers, poets and musicians to come by and do their thing. There’d be no charge to the public, but there’d be a bar, and any profit made from the alcohol would go towards the following fortnight’s show. ‘Fortnight?’ I asked. ‘We’ll need two weeks to redecorate,’ Lester explained. ‘Once a week, we’ll be knocking ourselves out. Any longer and people will start to drift away.’ “

“The first party put on was a chaotic affair. The rooms of the squat were filled with people talking, getting stoned, dancing or making out. Music blared from various stereo systems, while down in the basement, bands played, ranging from free-form jazz to nose-bleeding thrash. Occasionally a room would be occupied by a guy reciting poetry from a battered notebook. None of it was of any quality, but it was delivered with passion, the spittle flying from the poet’s lips forcing onlookers to stay pressed against the walls… raucous, shambolic, and bursting with energy…
By the time the third party took place, we were beginning to get a better handle on things. The success of the first two events had attracted more people to the group, which resulted in more performers and more props and equipment.”

Collective meetings could be as interesting an varied as the performances:

‘Surely, a whole play, or a novel, could be written entitled ‘The rise and fall of the Demolition Decorators’. Another Monday meeting passed by. The group and its members are more interesting than the actual gigs they perform. Tonight, for example, we had a sharp-but-dulled-by-drugs couple from BIT who took up our time and space. They wanted to hold their tenth anniversary in our squat. The mob, our mob were patient with them. I find myself willing and practical but often defeated by the criss-cross mutterings that cut under and fly over me. I walk out into the street to collect some boxes. I am in bare feet. I return and crush them beneath my feet and feel the fire of my impatience. I tramp around avoiding eyes, the quick and supple. I catch the crossfires but have no effect on them.’ (Paul K Lyons)

And performances themselves often descended into chaos:
‘Pete and Paul organised a gig last night, a Demolition Decorators gig. It was explosive. Beryl and the Peryls were booked to perform at 8:30, according to ‘Time Out’, but they didn’t start until 11 or finish till midnight. And the power blew, so the show’s finale only came with the help of everyone’s matches. Two bands and Ruff Theatre had also been due to play at the event, but the whole thing was a cock-up. Since this is the alternative scene, though, people are supposed to keep cool, not get mad. It was chaos – four bands and two and a half theatre groups hanging around all squabbling about the running order. Pete did keep his cool, and Paul calmly tried to organise the performers but they eventually took things into their own hands. Two of the DDs were chanting to some seventh heaven and calling it peace and prosperity.’

In December 1978, a fire that started during a party gutted the building:

‘Poor old IT was gutted; poor old BIT was definitely unlucky. They invited guests from everywhere, and from anywhere they came. A 10th anniversary and all that. How many bands were to come? 9 or 10, 20 or 30. It was all friends and grooves, smokers and abortion campaigners, squatters and the rest. What a shame. Poor old IT, its thousand files, its million prints, its two typewriters, its five cabinets, its three desks – who was to blame after all? Those two friends, the best of friends, too keen, too overworked, who let the paint dry, and the wallpaper dry, and then catch fire, with flames licking up the wall, up the wall, out the window, the side of the house. I hear Paul went squeak at 2am and saved a life or two, but neither an office nor a bed was saved…’

“In some ways The Demolition Decorators and their ilk were the last hurrah of vanishing city. Their roots were fixed in the 60’s – the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the 14-hour Technicolor Dream. It felt symbolic that the area of Covent Garden where they were based was also changing. Local citizens had successfully fought off a plan to prevent a concrete highway from running through their neighbourhood, but the market was still about to be transformed into an arts and crafts theme park whether anyone wanted it or not.” (Simon Fellowes)

The Decorators also performed at Glastonbury Festival in 1979, when it was, er, more alternative and less of a playground for annoying rich twats than it is today…


According to poet Tony Hegley: “We were at Glastonbury in 1979 and we came across a group called the Demolition Decorators, who were doing an anti-media piece which we thought was absolutely hilarious. They were a rock band / comedy performance band. We thought they were absolutely brilliant. Max Coles was the comic in the crew and he was just sitting in front of a TV set with a 30-foot carpet, looking at it.

“I think he was making a point about people watching too much TV. On the third day, I think the TV set was smashed to bits with people running around holding pieces of flaming ember that had been the TV set, screaming Coronation Street! Crossroads! – which we thought was a great idea.

Hegley also describes a Demolition Decorators gig, which gives some idea of the practice of the group at the time: “I booked them into a really rough club in East London and said: Look, If they don’t like you, they’ll probably kill you and it’s only £15 total for the group.They discussed it, then immediately phoned me back to say Yes and I could not believe how well that gig went.

“They went around asking the audience what they wanted and gave the audience what they wanted, but in their own particular way.

– What would you like to see?

– Well, that bird. Is she, like, yer singer?

– Yes.

– I wanna fuck ‘er.

– Right… What’s your name?

– Bill.

– Right, Bill would like to fuck Jan… And what about you?

– I’m a deeply religious man. Could you do a religious song for me? Something like I Believe.

– Right.

“They got the whole list of what everyone wanted and most of them were I wanna fuck the lead singer.

“So they erected a tent, banging it into the middle of the floor, causing quite a lot of damage. The singer, Jan, took all of her clothes off, got into the tent and said: Right. I’m in the tent. Is it Bill who wants to fuck me? Come over here and get in the tent and I’m ready for you.

“So Bill walks over towards the tent and Jan says: Hold on just a minute. I’ve taken all my clothes off. Are you going to take yours off? You’ve seen what you’re going to get. I want to see what I’m going to get. I want you to get your clothes off before you get into the tent.

“Of course, the man went a deep shade of crimson and ran away.

“Somebody else said: I’ll fuck ‘er.

“So she said the same thing to him. And Max, who was their comic, said: Look, I’ve got to be honest with you: she’s actually his girlfriend (pointing to the groups’ artistic and musical director Arif) and I’ve always wanted to fuck her. This is my golden opportunity and I’m not prepared to let it go now.

“So he took his clothes off and got into the tent.

“The audience was going: Do you think he’s fucking her?

From inside the tent, Jan says: If anybody else wants to get in, we’ve got plenty of room here, so you can get in and find out for yourself, can’t you?

Another one of the women in the group said: Oh, I think they’re quite attractive, so I think I’ll have a go.

So we have two women in there with their comic, Max.

“He then says: I can’t handle both of them! I need help! Would a man come in and help me out? They’re insatiable! Please! Please!

“No-one got in the tent, of course. So that really had put the audience down a peg or two.

“It was a brilliant success. We ended up with East End dockers, people from the East London Gay Liberation Front, all sorts, all holding hands in a big circle singing Happy Days Are Here Again and that was all down to the – I felt – genius of the Demolition Decorators. They had broken down the barriers of everything I loathe. There was no racism. No homophobia. If the world could be like this – big heavies holding gay people’s hands, some people with no clothes on, black people, white people all holding hands singing Happy Days Are Here Again.”


Some sources and other accounts:

The Demolition Decorators’ act in 1979: provocation and nudity at a London pub

Paul K Lyons diary

Under Demolition

Demolition Decorators at Glastonbury 1979.

Ten rapidly deteriorating cassettes containing 13 hours of Decorators material were discovered almost 25 years later. They were recorded in a wide range of locations – theatres, pubs, universities, rehearsal rooms, bedrooms, demonstrations and street festivals. The material has been loving restored and edited. and released on the internet as an album Don’t Say Baloney in 2005.


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