A Light Shining in Hanwell: battles for open green space in West London

Residents of Hanwell, West London, have recently shown that if enclosure of open space is not just a historical process but an ongoing threat to public access to land, so too resistance is alive and kicking, and can win victories.

In the last decade two open spaces lying next to each other, Brent River Park and Warren Farm, have seen campaigners fight off attempts to fence off or sell off land people have been accessing for decades. These struggles have involved a whole range of tactics from investigation, petitioning, legal casework and sabotage. An inspiration to all those struggling in London (and beyond) to keep green space public, accessible and free.

But we shouldn’t be surprised Hanwellians show such determination- this area has seen resistance to enclosure before…

Brent River Park – ‘Fencegate’

In April 2019, residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, were dismayed that part of their park had been fenced off. St Margaret’s open space sits by the Grand Union Canal and is part of Brent River Park. The neighbouring landowner, the Hobbayne Trust, finding that part of the park is unregistered land, tried to nick it.

Section of Ealing Parks Map showing the fenced off land

What some campaigners have called ‘Fencegate’ began when the Hobbayne Trust fenced off part of St Margaret’s Open Space between Billets Hart Close and the Grand Union Canal on 25 April 2019. This annotated section of the Ealing Parks map shows the piece of the park which was fenced off.

In enclosing this land, the Hobbayne Trust effectively extended the boundary of the neigbouring William Hobbayne Community Gardens, which it has owned since 2014, to incorporate part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

Although Ealing Council owns most of St Margaret’s Open Space, the ownership of this small piece of land is unknown. It is unregistered land, which means that no-one has ever provided evidence of ownership to the Land Registry. However, it has been designated as Public Open Space by Ealing Council and been freely accessible to the public since the mid 1990s. Ealing council has treated it as part of the neighbouring park and has maintained it since the early 2000s. It is clearly marked as part of Ealing Parks on the council’s parks map, and also designated as a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).

The adjoining land on which the William Hobbayne Community Gardens now stand was previously owned by British Waterways, who registered the land on 13 October 2006. The lease on part of this land which became the William Hobbayne Community Gardens was gifted to the Hobbayne Trust by British Waterways in 2008.

The Hobbayne Trust bought the land from the Canal and River Trust, the successor body to British Waterways, for £80,000. In the sale documents the boundary of the land is clearly marked. It does not include the land fenced off in April 2019.

The Hobbayne Trust signed an agreement with Laing Homes, the company which which built neighbouring Billets Hart Close, and which still owns the freehold of the land under the road. This agreement gave the Hobbayne Trust vehicle access across Billets Hart Close. The Hobbayne Trust paid Laing Homes £3,500 for this access. None of the residents on Billets Hart Close were informed of this transaction.

As mentioned above, in April 2019 the Hobbayne Trust fenced off the piece of St Margarets Open Space. To see the extent of the new enclosure, compare this Google street view photo from summer 2018 with the one taken a year later. The orange bag caught in the tree makes it easy to do a before and after comparison.

August 2019 – Down With the Fence

The Hobbayne Trust’s fence was thus extended upstream, beyond the boundary of its land, to enclose part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

According to Ealing Council’s Local Plan, this land is designated as Public Open Space. It is listed as such on council documents available online dating from 2010. These, in turn, refer to plans dating from 2004. Residents have copies of conveyancing documents which list it as Public Open Space in 1996. It has therefore been Public Open Space and freely accessible to the public for almost a quarter of a century.

Section of Ealing Local Plan

In May 2019 number of residents contacted the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council challenging the enclosure of the land and asking the Trust and the Council to remove the fence.

On 27 June 2019 the Hobbayne Trust issued a statement which it distributed to nearby households and posted by the Grand Union towpath. It said:

“You may be aware that the Hobbayne Charity has recently fenced a small section of land to the north of the Community Gardens bordering the canal.“This action was taken so as to rectify a drafting error dating from 2006.”

2006 was the year in which British Waterways registered the land on which the Community Gardens now stand (see above).

The Hobbayne Trust claimed that British Waterways made a mistake in drawing the boundary when it registered the land – this, however, was not borne out by the available evidence. The north-western boundary of the land which now forms the community gardens has been there since 1996 according to the conveyancing documents (and memories) of those who have lived on Billets Hart Close since it was built. An Ordnance Survey map from 1960 also shows the boundary in exactly the same place as it was before the Hobbayne Trust moved its fence.

Section of Ordnance Survey map 1960

There is no evidence of any mistake being made here. When British Waterways registered the land that now forms the Community Gardens, its plan of the area reflected the boundaries that had existed for decades.

In the same statement, the Hobbayne Trust also said that it intended to put a gateway onto Billets Hart Close to provide a second access to the Community Gardens, in addition to the main one on St Margaret’s Road. This access would go from Billets Hart Close to the Community Gardens via the newly enclosed land. This would necessitate the removal of the railings and hawthorn hedge on St Margaret’s Open Space at the end of Billets Hart Close.

On 29 July 2019 the Hobbayne Trust applied to register its ownership of the fenced off land, claiming that it had been in possession of the land since 2008.

Local residents didn’t buy the trust’s explanation of the land’s history…

… Nor did the Land Registry, which rejected the trust’s claim of ownership on 1 August 2019.

Meanwhile, fed up with waiting for the trust or for Ealing Council to move the fence, some residents took the law into their own hands. Over the August 2019 bank holiday, they broke the new fence down.

Down with the fences!

In resorting to Direct Action to remove fences around enclosed land, the residents echoed long and proud traditions of defending open space not just by lobbying and campaigning, but practical measures.

In this case as so many others, their action proved a turning point in the dispute.

On 29 August 2019, sixteen households on Billets Hart Close again wrote a joint letter to the Hobbayne Trust’s chairman, challenging the enclosure of the land and asking that the fence be removed. The letter was copied to Ealing Council.

The letter made the following points:

Before the Trust fenced it off, the land had been freely accessible to the public since 1996.

It is designated as Public Open Space in Ealing Council’s Local Plan and has been described as such in numerous council documents. There are also documents from Laing Homes dated 1996 showing it as Public Open Space.

The land had been been maintained by Ealing Council, at public expense, since at least 2004.

The Hobbayne Trust had not provided residents with any evidence of its ownership of the fenced off land. It had not registered as the proprietor of the land at the Land Registry.

The north-western boundary of the Hobbayne Trust’s land is clearly marked on the transfer documents from when it bought the land from the Canal and River Trust in 2014. The same boundary is also marked on residents’ conveyancing documents from when Billets Hart Close was built in 1996-97.

The residents of Billets Hart Close were not informed about the erecting of the fence. The Hobbayne Trust made no attempt to consult or engage with local residents before erecting the fence.

The letter concluded:

“We call on the trustees to remove the fence around the piece of the park they have enclosed without further delay. This land is public space and the public would like it back.”

In response to the residents’ letter, the Hobbayne Trust called a meeting. Its representatives met with 20 local residents on 14 October 2019, saying that they wanted to rebuild trust with the local community.

At the meeting the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives confirmed that they did not own the land and had fenced it off without having any legal title to it. They said that they were in ‘a legal process’ to acquire the land and that the Canal and River Trust was in the process of establishing its ownership in order to transfer the land to the Trust. They failed to mention that their application to claim ownership of the land had been rejected by the Land Registry two months earlier…

Also, the Canal and River Trust had not made any attempt to register the land, nor did they ever claim the disputed area.

At the same meeting, the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives also re-stated their intention to put a gateway onto the disputed land to give access to the Community Gardens from Billets Hart Close. They were unclear about whether this was to be for pedestrians only or for vehicles. They denied all knowledge of the agreement signed on 20 July 2017 by the Hobbayne Trust, together with the payment of £3,500, for vehicle access to Billets Hart Close.

In a written statement presented at the meeting, the Hobbayne Trust said that it had informed the residents at the end of Billets Hart Close of its proposed action to enclose the land. However, no residents on Billets Hart Close received any such communication from the Trust.

After a number of residents wrote to Ealing Council over the summer, the Council responded in November 2019, via separate letters and emails to local residents. It stated that:

The council did not believe the Hobbayne Trust had a legal entitlement to the land it had fenced off;

The fence had been constructed by the Hobbayne Trust without the council’s consent;

The Council believes that it has a greater claim to ownership of the land than any other party and is preparing to register its ownership of the land through adverse possession, on the grounds that it has occupied and maintained the land for the required period;

The council expects the Hobbayne Trust to remove its fence.

The removal of some of the panels enabled the public to reclaim its right of way across the land: the faint reappearance of the footpath (a desire line), quickly showed this right was being regularly exercised.

The council did not issued any enforcement notice (or, if it has, it hasn’t said so publicly) and the Hobbayne Trust did not remove the remains of the fence. Residents continued to fight for the complete removal of the fence and the return of the land to the public…

The job of removing the fence was eventually completed in March by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) when residents reported that the fence encroached on the Grand Union Canal towpath land.

Residents hope that in future Ealing Council will be more active in protecting such public open space. Early signs are encouraging: the council has said again that it will register the land.The ultimate aim of the local campaigners is to see the land become part of the statutory local nature reserve being proposed by the Brent River and Canal Society for neighbouring Warren Farm and its surrounding meadows.

The Warren Farm Campaign

Warren Farm, which lies just across the Brent River from the piece of disputed land on St Margaret’s open space above, has seen an even longer campaign to fight off the land being given into private hands by Ealing Council.

In the Elizabethan Period, Warren Farm was a tenancy of the Osterley Park Estate. The estate was owned by Sir Thomas Gresham, who opened one of Britain’s first paper mills, by the River Brent in the 1570s. Appropriately enough for this story, Gresham was also a pioneer of enclosure in this area: in 1576 his fencing off of common land caused riots.

In the Victorian period, Warren Farm was a working farm. Ordnance Survey maps from the early 1890s show a public footpath across the site. This right of way was diverted and a newer route runs along the railway.

In 1925, the Countess of Jersey sold Warren Farm to the London County Council (LCC) for sports usage, but the Depression and World War II disrupted these plans, but after the war Warren Farm was run as a farm by the local St Bernard’s Psychiatric Hospital until 1961, and the LCC and then ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority) used the land as a variety of sports pitches for schoolchildren and clubs. In the 1960s the changing rooms were erected and football, cricket, netball, tennis, shot-put and long jump pitches were on the site. When ILEA was dissolved in 1990, Warren Farm passed to the London Borough of Ealing (LBE). Later, a children’s day centre the Pride and Joy Child Care Nursery were based there.

By the 2000s Ealing Council claimed they did not have the funds to maintain the land. The site maintenance stopped. Changing rooms were vandalised and became derelict.In 2009 the London Borough of Ealing launched plans to rent Warren Farm to Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) football club on a 200 year lease at a peppercorn rent. Effectively gifting Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) to a private company for 200 years. Under the plan there would have been no more public community access.

In opposition to this plan, the Save Warren Farm (SWF) group was founded in 2014. The group raised money and fought the QPR deal, seeking a Judicial Review against Ealing, on the grounds that the council had acted unlawfully in disposing of Warren Farm. The Judicial Review was turned down, however, and QPR were imminently expected to start works on Warren Farm.
No works began, however, and questions arose as to whether QPR could in fact afford to proceed with their plans.

Desire Lines on Warren Farm

In 2016, Save Warren Farm applied to register a footpath across Warren Farm as a Public Right of Way. Ealing Council refused the application. An appeal to the Planning Inspectorate was rejected the following year. In 2016, QPR had their Planning Permission extended by 4 years, with their original plans for Warren Farm scaled back and with the introduction of landfill planned across the site.
In 2017, Ealing Council introduced a new waste collection scheme which meant all households required new wheelie bins. The bins were stored on Warren Farm, but were set on fire twice that same year…By 2019, nature had reclaimed much of the abandoned Warren Farm site. QPR’s ecological surveys concluded that Warren Farm was ‘species poor’ and of ‘little to no ecological value’. A new campaign group, Hanwell Nature, gathered evidence which challenged this assertion. Fundraising began and a Judicial Review was now granted on the basis that Ealing Council failed to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In 2020, Ealing Council pulled out of the Judicial Review hearing brought by the Hanwell Nature campaign, apparently not wanting to waste taxpayers money defending the Judicial Review. QPR’s extended planning permission had run out prior to the hearing and QPR had by now found an alternative site.

In the autumn of 2020, the Brent River & Canal Society (BRCS), a charity founded in 1973 whose aim is to protect and enhance Brent River Park (of which Warren Farm is part), released a new vision for Warren Farm Nature Reserve. Initially inspired by young conservationist Kabir Kaul, the BRCS forward-thinking vision asked Ealing Council to work with them in creating Warren Farm Nature Reserve, obtaining Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status for Warren Farm, Jubilee Meadow, Blackberry Corner, Trumper’s Field and Fox Meadow, with the future potential of adding the Imperial College London owned land and the Earl of Jersey’s Field. This would create one large Local Nature Reserve comprised of meadow habitats, with Warren Farm at its centre – preserving meadows for wildlife, humans and for future generations.

 sign the Warren Farm Nature Reserve petition here

Enclosures and Hanwell’s History

Hopefully locals’ plans to unite all the open space above into a Nature reserve will bear fruit… their stalwart defence of their green space should inspire us all.

But it is not surprising that these attempts by the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council/QPR to deprive people of open space have been so stoutly fought off. This area has form, as they say, for resistance to enclosures of land.

Common land was vital to the existence of many people before the industrial revolution, when most lived on the land, and worked on the land. Working people might own one or two animals, which they woud graze on commons; wood in common land was gathered for burning for fuel, as was turf; food stuffs were also there to be gathered. Access to commons could make the difference between survival and starvation, and the right to use them had grown up through centuries of struggle against landowners often keen to restrict what people could use. Through the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, local landowners increasingly tried to enclose land – fence it off for more intensive agriculture, denying poorer folk the resources previously available to them. Much of England’s land was enclosed by 1830. But this process was widely resisted, by legal campaigning, direct action like sabotage, by riots and revolts. Read more on this in the London area.

As noted above, parts of the Hanwell area were owned by the aristocratic residents of Osterley House, and Thomas Gresham had faced rioting and sabotage in response to his enclosing of common land to build Osterley Park. There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited the house.

Hanwell itself saw a struggle by the wealthy to enclose Heathland, at the end of the 18th century. This sparked resistance, of which some mention has survived.

Moves to enclose the parish had been discussed by the parish vestry in 1792, but a meeting of tenants called by the vestry apparently voted against wholesale enclosure. This may have been due not so much to idealogical opposition as from fear of local reaction, as there are reports of local discontent and some threats to farmers, over regulation and restrictions in the local commons fields. Attempts by the vestry to cut back numbers of animals that could be grazed in the common had been met with objections, as customary use that had evolved over centuries allowed for more grazing than the new rules allotted. Through the 1790s, repeated orders issued by the parish officers regarding the restrictions were ignored; in 1796 the vestry appealed to the Lord of the Manor to punish the transgressors as they were powerless to enforce their rules. This constant stubborn resistance climaxed in August 1798 with the removal of a lock and  chain barring access to the ‘Common South Field’, which was partly owned by a farmer, Mr George, and the driving in to graze of a large crowd of livestock by local rebels.

Surveying land for enclosure

Attempts to survey the parish a few years later, a usual precursor to enclosure, may have met with a bit of theft… In 1803, the vestry voted to have the parish surveyed and mapped, and hired a professional land surveyor for the job. The parish surveyor Mr Grimault refused to co-operate with him however… despite this, the survey was carried out, and handed in to the vestry in November 1803. In June 1805, however, the document mysteriously went missing, “taken away, or misplaced.” Someone trying to slow the process down?

Despite all this, the Vestry managed to push through the enclosure in March 1813. Not without another act of defiance, however: in May, local youth arranged a cricket match on newly enclosed Hanwell Heath, and the constable was urged by the vestry to “use their utmost exertions to prevent the lads from this Village from assembling on the heath on Sundays.” Both the enjoying themselves on the Sabbath  and invading newly enclosed land being offensive to the authorities… Feelings of attachment to their common died hard.

In the wider area around Hanwell, access to Common land in this part of the old county of Middlesex was fought over for centuries.

The huge expanse of nearby Hounslow Heath was the arena for resistance to enclosure for several hundred years… Attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in Heston in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers

An Inspiration

The area of land fenced off in St Margaret’s open space may be small – but small pieces of land can be dear to people. Councils, developers, landowners often think they can take spaces away without fightback – not this time. 

What has so far helped the Hanwell residents in their campaign has been a cunning use of direct action hand in hand with meticulous research. We love it! 

The Hanwell campaigns shine a light of inspiration to the many other local campaigners fighting off attempts to build on open space and close off access to land… 

Campaigners all over are fighting off attempts to enclose and develop small green spaces, especially land on council estates. Peckham Green was recently fenced off and built over by Southwark Council, despite local objections; on several Southwark estates, tenants are facing proposals to build over small green areas used by them but considered waste by council penpushers. The same story is beginning to crop up all over the capital. But the Hanwell story shows the faceless planners don’t always win…
If the council or another body wants your green space – get together! Research the real ownership, find out what your neighbours want – fight back! (The Open Spaces Society can often help)

Campaigners may feel lairy about what seem like extreme actions like pulling down fences; legally risky, chance of arrest… In this case, having the legal proofs of the land not belonging to the Hobbayne Trust gave the fence destroyers some security in their actions… With other spaces, legal ownership issues may be more clear cut the other way. However, direct action is a powerful weapon. And ownership of open space is often twofold – there’s legal title, yes, but counterposed to that is also how people who use the place feel about somewhere, are invested in it, feel like it is theirs. Access to places can go back centuries, but attachment to open space can build up over much shorter time; it is not easily dismissed. And how did the ‘legal’ owners of land get to own most of it anyway? Violent expropriation of everyone else, by force, lawyers, authority… 

How strongly people feel about a place has implications in how people are willing to fight for it…

The relationship of the St Margaret’s and Warren Farm campaigns with Ealing Council also show the contradictory and uncertain nature of the ownership of public land. Local authorities have been in charge of managing public space for a century and a half, by and large. But is been and up and down ride, especially in recent decades, with budget cuts and other pressures bearing on ownership of open spaces. Money is tight. The temptation to offload it (as Ealing tried to do with Warren Farm to QPR), to cross one headache off the budget list, is strong… (Or to close if off to many users by letting it be used for paying festivals much of the summer, as happens elsewhere).

But open spaces, vital as they are to people’s lives, belong to us all. The legal title of landowners and trusts is generally dubious, historically; the stewardship of local authorities need constant monitoring by us all from below…

 

 

Today in London’s media history, 1814: Times proprietor John Walter bypasses printers to instroduce new steam-press

The first edition of the Daily Universal Register was published on 1st January, 1785. It was in competition with eight other daily newspapers in London. Like the other newspapers, it included parliamentary reports, foreign news and advertisements. Proprietor John Walter made it clear in the first edition that he was primarily concerned with advertising revenue: “The Register, in its politics, will be of no party. Due attention should be paid to the interests of trade, which are so greatly promoted by advertisements.”

However, he was happy to negotiate a secret deal where he was paid £300 a year to publish stories favourable to the government.

In 1788 John Walter decided to change the name and the style of his newspaper. Walter now started to produce a newspaper that appealed to a larger audience. This included stories of the latest scandals and gossip about famous people in London. Walter called his new paper The Times.

John Walter handed over the running of The Times to his son John Walter II in January, 1803. He died in 1812.

In 1810 John Walter II’s harsh response to a printers’ strike gave The Times another advantage – a tradition of ‘flexible’, ie non-union labour. Walter prosecuted 21 printers for conspiracy for organising a strike, and they were jailed (one man died in prison).

As a result, the paper was boycotted by the printers’ societies. The highly skilled printers and compositors were gaining a stranglehold on printing, because without their skills, the presses wouldn’t run.  Although still in its infancy, the power of the Fleet Street printers, expressed through their strong sense of solidarity, and insistence on their control over the working practices, often came up against the newspaper employers’ interests. Walter wasn’t the first – or last – media mogul to attempt to circumvent the workers with new technology…

In 1814 Walter installed a steam-powered Koenig printing machine in his printworks, which increased the speed that newspapers could be printed. By the end of that year, the Times was selling over 7,000 copies a day.

At the end of the 18th century printing was still performed on wooden presses. These ran very slowly, producing inconsistent impressions of varying quality, and could only be operated with a great deal of physical human effort and strength. In addition, the small size of the platen, the plate in the press which forced the paper against the type, slowed down the process of printing on a large scale – a handicap for a newspaper. (Some printers got round this by composing pages in duplicate and working them on separate presses.)

The development, in 1800, of the Stanhope press went some way to increase pressroom capacity. Made of iron, the Stanhope took advantage of new techniques in casting metal, had a platen double the size of the wooden press and allowed a full-size forme to be printed at one pull, allowing a vastly quicker print run.

The Stanhope was a significant advance in the pressroom; it was, however, still based on human pulling power and not on mechanical energy, which inevitably limited its speed.

The solution emerged with Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer’s development of the Koenig and Bauer steam powered cylinder printing machine, in 1810-12.

This was first applied to book printing, but had obvious implications for much larger scale printing of newspapers than was then possible. Several newspaper proprietors were invited to see Koenig’s new cylinder machine, among them James Perry of the Morning Chronicle and John Walter II of The Times. Walter saw the potential in Koenig’s idea, and ordered two steam-driven machines for The Times; but so as to ensure a monopoly he demanded that no other such machines were to be for newspaper production during the life of the patent within 10 miles of the City of London.

Walter still had to launch the new press in the face of the established practices of the Times printers. Don’t forget that working class attitudes towards new technology were, at the time, justifiably suspicious: new machinery almost always benefitted the masters, resulting in loss of skilled jobs, cut wages, cheaper labour. The period when Walter was planning his revolution in newspaper printing was the era of the Luddites, smashing the mechanised looms that were impoverishing them. In London, too, there was a recent tradition of machine-wrecking, among the Spitalfields silkweavers and before that, the sawyers of Limehouse

To avoid this provoking a strike, disorder, or getting his new press smashed up, Walter arranged for the parts of the machine to be shipped secretly to a workshop adjoining The Times offices on Printing House Square; where they were put together, hidden away from the composing and pressrooms.

The printing of the first issue was a clandestine affair. Bauer [Koenig’s business partner] bound his men over with a £100 bond to divulge nothing of the new press. Still, rumours were rife on Printing House Square and some of the compositors and pressmen threatened to withdraw their labour. Walter tricked his staff on the evening of 29 November 1814, telling them that the presses had to be held for important news expected from the Continent. At six o’clock in the morning, Walter entered the press room and astonished the men by announcing the issue of 29 November 1814 had already been printed by steam, that if they attempted violence there was a force ready to repress it, but if they were peaceable their wages would be paid until similar employment could be procured. In the event, the edition passed into circulation with little agitation from the workforce.

170 years later, of course, Rupert Murdoch reprised this trick, planning to beat the Fleet Street printers (whose power over the presses had grown mighty) by introducing new professes and shifting to a fortified HQ in Wapping – thus sparking the 1986-7 News International lockout

Stealing the Commons: A Short introduction to Battles for Open Space in London

Open Space – or Closed Space?

It’s easy to take open space for granted in the city…

Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, games… They can be a lifesaver, when work and stress and all rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… trying not to giggle at the t’ai chi cult, wiping the tear away as you daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, mental health and wellbeing, teaching children about wildlife and nature, having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks, that go with them.

But we shouldn’t assume that the open green spaces that we know and love are just there, an entitlement. In most cases they exist because people fought hard in the past, for access, to save them from being built on or sold off, or walled off for the exclusive use of the rich. And because we have free access to them now doesn’t mean it will always be like that… We have grown used to access to green space.

Centuries of hard fought battles saved many beloved places from disappearing, and laws currently protect parks, greens and commons. But times change… Pressures change. Space in London is profitable like never before. For housing mainly, but also there are sharks ever-present looking to exploit space for ‘leisure’. And with the current onslaught on public spending in the name of balancing the books (ie cutting as much as possible in the interests of the wealthy), public money spent on public space is severely threatened.
Many are the pressures on open green spaces – the costs of upkeep, cleaning, maintenance, improvement, looking after facilities… Local councils, who mainly look after open space, are struggling. Some local authorities are proposing to make cuts of 50 or 60 % to budgets for parks. As a result, there are the beginnings of changes, developments that look few and far between now, but could be the thin end of the wedge.

So you have councils looking to renting green space to businesses, charities, selling off bits, shutting off parks or parts of them for festivals and corporate events six times a year… Large parts of Hyde Park and Finsbury Park are regularly fenced off for paying festivals already; this could increase. Small developments now, but maybe signs of things to come. Now is the time to be on guard, if we want to preserve our free access to the green places that matter to us.

Already space in the city is being handed to business – London’s Canary Wharf, the Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City are public places governed by the rules of the corporations that own them.

Private public space – where they can tell us what we can and can’t do; space they can ban us from, keep us out of. Public spaces that operate under private control are plagued by corporate restrictions: social gatherings, playing musical instruments, making a speech, releasing balloons and many other pursuits can be banned. It can be closed to public access for private events. And increasing privatisation of space in cities is often tied up with CCTV, surveillance, control of our behaviour.

Not that public bodies aren’t doing their bit: Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) allow councils to make illegal ‘social problems’ like sleeping rough in an attempt to drive homeless people from town or city. Councils are also dealing with developers that give them control over paths. Planning laws are being ‘relaxed’ nationally to allow developers a freer and quicker ride when they want to build . Everywhere slivers of green not protected by law are vanishing; or social housing with access and views over green space is being replaced with new developments for the rich (as at Woodberry Down, or West Hendon). Councils are building on small areas of green space on council estates, bulldozing parks to build more flats (usually private) or demolishing blocks to hand the land to developers.

The threat to open space is part and parcel of the massive changes underway in the city, attempts to permanently alter the capital in favour of the wealthy, driving those who can’t afford it to the margins or out of the city entirely.

It may seem like parks, and other green spaces are givens; things that can’t be taken away. But what seem like certainties can be lost before we realise. Look at way social housing have been dismantled over the past 30 years. In the 1960s council housing was taken for granted as a right by millions: it has been reduced to a last resort, which current government proposals could sweep away. Or the way the NHS is being parcelled up into private providers… there are many who see green space as a luxury and something that can be got rid of or at least shunted off into the hands of some quango… Whatever gains we have, whatever we win, whatever rights we enjoy, came from long generations of battling  – the moment we stop, rest on our laurels, powerful forces start pushing back against everything we have won.

However, it is worth remembering, that open space has always been contested space – in London as much as elsewhere. From resistance to its enclosure, to its role in hosting radical crowds and disorderly gatherings, as a venue for immoral and illicit pleasures, which the respectable wanted to put a stop to. If landowners, the rich, authority, have usually seen open space as a resource for their profit, or as a problem to be controlled, there has always been opposing views, and those willing to struggle to keep places open, and to use them for purposes at odds with the rich and powerful. From an invaluable source of fuel and food, to the playground for our pleasures; from refuge from the laws made by the rich, to the starting point of our social movements…
THE COMMONS ARE OURS!

Enclosure and Resistance

Many if not most of the open spaces – commons, woods, greens – of any size that remain today in London (and nationally), exist because they were preserved from development by collective action. Many of the commons and parks that enrich life in the capital wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t been actively defended by legal actions and campaigns, or by rioting, tearing down fences & re-opening up enclosed land. Even much of the space eventually lost and built over, was defended for centuries.

For uncounted centuries, common lands, forests and wastes provided people with myriad ways of making a living; from collecting wood for fuel, gathering fruit, herbs, and other foodstuffs, to hunting for animals for food, and grazing of livestock. In Saxon times, most land was open to use by all. After the Norman Conquest all land was redistributed to a new ruling class, who introduced many laws to force peasants into serfdom to work for the wealthy, restricted the poor’s access to land, and prevented them from hunting. Many serfs however managed to rent a small plot of land to feed themselves. Overwhelmingly villages consisted of a patchwork of open fields ploughed by different people, paying money or in kind to the landowner.
Over the years resistance opened up many ways for the poor to make a living. Although what we called common land was not ‘held in common’, was always owned by the Lord of the Manor, over the centuries customs and traditions grew up about what people were allowed to take, use and where from…

But none of this took place without resistance from those being excluded from the land.
While the Statute of Merton in 1235 established the legal power for landowners to enclose land, and hundreds of laws were passed against ‘trespass’ (and other crimes such as travelling around, being homeless or Roma), resistance was constant.

Just a few of the countless struggles against enclosure of open space in the London area:

with links to longer posts on some spaces… more will be added as we write ’em

1263 – City crowds threw open lanes blocked up by justiciars… and followed it up in 1264 by destroying fences round the king’s brother’s park in Isleworth.

1292 – Eastenders defeated the Bishop of Stepney’s attempt to enclose two woods in Bethnal Green, used by locals for chasing hares, rabbits etc…

1314, Pinner Park – residents illegally felled trees belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury; in 1323 – fences round the park were broken down.

What started at the discretion of the Lords was fought over, often violently, and concessions won by hardfought struggles came to be viewed as ‘common rights’.

From the sixteenth century, pressure for profit from land rents began to see land being enclosed – fenced off, with smaller open fields being ploughed together into much larger farms. Already in the 1510s this was forcing people off the land and into destitution; over the next 300 years, enclosure would increase hugely, creating a mass exodus from the best farming land, pushing hundreds of thousands first into marginal lands, wastes and woods, and then into the growing cities. The impetus for enclosure came entirely from the search for greater profits for the landlord classes. Propagandists for the process made much of how it improved agricultural efficiency – historians still argue about whether this was even true. But enclosure ultimately made fortunes for the landowning aristocracy; and as much of this money was also later funnelled into industry, it was a huge driver for Britain’s industrial revolution.

This was fought every step of the way…

1515 or 1516 – Moorfields, archers destroyed fences put up by rich residents to prevent them using fields.

Across the south of the country a series of rebellions, riots and disturbances erupted in 1548-49, protesting the hardships caused by enclosure; this is sometimes known as the ‘Commotion Time’.
The largest revolt in Norfolk – Kett’s Rebellion – needed an army to put it down.

In the London area in 1548-9, there was resistance at Ruislip and at Enfield

and trouble also manifested in struggles in London, as attacks were made on enclosures on the suburban common fields. Martial law had to be declared in the capital.

Riots, direct action, trespass and sabotage against denial of common rights and fencing off of common land became commonplace (to coin a phrase!)

1576 – locals massed to tear up fences and pull up palings round Osterley Park, while queen Elizabeth was visiting the enclosing lord of the manor

1592 – the bailiff of Westminster and a crowd tore down fences on Neat House Fields, (round modern Victoria) and Charing Cross.

In 1607 enclosures sparked a widespread series of insurrections across the midlands.

A map showing how Sydenham Common has been built over in four centuries

At the same time, there were mass movements near London. On Sydenham Common in Lewisham, an enclosure attempt 1605-15 was resisted by locals who marched to petition the king, as well as fighting pitched battles to defend common.

At Greenford, West London, fences surrounding enclosures were destroyed nu crowds in 1613.

In 1618, it was reported that locals had encroached on Harrow Weald Common and built cottages in defiance of the lord of the manor (Lord Northwick), nicking bits if his land for gardens, in response to him enclosing the common in 1607.

Riots, rebellion, direct action against their being denied common rights became commonplace.

The huge changes in land use taking place in the early sixteenth century, the mass dislocation of peoples, formed a major motivation for the support for the parliamentarian side in the English Civil War, and for the communal ideas of groups like the True Levellers (Diggers), who took over land to work it on common in 1649. Ironically, however, many of the leaders of the puritan side supported enclosure, and king James I and Charles I (though an enthusiastic land-grabber himself) had backed those fighting off enclosures.

1641: Royal grounds enclosed on Hounslow Heath were attacked and entered by irate peasants.

1648, Hanworth, Lord Cottington’s enclosures attacked and fences thrown down.

1649: The local poor of Eltham & Lee tore down fences in Horn Park.

On Enfield Chase: enclosures here by ‘incomers’ (many New Model Army officers) were resisted by rioters in 1659.

The 1659 events at Enfield also prompted local writer William Covell to set down his ideas about collective use of land in opposition to enclosure.

It wasn’t only land that was being enclosed – early capitalists were beginning to privatise other natural resources of the earth, like water. The building of the New River from Hertford to feed water use in the city of London 1609-13 was based on private capital and exploited for profit.

Locals break into Richmond Park to ‘Beat the Bounds’, 1751

The main big wave of enclosures took place in England, from 1750 to 1830. 5000 enclosure acts saw 21% of the country fenced off, totally changing the nature of agriculture, to the profit of the landowners and the dire loss for the poor; reducing farmworkers to waged labourers with little or no access to their own land or common rights.

Richmond Park – enclosed by king Charles I in 1637; in 1751, locals broke in to ‘beat the bounds’. A legal case eventually opened up access to the park, 1750s.

At Hampton, in 1686, women were accused of having pulled down enclosure fences.

Bushy Park – blocked rights of way were opened up 1754 after radical shoemaker Tim Bennett challenged the landowner.

In 1766/7 Stanwell locals defeated landowners attempting enclosing of Hounslow Heath.

Hampstead Heath, 1776: Actress Mrs Lessingham caused a riot by building herself a house on common land. (In 1906: Soap magnate William Lever, bought the same house, and tried but failed to block right of way on land here, due to local opposition.) Hampstead Heath was finally secured against enclosure and development in 1868 after forty years of campaigning.

Enclosure Surveyors at work

Sydenham Common: In 1754 fences were thrown down and reclaimed rights to gather fuel in Cooper’s Wood. But in 1792 Michael Bradley was murdered by landowner Samuel Atkinson, for exercising common rights in enclosed Colson’s Coppice.1794,

1794: Streatham Common – locals burnt the furze (gorse bushes common right allowed them to collect for fuel) before landowner could collect it, and demolished his fences.

1797- 1802, Harrow – an Association for Opposing Harrow Inclosure Bill fought enclosures. Although in 1810 commoners were breaking fences in 1810 in a desperate attempt to stop the physical process of enclosures, the battle was lost.

1798, Hanwell – locks were removed from gates and former common fields had cattle driven on to them in defiance of farmer. In 1813 newly enclosed land here was invaded for unruly sports.

1801, Bedfont – locals defeated an attempt to enclose Bedfont Common.

There was opposition to enclosures in Harlington in 1801, which delayed enclsoure here till 1819.

There was also trouble around Ruislip and Harmondsworth in 1801 over enclosures ((Harmondsworth had a centuries long tradition of stroppy tenants fighting with the lords of the manor).

1803 – Roxeth Common was finally enclosed, after years of stout resistance.

1803, Wormwood Scrubs – a court case in the King’s Bench defeated fencing off of the Scrubs.

Between 1812 and 1885, Staines residents fought a long battle to prevent enclosure of Staines Common, first through petition and legal challenge, but as late as 1885 direct action was still being used to obstruct landowners.

1812, on Wimbledon Common – there had been failed attempts to enclose the Common in the late 17th century, and in 1723; both failed. In 1812 the lord of the manor obstructed locals common rights, cutting down all trees and selling timber. Protest followed.

Protesting Ex-commoners turned their cattle onto the ex-commons and bye-roads of Hillingdon in 1817, (enclosed by act in 1812) and Finchley between 1816 and 1823, (enclosed by act in 1811).

In 1817, new fences erected on the common at Kingston on Thames (under a Parliamentary Enclosure Act) were destroyed by locals.

1820s, Loughton – 300 people rioted several times to prevent tree felling in Epping Forest; especially troublesome were 13 local women who “beat Rigby’s workmen and took from them their axes… and detained them.”

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers… This was an area where the 1830 Swing Riots had spread.

In the nineteenth century as London expanded, new pressures on open spaces emerged… The city was rapidly increasing its size as housing was needed for thousands of new residents; from the 1840s hundreds railway lines were built, cutting through open space. Much if the farmland around London was built on; but the millions now crowded into tightly packed streets needed open space more than ever. Struggles over open space became more and more about a fight for leisure space, somewhere to hang out, a relief from the pressure of work and overcrowding. If anything, Londoners fought harder in the late 1800s to protect green space, as it became more of a precious commodity…

1837, Hackney Downs – locals swarmed onto the lammas land and seize all crops from a tenant who’d overstayed short term lease beyond lammas day (common rights extended slightly here to, er, looting!)

Footpaths blocked by the fencing off of North Kensington racecourse were re-opened by mass trespass in 1837.

Primrose Hill: 1842: popular pressure kept the Hill open in defiance of developers.

1850s, Stockwell Green – the Green was enclosed by a fence, but locals accustomed to partying there broke it down. A 20 year struggle followed but the green was eventually built over.

1851, Highbury Fields – threatened with development for posh housing, which a popular agitation prevented.

1855: The ‘Sunday Trading Bill’ Riots saw working class crowds attack the fencing off of Hyde Park for enjoyment by the rich.

1862, Old Oak Common, Acton – a dispute regarding common rights at Acton saw fences destroyed on the Common.

1864-76, Banstead Commons – local protest eventually blocked plans to enclose them.

In 1864, Lord Spencer, biggest landowner in South London, tried to sell much of Wimbledon Common, and enclose more as a park. Protest led to a committee saving the Common through legal action.

The Wimbledon campaign also helped give birth to the Commons Preservation Society, who led high profile legal defences of common land and open spaces, and to the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, which protected many open spaces in London from being built over.

1865: William Willingale trespassed on Epping Forest to cut wood on the traditional day, was arrested, and sparked a long campaign that ended in the re-opening of the Forest for public access. Half the forest had previously been enclosed 1851-71.

Epsom Downs & Commons: There was opposition to enclosure of a part of the Downs by locals in 1865.

In 1867 there were mass invasions on Hounslow Heath in defiance of landowner by locals to poach; in 1872 the caretaker was beaten up when he challenged 3 local men protesting the illegal ‘encroachment’ by the landowner.

In 1868 a local committee formed to oppose recent enclosures on Mitcham Common. In 1890 protests against enclosures & gravel digging led to an Act to protect the Common.

1868 – 100 years of protests against encroachments on common land in Peckham Rye Park lead to its purchase in 1868 for a public park.

1868, Tooting Common – repeated destruction of fences (voted on in open meetings in the local Infant School), defeated WS Thompson’s attempt to fence off the Common. The enclosures were ruled illegal; the Common was bought for the public in 1875.

1868 – 70, Wandsworth Common. Already decimated by three railways lines being run across it, and other encroachments, an 1860s attempt to develop the rest led to a mass local working class campaign, and ended in  direct action.  2000 people pulled down fences in 1869, and 100s more did so at Plough Green in 1870. As a result landowner Lord Spencer (him again) gave the land to the Wandsworth Common Defence Committee, and it remained open to all.

1870 mass meetings on Blackheath in May, convened by the Advanced Liberal Association of Greenwich, against plans to enclose part of the heath.

1870, 2000 people met at Mill Pond Bridge, Rotherhithe, to oppose efforts by the Metropolitan Board of Works to build on part of Southwark Park.

In 1870, working class ideological opposition to enclosure – the systematic robbery of the land from the labouring classes by the rich – crystalised in the creation of the Land and Labour League, which dedicated itself to regaining the land for the workers.
This organisation reflected a long radical tradition among popular movements, harking back to the Chartist Land Plan, the ideas of Thomas Spence and the Diggers…

1871, Wanstead Flats – 1000s of local working people pull down enclosure fences; protests save Flats. In 1946, the Flats were saved again from development by a local campaign. Locals also fought the building of a temporary police compound here during the 2012 Olympics.

In December 1875, large crowds (up to 50,000 people at one point) destroyed fences erected as lord of the manor tries to sell part of Hackney Downs to railways company.

Hilly Fields: Between 1875 and 1896, a long public agitation saved the Fields from development.

1876, Plumstead Common: “a series of wild and violent riots” in July defeated enclosures here (there had already been direct action in 1866, and 1870 over landowners encroaching on common land.)

Tearing down enclosure fences on Plumstead Common, 1876

1876, Chiselhurst Common, repeated destruction of fences around common land, and public meetings, defeated GH Baskomb’s attempt to sell it off. In neighbouring Camden Park, the landowner, William Willett, tried to enclose the land here: locals defeated the idea and proved it was common land.

1878, Eelbrook Common, Fulham – a protest meeting at plans by Ecclesiastical Commissioners to enclose it turned rowdy, and enclosure fences were destroyed.

1882, West End Green, West Hampstead: a crowd tore down hoardings round the green, scheduled for development, and burned them. Just down the road, Fortune Green was saved from being built on by local opposition in 1896.

1880s, Alexandra Palace Park – protests over plans to sell it for development end with proposals shelved.

1883, Coulsdon Commons – legal action ended fencing off and quarrying.

1886, Highgate Wood – local campaign stops the wood being sold off to speculators for development

Clissold Park, Stoke Newington: 1886-89: Grounds of the local big house saved from development by local campaign and opened as public park.

1880s, Petersham Park – locals in alliance with the Commons Preservation Society defeated a plan to appropriate part of the Park for a vicarage. In 1896, owner Lord Dysart, wanting to build on the land, closed footpaths & fenced off land. Local pressure led to the Bill’s failure.

1888, Town Mead, Fulham – locals destroyed fences during a long, ultimately unsuccessful resistance.

1890, West Wickham Common – Lord of the Manor Colonel John Lennard enclosed and sold 20 hectares for building, then put up a “strong unclimbable spiked iron fence”. Local opinion forced him to sell the land to the Corporation of London, who opened it up.

1891, Ham Common – Protests against landowners (the Dysart family) ban on removal of game, or gravel, and claim that common fields and footpaths were private property. Early one morning 4 notice boards were chopped down. Culprits were acquitted.

In the 1890s, the Local Vestry’s attempt to encroach on Barnes Common to extend the cemetery was defeated.

1892, Leyton – 3000 people pulled down railings protecting a railway that had been unpopularly run across common lammas land to the East London Waterworks, & wrecked the railway. The land remained open, and remains open.

1897, One Tree Hill, Honor Oak – 1000s rioted over several weeks in protest against the enclosure of the open land here for a golf course. After long legal wrangling the Hill was bought for the public in 1905.

1898, Croham Hirst, Croydon: Owners Whitgift’s Hospital tried to flog half of it off for development in 1898. Croydon residents successfully campaigned to get the local council to buy it for the public.

Parliament Hill, 1899: Saved from development by campaigning.

1900, Eltham Common – protests forced the War Office to back down on a plan to steal the Common to build army officers quarters.

In 1902, Wimbledon Green (on edge of Wimbledon Common) was enclosed despite a number of riots and destruction of fences.

Empty land in Plaistow was also squatted by the unemployed during the recession of 1905-6

In 1908 part of Woolwich Common was lost to the War Office for the officers quarters and a polo ground.

1912, The Rookery, Streatham, was preserved for public use by a local committee. In 1923, the same committee revived to save neighbouring Norwood Grove from development.

1920, Petts Wood – a campaign prevented sell off of the wood. In 1973, Petts Wood residents opposed plans to build 60 flats in Covet Wood. The Wood was bought by the Council instead and preserved as an open space.

West Wickham & Hayes Commons saw a Ministry of Transport plan in 1924 to build an arterial road through the woods defeated after local protests.

Wanstead Flats was saved from development for housing by a campaign in the 1940s.

From Wild Wood to Pleasure Garden

Open Space as the haunts of rebels, outlaws and outcasts

For centuries the ring of forests and heaths around London provided refuge for outcasts, rebels, robbers, squatters, fugitives and later political radicals; making new communities as well as fighting for survival, and often resisting the landowners and authorities by force… The legends of Robin Hood arose from real people… This caused a sense of fear and encirclement among the rich – the respectable feared the conspiracies, plots and revolts they saw as brewing in the wild lands. Forests had of course always been to some extent threatening to settled man, being full of wild beasts, wild folk, the unknown… The pressure to clear forests came not just from economics, the need for wood, farmland, etc, but also to tame the uncontrolled, threatening wilderness…

Places like St Johns Wood, Epping Forest, Hounslow Heath, Enfield Chase, Putney Heath were all well known haunts of rebels and robbers, poachers, highwaymen, smugglers, political rebels, gypsies, squatters, ex-soldiers turned maurauders, for centuries.

As enclosure drove people off more profitable land, communities grew up on wastes, marginal land, in the woods; often squatted – houses built in a day and a night were thought to carry some right to remain. Places like Epping Forest were home to ‘Maroon Villages’ – outcast camps of the dispossessed. Almost all the commons in the London area had squatter communities in the 17th and 18th centuries. The growth of pressures on poor rates from the dispossessed living in marginal conditions ironically served as a driver to further eviction and enclosure.

Travellers, gypsies, casual migrant labour, Irish refugees from the dire poverty created by the absentee landlord system in their country, also relied on access to open land for temporary refuge.

Gathering Places of Revolt

Open space also hosted rebellious armies, radical crowds and movements for social change. During the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the rebel army camped on Blackheath, (it was here that rebel priest John Ball preached the seminal sermon on the subject of equality for all –When Adam Delved and eve Span, Who was then the Gentleman?)… they parleyed with the king at Mile End Fields and Smithfield.
Jack Cade’s 1450 Kentish rebels, the 1497 Cornish tax rebels, also occupied Blackheath; the radical crowds of the English civil war also rallied on open spaces – Mile End Fields, St George’s Fields in Lambeth, Moorfields. The 1768 Wilkes Riots and 1780 Gordon Riots began on St George’s Fields.
In the 1790s the London Corresponding Society held mass rallies demanding political reform in the open spaces on the fringes of the metropolis – Marylebone Fields (now Regents Park), Camden’s Chalk Farm, Copenhagen Fields in Islington. Later radicals met on Spa Fields and Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell; on White Conduit Fields in Islington, Chartists on Bonners Fields in Bethnal Green, and most famously, on Kennington Common, in their last big rally in 1848.
Hyde Park became a noted battleground in the 1850s and 1860s, with radical crowds fighting for the right to gather there.  Trade unions, suffragettes, socialists, people arguing against (or in favour of) religion: parks and commons became the venue for open air politics, mass meetings, debates and argument. The kind of speechifying now only really seen at Speakers Corner used to be a common sight in all of London’s open spaces.
And when bylaws were used to drive socialists, anarchists and radicals out of parks, street corners became meeting places. Until the police came to beat up speakers, nick them and jail them… an attack that they defeated, in the end, by force of numbers.

Fairs, Immorality and Pleasure

From time immemorial London’s open space was also always a venue for pleasure. It’s obvious, and hasn’t changed much over the years, that in crowded cities, you desperately need access to freer places where you can relax, escape the jostling of your neighbours, evade (of only for a while) control by family, church and authority, play games, walk, chill, maybe have sex… And also meet, discuss banned ideas, gather and organise…

Right outside the old City wall, just to the north of the Moor Gate, one of London’s oldest and most famous open spaces, Moorfields; well-known for rowdy games of football (a banned, and frowned upon pastime), for turbulent get-togethers of London’s apprentices (always to the fore in riots, political troubles and protests), and for night-time rendezvous; most notably for gay men to meet each other, at a time when ‘sodomy’ was a hanging matter. (In more recent centuries, Russell Square, Hampstead Heath, and Clapham Common, have taken on the mantle of venues for outdoor gay meeting places, while Hyde Park, was well-known for prostitution for centuries… as Tooting Common was more recently…)

But London’s other ancient ‘wastes’ became similarly notorious. Lincolns Inn fields was a favourite place for walks and sports by the 14th century. But the Fields were also infamous as the haunt of ‘brotherhoods of beggars’ & thieves, as well as the venue for unlawful games, and the illegal exercising of horses. The homeless slept here for centuries: local lawyer Roger Leggett was killed during the peasants revolt, having made enemies by setting mantraps here to catch rough sleepers…

There were constant attempts by authority, often prompted by the wealthy who lived nearby open space, to ‘clean up’ the poor’s playgrounds. Open space should be for nice and proper people, taking part in useful, orderly and polite leisure pursuits, not“vile rabble of idle and disorderly persons, who assemble there to play cricket, and such like pastimes, to the no small danger, and hurt, of harmless people, who either walk for air or business”.

Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields was a mecca for prize-fighting, duck-hunting, and other bruising encounters. Victoria’s Tothill fields, and Bloomsbury’s Long Fields, also become infamous, for kite-flying, dog-fighting, and naked swimming and nearly naked running races. A major complaint was that ‘roughs’ would gather to play games on Sunday, the Lord’s Day; when they should’ve been in church, obviously! That Sunday was most people’s only day off was neither here nor there… However, attempts at repression could backfire: as in 1766, when the High Constable of Holborn and his officers entered the Fields, to find “upwards of two hundred and fifty dog-fighters, bullies, chimney sweepers, and sharps…” When they tried to put a stop to a dog-fight, the hooligans set their dogs on them.

Open spaces were also cherished because they hosted the annual fairs that livened up London’s life. Once mainly economic, where yearly work contracts were negotiated, and farmers sold produce, in the growing urban sprawl, Fairs were losing their old rural economic functions, becoming more and more festivals of debauchery, and a public order headache for local authorities. Increasingly hated by the better off, for their immorality, disorder and policing expense, London’s many Fairs became notorious and rowdy.
May Fair, the traditional May 1st shindig, held for centuries, off Piccadilly (that gave the area its name), ended up as a rowdy gathering of the poor & a threat to public order. As the area was gradually taken over by the rich in the 18th century, pressure grew to ban it. The authorities first tried to suppress it in 1708; it was finally banned in 1769.  When the constables came to suppress the fair, a mob of about thirty soldiers and other persons, stood in defiance of the peace officers, at whom they threw brick bats: a constable died of stab wounds after the fight.

Camberwell Fair

The most famous was Bartholomew Fair, held at Smithfield, for centuries; a teeming, riotous, outpouring of popular culture, feared like no other by those in power… “a dangerous sink for all the vices of London”… a venue for subversive plays, puppetry, satire and attacks on the Lord Mayor & all established authorities. In 1697 William Philips was whipped for his anti-government satires at the fair. Rumours that radicals were planning to start an uprising there were enough to terrify the government in 1817.

London’s fairs were mostly closed down, banned or toned down, between the 1760s and the 1850s, an important plank in the moral reformation of London’s poor, and the attempt to impose hard work and religion on the working classes in place of drink, riot and pleasure. Annual events like Camberwell and Southwark Fairs were repressed at the behest of local authorities keen to cut policing costs, middle class killjoys, and moral reformers Some long-running fairs survive, like Pinner Fair.

Often part of the impetus to enclosing space came from pressure to eliminate the waste and common spaces where Fairs, rowdy games, outdoor sex took place. Notorious spaces like Moorfields and Smithfield were landscaped in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, laid out into formal walks, open waste’ made ‘proper’, in an attempt to transform the behaviour that took place there. Later, sites associated with radical crowds had to also be transformed; almost as if the memory, the possibility of uprising, had to be exorcised. Kennington Common, where the last great Chartist rally took place in 1848 (scaring the crap out of the rich), was shortly afterwards surrounded by railings, turned into formal gardens; folk considered ‘unrespectable’ were kept out.

But landscaping or fencing, creating ordered space, didn’t always succeed.  Formal parks and gardens, the fashionable spas or pleasure gardens, had the habit of starting out posh, but succumbing to a process of de-classing. The spas of Clerkenwell and Islington Hill (Sadlers Wells, London Spa, Bagnigge Wells) and Lewisham’s Sydenham Wells began with respectable airs and a healing ethos, but within a few years the large numbers coming to drink the waters were mixing them with other liquids. Moral reformers fumed that ‘the wrong sort’ were being attracted… that they were encouraging class mixing (a very bad thing!), and thence to rowdiness, drunkenness, sex and debauchery.

Even landscaped pleasure gardens became contested. Emerging in the eighteenth century, as open spaces had been transformed into fashionable landscaped gardens, catering for the growing leisured classes, often they excluded the poor, servants, soldiers…
In 1764, a crowd tore down railings at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in protest at entry prices and its private ownership. In the 1790s Kensington Gardens were opened to the public, but soldiers, sailors & servants were banned, and a strict dress code was enforced. Complaints started to flood in about crowds of servants gathering outside the gates & insulting ladies & gentlemen entering…

More recent times

Just some struggles in the last few decades:

1973-4, Sparrow Wood, Roundabout Wood & Crofton Heath –  local opposition scuppered a plan to develop 139 acres of this woodland near Bromley

1970, Heston Farm: Green space saved from huge housing development by campaign.

1980s : A local campaign saved Stoke Newington East reservoirs from being developed.

1979-85, Walthamstow Marshes: Save the Marshes Campaign prevents marshes being destroyed for development into a marina.

Parkland Walk, Haringey – AN old railway line closed in the 1960s and turned into a green walk. Saved from proposed development in 1990 for a 6 lane highway by a local campaign.

1985-93, Oxleas Wood, Eltham – Proposals to build an East London River Crossing, with a new motorway driven through this very beautiful 8000-year old wood, (as well as 100s of homes being demolished) were defeated by fierce campaigning from locals & environmentalists.

1999, Crystal Palace Park – During a campaign to oppose the building of a huge complex on part of the park, the site was squatted as a protest camp.
Although the camp was evicted, the plan collapsed.

Taking Back Wanstead Flats

Leyton Marsh – A camp was set up to resist a landgrab from the Olympic Park in 2012

Take Back Wanstead Flats similarly campaigned against police compounds taking over part of the Flats for the 2012 Olympics

Nunhead Reservoir: An unofficial local open space on top of a reservoir used by locals was fenced off, and a campaign sprang up for access

These days inflated land values, soaring property prices, property use as commodity and driver of the economy, and housing shortages are creating a pressure cooker, which is impacting on open space not protected by legislation. Especially if its in areas where residents are less wealthy – what are they doing occupying this space? when it could be used for something more profitable?!

Tidemill Community Garden, a space created on empty land by Deptford residents was evicted by Lewisham Council despite a strong local campaign

Such campaigns are ongoing: campaigner in Southwark are fighting to prevent the council from building over green spaces on their estates, nicking the small places used by residents… Local unofficial park Peckham Green has been fenced off for development despite fierce opposition.

But they’re not winning everywhere: Residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, have recently returned part of Brent River Park to public access by direct action against fences. 

And when some posh residents of Primrose Hill demanded fences be re-instated there to prevent people gathering there during the covid lockdown, and fences were erected , some folk campaigned against it, and fences were sabotaged…

Meanwhile councils rent parks to expensive music festivals for weeks of the year, fencing off part of open space for weeks of the summer from access unless you can pay, and leaving it trashed after… 

Reclaiming the Land

Gargoyle Wharf

The example of the 1906 land occupation in Plaistow already mentioned, and the older tradition of land squats going back to the diggers, has been echoed in recent decades by land occupations in the capital, often on derelict industrial land, or in slivers of green space grown up wild or abandoned.

Inspirational in this was The Land is Ours occupation at Gargoyle Wharf, Wandsworth, in 1996.

More recently, squatted eco villages have been launched in Hounslow, at Kew Bridge, on Ravens Ait, in Woolwich

Going Beyond Preservation

The struggles mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. Many acts of resistance didn’t get recorded, or were forgotten. Destruction of fences, fights with bailiffs and ‘stealing’ of resources people had been banned from using; trespass on lands barred to all – much of this went under the radar. Acts like poaching by their nature were mostly carried out in secret, for instance. The defence of open space is a history without heroes – it was carried out from below, by millions, and is still being written…

We need a new commons… based not in the past but in the future. The main thing to take from the numberless struggles to preserve open space is that people won because they considered the places they were defending to be theirs, to belong to them, even when that stood in opposition to the legal ‘reality’… Although sometimes relying on those traditions and common rights as the basis for legal argument didn’t work, often when it formed the backbone for direct action and a collective campaigning approach, this sense of the commons being ‘ours’ could overcome all the power of law, profit and parliament. This is a lesson worth taking when we think about how we view open space: although we can take many inspirations from our history, reliance on the past can not be a defence, we need to be re-forging a sense that the resources of the world are for all of us, for people’s enjoyment, not for the profit of a few.

We need to be redefining what is ours, collectively, in opposition and defiance of the laws and fences built to exclude us; and not just when it comes to green or urban space, but for the whole world. In the midst of 21st century London, a whirlwind of global profit, backed by a government with a determined ruling class agenda, is uprooting communities, altering the landscape, destroying or severely hamstringing any right to social housing, welfare, health, education, for increasing numbers of us.
What are we going to do in response?

Read More

This post is just a brief introduction to the history, politics, and significance of open space in the London area. More information on everything herein, available from us… We’re currently working to put out a book covering the struggles and themes touched on here in greater detail. We don’t yet know when this book will be published… Keep in touch with us for further info.

In the meantime, longer accounts of some of the events mentioned here can be found in some of our other writings:

• Down With the Fences: Battles for the Commons in South London.

• Rights of Common: The Fight against the Theft of Sydenham Common and One Tree Hill

• Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy

• Symond Newell & Kett’s Rebellion: Norfolk’s Great Revolt against Enclosures, 1549.

• Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure & the Rise of Capitalism

Some useful contacts

Open Spaces Society – Founded as the Commons Preservation Society in 1865; the CPS played a huge part in legal actions and campaigning to preserve green space nationally, and was instrumental in the passing of legislation to protect commons. The Society today remains committed to defending open space, footpaths and rights of way.

National Federation of Parks of Green Spaces – a UK network of area-wide Forums. We exist to promote, protect and improve the UK’s parks and green spaces by linking together all the friends and users Forums/networks throughout the country.

The Land Is Ours – campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources, and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone.

The Ramblers – ‘Britain’s walking charity, working to protect and expand the places people love to walk and promote walking for health and pleasure’.

Wombling Free: #OnThisDay in London green history, 1864: Earl Spencer proposes to enclose Wimbledon Common

The earliest history of Wimbledon Common and Putney Lower Common dates back to the paleolithic age and barrows such as the one known as Caesar’s Camp (although not associated with the Roman period) have been discovered.
In the 18th century locals had rights of access at certain times of the year, to cut wood & graze animals, & to cut peat & loam to sell. Until the 19th century the many oak pollards on the Common provided winter fuel for many local folk. These rights had, however, been the source of struggles between locals & landowners for years.

An attempt at enclosure in the late 17th century by the then Lord of the Manor, had been prevented by local resistance.

Around 1723 there was further unrest in the area, when the powerful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, bought the manor of Wimbledon, and attempted to curtail some common rights.
Her descendants, the aristocratic Spencer family (ancestors of Princess Di) became Lords of the Manor in Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Putney.

In 1812, the Lord of the Manor, Lord Spencer, broke longstanding agreements over common rights, by cutting down huge numbers of trees, and selling the timber, causing protests.  Effectively stripping the common of trees deprived commoners of their right to this wood.  The poor of the parish were still allowed to cut furze in the winter, and freehold and copyhold tenants had the right to graze cattle. Many disputes arose over gravel-digging and cutting peat and loam: Commoners objected to the Lord’s wholesale pillaging of the Common.

In the mid-19th century, industrialisation and urbanisation had extended London over great swathes of the surrounding countryside, and the capital was swallowing up villages, which often involved the development of greens, commons and woods. Resistance to enclosure for economic survival – the need to gather fuel for keeping warm, for grazing animals, collecting foodstuffs – had been a feature of life for centuries. Gradually, the struggle over preventing building over green spaces became more concentrated on providing space for leisure for the millions now living in the city. Campaigns evolved for areas to be set aside as parks, and this became a major concern of a growing philanthropic class among the wealthy. Campaigning at Wimbledon followed a long drawn out controversy about threats to build on Hampstead Heath and a growing movement to preserve Epping Forest for open access.

Wimbledon Common was to become a central battleground for this movement, and provided the impetus for the creation of an important campaigning organisation – the Commons Preservation Society.

Compared to many districts in London, Wimbledon was a relatively wealthy area, and its inhabitants generally better off. Those ‘commoners’ – residents with acknowledged rights to use the Common in one way or other – tended to be well to do, more so even than in other areas. Unlike the struggles over many metropolitan commons, the battle at Wimbledon essentially became a two-and-fro mainly manifested between two sides, the lord of the manor and various commoners. Large-scale working class campaigning and direct action, which were seen in many battles over open space in the 19th century, did not develop. Again, the debate did also not involve local government bodies, eg parish vestries, which in some areas were the arena for debate and negotiation of rights, and sometimes centres of campaigns.

In fact, a lot of the debate around Wimbledon Common’s fate, and the future of commons more widely, took place in Parliament, where prominent campaigning MPs attempted to ensure more legislative protection for open space was passed into law.

The lord of the manor, Earl Spencer, started the wheels in motion when he announced plans to make a park out of Wimbledon Common at a meeting of local inhabitants on 11 November 1864.

Interestingly, November 11th, traditionally known as ‘Martinmas’, was an important date in the annual rural calendar regarding commons, a customary date when people were allowed to begin cutting wood for fuel for winter. Did Spencer choose this date on purpose? Hard to know.

Spencer proposed to convert 700 of the common’s 1000 acres into a park. The costs of creating this park and compensating the commoners’ interests would be met by selling off portions of the remaining common: with pressures at the time, this would likely mean this part would end up built on. Spencer planned to administer and maintain the park, allowing public access but by his permission, and paying for the upkeep by Ietting areas for pasture & grazing. The Lord would retain control and everything would only be by his leave.

On the face of it, Earl Spencer seemed to be offering up most of the Common for people to access; he asserted that this plan had been drawn up in response to the immense pressures on land in the metropolis, and the threat that if no scheme was set in place, much of the open land there would eventually end up being sold and developed. Neighbouring areas were facing green spaces being lost, as railways were laid across them, portions were sold and built on, and offers and pressures on Spencer to sell off parts of Wimbledon were growing (he had already sold parts of nearby Wandsworth Common which had been cut into three by rail lines).

Spencer was canny enough to bate his ‘offer’ with threat – if you don’t let me carry out my plan, you might lose the whole Common. Plus, he suggested that in its present condition the common was a less than desirable open space. The Common was a favourite camping place for Gypsies, who were accused of leaving rubbish behind, and in 1860 their alleged refusal to be vaccinated against smallpox was viewed as a threat to public health.

On top of this, maintenance was expensive, especially to drain the Common to keep it navigable in wet weather. Spencer also claimed that preventing the exploitation of the Common for gravel-digging was also a headache (somewhat cheeky, as this was a process his family has benefitted from, and he himself quarried for gravel on the Common), and the constant agro that use of the common by the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) for its annual meetings of marksmen and Volunteers caused among locals. [some residents had objected to the presence of rifle butts on the common and to the behaviour of the crowds who attended. Spencer was a keen supporter of the Volunteers and the N.R.A. and his scheme meant to ensure their continued access…]

Spencer intended to retain the power of making regulations as to permitted refreshments to be sold in the new park, for regulating quarries and pits to be used by the parishes for gravel digging, and for excluding gipsies and tramps. The plan marked out the areas to be sold for building. No land would be sold in excess of the amount required for purposes of implementing the scheme. Any gatherings of a religious or political nature would be prohibited.

There was a little opposition at the meeting itself – in fact hardly anyone had attended as the meeting hadn’t exactly been heavily publicised. Of those who did turn up (the churchwardens and clergy from Wimbledon and Putney plus “several copyholders and resident gentry”), most generally seem to have vaguely approved on the Lord’s plans. The foremen of the homage juries (a representative group of tenants known as the manorial homage, whose job was to make presentations to the manorial court and act as a jury) of Wimbledon and Battersea manors moved a resolution giving some qualified support to Spencer’s scheme. However, a four-member committee was appointed to investigate the plan in detail.

At a time when commons were under threat, Spencer’s proposal seemed positive: a lord offering to secure a large portion of a common for public use. The press generally lauded the plan. Around Wimbledon, Spencer’s scheme led to some heated discussion, much of which saw the lord’s motives more cynically. The plan would leave Spencer as “Protector” of the land, with the authority to make the park available for “any purpose of practical public utility or interest” (with the consent of the Home Secretary, a way of perpetuating use by the N.R.A) – but with no restrictions in the form of commoners with rights. Critics suggested that this provision gave Spencer absolute title to the land not sold off.

One major objection was his insistence on that the Common would have to be fenced off. Spencer’s steward William Forster insisted on the necessity of enclosing the new “park” as the only means of bringing the area “properly under control”. Residents were generally opposed to fencing the new park off.

Spencer and Forster also maintained the existing commoners would have to give up their rights, although compensation would be paid to them.

The four-man committee appointed to go through the Lord’s plan in more detail could not completely agree whether to support it. After deliberating, three of the four concluded that in their view, there was no need for a fence, or for selling up to 300 acres of the common to pay expenses. lf fencing were needed to turn the pasturage into a profitable venture, the committee believed a more extensive network would be needed than Spencer admitted, and this, along with the clearing of natural vegetation, would detract from the public’s use of the common. Other means could be employed to control nuisances such a gypsies. Nor was a fence required for the purpose of the N.R.A. meeting. The majority of the committee wanted no fencing, and commoners’ rights left in place. They suggested local residents would pay for the upkeep of the common rather than lose these acres to building.

The committee expressed the fear that portions of the Common would be sold, and the proposals put Spencer under no compulsion to manage the common; it merely gave him permission. His Lordship, or subsequent lords of the manor, would be free to use their powers to exact as much profit from the common as possible, or prevent access at their whim. As drafted, it gave the lord too much power to work gravel pits and quarries, which a future Protector might exploit. The committee recommended adapting a system already operating in Bristol which gave the public guaranteed access to commons without abridging the common rights of the freeholders of the affected manors. Spencer could chair such a management structure. As to paying for it all, that  donations could be sought from the public, or if, as Spencer proposed, the inhabitants were charged on the rates to raise money for the scheme, then residents would deserve a voice in its management, (a role Spencer opposed).

The committee’s report was read in January 1865to a gathering of sixty-five residents at the Wimbledon home of Henry Peek, a wealthy Tory M.P., who was determined to preserve the common. This meeting voted that the committee should meet with Spencer to explain their objections, and also resolved to persuade the locality to pay the management expenses of the common.

An influential section of Wimbledon society had rejected the scheme. They deemed a 700-acre park a poor cousin to the full common, regardless of the good intentions of Spencer. They clearly wanted no encroaching buildings nor any fences.

As noted above, the majority view was not unanimous: the fourth member of the committee submitted a minority report to Spencer in which he declared:

“That all the people want is, what the Bill brought in by your Lordship gives them, namely, Seven hundred acres for a Park… That all minor matters, such as draining, fencing, and levelling the land, building lodges, and making ornamental water, roads, and paths, should be left to your Lordship’s judgment and discretion…. that the donor of such a noble gift is the proper person to consider what is best calculated to be done to enable the people thoroughly to enjoy it, and to carry out unmolested all minor details.”

Seriously, grovel on, mate.

Few inhabitants of Wimbledon shared this dissenter’s opinion, it would seem – the voices that dominate the debate after this are those belonging to Spencer’s opponents. Few supporters could be found for his plan.

One of the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, Charles A. Gore, also responded to Spencer’s plan. His professional interest concerned the rights of common allegedly held by the Crown with respect to forty acres in the region. When the land had been enfranchised the rights had been regranted, and Gore wanted to ensure that these Crown rights would be dealt with properly. Gore was far from opposed to enclosures, which he had long had dealings with. Although he supported the right of the Lord to sell gravel from three pits already in operation; and accepted some land would have to be sold to cover the costs of the bill and payment of compensation to the lord, he also found numerous faults with Spencer’s proposed bill, along similar lines that the committee had expressed – that commoners’ rights were ignored, and that the bill lacked sufficient safeguards to prevent an unscrupulous successor to Spencer using the park for profit. The Protector should share his powers with at least two others, one representing the commoners, the other appointed by the Enclosure Commissioners. Gore also disputed the value of a fence, believing that the common would be a greater resource to all if left unenclosed.

Earl Spencer, however, was determined to press ahead with putting a bill before Parliament enshrining his plan. He acknowledged two concessions to the committee’s and Gore’s objections. Acknowledging that a single administrator might not safeguard the park as a public facility, Spencer proposed two additional trustees, one to be appointed by the Crown and the other by the Enclosure Commissioners. There was no mention of a representative of the commoners or local residents. Secondly, Spencer agreed to relinquish his right to cut turves and restrict his right to take gravel if he was compensated for the consequent loss of revenue. Any money left after the management expenses had been met from the proceeds of the right of pasture would go to the lord.

Spencer knew these minor concessions failed to meet the objections of the committee, but he preferred to battle it out in Parliament where all points of view could be heard. He based his feeling that the homage juries of Wimbledon and Wandsworth had expressed wholehearted support, representing the copyholders of the manors, the only parties apart from himself who he felt had any legal interest in the common. His Lordship continued to insist that a fence was necessary to guard against the increasing “evils” that threatened it, and was the only way to safeguard animals when the pasture was let. His steward stressed that the fence “should be in good taste” – well that’s ok then! — not the iron railing at first suggested – “a plain inexpensive open wooden fence [with] frequent openings..”
Disagreements over the style of fencing around a common would appear elsewhere in London.

Attempts to negotiate an agreement ended with no resolution of the two important issues, the fence, and the sale of portions of the common. Spencer’s sweetener of first offering these portions to adjoining property owners was not judged to alter the situation materially. Public meetings in Wimbledon and Putney during the opening months of 1865 expressed support for the views of the committee.

Meanwhile in Parliament in early February, MP Frederick Doulton gave notice of his intention to move for the appointment of a Select Committee on metropolitan open spaces. Pressure was mounting in London, and not just over Wimbledon. Increasing enclosures were reducing the size of Epping Forest; Tooting Common had been threatened by an enclosure Act in 1863; Streatham and Clapham Commons were felt to be in danger of disappearing; Stockwell and Dulwich commons had already vanished.  Parts of Wandsworth Common were lost to the railway in the same year as Spencer made his proposals.

In the press, Forster and Spencer argued that Spencer was absolutely owner of the common, subject only to the existing rights of the commoners, but that these rights are confined to pasturage; they were practically of little value, and those who possess them were few in number.

In reply the letter from the Wimbledon and Putney Comm¡ttee objected that there were 200 commoners, not merely a few, with the right of digging gravel, turf, and Ioam on the common, and that “the existence of this latter right is fatal to the lord’s right to enclose or (as it is technically called) approve any part of the common.”

The sponsor of Spencer’s enclosure bill, Lord Bury, agreed that it should be postponed for a month while Doulton’s Select Committee looked into the broader question of metropolitan open spaces, but Spencer would not necessarily feel bound by its recommendations. The Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed in early March 1965.

The decision to appoint a Select Committee on Metropolitan Open Spaces was the beginning of efforts to find a single consistent policy to deal with the commons around London and beyond. Before this, politicians directed their attention towards whichever one was the scene of the most public dispute. The first session of the twenty-one-member Committee lasted for two weeks at the end of March 1865, focused on Wimbledon Common. Between early April and late June more hearings were held dealing with the remaining metropolitan commons. A separate report issued from each set of hearings.

The majority of the Committee was sympathetic to the cause. Of saving London commons. Many members were London M.P.s; the committee included  two who were both to become active in the Commons Preservation Society, Shaw Lefevre and William Cowper, as well as George Peacocke and Frederick Doulton, both active on the issue previously.

After some initial groundings in the law underpinning enclosures, notably their basis in the 1235 Statute of Merton, the Committee turned its attention to Wimbledon. The questioned Earl Spencer who frankly admitted that his arrangement excluded local representatives from management of the common, because he thought they would be hostile to the Volunteers and the N.R.A.. Spencer explained why his scheme offered more to the locals than it took away, despite the obvious feeling in the neighbourhood against the fence. He blamed gypsies and tramps for many nuisances, including bringing “infectious diseases” into the area and allowing their “donkeys to stray into gardens”: the fence would assist control over these people.

Spencer claimed that the homage juries’ early support  showed that commoners were willing to let their largely useless rights go if offered compensation. He was quite insistent that he was giving up many of his own rights as a public service. He could, he understood, enclose either by common law if sufficient land were left for the commoners or by custom of the manor, that is, with the consent of the homage jury, in which case the question of sufficiency did not arise. Up to this point Spencer was not denying that there were commoners with rights. lndeed, an important part of his scheme (the fence) dealt with the means to compensate them when their rights were lost.

Under questioning by Shaw Lefevre, Spencer claimed he was willing to abandon the fence if another way to pay for management of the park could be found. But he continued to insist that the management must be “in the hands of independent people”, with no representative of local residents; his relations with locals had deteriorated during his negotiations with them, and his distrust is obvious: he may have been expecting that any representative of the inhabitants and commoners would challenge his inflated assessment of his rights as lord.

His steward, William Forster, also appeared before committee, and actually went further than his employer – he denied there were any commoner at all, and maintained that nothing really prevented Spencer from doing as he pleased on his land. There were copyholders – but they had no common rights. There were rights of way across the common, but that was it. With the support of the manor homage juries the lord of the manor could enclose at will.

Evidence was also taken from a number of witnesses from Wimbledon. Joseph Burrell, a barrister with expertise in property law, accused Forster of ignoring the important common rights held by the freehold tenants of the manor. These could not be lost in the same way as copyholders’ rights. He also disputed Forster’s view of the Statute of Merton: the Stature allowed the lord to approve against rights of pasture, but it had no power to limit other rights such as turbary, estovers or gravel digging. These, Burrell claimed, were linked to ancient cottages, and a modern cottage on an ancient site could claim the original rights.

Burrell also theorised that a court might rule that the inhabitants of London had acquired a right of recreation over Wimbledon Common – this was a radical departure from precedent in law, and strayed towards an interpretation of commons that transcended legal ownership at all. However, Burrell claimed that a court might rule in this way.

There were other witnesses who asserted that “from time immemorial the public had gone over that land when and where they liked, without interruption from anybody”…

William Williams, a solicitor, one of three members of the original committee appointed to consider Spencer’s proposal, also gave evidence. He raised an eyebrow at Forster’s suggestion that there were no commoners – if this was so, why had Spencer included a provision to sell land in order to compensate them? Why had notices been sent to 287 copyholders seeking their consent to compensation?

Williams suggested a compromise plan, in which money could be raised from the community to compensate Spencer for any lost revenue, and if the required £5000 were collected, no land would be released; some land would be sold if this figure was not met. The rights of commoners were to remain which might limit the public’s use for recreation, but Williams felt this would not cause much conflict, since many rights were no longer exercised.

The majority of witnesses expected that a fence would alter the character of the common, and Williams feared it would become the instrument which permitted it to be exploited for profit.

The only witness to endorse the need for a fence was Lord Elcho, the chairman of the National Rifle Association, and even he objected to anything more than a simple post and rail structure.

The Select Committee had no power do more than deliver an opinion on the widely varying views of what common rights and the lord or the manor’s prerogatives. The Select Committee’s members tended to veer towards the views of the Wimbledon commoners. It made three recommendations:

  • That is is not expedient that the Wimbledon Common should be fenced round or inclosed, or that the existing Common Rights should be extinguished.
  • That it is not necessary, and would be undesirable, that any part of the common should be sold.
  • That the 20 Hen. 3, c. 4, commonly called the Statute of Merton, by which a lord of the manor can inclose, without either the assent of the commoners or the sanction of Parliament, ought immediately to be repealed.

Spencer felt no obligation to accept these recommendations or abandon his bill, but when brought before the House of Commons for a second reading on 6 April 1865, he had made some alterations. He adopted Williams’ suggestion and was willing to permit the residents time to raise the necessary funds (by subscription or a local rate) to pay for the proposed improvements before any land would be sold, and agreed to abandon fencing the common if Parliament decided against it. This was a significant reversal; however, though the revised bill incorporated the proposal to vest management in a three-person board, local representatives were still excluded.
This left only the question of the alleged rights of commoners as the only substantial issue of disagreement between Spencer and the residents’ committee.

Spencer and his supporters characterised his opponents in the neighbourhood as being primarily the “villa owners around the Common”. This was generally true; as in many areas,  ‘commoners’ could effectively be well to do;  undoubtedly, their motives mixed self-interest and in some cases, altruism… While some MPs were in favour of supporting the revised bill, others felt it should be voted down as it did not recognise full rights for all to “wander at will”. But those campaigning to preserve commons realised that any movement would not succeed if based on villa owners.

William Cox, Liberal M.P. from Finsbury, who wished to kill the bill, believed the testimony from the witnesses who asserted that the land had been wandered at will “since time immemorial” meant that the “land was thereby brought within the description of a village green”… A public right of recreation could be sustained over a green much more easily than over a common. Cox opposed the Spencer scheme “not in the interests of any villa owners, but in [sic] behalf of the three-and-a-half millions of persons living in the metropolis”.

Other MPs felt the Select Committee had been packed with ‘preservationists’ and that the call to abolish the Statute of Merton was taking things too far.

At this point Spencer decided to drop his parliamentary enclosure bill. The resistance from locals and MPs forced him to pause and offer concessions. But the argument was far from over. Spencer stepped up his gravel digging and began building a brickworks, and his opponents bristled. An attempt at talks collapsed without an agreement, and Sir Henry Peek, one of the wealthiest local landowners, brought a case in Chancery against Spencer, in December 1866, to confirm the rights of commoners.

An application was also made to the Enclosure Commissioners for a scheme under the new Metropolitan Commons Act but they wouldn’t consider any intervention unless both sides could begin to agree on the way forward.

In 1868 Lord Spencer was still insisting on a scheme not so far from his early plan; his opponents were trying to prove that copyholders had not lost rights through non use or that freeholders had the rights they claimed. Luckily, Conveyances were found for certain lands, once part of the demesne, which explicitly included rights of common, and the commoners were able to persuade Spencer that he would be better making an agreement than months or years in court. Terms for a settlement were worked out, and an agreement was confirmed by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 .

The Common came under the control of a body of eight conservators, five elected by the ratepayers, plus one each to be appointed by the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for War (reflecting the use of the commons by the Volunteers), and the First Commissioner of Works. Spencer pulled out of any further involvement in the Common’s management, but since he received an annuity of Ê1200 compensation for the lost revenue from the common, he didn’t do badly out of it… (this was in fact not outrageous compared to the comparable cash payments that some lords of the manor would receive in the following years). The annuity was finally redeemed in 1968 by a lump sum payment from a redemption fund set up by the Conservators in 1957.

As proposed by the residents’ committee years earlier, a special local rate, was adopted to pay for the upkeep, with those living closest to the common paying a higher amount (the rate was assessed as follows: those within one quarter mile of the common paid 6d. in the pound; those within one half a mile, 4d., and those beyond, 2d. No houses assessed below £35 per annum contributed..) The National Rifle Association was allowed to continue its annual rifle meet, despite some continued local opposition. (in a few years, the NRA event grew too big and annoying, and the shooters moved away.) The Conservators could draft bylaws with the approval of the First Commissioner of Works.

The two sides in the Wimbledon dispute had been divided by radically different views on the nature of common rights, but the two camps both wanted the common preserved as a public open space. Spencer proposed a park but was willing to modify aspects of his scheme. At heart, he was not really determined to exploit the common for his own profit; if he had been, the fate of the common might have gone to court.
Instead, Wimbledon became the first metropolitan common to be managed by local conservators, a pattern that was later also adopted at Barnes, Mitcham, Epsom, and Banstead.

The battle at Wimbledon had some outcomes that had broader implications for open spaces. MPs in Parliament began to get involved in the question of preservation on space for all to enjoy (rather than simply passing acts to allow it to be enclosed by the wealthy, as they had largely done for centuries), although there remained an insistence on the rights of the landowners.

Their debates resulted in the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Act in 1866, an important milestone in the defence of commons, though not an all-perfect solution, as many spaces threw up issues that the Act could not cover.

Secondly, the Wimbledon case led directly to the formation of the Commons Preservation Society in 1865, formalising legal opposition to enclosure on an organisational front. Leading members of the Wimbledon committee and the MPs who formed the 1864 Select Committee were instrumental in this.
More on the early history of the CPS
The CPS was to be at the forefront in the hard graft of protecting commons and greens, and became the Open Spaces Society, which continues today

Although the vast majority of Wimbledon Common was saved for open access of all, a few decades later, a detached area of the Common, Wimbledon Green, became the centre of another dispute over its enclosure…
Meanwhile, other commons nearby soon became the focus of struggles over their future. Wandsworth Common, just a couple of miles away, in a manor also owned by the Spencers, saw a couple of years of bitter battle. If at Wimbledon, the relative poshness of the neighbourhood resulted in a comparatively genteel campaign, the dispute over Wandsworth Common was was hardly confined to ‘villa owners’. A mass campaign among the working class populations of Wandsworth and Battersea sprang up, and the fight involved direct action, sabotage, and arrest.

Today in London’s festive history: traditional day of Charlton Horn Fair, rowdy popular procession & shindig

Charlton Horn Fair was a rowdy bawdy South East London popular procession and fair, said to have originated in a celebration of cuckoldry. 100s of working class men wearing horns, and blowing on the musical horns, would march every 18th of October from Cuckold Point in Bermondsey, through Deptford to Charlton House, then back to Cuckolds Point, Deptford, where the Horn Fair was held for 3 days, outside St Luke’s Church. Like many fairs, the event often became riotous and disorderly, according to contemporary accounts, and descended into heavy drinking, occasional fighting and general debauchery. Respectable folk increasingly saw such occasions – which punctuated the annual calendar, especially between Spring and Autumn – as a threat to public order and morality.

The fair was described by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, in A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727) as:

“Charleton, a village famous, or rather infamous for the yearly collected rabble of mad-people, at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.”

Woodley, W.; Charlton Horn Fair

What were the origins of the fair? We know that in 1268 King Henry III granted a three-day fair to the Abbey of Bermondsey to be held around Trinity Sunday, which is the eighth Sunday after Easter, that is, around May or June. Bermondsey Abbey owned the manor of Charlton at the time.

Around the seventeenth century the date of the fair was moved to the 18th of October, which is the feast day of St Luke (patron saint of Charlton’s parish church). In medieval pictures Luke is often seen writing or painting, with a horned ox or cow also somewhere in the picture. It is thought that this inspired the displaying of a large pair of horns on a pole to announce the opening of St Luke’s Fair, which may be the origin of the horn motif of the fair.

An old myth used to be trotted out explain slightly older origins of the Fair:

A broadside summonsing people to the Horn Fair

“King John, wearied with hunting on Shooter’s Hill and Blackheath, entered the house of a miller at Charlton to refresh and rest himself. He found no one at home but the miller’s wife, young, it is said, and beautiful. The miller, it so happened, was earlier in coming home than was usual when he went to Greenwich with his meal; and red and raging at what he saw on his return, he drew his knife. The king being unarmed, thought it prudent to make himself known, and the miller, only too happy to think it was no baser individual, asked a boon of the king. The king consented, and the miller was told to clear his eyes, and claim the long strip of land he could see before him on the Charlton side of the river Thames. The miller cleared his eyes, and saw as far as the point near Rotherhithe. The king then admitted the distance, and the miller was put into possession of the property on one condition – that he should walk annually on that day, the 18th of October, to the farthest bounds of the estate with a pair of buck’s horns upon his head.”

This tale is almost certainly pretty much entirely made up – for a start, there is no record of any landowner having possessed all the land mentioned. Also, it was only in the 17th century that the fair was associated with October rather than being held around mid-summer.

But there could be a kernel of historical truth at the heart of this legend…

When the famous Magna Carta was issued to King John, as part of the subsequent editing process, a lesser known Magna Charta de Foresta, or Forest Charter, also emerged a few years later. This secondary document relaxed a large number of laws which made it almost a capital offence to hunt in the forests, which were solely the preserve of the Monarch. The forests and lands belonging to the Monarch had been greatly expanded, causing considerable anger among the populace, so the law also reduced the size of the land controlled by the Monarch, making it more available for common folk to use.

Could the tale about King John granting land to a commoner derive from folk memory of the actual law that his son signed just a few years later? Could the Charlton Horn Fair owe its origins to popular celebrations of the relaxation of forest laws signed by King Henry III? there was considerable rejoicing There were various other Horn Fairs dotted around the country, and a good many of them all seem to date from charters granted during King Henry III’s reign, and certainly the Charlton Horn Fair can be traced back that far as well, although its exact origins are uncertain.

The Horn aspect has been linked by some commentators to earlier pagan traditions, but another aspect of the Magna Charta de Foresta was to reduce the fines on hunting and encourage the reduction of earlier New Forests. The link between the law and hunting could explain the popularity of wearing horns, to show that the commoner has been allowed to hunt freely.

In 1819 the Fair was moved to Fairfields: “The fair was formerly held upon a green opposite the church, and facing Charlton House; but this piece of ground having some years ago been enclosed so as to form part of the gardens belonging to the mansion, the fair was subsequently held in a private field at the other end of the village, under the auspices of a few speculative publicans.” (Old and New London: Volume 6. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.)

The Charlton fair seemed to reach its zenith in popularity during the Restoration period, and flotillas of boats would fill the Thames as they brought revellers down from London to Charlton.

“During the reign of Charles II. it was a carnival of the most unrestrained kind, and those frequenting it from London used to proceed thither in boats, “disguised as kings, queens, millers, &c., with horns on their heads; and men dressed as females, who formed in procession and marched round the church and fair.”” (Old and New London: Volume 6.)

Nicholas Breton, in a poem published in 1612, “Pasquil’s Nightcap, or Antidote for the Headache,” gave an account of the annual gathering, which shows that they were held in great pomp, and with an immense concourse of people, all of whom

“In comely sort their foreheads did adorne
With goodly coronets of hardy horne;”

Breton ends his poem by hinting that the Fair was already seen as a nuisance by some:

“Long time this solemne custome was observ’d,
And Kentish-men with others met to feast;
But latter times are from old fashions swerv’d,
And grown repugnant to this good behest.
For now ungratefull men these meetings scorn,
And thanklesse prove to Fortune and the horn;
For onely now is kept a poor goose fair,
Where none but meaner people doe repaire.”

Many people attended the Fair in fancy dress, cross-dressing being especially popular. William Fuller wrote in 1703: “I remember being there upon Horn Fair day, I was dressed in my landlady’s best gown and other women’s attire, and to Horn Fair we went, and as we were coming back by water, all the clothes were spoilt by dirty water etc. that was flung on us in an inundation, for which I was obliged to present her with two guineas to make atonement for the damage sustained.”

In 1872 Charlton Horn Fair was officially banned, either because of general drunken behaviour, or specifically due to a fight between dockers & army cadets.

A ferris wheel at the Horn Fair, 18th century

“Legal measures are being taken to extinguish the fairs held at Charlton-next-Woolwich and on Blackheath. Charlton Fair, or “Horn Fair,” as it is called, has been held for centuries past on the 18th of October and two following days, under the authority of a charter said to have been granted by King John. It was formerly opened with great ceremony, including the blowing of horns, and hence, probably, its name. For many years past the character of the gathering has greatly degenerated, and it is the last pleasure fair left existing in the metropolitan district. The bulk of the inhabitants have long urged its extinction, and since the passing of the Fair Act, 1871, have memorialised the lord of the manor, Sir John Maryon Wilson, to that end. Sir John has now given his consent to the abolition of the fair, and on Saturday last the justices of the Blackheath division, sitting in petty sessions, resolved that the fair was a nuisance which ought to be abolished, and directed that the Secretary of State should be requested to take the necessary steps for that purpose. At the same time a representation was made with respect to Blackheath Fair, a sort of market held twice a year for the sale of horses, and pigs, and the consent of the “owner,” who is [Lord Darnley,] lord of the manor, having been given, a similar resolution was unanimously passed. It may be taken for granted that the fairs of Charlton and Blackheath have been held for the last time.”Daily News, Jan. 15, 1872. They have since (March, 1872) been officially abolished.

Despite the ban, the Fair was apparently unofficially celebrated in the 1920s.

While the fair itself was restored in the 1970s, the parade from Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe was not brought back, until the tradition of the parade was revived in 2009 – the IanVisits blog describes the start.

 

Today in London industrial history, 1969: Punfield & Barstow strike ends

Punfield and Barstow Mouldings was a small firm on the Queensbury Industrial Estate in Northwest London, manufacturing safety helmets, spools for 35mm film, plastic egg trays, tampax containers, and other plastic moulded items.

In June 1969 all 42 Pakistani and Indian workers (from a total work force of about 100) walked out on strike for a wage rise and better working conditions.

Attempts to unionise the factory had previously resulted in sackings, but by the end of February 1969 a majority had become members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF). The struggle to unionise the workers had been led by its Pakistani and Indian shop-stewards.

The account of the 1969 strike below is reprinted from two issues of Solidarity’s west-London newspaper from 1969.

Punfield-Barstow’s factory was at Basil Works, Westmoreland Road, Queensberry, NW9

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The Punfield & Barstow strike

On the small Queensbury (Middlesex) Industrial Estate history is repeating itself.

What is happening in this industrial backwater and others like it happened elsewhere decades ago. This struggle is a classical example of the fight that is still being waged in hundreds of small factories today to achieve better conditions and shop organisation. A feudalistic management is waging a vicious rearguard action against the right of ‘its’ workers to organise in trade unions. This kind of battle is contagious, and for that reason is being watched with particular interest by the non-organised work forces elsewhere on the estate. Several of the companies have made it their practice to employ high percentage of immigrant labour, the estate being readily accessible to the immigrant communities of N.W. London.

It is quite obvious that the example of Injection Moulders’ workers has inspired their next door neighbours, many of whose demands are those of parity. Links between the workers in the two firms are strong. In June of last year Punfield and Barstow sacked one of their workers for collecting money in the machine shop for the Injection Moulders’ Fund Appeal. On June 27 an Injection Moulders’ worker was arrested by the police for ‘breach of the peace’ when a P. and B. scab tried to pick a fight with him.

Together these two struggles have driven a horse and cart through the old tale that immigrant workers will put up with wages and conditions that white workers wouldn’t touch. At P. and B. production continues – the scabs being predominantly white and non-union.

The firm

The firm produces precision plastic mouldings for a variety of customers, the best known being the General Motors subsidiaries Frigidaire (Hendon), A.C. Delco (Dunstable) and Vauxhall (Luton). It also supplies Smiths (Cricklewood Broadway) with plastics dials and clock facings.

Towards the end of ’67, P. and B. was swallowed into the Capseal Group centred on the Greenock Trading Estate in Slough. Mrs. C.E. Punfield and Mrs. R.Barstow resigned from the Board of Directors, their places rapidly being taken by Capseals’ whizz-kids G.A. Lillywhite and F.R. Heath, both of whom collect company directorships like other guys collect beer mats.

Divide and rule

Punfield and Barstow also donates to the National Scheme for disabled men, yet its philanthropic gestures stop short of its own workers. Language difficulties are exploited to the full while cultural differences on the shop floor are also used by the foremen. Preferential treatment of the mainly non-English speaking Italian group has successfully ensured their non-fraternisation with the industrially-experienced Pakistani workers. Press operators of five and six years’ standing are made to wait while setters repair their machines. Promotion to setter, while virtual.ly impossible for a Pakistani trade unionist, is only too easy for other non-union workers. It’s rumoured that one of the Italian group was promoted so quickly from operator that he can’t even start some of the machines he’s meant to repair. With the recent trouble staff status has been conferred on the ‘setters’ to separate them even more rigidly from the rest of the machine shop. The foremen have done a ‘good’ job. The Italian group are under the mistaken impression that they have more in common with the management than with the pickets outside.

This outlook was encouraged by the management’s crude policy of penalising and victimising shop floor activists. Two previous attempts to organise the labour force at Punfield and Barstow ended in a spate of selective sackings. By February of this year, however, the management were forced to change their tactics as a majority of the shop floor had become AEF members. They resorted to petty spite instead. Everything has been tried, from intimidation of shop stewards (the night shift steward has been threatened ‘jokingly’ with the sack three times since February) to restriction of overtime (by as much as ten hours each week) for labourers in the grinding shop who admitted to being union members. On a labourer’s basic rate (6/5d – 6/7d) it’s impossible to exist without overtime. Also since the influx of men into the AEF a fifteen minute allowance for clearing up, washing and changing at the end of the eleven hour shift has been cut. The men now have five minutes to get out of the place.

Machine operators here are also ‘free’ to work a 55 hr. week of five eleven hour shifts. On a basic rate of 6/9d an hour it’s not surprising that they ‘choose’ to do just that.

The pill is sugared by an incentive bonus of 8d per hour. Unfortunately the minimum job rates necessary to earn a bonus are pushed up by the foremen whenever an operator sweats his way up too frequently to the set target. The blatant swindling that is practiced by the weighing clerk in the weighing and recording processes ensures that the bonus payouts are kept to a minimum.

Two recent examples are fairly typical of this creep’s method of operating:
a) a steward, himself weighing the product of his eleven hours’ work, entered a total of 1,772 moulded pieces in the record book, in the presence of the foreman. The following morning his output slip indicated only 1,570 pieces. Not only had his total shrunk by 200 pieces, but his bonus payout for eleven hours’ work was cancelled as the second figure was now below the incentive target.
b) another operator on a fully automated machine produced 35,000 pieces in an eleven hour shift. The weighing clerk entered only 23,000. When approached by the steward he apologised profusely and begged him not to tell anyone about the ‘mistake’. The clerk had only weighed the contents of two instead of three boxes.

Occasionally, the clerk goes to the whole hog and erroneously records an operator’s total eleven hour output as ‘scrap’. Yet these same pieces still go out on the next delivery.

Nineteenth century conditions

In their enthusiasm to increase production the foremen naturally dislike stopping the machines for anything at all. Some time ago this enthusiasm cost a machine operator three finger tips. They were sliced off in a machine with a mechanical fault. Previously the foreman’s attention had been drawn to the fault by the operator in question. He ignored it. Needless to say that the company has still offered no compensation.

In their enthusiasm for economy the management haven’t thought it necessary to supply the men with lockers or workclothes. Roll towels are left up for as long as two days and used by as many as sixty people. When one side is filthy they are turned inside out.

There are no hot meal facilities whatsoever and the night shift can’t even get cold snacks as the works canteen shuts down in the evening. Working eleven hours through the night the lads are expected to get by on cups of tea. In the machine shop itself there are broken windows that have been that way since ’63. The men have blocked them with cardboard, but it’s still freezing cold in the winter.

The machines are never cleaned from one week to another, and the floor is washed once in a blue moon. Oil and muck are left to accumulate. Given time the operators would willingly clean their machines; the management, however, are more interested in production, so the machines gradually get filthier and break down.

First round: the February demands

By February the men had enough. A series of demands were presented to the management, the crucial one being ‘guaranteed bonus for guaranteed production and standing hours’ (in the event of machine breakdown etc.). Other demands covered a wide range of grievances from machine rates, arbitrary sackings, lack of tea breaks and an end to discrimination in basic pay rate – an immigrant ‘powder man’ oiling machines on the day shift gets 6?10d per hour. A man on the night shift doing the same job receives 12/- per hour.

The management ignored the lot, and in a press statement to the Harrow Observer (June 20, 1969) they claimed to have received no official notification of the men’s grievances. This was a blatant lie. The men spent twelve weeks waiting for an answer from management.

Pickets versus scabs: New Queensbury rules

In the four weeks since the walk-out reduced production has continued, the scabs working 15 and 15 hours shifts to please management. Office women have been seen enthusiastically pushing trolleys piled up with sacks of raw powder.

On the picket line the men are in surprisingly high spirits. The London (North) District Committee of the AEF endorsed the action of the men almost immediately. Lorries from I.C.I. Anchor Chemicals and British Rail have respected the picket line and refused to deliver or collect. A running battle with a scab lorry from A.C. Delco division of General Motors (Dunstable) was won last Friday (July 4) after a windscreen wiper was pulled off in a scuffle when the police encouraged the driver to go through the picket line.

Since then P. and B.’s only large lorry has been knocked out – the windscreen mysteriously smashed altogether. teams of strikers together with workers and students from ‘Solidarity’ have leafleted the estate and support has been given by Poster Workshop, who produced a poster especially for the strike. ‘International Socialism’ and ‘Tricontinental’. Workers from both Injection Moulders and Rotoprint have been very sympathetic.

Bosses begin to wobble

Last Monday July 7) the Engineering Employers Federation met with the AEF divisional officials Elliot and McLoughlin and threw out some concessions to see if the lads would bite. They offered to raise the operators’ basic rate by 3d per hour to a magnificent 7/- together with a guaranteed bonus of 3/6d on the condition that three eight hour shifts be implemented in place of the two eleven hour ones previously operating.

However the men have been out too long now to go back on anything less than their terms. They have been demanding a basic rate of 8/- for operators and 10/6 for labourers (the latter being outside of the bonus system). They also wanted the reassessment of all machine rates as soon as possible in the presence of the shop steward and a management representative. Until such time as this is implemented they are demanding a temporary standard bonus for all operators. Finally they are demanding that all machine shop workers (and this includes setters and foremen) be limited to eight hour shifts.

It is quite obvious that no mater how long it takes these men are going to win, and when they do things will never be the same again inside Punfield and Barstow. Lambert, the managing director, expected them to crawl back after a few days to eat dirt again. He was so sure of himself that he sent each of them a letter inviting them to come back to work.

It’s no thanks to the National Executive of the AEF that this didn’t happen; and the men know it too. They now realise that their strength lies ultimately in their own determination and solidarity one with another. It has taken the National Executive of the AEF almost four weeks to recognise this strike, during which time the men have received no money from the union other than raised by the London (North) District Committee which has supported them all the way.

The strike at Punfields, one of the longest in local history, finished after fifteen weeks on September 12th 1969. Throughout the summer and autumn forty-two Indian and Pakistani workers fought police, scabs management, and some of their full-time union officials for the right to control their own destinies at work. This article, based on interviews with men involved, examines the part played by both the police and the union bureaucracy (AEF); dealing in particular with the attitude of the second to the initiatives taken by the strike committee during the strike. It then goes on to look at the power struggle now being waged on the shop floor, and finally weighs the gains made to date since June when the men were provoked out on strike.

Background to the strike

It was sparked off on the evening of June 11th when the management used police to evict the night shift for beginning a sitdown protest. They were merely following the example of the day shift who had sat in on the shop floor in retaliation for the arbitrary sacking of a press operator. Many other grievances had piled up concerning low wages, bad working conditions, extremely long shifts and the victimization of shop stewards and those known to be trade union members. Demands presented to the management in February had been subsequently ignored. The men saw the sacking as the last straw. The day following the police eviction brought the organized section (mainly press operators) out to a man.

The picket-line struggle

At 6.30 a.m. pickets would begin arriving for duty. At 6.55 a.m. the police would arrive for duty. This was repeated each day for fifteen weeks. For seven weeks the men stuck it out without strike pay, on their own resources – incidents with the management, and the predominantly white workers still inside, occurred daily. One morning in a clash before the police arrived a setter pulled a knife on the night shift shop steward. On a separate occasion a picket narrowly missed being nutted by an electrician waving a piece of lead piping. On the credit side the pickets came off decidedly better in the fist fights that occurred with the junior management.

Beyond the call of duty

Fro, the start the police played a blatantly political role, in spite of their assurances that they had no intentions of taking sides. To them the management were somehow more respectable because of their easy identification with the company’s property. Consequently the pickets were looked on as criminals and treated as such whenever the police thought they could get away with it. It was not long before the pickets came to realise that police and company were on the same side, against them.

Lorry drivers were encouraged to go straight through the picket line and the police set time limits for stewards attempting to persuade drivers to turn round to prevent them getting to a driver’s cab. Two strikers talking together on a little-used pavement would be threatened with arrest for obstruction, while scab lorries unloaded on the road without the police batting an eyelid. Offences committed by pickets were jumped on with commendable zeal. Those committed by scabs were usually ignored.

In the fifteen weeks, fifteen arrests were made, only one involving a non-striker. On September 8th Inspectors from Wembley police station, impatient to wrap up the strike, dropped in to chat with management. Two days later, police under the direction of an inspector arrested ten pickets for blocking the firm’s lorry by sitting down. In collaboration with the management, the police were continuously operating to weaken the strike.

The role of the union

Throughout the strike AEF officialdom’s attitude to initiatives taken by the strike committee remained ambiguous. The divisional level was more interested in getting the men back inside to negotiate “on their behalf” than in supporting the pickets by blacking incoming raw powder and outgoing components. In the early days officials at district level were obviously counting on a quick kill. So in late June there was an official demonstration. Officialdom marched at the head of the workers column once round Queensbury circle and duly got its face on the local press. The ‘demo’ ended with a chest-thumping rally, numerous pledges of solidarity and threats to close the factory down. Men from several factories came out to hear speech after speech from the full-time officials. The pickets came a poor last, the Punfield’s convenor only getting the megaphone when the big men had exhausted themselves.

By September it was a different story. The management, feeling the growing pain of disappearing business, gave significant concessions for the majority of the men but still refused on final points. The men resolved to struggle two weeks longer for the additional demands in the face of increased difficulties. The pickets were being pressed more harshly by police and free enterprise lorry drivers who specialised in picket-crashing. The union after fourteen weeks still hadn’t blacked the goods. On Friday, September 5th, the strike committee held their own demonstration. The megaphone passed from picket to picket and the union bureaucracy was attacked for its continued inaction. Not surprisingly no full-time officials were able to make it to the demonstration. Up to this time deputations of strikers had careered around the Home Counties by car distributing a list of components made at Punfield’s and requesting informal blacking at the relevant factories. Luton district AEF offices were telephoned early on in the strike in an attempt to get the workers at AC Delco’s of Dunstable to refuse to handle components from Punfield’s. Late in August the General and Municipal Workers Union convenor at Delco’s was still assuring the strikers that he’d black incoming components as soon as he got the word from above. It never came. A picket deputation to the offices of the AEU General Secretary Brother Conway was blocked by his secretary. The local branch telegrammed Conway requesting blacking from the National Executive in support of the strikers.

While this was going on the General Purpose Committee met the strike committee on two separate occasions. Both times it attempted to persuade the men back inside and let the negotiation be done by the full-time officials and the Engineering Employers Federation.

Towards the middle of September the men were talking in terms of breaking off relations with the union. They were attempting to make their last two weeks the most militant. All but four labourers had won the major part of their demands on pay and hours; these four were being told by both the company and all of the union officials to accept far less pay and longer hours than the others. Deciding to stay solid and continue the struggle for another two weeks, the men experienced repeated obstructions from the officials, the most blatant they had seen yet.

Divisional organiser talks tough

On Thursday 11th September, the day of the mass arrest, a deputation of shop stewards from the neighbouring factories of Rotoprint and Injection Moulders joined the strike committee and turned up at divisional organiser McLoughlin’s city office demanding to know what the hell was going on. They were more or less told they had no right to stick their noses in, and then in complete contradiction were accused of taking a long time to act for parties supposedly interested in the outcome of the strike. Understandably the stewards left Mac’s office angry and pissed off. The strike committee themselves were told that the Executive had been asked to declare total blacking and had not responded. McLoughlin either could not or would not explain his behaviour. He pointed out that the pickets were also prolonging the strike by their inability to cut supplies and close the factory down. This was said even though the strike committee had received a letter, in response to a request for union help with picket expenses, suggesting that the picket line be cut down to economise. “Heads I win, tails you lose”?
The following day a pub meeting was held in Kingsbury called by the divisional organiser. At the beginning he refused entry to shop stewards from Rotoprint and Injection Moulders. In his speech he insisted the strikers return to work to struggle from inside. Had there been any intention to stay out longer, it was clear which side he would have been on.

Bureaucratic in-fighting?

Why the National Executive of the AEF didn’t declare blacking remains a mystery. The most likely answer is that it would have immediately brought them under pressure from the TUC General Council to get the men back inside. Quite obviously the men would have rejected such a suggestion. The easiest solution might have been to ignore the request for blacking and so slowly throttle the strikers while evading their questions. One informed steward of the local branch mentioned that some infighting bureaucrats foresaw delays discrediting an ideologically-antagonistic incumbent in up-coming union elections. However this is only a surmise. Whatever the motives, the rank-and-file trade unionists at Punfield’s will never know them. The whole episode is a supreme example of bureaucratic attitudes of the officials sabotaging needs of the workers. Not only were the strikers not helped bu the full-time officials, they weren’t even considered worthy of an adequate explanation.

For the future

From this mess some obvious conclusions can be drawn. With regard to blacking there is a crying need for the extension of rank-and-file contacts between related factories. This was proven by Frigidaire’s at Hendon where informal blacking was total after a deputation of shop stewards came down to the picket line and talked with strike committee following information received from the local branch.
The Queensbury estate already has been the nucleus of a joint shop stewards committee in the three-factory deputation that visited Brother McLoughlin. Such link-ups ought to be encouraged if rank-and-file workers are ever to begin managing their own lives in future. The relationships with the full-time officials during the fifteen weeks out on strike makes the point crystal clear: to wait cap in hand on the deliberations of union bureaucracy is to invite defeat, demoralisation and the risk of being used as a political football. If there are to be workers’ victories only rank-and-file initiatives and rank-and-file militancy can ensure them.

Can Punfield’s afford its junior management?

The men returned to work on the 22nd of September. Since that time the shop floor has been the scene of a power struggle between organised workers and the junior management. Basically the petty hierarchy are finding it hard to adjust to the idea of any opposition on the shop floor. The strength of the rank-and-file is being continually provoked, the stakes in the game being the non-organised workers.
Already several women from the finishing shop have joined the union while others in the machine and grinding shops, fed up with being pushed about are waiting to see who comes out top dog. Fearing that coloured workers would automatically join the organised section, the management have virtually stopped taking them on. Newcomers to the factory now are usually ‘safe’ whites, friends of friends of the junior management. Since the return to work one foreman in particular has been intent on provoking the shop convenor into staging a walkout. He deserves special mention.

Derek “The grin”

Some time back Derek ordered the shop convenor to leave his machine and do some grinding. Previously shop committee and management had agreed that union press operators would be called from their machines for grinding only when non-union people were unavailable. Arguing that at the time several non-union men were available, the convenor refused and accused the foreman of making trouble. With this he was clocked out and ordered home. The watching workers wanted an immediate walkout. Derek, grinning at the shop convenor, repeated several times, “You haven’t got the courage.” Not rising to the bait the convenor went home.
Arriving the following morning he demanded to see the works manager, related the incident and underlined the point that he had intentionally prevented a walkout. In return he demanded an end to all arbitrary suspension in the future. The works manager conceded the point and Derek spent an uncomfortable couple of hours standing up for a dressing down in the office with the shop steward present, and sitting down.
The question the works manager and director are beginning to ask themselves is whether they can afford the luxury of such a disruptive underling. Although it took a strike to do it, both now realise that the company remains in business by grace of the press operators and not the foremen.

Then and now

Before the strike, press operators earned a basic 6/9 per hour and the chance of pitting themselves against management-imposed job rates for an incentive bonus of 8d. per hour which was frequently denied on numerous technicalities and fiddles. At the end of a 55 hour week of five eleven hour shifts they took home £23 on average. In September as part of the return to work agreement the management offered to up the basic rate to 7s3d per hour and link it with a potential bonus of 3/6d per hour to come into practice after the mutual re-assessment of all job rates.
While re-assessment was taking place management offered he men a flat rate of 12/- if they combined grinding with their normal work. They agreed. By the end of October the job rates had still not been re-assessed. The shop committee delivered an ultimatum and the following day the management agreed to drop the re-assessment entirely and offered the operators the flat 12/- per hour as the permanent wage wile leaving grinding to non-union workers.
The eleven hour double shift system has now been replaced by three eight hour shifts. In June the men worked 55 hours for £23. Today they work a 37.5 hour week for £24-15-0d. Before the strike operators allowed themselves to be used as makeshift labourers. Today they are no longer prepared to be taken off their machines. Victimisation, arbitrary suspension, and on-the-spot sacking, while prevalent before June 1969, are now almost things of the past.
At present the management are resisting attempts by AEF officialdom to draw the setters into the three shift system. However it will only be a matter of time before the setters realise that working 55 hours a week for the management is a mugs game when the organised workers work 37.5 hours.
While the struggle for the shop floor power is by no means over, it is quite obvious that valuable gains have been made. Less obvious is the fact that these gains are the direct result of the Pakistani and Indian workers’ determination to begin acting for themselves. management never give anything away, it has to be taken. It is a lesson that workers in this country, black and white, are beginning to realise.

(West-London Solidarity no2, December 1969)

Note: the AEF merged with other unions and renamed itself the AUEW in 1971.

Nicked from the excellent Angry Workers

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There was also a later strike here, in May-June 1974

120 AUEW members, mainly Pakistani, occupied the factory over loss of wages due to the three-day week. After 3 days they left the factory for the weekend. They were locked out on Monday morning. There was no money from the union for 6 weeks, nor did the union try to help them get social security payments (which they didn’t receive).

The union District Committee did not organise pickets of financial support. Workers re-occupied the factory once, but promised support from District Committee did not arrive. This attempt collapsed after half a day due to police harassment.

After 8 weeks union officials accepted the management position that the factory was closed down and all the strikers lost their jobs. Union officials told them to apply to the Industrial Tribunal for compensation for unfair dismissal. Very few got compensation.

 

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1992: nazi skins meeting for Blood & Honour gig get a pasting from Anti-Fascist Action

Blood and Honour was a national socialist (Nazi) music organisation run by Ian Stuart Donaldson of the band Skrewdriver ((since, happily, deceased in a car crash). It developed out of the National front’s White Noise Club in the mid-1980s, and had extensive links in Europe and America. They could attract crowds of 500-2,000 mostly skinheads.

Blood and Honour planned to hold a major rally in London on Saturday 12th September 1992. They publicly stated that they expected between one and two thousand people to attend. However, due to the disruption caused by anti-fascists, only 300 fascists made it to the Yorkshire Grey in Eltham, South East London where, as usual, the venue had been booked under a false name – the “Gods of War Scooter Club’. The pub, which had a multiracial clientele was duped into believing it was an ordinary booking. Apart from Skrewdriver, other bands that were due to play at the gig were No Remorse (previously called Dead Paki in the Gutter), Skullhead and the Swedish band Dirlewanger.

As usual, to avoid anti-fascist attention on the venue, organisers advertised a ‘re-direction point’ – where gig-goers could meet publicly and travel together.

However, between 1,000 and 1,500 anti-fascists secured the redirection point first – in this case the concourse outside London’s Waterloo mainline train station.

Blood & Honour had been unable to show their faces in London for several years, after a sustained campaign by Anti Fascist Action in the late 1980s, culminating in a humiliating defeat for the boneheads at Speakers Corner in May 1989. In 1992, they were starting to co-operate with the British National Party ,a rightwing group whose star was one the rise, and between them they hoped to be able to organise a large[-]scale public event which they hoped would open up all sorts of political and financial possibilities.
However, 12th September 1992 was to go very badly for the fascists. This was probably the biggest anti-fascist battle since Lewisham (1977). It was even covered on national TV news, radio, tabloids etc.

An initial group of several hundred Anti-Fascist Action supporters assembled far earlier than the fascists, giving the small group of boneheads who had arrived early for a drink an example of “cleansing”, anti-fascist style.

“That morning about a hundred of us anti-fascists met at The Old Bell in Kilburn. We took the tube to Waterloo and emerged up the escalators to the concourse. I don’t know about anyone else but I was very nervous. I thought we were going to be slaughtered. Everyone knew that Blood and Honour could muster ten times more people than we had.

The station concourse was nearly deserted. We discovered afterwards that British Rail had given Black and Asian workers the day off – pandering to racism. A small group of Red Action went into the station buffet and found a couple of skinheads who had been enjoying a quiet cup of tea. There was some loud rumbling and smashing sounds, then the Reds emerged unscathed and blended with our crowd. Five minutes later an ambulance arrived to cart off the two hapless fascists. (Rumour has it that they might have been, in fact, plain clothes coppers).

(From Kay Bullstreet, Bash the Fash)

The police cleared some anti-fascists out of the station. but many made their way back in, ensuring from the start that Blood & Honour would have serious problems in securing their redirection point. As the numbers of anti-fascists grew, the police made several attempts to clear sections of the station. setting their dogs on people and making some violent arrests in an attempt to intimidate the demonstrators into leaving.

All this succeeded in doing was dividing people into smaller groups, many of which came across groups of boneheads wearing nazi paraphernalia, SS runes and swastikas. In the ensuing clashes, the nazis clearly came off worse as they began to realise there were hundreds of people who had gathered with the sole intention of teaching them that they could not assemble in London for a publicly advertised gig without anti-fascists coming out physically to oppose them.

Unable to reach their advertised meeting point, the main concourse of the station, 20 boneheads assembled at the bottom of the steps of one end of the station looking unhappy at their predicament.

A group of Chelsea headhunters (rightwing football hooligans) decide to call it a day. A bad day.

“We spent the rest of the afternoon ambushing groups of fascists as they arrived, and trying to avoid the police. For example, four fascists arrived by car and were set upon until every window was broken, and the rest of the car was not exactly in showroom condition. The battles raged in all the surrounding streets. A comrade from Norwich and myself piled into a group of three fascists by the Waterloo roundabout. One of them turned to attack my comrade and I stuck my foot out to trip him up and with wonderful luck it was perfectly timed and he keeled over and hit his head, crack, on the pavement. He was unconscious I think, but in the heat of the moment I went and booted him in the head as hard as I could anyway. In fact I was a bit worried afterwards in case I’d killed him. I kept checking the TV news for a few days. The two other fascists were still there and I suppose we could have steamed into them some more, but we ran back to the main group.

Cheeky persons have summarised the anti-fascist events at Waterloo by saying “we closed more stations than the IRA”! (Kay Bullstreet)

At 5.00 pm with 1,000 anti-fascists present in several large groups, the police decided to evacuate the station, heralding a victory for the anti-fascist movement as the nazis’ meeting point was now closed.

A group of nearly 100 boneheads who were assembled outside the station waving swastika flags came on the receiving end of a hail of missiles. The police who had been protecting them clearly decided it was not worth it after all and left them to it.

At one point riot police and fascists actually fought side by side in a pitched battle with anti-fascists under the railway bridge, next to the Festival hall. An anti-fascist who infiltrated a group of fascists at one point, over heard a policeman say to a fascist, ‘If you run, we’re running with you.’ This particular ‘fascist’ was witnessed by colleagues sieg-heiling with gusto! One, police constable was heard to mutter, “Its like Custer’s last stand in there.”
 As the fascists huddled together for safety behind police lines, one black-shirted skinhead had a heart attack and was taken away in an ambulance. An abandoned Rover that had been driven to the gig by BNP members was smashed up by the crowds.

A BNP member’s car after anti-fascist mechanics gave it a free MOT

Furious calls from entrapped fascists to the concert organisers who had remained in Victoria, asking them to provide rescue or venue details, apparently went unheeded. The standard replay was, “Rather than us come to Waterloo, you should come to Victoria.’ Neil Parrish, who is believed to have been the organiser of the Blood and Honour concert, had earlier boasted that he would be available for interviews with The Scotsman, Sky News, and others on the concourse of Waterloo at 4.30 pm. However, he was nowhere to be seen.’

A total of 36 people were arrested and two people taken to hospital.

In the end a small gig was held on the edge of southeast London at the Yorkshire Grey pub in Eltham.  Fewer than 300 skinheads made it to the gig, including a group of 50 boneheads who arrived right at the end of the evening. Skullhead did not play at all and a large group of German boneheads never arrived, although a number of Dutch nazis managed to get there. A mob of nazis from Reading complained to one anti-fascist at Waterloo: “our weekend has been ruined by you lot” before getting onto the train back home.  Diddums. The icing on the cake came at the end of the evening when the pub’s landlady pulled the plug on the sound system while Skrewdriver were still playing.

There is no doubt that the day was a serious blow to Blood & Honour which hoped it could establish a presence in London. Anti-Fascist Action proved once again that the nazis can be physically opposed successfully.

One nazi, Kirk Barker. who was arrested in possession of a CS gas canister’ appeared in court on the following Monday morning, only to be rearrested for a breach of his bail conditions arising from a vicious assault on Asians in Hertfordshire the previous year.

Londoners who watched the events at Waterloo unfolding before their eyes appeared to have little or no sympathy for the vanquished neo-nazi army. One of the more more hopeful features of the day was that dozens of bystanders, including Arsenal and Millwall fans and black youths from south London, spontaneously joined the ranks of the anti-fascists in seeing off Blood & Honour.

Anti-Fascist Action organised a defence campaign on behalf of those anti-fascists arrested.

 

Today in London riotous history, 1763: sailors protest arrest of ‘disorderly women’, Whitechapel

“Four disorderly women being sent to Bridewell, a parcel of sailors assembled in Rosemary-lane, with an intent to rescue them; upon which a file of musqueteers was sent for from the Tower, and the sailors continuing obstinate in their purpose, the soldiers fired, when four were killed, and many mortally wounded, who died in a few days in hospital.”
(Annual Register, September 6th, 1763)

Disorderly women in the contemporary sources is usually a euphemism for prostitutes. Although sex for sale was obviously endemic across 18th century London, unlikely to be eradicated, magistrates made sporadic efforts to punish ‘immorality’. The women found or accused of selling their bodies were targetted, not usually the male ‘clients’, obviously, since it was the morals of women who needed the money that were blatantly in need of correction. Arrested ‘whores’ were generally fined, or could be sent to the Bridewell, the workhouse-cum-prison by the Thames near the mouth of the Fleet river, where the poor with no means of support, the ‘disorderly’ or immoral, and those breaking social boundaries were locked up. Here a vicious punishment regime had been designed to scourge moral laxity.

Since the women sent to the Bridewell were likely arrested for prostitution, and given that the crowd of sailors assembled in Rosemary Lane (what is now the western end of Cable Street in Whitechapel), were probably were nicked for soliciting or in raids on brothels around Wapping, Shadwell or Stepney. The ‘disorderly houses’ in these areas were frequented largely by sailors, many of who lodged in the East End close to the ports and riverside.

The local magistrates ran irregular campaigns to ‘clean up’ the area, which generally consisted of arresting prostitutes and trying to close brothels, though often with limited success.

There is also the possibility that magistrates (usually wealthy City worthies with property portfolios, sometimes including whorehouses) might also be targeting houses of ill-repute that weren’t paying rent to, or paying off, the right people. Using the magistracy (or lesser law enforcement offices such as City marshall or constable) to extort bawdyhouse keepers for protection money, or a licence to continue to operate, was endemic, and often blatant. Sometimes also officials tended to crack down heavier on brothels’ run by women not showing proper deference to male hierarchies (as in the earlier case of Holland’s Leaguer).

In 1759 one mass roundup of ‘street-walkers’ saw 60 women arrested in Shadwell, and another riot had taken place earlier in 1763, in March, when several ‘bawdyhouses’ were raided with arrests of prostitutes and sailors, and the women had been rescued as they were being marched off to prison:

“Search being made by the peace officers at the houses of ill fame about Tower-hill, several women of the town, and some sailors, were taken, and next morning carried before the justices for examination ; but intelligence being given to their shipmates, a large body of them assembled, and threatened the justices if they should proceed to commitment. The justices applied for a guard to the commanding officer at the Tower, and a few musqueteers been sent, they were found insufficient to intimidate the sailors, whose numbers increasing, a second and third reinforcement was demanded, and an engagement would certainly have ensued,, had it not been for the address of a sea officer, who, by fair words, called of two thirds of the sailors, just as the word was given to the soldiers to fire upon them; and dexterously conducting them to Tower-hill, there left them to disperse of themselves, which they accordingly did.
Upon this; the sailors that remained, being thereby weakened, presently withdrew, and the justices proceeded to business, and made out the mittimus of eight of the street-walkers ; but in the noon of the same day, as they going to Bridewell under a guard of a serjeant and twelve men, they were rescued in Chiswell-street by a fresh party, of sailors, who carried them off in triumph, after one man had been shot in the groin, and another wounded in the foot.”
(Annual Register, 20th March, 1763)

It’s not clear from the September 6th report, whether the arrested women were already being held in Bridewell, or were in some lockup before being transferred there. Gathering en masse to attempt to storm a local ‘cage’ or de-arrest the women while en route was one thing (as seems to have been successfully carried out in March); assaulting the Bridewell itself, it that was what was intended, quite ambitious. The success of the March rescue presumably gave the crowd hope that such action was possible.

The loyalty of sailors to womenfolk of the areas around the Thames port might be volatile and contradictory, with violence against women constant, and outbursts of male misogyny against brothels not infrequent.

On the face of it, however, the September 1763 incident indicates at least an element of solidarity between the precarious sea-going proletarian sailors and women of the area identified as ‘disorderly’ (whether prostitutes or not). How regular such resistance was isn’t clear, though the lives of sailors and women working (whether wholly or partly) as prostitutes were very much entwined in London’s East End.

Living (often temporarily lodging) packed together in these areas, 1000s of sailors or various origins – English, Irish, Portuguese, East Indian (lascars), Greek, Spanish, and from the late 18th century increasing numbers of africans. This cosmopolitan mix, in massively overcrowded streets, leavened by the poverty and hardship most sailors experienced, made for a sometimes turbulent atmosphere.

Sailors might enter into long or short-term relationships in more than one port, and by the nature of their work might be absent for weeks or months at a time. Whether settled or passing through, many sailors also frequented brothels; but also, brothels and lodging houses were not always distinct, and existing on the edge of legality prostitution tended to merge with other ways of surviving for women. Especially for those shacked up with sailors, whose own wages might not be available to their other halves while they were away, and were often paid in arrears, late or scanty at the best of times. Alehouses or taverns might also involve sex for sale, and the women who worked in them might make some money on the side selling their bodies. For the authorities all women living in one form or another with men they might not be married to, or living in houses where sex was sometimes sold, might be classed as prostitutes, and subjected to the moral repression that brought, when they could be identified and picked up. And all such buildings where sex was for sale might be labelled a brothel, whatever else it might also be used for. On the ground, distinctions were not clear cut. Poverty led to occasional or part-time whoredom; morals, as usual, didn’t pay the rent.

To put the 1763 ‘riot’ in context: the Seven Years War had just ended, so there was a sudden influx of discharged sailors from the navy in London. The end of wars has historically seen volatile times socially, with demobbed soldiers and sailors massing, sometimes recession and unemployment, often leading to unrest, riot, strike and turbulence. (1763-64 also saw revolts among soldiers in Britain’s North American colonies over attacks on their pay and conditions).

The whole decade was more than usually uproarious, especially in the East End, with silkweavers fighting for better wages and working conditions in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, riverside coalheavers erupting into strikes, sabotage of new machinery seen as causing unemployment.

Sailors were not only famous for fighting each other, but would also band together to fight the authorities, sometimes as collective bargaining, over wages & working conditions, resisting forced recruitment by pressgangs. Sometimes this took the form of directly expropriating the means of survival (as in the 1774 Greenwich sailors’ riot); only five years after the 1763 riot some sailors were joining Wapping & Shadwell coalheavers in the great ‘River Strike’.

Today in London’s anti-fascist history, 1962: Would-be fuhrer Oswald Mosley gets a kicking, Dalston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Union Movement announced a street meeting in Ridley Road for 31 July 1962: it ended in fighting, after it was attacked by anti-fascists and 54 arrests.

The recently formed 62 Group and other opponents gathered to prevent the fascists from making themselves heard, and the attempted meeting ended with Mosley’s men getting a well-deserved pasting, as reported by the BBC:

“Former fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley has been assaulted at a rally in London’s east end.

He and members of his anti-Semitic Blackshirt group were punched to the ground as soon as his meeting opened at Ridley Road, Dalston.

Police were forced to close the meeting within three minutes and made 54 arrests – including Sir Oswald’s son Max.

A crowd of several thousand had gathered in the area, where Sir Oswald, leader of the Union Movement formerly known as the British Union of Fascists, planned to speak from the back of a lorry.

As soon as he appeared from between two police buses the crowd surged forward and knocked Sir Oswald to the ground.

He tried to fight back from the cobbles, before police helped him to climb on the lorry prepared for his address.

‘Drowned out’

He was met by a hail of missiles including rotten fruit, pennies and stones and people tried to storm the platform.

His speech was drowned out by continuous boos and a chorus of “down with the fascists”.

Scuffles continued as Sir Oswald was shepherded to his car and his vehicle was punched and kicked as it drove off though a gangway cleared by mounted police.

Trouble started long before the meeting began as over 200 police – including 10 on horseback – attempted to clear an area around the lorry-platform.

It took the authorities another hour after Sir Oswald left to clear people from nearby Kingsland High Road.

Those arrested will appear in court tomorrow charged with public order offences.

Amongst the injured were last year’s Mayor of Hackney, Alderman Sherman, and his wife.

They both received medical treatment after being struck with an iron bar.”

Local  paper the Hackney Gazette reported: “Despite a TV appeal by the Mayor for Hackney residents to keep away from Ridley Road, by 7.30 about 1500 people had gathered at the corner of Ridley Road. Immediately he appeared, the crowd pressed in on Sir Oswald. He was pulled to the ground, punched and kicked. Fierce fighting then broke out, combined with shouts of “Down with Mosley, down with Germany.” Mosley disappeared under a group of struggling, punching men and women, only to reappear and start hitting, fighting his way to a loudspeaker lorry. His words were drowned by the shouts of the crowd and the sudden cry of “Sieg Heil”- the victory cry of Hitler. Coins and tomatoes were thrown at the lorry, and Sir Oswald fought his way to a green car, just as the police stopped the meeting. Abuse was hurled at Mosley, but he forced his way into the back seat with a bodyguard on each side. The lorry of his supporters, surrounded by mounted police, made its way into Kingsland High Street. People on board were shouting “Two-Four-Six-Eight, who do we appreciate?” The ensuing cry of “MOSLEY” incensed the crowd, which chased the lorry. Shop windows in the High Street were broken as men and youths, chasing the lorry, clashed with police.” (Hackney Gazette, 3/8/62)

Several times winner of the ‘Worst Fascist Leader Ever’ Award, Mosley also managed to whinge out his own account to the Gazette: “I was approaching a meeting at Ridley Road, Dalston, where I had spoken previously on June 24 to a large audience in conditions of complete order. On this occasion, as I approached the platform, a crowd of men rushed me from my left rear. Several jumped on me and threw me to the ground. There were several of us, it appeared to me, on the ground together.” Sir Oswald went on, “While I wrestled with these assailants on the floor, others kicked me on the head and leg.” After referring to marks which he said he had on the right side of his chin and by his eye – he also had a swollen shinbone – and someone had stepped on his finger – Sir Oswald declared, “I heard others in the group using terms such as ‘Kill him!’ and ‘Put the boot in!’ .” (Hackney Gazette, 3/8/62

That’s the master race, there, whining…

A few weeks later, on September 2nd, Mosley and his acolytes, and other far right groups, tried to hold another rally in Ridley Road and Bethnal Green – with similar results…

Today in London striking history, 2006: Haringey Dustbin Workers Strike begins

Bosses bagged and binned

The Haringey Dustbin Workers Strike, 2006

A contemporary report by Alan Woodward (with a tiny bit of explanatory editing by past tense)

Industrial action by about 50 Haringey refuse workers, based at the Ashley Road depot in Tottenham, began on 31 July 2006. The strikers were out solid for two weeks, ran it themselves through their own strike committee, and won some of the conditions they fought for.

The strike had four distinctive features:

  • It was against the London Borough of Haringey (LBH) contractor Accord and can be seen as part of the general disorder following the privatisation of refuse collection. LBH had apparently “bought off” the dispute a few months previously with a payment to Accord at the delicate time of the council elections. Some later felt that industrial action then would have been a tactical advantage.• It was regulated by the intricate web of legislation by Tory and Labour governments who, following the traditions of the last half century, were seeking to frustrate industrial action by employees and support employers’ rights.
    • The strike called was an indefinite one, unusual in the circumstances and in recent years, and was the end of a long process of delay and distraction.
    • It was against the recommendation of both the Transport and General Workers Union and the site T&GWU shop stewards convenor.

The site

The dispute took place at the large municipal depot, next to Down Lane Recreation Park. This workplace houses several hundred workers, over 100 vehicles (including a mobile library], several maintenance workshops and the bulk of the LBH Refuse department, including street sweepers. Other unions on site are UNISON for clerical and supervisory workers and AMICUS for craft employees. They were not affected but one UNISON member who was a street sweeper refused to cross the picket line and thus became involved.

The workers involved – all men – were those normally dealing with domestic waste wheelie bins, and paralleled that covering the separate trade waste section for which Accord had around 80 profitable contracts over NE London. The household waste workers had functioned under the previous ‘in-house’ arrangements as Council employees, and had suffered in recent years a series of cuts in staffing levels, negotiated as a result of technological improvement like the introduction of wheelie bins instead of just black plastic bags. The dispute – a reaction to the proposal to take two out of twelve vehicles off the collections – originated from LBH insisting on a small print contract clause requiring productivity “efficiency savings” every year.

Despite this, LBH publicly washed its hands of the conflict saying Accord was responsible. This devious tactic was accompanied by a complete silence for ten days, before a minimum programme of public notification was begun.

Accord plc itself, parent company of Haringey Accord, is recorded as having made £53m profit in 2005. Internal managers were reported as complaining that little if any of these came from the LBH contract, so they are likely to have been complicit in the efficiency saving plan. This of course would result in more work for vehicle crews that was dangerous, unpleasant and at unsocial hours. Following the offer or ‘bribe’ of a one-off payment to accept the cuts the T&GWU, on its website, did not use the “more work for a one-off payment” argument and stressed instead that this was a heath and safety issue. Work arrangements have traditionally been job-and-finish, of course.

Solid picketing

The strikers picketed the front entrance from day one, from 6am for a few hours, in numbers well in excess of the TUC’s Code of Practice recommendation of six. The police acted to form – at the start of the dispute chatting to workers, and saving their institutionalised violence for any later crisis. Only on the third Monday when mass meetings were held and supporters turned up in some strength, did they give the lecture about “only six workers on the picket, everyone else move away or you’ll be arrested”. In the end matters were settled peacefully with two meetings in the park and the strikers going past the gates for an instant workplace ballot. Some returned to work that day but most went home, after talking about the experience for a while.

The events of the last weekend were the result of the crisis of the previous five days. Accord’s ultimatum – accept the bribe and return to work – expired as the binmen said all along their aim was to keep vehicle crews together, regardless of incentives. Previously, media statements by local manager Doug Taylor had forced the stewards to issue a brief document correcting the management version. This pointed out that Accord had refused to do a full study of the extra work involved and that new housing developments were constantly expanding the work to be done. The shop stewards pointed out that a six week pilot session was not completed and resulted in over-time being needed – very much against company policy and an unexpected consequence.

Of course this voice of reason was ignored in the manner of media preference for His Masters Voice. Even so television local news began to carry the story, including residents complaints of smell, heath hazards etc. It is unclear if alternative media agencies, like Indymedia, made reports.

Relations with other workers going into the workplace remained cordial. Street sweepers lodged their own grievance about a similar cut imposed on them and separate lengthy strike ballot proceedings were started. Much of the ancillary work was in fact already being done by increasing numbers of agency staff. These were still awaiting the promised full time work status. Agencies began to appear in the picture as a way of the Council clearing the backlog and hence undermining the strike.

Staff cuts and agency workers

The truth about cuts illustrates the reality. Staffing levels of 73 had been reduced to 48 over the previous 5 years, while Accord managers in administration grew from 4 to 14. Even allowing for additional street cleaning management this is a big increase. Vehicle crews dropped from 6 persons on each to 3. So workers had clearly co-operated with extra productivity

The other site entrance at the depot, through the re-cycling centre, was left alone. Other London workers under Accord contracts, like Islington, were apparently contacted, but little could be done legally to support Haringey.

Over the last few days, when threats were made by the management and LBH over replacement labour, dustbin workers visited employment offices to remind them of the legal position – no agency workers to be allowed as strike breakers, under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations of 2003. PCS union stewards in the Jobcentre were not always “available” though whether this was due to management pressure is unknown. Rumours about exactly who was doing the recruiting abounded but what is clear is the government agencies were sending out text messages all over London to get staff. Several people, travelling long distances, showed pickets their mobile phone text messages on the Saturday or Sunday to prove this. Regarding the use of technology in this dispute, at least one striker used the internet to discover details of the victorious Brighton dustbin strike a few years ago, on the libertarian communist website, “libcom.org/history”. He downloaded the information for the picketers.

In the event, this agency recruitment tactic failed. Many unemployed people, kept ignorant of the strike by agencies like Prime Time of 752 High Road, N 17, and others who were given some information by Hayes Agency, were quickly engaged in discussion and turned back by pickets on Saturday 12 August. A blue T&GWU ‘appeal for solidarity’ leaflet was persuasive for this purpose. In practice wheelie bin workers were very difficult to replace. Not only do some require HGV licences but also special training is required for the special RIAS trucks that were used.

A brief digression here. Many pickets remembered two previous strikes from the past. In 1979, in the fabled winter of discontent dispute, the Army camped in the park by the depot and went out to collect the hundreds of smelly black bags to general amusement. In those pre-Thatcher days workers were confident of their strength. In 1987 the popular and militant shop steward Brian Berry was sacked, having previously been active in opposing Labour MP Bernie Grant over the Broadwater Farm disorder. Allegations of racism were made but some saw it as straight forward revenge, as his nominal offence was minor and usually ignored. Socialists attacked LBH for victimisation, which is how workers saw it. Berry went but stayed active in the union.

A settlement?

Back to the strike. As scab labour was being sought, T&GWU full time official
Paul Fawcett was quoted on the BBC website as saying a settlement was close and would be recommended to the men on Monday, 14 August. On the Saturday a few strike breakers slipped into the depot through the other entrance and a picket was then put on there too.

During that day the “trainees” were put through a basic health and safety programme, described by one man as “a complete waste of time”. No HGV holders had been recruited and only a small number of people with ordinary licences came. These, it was presumably envisaged, would drive ordinary small trucks while the luckless unskilled would tackle the growing mountain of black bags. Even if this plan had worked the focus would switch to the local incinerator at Edmonton. The round-the-clock workers there had traditionally been seen as militant, but did not respond to Greenpeace taking direct action over cancer causing emissions – so the situation remained open. Few bag loaders would last long, the picketers predicted, but even this watered-down tactic was not to be tried.

Public support grows

Meanwhile supporters had not been idle. Supporters came every day
to the picket line, only a few at first but then more. Money was collected as at the support meeting called by Haringey Trades Union Council on Wednesday 9 August. Here a dustbin worker explained the case and spoke of management’s misleading statements. A street collection sheet was printed and hundreds of small stickers. It was decided to lay responsibility back on the Council. Everybody would bring black bags of rubbish to the Civic Centre at 6pm on the Friday. This was done with some secrecy in the expectation that the publicity would produce a bigger action.

20 people turned up to oppose the cuts to services and to support the strikers. This gained much publicity and it was envisioned that such protests would be organised regularly. This helped to garner public support, and inhibit any Council and media slide into attacking the strikers.

The Secretary of the Haringey Federation of Residents Associations attended the depot picket and circulated round local groups a true account of the situation. The publicity demanded more services for residents, not less as the Council obviously planned for. The union steward spoke to one local residents association on the Thursday, and that group as well as another association agreed after much debate to back the strike. HFRA publicised the Monday picket without endorsement – but were due to debate the matter at their general meeting the following day. Socialist newspapers carried the story from the start and supported the mass picket, as their sellers pointed out. Local libertarians associated with Haringey Solidarity Group were by this time attending and publicising the picketing.

A tremendous struggle and a partial victory

Monday, day 15, saw the resolution of the strike. While pickets and supporters discouraged several potential strike breakers from going into the depot, a small number of crept through. They were kitted out generously in protective clothing
but were obviously still ill-equipped. Police got out of their three cars and pointed out the law which had been ignored by all up to now. The union Full Time Officer came and called a mass meeting, and supporters took over the picket line. He reported that the plan to cut two teams had been dropped and that there would be negotiations over one vehicle being cut from the trade waste crews. Opinion was heated and divided – “one more week and we’d have won everything!”. The official was sent back to finalise the deal, payments for clearing up the backlog etc.

A second mass meeting was held and after discussion, but no vote, the workers went inside for an instant workplace ballot. This came out 26 to 18 for a return to work. A payment of £600 would be paid when the clearing up was complete, compensation for two weeks lost earnings.

Some of the supporters muttered about a defeat but most workers saw it differently. “We never wanted their money – all we wanted was to keep the domestic crews together, and we got that said a departing picket. A few ex-strikers got straight in the trucks and pulled out. The fate of the lone supporting street sweeper was similar and a collection was held for him, a hero indeed.

Soon the would-be refuse workers came out too and left in their new gear. The rest of us gathered our belongings, and posters, and went as well. Money still came in and £100 from the Haringey Trades Union Council Appeal letter was handed over to the T&GWU steward.

Strikers had used mobile phones, the internet, and were prepared to use cars to follow any strike-breakers. This had been an extraordinary 100% solid strike, perhaps to a script written by LBH, but more likely a classic balls-up for which they are famous. The strike restored some confidence, united supporters to an unprecedented extent, and showed that, despite difficulties by Blair and Thatcher, you can sometimes win on some of the issues,

Author of the above, Alan Woodward was a longtime socialist, Haringey resident, a member of Haringey Solidarity Group, treasurer of Haringey Trades Union Council and convenor of the Radical History Network of N. E. London.
Alan died in 2012… here’s a brief obituary