This month in London riotous history: weeks of unrest over food prices, 1595

In June 1595, 1,000s of apprentices took part in a series of riots on Tower Hill in London, culminating in an abortive plan for insurrection. The rioters were mostly very poor, protesting about the appalling social conditions of 1590s London. Their grievances included the scarcity and rising cost of food, the greed of the mayor and of other wealthy citizens. But as the month went on, the repression of the protests and mistreatment of participants became a grievance that escalated the movement…

The 1590s were a decade of social and political crisis. Food prices rocketed, partly due to scarcity; four successive harvests failed between 1594 and 1597. Inflation led to high prices; wages fell up to 22 percent from the previous decade, and real wages are thought to have been at their lowest for centuries before or after.

Taxes were heavy, and many of the poor struggled to pay them (in 1593, people were said be ‘selling their pots and pans to pay tax’) there was constant threat of invasion from Spain and war in Ireland… Acute hunger in the countryside led large numbers of rural dwellers to flock into London in the hope of finding work or at least relief; but employment in the capital plummeted. The economy was stagnating.

In London, the pressure of food shortages and high prices for staple foodstuffs led to discontent, and to protests. Flour prices in the capital increased by 190 percent between 1593 and 1597, other food underwent similar increases.

In June 1595, the crisis provoked food riots in the City of London, the first since the 1520s. There were 12 riots or large scale crowd protests between 6th and 29th June, in London and Southwark. Seditious libels were circulate attacking the authority of the Lord mayor, Sir John Spencer, know as ‘Rich’ Spencer, for his great wealth.

In the first riot of June 6, apprentices numbering two to three hundred rescued a silkweaver who had been committed to Bedlam after protesting outside the Lord Mayor’s house.

On 12th June, there was a riot over the price of fish: This appears to have been sparked when apprentices sent to buy fish at Billingsgate market found all the fish had been bought up already by ‘fishwives’ (market stall holders in effect). The apprentices seized the fish and sold it at the rate already agreed by the mayor. (The implication being the fishwives were preparing to sell the fish at a dearer price).

On 13 June, a riot over price of butter took place in Southwark, the part of the City south of the river Thames, and known for lawlessness and rebellion. 300 apprentices assembled in Southwark, took over the market and enforced the sale of butter at 3d. per und where the sellers had been charging 5d. They also issued a proclamation that butter be bought and sold openly in the markets not old to private houses or inns.

In both these cases it is stressed in contemporary accounts the discipline of the crowds concerned, and that their actions were agreed to or at least accepted by magistrates. The riots have been suggested as examples of the ‘moral economy’ described by some historians, identifying a common vision of accepted prices, practices and relationships, which to some extent united some people from all classes in the pre-capitalist era. Inflating prices was viewed as immoral, breaking agreed levels of subsistence, especially on food staples, and collective action, even if it broke the law, was widely condoned, even among some in authority. A part of this was the aim of maintaining social peace, but there was also an element of upper class paternalism, an ideal of vertical social relations, but characterised by the responsibility of those in power to treat the lower orders benevolently to some extent. This was increasingly being threatened by evolving interests out to increase profits.

On 15th June, crowds attempted to rescue jailed comrades: “At this day certain prentices being committed to the Counter [the city Prison] by the constable for some misdemeanours, divers other prentices congregated themselves and came to the Counter and said they would have them forth again, using very hard speeches against the Lord Mayor; but the gates being shut against them and they not prevailing, they tarried not long but departed away.

The same day, not long after the said assembly of prentices at the Counter, a serving man that had a prentice to his brother dwelling in Cheapside, which prentice had complained of his master’s hard usage towards him to his said brother, the serving man hereupon coming to the master and quarrelling with him about the misuse of his brother, in multiplying of words the serving man brake the master’s head; and by this brawl the people gathering together and much hurley burley following, Sir Richard Martin hearing thereof came forth into the street, apprehended the serving man, and by the constable sent him to the Counter. As he was in carrying thither the prentices that formerly had resorted to the Counter and would have taken thence the prentices as aforesaid, did meet with this serving man, rescued him from the constable, and brought him back to Cheapside. Whereupon Sir Richard Martin, hearing of this disorder, came forth suddenly with such company as he had of his own servants and presently apprehended the serving man again, reprehended the prentices for their so great disorder, took six of the principal offenders, and so by the constable sent the serving man and the six prentices to the Counter, and caused irons to be laid upon them all. About an hour after when all things were quiet, saving only some dregs of people remaining in the streets gazing and expecting for novelties, as in such matters always it happeneth, the Lord Mayor, hearing of the broil and business which Sir Richard Martin had appeased and not knowing thereof, comes into Cheapside, accompanied with Sir John Hart, where finding all things in quiet, Sir John Hart, accompanied with Sir Richard Martin, went again to the Counter, charging the keeper thereof to look well to his prisoners and to see irons laid upon them all and to be safely kept, and so they returned to their houses.

The Lord Mayor likewise, after he had sent Sir Richard Martin and Sir John Hart to take order for the safe keeping of the prentices in the Counter, also presently returned towards his house, and about London Wall a prentice meeting him would not put off his cap unto him, whereupon the Lord Mayor sent him also by his officers to the Counter, which was done quietly and without opposition of any.”

Clearly, the troubles were beginning to move beyond moral economy and into dangerous subversion. And the spirit of unrest was being spread to the army – always a dodgy moment for the powers that be:

About the 16 or 17 of June, “certain prentices and certain soldiers or masterless men met together in “Powles”, [St Pauls] and there had conference, wherein the soldiers said to the prentices, “You know not your own strength”; and then the prentices asked the soldiers if they would assist them, and the soldiers answered that they would within an hour after be ready to aid them and be their leaders, and that they would play an Irish trick with the Lord Mayor, who should not have his head upon his shoulders within one hour after. At which time they spake of farther meeting together.”

The tensions did not die down yet.

On the 27 of June, “certaine young men apprentices and other, were punished by whipping, setting on the Pillory, &c. for taking 500 pounds of butter from the market women in Southwarke after the rate of 3 pence the pound, whereas the sellers price was 5. pence the pound. [the shepherds] caught the bakers up and took from them about four or five dozen cakes, for which they paid them the usual price, however, giving them a hundred walnuts and three baskets of grapes.”

The public whipping and pillorying of some of these rioters instigated a further riot that day – the pillories were torn down, and a gallows was erected in front of the house of the Lord mayor.

On the evening of 29 June, a crowd of at least 1000 apprentices marched on Tower Hill. According to reports they planned to ransack gunmakers shops and then rob the rich and take over the City: ‘to robbe, steale, pill and spoil the welthy and well disposed inhabitaunts of the saide cytye, and to take the sworde of aucthorytye from the magistrats and governours lawfully authorised’.

The crowd was said to have included shoemakers, girdlers, silk-weavers, husbandmen, apprentices, discharged soldiers and vagrants; they carried “halberds, bills, goones, daggs, manie pikes, pollaxes, swords, daggers, staves and such lyke.”

When City officers, the Watch from Tower Street ward, arrived to try to pacify or disperse them, the crowd stoned them, displaying a banner, “hartened unto by the sounding of a Trumpet… the Trumpeter having been a souldier.” Others tore down the pillories in Cheapside, the City’s main drag,

Even more seriously for the City authorities, it seems that the rioters won some support from the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Michael Blount and his garrison. When the Mayor arrived with sheriffs to make arrests and read a proclamation ordering the rioters to disperse, Blount objected to the carrying of the Mayor’s sword of justice before him, and about 10 of his garrison not only refused to help repress the crowd, but weighed in against the sheriffs, and “assaulted an beat the sword-bearer and the mayor’s servants.”

The riot on Tower Hill was the largest uprising in the City of London in nearly 80 years, and was unusual in its direct criticism of the elite.

The Lord mayor of London was so worried about the protests and especially the plot of 29th June, that he appealed to queen Elizabeth. In response she issued a royal proclamation “for apprehending such vagrants and rioters. In which her majesty signified her will to have a provost-marshal with sufficient authority to apprehend all such as should not be readily reformed and corrected by the ordinary officers of justice, and them without delay to execute them upon the gallows by order of martial law. And accordingly Sir Thomas Wilford was appointed provost-marshal, who patrolled the city with a numerous attendance on horseback, armed with pistols, apprehended many of the rioters, carried them before the justices appointed for their examination, and after condemnation, executed five of them on Tower-hill.”

Five apprentices appear to have been hanged on Tower Hill on July 24th.

In his order of execution, the Mayor directed each inhabitant of the ward “that they keepe within their houses all their men servants and apprentices to morrow from three of the clock in the morning untill eight at night, and the same householders be . . . all that time ready at their door . . . with a weapon in their hande.”

The mayor also requested that the Privy Council suppress stage plays, which they claimed had incited “the late stirr & mutinous attempt of the fiew apprentices and other servants… the casue of the increase of crime within the City.”

Some of the price-enforcing apprentices, though initially punished for the misdemeanors of riot and sedition, were retroactively charged in 1597 with treason, following the reasoning that the popular attempt to regulate prices constituted an attempt to alter the laws of the realm by force.

The hunger thousands were experiencing didn’t end in 1595, and nor did attempts to remedy the situation by force. In 1596, there was an abortive attempt to launch an uprising in Oxfordshire at Enslow Hill, which seems to have arisen from anger at enclosures locally, but inspired by the food riots in London and elsewhere. He plotters had aimed to link up with the London apprentices, who were clearly seen as up for continuing the fight. However, the plotters, who had allegedly intended to murder local enclosing landowners, attracted too little support, dispersed when it was obvious there were not enough of them, and were easily rounded up when one of them stupidly confessed to his employer.

The council from its treatment of the rebels considered the Enslow rebellion threatening although in reality it never got started. Five ringleaders were taken to London, interrogated, imprisoned for six months, tortured and then sentenced to death for making war against the Queen. In June two were hanged, drawn and quartered the fate of the rest is unknown.

The rioting of the 1590s did die down, possibly in the face of the threat of massive repression. But although the bad harvests, the constant war and heavy taxation had produced a time of crisis, as England entered the 17th century, increasing enclosures and dislocation were to continue to pile pressure on the poor, and economic and social transformation would produce uprising and resistance on a scale that would dwarf the events of 1595…

Sources: (A New and Accurate History and Survey of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Places Adjacent… Edward and Charles Dilly 1766)

The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London, Ian W. Archer

The London Apprentice Riots of the 1590s and the Fiction of Thomas Deloney, Mihoko Suzuki

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Today in London housing history, 1986: Pullens Estate squatters resist eviction, Walworth.

The Pullens Estate, in Walworth, South London, was built over a 15-year period from 1886, by builder James Pullen. Origially 684 flats in four storey mansion blocks, with workshops attached to the rear of the residential blocks, in rear yards.

The first block of 16 flats was built on Penton Place without the required consent of the Metropolitan Board of Works but Pullen managed to schmooze local officials and continued building until 1901 – ten years more than he’d been granted permission for.

When the philanthropist Charles Booth was surveying London for his poverty map in 1899 he described meeting Mr Pullen at work: ‘Old Mr Pullen in a top hat and fustian suit was on a scaffolding superintending’. Booth stated that demand for the ‘well built’ flats was high and they were ‘Occupied before the paper is dry on the walls’ often by police officers from Whitehall and Lambeth districts. The rent was ‘eight shillings for three rooms, kitchen and scullery, plus 6 pence a week charged for cleaning the stairs and gas’. Each had to make a deposit of 24 shillings which was an effectual bar to any poor tenants.

The full estate, which originally extended southwards as far as Manor Place, comprised 684 dwellings in 12 blocks. Attached to the rear of the dwellings, arranged round four yards, were 106 workshops. The estate’s shops were located at the entrances to the workshop yards.

By 1973, the estate was still owned by the family company that had originally built it. But many of the flats were in a poor state, having built for largely single people and with few amenities. Southwark Council proposed to compulsorily purchase the estate with the aim of demolishing it, in order to build a vast new council estate, but this went against the wishes of most of the tenants, who had built a community and didn’t want to see it broken up. In 1977, the council bought the Pullens and by 1983 had demolished blocks on Crampton Street, Amelia Street and Thrush Street (accidentally creating open space at Pullens Green in the process).

Continued plans in the 1980s to knock down the rest of the estate, were met by a tenants campaign to save and renovate the blocks, including putting in hot water and bathrooms, which many flats still lacked. Tenants who wanted hot water and a bathroom had to pay themselves or apply for a statutory improvement grant. The whole future of the estate lay on doubt for many years.

As a number of flats lay empty, partly due to disrepair, they began to be squatted; this was generally encouraged by the remaining tenants, to prevent the estate falling into complete decay. By 1983 squatters were established in many of the “voids” on the Pullens. Many of the ground floor flats on the estate in particular had lain empty, and a number had been fire by dossers; tenants preferred squatters who generally committed to doing the places up, renewing plumbing wiring etc. An alliance of tenants and squatters evolved.

The workshops in the adjacent yards had also become to host radical projects, a process that both stimulated and was boosted by the squatting on the estate. Women In Print, a women’s print collective ran from a space in Iliffe Yard, (as did as Seeing Red women’s poster making collective in the 1970s-early 80s). In 1982, like nearby print shop Union Place in Camberwell and the Advisory Service for Squatters in Islington, Women In Print were firebombed by fascists.

The squatted Pullens Centre in Crampton Street then hosted Cafe Bouche, and had become a community centre for both squatters and tenants.

The annual Pullens free festival was held on the vacant land at Pullens Green. This rocking alternative gathering, self-organised by residents, was often hassled by cops, ending in arrests more than once… the festival came to an end in the 1990s, and most of the Green, born from demolition, has since been built on, (adding insult to injury, part of it is now lying under the Walworth copshop!)

The large-scale squatting of the estate and the alliance of tenants and squatters frustrated the council’s long-term plans to demolish the whole of the Pullens. Southwark had become the most heavily squatted borough in London, largely due to the poor quality of the housing stock and the incompetence of the council. More than 60 per cent of empty council property in Walworth was squatted by the mid-1980s. A local squatters network, SNOW (Squatters Network of Walworth), highly organised, not only publicised empties and supported squatters against eviction, but built solidarity across the area. However, a massive crackdown/eviction campaign was underway across the borough.

An attempt at a mass eviction in November 1985 was seen off as squatters barricaded the stairwells.

But by June 1986 a plan to clear 800 squats from Southwark estates was underway. The council claimed they were intending to house people from the housing waiting list in the flats after they were evicted, and had pressured the squatters to move, and put their names on the list, with promises of rehousing. Since many squatters were already on the list, but as single homeless had small chance of actually getting allocated anywhere, this tactic didn’t wash.

On June 10th 1986, the Council tried to hold a mass eviction of 30 squats on the Pullens, with bailiffs backed up by squads of riot police, who arrived at 6am, breaking down doors with sledgehammers.

According to one supportive tenant, “The first family they threw out was a Vietnamese family who had no idea what was going on…”

But the council’s forces were outnumbered by resistance from 300 squatters, tenants and supporters – including from other areas of London. Cops and bailiffs were splattered with flour, paint and water bombs; “about 100 of us were blocking doors, jeering, stabbing tyres. It was SLOW, heavy barricades! Rain stopped & band struck up merrily again. More paint splatters the pigs… Van Burgh removal lorries, council, TV, thugs, scabs and wall to wall FILTH.”

The struggle in the streets and stairwells went on all day. The residents were aided by the architecture of the mansion blocks, with narrow doors to each stairwell, easily barricaded; the layout of each flat was an aid to barricading. “It took too long. Each door had to be smashed to bits, by 12 noon, they still had five flats to evict…

The flat roofs of the blocks were also easily accessible from the stairs, which helped with bombarding the forces of eviction from above (materials for the purpose had been stored on the roofs for a number of weeks in advance).

The tactic of painting out the numbers of the flats at the bottom of the stairwells also confused the bailiffs no end!)

It took an hour for the first flat to be evicted… Other flats were heavily barricaded with barbed wire, boards, steel and a concrete block. In the meantime, the convoy of council vans parked in Amelia St were forced to move onto Crampton Street after several of their tyres were let down by unscrupulous persons…

“WE WANT PETROL” we shouted as the sound system blared out ‘Anarchy in the UK’ from the barricaded flat. (They got in nevertheless, by sheer brute force, though at the next flat they had to give up… There were solid concrete blocks preventing the scum from entering!)

Bailiffs, council thugs and piggies all lined up and then pissed off as we jeered and cheered from the sidestreet. We all went back to the Pullens Centre for coffee and a meeting. Many squatters had crashed out after being up all night, but the place was packed and downstairs was full to the ceiling with evicted possessions and furniture. Outside the streets were littered with people’s furniture…”

In the end 16 flats were actually evicted on the 10th, but 19 were re-squatted the same day:

“A few squatters got up and talked at the meeting, explaining that no-one would be affected by PIO orders [allowing instant eviction without a court order if the flat had been allocated to a tenant before it was squatted] if the flats were re-taken by 2.30 pm, and proposing that people who wanted to re-squat with them put down their names and numbers… and volunteers and tools would be gathered…. We got down to business with a list and a crowbar and set out to re-squat.

It was all too easy, with few cops about, and in ten minutes we’d ripped the boardup crews best efforts off half –a-dozen squats. One was immediately re-squatted, but there was no sign of the other evictees. Then we started carrying furniture back in to squats. Phew what a job! [The steep and narrow stairwells made access with anything bulky a nightmare at Pullens at the best of times.- ed] Then we found a woman ready to move back in and set out to put a new door on her flat – No easy proposition as the old one was in little bits, the door frame badly damaged and the promised tools hadn’t arrived. But the magic of the Pullens worked again… that is to say a couple of years back the Pullens tenants had invited squatters to move into empty flats and half the squatters had become legal tenants in this way. We only had to knock on a few doors and we had all the tools we needed. In fact we spent the whole afternoon working on that one door… What with finding a door, cutting it to size, repairing the frame, fitting a lock, etc, etc… But all the flats were re-squatted by the deadline, at least symbolically, by sticking something in the doorway with a legal notice on it…”

The eviction cost £10,000 plus a claimed £8000 in damage and, er, alleged, theft of tools from contractors vans. And given the mass re-squat, was pretty futile.

The same day as this battle took place, around 22 flats were also evicted on the nearby Rockingham estate off New Kent Road, with no resistance and in under an hour. An attempt was made to re-squat these flats too that night, but 5 were immediately repossessed next morning “with bailiffs and council spouting PIOs…” In the end just 8 of the re-squats on Rockingham were held on to.

8 people were arrested during the Pullens resistance, on charges of obstructing bailiffs, assaulting police, damaging vehicles and police uniforms, and nicking council documents…

In the aftermath of the battle of Pullens, Southwark Council was forced to admit that clearing the estate of squatters was a waste of time. Many Pullens squatters eventually were granted tenancies [this also happened elsewhere on other nearby run-down estates, like the Kinglake), and a rolling program of improvement to the flats was begun (ironically several Pullens squatters were employed to carry out some of the work installing hot water and bathrooms).

Pullens squatters had managed to defend themselves because of a fairly unique situation, including widespread support from tenants, partly due to massive discontent with council disrepair, and general counter-cultural ethos to the estate. This ethos continued for many years, and an element of it remains today. A couple of years after the 1986 evictions, Fareshares Food Co-operative moved to the squatted empty shop at no 56, with volunteer workers providing cheap wholefoods an vegetables at cost price. In 1991, the disused rear of the shop was opened up as 56a Infoshop, social centre, archive, meeting and organising space. Both projects continue to this day (with the addition of a free self-help bike workshop), though many of the flats on the Pullens have since been sold off and now go for wodgy prices, as the once slummy Walworth/Elephant area is gradually repackaged as trendy and fit for the middle class… No doubt many of the newer Pullens residents would be horrified by the estate’s past – or even worse, thrilled but in a disgusting de-politicised hipster way. Urgh.

Fareshares and 56a continue the counter culture tradition on this unique council estate, despite the pressures of these times – privatisation of council housing, gentrification and speculation, community atomisation… The community created in the Pullens that turned out in its own defence in June 1986 and refused to be moved on, is less and less evident in London these days, though many such semi-autonomous zones evolved during the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to some inspiring and interesting ways of life. Squatting of course, in 1986 a huge part of urban London life, has now been largely outlawed and survives as a marginal relic, where 30 years ago it was a normal way to house yourself. This has taken place for a number of reasons, including a cultural change in the way people work/don’t work, a turn to property values as a driver of economics in the capital, the destruction of economies elsewhere in the UK and wider… a change in the way people grow up and what they want out of life. And much more. To those of us who lived through some of those earlier times, the dismantling of the lovely self-made cultures like the Pullens feels like a serious loss; an opportunity to alter the way we all live that got reversed. It’s worth noting that many London estates are now under attack from gentrification, demolition, re-shaping for a wealthier class of people and in private hands… Many of them have also evolved over many decades; a diverse and cosmopolitan culture also now threatened with being usurped by a bourgeois inanity. Resistance is building however…

Some things survive…

Thanks to the lovely 56a archive for information gleaned – there is loads more material there on London’s experience of squatting, housing, gentrification, development, etc, as well as numerous zines, mags, books and so much more.
Fareshares is great still too (not paying £16 for fancy-schmancy olive oil though, that seems a bit against the spirit of the place!). And the bike workshop is brill…

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Today in London transport history, 1891: The first London bus strike starts.

A history of the first strike by London transport workers in 1891, which was over pay and conditions and largely successful. The article also contains some information about developments in bus workers’ unions around the same period.

The first person to try and organise the London tram and bus workers into a union, was a young barrister called Thomas Sutherst.

He managed, with considerable help from the London Trades Council to organise between two and three thousand tram workers, into The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees union founded in 1889.

London had some 8-9,000 bus and tram workers in 1891, the three main London Tram and Bus companies running services in the Capital were the London Road Car Company, Tillings and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), the later the LGOC was by far the largest .

However, the LGOC was a notoriously bad employer, with employees sacked for “The slightest cause of complaint” crews were even expected to contribute to a fund to cover accidents, repairs and fines levied for any misdemeanours.

London bus and tram drivers wages in 1891 were 7 shillings a day and conductor 4 shillings 6 pence, this was comparatively low compared to other manual workers. They also worked long hours, between fourteen to sixteen hours a day with as little as ten minutes for lunch.

However, it was the introduction of new ticket machines that sparked the first ever London bus and tram strike in July 1891. The issue being the ability of the conductors to keep a percentage of the fares to subsidise their meagre earnings.

Two mass meetings were called by the union, both starting after midnight, to enable crews to meet their shift obligations.

Over 3,000 bus and tram workers attended the first mass meeting at Fulham Town Hall in first week of June 1891 and a second meeting the following day at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End Road.

The Trade Unionist magazine of 6th June 1891 reported the Fulham Town Hall meeting and included the following remarks

“Great excitement prevailed during the whole meeting and speakers were frequently interrupted with snatches of song, Brakes and private buses conveyed the men to their different districts of London in broad daylight”.

The London County Tramway & Omnibus Employees, union demands included:

  • 12 hour day
  • One clear day off every fortnight
  • A weeks notice of dismissal
  • Abolition of stoppages for accidentals
  • Daily wage of 8 shillings a day for drivers, 6 shillings for conductors and 5 shillings for horse keepers & washers

When their demands were not met, the first London bus and tram strike commenced at midnight on Sunday 7th June 1891.

The strike seemed to have secure generally high level of support from the public, media and the vast majority of bus and trams crews answered the strike call. Some men remained at work, but their efforts to take the buses and trams out were frustrated by the “angry mobs” of strikers.

The strike soon spread to bus crews in other companies, the London Road Car Company, who came out on strike in sympathy and demanding the 12 hour day.

London’s other bus and tram company Tillings, was unaffected by strike and continued to run a normal service, having agreed to the unions terms earlier.

One area of surprising support for the strikers came from the “entrepreneurs” who organised “Pirate buses”, far from undermining the strike, they actually maintained the strike by paying large donations to the strikers to keep the strike going, thereby pocketing large profits, while providing only a limited service.

On the second day of the strike the bus and tram unions President, Thomas Sutherst met the LGOC and LRRC directors to discuss the strikers demands, they agreed a 12 hour day but no significant movement on pay.

The London bus and tram workers continued the strike for the rest of the week finally securing the following agreement.

  • 12 hour day
  • Drivers 6 shillings 6 pence a day (after one year)
  • Conductors 5 shillings a day (after one year)
  • Horse keepers and washers 5 shillings 6 pence

As well as Thomas Sutherst, George Shipton Secretary of the London Trades Council “worked day and night addressing meetings and organising pickets” collected nearly £1,000 for the strikers

The “Great Bus strike” was called off on Saturday 13th June 1891, after one week on strike, final agreement was reached on the 18th June 1891, however the return to work had not gone smoothly, some activists had been victimised and despite Sutherst assertion at Fulham Town hall that their would be no resumption of work until every union member reinstated, this failed to materialise and despite the efforts of even the Lord Mayor.

While the strike was not totally effective in secure all its demands, importantly the union had won the right to a 12 hour day as well as putting down a marker for future generations of bus and tram workers.

After the strike had concluded The London Trades Council agreed to pay £10 towards Fred Hammill costs while he organised the busmen’s union in the Capital.

One interesting aspect of the strike was the attempt by a group of strikers to establish a London Co-operative Omnibus company to rival the private enterprise giants.

They even purchased an omnibus to the front they attached a broom symbolising how they were determined to sweep the LGOC and LRCC away.

Thomas Sutherst the unions President called for the “municipilisation” by the Council and arguing that the council should buy the whole tram lines and rolling stock, as had happened in Huddersfield (The first municipal tram system opened in January 1883)

The demise of Sutherst, London County Tramway & Omnibus Employee union was the result of the general, onslaught by the employees after the original flame of “New Unionism” that had spilt out the London Dock Strike of 1899. But “in its short life it was a useful one and it was responsible for considerable improvement in working conditions of bus and tram crews”

Later a Bus, Tram, Motor Workers Union merged with the London Cab Drivers Union (the later established in 1894) to form the London & Provincial Union of Licenced Vehicle Workers (LPU) established in 1913 but also known as the “Red Button Union” because of the colour of their union badge. The L PU was strongly influenced by syndicalism, and distinguished itself from the start as a highly political union, supporting nationalisation of transport and opposing world war, while supporting the Russian revolution of 1917. The LPU was prominent in the August 1911 London strike wave that hit the capital as well as the 1915 Tram strike.

While the union was now dominated by tram workers it maintained a separate London cab owners section under the leadership of branch secretary Blundy .

The LPU’s Journal was entitled the “Licensed Vehicle Trades Record”, edited by George Sanders and produced fortnightly and cost 1d.

The other union to have membership amongst London Tram workers was the Manchester based Amalgamated Association of Tramway & Vehicle Workers (AAT) established in 1889.

The AAT tram union (which had members in West London at Chiswick, Hanwell and Fulwell) secured a larger base in London when it merged with the small London Tramways Employees Association in 1910. The AAT was known as the “Blue Button Union” again because of the colour of its union badge.

See the article by John Grigg on the April 1909 Fullwell Tram strike led by Jack Burns

In late 1919 early 1920 The LPU (109,425 members) and AAT (56,979 members) merged in to form the United Vehicle Workers.

The United Vehicle Workers union became part of the Transport & General Workers Union on its establishment on January 1st 1922.

This article was taken from the Hayes People’s History website and can be found here.

 

 

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Today in London radical history, 1957: St Pancras councillors block government Civil Defence plans.

In 1957, leftwing Labour councillors who had taken control over St Pancras Borough council, North London (now part of the London borough of Camden) refused to co-operate with the Conservative government over measures for civil defence – routine preparations for local measures to be taken in the event of a (then presumed to be nuclear) war. Led by longtime communist John Lawrence, the council opposed civil defence on the grounds that nuclear war was not survivable and thus the preparations were a waste of time and money.

Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union had produced a hysterical arms race, with nuclear weaponry being stockpiled and deployed on a massive scale around the world. The potential of the rival camps’ destructive arsenals threatened casualties on a scale which would dwarf the death toll of World War 2. Opposition to nuclear armament was just really beginning in the mid-1950s, but was given a boost by the development of the hydrogen bomb in the late 1950s. A general sense began to develop that a nuclear war would be largely unsurvivable, especially for people living in large cities which would be heavily targeted by missiles from ‘the other side’.

St Pancras as a borough was generally run by Labour, although the Conservatives gained power between 1949-53 and again 1959-62. In the mid-1950s, the Labour council became dominated by a leftwing group, led by John Lawrence, who had previously been a member of the Communist Party and then of several small Trotskyist groups, and remained a committed leftwinger with some sympathies towards the Soviet Union. His political career was to follow many and diverse turns and oscillations, but he was to achieve national notoriety in 1956-58 as he led the council in the adoption of leftwing policies, as well as staging high profile stunts which attracted media controversy…

Lawrence had been elected a Labour councillor in 1952, and was elected leader of the majority Labour group in 1956. From the start the group took a leftwing stand that alarmed not only the conservatives and rightwing press, but also the ‘moderate’ elements of the Labour Party. Under Lawrence’s leadership the Labour controlled administration fought the Conservative government’s legislation of 1955-56 which ordered the restoration to the private sector of any remaining housing requisitioned by councils for the homeless during and after World War 2 and imposed a means test for rent subsidies. The council defied this, cut rents for all council tenants, and refused to apply the means test to subsidies. As a delegate at the 1957 Labour Party conference, Lawrence spoke passionately against the 1957 Rent Act which decontrolled the private sector. Lawrence also negotiated a hundred per cent trade union membership agreement for municipal employees, and slashed the mayor’s allowance, confiscated the mayor’s council car and told him to travel to functions by bus.

The next action by St Pancras Labour Group to hit the headlines was the decision at a council meeting on 1 May 1957 to repudiate the local authority’s statutory obligation to organise Civil Defence.

Since 1948, local councils had been under a duty to organise for the provision of civil defence in the event of an attack. With the huge destructive power of the hydrogen bomb, many in local councils had begun to wonder what the point of civil defence was, as there would be very little left to defend after a nuclear exchange. Training a Civil Defence Corps in emergency procedures and basic first aid techniques was both a waste of money and a conscious attempt to deceive the civilian population as to the horrific consequences and chances of living through a nuclear attack.

Labour-controlled Coventry City Council had refused to implement Civil Defence (CD) for these reasons in 1954, though they backed down in the face of councillors being threatened with being personally surcharged for the cost of the  government stepping in to administer CD in the borough.

That same year, growing apprehension about resolutions calling for St Pancras Borough Council to follow the example of Coventry had been passed by the general management committees of both the North and South St Pancras Labour parties. But because a majority of the then Labour Group was opposed to this, the decision had never been carried out.

In 1956, St Pancras councillors together with local trade unionists and some churchmen, organised a conference around the issue of the H-Bomb. Even under the most conservative under-estimates, all of St Pancras was likely to be completely flattened in the event of a nuclear strike on central London. The conference resolved to refuse to put on a ‘Civil Defence Week’ planned nationally by the Home Office. John Lawrence articulated the general feeling: the exercise would be ‘a complete waste of time and money’; fellow councillor Clive Jenkins: ‘in the sort of world we are going to be living in after a nuclear attack, there won’t be many people left to rescue’. The conference was rapidly followed by a decision to abandon all Civil Defence in the borough completely. While opting out of the CD Week was one thing, refusing to organise any CD at all put the councillors beyond the law. At the debate on the issue, the Town Clerk issued a formal warning that the resolution was effectively illegal.

However, the councillors quoted the government’s own White Paper, ‘Defence: Outline of Future Policy’, just recently published in Spring 1957, which openly admitted that ‘It must be frankly recognised that there is at present no means of adequate protection for the people of this country against the consequences of an attack with nuclear weapons’ (while insisting that measures should be taken ‘to minimise the effect of a nuclear attack’). The widely ridiculed contradictions in this White paper provided St Pancras councillors with ammunition for their decision, which they hoped would lead the way for other local authorities to follow suit and discredit Civil Defence, with the longer term aim of forcing a rethink on nuclear weapons…

The national press seized on the story immediately. Meanwhile a lengthy correspondence between Home Office officials and the council failed to bring the two any closer, as government insistence on the necessity of CD as the hope for holding the framework of society together in the event of a nuclear strike met with scepticism and determination from councillors. A second debate in the Council re-affirmed the resolution. The councillors moved on from non-cooperation with CD to a critique of government defence policy as a whole:

‘When you state that the only means of preventing war is by a race to create thermo-nuclear deterrents we must register a profound disagreement. The last two major wars were each preceded by a fierce competition in arms manufacture accompanied by protestations on all sides that the object was simply to deter aggression and prevent war. Thus were people deceived, and millions of dead in all countries bear witness to the futility of such a policy. As public representatives of the people we have no tight to believe, or cause others to believe, that an arms race in this nuclear age would have any other result – except that the scale of mass slaughter and suffering will be even greater.’

The letter went on to argue that British aggression in Egypt over Suez the year before had brought the world close to the brink of another war, and that the British government’s agreement to stationing Us missiles in the UK meant the whole country would be targeted by The Soviet Union in the event of conflict with the US… The council argued for a separate neutral defence stance and an abandonment of any involvement in nuclear proliferation.

There was local opposition to the Labour group’s stand, from both Conservative councillors, and from the civil defence volunteers on the ground, (who coincidentally were led to a tory councillor). Bit attempts by the tory group to overturn the decision and restore Civil Defence failed at another debate in May 1957.

At the end of May, the Home Secretary responded to the St Pancras decision, as it had in Coventry, by appointing a commissioner to take over the organisation of Civil Defence. This led to protests from the Labour Group, who had announced that they were going to convert the Civil Defence headquarters in Camden High Street into flats in order to provide housing for the homeless; they hoped to leave the commissioner with no office to move into. The government then requisitioned the building under emergency powers left over from the war.

On 4 June, when the commissioner was due to arrive, the Labour Group held a demonstration outside the building, and John Lawrence chained himself to the gates in an attempt to prevent the commissioner entering the premises. Anti-nuclear campaigner and local resident & councillor Peggy Duff, who was ill with jaundice at the time, recalls that she was dragged out of bed by a telephone call asking her to organise press coverage of the event:

‘So I arrived in the High Street to find a small group of John’s supporters, including several councillors, parading up and down outside the CD HQ with suitable banners: “Ban the Bomb”, “Destroy the Bomb or it will Destroy You”, “Stop the Tests”. It was, of course, 1957, and the British tests at Christmas Island were imminent. After some time a policeman arrived and plodded up and down the street beside the paraders. Now and again a very disapproving member of the WVS, who shared the building with Civil Defence, pushed her way through the gate. Then, when the copper was standing, half asleep, some way up the road, John produced a rather large and ostentatious padlock and chain and attached himself to the bars of the gate. For a time nothing happened. Nobody noticed. Shoppers hurried by and never turned to look. The policemen went on plodding up and down. Buses passed to and fro. No press arrived. There was the leader of the council chained to the CD gates – and nobody had turned to look. I had a horrible feeling that nobody ever would.

‘Then at last the policeman as he passed saw that something was amiss. He stopped. He stared. “Why, sir”, he said, “who did that to you?” “Nobody”, said John. “I did it myself.” “But why did you do that, sir?” the simple copper asked. “I did it as a protest against nuclear weapons”, John simply replied. The policemen hurried off to telephone a higher authority. Shoppers continued to pass by, unconcerned. Then, at last, a press photographer. Then another. Then a police car with more important, peak-capped coppers. Then gradually a crowd, at last.

‘Lawrence shouted to the crowd: “We want these premises for housing, not for useless Civil Defence purposes. There is no defence against the H-bomb. There are 6,000 people on our housing list and we want to provide homes for four families to live here.” The police, however, produced a large pair of bolt-cutters and released Lawrence from his chains. They forced the crowd to disperse and took the names of the demonstrators, though no arrests were made. Eventually the police car drove off, unwittingly bearing a “Ban the Bomb” placard which had been stuck behind its back number plate.’

On 14 June the Labour Group held a public meeting to explain its case against Civil Defence. First the audience watched a 20-minute film, Shadow of Hiroshima, which revealed what had happened to those who had survived the nuclear attack on the Japanese city in 1945. The meeting was chaired by Councillor Jack Redman who, evidently undaunted by the prospect of travelling on a 68 bus, had recently succeeded Alfred Hurst as mayor. Introducing John Lawrence, who was the main speaker, Redman stated: ‘I have never met a young councillor with so much pluck, so much guts and so much fighting spirit. It is a pleasure to serve under him’.

Lawrence spoke for an hour justifying the council’s stand. He told the meeting: ‘Normally the borough council is a very homely body of people, a very practical body of people who spend most of their time cleaning your dustbins, getting rid of your bugs and building your houses. Now we are asked to carry out the government’s essential defence policy and we say that is a complete waste of ratepayers’ money.’ He continued: ’Our Civil Defence Corps consists of wardens with whistles and one telephone box. It is clear that if an H-bomb dropped here, most of London would be destroyed. Even if you can patch up a broken leg, the amount of radioactivity floating around the area is such that people will go on dying for years and no CD Corps will be able to stop that. CD is a deception of the people and we want no part of it.’

The North London Press reported: ‘Councillor Lawrence pointed out, in answer to a question, that CD in the past had cost the council just under £2,000. The government had paid the rest of the cost – about £5,000. “The bill will be at least £7,000”, he said. “It might be very much more.” He paused, chuckled, and said: “But we haven’t paid it yet.” A voice at the front of the hall: “What happens if you don’t pay?” Councillor Lawrence: “If we don’t pay it, the government comes and takes it out of us somehow. But as we haven’t got much which can be taken from us, presumably we will go to the Scrubs or Pentonville. What I want to know is – if we don’t pay, will you back us up?” There were cries of “Yes” and for more than two minutes the audience cheered their approval of this suggestion. Said Councillor Lawrence: “That’s all I wanted to know”.’

However, the hope of the group around Lawrence that the protest would arouse widespread support in the Labour party and trade union movement was soon dashed. Labour was widely divided on the issue of defence, as it has remained, and even leftwing leaders in the end preferred to not rock the boat on defence in the interests of party unity.

Lawrence’s colourful career in pursuit of socialism in one borough climaxed in the spring of 1958. Lawrence declared 1 May a holiday in St Pancras, and gave council workers the day off. Early that May day morning, he ran down the Union Jack and raised the Red Flag over the Town Hall. At lunchtime he was arrested by the police when he refused to close a trades council public meeting at which he was speaking which was under attack by local fascists who were enraged at the new emblem of socialist St Pancras.

The Red Flag incident sparked a small social panic. It became a cause célèbre, broadcast across the media, and Lawrence became briefly a national figure of renown or notoriety, according to your political persuasion. But it represented a turning point. The Labour Party apparatus which had been monitoring Lawrence now moved decisively against him. The right wing finally organised, and some on the left backed away from supporting him. In late May, after he had survived an attempt to expel him by the St Pancras South constituency, Lawrence was suspended from membership by Labour’s national executive, and was subsequently removed as leader of the council. Despite a vigorous campaign and production of a pamphlet, The St Pancras Story, his expulsion was upheld at the Labour Party conference that autumn.

The Red Flag incident finally resulted in Lawrence being expelled from the Labour Party and, on 17th October 1958, applied to join the Communist Party with around ten of his supporters, stating that he had been seriously considering joining the CP for three or four years.

In 1959, together with 22 other councillors who had supported the decision not to pass on to tenants the increases required under the 1957 Rent Act, he was surcharged £200 by the District Auditor.

However, this issue was to erupt again locally very shortly. In January 1960, the tenants of St Pancras implemented a mass withholding of rent increases imposed by St Pancras Council, now controlled by the Conservatives. This was met by firm action from the Council, who immediately issued notices to quit. On 28 June, eviction notices were granted in the Bloomsbury County Court against three tenants.

On 21 September 1960, the day before the evictions were scheduled, 500 tenants demonstrated outside the Town Hall where the Housing Committee was meeting. They were told to move along and then charged by mounted police and protesters forcibly dispersed. John Lawrence, who had been heavily involved in the Rent Strike, was jailed for three months arising from charges coming out of the melee.

Lawrence’s mercurial political wanderings were to take him back out of the Communist party in 1964, and eventually to become a syndicalist. He died in 2002. A good short account of his life is here

And here’s a longer account

And here’s a more detailed account of Lawrence’s expulsion from Labour over the red flag incident.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Will You Fight For it?: a past tense history walk

Will You Fight For it?

Join past tense on a Radical History walk… from Camberwell Green to Kennington Park

A snapshot of Chartism in South London… and other radical wanderings in the local rebellious past…

Thursday 14th June 2018
Meet 6pm, Camberwell Green, London SE5

Join Alex from past tense on a ramble through some of South London’s Chartist past… and digressions into other related elements of the area’s subversive undercurrents…

Come along and contribute to the discussions as we investigate Chartist demonstrations, riots and revolutionary plots… discover some of the groups who preceded Chartism… the culture that Chartism inherited and built on… some of the movements that arose from the ruins of the Chartist movement.

for more info, email: pasttense@riseup.net

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Part of the 1848 Kennington Chartist Project

 

Today in London educational history, 1968: students occupy Hornsey Art College.

On May 28th 1968, Hornsey Art College, in Crouch End, North London, was occupied by students and some staff. The occupation lasted until July 12 1968. The sit-in led to six weeks of intense debate, extended confrontation with the local authorities and even questions in Parliament.

Here are two brief accounts of the occupation – by participants:

Nick Wright’s account:

“In May 28 1968 students at Hornsey College of Art in North London – in a building now (1988) occupied by the TUC Education Centre – began a 24 hour work-in. The limited aims of the protest – for student control of student union funds – rapidly gave way to a deeper demand for thorough changes in the college regime and in art and design education. A dramatic shift of mood took place as students from the far flung outposts of the college came together across boundaries imposed by age, status, specialism and geography. A feeble attempt by the Vice Principal to re-establish his personal authority by threatening the assembled students resulted only in his eviction from the building. The startled students found themselves in occupation. The ancien regime fled. Twenty four hours seemed too little time to discuss everything.

Six weeks later the occupation was broken. Barbed wire and alsations enforced a six month’s lockout while the Conservative controlled council backed the college authorities in a thorough-going purge which closed departments, exiled teachers and expelled student activists.

Three strands of pedagogical thinking converged in the manifestos of the Hornsey College of Art students in May 1968. The first, partly derived from the reforming trends in progressive education, was nurtured by the movement for the common school. It argued for the elimination of GCE entrance qualifications and rejected examinations in art history and general studies. The egalitarian foundation of this idea was based upon a common experience of art and design students that their secondary education prepared them poorly for a higher education in the visual arts – that methods of assessment derived from the stratified structure of formal academic education were inappropriate and that entry should be open.

The second derived from a diffused idea that art and design constituted a discrete activity within higher education and could legitimately be considered separately from academic or technical and scientific studies by virtue of the special character of art.

The third constituted design, a specific activity and discipline distinct from fine art, admitted the historical continuities but took the machine and the built environment as a starting point for a celebration of a new rationality. This trend borrowed rather uncritically from emergent de-schooling trends, psycho-analytic theory, critiques of consumer culture, trans-atlantic notions of network learning and cybernetics.

These concepts were in daily contradiction with the art school regime and with the dominant trend among the rapidly expanding corps of art educationalists and art school administrators who were wedded to a rather narrow vocationalism.

Students were divided by the institutions, into two basic camps. The first followed courses leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD), others followed courses leading to lower grade vocational regional certificates.

The distinction between the two kinds of student. was maintained physically – in Hornsey they studied in different buildings – and by quite different curricula. Generally speaking, vocational students were draw more from the locality, were less likely to be from well-off middle class families, were expected to eventual fill lower and intermediate positions in the expanding design world and followed a course whose narrow vocationalism was mitigated by a token nod in the direction of general studies.

By way of contrast Dip A D students were supposed to be degree equivalent. They received a mandatory grant – the most significant mark of academic respectability – but few were convinced that art and design education was comparable to university studies. Many students and almost all the administrators thought of degree equivalence as the key to comparability – in career advancement, in salary advancement, in salary levels and promotion prospects.

Two powerful currents fought out a subterranean battle in art schools. One held to the traditional centrality of fine art studies with vestiges of the atelier system enshrined in the peculiar status accorded painting and sculpture students and teachers. Hornsey prided itself on the large number of established or up-and-coming names who taught part-time. Drawn mostly from abstract expressionist and non-figurative trends they played an important part in the marketing of Hornsey as a prestige institution.

However, fine art studies played a declining and subordinate role in the life of the college. Painting and sculpture students were based at the Alexandra Palace building, they laboured in a shanty town of individually constructed work spaces in a huge hanger like hall. Some even constructed roofs to their work wombs, others preferred to work at home. As a metaphor for the dominant thinking among fine art student this peculiar perversion of the People’s Palace into an Arndale Centre of individualistic fine art boutiques is highly appropriate.

A second current placed design at the centre of curriculum. In part this was a mere reflection of the market lead pressures on the college to turn out a range of design specialists – in part it derived from the centrality accorded to basic design skills and visual research studies by the Modern Movement. Graphic design studies were based at a scruffy Civil Defence building on the North Circular Road. Graphics was run by administrators of staggering mediocrity but taught by part-time lecturers with one foot in the real world of commodity fetishism. To a greater or lesser extent the professional ideologies of fashion and industrial design dominated the design departments at Hornsey. There existed a striking discontinuity between the fashionable image of the college and the poverty of its buildings.

It has become conventional to attribute the Hornsey occupation, the Guilford strike which rapidly followed, the outbreak of similar manifestations throughout much of the art school world as somehow connected with the May and June events in France. Undoubtedly there was a resonance. But it would be misleading to suggest that these developments were in some essential sense spontaneous. They were characterized by a certain spontaneity – as is all mass action – as is all protest and revolt. But as with all social movements, the qualitative leap into dynamic action was preceded by, conditioned by, a slow accretion of signs – secret and public – that change was needed. In the case of Hornsey, the May 28 revolt was paradoxically and in part the product of an alliance between students, staff and the principal. He was a curious blend of petty minded ambition, obsessive bureaucrat and quite striking imagination. Self-promotion was fused with a sense of historical moment into a formidable drive for resources and publicity for Hornsey.

In 1967 his plans were threatened by a plan to incorporate Hornsey into a new polytechnic to be formed by amalgamation with Hendon and Enfield colleges of technology. Quite correctly, he and the corps of senior administrators, saw the Polytechnic Plan as a threat to their position. Enfield, in particular was run by a pair of high powered academic sharks, public advocates of polytechnic education, and well connected politically. The Hornsey incompetents would have been eaten alive.

Students and staff had other worries. Real concerns, about job security, status within the institution for art and design studies, and the future of art and design education as a discrete discipline were mixed up with daft Utopian ideas about the uniqueness of art education and the supposedly special character of art students as bearers of universal values in a machine age. An uneasy alliance came into being. The student union – which had gradually acquired a more politically experienced leadership and established contacts with the NUS and other London art colleges – organised a series of departmental meetings and demonstrations at the Wood Green civic centre to protest against the Polytechnic Plan. The principal and senior staff gave silent sanction to the protests. Theory and arguments were provided by a group of younger teachers; designers and general studies tutors in the main.

The campaign never stood a chance of success in the long term. However, it created a new atmosphere in the college. Cross departmental links were made, the experience of mass action generated new interest in the student union and strengthened membership of the teachers association. Delegations from Hornsey attended the annual NUS conferences and the newly instituted art colleges conference. The pressure for student participation in the college government began to be felt at departmental level and raised expectations among junior and part time staff that they too might gain access to power. A college chapter of the Radical Students Alliance was formed and its banner began to appear at anti-apartheid and Vietnam solidarity rallies. An art student candidate stood in the local elections to publicise the case for the college’s independence. A £100 (four times a policeman’s wage in 1967) was collected from students by the Young Communist League to buy a motorbike for the Viet Cong.

The case for student participation had been hammered out in a series of policy statements between the NUS and various associations of educationalists and local authorities. But these weighty documents had little effect on the college regime or the Conservative worthies on Haringey Council. The college continued to be run by diktat and informal committee. The Bursar and Vice Principal unilaterally ended the convention whereby the student union president was granted a year’s sabbatical and paid from the student union funds. By vetoing the president’s sabbatical the college authorities created a conflict over the issue of student union autonomy at precisely the moment when students wanted to play a more active part in running the college. Consequently, pressures which had been diffused at departmental level became focussed on this single question.

The rupture in conventional college life came about over the issue of student union autonomy but behind this lay more substantial issues. A constant thread in discussion throughout the Polytechnic Plan campaign -and a big part of the broader education debates led by teachers unions and the NUS was the issue of the binary system in higher education. Criticism was focused on the Polytechnic Plan precisely because it seemed to further institutionalise the disparity in resources and status which existed between universities and public sector colleges. Buried within this discussion were echoes of the controversies over comprehensive secondary education. It seemed as if a high proportion of Hornsey students came from outside London and from working classes and lower middle class backgrounds. A rather diffused sense of deprivation fused with more local and departmental concerns to produce a general demand for change.

Recovering the rather prosaic foundations of the Hornsey revolt from the spontaneist myths of ‘68 should not obscure the extraordinary boldness and imagination of the students and staff. The foundation of their discontent lay in the failure of the art and design education system to reconcile the contradictory pressures for vocational training and increased specialisation with the need for a broad education. Their demands were broadly democratic in character, their tactics strikingly original, their reserves of courage and organisational ability constantly surprising. As innocents they made the classic mistake of substituting dreams for reality, elevating the tactic of occupation to a principle and believing that an agreement with a more powerful adversary would hold. As a consequence they were defeated. But it is the victors who are forgotten.”

Nick Wright went to Hornsey College of Art in 1965 to study graphic design and typography. He became Secretary of the HCA Student Union in 1966 and President in 1967. In 1969 following the student occupation of the college the authorities obtained a High Court injunction preventing him from entering the premises. Fifteen years later he returned to Middlesex Polytechnic and completed his degree before taking an MA in Art History at Sussex University.

Hornsey College of Art uprising, by David Page

“On 28 May 1968, at Hornsey College of Art, what was to have been a one-day teach-in turned into a six-week occupation. There was a parallel occupation at Guildford School of Art, and the action spread rapidly round most of the art and design colleges in England in various forms. It produced two books, a film, an exhibition at the ICA, newspaper and magazine articles, demonstrations and street events, television interviews, a large number of educational documents containing analysis and proposals for reform, as well as posters, an articulate constituency and (indirectly) the only serious piece of government research into the sector (see The Employment of Art College Leavers: Ritchie, Frost and Dight, HMSO, 1972).

That’s one way of summarising it. In strict dictionary terms it was a revolution – the overthrow of the established government by those who were previously subject to it.

The authorities fled from the main college, which was then run for the duration by students and staff, 24 hours, seven days a week, demanding total commitment. There was a building to run and keep clean, a canteen to staff, food to be purchased, cooked and served, visitors to be monitored and controlled, alongside a system of seminars producing reports to be typed up, reproduced and fed back into the general meetings (and also to the outside audience), where hundreds of students and staff managed to debate and take decisions in an orderly fashion. Because the graphics department was in the hands of the authorities, printed matter had to be produced by available means – mainly linocut – but the rougher images produced seemed to meet the mood of the time, and were consonant with what was being produced via silk-screen in Paris. Some more sophisticated work found its way to printers, such as George Snow’s Snakes & Ladders, and a typographic poster of John Donne’s “No Man is an Iland, entire of it selfe” quotation, which was felt to embody the spirit of the sit-in, featured in a number of London bookshops.

There was much interest from notable people in other cultural areas – indeed, the establishment. William Coldstream, John Summerson and Shirley Williams (at that time Education Minister) treated it with respect, and even some admiration. None of that from the local councillors and aldermen, who had little idea what the institution in their control might be about, but were clear that authority, their authority, was being challenged, and they weren’t having it. Their stance culminated in “The Day of the Dogs”, when a team of security men with Alsatians were sent to surround and seal off the main college building. In the event, students tamed the dogs with biscuits, and the whole episode collapsed into farce. The people who did understand the educational arguments pulled back, saying that, regrettably, there was nothing they could do, thereby leaving the field to Haringey Council, which did not understand, and furthermore did not wish to understand, thank you very much. While this local political battle went on wasting a lot of time and energy, a social and spiritual development occurred alongside. What we aimed to do was simple: as William Blake put it, to build Jerusalem. William Morris, another artist-rebel who started with a concern about furniture and ended up grappling with the whole structure of society, followed a similar path. In 1964, surveying the new DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design), Quentin Bell wrote: “Henceforth it should be possible for a college to develop entirely on its own lines, to follow no matter what eccentric course it pleases, and it does not matter how eccentric that course may be if only the teachers are sufficiently enthusiastic.” (Crisis in the Humanities, edited by JH Plumb, Penguin, 1964.)

We would have said amen to that: what happened was nearly the opposite. The politics of Hornsey emerged from the conflict between Bell’s aspiration and the structures and practices we actually encountered. When eventually an unsatisfactory agreement was brokered between the authorities and the occupiers, the main college was briefly reopened. The authorities’ first act was to tear down everything which pertained to the sit-in: Hornsey posters, French student posters, etc. There’s no vandal like an official vandal. Within a week or two they had also broken all the terms of the agreement. Staff and student sackings and other repressions began. (“No way to run a whelk-stall, let alone an art school” – Lord Longford.) I managed to salvage at least some of the poster lino-blocks before they were destroyed. It was easier to gather documents (which had been sources for The Hornsey Affair): they remained in cardboard boxes through several house moves, and were sorted, years later, by two successive and devoted researchers (the first of whom had to sift out the mouse turds).

What Hornsey meant depended on where you stood, whether you were a teacher or a student, where you were in your life, and so on. This article expresses a partial view by a member of staff, so I asked two friends who were students then to sum up what it meant to them: “As a student on the industrial design course at Hornsey in 1968, I became very strongly aware of the powerful and pragmatic role design could have as an agent for social change and development. The sit-in burst into this environment, and its activities were a natural forum to explore these issues, both through debate and practical projects. Design for learning as a radical process has driven my work since that time” – Prue Bramwell-Davies.

“The Hornsey thing was a startling illustration of the potential for a disparate group of people with insignificant initial common cause to develop the ability to discuss and act together in such a way that cohesive and pragmatic philosophical and political expression emerges. That this phenomenon is extraordinary and deeply threatening to institutional establishments is a profound comment on our social organisation and the way in which it continues. It is significant that these were art and design students, doers and makers rather than talkers”– David Poston.

Various documents on the Hornsey occupation were presented by David Page in 2008 to the Tate Gallery.

 The Hornsey sit-in, and one at Guildford Art School, which followed on a week later in early June, inspired a ferment of agitation and debate throughout the art-school world: there were sit-ins, active discussions and demands for radical reform in a large number of colleges. The Hornsey and Guildford students founded a national movement, the Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education (MORADE), which held a conference in the Camden Roundhouse in London in July.

1968 saw a number of student occupations in the UK, inspired to some extent by the events of Paris, though also by homegrown issues.

Some more UK student occupation from 1968:

Essex University

Brighton

Bristol

There are a couple of books on the Hornsey occupation:
The Hornsey Affair, Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, Penguin Education Special, 1969. Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution, Lisa Tickner, Frances Lincoln, 2008

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s indebted history: Amazons of Southwark Mint repulse the bailiffs

From around the mid 1670s until the mid 1720s, there were certain areas in London whose inhabitants claimed certain rights and liberties, most notably to be free from being arrested for debt.

Imprisonment for debt was a constant threat for nearly everyone in eighteenth century London. Due to the scarcity of coin, many transactions had to be done on credit, making everyone a debtor of sorts, even if they were owed more than owing. And because this was a civil process, not a criminal one, everyone was at the mercy of their creditors, who had a powerful legal arsenal at their disposal. Debtors could be confined before any hearing. Release could only be obtained through settling the debt, even though imprisonment precluded earning the money necessary to do so. No determinate sentence was set, and time in jail did not work off any of the sum owed. Consequently, debtors could find themselves locked up for very long periods for trifling sums.

Many creditors resorted to the law, and many people suffered for it. The available figures suggest there were thousands of debtors incarcerated at any one time. Before the American revolution ended transportation, the vast majority of the prison population were debtors. The prison reformer John Howard found 2437 so incarcerated in 1776; a pamphlet of 1781 listing all the debtors released by the Gordon Rioters from London’s prisons alone gave a similar number; government enquiries revealed 9030 locked up in 1817. To hold all these people there was a vast national network of gaols: nearly 200 across England and Wales in the eighteenth century, with 10 in London and Middlesex and 5 more in Southwark

One way of avoiding prison was by taking refuge in the sanctuaries. There were eleven of these active in London and surrounds in the 1670s: on the north bank of the Thames in Farringdon Ward Without were Whitefriars, Ram Alley, Mitre Court, and Salisbury Court; on the north side of Fleet Street Fullers Rents; the Savoy off the Strand, the Minories by the Tower, Baldwin’s Gardens in Middlesex, and in Southwark Montague Close, The Clink and The Mint.

Each of these places claimed some sort of independent jurisdiction. In some case, such as Whitefriars, Montague Close and the Minories, there was a memory of religious sanctuary, notwithstanding the abolition of that right under James I. In others, there were charters allowing a level of autonomous governance, as with Whitefriars again, and the Clink. The Savoy was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. And with the Mint in Southwark, there seemed to be both an administrative vacuum, and the ambiguity of being within the ‘Rules’ of the King’s Bench, an area outside that prison but where inmates were allowed to live.

What all these refuges had in common was a population of debtors prepared to physically defend these claims and take on the bailiffs that would arrest them.

Poor Robin’s Intelligence was a two page broadsheet, written by the hack journalist Henry Care, published through 1676 and 1677, and sold by “the General Assembly of Hawkers” on the streets of London. Care coined the term ‘Alsatia’ for the area around Whitefriars, after the territory nominally part of France but with many independent cities.

Although not a resident of any of the sanctuaries, Care was clearly well informed of the goings-on in them, and regularly reported, in a fantastically florid and mock-heroic style – but always sympathetically – the frequent battles with the bailiffs.

An early account of such a fight described the ‘Amazons’ of The Mint in Southwark, one of the longest lasting sanctuaries, surviving until 1723. On its dissolution, nearly 6,000 Minters applied for relief and exemption from prison, giving an indication of the size of that shelter. Of these, some 7.5% were women. Although, under the iniquitous doctrine of ‘Feme Covert’, married women and their property were subsumed to their husbands and so not considered capable of having debts in their own name, single and widowed women were at risk of imprisonment as much as men. And judging by Care’s account, they were fearsome opponents of the duns:

“From the Mint in Southwark, May 17” [1676]
“A party of Counterians [bailiffs] strongly ammunition’d with Parchment and green Wax [Warrants of arrest], lately made an entrenchment upon the prerogative of this place, hoping to bring us in subjection to those Laws from which by custom we are exempted; but the White and Blew Regiments of our Amazonian guards resisted them with such an invincible courage, that the assailants were forced to a very base and dishonourable submission, prostrating themselves in the very Highway, and begging Quarter; their chief Commander we took prisoner, who freely offer’d all his wealth for his ransome; so that being solemnly sworn upon a Brick bat, never again to make the like presumptuous attempt, and humbly acknowledging himself to be the son of a Woman by birth, and a Rogue by practice, with the blessing of a good woman, which she gave him cross the pace with a Broom-staff, he was by consent dismiss’d.”

Most of the sanctuaries were dissolved by statute in 1697; the Mint persisted until abolished by legislation in 1723. Refugees from there set up in Wapping for a short period, until suppressed by the army. Civil imprisonment for debt was ostensibly abolished in 1869, but in reality was made ‘contempt of court’, a criminal offence. Coupled with the increasing financial demands of the state upon the population by way of taxes, imprisonment for debt continued unabated.

For moer on the debtors’ sanctuaries, see Alsatia.org.uk

Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1963: Oswald Mosley’s Victoria HQ captured by 62 Group supporters.

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 much vaunted comeback but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away.
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 organisation alive. 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.

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.

Most of their activities were centred in London, and it was here that saw the most effective anti-fascist. 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).

While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.

In 1962, 62 Group member and supporters had already infiltrated Oswald Mosley’s organisation, and had inside knowledge of its membership and plans for action. In May, a decision was taken to invade the fascist HQ, to disrupt and demoralise Mosley’s set-up. The raid took place on May 12th, 1962.

Gerry Gable, later editor of anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, takes up the story:

“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy. I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multiracial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney (now Tower Hamlets). Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out. A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation, although it fought alongside the left and one of its greatest allies was the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in “special operations”. When Mosley announced a march starting from the forecourt of Charing Cross station, it was decided to head him off by seizing his HQ in Victoria. The plan was to gain entry to the building by means of two attack groups. The first consisted of a couple of our toughest infiltrators in the Union Movement. They were blonde, blue eyed and had documentation and party badges that got them inside. Then, while one of them engaged the security guards, the other opened the front door and let in another six or seven tough guys, who locked the door behind them. The timing was perfect and we knew the back door had a rotten frame. I was leading the second group with Tony Hall [Trade unionist, anti-racist and radical cartoonist] and an ex-boxer called Billy Collins. One kick with my work boots and the door caved in, and our section of about seven people rushed through. Bad luck: Mosley was not present. But most of his senior officers were, such as Bob Rowe, a big lump of an ex-copper from Yorkshire, and Keith Gibson, a vicious animal, plus half a dozen or more of their security squad. The idea was not to steal anything, as via our infiltrators we already had copies of their membership files and other important documents: the task was to destroy everything that made their HQ work. It was very bloody. Rowe, who had a reputation as a hard man, leapt down the stairs feet first into one of our guys, but two more overwhelmed him. One of our guys went down to the basement where they kept their banners and drums and destroyed the lot. Then Gibson picked up a long sharp sliver of broken glass and came at Billy, thrusting it towards him. Billy had been a great young contender for a future championship, but during the Suez Crisis had been shot in the gut by a trigger-happy British soldier and his boxing days were over. He saw red – he had a Jewish wife and child – and he just disregarded the broken glass and battered Gibson, screaming: “you would kill my family”. Before three of us pulled Billy off, Gibson had suffered a broken nose and cheek bone, several broken ribs and very sore testicles. After the battle, we tied the fascists up and dumped them in a small room near the back door. Then one of our guys got overenthusiastic and threw a typewriter through the front window into a street crowded with people. Some of our men went out the way they had come in, into the main road, and the rest headed for the back door. One had a fire extinguisher of the type that London buses used to carry, and as Rowe tried to stop our team escaping, it was triggered and the door was shut on them. At the back of the building was a long narrow mews. I ran one way with about three people and Tony Hall and Billy ran the other way. When they spotted a police car passing the top of the road, they started pushing on doors. After a couple of attempts, one opened and Tony and Billy walked in to be greeted by a vicar who asked them whether they were the musical entertainment for their garden party. Tony sat himself down at the piano with Billy turning his music and played for the guests for the next four hours. The police looked in, saw the vicar and heard the music, and left. A handful of our team were caught on the street and were sent to stand trial at the Old Bailey. The trial took place in July 1963 at the same time as that of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath in the Profumo Affair, who was charged with living off immoral earnings. As our lads were being led to the court they encountered Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, there to give evidence in the Ward trial. The women asked the lads what they were up for, and when they heard it was for attacking Mosley’s HQ, they each received a kiss and wishes of good luck. Thousands of pounds had been raised for their defence and it was clear that the judge was no Mosley admirer. One of the police officers told the court he had entered the building and found Gibson and the other Mosleyites coughing and spluttering, with one of them saying “we have been gassed”. The judge asked the officer what he had said in response. Referring to his notebook, he replied: “I said it was just like Auschwitz”. Although they were found guilty, nobody was jailed. The big lad who had got the front door opened received a very small fine after the court heard that both his parents had been murdered in Budapest by the Hungarian Arrow Cross murder squads towards the end of the war.”

A fascist march planned for later on in the day of the seizure if the headquarters had to be abandoned.

There’s a couple of press reports on the trial of those anti-fascist raiders who were caught here and here

And there’s much more on the 62 Group here.

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