Today in London’s xenophobic past: Anti-Irish riot in Spitalfields, 1736

From the Middle Ages, London’s then ‘Northeast Suburbs’, Spitalfields, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch, were well known for industry, which was able to establish here outside the overcrowded City; but also for poverty, disorder and crime. Outside the City walls, they fell outside the jurisdiction of City authorities, so criminals, outcasts, the poor and rebellious clustered here.

After 1500 Spitalfields underwent rapid urban growth. London expanded massively as large numbers of people flooded into the city: many dispossessed by rural enclosures, and deprived of the traditional welfare system by the Dissolution of the Monasteries under king Henry VII. In the City of London, trade was also expanding in many and varied directions, there were numerous jobs to be had, in both legitimate and illegitimate sectors. New rich classes were emerging, with new needs, requiring new services, and opening up exciting new chances to rob them. Neighbouring poor areas like Spitalfields absorbed many of these incomers.

The district between Aldgate and Brick Lane became a centre for homeless and drifting people – “idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly persons” – by the early 18th Century. The Brick Lane area especially remained associated with severe social problems: according to Mayhew, the lane and the streets running off it included not only lodging houses but also considerable numbers of brothels. Brick Lane, said the Rector of Christ Church in the 1880s, was “a land of beer and blood”.

Spitalfields housing was inevitably usually of low quality, overcrowded, run-down, often sub-divided, especially in the slums or ‘rookeries’.

But Spitalfields has also been described as City’s “first industrial suburb”. From medieval times the area’s major employer has been the clothing trade; but breweries have also been major employers since 17th century, and later residents formed a pool of cheap labour for the industries of the City and East End: especially in the docks, clothing, building, and furniture trades. Small workshops came to dominate employment here.

The relationship between the affluent City of London and the often poverty and misery- stricken residents over its eastern border in Spitalfields has dominated the area’s history. More than half the poor in Spitalfields worked for masters who resided in the City in 1816; today the local clothing trade depends on orders from West End fashion shops… The same old social and economic relations continue…

For similar reasons as those that led to the growth of industry and slums here, the area has always been home to large communities of migrants. Many foreigners in the middle ages could not legally live or work inside City walls (due to restrictions enforced by the authorities or the guilds), leading many to settle outside the City’s jurisdiction. Successive waves of migrants have made their homes here, and dominated the life of the area: usually, though not always, the poorest incomers, sometimes competing for the jobs of the native population, at other times deliberately hired to control wages in existing trades… Huguenot silkweavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late nineteenth‑century pogroms in east Europe, and Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Many have been identifiably apart in religion or race. In the last decade or two newer communities like the Somalis have added to the mix. Colin Ward described Spitalfields as an inner‑city ‘zone of transition’, a densely populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of migrants had struggled to gain a foothold in the urban economy.

By the early 18th Century there were numbers of Irish people living in Spitalfields. Due to their race, their religion (catholic, amidst overwhelmingly protestant English), by language, the Irish were often segregated, wherever they lived in England. London was no different – lodging houses, streets and neighbourhoods became generally Irish in character.

Frequently they were extremely poor or destitute. The extreme poverty of the Irish locally was often noted. This lasted for more than a century: the radical Francis Place remarked in 1816 that the native poor of Spitalfields were better off than the Irish. Irish migrants were blamed for working for cheaper wages, especially in the building trades, and were on occasions attacked by ‘native’ workers.

In summer 1736, reports spread of English builders being let go from the building of Christ Church, to be replaced by Irish workmen, said to be working below the agreed rate (supposedly at somewhere between half and two thirds of what the previous workers had been paid).

In July this sparked three night of anti-Irish rioting in Spitalfields:

“Tuesday 27 July 1736, the alarm was given by the Deputy Lieutenants of Tower Hamlets. They were barricaded inside the Angel and Crown tavern in Spitalfields, and calling desperately for reinforcements. Outside, the East End had erupted in violence. It was feeling against the Irish that triggered it. London was full of Irish workers. They flooded into the capital in search of jobs on building sites or out in the fields and, like all immigrants before and after them, they were accused of stealing English jobs. Within hours of the trouble starting, Walpole had informers mingling with the crowd, and sending back regular reports from public houses. ‘Some of [the crowd] told me,’ Joseph Bell scribbled hastily to his master, there was such numbers of Irish who underwork them, they could not live and that there was an Irish man in the neighbourhood who employed numbers of them & they was determined to demolish him and drive the rest away.’ It turned out that the contractor for Shoreditch Church ‘had paid off his English labourers and imployed Irish because they worked cheaper.’ The same thing was happening in the weaving industry. 

On the first night of the riots, Irish public houses were attacked. A squad of fifty soldiers under Major White, officer on duty at the Tower, found itself up against a crowd he estimated at 4,000. On Thursday, a boy called Thomas Larkin was shot dead in Brick Lane. The next night was even worse. Richard Button, a brewer’s assistant, ‘saw the mob coming down Bell Yard, with sticks and lighted links. One of them made a sort of speech directing the rest to go to Church Lane, to the Gentleman and Porter.’ The crowd was organised by now. These were no longer spontaneous demonstrations. Quite a few of the leaders had papers with lists of Irish pubs on them. ‘One of them was called Captain Tom the Barber, and was in a striped banjan. I would have taken notice of him’ Richard Button told the Old Bailey later, ‘but he turned away and would not let me see his face.’ The authorities were having to take ever stronger measures to deal with the situation. Clifford William Phillips, a Tower Hamlets magistrate, was woken by neighbours about ten o’clock, despatched a message to the Tower for help, and then set off towards the riot. ‘The street was very light,’ he recalled afterwards, ‘and I could see (at a distance) the mob beating against the shutters with their clubs and hear the glass fly … I heard the hollowing at my house, and the cry in the street was Down with the Irish, Down with the Irish.’ As Richard Burton remembered, it was only the appearance of magistrate and soldiers that prevented worse violence. ‘Justice Phillips coming down, and the captain with his soldiers. they took some of [the crowd], and the rest made off immediately, and were gone as suddenly, as if a hole had been ready dug in the bottom of the street, and they had all dropped into it at once.”‘

The Angel and Crown might have been on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Osborn Street.

Several pubs known as haunts of the Irish were trashed or destroyed; crowds of between 2000 and 400 were involved. The Irish armed themselves and fought back, gunfire allegedly killing one attacker and wounding several others.

A scurrilous pamphlet, entitled ‘Spittlefields and Shoreditch in an uproar, or the devil to pay with the English and Irish’, emerged shortly after the riots, listing those killed and injured, but also clearly ranting against the ‘incomers’: “It is shocking to behold the Cruelty or Impudence of some People, who, even in a strange Country, by the Natives thereof they get their Living; yet these ungrateful wretches are ever belching out their most dreadful oaths, Curses and Imprecations against those very People by whom they have Subsistence. The Truth of what is said here will evidently and plainly appear, by a genuine Relation of the fights which have happened between the English and the Irish in Shoreditch and Spittlefields, which will set forth in true light the Insolence of the Irish, who were Aggressors in this hitherto unheard of Action. It is hoped that proper Means will be taken by the Magistrites to quell those audacious Rioters, and to put a Stop to their wicked, cruel, and inhuman Purposes.”

The pamphlet goes on to blame the trouble on Irish provocation – a familiar story which continue wherever racists gather to harass, attack and murder migrants, yet its any migrants who resist who get blamed and arrested.

Although resentment arising from competition for work was said to be the immediate spark for the pogrom, the general culture of anti-catholicism, dominant in Britain from the 16th century, and particularly sharp in London, may have also been lurking in the background. It has been suggested that the presence in Spitalfields of a large community of Hugenots, and their descendants, French protestants expelled from France some 50 years before, played a part in the trouble – though evidence of Hugenot involvement is scanty. In the 1680s, of course, ‘native’ silkweavers in the East End had petitioned to protest the immigration of 1000s of french weavers into their area, competing with them for work. This may not have precluded the Hugenots’ children from joining anti-Irish protests.

Irish folk may by the 1730s have begun to move into the silkweaving trade, which Hugenots dominated, and Irish workers were later accused of undercutting the rate in this occupation (though I am not sure this was an issue in 1736). By the 1760s, however, Irish weavers were violently resisting wage cuts and sabotaging looms alongside the grandchildren of French exiles and the ‘native’ English.

However, there were further attacks on the Irish during the anti-Catholic phase of the Gordon riots in 1780 (in which many local weavers were said be involved). ‘Integration’ was a rocky road, proceeding unevenly, with alliances forged by some in the face of common interests, constantly at risk of being undermined by longstanding prejudices…

Which may well have some lessons for us in our own time. If only we ever learned from history, eh?

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

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Today in royal history: Greek queen’s visit to Claridges leads to protests, 1963.

The State Visit to London of King Paul and Queen Frederica of the Hellenes, between 9 and 12 July 1963, occasioned demonstrations by pacifists, nuclear disarmers, Communists, militant Christians, Greek left-wingers, anarchists, and others.

Greece had been almost completely divided between left and right since the end of World War 2, when a civil war between a strong communist movement and a rightwing monarchist government backed by the US/Britain ended in massacre and exile for much of the left. In the early ’60s Greece was intermittently authoritarian and precariously democratic, sliding towards the 1967 Colonels’ Coup that would put a basically fascist military in power. Elements in the Greek monarchy and army were constantly active in keeping the left and working class movements down. Greece’s crucial strategic position was vital for NATO, meaning the US was keen to back them to prevent any possibility of Greece drifting to the left, or any social change that even hinted at such a thing.

Greece’s Queen Frederika was a notorious right winger, having been a member of the Hitler Youth during her early life in Austria. She neatly linked the national and international skein, having also had an affair with CIA director Allan Dulles; she was generally reckoned to be a powerful influence against the Greek left, through her husband king Paul, and then her son King Constantine.

Her visit to London coincided with two things. First the aftermath of the assassination of leading Greek left social democrat MP and peace campaigner Grigoris Lambrakis, that had caused international outrage. And secondly the national campaign run by the Communist Party for the release of Greek seafarers’ leader Tony Ambetelios, who had been imprisoned in Greece for 18 years. His wife Betty (née Betty Bartlett) was a former central leader of the British Communist Party, and toured the country gathering widespread support for the release of Greek political prisoners.

On a previous visit in April queen Frederica had been jostled by demonstrators and chased down the street – she was forced to hide in a nearby house to escape their attentions… This time the authorities were determined their royal guest would not be embarrassed by lefties.

For a week during Frederika’s stay every evening demonstrators assembled in Trafalgar Square with the ambition of marching down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Each time the police blocked them and there were running battles around adjacent back streets.

“They were protesting against the murder of Lambrakis by Fascists with police connivance, the brutal suppression of Greek anti-bomb marchers, the retention of political prisoners sixteen years after the civil war, Queen Fred’s membership of the Hitler Youth, Queen Fred’s support of EOKA in Cyprus, the expense of State Visits, the nastiness of States, and what-have-you. But for all their variety the demonstrators were not numerous. Three thousand at the most, well out-numbered by the five thousand or more police whose leave was stopped for the occasion.

Tuesday evening, the ninth, the demonstrators set out from Trafalgar Square to march along The Mall to Buckingham Palace and hold a silent vigil. But the ceremonial gates of The Mall were closed against them, so they marched down Whitehall to the Cenotaph and held a noisy riot. And from there they went by several routes to the Palace after all.

Wednesday, the Royal Party went to the Aldwych Theatre….” (Donald Rooum)

So that the royal party could see Shakespeare’s “A midsummer night’s dream” in security, the foreign office was driven to buy up all 1,100 tickets for one night’s performance at theAldwych Theatre. A false report that a bomb had been planted in the theatre led to delays as police in evening clothes searched with a mine detector. Six rows of police held back thousands of protestors, who greeted the royal arrivals with shouts of “Sieg Heil!”. Leaving the theatre, Queen Elizabeth was seen to look startled and dismayed at being intensively booed.

“This time no attempt was made to keep demonstrators away, and the police found no difficulty in controlling them. It was a noisy demonstration of course — the King and Queen of Greece and the Queen and Prince Consort of Britain were roundly booed whenever they appeared — but it showed no sign of getting out of hand.

Then the Home Secretary, Mr. Henry Brook called a press conference. Mr. Brook is not an emotional man; one of the things that annoys his opponents is his apparent coldness. Now, however, he was reported (Daily Express, 10 July 1963) to be red-faced and trembling.

“The Queen of England was booed tonight,” he said, “and I am furious.” He went on to call on loyal citizens to “show contempt” for demonstrators.

I believe it was his fury which decided the police, when the Royal Party visited Claridge’s Hotel on Thursday the eleventh, to move all demonstrators well out of booing range. Whether his call to show contempt had any effect, I cannot say.” (Donald Rooum)

On Thursday 11th July, demonstrators outside Claridge’s were met with slightly more force. Several hundred people were arrested. One of the protesters was Betty Ambatielos, who burst through the police cordon to rush towards Frederika’s carriage shouting, “Release my husband!”.

However, one of the arrests would backfire spectacularly. Anarchist Donald Rooum, then cartoonist for Peace News, was nicked by the notorious Met police inspector Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor:

“At about nine o’clock on the evening of 11 July, I was captured by a big, stocky, flat-nosed man with a dark suit, boots, and a very-short- back-and-sides.

At the time I was behaving legally. Lines of policemen, shoulder to shoulder across the width of the road, hands clasped as for the Palais Glide, were clearing a huge area surrounding Claridges of all but police and a few press photographers. A Committee of 100 briefing instructed demonstrators stopped by the police to sit down, but I personally could see no point in a sit-down demonstration, or any demonstration, which took place beyond the ken of those for whom it was intended.

So when I was moved on by the police, I moved; but I moved in a circle, in the hope that if I could stay in the neighbourhood until the royal party arrived, I might be permitted to stand silently holding my innocuous paper banner.

I met Peter and Ann who were trying the same tactic, and the three of us did manage to get left behind, somehow, by two separate police-cordons following each other. I believe at one point we were the only people without police permits who could actually see Claridge’s doorway. But of course we were moved on, and at about nine o’clock we were emerging from South Molton Passage into South Molton Lane, still well within the cleared area but no longer within hailing distance of Claridges. The police stopped us again. One of them took my banner, and was making a great show of reading it (it said “Lambrakis R.I.P.”) when four plainclothes men came and took it off him. I waited until they’d all read it, then said politely:

“Can I have my banner back ?”

The big one with the short-back-and-sides stepped forward. “Can you have your what back ?”

“My banner.”

He smiled at me. “You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty,” he said, and gave me a terrific clout on the ear.

Then he grabbed me by the collar, thrusting his knuckles into my skull, and bustled off towards Claridges.

“Please, officer,” I protested. “I’m coming quietly.”

“Don’t say please to me, my old darling. I’ve got a stone ‘art.” (Rooum)

Calling Rooum ‘my old darling’ wasn’t a sign of Challenor’s particular affection for anarchist cartoonists: he apparently called everyone that.

Battering Rooum as he was carted off to West End Central, Challenor decided to add some icing to the cake to ensure the arrest would become a conviction.

“When we arrived at the charge room the big man called out ” I’ve got a desperate one ‘ere,” which someone took as a signal to open the door of a detention room. (A detention room differs from a cell, I’m told, in that it has no inside door handle). He frogmarched me in and the door was locked on the pair of us.

He pushed his face into mine and breathed hard. It was not as bad an experience as it might have been. No alcohol, tobacco or onions discernible.

“Boo the Queen, would you ?” he snarled.

“No,” I said quickly, “not at all.”

“Eh ?” he looked slightly worried, slightly disappointed. Then craftily, “But you sympathise with ’em, don’t you ?”

“No,” I said.

After the clouting up the stairs, I would have been too groggy to defend myself even if I had his weight and training. In any case, I knew that the feeblest attempt to defend oneself against a policeman is seen by magistrates as an unwarranted attack. Let him beat me up and get it over. But at least I could deny him the satisfaction of feeling justified.

None of his business who I sympathised with.

So he didn’t beat me up after all. Just three more clouts to the ears which knocked me flying again, but which after the punishment on the stairs, I didn’t feel.

“There you are, my old darling,” he smiled paternally, ” ‘Ave that with me. And just to make sure we ‘aven’t forgotten it … ” He took from his pocket a screwed-up newspaper, which he opened with a flourish. Inside was a bit of brick.

His smile widened. “There you are, my old beauty. Carrying an offensive weapon. You can get two years for that.”

Planting evidence was a crucial part of Challenor’s MO. After WW2 service as a commando in a unit that became the SAS (for which we won the Military Medal), he joined the Metropolitan police in 1951, working in the CID and Flying Squad. Moving to West End Central copshop in Mayfair in 1962. West End Central partly oversaw the policing of Soho, then infamous for crime, much of it to do with vice, prostitution, sex clubs, organised crime… At one point, he had a record of over 100 arrests in seven months and he eventually totalled 600 arrests and received 18 commendations. Challenor’s methods were fast and loose, as with much of policing then, involving threats, violence, ‘verbals’ (alleging you’d heard a verbal confession), mixed in with as much racism as possible.

By the end of his career, Challoner’s modus operandi included punching a suspect from Barbados while singing “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo”.Various of his accused claimed to have been beaten up or have had evidence planted on them but, at first, this did not prevent conviction.

“Within a matter of weeks he had smashed a “protection gang” who were extorting money from strip clubs. It did not matter that the defendants alleged that they had been beaten and weapons planted on them. They were not believed. Nor were other complaints.

From then on, the short, stocky Challenor was a self-appointed scourge of Soho, and in fairness, that is what his superiors wanted from him… It did not matter that he was loud and aggressive, so long as the arrests and convictions kept coming. It was said that in the witness box he could make Soho sound like Chicago, and he described fighting crime in London as “like trying to swim against a tide of sewage”.

Had Challenor stuck to dealing with the flotsam of the area, there is no knowing how long he would have lasted. In the 1960s, juries and magistrates were not inclined to believe defendants, especially if the officer in the case was a decorated war hero.”

However, Donald Rooum would turn out to be a fit-up too far. A member of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Rooum had read about forensic science.

“Only a week or so before, I had finished reading the cheap paperback edition of Science and the Detection of Crime by C. R. M. Cuthbert, sometime superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory (Hutchinson “Grey Arrow” edition, 1962). Most of this book is about instances of Edmond Locard’s Principle of Exchange, “Every contact leaves its trace.”

A brick in a pocket would surely be another instance; it would leave brick dust behind. So far there had been no brick in my pocket. If they neglected to put one there; and if this man persisted in his story that he found it there; and if I could prove this was the suit I was wearing; and if I could get it to the Metropolitan Police Laboratory before I had chance to clean the pockets … I might have a defence.”

He refused to sign for the brick as part of his property and, kept in custody overnight, handed over his clothes to his solicitor at the first court hearing the next morning; they were sent for lab testing. No brick dust or appropriate wear and tear were found which would indicate that a brick had ever even been in his pockets. Rooum was acquitted, although other people Challenor arrested at the demonstration were still convicted on his evidence.

Another defendant to appear before Robey called the same scientific evidence as Rooum but was found guilty, although his conviction was later quashed.

The furore over the visit forced the Labour Party’s leader, Harold Wilson, to agree to boycott a state banquet to schmooze the Greek party. Back in Greece, the protests had such a big effect that they caused a political crisis which brought down the Prime Minister, Karamanlis, (who had in fact advised against the royals’ trip).

The new Greek premier, Panayotis Pipinelis, gave Betty Ambatielosa 45-minute hearing. Shortly after, 19 Greek political prisoners – though not Betty’s husband Tony Ambatielos – were freed as a gesture. No doubt the deep impression of extreme hostility to Greece amongst the British public saw releases in an attempt to restore its image. A limited return to civilian rule was permitted and, in the thaw, Tony Ambatielos was able to return to Britain to be granted political asylum and be re-united with Betty for the first time for 18 years.

After the court case, Challenor’s mental condition deteriorated sharply – or more accurately, his superiors suddenly noticed that he was a bad bastard who could cause further embarrassment. Fair to say that while he was putting away ‘lowlife’ with scant regard to the rules of evidence, the Met hierarchy didn’t blink an eyelid, but getting caught out publicly in court can make the blind eyes open all of a sudden. By June 1964, when he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with three others with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, he was found unfit to plead and sent to a mental hospital. His co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Some of this post was nicked from Donald Rooum’s account of his arrest.

And some info on Betty Ambatielios from here

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

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Today in London’s squatting history: Institute For Autonomy social centre evicted, Bloomsbury, 2005.

In 2004-5, no 78 Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, was squatted and became the Institute for Autonomy, an anti-capitalist social centre.

Created in a disused university building that had lain empty for over 5 years. Officially opening on Saturday 19th March, 2005, the Institute for Autonomy aimed to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. It was organised by open assemblies, and effectively run by a collective made up of University of London students and other assorted refugees from the Grand Banks Social Centre, which had run in Tufnell park the previous year. The ‘Institute’ located close to the university/student area, became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various projects (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

Below we reprint the Institute’s Opening Statement:

The Institute for Autonomy is a newly occupied social centre in central London. Created in a disused university building in a city where house & rent prices continue to climb far out of the reach of the majority, it has lain empty and forgotten for over 5 years.

The Institute for Autonomy aims to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. We are a collective of people of different backgrounds and experiences: some of us have participated in similar projects, some of us are students; none of us can find a place in this society to live our lives with dignity.

We believe capitalist society is based on the principles of greed, egoism, individualism and competition – and like it or not, we are all part of this machine.

In these modern times our fantastical means of communication drive us apart. We are losing the art of society: first we lost our local bakeries to the supermarkets, and with them our local communities (and our health) – now, we rush home from work and, with a frantic series of keystrokes destroy one more opportunity to free ourselves from the prison of efficiency. We are becoming robots at the service of money and fake dreams.

It’s vital for us to create space where a different reality can be experienced, where new paths can be walked, along which can emerge common action, interest and identity amongst people. We organise both the space and our work in open assemblies where, in a rejection of this society where our ‘superiors’ tell us what to do, we practice horizontal and direct democracy. When ideas are discussed openly, we are recreated as real actors in our lives – we use our differences to make any idea a better idea. We aim to create a self-organised space where people aren’t judged by their ability to consume or to produce; where really human discussion and action can take place.

It is more and more clear how unsustainable capitalism is. The scream of nature is louder than ever; animals are facing extinction all over the world; and we are facing a bleak, uncertain future. Wars, wars against wars, wars against our food, wars against the environment, and wars against those who seek to resist.

We believe the process towards autonomy will not protect us from the current situation, but will create a path within the capitalist world which will help us to learn, reflect and develop real relationships between human beings based on solidarity, honesty, respect, initiative and dignity.

We think it is necessary to create and experience moments of autonomy and freedom in our daily lives, in order that we have the tools to begin posing serious alternatives to capitalism and start creating a new world in the shell of the old.

We hold an open meeting every Monday at 8pm to discuss our progress, and for new projects and events to be proposed.

Infoshop and Library

We have set up an infoshop where people can come and pick up leaflets and literature on radical events, thought, movements and struggles. You can find out about squatting, the Zapatistas, the history of Anarchism and environmentalism. Lots of groups have left their literature, and books and pamphlets are for sale at pretty much cost price. There is also a library for people to read in the building, while enjoying a cup of coffee… contributions of books are welcomed!

Art Project: Printing Workshop/ design / banner making.

We will be having weekly screen-printing workshops starting on Sunday 20th March, where people will be encouraged to make their own designs and print on different materials, including T-shirts. Instead of expensive corporate logos we can have our own say on our clothes, and recycle old clothes by making them a lot more interesting. Workshops will welcome artistic people as well as those with no artistic background because it’s very easy to practice anti-copyright by just cutting and pasting any design off the web or anywhere else – so you don’t need talent, just ideas and energy. Anyone wanting to make their designs on the computer (photoshop or illustrator) can be given design support, and then they can print the designs they have made on the computer to the screen and then onto the t-shirt/jacket. We can print colorful posters and leaflets as well if people are committed to consistent printing and a bit of hard work.

Precarity/Info-Sharing

From 6pm – Fortnightly on Tuesdays, starting 15th March… CALLING ALL…. WAGE SLAVES, INSECURE TEMPS, WORK REFUSERS, EXPLOITED MIGRANTS, NO HOME / SQUATTED HOME / RENTED HOME.

Maybe your boss decided not to pay you, maybe you are getting evicted, maybe your benefit claim is being refused, maybe you have an urgent problem or just a feeling that life could be better if we work to change it together… Come for food and coffee, and to talk about insecurity in our lives and how we can take action together to solve them. Come to share information, advice and to meet people.

For the last few months in London a group has been meeting and discussing their precarious situations and lives. Increasingly we are balanced on a cliff edge: we have no job security, no state benefit, no guaranteed shelter, food: all aspects of life in this system are unstable.

That is the aim of the powerful – that we will do as we are told, constantly controlled by the fear that we will end up homeless and hungry. We want to build an alternative, build our own security, by knowing we will have the support of each other.

Solidarity Kitchen

We are an all-volunteer, not-for-profit cooking collective. We seek to provide cheap, vegan and organic meals as an alternative to the pesticide-ridden, genetically modified and expensive supermarket produce and in opposition to the rampant exploitation of animals and the environment.

We are currently open 3 lunchtimes a week at the Gower Street location. The Kitchen will be open between the hours of 12 and 3 pm, the same time as the Cafeteria Rebelde, which serves organic coffee in direct solidarity with the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas in Mexico. The Infoshop will also be open, providing radical reading material. So come down, try the food, meet new friends or volunteer to help to place our health back into our own hands.  We are also available to be approached to cook for political events, demonstrations and direct actions that we feel affinity for.

Cafeteria Rebelde

In 1983, the EZLN the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was formed in the mountains of Chiapas in order to combat the crushing poverty of the regions indigenous communities. The EZLN has worked closely with the communities in order to build a new society from the bottom up where the Maya people can organise autonomously. After more then 20 year the Zapatista are practising a level of autonomy they never dream of, autonomous education and health care are a concrete project now in their territories. They also organise themselves in co-operative and create direct solidarity networks to sell their coffee avoiding market constrains.

Our project aims to support autonomous communities in resistance in Chiapas and also to undermine the rules of the neo-liberal market.

The cafeteria will be open during events in the “Institute for Autonomy”…”

The Institute signified a move for the mostly Wombles-based squat centres of Tufnell Park of 2004, merging with student activists at central London colleges… it was to be succeeded by the larger squat in Russell Square, ‘The Square’, and formed part of a chain with the later Bloomsbury activists involved in uni occupations, supporting workers, eg cleaners at the Universities, and opposing cuts…

The Institute was evicted on 7th July 2005, after it had effectively been abandoned, as most of those involved and a sizable contingent of its regular users had decamped to Scotland to besiege the G8 Summit of the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations. As it was reclaimed by bailiffs, bombs were going off around central London, as Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers attempted to spread terror in the city…

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Check out the text of a past tense radical history walk around Bloomsbury, including some other local rebellious sites…

Today in London rebel history: Marion Wallace Dunlop begins first suffragette hunger strike, 1909

On 5 July 1909, the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike; pretty much inventing the tactic as a modern political weapon.

A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women, she had been sent to Holloway prison for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the House of Commons. In her second division cell, Wallace Dunlop refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognise her as a political prisoner, and thus entitled to be placed in the first division where inmates enjoyed certain privileges. Her hunger strike, she claimed, was “a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me … refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction”. After three and a half days of fasting, she was released.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop, the daughter of Robert Henry Wallace-Dunlop, of the Bengal civil service, was born at Leys Castle, Inverness, on 22nd December 1864. She later claimed that she was a direct descendant of the mother of William Wallace.

She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and in 1899 illustrated in art nouveau style two books, Fairies, Elves, and Flower Babies and The Magic Fruit Garden. She also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1903, 1905 and 1906.

Wallace-Dunlop was a supporter of women’s suffrage and in 1900 she joined the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was also a socialist and from 1906 she was an active member of the Fabian Women’s Group. By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women’s rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women’s suffrage. Emily Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), advocated a new strategy to obtain the publicity that she thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister’s house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison. The following month Wallace-Dunlop was arrested and charged with “obstruction” and was briefly imprisoned.

While in prison she came into contact with two women who had been found guilty of killing children. She wrote in her diary: “It made me feel frantic to realise how terrible is a social system where life is so hard for the girls that they have to sell themselves or starve. Then when they become mothers the child is not only a terrible added burden, but their very motherhood bids them to kill it and save it from a life of starvation, neglect. I begin to feel I must be dreaming that this prison life can’t be real. That it is impossible that it is true and I am in the midst of it. I know now the meaning of the screened galley in the Chapel, the poor condemned girl sits there with a wardress.”

On 25th June 1909 Wallace-Dunlop was charged “with wilfully damaging the stone work of St. Stephen’s Hall, House of Commons, by stamping it with an indelible rubber stamp, doing damage to the value of 10s.” According to a report in The Times Wallace-Dunlop printed a notice that read: “Women’s Deputation. June 29. Bill of Rights. It is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitionings are illegal.”

Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. On 5th July, 1909 she petitioned the governor of Holloway Prison: “I claim the right recognised by all civilised nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.”

In her book, Unshackled (1959) Christabel Pankhurst claimed: “Miss Wallace Dunlop, taking counsel with no one and acting entirely on her own initiative, sent to the Home Secretary, Mr. Gladstone, as soon as she entered Holloway Prison, an application to be placed in the first division as befitted one charged with a political offence. She announced that she would eat no food until this right was conceded.”

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence wrote to Wallace-Dunlop: “Nothing has moved me so much – stirred me to the depths of my being – as your heroic action. The power of the human spirit is to me the most sublime thing in life – that compared with which all ordinary things sink into insignificance.” He also congratulated her for “finding a new way of insisting upon the proper status of political prisoners, and of the resourcefulness and energy in the face of difficulties that marked the true Suffragette.”

Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, the authorities decided to release her after fasting for 91 hours. As Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999), has pointed out: “As with all the weapons employed by the WSPU, its first use sprang directly from the decision of a sole protagonist; there was never any suggestion that the hunger strike was used on this first occasion by direction from Clement’s Inn.”

Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed these women on hunger strike. In one eighteen month period, Emily Pankhurst, who was now in her fifties, endured ten of these hunger-strikes.

Wallace-Dunlop later joined forces with Edith Downing to organise a series of spectacular WSPU processions. The most impressive of these was the Woman’s Coronation Procession on 17th June 1911. Flora Drummond led off on horseback with Charlotte Marsh as colour-bearer on foot behind her. She was followed by Marjorie Annan Bryce in armour as Joan of Arc.

The art historian, Lisa Tickner, described the event in her book The Spectacle of Women (1987): “The whole procession gathered itself up and swung along Northumberland Avenue to the strains of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women… The mobilisation of 700 prisoners (or their proxies) dressed in white, with pennons fluttering from their glittering lances, was, as the Daily Mail observed, “a stroke of genius”. As The Daily News reported: “Those who dominate the movement have a sense of the dramatic. They know that whereas the sight of one woman struggling with policemen is either comic or miserably pathetic, the imprisonment of dozens is a splendid advertisement.”

Wallace-Dunlop ceased to be active in the WSPU after 1911. During the First World War she was visited by Mary Sheepshanks at her home at Peaslake, Surrey. Sheepshanks later commented: “We found her in a delicious cottage with a little chicken and goat farm, an adopted baby of 18 months, and a perfectly lovely young girl who did some bare foot dancing for us in the barn; we finished up with home made honey.”

In 1928 Wallace-Dunlop was a pallbearer at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst. Over the next few years she took care of Mrs Pankhurst’s adopted daughter, Mary.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop died on 12th September 1942 at the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home, Guildford.

This post was shamelessly nicked from spartacus educational.

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

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(Probably) today in London black history: party celebrates anti-slavery court ruling, 1772

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

The abolition of slavery is often credited to the actions of a small number of white abolitionist activists in Britain. Not only does this long-standing myth cover up the massive resistance to enslavement and rebellious resistance by slaves themselves, through uprising, escape, organised desertion and the building of hidden or independent communities… It also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists, activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London.

There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned on 20,000 in London alone in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly… Numbers were swollen by an influx (after 1784) of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists in the American war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and had taken on many of the ideas about liberty and equality that had been swelling around in the colonies for two decades…

The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Many may have been both: black sailors were often runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (famous writer and activist Olaudah Equiano being just one example).

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

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

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

And a huge number ended without work at all, bagging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not support black folk, so many were reduced to extreme poverty: many of course would arrive here with nothing, as a slave, runaway or servant. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 18th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, or Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the skint, the rebellious and so-called ‘criminal classes’. Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors. Traditions of resistance to the authorities in London slums and rookeries, eg fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established, and extended to support runaway slaves. Poor white Londoners’ support for fugitive slaves came not from any sentimental or humanitarian feelings, as with the middle class abolitionists. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many Londoners saw as their own enemies, and alliances were a matter of class solidarity, more or less…
In part because of the gender imbalance in the black community – there being many more African men than women in London, but also because of its social and geographical diffusion, many black men married local white women and merged into existing working communities.

Thus the environment that sparked black involvement in the abolition movement was dual, consisting of a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a higher level of African servants, often more educated and literate. We know more about the latter, sometimes because they were servants to prominent figures, or because they wrote their own accounts of their enslavement and other experiences. However, links between these strata may well have existed – interestingly some of the more prominent individuals we do know about, in some ways cross over both milieux, especially later, as with the radical activists Olaudah Equiano and Robert Wedderburn.

Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time – that slaves were asserting themselves and struggling to be paid wages for their labour – illustrates how the beginnings of collective economic self-organisation led into the abolitionist movement against slavery. Fighting for wages helped them not only attain economic independence (and wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could help prevent a slave’s deportation) but also aided social and political self-confidence – which itself fed into political organising. Individual and collective resistance sparked off the abolition campaign from within black communities themselves.

Despite originating from many countries and backgrounds, being divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself politically. Black servants certainly gathered informally, partly to discuss information and common problems (Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them); they also held larger social gatherings, including dances and music in taverns (black domestics of both sexes “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”)

This community also showed solidarity for its number– for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”. ‘Out of place is an interesting phrase here – on the surface, it means just ‘out of work’, but there is also an implied support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover. This solidarity is known to have existed. A common complaint from slave-owners was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. According to the virulently racist ideologue Edward Long: “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”

The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, they had succeed in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the rebellious working people of London. This alliance was exposed in times of riot and disorder. Ex-slaves and former black sailors were prominent in several episodes during the 1780 Gordon Riots: Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the attack on Newgate; black woman Charlotte Gardiner was hung for her leading part in the Riots…

This embryonic Black community was sharply conscious of legal and social developments – particularly where the courts ruled on cases involving slavery.

In 1772 came a case that excited their interest like no other.

Anti-slavery abolitionists had been waging a campaign of agitation against the slave trade, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge, a vulnerable chink which could be attacked to undermine the existence of slavery as a whole. Legal challenges to the right of an ‘owner’ over individual slaves were a useful battleground, where a precedent might undermine the legal armoury that protected clave owners. The question of whether it was legal to actually own slaves under English law seemed a possible point on which the whole practice could be called into question.

Granville Sharp had almost by chance become drawn into the abolitionist movement through contact with an escaped slave, Jonathan Strong, who he then defended in a long drawn-out court case. This, and subsequent cases, which he became involved in, led to tough court hearings which won some freedom for individual slaves, but failed to end in a conclusive ruling on the legality of slavery. The cases inevitably ended in the court of William Murray, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, who, conscious of he vast economic importance of slavery to the British economy and its ruling elites, was reluctant to be pinned down to a judgment that would undermine it. Mansfield was a stickler for the law, however, and appears to have been personally repulsed by slavery…

In 1772, the test case that Sharp had been waiting for came up. James Somerset, an enslaved African, had been bought by customs officer Charles Stewart, in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, then a British colony in North America.

Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somerset escaped. Recaptured in November, he was was imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, bound for the British colony of Jamaica. Stewart intended that Somerset be sold to a plantation for labour; however, Somerset had been baptised as a Christian in England, which was widely held to bar an African from being held as a slave (though this had in fact no standing in law). Somerset’s three godparents from his baptism, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, all abolitionists, applied to the Court of King’s Bench in December 1771 for a writ of habeas corpus, in an attempt to force a hearing. Captain Knowles produced Somerset before the Court of King’s Bench on 9 December; the court would now have to determine whether his imprisonment was lawful.

Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ordered a hearing for 21 January; in the meantime he set the prisoner free on recognisance. In February 1772 that the case was heard. The case had attracted a great deal of attention in the press and members of the public donated cash to support the lawyers on both sides of the argument.

When the case was heard, five advocates appeared for Somerset, arguing that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery and slavery was therefore unlawful. The advocates also argued that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent. The arguments focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. When the two lawyers for Charles Stewart put their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.

Mansfield was reluctant to rule against the property rights of slave-owners, as he had proved in previous judgements in cases brought by Sharp; he tried his hardest to give the slave owner Stewart the chance to free the slave concerned and drop the case, so a precedent wouldn’t be set. In the end, as Stewart refused to drop it, Mansfield felt himself backed into a legal corner, since he could find no legal justification for slavery to exist. In fact the ruling didn’t outlaw slavery, it only really meant slavers couldn’t take slaves from Britain to the colonies; in effect existing slaves remained slaves, and continued to be taken from Africa to the plantations in the Carribbean.

However, there was widespread celebration in June 1772 after Mansfield’s ruling; many abolitionists saw it as a harbinger of the end of slavery. This was premature: several more decades were to pass, with slavery continuing, and opposition and rebellion against it growing, before the slave trade was outlawed within British colonies (in 1807) and then slavery itself was outlawed in the Empire (in 1833). In some ways the Mansfield judgement is given too much prominence in the histories of the ending of the slave trade, since it chimes with the long-accepted idea of generous white people eventually politely deigning to stop kidnapping people and living off their forced labour , out of the goodness of their hearts…

But the ruling did make life difficult for slavers, opening up opportunity for legal challenges every time they shipped africans into Britain itself. It also encouraged oppositionists, both in the courts and in Parliament, and slaves in the West Indies (and elsewhere) took heart from it, where they heard of it. Whether it had an effect on the numerous slave rebellions that would rise before slavery was finally ended, is debatable: enough immediate oppressive reasons for violent resistance existed in slaves everyday lives.

London’s growing black community, as previously related politically aware and involved in the abolitionist movement, followed the Somerset case carefully. They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgment was given… A few days later (probably on June 29th, since it was described as being on a Monday) this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub. This was aimed at the seemingly better off, perhaps black servants, as tickets to get in were sold at 5 shillings…

This community solidarity was to continue, and evolve. Politically African anti-slavery activists became a more visible element in the abolitionist movement. A decade and a half after the Mansfield judgment, former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were touring the country speaking to sympathetic audiences, and setting their proposals for the ending of slavery out in print. And there was clearly an organised group around Equiano and Cugoano, who called themselves the Sons of Africa. Several other black men signed letters and public statements under this banner in the late 1780s, whose names are less well known than Cugoano and Equiano, though they deserve mention here. They included Yahne Aelane (Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Most of whom are only known by English names, often forced on them by those who had ‘owned’ them, as a way of breaking them from their African identity – though in other cases they could have been adopted on baptism into Christianity (as Olaudah Equiano had taken the name Gustavus Vasa).

This strand of black abolitionist politics would sharpen, form relations with English radical groupings like the London Corresponding Society and the Spencean Philanthropists, reformers who became revolutionaries and plotted insurrection… This cross-fertilisation would produce figures like Robert Wedderburn, who 30 years after Mansfield’s ruling would plot insurrection in London and attempt to spread it to his native West Indies, would link working class agitation against their employers with slave uprising against their owners…

This article owes much to The Many-headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker; the London Hanged, by Peter Linebaugh, as well as Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain, by Peter Fryer.

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Note on the image at the top of this post: The New Union: Club, Being a Representation of what took place at a celebrated Dinner, given by a celebrated – society, by George Cruikshank. One of the most racist prints of the 19th century. It purports to show a dinner held at the African Institution becoming increasingly drunken and debauched as the evening progresses. Cruikshank here employs many common 19th-century racist stereotypes of black people – drunkenness, aggressiveness, and sexual promiscuity – and mocks the idea that black people could aspire to behave in a ‘civilised way’. White abolitionists are portrayed as unsuspecting and bewildered innocents, corrupted by their association with black people; becoming ‘uncivilised’ rather than black people becoming ‘civilised’. Meanwhile, the idea of relationships between races is ridiculed. Many familiar and important figures are represented. Abolitionists like Wilberforce, Stephen and Macaulay appear next to the street entertainer Billy Waters and the radical Robert Wedderburn. Cruikshank’s print was influenced by a pamphlet entitled ‘More thoughts still on the state of the West India Colonies and the proceedings on the African Institution with observations on the speech of James Stephen Esq.’, which was published in London in 1818. It was written by Joseph Marryat MP, the agent for the island of Grenada, and was a challenge to the abolitionist cause. 

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

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Today in drinking history: beer price rise causes tumults in Westminster, 1761.

Eighteenth century Londoners, especially the ‘poorer sort’, had, like many communities before and since, a keen eye for when they were being ripped off, especially for basic commodities.

A certain ‘moral economy’ existed, including a collective view of how much people should expect to pay for basic foodstuffs, and a preparedness to intervene in the marketplace and forcibly readjust prices if they rose too high beyond what was considered affordable and acceptable. Bread was the main staple fought over: at times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival.

Alcohol, too, of course, is a staple part of the diet… and was considered even more so in the 1700s. Although the oft-repeated legend that ‘people in the past drank beer because water supplies were all polluted’ is not completely true, ale, and later beer, was drunk on a daily basis in great quantities. Partly because it was thought to be healthier, more nutritious than water, and people may have felt that brewing processes made it safer; also because it was generally used to lubricate and compensate for the hours of hard, low-paid work many folk did. Many workers in numerous trades were partly paid in ale or beer; this went hand in hand with the traditional use of pubs and taverns as places were people went to look for work (many trades had pubs they used as meeting points), and got paid each day, week or less often… Pubs, alehouses, inns were the one of the main centres of social life. And people like to get pissed.

The price of beer was therefore a crucial daily issue; almost as fiercely watched as the price of bread. With wages generally low in most trades, and rising only slowly if at all, small price rises could make all the difference. In the 1730s, the Walpole government had attempted to slap heavy restrictions on the sale of gin (even more than beer, the tipple of the poorest at the time), partly to restrict its turbulent social effects by pricing it out of many people’s reach. The London poor and many of the slightly better off, had reacted with fury, rioting, attacking informers who were grassing up ginsellers, and determinedly parrying harder on illicit spirits. Beer may have been favourably compared to gin in the contemporary mind (see Hogarth’s Gin Lane/Beer Street prints), but it was even more vital to many more daily existences.

In 1761, some London publicans tried to raise the price; happening all at once, this was clearly a pre-planned cartel trying to spring it on the drinking classes all at once:

“The price of beer was raised to 3d ½ per quart, by many publicans, at the instigation, it is said, of their brewers, on account of the new duty upon malt; but they soon sold it at the old rate of 3d. as they found their houses deserted by their customers. And soon after many of them, at a meeting held by them, came to a resolution to let it remain there. Some tumults were occasioned thereby, in many parts of the town, where labouring and poor people chiefly live, and great discontent and murmuring everywhere. Several of the Westminster publicans were on this occasion carried before a magistrate, and fined 5 shillings each, it being contrary to an act passed in the reign of king William III, which fixes beer at 3d. per quart. The publick alledge that though malt and hops were, about four years ago, at double the price they are now, the brewers, without advancing their price, made great fortunes, and that the additional duty of 3 shillings per barrel, reduces their profits but one thirteenth part of the whole, that is to say, where a brewer heretofore cleared 1300 pounds, h may now, notwithstanding this new tax, clear 1200 pounds, and so in proportion for other sums.” (The Annual Register, June 24th 1761)

The fact that the government in the time of William III had taken the step of limiting the price of beer illustrates how seriously they took this matter; afraid to provoke a very large constituency into uproar? State regulation in 1761 was clearly irritating to the producers, the publicans, who obviously felt the profits to be reaped were being unfairly held down, had a grouse against the brewers, who had them over a barrel, as it were. At this time, the brewing industry was being revolutionised, especially in London; the development of porter earlier in the century, aged in the brewery rather than sent to the pub to age, had tilted the power in brewing towards large breweries, and the great brewing firms had already started to rise, gathering a larger and larger share of the market. It’s possible the pub price rise was a desperate attempt by publicans to garner a bit more as breweries took a bigger slice; alternatively, maybe it was a ploy by the breweries, leaning on pubs to impose a profit-raising measure…

It’s not clear of what nature, and how widespread, the ‘tumults’ mentioned were, but London crowds had a long habit of gathering quickly and acting collectively and decisively on immediate economic issues. So was it local riots, fights in individual pubs? The price rise may have been speculative, let’s try it out and see if we can get away with it – and the lesson was quickly learned, as the price reverted quickly to its prior level.

Attempts to raise prices continued, some of them industry-based, some government revenue-raising measures. But attempts to suddenly raise prices would continue to cause resistance and aggro, for a century and a half (as we have previously related…)

Could do with a few tumults today… every time the price of beer goes up…

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

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Today in festive history: it’s St John’s Eve – for bonfires, drink, dancing and dreams…

When the sun sets on 23 June, Saint John’s Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist.

In medieval times the feast of St John was one of the most important festivals of the year – and they liked their festivals back then. But although renamed for poor old headless St John, in fact those pesky thieving Christians had appropriated the midsummer festival, the solstice, the longest day of the year. Early Christians loved to nick pagan gods and turn them into saints, and lift pre-christian festivals and graft saints onto them…

Midsummer celebrations pre-dated Christianity all over Europe – the time when the day is longest and night is shortest, is just an obvious excuse for either a ritual or a knees-up. Or both. But St John’s Eve reflected much more than that: there are elements of pagan worship, dreams of an idle and carefree life, the wandering of the soul into the spirit world, and the threat of riot and revolt…

Midsummers Day was holy all over Europe. Irish and Scots, Swiss and French, Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Russians, and Swedes celebrated the climax of the light with celebratory rituals. Some countries in the northern hemisphere receive 24 hours of daylight.

“At midnight on the holyday’s eve, said Spanish tradition, the waters are blessed with special power. Maidens rushed to be the first to reach the springs. The first to drink the water received its “flower,” and left a green sprig to show others that it had been collected. People brought this water home as medicine. They took off clothing and shoes to bathe in the Midsummer’s eve dew, which had blessing and curative powers.”

St Johns Eve was everywhere associated with fire – bonfires were lit all over Europe, often going along with a ritual, that young people had to jump over the fire… In some places it was customary to build the fire near water, on the beach or a river bank or lake side (though in Scandinavia they were also lit on the tops of hills). Bonfire parties naturally turned into revelry – carnivals of drinking and eating, singing and dancing, late into the night. Across Europe it was customary to dance around Midsummer bonfires. The Swedes used nine kinds of wood in their blaze, and wove nine kinds of flowers into the dancers’ garlands. In many places people gathered nine special herbs, usually including hypericum and mugwort. The Spanish gathered verbena at dawn and leaped over the fires (as the Catalans still do). The Letts sang and gathered hypericum and a plant called raggana kauli, “witch’s bones.” People observing these old pagan customs were called “John’s folk,” after the saint whose day fell on the old pagan festival. In some places you can find St John place names where popular celebrations were held on this night, (or where people celebrated on June 23rd because of the name).

“Fire was the theme of Midsummer celebrations as it symbolised the sun. There was an impulse to make merry in the sunlight at Midsummer, before the year waned into autumn. People made bonfires using the charred logs from the previous year. Often bones were tossed in for good fortune. (The term for bonfire derives from late Middle English: bone + fire; fire with bones for fuel.) The fires were thought to lure the sun to stay longer in the sky. People danced and leapt between the flames while feasting. 

In the country, bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and livestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires. This practice was possibly used as a protection against disease. Causes of diseases in animals and plants were not understood then. They believed that any contagion was airborne, hence the fire was a cleansing agent against disease.”

Midsummer marked the start of the harvest, too, so it was a shindig before some serious hard graft had to be done…

Like all the medieval feast days St Johns Eve played a part in social cohesion – both in ritual terms, marking ceremonies that bound people together, and in more informal or complex ways… for instance it was once the custom in Yorkshire for any family who had come to live in the parish within the last year to put a table outside their house, on St. John’s Eve, and place on it bread and cheese and beer and offer this to anyone who passed by. Any of the parish might help themselves, and if the fortunes of the family ran to it, would be invited indoors for a further supper and a festive evening. By this means the newcomers to the parish made many acquaintances and friends, and were helped to see themselves as having a definite place in the local community. Midsummer was a time of merry making, of settling differences between neighbours, and giving to the poor.

On top of this, as with the southern European carnival, the rowdiness and letting your hair down associated with St John’s Eve celebrations helped by defusing the social tensions, the class resentment and straining against constraints and social control, which bubbled along under the surface.

Collecting plants – gathering medicinal herbs or plants held to have magical properties was also customary on St Johns Eve. The flowers represented the fertility of the earth, just as the fires stood for the sun. It was traditional to decorate one’s home – especially the main entry door – with garlands or wreaths. The colours of the flowers used were red, yellow, orange, all colours identified with the sun, and green for fertility. The circular shape of the wreaths suggested both the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons, again harking back to old Pagan beliefs.

The flowers associated with the feast of St John include fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallows, laburnum, foxgloves and elder flowers. It was especially important to gather the perennial herb “St. John’s Wort”. Since medieval times, the herb has been hung over doors, windows and icons to keep witches and evil spirits away, and was once known as ‘chase-devil’. Yarrow has been used since ancient times for healing wounds, and its essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow was also used as a ward against evil, and traditionally it was burned on the eve of St John’s Day.

Bracken was also collected: its minute spores were reputed to confer invisibility on their possessor if gathered at the only time when they were said to be visible, i.e., on St. John’s Eve at the precise moment at which the saint was born. THAT sounds worth trying out!

St John’s Eve was long celebrated in London: “Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show, namely in New Fish Street, Thames Street, &c.” (John Stow)

Festivals like St John’s were often times where a release of energy was allowed, where the ties of social control were deliberately let loose, so as to provide a safety valve, a letting off of steam, which helped to ensure a reduction in trouble and rebellion the rest of the time. Between Midsummer Eve and June 29th (St Peter’s Eve), the mayor of London, the aldermen and other worthies paraded through the streets, carrying torches, in the ‘Midsummer Watch’. Not just taking part in a ritual, impressing the lower orders with the power and wealth of the City elite – but also usefully keeping an eye on the revels and being on hand to keep any boisterousness from becoming socially dangerous.

Sponsored by the twelve great London livery companies, the great and good, accompanied by soldiers in armour, processed through the ‘principal streets’, carrying banners, lit up by ‘lampes of glasse’ hung on the houses ‘with oyl burning in them all the night’, and followed by morris dancers, minstrels, gunners, archers, pikemen, officials.

Another element was men dressed up as giants. Rented by the London livery companies, sometimes so massive it would take to men to carry them… They were made from hoops of metal, plaster. Lath, paper mache, sized cloth, and tinfoil, gold and silver leaf. The giants were so popular that the idea spread to many other Midsummer parties around the country (not sure where it originates…) The gigantic Gog and Magog were favourites by the 16th century…

This pageant became more elaborate, involving dramatics, pageants, plays, carnival type floats, and great spectacle, and absorbing large sums of money, especially in the early 16th century. By this time the guilds and livery companies were competing to sponsor plays and costumes to demonstrate that they were more influential and richer than the others. “In 1521, the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, Morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays were popular additions to the marches. In 1541, the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae. (Aqua vitae is Latin, defined literally as “water of life.” It was a term for unrefined alcohol. In England in the 1540s, the term was used for brandy and whiskey.”

St Johns Eve may well have been celebrated most energetically by apprentices, famed as the most forward group in riots, rebellions, fights, rowdy sports and other outbreaks of trouble. Apprentices looked forward most of all to feast days – because their working life was hard, with long hours, virtually unpaid and possibly bound to unscrupulous bullies for masters. Feast represented a time to escape work for everyone, buy for apprentices the bonds were harsher and the (temporary) release more of a giddy joy.

Just as the feast of St John revelries had a respectable and approved face, there was a dark, dangerous, hedonistic and rebellious side, which the Watch parades acknowledged in their exhibiting the power of the state. Hell, the parade was itself a response to this threatening and pleasure-centred counter-current. Which included paganism, the dream of Cokaygne, and magic…

Midsummer was long associated with magic and witchcraft – like the other turning points of the year, the solstice was thought to be a powerful time, when magic became more powerful and the spirit worlds nearer to the material. Midsummer Night was, like All Hallows, a time when the divisions between these worlds grew thin and easy to bridge.

The ‘Watch’ may have reflected this, interestingly. According to Chambers’ Book of Days: “Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John’s Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of day. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John’s night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that, if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch, he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelvemonths come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connexion between this dreary fancy and that of the soul’s midnight ramble.

The civic vigils just described were no doubt a result, though. a more remote one, of the same idea. There is a Low Dutch proverb used by those who have been kept awake all night by troubles of any kind:

‘We have passed St. John Baptist’s night.’ In a book written in the seventeenth century for the instruction of a young nobleman, the author warns his pupil against certain ‘fearful superstitions, as to watch upon St. John’s evening, and the first Tuesday in the month of March, to conjure the moon, to lie upon your back, having your ears stopped with laurel leaves, and to fall asleep not thinking of God, and such like follies, all forged by the infernal Cyclops and Pluto’s servants.’

A circumstance mentioned by Grose supports our conjecture—that to sleep on St. John’s Eve was thought to ensure a wandering of the spirit, while watching was regarded as conferring the power of seeing the vagrant spirits of those who slept. Amongst a company who sat up in a church porch, one fell so deeply asleep that he could not be waked. His companions after-wards averred that, whilst he was in this state, they beheld his spirit go and knock at the church door.

The same notion of a temporary liberation of the soul is perhaps at the bottom of a number of superstitious practices resembling those appropriate to Hallow-eve. It was supposed, for example, that if an unmarried woman, fasting, laid a cloth at midnight with bread and cheese, and sat down as if to eat, leaving the street-door open, the person whom she was to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing, after which, setting down the glass, with another bow he would retire. It was customary on this eve to gather certain plants which were supposed to have a supernatural character. The fern is one of those herbs which have their seed on the back of the leaf, so small as to escape the sight. It was concluded, according to the strange irrelative reasoning of former times, that to possess this seed, not easily visible, was a means of rendering one’s self invisible. Young men would go out at midnight of St. John’s Eve, and endeavour to catch. some in a plate, but without touching the plant—an attempt rather trying to patience, and which often failed.”

Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Witches were held to assemble in sabbats at Midsummer: part of the ritual of the St John’s Eve fires in some countries was to ward off witches and ‘evil spirits’ – obviously it helped you stay up all night ‘watching’ if you had some evil spirits of your own to quaff to pass the time. Or beer. Lots of beer.

Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms. Divinations for love, prosperity and health were widely practiced.

Another subversive undercurrent associated with the fest of St John was the dream of Cokaygne.

In most, if not all, the corners of Europe, in their mythologies, folk tales, popular songs and festivals, the poor of the Middle Ages dreamed up a land where their sufferings were reversed, where people lived in harmony and plenty without having to work.

The lives of the poor in medieval times were viciously hard – oppressed and exploited by the rich and the church, terrorised by their hired soldiers, forced to work long hours all their lives, for sometimes little more than a bare living, without hope of any change in their situation. On the one hand, they were told constantly by the Church that they could not expect and should not dream of a better existence in this life; on the other that a paradise existed for them somewhere after death: so long as they held the right religious beliefs, worked hard and obeyed their ‘betters’.

People were also absolutely dependent on changes in their natural environment: bad weather, a bad season, might mean crop failure, famine and hunger or even starvation.

Not surprising, then, that the frustrated dreams of the poor should create a place where everything was free, where life was easy, where the weather was always fine, where all desires came true – and where the rich could never hope to come.

Their dream of a Utopia of the poor appears in popular medieval literature in many parts of Europe, most notably anonymous poems or stories, part of a shared oral tradition, but varying in their form and content. In fourteenth Century Western Europe, this image of a free earthly paradise is usually named as Cokaygne, or Cockaigne; and descriptions of it emerged in a popular song, The Land of Cokaygne. Many versions existed, varying from country to country, from area to area; and it was anonymous, possibly a product of many minds.

In Cokaygne, clothes grow on trees, animals run around ready cooked crying eat me; no one works, and the idlest is the king; sex is abundant and guilt-free; the poor only can get in, and the rich are barred. Cokaygne is a land of conscious rebellion against work, poverty, hierarchy and religion, which are all ruthlessly satirized in the poems. This tradition survived its early medieval roots, was transmuted into moral warning literature in the reformation, filtered into mumming plays and ‘exploration’ tales, and was itself carried to the ‘new world’ to emerge again in later centuries, breaking forth into social comment again as the Big Rock Candy Mountain or Poor Man’s Heaven.

The surviving French version of this song, ‘La Fabliau de Cocagne’, and a version of the English Cokaygne poem, mention the feast of St John, celebrating it, bringing it into the fabulous country, or asserting its Cokaygne-like nature, along with hounourable mentions for other carnivals and feast days. All carnival and festival to some extent reflected Cokaygne, in their excess, satirical dramas, bingeing and dressing up, in the release of pent-up aggression in wild fantastic partying. The worry for the authorities was always to keep this controlled release from becoming something more violent and dangerous – and many revolts and attempts to overthrow authority of one form or another would begin in festivals and carnivals, across Europe. Kett’s 1549 Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk did begin to take shape at Midsummer, on June 21st…

St John’s Eve also saw the launch of an uprising in the German peasants War: “On 23 June 1524 the Countess von Lupfen in Stuhlingen ordered her peasants to collect stripey snail shells.  She liked to use these to wind her embroidery thread around. But anyway this was a bad day as it was St John’s day and should have been a holiday. It was actually also the first opportunity the peasants had to tend to their own vegetables as the weather had been very bad and they had otherwise been working on her estate.  Anyway on this occasion they refused to collect the shells for her. They went up to her castle to complain but instead of standing her ground she fled. This was probably a mistake as before they knew what was happening more and more peasants assembled and within days there were thousands of peasants in full revolution.  Eventually there were an estimated 300,000 peasants in an armed revolt which spread across Germany and Austria, burning down hundreds of castles and abbeys until eventually it was suppressed by mercenary armies hired by the princes.” (Thanks, Mark!)

So don’t go nicking our holidays, poshos.

The blatant theft of the pagan solstice/midsummer celebrations, and its christianising into St John’s Eve/Day, would return to bite the godbotherers in the bum… Paganism, or at least elements of it, would erupt every now and again throughout the middle ages – at least partly because much of it was very attractive and obvious if you lived among nature, and also because the Christian church was often so fucking controlling and repressive. Some of the element of St John’s Eve – fire, the garlands, the jumping through flames – had clear origins in pre-christian nature worship, and the feast of St John would carry this association for centuries.

The feast of St John seemed open to subversion and overflowing of convention and restraint. Perhaps because people felt the spirit world the material world were so close, because the ‘liberation of the soul’ was on people’s minds, the constraints on the body, and on behaviour, could easily fall away. Max Dashu describes how frequent movements of euphoric dancing appeared in central Europe over several centuries, often associated with St John and his feast.

“Midsummers became the focus for a revival of pagan culture in the mid-to-late 1300s. Trance dancing spread through southern Italy and the Rhineland. Large groups of people danced the round with deep emotion, for days at a time. These gatherings were large enough to attract the notice of chroniclers. The dancers appear in Erfurt, Germany, in annals of the year 1237, and again in 1278 in Utrecht, Holland. The earliest records of ecstatic dancers call them St. John’s Dance, after the saint assigned to Midsummer Day. (The later name of St Vitus’ Dance points to the same time frame; that saints’ festival fell on June 15th.) The dances took place on and around the summer solstice…

In 1373 and 1374 a mass celebration of dancers spread over Flanders and western Germany. At Aachen people danced through the streets in circles, leaping and singing with religious intensity. The dancers entered trances, sinking to the ground unconscious, and later sat up and recounted their visions. Some prostrated themselves before images of the Virgin in churches. Most of the dancers were poor folk, with a large proportion of women…”

This popular outbreak of pogoing alarmed officials of church and state, who saw it as uncontrollable, hysterical, and dangerous, with people traveling from place to place – never easily tolerated in a society where ‘knowing your place’ was paramount. Church commentators described the entranced dancers as tormented by the devil.

“… in markets and churches, as well as in their own homes, they danced, held each others’ hands and leaped high into the air. While they danced their minds were no longer clear, and they paid no heed to modesty though bystanders looked on. While they danced they called out names of demons, such as Friskes and others…

However, Frisch or Friskes was not the name of any devil, but medieval German: frisch or vrische, having to do with healing and lifeforce. As E. L. Bachman pointed out, “Vrische is also a verb with the meaning, ‘make whole’… East Frisian has frisk, which means ‘healthy, young, unspoiled, lively’ and frisken, meaning ‘to make healthy…” Its English relative is frisky, “lively, frolicking”, and the Scandanavian versions mean “fresh.” The dancers were singing the praises of wholeness, vitality, and health, not “devils never before heard of,” as the historian Radulphus de Rivo wrote. In Holland the dancers themselves were called Friskers…

Priestly accounts accuse the entranced dancers of being possessed and questioned whether they were christians.”

The association with St John and his festi emerges again and again. Koelhoff’s Chronicle of 1499 has the dancers shouting as they leap, “Oh Lord St John/so, so/ Whole and happy, Lord St John!”

“It is quite possible that Europeans revived trance dancing as a way of confronting the plague. We have already seen how the dancers invoked healing power with their cries of “Friskes!” We know that in 1349 the people of Wertheim tried to ward off the plague by performing ringdances around a pine tree. The church had always recognized and condemned the animist and pagan roots of these ecstatic ceremonies.

A new wave of dancing started in 1381 near a chapel of St John by the river Gelbim. The ecstatic dance took place in a forest secluded from the view of would-be exorcists, who had begun to claim that the dancers were possessed by devils.

… in one lonely spot in the diocese of Trier, far from the abodes of men, near the ruins of a deserted old chapel, there gathered several thousand members of this company [societas] as if to fulfil a sacred vow. They and others who followed to see the show amounted to some five thousand persons. There they stayed, preparing for themselves a kind of encampment: they built huts with leaves and branches from the nearby forest, and food was brought from towns and villages as to a market.

The music and songs of these dancers are lost to us, but the deliberate and ceremonial nature of the dance-gathering is clear. Near the turn of the century Johannes de Beka wrote about another outbreak of entranced dancing in 1385:

In the same year there spread along the Rhine, beginning in the kingdom of Bohemia, a strange plague which reached as far as the district of Maastricht, whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds, marched here and there bound around with cloths and towels and with wreaths on their heads. They danced and sang, both inside and outside the churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground. At last it was determined that they were possessed. The evil spirits were driven out….

The lauding of successful priestly exorcisms does not mesh with the chronicles’ assertion that the “choreomaniacs” kept on going from city to city. Rather than disappearing under dramatically successful ministrations, as the clergy claimed, the dancers passed through Flanders and Holland and then headed towards southern Germany.

In 1418 a crowd assembled to watch women dancing in the Water Church of Zurich. This chapel had been built over a spring reknowned as a source of healing and strength-giving waters for centuries. [Bachmann, 232] Other gathering points were places associated with rites of the summer solstice. At St John’s Mount near Dudelingen, Midsummer was celebrated with dancing that culminated with people falling to the ground unconscious. This site continued to be a place of pilgrimage for centuries; in 1638 Bertelius wrote that “even today” large crowds came there in procession.

Trance dance remained common practice through the 1400s. The priesthood disparaged it but peasant festival celebrants kept it alive. Only in 1518 did it come to be known as St Vitus’ Dance, after the patron saint of seizures, spasms and rabies, when priests performed exorcisms on dancers at the chapel of St Vitus in Strasbourg. Perhaps they had decided that the pagan associations of “St John’s” festival had become problematic.

Contemporary chronicles tell us that this rather desperate outbreak of dancing took place in a year preceded by several years of ruined harvests and famine. Several chroniclers agree that a woman began dancing for days at a stretch, that 34 others soon were dancing, and within a month more than 400 had taken to dancing and hopping “in the public market, in alleys and streets, day and night…” People fasted and danced continually “until they fell down unconscious.”

The authorities were at a loss about how to suppress this popular movement. They tried to keep the dancers indoors and to make the guilds responsible for taking their dancers to the shrine of some saint. None of this worked, so finally they outlawed the playing of music.

At the end of the middle ages, churchly prohibitions against dancing reach their highest pitch. They single out for condemnation “the participation of women and… crude magical churchyard dances.” Chroniclers made no secret of their contempt for the celebrants, especially “the women and young girls who shamelessly wandered about in remote places under the cover of night.”

The strategy of branding the dancers as out-of-control maniacs ultimately succeeded. Trance dancing came to be viewed with contempt in Western Civilization. The dancers are described, with the same contempt later directed at the vodunsis and santeros of Afro-Caribbean sacramental dance, as mad people held captives by superstition and delusion. Diabolism was projected on these groups, and many others, by a hostile priesthood who became the primary (and sometimes the only surviving) historical sources.” (Dashu)

Repression of these dancers was only a part of the crackdown on festivals, carnivals, dancing, ‘pagan elements’ in worship, and many other aspects of popular culture across Europe, across the late middle ages and early modern period. This saw saints days and images and decoration abolished, long-held practices and beliefs outlawed and fairs and feast days reduced. A culture of hard work and joylessness was rising, and there was just way too much fun being had and a lot if it very suspicious indeed. It all had to go, and it wasn’t only the protestants, wither – catholic Europe also experienced a vicious purge of popular celebrations.

London’s St John’s Eve practices were to vanish. The increasing cost of the London Midsummer parades, and the drunken bawdiness and violence that often accompanied the festival, became too much for the authorities, eventually. In 1539, Henry VIII banned the Midsummer Watch in London due to the exorbitant cost and drunken crowds. The suspicious paranoid old psycho may also have been afraid that any gathering of armed citizens or assembly of crowds might be a cover for some kind of rebellion against him.

Many of his loyal subjects were not too impressed by this act, and in 1548, after his death, the Watch was briefly revived.

The following year, however, the parade was switched suddenly to October and transformed into the Lord mayors parade, which survives today a pure celebration of City power. The increasingly protestant regime of the protector Somerset took a dim view of pageantry and much of he show, considering it idolatrous and pagan, associated with Roman Catholicism. Moving it to a much colder time of years would also cut down on much of the drinking, fighting and snogging (etc) in the street, they no doubt thought. Never been to Newcastle then?

Midsummer parties continue, however; new celebrations sparked by more recent midsummer revolts (eg Gay Pride), or conscious revivals of ancient festivals (or what hippies fondly imagine them to have bee like), such as summer solstice at Stonehenge… When the days are long and hot, you just need to grab a shandy and dance till your head is at least partly in another world…

Interestingly, the rowdy Pinner Fair originally began on June 23rd, before being moved to August.

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

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Today in cosmic history: Association of Autonomous Astronauts conference lifts off, 1999,

“The days of this society are numbered. Its reasons and its merits have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; its inhabitants are divided into two parties, one of which wants to build their own spaceships and leave this society behind.” (Association of Autonomous Astronauts)

June 19 marks 18 years since the Third Intergalactic Conference of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts.

The AAA was launched on April 23rd 1995, by a small group who gathered in the shadow of the Copper Horse statue in Windsor Great Park, to launch a weather balloon – inaugurating the world’s first independent and community-based space programme. A Five Year Plan was also established for creating, by the year 2000, a world-wide network of local, community-based AAA groups dedicated to building their own spaceships and escaping Earth, particularly as capitalism ratcheted up exploitation and destruction.

The Association became a worldwide network of community-based groups dedicated to reaching the stars through grassroots methods. The Association announced its five-year mission, (itself a TV sci-fi nod, referencing classic first series Star Trek): to “establish a planetary network to end the monopoly of corporations, governments and the military over travel in space”. AAA groups tended to focus on their own special obsessions or interests – science, training for space travel, or developing a space-going culture, including working on proposals and rehearsals for stellar music, clothes design, sport, alternative routes into space including dreaming and astral projection… and so much more… All in all a huge joyous romp, linking DJs, artists, musicians, troublemakers, artists and anarchists among others in a vast cosmic web of ideas, provocation, creative ferment and wishful thinking… The spirit common to the wildly varying AAA chapters could be said to be the liberation of the human spirit from both the bounds of earth and the social constraints that hold billions in bondage…

AAA actions included both serious conferences, protests against the militarisation of space, and art projects, media pranks… and a lot of dancing.  AAA chapters operated independently of one another, and travelled in often tangential directions, crossing each others path, sometimes, by accident.

AAA were variously described as  “a loose bunch of Marxists, futurists, and revolutionaries on the dole”, going on to explicate their mission as “reclaim[ing] the idea of space travel for the common man”, or as  “space artists” that “combine[d] freely space, cyberspace, raves, esoteric things, techno-music, etc.”, calling attention to “how they recycle … key images (the MIR Space Station, the astronauts on the Moon, etc.) … mixed with science-fiction (and specially Star Trek) buzz-words or images” and then subjected these “sacred icons” to “iconoclastic treatments”.

In response to the increasing global interest in the organisation, the AAA decided to host its first Intergalactic Conference in Vienna in April of 1997.

“The affair was arranged by net culture organization Public NetBase in conjunction with the Vienna AAA faction, and the dozens of conference attendees spoke to the AAA’s increasingly global reach. There were delegates of all ages from the UK, Austria, and France, perhaps the youngest coming from the local Kinder Museum, which had designed a spaceship for the occasion. The pyramidal ship, named Achtung! Wir Kommen! (Watch Out! Here we Come!), was placed in the middle of the conference hall and was well received by the AAA members, who admired its psychedelic design which, according to a report from the conference, stood “in stark contrast to the interior of NASA spaceships, which are dull as fuck.”

The presence of youth at the event was encouraged by the AAA members, all of whom anticipated the effects that early exposure of AAA ideas to young astronauts might have in the future. After a day of music and games, the conference concluded with a number of speakers, ranging from AAA delegates from around the world to professors from Austrian universities, touching on topics from the history of the AAA to the politics and physics of space travel.

The night ended in typical AAA fashion with a “Rave in Space,” which according to reports was “just the right mixture of confusion and hedonism” and lasted until sunrise. The astronauts spent the majority of the following day recovering from their “hectic training schedule” and playing three-sided football, a reinvention of conventional football as a metaphor for class struggle which involves three teams instead of two.

“Due to the success of the first Intergalactic Conference, it was promptly decided that a second was in order and in 1998 delegates from the world over descended on Bologna, Italy for the occasion. Many of the astronauts stayed at a villa in the hills outside of Bologna, the alleged filming location for Pasolini’s infamous 120 Days of Sodom. While all of the nights ended with a drunken spectacle at the villa, if any of the astronauts’ reports are to be believed, they never found the opportunity to reenact some of the movie’s more memorable scenes while staying there.

The second Intergalactic Conference also saw a massive increase in attendance, attesting to the expanding influence of the AAA. Over 1,000 astronauts turned out to a former warehouse turned cyber bar called The Link in Bologna, Italy, a venue chosen not simply for its choice aesthetics, but also because it featured a crucial component for attempting to achieve flight: an enormous dance floor. The focus of this conference was consolidation, the fourth phase of the AAA’s five year plan. The result of the conference was an examination and acknowledgement of previous victories and a vigorous plan for the push into Y2K and the final phase of the AAA’s five year program.”

IN June 1999, London hosted the AAA’s Third Intergalactic Conference, under the banner Space: 1999 (another geek reference: to the fabulous TV sci-fi series which folk of a certain age grew up on… Not that they’d been dying for 4 years to get to use that or owt). The ‘Festival of independent and community-based space exploration’ ran from June 18th – 27th, in London, Earth.

Space: 1999 aimed to explore “the new possibilities that open up when we form autonomous communities in outer space… [it] will form part of the AAA’s FINAL PUSH, and will bring together Autonomous Astronauts from around the world to present various activities, including media invasions, recruitment drives and propaganda efforts. This ten day festival will also expose local communities in London to the possibilities of independent space exploration. Moving in several directions at once, the AAA has declared: ‘Only those who attempt the impossible will achieve the absurd’. “

The conference was designed as the linchpin of the ten-day festival, though the Launchpad was in fact the AAA action the day before the conference: the London chapter participated in eruption of revolt and dancing that was the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism protest/riot in the City, timed to coincide with that year’s G8 summit. A contingent of AAA members dressed in space suits delivered a petition against the militarisation of space to the headquarters of military-industrial aerospace/defence contractor Lockheed.

Space 1999’s Info Centre at 123A Mare Street, Hackney, was open daily throughout the festival.

The program for the Conference ran as follows:

Saturday 19th: Noon – 6pm:
• John Eden (Raido AAA) Conference Introduction
• Professor Chris Welch (Lecturer in Astronautics, Kingston University) “The history of the British Interplanetary Society”
• Paul Macauley (author of Pasquale’s Angel and contributor to Interzone) “How the future should have been”
• Mark Sinker (writer specialising in aesthetics, sex and the immediate future and currently working on ‘The Electric Storm’, a cultural history of music and technology between 1876 and 1982) “Home is where the heat is – when spacemen fall to earth”
• Neil Gordon Orr (Disconaut AAA) “Everybody gets to go to the moon – next steps into space”
• Zigi Sinnette (Missiles for Peaceful Purposes, member of UK Rocketry Association) “Build your own rocket”
• Barry Bryant (Aotearoa AAA) “Towards an everythingisation of stuff: Pasifikan strategies for radical emigration”
• Riccardo Balli (AAA Bologna) and Gerard Z (Grub Street 23) “333” Dorothy Matrix (Future Excavations Inc.) “Hostile Environments”
• Jason Skeet (Inner City AAA) “See you in space” Plus AAA propaganda films and stalls. Venue: University of Westminster, Marylebone Road,

A short report of the conference, appeared in the Space 1999 Daily Report the next day:

“Westminster University yesterday hosted the most exciting event of its academic year, the Third Intergalactic Conference of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts. The conference joined together AAA and non-AAA spealers, and though the eight talks were demanding and the conference itself lasted the whole afternoon, we can say that the degree of attention from the public was impressive. The proof of this was the debate at the final symposium, when interesting and engaging questions were asked (certainly, as an Italian autonomous astronaut, I am used to silly comments about the AAA project.)

The conference began at 11 am, with autonomous astronauts preparing the registration table, including a brief Who’s Who of conference speakers and a collection of AAA propaganda, plus the new Space 1999 daily report. At the beginning of the conference there were about 40 people in the room.

John Eden introduced and managed the whole event. The first talk was by Professor Chris Welch, who traced the history of the British Interplanetary Society since its foundation in 1933. Science fiction writers as well as young physicists were involved and, after having been considered nothing more than a bizarre organisation for over twenty years, they were revalue as visionaries at the beginning of the space race in the Sixties. After him, Paul MacAuley proposed his alternative historification of the conquest of the Solar System. Mark Sinker talked about the negative impression he had whilst meeting government-sponsored astronauts, and Neil Disconaut discussed the rise of free market space groups.

After a 20 minute pause, Barry Bryant (Aotearoa AAA) reflected on the necessity for radical emigration from Earth which, according to him, is necessary to save the planet from mankind’s thirst for resources. Then he explained his group’s researches on building spaceships with Readily Available Materials (RAM technology). Ricardo Balli (AAA Bologna) sketched the lines of their literary project, which includes a 333 day extension to the AAA five year plan. Dorothy Matrix outlined a psychogeographical experiment concerning the resistance of office mentalities in hostile environments, which took place at the juncture of three highways in the north of England. The last intervention was Inner City AAA’s, which consisted of a review of space colonisation projects, and a parallel critique of the technological utopianism operating in them. Inner City AAA stressed the necessity of looking as the social implications of these rationalistic utopias, in order to become aware of their totalitarian implications.

To briefly conclude, we can say that we really enjoyed the conference, and the only thing we regret about it is that no women was scheduled amongst the speakers.” [No shit? – typist’s note]

The subsequent festival included a rollercoaster of events, among which were (not an exhaustive list):

  • AAA films, presentations, installations and performances, (including Lola Chanel, of AAA Vienna’s “Women in Space”, Nomad AAA “This is my confession”, Disconaut AAA “Means of Flight – an alphabet for autonomous astronauts”, Laura Liverani “Mondo Astronauta – portraits of the AAA”;
    Films and video showings, DJs
  • Three-sided Football, AAA Krazy Golf & Picnic in Hyde Park,
  • a Space pub Quiz and debate of the Millennium: Star Trek v. Babylon 5?; an AAA Bologna Psychic Attack against NASA at Blackwall Steps;
  • Solstice outdoor training for autonomous astronauts, featuring star navigation, low level gravity practice, dreamtime workshop, and astral projection exercise, on Hampstead Heath.
  • The Foundation for Art in Zero-Gravity Envirnonments launch event, featuring Stuart Buchanan (Nomad AAA), Project One (resident theatre company for space) and the General Consul of the Nomad Territories.
  • Inner City AAA Grub Street Launch Site tour and psychogeographical experiment.
  • An AAA pop night featuring The Adventures of Parsley (5 piece pop combo playing cult 60s and 70s TV themes in moonbase alpha spacesuits), guest vocalist Norbert J.Hetherington, plus The Family Way. AAA videos. Wig ‘n’ Casino gay Northern Soul after midnight.
  • Raido AAA Astral Training: Try to visualise yourself in space, or at Raido AAA’s launch site in the minutes before you go to sleep. Report any results, or related dreams to aaa
  • A Space Fete, organised by Oceania AAA. The first/last annual AAA garden party. Events include drinking, eating, dancing, and space-themed competitions. Bring your own drinks and food.
  • A Protest Against The 1986 Space Act and Spaceship Licensing Laws. outside the British National Space Centre,
  • Intergalactic Triolectic Football Cup (Three-sided Football) in Kennington Park.

    Finally, the festival ended as all the intergalactic conferences had, with an All-night Rave in Space.

The AAA’s five-year mission’s completion was marked at the 2000 Fortean Times conference… The fate of the Association had been sealed from its birth, and the date for its formal disbanding was set for 4/23/00. True to its word, on this day a notice was sent by Raido AAA announcing that the Association was dissolving itself, following its five year plan to its logical conclusion.

“The initial idea was we’ll do a five year program and then just do something else… We didn’t want to make a career of this, we just wanted to light the fuse and then get on with something else. Then we won’t become a corporation, we won’t be reviving the ideas we had when we were 20 or something… The AAA was never meant to become an institution, but was meant to exist as the spark which would provide the impetus for a prolonged social movement aimed at making space available to everyone.”

Though some chapters have continued activities to the present day. Among those was Riccardo Balli, who instituted a 333 day extension to the five-year plan with the Bologna faction.

“At AAA Bologna, we weren’t happy after the Five Year Plan about the level in space technology achieved from AAA groups and felt it necessary to launch an extension of the original program in order to present the software of the AAA Bologna spaceship,” (Balli)

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If the AAA mostly disbanded, the dream remains as potent as ever. If we needed to escape the mouldering decay of capitalism by leaving Earth 20 years ago – now, the need is more urgent than ever. Look around you. Only in the cosmos can we transcend the insane borders and living death of work, racism, shit housing, war, religion that binds our feet to the ground.

The alternative is the nightmare vision of an expanding capitalist solar system:

“Where the winners of the human race
Float weightless up in Space,
While the Poor and the Heavy are marooned…”
(apologies to Jon Langford!)

No! Over our weightless bodies!

See you in Space!

Read some of the historic record of the London AAA conference

Watch some footage

Some of this post was simply stolen from here

Thanks to John Eden

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

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Today in London’s radical history: Wat Tyler killed as the Peasants’ Revolt begins to unravel, 1381.

The 1381 Peasants Revolt remains one of the most cataclysmic and inspiring events in British history. While in the immediate it was defeated, it sounded a death knell to a feudal system already rotten and decaying, and hastened social change in England, as well as inspiring 6 centuries of agitators, activists, rebels, socialists, anarchists, liberals communists, democrats and many more. Much of it can be read to support a number of conflicting political ideologies, and often is.

At its heart the Revolt pushed to the fore a character of who it can fairly be said that probably no other person has such historical significance while so little actually known or proven fact can be definitely stated about him. School and motorways can be named after him, but his name may not even have been his real name. Wat Tyler remains an enigma, a fascinating glimpse of a personality, thrust to the head of a fierce rebellion, articulating demands so radical they get you spied on by Special Branch even today, then cut down by royal servants and slaughtered.

The basic facts behind the Peasants’ Revolt are well known. An English government (dominated by an aristocratic and clerical coterie around king Edward III and his grand-son Richard II), tries to levy three poll taxes to raise more money to fight their pointless dynastic and genocidal hundred years war in France. Those living on the south coast notice that all this cash doesn’t seem to contribute anything towards coastal defence as French raiders regularly swan up and take revenge on the nearest English without much response from the rich or their lackeys. A large section of the English rural population in the south of England, already decimated by the Black Death 30 years before, and enraged by subsequent attempts to keep wages and social mobility down by law and force, reacts to the blatant attempt to get the poor to pay more of their meagre resources to fund the rich’s adventures in blood, by rising up, refusing to pay and killing or deriving out the tax collectors. Huge armies of angry peasants march on London, having first raided the homes of the rich and the local monasteries to destroy the manor rolls that record their ‘feudal obligations’ (the unpaid work they had to do for their landlords) and the levels of rent and tax they were liable for. A general agreement is reached that feudalism itself has to go. A stroppy London populace also rebels, opens the gates to the rebels, and a number of the upper class directors of Late 14th Century England PLC are seized and put to death; some racist twats also attack foreign workers in London, because there’s always a fucking Brexiter in the mix. In terror for their lives, the king and his remaining advisers meet the rebels at Mile End and lyingly promise to grant all the demands of the rebels, signing charters to this effect, but have as much intent to keep their word as, say, councillors and big building contractors have of honouring promises to the residents of council tower blocks. Shortly after many of the rebels then leave happily for home, the core leadership of the revolt met the king again, and Wat Tyler pushes for even more concessions, going beyond even the massive aim of abolishing feudalism and proposes to abolish all classes and religious hierarchy apart from the king himself. He’s stabbed, butchered and the young king cleverly persuades the rebels to not react by killing him and his gang. Because of the holy fucking reverence people held the king in the peasants don’t kill him out of hand, which they will regret, because immediately he can Richard II orders them rounded up; hundreds, perhaps 3000, are executed or killed out of hand, and the king goes back on everything that was sworn, telling the poor to get back to the land and work because that’s where they will be forever, in their place. Sadly for him he doesn’t live long enough to see that the revolt does in fact herald huge change because the ruling class realise you can’t keep stuffing shit in people’s mouths because they will spit it in your face. So the Revolt does bring about something of the aims of the mass of its participants; we’re still waiting and fighting for the classless society bit, Wat, but this time we really will not exclude the monarchy from the chop.

So who was Wat Tyler?

As Paul Foot said about him, “Wat Tyler, about whom, to his enormous credit, we know absolutely nothing. We don’t know what he looked like, we don’t know what he did for a living, we don’t know anything about him save that he led the biggest rising of ordinary people in Britain before Oliver Cromwell.”

Guesses and assertions on scanty evidence have abounded through the centuries… As Tyler seemed around forty when he was killed, he was likely born about 1340. One document suggested that as a young man he lived in Colchester. It has been suggested that during this time he became a follower of radical priest John Ball. He may have fought in the Hundred Years War and worked for Richard Lyons, one of the sergeant-at-arms of Edward III. By the 1370s Tyler was living in Maidstone, Kent.

Tyler is sometimes conflated with one John Tyler, an actual tiler working in Dartford, Kent, whose action was one of the sparks for the uprising there. Poll tax collectors were ordered to drum up as much cash as possible, including by checking the age of young girls, as they were exempt from paying the tax –  by measuring pubic hair. The opportunity for sexual assaults by these nasty and unscrupulous men being obvious. A little like UKIP’s failed general election to enforce checks on muslim girls returning from abroad for Female Genital Mutilation, only this policy actually happened. Happily John Legge, who drew up this policy, would by be killed in London by rebels a few days later. Maybe Farage and Nuttall should be drawing up wills.

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

‘had gone to the house of one John Tyler and commanded of his wife the payment of the poll tax on behalf of herself, her husband and her daughter. She refused to pay for her daughter, as not being of age, and the collector thereupon seized the daughter, declaring he would discover if this were true.’

‘Neighbours came running in, and John Tyler, being at work in the same town tiling of an house when he heard thereof, caught his lathing staff in his hand and ran reeking home, where, reasoning with the collector, who made him so bold, the collector answered with stout words and strake at the tiler. Whereupon the tiler, avoiding the blow, smote the collector with the lathing staff that the brains flew out of his head, wherethrough great noise arose in the streets and the poor people, being glad, everyone prepared to support the said John Tyler.’

This account is sometimes repeated but attributing the killing of the collector’s death to WAT Tyler. It seems though that this story may date only from John Stowe’s account in the 17th century. At least one chronicle written a few years after 1381 (John Trevisa’s World History, c. 1390) ‘refers to John Tiler, leader of the peasants’. So perhaps it was the same man… perhaps two people of similar names shoved together by history. It’s unlikely we will ever be certain. The mystic cockney communist William Blake was inspired by the story to illustrate it in an engraving (see the picture above this post), in 18th century dress!

Wat Tyler was elected leader of the Kentish peasant army in Maidstone, as John Ball was freed from prison by armed rebels. Ball, an unfrocked radical priest, had been imprisoned for preaching subversion, and immediately joined the revolt’s leadership. As Charles Poulsen, the author of The English Rebels (1984) has pointed out, it was important for the peasants to be led by a religious figure: “For some twenty years he had wandered the country as a kind of Christian agitator, denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor, calling for social justice and freeman and a society based on fraternity and the equality of all people.” John Ball was needed as their leader because as a priest, he had access to the word of God. “John Ball quickly assumed his place as the theoretician of the rising and its spiritual father. Whatever the masses thought of the temporal Church, they all considered themselves to be good Catholics.”

Whether or not he had personally bashed out the brains of a poll tax collector, Tyler was either well known and respected, or very quickly recognised as being intelligent and organised, since within days of a huge army of peasant rebels gathering in Kent he had been elected leader of the Kentish contingent: some 70,000 strong by contemporary accounts. Soon he was heading the march on London.

“His ability as leader, organiser and spokesman is clearly revealed throughout the revolt, while his standing among the rebel commons was proved by the immediate acceptance of his captaincy, not only in Kent and Essex, but in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and even farther afield; while the strength and vigour of his personality impressed itself even on the unwilling recorders of his work.” (Reg Groves) Charles Oman, the author of The Great Revolt of 1381 (1906) claims that the main reason that Wat Tyler became the leader of the revolt was because he was a man with military experience and knew how to establish authority over a mob. However, a mob is often capable of establishing authority over itself. Tyler is recognised by even the ardent anti-peasant chroniclers as being cunning and able to make practical tactical and strategic decisions which people carried out because they made sense.

It had also been speculated that Tyler was a member of a pre-revolt underground network, sometimes called the ‘Great Society’; linked individuals and groups who shared a radical and subversive vision of a world without the hierarchies, class divisions and poverty medieval peasants endured. John Ball had been preaching a form of classless communism for several years; he was hardly unique in dreaming of a better world. Such networks are known to have existed around this time among heretical religious sects; it is hardly impossible that political groups also operated clandestinely (in fact heretical sects may well have influenced Ball and other social radicals, as millenarian theological ideas often described the coming rule of Jesus on earth in terms of a classless paradise with no suffering, poverty, work…)

We don’t know, though we can suspect, and if we have spent time in radical groups plotting social change ourselves we like to believe… Paul Foot clearly liked to think of the rebels being led by a group very like his own Socialist Workers Party: “Through Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, even Lincolnshire, there were peasants meeting together in the villages. Representatives had been previously appointed and marked down. We know that because when John Ball was released from prison in Maidstone he wrote and sent a series of letters. Only two or three have come down to us, but the letters are direct, like Party circulars mobilising the membership. They are to Jack So-and-so, get out there and get the people out. You there, John this or Wat that, go for this particular landlord, or for that particular set of manorial rolls.”

Ball for certain, and, as far as we know, Tyler were not among the Kentish rebels who had sailed across the Thames on June 2nd and held a 2-day conference with Essex rebels at which the plans to march on London had to have been drawn up (though it is possible Tyler was there). A collective leadership did arise, either from people with a rebellious past, or maybe just people with a quick mind. Despite Paul Foot’s back-projection of a form of democratic centralism at work in the woods and fields, it is more likely that there were underground networks, but that they were autonomous, making links, yes, but organising themselves without orders from some committee. Authority was granted to individuals to command the large armies that converged on London in June 1381, but the unknown number of years of grassroots agitation, discussion of ideas, preaching, maybe swearing oaths, can only really have been done voluntarily and in secret, which means either a cell structure, or self-directed local groups. It is also possible that all this was done within a few weeks, not years, because spontaneous self-organisation is possible; more likely the immediate upsurge was based on some period of subversive rumblings.

Tyler is reported to have articulated the peasants’ view that they were acting lawfully and were not out to completely expropriate the wealthy. He is said to have told a crowd: “Remember, we come not as thieves and robbers. We come seeking social justice.” Many of the rebels obeyed a strict moral code, self-imposed as far we can tell, not to steal the wealth of the rich and the church, though much was destroyed deliberately. Some who broke this code were put to death.

Henry Knighton records: “The rebels returned to the New Temple which belonged to the prior of Clerkenwell… and tore up with their axes all the church books, charters and records discovered in the chests and burnt them… One of the criminals chose a fine piece of silver and hid it in his lap; when his fellows saw him carrying it, they threw him, together with his prize, into the fire, saying they were lovers of truth and justice, not robbers and thieves.” In their own terms this reflects a belief that their actions were justified, and they could show the moral rightness of their cause by not breaking god’s commandment not to steal; though it is worth commenting that as with all uprisings and riots there will be different crowds with different agendas, and events can reflect many diverse motivations which appear part of the same movement, while having contradictions and internal conflicts.

Wat Tyler himself illustrates this, since while the majority of the rebels seem to have desired merely an end to the poll tax, or the end of feudal duties, or other definite ends, he is quoted as demanding a more fundamental program.

The Mile End meeting between king Richard and the rebel leaders, where the king ‘gave in’ and signed their charters, took place on June 14th. Large numbers of rebels then began to march home, thinking that was it. The following day, a second meeting between the king & the peasant rebels took place, at Smithfield, the great open space north of the City of London, famed for animal slaughter and the ritual execution of dissidents. The remaining rebels may not have trusted the king, and called him to come and give further assurances. At this meeting, Wat Tyler argued for equality for all under the king, the church’s wealth to be distributed among the poor, an end to men being outlawed:

“Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.”

As the king dithered, clearly reluctant to agree this even if he meant to renege later, there was a scuffle & Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor, William Walworth.

“During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him.”

To prevent the rebels massacring them for the murder of Tyler, the king promised them all their demands if they would go home…Tyler meanwhile, carried wounded to Bart’s Hospital, was seized by Walworth & beheaded in Smithfield.

“[The king] spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.”

So king Richard II led many of the remaining peasants, to nearby Clerkenwell Fields, where they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder and rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and hundreds of executions followed…

“Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.”

The promises to the rebels were now so exposed as so many empty words, and a vicious repression was launched against the scum who had dared to question their place and even worse dared to act upon it and deprived a few rich plutocrats of their heads.

“Every home in London was visited by the forces of the king and asked to swear an oath of allegiance on pain of death. John Ball was half-hanged, disembowelled while still alive, hanged again and drawn at St Albans. John Rawe, Jack Straw, John Sherwin of Sussex, William Grindcobbe in St Albans, all of them were executed in one way or another after varying forms of resistance in different towns.

William Grindcobbe from St Albans was arrested, imprisoned, and told that he would be killed unless he went back and told the insurgents to lay down their arms. He agreed to go back, and spoke to some 100-150 armed men at St Albans. He told them on no account to lay down their arms, to continue the struggle – and he was taken from behind while he was speaking and executed. Such was the spirit of the Peasants’ Revolt.” (Paul Foot)

So the sun set on both the largest mass movement for social change that England witnessed in the middle ages, and the lives of the radicals who briefly challenged the whole idea of order and hierarchy. Tyler remains a mysterious figure, like a bright light shining in a dense fog. John Ball too, a comet of brilliant love and rage which can be hidden by death – but you know it’s coming round again. Because he expresses eternal ideas, the kernel of which we struggle with today: why should any live off the labour of others? Why should anyone be in power over us? Why can’t we work together for the good of all and not for profit and self-enrichment? How can we ourselves change this situation?

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Sorry to nick this next bit so directly from Paul Foot, with all our reservations about him he had a proper way with words; at the end of a talk about Tyler, Ball and the Revolt, he links it so well to the future that we will give the last words to him (ok, in reality the hard work was done by William Morris). Yes we know Foot was in the fucking SWP and we don’t support them at all. William Morris’s Dream of John Ball is well worth a read though.

“In 1881, one hundred years ago, inspired by the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, William Morris, a great socialist writer, grappled with this same idea. We do have something in common with what John Ball and Wat Tyler were doing in 1381. How could William Morris, with his enormous writing powers, try to bridge the gap for the socialists of his time? He did it in a really very brilliant piece of writing. It took him a long time to do it, and didn’t in fact appear until 1885.

He imagined himself or somebody like himself, a socialist in 1881, being plunged back into the villages of Kent in 1381, beating off the barons and the nobles. He describes John Ball coming to a village – probably the best description there is, better than the chronicles themselves because William Morris really went into it and found out about it.

At the end of the piece, which is called The Dream of John Ball, this man, who has all this experience of 500 years after 1381, has a long discussion with John Ball about what will happen. John Ball says, in effect, that he knows the revolt is going to fail, but asks what is going to happen after that? When, he asks, is his dream of all people living in common and sharing everything and there not being any vassals or lords going to come about?

Morris replies sadly that it won’t come for 500 years at least.

Not surprisingly, John Ball gets a bit depressed about that. He reminds his guest that he is marching to certain defeat and execution, and asks: For what? Is it worth it?

Here is the reply:

‘John Ball, be of good cheer, for once more thou knowest as I know that the fellowship of man shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through. It may well be that this bright day of summer, which is now dawning upon us, is no image of the beginning of the day that shall be – but rather shall that day dawn be cold and grey and surly, and yet, by its light shall men see things as they verily are, and, no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dream-tide, by such grey light shall wise men and valiant souls see the remedy and deal with it, a real thing that may be touched and handled and no glory of the heavens to be worshipped from afar off.

‘And what shall it be, as I told thee before, save that men shall be determined to be free, yea free as thou wouldst have them, when thine hope rises the highest and thou arte thinking, not of the king’s uncles and poll-grote bailiffs and the villeinage of Essex, but of the end of it all, when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money and without price. That time shall come, John Ball, when that dream of thine shall this one day be, shall be a thing that man shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about as even with thee they talk of the villeins becoming tenants paying their lord quit-rent.

‘Therefore hast thou done well to hope it, and thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten.’

It’s coming sometime. Get out there and sharpen the scythes, companeros/as…

Some excerpts were nicked from This Bright Day of Summer, by Paul Foot

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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

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Today in London’s penal history: Daniel Malden escapes Newgate for the second time, 1736.

DANIEL MALDEN was a prison-breaker, who emulating the exploits of jack Sheppard, twice escaped the condemned cell in Newgate Prison in 1736. Malden’s escapes were considered the more remarkable because Newgate had supposedly been ‘strengthened’ after the notorious exploits of Jack Sheppard 12 years before.

From Canterbury, Malden had served in the navy, but after his discharge took up burglary and street robbery, for which he was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang.

“On the morning of his execution he carried out his first escape. A previous occupant of the same condemned cell had told him that a certain plank was loose in the floor, which he found to be true. Accordingly, between 10 and 11 o’clock on the night [of May 24th 1736], he began to work, and raised up the plank with the foot of a stool that was in the cell. He soon made a hole through the arch under the floor big enough for his body to pass through, and so dropped in a cell below from which another convict had previously escaped. The window bar of this cell remained cut just as it had been after this last escape, and Malden easily climbed through with all his irons still on him into the press-yard. When there he waited a bit, till seeing “all things quiet”, he pulled off his shoes and went softly up into the chapel, where he observed a small breach in the wall. He enlarged it and so got into the penthouse. Making his way through the penthouse he passed on to the roof. At last, using his own words, “I got upon the top of the cells by the ordinary’s house, having made my way from the top of the chapel upon the roofs of the houses and all round the chimneys of the cells over the ordinary’s house”; from this he climbed along the roofs to that of an empty house, and finding one of the garret windows open, entered it and passed down three pairs of stairs into the kitchen, where he put on his shoes again, “which I had made shift to carry in my hand all the way I came, and with rags and pieces of my jacket wrapped my irons close to my legs as if I had been gouty or lame; then I got out at the kitchen, up one pair of stairs into Phoenix Court, and from thence the streets to my home in Nightingale Lane.”

Here he lay till six a.m., then sent for a smith who knocked off his irons, “and took them away wit him for his pains.” Then he sent for his wife; but whole they were at breakfast, hearing a noise in the yard he made off, and took refuge at Mrs Newman’s, “the sign of the Blackboy, Millbank; there I was kept private and locked up four days alone and no soul by myself.” Venturing out on the fifth day he heard they were in pursuit of him, and again took refuge, this time in the house of a Mrs Franklin. From thence he despatched a shoemaker with a messenger to his wife, and letters to gentlemen in the City. But the messenger betrayed him to the Newgate officers, and in about an hour “the house was beset. I hid myself,” says Malden, “behind the shutters in the yard, and my wife was drinking tea in the house. The keepers seeing her, cried, “Your humble servant, madam; where is your spouse?’ I heard them, and knowing I was not safe, endeavoured to get over a wall, when some of them espied me, crying, ‘Here he is!” upon which they immediately laid hold of me, carried me back to Newgate, put me into the old condemned hold as the strongest place, and stapled me down to the floor.”

Not put off by this failure he resolved to attempt a second escape. Obtaining a knife from a fellow-prisoner, on the night of June 14th 1736 he sawed through the staple to which he was fastened…

“I worked through it with much difficulty, and with one of my irons wrenched it open and got it loose. Then I took down, with the assistance of my knife, a stone in front of the seat in the corner of the condemned hold: when had got the stone down, I found there was a row of strong iron bars under the seat through which I could not get, so I was obliged to work under these bars and open a passage below them. To do this I had no tool but my old knife, and in doing the work my nails were torn of the ends of my fingers, and my hands were in a dreadful, miserable condition. At last I opened a hole just big enough for me to squeeze through, and in I went head foremost, but one of my legs, my irons being stuck on, stuck very fast in the hole, and by this leg I hung in the inside of the vault with my head downward for half an hour or more. I thought I should be stifled in this sad position, and was just going to call out for help when, turning myself up, I happened to reach the bars. I took fast hold of them by one hand, and with the other disengaged my leg to get it out of the hole.”

When clear he had still a drop of some thirty feet, and to break his fall he fastened a piece of blanket he had about him to one of the bars, hoping to lower himself down; but it broke, and he fell with much violence into a hole under the vault, “my fetters causing me to fall very heavy, and here I stuck for a considerable time.” This hole proved to be a funnel, “very narrow and straight; I had torn my flesh in a terrible manner by the fall, but was forced to tear myself much worse in squeezing through.” He stuck fast and could not stir either backward or forward for more than half an hour. “But at last, what with squeezing my body, tearing my flesh off my bones, and the weight of my irons, which helped me a little here, I worked myself through.”

The funnel communicated with the main sewer, in which, as well as he could he cleaned himself. “my short and breeches were torn in pieces, but I washed them in the muddy water, and walked through the sewer as far as I could, my irons being very heavy on me and incommoding me much.” Now a new danger overtook him: his escape had been discovered and its direction. Several of the Newgate runners had therefore been let into the sewer to look for him. “And here,” he says, “I had been taken again had I not found hollow place in the side of the brick-work into which I crowded myself, and they passed by me twice while I stood in that nook.” He remained forty-eight hours in the sewer, but eventually got out in a yard “against the pump in Town Ditch, behind Christ’s Hospital.” Once more he narrowly escaped detection, for a woman in the yard saw and suspected him to be after no good. However, he was suffered to go free, and got as far as Little Britain, where he came across a friend who gave him a pot of beer and procured a smith to knock off his fetters.

Malden’s adventures after this were very varied. He got first to Enfield, when some friends subscribed forty-five shillings to buy him a suit of clothes at Rag Fair. Thence he passed over to Flushing where he was nearly persuaded to take foreign service, but he refused and returned to England in search of his wife. Finding, the two wandered about the country taking what work they could find. While at Canterbury, employed in the hop-fields, he as nearly discovered by a fellow who beat the drum in a show, and who spoke of him openly as “a man who had broken twice of Newgate.” Next he turned jockey, and while thus employed was betrayed as a man to whom he had been kind. Malden was carried before the Canterbury justices on suspicion of being the man who had escaped from Newgate, and a communication sent to the authorities of that prison. Mr Akerman [then a prison runner, but later the head keeper of Newgate] and two of his officers came in person to identify the prisoner, and, if the true Malden, to convey him back to London. But Malden once more nearly gave his gaolers the slip. He obtained somehow and old saw, “a spike such as is used for splicing ropes, a piece of an old sword jagged and notched, and an old knife.” These he concealed rather imprudently upon his person, where they were seen and taken from him, otherwise Mr Akerman, as Malden told him, “would have been like to have come upon a Canterbury story” instead of the missing prisoner. However, the Newgate officers secured Malden effectually and brought him to London on the 26th September 1736, which he reached “guarded by about thirty of forty horsemen, the roads all the way being lined with spectators… Thus was I got to London”, he says in his last dying confession, “handcuffed, and my legs chained under the horse’s belly; I got to Newgate that Sunday evening about five o’clock, and rid quite up into the lodge, where I was taken off my horse, then was conveyed up to the old condemned hole, handcuffed, and chained to the floor.”

On Friday the 15th October, the last day of the sessions, Malden was called into Court and informed that his former judgment of death must be executed upon him…”
(
From the Chronicles of Newgate)

Malden had “begged hard that he might be transported, having ‘worked honestly at Canterbury, and done no robbery since last June.’ Instead he was hanged upon the 2nd of November following. his body ‘was carried to Surgeons’ Hall for dissection.

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

Follow past tense on twitter