All this week in London consumer history, 1800: Bread rioters force the City’s Corn Exchange to close

In 1799, 1800 and 1801 widespread rioting broke out throughout England. Most of these were food riots, provoked by scarcity and soaring prices during Napoleon’s continental blockade of Britain. The cost of a loaf of bread was at an all time high of 1 shilling 9 d. High grain prices meant hikes in the cost of bread – and many of the poor and labouring classes lived off a diet in which bread played a major part. Bread price rises were always likely to cause riots – and prices did depend on the quality of harvest. A bad harvest harbinged social disorder.

Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793. In order to keep the army and navy fed, much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government. In addition the war led to difficulties importing grain into Britain, (due to blockades and disrupted harvests on the continent) which also raised the price.

A series of poor harvests in the mid 1790’s and severe weather also devastating affect; much of this was caused by unpredictable weather. Crops were either left rotting in the fields by freezing wet Winters, or scorched by unbearably hot summers.

Enclosure also had a huge impact: for many who in the past might have had some measure of self-sufficiency, owning a couple of animals they could graze on common land, for instance – these options had been restricted as access to common land had been drastically cut back in the mid-late 18th century. Many of the rural or semi-rural poor now bought much more of their food.

Bread had increasingly become the major part of the diet of the majority of British population, especially among the poor and working classes.

And the price of food was crucial in people’s daily life: anywhere between 40 and 80 percent of income was spent on bread.

Beyond this – high grain prices led to a negative impact on the economy generally. As spending on bread came first, expenditure on most other products rose and fell depending on what spare cash people had after feeding themselves. High grain prices, high bread prices, led to drastic reductions in consumer spending in other areas, which had a knock on effect on the wider economy.

So in the late 1790s-early 1800s, there was a general economic crisis. Gold was scarce—so scarce, from the normal price of £3 17s. 6d. per oz., it had risen to £4 5s., “at which price it was a temptation, almost overpowering, to melt guineas”. The cost of living increased: food was scarce and expensive ”and, as very few people starve in silence, riots were the natural consequence.”

Control over bread prices was in fact a regular fact of life. The weight of a penny loaf had also been set to reflect the local cost of wheat (this was a concession to popular feeling after a previous wave of food riots in 1757).

More widely, the ‘Bread Assize’ was supposed to regulate the cost of a loaf of bread in different areas, to prevent the cost soaring too high for the poor to afford. The Assize was administered locally, as prices and wages varied across the country; particular attention was always paid to London, not only as the largest market for bread, but because of the greater potential for disorder in the capital if bread became scarce or unaffordable. The Assize was very much about preventing social unrest. But administering it was complex, especially as it regulated only the price of bread, not grain. Any suggestion of assizing flour prices as well came to nothing. In effect, authorities subsidised bakers to keep bread prices low; but the system was criticised for being confusing and arbitrary, and for encouraging profiteering and hoarding by grain merchants, millers and bakers. Nationally, government policy was generally to allow market forces to regulate the markets, and by 1800, the Assize system was being abandoned in many areas, including London, though other local authorities continued to attempt to keep bread prices down for several decades into the 19th century.

The government attempted to address the problems caused by grain dealers allegedly profiting from high grain prices – mainly they were pushed into action by popular clamour. Laws were passed or existing rules revived, against “Forestalling and Regrating”, (ie, buying up and hoarding produce in order to sell it later when prices were higher), granting subsidies to merchants who imported oats and rye, and also allowing beer to be made from sugar to free up grain for bread making.

Legal action was in fact taken against those accused of profiteering:

“This day one Mr. Rusby was tried, in the Court of King’s Bench, on an indictment against him, as an eminent corn-factor, for having purchased, by sample, on the 8th of November last, in the Corn Market, Mark Lane, ninety quarters of oats at 41s. per quarter, and sold thirty of them again in the same market, on the same day, at 44s. The most material testimony on the part of the Crown was given by Thomas Smith, a partner of the defendant’s. After the evidence had been gone through, Lord Kenyon made an address to the jury, who, almost instantly, found the defendant guilty. Lord Kenyon— ‘You have conferred, by your verdict, almost the greatest benefit on your country that was ever conferred by any jury.’ Another indictment against the defendant, for engrossing, stands over.
“Several other indictments for the same alleged crimes were tried during this year, which we fear tended to aggravate the evils of scarcity they were meant to obviate, and no doubt
contributed to excite popular tumults, by rendering a very useful body of men odious in the eyes of the mob.”
(Annual Register, July 4, 1800)

However, calls for the government to set grain prices, or to allow local authorities to set them in the interests of peace, were resisted. The government of the era was overseeing the rapid replacement of any vestiges of paternalism in the interests of social cohesion, in favour of a strict laissez faire approach to prices and wages. The Duke of Portland, Home Secretary at the time, over-ruled local authorities who were willing to settle prices locally to appease anger.

Crowds sometimes took the punishment of forestallers into their own hands. (A case at Bishop’s Clyst, Devon, August, 1800 is featured in ‘Hints to Forestallers, or A Sure Way to Reduce the Price of Grain!’ an illustration by Isaac Cruikshank).

Crowd action to enforce what they saw as ‘fair’ prices for bread and other food stuffs reflected what EP Thompson identified as a ‘moral economy’ – the idea that a consensus existed on the cost of staple foodstuffs, broadly encompassing different social classes, on the basis that the essentials of life should be available and affordable. Moral economy was often enforced unofficially by collective action – eg crowds taking over markets or shops, and making the merchants reduce prices to a level felt to be reasonable. Prior to the industrial revolution, Thompson identifies the moral economy with a widespread system of social paternalism, which meant that authorities sometimes colluded with or turned a blind eye to such collective action, or even enforced price levels themselves, in the interests of keeping social peace. The rise of laissez faire capitalism in the last decades of the 18th century reflected a determination in parts of the ruling elites to do away with paternalism, and to allow the power of ‘market forces’ to determine prices and wages, in the interests, of course, of the wealthy. But the memory of the attacks on the wealthy in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain, can also be seen in the strong line increasingly taken with crowds in the 1790s.

In August and September several riots protesting the scarcity of corn, and the high price of provisions, took place in Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Coventry, Norwich, Stamford, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Worcester, and a number of other areas. The form these generally took was that markets were invaded, and a crowd would force the farmers and merchants to sell their provisions at a low price, or at least one considered fair.

There were the usual suggestions of some mysterious organisation being behind the riots. Several riots and consumer’s “strikes” were advertised in advance by handbills, on a scale which argues organisation by committees with access to the printing-press. Radicals had been circulating inflammatory handbills calling for demonstrations; the City was awash with revolutionary graffiti.

In September 1800, the riots spread to several parts of London. 2000 demonstrators forced the closure of the Corn Exchange for 6 days, and targetted corn dealers seen as responsible for high corn prices.

For six days there were tumults, starting at the Corn Exchange, in Mark Lane, (off modern Fenchurch Street) but spreading to other areas.

Overnight on 13th-14th September, two large written placards were pasted on the Monument, the text of which read:

“Bread will be sixpence the Quartern if the People will
assemble at the Corn Market on Monday.
Fellow Countrymen,
How long will ye quietly and cowardly suffer yourselves to
be imposed upon, and half starved by a set of mercenary slaves and Government hirelings? Can you still suffer them to proceed in their extensive monopolies, while your children are
crying for bread?
No! let them exist not a day longer. We are
the sovereignty; rise then from your lethargy.
Be at the Corn
Market on Monday.”

Small printed handbills with similar messages were distributed around poor neighbourhoods, “and the chance of a cheap loaf, or the love of mischief,” led to a two thousand-strong crowd gathering in Mark Lane the next morning. They began by hissing the grain dealers and corn-factors going into the market, but this progressed to jostling the dealers and pelting them with mud. For some reason Quakers came in for particularly rough treatment. They also began breaking the Exchange windows. The Lord Mayor of London went to Mark Lane about 11 a.m., to plead with the crowd that their actions would make no difference to bread prices; however, they only hissed and yelled at him, “Cheap bread! Birmingham and Nottingham for ever! Three loaves for eighteen pence,” the Mayor ordered the Riot Act to be read, and the constables charged the mob, who dispersed. [The reference to Birmingham and Nottingham was a reminder of the bread riots that had recently taken place there.]

Mark Lane Corn Exchange, the main grain market in London for 240 years

The Lord Mayor returned to the Mansion House. But as soon as he had gone, the riots began again and the Mayor had to return.

When the evening fell, the riots broke out again in force. A mob assembled, which routed the constables, and broke the windows of several bakers’ shops. When they gathered procured a
quantity of wood the civic authorities intervened to prevent them starting a fire (always feared in the City). The Lord Mayor enlisted a number of companies of the Volunteers, the militia set up among the middle classes to resist an anticipated French invasion (though they mainly saw action repressing meetings of radicals and reformers) – in this case from the Tower Ward and East India House Volunteers. They were joined by part of the London Militia.

These troops blocked both ends of Mark Lane, at Fenchurch Street, and Billiter Lane, and then charged the crowd and dispersed it – some down Lombard Street, some down Fish Street Hill, and over London Bridge, into the Borough. Then peace was once more restored, and the volunteers went unto their own homes.

That was not the end of the trouble that night – the crowd that had been pushed into the borough took the chance to visit the house of Mr. Rusby (6, Temple Place, Blackfriars Road)
described above as being prosecuted for ‘forestalling and regrating’. They raided his house and ransacked it, though he had escaped by the back way into a neighbour’s house. The crowd dispersed before a party of mounted troops and Militia arrived.

On the next day the riotous population were “in a ferment, but were kept in check by the militia and volunteers.”

Whether through fear of the rioters or not, the price of wheat did fall on Monday 15th, by ten and fifteen shillings a quarter. London’s Court of Aldermen issued a statement claiming that if the mob hadn’t rioted, it would have fallen still lower, as merchants were afraid to bring their corn to market (the old line that ‘market forces will sort it all out…):

“Combe, Mayor.
“A Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen held at the Guildhall
of the City of London, on Tuesday, the 16th of September, 1800.
“Resolved unanimously—That it is the opinion of this Court,
from the best information it has been able to procure, that, had
not the access to the Corn Market been, yesterday, impeded,
and the transactions therein interrupted, a fall in the price of
Wheat and Flour, much more considerable than that which
actually took place, would have ensued; aid this Court is
further of opinion, that no means can so effectually lead to
reduce the present excessive prices of the principal articles of
food, as the holding out full security and indemnification to
such lawful Dealers as shall bring their Corn or other
commodities to market. And this Court does therefore express
a determination to suppress, at once, and by force, if it shall
unhappily be necessary, every attempt to impede, by acts of
violence, the regular business of the markets of the Metropolis.”

A butcher was tried and convicted at the Clerkenwell Sessions, on September 16th, for “forestalling the market of Smithfield on the 6th of March last, by purchasing of Mr.
Eldsworth, a salesman, two cows and an ox, on their way to the market.” His brother was also convicted.

Rioting resumed around the Mark Lane Corn Market, however, on both the 15th and 16th, in response to which, the Lord Mayor issued another Proclamation;
“Combe, Mayor.
“Mansion House, Sept. 17, 1800.
“Whereas the peace of this City has been, within these few
days, very much disturbed by numerous and tumultuous
assemblies of riotous and disorderly people, the magistrates,
determined to preserve the King’s peace, and the persons and
property of their fellow-citizens, by every means which the
law has intrusted to their hands, particularly request the
peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants of this City, upon the
appearance of the military, to keep themselves away from the
windows; to keep all the individuals of their families, and
servants, within doors; and, where such opportunities can be
taken, to remain in the back rooms of their houses.

“By order of his Lordship.
“W. J. Newman, Clerk.”

Angry crowds were by now targeting not only markets and known merchants, but also houses where they suspected food was being hoarded. As usual at such times, rumour and Chinese whispers abounded.

On the morning of the 18th of September, crowds gathered in Chiswell Street, opposite the house of a Mr. Jones, whose windows they had demolished the previous night, and proceeded to attack a house opposite, at the corner of Grub Street. This was the house of a Mr. Pizey, a
shoemaker, a friend of the said Jones, on whose behalf Pizey was storing some barrels of salt pork. Rumours had spread that this was being hoarded for profiteering purposes, and “the mob began to mutter that “it would be a d-d good thing to throw some stuff in and blow up the place.”
Pizey sent messengers to the Mansion House, and the Worship Street office, and a force of constables was sent to Chiswell Street. The crowds dispersed.

On the 18th of September King George III issued a proclamation “strictly commanding and requiring all the Lieutenants of our Counties, and all our Justices of the Peace, Sheriff, and
Under-Sheriffs, and all civil officers whatsoever, that they do take the most effectual means for suppressing all riots and tumults, and to that end do effectually put in execution an Act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of our late royal ancestor, of glorious memory, King George the First, entitled ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous
assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”” [Meaning the 1715 Riot Act, which allowed soldiers to be ordered to shoot down crowds if they did not disperse when ordered to do so by a magistrate.]

That night, however, rioting began again. Ignoring the threat of the Rot Act, crowds gathered in Bishopsgate Street, then marched up Sun Street, through Finsbury Square, where they scattered a force of constables sent to halt them, and continuing down Barbican into Smithfield, Saffron Hill, Holborn, and Snow Hill.  At Snow Hill they broke two cheesemongers’ windows; they then swept through Fleet Market, breaking and tossing about everything moveable, and smashed the windows of another cheesemonger. From Fleet Street they turned up Ludgate Hill, smashing all the lamps on the way, and marched back into the City via Cheapside (where they apparently targeted the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence), Newgate Street, St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and Barbican to Old Street. Here they dispersed for the night. “From Ludgate Hill to Barbican, only one lamp was left burning, and of that the glass was broken.”
Soldiers apparently marched in the mob’s wake all night trying to catch up with them but never managed to quite make it…

It’s worth mentioning that towns close to the city were also affected. On the 18th, apparently, an ‘Incitement to riot’ occurred in Kingston-Upon-Thames: Radicals allegedly distributed cards calling for cheap bread in Kingston pubs.

Riots continued on the night of the 19th of September; though not on the same scale as the previous days.

The 20th saw the final day of the tumults, this time centred in Westminster rather than the City. A crowd met in Clare Market, off the Strand, and marched for a while, but after some skirmishes with ‘the St. Clement Danes Association’ (another volunteer militia?), they dispersed at the approach of the Horse Guards. Another group met in Monmouth Street, St. Giles’s, but the Westminster Volunteers, and cavalry, dispersed them. Shops closed very early. This seems to have been the end of these food riots in central areas of London.

The 20th also saw a Food Riot in Woolwich Kent, to the southeast of London.

It is worth noting that the price of a quartern loaf was lowered under the London Bread Assize in the week following the riots.

Riots continued outside the capital. In some places the riots were put down by force, in others the price of bread was lowered. What was worrying to the authorities, however, was that the crowd in many areas was no longer divided between “Jacobin” and “Church and King” factions  – radicals and supporters of the status quo – who had been notable opposed to each other a few years earlier:

“What scarred the Gentlemen the most was to see the Union of parties their being no 
painites nor no such song as God save the King to be heard.”

Politics aside, hunger had the potential to unite the lower orders – always terrifying to those in power.

The dying down on the riots in September was not quite the end of crowds gathering in London on the issue in 1800.

In November handbills were circulated calling upon “Tradesmen, Artizans, Journeymen, Labourers, &c., to meet on Kennington Common” on Sunday, the 9th of November, with an aim to  “petition His Majesty on a redress of grievances.”

This meeting was prevented by a show of military strength. The Privy Council, sent orders to police offices and the different volunteer corps, to hold themselves in readiness in case of
emergency, and the Bow Street patrol were sent, early in the morning, to take up a position at the Horns Tavern, Kennington, to wait until the mob began to assemble. Small crowds attempted to gather, but were continually chased away by the Bow Street patrol, aided by the Surrey Yeomanry, the Southwark Volunteers, and the whole police force from seven offices, together with the river police.

The scarcity of corn still continued down to the end of the year. It had been a bad harvest generally throughout the Continent, and little imported corn arrived in England.

Government attempts to mitigate the shortages continued, though they were all a bit farcical: a proclamation on December 3rd exhorted all persons who had the means of procuring other food than corn, to use the strictest economy in the use of every kind of grain, abstaining from pastry, reducing the consumption of bread in their respective families at least one-third, and upon no account to allow it “to exceed one quartern loaf for each person in each week;” and also all persons keeping horses, especially those for pleasure, to restrict their consumption of grain, as far as circumstances would admit.

The government also introduced the ‘Making of Bread, etc. Act 1800, also known as the Brown Bread Act or the Poison Act, to prohibit making bread with any other kind of flour than wholemeal flour. Although aimed at increasing the amount of flour that could be made from a given weight of grain, this Act was very unpopular. It was claimed by many at the time that the coarser wholemeal mixtures of flour often made people ill; many said to be pretty nasty. Mixed bread was likely to be subject to adulteration than white bread – to increase profits, millers were known to dilute flour with all sorts of other substances including alum and chalk.

The Brown Bread Act immediately result in more trouble – at Horsham in Sussex, “a number of women… proceeded to Gosden windmill, where, abusing the miller for having served them with brown flour, they seized on the cloth with which he was then dressing meal according to the directions of the Bread Act, and cut it into a thousand pieces; threatening at the same time to serve all similar utensils he might in future attempt to use in the same manner. The Amazonian leader of this petticoated cavalcade afterwards regaled her associates with a guinea’s worth of liquor at the Crab Tree public-house.”

With such resistance, the Act was repealed less than two months after its passing.

It’s easy to see that the pre-incarnations of Iain Duncan Smith and Hancock were at work, too, as another measure adopted at this time was the so-called Stale Bread Act, a government instruction to bakers not to sell bread until at least 24 hours after baking, as staler bread fills you more, so people would eat less. (This was amended to 48 hours in London for a while). It was impossible to enforce although the Government tried very hard to impose it. There were fines for bakers who broke the law and rewards for members of the community who snitched on them. This was accompanied by a suggestion to promote other foods such as vegetables and herring… The Act also quickly led to complaints and the Act lasted for only one year.  The decades that followed saw people driven into more desperation as food shortages and unemployment caused dreadful suffering amongst the poor of Britain.

(Interestingly, a century later in WW1, very similar issues of lack of supply due to war, high bread prices, and mass discontent – which had led to food riots then too – caused the government to repeat the Stale bread Act, in the Bread Order of 1917.

Bread prices continued to be a focus of debate and anger. Napoleon’s continental blockade increased the difficulty of importing grain. Britain’s increasing industrialisation also had a corresponding effect on demand, as well as accelerating the decrease in subsistence.

This would be aggravated from 1815 by the passing of the Corn Laws, tariffs and  trade restrictions on imported grain, designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers (in effect the large landowning interests who dominated Parliament). The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, initially by simply forbidding importation below a set price, and later by imposing steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. The Corn Laws, too, provoked rioting from enraged plebs

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A couple of books worth reading:

The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: A Social Sketch of the Times
By John Ashton.

Also Bread and the British Economy, 1770–1870
By Christian Petersen, Andrew Jenkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Who are the squatters?’ Interviews with 1946 London squatters

Following on from yesterday’s account of the mass squatting of Duchess of Bedford House and other buildings across central London in September 1946, here’s an article published at the time, based on interviews done with squatters at Duchess of Bedford House and then at their temporary accommodation later in Chalk Farm. 
Diana Murray Hill was one of the foremost active recorders of daily life in the Mass Observation movement. Her article is not without its patronising touches… but provides some interesting insights into the people who took up residence in the squats, why they were squatting, and their motivations. It does throw up some questions about the relations between the Communist Party as organisers and the people they housed. It also illustrates the class consciousness that the squatters shared, the belief that what they were doing was not only in their own interests but aimed at forcing wider changes in housing policy – and the willingness to co-operate and organise collectively (not only in the squats bit also in their temporary London County Council home after they left the squats). It does leave you with the question – what might have been possible if the movement had not been cut short in September 1946.

———————————————————————————

Who are the squatters?

Diana Murray Hill

(Published November 1946, in Pilot Papers vol 1 no 4.)

Who were the squatters ? For the past ten days there had been accounts of them in the papers and on the wireless. There had been photographs of them in the untenanted luxury flats which they had taken over in different parts of London; there had been accounts of interviews with them, and an article entitled “Squatters and Squatted Against” had appeared in an illustrated weekly.

Public opinion about the squatters was divided. Some people sympathised openly, coming to the flats with gifts of food and bedding. Others condemned the squatters. Another section was half sympathetic, half disapproving. They agreed that the squatters had cause to agitate for new homes, but they argued that they were trespassing unlawfully on other peoples’ property, and that, by taking such violent action, they were jumping their places on the housing lists and depriving those who preceded them on the lists of homes which they needed as urgently as themselves.

Some said the taking over of the flats was only a publicity stunt devised by the Communists, These asked ‘How could a hundred people gather together at a certain place and at a certain time unless they had been organised by some central body?’

The first luxury flats to be taken over by the squatters were those at the Duchess of Bedford House, off Kensington High Street. The Daily Herald of September 9th stated that ‘The movement started at 3 p.m. (on Sunday, September 8th), when more than a hundred families entered Duchess of Bedford House, an empty block of ten-guineas-a-week flats in the Duchess of Bedford’s Walk, derequisitioned three weeks ago. Vans arrived with furniture, and squads of police stood by. Mr. B., the caretaker, was the only man in the building when the squatters arrived. He phoned the police. Groups of helpers, many wearing Communist Party badges, assisted the squatters to move in.’

I did not make my way to the Duchess of Bedford House till the evening of Thursday, September 19th. By this time many of the squatters had been issued with writs, and the Communists who were responsible for helping the squatters move in, and who were the leaders of the squatters’ committees, had been arrested. The squatters themselves, by arrangement with the government, were to move out on the following day to new quarters at Bromley House, Bow.

I wanted to see what sort of people these squatters were. Were they sensation-mongers ? Were they weak people, easily influenced by others? Or were they simply out for fun and novelty ? How did the squatters live in their bare stolen homes ? Would they, if they didn’t get the houses they clamoured for, lose heart and go back to their old homes : Perhaps they were breaking up already, sobered by the writs and the arrest of their leaders.

The Duchess of Bedford House was a building of red brick and cement, seven stories high. At an entrance down a side road stood two policemen, their capes dripping with the rain, and a plain-clothes man. I asked if I could see the committee, for I was interested to know more about the organisation that seemed so shrouded in mystery.

‘There isn’t a committee now; they’ve all faded away,’ was the policeman’s comment as he shrugged his shoulders and jerked his thumb towards the entrance beyond him. I went down the steps of this and found myself in the squatters’ home.

Placed diagonally across the door inside was a roughly-constructed plywood counter, to act as a barrier to unwanted visitors. On top of this was a pile of Daily Workers with a saucer beside it for pennies. The people beyond the barrier looked friendly. Some working-class men and women were sitting on chairs against one wall, talking and giving a push now and again to a little girl taking a ride on a home-made rocking-horse. Others had taken a perch on some rolled-up bedding by some sacks of potatoes on the bare stone floor. One or two were studying a bulletin on the notice board. This had been freshly issued by the committee, so apparently they had not melted away’ It urged squatters to keep up their morale and to fall in with the Government’s suggestion to move out to Bromley House till homes could be found for them. Near the bulletin was the canteen tariff : ‘ Main meal-Soup 2d’, Main dish plus bread-rod., Sweet 3d., etc.’

Against the dead lifts stood a large hand-painted poster – ‘DUCHESS SQUATTERS SEND GREETINGS TO ALL SQUATTERS AND ALL WHO NEED HOUSING.’ Children ran to and fro, and in the centre of them, animatedly discussing arrangements for next day with a squatter, stood the woman who I discovered to be the chief woman organiser of the Duchess of Bedford House squatters’ She looked tired and overworked.

I asked her if I might have a look round and speak to the squatters’ She at first showed some hesitation, but, when she was convinced that I meant them no harm, she produced an escort for me.

This was Mrs. R., a squatter whose husband was on the committee. Like the other squatters I saw there, she was spruce, neatly dressed and very friendly. ‘We have to be careful who we let in,’ she told me, ‘the first few days we had crowds of reporters and people, who banged on the doors of our flats and marched straight in to ask us questions. We put up that barrier to stop the flood.’

We went first to see ‘The Kitchens.’ These consisted of slit trenches dug in a cinder yard at the back of the building. A squatter was hard at work cooking the evening meal on the fires that roared in the trenches. In a white overall she stirred her cauldron with nothing to protect her from the rain but a few scanty branches projecting over the wall. She told me she had seven children and that she did all the cooking for the squatters. ‘I shan’t be sorry when we get to Bromley House and the meals are cooked for us,’ she said, ‘but the women have been very good helping to peel potatoes and prepare vegetables, and the men light the fires for me.’ I asked what was for supper. It was soup and fish. A little boy came up with a big tin pie-dish. ‘Six portions of fish and one soup.’

‘Most of the squatters buy their own food and do their cooking in their own flats,’ she said, ‘we have a canteen three times daily for milk and bread, and they buy the rest from the shops.’

This was a surprise. From newspaper reports and from hearsay I had assumed that squatters could not go in and out of shops like ordinary people. I had assumed that they lived in a complete state of siege.

‘Oh yes,’ said my escort, ‘it felt a bit funny at first going out and not knowing whether you’d be let in when you got back. Several times when I went back home to fetch crockery and bits of furniture I wondered if I’d find myself locked out!’

I asked her where her home was, and she told me that she and her husband had been living with her mother at Westminster for the past two years. They had never had a home of their own and had no children. They have been fifteen months on the waiting list at the L.C.C. and Westminster City Council. Her sister and her husband, also at the Duchess of Bedford House, lived with her mother too, so that there were eight adults in three rooms. Her sister’s husband came from Lambeth. The Lambeth Council refused to have him on their list because he lived in Westminster, and the Westminster Council would not have him because they said he was a Lambeth man. I asked her how she heard of the squatting at Bedford House and she said some friends told her about it and they packed suitcases and came straight along.

‘Going squatting’ was an activity referred to by some there as undramatically as ‘going blackberrying.’ ‘I’m sure we’re doing a good job,’ said Mrs. R. ‘My husband was served with a writ a day or two ago, but he didn’t worry; he knew he was doing right. He just took his case to court and spoke out.’ I asked her if it was true that the caretaker had been locked up in his room. ‘No, that was all a lot of nonsense,’ she said, ‘he walks about and is quite friendly to speak to.’

We climbed up five flights of stone stairs in the half dark. Up here there was a lot of scribbling on the walls. ‘Done by the Irish builders who were here before us,’ said Mrs. R. ‘and before them I think there were Maltese refugees.’ As we plodded down again, she said ‘The heating is cut off and the lifts aren’t working. But every day the two lift men report for duty and sit in the caretaker’s office till it’s time for them to go home.’  She showed me the tiny room which the committee used as an office, the food stores where the shelves were piled up with tins of food presented free by sympathisers, the canteen, the hut outside which was used for dancing and socials. They had had a children’s party there that afternoon, and had had visits from variety artists and the Unity Theatre. They were having a good-bye party there that night, at which all the disbanded , committee were appearing.

I asked her how the children had liked being there. ‘Oh, they’re having a grand time,’ she said. It was true, whenever I saw children they showed no signs of being starved and were being made a great fuss of by everybody else’s mothers and fathers. I was told they went to school locally.

Before I went, I was taken to visit some squatters in their private flats., There was Mrs. and Mr. N. on the ground floor. They shared a flat, normally used by one, with-another family and had plenty of space to spare. Each whole flat consisted of three or four rooms, a bathroom and kitchen.

Mrs. N. was cooking on an electric heater plugged into the light. The lino-floored rooms were bare of furniture except for iron bedsteads, a chair or two, a cot and a pram. These were for the two children, a boy of three months and a girl of four. Mr. N. was a dress cutter. Both had worked in munitions during the war, and Mrs. N. had been in turn driller, miller, grinder and viewer. The home they had left consisted of two rooms in Shepherd’s Bush – a kitchen and a bed-living-room. The kitchen was three yards by two yards, so small that there was only space for a small table and two chairs, so that the children had had to eat in the bedroom. ‘We have had furniture dockets for nine months,’ she said, ‘but we couldn’t buy anything because there was no room to put it.’

I spoke to two other families who had become firm friends through squatting. Mrs. H., aged twenty-five, was a member of the committee. Like her husband, who was a painter, she was born in South Wales, but had lived in London since she was fourteen. Her husband was thirty-one, and had served overseas- for all six years of the war, in Palestine, Iraq, and the B.A.O.R. The child, aged seven, had been evacuated to relations in South Wales with her mother. When Mr. H. was demobbed in June, 1946, they both lived in one furnished room in Kilburn. They had a gas ring but no cooking facilities. They had to fetch all water from the floor above. The lavatory was shared with four other families. The rent was £1 6d. a week. The landlady refused to have their child, so she had to remain in South Wales while they still paid £1 a week for her keep.

They have been on the Willesden housing list for a year, went to see a Councillor in Kilburn and wrote to an M.P. in the Ministry of Health. The husband has gastric trouble.

‘We have been all over the place to find a home’, said Mrs. H., ‘it was when my husband was going round to look for rooms that he saw an advert in a newsagent’s about the squatters. It was Sunday, September 8th, the day it started. We had no pots or pans, and our furniture was in store, so we came straight along as we were.’

‘Our first feelings were excitement at having a flat of our own, and at seeing a bathroom, although there was no hot water. We didn’t want to leave. Everybody was so friendly – we’ve made tremendous friends among the squatters.’

Mrs. H., who is very fond of children, was later on put in charge of the children. She told me how the committee had been voted for by all the Bedford House squatters. Apart from the chief organisers there were about six men and six women. They held meetings every night to discuss any changes in the situation and to deal with any complaints or difficulties. Mrs. H. was nursing a little girl of three, who belonged to the chief friend she had made at Bedford House, Mrs. B., who was the same age as herself. Mrs B., aged thirty-five, was a retort-setter who had worked previously for a firm in Glasgow. When this firm suggested a transfer, they moved to one room in Hammersmith with their little girl. They paid fifteen-shillings a week and shared the kitchen and w.c. The rain came in to their room and the kitchen, and they had mice. They were officially overcrowded, but, as they would have been 7,000th on the Council list, they saw no point in putting their name down. They had lived in the Hammersmith room six months. The kitchen grate would not work and the w.c. would not flush. Mr. B. was born in Newcastle and Mrs. in Glasgow.

I left these two families eating their supper, which had been cooked on the usual electric ring plugged into the light. They had had to buy this, cost 15s. 9d. The H.’s only furniture was one or two government chairs found stacked up in the flats. They slept on the floor. As my escort showed me out, some of the squatters were drifting over to the social in the hut. Others were beginning to pack up their belongings ready for the move to Bow.

In the papers next morning were accounts of charabancs with gaily streaming banners,’ and ‘the bands of the -th Regiments , which were to play the squatters out on their journey to Bromley House. The weather was at its bleakest when I turned up to see them off. It was a day of gales and floods.

However, at two-thirty on that afternoon of Friday, September 20th, the Duchess of Bedford Walk presented a very different appearance from the day before. Half a dozen charabancs were lined up in the walk. A girl was pasting strips in the windows These said: ‘DUCHESS OF BEDFORD SQUATTERS – WE STILL FIGHT FOR THE HOMELESS.’

Against the curb on the other side of the walk were taxis and press cars, with attendant motor bikes. Police stood. about at intervals, and reporters greeted each other with weary but knowing smiles, some murmuring that it was ‘all a b… waste of time.’ One press car had a movie camera on its roof, and other reporters were pressing up the little private road to catch the squatters as they came out of the side entrance.

Little groups of squatters were already beginning to emerge with their children, pots and pans and sometimes a puppy or a cat. Some sat ready on the wall, and husbands answered calls of ‘More men wanted!’, as movers struggled with furniture or bedding. Two small boys, ready capped and coated, jumped up and down on duckboards which squelched in the muddy wet across the exit, till they were moved aside by the men coming out with more furniture. Bits were also thrown down from upper windows, from which many heads looked out. The furniture and bedding was stacked in the removal vans drawn up outside. The woman organiser tore herself from hasty discussions with the committee to make a tour of the outside of the block to make sure there was no litter about and that everything was left perfectly tidy.

Among the little crowd that had gathered to watch the squatters, departure were working-class sympathisers, curious Kensingtonians, and a group of mothers and relations with children. A mild-faced gentleman, with an umbrella and a library book under his arm, pottered about, watching quietly. A working-class woman sat down on the wall near the entrance saying ‘I’m a sympathiser. I haven’t got any friends or relations who are squatters, but I’ve come-from Shepherd’s Bush to see them off. It’s a shame to have all these press-men about ; the squatters won’t like that.’ Another sympathiser burst into tears saying, over and over again, ‘Poor dears ! Poor dears !’

But the squatters didn’t have it all their own way, and there were many watchers who were not sympathetically inclined towards them. A young woman, evidently employed as a domestic at the next block of luxury flats, was discussing the squatters with a middle-aged friend.
‘Well, really, how anyone has the face to behave in such a silly way beats me!’ ‘Ridiculous, isn’t it ! ‘
‘ I wouldn’t do a thing like that; not unless the Government told me to !’,
‘Well, I mean, just look at the Types !’
‘Yes, it’s only Types like that’d do a thing like that. Some lovely kiddies though.’ ‘Poor little souls, fancy bringing your kids along to a place where there’s no food! No electricity or anything! poor little souls must be starving!’
‘It’s ridiculous! Why, these flats aren’t fit to live in-they’re in an awful State! They’ve got to have a lot done to them before they’re fit to live in.’
‘It’s not as-though doing a thing like this helps them at all, it only makes things worse in the end.’
‘Of course it’s nothing but a publicity stunt organised by the Communists. I wonder they let themselves be led into a thing like that!’
‘The Communists are silly, but they have got some good ideas. I haven’t the time-for them myself, but they have got some good ideas. They’ve over- stretched themselves this time, though!’
‘As a matter of fact I do think the people should have decent homes. There was a couple with two kiddies living in some rooms I knew, and they had to be turned out when the caretaker’s friends came back. I do think servicemen should have homes to come back to.’
‘Oh, yes, they definitely should have homes. you can’t wonder some of them want to rise from the low standard they’re forced to live in in some of these overcrowded places. Still, it isn’t doing them any good to go about it in such a silly way.’
‘ That’s right. They should learn to be patient and wait.’

The squatters, oblivious to these comments, were beginning to pile into their charabancs. But where was the band ? It was late in materialising… There was a scuffling from behind the recreation hut, and from the shrubbery emerged three men in mufti carrying drums. They set down their drums in a sad row by the entrance, two small ones and a large one in the middle resting on two others. Two men were in mackintoshes and caps, the third was in a suit. They were joined by a piper in full dress and then set to to bang away laboriously.

A taxi driver, cruising by to see what he could see, remarked impartially: ‘The Government shouldn’t have promised them these things ; wot I mean, nobody can’t promise anybody anything these days!’

So the squatters moved away from the Duchess of Bedford House to their new quarters at Bow. But for the squatters there was to be no settled home at Bromley House. The builders’ workmen who were billetted there refused to move out. Their work was near Bow; they saw no reason why they should be transferred to another part of London where they would have to pay extra fares to work. They decided to stand fast, squatters or no squatters.

Here was an unusual situation; one lot of workers defeating the ends of another. What would happen next? Would this break up the squatting movement?

There were sensational accounts of workmen locking doors, guarding rooms with their bodies and crying ‘Stand by your dormitories !’ Feelings between workmen and squatters must be running high. But the next bulletin told how all day Saturday squatters had been on deputations to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. They had finally been promised another temporary home. This was to be at Alexandra House, Hampstead, up till now an Old Ladies’ Home. The old ladies, evidently more amenable than belligerent workmen, were to be moved out to St. Pancras.

After leaving the squatters a few days to settle down, I went up to see them in their new quarters. Having heard the stories of their reception at Bromley House, I was interested to see if the squatters were still standing firm’ They had been calm and cheerful at the Duchess of Bedford House. Perhaps, after this set-back some would have gone home and those that remained would be disgruntled.

Toiling up the slope that led to Alexandra House were two mothers with a baby in a pram and two little boys. One of these was saving to his mother : ‘Are we going back to the Hospital, Mum ? ‘ ‘
Don’t be silly,’ said his mother, ‘it isn’t a hospital ! ‘ ‘
Well, there’s nurses inside.’
‘That doesn’t make it a hospital-it’s HOME ! ‘
the little boy said, with more conviction, ‘It’s our new house ! ‘

The new house was a solid mansion, surrounded by trees, at the top of a high drive. The sky could be seen through the windows of, one wing which had been burnt out by the blitz. The lawns in front of the house were half dug up into vegetable beds.

I followed the mothers up the wide steps into a large parquet-floored entrance hall where there were comfortable arm-chairs and a circular table with a pot of flowers on it. Again my escort, Mrs. R., appeared to show me round. She took me into the large dining-hall where trestle tables were set with a meal prepared by L.C.C. staff in basement kitchens. We saw the common room with wireless and rows of ‘ pensioner ‘ chairs, the washrooms with rows and rows of basins, the rooms where the babies’ milk was prepared.

As we went I asked her questions. How was the squatters’ morale standing up to all the vicissitudes ? What had been the attitude of the Bromley House workmen towards them ? Had the squatters felt very bitter towards them ? How did they like their new home ? Had many families got fed up with the whole business and left ?

Mrs. R. seemed surprised that I expected the squatters to be changed. They were the same now as they had been before; as cheerful and as reasonable as ever. ‘Nobody’s got fed up,’ she said, ‘the Duchess of Bedford squatters are all here in full force, and we have been joined by the squatters from Melcombe Regis and Fountain Court. Only one family has left us, and that was because some people at their old home went away and there was room for them there. The others are all here, and they still feel the same as they did. After all, nobody’s here for the fun of the thing.’

‘You see we know we’re doing a good job. A lot has happened already. Two of our families have been found new homes, the Ministry of Health has launched a new housing drive and the L.C.C. people here seem anxious to do ail they can for us.’ ‘ Can you tell me anything about the families who have been found these new homes ?’

‘Yes, I know about one of them. They were squatters from Fountain Court and had seven children. They lived in one room in North Kensington. The roof leaked, the bath was in a condemned basement and the children were several times bitten badly by rats. They’ve been found a home in rooms in Westminster that n-ere in the middle of being decorated.’

We looked at the notice board in the hall. There was a list of local schools, the address of a boys’ club in Camden Town and the names of mothers qualifying for priority milk. Mrs. R. told me there had been several babies born during the squatting.

There was also a notice issued by L.C.C. housing officers. This stated that it was unnecessary for anyone at present to go to Town Halls or housing departments about their cases, as they were being dealt with by the L.C.C. Those who had not applied anywhere should apply to the L.C.C., including ex-servicemen, even if already on housing lists.

I asked a committee member who was sitting typing at a table for the official figures of the families at the Duchess of Bedford House, at Bromley House, and at present at Alexandra House. She told me that the families at The Duchess of Bedford had numbered In all fifty-five. At Bromley House, where they had only spent one night, there had been something under a hundred families, those from the Duchess of Bedford and Fountain Court. The squatters at Melcombe Regis had hung out till the Monday (the night spent at Bromley House was a Friday), when they had joined the others at Alexandra House. There were now a hundred families at Alexandra House.

‘We hope to have everybody fixed up within six weeks,’ said Mrs. R. We went to see the Gymnasium, shortly to be turned into a creche. A boy was tearing round the yard outside on his bicycle while five old ladies sat quietly by on a bench. One of the nurses that the little boy had spoken about came up to see if they wanted anything. As well as the squatters’ organisers we saw L.C.C. helpers, voluntary women helpers, some of whom lent their services for typing out notices and case histories, trained nurses and Hampstead housewives who had come to look after the babies, and an assortment of clerks who looked out of place in their striped trousers and black coats.

‘Of course there are some squatters who don’t pull their weight,’ said Mrs. R., ‘some who are dirty or untidy and some who help as little as they can. But there always will be people like that, and the majority of them have been marvellous. They all have jobs allotted them by the committee. Some help to look after the children, some keep the wash-places clean, others have duties in the milk rooms.’

We went upstairs to see the dormitories. These looked like hospital wards but were more closely packed with rows upon rows of iron bedsteads, some with children already in them or mothers sitting on them chatting. More small children’s beds were arranged together at one end of the room, some in two tiers. There were two of these vast dormitories, one for mothers and babies, another for mothers and children over three. The boys over eight slept on the next floor up in the men’s dormitory.

Mrs. R. took me through into her own dormitory where the women without children slept. Although it was removed from the others the wailing of children could still be heard.

‘That’s the trouble about this place, really,’ said Mrs. R., ‘the lack of privacy. We all really preferred Bedford House as we had our own flats there. Here you sleep together, wash together and eat together. The first night I hardly slept a wink.’

There was a doctor with some L.C.C. officials going round the dormitory. A middle-aged woman was taking off her skirt, an older one was trying to sleep. ‘ As soon as there’s any sign of illness among the kiddies they take them off to hospital ; it would be too risky to leave them here where others might catch it from them.

‘We wandered back through the other dormitories. I sat down on a bed with a red worsted counterpane marked ‘ London County Council ‘ and talked to one of the mothers. The lights were now on, and we carried on our conversation to the accompaniment of wails from the children around us.

This mother had a child of six. Her husband had had a temporary job in the Channel Islands and had been caught there when the Germans took over. She could only communicate with him by Red Cross message. She took the child to live with her mother in Yorkshire and got a job in munitions, first electro-plating transmitters and then tank links. When the islands were liberated a year ago she and her husband went to live in a room in Clapham with their little girl. They were charged 30s. for the two of them and £2 when they were joined by the child. For this they had one back room with an iron bedstead sleeping three, a small card table, three odd chairs, a second-hand chest of drawers and washstand with odd jug and basin. There was an open coal fire for which they had to provide their own fuel and a gas cooker in a tiny room downstairs. This worked on a meter, and as it was shared by men lodgers who were out during the day, the family lost on the transaction and had to pay as much as ten shillings a week for gas. Two young girls were then put in the room with the cooker which meant they had to cook on the floor above, sharing cooker and lavatory with three other families. There was no bath. They had to boil water up and use a tin one they bought themselves. They had filled up a form a year ago at the L.C.C. When she went back about it they told her it had been sent on to Kennington, but Kennington knew nothing about it. The landlady soon gave them a week’s notice as she wanted the room for men boarders who would pay more. After traipsing all over London with the child to find another room, the family bought a second-hand bed and slept the night in a hut on Clapham Common, cooking for two days on a ‘ bogey ‘ lamp.

On Sunday night, September 8th, they heard on a friend’s wireless that people were squatting at the Duchess of Bedford, and went straight there on a bus, going back later to the hut to fetch the bed in a taxi. I asked them how they had liked squatting.

‘It’s been marvellous ! No landlady to say ” Be quiet ! . . .” When I first heard the kids making a row at Bedford House I wanted to say ” Sh-h-h ! ” We used to have to walk across our room in carpet slippers. And the bath ! We boiled up water and put it straight in it ! Squatting there was an experience I shall never forget. Everybody was so kind, you only had to say what you wanted and they’d get it for you. There was no time to get disheartened, with the concerts and everything, and we felt we were doing right, although some people might not think so. You see, one half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. As to the way the squatters stuck together, I was surprised at it myself. People say the working classes get disheartened quickly, and even I was surprised at the way they all stood together.

‘How about Bromley House ? Didn’t that dishearten you ? What were the builders’ workmen Iike?’

’What they said in the papers wasn’t true. I think they wanted one lot of working-class to cut the others’ throats, but we weren’t going to. The workmen were all very friendly. you should have seen them all standing there by the gate with smiles on their faces! They hadn’t had anything to eat all day, because they were supposed to clear out, but they turned to and helped us. They offered some of the men beds in their dormitories, and some of them were ready to turn out for us, but we wouldn’t let them. As soon as we had had a meal the chaps who were playing dominoes in the rest room cleared out and helped us-make up our beds on the floor. I’m glad we didn’t stay there, though, it was like an institution, only suitable really for men who were out, all day. In the evening we put it to the vote whether to get out or stay, and decided to get out.’

‘On the Saturday some of the workmen joined in our deputations and came with us. to Downing Street. When we went they made a collection for our kids, it came to £5.’

I asked this mother how she liked it at Alexandra House, and she said it was nice having good food, but she didn’t like the lack of privacy or having to sleep apart from her husband. ‘We’ve been parted for the last five years’ she said, ‘and that’s quite long enough.’ I was told that there was more tension between husbands and wives at Alexandra House than between families, because of this sleeping apart.

I asked her what sort of house-she would prefer if she were given the choice. ‘A prefab’, she said, without hesitation. ‘They look so neat and you can keep them nice. With a garden in front and your own bath. Then you could have the key to your own door and come in and go out as you liked.’ Of the half dozen people I asked all, without hesitation, chose prefabs as the kind of home they would prefer.

I now had an answer to most of my questions. But downstairs in the entrance hall I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard and read a paragraph headed ‘The Squatters Retreat – Communist tactic. The squatters, who had little to do with the decision to squat, had less to do with the decision to retreat from the occupied premises. That was a decision of the Communist Party. It conforms to the classic tactic of that party all over the world. The tactic is to make an issue, force.it to the point where it appears dangerous, collect the political capital accruing and then retreat . . . We may congratulate ourselves that what might have been an exceedingly ugly business has passed off without violence!’

I had grown a little tired of hearing squatting explained away as a publicity stunt and put down as nobody’s but the Communists’ responsibility, so I decided to ask the next squatters I saw what they thought about it. On a sofa in the hall sat a couple I had not seen before. I went over to talk to them.

Mr. and Mrs. R. were both young. The husband was twenty-one and had been born in Woolwich. His wife, aged twenty-six, was born in St. Pancras. They had married during the war and had never had a home. Mr. R. was fair, open-faced and British to the backbone. At the beginning of the war he had been apprenticed to a Watford engineering firm. He volunteered in 1943. He met his wife near Watford when he was in the Army and she was in the W.A.A.F. Before that she had been a clerk in a big London store. She was neat, lively and intelligent. Part of the time I was talking to them she was nursing the baby, who found it difficult to go to sleep in the big dormitory.

When Mr. R. was demobbed in 1946 they lived for a time with his mother in Watford. There was no room for them both there, and by this time they had a baby almost a year old. They put their name down for a house, before he was demobbed, at the Marylebone Council, then at the Watford Council, then, this year, at the L.C.C. There was nothing doing; no definite date. From then on theirs was a life of wandering. They went from his mother’s to his wife’s relations at Exeter; then, when relatives there came home from the war, to more relations in Kent. When more family turned up in Kent, to Mr. R.’s brother in St. John’s Wood. Then back to Exeter and so on. While they were at his brother’s in St. John’s Wood a friend rang up and said, ‘Would you like to squat ?’ and told them about Melcombe Regis. They arrived there too late and at last managed to get in with the squatters at Abbey Lodge, the flats that were most strictly guarded by the police. The police had had orders from the owners not to let anybody in, and anyone who went out for stores or blankets was sure to find himself barricaded out on his return. There were not enough blankets to go round, and many of the men gave up theirs to the women and babies, as their friends who arrived with blankets were not allowed to leave them.

Finally the crowd of sympathisers outside, the majority of whom Mr. R. knew personally and could vouch for their not being Communists, did a sit- down ‘squat ‘ in the road, so that traffic had to be diverted. The police relented so far as to let in twenty-five blankets. Other sympathisers, amongst whom were well-to-do people in cars, rolled up with gifts of food and even hot water bottles.

The R.’s said they had a lovely flat on the first floor that would have accommodated two families. There were two bathrooms. Some resourceful squatters rolled themselves up in the rich carpet they found in the hall. Mr. R. said the squatters’ morale at Abbey Lodge was very high. Again he knew many of them personally, and of the ones he knew none were Communists. The squatters formed their own committee. The R.’s stayed at Abbey Lodge a week and then were intending to go back to his brother’s, but heard indirectly that by staying with him they might be letting him in for trouble. His was a Council-requisitioned house and if he was caught having people there he might lose his tenancy. So, hearing from a friend about Alexandra House, they came along on Monday, September 23rd.

If the R.’s could choose, they could have a prefab. on an estate at Stonebridge Park, or as near London as possible, but they would be prepared to go anywhere as long as they could have a home of their own. The chief disadvantage of squatting for Mr. R. was that he couldn’t get out to go to work and so had lost more than a week’s wages and still has the difficulty of fares to Watford, where he is in the same engineering job. ‘I know I could get money off the Communists,’ he said, ‘but I wouldn’t, because squatting is for my own benefit, not theirs. However,’ he added, ‘I feel by squatting we shall definitely shorten the time of waiting which the councils said would probably be for years.’ Then he said, with vehemence ‘If the Government go on allowing luxury flats now untenanted to be done up for luxury people they ought to be chucked out.’

His wife added, with as much feeling ‘If they don’t accommodate us from here-and we won’t shift from here till we must-we shall go and squat for ourselves somewhere else. The Communists have nothing to do with it. We would have squatted in a prefab. if it hadn’t been for taking it away from the people who wanted it.’ Mr. R. would have voted labour at the last election, but had been too young to vote.

I asked every squatter I spoke to what their politics were, and they told me either that they were Labour or no particular party. One of them remarked that, as far as they could see, the Communists were the only ones who were ready to do anything for them, and that they had been marvellous. But as to the argument that the Communists gave them the idea of squatting, they said there was nothing to it. Many of them had been squatting of their own accord before the taking over of the flats. In some cases the huts they had been squatting in had been taken away from them.

Whether or not the Communists were responsible, their enthusiasm for the squatters’ well-being made it unlikely that the taking over of the flats had been organised for publicity reasons. Those who were organising, both at the Duchess of Bedford and at Alexandra House, were extremely hard-working and never had a moment that they could call their own. They seemed to treat the Press curtly and to answer aa few questions as possible’.

The two that I pursued for information were Stan Henderson, one of the Communists arrested for organising the squatting at the Duchess of Bedford, and the woman organiser already mentioned.

From both of these I tried to find the explanation of how the squatters had so miraculously assembled at the flats on September 8th. Henderson, who was under arrest at the time, was unable to make a statement. The woman organiser, although willing to do all she could to help me, was, on every occasion, either too busy or too tired to say a word.

From the answers I was given by the squatters it can only be assumed that, as the number of the families at the Duchess of Bedford House was officially fifty-five, instead of a hundred as stated in some daily newspapers, and as all the squatters I spoke to had either heard of it through friends or on the wireless, and had gone straight along or followed the next day, there was not such a general taking-over en masse as I had been led to believe.

On October 8th I rang up Alexandra House for the last time, to try and get an answer to this question. The squatters were still there in force. Five families had now been found homes. But the same woman organiser from whom I was trying to get the information had had a nervous breakdown and had been ordered a complete rest from the squatters by her doctor. However, what was more important, before she became ill she gave me access to the squatters’ case-histories, on condition that a committee member was present when I read them.

Here are a few of them, as they appeared in the files.

Husband and wife, no children. 1 room and kitchen (lodger slept in kitchen). Roof leaked, water came in. Mice in room, rats in basement. 14/- rent. Officially over- crowded. Husband-in Nary 3 years. Demobbed May 46. Applied Kensington B.C. Was told no good as had not lived in Kensington 5 years. Must apply again in one year.

Husband, wife, 5 children (M.19, twins M.M. 13, F 12, F.7). 2 rooms, one very small used as kitchen. All slept in one room. Shared lav. In bad repair. Draughty. r4/- rent. Husband demobbed45. (Dunkirk, Invasion). Applied Paddington 1 year ago. Called again recently, no sign of application.

Husband, wife, 2 children under r4, baby expected. Room damp infested. Officially overcrowded. Shared bath, w.c. Rent 12/- Husband P.G.U. 18 months on housing list. Husband in R.A.F., France, Malta, Belgium, boarded out of RAF. with perf. G.U. On Kensington Housing List.

Husband, wife, 4 children (16, 10, 3, 9 mths.). Had two rooms, but one burnt out so living in one room. Beetles, damp and rot. In Hammersmith 17 years at several addresses. On waiting list all that time. Renewed application with each new child. Applied to Kensington B.C. for house four months ago but were referred back to Hammersmith and there told no hope. Wife under hospital treatment with fibrositis. Allen (r6), chronic sinovitis of knee. Dennis (9) under hospital treatment for rheumatic heart and chorea.

Widow, 2 children (6$ and, z). Lived in Portsmouth since 1939. Husband (R.N.) killed D-Day. She left Portsmouth 1946 when offered resident job as caretaker in London. Gave up home in Portsmouth because told job permanent. Brought furniture with her. Two months later evicted by employer, who said he did not want children. Applied to Portsmouth for house, told she could no longer be considered-as living there. Applied to Marylebone. Refused because not lived there long enough. Applied to L.C.C. County Hall 3 weeks ago.

Man, had home in Lambeth destroyed in blitz, 1941. Wife had half face torn away and died leaving baby daughter. He was discharged from Army on medical grounds 1942 and tried to make home for child without success. Remarried 1945 widow with one child, now in hospital with new baby. They had to leave their furnished room 6 weeks ago because wanted for landlady’s family. Unable to find home, slept on railway stations 4 weeks. Husband discharged army duodenal ulcers. When rest centre bombed left London so could not follow up application for house. Applied again 3 weeks ago. Refused by Westminster. Almoner of hospital where wife still is trying to find them temporary home.

Widow, 3 girls, 13, 7, 4. Three rooms basement and ground floor. Running with water and ceiling falling down. Slugs and beetles all over floor, climbing on tables and shelves. Rats. Been there two years. Sanitary inspector called, nothing done. Had to have light on all day. Dirty rubbish in cellar. Girl, 7, had bronchitis. All kids getting nervy and afraid to go to toilet alone. Mrs. – under hospital treatment for rheumatism. On Marylebone housing list.

Husband, wife, 2 c. (7, 2). 2 rooms. No kitchen, no bathroom, no sink, no water laid on. One room used as bed living-room. Husband and wife and child of 7 slept on one bed. Cot for two-year-old. 2nd room (8 ft. by 6 ft.) contained gas cooker, table, two chairs. No room for anything else. W.c. down one flight, shared with four. Wife suffers from duodenal ulcers in stomach and is on diet. On Hammersmith Town Council rehousing list. 9,760 people before them. No hope of living decently is aggravating illness. Rent 30/- per week, 10/- gas and electricity.

Husband, wife, one baby, another expected. One room. No bath. Shared w.c. with 7 others. House on bombed site. Officially overcrowded. Baby ill. Husband was in Marines, Normandy and Germany. Rent 10/- per week. On Barnes and Kensington housing list 18 months. Number on list about 5000.

Husband, wife, 1 c. (8). Husband six and a half years in Army, Lance Corp. 5 years P.O.W. in underground camp. Demobbed Feb. 1946. Wife then living with her mother, furniture stored in basement room. Mother had 3-roomed flat with 6 adults and 1 child, so, on husband’s return, moved to basement room. Plaster off ceiling, very damp. Fire needed continuously. Gas lighting. Overrun with mice. Husband on essential work as Rlwy. Loco. fireman. Night Work. Rest constantly disturbed (came back from Germanv with bad nerves.) Rent plus heating and light approx. £1/2/6 (N.B.-This family was fixed up by Council on September 18th.)

Husband, wife, 1 c. (18.mths.) (Boy (4) in L.C.C. home). Occupied one of mother’s 4 rooms, the other 3 housing father, mother, And children (17, twins of 15, 12). Baby under care Westminster Hospital all last winter. Medically advised to leave. On Westminster Council priority list 2 years. They said ‘Come back in 3 months’, but never offered anything.

Husband, wife, 1 c. (14 mths.). Husband had job as caretaker in Hampstead. Lost job when employer went to prison. Had one furnished room in same house at 15/- for short time. Then room in Chelsea with no furniture and no cooking facilities for 1 week, and slept on floor. Spent few days in a hotel but could not afford to continue. Friend offered shelter in workshop, and slept under machine with 14 mths. old baby. Applied to St Pancras 4 weeks ago.

Father, mother, 2 sons (8, 15). (Son 14, hospital, Leicester). 1 furnished room, 9 ft by 9 ft. Shared cooking facilities 4 other tenants. Rain came in. Sanitary Inspector said house unfit to live in. Recommended by Westminster M.O.H. for L.C.C. list. On list at Brixton since May, 1946, and at Finsbury Park.

Husband, wife, 2 c. (4, 9 mths.). Wife lived with mother during war. Husband in R.A.F. Four and a half yrs. When returned refused admission by wife’s parents. Wife, told to choose between him and parents. Left to find home with husband. Nowhere to go. Two attempts to find home. Turned out of room in Paddington because of children. Went to rooms in Earls Court. No Iav. accommodation. Landlord did not keep promise to put one in. Applied Barnet B.C. Sanitary Inspector called, said premises with no lav, unsatisfactory. Would not put on waiting list. Kensington would not put on waiting list.

Husband, wife, 7 children, 2-20 years. Son in Army, one girl paralysed, wd. have home if accommodation available. 2 rooms (gas cooker and sink in one room). All seven slept in one room. One wc for whole house. Been there two years. Children evacuated till close of war. Husband bad health, chest disease, pneumonia, pleurisy. Bombed out twice. poverty, struggle with large family. Soldier son refused to come home on leave because of overcrowding. Applied Kensington B.C. 6 mths. ago. Told thousands before them and discouraged from putting name on list.

These case histories, a small proportion of the total of similar ones in the file, speak for themselves.

Anyone studying them can see that in no case could any of the lodgings that were the squatters’ previous homes be described as anything but inadequate and squalid. The vast majority of the families mentioned, both in the case histories and earlier in the article, were, regardless of the size of the family, living in one room. The facilities were often shared by many others and often in bad repair.

Mice, rats, slugs, beetles were not uncommon. There were also many cases of damp and draught. Many of the families were suffering from some illness or nervous complaint which was aggravated by these conditions. Children were being shattered by them.

Three families had been thrown out of what homes they had.

Quite a number of the families had had no home at all, but had led a nomadic life over a considerable period, wandering from one place to another.

With few exceptions all had applied to local councils for new homes. The exceptions were those who had been discouraged from doing so. Many had been refused by Councils and some by their circumstances did not qualify for any list.

It will be quite clear from this that all the families mentioned were desperate and that the idea of waiting and being patient can have meant nothing at all to them. Many had waited and been patient with no results. It was therefore quite natural that during their period of squatting they should feel not only more comfortable and therefore happier than they had been for some time, but glad to have embarked on any kind of action, especially as it was shared by others like them. If only a few of them found homes it would have been worth it, and the ones who were not placed for some time were better off in institutions than in damp cellars, however much they felt the lack of privacy. Their solidarity, in such circumstances, was not surprising, and needed the very slightest jogging, if any, from any political party.

One can see how unfounded was the idea that the squatters should regret their action.

As to the most common criticism against the squatters, that by forcing the issue and not waiting their turn they were depriving other people of homes, this can be explained away by looking at their treatment by the housing authorities. There was often no apparent reason in their order on the housing lists, and more chance than design in whether they were refused or accepted.

Added to this, many of the squatters felt that in challenging the housing authorities they were not doing their homeless friends a bad turn but a good one, and that, by their violent action, they were making more immediate the consideration of the thousands of others on the same lists.

Today in London housing history, 1946: mass squat of Duchess of Bedford House, Kensington

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing.

“During both wars, the demands of wartime production meant that house-building was almost halted for the duration while the population needing homes grew; but in World War II there was the additional factor of damage to the housing stock from air raids, which had been minimal in World War I. According to official estimates, enemy action destroyed 218,000 homes and so severely damaged a further 250,000 as to make them uninhabitable. In addition, only around 190,000 houses were completed during the war, probably around a tenth of what might otherwise have been built. The number of useable houses, taking account of enemy action and change of use for wartime purposes, probably fell by around 400,000 between 1939 and 1945, against a rise in the housing stock of nearly two million in the six years before the war.
In contrast, the number of ‘potential households’ rose from about 12 million to approximately 13.2 million during the war. If there were around 500,000 more potential households than houses in 1939, this had grown to something like 2.1 million by the end of the war. The housing shortage had never been as acute as in 1945 – the previous peak, after World War I, was 1.5 million.” (Howard Webber).

The demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… Demand for housing was greater than ever; on the flip side, there were thousands of empty houses in London; mainly houses and flats that had been left vacant as better off folk moved out of London during the blitz. This had resulted in a glut of empties in middle class areas while working class communities were put under massive pressure for lack of decent housing.

Around the country, the housing crisis produced the 20th century’s first mass squatting wave. Empty army camps and depots, and some houses, were squatted all around the UK.

In Brighton, a group called the Vigilantes, or the “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen” began squatting houses for the many homeless. This spread to towns all along the south coast as well, then to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people.

From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other buildings – rudimentary, but mostly better than the conditions many people were having to live in. From Scunthorpe, the movement spread to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed – the Squatters’ Protection Society. Other places started being taken over – schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing. This was a largely spontaneous movement, organised from below by working class people, though both communist and Labour activists had a hand st local level in helping people squat and supporting them.

There were attempts to evict the squats, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Council workers and even police sometimes refused to carry them out – or were seen off by sheer force of numbers.

Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal: people organised water, furniture, food and child care… Camp committees elected by the squatters themselves co-ordinated work to house people and gather and allocate resources.

Eventually, the state had to give in and try to absorb and co-opt the movement. Councils started to organise “methodical squatting”. This was exactly the same as the “short-life licensing” of more recent times. “O.K., we’ll let you live here after all -as long as we’re in charge” had become the line adopted by bureaucrats stamping their little feet, by 1947. So most of the squatters got to stay for several years before being eventually rehoused. Councils also started to use the camps themselves for “official” short-term housing, moving in thousands more people. The last of the camps was not closed until 1961. In Oxfordshire, over a hundred families from one of the original 1946 occupations were determined to stay together and were eventually housed in the new village of Berinsfield in 1959….

There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer, partly as army camps were generally smaller around the capital than in other places.

In early September 1946, squatting entered a new phase, as several large buildings in central London were occupied.

Squatters outside the Duchess of Bedford flats

On 8 September, the a seven-storey Duchess of Bedford flats, off Campden Hill Road in Kensington, was squatted. The building was owned by the Prudential Assurance Company, but had spent much of the was being used by the Ministry of Works, who had done several thousand pounds worth of refurbishments, and had proposed to Kensington Borough Council that the buildings be used to house some of the borough’s 4000 homeless. In keeping with the attitude of the modern RKBC (Kensington was merged with Chelsea in 1965), the Borough Council refused to use its powers of requisition to take control of the building, preferring that it should return to its pre-war use for high-rent flats for toffs.

The Kensington squat came about due to planning by the Communist Party London District, but there had been pressure on them in the few weeks prior to this:

“People from many areas were pressing on the London District offices of the Communist Party, asking – no, demanding – that something should be done and the Party must take the initiative, as it had done in the past on many occasions. I can reveal that what happened on September 8th. 1946 was not the result of long planning, committee meetings and so on. It was a 48-hour effort…

On Friday September 6th. Ted Bramley, as London District Secretary, and Dennis Goodwin, as District Organiser, discussed the whole question and decided it was time to act. Leading members from the various areas were called in, including people like Bill Carritt and Joyce Alergant (Communist councillors on Westminster City Council who were later arrested for their part in the squatters movement) and Stan Henderson, Secretary of the Hammersmith Communist Party. At this meeting members were asked urgently to identify suitable empty dwellings, preferably blocks of flats. These were then pared down to a few. First on the list was Duchess of Bedford House…

On the next day, Saturday, local leaders got in touch with the many people they knew – mostly not Party members – who were living in bad conditions, told them what was to happen and asked if they would like to join in. If
so, they would meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon, would bring bedding,
etc. and see what happened. Nobody was led to believe that they would have a long term place.” (Jack Gaster)

On the afternoon of 8th September around 100 families occupied Duchess of Bedford House, and some nearby empties in Upper Phillimore Gardens and in Holland Park Road. According to the Times (9 September 1946), “Groups of people carrying bedding converged on High Street Kensington at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… Within ten minutes 1,000 people, about 400 families were through the doors and being directed to individual flats”.

That evening, the action was announced in a speech by Ted Bramley made at a Communist Party public meeting held in the Palace Theatre that Sunday evening. That this speech was recorded was due to the diligence of  of Detective Sergeant Gibson of the Special Branch who kindly sat in the dress circle and made a note of that speech – it subsequently formed the basis of a criminal charge against Bramley.

Sergeant Gibson’s statement:
“I was present in the dress circle of the Palace Theatre from 6.15p.m. until 9.45p.m. on Sunday 8th. September attending a meeting organised by the Communist Party..

At 8.40p.m. the Chairman of the meeting said that Ted Bramley was to make an important announcement. Ted Bramley, who is known to me as the Secretary of the London District Committee of the Communist Party, then rose and with a piece of paper in his hand, said: “At 6 o’clock this evening the B.B.C. made the
following announcement.” He then read what appeared to be a verbatim report of the news bulletin to the effect that between 2 and 3 o’clock… about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas. Bramley then read with special emphasis to the members of the audience: “The operation appeared to have been organised to the last detail by the London Communist Party.” Bramley then said: “I should like to point out that we only heard of the accommodation becoming available 36 hours ago and it was clear that it just what was urgently needed by the homeless workers of London. It was clear to us that there was some danger that if we remained idle or waited to discuss it, the accommodation would go to those who were in the least need of it. Within 24 hours we had contacted a representative number of London
families who were in desperate need of homes from a representative number of boroughs.
Fifteen minutes before zero hour, some hundreds of people had arrived at the appointed place, some with suitcases and some with lorries loaded with furniture,
They proceeded to occupy Duchess of Bedford House owned by the Prudential Assurance Company. There were a hundred self-contained flats, in which we placed 100 families and in which some of the 400 people were lodged. They then entered Moray Lodge owned by (apparently the Police Sergeant missed the name) and ten families were placed there.”

A picture of the squatting operation in progress was described by Police Constable Arthur Smith, during the later court case:

“At about 2.30p.m. on the 8th September did you go to Kensington High Street?
Yes.
Is that near the Underground station?
Yes.
What did you see?
I saw about twenty persons crossing the road from the station to the north side of
Kensington High Street where they tuned right into Horton Street.
Did they walk along Hornton Street?
Yes.
What happened then?
On turning into Hornton Street there was quite a crowd the whole length of the street, some 100 persons.
Were they joined by people coming from another street?
Yes, from several other streets, Argyle Street and other roads in the vicinity.
Where did they go?
They turned left into Duchess of Bedford Walk…
Were they going to any particular building?
Yes. I found them already inside the Duchess of Bedford House.
Did you notice which entrance they were using?
Yes. It appeared to me to be the first tradesmen’s entrance at the rear of the Duchess of Bedford House.
Were other doors open later on?
Yes; several other doors were open back and front.”

Smith then went on to describe how one of the defendants, Councillor Rosen of Stepney (known in the Party as “Tubby” Rosen) stood near the steps of the building and directed people into it. Bill Carritt was also there helping to organise the event. Stan Henderson was one of the squatters; they elected him secretary of their committee.

According to the Times (9 September 1946), “Groups of people carrying bedding converged on High Street Kensington at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… Within ten minutes 1,000 people, about 400 families were through the doors and being directed to individual flats”.

A number of serving soldiers and ex-servicemen and their families were among the were mainly young married couples who moved in. The police did turn up but did nothing to prevent the action, and in fact “made themselves helpful to people and an inspector arranged for a WVS van to supply hot drinks.”

Block committees were quickly set up to co-ordinate arrangements for heating and cooking. Nominal rents were collected from all the families.

When the Duchess of Bedford House was full, other buildings in nearby streets were squatted – people were also redirected to a squat at Moray Lodge, and then to the Melcombe Regis Court, in Marylebone where Councillor Joyce Alergant was waiting to welcome them. [Moray Lodge was an empty 2-room mansion, the pre-war home of Lord Ilchester, according to the Daily Worker.]

Ex-marine Arthur Hill wrote an account of the squatting of Duchess of Bedford House:

“And there I was, three piece grey chalk stripe suit, brown trilby in hand, trying to be a civilian again.

With a wife and baby, living in one room in my gran’s house, where my mum and dad also lived, life was difficult. It didn’t help at all to have Lil, the next door neighbour, a friend (?) of the family, winding things up all the time.

Constantly quoting how people were ‘getting housed by the Council’, and ‘all you have to do is keep reminding them’, so that you won’t be overlooked.

I must admit, it didn’t take a lot to wind me up. Having been barred from the Housing Department for causing trouble, I went in through the back door, through the Borough Surveyor’s Office. I knew my way round the council house better that most, as it had been used as the control centre of the A.R.P. where I was a messenger in 1939. Still protesting and asking where was the ‘Land fit for Hero’s’ that we’d been promised, and what was our new Labour Goverment going to do about it?, I got escorted out once again, with instructions not to return until sent for.

That was when I decided to pitch my tent on the Council House front lawn.
This time the police were called, and the ban enforced.

Ginger Cooley (ex-Marine oppo), often talked about our housing problems. We went to his wedding, and of course, had met his and his wife’s families, and there were a lot of them! After they had wed, he was living with his family, sharing a bedroom with his brothers, while she stayed with her parents, sharing with her sisters.

We thought they were daft to have married under the circumstances, at least we had a room, but as Ginger said, it did put them on a housing list.

Several times, when the subject was raised, he said that a Nissan hut could be made quite comfortable, and he knew places where we could go squatting. My reply was always the same, that I’d seen enough of Nissan huts to last a lifetime. If I went squatting it would have to be something better than that.

So, this was why, when early one Sunday morning Ginger phoned to say that a large group were preparing to squat in a block of luxury flats in Kensington, that I dropped everything and went.

A boy carries possessions up to a Duchess of Bedford House squat, September 1946

This was it, the BIG ONE! The first ever mass squatting. We hit the headlines! Not that we ever had time to read them…

there must have been at least 200 of us, and we went straight in. Somebody had opened everything for us, and it was just like staking a claim – and we did!

It was a block of luxury flats, halfway between Kensington (where we got married), and Notting Hill (where Carrie, my darling, came from). Ginger and I, together with our wives, took over a flat on the 2nd. floor. It was enormous, more space than the average house, and divided in two as night and day accommodation. Just the job.

Within the next week or two, other mass squattings had taken place, the other main big one being Fountain Court, Pimlico, and from what we heard they never had anything easy at all.
Because we were the first, we were regarded as a test case, and everything had to go through the Courts. The owners had file a complaint and prefer charges, but who were the owners?

Apparently the Ministry of Works had requisitioned the buildings, to house Maltese building workers, who were repairing bomb damage. They had all been moved on, and the place had been standing empty, but somebody had neglected to return it to the original owners, who the newspapers said was the Prudential Assurance Company. Because of the adverse publicity, they were denying ever to have owned it.

All this confusion was to our advantage, we were left alone for weeks, except for a few attempts to turn off our mains supplies, but we were taking turns on picket duty round the clock, and were able to thwart these manoeuvres. The support we had was marvellous, from the media, and the public in general, and especially the papers.

Carrie and I had moved in all our furniture, -we must have been daft, but we were fully committed. On her 21st.birthday, and baby Maureen’s first., we had a party, one never to forget. Family and friends, and some representatives from the unions turned up with reporters in tow. Pictures were taken, but there was no feedback, so we’ve never seen them. I suppose that they are in the archives of the papers somewhere and could probably be found, at least we do know the date!”

A couple of buildings nearby or adjacent were also squatted, as Len Smith later related: “I was in the Stepney Young Communist League, and the Borough Secretary suggested to me – very quietly – that I ought to go down to Kensington with one or two others… There were not many people to be seen until we got into an arcade where we discovered hundreds of people. Eventually the whole lot moved in a matter of seconds across the road, down a side street, round a corner and all disappeared. Following them up, we discovered that what we were allocated was a couple of buildings which were not part of the main squat. They were something separate. There were a lot of people gathered round outside the doors, so two or three of us got in, opened the doors and let the people in. Then I was sent up to the top floor to climb through a skylight, get down over the roof and into the next building and I opened the doors there. We did this for two or more buildings. After this I was asked to go and organise more assistance from Stepney, which I did. Later I organised a collection of camp beds and tinned food, etc. for the squatters at Abbey Lodge.” (Len Smith)

When the Duchess of Bedford House was full, some families were moved on to a block known as Melcombe Regis Court in Weymouth Street, Marylebone. It had been requisitioned by the Government for the use of the US army during the war, and had been offered to the St Marylebone Borough Council for housing purposes. But the Council had refused this offer, after which the block had stood empty for seven months. Tess Gorringe lived in Wandsworth in South London, and was a member of the London District Committee of the Party. She took charge of the Melcombe Regis squat for the first few days:

“I was a member of the London District Committee and on Friday September 6th,
Dennis Goodwin, the London organiser, asked me to pop over and see him in
Clapham. I went, and he said to me “Do you think people would be prepared to
squat with no guarantee about anything?” I said “yes.” He said “Do you know such
people?” I said, “Yes; I’ll pass the word around.” And that’s what we did. On Sun-
day morning, when I got up, there was drenching rain, and I thought “Nobody will
come.” But I went to Kensington High Street, as arranged, and saw this stream of
people going up to the place where we were to meet. I saw someone with a bar-
row with bedding and pots and pans. I reported to the person I’d been told to get
in touch with, and he said: “We’ve got too many people here; will you go over to
another building, we have someone will take you there, and get you in, to take
over till we get someone to relieve you.” I said: “That means setting up a commit-
tee and getting it all started?” He said “Yes.”

So I went. A building worker comrade took me to the back door of the place and
we went in through a basement window. I went and opened the door when the
people started arriving, I said “Come in, go and pick a flat, come down and register.” I was in a small room at the side. I sat down and made a register of everyone coming in.

The thing I’ll never forget was the way people co-operated. We started off with

people volunteering to do certain things. A couple of blokes came in and said
“Look, the water isn’t on and the lights aren’t on.” I said “Can you do it?” They
said “Sure we can.” And they did. They came back presently and said we might
get the central heating working and the lifts. I said “Wait a minute, let’s get every-
thing else sorted out first.”

And then people began to call on us from outside. They brought in camp beds and blankets, and a woman from a nearby flat said, “If you get anyone with babies, they can come and wash them at my place. I’ve got dome spare milk.” Very, very co-operative.

We had to put a guard on the door. The people who were an absolute menace were the press; they wanted “human interest stories”. We began to set up an organisation. People came forward to volunteer for the committee to get things straightened out.

I slept on a camp bed in the side room, and the following morning I was up at
seven, and we started the day’s think. One of the things we needed to do was to
get emergency ration cards, and to make contact with the food department so we
could get milk and vitamins and orange juice for the kids and baby food. So I had
a bright idea. I said, “Fetch me one of the press in.” It was the Daily Express man.
I said, “If you will take a group of women to the food office and bring them back
you can find a human interest story, you can interview them.” So he did. And we
made bargains with the press to run errands for us.

I was there from Sunday to Wednesday morning, and hadn’t been able to go to
work, so on Wednesday when someone came to see how we were getting on, I
asked to be relieved of the job, and they sent someone down to take over.
The thing I’ll never forget is that if I’d ever had any doubts about the problems of
working people taking on and managing their own affairs, I lost them forever
during this squatting thing. Because without any hassle, fuss, argument, they found what they could do, and collectively decided that it should be done, and then went off and did it.”

Peggy Venes helped in the Weymouth Street squatting: “I held the squatters’ ration books for milk and bananas. The WVS let us have cooking stoves on each floor for the families, and we managed to get paraffin for them. I made them sandwiches for a sing-song and get-together for talks, etc, of an evening.
When they were sent to a rest home in Camden, a deputation came to our flat to
ask me to go and sort out the sleep and food question. I carried on every day with
them, until Dr Joan McMichael took over as I was too ill to continue.”

The day after the occupation of Duchess of Bedford House and Melcombe Regis
Court, squatters took over several other blocks of flats, one of which was Fountain
Court in Westminster which had just been de-requisitioned by a Government department. One of the people involved in helping to organise the squatters was Dr Joan McMichael, then a Communist councillor in Westminster:

“We in Westminster had a tremendous problem with returned ex-service people,
We had a campaign on a resolution which got through the Westminster Council
to requisition all those houses where a conviction had been secured for their use
as brothels and use them for those on the waiting list. Although it was the Communist councillors who had moved this resolution, it got through not only on the Westminster Council but was agreed by all twenty-eight of the Metropolitan
Boroughs. But it was turned down by Bevan, presumably because of the enormous church interests in property in Soho and Covent Garden.

We knew at the time of the discussion on the London District and were also dis-
cussing the matter in the Westminster branch of the Communist Party. I had a case book of the worst housing cases in our area, and we were discussing with
them whether we should take over Fountain Court, then being de-requisitioned,
having previously been used for building workers. Many of us were present on the
Sunday when the takeover at Bedford House took place, but on Monday morn-
ing everything appeared the same as usual. I was working in Stepney and when I
came back to meet the branch at 5 o’clock I found that occupation of Fountain
Court was already taking place. Not only were people handing babies and prams
over the railings, but the police said, “Oh, don’t do that, we’ll open the door.” So
the police opened the door and ushered the families in.

We were in a particular position, of course, because I was a member of the
Westminster City Council and we agreed to call an official from the Westminster
City Council to come down and meet the squatters and discuss what we intended
to do. It was a remarkable meeting at which the official laid down all the threats
about writs and possible evacuation and about breaking the law and so on. We
gave him about twenty minutes and then we put the squatters’ case, and what they felt about it, and then we had a break for twenty minutes while everyone discussed among themselves what their reaction would be. We took a vote, and it was absolutely unanimous that we stay, there was tremendous feeling.

Then we got down to practical details. We elected a team for Red Cross if necessary, a group to run a creche so that women could go to work the next day, guards for the door so that the door was covered for twenty-four hours, and cooks – we had two volunteer ex-army cooks who said they would cook for all the squatters. Everyone was entranced with their new flats and put their names up on the flats until we were warned that, in order to issue writs, names had to be found – so everyone hastily took them down again.

Then we had a problem. The electricity council cut off the electricity. So we went
out on to the steps of Fountain Court (and every time we went on to the steps we
would always get a couple of hundred people waiting around wanting to know
what was happening) and I appealed for candles, because, I said, we had families
in pitch dark. Showers of candles arrived, groceries arrived and were stacked,
anything we asked for, the local people responded immediately. The next day we
organised a poster parade in Trafalgar Square in the dinner hour saying that
Westminster Council was endangering the lives of its citizens. So electricity was restored.

On the second day, I rang up from work at midday, and was told that the council
had refused to empty the dustbins. This was pretty serious, so I raced back at 5
o’clock and said, “What’s happened about the dustbins?” “It’s all right,” they said,
“We’ve tipped them into Buckingham Palace Road.” After that the dustmen came
round and resumed emptying the dustbins.

It all went on for ten days until the crunch came. The decision was taken with the
Party that it would be impossible to defend the squatters against forcible evacuation and therefore we should go out as a whole, as we had come in. I have a clear recollection of the filthy trick that the LCC played on us. We went up to join the Duchess of Bedford squatters, where we were held from 11 o’clock in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We bad babies and young children and no
food, no lavatory accommodation, and so on. We arrived at Bromley House at 5
o’clock at exactly the time when the building workers arrived back from work.
They had been told there was no food, it was to be only for the squatters. After
enormous discussion we all went in together and shared the food. Discussions
went on until 9.30. The builders remained in their own rooms, but they brought
their bedding down to the hall where the women and children slept and we set up
a special clinic for milk. It only lasted one night; after that we moved into Alexandra House. The Squatters Committee continued to negotiate until every individual family was housed. We kept a record of every single family until their problem was solved. I think it was a tremendously positive achievement which redounded to the credit of the Party.

Other buildings in Westminster were quickly occupied: over the next two days 60 families forced their way into Fountain Court, Pimlico and Abbey Lodge, a block of flats near Regent’s Park.

Abbey Lodge, a block of luxury flats near Regent’s Park in Marylebone, was another of the buildings occupied on September 9th. It had been used for the RAF during the war, but had since been empty for several months. Marylebone Borough Council had 3,300 families on its waiting list, but was refusing to requisition empty flats to accommodate them, so the block was expected to be re-let shortly at exorbitant rents. Lou Kenton was the chief organiser of the Abbey Lodge squat:
“I was at the meeting of the London District held on that Friday before the squat-
ting took place on the Sunday. I was secretary of the North West Area Sub-Dis-
trict of the Party. The Party was already under great pressure to organise a squat.
Our area stretched from Cricklewood to Boreham Wood, and we knew that some
squatting had already been taking place. At the initial stages it was not the Party
that organised it, but very soon the squatters turned to the Party for help; we came
under pressure that we should do something for the people in our area. We had
already found a block of flats in Regent’s Park: Abbey Lodge. So we organised it
– took about twenty families in. Most of them were already squatting somewhere,
some were quite homeless and living rough; they were all ex-servicemen. Most
had married during the war, gone into the forces and when they came back, suddenly found themselves in terrible conditions and having to live with in-laws.

We went in as a group. We took two large vehicles with all their furniture, drove
into Abbey Lodge and two policemen and a porter helped us to get in. They didn’t
stop us, but showed great friendliness. Forty-eight hours later it changed. On the
second or third day, they cut off the water, cut off the electricity, and surrounded
the building so that none of the squatters could get in once they’d left. So we were
in a very difficult position, not being able to feed them.

The thing that struck me most about that period was the support we had from out-
side – every night there were massive demonstrations outside – and the ingenuity
of some of the squatters in finding ways of getting out and coming in. Several of
them had to go out to get to work, and very soon they found all sorts of ways, including climbing over the roofs of adjacent buildings and down the side. We were able to feed the squatters during the whole of that period in that way.

After about ten days we were informed by the Party that writs might be issued
against myself and Maud Rogerson, area secretary of another London area. We
had organised the occupation, and the rest of the squatters had asked us to stay
on to help them, and we had agreed. Now we were advised by the London District that the squat would need to end. We had a meeting of the squatters and they
agreed unanimously to leave as one body, and they instructed Maud and myself
to leave early because they knew writs were coming. This we did.

I think it had a tremendous impact on the whole movement at the time. It showed
that the Party cared. In our case, seven people joined the Party and they joined
on the day we decided to leave. They did not go to Alexandra House. The local
area of the Party looked after them; many of them were re-housed.”

Ivor Segal was a member of the Islington (London) Young Communist League,
and was asked to help the squatters who had just occupied Abbey Lodge:
“The police had a fairly heavy patrol which tried to stop supplies going into Abbey
Lodge, where the leader of the squatters was a Party member named Lou Kenton. They needed cooking facilities as the gas had been disconnected. But how?

I had a primus stove which I padded all round with corrugated cardboard and
tied securely with string; likewise a pint bottle of paraffin. Lou Kenton had removed
one of the windows, and while a policeman’s attention was diverted, Alec Miller
threw the primus and then the bottle of paraffin through the window. They both
arrived safely.

The question of food was better organised once a pulley had been fixed up be-
tween the flats and the house next door. At night, boxes of tinned food were continuously and quietly pulled across from the house to Abbey Lodge. The police
Were puzzled as to how the squatters were receiving food until one night the pulley broke and the cargo” nearly hit a copper down below.” [Apparently the house next door from which the pulley was operated was in Kent Terrace. The author and communist Montague Slater lived at the other end of this terrace, and he and his family helped organise the cooking and packing of the food which was then go in at night.] We stayed outside Abbey Lodge for nearly two weeks, giving both physical and moral support. All the time, the newspapers were reporting fresh takeovers of houses and flats. In Islington, the Borough Council started putting large houses back into repair – something they had not attempted to do before.”

On the morning of September 9th a deputation from Duchess of Bedford House went to Kensington Town Hall to ask for the flats to be requisitioned and for all amenities – gas, water and electricity  – to be supplied.

Many of the London Communist Party (CP) members involved had been active in pre-war tenants’ struggles in the East End. The London occupations had a more directly political edge than the wave of camp squatting. The Communist Party launched a high profile campaign, through the pages of the Daily Worker, and in letters delivered by delegations to Downing Street and the Ministry of Health, for the Labour government to both legitimise the existing squatted buildings and to take the initiative by Requisitioning. The CP’s demands consisted of

  • Requisitioning the occupied buildings,
  • connection of services and security of tenure for squatters.
  • the ending of the policy of de-requisitioning buildings that government had taken over in wartime
  • central government to compel councils to take over empty houses
  • stricter control on licences for repairs (i.e. that working class houses should be repaired first)

Squatters demo in Hyde Park

Party propaganda identified West London local authorities as ‘acting as though the housing emergency was over and that property developers could go ahead irrespective of the conditions in which many thousands of families were living.’ The Labour government had also allowed blocks and houses to be returned to their private owners when they could have been -re-requisitioned’ for the homeless. With around half a million on London housing waiting lists, nevertheless there was enough empty accommodation in the capital to house a good proportion.

Duchess of Bedford House was an ideal focus for this campaign; Kensington Council had refused the block when offered it by the Ministry of Works on the grounds that the flats were not suitable (i e too good for) homeless families, and the block stood in a bourgeois area where many houses had lain empty during wartime, as the upper classes had generally fled London during the Blitz. In addition, precious public resources were being spent on repairing the block for its return to the luxury end of the private rented sector.

In contrast, another of the large squats, Fountain Court, was not such a good target, as unlike the others it was already destined for the public sector, and Westminster Council had already approved a scheme of works. Tactically occupying Fountain Court was a mistake, as it played into the hands of government anti-squatting propaganda, which claimed that the block occupations were the work of queue-jumpers.

Ministry of Works officials try to break in to evict Duchess of Bedford House, 11 September 1946

The Labour government was desperate to put a stop to the wave of squatting as a whole, but the generally supportive mood of many people in the country to the squatters – especially among Labour’s own supporters – put them off from large-scale repressive measures. At a Cabinet meeting on the day of the Duchess of Bedford seizure, it was felt that criminal prosecutions against squatters could fail because juries might be unwilling to convict because of sympathy with the squatters’ cause. The cabinet itself was also divided on the issue of requisitioning homes. Aneurin Bevan, after indicating the slow progress of the rehousing programme and the seriousness of the housing shortage, requested that some London hotels about to be de-requisitioned should be used for the homeless.

But the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade said they would have very great difficulty in agreeing as there was ‘a serious shortage of hotel accommodation in London.’ This was needed to attract trade in the interests of the export markets, and to bring in tourists and the wealthy who would spend money in London.

However, Bevan and other ‘left-leaning’ cabinet members were strongly against any concessions to the squatters. Bevan insisted on a line that no cooking or other facilities be supplied to the new squats, and he and his disciple (future Labour leader) Michael Foot wrote a vicious attack on the Communist Party in left Labour magazine Tribune (though they carefully avoided having a go at the squatters themselves, sharply aware of the public sympathy for squatting in general). They labelled squatters’ demands as ‘queue-jumping’, that would divert resources from other needy families, and claimed the CP had in practice allied itself with rightwing critics of Labour with an aim of making capital for themselves. Another leftwing Labour cabinet member, Ellen Wilkinson, said that ‘the government has to govern and cannot be faced with anarchy of this kind which is the negation of everything the Labour Party stands for – the organised meeting of people’s needs’. Ie – we know best and you should know your place till we tell  you to move…

The Cabinet’s first step was to step up police patrols around central London to keep a watch for groups of potential squatters and an eye on likely buildings. Cops with their recently issued two-way radios prowled  the West End. orders were also given to blockade existing squats and resist attempts to bring in food and amenities. Anyone leaving (eg to go to work) was to be refused re-entry. Water was cut off at Abbey Lodge and no-one was allowed to enter the building. The squatters and their helpers showed considerable ingenuity in breaking the blockade. Men went out to work across the rooftops. As detailed above, a primus stove and paraffin for brewing tea was thrown in, and food, cooked in the neighbouring house of a Party member, was supplied by means of a pulley
rigged between the two houses.

On Wednesday morning, while a crowd of 150 people gathered outside Abbey Lodge, the squatters displayed a crudely written placard for the press photographers: We Want Water and Bedding’. A Communist organiser told the
crowd:
“Their conditions in there are shocking. There is a pregnant woman, and there are babies, all doing without cooked food, and sleeping on the floor – babies sleeping on the floor! You people must help by shouting …”
“Give the babies water …’, yelled the obliging crowd, and a deputation marched off to the Town Hall, while others tossed apples, sandwiches and parcels of food through the open windows.” Eventually the police allowed some blankets in for the children. At around 11.00 pm that night, however, chanting ‘twenty-five blankets are not enough’, the crowd surged into the street – the main road on the west side of Regents Park. After marching up and down for fifteen minutes they sat down, while from the besieged building the squatters sang ‘There’ll Always Be An England’. Stewards distributed the disputed blankets among the demonstrators and for a time it looked as though they intended to stay all night. Shortly before midnight, however, the police agreed to allow the rest of the blankets in and the
Communist loud speaker van announced: ‘There’s no need to hold up the
traffic any longer. On Thursday morning the papers were full of photographs of demonstrators sitting in the road. At Abbey Lodge the police finally agreed to allow sympathisers to take in pails of water and limited food supplies. But crowds who gathered again later that day were dispersed.

Despite the security precautions, another squat was cracked on Wednesday 11th: the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury

The cabinet’s next move was to set out to discredit the squatters as ‘queue-jumpers’. A Cabinet memorandum of 12 September records:

‘Ministers considered that further steps should be taken to bring it home to the public that the squatters were overriding the claims of many people who had been waiting a long time for houses and that the effect of their activities would be to delay the completion of rehousing.’

The Labour Government now found willing allies in the Tory press. The pro-upper class newspapers not been particularly hostile to squatters while they confined their activities to army camps – state property – which embarrassed Labour government (generally considered as the enemy by the press barons) and made it look incompetent. But squatting of private property in central London blocks was going too far: soon newspaper editorials called for stern action in defence of the legitimate rights of property owners and rallied to the government. ‘The homeless who are being duped by the Communists’ became stock characters in the reports.

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express as usual gleefully hyped up squatters as a new bogy to scare the respectable, running (largely unsubstantiated) front page stories of householders afraid to go out shopping for fear their houses would be squatted, and of a rush to buy padlocks throughout suburbia. Very similar lies have been used to whip up fear of squatting in the decades since…

The government also gave instructions to the police to guard large empty buildings in the centre of London, and all police leave was cancelled. Further instructions were sent to local authorities (both in London and other major cities) ordering them to refuse to connect services to squatted buildings, and Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney General, launched possession proceedings to recover government property, and to encourage any private owners to do the same. The Met’s Special Branch (which had to admit to having had no advance knowledge that the occupations were being planned) was instructed to investigate the squatters organisation and try to determine what future plans they had.

Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party, addresses a meeting in support of the squatters, Cranbourne Street, London, 11 September 1946

Police cordons were set up surrounding the Abbey Lodge and Ivanhoe Hotel occupations; food and bedding was allowed in, but people were barred from coming and going as they wished. The central London squats became sieges. The squat committees appealed for candles’ paraffin stoves, water and food, and supporters brought these and tried to smuggle them in – sometimes by climbing over roofs, hauling items via pulleys from neighbouring buildings and so on.

An attempt was made on 11th September to evict the Duchess of Bedford flats by Ministry of Works officials, who were forced off after being threatened with iron bars…

Although crowds of supporters gathered, confrontations between squatters and both foot and mounted police could not break these cordons, and a number of squatters’ supporters arrested. Whether or not plans had been made to squat further blocks, the government’s tactic may have worked, as no more large blocks were occupied in the latter half of the week. However some isolated privately-owned houses were squatted independently in the London suburbs. Squatters’ demands around housing and delegations to try to meet local or national authorities were ignored and rejected.

At the same time, legal proceedings were begun to evict the squats. Writs for possession were served on Duchess of Bedford House on September 12th by the Ministry of Works, demanding the building be vacated by the 17th.

On the 13th Bevan issued a government circular denouncing the squats and restating government policy, that local authorities were responsible for allocations for housing and that process could not be short-circuited by individuals taking matters into their own hands.

On Saturday 14 September, five CP members prominent in the central London squatters’ organisation were arrested on orders from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Cabinet. They were Ted Bramley, London District Secretary and member of the London County Council, Bill Carritt and Joyce Alergant, both Communist councillors on Westminster City Council, “Tubby” Rosen, a Communist councillor in Stepney, and Stan Henderson, the leading figure
in the Duchess of Bedford squat. All five were charged with conspiring and incitement to trespass. That afternoon 12,000 people rallied in Leicester Square in support of the squatters. A large public meeting also took place in Hyde Park on Sunday 15th.

Bill Carritt, one of the five arrested, declared, “We will resist, to the last man, woman and child… They will have to carry us out bodily.” Stan Henderson announced “I shall be the last to leave, and tear gas won’t move me.” However, defiant language aside, the arrests and unco-operative government approach did put a spoke in the Communist Party’s plans. A telegram was sent out from Party headquarters around the country: ‘No more squatting’. Plans for occupying other buildings (possibly including Kensington Palace!) were put on hold.

Two days later, the five appeared in court and were bailed to reappear. The next day, the High Court granted the Attorney General an interim injunction, ordering certain named people at Duchess of Bedford House to end their trespass (names had possibly been obtained from looking at noticeboards in the blocks, see below). Downing Street issued a press release, offering a combination of carrot and stick to the squatting families:

‘Her Majesty’s Government think it right to call the attention of all those in unauthorised occupation of houses and flats and certain other buildings required for public purposes to the fact that the High Court today made orders at the instance of the Ministry of Works against various trespassers in the premises known as Duchess of Bedford House forbidding the continuance of the trespass.

A baby girl squatter from Duchess of Bedford house, taken by ambulance to hospital on 11 September 1946

The High Court has accordingly made it clear beyond all doubt that the action of those occupying the premises without legal authority is illegal. Those who have squatted in such premises no longer have any excuse for not recognising the illegality of their actions and should quit the premises at once. It will be the duty of the police to prevent further occupations. The Government will not press proceedings for damages against those who have left voluntarily. HMG will recommend to local authorities that those who now leave voluntarily should not lose such claims to priority rehousing as they may already have had.’

The day after this press release, the families at Duchess of Bedford House announced they would leave the following Friday: “Our committee had been in negotiation for other accommodation, and decided that if we were going to be picked off piecemeal, it would be better to go voluntarily in style.” (Arthur Hill)

They also asked for the London County Council to make a rest centre available for those who had nowhere else to go. Squatters occupying the other central London buildings had already left voluntarily.

The decision to leave Duchess of Bedford House in fact did not originate with the occupiers – it was decided at Communist Party headquarters: “I was at a meeting at King Street with Harry Pollitt, Peter Kerrigan, a number of other members of the E.C. I remember Harry Pollitt said at one point after everybody had expressed attitudes, “Well, what about the man who is on the spot?”
It was on this question as to whether we should withdraw at that point from the
Duchess of Bedford, the argument being that there was a great danger of break-
up and disarray of the whole thing. I remember saying at the time: “My feeling is
that the members of the Communist Party associated with this movement are held
very high esteem by the squatters, and if the Communist Party makes a recommendation that we withdraw, then I’m sure that the body of squatters will agree with them that the contrary is also the case, and if we say “Right, let’s stay”, they would agree with that also.” The argument was, you see, that we should possibly try passive resistance; I made the point that I could not see these returned warriors from the Second World War sit passively by whilst coppers mauled their womenfolk and kids about; you knew that it would end up in a bust-up.” (Stan Henderson)

James Hinton concluded later, however, that the party hierarchy also wanted to avoid a confrontation that would completely jeopardise its relationship with the Labor government. To some extent the CP’s top officers put pressure on the activists most involved in the squats to pull out.

Although Communist Party activists made much of the unity of the squatters and their willingness to in effect obey CP instructions, the decision to leave was actually not universally popular or agreed without argument: Henderson later said that a number of the Kensington squatters were up for staying and fighting the eviction, and that he had to persuade them to agree to depart: “They wanted to run up the Red Flag and fight it out.” It took a whole evening’s debate for a resolution to leave to be agreed on.

The squatters’ public statement read, “The situation created by the judgement granted today against the Bedford House squatters has received our careful attention. We deplore the inhumanity of a law which can only act so on behalf of property, and against the welfare of human beings. We came in here, not for ourselves alone, but for the hundreds and thousands of others in similar plight. Two of our cases have been heard in court today, they were by no means the worst. Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless. In the services we fought on behalf of all, and we resent and repudiate the charge that now we are out for ourselves alone. We resent also the charge that we are a lawless mob.
The charge is made by those who a short while ago were clapping and cheering
as we marched in the ranks. The court decision makes it impossible for our elected leaders to stay here. We came in together, and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed.
“When we march out on Friday, we expect the public authorities to show us that
human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We
ask that a rest-centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated, and that we take our place with the other Londoners who are fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight with
them for housing to be treated as a military operation, and for all local authorities
to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and
the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of
decent homes for London’s people.”

The squatting families, who had reduced waiting lists by housing themselves in empty property, were bussed around London from one temporary accommodation to another, and were eventually gradually rehoused by the London County Council.

“We made a ceremonial exit with a little band and banners waving. Before we left,
we had already met members of the builders’ committee who represented the
building workers who were based at Bromley House. They had told us they didn’t
want to leave; we said we did not want to be used as a lever. So we had already
established friendly relations with them. But later we were told that they had in
fact left Bromley House, and it was then that we said “Alright, we’ll go to it” and
so left Kensington.” (Stan Henderson)

Arthur Hill again: “The Communist Party… organised a band to march us down the road, to a fleet of coaches, and then on to our destination – the Old Workhouse at Bromley by Bow.

So that is how we ended up in the Workhouse.

Leaving the ‘Duchess of Bedford’ was closing a chapter of our lives, arrangements were made to store our furniture, and the same removal men, (friends of my Dad), took to the storage, the same pieces that they had so recently delivered.
Outside, the band played, creating a festive atmosphere, and in the mood of the moment, we all piled into

The Duchess of Bedford House squatters arrive at their ‘new accommodation’ in Bromley By Bow

the coaches, looking forward to the next stage.
Alas! Someone was out to stir trouble. As we approached our destination, every side road and turning was occupied by Police vans, Black Marias and Police cars, what a welcome! Was it Political? the Communists were’nt in favour at this time, or was it big business having a whisper in high places?
The scenario was, the old ‘Workhouse’ at Bromley by Bow, was being used as a dormitory for Itinerant workers. Mainly Irish and from the North, all working on bomb sites and housing repairs. Apparently they were told, at the last possible moment, “Go to work as usual, and when you finish for the day, you will not be coming back here, but to other accommodation, your personal effects will be moved for you” At the same time, we squatters were told, “all the accommodation has been prepared for you” Human nature being what it is, all the building workers refused to go to work, but instead of a riot, they stayed to welcome us. They did the best they could for us, in what can only be described as primitive conditions, a mattress on the floor, in what could only be called a tunnel, no windows, it was underground, arched roof of black dirty bricks. The last time I had stayed in such a place, was in the catacombs, when in transit with the Marines.
Who-so-ever engineered this scheme, came unstuck.
Because then the builders representatives and our committee got together, and a joint deputation was sent to The Houses of Parliament, to the Ministry of Works and the G.L.C. at City Hall. The reporters followed every move, they had, in all probability, been primed for other reasons, but the publicity did us a power of good. From what we heard, this was front page news, and the support for our cause nationwide. (Must look up the Newspaper archives some day). Quite suddenly, what a coincidence, there was on offer, a fresh start, at a home that had formerly housed G.I.Brides, prior to shipping out.
Now that the pressure was on, our side of the negotiation thought it was time to press for a few concessions. They won us the right to have our own committee to represent us in the home, and to have the use of the main hall, for meetings and for social functions. The building workers were restored to their original status, and so we all moved on.
At Chalk Farm, dormitory quarters, screened off into cubicles, in charge of a Master, (just like the Workhouse). A bit of shuffling around, and we sorted ourselves into some sort of order, people with families, tended to clump together, as did young couples with no other ties. The building was about 5 stories high, I say about, because it was’nt evenly disposed, sitting as it was on a steep hill, the lower floor was hall and offices, the rear half of the hall being underground. The first floor housed the original residents, mainly old ladies, the next two were ours, plus a little overlap, and above, all the staff. We barely had time to settle when a meeting was called, everybody to the hall.
As soon as we were seated, we were addressed thus,
“I am the Master of this House, and these are the rules”
With a shout, “Objection” our committee leader was on his feet, “Has’nt anybody told you ‘Sunshine’, that no longer applies, without our consent” At this, all the little old ladies started cheering, one shouted, “It’s time that miserable sod got his come-uppance”
And so began our new period of Mk.2 Workhouse…” (Arthur Hill)

“Jack Gaster was sitting behind me on the coach taking us there and, as we ap-
proached the building, we went past a side street and I said to him “Those are
police “hurry-up’ wagons stationed there; there’s something odd going on.” Jack
said to me “Don’t let anybody out for a moment; let’s see what’s happening.” We
got out and walked inside; the building was a blaze of light and the building workers were still there. They said they had no intention of leaving. We immediately called a meeting of our committee with their committee; we discussed the matter in amicable terms and came to an agreement, at our insistence, that we would not occupy their beds or their rooms. We would camp down on the floor and spend the night, and the following morning we would go on a joint deputation to 10, Downing Street. It was a betrayal by the London County Council and the Government. They were hoping to discredit the squatters movement and the builders, presumably by having a brawl which they could make a feast of.

Next morning a small deputation of us went to Downing Street and, of course, Attlee was not there. We left a written document in which we laid at his door the
responsibility for anything of a serious nature which might happen because, as we
pointed out, there were young babies sleeping on the floor in the hostel. Then
Jack arranged a meeting at County Hall in a main committee room and the end
of the table and said “Sit there”; so I sat in a big, red leather, gold ornate chair and
our committee were all around. I remember making the point that we had lost our
trump card: we had been levered out into the open; we had no Duchess of Bed.
ford to fall back upon and we were on the spot. The thought occurred to me that
we might put pressure on Mr. Bligh and this man said “Bligh of the Bounty” you
know, do you remember? I suggested that we might occupy that committee room
and refuse to be shifted and Jack said That’s a good idea”. So we sent for Mr.
Bligh who was somewhat non-plussed at hearing this proposition. We said we
wanted the L.C.C., as the Executive arm of what had been decided between the
Government and the L.C.C., jointly, to honour their word and provide us with a place where we could retain our organisation as promised and where we could
continue to function as a body of squatters.

Bligh said it was impossible. He then went out and came back within five minutes.
“By a coincidence” he said, and produced information about Alexandra House at
Chalk Farm from where, he said, some elderly ladies were in process of being
moved to other accommodation. Would we go there, he said. We said we had yet
to hear of a coincidence operating in our favour, but we said “Yes” and he said
Well then, let’s move on”. We said “No, we want to look at it first, we’ve been
caught out before”. So a deputation went out and looked at it, and agreed that we
could make a go of it, and we moved there. It was that betrayal thing which really got us, because we had been manoeuvred out and promises had been broken.”

100 families eventually ended up at Alexandra House, the Duchess of Bedford people had been joined by Melcombe Regis and Fountain Court. “This was an improvement on Bromley House. A committee was formed, chosen by the squatters… The drawback was the lack of privacy, as we all had to sleep together, wash together and eat together. The dormitories were separated, one for mothers with babies, one for mothers with children over 3 years, one for women without children and one upstairs for men and boys over 8 years old. Meals were prepared by L.C.C. staff and served at large tables. Men who were at work were given meals in the evening and the women’s committee members noticed that these were bigger and of better quality than those served to the women and children. Consequently, we saw the supervisor and told him of our findings and asked for the same treatment for everyone; this he granted and the matter was rectified.

Already a lot was happening, as two families had been rehoused, the Ministry of
Health had launched a new housing drive and the L.C.C. had agreed to deal with
all squatters’ cases instead of the local town halls. By October 8th, five families
had been found homes.

We stayed at Alexandra House for about another six months. My husband be-
came the Secretary when Stan Henderson left, and I continued on the Women’s
Committee. We proved we could handle the day to day problems of which we
had many, whilst the men were away, and always managed to solve them amicab-
ly. We were able to get a few improvements where families could be together
rather than apart, though this only meant separate curtained spaces depending
on the size of the family, but it was preferable to being apart. Gradually people
were being rehoused, those with children and particular problems being given priority.

Eventually, about Easter time 1947, those that were left were moved to an L.C.C.
halfway house at Queens Gardens, Lancaster Gate. Here we all had our own sparsely furnished room. Meals were supplied in a communal
dining room. This proved to be much better. People continued to be rehoused. We were finally offered a very derelict pokey flat at Rotherhithe which we refused, so had to leave. This was about October or November.
We did not obtain the accommodation we had hoped for, but it was a very worthwhile and enlightening experience and one we will never forget.” (Hilda and Barney Lewis)

Duchess of Bedford House was eventually returned to its owners for luxury renting after the Ministry of Works had spent £5,000 on repairing it. The owners then rented it out again to anyone who could afford the £15 a week rent (high rent in them days…)

Having been remanded twice, the five arrested CP organisers’ case came to trial at the Old Bailey at the end of October. The trial lasted for two days. “Sir Walter Monckton defended four of us; Ted Bramley conducted his own defence. To those not directly involved I have no doubt that the brilliant display of dialectics and the biting irony on the part of Sir Walter was most impressive. Pointing out that we were being tried under an Act of Richard II he asked: “Was the arm of the civil law so weak in this matter that it required the first prosecution in our history for a criminal conspiracy to trespass?” (Joan Alergant)

Although expecting jail, they were merely bound over to be of good behaviour. The judge observed: ‘I am satisfied the motive was primarily to find homes for these unfortunate people’, and he almost advised counsel for the defence to appeal the verdict. However, it is worth noting that counsel for the Prosecution admitted that the charges had been mainly aimed at denting the squatting at its most active phase, and now that the big squats had stopped the government had little interest in creating Communist martyrs.

Bob Darke, who was active in the Communist Party in Hackney at the time of the squats, but later left and wrote a detailed critique of CP tactics, took a cynical view of the Party’s motives and practice regarding the squatting movement, suggesting they had always thought the West End squats would be shortlived and used the exercise as a publicity vehicle:

“During the serious housing shortage of the mid-forties the Party worked the most sensational confidence trick in its history – the Squatters’ Movement. So pathetic were the hardship cases exploited in this deception that for a while even Fleet Street was convinced that it was normal, a spontaneous demonstration on the part of the homeless. But when the almost military-like precision of the campaign became obvious there should have been no doubt in anybody’s mind that the Party was at the back of it.
The Party never openly admitted that it ran the squatting in the West End blocks of flats, or the rash of small house squatting that spread across London. The Daily Worker covered the campaign with the same poker-face inscrutability it wears when Party members paint anti-American slogans on cars in Grosvenor Square or demonstrate against American bomber stations. If you only read the Daily Worker it always sounds as if the party has been taken as much by surprise as everybody else.
The London Squatter Movement was conducted by Ted Bramley, from the offices of the London District Committee. Bramley actually appeared in person to run the taking-over of blocks of flats in Kensington, and members of his staff occupied rooms in one of the blocks to conduct the campaign more efficiently.
In Hackney the Party was instructed to ear-mark vacant houses, to collect homeless families
(there were names enough on my lists) and move them in on the word go… Let it be understood that I was as angry as anybody else to see these flats vacant at a time when the housing situation was so desperate. And for a time I believed the Party had found the right solution to the problem, arbitrary seizing of property.
But I soon realised that the Party’s real attitude was no less cynical than usual. It regarded the various ‘Squatters’ Committees’ we had formed as no more than propaganda vehicles. The Party’s leaders knew that the authorities would not allow the situation to develop and would suppress it forcibly. It knew, in short, that the squatters’ campaign would be defeated.
But win or lose the Party was going to benefit on two scores:
1. It would get the kudos for making the only forthright effort to grapple with the housing shortage and the anomalies that existed.
2. It could use the opposition to the Squatters’ Movement as proof that the Government was refusing to live up to its Socialism.
Conclusion? ‘Only the Communist Party fights for the workers!’
And that was how it worked out. Heaven only knows how many wretched pram-pushing families were moved into flats and rooms found for them by our eager-beaver comrades, only to be moved out again by the police.
The siege of the West End flats, the blockade running of food and water by Communist flying squads, got full play in the Party press with full use of epithets like ‘fascist technique’. ‘Labour’s Tory tactics”.
For weeks after the defeat of the Squatters’ Movement the Party in Hackney was capitalising on the misery of the debacle. Homeless families, coming back to the now defunct Party Squatters’ Committee, were told ‘Go and see Councillor Bob Darke. He’ll raise your case in the Council. And don’t forget, the Communist Party has been the only political party to help you.’.”

Without doubting genuine motivation from the CP’s point of view – housing the homeless and putting pressure on the Labour Government to improve housing options – the CP both acted with its usual murkiness – trying desperately to catch up and cash in on an autonomous movement that had outflanked it – and failed to keep up the pressure when government action came at it fast and hard.

The September squats in fact might be described as stunts, which had no real lasting impact, whose importance in terms of the squatting movement of 1946 is minimal, compared to the self-organisation of the vigilantes and the camp squats.

James Hinton, who later wrote an account of the 1946 squatting wave, suggested part of the motivation was the CP’s need to re-assert a political identity. The Party hierarchy had imposed a line of opposing strikes in the last years of the war, and had supported the continuation of the wartime coalition government – this had angered some party activists and also fell out of step with the electorate (who would shortly elect a landslide Labour government). The CP desperately needed a popular cause to indicate a position to the left of labour, that would also win support among working class people; strategists may also have felt successful popular action on housing could push the government leftwards on requisitioning and house building. The CP was trying to regain or keep hold of a precarious relationship to the wartime government that it had built by having a strong organisation in armaments factories but restraining industrial action and strikes in the interests of the war effort. The end of the war meant this influence was waning. Ironically, if getting heavily involved in the squatting had been intended to rebuild this influence and give it a lever over the Labour administration, it may have had the opposite effect. (James Hinton also suggested that some behind the scenes contacts between Labour ministers and leading Communists, including Ted Bramley, in fact ceased after the events of September).

But could more have been done to spread the squatting movement in London? The CP kept tight control of the organisation  – but the lack of a truly self-organised basis to the September London squats is obvious in its sudden collapse under state pressure. There was potential for mobilising popular or trade union support for the occupations; but the CP did not really attempt this. Despite threats to spread mass squatting of houses in other cities, CP general secretary Harry Pollitt in fact issued an instruction that squatting was to cease. Party activists continued to support and aid camp squatters in some areas but no more initiatives like the London squats was taken.

Workers from De Havilland factory demonstrate in support of squatters

During the summer of 1946, trade unionists in several northern towns had refused to wreck buildings as a deterrent to squatting. Miners in Yorkshire had imposed an overtime ban when mine officials had tried to evict a family squatting in a colliery house. Council direct labour force workers in North London had also organised work parties to divert building materials to two squatted camps.
During the week of 9-16 September, officials of the building trades unions were inundated with resolutions supporting squatters, and demanding requisitioning and an end to the black market in repairs. De Havilland workers in West London announced they would strike if force was used to evict squatters. On the day the High Court injunction was granted, the London Trades Council, theoretically representing 600,000 workers, backed the squatters.

So the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property existed… But the CP didn’t call for industrial action to get services connected to the squats, or to push the demand for wider requisitioning of housing. A more concerted fight in the courts could also have been put up, as the CP did have access to good lawyers – this did not happen either.

When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions: in fact, as noted above, Stan Henderson for one argued down squatters who wanted to physically fight any eviction. The Party confined its activities to organising a demo in Leicester Square and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and local town halls.

It is also however, worth noting that, while there seems to have been mass popular support for the camp squats, to some extent feelings about the central London squats were more ambiguous. Many people did view seizing empty pubic property and empty private property as distinctly different, and support for seizing empty private houses was markedly lacking compared to very widespread approval for occupying disused army camps.

Even some of the camp squatters themselves thought occupying the Duchess of Bedford flats and other private property was a mistake, or even morally wrong. Despite a broad sense that the government should house people, and that public property was fair game, in the sense that it ‘belonged’ to all anyway, there was, it would appear, no real popular mood for expropriating the wealthy, even on a small scale.

April 1946: Schoolchildren helping the workmen construct a new estate of pre-fabricated houses in Watford, Hertfordshire.

Various commentators have characterised the post-war squatting movement as not really an example of militant workers action, or even especially political. Undoubtedly the movement was born out of practical need, not ideology. At times some of the post-war squatters exhibited individualist and reactionary tendencies – as in Buckinghamshire, where racist and nationalist sentiment against Polish emigres (many war veterans) being housed in former camps was mobilised to encourage its being squatted instead. The Communist Party to its shame snidely contributed to this, as the Poles were viewed as ‘anti-communist’ since they were refusing to return to the new ‘communist’ Poland.

The CP was to claim that the London squatting actions had helped accelerate the housing repair and building programme; while Labour denied this, it seems clear that the post-war squatting movement as a whole did contribute to pressure on the government to bring forward construction projects, and ramp up solutions like pre-fab housing. Some 6000 properties the government had been in control of were also released for housing over the following year;  in parts o London, at least, some local authorities did step up requisitioning  of empty buildings.

How much the London squats contributed to that pressure is open to debate; the potential for the mass squatting wave to spread into a large-scale campaign of occupation in cities was lost. Local authorities gained control over most of the squatted camps, and kept control over the housing allocation process; working class direct action on housing was mostly pushed back to the margins, for a decade or so…

As a follow-up to this, read ‘Who Are the Squatters?’ – an article from 1946, based on interviews with squatters from the Duchess of Bedford House and Abbey Lodge occupations…

Worth reading

We haven’t talked much about the squatted camps here, which deserves a whole other article. Another time. The following are useful reads on the 1945-6 squatting movements.

Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters Movement of 1946, James Hinton

Housing, An Anarchist Approach, Colin Ward

London Squatters 1946, Noreen Branson (Communist Party ‘Our History series)

Squatting in Britain 1945-55, Don Watson

Squatting: The Real Story, ed Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar.

A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946, Howard Webber

Advisory Service for Squatters Info Sheet on the post-war squatters

The Squatters of 1946: A Local Study in national Context, Paul Burnham

The Communist Technique in Britain, Bob Darke

Who Are the Squatters? Diana Murrray Hill (published in Pilot Papers, vol 1 no 4, 1946.)

There’s some film footage of the Kensington squatters here:

Today in London radical history, 1962: nazi meetings in the East End scattered by anti-fascists

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his comeback, but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his Union Movement alive.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

From the late Fifties, the far right, while still harping on about Jews, began to target the emerging Black and Asian migrant communities. Local anti-immigration sentiment in areas like Notting Hill led to xenophobic attacks, rioting and racist murders, which the fascists encouraged and attempted to cash in on.

A splintered scene of minuscule fascist groups began to coalesce into more active movements. Fascist activities were most notable in London.

But London also saw the most effective anti-fascist resistance. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group). During the 1950s there had been very little open fascist activity and correspondingly there had been very little anti-fascist activity, but when the Nazis began reviving, so too did opposition to them.

The 62 Group was largely made up of various left-wingers including people from the Communist Party, Jews and some Black migrants. For around 5 years from the early 1960s, the 62 Group set out to physically confront the fascists whenever they showed their faces. The success of the anti-fascists in disrupting the campaigns of the various fascist groups in the early and mid-60s prevented the Far Right from exploiting the growing racism and forced them to rethink their strategy.

The re-animated nazi corpse attempted to revive their favoured tactic, used before and after WW2, of trying to hold street meetings, often in areas where they had previously attempted to gain an audience or provoke local communities. One of these areas was in Ridley Road Market, Dalston, long at the heart of one of Hackney’s largest Jewish communities.

Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement had been battered in Ridley Road by the 43 group a number of times in the late 1940s.

Mosley’s reception was not to improve over a decade later…

The Union Movement had tried to hold a street meeting in Ridley Road on 31 July, 1962. The recently formed 62 Group and other opponents made sure they had a warm reception, and the rally had ended in fighting with anti-fascists and 54 arrests.

The Mosleyites and other far right groups seemed determined to push back against this robust local response. Two nazi rallies were announced in East London for the same day, September 3rd.

Thousands of angry East Enders turned out to prevent the Fascists from meetings and to physically prevent them from speaking. Meetings at Hertford Road, Dalston, and Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, were broken up or drowned out.

The Jewish Yellow Star Movement had occupied the pitch the small far-right British National Party had planned to speak at in Ridley Road, holding an all-day marathon meeting with 136 speakers.

An attempt had been made to speak at Ridley Road by a few fascists, who had (according to a letter in the Gazette published a few days later) been beaten up: “by Yellow Star members, who were said to have outnumbered them by about a hundred to one”. Whether the letter is accurate about the Yellow Star being involved in any agro is debateable. The Yellow Star was as an organisation avowedly non-violent. However, many anti-fascists were not; the 62 Group espoused the old 43 Group tactic of physically attacking nazis. The opposition to the attempt of the far right to rise again was broad and diverse, ranging from Liberals to communists and beyond; the fash however were keen to portray all their opponents as being basically the same. In fact tactical differences on how to oppose fascism were, as ever, divisive and led to splits and rows.

The BNP meeting was instead held in Hertford Road, a few streets away (just south of Balls Pond Road):

“At Hertford Rd, the British National Party meeting, led by Mr John Bean the party’s acting secretary, was met with strong opposition by a large crowd of mostly Jewish people, and the twelve supporters were told to stop the meeting. In an address, Mr Bean, who was guarded by mounted policemen, said his speaker system had been ‘smashed’ and a Land Rover had been wrecked. Most of what he said was inaudible because of the heckling. Two of his supporters stood in front of him with bandaged heads. They had earlier been in a scuffle with anti-fascists in Kingsland Rd. Yellow Star held a marathon filibuster meeting at Ridley Rd., Dalston, which lasted all day, forcing the British National Party to hold [its] meeting a quarter of a mile away at Hertford Rd.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

According to an anti-fascist eyewitness account:

“East London anti-fascists had taken the Ridley Road meeting pitch where the British National Party had planned to speak. A large crowd was enjoying the sunshine but there was an air of expectancy among them. News was coming in of a much larger crowd of anti-fascists waiting a few miles away at Victoria Park Square for Mosley’s gang to arrive.
Early in the afternoon the anti-fascists’ chief steward was quietly asked to go with two men and sit on the floor of a taxi. In the next few minutes he was briefed to find 200 people who would be prepared to help jump the BNP. Slowly, in twos and threes, hand-picked people were moved out to the assembly point. Here the Field lo Commander of the 62 Group, Cyril Paskin, told us that in ten minutes we would split into three attack groups and get the nazis who would be in Balls Pond Road. He said if anybody here is not a fighter or does not like violence, that is no shame. but please just go away, we do not need an audience.
The BNP leaders, Andrew Fountaine and John Bean,  and two minders were at the local police station trying to negotiate another venue for their meeting. They had a very lucky escape as around 400 anti-fascists led by the 62 Group section leaders mounted a running attack at
the nazis. It was all over within five minutes. Nearly every nazi present needed hospital treatment, including  some of their professional boxers from Leeds.
I looked around and saw Bobby Sulkin, a former East End boxer, hit a nazi so hard that his feet left the ground. The nazi had been a pro boxer and nazi bully boy for had
years. Now he was in the gutter where he belonged.”

Meanwhile around 3000 anti-fascists had gathered in Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, where Mosley was planning to speak. The activists who had attacked the BNP crowd now made it over to Bethnal Green to join them:

“As quick as the first strike was over, the organisers were shifting nearly a thousand people to join the 3,000 anti-fascists in Bethnal Green. Cars were stopped and drivers asked politely, and sometimes not so politely, to take three or four passengers to the second front.”

At least one of these cars nearly ended up delivering its passengers accidentally into the wrong crowd:

“I was in a car driven by a former veteran of the International Brigade who was now fighting the fascists where he worked on the railway at King’s Cross station. We made a wrong turn and a line of police opened up to show us the way to within feet of the fascist lorry being used as a platform. We made a rapid withdrawal, scattering a number of fascists on the way out.”

A huge police presence saved the Mosleyites from getting the same treatment as the BNP but the fighting was very fierce. The fascists were chased out, there were many arrests on both sides, but anti-fascists felt the day was successful.

“Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement meeting at Victoria Park Square collapsed under a hail of stones, eggs and fruit, and resulted in over 40 arrests. Mr Jeffrey Hamm started the meeting with a few supporte[r]s. When Sir Oswald arrived about an hour later, the crowd had increased and eggs were being thrown. He climbed onto the speaker’s ‘platform’ – a lorry – and spoke for two minutes, but his speech was drowned by shouts of “Six million Jews! Belsen, down with Mosley!” Then the police ordered the meeting to close. As Mosley moved away the crowed advanced towards his car and hammered on the windows with their fists. He was followed by his supporters, mainly teenagers, in the speakers lorry. Later, Mosley was reported to have said that he intended to hold more meetings.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

One 62 Group member recalled: “I remember seeing the retreating Mosleyites giving Nazi salutes on the back of their lorry. I picked up a heavy object and hurled it into the middle of them. It certainly took the smirks off their faces.” 

Later, at the junction outside the ‘Salmon and Ball’ pub (0n the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road) “a lorry loaded with Mosley supporters, mostly young boys, came under a bombardment of pennies, the result of which might well have been that several lost their eyes.” (Letter to Hackney Gazette, 11/9/62)

Another fascist attempt to hold a meeting seems to have been held a few days later – with similar results:

“Followers of Sir Oswald Mosley fought a series of running battles with Hackney Young Socialist supporters and others in the Ridley Rd., Dalston, area on Sunday. The scuffles spread along Ridley Rd.[]into Kingsland Rd. and nearby side streets as 50-60 police moved in and arrested 14 people, among them two juveniles. Sir Oswald’s plans to hold a rally were thwarted by Hackney Young Socialists who staged a day[-]long meeting in the weekday market place. Instead, the Union Movement leader addressed followers in Hertford Rd., Dalston, a few hundred yards away. He spoke for some 25 minutes to an audience of his own supporters hemmed in by a tight cordon of police. This meeting passed off without incident. Then about 20 of his audience moved off to Ridley Rd. Shortly afterwards fighting broke out at the previously peaceful Ridley Rd. meeting. Police who were disbanding after the Mosley meeting were quickly called to Ridley Rd., as anti- fascists began actively protesting against the heckling Union Movement men, among them Mosley’s 20 year old son, Max. One young man wearing the Union Movement badge, chased along Kingsland High Street by other men, then trapped in a doorway and pulled to the ground and pummelled before being rescued by police. Other clashes broke out in sidestreets as the Fascist supporters left the area. As the main party of hecklers tried to drive off in their car, other cars attempted to hem them in. More scuffles followed all over the road.” (Hackney Gazette, 18/9/62)

Sustained anti-fascist activity had its effect. Constant attacks on fascists from the Union Movement forced Mosley to suspend conventional political activity in 1963. The 62 Group and other anti-fascist groups also harassed the British National Party, and the smaller Greater Britain Movement and National Socialist Movement, their meetings were occupied, HQs targeted, and membership lists stolen… A number of fascists turned to arson against Jewish targets when open meetings became too risky; infiltration by the 62 Groups helped uncover some of the arsonists.

Despite this, a number of far right groups came together in 1966-67 to form the National Front, to become the largest and most effective fascist organisation to date. The BF’s concentration on attacking Black and Asian migration rather than Jewish communities would win them a populist support in the 1970s: and a new generation of anti-fascists would arise to oppose them…

Some film of September 3rd 1962:

All this month? in London riotous history, 1826: gangs commit mass robbery, Bethnal Green

In 1826, a series of robberies by a large gang were the cause of great fear and loathing in Bethnal Green and Spitalfields. Camping out on Spicer Street, off Brick Lane, they were allegedly engaged in collective attacks on herds of animals being driven to market through the East End, to thieve and use for food, as well as mugging the wealthy in the area. These ‘outrages’ apparently occurred every night at this point. Deputations of angry local residents petitioned the magistrates and Home Secretary Robert Peel for some official intervention – Peel assigned 40 of the Horse Patrol to the area.

The contemporary reports actually obscure as much as they shed light on:

“Last Monday forenoon, at 12 o’clock, pursuant to appointment, Messrs. Millingfield and Marsden, the two Churchwardens of St. Mathew, Bethnal-green, and Mr. Brutton, the Vestry Clerk, waited upon the Secretary of State at the Home-office, where they were met by Mr. Osborne and Mr. Twyford, the magistrates of Worship-street Police-office. The object of the meeting was to devise some measures to suppress the dreadful riots and outrages that take place every night in the parish, by a lawless gang of thieves, consisting of 500 or 600, whose exploits have caused such alarming sensations in the minds of the inhabitants, that they have actually found it necessary to shut up their shops at an early hour, to protect their property from the ruffians.

In order to give some idea of the outrages that have been, and are hourly committed, we merely give the following instances, and the disciplined manner in which the ruffians go to work:-

The gang rendezvous in a brick-field at the top of Spicer-street, Spitalfields, and out-posts are stationed to give an alarm should any of the civil power approach, and their cry is “Warhawk,” as a signal for retreat. On the brick-kilns in this field they cook whatever meat and potatoes they plunder from the various shops in the neighbourhood, in the open day, and in the face of the shopkeeper.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, being market days, (Monday and Friday at Smithfield, and Wednesday at Barnet,) they sally out into the suburbs, and wait in ambush till a drove of beasts passes; they then attack the drovers, and take a beast from the drove, and convey it into the marshes till night; when they hunt it through the metropolis, and whilst the passengers and inhabitants are in the utmost state of alarm, they plunder, and in many instances nearly murder, every person that they meet; there are now no less than five individuals lying in the London infirmary, without hopes of recovery, that have fallen into the hands of the gang. Within the last fortnight, upwards of 50 persons have been robbed, and cruelly beaten, and one of the gang was seen one day last week to produce, amongst some of his associates, nearly half a hat-full of watches…”

The attacks attributed to this gang had mounted up: “On Friday, being market day at Smithfield, the gang were on the look out for beasts, and we hear that, as early as six in the morning, two bullocks were taken from a drove. On Wednesday a bullock was rescued from them in the Kingsland-road, and after being secured in Clement’s barn till the gang had been dispersed, it was conveyed home to its owner, MR. ALEXANDER, in Whitechapel market. It was reported, that MR. SYKES, the proprietor of the ham and beef shop in Winchester-street, Hare-street-fields, had died on Friday in the London Hospital, of the dreadful injuries he received from the gang, but we are happy to say he is still alive. It seems that MR. SYKES had only set up in business a few days, when about eight o’clock in the evening, about twenty fellows came round his shop, armed with sticks; he suspected they intended an attack, and for security got behind the counter, when the whole gang came in, and seizing a buttock of beef and a ham, ran out of the shop. He endeavoured to prevent them by putting out his arm, when one of them, with a hatchet or hammer, stuck him a tremendous blow which broke it in a dreadful manner; it has been since amputated, and he now lies in a very bad state. The gang then went into a baker’s shop and helped themselves to bread, and afterwards adjourned to the brick-field, and ate the provisions in a very short time.”

Additionally: “On Wednesday se’nnight the gang attacked a lady and gentleman that were in a chaise in the Bethnal-green-road, and after robbing and beating them most inhumanly, they cut the reins and traces to prevent a pursuit.”

Pressure mounted on the authorities to do something effective to clamp down on the robberies:

“The Secretary of State on Saturday had an interview with the magistrates of the district, respecting the state of that part of the metropolis, and anxiously inquired if the robbers were distressed weavers? We understand that an answer was given in the negative; but that they were a set of idle and disorderly fellows that have been long known to the police as reputed thieves.

The deputation remained with Mr. Peel till one o’clock, and explained to him the necessity of a strong body of men (in addition to those already stationed there) being sent into the neighbourhood, as they felt confident that the robbers, who were well armed, would boldly attack (as they have done before) the civil power.

The Right Hon. Secretary assured the deputation, that immediate means should be adopted to rid the parish of the intruders.”

Peel responded quickly; he “gave immediate orders for a detachment of Horse Patrol to be stationed day and night in the neighbourhood; and on Friday morning a party of forty men, to be under the jurisdiction of the Magistrates of Worship-street Police-office, were mounted; they are a party of able-bodied men who have held situations in the army, accoutred with cutlasses, pistols, and blunderbusses. – They will be in constant communication with forty of the dismounted patrol. The dismounted are divided into parties, and are stationed at the following posts, viz.:- Cambridge Heath Gate, Mile-end Gate, Whitechapel Church, London Apprentice Gate, and near the Regent’s Canal in the Mile End-road. Both parties are to remain on duty till five o’clock in the morning.”

The prompt manner in which the Right Hon. Secretary of State attended to the application of the parochial authorities of Bethnal-green, respecting the riots in that neighbourhood, has afforded great gratification to the parishioners, and by the formidable appearance of the detachment of Horse Patrol that were parading the thoroughfares in the parish the whole of Monday, the gang was deterred from coming forth. Three fellows were taken up on Monday night. One is supposed to be of the gang that so inhumanly attacked and robbed Mr. Fuller, the surgeon, at Cambridge-heath, for which three fellows are now awaiting their trials at the Old Bailey. Mr. Peel has given authority to the magistrates of Worship-street, to establish a Horse Patrol, under their own jurisdiction, and the expenses to be paid out of the hands of the office.”

It seems likely that diverse crimes may have been lumped together in reports; also that the numbers given for the size of the ‘gangs’ involved may have been exaggerated. Rumour, panic and outrage combined to inflate events…

The court case mentioned above, for the attack on ‘Mr Fuller’, had, though, it seemed taken place at the Old Bailey on 14th September (three days after the crime? Possibly a dating error? Really summary justice? Like Kier Starmer making sure courts sat all night after the 2011 riots to get conviction as quick as possible?)

Here is a transcript of the trial:

“GEORGE HOUGHTON, JAMES BOYCE, HENRY BOYCE.

Violent Thefthighway robbery.

14th September 1826

Before Mr. Justice Littledale.

GEORGE HOUGHTON , JAMES BOYCE , and HENRY BOYCE were indicted for feloniously assaulting Henry Fuller, on the King’s highway, on the 11th of September , at St. Matthew Bethnal-green , putting him in fear, and taking from his person, and against his will, 1 case of surgical instruments, value 40s.; 2 cases of lancets, value 20s.; 1 hat, value 20s.; 1 handkerchief, value 1s.; 1 pen-knife, value 1s.; 1 pin-cushion, value 1d.; 2 sovereigns, 3 shillings, and 1 sixpence, his property .

ALLEY conducted the prosecution.

Mr. HENRY FULLER. I am a surgeon , and live in Suffolk-place, Hackney-road. On the evening of the 11th of September, about half-past seven o’clock, or a few minutes later, I was returning home from visiting a patient, and when I arrived on a place called Fleet-street-hill , I heard footsteps behind me, and the word “Now,” and immediately after a loud whistle – about twenty persons surrounded me all in a moment; my arms were immediately pinioned; several of them had sticks, and stood in front of me; the prisoner James Boyce is the person who seized my right arm; I could not observe the person who seized the other; my elbows were tied behind me with a rope; one of them said, “If the b-g-r speaks knock his bl-y brains out;” I do not know who that was. The prisoner, James Boyce, immediately said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” I begged of them not to hurt me, and they might take whatever I had got; James Boyce said, “We won’t hurt you – we will have what you have got;” James Boyce then took from my right-hand trousers pocket a case of surgical instruments, and two cases of lancets, and from my right-hand waistcoat pocket three keys, and a piece of ass’s skin – my left-hand pockets were rifled by the person on the other side – from my trousers pocket he took two sovereigns, three shillings, a sixpence, and a pen-knife, which had a broken point – one of them took my hat off – that was neither of the prisoners; my cravat was then taken off; as soon as the man had taken my hat he said, “Now, give the b-g-r a rum one” – James Boyce said, “No, don’t hurt the poor b-g-r,” and they did not do me any personal injury. I am quite certain of James Boyce – Houghton came up to me, and felt my fob pocket; he unbuttoned the flap of my breeches, and felt to see if I had a watch, but James Boyce, who had examined it before, said, “The b-g-r has got no toy;” I had no watch. As they were about to leave me I asked James Boyce to give me my keys, as they would be of no service to them – he returned one key, and they all ran away immediately. On the following morning I went to the Police-office, and got Garton, Gleed, Armstrong, Hanley, and other officers, and after the prisoners were apprehended three persons called and told me I could recover my instruments – I communicated that to the officers, and the two cases of lancets were restored to me by Garton – I went with him to Dutton’s, in Brook-street, Spital-square.

Cross-examined by MR. LAW. Q. Nobody but yourself was witness to the transaction? A. One or two women say they were passing, and I believe, one of them is here. I was certainly alarmed – my attention was not much distracted till they threatened to give me a rum one – I then felt more alarmed; I think it impossible I can be mistaken in James Boyce’s person; the parties were all strangers to me before. I am sure I am not mistaken – it lasted about two minutes or more.

  1. Was there much noise or conversation? A. Among themselves; I had plenty of light to see them. I heard voices behind me as well as before – persons were in front and behind; I was not alarmed till one of them took my hat and said, “Give the b-r a rum one;” as Boyce said I should not be hurt.
  2. If Boyce is the individual be interfered to protect you from injury? A. He did.
  3. Does it frequently occur to you to make mistakes in persons, or are you pretty accurate? A. I generally am – I could not speak to the whole twenty, but I observed several of them, so closely as to speak with confidence. I never made a mistake in the identity of a person to my knowledge; there were not twenty persons in my view; I observed several in front, who I can identify; I should know the one who took my hat in a moment if I saw him. – Boyce was apprehended on the Wednesday or Thursday following.

Cross-examined by Mr. PRENDERGAST. Q. You were much frightened? A. When I was threatened – I saw Houghton previously to the threat – he had searched my pockets while they were releasing my arms.

Mr. ALLEY. Q. Had you abundant opportunity of seeing them? A. Yes, and have not the slightest doubt of them all; Henry Boyce was present, but not active – it happened in the parish of Bethnal-green.

JOHN NORRIS . I am an inspector of the dismounted patrol. I apprehended Houghton on the Wednesday morning after the robbery, about six hours after I received the information – I took him in his bed; I told him he must get up and go with me; I asked where he had been on the Monday night before; he said he had had but 2 1/2d. in his pocket, and that he had been to the Angel and Crown public-house, opposite the church in the road (opposite Whitechapel church), spent it, and returned home;

the Angel and Crown is about three quarters of a mile from where the robbery was committed.

[NB: The Angel and Crown was probably on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.]

  1. When he was at the office, but not before the Magistrate, did he say any thing to you? A. He told me afterwards that he had been to the Angel and Trumpet public-house, at Stepney, on the Monday evening.

Cross-examined by MR. PRENDERGAST. Q. You said at first it was in Whitechapel-road. I understood? A. He said the Angel and Crown in the road, opposite the church.

  1. How came you to say “Whitechapel-road?” A. It is in Whitechapel-road; he said he went up Brick-lane to the Angel and Crown, opposite the church in the road, and spent it – he said nothing more on that subject – he said, “in the road,” not Mile-end-road; Mile-end-road and Whitechapel-road are in a line – I cannot tell the difference. I swear he did not say the Angel and Trumpet – he said “in the road, opposite the church” but did not say what church.
  2. ALLEY. Q. Is it called both Mile-end and Whitechapel road? A. I call it both; the Angel and Trumpet is a mile from the other house, and not opposite a church.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. When did he say it was the Angel and Trumpet? A. Not till after Mr. Fullerhad seen him, about an hour and a half afterwards – he said full an hour and a half afterwards that he was at the Angel and Crown, and then contradicted himself, and said it was the Angel and Trumpet – he had spoken to nobody but Mr. Fullerand the officers.

THOMAS GARTON . I am an officer of Worship-street, I accompanied the prosecutor last Saturday to a girl, named Houghton, and she produced these two cases of lancets out of her bosom; Mr. Fuller claimed them; I do not know who she lived with myself.

THOMAS GOODING . I am an officer. I apprehended James Boyce in Brick-lane on the Wednesday night after the robbery; I apprehended Henry Boyce at his mother’s door.

Cross-examined by Mr. LAW. Q. Where did you find James Boyce? A. In Brick-lane, about one hundred yards from where he lives.

WILLIAM DICKENSON . I assisted in apprehending both the Boyces.

  1. FULLER. These are my instruments.
  2. PRENDERGAST. Q. Do you recollect a woman, named Moore, coming to you that night? A. No; I saw her not the next day, but the day following; I have not the slightest doubt of any of the prisoners.

HOUGHTON’S Defence. I have witnesses to prove where I was at the time; I told Norris I was at the Angel and Trumpet, and there remained till I went home to bed.

JAMES BOYCE’S Defence. I have witnesses to say where I was.

HENRY BOYCE’S Defence. I can prove where I was.

MATILDA MOORE . I live at No. 3, Stevens’-buildings. Bethnal-green, at the top of Fleet-street-hill. On Monday, the 11th, about a quarter or ten minutes after eight o’clock, as I came out of my house I saw two young fellows following Mr. Fuller; there was a whistle given, and the word “Now;” then about a dozen surrounded him, and he was robbed; I staid there about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, and was within about fourteen yards of Mr. Fuller; I did not see Houghton there; I cannot take upon myself to say he was not there, as there were so many; there might be thirty; Mr. Fuller did not fall, for I sat with my baby in my arms, and after the robbery was done, I went up, and saw Mr. Fuller, he was very weak and low, and was taken into a chandler’s shop – I did not speak to him; I did not see his hat taken, but, as they ran from the gentleman, I saw a man, named Norton, come under our shop window with his hat in his hand; I had seen them hustling his pockets behind; I did not see either of the prisoners there; they said, “If you offer to resist, or make an alarm, we will knock your b-y brains out.”

WILLIAM ADEY . I live at No. 15, Mead-street, near Shoreditch, in the parish of Bethnal-green, and am a journeyman shoemaker. I know Houghton. On Monday, the 11th of September, I was at the Angel and Trumpet with him; we started to go there at half-past six, and remained there till half-past ten; I will take my oath that he was not out of my sight five minutes during all that time; Sidebottom went with me and Houghton to the house; I do not remember seeing one Hawes there.

  1. ALLEY. Q. Who do you work for now? A. Mr. Pollock, of Shoreditch, near the church on the left hand side – I worked for him at the time of the robbery; I do the work at home with my father; I generally work till eight or nine, but sometimes leave off at dark; on Monday we generally do not get our work ready – we get it prepared – I generally go out earlier on a Monday; my uncle lives with us – neither he or my father are here.
  2. Did Sidebottom fall into a misfortune that night? A. Not that I know of – he was taken on suspicion of a robbery – I heard it was committed that night; I do not know whether he was taken that night; when I left the house I left him in company with a young woman at the door; I left the house at half-past ten o’clock; I know Hawes – I did not see him that evening; I know Fleet-street-hill; I was not there that night – I could go that way home, but I did not – I got home near upon a quarter past eleven o’clock; I saw no robbery that night – I never said I saw the robbery committed as I was going home – I swear that.
  3. Were you never taken up yourself charged with any offence? A. I was taken for a slight offence – they took me for going down a turning, and said I was hunting a bullock – I was fined – I was never in custody for any other offence – the bullock hunt was six weeks or two months ago – I have not seen the landlord of the public-house here – he was not in the house when I went in, but the servant was, and she knows I came in, but her master would not let her come.

COURT. Q. The landlord was not there? A. I did not see him for an hour or two – I did not see the landlady – I saw the female servant – she served us with what we drank, which was porter – we had no brandy or gin – we had two or three pots of porter – Houghton and Sidebottom drank with me – we each paid our own part – it came to 15d. – it was 5d. a pot – I went out on the opposite side of the way, and got some bacon and bread from a shop – I do not know who keeps the shop – I am not often at the Angel and Trumpet – I have been there six or eight times – we each paid 5d. – I changed a sixpence – I cannot say whether Houghton and Sidebottom paid in silver or copper; when I went in I dare say there were ten people in the room, and more came in; I dare say there were fifteen or twenty there when I came away.

  1. Did Houghton call for you to go with him? A. No, I went from my residence at nearly a quarter past six o’clock, and met him down Brick-lane – we met Sidebottom at Hanbury’s brewhouse, about one hundred and fifty yards from where I met Houghton – we went into the public-house together; I got the bread and bacon soon after I went in.

THOMAS SIDEBOTTOM . I am a weaver, and live in Cheshire-street, Hare-street-fields. On Monday week I was in Houghton’s company; I met him in Brick-lane about a quarter to seven o’clock in the evening. with Adey, and we went to the Angel and Trumpet, at Stepney; we remained there till the publican would not draw us any more beer; he said it was time to be going – I was the last who asked him for beer, but not the last in the house – I went away first, and bid Houghton and Adey good night; they were in my company from a quarter to seven o’clock till half-past ten; Houghton did not leave our company all that time – not to my recollection; if he was out it was not for more than five minutes I am sure.

  1. ALLEY. Q. You have stated that you went away first; then Adey could not have left you behind talking to a woman? A. I went out of the house first – he did not leave me behind; I was taken up that night on suspicion – they said it was for stealing some pork; I was put into the watch-house, and discharged the next day; I know Fleet-street-hill – I went down Brick-lane that night about a quarter to seven o’clock; I do not know whether you call that passing Fleet-street-hill – it is at the end of the street – it was not a quarter past seven.

COURT. Q. Were you in company with any woman that night? A. I was speaking with a young woman at the door when I left the house; Houghton and Adey came out just after me, and left me at the door talking to the young woman.

  1. Who drank with you? A. Houghton and Adey, and another young man, who was in the house when I went in; we had two or three pots of beer; I will not be certain how many; I know what I paid for; I paid 2 1/2d. for a pint; Adey paid for the first pot himself; I think he gave a 6d.; he went out after asking for a newspaper,(which he could not get), and fetched some bread and bacon – the servant of the house served us with beer; I saw the landlord, but not when I first went in; I do not know whether the young woman who brought the beer was the landlady or servant; I had met them in Brick-lane.
  2. What makes you certain this was the 11th of September? A. I cannot be certain of the date, but it was on Monday – last Monday week; I had been ino the City about work.
  3. PRENDERGAST. Q. You say there was another man at the house? A. Yes; he was not in our company at first, but drank with us; I do not know his name – I never saw him before.

JAMES BARRATT . I am a bricklayer, and live at Stepney. Last Monday week I was in company with Houghton and Adey, at the Angel and Trumpet, Stepney, kept by Smith; I went there a quarter before eight o’clock, and staid till half-past ten.

  1. Was Houghton there when you went in? A. Yes; we all went in together, and never went outside the door, not for three minutes, except for a necessary purpose.
  2. Do you mean you went in in company or at the same time? A. I went in at the same time as they did – they asked me to drink out of two or three pots of beer; I did not know them before – the two last witnesses were with him – we all went out together – the landlord would not draw any more beer.
  3. Who applied for more beer, which was refused to be drawn? (the witness Sidebottom here said “It was me.”) A. It was that person (pointing to Sidebottom).
  4. ALLEY. Q. How lately have you been at work as a bricklayer? A. Yesterday; I do not know Fleet-street-hill – it was a quarter to eight o’clock when I went into the public-house.
  5. Can you run two miles in a quarter of an hour? A. I do not know; I saw no robbery that night.
  6. Did you happen to be taken up for stealing pork? A. No. I will take my oath, since I have been out of the country, I have not stolen a thing; I was never in custody.

Two witnesses gave Houghton a good character.

WILLIAM NICHOLS . On Monday night, the 11th of September, I saw James Boyce at the corner of King-street; it might be ten minutes past seven o’clock, but I will swear it was not later; I remained in his company till a quarter-past nine, by Hanbury’s brewhouse clock; we stood talking there all that time; Chandler came up about a quarter-past seven, and remained with us till we went away, and during that time two other men came up – we were talking about the business at Bow – we are all silk weavers; I had left my work at dark, and was talking about the state of the business. I live in George-street.

  1. ALLEY. Q. What distance is King-street from Fleet-street-hill – close by – is it not? A. Not very close – I dare say it is four or five hundred yards; I will take my oath he was a yard from me all that time – both him and his brother were there; and about five or ten minutes after eight, two Bow-street patrols, one named Skilling, came up and saw up talking.

JOHN CHANDLER . I was in Boyce’s company on the 11th of September – I fell in company with them, about a quarter past seven o’clock, at the corner of St. John’s-street; the two Boyces stood there with two or three more men; I crossed over to them, to hear about the trade, and remained in their company till after nine o’clock.

  1. ALLEY. Q. When did you get up? A. At a quarter-past seven o’clock; I went with them down St. John-street, to go and have a pint of beer – they left me at the corner of St. John-street – I crossed over to an old lady, named Lowing, and heard of the robbery.

BENJAMIN WEEDON . On the night of the 11th I was going up Hare-street, and about five minutes to eight o’clock, I saw both the Boyces at the corner of King-street, and stopped talking there for three-quarters of an hour – I left them at a quarter-past eight.

GEORGE NICHOLS . On the night of the 11th of September I joined the Boyces, as near as I can say, about seven or eight o’clock – it was before eight – at the corner of King-street; I stopped there a quarter of an hour, or hardly so much, in conversation with them. Chandler and Nichols were with them – Wheedon and I went up together to them.

COURT. Q. How far is this from Fleet-street-hill? A. About three or four hundred yards, and about thirty yards from their own house.

Four witnesses gave James Boyce a good character.

HOUGHTON – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 17.

  1. BOYCE – GUILTY – DEATH . Aged 25.
  2. BOYCE – NOT GUILTY .

James Boyce was recommended to mercy by the Jury and Prosecutor, having protected him from personal injury. – (Vide Ninth Day’s proceedings.)

Houghton’s sentence was commuted: he was sentenced to be transported for twenty one years on 9th January 1827 (aged 18) He was sent to Van Diemens Land.

James Boyce was executed on 29th November 1826, aged 25.

The Context ?

The collective expropriation described 1826 was year of poverty in this part of the East End: in Spitalfields, for instance, the silkweavers (working in the area’s major area of employment) had recently suffered the repeal of the Spitalfields Acts, which to some extent guaranteed their wage levels and defended against excessive exploitation by their masters… The trade was lunged into depression as a result and declined rapidly thereafter. What impact did this have on local poverty, and what impact might it have had on the emergence of the mass social crime on September 1826?

Today in London riotous history, 1821: the funeral of Richard Honey and George Francis

Continuing the story of the two men shot dead during rioting at the funeral of king George IV’s estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick in August 1821; the men’s funeral took place on 26 August and like Caroline’s became a public demonstration that ended in disorder.

here’s a contemporary account:

“PUBLIC FUNERAL OF HONEY AND FRANCIS. A number of Mechanics &c. having met at a public house, and resolved to attend in procession the funeral of the two unfortunate men who had been slaughtered by the Lise Guards; with this view they prevailed on the friends of the deceased to let the funeral be a public one, at Hammersmith church; a measure strongly reprobated by the well-disposed part of the community ; but which the original projectors would not relinquish. as anOU The following statement of the proceedings of the day is from a most respectable source: August the 26th, being the day upon which it was announced that the public funeral of these two unfortunate men was to take place, at the expense of the mechanics of London, an extraordinary interest was excited, not merely among the members of that numerous body, but in a very considerable proportion of the public of this metropolis. Upon the inexpediency and impropriety of the measure itself (which seems to have been resolved upon and effected by a committee of the bricklayers, and carpenters and joiners-of which two trades the deceased themselves were members,) we have already expressed a decided opinion. We condemned it as one which, under existing circumstances, was calculated rather to renew that animosity and irritation which on a recent which this day presented.

We should premise, that Mr. Sheriff Waithman – apprehending the possibility that the public peace might be endangered by the carrying in procession through the principal streets, and along the road to Hammersmith, the bodies of those who fell the unfortunate victims of the needless employment of the military power on the 14th – on Saturday addressed the following letter to several of the newspapers, with a view to dissuade the committee from the public execution of their designs:

Sir,-Seeing a paragraph that has appeared in some of the papers, that a procession is intended to proceed to morrow from Smithfield, to accompany the funeral of the two unfortunate men who were shot on the 14th inst. near Cumberland-gate, as I have assisted the relatives of one of those individuals in the investigating the circumstances which led to his death, I feel called upon to say, through the medium of your paper, that I highly deprecate such a proceeding, and particularly as the matter is now under judicial inquiry; and earnestly’ hope that the public will refrain from attending the proposed meeting. “ I am, Sir, your obedient servant, “ Bridge – street , Aug . 25 . ROBERT WAITHMAN.”

Finding, however, that the individuals in question were bent upon effecting their original intentions, the worthy Sheriff accompanied the procession in person. To his exertions and assiduous attention is mainly to be attributed the general good order in which the proceedings of the morning were conducted. It is very remarkable that it was not till four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday that the Lord Mayor received the usual notification from Lord Bathurst, desiring him to take the proper measures for keeping the peace of the city during the next day. The Sheriffs of the county received no such intimation whatever; but the moment that the High Sheriff (Mr. Waithman) was satisfied that the procession would take place, he adopted the most prompt and vigorous measures to preserve the public peace. He wrote to Mr. Burchell, the Under Sheriff, desiring him to order out a sufficient posse of constables for the county, and sent a similar letter to the Secondary, with a like request for city constables. [ We subjoin a copy of the letter to , and answer from , these gentlemen . ]:

“ GENTLEMEN – A placard having appeared , inviting an assemblage of the people to – morrow in Smithfield , at twelve o ‘ clock , to pass up Holborn to Hammersmith , I wish you to have the officers and constables in readiness to prevent any breach of the peace . I do not wish to have them appear amongst the people , but to have them in readiness to act , in case there should be a necessity for their so doing.” “Sir, We have, agreeably to your directions, summoned the constables and officers to be in Charter-house-square to-morrow morning, at eleven o’clock precisely, ready to receive your further instructions. “ We are, Sir, your obedient humble Servants, ‘ “ Henchman and BURCHELL, “ Sheriffs’ officers, Red Lion-square, Aug. 25. “ To Mr. Sheriff Waithman, &c.”

Mr. Waithman met the chief officers of the peace, and gave similar directions for the attendance of constables; and having no apprehension of any tumults, save near the barracks, posted the larger proportion of the men in that vicinity, and, previously to the passing of the procession, he repeatedly rode in among the people, entreating them to abstain from hissing or using any other expressions of anger towards the soldiers. The general rendezvous was appointed for twelve o’clock in Smithfield; and long before that hour multitudes had congregated there.

A few minutes before twelve, some men on foot with mourning hatbands came down Long-lane; and shortly after them, Dr. Watson, of Spa-fields notoriety, attended by six or seven of his friends, entered the market-place by another avenue. Infinite confusion and uncertainty prevailed among the crowd, as to the direction which the first part of the intended procession was to take or had taken, when Dr. Watson addressed the spectators, for the purpose of dispelling their doubts. Having mounted upon the top of a post, he informed his fellow-countrymen, “that it would be useless for them to wait there any longer, as the procession was not to proceed from thence, but from Kingsgate-street, Holborn, in the neighbourhood of which the body of Francis lay.”

This information proved to be correct; but that some feud had sprung up, or that some misunderstanding existed between the Doctor and the managing committee, was evidenced by the appearance of several members of the latter, preserve the strictest order. At about half-past one the first part of the procession, consisting of the hearse and four, which contained the coffin of Francis, followed by four mourning coaches and pairs, and preceded by a man bearing a plateau of feathers, began to move from the neighbourhood of Red-Lion-square. As it advanced up Holborn, at a slow and solemn pace, it was met by one or two friendly societies, and by a band of music, which accompanied it all the way to Hammersmith, playing the Dead March in Saul, the 95th, the 100th, and other Psalms. The feeling which was apparent in the demeanour of the mourners, relatives and friends of the deceased—the undisturbed order and quietness with which they proceeded, and the general sympathy of the beholders, formed an interesting scene. From every street and avenue, at the windows of every house, in the carriage-road, on the pathway, crowds were collected, and a sense of decorum appeared to pervade the whole of them.

The procession having at length reached Oxford-street, was joined (nearly at that part where it is intersected by the Regent’s Circus and the other new streets) by the hearse which carried the body of Honey, and which had been waiting between Soho-square and Dake-street. This hearse was preceded by feathers, and followed by four mourning coaches, precisely in the same way as the other was, and we observed the High Sheriff and his Deputy a little in advance. The scene was striking, and neither the incredible numbers of the spectators, nor the long continued succession of vehicles of every description with which the streets were thronged, detracted from its general effect, which was mournful and extraordinary. When the procession had arrived near the end of Stratford-place, that effect was much heightened from the advantageous view which this position afforded. Two gorgeous banners, which were borne by the ‘Provident Brothers,’ and another society, offered a singular spectacle, in the contrast of their purple and yellow silks, decked in gold and silver embroidery, with long weepers of black crape, that were attached to them.

The multitude that was now assembled defied all calculation; yet the procession met with no obstruction in its course. It between that and Park-lane; and it was curious to observe from some point where these streets intersected one another, five or six dense columns of people, hastening down at once through as many streets, in order to arrive at Piccadilly in as little time as possible. Other individuals were not so fortunate; for, seeing the great concourse of equestrians, and vehicles of every imaginable variety, that almost choked up Park-lane, they ran to Cumberland-gate, in the expectation of getting through the Park. The gate, however, proved to be impracticable ; it was locked, and a chain was drawn across it. We did not see a single soldier near the place. In our way through Park-lane, we were struck with the utter solitude of the Park. We had almost said that not an individual was to be seen in it; but certain it is, that the Sunday promenaders, with whom it is usually so replete, were yesterday replaced by a small straggling party of the police horse patrol, who were riding up and down in undisputed possession. Stanhope-gate was not merely blocked up, but the iron gate was covered by a complete fencing of deal planks.

Before the procession reached to Hyde-park corner, every eminence between that and Knightsbridge barracks was thronged with spectators. Doorways, windows, and the tops of houses, for nearly the whole line, were crowded to excess. The footways on both sides of the road presented a dense mass of persons, as closely thronged together as it was possible for a moving mass to be. But the crowd was not confined to the footways alone : the carriage-road was so far encroached upon by pedestrians, that, at a first appearance, one would have thought it possible the funeral could pass through. As the procession advanced, however, way was made, and it came through, though in a much more compact body than it presented in any street from its first setting out.

Before it reached Knightsbridge barracks, every house and place, which commanded a view of that situation, was occupied. Indeed, so great was the anxiety for places from which to view the procession in that quarter, that as high as five shillings were offered for a single window- at another it was rumoured that the gates would be allowed to remain open, as they are on ordinary occasions. We were, however, very glad to find on our arrival that neither of those rumours had any foundation. For a considerable time before the arrival of the procession at the barracks, the gates were closely shut, and not a soldier was to be seen, except here and there a few who looked through the closed windows of the upper apartments. When the body of the procession was seen advancing towards Knightsbridge, some of the persons who had taken their stand in front of the barracks began to hiss and call out, “Butchers. This intemperate expression was no sooner enunciated than it was loudly condemned by the majority of the bystanders.

Mr. Sheriff Waithman was on horseback in the neighbourhood of the barracks, and exerted himself very earnestly to suppress every attempt which could lead to a breach of the peace. He was assisted in his laudable endeavours by a gentleman who acted as his Under Sheriff, and by a few other gentlemen on horseback, whose names we could not collect. Wherever the Sheriff went, he was loudly cheered by the people, who on every occasion paid the utmost attention to his orders not to disturb the peace. The first outcries against the Guards were very speedily put down. In a short time, however, they were renewed by a few individuals who had come on before the procession, but who had not been present at the previous expression of disapprobation by their predecessors. This intemperate conduct, we were happy to observe, was received with loud cries of Order, order,’ and was immediately put down. The persons who had the conducting of the procession appeared to us to be strenuously opposed to every act on the part of the surrounding thousands which could at all tend to disturb the public tranquillity.

We should here observe, that as soon as the first expression of disapprobation on the part of the people was evinced towards the Guards, they (the Guards) removed back from the windows through which they were seen. The greater part of them did not again make their W be properly denominated the funeral, approached close to the barracks, the utmost silence was observed; the greater part of the persons who walked arm in arm in front were uncovered, as were the majority of the by-standers. The scene at this instant was certainly very striking. Viewed from the tops of the houses in front of the barracks, the road, as far as the eye could reach on either side, was thronged as closely as it was possible for it to be by human beings congregated together. The hearses and mourning coaches had receded a little from the spot on which we stood, the parts above the wheels alone were visible, and they appeared as if floating in the midst of the thousands by which they were surrounded. From the spot of which we now speak, we do not think that the number of persons within view at both sides could have been less than from 70,000 to 80,000, though the exact numbers cannot of course be ascertained.

From Knightsbridge, the procession moved on in the same order, till it reached Kensington. Here there was a halt for some moments, in consequence of the difficulty of passing through the immense multitudes which had there assembled. Not an eminence from which a view could be commanded was left unoccupied. Here also the utmost good order prevailed among the crowds who formed, as well as among those who witnessed, the procession. It was every where received in a solemn and becoming manner. It then moved on from Kensington to Hammersmith. The houses along the road were all, as elsewhere, lined with spectators, who exhibited, if not a strong, at least a decent sympathy with the melancholy pageant which was passing before them. In many places the hedges were also filled with groups of observers.

About four o’clock the procession arrived at Hammersmith. The bell of the church began to toll as soon as it entered into the town, and did not cease till both the coffins were placed within its walls. The body of Francis was the first which reached the churchyard; and as soon as it arrived there, preparations were made for taking it out of the hearse. The persons who had taken part in the procession advanced first, England. It was carried by a person in deep mourning, and was followed by the supporters of the coffin, who were eight in number. A rich pall – and here again the difference between the funerals of these two poor mechanics, and that of the late Consort of the most potent monarch, George IV, presented itself to the mind – was thrown over the coffin, and thrown over it with a decency and solemnity which formed a striking contrast to the scene which was exhibited a short time before at Harwich.

Such of the mourners as were of the family of the deceased came next, and appeared to excite a strong interest amongst the crowds who were assembled in the church-yard. As soon as they had effected their entrance, which they did by the south gate, that gate was closed, to prevent a fresh influx of strangers upon those who were already assembled there, and who filled every inch of vacant ground that was to be found within the yard, to say nothing of the walls and trees which surround it. The clergyman, as is usual, met the corpse at the church gate, and read over it the solemn commencement of our burial service, – I am the resurrection and the life, ‘&c. &c. At that moment, as if by general consent, every head was uncovered, and not a sound was to be heard among the immense multitudes thus collected, except that of the trumpets accompanying the procession, which played a funeral psalm. The whole scene was impressive. It would be almost impossible to collect the same persons again together, and to influence them with a similar feeling with that which at that moment actuated them.

The coffin and its bearers proceeded at a slow pace through the midst of them, calling forth their remarks at every step. At last it reached the church porch, into which it was pre ceded by the two banners. As soon as the body of Francis had been placed on the rude kind of scaffold which was prepared in the interior of the church for its reception, orders were sent to admit into the church-yard the body of Honey, which for a few moments had been waiting at the entrance of it. It was ushered into the church with the same order and decency, and received by the people in the church-yard ‘with the same feeling, as had been evinced by them in the case of Francis. It was found, however, impossible to close the gates, which had been opened to admit this part of the procession. The wand-bearers endeavoured, but and on looking down into the chancel, we found it to be quite filled with the mourners who belonged to the family of these two unfortunate victims of military execution. The men who held the two banners which we have before noticed, placed themselves in the pew of her late Majesty, which, as well as the pulpit, was covered with black cloth, in consequence of her decease. The banners themselves, covered as they were with crapé, added to the picturesque appearance of the place, and increased the general melancholy which had been inspired by the sight of the escutcheons, between which they were ranged—those mournful memorials of departed royalty.

On the clergyman’s proceeding to read the impressive litany for the dead, enjoined by the Church of England, a vast, majority of the congregation drew forth their prayer-books, and followed him through it, thus giving another proof, if indeed any were wanted, that the lower orders of the people of England are not the immoral, irreligious, and infidel crew, which some of the unfeeling Pharisees of the age wish to represent them. After the funeral psalms, and that sublime and affecting chapter taken out of the first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, had been read, the two coffins were carried to the grave. We do not know, sand shall not pretend to conjecture, what feelings influenced the people to such conduct; but were surprised at observing the eagerness displayed by numbers, both of men and women, to touch the coffins of the deceased as they were conveyed from the church to their last home. If they had believed in the efficacy of religious relics, and had conceived the coffin to contain the bodies of some of the earliest martyrs, they could not have touched them with stronger feelings of regard and veneration. The banners accompanied them to the grave, and on earth being committed to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,’ were lowered over them in the most impressive and CAS affecting silence.

On the conclusion of the funeral service, the different friends of the deceased retired to the mourning coaches which were waiting for them, attended by the warmest sympathies of all present. It ought not, however, to be overlooked, that the deep grief of the children of the either with the place, or the ceremony which they had just witnessed. With this exception in the conduct of a few, and but a few individuals, every thing which passed in the church-yard was highly creditable to their moral and religious feelings, notwithstanding the efforts which some individuals made, but in vain, to create a disturbance among the populace during the time that the funeral was in the church.

As soon as the motion of the mourning coaches made it known to the multitudes who were collected in the streets of Hammersmith, that the funeral was over, they began to turn their steps towards the metropolis. It was evident from their orderly conduct on the road to Hammersmith, that unless some irritation was given to them by the appearance of the Life Guards at Knightsbridge barracks, nothing would occur tó disturb the general peace and tranquillity which had prevailed on their whole line of march during the day. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, who, as our readers will have seen, had been most actively and successfully employed during the whole advance of the procession in using his influence to soothe the irritated feelings of the people, posted himself, and such of the posse comitatus as he had thought proper to call out, opposite to the barracks, in order that he might, if possible, prevail upon them to dispense with those expressions of indignation against the Life Guards, which the people thought, justly or unjustly, that the conduct of that corps on a recent occasion had richly merited.

About six o’clock a numerous group of soldiers planted themselves in a most conspicuous position before, the front gates of their barrack, and appeared by their behaviour to be challenging the attention of the passengers to their bold and undaunted demeanour. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, observing the manner in which they had ranged themselves on the footpath, along which a great part of the crowd were certain to walk in their return from Hammersmith, rode up to them, and requested them to withdraw from the conspicuous position in which they had placed themselves. The soldiers replied that they had a right to stand in the position which they then occupied, and declared their resolution of not moving from it. Mr. Sheriff Waithman then said to them, that he did not mean to insist, as he was justified in doing, upon their complying with his desire to remove from the footpath; that his sole anxiety was to preserve the public peace; and to effect that it been complied with in the first instance, would have indisputably prevented all the commotion which afterwards ensued, the soldiers persisted in retaining their station. The worthy Sheriff then asked them to give him the name of their commanding officer, that he might communicate with him upon the subject. To that proposition the soldiers, at whose head was either a corporal or a serjeant, gave a most unqualified refusal. Mr. Waithman made, however, another attempt to effect his object. He sent two or three of his officers into the barracks to find out the gentleman in command of the regiment, and ordered them to deliver his respectful compliments to him, and to state how expedient it would be to withdraw the military from the view of the populace. If the report of the officers is to be believed, the answer which they got from the officer to whom they delivered the Sheriff’s message was, “Tell Mr. Waithman, your Sheriff, he may go and be damned; my men shall stay where they are; I will not consent to have them made prisoners of.’ The import of this answer got’ spread among the people, and did not tend to a spirit of conciliation between them and the soldiers.

Different groups kept arriving from Hammersmith with feelings strongly excited by the melancholy fate of Francis and Honey. The news of this answer was not calculated to repress that natural irritation under which they laboured. The worthy Sheriff saw this; and in consequence went up to the gate of the barracks, and said to the men, “As your commanding officer will not give you the orders which appear to me to be necessary to preserve the public peace, I, as Sheriff of the county, to whom the King’s peace in that county is intrusted, take upon myself to act as your commanding officer, and order you to retire this moment within the barracks. If not, I shall look upon you as responsible for all the fatal consequences which may ensue from your obstinacy and perverseness. This was said in the presence of several individuals, both civil and military. The soldiers murmured, but at last reluctantly, and after considerable delay, withdrew within the gates. The people immediately gave Alderman Waithman three cheers. Shortly after this point had been soldiers, who had collected themselves in the windows of their respective apartments, laughed at them, in many cases most loudly, and, in several, shook their fists at the parties surrounding them. The populace retorted the insult by calling them. Piccadilly butchers, cowardly cut-throats, &c., and no longer confined themselves to hissing and hooting. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, whilst this scene was transacting, was riding up and down with his Under Sheriff, endeavouring to mollify the anger of the people. By threatening the more violent spirits that he would order his officers to seize them in case he saw them insult the soldiery, and by using milder arguments to the more peaceably inclined, he succeeded to a certain degree in accomplishing his object. The seeds of disturbance had, however, been sown among the people, and though his presence prevented them from striking deep root, they sprung up with greater vigour as soon as he retired.

Stones at last began to be thrown by both parties, and so simultaneously, that it would be difficult to decide which were the aggressors. In less than two or three minutes after the commencement of this distant warfare, several of the soldiers climbed over the wall into the street, and made an attack on the people, who, as we were informed by a respectable witness, though we certainly did not see the fact ourselves, were maltreating a drunken Life Guardsman, who was staggering through the streets to his quarters. A general engagement ensued between this man’s comrades (some of whom were armed with bludgeons, but none at this time with swords) and the multitude. The success was various; but during the barracks perceived that their friends were defeated, and immediately issued forth armed, some with swords, and others with carbines, to assist them.

It was at that exact moment that we ourselves became eye-witnesses of the scene, and we conceived, and are still inclined to conceive, that it was at this moment that the affray really commenced. It was a frightful spectacle. Soldiers, some dressed, some in their undress, were seen bursting out of the gates of their barracks, clambering over its walls, and rushing, with drawn swords and infuriated looks, into the midst of the unarmed multitude. Others were throwing stones and brickbats into the street from their private rooms, in much greater quantities than were thrown from the street. We saw several people around us struck by them. Some of the people now began to fly from the unequal contest which they were waging, but others stood up to the Guards, in spite of their superiority of offensive weapons, with the most undaunted fortitude.

Blood was flowing on both sides pretty freely, when Mr. Sheriff Waithman, in whose absence this tumult had occurred, rode up to the scene of action, and in the very throng of the contention. He endeavoured to part the combatants, who were then fighting at that end of the barracks which is nearest to Hyde-park. Not succeeding immediately in his efforts, he turned back his horse, and was riding on the foot-path towards the front gate of the barracks, out of which the men armed and unarmed kept continually issuing. As he was going along, he found another party scuffling with the military. He immediately ordered them to desist, and contrived to separate the corporal or sergeant, with whom he had been before conversing at the gate, and who, from the conversation which he had held with him, must have known him as the Sheriff-a point that is material to keep in mind_from the conflict in which he was engaging. The worthy Sheriff immediately desired him to return to his quarters and to induce his companions to return; the answer which the man made him was to slip aside and knock down an individual who was standing near him. Still the Sheriff attempted to persuade him to retire, and whilst he was doing so, a young officer, in plain clothes, came up, and, if we saw rightly, attempted to shoulder the Sheriff off the foot-path. The seeing this outrage, and immediately seized the Sheriff’s horse by the bridle, saying to him, “Damn you, I’ll soon show you the way off the foot-path. Mr. Waithman, around whom there were no more than five or six of his officers, all of whom were struck and wounded by the military, seeing himself thus assaulted, hit the individual thus wilfully impeding him in the discharge of his ministerial duties, a heavy blow on the top of the cap with a riding stick which he had in his hand. The blow stunned the man, but others of his comrades forced the Sheriff and his horse into the middle of the street.

Immediately afterwards every person who witnessed the transaction, either from the streets or the neighbouring houses, must have expected to have seen Mr. Waithman murdered. Two or three ruffians–for they deserve not the name of soldiers—ran at him with their pointed swords; his officers turned them aside; another was seen at the same moment, after having first deliberately taken a cartridge out of his pouch, and primed and loaded his carbine, to place it against his shoulder, and to take deliberate aim at the worthy Alderman. Whilst the carbine was in that situation, a Sheriff’s officer of the name of Levi, ran up, and knocked the ruffian down. The struggle continued a few minutes afterwards, and then suddenly closed, the men retiring, as we understood, by the command of their officers to the barracks.

The Sheriff was then fully occupied in calming the spirits of the enraged multitude, many of whom, even while the struggle was at the hottest, applied to him to know whether they had a right to repel the brutal force which was brought against them, adding, that, if they had, and he would lead them on, they were ready to die by his side. Of course, the Sheriff’s answer to these applications, was an injunction to those who made them to keep themselves quiet, and disperse. That, however, was advice not always very palatable ; for the irritation which these events had excited in the minds of the people was not likely to cease immediately. They stayed, therefore, for a considerable time before the barracks, hooting the military, and loading them with every term of vituperation that the English language could afford them. The women who were in the streets, and who had used towards them. This circumstance rendered it necessary for the Sheriff to remain riding up and down the road till nearly eight o’clock, to prevent the accumulation of crowds before the barracks. This he was at last enabled to accomplish, partly by threats, and partly by the influence which his conduct in the affray with the Life Guards had given him with the multitude. By eight o’clock the streets about Knightsbridge were comparatively cleared, and it did not appear that any interruption of the public tranquillity occurred, save that which has been just recorded. : Fortunately, there was not any person mortally wounded in this affray; though several of the people received heavy contusions, and some severe cuts. Several of the Guards were bleeding copiously from the nose and mouth, when they were called into their quarters.”

(from A Correct, Full, and Impartial Report, of the Trial of Her Majesty, Caroline, Queen Consort of Great Britain, Before the House of Peers, On the Bill of Pains and Penalties – Queen Caroline (consort of George IV, King of Great Britain), John Adolphus

A memorial stone was built to Richard Honey and George Francis in St Paul’s Churchyard, Hammersmith, after collections taken in pubs all over London.

The memorial reads:
Here lie interred the mortal remains of

Richard Honey, Carpenter,

aged 36 years, and of

George Francis, Bricklayer, aged 43 years,

who were slain on the 14th August, 1821, while attending the

funeral of Caroline, of Brunswick,

Queen of England

The details of that melancholy event

Belong to the history of the country

In which they will be recorded

Together with the public opinion

Decidedly expressed relative to the

Disgraceful transactions

Of that disastrous day

Deeply impressed with their fate

Unmerited and unavenged

Their respective trades interred them

At their general expence [sic]

On the 24th of the same month

to their memory.

Richard Honey left one female orphan.

George Francis left a widow and three young children.

Victims like these have fallen in every age

Stretch of pow’r or party’s cruel rage

Until even handed justice comes at last

To amend the future and avenge the past

Their friends and fellow-men lament their doom

Protect their orphans, and erect their tomb.

 

This stone is still visible in the Churchyard…

Today in London’s radical history, 1848: Armed Chartists arrested as they prepare for revolution

Traditional histories of the Chartist movement mostly end with the mass meeting and demonstration on April 10th 1848, when the third great Chartist petition was to be delivered to Parliament. The vast majority of historical accounts agree that the movement declined from this point, and rate it no further, except on some cases to mention, almost as an aside, the arrest of small groups of Chartist in London three months later for plotting to achieve their ends by violent insurrection.

But as David Goodway remarked in his study of London Chartism: “If, after the reverses of the Kennington Common rally and the off-hand rejection of the third great petition by the House of Commons, Chartism stood defeated in the summer of 1848, then the Chartists were yet to find out about it.” Revolutions were sweeping Europe, and many Chartists felt it would take little for radical change to also be achieved in Britain too.

Agitation and campaigning for political reform continued throughout the country, and in London itself, May and June 1848 saw several large demonstrations and a couple of attempts to organise another monster rally or march along the lines of April 10th. Many of the demonstrations were dispersed or prevented by force or banned.

Behind the scenes, some Chartists, frustrated by the repeated failure of peaceful and legal campaigning and petitioning, began planning to bring about the movement’s objectives by more direct means. Arrests of leading Chartists all over the country and of Irish radicals and nationalists with whom much of the Chartist movement was in sympathy and close contact, added an extra spur – the feeling was that not only would asking politely not win working men the vote, but many would be jailed for campaigning.

The atmosphere was electric, and the inspiration of the wave of revolutions and uprisings surging through Europe helped create a buzz of anticipation, ad a sense that maybe change could be won if people would fight for it. At a meeting of Chartist delegates from Lancashire and Yorkshire, held on 28 May, resolutions were passed in favour of forming a National Guard, a term with strong overtones of the French Revolution. Chartists began drilling in military formation in Bradford, Leeds and several other towns in Yorkshire. Chartists in Manchester and Oldham also paraded with weapons. Mass meetings were held all over the country and ‘strong expressions’ were used – which got a number of speakers arrested.

Shortly after a somewhat disappointing turnout for a national demonstration on June 4th, groups of Chartist began meeting clandestinely in the capital to plan an uprising.

Chartism as a movement had always been caught in a tension between its ‘moral force’ and ‘physical force’ camps – those who insisted on sticking to legal, peaceful methods of winning their aims, and those who believed the ruling elites would never grant them more than contempt if they went cap in hand, and that working class political representation could only be achieved by an armed revolution.

Sentiment within Chartism as a broad movement tended to see-saw between these poles, (a bit like the eternal struggle we see between left and right within the Labour Party…!). However, the physical force wing of Chartism was always a minority in the movement – though what size minority varied. In the lifetime of the movement, insurrectionary feeling ebbed and flowed. Another problem was that some Chartist leaders were quite prepared to bluster and sound all physical-force, but in practice were not ready to ever act or support action that backed up their words.

Chartism was part of an almost continuous thread of 60 years of campaigning for political reform – but the movements, organisations and political culture that reached a peak in Chartism drew on several traditions, one of which was a strong Jacobin insurrectionary impulse. Attempts to organise uprisings had capped several of the reform movements in the past half-century, most notably ending with the ‘Despard’ conspiracy of 1802 and the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ in 1820.

There had been a period before when concerted efforts to launch Chartist uprisings had been planned – in the winter of 1839 to 1840, which saw one actual revolt, in Newport, South Wales, and a number of botched plots, mainly in Yorkshire, which got no further than the planning stage. Some discussions were also had in London in 1840 and there were some arrests; but there is little evidence that much was even planned there. Much like the attempt to impose acceptance of the Charter by general strike in 1839, support had just not been there for a Chartist Revolution.

1848 would prove no different. Like most of the radical plots for insurrection since the 1790s, from Despard through Pentrich to Cato Street, the 1848 blueprints for revolution were known to the authorities from the start. Spies reporting to the home Office were deeply embedded in the Chartist movement and exposed the plot step by step as it was drawn up.

George Davis, a member of the Wat Tyler Brigade of Greenwich Chartists, attended meetings throughout the summer as a delegate, and Thomas Riordain Reading, the Northern Star‘s London Irish correspondent also reported to the Home office.

On 12 June 1848, Peter M’Douall (or McDouall), who had been a delegate at the first Chartist convention and had fled abroad with a price on his head after the general strike of 1842, chaired at a meeting in the Albion beershop on the Bethnal Green Road. Plans for an insurrection set in motion. A Secret Committee was set up, consisting of four appointed delegates (Henshaw, for East London; Pitt, for West London; Honeybold, North London; and Percy, South London), plus three from Chartist executive, two confederates (Irishmen) and two trade unionists, to decide time of uprising. The spies George Davis and Thomas Reading reported this meeting to the police.

In his report to the police, George Davis claimed that the committee used a map of London to draw up a series of possible plans of attack. In one scenario, barricades would have been constructed on the Strand, Ludgate Hill, Cheapside and other City streets from Clerkenwell to the Barbican and Hatton Garden Theatres and other buildings were to be set on fire, and pawnbrokers’ and gunsmiths’ shops raided to obtain arms. In South London, the police station at Kent Road was to be attacked.

Initially, it seems arrangements were being made for an uprising on the weekend of 16-18 June 1848. However, just two days after the meeting in Bethnal Green, on 14 June, the Chartist Executive ordered the disbanding of the Secret Committee. The executive had been well aware of the plans for insurrection, but had either realised or suspected there were police spies in the midst of the conspiracy. Peter McDouall himself named Mander, May and Plume as possible suspects (interestingly, their involvement in the plot seems to end from this point). McDouall himself was arrested in July.

The initial phase of the conspiracy then appears to have folded until early July. However, an uprising in Ireland was reported to be imminent, and habeas corpus there was suspended. Meanwhile, the police began arresting Chartist leaders in London. In early July, meetings of the would-be insurrectionaries resumed.

Plans made by the conspirators included rescuing arrested Chartist leaders (including Ernest Jones) from police custody as they were being moved from Newgate to Coldbath Fields Prison. This second conspiracy was probably unknown to the Chartist Executive – however, George Davis, and Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) of Cripplegate, were both keeping the authorities fully informed.

Between 20 July and 16 August, the conspirators held 16 meetings in one form or another, mainly in coffee houses (though occasionally in pubs).

Dates and locations of the delegate meetings of the 1848 conspiracies, with those in attendance as known (taken from London Chartism 1838-48, by David Goodway)
Tuesday 6 June. Windsor Castle, Holborn
H Mander May (?), Plume (?).
Monday afternoon, 12 June. Albion, Bethnal Green Road.
25 present. M’Douall (chair), Henshaw, Honeybold, Percy, Pitt, George Davis.
Tuesday 13 June. Windsor Castle, Holborn
James Bassett (chair), Henshaw, Honeybold, William Lacey, Percy, Pitt, George Shell, George Davis.
Wednesday morning, 14 June. Literary Institute, John Street
14 present. M’Douall (chair), James Bassett (vice-chair), Child, William Lacey, George Bridge Mullins, Pitt, George Shell, George Davis.
Wednesday evening, 14 June. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street, Blackfriars Road
8 present. James Blight, George Davis.
Monday 10 July. George, Old Bailey.
13 or 20 present. Brewster, Lacey, Mullins, Payne, John Rose, Smith, George Davis.
Thursday 13 July. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street.
Brewerton, Morgan.
Thursday 20 July. Black Jack, Portsmouth Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
14 present. William Allnutt, Bassett, Battice, Brewster, William Dowling, Mullins, Payne, John Rose, Davis, Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) (1st time).
Sunday morning, 23 July. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street, Seven Dials
10 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Dowling, Gurney, Mullins, Payne, Pedley, Rose, Smith, Stephens (?), Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Sunday evening, 23 July. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street, Cripplegate
Brewster, Mullins, Payne, Rose, Powell.
Wednesday 26 July. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill
18 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Dowling, Ferdinando, Flanagan, Mullins, Payne, Pedley, Rose, Smith, Stephens (?), Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Friday 28 July. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill.
14 present. Brewster, Fay, Ferdinando, Flanagan, Hopkinson, Horn, Mullins, Page, Payne, Powell.
Sunday afternoon 30 July. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street
28 present. Bassett, Brewster, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Hayman, Kirby, Lindsay, Mullins, Nash, Nowlan, Payne, Rose, Stephenson (or Stevenson), Davis, Powell.
Tuesday 1 August, Dispatch Coffee House, Bride Lane, Fleet Street.
34 or 29 present. Allnutt, Bezer, Brewster, Collins, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Fuzzen, Hayman, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Raymond, Rose, Thompson, Warry, Davis, Powell
Friday 4 August. Cartwright’s Coffee House, Redcross Street
32 present. Bassett, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Gurney, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Rose, Thompson, Davis, Powell.
Sunday morning 6 August. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street
Brewster, Fay (?), Lynch (?), Mullins, Payne, Rose, Thompson, Davis.
Sunday afternoon 6 August. Dispatch Coffee House, Bride Lane
24 to 30 present. Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Fay, the two brothers Granshaw, Hammond (= Hayman?), Mullins, Page, Payne, Rose, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Monday 7 August. Denny’s Coffee House, Great St Andrew’s Street
About 30 present. Allnutt, Bassett, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Lynch, Mullins, Payne, Ritchie, Rose, Thompson, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Wednesday 9 August. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street, Blackfriars Road
28 present. Allnutt, Bassett, Bligh, Brewster, Cuffay, Donovan, Dowling, Fay, Flanagan, Fuzzen, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Horn, Lynch, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Pedley, Ritchie, Rose, Davis, Powell.
Friday 11 August. Perry’s Coffee House, Church Street, Shoreditch
Cancelled
Sunday morning 13 August. Hopkinson’s Coffee House, Saffron Hill
Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Fuzzen, Mullins, Payne, Ritchie, Salmon, Davis.
Sunday afternoon 13 August. Breedon’s Beershop, Shouldham Street, Crawford Street, Marylebone
26 or 30 present. Bligh, Cuffay, the two Granshaws, Hayman, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Ritchie, Warry, Davis.
Monday 14 August. Orange Tree, Orange Street, Red Lion Square
25 or 30 present. Allnutt, Bligh, Brewster, Cruikshank, Cuffay, Fay, Fleming, Ford, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Hayman, Mullins, Nash, Payne, Pearce, Ritchie, Scurrey (or Scurry), Simmonds, Warry, Davis, Powell.
Tuesday 15 August. Lord Denman, Great Suffolk Street.
30 or 40 present. Allnutt, Brewster, Cruikshank, Cuffay, Donaldson, Dowling, Fay, Ferdinando, Fleming, the two Granshaws, Gurney, Lacey, Mullins, Page, Payne, Pedley, Ritchie, Simmonds, Davis, Powell.

The plotters were well aware that surveillance by the authorities was likely, and were suspicious and fearful of being followed, and of infiltration. At one point around early August, two of the group, Mullins and Rose, were accused of being spies, which led to some resignations from the Committee. However, the real spies continued to be deeply embedded in their plans. Powell (aka Johnson) was said by some of the defendants to have accused some of the plotters of being all talk, and to have also hired some men to make bullets and gunpowder in readiness. As with previous insurrectionary plans, provocation by spies cannot be ruled out.

The Committee made contact with physical force Chartists in Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham and possibly Bradford. Finally it was agreed that the rising would take place on Wednesday 16 August. The local Chartist branches were to meet at 8pm and to be ready to go into action at 9.20pm.

Thomas Powell, who spied on the Committee using the name Johnson, later gave evidence at the trial of William Dowling. His account is a fascinating insight into the discussion, though, as with all evidence offered by such infiltrators, may not be entirely accurate about individuals’s roles in the plan:

“Early in the present year I became a member of the Chartist Association. I believe it was between April and May; after 10th April—I continued to attend the meetings of the Association from time to time down to June, July, and Aug. last—I have always understood there are district associations of the Chartists—I was a member of the Cripplegate locality—there was a council of management consisting of five persons—it was appointed after I joined them—it consisted of Mr. Battice, Mr. Fowler, Mr. Carter, Mr. Owen Jones, and myself—I entered by the name of Johnson, and was known in the Chartist Association by that name—the council had. the general superintendence of the business of the Association—they usually net in the front long-room up stairs, at Cartwright’s Coffee-house, in Red Cross-street—about 20th July a committee was formed to meet at the Black Jack public-house, in Portugal-street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields—it was called the. Secret Committee—I was elected by the Council as a delegate—I attended a meeting of that committee on Thursday, 20th July, at the Black Jack—there were about fourteen persons present at that meeting—I have notes which I made, not the same day, but the next—the notes were made by myself—referring to them)—Mr. Payne, Mr. Brewster, Mr. Rose, Mr. Mullins, Mr. Bowling, a delegate from Greenwich, myself, Mr. Battice, and another Confederate delegate, a Mr. Allnutt, of another locality, and two strangers, whose names I do not remember—each of those fourteen attended, like myself, as delegates from different districts—Mr. Dowling attended as one of the Irish Confederates; I was informed so that evening—there was also another person, a stranger, who represented himself as a delegate from the Confederates—I have no note of the transactions of that meeting, but I can remember them—verbal reports were given in of the state of feeling of the members of their respective localities with regard to the physical force movement, and each delegate returned the number of men he could depend on, and were willing to fight—a committee was appointed for the purpose of drawing up five plans of action—Payne, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, and the prisoner Dowling were appointed on that committee—the meeting commenced at nine o’clock, or a little alter, and lasted till about ten minutes after twelve—Battice was present the whole time—he had been requested by the Council to accompany me to witness the proceedings—we were to meet again at Dennis’s Coffee-house, Great St. Andrew-street, Seven Dials, on the next Sunday morning, 23rd—when I went to the Black Jack, on the Thursday, I was asked to produce my credentials, and I produced a paper which I had procured from a Mr. Bezer on my way to the meeting—Battice was with me at the time received it, and Bezer said in his presence they were going to get up a bloody revolution-—on Sunday morning, 23rd, at ten o’clock, I attendee at Dennis’s Coffee-house’—I found the prisoner and Rose, Mullins, Brewster and Payne accompanied me—we were together about an hour before any one else joined us—during that hour Mullins laid a pocket-book on the table with a map of London unfolded, and the whole of the persons present had papers in their hands—there was also a pen-and-ink sketch of various pars of London, belonging to Mullins, and a portion of it marked Seven Dials—I did not see either of the other four plans—the prisoner told Mullins that he thought it was difficult for him (Dowling) to undertake the management of the Seven Dials—in the course of the evening Payne, who occupied the chairs said, “Gentlemen, our object is to destroy the power of the Queen, and if possible, to establish a republic,” and there was a general acquiescence; in that—I do not remember the words they used—there was some conversation about vitriol, and assassinating the police—I can’t exactly remember the purport of it—Rose said, “We must first assassinate the police, burn down the station-houses, and build barricades”—that appeared to be generally receive:—at the end of the hour Allnutt, a member from Greenwich, and another Confederate leader, came: there were ten persons present—I do not know anything of this paper (looking at a plan)—I can almost swear this paper (marked A) is the one I saw in Mullins’s possession—I saw him put it into his pocket-book, and put the pocket-book into his pocket—I never saw anything of these others (looking at others), but 1 believe I my safely swear to this, I was so impressed with the first sketch of it—the; is no particular mark on it, but I will explain how I am so positive of it—I had a view of it, and I observed this drawing and also these pencil-marks for barricades—there was some conversation by Brewster about the barricades being half-way down some street in Oxford-street, leading to some square—after the others came in, Mullins said he was sorry they had not quite matured the plans for their inspection—Payne left about half-past eleven, and the meeting soon after adjourned, and it was arranged they should meet at Cartwright’s on the same evening—we met there—Payne, Mullins, Brewster, and Rose, were there—Dowling was not—they went into a back room- I did not accompany them—I next met the same parties on Wednesday, 26th July, at Hopkinson’s Coffee-house, Saffron-hill—that had been arrange: on the Sunday morning—there were eighteen present, Dowling, Rose, Mullins, myself, a delegate from Greenwich, Brewster, Ferdinando (this was his first appearance), a delegate from the Green Gate, Hackney-road whose name I do not know, Flanagan, Allnutt, and others—I sometimes made my notes when I got home the same night, and sometimes the next day—as regards this particular meeting, I must have made the note soon after I got home at night, or early in the morning—a return was given of the number of new delegates—there was nothing at all in writing, it was all done as matter of confidence one with the other—reports were given of the feelings of the members of each locality, and the number of men they could depend—on as fighting men—there was a motion made respecting an advertisement to be put in the Northern Star, calling on every Chartist and Confederate locality to send two delegates to meet on the following Tuesday, at the Dispatch coffee house, Bride-lane, Fleet-street—that was adopted—there was nothing further of any consequence transacted that evening—they adjourned to the same place on the Friday, the 28th—there were fourteen persons-present then—there were two new delegates—there were reports made of the feeling of their localities, and the number of fighting men—each new delegate made a similar report with respect to his own locality—a resolution was passed that the sum of 10s. should be sent by the delegates of each locality, for the purpose of carrying out the object of the committee—we adjourned, to meet at Cartwright’s on the 30th—I attended there—there were twenty-eight persons present—they were Payne, Dowling, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, Bassett (his first appearance) Stevenson, a new delegate, myself, Ferdinando, Fay, and others—there was a return made from the new delegates of the feeling of the members of their localities, and also the number of fighting men that they could depend on—I believe that afternoon there was a resignation of the committee that met at the Black Jack, on account of the charges brought against Rose and Mullins, as being spies—a new committee, called the Ulterior Committee, was then appointed, composed of Payne, Rose, Mullins, Bassett, and the prisoner—that was the same Rose as it had been suggested was a spy—there was a talk about his election—the person who charged him as being a spy was not left out (I judged it was Brewster)—he was elected, after discussion and an explanation—it was not stated what the Ulterior Committee were to take into their consideration—it was generally understood what they were appointed for—a resolution was passed that the delegates should meet, if necessary, at Cartwright’s, on the following Monday evening—there was no meeting that evening—the next meeting was on Tuesday, 1st Aug.—that was the meeting which I alluded to, that was to take place at the Dispatch coffee-house, Bride-lane—there were thirty-four persons present, all delegates, or representing themselves as such, Payne, Rose,. Mullins, Brewster, Dowling, Bezer, myself, Fay, Thompson, Donovan, Lynch, Fuzzon, Warry, Allnutt, Ferdinando, Raymond, and others—a report was given in by the new delegates the same as before—(there had tan a resolution passed at Cartwright’s, on July 30th, that four more should be added to the Ulterior Committee, to make it nine)—I do not think I saw this paper there—I might have done so—Bezer gave in his return of fighting men as fifty—he came from our district, Cartwright’s—I cannot say what number the others returned—it was taken down either in pencil or ink—the Irish Felon Society was held in our locality, and the Star Society—there was also a club called the Davis’ Club, the Emmett Brigade, and the Tom Paine’s locality, and various others—there were delegates from each of those localities at the meetings I have mentioned—there was a jealousy that there were not enough Irish on the Ulterior Committee, and four more were added—they were Thompson, Lynch, Fay, and Donovan—there was a discussion on the propriety of sending a person to some part of Limerick or Cork, to ascertain how they were getting on—I do not know who proposed it it was not adopted—the reason stated was because it was not likely they could get any true intelligence of the state of the country—a proposition was made by the prisoner that there should be a demonstration on Sunday, 6th Aug., at two o’clock, of Chartists and Confederates, on Primrose-hill, to ascertain the strength and numbers of the people—it was lost by a majority of five—a resolution was carried to the effect that every delegate should return to his locality, and ascertain how the members were for regularity of preparation, and ready to be called out at an hour’s notice—I do not know that that was a substitute for the Primrose-hill meeting—it was after that had been disposed of—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Cartwright’s on Friday, Aug. 4th, at eight o’clock—Mullins stated he had seen Mr. Kydd that day, 1st Aug., and that Mr. Kydd had said, if the people came out for physical force, he would not be backward in heading them; but that he, Kydd, had entered on the executive as a moral-force man, and had taken the office only on that ground—that was what Mullins remarked on Kydd’s statement to him—that was received with a degree of belief—Kycid was one of the executive of the council of the Chartists, of the convention that sat in John-street—I know out Cripplcgate-street district was in communication with the executive in John-street—we next met at Cartwright’s on Friday evening, 4th Aug—there were thirty-two present—Mr. Payne was in the chair—Rose, Brewster, Gurney, (his first appearance,) Mullins, Bassett, (his second appearance’ Cuffey, Donovan, Lynch, Dowling, myself, Thompson, and others—the committee had met previously at three, before the whole body—the prisoner was present in the evening, but I will not say he was present at the committee—the committee sat half an hour or an hour, before the rest of the body joined them, and there was a discussion about what scarfs were to be worn as a sign of officership—a red scarf was mentioned; and it was determined that they should have red scarfs—I was present, and Brewster also a report was given in that evening by the new delegates of the number of men, the same as before—I should tell you that the committee who were sitting, Payne, Rose, Brewster, Mullins, and Bassett, had some conversation about a circular that Mr. Kydd had received, stating that they were desirous of knowing how far the committee of delegates then sitting in London were disposed to send a delegate to Manchester—it was decided to do so—Mr. Lacey’s name was mentioned, and Bassett was deputed to want upon him, and Rose gave Bassett money that Lacey might go on the following morning (Saturday)—a resolution was passed that evening, to the effect that the delegates should submit to the determination of the ulterior committee, whatever it was—the thirty-two were then present—a resolution was passed that the delegates should call on the members in their localities to meet at half-past two on the following Sunday, the 6th, at their localities, and to prevent if possible the members attending the meeting on Kennington’ common; to wait there till their delegates returned from Kennington-common—there was a meeting advertised to take place at Kennington-common that day, called by Mr. Dwaine—to the best of my belief it was to be at three o’clock—each delegate, in his particular district, was to have his members—their place of meeting, to keep them from going, till the delegates retuned from the Dispatch Coffee-house—it being an unlawful meeting, many of the members would be brought in contact with the police, and they were desirous I of preventing it—there was a resolution passed that we should meet on the following Sunday at the Dispatch Coffee-house—there was also another resolution passed for every delegate to select four men, to appoint then as telegraphs on the Sunday, and to station them from Fleet-street to Kennington-common—the delegates were to be at the Dispatch Coffee-house, and thus communicate with the persons at Kennington-common—I attended the meeting on the Sunday—there were from twenty-five to thirty persons present—I do not recollect that the prisoner was present—the arrangement was carried out of having men placed between the Despatch Coffee-house and the Common—I was appointed as one of the lookers-on, to see that!” the telegraphs should be stationed—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Dennis’s Coffee-house on the Monday evening—I attended it-there were about thirty present—it began at eight—the prisoner was there—Ritchie and Cuffey, and the whole nine of the ulterior committee were there and others, amounting to thirty—that night the ulterior committee resigned—on account of the reports in the papers of the arrest of Smith O’Brien in Ireland, and Mullins explained that he had no confidence in the others who were selected on the committee, that he had not seen their plans—he alluded to the four new Irishmen that had been added—one or two of the other made the same statement—there—was a fresh election—Messrs. Rose, Mullins, Brewster, Payne, and Bassett were elected, and were called the ulterior committee—a resolution was passed that there should be a president, and that the one who had the lowest post on the committee was to retire when the president came in—this was a visionary president—he was not named—there was some remark made by persons present that he was somebody and nobody—he was somebody to be talked about, and nothing more—a resolution was then passed that the sum of three-farthings should be levied on every member of every locality for the purpose of paying this president, to supply him with a salary—no time was specified for the payment—every delegate was to make the statement to the members in his locality—a letter was read by Mr. Payne, which I can only explain in this way, as he read it, that trade, was very good, and we should soon have a good order—he stated that the letter came from Mr. Lacey, who had been sent to Manchester—there was some degree of satisfaction expressed by many of the delegates present—they were glad to hear Lacey was going on well—a resolution was passed that they should meet on Wednesday, Aug. 9th, at the Lord Denman beer-shop, in Suffolk-street, Blackfriar’s-road—Messrs. Payne, Brewster, Rose, Mullins, Dowling, myself, Gurrney, Donovan, Bassett, and others, twenty-eight in all, were present—reports were given in by the new delegates of the feeling of their localities, and the number of fighting men, and the state of preparation they were in—I do not think anything was said about ball-cartridges, or anything of that sort; merely about preparation—Payne was in the chair, but Mullins acted as chief speaker—he was vice-chairman, and sat at the other end of the table—he called on all the delegates to declare their allegiance and determination to abide by the decision of the committee for the good of the people—they did not swear, but some declared solemnly, and some said they were determined to risk their lives, and abide by the deci-sion of the committee—Payne read another letter from Lacey, stating that all was going on well, that he was still at Manchester or some other part of the country, and there was a question asked how long he was to continue there, and Payne said he was to remain there as long as necessary—a resolution was passed that they should meet at Perry’s coffee-house, Church-street, Bethnal-green, or Shoreditch, on the following Friday, 11th, at eight o’clock—I went, but found no meeting—I was informed that the police had been to Rose’s house, and had seized his papers, and that all was up—I then went home—I heard on the following Sunday that there was to be a meeting on the following Monday night, 14th, at the Orange Tree beer-shop, Orange-street, Red Lion-square—I attended it, and I was asked why I was not at the other two meetings that bad taken place since Wednesday—I found, I should say, twenty-five there—I have not got their names, but I think I can tell them—there was Cuffey, Brewster, Payne, Mullins, Gurney, Fay, Ritchie, Scurry, myself and others—Dowling was not there, at least I did not see him there—Gurney asked me how it was I did not go to the meeting at Perry’s coffee house—I said I did go, and there was none held—he said there was, and then he told me where it was held—Payne was in the chair at the Orange Tree, but Mullins was the spokesman, and he was chief spokesman on all occasions—he called on us to give a return of the number of ball-cartridges that each delegate and his members had prepared—each delegate gave in his return of half-cartridges that he had prepared, and also what the members of his particular district had prepared—I did not take any note of the number—I think it was somewhere about 500 or 600—there was a return given in of the number of fighting men—Mullins stated that there were nearly 5000 fighting men of the Chartists alone—a return was also given in from the Confederates—I can not remember the number of them for a certainty, but I think it was something bordering upon the same number—it was a considerable number—he said the time was near at hand—he said, “Gentlemen, the next business is that I want every delegate to select four or six men, or more, as many as the can select iron; his locality”—there was a question asked what they were for- I do not know by whom—Cuffy answered, “To fire houses, railway premises trains, or anything”—I did not put anything down at the meeting—I was obliged to be cautious not to put any thing down—Mullins looked up at the gas which goes along the ceiling, and said “If I look up at the gas, you will at know what I mean”—I was asked how many men I thought I could select and I said two, and the other delegates right round gave in a return also—it was said they were to be men who could be depended on, who would do any-thing and everything—in the course of the evening there was a proposition made and carried, to send a deputation of two persons to have an interview with some of the North-Western Railway engineers, and ascertain what then feelings were, and whether they were willing to come over and assist the Chartists—Ritchie and Scurry were proposed and unanimously carried the purpose—I was not aware till that evening that there had been a conference between the engineers and the company—it was mentioned then because it was requested to know what they were going for—1s. 6d. was voted to defray their expenses for refreshment—they left forthwith on lie: mission—they were not present when the other resolutions were passed-! did not see any more of them that evening—there was a resolution passed that we should meet at half-past seven at the Lord Denman on the following Tuesday evening—I went—Payne, Brewster, Mullins, Cuffey, Dowling, Allnutt, Fey Gurney, Lacey, Ritchie, Ferdinando, and others, in all about forty, were there-Lacey was there when I got there—he entered into conversation with several of us, and told us that the men of Birmingham and Manchester, and I think he said Liverpool, but am not certain, were up and were doing, or would be doing that night, and he had been watched all day by the police, and as he was coming out of his street-door, a boy came up and told him that he was watched by the police—I had never seen Lacey before, I had only heard of him—he said he had been to Birmingham and Manchester, and other places, but I do not re-member for a certainty what those places were, and he had also been watched for two hours, and he gave the police the double, and had reached the place safety—about three quarters of an hour after that, there was a distributed colours by Brewster—they were twisted plaited ribbons, and were gives a the delegates so that they might be recognised as the leaders of the people—Brewster stated so—they were to be put on the left arm—they were three colours, red, white, and some other—I received one—Mullins was present as their distribution, and after that some of the committee came in—they were not-all present, at least I did not see them, but one or two of them spoke, are told Lacey they had better retire and consult—the room up-stairs was ✗ pied by a sing-song, and we had the lower room—Lacey said, “If yes will wait a while I will go and see at a neighbour’s coffee-house, whether we cannot have a room”—he went out, returned, and said “All right, or some such word-, and the committee went out with him—I did not go—they were gone about three quarters of an hour, or it might have been an hour—the delegates remained till they returned—they went away, to consult to gather-when they retired, Cuffey said, “Now, Mr. Chairman, you has better give the; instructions as quick as possible”—Mullins was acting-as chairman—Laccy went with them when they went out—I did not see him return with them, and was surprised at it—Cuffey was secretary; I was informed he was chosen secretary by the committee—Mullins said, “Gentle-men, as you are aware, the committee have retired, and come to certain resolutions and decisions; they have directed me to give you the following instructions; and as our friend, Mr. Lacey, has informed us that the men of Birmingham and Manchester are up, and will be doing to-night, and we have no reason to doubt the correctness of his statement, therefore, gentlemen, to-morrow night you must come out to fight and strike the blow; and it is necessary, gentlemen, that you should speak out honestly and boldly, for there must be no flinching in the matter”—Cuffey stood by the fireplace, and said, “You had better put it round, Mr. Chairman, to every one present; let them answer, ‘Yes’ or ‘No'”—Mullins on that appealed to a delegate sitting by me, and said, “Will you come out to fight?”—he said, “Yes”—he said to me,” Will you?” and I said, “Yes”—then he said, “Will you?” addressing each in turn, one by one, round the room, till he came to Mr. Ferdenando, who made a bit of a speech, and explained his reasons that he could not conscientiously say “Yes” to coming out—he objected, he was not agreeable; in fact, he said, “No”—he gave his reason, and then said, “No,” and sat down—there was one more of the same opinion—I do not know his name—he was companion delegate, I understood, to Allnutt, who sat by his side—with the exception of those two, the answer from the rest was, “Yes”—after that Mullins said, “Gentlemen, you must understand we shall take up four positions: Clerkenwell-green will be taken by Mr. Brewster; the Tower Hamlets will be taken by Mr. Payne;” and the Seven Dials, and the Broadway, Westminster, were the other two positions—Basset and Mullins were to take those two—I do not know which was to take each—Mullins said, after giving the instructions in that manner, “Gentlemen,” every delegate must assemble the members of his locality, for them to communicate to their locality at eight o’clock precisely”—it was to be the next night—there was a question asked by a delegate, I do not know who, how they were to get there with their pikes and poles?—Mullins said, “I can only say they must get them there the best way they can,” (some of the poles were ten feet long), “and at twenty minutes past nine, to a second, every delegate must be with his men at their respective positions”—the delegates were to come armed—Mullins proposed, and it was carried unanimously, that Ritchie was to superintend and direct those men that were to be selected for the purpose of firing houses, railway premises, trains, or anything—Ritchie undertook it—the Orange Tree was to be the place of meeting—a question was asked, how Ritchie was to know these men, and some person said, “I propose the password to be, ‘Frost and Mitchell'”—Allnutt proposed the word “Justice”—it was put, and carried unanimously; so that when these men entered the room Ritchie might ask them, “What do you want? who do you want?” and they would make reply, “Justice;” and then he would know them—Mullins said to Payne, “Just take a list of the number of men;” and he put them down; but he made a mistake, and there was some little confusion with the delegates—he went round the room again, and the number was reckoned forty-six—he applied to the person who sat next to me first, and then to me, and I said, “Two,” but I could only depend on one—he went round to every delegate, and in that way forty-six was made up—Gurney was there at the time, and when—I said I could select two, he said, “Oh, nonsense, you can select more than that, half a dozen, I know” I Was rather put out at his taking on himself to judge upon it; in fact, there Was but one man that I could depend on for the purpose—Gurney was one of the wardens before I was elected on the council—each warden has 100 men under him, according to the rules of the Society—after the number of men was taken, the last words Mullins uttered were, “May the bitterest curse of God hang on the soul of that man that shall betray any one of us”—it was such a colour as this (produced) that was to be tied round the arm—nothing more took place that I remember—I came away—the prisoner was there that night, and sat nearly opposite me—I attended a meeting on the following day, 15th—it had been arranged on the Tuesday evening at the Lord Denman, that our locality, the Finsbury, City, and Clerkenwell localities, were to meet Brewster at twelve o’clock, at the Crispin, in Milton-street, Cripplegate, to receive the delegates from each locality—I went, but did not arrive till a quarter to one—I found Brewster, Gill, Gurney, and I believe Fay, and others, eight or nine altogether—I have not made a note—Brewster said it was his intention to attack the Artillery-ground, and, if possible, to take it, and he should have to fight b——y hard, and that we should know by four o’clock in the afternoon whether the Government had received any intimation of what was going on—there was another person with him at the time; in fact, it was the man who told me at Perry’s coffee-shop that there was no meeting there, and that it was all up with Rose—Brewster pointed to this person, and said, “Wait on me at Clerkenwell-green when you are all there”—Brewster said, “Don’t be afraid because you do not see the signals for a little while; you might not see the signals for half an hour, but wait a bit”—it had been arranged at the Orange Tree that there were to be bonfires—the men who were selected, were spoken to on that same evening, for I spoke to my men—Brewster also said, “Ritchie swears, so help his God, he will shoot the first person dead that flinches from his duty.”

Groups were assigned gathering places for the start of the action. Charles Baldwinson, a tailor, of Webber-street, Blackfriars, was told to lead his Chartist branch to the Broadway, Westminster, and was told other groups would be mustering at Clerkenwell-green, in the East End, and at Seven Dials. Other evidence at the later trials suggests that groups were also to gather at “the Peacock, Westminster-road; another, at the Crispin, in Milton-street, Cripplegate; another, at Breadon’s beer-shop, Shouldham-street; and the fourth, I think, at the Buck’s Head, somewhere about Bethnal-green-road, or Hackney-road”. According to testimony given by the police spy George Davis: “plans… [were] produced…. to erect barricades from Clerkenwell down to Seven Dials, and from Seven Dials down Drury-lane to St. Mary’s Church, in the Strand, by Somerset-house, and right along the Strand to Temple-bar; that would form a good barricade, and from Temple-bar down Fleet-street, and by the water-side, and they were to make sure of Chaplin and Home’s premises… they were to make a circle round from Holborn till they got to St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and down there till they got to Clerkenwell-green and Aldersgate-street, and they were to take possession of St. Paul’s Church.”

Davis also testified as to expected numbers: “Mullins remarked that it was not those they depended on; they did not depend on the organised Chartists, but they reckoned there were about 30000 thieves and vagabonds about London who would co-operate with and assist them.” Though this last may have been embroidery by Davis to increase the frisson of respectable fear…

Groups of Chartists in other towns and cities had certainly been sounded out, and some were seemingly ready to join in with the proposed uprising. In Ashton, Lancashire, a clash took place between Chartists and police on August 14th, which led to some arrests: whether this was linked to the plans in London is unknown.

Powell asserts that conspirators reckoned on 5000 supporters in London being ready to take part in revolt. What stage plans for a rising on 16th August had really reached, and what kind of numbers would have joined in, is unclear. In any case, the authorities were completely forewarned, and moved pro-actively to round up the groups readying themselves for revolution.

At 6pm on the night of 16 August, 11 men were arrested at the Orange Tree public house Orange Street, off Red Lion Square in Holborn. Later, at 9pm, 13 more were held at the Angel in Southwark, and within 20 minutes more a large crowd that had  gathered at Seven Dials, Covent Garden, were dispersed. Arrests continued for several days across London, and some caches of stashed weapons were discovered and seized.

Orange Street, off Red Lion Square, location of the Orange Tree pub.


“ARREST OF ARMED CHARTISTS IN LONDON

On Wednesday night a scene of the utmost confusion took place in Webber Street , Blackfriars which, for two or three hours, created considerable sensation in the neighbourhood.

It appears that, from private information received by the Government, about half-past nine, Superintendent Rutt, with nearly 300 men, marched to the Angel Tavern in Webber Street kept by Mr Smith. Mr Rutt, with a pair of loaded pistols and a cutlass at his side, entered the house, accompanied by a strong body of constables, and, at the same time, upwards of a hundred officers were drawn up in front of the premises under arms. The moment the police entered the tap-room or parlour, a general movement took place on the part of the persons assembled there, and Mr Rutt cried out, “If any man offers the least resistance I will run him through,” at the same time showing his drawn cutlass. This had the desired effect, and little or no resistance was attempted. The police then in a body seized fourteen men who were in the room, and conveyed them, under a strong guard, to Tower Street , where, upon being searched, pistils loaded to the muzzle, pikes, three-corner daggers, spearheads and swords were found upon their persons, and others were found secreted under the seats on which they had been sitting. Some of them wore iron breast-plates, and others had gun-powder, shot and tow balls. Under one man no less than 75 rounds of ball cartridge were discovered. The prisoners having been duly charged, their names and addresses were taken, and scarcely a man was brought forward who was not well known to the police as being a prominent Chartist. The whole of the prisoners were locked up at Tower Street under a strong escort of police. Soon after, Superintendent Rutt and Inspector Russell, from private information which they received, proceeded to Blue Anchor-yard, York Street , Westminster , where, it was stated, a gant of armed Chartists were waiting to march out and join the other portions in the event of a procession being formed. On entering the house of a well known leader, the man and a large pike were found.

Upon the police proceeding to the house of Samual Morgan, one of the men taken in the Angel Tavern, the police found the leg of a chair loaded with lead, and a number of nails driven in at the extremity. It was about the length of a policeman’s truncheon, and so heavily laden that a blow on the head with it must have caused instantaneous death. Swords and weapons of various kinds have been found at then residences of the other prisoners.

The whole of the military quartered at Buckingham palace, the Tower, Mint, Bank of England and the various barracks were under arms.

From what has already transpired, it is supposed that the Chartist and Confederate clubs intended to march out well armed, as they did some weeks back, and attack such buildings as may be pointed out to them.

Shortly after the capture was made in Webber Street , a meeting was attempted to be held at the South London Chartist Hall, in the same street, when one of the leaders rushed into the building, and advised them, for God’s sake, to disperse as their lives were in danger. In an instance a general rush took place for the street, and one man, in leaping from a side window, severely injured himself, and, it is rumoured, broke one of his legs.

In consequence of information received at the Home-office that a Chartist demonstration on a large scale was intended to be held at a house in Moor Street, Seven Dials, orders were issued to the superintendents of the various divisions of police at the wet end of the metropolis, to muster all their men and keep them in reserve till further orders. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a strong body of police, under the direction of Superintendents Pearce and Grimwood, went to the Orange Tree public-house in Orange Street , and having satisfied themselves that a number of armed Chartists were in the house, proceeded with several constables into the place, and arrested about eighteen men, armed with pistols, pikes, and blunderbusses. The landlord was also arrested, and several cabs having been procured, the whole of the prisoners were handcuffed and conveyed to the police station in Bow Street . The public house in question is now closed. About eleven o’clock an alarm was given that upwards of 500 Irish Confederates armed with pikes were about marching from Moor Street to meet the Confederates in Webber Street, and in consequence of the alarm manifested by the inhabitants, the whole of the C division, fully armed, under the orders of Superintendent Beresford, proceeded to the spot, and found that a number of Irish had assembled at a public house in the street under the pretence of having a raffle, in order to raise funds to defend the Confederate leaders on their forthcoming trial. This, however, turned out a mere subterfuge, for one the house being entered, the whole of the persons assembled there were found with arms in their hands. A violent resistance was offered on the part of the Confederates; but on the police drawing their cutlasses, they speedily threw down their arms and ran out of the house. Four fellows who were more violent than the rest were taken into custody. Quiet was not restored to the neighbourhood till a late hour.”
(The Scotsman, 19 August)

Thomas Barrett’s later testimony in court gives some sense of the atmosphere in the run up the 16th August:
BARRETT: “I am a shoemaker, of 17, Charles-street, Lisson-grove. On Whit-Sunday I became a member of the Emmett Brigade, which held its meetings at Morgan’s beer-shop, in Praed-street,. and one branch in Shouldham-street, kept by Broaden—I know a man named Mullins—I have heard him address meetings of Chartists and Confederates, at Breaden’s, on several Sundays, and on Sunday, 13th Aug. I heard him say it was necessary for each man to prepare himself for the crests that was coming, and it was necessary for each man to make a small sacrifice to aid the Committee of Progress in their undertakings, and they would judge by the exertions they made whether they were prepared or not—at a meeting there on Tuesday, 15th Aug., between thirty and forty Chartists and Confederates were present—at one time there were forty—it was staled that they were waiting for delegates from the Committee of Progress—on Wednesday, 16th Aug., about eight o’clock, I went to the Chartist meeting-house in Praed-street—about twenty of the Emmet Brigade were assembled—it was said that they were waiting for orders; they did not say for what, but it was generally understood for an outbreak—I went from thence to Breaden’s, I got there about half-past eight or a quarters to nine, and found thirty or forty persons of the same class—Mullins came in and a man named Smith clapped him on the shoulder, and said, “My boy, I was afraid you were taken”—he said, “No, they only take me with my life’—he retired, and a man named Cruickshank came in and placed a musket on the table—I had seen him there once or twice before—I do not know what branch he was a member of—there were two pistols, and several pikes and pike—heads, in the room—I heard the question put whether they were prepared, and whether they had got their toothpicks, which was the name they gave them—Mullins and others retired into another room—when they came back I was sitting in the angle of the room, and saw Mullins look into the room, and withdraw out of my sight—Smith said to me, but I cannot swear whether it was in Mullins’ presence, that they were to be in readiness to meet their leader at Crown-street Soho-square, and the Seven Dials, at ten o’clock—the leader’s name was not mentioned—a cab, which I was informed—had brought Mullins, drove up to the door, and he went away in it—I believe there was a question asked how they were to take their arms—the answers in the best way they could—I went to Crown-street, Soho, walked down to the bottom, and recognised about thirty persons whom I had seen in the room.

Cross-examined. Q. “What is Mullins? A. I believe he is a surgess—he seems to be a man of education—I think he said crisis, and not cress—was, not in communication with the police when I heard Mullins speak—I am a moral-force Chartist—I think it is not physical means that will carry out moral force.”

Searches of the homes of some Chartists produced evidence of plans and numbers expected to ‘turn out’: Constable Joseph Thompson testified that “On 11th Aug. I searched Rose’s premises—he was with us, and showed us the place—I found this plan, marked “A;” this map of the City-road, “B;” a map or sketch of Seven Dials, “C;” blank forms for plans to be filled up; one of Seven Dials; and the other, beaded “Clerkenwell;” three recipes for gun-cotton, and these two lists of numbers—I found this cipher…”

William Chubb gave evidence: “I believe this (No. 11) to be the prisoner’s writing—(This being read, contained various marks and figures, with names and words attached to them, among which were “Pikes,” “Rifles,” “Killed,” “Shot,” “Barricades,” “Victory,” “O’Brien,” “Doheny,” “Tipperary.” “Poison,” “Fire,” “English,” &c. The papers found at Rose’s being read, contained a variety of names contracted, with numbers placed against them, signifying the various localities, their number, and names of the leaders, among which were the following: “Wall. 80; Bass, and Nas.—Lamb, lo 150 Ped.—Ber. 50; Dean. 250; Cuff. Thom.—Star. 50; Pear.-War—Irish, 50; Ritch.—St. Gils. 100;—Carts. 50; Fel. 100; Mitch 30; W. Ty. 20;—Fuzz. Fa., &c.””

A search of 2, Cross Court, off Russell Court, Drury Lane, the home of Joseph Ritchie, turned up “a hundred and seventeen ball cartridges, four bullet-moulds, four bullets, three constable balls, one powder-horn three-parts full of powder, a three half-pint bottle three-parts full of gunpowder, a bayonet, a ladle for melting lead, a piece of lead, several percussion caps, some shot, a quantity of tow, and the tricoloured band”.

Other Chartist meeting places were also raided. According to police inspector John Haynes, “On Wednesday, 16th Aug., between nine and ten o’clock, I went to the Charter coffee-house, kept by Lacey, in Strutton-ground, Westminster—I went over the house, and into the club-room, with Lacey—the Wallace brigade branch of the National Chartist Association met there—I found a list of members, the treasurer’s-books, the Victim Fund-book, and a contribution-book—I found Thomas Jones in a room down-stairs—he was searched in my presence, and two old pistols were found in his pockets, a bayonet in his breast, a one-pound canister of gunpowder in his hat, and a box of gunpowder in his pocket (produced)—here are some ball-cartridges for pistols, and another box of ball-cartridges.”

The most prominent Chartist arrested in this frenetic week was William Cuffay, a Black tailor, the son of Caribbean slaves. Cuffay had been delegated by the London Chartists to represent them at the Chartist Convention, and he had been one of the most noted speakers at the April 10th rally on Kennington Common. A fierce critic of the empty bluster of Chartists leaders like Feargus O’Connor, Cuffay would have seemed not generally in favour of taking such steps as small groups plotting insurrection; he was usually pointedly in favour of ensuring that any actions taken by Chartist bodies were properly representative of wider opinion.

David Goodway notes that Cuffay, while commonly held responsible for the rising, had in fact only become secretary of the “ulterior committee” of organisers three days before the rising: others have speculated that Cuffay was in fact acting (whether for the Executive or on his own) as a brake on an uprising launching at this time. This is speculation, however. Police testified that when arrested Cuffay was in possession of a pistol and a pike-shaft.

The most consistent actors in the planning of the London insurrection seem to have been Payne, John Rose, Brewster, James Bassett, and most of all the 22-year-old surgeon’s apprentice George Bridge Mullins.

William Lacey, Thomas Fay, William Cuffay, William Dowling, and later George Bridge Mullins were found guilty in September 1848 of treason, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Joseph Ritchie pleaded guilty and was also sentence to be transported for life.

Fifteen others who pleaded guilty to lesser charges of ‘unlawfully conspiring to excite insurrection and riot, and to obstruct by force the execution of the laws and preservation of the public peace, and to procure arms and ammunition for that purpose’ were imprisoned for two years. At least twelve others pleaded not guilty, but were in the end bound over ‘on their own recognisance’ for two years.

We will return to the trials of the Chartist insurrectionaries in a later post…

Many more Chartist leaders and spokesmen were arrested in the wake of the failed revolt, and a number were jailed for sedition based on speeches made before the events of August. Despite all the drilling, arming and speechifying, no general uprising manifested; the agitation died down slowly. Hundreds of activists were now in prison or awaiting trial; supporting the prisoners became vital. But Chartist leaders also fell into fighting amongst themselves and denouncing each other, either for failing to act on their words, or for falling into the trap of violent action and language. Genuine political divisions were also opening up which would soon splinter the movement again. Chartism would decline over the decade five years into smaller and smaller groups.

Was there ever a realistic chance of revolution in 1848? In hindsight, there just does not seem to have been the mass support or the will to really bring a successful insurrection about. The penetration of the movement by spies to its deepest levels might be identified as the reason for its failure – however, in reality, revolutions are not generally brought about by small groups of conspirators, or not on their own. An organic movement grown powerful enough to overthrow a deeply established class system can not be jemmied into existence by a tiny minority, but takes years to grow; to evolve an alternative culture. Chartism at its best was moving towards that. To some extent the insurrectionary impulse was the result of frustration with the failure of mass agitation to move things forward (a pattern seen in the 1802 and 1820 attempts at revolt too); understandable, given the poverty of most working people’s lives and the repression visited on the legal campaigning.

But other factors were at play. Part of the reason why revolutions across Europe were (at least temporarily) successful in overthrowing monarchies and establishing more representative regimes is that those regimes were rigidly adhering to despotic forms of government and class structure – substantial sections of the middle classes and some manufacturing interests supported revolution because they were excluded from power. In Britain, the 1832 reform act and other social and economic changes had strengthened the power base of the state by broadly bringing the middle class on board. The British establishment’s ability to adapt and evolve in the face of demands for change remained the most powerful card in its hand.

1848 may not have been a Revolutionary Moment Missed – it did mark in practice an end to the insurrectionary tradition in British radical politics. Chartism’s legacy, however, was much more nuanced and pervasive; the alternative culture it had inherited and strengthened would go on to influence future generations of radicals for decades.

 

 

Today in London theatrical history, 1805: tailors offended at anti-tailor play riot, Haymarket Theatre

One of the most unique riots in London history took place at the Haymarket Theatre London in 1805.

In 1767 playwright and impresario Samuel Foote wrote and staged a production of a play called The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather, a satire about Tailors. The revival of this play nearly four decades later sparked a furious response from the tailoring trade: the tailors of London vowed to oppose the performance by any means necessary.

Tailors in this era were often sneered at and satirised, their craft, highly skilled though it was, was regarded as ‘unmanly’.  Even in folk tales the tailor is often a fill Possibly because they worked inside, in a trade that require skill and patience, rather than brawn – was tailoring somehow seen as ‘women’s work’ ? It’s also worth noting that tailors were famous for political discussion and radical activity through the 18th and 19th centuries, so there may have been an element of class snobbery too – look at these plebs getting above their station…

Tailors were often also portrayed in political cartoons as mean and grasping for money.  A good part of this probably arose from the dependence that the well-off actually had on their tailors. Clothes were vitally important as a signifier of who you were in society and what your position was; ever-changing fashion required a constant supply of new clothes. But depending on the skill of low-class tailors for their image no doubt irked the wealthy… In addition, in certain periods, like the Regency, noble folk could in fact be heavily in debt, and relied on stiffing various creditors for payment as long as possible. Tailors regularly complained that they were owed large sums by the aristos they clothed; the well-to-do generally thought such questions beneath them, and sneered at those who had to chase what was owed to them.

Another reason for abusing tailors came from simple prejudice – the tailor might often be a foreigner – a Frenchie, or even a Jew!

However, messing with the tailors may have been unwise. London tailors had a long history of self-organisation – the trade’s journeymen fought battles to improve wages and conditions for centuries, dating back to the Middle Ages.

In the 18th century, the journeymen’s collectivity was so strong they were nicknamed ‘the tailors’ republic’.

The play itself (some of which is on google books) seems to be a satire on heroic theatre, but is also a clear dig at the journeymen tailors banding together to fight for better wages and conditions. This was very much a live issue in London. Several times in the eighteenth century the journeymen combined or went on strike – the latest wage battle had taken place only in 1763, a few years before Foote’s drama was composed. The play casts tailors’ self-organisation against their masters in the style of a Shakespearean war tragedy – with the clear aim of making the idea of those weedy tailors engaging in struggle appear ridiculous…

When actor William Dowton tried re-staging ‘The Tailors: a Tragedy for Warm Weather’ in 1805, the London tailors took umbrage. Not had their power to organise collective action diminished… Dowton received a series of threatening letters, warning him to abandon the plans to perform the offensive play, or else seventeen thousand tailors would attend to hiss and boo the piece; one letter signed “DEATH” added that ten thousand more tailors could be found if required.
Dowton laughed these threats off, and pressed on with the performance. However, when opening night came, it turned out that the tailors were deadly serious. They had managed to book almost every seat in the theatre, and a large crowd outside the Haymarket weren’t able to get in.

The moment Dowton appeared upon the stage, there was an uproar, and someone threw a pair of shears at him:

“At an early hour in the afternoon of August 15 about 700 persons mostly Tailors were waiting to gain admittance to the theatre at the opening of the doors. The greater portion went to the galleries while some took their station in the pit and the moment they got in commenced shouting and knocking their sticks in the most turbulent manner. The utmost noise and confusion prevailed in the house and when the curtain rose there was a general cry of ‘Dowton! Dowton!’  Mr Dowton, came forward but the tumult increased and there were loud shouts of ‘No Dowton!  No Dowton!’  He attempted to speak but could not be heard, the uproar now greatly increased.  A Tailor’s thimble and a pair of scissors were thrown from the shilling gallery on the stage; they passed very near to Mr Dowton and he took them up and coming to the front said “I would give twenty guineas to know who threw these scissors!”  This proceeding so alarmed some ladies in the stage box that at their request he left the stage.

The noise continuing with increased violence the managers despaired of obtaining a hearing in the usual way and had recourse to the exhibition of a large board whereon they asked to know the pleasure of the audience.  Papers were handed to the galleries and every possible intimation was given that offensive piece should be withdrawn and the farce of Village Lawyer substituted.  This however did not produce a cessation of hostilities and about nine o’clock managers finding it impossible to procure peace despatched a messenger to Mr. Graham the magistrate at Bow who soon arrived with some officers and having sworn several extra constables proceeded to the galleries and on the ring leaders took about a dozen of the rioters custody and lodged them in St Martin’s watch house.

After Catherine and Petruchio, the curtain being up discovered three Tailors seated upon a board.  The uproar then became universal; loud vociferations of every kind were made, and a very strong opposition was again formidably manifested.  The Bow Street Officers made their appearance after a time and eventually several of the most riotous were put out of the house.  The piece then proceeded but in consequence of these interruptions it was nearly one o’clock before the performance was over.  A party of the Horse patrolled up and down the Haymarket and remained until the crowd had dispersed.”
(from the Introduction to a later published version of ‘The Tailors, (or “Quadrupeds,”): a tragedy for warm weather, in three acts’)

The episode in which the theatre managers came on stage and tried to negotiate with the spectators is interesting. The objections being passed up to the stage and the attempt to get a different play put on reflect a very different attitude to theatre prevailing – almost an expectation of democracy, where the audience has a right to partially determine events on stage. As noted on this blog before, eighteenth century theatre audiences were drawn from a much wider spectrum of society than is generally true today – there was almost as moral economy, where cheap tickets and seats for different social sectors was expected (and attempts to restrict this ‘right’ caused riots). The right to view plays may have helped give birth to a sense that theatre belonged to all in a wider way – that audiences could take part in what was put on and how it was staged, even who could act. In 1773 the actor Charles Macklin’s role as Macbeth at Covert Garden caused so much controversy that a performance was halted when a large part of the audience demanded he be immediately sacked mid-play…

Partly this may have arisen from a peculiar lack of separation between performers and audience in many London theatres. There could be many factors that contributed to this. Street theatre and performance were so ever-present in London streets, that awe and distance when faced with a stage had evaporated somewhat? Trends in theatre production may also have helped – before naturalistic theatre in the 20th century, actor’s soliloquising and breaking the fourth wall was much more common, bringing the spectator into the play…

Theatre was also so accessible going to a performance was as routine for many as going to the pub, and some theatres became places to hang out and socialise – not necessarily to watch the play…

As late as 1844, in Sadlers Wells Theatre, the rowdy audience had become notorious for their refusal to behave like an audience. Respectable folk were increasingly staying away. Inside the theatre itself was even worse: the audiences mainly turned up to impose THEIR desires, and have a collective rowdy time, not to watch plays. The Sadlers Wells audience, “of the lowest possible class”, had, according to the Daily News, become “a sink of abomination, its plays a travesty, riots among its degraded audience a commonplace”. The performance was usually inaudible, drowned out by the shrieks, yells, lewd heckles and whistles, stamping and hails of thrown objects (including fruit and veg), and shouted demands for comic and popular songs. Charles Dickens disapprovingly described the “foul language, oaths, catcalls, shrieks, yells, blasphemy, obscenity – a truly diabolical clamour.”  This inversion of the spectacle sounds brilliant, in its total subversion of the ‘separate’ roles of performers and audience; more like a revival of the medieval carnival culture, where this separation was paper thin, and soon broken down. Theatre traditions like this helped evolve the great Music Hall scene onf the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The 1805 controversy over The Tailors also sparked a good old-fashioned pamphlet war. After the riot, a mock-heroic poem entitled ‘The Tailor’s Revolt’ was published under the pseudonym of ‘Jeremy Swell, Gent.’  Tailors issued a riposte in a tract called: ‘The Tailor’s Answer to the Late Attacks Upon their Profession from the Stage and Press With Critical Remarks on Jeremy Swell’s Mock Heroic Poem, by ‘a Flint’. (A ‘flint’ was a tailor working in a union shop):

“Does a man degenerate from his nature by becoming a Tailor?  Certainly not!  Why then do you laugh at us?  Is it because we sit cross legg’d at our work?  Fools who make themselves merry with this Circumstance do not know perhaps that this is the general posture of sitting adopted by all the Eastern nations as the most graceful and natural; nobody was ever seen to laugh at the Grand Signior and his Haram sitting cross legg’d at the Circus, but two Tailors in the same position at the Haymarket were deem’d a fit subject for mirth – 0 Tempore!  0 mores!  “But,” says some pert witling, “ a Tailor is only the ninth part of a man.””

Don’t mess with the Tailors’ Republic…

Today in London’s royal history, 1821: ‘Queen’ Caroline’s funeral procession ends in two deaths

Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of King George IV, died weeks after being refused entry to her husband’s coronation. She had become very popular, because of widespread hatred of the king, who had treated her pretty badly. When she died her funeral procession from Hammersmith turned into a riotous demo across London, erupting into fighting, and two working men, carpenter Richard Honey and George Francis, a bricklayer, were shot dead by soldiers in Hyde Park.

The daughter of Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, and Princess Augusta of Great Britain, Caroline was engaged to her first cousin, George, in 1794, and married the following year (despite the minor issue that Georgie Porgie was already secretly married to Maria Fitzherbert…)
George and Caroline separated shortly after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte of Wales, in 1796.
Prince George was an unpleasant character, fond of overdoing it on the drink and other luxuries, and like his father, would gradually lose his grip on reality. He hated his wife, and had vowed she would never be the queen.
By 1806, rumours spread that Caroline had taken lovers and had an illegitimate child. Whether or not George had anything to do with the rumours, they certainly served his interests … Meanwhile, the prince of course continued to shag widely, because standards for men and women were considered totally opposite, even for the royals. Caroline was ostracised by the establishment, which conversely continued to toady up to the repulsive George.

The controversy led to an investigation into Caroline’s private life, which concluded there was “no foundation” to the rumours, but a gleeful prince and government ensured Caroline’s access to her daughter was restricted anyway. She moved abroad to Italy in 1814, where rumours continued to gather; spies were said to have been sent to dog her steps.

George attempted to persuade Caroline to accept a divorce: she refused. Parallels have been drawn between this ‘royal scandal’ and the more recent royal divorce of Prince Charles and Diana; similarly in that case, public sympathy was drawn in very much on Diana’s side, though she had a much more canny sense of good PR in a totally different age…

It is worth reading Anna Clark’s excellent Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820, which gives a good summary of the varying motives for popular support of Caroline, especially among plebeian radicals and most particularly among women. There are fascinating contradictions in the spread of support for her cause. Caroline’s assertion of her ‘rights’ against the unpopular George helped gain her support both from men willing to see themselves as defenders of women against violent and abusive husbands, as well as from women on similar grounds, with the added element that her robust independence helped enable a wider participation of women in the public sphere. Caroline’s alleged affairs were even dismissed among plebeian radicals who supported libertinism and a woman’s freedom to assert her own sexual choice; but contrary-wise, the debauched life of the Prince allowed her to appear as a virtuous ‘wronged’ wife.

In 1820, George became king of the United Kingdom and Hanover with the death of his father. On 5 June 1820 Caroline, who had now been living abroad for six years, arrived unexpectedly in England to claim her right to be crowned queen. A furious George put pressure on the government, to introduce a ‘bill of pains and penalties’ into the House of Lords, to annul the royal marriage and deprive Caroline of her title.

The country had been through several years of radical agitation, clamour for reform and some abortive attempts at uprisings. The new king and the government were wildly unpopular, and many radicals and a large part of the population took any opportunity to attack what they saw as a corrupt hereditary monarchy and political class, who had brought in oppressive measures to stay in power and repress popular movements. Caroline’s grievance was suddenly seized on, and she received a wave of public sympathy, being perceived as a ‘wronged woman’ bravely struggling to uphold her rights against a callous political establishment. Whig politicians gave Caroline their backing; prominent Radicals such as the journalist William Cobbett, MP Sir Francis Burdett and John Cam Hobhouse took up her cause, and addresses of support were forwarded to the queen from numerous meetings held all over the country. Radical papers and news sheets were printed in large numbers and distributed far and wide in support of her.

Cartoon depicting radicals’ use of the Queen Caroline agitation to further their ends, 1820.

Whig lawyers, Henry Brougham and Thomas Denman defended Caroline during the proceedings on the bill of pains and penalties in the House of Lords. Ministers found that increasing numbers of usually reliable peers were deserting them and, in the division on the bill’s third reading, 9 November, their majority shrank to just nine. Lord Liverpool, recognising that there was no possibility of carrying the Bill through the Commons, abandoned the process, to the king’s rage.

Jubilant scenes in the country greeted the news of the bill’s demise: subsequent public gatherings, saw speeches linking the queen’s cause with the popular clamour for parliamentary reform…

In July 1821, on the orders of her husband, Caroline was barred from George IV’s Coronation, planned for the 29th April 1821. Caroline asked the Prime Minister what dress to wear for the ceremony and was informed that she would not be taking part in it.

However, Caroline arrived at the door of Westminster Abbey on the day demanding to be admitted. She shouted “The Queen…Open” and the pages opened the door. “I am the Queen of England,” she shouted and an official roared at the pages “Do your duty…shut the door” and the door was slammed in her face.

Since arriving back in London, Caroline lived at Brandenburgh House, Hammersmith. She died there, on 7 August 1821, having fallen ill shortly after her husband’s coronation. Rumours she had been poisoned may have been unfounded, but were inevitable, in the circumstances…

Caroline had requested that she be buried in her native Brunswick; the government arranged for the body to be conveyed by carriage to Harwich to be shipped to Germany. But they were worried about the possibility of a public demonstration of anger against the king and in support of the ‘wronged queen’, and drew out a route to avoid what they thought trouble spots.

They were right to anticipate trouble, but wrong to think they could avoid it.

On the day of the funeral procession, 14th August 1821, there was an altercation with the organisers before the executors would allow the Queen’s body to be removed.

Meanwhile crowds were gathering. The determination of the government was to shepherd the queen’s corpse quietly out of England without going through the City where crowds could gather and demonstrate support for her – equally, unruly elements were out to make sure the procession travelled through the capital.

“Before six o’clock a crowd assembled at Hyde Park Corner. The anxiety of the people as to the course the funeral procession [for Caroline of Brunswick] would take was here most strikingly displayed. The crowd were unwilling to depart from a place where there was a favourable chance of joining or viewing the procession; but there was the greatest agitation and alarm lest it should pass another way.

The procession reached Kensington at half past nine. It was after eleven that it moved on into Hyde Park, and an attempt was made to pass, but this failed, for the people, apprehensive that the hearse would not pass through the City, shut the gates.”
(Manchester Guardian, 18/7/1821)

Barricades were built. Before long the route “was blockaded… rendering it impassable.  The whole procession therefore came to a halt, and a messenger was despatched to Lord Liverpool for orders.” Liverpool decided that the route was to proceed through Hyde Park.

“About twelve o’clock the procession entered the Park, and during its passage through it a scene of confusion and outrage ensued of which the annals of this or any other Christian country can present few parallels. Vast numbers of persons on foot and on horseback passed with great speed along Park Lane. Their object was suspected by the Guards to be to reach that gate before them, with the view of meeting the procession, and forcing it to turn back. To prevent this, the Guards galloped through the Park to gain Cumberland Gate before them. The procession moved at a very quick pace through the Park. Suddenly, it halted, and it was understood that the people had closed the gates. It became necessary to force a way for the procession through whatever impediments might present themselves. The people were equally bent on turning the procession, and forcing it into the route of the city. Here a contest arose, and here, we deeply regret to say, blood was shed!”
(Manchester Guardian, 18/7/1821)

The procession reached Cumberland Gate at the north-eastern edge of Hyde Park

“where the obstruction to their passing was renewed and the guards endeavouring to remove these obstacles and clear the way were assailed with bricks, paving stones and such other missiles.

Some stones and mud were thrown at the military, and a magistrate being present, the soldiers were sanctioned in firing their pistols and carbines at the unarmed crowd. Screams of terror were heard in every direction. The number of shots fired was not less than forty or fifty. So completely did the soldiery appear at this period to have lost the good temper and forbearance they previously evinced, that they fired shots in the direction in which the procession was moving. Immediately upon the cessation of the firing, the latter part of the procession joined the rest of the funeral train. The rain, which had lately abated, again poured in torrents, as the procession advanced.”
(Manchester Guardian, 18/7/1821)

Here is part of a contemporary account of the start of the procession and the shooting at Cumberland Gate:

“The hamlet of Hammersmith, as the procession passed up the Broadway, presented a striking spectacle. The windows of the houses were filled in every part, chiefly with females, all in the deepest mourning; and a great number of men had climbed upon the roofs, and even upon the chimneys, so great was the anxiety to obtain a view of the procession. On each side of the road vehicles of every kind were drawn up, and seats or standing places on them were purchased


eagerly, at from 1s. to 3s. The owners of some of the carts and waggons had provided canopies of carpet or sail-cloth, which protected the occupiers of seats from the rain, and these men made a very considerable sum by their speculation. The space between these carriages and the houses was completely filled with spectators on foot, many of whom were without umbrellas, or any other than their ordinary covering ; but the heavy rain which continued to fall the whole of the morning did not dismay them. We saw hundreds of women, of all ages, standing patiently beneath the pelting shower, and bearing, without a murmur, the rude assault to which they were every minute subject, from the want of common tenderness on the part of the men. wept aloud as they took their last view of the hearse. The fair inhabitants of the hamlet evinced the strongest sensibility upon this melancholy occasion. They were seen at their windows gazing with tearful eyes upon the solemn spectacle, and many were heard to sob aloud, apparently in the greatest agony of grief. When the head of the procession reached the Broadway, the spectators were gratified with one of the most interesting sights, we believe, ever witnessed. The children, male and female, of Latimer’s Charity-school, issued from the school-house, in their best dresses, wearing crape upon their hats, and each bearing a small white basket filled with choice flowers. The sides of the basket were covered with crape. The little ones having ranged themselves at the head of the cavalcade in proper order, two and two, they proceeded on, strewing their flowers in the road as they walked along. The extremely neat dresses of the children, with their simple but earnest manner of performing this ceremony, excited the highest admiration and the deepest sympathy. It imparted a degree of painful interest to the scene, that will long be remembered by those who had an opportunity of beholding it. These children had been furnished with their baskets on Monday, and they went round on that day to the principal inhabitants of the hamlet, and begged from each a supply, of the best flowers in the garden. The children walked bareheaded, and bore the heavy rain with great cheerfulness. When their stock of flowers was exhausted, they walked out of the line, and stood at the side of the road until the procession had passed them, when they returned to the school-house.

ASSEMBLAGE IN HYDE PARK.

While the arrangements for the procession · were forming at Brandenburgh House, an immense crowd of horsemen and pedestrians was collected at Hyde-park-corner, which increased rapidly from five until eight o’clock, by which time it was prodigious, notwithstanding the deluge of rain which continued without intermission the whole morning, as if the very Heavens were weeping in sympathy with the hearts of the English people. By half-past six a Upon arriving at the turnpike, the populace insisted that the horsemen should pay no toll, it being, we believe, a popular error that funerals pay no toll under any circumstances. The gentlemen themselves seemed willing to pay, but hesitating in consequence of the calls from the crowd, the keeper closed the gate against them, upon which the populace instantly tore it from its hinges, and dashed it on one side; nor did they suffer any horseman who passed afterwards to pay. Shortly after this, a doubt seemed to prevail as to which route the procession would adopt, and the anxiety upon this subject soon became extremely intense. Every coach, every horseman, or even foot-passenger, who came from the direction of Hammersmith, was questioned with the greatest eagerness as to whether he knew any thing of the matter : and each succeeding person interrogated gave a different answer from the preceding one.

Funeral procession of Caroline of Brunswick

At about a quarter past eight, it was announced that the procession was moving along the road at the other extremity of the Park, and instantly the whole crowd streamed off with all the speed in their power to the Oxford-street gate. Here they found that the same uncertainty prevailed as at Hyde-park-corner; and, after having waited with great patience for half an hour, another report was circulated that the procession was going along by Knightsbridge. Immediately the whole Park was covered with a moving cloud of umbrellas, the people having made their way over all parts of the wall along the Edgeware-road, and directing their course back again to Hyde-park-corner. Still the route remained unascertained, and it was now understood that not even any of the persons at Hammersmith, except the undertaker, who was in the confidence of His Majesty’s Government, were informed of the intended line it was to take. This circumstance appeared to excite a general murmur of indignation. Multitudes proceeded on to Hammersmith, as the more certain way of avoiding the frustration of their purpose. But the greater number appeared to conclude, from the stationary the arrival of the procession, that it would certainly pass that way. However, once more (in consequence of the arrival of a horseman with the intelligence,) it was understood that the procession was about to pass the other way; and again the immense multitude rolled back the whole length of Hyde-park to the Edgeware-road, and again disappointment alone awaited them. The angry feeling excited against the authors of this irritating suspense became considerably enhanced by a suggestion, that the different horsemen who had given the false intelligence at various times, were persons expressly employed to deceive the people with unfounded reports, and thereby call off their attention from the direction in which the procession was to move. At this period the whole length of the Edgeware-road was thronged to excess as far as we could see; and vast numbers made their way to the Paddington-road, under the impression that that was the destined route. A long line of carriages also blocked up each of the various roads through which there was any chance of the procession passing. It now approached to eleven o’clock, and nothing but feelings of the deepest, the most heart-rooted affection and grief, could account for the extraordinary patience and self-devotion with which this immense concourse of persons, male and female, endured unintermitting fatigue, wet, and hunger, for a space of six hours; and still, although the water streamed in torrents from their drenched limbs-although they were hardly able to stand, from incessant running in every direction during the whole morning, and although almost fainting from exhaustion and want of food, they maintained an unshaken resolution to undergo every possible extremity of suffering from hardship or privation, rather than lose the opportunity of uttering a parting blessing on the cold remains of their lamented Queen. At length the arrival of one or two horsemen from Hammersmith, known not to be in the service of Government, who informed the anxious inquirers that surrounded them, that was at length announced in reality.

ROUTE FROM HAMMERSMITH TO HYDE-PARK-CORNER.

The procession moved on, at a slow pace, through the immense crowds that lined each side of the road. The order was not interrupted till its arrival at Kensington church. The constables and police officers, who, by that time, headed the procession, endeavoured to turn it out of the direct road leading to Picadilly, by guiding it along Church-street, which is by Kensington church; and thus to convey Her Majesty’s remains into the Bayswater-road, following the route previously marked by Mr. Bailey. This was promptly and loudly resisted. The people cried out “Shame! Shame !—Through the City! Through the City !” but finding that exclamations would avail but little, they resisted with personal force. A stout scuffle ensued; and as no military had yet arrived, the populace triumphed. This brought the procession to a stand-still. A communication of what had passed was made to superior powers lower down in the procession; and while this was taking place, the people, assembled in Church-street, set to work with an alacrity and success that were truly surprising, to render ineffectual an attempt to pass that way, by blocking up and cutting up the street ! Waggons, carts, &c. were brought and placed across the street; the linch-pins were taken out, and some of the wheels were taken off; and all the horses were removed. Higher up the stones were removed; trenches were dug in the roadway; even the water-pipes were opened. Crowbars and pokers were at work, and the workmen were cheered with cans of porter and with the applause of the multitude. A stoppage of as impassable a nature was thus created, in less than half an hour, as ever was raised by a retreating army to check the pursuit of an enemy. A waggon, Foot Guards, was seized and placed in Church-street. The Serjeant who commanded the party immediately represented to

The Queen’s funeral procession passing through Hammersmith, published 20 October 1821

Sir Robert Wilson the great inconvenience the delay would occasion him and his party, as they had a long march before them. Sir Robert Wilson immediately addressed the populace, and pointed out to them that the delay would be of serious inconvenience to the soldiers. The short speech of Sir Robert was received with great good humour; the baggage waggon was instantly released, and suffered to proceed on its journey, but another waggon was instantly placed in the same situation. While these labours were going on, a soldier was forwarded to town, with a despatch to Lord Liverpool for orders. In the mean time the whole procession remained stationary; and, by a singular coincidence, Her Majesty’s remains with the hearse stopped directly opposite to Mr. Cobbett’s house. That gentleman had the whole front of his house covered with black cloth. The appearance was singular, and the attention was respectful. As Mr. Bailey, the conductor of the procession, would not take upon himself the responsibility of moving in any other route previously marked by Mr. Bailey. This was promptly and loudly resisted. The people cried out “Shame! Shame !—Through the City! Through the City !” but finding that exclamations would avail but little, they resisted with personal force. A stout scuffle ensued; and as no military had yet arrived, the populace triumphed. This brought the procession to a stand-still. A communication of what had passed was made to superior powers lower down in the procession; and while this was taking place, the people, assembled in Church-street, set to work with an alacrity and success that were truly surprising, to render ineffectual an attempt to pass that way, by blocking up and cutting up the street ! Waggons, carts, &c. were brought and placed across the street; the linch-pins were taken out, and some of the wheels were taken off; and all the horses were removed. Higher up the stones were removed; trenches were dug in the roadway; even the water-pipes were opened. Crowbars and pokers were at work, and the workmen were cheered with cans of porter and with the applause of the multitude. A stoppage of as impassable a nature was thus created, in less than half an hour, as ever was raised by a retreating army to check the pursuit of an enemy. A waggon, Foot Guards, was seized and placed in Church-street. The Serjeant who commanded the party immediately represented to Sir Robert Wilson the great inconvenience the delay would occasion him and his party, as they had a long march before them. Sir Robert Wilson immediately addressed the populace, and pointed out to them that the delay would be of serious inconvenience to the soldiers. The short speech of Sir Robert was received with great good humour; the baggage waggon was instantly released, and suffered to proceed on its journey, but another waggon was instantly placed in the same situation. While these labours were going on, a soldier was forwarded to town, with a despatch to Lord Liverpool for orders. In the mean time the whole procession remained stationary; and, by a singular coincidence, Her Majesty’s remains with the hearse stopped directly opposite to Mr. Cobbett’s house. That gentleman had the whole front of his house covered with black cloth. The appearance was singular, and the attention was respectful. As Mr. Bailey, the conductor of the procession, would not take upon himself the responsibility of moving in any other direction than that laid down in the written directions, the whole cavalcade halted until new instructions arrived. At half-past eleven, a troop of Life Guards appeared, coming from London. They were headed by Sir R. Baker, the Chief Magistrate of Bow-street, mounted on an officer’s horse; and on each side of him was a military officer. Sir Robert and the officers having reconnoitred the end of Church-street, and found it impossible to remove the obstruction raised there, yielded to necessity, and gave orders for the procession to move on in a direct line, which was complied with, amidst the stunning huzzas of the multitude, who could not restrain their joy in having thus defeated the plan to carry off Her Majesty’s remains without their even entering London.

KENSINGTON BARRACKS.

Their exultation, however, was doomed to speedy interruption. As soon as the Procession arrived at Hyde-Park gate, by Kensington Barracks, Sir Robert Baker, with some of the soldiers, entered it, with the view of leading the procession. instantly rushed into the opening, seized the gates, dragged the keeper and his helper forward, and closed them. This exasperated the Serjeant of the troops inside, who cried out, “ I’ll chop your hands off if you do not let go the gates.” The gates were again drawn back, and again closed by the people. Here one of the soldiers outside, putting spurs to his horse, Ons dashed up to the gate, when a person amongst them immediately held a great stick over him, crying out, “ Let our lives be lost before we let her pass this way.” Here the cry of “Murder” was vociferated, and a voice exclaimed, « Sir Robert Baker, remember you have not read the Riot Act.” Again a soldier from the roadside of the gate rode up to cut those hanging on to the gate, when one of the committee-men rode up between them and interposed. The cry was now, “ Horsemen ! horsemen! stand in the gate.” Olive only attempting it, whose horse was frightened, he could not get him forward. Several persons now got up to the gate, and though the soldiers were not three yards from it, several large stones were thrown at the military, one of which struck a soldier on the breast; and the cry of “Murder!” still continuing, Sir Robert Baker said, “ Open the gate, and we will go on.” The gate was opened, Sir Robert Baker came out, and headed the procession, and it proceeded on towards Hyde-Park-corner, the people crying out, “ The City! the City! Nothing but the City! Fly to Hyde-Park-corner ; block up, block up; every man in the breach.” The people now began to fly towards Hyde-Park-corner, when they reached the gates they were closed, and the military were stationed close to the gates inside the park. The gates were soon opened sufficiently for them to come out one by one; they were then closed again, and the military rode through the crowd to Park-lane, with their horsepistols in their hands.

HYDE-PARK CORNER.

After the commencement of the procession had passed Hyde-Park corner, and entered Piccadilly, fresh interruption took place. Considerable parties of Benefit Societies, of different trades, &c. who had carried Addresses to the Queen, appeared at this point with their banners and solemn music, prepared to join the procession. They occasioned some delay. Next it was found that Park-lane, the then contemplated route, had been stopped up almost as effectually as Church-lane at Kensington had been previously rendered impassable. The procession was thereby again brought to a complete stand-still, one that was rendered the more painful and alarming, owing to the increased numbers of the populace as well as of the horse soldiers. Several hundreds of Horse-guards and of Blues lined the streets, and the former certainly were not hailed in a very complimentary manner by portions of the vast and in many instances irritated multitude now assembled. Sir R. Baker knew not what to do; Officers of the Guards said they must obey their orders—they were positive-they were peremptory. The people looked to the Gentlemen on horseback, particularly to several distinguished Citizens, for them to advocate their cause at this critical juncture, with the Civil and Military Authorities. A more frightful state of things we never beheld ; we apprehended the most dreadful consequences-pistols, as well as swords, were drawn, the Guards displaying the most determined demeanour. Mr. Hurcombe, the Common Councilman, at this fearful moment, rode up to Sir R. Baker, and claimed his attention, if he had no right to ask that of the officers. He said, amongst other observations, “For Heaven’s sake! Sir Robert, let the procession proceed through the City. You see the people will not be satisfied without such course be pursued. If the contrary course be persisted in, the consequences, I fear, must be dreadful. There is every reason to apprehend that in such case blood will be spilled-lives will be lost. Therefore reflect well, and let the procession proceed through the City.”, * Sir R. Baker.-I know not what to do; the orders are positive-peremptory: I cannot change them. : Mr. Hurcombe.—You see that the lives of your fellow-citizens are placed in jeopardy-you see what is the state of the public mind; therefore, let me beseech you, take on yourself the responsibility of ordering the corpse to pass through the City. You will thereby doubtless save many lives; and if you do not pursue such course, and should lives be lost, who will be answerable for them after this warning ? Will not you be be the consequences what they might, he must fulfil his orders. He at the same time called on Sir R. Baker to aid him with the civil power in the execution of such duty.

RETROGRADE MOVEMENT-PARK-LANE.

Mr. Bailey now intimated a desire that the cavalcade should again attempt to pass up Park-lane into Oxford-street: but it was found impracticable. The head of the procession was then moved down the line of Piccadilly, and had proceeded nearly as far as Lord Coventry’s house, when it was met by a fresh reinforcement of horse-soldiers, by whom its further progress in that route was stopped. The conduct of the people during this stoppage, towards the military, was of a trying nature. After some hesitation, the leaders of the procession and the military commanders being apparently occupied in deliberating on the course to be taken, the whole made a retrograde movement towards deep shout, and mud and missiles flew at the soldiery from all directions. A party of dragoons were immediately sent round to Park-lane, with strict orders to remove the carts; in which service, we regret to say, many of them, as well as the crowd, were badly wounded, the former with stones, and the latter with the swords of the soldiery. One dragoon had his eye severely cut with a stone; and he would, no doubt, have killed the man with his sabre, had it not been for the humane interference of Sir R. Baker. The line of waggons, however, was so very compact, that it was found impossible to remove them, and this circumstance being communicated to the Magistrates, whose strict orders were, that it should take no other route than that prescribed by the officers of His Majesty’s Government, it was, after considerable stoppage, agreed to open Hyde-Park-gate, and orders were given to admit the whole cavalcade, and to exclude the crowd, which was at length effected after considerable resistance, and pelting on the part of the latter.

HYDE-PARK.-FATAL CONFLICT BETWEEN THE MILITARY AND THE POPULACE.

At half-past twelve the whole of the funeral procession had entered the Park; and, in accompanying the funeral in the Park, turned up Park-lane, and pursued the direction of Oxford-street, at a rapid rate. No further interruption took place till the arrival of the procession at Cumberland-gate. Some of the more zealous of the populace finding their efforts to force a passage for the hearse in a direct route for Temple Bar frustrated at one point, now bethought themselves of bringing their favourite plan to bear by shutting Cumberland-gate against the military. They seized upon the iron gates at this point, and having closed them, collected in great force, and seemed resolved upon keeping possession to the last. Their object was, by obstructing the advance in this quarter, to force the procession back to Piccadilly, when, as Park-lane was blocked up, it was deemed that it would of necessity take the direction of St. James’s-street. The crowd grew more dense every moment around the gate, and in every avenue leading towards that quarter, a determined disposition became manifest to maintain their object by forcible resistance. The military, notwithstanding the great opposition they had to encounter, succeeded in carrying the gates without resorting to extreme measures. Indeed the forbearance displayed up to this period was highly praiseworthy. Having made clear the passage of the gates, the military gained Oxford-street, and were about to proceed according to the appointed route by the Edgeware-road. In this design they were rudely opposed by the populace, who, in the most daring manner, rushed upon the horses, and seizing the bridles, at a tempted to turn their heads down Oxford-street, their backs to Tyburn turnpike. The soldiers took no other means of repulsing this attack than by repressing the people as they advanced with the backs and sides of their sabres. An eye-witness of this part of the conflict, and particularly of the firing, states, that a strong party of Life Guards had been drawn across Oxford-street, from the top of Park-lane, to prevent the passage of the cavalcade in that direction; and the Officer commanding it was exceedingly active in the distribution of his orders to the men posted at the several points. Upon him an attack was first made by the crowd, his party. At this period Sir Robert Baker, having in vain endeavoured to open a passage through the mob, and to remove the impediments from the entrance to the Edgeware-road, read the Riot Act, and the military preparing to move, the populace began to retreat in all directions. About thirty yards of the iron railing on the parapet wall of Hyde-Park, between Cumberland-gate and Tyburn-turnpike, were torn down, and a way thus made for the passage of the multitude. The materials of the wall were immediately converted into ammunition by the crowd, and a party of the Life Guards having dismounted, advanced under the cover of a double line of mounted cavalry to force the barricade which had been thrown up across the road, and were furiously attacked by them. Orders were then given for the remainder of the party to charge the crowd, which they did, advancing rapidly upon them, and flourishing their swords right and left, striking chiefly with the flat or broad sides, but in many instances using the points and edge. Upon this some persons in the rear, presenting a dense and formidable mass, raised the cry of— “ The soldiers are cutting down the people,” which was immediately followed up by showers of brickbats, stones, and missiles of divers descriptions, which were hurled at the soldiers. The pressure of the crowd continued, and the shower of missiles was kept up at so brisk a rate, that the troops must have been forced from their ground had they not adopted the most decisive measures. Several were unhorsed by brickbats, and many suffered the most severe bruises, and, after bearing with the most exemplary patience and fortitude, these repeated assaults, the painful order to fire was given. We believe the first discharge of carbines was over the heads of the people, but not having the desired effect, it was found necessary to fire amongst the crowd, in consequence of which one person was killed ; another, George Francis, a bricklayer, mortally wounded; and several others şeverely. One of as the sufferers was named Richard Honey, a carpenter, residing to St. George’s Hospital. As the carbines were discharged at random, some gentlemen belonging to the parish of Hammersmith, and who occupied a coach next to that of Alderman Wood, narrowly escaped with their lives. A ball passed through one of the panels of the coach, and came out at the other side, but most providentially without any injury to those within it. Upon the wall of the City of Quebec public house, is the mark of a ball from a carbine, which penetrated between two bricks, within a few inches of the window, which was occupied by persons viewing the scene then passing in the street.

CUMBERLAND GATE AND THE NEW ROAD.

The procession now crossed the end of Oxford-street; and, leaving Tyburn-turnpike on the left, passed down the Edgeware-road towards Paddington. Almost immediately upon the cessation of the firing, the latter part of the procession, which during the continuance of the unfortunate affray between the military and the people had remained in the Park, proceeded rapidly forward, and joined the rest of the funeral train in the Edgeware-road. Upon leaving the Park, several mourning coaches, followed by a considerable number of horsemen, broke out of the line of the procession, and proceeding down Cumberland-street, turned off to the right, and, as far as we could learn, did not again take any share in the solemn ceremony in which they had previously borne a part. Whether this proceeding resulted from a feeling of disgust at the transaction which had just before taken place, we do not know; but it was evident that at this moment the minds of the individuals in the procession were much discomposed. The populace in Oxford-road and at Tyburn-gate appeared to be in the highest degree exasperated against the military, whom they loaded with the bitterest execrations. Some cried out “ They have shot a man, and killed him ;” others wished to draw the attention of the horsemen in the funeral train to the blood of the unfortunate sufferers in the conflict, which stained the ground in several places. It must be confessed that, under these circumstances, it required some little nerve in an individual to continue in a course in which it was not improbable he might again be liable to behold scenes of horror and danger similar to that of which he had recently been a spectator. However, the admirers of her late Majesty were not to be deterred, and the procession continued to proceed…”
(‘A Correct, Full, and Impartial Report, of the Trial of Her Majesty, Caroline, Queen Consort of Great Britain, Before the House of Peers, On the Bill of Pains and Penalties’, by Queen Caroline (consort of George IV, King of Great Britain), John Adolphus)

Along the rest of the route, the crowd “thronged the procession’s progress The Lord Mayor met them at Temple Bar and they passed in a very orderly manner through the City, cheered by the citizens.“

From there the procession proceeded to Colchester, where the coffin was placed in the church. Caroline’s Executors put upon the coffin an inscription with the words “much injured Queen”, which was removed, and replaced by a “Latin inscription prepared by the King’s orders. The executors clamoured, railed & protested but the body was put on board of the Glasgow frigate lying off Harwich on the 16th August.“

Two men died as a result of the shooting at Cumberland Gate:
“The number of persons who suffered in consequence of the dreadful attack made by the military on the multitude, near Cumberland-gate, has never been accurately known; but was fortunately much less than, under such circumstances, might have been expected. The only individual actually killed on the spot was Richard Honey, a carpenter. This unfortunate man was among the spectators at Cumberland-gate; and though there appears much conflicting testimony, respecting the circumstances of the attack, (as will be seen by our subsequent particulars of the Inquest,) the general evidence concurs in stating that he was perfectly inoffensive. The attack and firing, it appears, took place at the moment the people were endeavouring to turn the direction of the funeral down Oxford-street. George Francis, a bricklayer, was another unfortunate victim, who during this contest between the military and the people expired.” (A Correct, Full, and Impartial Report, of the Trial of Her Majesty, Caroline…)

Caricature denouncing the Life-Guards’ contempt for the law after no-one was charged over the deaths of Honey and Francis.

The Jurors sitting in the inquests into the two deaths recorded verdicts of “wilful murder against a life guardsman unknown” for the death of Francis, and “Manslaughter against the officers and soldiers of the 1st Guards” for the death of Honey.
Despite this, no individual was ever specifically named as having been responsible or prosecuted for the deaths, which caused some anger. On the contrary, an army officer, Sir Robert Wilson, who had attended the funeral procession, was dismissed from the army for allegedly remonstrating with Life Guards officers while the shooting was taking place, and attempting afterwards to argue that they should be held responsible.

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Richard Honey and George Francis were buried at St Paul’s Church, Hammersmith, on August 26th: thousands turned out for their funerals, which became another public demonstration, after which crowds attacked the Life Guards barracks in Kensington. (We will return to this in another post).

Brandenburgh House was pulled down after Caroline’s death.

Spotlight on London’s grassroots organising: feminism in Islington in the 1970s

Beyond The Fragments:
Feminism and the Making of Socialism (A Local Experience)


by Lynne Segal

An account by feminist & socialist activist Lynne Segal of the grassroots feminist and community organising she was involved in in Islington, North London, in the 1970s.
Nicked from ‘Beyond the Fragments’, Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, and Lynne Segal.
Reposted here because it’s interesting and useful.

Lynne Segal was born in is an Australia, and became involved in the anti-authoritarian milieu of the Sydney Libertarians (known as ‘The Push’), and has always remained within the libertarian wing of Left politics. She emigrated to London in 1970 and for the next decade her main energies went into grass roots politics in Islington, North London, helping to set up and run a women’s centre, an alternative newspaper, the Islington Gutter Press, and supporting anti-racist politics. It was a decade in which the extra-party Left was on the ascendant, but divided structurally and ideologically.

With Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright, Lynne Segal wrote Beyond the Fragments in 1979, arguing for broader alliances among trade unionists, feminists and left political groups. Its argument quickly won a large following leading to a major conference in Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1980 and a second edition in 1981. In 1984, publisher Ursula Owen invited her to join the Virago Advisory Board and write an appraisal of the state of feminism, resulting in her first book, Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism. This book reached a broad audience, with its questioning of gender mythologies, whether of women’s intrinsic virtues, or men’s inevitable rapaciousness, which had been appearing in the work of many popular feminist writers in the 1980s.

 

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This article was originally based on a talk given together with Sheila Rowbotham at the Islington Socialist Centre in August 1978. Since the first edition of Beyond the Fragments I have rewritten sections of it. The sympathetic comment and criticism of the first edition by my friends and comrades in Big Flame and by other independent socialist feminists have been of invaluable assistance to me in clarifying some of the ideas which appeared rather sketchily in the first edition. I am very grateful to all those who participated in this learning process with me.

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Certain political ideas and experiences are always more fiercely and critically debated than other on the left. The debate is usually confined within certain orthodox frameworks of discussion. The need for a revolutionary party and programme, the relation between party and class, and the nature of the working-class road to power, are among these classic debates. As the theses pile up on these important debates, the actual experiences of people as they consciously, and less consciously, participate in the struggle for a better life can disappear from history. And that is most unfortunate.

I believe we can learn useful, if limited, lessons from the activities of a group of people struggling for socialism, fighting for feminism, within their own small groups in one local area. I am writing as a woman with a libertarian feminist history, living in Islington since 1972. Islington is an inner suburb of London. It does not have any large industrial base, workers are mostly employed in the public sector, or in small factories. Like me, many people who live in Islington don’t work there. My political experience has been as a community activist; it is not based on the workplace.

I will be trying to draw on my experiences in the last seven years, not just in the women’s movement, but also as part of the libertarian left in London. It is a subjective account, but I hope it will raise general issues concerning women and revolutionary politics and the problems we face. I was lucky in that I wasn’t around in England in 1969 and 1970 when the reaction of the whole of the left to women’s liberation was derisory and dismissive. Though I do clearly remember Sheila’s books being dismissed by left colleagues of mine at work, and declared both diversionary and reformist.

In 1970 a group of women organised a demonstration against the Miss World contest; some were arrested, and they later produced a pamphlet which explained what they had done. And this was just one of the things I remember that influenced and inspired me in 1972-because that pamphlet Why Miss World? not only talked of the humiliation of women as sex objects, but also of the lack of confidence and fear these women felt mounting the first protest against their own oppression. It wasn’t just that women felt frightened to protest politically, but that most of us found it difficult to speak publicly at all; we were used to relating passively and dependently to the world as presented to us by men. We were used to being dominated by men: it was hard not to want to be. And it really hasn’t been easy to change this, either then or since.

Libertarianism
For me, in many ways the ideas of the libertarian left and feminism did seem to be in harmony. I will try and explain this. First of all, they both seemed new. The libertarian politics of the seventies did not really owe much to the anarchism of the past. Though anarchism has a very long history, as old as Marxism, the student radicals of the 1968 generation were in the main not radicalised through the efforts of the ‘organised’ libertarian and anarchist groupings. I know this also from personal experience as I was a student anarchist in Australia in the early sixties but I took me a few years to begin to understand the political Ideas that came to prominence after May 1968.

Libertarian politics were more of a genuinely spontaneous upsurge of ideas which drew their inspiration from many different thinkers, from Marcuse, Che Guevara and the early Marx, to Laing and Vaneigem.(l) This upsurge was a product of capital’s period of boom, when everything did seem possible, when in the Western world capitalism’s main problem seemed to be how to keep buying all the goods it could produce. This led to the reaction against pointless consumption; ‘consume more, live less’. The emphasis was on the quality of life in capitalist society and this is why psychological writings seemed important, as did those of the young Marx when he spoke of the effect of alienated labour on the individual spirit and saw the division of labour itself as a stunting of human potential.

To those who had become active in 1968 it seemed a time when anything could happen. Looking back on it, we could say that from Vietnam we drew the lesson that American imperialism, despite its technology, was not invincible. Though I’m not sure that we were aware of this at the time, we only knew whose side we were on. We certainly felt politically inspired seeing a small nation fighting ‘the Beast’ to the death. From the mass workers’ struggles which occurred throughout France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969, people drew the lesson that the working class was prepared to fight for a better life, and that it had not been bought off by consumer durables. Students, for example, were inspired by the thought that they had a political part to play, and could act together with industrial workers, as happened in the worker-student alliances of May 1968, and the worker-student assemblies in Turin in 1969. So class struggle was once again on the agenda, and the class militancy which continued in Italy and in Britain in the early seventies showed how difficult it was for the ruling class to keep a grip on the situation in a period of economic boom. That the optimism of the early seventies and the militancy of workers’ struggles which inspired us then, have not been able to survive the capitalist economic recession of the mid seventies is something I will return to later on.

After 1968 the emphasis among the new largely ex-student libertarian left centred on the following issues. First, autonomy – which is not the same as individualism, but meant to us taking control over your own life. Libertarians believed that people could act to change the quality of their own lives; they were more than just the passive tools of historical forces. There was a deep suspicion of any organisation that claimed to do things for or in the name of the people. ‘Power to the People’ was one of the slogans we were chanting, as we watched our friends arrested on demonstrations, or were hauled off ourselves. As we saw it, we were the people, up against the repressive forces of the state, in our attempt to change our lives now. This meant that we were slow to form any alliances with others in our struggle, whether it was to seek support from the organised labour movement or the organised left, or progressive forces in local authorities or the left of the Labour Party. We saw them all as intrinsically reformist and hostile to our attempts to control our own lives. This wasn’t inconsistent with their response to our activities.

Secondly, personal relations – you’ve got ‘to live your politics’. We argued that our social relations now must reflect or ‘prefigure’ the social relations we want to create after the revolution. We said that the desire to change your own life and the world about you now is an important part of building for socialism in the future. So we opposed the Leninist position that you couldn’t change anything under capitalism, you could only build an organisation to overthrow it. We thought that there would be little reason for people to join a revolutionary movement unless it brought an immediate improvement in the quality of their lives, as against those who believed that you could make a split between public politics and private life. We were critical of those who might participate in some form of socialist politics and yet remain authoritarian and uncritical of their relation to their wives or their children at home; or to others in their work situation. We had in mind, for instance, the male militant who left his wife at home to mind the children while he did his ‘political’ work. We wanted our political activity to make room for those with children, and also to include the children.

Thirdly, you organise around your own oppression. You begin from your position as a woman, a squatter, a claimant, etc. This was linked to attacks on the nuclear family. We read both Laing and Reich, and were quite certain that we could never return to the restricted and restricting lifestyle of our parents. We saw that oppression, the power of one person to dominate and control the life of another, could be as much a part of personal social relations as of economic social relations. This led to an emphasis on collective living, collective childcare, and the setting up of nurseries.(2) The family was seen as the producer of neurosis and ‘the policeman in the head’ which leads people to collaborate in their own oppression.

Fourthly, the rejection of vanguards and any hierarchy of struggle. We rejected the idea that the industrial working class must be the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. Libertarians argued that all areas of life were of importance to revolutionaries. The traditional left was seen as only concerned with people at the workplace, not in the community. But libertarians always argued that people who worked at home, minded the kids, etc., were doing as important work as that done in the factories. This was expressed theoretically In a rejection of the Trotskyist left’s permanent illusion that capitalism was on the point of collapse, saved only by props like the ‘permanent arms economy’, as IS used to suggest.(3) We felt this underestimated the role of the state in stabilising the economy, not just through economic measures such as investment policies but through the hegemony of state ideology, and ideas expressed at every level. We saw the capitalist state as far more resilient and flexible than much of the left had previously argued. So libertarians developed richer theories of the role of the state, and its hard and soft forces of repression, not just through the police and the army but via education, health, sex role conditioning, etc.(4)

Before most of the left we: emphasised work with youth. Though left groups did have their youth sections, libertarians were interested in practical work, setting up youth houses, youth newspapers, adventure playgrounds and free schools. This youth work was not only practical but also prefigurative in its stress on young people being able to experience a different situation and develop a sense of self-determination.(5)

We worked mainly in community politics, starting community papers, squatters’ and claimants’ groups, and trying to organise around housing. ‘Decent homes for all’ was the slogan we used, aiming in particular at the failure of local authorities to provide housing for single people.
The squatting movement, was reduced in strength as people could no longer bear to keep on moving, keep on facing the bailiffs, as they were bought off by councils with licensed short-life houses, and the number of empty houses declined. But it did nevertheless win certain limited victories. In Islington it eventually forced the council to change its policies and begin providing housing for single people: It introduced the notion of ‘shared singles’ to the housing bureaucracy, to add to their ‘family units’. (This can’t simply be dismissed as ‘reformism’ since struggles were not fought in a reformist way.)

This was the time of the ‘gentrification’ or middle-class take-over of working-class .housing in inner city boroughs like Islington. Landlords conspired with estate agents like Prebbles to ‘winkle’ tenants out of their homes. There was a campaign against Prebbles by the Islington Tenants Campaign which picketed Prebbles’ office for many months until a historic high court judgement against them ruled that all non-industrial pickets were illegal. We did extensive research on the activities of the big property sharks like Raine, Freshwater and Joe Levy; and how the housing system worked in general until we felt we could understand what was going on.

We resisted all notions of revolutionary leadership. Living our politics meant sharing skills and breaking down all authoritarian relations now. We emphasised the creative aspects of politics, that it should be fun, and not dreary. All bourgeois social relations around work, the family, ‘pleasure’, possessions and relationships were challenged. This was perhaps why we supported those most oppressed by bourgeois society, prisoners, the homeless, claimants, etc., and believed that you could only fight back if you shared the material situation of the most oppressed. ‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’ the tough ones sang along with Dylan. But misery does not always equal militancy, and those most oppressed are sometimes so smashed that it’s hard for them to fight back at all.

Feminism

Many of these issues which I’ve described as central to libertarian thought were also central to feminist thought.

First, the autonomy of the women’s movement was the crucial issue for women. Though left groups saw this as divisive, we were aware that their programmes of formal equality for women could conceal the actual subordination of women in their own organisations. Women had to organise their own fight against male domination; it could not be done for them.

Secondly, feminists always emphasised the importance of the personal and the subjective, the need for a total politics. By this we meant a politics that saw the links between personal life and the oppression of women at home, and the exploitation of men and women in paid work. Women demanded changes in the social relations between men and women now. We wanted to help to break down the isolation of women in the home, and to begin to change ourselves. We had to change ourselves, because the whole ideology of sexism ensured that we had always seen ourselves, and were seen by men, in ways which made us feel inferior and allowed men to dominate us. We spoke of our sexuality being defined and controlled by men, as well as the suppression of women’s sexuality in most hetero-sexual relationships. We supported the demands of lesbians, and the importance of women exploring their own sexuality. We knew that women’s sexual passivity and sexual objectification by men was linked to our feelings of powerlessness.

Thirdly, as feminists we organised around our own oppression. We also criticised the nuclear family, seeing it as the seat of women’s oppression. But we were not simply concerned with the repressive ideological role of the family but saw ,it as the place where woman do unpaid work, thus creating the basis for our social subordination in general. We argued that the way in which domestic labour, childcare and work are organised today will all have to be changed before there can be any real liberation for women. We saw that the Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle had not proved itself an adequate theoretical tool to conceptualise these changes. While the traditional left was slow to realise the anti-capitalist nature of women’s liberation, feminists were able to show how it was the unpaid work done by women in reproducing labour power and servicing the workforce that was essential to capitalist social relations. ‘Women in labour, keep capital in power’ was one of the slogans painted on the wall at the first women’s liberation conference held in Oxford in 1970.

More thoroughly than the libertarians, women developed new theories of the welfare state.(6) Women as mothers came into contact with the state more directly than men, in the form of welfare, nursery provision, education and health services. So it was more urgent for us to analyse the control of the state over our lives. We were aware that it was the inadequacies of these social services that created the burden borne mainly by women today. And we were aware that the provision which was available to us was not what we wanted. For example, women took up many issues in the field of health care. We demanded control over our reproduction. We exposed the way that doctors, who are mainly men, treat women’s specific illnesses with contempt. We publicised the way millions of women are regularly prescribed tranquillisers and other drugs by doctors instead of them examining the social causes of many women’s problems. Indeed, feminists were able to establish that the medical profession saw femininity itself as in some way pathological.(7) The feelings of passivity, dependence and powerlessness, felt by most women today, are rightly seen by psychiatrists as opposed to mental health. But instead of these aspects of femininity being attributed to the oppressive socialisation of women, reinforced in everyday life, they are wrongly seen by most doctors as natural to women. These are only a few of many such issues.

Fourthly, the women’s movement also rejected ‘stageism‘-the idea that women’s liberation could be put off until after the revolution.(8) We argued that our struggle against male domination, or patriarchy, was as central as the struggle against class oppression.(9) We said that women’s oppression could not be reduced to class exploitation, that though interconnected with it, it pre-dated it and could continue after the smashing of capitalist class relations.

It was women who not only introduced many new issues into socialist politics, but also developed new forms of organisation – ones which would enable us all to participate more fully in revolutionary politics. We introduced consciousness-raising groups, where all women could learn that their misery, isolation and feelings of inferiority were not simply personal problems but common to nearly all women and the product of material and ideological conditions. We introduced the small group as a more supportive and equal way of discussing things and working together. We wanted the experiences of all women to be respected and the movement to grow on this basis rather than through following general principles. We criticised the formal public meetings of the labour movement and the left where inexperienced and less confident women (and men) felt unable to contribute.

We were opposed to all forms of leaderism, and struggled for equality in all our social relations, because we were aware that the forms of dominance and subordination we were fighting could easily remain invisible, as they had been before. We knew that our struggle began with the need for women to believe that what we could contribute was important and valuable. Through writing, poetry, music and film we began to create a new feminist culture, as a part of changing our consciousness and because we knew that men have dominated every aspect of our life, including all areas of culture. We worked locally in the community, at a time when most of the left, apart from the libertarian left, was not interested in this.

Many of these ideas on the form and nature of political activity and organisation can be illustrated by looking at some of the things which the women’s movement initiated in Islington in the early seventies. In August 1972, a group of women opened the first local women’s centre in York Way. This was one of the first women’s centres anywhere in England. The idea of having a centre was in itself different from the way in which most of the left organised. A leaflet from Essex Road Women’s Centre explained:

The Women’s Centre grew out of a need to meet and talk to other women about the particular problems that we all face. Many of us feel anxious that we alone are responsible for the problems we have-like loneliness if we’re stuck with our kids all day and can’t get out, finding a decent place to live, worrying about our health and our kids’ health, or worrying about work and keeping a home going as well.

By meeting and talking to other women we found that we are NOT alone in our problems. And when we find that we do share experiences, it’s not only a big relief, but it makes it easier to try and change things that need changing-whether it’s the planning of the street you live in, or whether it’s about contraception or childcare, schools, problems at work, etc. We think that women are in a really strong position to change things-because they are close to the root causes of the problems of day-to-day living, both in the house and at work.

So the idea of the centre was, firstly, as a place to meet and give real support to any women who were in some way trying to break out of their isolation, and, secondly, to allow us to build our confidence and strength that we as women could change things.

At York Way we began one of the first women’s health groups, taking up many of the ideas of the women’s health movement in the States, We were also active in the family allowance campaign, demanding that it be increased and paid directly to women. At about this time the Wages For Housework campaign Was started and began to demand wages for women working in the home. We agreed that it Was valuable to emphasise that domestic work is work, important work which is undervalued and invisible because it is unpaid. All this was a revelation to some people on the left.

We too saw woman’s unpaid domestic labour in the home as central to her oppression, and also central to the reproduction and maintenance of the workforce (labour power) and thus to the maintenance of the capitalist social formation. There was a theoretical debate here, though we were not all aware of it. Wages For Housework, following the analysis of Mariarosa Dalla Costa.(10) argued that women’s work at home was not only essential to capital as we said, but it also produced surplus value-that is, it directly added to the profits which capitalists could make out of their labour force. Because if there were no housewives male workers would have to pay someone to look after them, and thus would demand higher wages. We thought that this whole debate was perhaps not important, because whether or not housewives and other domestic workers produced surplus value, we were equally concerned to challenge the division of labour which consigned women to the home.

It was the pressures of housework, the double shift for ‘working’ women, and our general servicing role which were the major causes of women’s isolation and exploitation at home and at work, as well as of our low self-evaluation and status. So the Wages For Housework campaign seemed wrong at a practical level, because their solution would institutionalise the division of work in the family. (Then are now ideas to implement such a suggestion in Italy and Canada.) It also seemed wrong at a theoretical level being simply the other side of the economism of tradition a Trotskyism, which sees the only way to get power in that class struggle as that of fighting for more and more money through a wages offensive.

We began to argue generally for the Socialisation of housework, for more nurseries, playgrounds, and so on Here it wasn’t just that we widened the areas of political activity in which the left had been active, in order to include women’s needs. There was also the recognition of the need to have control over any gains we might make.

For instance, in the demand for nurseries, we didn’t just demand money from the state for more nurseries, but helped to create more community-based, non-authoritarian, non-sexist relations in the nurseries we helped to establish. Val Charlton describes this in her account of the Children’s Community Centre in North London which was opened in 1972 after feminists had successfully battled for council funding:

We are trying to break away from the traditional authoritarian mode of relating to children and are attempting to offer them as many choices as possible and as much independence as they can cope with. All activities are made available for children of both sexes but it’s not simply enough to treat all the children equally. The boys have frequently already learned their advantage and are quick to make capital of it. There has to be positive support in favour of the girls, who are generally already less adventurous.(11)

Also in 1972 a women’s Holloway Prison Support Group was set up, to campaign around women prisoners. We picketed Holloway Prison saying ‘Free our sisters, free ourselves.’ In 1973 we protested over the death through fire of Pat Cummings in Holloway Prison. We knew that most women are not in prison for crimes of violence. Petty crime, SS fraud, prostitution, etc., are the main reasons for women being sent to prison-often simply attempting to fulfil their social role of caring for their families on inadequate means. Yet, women prisoners are notoriously violent, mostly self-destructively violent – cutting themselves ip and smashing their cells. Used to providing the caring and affection for just a few people, women in prison face he possible break-up of their families and loss of their children. Women face this more than men because women end to support men more than men support women.

In this vulnerable position, official ideology can easily work to persuade the woman in prison that she is not so much ‘criminal’ as maladjusted or sick-another role which women in our society, through powerlessness and training into passivity, are more likely to accept. in line with this, we tried to expose the fraud behind the rebuilding of Holloway Prison as more of a hospital, creating even greater isolation for the women inside. Over 50 per cent of women in Holloway are on drugs, indeed drugs are the only provision which women can freely obtain in Holloway. The new Holloway Prison, which places even greater stress on the therapeutic rehabilitation of women, simply encourages them to blame themselves for the predominantly material problems which landed them in there in the first place.

But York Way was not a good site for a women’s centre. It closed in 1973, and in February 1974 we opened a new women’s centre in Essex Road. Many women’s groups, campaigns and activities started at that women’s centre. The most successful was probably the health group, which produced literature on women’s health, did pregnancy testing, provided a woman, doctor for advice sessions, learnt self-examination, took health classes with school children, collected information on doctors and their treatment of women, provided information on abortion facilities, and, more generally, argued for the importance of preventive health care rather than simply curative medicine. Less successfully, we wrote and distributed leaflets on housing conditions and the isolation of women at home with children. We supported women’s struggles for better housing, and some of us were active in squatting struggles.

By 1975 many campaigns were being co-ordinated by groups originating from the women’s centre. 1974 was the beginning of the various cuts campaigns against the ever-increasing public expenditure cuts. We began campaigning to prevent’ the closure of our local Liverpool Road Hospital, and fought hard for it to be kept open as a community health resource. Some of us were active in the Islington Nursery Action Group, visiting nurseries to help unionise workers and also successfully pressurising the Council, into abandoning its attempts to make cuts in nurseries, showing how the cuts hit women hardest.

The campaigns for ‘more and better services’ emerged at the same time as the government pressure for cuts. It was in November 1974 that the first government circular came demanding cuts. And that’s when a general cuts campaign started in Islington, with its first meeting held in December of that year, initiated by a group of militants, some inside and some outside the Labour Party. As a broad front campaign it was supported by community groups like the women’s centre, tenants’ groups, public sector workers and, in particular, by the many council-funded community service groups like law centres, Task Force and the Neighbourhood Forums. This was perhaps the first time that we got some relationship developing between the libertarian and feminist milieu and the labour movement. But at this time it was an uneasy alliance. It was never given my real support by the Trades Council, which even came out and attacked the campaign after it had held a day of action. This campaign did not last. Today with the left in a stronger position in Islington there is more hope for the new anti-cuts campaign which is being formed.

The National Working Women’s Charter Campaign was also started at this time, holding its first delegate conference in October 1974. It was never very popular with us at Essex Road. This was because of the dominance of the organised left in the Charter and their wrangles over leadership, and also because it was very schematic, being simply a list of demands, and because it was concerned primarily with women in the workplace. Marxists had always argued that woman’s liberation would be achieved through her full participation in waged labour. In this way they were able to subordinate women’s struggles to class struggle. And it was also in this way that they were able to dismiss the importance of organising with housewives or the struggles of those many women marginal to the wage system, for example, prostitutes.

The Working Women’s Charter, a list of ten demands which would improve women’s situation in paid work, was originally put together by a subcommittee of the London Trades Council. It was seen by some women in left groups as an adequate basis for socialist feminists to organise from. Though the demands did include ones around contraception, abortion and nurseries it was not an adequate platform for the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement to base itself on. (And there have always been socialist feminists in the women’s movement despite the different setbacks we have faced in our attempts to organise ourselves. )

The Charter’s inadequacy stemmed from its orthodox reflection of the position that women’s oppression is due to her unequal share in class struggle. The demands did not even criticise the sexual division of labour, which is central to male domination. It is this sexual division of labour which ensures that even if women can go out to work they will in general have the lower-paid jobs and the lower-status jobs. The point is not just that women happen to be low paid, it is that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in ‘women’s jobs’. And these jobs which are available to women are low in pay and status precisely because they are ‘women’s’ jobs’.(12) The threat to male workers of more women entering a particular career, is that by their very presence in any large numbers, they lower the status of that work. The best-known example of this was the change over from male to female secretaries at the end of the nineteenth century.(13) So even at work women are oppressed as much by their sex as by their class position.

The Working Women’s Charter was basically a trade union response to feminism, and it was good to get some response, but it shared the inadequacies of trade unionism towards women. Some of us did however support the Working Women’s Charter activities, although in fact local Charter groups interpreted and used the Charter in quite different ways-in Islington, women were involved in the local Nursery Action Group, in the Liverpool Road Hospital Campaign, in attempts to unionise workers at Marks and Spencers and elsewhere, and organising a general meeting on women in Islington sponsored by the Trades Council. There were, however, many aspects of feminist struggle that the Charter could not incorporate. In 1975, the Working Women’s Charter was rejected by the Trades Union Congress conference. It had fallen between the two stools of feminist and labour movement politics, and in the end could not survive.

In 1975 a local NAC (National Abortion Campaign) group was formed to fight James Whites’s anti-abortion bill. NAC was also organised as a national campaign. But once again many women were suspicious of the national structure, saying that it was not feminist. They saw it as dominated politically by the International Marxist Group (IMG), and objected to its main focus for activities being that of lobbying MPs, seeing this as reformist. Feminists often felt that any national campaigning structure gave women in left groups an advantage over them, in terms of determining policy, as they were more experienced in that form of centrally organised politics. This has always been a problem in the women’s movement, and one of the causes of the deep tensions between women in left groups and nonaligned women, even in the socialist feminist current of the movement. Outside of left groups we moved more slowly, each of us puzzling over the pros and cons of particular tactics, particular slogans, etc., most of us frightened to push ourselves forward, and therefore hostile to those women who already seemed to have all the answers on the questions of tactics and organisation. Today I feel that, difficult as it is, we must all learn to overcome our fear of political differences and be prepared to argue through our politics.

But many women did become involved in local activity against the threatened restrictions on women’s access to abortion facilities, with stalls in the local market and elsewhere. We also organised colourful public protests against the Miss Islington beauty contest, describing the degradation, violence and restriction on women’s lives created by our status as sex objects for men. It· was especially when we challenged this area of men’s control over women, speaking of the daily rape and violence against women that we were most ridiculed in the local press and elsewhere. For it was here that we were most directly challenging the central ideology of male domination, a sexist ideology which not only attributes certain particular characteristics to women that enable men to dominate us, but also belittles and degrades those characteristics it sees as feminine.(14)

Together with the Arsenal Women’s Group and others we held a local conference to try to organise the women’s movement on. a local area basis. We were also actively involved in all the early socialist feminist initiatives at organising in the women’s liberation movement. Many consciousness-raising and study groups started at the centre, and a women’s self-help therapy group was formed, partly as a support for some women who had suffered severe emotional crises, but also because all the women involved saw mental health as an important issue. We saw that many of our deep anxieties and fears were a reaction to our powerlessness, and often because we could not receive any adequate nurturing from men. We were used to providing emotional support, but not to demanding and receiving it. This is behind the current emphasis on feminist therapy, and the creation of a Women’s Therapy Centre in Islington. We talked on women’s liberation at schools like Starcross, a local school for girls, and some women ran classes on women’s liberation for schoolgirls at the centre. A literacy class was set up for women. There was a group for women working in traditional men’s jobs, and, in fact, so many groups that I can’t remember them all.

But, despite all of the creativity and energy which originated from the women’s centre, it was always hard to keep it open to all women for more than a few hours a week, on Saturdays and Wednesday nights. And many women were only active in the centre for about a year, and would then drift off. It was often hard to get the new women who came along involved in the centre, and it was difficult to keep up any good communication between the different groups which did meet there.

Some of us wanted to obtain money for a paid worker at the centre in order to keep it open to co-ordinate and plan activities. But others rejected such an idea out of hand, believing it would be ‘selling out’ to obtain money from the local council or the state, paving the way to our co-option by them. Women also feared that a paid worker would create a hierarchical structure. The first point came from our analysis of the state, which led us to see social workers, for instance, as the repressive ‘soft cops’ of the system. There seemed to be a contradiction between our emphasis on self-help and collective activity and the idea of state funding. Wasn’t the role of the social worker or the state-funded service centre to prevent people taking collective direct action to solve their problems by holding out the false promise of there being some individual solutions for people’s problems? But weren’t we just unpaid radical social workers anyway?

At that time we were less aware of the radical potential for militancy in the state sector workers, living out the contradictions of trying to provide a service for human needs while employed by a state tied to the profitability of capitalism. Many of these workers are very frustrated by the futility of their attempts to meet their clients’ needs. Some social workers, for instance, were already referring people to squatting advisory centres and other groups committed to building struggles around particular issues. It is in the area of social services and the state that the threat to jobs through cuts and closures and rationalisation can be most easily linked to wider possibilities for anti-capitalist struggles, because they raise the question of people’s needs. Many health workers, teachers, etc., are aware that it is not just lack of resources that makes their jobs unsatisfactory. It is also the formal hierarchy and the rigid rules through which the state is organised that makes their jobs so difficult.

The current attack on the funding of so-called voluntary groups, for example, law centres, housing aid centres, and other radical advice centres is precisely because they have been able to provide the space for and have been effective in helping to organise struggles around people’s needs. The money that is being saved by such cuts is often quite negligible, the motivation for them is political. It may be true that these voluntary groups provided new jobs mainly, although not only, for the ‘radical professionals’, but I think that at Essex Road we were not as aware as we might have been of the contradictions over funding, and the possibilities of using it to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’.

With others I have thought more recently about some of these problems and think they need more analysis. The modern state is such a huge and complex organisation, the situation being quite different from that in 1917 Tsarist Russia, from which so much revolutionary strategy derives. Then the state’s role was purely repressive, defending the interests of the ruling class. But the modern state has been formed by the ongoing compromise between the working class movement channelled into reformist political strategy and the capitalist class. The state spreads its tentacles throughout society. Nationalisation, health care, education, care of the young and old, research, funding of the arts are some of the ways in which the modern state interpenetrates society in a way it never did before 1945.

For libertarians and many feminists, instances of the creeping hand of state control were everywhere, from community festivals to nurseries and old people’s homes. We tended to argue that the whole system was rotten, and it was useless to tinker with it. We were not wrong to emphasise the extent of this state control over our daily lives, but we were wrong to see the state in all its ramifications as a monolith, and not see that there could be contradictions in its development. This is particularly clear now that the Tory government is trying to sell off state services to the private sector as fast as it can – continuing the attacks on state welfare already initiated by’ the previous Labour government. Today it should be clearer that we must defend many existing state services, from the National Health Service (NHS) to school crossing patrols. It’s no longer simply a question of the overthrowing of the state, but of a strategy which fights for an expansion and transformation of the services it provides-not necessarily in a centralised form. This raises the whole issue of the nature of a socialist state, which we all need to think about, and which is crucial for us as women fighting the sexual division of labour which is basic to women’s oppression.

Today we need a more sophisticated analysis of reformism and the state, which, on the one hand, is not based on the traditional social democratic idea, and in a different way on the Leninist model, which sees socialism as nationalisation plus state planning, nor, on the other, one which turns its back on the need for struggle to expand state provision. This means a strategy which both defends the welfare institutions of the state when they are under attack while arguing the need to go beyond them. On a small scale this strategy can be illustrated by the 160 women’s aid ‘refuges that have been set up over the last few years to enable battered women to escape from violent husbands. The National Federation Of Women’s Aid was able to obtain local state funding for refuges while insisting that the refuges should be run by and for women and should encourage self-help and independence. Similar examples, as Sheila shows, can be given of nursery victories where funding was provided and the people who fought for it retained control over the nurseries.(16)

But to return to my story, when our women’s centre was forced to close in late 1976, we had sufficient anxieties over whether we were going about things in the right way that few tears were shed. One woman, involved from the start, said, ‘That’s good, now we can start again, and build up another women’s centre.’ But we never did. For the next three years there was no broad-based open women’s liberation group in Islington, though we did have a national Rape Crisis Centre, women’s refuges, a NAC group, and other groups organised around particular issues as well as women’s consciousness-raising and study groups. Today there is a new women’s centre in Islington, but there is little continuity between our old women’s centre and the new one which is being opened. It is as though things are all starting again from scratch and I’m not sure that any lessons have been learned, or could have been learned, from which this new group of women can begin. Those feminists who were active around Essex Road have not become involved in the new centre, most of them saying, ‘Oh no, not the same problems all over again.’

Feminism and the Left

Meanwhile, the traditional left was belatedly trying to catch up with the energy of the women’s liberation movement. In particular they were impressed by the 40,000-strong pro-abortion march of 1975. They weren’t laughing at the ‘women’s libbers’ any more, though of course they did say we were all middle class, or at least that’s what their middle-class leaders were saying. I don’t feel in a position to give a complete analysis of the left’s position on feminism, but I want to give my impressions of the main left groups, ignoring the smaller groups and those that choose to dismiss feminism altogether.

The reason I want to look at the revolutionary left is not to engage in any form of sectarianism, but because as socialist feminists we accept that women’s oppression is an integral part of the capitalist system. As I’ve said, the subordination of women through the division of labour centred on the family is central to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist system of existing class relations of exploitation. But women’s oppression (like black oppression) is not simply just another aspect of class exploitation. All men do benefit from it, by having power over at least some women, however exploited they themselves may be. But we do realise that only a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society can overcome women’s oppression, class exploitation, and all forms of social domination. We know we must unite all those fighting their oppression with the struggle against class exploitation.

By the mid-seventies, most of the Communist Party (CP) had come officially to accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement. The CP argues that it wishes to make broad alliances with an autonomous women’s movement. Certain CP women have placed great emphasis on the importance of studying the ideology of women’s oppression, the ways in which women as well as men come to accept ideas of women’s inferiority and invisibility. They have also begun to theorise the role of the capitalist state as it organises reproduction and maintains women’s subordination in the interests of the ruling class. Much of the official contribution of CP feminists has tended to be more of a theoretical and intellectual one, though many CP women do actively support NAC, and other feminist initiatives.

The intellectual contribution of CP feminists is consistent with the direction of the CP as outlined in their publication the British Road to Socialism. This direction encourages an ideological offensive against capitalist domination while doing little to build any form of mass working-class resistance. Indeed the CP often finds itself in the position of having to curb actual militancy, which potentially threatens its broad alliances with reformist leaders of the labour movement. For example, in Islington through their control of the Trades Council they have consistently failed to offer any practical support to the most militant industrial struggles which have occurred in the borough. And again, on the whole issue of unemployment they have failed to respond in any practical way to the five occupations which have occurred against redundancies, the largest being the occupation of n when 300 people were made redundant. They were also opposed to the industrial action of the Tyndale teachers in 1976 who were eventually sacked after a campaign was launched against their progressive education methods, supported by the Labour right of the council. These alliances are part of the CP’s general acceptance of a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism in accordance with what is now called ‘Eurocommunism’.

Thus women CP members could be given the space to develop an ideological critique whilst having little impact on their parties overall political direction. The British Road to Socialism does often mention the importance of the women’s liberation movement. But the political contribution of the women’s movement or of other autonomous movements as they ·affect the actual potential for a real revolutionary unification of the working class is not discussed.

Indeed, in the final analysis the British Road to Socialism does not depart from orthodox Marxist analysis. And this is an analysis which overlooks the significance of existing divisions within the working class, and the demands of the women’s movement and of the black movement that the fight against their ‘oppression must be an essential part of the struggle for socialism.

So the CP support for the autonomous women’s movement does not seem to have served to educate its leadership when they write:

Only socialism can overcome the basic contradiction from which every aspect of the crisis flows. Socialism replaces private ownership by public ownership. The basic contradictions of society are removed. [My italics. British Road to Socialism, line 465.]

It seems that CP women have been allowed to do what they wanted, while the CP leadership did what it wanted. Though even this situation of tolerance for feminism has begun to change within the CP today. As the CP and other left groups begin to scent the long-awaited revival of industrial militancy, feminists in the party will be told not to obstruct the ‘turn to the class’.

The International Marxist Group (the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International), does appear to have a more consistent theory and practice in support of the need for an autonomous women’s movement.

Their weekly paper, Socialist Challenge, now takes the question of women’s oppression seriously. But while (‘(aiming to support the women’s liberation movement in its totality, there is still a strong tendency to reduce women’s oppression entirely to class oppression. For example, in 1978 a centre spread in Socialist Challenge which argued for women’s liberation made no analysis of women’s oppression as distinct from class exploitation. It gave no analysis of patriarchy.

The point about this is that while the IMG are prepared to accept women’s right to organise separately, they don’t seem to accept what we have to say on the limitations of orthodox Marxism.16 The way in which they want to integrate feminism and socialism is by adding on ‘women’s demands’ to their existing programme, adding on demands for nurseries, abortion facilities, etc. But again they do not seem to see the need for feminism to transform the whole nature of working-class politics and the left.

As feminists we argue that we are not simply fighting together with men against capitalism as a more exploited section of the class. We are also fighting against male domination now, which manifests itself in all aspects of life, both within and outside of the working class. (Black people of course have a similar theory about their oppression.) So women are central to the struggle against capitalist social relations not only in the workplace but also in the home. We are demanding that men change themselves, that they change their relations to women, and to children, and take on some of the nurturing and caring work which women have always done.

And this is the way in which we want to transform the nature of working-class politics, and overcome the divisions within the working class. It is presumably because of our talk about everyday life, about finding new, non-patriarchal and non-authoritarian ways of relating to and caring for each other that the women’s movement has been dismissed by certain leading members of the IMG as a ‘cultural movement’. The analysis is that because we are not simply making demands on the state, we are not making ‘political demands’. In 1977, John Ross, who sees the women’s movement as a social movement which can make political demands, stated that the issue of women’s rights to abortion only became political when it began to make demands on the state.I7 Such an analysis obviously would be rejected by most feminists.

So while the lMG has accepted the organisational autonomy of the women’s movement, and indeed have now set up women’s caucuses within their own organisation, I don’t think that they accept the political autonomy of feminism as adding a new dimension to the nature of class politics. The fact that we believe that women’s oppression cannot be understood simply within the Trotskyist analysis of ‘the historic interests of the working class’ does not necessarily mean that we as socialist feminists ignore the working class and fail to prove ourselves true revolutionary socialists. The fact that some of us may not have joined a revolutionary organisation which we feel has not adequately taken up and integrated the insights of feminism does not mean that we are not a part of the struggle to build one.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group in the Trotskyist tradition in Britain and one which has broken from many orthodox positions of Trotskyism, does not accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement at all. Their basic attitude to the women’s movement is determined by the way they see themselves as the only ‘real revolutionaries’. This means that for the SWP, fighting for women’s liberation, like building the class struggle, is one and the same thing as building the SWP. If you accept the need for a revolutionary socialist perspective, then you join the SWP, they say. So they reject the need for either the organisational or the political autonomy of the women’s movement.

‘Class struggle is a form of warfare, and in warfare there has to be a single leadership,’ says Chris Harman from the central committee of the SWP, echoing Lenin, in What is to be Done? in 1902. So the need for any organisational independence of women is rejected. Women’s oppression is derived from capitalist exploitation, he argues, so they reject the need for a political independence for women organising.(18)

When the SWP comes to write about the women’s movement, all that I have ever found are jibes about it being middle class. Thus Anna Paczuska, one of the SWP’s leading writers on women’s politics, dismisses the 1979 socialist feminist conference like this:

All we’ve got is a movement of middle class women, many in their thirties, polishing their memories for the glossy magazines, complacently surrounded by mortgages and monthly subscriptions to Which magazine … The movement is dying on its feet or rather in its Habitat armchairs. It is being choked to death by respectability, nostalgia and direct aid from the state and the Establishment. [Socialist Worker, 7 April 1979.]

The term ‘middle class’ is one of the favourite terms of abuse used by the SWP. Of course, they never bother to define the contemporary working class, or the position, for instance, of teachers. For the SWP, teachers are working class when they are in the SWP or are attending union meetings, but middle class when they attend a women’s liberation conference. I think that many workers would be surprised and insulted to learn that they have never had mortgages, magazines or comfortable furniture. It is true that we do need to distinguish a person’s class origin from their class perspective, but the SWP certainly makes’ no attempt to do so. As they are aware when it suits them, there is a real need to develop a new understanding of the working class which includes proletarianised white collar sectors such as teachers, technicians, etc. So why resort to mere hypocrisy?

In this piece and many others which have appeared in Socialist Worker the weekly paper of the SWP, and elsewhere, Anna shows herself to be not just ambivalent about but quite blatantly hostile towards the women’s movement. She is concerned to dismiss us and our activities altogether.

In a more recent article in which she is referring to the three of us writing this book, she comments:

They do not believe that the working class has the capacity or the creativity to win the struggle for women’s liberation. They have no trust so they separate off their struggles for themselves. [Socialist Worker, 18 August 1979.]

Here Anna is illustrating the SWP position, which I have referred to as the orthodox Marxist position, which takes no account of divisions within the class as barriers to class unity. Against this position, we argue that a strong and independent women’s movement, which seeks to understand and organise itself around the struggles of women, is a political necessity for changing the nature of the left and, more importantly, overcoming the divisions within the class and society.

Moreover statements made by Anna should not be seen as the voice of an individual-they represent the views on women of an overwhelming majority on the male-dominated Central Committee of the SWP. However, within Women’s Voice, the women’s magazine and organisation started by SWP members, the situation is more complex. The Central Committee of the SWP want Women’s Voice to be a ‘periphery organisation’ of the SWP, organising with working-class women, primarily in the workplace, in order to draw ‘the best of them’ into the SWP. However, many SWP women in Women’s Voice are opposed to this position. They want a greater degree of independence for Women’s Voice as a sister organisation of the SWP, and they do want to give more importance to women’s struggles against all aspects of their oppression. Unfortunately, however, many of them still continue to dismiss the women’s movement as middle class and reformist, unorganised and unable to relate to working class women. It was this sort of attitude which led them a few years ago to organise a separate abortion demonstration after the official NAC one.

Contrary to this view, I believe that there are many women in the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement who do also want to locate their politics in the current situation and build a working-class base to the women’s movement. The SWP is not alone in holding this perspective, though they have perhaps done more about it. Although we may not get many working-class women along to our conferences and local meetings, many of the initiatives of the women’s movement in Women’s Aid, rape crisis centres, nursery campaigns, cuts campaigns like the one to defend the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London, and others, clearly do involve working-class women. The women’s movement did mobilise in defence of the Trico women on strike for equal pay, and the Grunwick strikers who were demanding union recognition. Many feminists have been active in trades councils and tenants’ associations. We don’t deny that we have problems in developing a working-class orientation, but we think that it is politically wrong for Women’s Voice to dismiss the importance of the women’s movement and to deny what they have learned from it. Even the success of their new Women’s Voice magazine came after it began to model itself more closely on the women’s liberation magazine, Spare Rib, borrowing many ideas from that publication.

I also cannot accept the degree of workplace orientation of Women’s Voice which leads them still to accept a priority of struggle which places many of women’s central struggles against male domination at the periphery. Thus Lindsey German writes of women’s movement initiatives:

Working class women are related to in most areas where they are weakest (in battered wives’ homes or rape crisis centres) rather than where women are strongest (in unions and tenants’ associations) … [Socialist Review, November 1978.]

And ‘Reclaim the Night’ demonstrations, against the harassment and violence which women daily face in the streets, are referred to as ‘a “soft” issue’. There is an argument for considering where women are strongest. But in fact women are not strong in unions today, and are not getting any stronger, even, if their membership is rising numerically. We believe that the only way women in unions will get stronger is if they are supported from the outside by a strong women’s movement. It’s a dialectical process, which the SWP in spite of its Marxism, seem unable to see. Of course, ‘Reclaim the Night’ and NAC are helped by support from women in trade unions, and women in trade unions are helped by the support they can get from the women’s movement.

While Women’s Voice has shown itself at times to be effective in mobilising support for women’s struggles, I think the priority which they place on recruiting to the SWP, and the fact that they accept the identification of joining their party with holding a revolutionary perspective, means that Women’s Voice could not itself become the focus for building a mass women’s movement.

What we have got to get right in the women’s movement, to confront the left and the labour movement, is the interplay between sex and class oppression. Not only are they both central, but they feed off each other. And they are not reducible either one to the other. Whereas the orthodox Marxist analysis puts class before sex, and Lindsey German writes: ‘The fundamental division is not between the sexes, but between those who produced the wealth in society and those who rob them of it’ (Socialist Review, September 1979) there are also ‘revolutionary feminists’ who put sex before class. They say: ‘Women’s revolution is the revolution. Sex struggle is the struggle .. .’(19) This is not the place to develop a critique of revolutionary feminism. Though I see a political theory which seems to write off half of humanity as a biological enemy as absurd. However, some of the issues revolutionary feminists have emphasised, those of rape, pornography and male violence against women are central to feminism and need to be taken up by socialist feminists and the socialist movement as a whole.

But I would argue now that it is not sufficient simply to talk of organising around your own oppression, as libertarians and revolutionary feminists have done. For instance, although we are all oppressed as women, it is not true that we are all oppressed in the same way, even as women. Black and working-class women are oppressed in distinct ways, and we need to understand this in order to build solidarity amongst women. Without a more general perspective we won’t be a part of many of the most important anti-capitalist struggles today, struggles which involve women obviously, black struggles, anti-imperialist struggles, and the growth of the new working-class offensive that is needed in this period of ferocious Tory attacks on the working class. Feminists do need a socialist perspective, but a Marxism which does not base itself on feminism, which does not recognise that the division within the working class and society as a whole necessitates a strong and autonomous women’s movement, is not what we call ‘socialist’. It will not liberate women.

Socialism in One Borough

The main left groups did not seem to have found adequate ways of integrating Marxism and feminism in their theory or practice. But by the mid-seventies it was also becoming increasingly clear to me that there were problems and limitations in the political perspectives of many of us active simply within the women’s movement. Most of us did believe that full women’s liberation depended on the destruction of all hierarchical relations, of class, race, and sex. ‘There will be no women’s liberation without revolution. There will be no revolution without women’s liberation.’ The women’s. movement alone, however, didn’t seem to equip most of us with a full interpretation of modern capitalism, and the way things were moving in the struggle against it, both nationally and internationally.

A split remained between women’s politics which produced a clear understanding of personal relations and personal oppression in everyday life, and the politics of the left groups which seemed more able to produce an understanding of the world as a totality. This in turn reflects, of course, the traditional division between women’s concern about people and their feelings and men’s concern about practical matters and the big wide world. We could always take up the subjective side of struggles, but in some areas could not always go further than this. This was one of the reasons why towards the end of 1974 I started shifting my energies more towards a local political paper, the Islington Gutter Press. This was a libertarian socialist and feminist paper which some of the women who set up the women’s centre had also worked on.

It was our inability at Essex Road to get working-class women involved, as well as the fact that women who had established the centre were no longer enthusiastic about it, that led me to seek new political initiatives. But it had been the writings of, and the discussion in, the women’s movement that enabled me to get a clearer theoretical perspective on the world, or at least a real understanding of women’s subordinate place in it. Our activities at Essex Road did increase our confidence that we could contribute politically, and so we became more confident both emotionally and theoretically. I think this point is made more generally by the American socialist feminist Linda Gordon when she writes …

…once people do connect deeply felt personal problems to larger political structures, they often go on to make political sense out of the whole society rather quickly. This is- not merely hypothetical; many women in the last decade moved rapidly from complaints about sexual relationships to feminism to socialism.(20)

Working on the Gutter Press gave us an understanding of the area we lived in. It took us several years to get to grips with the complexities of the local political scene. We began to understand some of the workings of the local state, and how local authority finance worked. We made more contact with local men and women. We learned more about housing problems in the borough, the various struggles for better services, the inactivity of the Islington Trades Council, and the activity of the small Labour left in trying to get more progressive policies adopted inside a Labour council.

We tried to make the links between the different struggles and activities we were reporting on; for better housing, and against the abuses of private landlords and property boom speculators, against the decline of local industry, for better education and for more space for youth, against racism, against sexism, against all welfare cuts and for control over services. We were not parochial in our approach to these issues, but always tried to place them ‘in a global perspective’ declaring ourselves interested ‘in what went on, in Hackney, in Haringey or even Haiphong’.

We had remained independent of any of the left groups because we didn’t want them to tell us what to do. We thought they were all authoritarian, hierarchical and male dominated. Though, of course, similar problems of professionalism and male’ domination cropped up continuously-on the paper. More importantly, we also knew that apart from Big Flame they. did not take seriously our politics which emphasised local work and attempts to organise on an area basis, which differed from their focus on industrial activity or particular national campaigns.(21) We believed, and rightly I think, that their emphasis on recruitment and party building, and their reliance on launching national campaigns, could interfere with our attempts at sustained local organising in a way which was open and sensitive to the particular activities and needs of all those engaged in any form of resistance or struggle. But we did also worry about becoming isolated as a small group producing a local socialist paper but not being accountable to any wider socialist grouping.

In May 1978, the Gutter Press organised a local socialist conference, partly to overcome our own feelings of isolation, and our own failure to grow as a collective and get more people directly involved in the paper. We also wanted to see if there were ways in which the paper could become more efficient in its attempt to provide support for and link different areas of struggle, by becoming more accountable to a larger grouping of socialists with a similar political perspective to ours. We wrote that we wanted, ‘to help stimulate enduring organisational links bridging the community and industrial struggles … We feel that it is possible to. create greater co-ordination and support between people involved in local struggles. In the absence of a militant Trades Council, which could do just such a job, we are looking for new possibilities of co-ordination.’ (Gutter Press leaflet, March 1978.) At the conference, which was attended by 150 people, we found that there were a large number of people, inside and outside of left groups, and inside and outside of the Labour Party, who were keen to set up a socialist centre in Islington. This socialist centre now meets weekly in a local pub, and is supported by most of the left, in particular by individuals in the Labour Party, the CP, the IMG, and Big Flame as well as by most socialist feminists and many non-aligned socialists.

The centre has organised many very well-attended and successful meetings, on Ireland, on feminism, on racism and on fascism, on struggles internationally and nationally, as well as attempts to understand the local situation in more detail and provide entertainment and pleasure. Evenings are planned to fit in with wider struggles; for example, a meeting on Ireland before or after a big Irish demonstration. It has therefore provided a useful base for meeting other local militants. It has increased the possibilities for more regular joint work when struggles arise, as well as providing political education, and entertainment which strengthens the growth of an alternative socialist and feminist culture. I think it was the consistent work done by the Gutter Press in establishing contacts and trust between militants that made the centre a real possibility in Islington. The paper collective has also now expanded, and become politically more diverse.

The socialist centre has therefore, in part, served to validate attempts made originally by those outside of the traditional left to find new ways of organising. It is true, though, that at present the centre serves better as a focus for co-operation and discussion between the left than as a place for extending our base further within the working class. Some of us are hopeful that the support that we can give to people in struggle will begin to overcome this problem. Others are less worried about it. In fact, one of the most interesting, or perhaps most distressing, aspects of the centre is how clearly it often defines and separates the two groups of people, those most concerned with creating left alternatives and those most concerned with class struggle. Nevertheless, most of us still feel that the centre does create real possibilities for strengthening co-operation amongst socialists and feminists, as well as a way to reach out to working-class women and men in the area. This does not mean that. we reject more traditional forms of political work centred on the workplace and the unions.

Some Conclusions

In this last section I want to return to some of the problems created by the way we organised in the women’s movement and the libertarian left. As I have illustrated, we always emphasised the importance of local activity and tended to under-emphasise, and were suspicious of, national organisation·. In national structures we felt women, in particular, couldn’t overcome the problems of male domination and leaderism and feel able to contribute their own experiences. This of course contrasts with the traditional revolutionary left who tend to have an overemphasis on national and international politics and to dismiss attempts at local organising as mere localism. The national organisation which the women’s movement has achieved is only around particular struggles, for example, NAC, Women’s Aid or WARF (Women against Racism and Fascism). But this leaves us with problems, even in linking up these particular struggles. How do we arrive at any overall perspectives, decide which activities to get involved in and evaluate the results of our work?

I think the final collapse of the Essex Road Women’s Centre and our failure to replace it are linked to the general problems which can occur for any loose network of small local groups. It’s not easy to work out where you are going on your own as a small group, or to work out where you have succeeded and where you have failed. It’s difficult for other people in other places to learn from your experiences, and for you to learn from them. We could have benefited from more regular exchange of experiences from other groups, comparing and contrasting our activities.

The problem of not really operating within an experience sharing and learning process is a difficult one. At a recent conference on women’s centres in July 1979 all the old debates and conflicts came up, as though for the first time. Were women acting as unpaid social workers? Should men ever be allowed in? Should centres be funded? Why was it hard to reach working-class women, and was this important?

Resolving the conflicts seemed to be as hard as ever. There was no agreement on how the centres fitted in to an overall strategy for achieving liberation. These recurring conflicts do seem to be a strong argument for some form of national organisation. Though it is also true that national organisations can be slow to learn if they rely on old formulas and dogma seen as universally valid, instead of learning from new movements. For instance, issues like sexism, racism, national autonomy, and energy policies are all ones which the revolutionary left has been slow to take up. But the women’s movement does need some way of assessing its past effectiveness, and using this to develop future directions in less random ways.

At Essex Road we did learn that it was hard to extend our politics outside of ourselves, and to relate to local working-class women, but we never really knew what to do about this. It is not an easy problem to solve. But if you are trying to involve working-class women, you sometimes need to take up issues which don’t relate only to women, for example nurseries, housing, etc. Though you can carry a feminist perspective into these issues, you will need to go outside of your women’s group to do this, extending the base of your activity. Our lack of structure perhaps made it difficult for working-class women who were outside of our friendship networks, to know how to get involved. I know of one woman who used to walk past our women’s centre every day before she had fled from her violent husband, and never dared to come in. She now works at a women’s refuge, but in those days, not knowing who we were, it would have been difficult for her to have looked to us for support.

This is linked to another problem. Women correctly realised the importance of including a struggle around personal relations within the struggle for socialism, and argued that without this many women would not become involved at all. ‘The personal is political’ was a central slogan of the women’s movement. But this slogan did come to be interpreted in a very vague way, as though it meant that whatever you do, your actions have political significance. I don’t think that this was the idea behind the slogan. What it did assert was that there is a connection between how you choose to live and relate to people and the struggle for social change.(22) This was all the more obvious to women in that our training into inferiority and passivity made it even more difficult for us to struggle or to feel a part of a male-dominated left. We had to create new supportive structures if we were to feel confident enough that what we said and did in our struggle against patriarchy and capitalism was important. Women said that how we relate to each other in everyday life is a part of the struggle for socialism, and in this way socialism can begin to grow within capitalism itself, but the struggle against oppression remains to be fought and won.

Over the ten years since 1968, however, there has been a complex development in the often overlapping areas of libertarianism and feminism. It does seem that many libertarians have overstressed the prefigurative lifestyle element. This has led many of them to retreat from public political activity and class politics into rustic bliss, or mysticism, or whole foods or ghetto-ised co-ops. But these forms of retreat are not options which are open to many people; in particular, working-class people do not have the freedom to choose them. They are more trapped within the capital-labour relationship, both at home and at work, as they do what they must to support themselves and their families. But this withdrawal from consumer and urban life does have deep roots in English socialism (Carpenter, Owen, etc.) and it does maintain a visionary strand in the socialist movement that we can ill do without. It exists most clearly today in what is known as the ‘communes movement’. Some parts of the women’s movement have shown the same tendency, which others have characterised as ‘cultural feminism’, on the analogy of cultural nationalism.(23) Perhaps it is also possible to talk of a ‘cultural libertarianism’. These politics do show us the possibilities of new and better ways to live, but exactly how they relate to the building of a combative feminist and socialist movement is something that remains ambiguous both historically and in the present.

The preoccupation more with lifestyles than with building the women’s movement increased -in Islington once the women’s centre had closed. Because then it became less clear how women could help build a movement which was open to all women in their struggle for liberation. Women in their different groups, whether women’s groups or mixed groups or campaigns, found it more difficult to get support from each other. We became more isolated and have difficulty in responding to specific feminist issues as they arise. In Islington there are now moves from one local study group to change this, by organising open discussions on women’s liberation locally. Obviously in many areas socialist feminist groups are working towards a similar goal. Nevertheless, I think it’s true to say that at least some women have lost some of the confidence they had in the early seventies in the struggle to build the women’s movement and have become even more suspicious of any overt political work.

Part of the problem is related to the general crisis of the profitability of capitalism, and the defeats of the working class. As I said at the beginning, the early seventies was still a period of economic boom. In these conditions it was clear that militancy did payoff. In many places people were able to fight for, and win, particular struggles, whether it was setting up a nursery, the funding of a youth project, improved housing conditions, or the establishment of a workers’ co-operative, such as the women’s co-operative at the shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk. People could feel more optimistic about the possibility of changing their lives collectively, and feel that it was worth the effort of trying to do so.

In the women’s movement we did seem to be winning some of the things we fought for in the early seventies, even if in a deformed way. For instance the demands for women’s liberation did seem to get rid of some of the more superficial forms of women’s oppression. It is now becoming more and more acceptable that sexual discrimination in jobs, pubs and clubs is wrong, and its days may well be numbered. Though it is still clear that, despite equal pay, the relative position of women to men in the workforce, as the most exploited wage earners, was not changing very fast-in fact it has got worse since April 1978.(24)

But the economic recession of 1975 began to undermine the earlier forms of militancy, both in the workplace and the community. The ruling class – at first through a Labour government, and now with a Tory government – has been able to launch a general offensive against working-class organisation. So we began to see unemployment rise, the thorough-going dismantling of welfare services, increasingly restrictive and racist immigration policies, and the continuous expansion of state repression, seen daily in Northern Ireland but also used against any large-scale industrial or oppositional militancy whether at Grunwick, or in the housing struggles of Huntley Street in London, or in the anti-fascist demonstrations at Southall.

In this situation industrial militancy was on the retreat, forced back into more sectoral and negotiating tactics, as each group of workers tried to have themselves declared a ‘special case’. In this way they hoped to fight off the attacks on their living standards caused first of all through the ‘social contract’ (government-imposed limits on wage increases) and state expenditure cuts. Today, under the Tories, the workforce is being further disciplined primarily by the threat of unemployment as the state cuts its public spending even more drastically and reduces its subsidies to industry. This means that both in the workplace and the community, victories, whether local or national, have become much more difficult and there is an increasing demoralisation amongst militants in all sections of struggle. So it is also becoming clearer that there cannot be local victories against the forms oppression is taking; for example, cuts in the NHS are nationwide. This is the reasoning behind the creation of national organisations such as ‘Fightback’ in the area of health care, campaigning both against all hospital closures and cutbacks and against low pay as well as for better services in general.

This means that it is forms of organisation which have national and international perspectives and links which seem to be even more necessary for successful struggles today. It’s also true that, more urgently than ever, the current period demands that we ally with the traditional institutions of the labour movement. We need to understand the possibilities and the limitations of these institutions. The tendency in the past of libertarians and some feminists to by-pass these institutions (trades councils, union branches, etc.), which perhaps was never really justified, is quite definitely not possible today .. There is always the danger that these forms of national organisation and these alliances can lead to a dismissal of the dimensions of struggle which libertarians and feminists brought into the political arena. A sense of urgency Can create a stronger pressure on the left to push aside the significance of the more personal areas of struggle. This danger will now be with us for a long time. And so the split between feminists and the traditional left remains, despite the attempts on both sides to build new bridges.

What I am wanting to focus on in this last section are three main problems which need a lot more thought. First, the relation between feminism and personal politics, and left groups and the general political situation. Secondly, the relation between local organising and national organising, and how this relates to the conflict between libertarians and feminists and the traditional left in the Current situation. Thirdly, how we move on to a perspective for building socialism which can incorporate both feminists’ politics and the new ideas and ways of organising which have emerged over the last ten years.

The problem for both libertarians and feminists, focusing on the importance of local work and the need to build local organisations, is how to create a larger socialist and feminist movement. A movement, built from the base up, which could mobilise enough people to fight and win, not just anyone struggle – difficult as this is-but strengthen us so that the experience of each struggle is not lost but contributes to the next. Libertarians tried building a network of local groups to link up experiences and activity. There were three national conferences in 1973 and 1974. But there wasn’t the political will to maintain any national organisation at that time. The libertarian rejection of vanguards meant that we could not really accept the necessity for any politically coherent central organisation. But, we cannot assume that links will just happen spontaneously as they are needed.

Today the women’s movement also finds it difficult to take political initiatives, except in very specific areas such as fighting off attacks on women’s access to abortion. Yet right now we face an enormous ideological attack on all our recent gains. Women are under attack not just in our struggle for equal pay, for more nurseries and better health care (now all threatened by Tory cuts), but attacks on even more basic things, such as the threat to women’s right to maternity leave. This amounts to an attack on women’s rights to waged work at all, if we have young children. Thus we increasingly hear, as was argued recently in the House of Lords, that ‘unemployment could be solved at a stroke, if women went back to the home’. As a way out of the economic crisis, the ruling class! is seeking to strengthen the ideology of sexism to justify its attacks on the working class in general, and women in particular, thus revealing more clearly than ever the links between sex oppression and class exploitation.

In this deteriorating situation, it’s going to be harder for the women’s movement not to feel politically marginal, unless we can find ways of making alliances with all those in struggle, both women and men, to co-ordinate actions to defend women’s interests. We are not well organised in the women’s movement. Although the socialist feminist current is trying to organise regional networks, and has been quite successful in some areas, it has been less successful in others. The useful national socialist feminist newsletter Scarlet Women has not yet managed to serve as a co-ordinating focus. We know that socialist feminists are not a minority in the women’s movement-over a thousand women attended our last two conferences. But in the coming period we do need the support not just of a strong and autonomous women’s movement but of the general perspectives and priorities of the socialist feminist current within it. The structures we agreed to build at our last conference mean that we must put a lot more energy into developing our regional socialist feminist organisations, and use them to co-ordinate the different campaigns we are involved in.(25) This would enable Scarlet Women to be more effective as a national co-ordinator.

I think we are also going to have to go beyond a criticism of the left and labour movement forms of politics, however correct we are to say that they have failed to take up the issues of feminism except in a tokenistic way. We do have to relate to both the left and the labour movement, but only by insisting that they learn from what we have to say as feminists. The left will have to understand and criticise the way in which working-class organisations through the labour movement have consistently failed to fight women’s oppression. A wages offensive, for instance, is of little use to women unless it also recognises the need for more nurseries, for a shorter working week, and actively seeks to change women’s position both at home and in the workforce. We need to argue, for example, that the struggle for a shorter working week is a crucial struggle for women because it allows men to share in the childcare and housework. A recent article in Red Rag makes this point as follows:

Implicit in our strivings of the last years has been an adaptation to the world of work, rather than an adaptation of that world to one that allows time for children, leisure, politics … (26)

This means that we insist that the labour movement takes into account the needs of women not just as waged workers, but also as housewives and consumers. At the same time we must strengthen our ideological offensive against the acceptance of separate spheres fo’r women and men on which our subordination rests.

For women who want to be active in left politics outside of the women’s movement, I think it is also true that male domination, elitism and passivity can exist in unstructured local groups and sectoral campaigns as well as in national organisations. People who are less confident, and less experienced at organising, or who have less time, will find it harder to participate effectively in such groups. I have found that sometimes it can be even harder to combat ‘leaderism’ within the small group, as interactions are more likely to be seen in purely individual and personal terms, rather than as political manifestations. Nevertheless, we do need to find alternatives to the old structures of organising used by the left and the labour movement, of large meetings and platform speakers which clearly silence people and do not encourage any sort of mass involvement.

There is no easy solution to the problem of creating new political structures which overcome rather than reproduce existing hierarchies of sex, class and race. For this reason most feminists could not take seriously any national organisation which did not actively support the autonomy of groups to organise against their particular oppression, which did not realise that it had as much to learn from as to teach those in struggle, or one which ignored what women have said about how to organise, using truly egalitarian and supportive structures which build the confidence and participation of all involved. Alongside the need to organise in workplaces, I do think it’s important to build up open and active local, organisations which can increase left unity, and can be easier for people to participate in. I have in mind the sort of structures which have been developed in socialist feminist groups, community papers, socialist centres, and other community resource centres, which are different from those characteristically used by the left.

But for me today as someone wanting to be active both within and outside of the women’s movement, local organisations are no longer sufficient. I also want to be a part of an organisation which is trying to build upon and generalise from different situations, and thus develop overall strategies. I don’t think that it is possible to build a single unified revolutionary organisation in Britain in 1979, or that anyone left organisation has all the answers. But revolutionary groups do have a vital role in helping to build the widest possible support for all areas of struggle, and the widest possible unity on the left.

What possibilities are there for combining socialist and feminist politics in a national organisation which is not subject to the degeneration, splits and paranoias which plague all the left groups? Could such an organisation work out a supportive practice in relation to the autonomous groups and activities which occur all around the country? We will not all agree on the answers. My own way to find out has been to join Big Flame, a group which in its theory and practice seems to put the class struggle before its own organisational development, which recognises the need to fully support and help to build the autonomous organisations of women and other oppressed groups, and in general strives for a vision of socialism which includes a theory of personal politics. Time will tell whether I was right.

NOTES

  1. It would be hard to draw up a list, but some of the most important books for us were Marx: Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology; Marcuse: Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man; Laing: The Divided Self; Reich: The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Vaneigem: The Revolution of Everyday Life. Henri Lefebvre, in The Explosion-Marxism and the French Upheaval attempts to give an account of what led up to the ideas and actions of May 1968.
  2. See the discussion on libertarianism and personal life ‘Coming Down to Earth’, Paul Holt, in Revolutionary Socialism, no. 4, Autumn 1979.
  3. This theory was outlined by Michael Kidron in Capitalism and Theory, Pluto Press, 1974.
  4. This relates, as many people will know, to Althusser’s now famous essay on ideology, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy, New Left Books, 1971, in which he argues that class relations are produced through two kinds of interrelated state institutions, the ‘repressive state apparatuses’ (the police, etc.) and the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (in particular the education system which slots a person into their class position through a process whose operation is disguised from that person). Some Marxists today point out that Althusser is only a modern and vulgar variant of earlier Marxists like Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Back in the thirties Gramsci was writing in his Prison Notebooks of the importance of ‘civil society’, referring to those institutions like the family and the media, which are not directly controlled by the state, but nevertheless play a crucial role in maintaining existing class relations and the capitalist state.
  5. An attempt to do youth work in the local community in Islington from the base of a libertarian squatters’ group, is colourfully described in Knuckle Sandwich by David Robins and Philip Cohen, Penguin, 1978.
  6. For example, Elisabeth Wilson, ‘Women and the Welfare State’, Red Rag, pamphlet no. 2,1974.
  7. This is well illustrated by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in For Her Own Good, Pluto Press, 1979.
  8. This concept is used by Barbara Ehrenreich in her excellent speech on socialist feminism in Socialist Revolution, no. 26, October-December 1975.
  9. Patriarchy has been defined by Heidi Hartman as ‘the systemic dominance of men over women’, referring to the social structure and all the social relations through which men dominate women. (‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’ in Capital and Class, no. 8, Summer 1979.) There is a debate over the usefulness of this concept, because some people feel it does not explain the way in which women’s subordination, though universal, is different in different societies. I do find the concept useful, but for a fuller discussion see R. Mcdonough and R. Harrison, ‘Patriarchy and Relations of Production’ in Kuhn and Wolpe, Feminism and Materialism, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), and Z. Eisenstein, ‘Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism’ in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1978, and P. Atkinson: ‘The Problem with Patriarchy’ in Achilles Heel, no. 2.
  10. Mariarosa Dalla Costa, ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’ in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, M. Dalla Costa and S. James (Falling Wall Press, 1973). For a fuller discussion of this debate see Jean Gardiner, ‘Women’s Domestic Labour’, New Left Review, no. 89, 1975.
  11. Valerie Charlton, ‘The Patter of Tiny Contradictions’, Red Rag, no. 5, 1973.
  12. See Mandy Snell ‘The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts: Their Impact on the Workplace’, Feminist Review, no. 1, 1979.
  13. See Mary Kathleen Benet Secretary: An Enquiry into the Female Ghetto, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
  14. Despite some claims to the contrary, radical and revolutionary feminists were not the only ones to talk about rape and violence against women. Though it is true that recently they have perhaps been the main impetus behind some of the large demonstrations on these issues.
  15. Similar victories of this sort over a nursery, play space and other community facilities are described in Jan O’Malley: The Politics of Community Action, Spokesman, 1977.
  16. The limitations of orthodox Marxism in its analysis of women’s oppression has been discussed elsewhere, for example, in Rosalind Delmar’s, ‘Looking Again at Engel’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” “ in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1976 and Heidi Hartman, ibid.
  17. John Ross, ‘Capitalism, politics and personal life’ in Socialist Woman, Summer 1977.
  18. This account of the SWP’s present position on women’s politics and what is described as ‘the crisis’ in Women’s Voice is obtained in part from detailed discussions with SWP comrades.
  19. From the ‘Revolutionary Feminist statement’ to the Birmingham Women’s Liberation Conference, 1977.
  20. From ‘Sex, Family and the New Right’ in Radical America, Winter 1977/78.
  21. Judging from the impact of the first edition of Beyond the Fragments in the Trotskyist press, where this section on local organising was completely ignored in almost all the reviews, the ·situation has not changed very much. I had hoped that it might have.
  22. Barbara Ehrenreich makes this point when discussing the importance of developing political morality, ‘Toward a Political Morality’, Liberation, July-August 1977.
  23. See Brooke, ‘The Retreat to Cultural Feminism’, Feminist Revolution, 1975.
  24. See ‘Equal Pay: Why the Acts Don’t Work’, Jenny Earle and Julia Phillips, Spare Rib, no. 86, September 1979.
  25. A discussion of the points of agreement which were reached at the Socialist Feminist Conference in March 1979 can be found in Scarlet Women, July 1979.
  26. B. Campbell and V. Charlton, ‘Work to Rule’ in Red Rag, January 1979.