1842 wilsons mill salford chartists

Today in London radical history: Chartists rally on Kennington Common, 1842.

On 22nd August 1842, 40,000 Chartists defied a ban to rally on Kennington Common & fought police who attempted to clear them.

In 1842, a series of wage reductions in factories around North Staffordshire and Manchester sparked a sudden and widespread movement of strikes and demonstrations. The widespread distress and poverty force on thousands of workers enraged a wide swathe of the north in late July and early August. Strikes brought factories to a halt in Staffordshire and Lancashire, Manchester; mass meetings were held on the moors, and huge processions of workers carrying banners and bludgeons to defend themselves. These became flying pickets, spreading the strike from mill to mill and factory to factory (in some places the movement is known as the plug riots or plug plot as sabotaging workers pulled the plugs from boilers to prevent steam pressure being raised). The movement radiated out like wildfire. On August 12th, a meeting of delegates from 358 factories meeting in Manchester, escalated the strike wave to a new level when the vast majority voted to expand the aims of the strikes beyond the purely economic, to stay out until the Charter, the demand of the Chartist movement for political reform, was achieved. The movement spread into Yorkshire. It seemed for a few days as if the abortive Grand National holiday or Sacred Month that had failed to launch almost exactly three years before in 1839 was beginning for real…

As the government began to panic, they started to move contingents of troops north to repress the growing movement. But although the centre of the battle was up north, and Londoners were not joining the strike, they were far from passive. On August 13th columns of soldiers were marching to Euston station to be shipped off to the industrial battlegrounds; they were booed and hissed by gathering crowds in Regent Street. This kicked off a week of Chartist inspired-disturbances in the capital.

On the 14th, more demonstrations were held to boo further troop movements troops. The following day, the angry crowds became so dense around Euston, soldiers were charge ordered to charge and disperse them.

On the 16th, a mass chartist meeting was held in Stepney in solidarity with plug rioters and other northern comrades. On the 18th another mass Chartist meeting held was held on Islington Green, which developed into a march to Clerkenwell where there was fighting with police who tried to disperse them: “this same assemblage of persons… paraded the town in procession till one in the morning, and listened to speeches of the most atrocious and treasonable character.”

On the 19th, the police had been given “positive orders… not to allow any Mob, as Night approached, to enter London”… As Home Secretary Sir James Graham wrote to the Duke of Wellington: “In London the excitement is increasing; and we have been determined not to allow an adjourned meeting to assemble this evening at Islington, in consequence of the proceedings of… last night.” A large Chartist rally, Clerkenwell again ended in tussles with the cops, despite the police guarding all entrances to Clerkenwell Green and two magistrates walking about with copies of the Riot Act; such great numbers gathered that they were able to break through the police lines and remained in possession of the Green till late, though no meeting was held.

Other meetings at Lincolns Inn Fields, and Great Queen Street, saw similar scenes: speeches were delivered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at 10.00pm, and when police attacked them, the crowd marched to Covent garden and fought police In Bow Street. Several policemen were beaten before the crowd drifted off.

The weekend was quiet, but on Monday August 22nd, two monster Chartist rallies were called, to meet on Kennington Common in South London, and at Paddington in the west of the city. After several days of disturbances, the authorities were intensely nervous. Troops were moved to Kensington Common from the army barracks at Hounslow, and from Woolwich Barracks to Clapham Common, in readiness for use against demonstrators in the event of more disturbances. “Every wall, public building &c. [was] thickly studded with Proclamations, Cautions &c. emanating from the various authorities, strictly prohibiting public meetings, &c… London may be said to be under police, if not under military law.”

By the Monday afternoon, crowds ‘very numerous, very gay’ assembled on Kennington Common. “The whole appearance of the scene was rather of a gay and festive kind, and quite different from that which the gatherings of the fierce democracy at Islington, Clerkenwell and Stepney exhibited.” Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor turned up but decided not to speak as he was bound over to keep the peace, and legged it (his instinct for self-preservation was always keen). 15 minutes later, as the meeting started, police swarmed onto the Common, some mounted, led by the Commissioner Richard Mayne, scattering the demonstrators off the Common. The crowds remained in strong possession of the surrounding streets, and skirmished with the ‘blue lobsters’ for hours, but the meeting had been halted, without calling in the military. At Paddington, police fought a three-hour battle to clear the area around the railway station; a third impromptu rally at Clerkenwell Green broke out into fierce fighting in which the police were overwhelmed.

However, after the 22nd, the Chartist disturbances in London subsided. A large rally on the 23rd at White Conduit House in Islington passed off peacefully. Most significantly perhaps, was that no strike wave had developed in London inspired by the northern outbreak (though it was said that 600 builders working for Cubitts had struck).

The strike wave in the north continued for several days and erupted into fighting in many places, but the question of whether the aim was political reform or immediate wage rises began to divide the movement in places. The army shot several people during riots in Halifax and Preston, and the arrest of a large crop of Chartist and strike leaders eventually drove the workers back to work.

More on the 1842 General Strike:

Catherine Howe, (2014). “Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis”. Breviary Stuff, London, UK. 

Mick Jenkins (1980). The General Strike of 1842. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 

And on the London disturbances of August 1842: David Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

owen wedderburn

Today in London’s radical history: Black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn disputes with utopian socialist Robert Owen, (maybe), 1817.

As I have said before, this blog is mainly not written by professional historians (more like talentless amateurs); we are interested in events, ideas, social struggles and rebellious personalities of the past, and try to spread what we learn, often as we learn it. Partly for inspiration, partly as it links to our own experiences, partly to keep memories alive. We don’t claim to be especially original, or even very dedicated in our research; to some extent we don’t have time.

Bearing that in mind, we freely admit that this post contains serious gaps, where we haven’t really had a chance to dig deep to discover what some might consider crucial facts. Because the personalities and ideas involved are interesting to us, here it is anyway. If anyone reading this knows more about the subject of this post, or where to find out more, we’d love to hear from them…

We start with a picture: the image above, which shows black anti-slavery activist, radical agitator, insurrectionist, and blasphemous preacher Robert Wedderburn, climbing onto a platform to argue with utopian socialist Robert Owen.

Despite some investigation, it’s uncertain to us whether this confrontation actually took place or not, or is a representation of an argument that took place in the pages of the radical press… If it did take place, it seems likely was either on the 21st of August 1817, during one of Robert Owen’s public meetings at the London Tavern, in Bishopsgate (the site today occupied by Nos 1-3 Bishopsgate).

Owen was touring the country propagating his ideas in a widely publicised series of public meetings, including a series of celebrated meetings at the City of London tavern in August 1817. A well-attended public meeting on the 14th had been ‘adjourned’ and re-assembled on the 21st.

Robert Owen had risen from artisan beginnings to become first the manager of succession of cotton mills in Manchester, before he found fame running the New Lanark mills in Scotland. Intelligent, self-taught (and somewhat convinced of his own importance) Owen turned New Lanark into a model factory and model village: the 1,300 workmen and their families and between 400 and 500 pauper children were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers, a school for the children (as long as the parents could afford for them not to work). He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift.

New Lanark’s factory and village became famous and by Owen’s count between 1814 and 1824 about 2,000 visitors a year came to observe what he had created.

Owen is often called ‘the father of English socialism’. He is also referred to as a utopian socialist, which is not inappropriate, in that like More’s Utopia, his vision of the ideal society was of an order imposed from above on a people who needed to be told how to live. In his view social change meant trying to create a changed working man. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual’s personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy. But Owen was intolerant of criticism from below, becoming increasingly dogmatic and coming to regard himself as a prophet and visionary. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual.

“the persons under him happen to be white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his management as so many negro slaves…” (Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour of Scotland in 1819)

Owen’s conception of socialism was a society based on a network of ‘Villages of Mutual Co-operation’, which he put began to put into practice in his US utopian colony’ New Harmony in 1825. French utopian socialist Fourier called his similar concept a ‘phalanstery’. Based on the practical developments of New Lanark, the villages were to be the “kernel of a rural community which would be self-sufficient through agricultural and manufacturing produce, a monumental square of terraced housing within which a green, tree-filled space was interspersed with communal buildings – schools, kitchens and a library. Radiating outwards in successive belts were the phalanstery gardens, manufacturing buildings screened by trees, and agricultural land…”

The village or phalanstery would organise labourers and poor people without work into communes of 1000-1200 people, either working in agriculture or in manufacturing; their labour would guarantee them “an ample supply of the necessities and comforts of life”. In addition an important element of the ethos of his communes was to be education in mutual co-operation, moral training and “economy in the lodging and living of people”. While the ethos of a “population united through ideological commitment” would be central to the project, Owen always saw the workforce in these ‘deal communities’ to be a passive mass, motivated by the need to survive. Just as at New Lanark he had run the mills as a “benevolent dictator”, each village would be directed by a Superintendent. His vision was always of a better world brought in from the top down, not created by the occupants of the communes themself. As he wrote in 1816, he believed that “Human character is often formed FOR, and not BY, the individual.” Since human character was the basis of social change as he saw it, he proposed to mould human character, removing the power to change the world from most of the humans involved. In reality, rather than being a utopian socialist, Owen was an originator of a strand of benevolent capitalism.

Owen always saw his socialism as preventing social upheaval and disorder, exerting control by ensuring “a population socialsied into dependence on capitalist benevolence”: “The people were slaves at my mercy; kiabke at any time to be dismissed, and knowing that, in that case, they must go into misery, compared with such limited happiness as they now enjoyed.” Thanks Rob!

An unsympathetic commentator (not a radical) remarked that this was “not far removed from a well-regulated parish workhouse”. Which is ironic, as Owen’s ideas bore fruit in many capitalist enterprises in the succeeding decades. While traditionally Owen’s greatest effect was seen to be his influence on the co-operative movements that spread out in the mid-19th century, the lessons of new Lanark and Owen’s ideas of ‘moral management’ can also be seen in the utilitarians’ developments of social control through architecture, surveillance and, benevolence and force (or at least pressure) mingled together. ‘Enlightened’ employers adopted Owen’s model in their plans for benevolent capitalist model villages like Saltaire; utilitarians drew up plans for coercive insitituions like asylums and prison, but with an eye to Owen’s model. Later still, Owen’s carrot and stick blueprint, the offer of better conditions for those wiling to submit to moral and behaviourial oversight was also integrated into the beginnings of social housing, the model dwellings… Into the 20th century and utopian architects were still drawing up plans for ideal communities in tower blocks.

Ironically, however, in 1817, and for much of his life, Owen’s plans were never taken seriously enough by many of the men of substance he hoped to attract to his scheme. Some because of their initial cost and because they might simply increase the number of unemployed poor by encouraging those already in that condition to have more children. Owen also made ‘a vigorous denunciation of religion’ as part of his address at the meetings, and also questioned the role of the traditional family; this in fact probably alienated more potential supporters, both among the movers and shakers that Owen concentrated on, and among the working class. Christianity was still fundamentally crucial to the daily life of most of the people of Britain (and beyond), drummed into all from an early age, (and if not always enforced, it was still then compulsory to attend church). If people thought Owen’s communes impractical or expensive, attacking religion was seriously shocking. On a purely tactical level, Owen had blundered by bringing god into it- but tactics were never Owen’s strongpoint.

Robert Wedderburn’s bone of contention seems not to have been primarily with Owen’s religious views though. Born in Jamaica, his father a white owner, his mother a slave, raped by his father and then sold after his birth… An ex-sailor, who arrived in London in time to take part in the Gordon Riots, he became a Methodist street preacher, but developed a fierce millenarian radical voice. He became a follower of communist Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the enclosures of the commons in England. Spence was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs, tracts, pamphlets and periodicals; under his influence Wedderburn became a provocative and blasphemous publisher and agitator, founding a chapel in Soho where tumultuous meetings and theatricals were held… did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester, and Giltspur Street Prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house.

He plotted revolution with radicals, former soldiers, and probably narrowly escaped joining his comrades the Cato Street Conspirators on the gallows… His most transcendental activity was publishing his Axe Laid to the Root, powerfully linking the suffering of African slaves in the colonies to the privations felt by the British working class during the establishment of capitalism, and identifying the overthrow of slavery and capitalism as one and the same. A beguiling, harrowing and intensely inspiring figure, Wedderburn represented everything about social change from below that Owen tried to control – insurgent, enraged and apocalyptic.

But did Wedderburn really intervene physically to attack Owen’s ideas? Is the image of him rising to challenge Owen on the stage a drawing from life? He certainly did in print, publishing a letter in the Forlorn Hope warning Owen that “the lower classes are pretty well convinced that he is the tool of the landholders to divert the attention of the public from contemplating on the obstinacy and ignorance of their governors.”

Perceptive, seeing the intimate connections that underlay the daily experience of the poor, knowing unlike Owen that the liberation he desperately saw was needed can only be created by our own hands, from below… Wedderburn hits the nail on the head. He wasn’t alone in suspecting Owen’s doctrines – for the next 40 years, through the early history of co-operation, Owen’s flirtation with trade unionism in the 1830s, and his increasingly wacked out later career, Owen’s dictatorial and messianic approach would divide and alienate even his followers.

This article owes much to Patrick Eyres, Et in Utopia Ego: Social Control: the architectural legacy of Robert Owen, explored through the model villages of Saltaire and Quarry Hill, published in the magnificent New Arcadian Journal (no 28).

For more on the brilliant Robert Wedderburn, a good start is chapter in Peter Linebaugh, The Many Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, or Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s penal history: John Daye has his ears nailed to Cheapside pillory for seditious sermons against the queen, 1553.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries nailing of the ear to a pillory (or cutting off the ears completely) was a favourite punishment for those convicted of speaking ‘seditious words’ – generally meaning attacks on the monarch, authorities, social order, religion of the time… The intention was that the person pilloried couldn’t move or they would tear a rent in the ear or rip it off entirely. Lovely.

On occasions nailing of the ear to the pillory was followed by ‘cropping’ of the ear, cutting most of the ear off. Although rare this was done to some religious and political activists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On some occasions people who suffered nailing of ears or cropping died from loss of blood or infections.

In August 1553, the catholic queen Mary had just come to the throne, amidst religious strife between catholics and protestants (mingled with a bit of dynastic tussling). The atmosphere in London was tense: Mary had some popular support, which had allowed to ascend the throne in the face of a rival (protestant) claimant, Jane Grey; however, protestantism had made inroads in recent years, especially in London.

On 21st August 1553, only weeks after Mary’s succession, John Daye, parson of St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate Street, together with another man, a surgeon, had their ears nailed to the pillory in Cheapside, though after three hours ‘the nayles were pulled out with a payre of pinsers and they were had to prison again.”

Daye’s crime had been ‘seditious words speaking of the Queen’s highnes’. It seems he was a radical protestant who opposed Mary’s reign, but little more information exists. The surgeon who suffered with him had uttered seditious words against a preacher at St Paul’s Cross a week before, when a riot had erupted after the preacher had defended the recently released Bishop Bonner. Bonner was highly unpopular amongst protestants, (and would become more so over the next few years as he spearheaded persecution of ‘heretics’, ie anyone not adhering to orthodox catholicism).

Two days later Daye had his ear nailed to the pillory again. He seems to have been deprived of his post at St Ethelburga’s in the following year.

Mind you, it could have been tougher – just 15 years before Thomas Barrie stood a whole day in the pillory with his ear nailed to the wood, after being convicted of spreading a rumour that king Henry VIII had died.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Yesterday in London rebel history: US embassy machine-gunned by 1st of May Group, 1967.

[Yes this post is Late. Busy, y’know.]

The First of May Group/International Revolutionary Solidarity Movement was an ‘armed struggle’ anarchist direct action group, which carried out bomb and gun attacks, attempted kidnappings and more in the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s (though sporadic activities continued after this point).

The various loosely allied groups and individuals that made up First of May/IRSM had grown out of/been influenced by the armed resistance to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in Spain, which had come to power at the end of the Spanish civil war, defeating both a leftwing republican government and an attempted social revolution influenced by anarchist and syndicalist ideas.

The vicious and murderous repression Franco’s regime unleashed from the beginning of the civil war in 1936 up until his death in 1975 was resisted throughout… After the military defeat of the Spanish ‘republican’ side in 1939, a struggle was carried out by guerillas, often based in the communities of thousands of exiled anarchist, communists and socialist forced to flee abroad. Anarchist guerillas, civil war veterans, crossing the Pyrenees from France, carried out clandestine attacks on state targets. Although it continued for decades, by the early 60s many guerillas had been killed, captured, executed (often by ‘garrotting’), tortured and jailed. Dedicated as they were, this struggle became one of isolation despair in many ways, as more collective resistance was crushed and cowed. The exiled Spanish Libertarian movement became divided and its support for the guerillas became sparse.

In the 60s, however, a new generation of activists, some Spanish, but others from other western European countries would take up armed struggle, inspired by the guerilla war against Franco. A new crop of armed groups emerged from both the mass radical movements of the 60s, but also grew from the disillusion with and apparent defeat of some of these wider struggles. Frustration with the seeming inability of mass protest to halt the Vietnam War, overthrow rightwing regimes or produce the urgent social change many desperately wanted both in developed and developing countries, and the harsh and deadly violence meted out by capitalist regimes against protest in Latin America, the US, and to a lesser degree Europe – groups of young activists and rebels felt clandestine armed action was the only effective way forward, or (some thought) could inspire mass action… Groups influenced by Maoism, by anarchism, nationalism, black power, in some cases a combination of some of these or other ideologies, some linked to each other, most targetting what they saw as legitimate targets of state repression, capitalist profitmongering, individual representatives of the oppressors…

The first known action of the First of May Group seems to have been a Mayday 1966 special, the kidnapping of a diplomat from the Spanish embassy in the Vatican. In 1967 their spokesman Octavio Alberola announced the failure of ‘Operation Durruti’, a plan to kidnap the US Commander of Chief in Spain…

The First of May Group were active in various countries; in Britain their first action was the drive-by machine-gunning of the US embassy in Grosvenor Square on August 20th 1967, accompanied by a communiqué:

“Stop criminal murders of the American Army. Solidarity with all people battling against Yankee fascism all over the world. Racism no. Freedom for American Negroes. Revolutionary Solidarity Movement.”

The IRSM went on a European tour in 1968; here their spree included attacks on the Spanish Embassy in Belgrave Square and the American officers’ Club at Lancaster Gate.

In March 1969, two anarchists, Alan Barlow and Phil Carver were arrested after the London Bank of Bilbao was bombed; a communiqué found in their possession claimed this as an ‘International First of May Group’ action:

“Sirs, the imprisonments, deportations, and murders suffered by the people of Spain since their subjection in the Civil War, the garrotted, and those who dies by the hand of Francisco Franco oblige us to respond. The blood of our brothers is as precious to us as all the money and the property belonging to Spanish capitalists and their Wall Street colleagues. Let them hear this week another noise other than the clink of bloodied silver. Cease the repression. If not expect more widespread reprisals. The International First of May Group.”

THE INTERNATIONAL REVOLUTIONARY SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT: A study of the origins and development of the revolutionary anarchist movement in Europe 1945-’73 (ed by Albert Meltzer) is worth reading. It can be bought here


Just Some thoughts… Not really intended as bigshot analysis. It’s a blog, Ok?

Violence is often necessary when fighting violence. Some people reading will disagree. For people in any number of dark and difficult situations collective resistance that breaks the bounds is necessary. I guess I would however question the fetishising of radical violence, even while celebrating many actions on this blog and elsewhere. To some extent I see a gulf between armed struggle as an all-consuming self-referential process, and collective acts as part of a wider social struggle. But it depends where you’re standing… Some disjointed thoughts follow.

The hugely unequal struggle between the violence of the organized modern capitalist state and the violence of leftists, anarchists and similar groups engaged in armed struggle pretty much resulted in most places as a disinterested observer might expect. A situation complicated by the widespread infiltration of state assets, informers, police spies into many armed groups, a process which led to both suspicion, divisions, internal feuds and to indiscriminate acts of terror which undermined what support armed actions did enjoy. This is reasonably well-documented in the case of Northern Ireland, the Italian Red Brigades… Intelligent directed operatives helped to foster the growth of armed struggle, which played a part in undermining and dividing the larger social movements these groups emerged from. But police/secret state penetration was not the only factor – many of the ideological bases of such groups offered a justification for seeing armed struggle as the only method of changing the world. The idea of a small vanguard leading the masses to enlightenment; that all the people of a powerful state are supporters of that state’s actions… it’s a short step to seeing yourselves as the only real ones fighting the Man. And from there to instituting your own repression against those not involved in your particular brand of radical armed revolution. To be continued when you seize power and need to keep the prisons open for the rebels who won’t obey.

To some extents, many groups attempted to substitute armed actions for what they saw as the inability of larger ‘peaceful’ mass movements to get results, but this also quickly became a game of Who’s More Radical: We’re the Real Revolutionaries and you Liberals are Just Playing or Afraid.

Although to some extent anarchist ideology refuses to abide by the concept of a vanguard who can act on behalf of the oppressed, in practice it’s often replaced by a sense of yourself as a super-radical, freer than the mentally enslaved masses who get up and go to work and thus prop up capitalist oppression. A cursory knowledge of the First of May Group/IRSM suggests a much more complex set of motivations, the fact that the oppression in Spain for example was somewhat more serious than a bit of Home Counties angst. None of the above discussion is intended to dismiss their actions, just to qualify what could otherwise just read like ra-ra cheerleading.

We’re not setting ourselves up as an authority, we just have a keyboard: there are as many ways of changing social relations as there are individuals and groups out there working out how to do it. Despite decades of thinking, arguing, doing actions, organizing this and that, I personally find my self scratching my head still about all of the above. A truly cataclysmic change in how the world is run economically socially and politically etc is needed, I still think, and that’s not solely going to happen by peaceful or legal means. If you can’t blow up a social relationship you can’t also gently expropriate the property of the rich, the corporations etc. If any use of ‘violence’ is problematic; it has to be said, the elitism of ‘armed struggle’ needs questioning.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

This month in London history: London Master builders try to destroy unions, by issuing ‘The Document’, 1859.

In 1859-60, London’s builders fought a prolonged struggle to try and reduce the number of hours they had to work to 9 a day. In response to this campaign, the employers in the building trade attempted to stamp out trade unionism in the industry.

“1860 saw a “rebirth of the trade union movement in the building industry. During that year, or shortly before or shortly after, all the trades which had been without effective organisation – which after all included every building trade except masonry – saw the growth of a fairly effective organisation of one kind or another. Organisations which had for a long time been dead‑alive and feeble, sprang into renewed strength, and in trades where all organisation had disappeared, new unions were formed. A series of fairly prosperous years had prepared the ground, and the success of a union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (formed 1852), upon the new “amalgamated ” principles had set the example of a new form of organisation. The great spread of Unionism in the building trades does not, however, come until the need of unionism had been startlingly and strikingly advertised by the great lock-out of 1859 and 1860, which arose from the ‘nine-hour day’ movement.”

(The Builders History, RW Postgate. most of the following post has been taken from this account of the Lockout)

The ten-hour working day had been secured in London since 1834, but no further advance had been made. From time to time the Stonemasons, the only strong building union, had made attempts to reduce the length of working hours. In 1846 stonemasons unions in Liverpool and Lancashire had been defeated in a campaign on the nine‑hours day issue. In 1847 the London lodges petitioned their masters to shorten their hours to 58½ a week (ie to grant a “short Saturday.”) without result. The next two years witnessed several small strikes by the London masons for the short Saturday. In one case (Grimsdale and Trego’s, September, 1848) the employer prosecuted 21 strikers for conspiracy, but dropped the case. Most of these strikes were successful; and by 1855 masons generally in London knocked of at four o’clock on Saturdays. Other building trades generally did not. The north of England followed at the end off 1856. In October of that year a Committee was formed in Manchester of Masons, Bricklayers, joiners, Plasterers, Painters, Paperhangers, and Masons’ Labourers – thus showing a revival of a sentiment of unity which had been lost for years – to demand the short Saturday, and, after prolonged negotiations, arrangements were made by which they knocked off next summer at one o’clock on Saturdays. This victory stirred the emulation of the London masons. who petitioned for Saturday’s work to end at twelve.

In London, an agitation for “nine hours” arose from the trade clubs of the London carpenters and joiners – described as “feeble and scattered” in the 1850s, but linked together by a shadowy Central Board, which presented in the summer of 1858 a formal demand to the employers for a nine-hours day. This the masters emphatically refused. Faced with this refusal, they turned to the other building trades, and a permanent Conference was called together, consisting at first only of delegates of the various carpenters’ societies, the small London Operative Bricklayers’ Society, and the London lodges of the Masons.

The Conference secretary, and the man most responsible for its creation, was George Potter, a well-known trade unionist of this period. Potter was born in 1832, at Kenilworth. He was the son of a carpenter, and, unlike many trade unionists, had received some elementary education. He was apprenticed regularly to his trade, and worked at it during all this period. Going to London in 1853, he became secretary of a small local carpenters’ club, called the “Progressive Society of Carpenters and Joiners,” and in that capacity took over the leadership of the nine-hours day movement in 1857, and remained in general direction of the London Building Trades until 1862.

The first meeting of the Conference was held in September, 1858. It was intended to exist as a permanent body until the nine-hours had been won. Originally it contained carpenters, masons and bricklayers only; gradually unions representing plasterers’, painters and builders’ labourers` delegates were invited. The masons were more interested in the short Saturday than the nine hours. They withdrew for a while, but soon returned. The main aim of the Conference was to awaken the building workers themselves to their own interests. Tactically, at first, Potter chose to not press for strikes or threats of strikes, but to the presentation of memorials to the employers, hoping by this means to get discussion and the revival of interests. Two or three of these were presented, without, of course, any tangible success. Following on this, regular public meetings were organised over the winter and considerable attention, both within and without the trade, was drawn to the new proposals.

In March 1859, Potter arranged large meetings of building trade workers at all points of London, which were to be held simultaneously, and at each the same resolution would be moved by special delegates.

The results of these meetings, and the general effect of this publicity campaign encouraged Potter to refer the question of further action to the rank and file. The Conference balloted its constituents on the further methods to be pursued: more agitation, arbitration, or a strike. For the first voted 1,395, for the second 1,157, for the third only 772. The process of agitation was resumed over the summer, until in June and July a firmer spirit showed itself, both bricklayers and carpenters voting for a strike. The minor trades, however, were still opposed, and so were the masons, and Potter still played for safety: presenting another petition and prepared to wait developments. However pre-emptive action by the masters would overtake his cautious strategy…

The increasing agitation by the various workers’ organisations had put the master builders of London, “a body of men traditionally tyrannous and autocratic, into a fretful and irritated temper; the propaganda by public meetings had made the employing classes at large alarmed and annoyed.”

“How on earth, asked one of the London journals, can a body of uneducated labourers add to the truth on any subject by gathering together into a mob?” [Illustrated Times, August 6, 1859.]

The employers were, in fact, anxious to provoke a struggle which could act as a pretext for reshaping working conditions in their own interests – mainly to get rid of any unionisation and force out any ‘agitators’. The excuse came in July 1859, when a petition for a nine-hour day was presented to a number of London master builders; one of the largest firms, Trollope in Pimlico, sacked the mason who had headed the deputation presenting it. The masons were the most organised body of unionists in London, and their London lodges acted immediately to withdraw all their members from Trollope’s job in Knightsbridge. The nine-hours Conference endorsed this, and brought out all the rest of Trollope’s employees on July 21. The Conference further decided that the strike would last until Trollope’s had granted the nine hours as well as reinstated the discharged unionist. The masters immediately replied by a general lock-out. Every large builder in London closed his shop within the fortnight, and 24,000 men were put on the streets.

The masters put it abroad that no worker would be re-hired who would not sign the Document, an anti-union pledge. Drafted by the Central Master Builders Association, the new form of the “Document”, had been prepared and printed in the form of a cheque book, with counterfoils which could he filed. It read as follows: “I declare that I AM NOT now, nor will I during the continuance of my engagement with you, become a MEMBER OF OR SUPPORT ANY SOCIETY which directly or indirectly interferes with the arrangements of this or any other Establishment OR the HOURS OR TERMS OF LABOUR, and that I recognize the right of Employers and Employed individually TO MAKE ANY TRADE ENGAGEMENTS ON WHICH THEY MAY CHOOSE TO AGREE.”

The masters were surprised by the reception of this precious piece of paper. They had expected that their yards would be quickly refilled by men who had signed it; instead, they could hardly secure even any general labourers. “Nine-hour missionaries” were sent out by the Conference into the provinces to block the arrival of worked or raw materials for the building trade. The masons were naturally supported steadily and regularly now that they were locked out.

However, press support and public opinion was divided, and the masters found their position under attack from a number of newspapers. Some papers of course wholeheartedly supported the employers, others the workers. On the whole, the master builders found themselves lacking support they had expected for their position.

“They therefore took the step of withdrawing the written Document and substituting a verbal declaration in the same terms. This was a false move. It did them no good, and got them no workers, while it looked like a half-hearted confession of error….”

The workers resolve to continue the dispute wavered as the stalemate dragged. “It was doubtful whether a third of the strikers, even including the masons, were in unions of any kind, and finances were most insecure.”

But divisions among the workers’ leaders threatened to derail the struggle…

The Stonemasons society judged the strain on their finances of strike pay sufficiently serious that they attempted to abandon the nine-hours claim and make a separate deal with the masters. Masons leader Richard Harnott spent the last half of September trying to persuade the master-builders to withdraw the “declaration” in return for the abandonment of the nine-hours claim. The obdurate masters, however, considered and mostly rejected his attempts to make a separate peace. One firm alone agreed to them, and there the masons went back to work.

Harnott had attempted to sell the other trades out for a deal for his own workers; George Potter, while holding to a united line, agreed that Harnott was to some extent right, in that the best thing was to drop the “nine-hours” and concentrate on fighting the document. The Conference, therefore, on November 9, formally called off the strike at Trollope’s, and abandoned the nine-hours. The employers, however, remained obstinate and held to the document, and the struggle was prolonged over the winter and into the new year.

“The Conference was in a grave financial situation. The masons alone punctually supported their members. The other trades were in a very bad position. Most of the locked-out men were not in a union at all, and had to be supported somehow. The painters and carpenters had no national unions at all ‑ the General Union did not touch London – and their funds disappeared almost at once. The Operative Bricklayers’ Society (London Order) was small and poor: it had to pay over £3,000 in all to its own members, and could only raise £580 for non-union men. Plumbers’ organisations hardly existed, and though a Builders’ Labourers’ Union was formed, with thirteen London Lodges and nearly 4,000 members, its funds were negligible. All told, one week’s payment of the 24,000 on the pay-roll would have eaten up most of the funds of all the unions.”

But solidarity from other unions and workers’ societies, beginning to organise as proto-Trades Councils, raised hundreds of pounds in collections and sent it to the London strike funds. A Glasgow Committee raised £257, Blackburn £271, and Manchester as much as £545. (Remembering that this money was worth much more at the time, and also that workers were relatively poorer). Numbers of London Societies sent in very heavy sums. The London Society of Compositors put up £620 by itself, and the Pianoforte Makers and Shipwrights sent £300 each. “The greatest sensation, however, was caused by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which astounded the Conference and the employers by presenting the lock-out funds with a thousand pounds every week for three weeks. Such a subscription had never been heard of before, and its moral effect in encouraging the men and flabbergasting the employers helped very greatly in defeating the attack.”

“The result was that only one section of the strikers gave way. The labourers, for reasons that are unrecorded, broke away in the beginning of December, and Potter struck them off the pay roll on December 3. Their union was already falling to pieces. Funds were just at that time fairly low, and, as they heralded their breakaway by beating the delegates sent to pay them, it is probable that some question of money was behind it…

It was generally now recognised that the struggle would not end soon, unless the masters gave way. Lord St. Leonards, therefore intervened with a proposal that the master‑builders should substitute for the document a long summary of the law on combinations, to be hung in all workshops – that is to say, that they should admit defeat. Harnott immediately instructed the masons that they were to agree to this, and the Conference did so also. The master-builders, however, living up to their general reputation for unusual obstinacy and autocracy, refused it, and held out for two months more, until on February 7 they unconditionally withdrew the document. On February 27 Potter paid the 27th and last instalment of lock-out pay.”

“The impression which the struggle had made on the mind of every worker was deep. It was only a half-victory, but it had shown to the non-unionists how a very powerful, wealthy and obstinate association of employers could be defied. It had also shown to the unionists how ineffective their own organisations were. They had, in fact, been nearly helpless in the earlier stages of the movement. The direction of the movement fell into the hands of the delegates of mass meetings, and the majority of those attending were non-unionists. Their own resources (and their votes showed they knew it) were not sufficient to support a strike for the nine-hours. When they were finally locked-out they were only saved from disaster because they were able to bring into the fight the whole trade union resources of England and Scotland. Thus we find, as a result of the lock-out, both a great influx of members into existing unions, and a movement towards the reconstruction of existing societies upon a new basis.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London’s radical history; 1387, Master Cordwainers go to court to repress fraternity of journey­men & apprentices.

On August 17th 1387, a number of journeymen Cordwainers were charged with making an illegal fraternity.

Cordwainers were shoemakers who practised their trade for centuries within the walls of the City of London.

During the medieval period, craftsmen formed guilds to regulate their trades and to protect the quality of their wares. The guilds trained apprentices and, in theory, supported their members over trade issues. In theory, the guild united members vertically, from wealthier masters employing any number of workers, through journeymen, craftsmen who had served their apprenticeship and worked at the trade, to apprentices learning the craft, as all sharing a common interest. (And yes, they were generally men, women were pretty much excluded from guild membership, although, not exclusively in some places and some guilds).

However, the guilds were often venues of struggle, usually between masters and journeymen, as the latter struggled to improve wages and working conditions, and the masters attempted to prevent them from getting together to organise – using force, the law, and all the strength of the guild’s regulations.
The middle ages in the City of London saw some attempts by journeymen of most crafts to form what are referred to as congregations, combinations, associations, with the aim of agreeing common action. The mere act of meeting as such was banned by law, and since the masters of the Guilds were also often the aldermen, mayors, sheriffs, and members of he Court of Common Council, the law was used heavily against the journeymen.

However the records are scanty – one commentator, having studied the London Letter-books of the deliberations, decisions and ordinances of London’s mayors and aldermen between the mid-13th and the mid 15th century, totals “only five such conflicts between artisans and their bosses, and none before the Black Death.” This doesn’t mean that much more conflict didn’t take place, only that it wasn’t necessarily considered serious enough to be recorded… Although some historians of this period have suggested that at this point such class conflict was relatively low. That it is only after the Black Death that these cases begin to appear is significant, as the huge shortage of labour that followed this cataclysmic plague led to an upsurge in demands from labourers for higher wages, more freedom to choose their employer, and better working conditions. (See our earlier post on the Ordinance of Labourers).

The 1387 Master Cordwainers’ case against some of their journeymen is the earliest of these five recorded cases. According to an account of the hearing of the cordwainers’ case:

“John Clerk, Henry Duntone, and John Hychene, were attached on the 17th day of August, in the 11th year etc., at the suit of Robert de York, Thomas Bryel, Thomas Gloucestre, and William Mildenhale, overseers of the trade of Cordwainers, and other reputable men of the same trade, appearing before Nicholas Extone, Mayor, and the Aldermen, in the Chamber of the Guildhall of London; and were charged by the said prosecutors, for that, whereas it was enacted and proclaimed in the said city, on behalf of our Lord the King, that no person should make congregations, alliances, or covins of the people, privily or openly; and that those belonging to the trades, more than other men, should not, without leave of the Mayor, make alliances, confederacies, or conspiracies; the aforesaid John Clerk, Henry Duntone, and John Hychene, servingmen of the said trade of Cordwainers, together with other their accomplices, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin [15 August] last past, at the Friars Preachers [Black Friars] in the said city, brought together a great congregation of men like unto themselves, and there did conspire and confederate to hold together; to the damage of the commonalty, and the prejudice of the trade before mentioned, and in rebellion against the overseers aforesaid; and there, because that Richard Bonet, of the trade aforesaid, would not agree with them, made assault upon him, so that he hardly escaped with his life; to the great disturbance of the peace of our Lord the King, and to the alarm of the neighbours there, and against the oath by which they had before been bound, not to make such congregations, or unions, or sects, for avoiding the dangers resulting therefrom.

And the said persons, being examined and interrogated thereon, could not deny the same; but they further confessed that a certain Friar Preacher, “Brother William Bartone” by name, had made an agreement with their companions, and had given security to them, that he would make suit in the Court of Rome for confirmation of that fraternity by the Pope; so that, on pain of excommunication, and of still more grievous sentence afterwards to be fulminated, no man should dare to interfere with the well-being of the fraternity. For doing the which, he had received a certain sum of money, which had been collected among their said companions: a deed which notoriously redounds to the weakening of the liberties of the said city, and of the power of the officers of the same. Wherefore, by award of the said Mayor and Aldermen, it was determined that the said John Clerk, Henry Duntone, and John Hychene, should be confined in the Prison of Neugate, until they should have been better advised what further ought to be done with them.”
(11 Richard II. A.D. 1387. Letter-Book H. fol. ccxix. (Latin.)

More cordwainers – Nicholas Bosbury, Walter Hoggeslade, Adam Loseye, Walter Gyngyver, Roger Rabas, William Robyn, William Hare, Robert Suttone – seem to have been tried, presumably for the same offence, on the 3rd of September in the same year, but there is no further record.

However, the imprisonment of some of the alleged ringleaders of the cordwainers’ ‘great congregation’ was far from the end of their attempts to organise in their own interests. Only 9 years later, in 1396, the masters were petitioning the mayor of London and aldermen again, alleging that their ‘serving-men’ had violated guild ordinances again by forming their own fraternity. The journeymen again lost in court, this time being fined £10 a head, way beyond their means.

The Cordwainers may well have been at the forefront of attempts to combine to improve their lot collectively. Other trades were also riven by inter-guild class struggle in 1396: the master saddlers accused some journeymen of their guild of holding meetings outside the City without the masters’ consent, seeking to increase their pay, and neglecting work…

Another question that comes up: there seems to have been an upsurge in ‘labour troubles’ in London in the 1380s. As mentioned above, the post-Black Death labour shortage had sparked any number of individual, and some collective, attempts to bargain for better wages and conditions by labourers. This was definitely happening in rural areas – it’s very likely similar pressures were operating in the capital too. What, if any, influence the second great cataclysm in fourteenth century history – the peasants Revolt of 1381 – had on the uppitiness of the Cordwainers and other London trades, is open to debate. It may be that a political element particular to London’s experience of the Revolt.

Its certainly true that the Cordwainers as a guild may have been considered relatively radical in the 1380s, in that it had become involved in faction fighting among the guilds, merchants and citizens, which had peaked around the June 1381 events. The Cordwainers had to some extent been associated with the faction of John Northampton, alderman from 1375 and Lord Mayor 1381-3, a reformer, whose record was characterized by an attempt to address inequality and trim the powers of the City oligarchy. Ousted by Nicholas Brembre, backed by the oligarchic faction, Northampton was jailed ‘for sedition’ in 1383, and sentenced to death (though this was commuted to 10 years imprisonment). His supporters and relatives suffered repression, banishment, and disenfranchisement as the oligarchic faction asserted themselves. The struggle between the two factions saw riots, ambushes, and arrests. It is worth noting that during the repression that followed the election of Nicholas Brembre, some of those arrested represented the settling of other scores – so when the guilds were forced to hand over names of those involved in tumults around the election, names of turbulent guild members were added. Relevant to the above story, the Cordwainers Guild masters dobbed in one John Remes, who was accused of a variety of charges including inflammatory words and other insubordinations, but pointedly also for rebellion against their own guild leadership.

It is interesting that the cordwainers – shoemakers – were pioneering in getting together to improve their lot. In later centuries many shoemakers and cobblers, like tailors, were famed for political radicalism, intellectual learning and debate, and trade unionism. Some put this down to the nature of their trade – shoemakers, like tailors, often working in their own rooms, or one or two to a workshop, in relatively quiet conditions, which perhaps allowed for more discussion and swapping of ideas than in some other trades. The on-off, boom and slack, manner that these trades fluctuated may have also resulted in periods of no work, which could both allow time to read and talk politics, and provoke anger and resentment… However their particular struggles arose, London’s cordwainers and shoemakers would continue to gather, debate, agitate, educate and organise…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London radical history: cleaners win strike in Ministry of Defence buildings, 1972

The Cleaners Action Group was set up in the early 1970s by women who were working cleaning large office blocks and other buildings, as a focus for any cleaners trying to improve their wages and conditions. Then, as now, cleaning contracts were worth millions to the contractors, but profits could always be jacked up by paying rock-bottom wages, making cleaners work long hours (mostly overnight) with few breaks, often using fewer workers than was physically practical to do the job.

The women behind Cleaners Action had all worked as cleaners in various parts of London. May Hobbs, one of the driving forces behind the group, describes how they started getting organised:

“One night over the dinner break I said to the others ‘You’re always moaning. Why not do something instead?’ So we decided to join the union, but this time we were not going to put up with the male trade union officers of the T.G.W.U. just doing a little bit for us when it suited them [May and others had been sacked before after striking in support of a black cleaner victimised by a racist superviser, and the union reps had dragged their feet in helping them]. Once we were paying our dues we looked on that as contributing a part of their wages. We also decided that I would phone the manager to say we wanted more money and more women on the building [they were cleaning an annexe of Hornsey College, with three women cleaning a building supposed to have twelve on shift!] So I phoned the manager to say we wanted to see him and that we would not go into work that night until he came. Down he came and I told him I would not work on that building with only three women, and besides the money was diabolical.”

Winning a raise on this job was only the beginning; getting sacked, having to fight for their full back pay, finding new jobs, kicking up a fuss there about pay and conditions… before long May herself found herself blacklisted. “From that moment going around and organising the cleaners became a full time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and stat talking to the cleaners themselves. We formed ourselves into the Cleaners Action Group, and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing put they should not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.”

“The main area of concentration for office cleaners was in the big blocks in the city of London. The contractors find it more profitable to make it night work, because he type of person they get to do it is someone who needs the money for such luxuries in life as rent and food for their family and who is hence in a poor bargaining position.”

“In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.

They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal…”

Such sackings, threatening phone calls and like tactics couldn’t intimidate the group, however, who won an early strike on the Board of Trade Building, Sanctuary House (“the first building to become unionized”). After this “Companies House and Shell-mex House at Waterloo were also unionized. The Sanctuary house cleaners elected their shop steward and deputy shop steward, and the two of them were sacked at once on some flimsy excuse. So we had our first major strike, with Companies House coming out in support.”

Winning this strike, beginning to gather support from women’s liberation groups, as well as other unions, the Cleaners Action Group was on a roll.

“Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 a week on their warnings of £12.50 for a forty0five hour week, and recognition by the employers for their union – in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Womens Lib co-operated to set up round the clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.”

Sheila Rowbotham draws an evocative picture of the atmosphere that built up around this strike:

“These were militant times and the striking cleaners received instant trade union support. The T&G lorry drivers refused to cross our picket lines and supplies began to dry up in the Ministry of Defence, most crucially the beer for the bar. Inside information from sympathizers in the Empress State Building was that lack of beer was having a terrible effect on morale. Post Office workers refused to deliver mail; printers, railway workers and clothing workers sent donations. The local Trades Council came along with good practical advice about whom to contact in the area. One odd encounter was with some men at the Admiralty building one night who insisted we had to let them in because they looked after the tunnels. The tunnels, they explained, had to be kept in good order because the Queen and other important people would escape down them in the event of a nuclear attack. The Cleaners’ Action Group was clearly threatening the very defence of the realm!

At the Empress State building in Fulham, the picket began to assume a carnival atmosphere. A nearby Italian restaurant allowed Lusia Films to use their electricity. The film makers rigged up a screen and began to show films, most notably Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s wonderful 1953 film of a strike in a New Mexico mining community in which the women played a key role. Passionate, sensitive, humourous, Salt of the Earth resulted in him being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, whilst the Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas, was repatriated to Mexico. The cleaners, several of whom were from the Caribbean and Ireland, loved this drama in which class, race and gender interacted in ways that related closely with their own experience. Lusia Films had been inspired by the activist film making of the May events in Paris during 1968 and by early Russian revolutionary films. They were part of a creative new wave of documentary film makers who were just beginning to take off in Britain at that time. They raised money by doing advertisements and showed their films at meetings. Whilst some took a straightforward newsreel style, Lusia was experimenting with new forms of communicating..

Cleaners and feminists picketing, singing and dancing at the Ministry of Defence made a good story and the strike was covered widely in the media. Our targeting of high-profile government buildings brought results. The CSU was able to get the contractors to recognize the union. The strikers obtained a raise of £2.50 per week and a 50 pence night allowance. The women were joyous and at Empress State remained so confident that they were able to push their wages up to £21 a week, well above the average women’s wage of£12…”

May Hobbs again: “The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the one 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The General Post office engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed, and on the 13th twenty more came out at the Home Office’s Horseferry Road annex over the sacking of a superviser.

On 16 August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor’s representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week’s work and no victimisation. The superviser at Horseferry Road was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.

It was a big victory, all right, as most of the newspaper headlines said. The only thing which spoilt it was that the cleaners at the Old Admiralty building got notice to quit almost at once as the contract there was falling through. When some of them reapplied to the new contractor, surprise, surprise, there were no jobs available. Which just goes to show, one victory does not win any war.

The great thing was we had won in this case and shown what might be done. We had got the whole subject aired in the press and in the House of Commons by such M.Ps as Lena Jager and Joe Ashton and people knew a bit more about what went on in their offices, while they were snugly tucked up in their beds, to keep things nice and civilised for them when they got in for work.

Meanwhile the struggle goes on and we have to work harder as the employers go on getting more cunning. It seems a lot of the time that we are not only up against the contractors and their spies and their ruthless methods in breaking up a group of cleaners as soon as there is a union nucleus. We are also up against the big bureaucratic unions, who seem to suck closer to the government and get more away from the working class every day. They are as bad as the capitalists as they go about it in a way that will bring them in the most money without considering the situation of the individuals in the movement.”

May Hobbs wrote those words in 1973: anyone working in cleaning now will no doubt recognize that if May and her comrades improved wages and conditions immensely in the early ‘70s, much of the gains won have been reversed over succeeding decades. A whole generation of cleaners have had to struggle hard over the last decade to win much of this ground back.

Most of this post was hoisted wholesale from May Hobbs excellent book, Born to Struggle, which recounts her life growing up in Hoxton, accounts of class solidarity and ducking and diving, as well as lots more about working and unionising in the cleaning industry and elsewhere.

Another account, from Sheila Rowbotham, of some of the work of the Cleaners Action group and beyond, can be read here

and another here

And here’s a short account of more recent cleaners struggles in London


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

eurostar cleaners

Today in London radical history: Cleaners’ strike, Eurostar & St Pancras stations, 2014.

Contract Cleaners on Eurostar and at London’s St Pancras station went on strike for two days on 15th August 2014 – one of a series of strikes that month over jobs and conditions.

The cleaners at St Pancras station in London downed tools as part of their action against facilities company Interserve, which imposed massive 30 per cent cuts to the workforce after it won the St Pancras-Eurostar cleaning contract from Network Rail.

The dispute had been rumbling for several months, with an initial 24 hour strike on August 1st.

Like many contract cleaners, the Eurostar contract is subject to regular tender with cut-throat cleaning contractors competing to win the work.  Workers get transferred from one contractor to another like pieces of meat, but the business model of the companies is all the same – hacking back on pay and conditions to maximise profit while offering the workforce as little as possible.

Interserve won the St Pancras/Eurostar contract from Network Rail in exactly this fashion – through a massive cut in the price for the work.  In order to protect the company profits and hand-outs to shareholders Interserve imposed 30% job cuts on the cleaning workers: leading to massive pressure on remaining staff.

The cleaners complained of a workplace culture based on continual aggression and bullying from their employers: “They call it efficiency – we call it harassment.”

A workforce already suffering from low pay, no sick pay, receiving only the statutory minimum in benefits, were not prepared to be intimidated anymore.

Through their union the RMT, the Eurostar cleaners were demanding an agreement on staffing levels at St Pancras, a fair and reasonable workload and for the workforce to be treated with dignity and respect.

Much more on cleaners’ struggles in tomorrow’s blog entry…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


Today in London radical history: OutRage! demo opposes Assembly for Islam, Hyde Park, 1995.

On August 13th 1995, gay campaigning group OutRage demonstrated at Trafalgar Square, opposing the Hizb ut-Tahrir Rally for Islam.

Hizb ut-Tahrir (Arabic: حزب التحرير‎‎ Ḥizb at-TaḥrīrParty of Liberation) is an international, pan-Islamic political organisation, which describes its “ideology as Islam”, and its aim as the re-establishment of “the Islamic Khilafah (Caliphate)” or Islamic state. In 1995 Hizb-ut-Tahrir was at the forefront of public Islamic fundamentalism, (though this was before the current war on terror really got going, so other forces have achieved higher profiles since then).
Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain was led by Syrian-born Omar Bakri Muhammad from 1986 to 1996. The party first recruited from among Muslims who came from countries where the party was banned and were temporary residents of the UK, but in 1993 expanded its targets for recruitment to include second generation Muslim immigrants.

Many activists who passed through Hizb-ut Tahrir in various countries went on to harder things – a number of prominent al-Qaeda members were former members. The party is generally seen as “entry-level Islamism” – a kind of introductory forum which draws people into fundamentalism, and can lead them on to more active violent arenas; however it scrupulously preserves its legality, obeying the law in countries it is active in to keep its legal status.

However, by the mid-1990s, Hizb was “a fixture on university campuses, organising societies and debates”, known for its “fierce” rhetoric, young audiences, and aloofness from other Muslim organizations or initiatives. It also reportedly engaged in vigilantism against non Muslims and secular Muslim women, “prowling London, fighting Indian Sikhs in the west and African Christians in the east”, and pressuring Muslim women to wear the hijab.

Groups like Al-Muhajiroun, which effectively splintered off from Hizb-ut Tahrir, have taken a more pro-active part in encouraging muslims to sign up for jihadist activities.

Hizb ut-Tahrir staged a major rally in Trafalgar Square on 13th August with the aim of offering Islam to non-Muslims. The rally was described as “an American-style evangelical extravaganza with the group claiming to have a list of almost one hundred people who will publicly announce their conversion to Islam”. A leaflet announcing the rally proclaimed, “Last year the International Muslim Khilafah Conference rocked the world; this year, the voice of Islam will shake the very foundations of Western civilization… Reject the evils of freedom and democracy, the pillars of the west! Support Islam… the Supreme Ideology”. Posters advertising the rally were in evidence in many parts of London and other cities.

The rally itself was sparsely covered in the press with more attention being given to the counter protests by Outrage! and the Jewish Socialists’ Group. OutRage were protesting against Hizb ut-Tahrir’s violent condemnation of homosexuality.

OutRage had previously picketed the international Islamic fundamentalist conference held at Wembley Arena, London, on 7th August 1994, organized by Hizb-ut-Tahrir. OutRage! members Peter Tatchell and Glenn Halton, had been arrested during the peaceful protest against the murder of an estimated 4,000 lesbians and gay men since 1980 by the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran — most of the victims being beheaded, stoned and burned to death. During this protest, Muslim fundamentalists threatened to kill members of OutRage!. ‘We will find you and kill you’, they said. The police took no action against them.

Its worth checking out OutRage! An Oral History


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

south London chartists

Today in radical history: Chartist Grand National Holiday (General Strike) begins, 1839

August 12th 1839 was the date marked for the launch Chartist Grand National Holiday  – effectively a General Strike to overthrow the ruling classes. In reality it didn’t really get going… there’s always time though folks…

William Benbow was a shoemaker and radical pamphleteer, publisher, propagandist and bookseller, originally from Cheshire, who in the 1830s ran radical bookshops/meeting places in Tehoebalds Road, Leicester Square and Fleet Street, in London.An activist of the National Union of the Working Classes; he later became a leading physical force Chartist. Both the NUWC and the Chartist movement became quickly divided between those who thought protest, petition and mass pressure for political reform would gain working men the vote, and those who felt the rich and powerful would always defeat peaceful campaigning, and only ‘physical force’ – mass strike, uprising and revolt – could do the job.

I’m not sure if Benbow was the first to think up the idea of a general strike, but in his classic pamphlet of 1832, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, he proposed that the producers of the wealth, being exploited by an idle and rich minority, should cease to work en masse, for a month. This would be enough to kickstart the process of depriving the rich of the fruits of the labour of the working classes, who would elect a congress to begin the process of re-ordering society in their own interests. The way Benbow writes about the Holiday, as a sacred and glorious festival, designed to usher in happiness and prosperity for all, carries echoes of the biblical Jubilee, when work was banned, debts were abolished and prisoners freed… Benbow was also a non-conformist preacher, but the Jubilee had transcended religious imagery in the early nineteenth century, as ultra-radicals like Thomas Spence and Robert Wedderburn revived the idea as a vehicle of almost millenarian communist significance. But mass stoppages of work were also part of a long tradition in working class culture. Benbow’s genius was to invest the theory of the strike with a cataclysmic and transformative aura.

It was at the Rotunda, the leading radical centre of the day, in Blackfriars Road, Southwark, that Benbow first publicly advocated his theory of the Grand National Holiday. Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system to the gain of working people. Benbow used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up… that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.”

Not only was no work to be done, but workers should make all effort to cripple the state and the financial system. Supporters of the Sacred Month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. Benbow’s proposals included addressing practical problems of how the mass of striking workers were to support themselves; first of all living on their saving (admittedly meagre), but then taking over parish funds and extorting money and goods from the rich to survive. but that He also suggested local committees should be set up to administer food distribution and keep order: these local committees would be the basis of elections to a national Convention – a working class government in effect.

The Chartists took the idea of the ‘Grand National Holiday’, although some preferred to called it the ‘Sacred Month’. After the first flush of enthusiasm of mass meetings and petitioning had given way to disillusion as Parliament rejected the first Chartist petition in July 1839, rioting had occurred across various parts of the country in response to the Commons vote, and a number of Chartist leaders were arrested and jailed. Benbow had been spreading the idea of the Grand National holiday abroad again, and it had been widely discussed in Chartist circles around the country. Workers in Wales, the north of England and the midlands were especially agitated, and many were prepared to take extra-ordinary steps.

The idea was passed around that August 12th would be the date when the ‘Sacred Month’ would begin. The Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy. But there were divisions – Chartism was not a homogenous movement; although united around some demands, tactics and even ultimate ends were often hotly debated. If some were openly planning insurrection, stockpiling pikes, staves and other weaponry, many more moderate elements shied away from violence, wither because they felt it was wrong in itself, or because they believed it would draw state repression and end in mass arrest and jailings. In the event the repression came anyway.

To some extent the Sacred Month, did begin, in that workers in a number of areas stayed away from work. On 12th August 1839 in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut. The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star for the 17th and 24th August 1839 reported meetings across the north, often with very large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas, which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the Sacred Month – flying pickets, in fact, always a useful tactic in large-scale strikes.

Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was at least symbolic support. For instance, in London on 12th August, Chartists held a mass meeting on Kennington Common.

The response to the strike call was in reality very patchy, though, and there is no clear picture of how many workers stayed away from work. In some areas the strike lasted several days, though not the whole month. Despite Benbow’s idea of revolutionary local councils organising the expropriation of the rich, this was difficult, with an organised police force , now up and running, soldiers deployed around the country, and a government in reality more prepared for violence than the workers were.

Few workers had any savings, and if some had small plots of land to feed themselves, many had nothing. Without a mass will to seize the wealth from the start, a simple economic stoppage was up against it from the start.

The government had already begun to crack down on Chartism before the Grand National Holiday could get going, arresting 100s of activists including leading speakers, agitators and lecturers, and charging them with sedition. Benbow himself was nicked on August 4th, and spent eight months in orison awaiting trial. These arrests not only weakened the strike by taking crucial figures out of the picture, but the trials and supporting prisoners became an alternative focus, and the Convention in fact voted to suspend the Sacred Month just before it was to begin and replace if with a three day General Strike starting on 12th August.

So in the end, the Grand National Holiday, the Sacred Month, fizzled out. Many of the Chartists still at large began instead to plan insurrections. Armed revolt did break out in Newport, South Wales, in November 1839, and plots were also barely forestalled by the authorities in Yorkshire.

Though the Grand National Holiday failed to overthrow british capitalism in its infancy, the idea remained strong among the international working class. The theory of the General strike, as a method of overthrowing class society and introducing a more just and egalitarian economic and social order, was revived, most powerfully by the French syndicalists in the late 19th century. Some socialist historians have asserted that French radical workers were introduced to the idea by English workmen during meetings of the First International in the 1860s. So perhaps old Chartists influenced by William Benbow, or recalling 1839, passed this idea of to a new generation who picked it up and ran with it…

The text of Benbow’s ‘Grand National Holiday,
and Congress of the Productive Classes’ can be found here:

And a account of some aspects of Benbow’s life here


It’s not our intention here to go into detailed theoretical proposals for how a possible future General Strike might pan out differently. But one classic communist text we have read we did find useful. Initially it was interesting to us when looking at the British General Strike of 1926, and relating the theory of a General Strike as a method of initiating revolution. But it also can be helpful when looking at 1839.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her book, The Mass Strike (1905), made some critiques of how anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists of her time all saw the General Strike. She suggested that the idea of the anarchists and syndicalists of a political general strike pre-arranged with a political aim to overthrow capitalism was unlikely to succeed, but posited instead (based on an analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution) that a mass strike, evolving more organically out of people’s immediate economic struggles in daily life, meshing together, constituted a new phase in the class struggle, not an abstract and artificial moment plucked from the air, but a historical development, emerging from below, not being imposed or ordained by any higher authority, or even she suggests by an external political radical structure like a socialist party.

Part of Luxemburg’s intent in writing The Mass Strike, it is true, was to discredit the existing theories of the General Strike as put forward mainly by anarchists and syndicalists, trends of radical thinking that she and other marxists were struggling to liquidate from the working class movement, as they saw it. But she was also engaged in a parallel battle against those within the Marxist camp who were attempting to steer it towards a reformist position, away from the idea of a revolutionary transfromation of capitalism; as well as being critical of trade unionists mainly concerned with purely day to day economic gains at the expense of the bigger picture.

Theorists of the General Strike thus far had almost exclusively conceived of it as a road to revolution. Sixty years after the Chartist Grand National Holiday, the French syndicalists, organised in the CGT union confederation, developed theories in which the General Strike was central. They saw it as the supreme weapon for the workers to overthrow capitalism and take control of society in their own interests. One of the CGT’s founders and leading theorists, Fernand Pelloutier, wrote about the General Strike. Two examples showing how he and other revolutionary syndicalists saw this future strike:
“ … Every one of them (the strikers) will remain in their neighborhoods and will take possession, first, of the small workshops and the bakeries, then of the bigger workshops, and finally, but only after the victory, of the large industrial plants….”
“ … Because the general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere, because it takes possession of the instruments of production in each neighborhood, in each street, in each building, so to speak, there can be no establishment of an “Insurrectionary Government” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; no focal point of the whole uprising or a center of resistance; instead, the free association of each group of bakers, in each bakery, of each group of locksmiths, in each locksmith’s shop: in a word, free production….”

The syndicalist line on the General Strike was very much to the fore when The Mass Strike was written. It attempts to dismiss the prevailing ideas of the potential of such a struggle : “It is just as impossible to ‘propagate’ the mass strike as an abstract means of struggle as it is to propagate the ‘revolution.’ ‘Revolution’ like ‘mass strike’ signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations.”
You can’t create either by going round calling for it, in other words; it will emerge as and when needed and according to the conditions of the moment. It is not ONE predictable fixed open and close struggle, but an inter-connected web of movements events, themselves caused by local or specific economic conditions, though led and expressed by people with a political idea of the movement, at least as Luxemburg saw it.
Another nice quote: “It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena.”
Rosa saw it as not a method but THE form itself of workers struggle… A rallying idea of a period of class war lasting years or decades… It cannot be called at will by any organization even The Party! She goes further and almost says that it cannot be directed from above or outside, though she does say elsewhere that the socialists have to provide political leadership.
She does contrast the mass fighting strikes with one off ‘demonstration’ strikes – what the TUC or Unison calls today ‘days of action’ in other words.
Related to this, she says the successful mass strike arising in the way described above would not/must not be limited to the organized workers: “If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” The union structures must recognise the common interest of unionised and non-unionised workers, in other words (to their surprise many strike committees learnt this lesson in practice in 1926, as unorganised workers flocked to the struggle in thousands).

She suggests minority movements are pipe dreams; “a strategy of class struggle … which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” Even though the Socialists are the leadership of the working class, she suggests, they can’t force things through on their own… (past tense would question that the working class needs an external leadership, here we do differ from auntie Rosa).
Later on she talks about trade unions getting to the point where preservation of the organization, its structure etc, becomes end in itself, or at least more important than taking risks, entering into all out struggles, or even any at all! Also how daily struggles over small issues often lead people to lose sight of wider class antagonism or larger connections… Interestingly she points out that TU bureaucracies become obsessed with the positive, membership numbers etc, and limited to their own union’s gains, ignoring negative developments, hostile to critics who point out the limitations to their activities. And how the development of professional bureaucracies increase the chance of divorce of officials etc from daily struggles… Nothing sharp-eyed folk have not also pointed out over the last hundred years, but she was among the first to diagnose it. (She also says the same ossification processes are dangers the Revolutionary Party needs to beware of… showing foresights to the developments of the communist parties and other left splinters over the following decades).

Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas are interesting… Without going into it too deeply, her assertion that a successful general strike would have to arise organically, meshing together from below rather than being ‘called’ by any committee or confederation, looks more realistic… In the case of 1839, some Chartists were attempting to crowbar a General Strike into existence, in conditions that may have doomed it from the start according to Luxemburg’s perceptions. Interestingly, viewed through her prism, the plug strikes of 1842 in the north of England probably had more ‘revolutionary potential’, arising from the immediate need of the workers involved, as they did, rather than the somewhat forced Grand National Holiday. However, it is also interesting to compare Benbow’s idea of local committees of working class activists taking on ordering food distribution and keeping order, with both the councils of action in the 1926 General Strike (and similar structures thrown up elsewhere, like the 1956 workers councils in the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, or in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent in Britain). Benbow was early to spot how such structures would be necessary in a time of ‘dual power’, where capitalist state still exists but workers are powerful enough to begin to supersede it.

Though Rosa Luxemburg disagreed with Fernand Pelloutier, her vision, like that of Benbow, also suggests a revolution that is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, part of a tangled period of change and dual power… a future that remains open and in our hands…

The text of the Mass Strike can be found online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online