Today in London’s history: Nicholas Amhurst nicked for writing seditious libels in the ‘Craftsman’, 1737.

As we wrote in a previous post, the satirical magazine, the Craftsman, opposed to the corrupt regime of prime minster Robert Walpole, was repeatedly prosecuted by the authorities.

In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act (1737) in the issue of 2 July 1737. This had taken the form of a letter, supposedly from opportunist social climbing poet and actor-manager Colley Cibber, suggesting many plays by Shakespeare and the older dramatists contained passages which might be regarded as seditious, and advocating extending the Licensing Act to include old plays, most notably Shakespeare’s plays, as also seditious and “a danger to good order”. The letter then proposed Cibber be appointed censor of all plays brought on the stage.

This was regarded as a “suspected” libel, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the printer, Henry Haines (who had succeeded Richard Francklin as printer of the journal, after Francklin’s repeated arrests and imprisonment). Printers then could be held responsible for any content in anything they printed, even if it was published by someone else.

Haines was immediately arrested and held on £600 bail, which he could not raise. He was not tried until February 1738, when he was brought “before a special jury and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment”  In the meantime, the Craftsman’s founder Nicholas Amhurst surrendered himself instead, on (September 20th 1737) and suffered a short imprisonment.

A poet and political writer, Amhurst had become a prominent pamphleteer on the opposition (whig) side against Walpole and the Tories. In 1726 he issued the first number of the Craftsman, as a weekly periodical, which he conducted under the pseudonym of Caleb D’Anvers. The paper was aimed mainly towards the overthrow of Sir Robert Walpole’s government; there is some debate about its effects, with most historians agreeing it did little more than preaching to the converted. Nevertheless it reached a circulation of 10,000 copies and was one of the biggest magazines of its time with authors such as Henry Fielding, John Gay and Alexander Pope contributing to it. For this success Amhurst’s editorship was not perhaps chiefly responsible. It was founded, and in the beginning financed, by Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, the latter being a frequent and caustic contributor.

The incident seems to have caused bad feeling between Henry Haines on the one side, and Amhurst and Francklin. Haines published a pamphlet in 1740, with the snappy title of Treachery, baseness, and cruelty display’d to the full, in the hardships and sufferings of Mr. Henry Haines, Late Printer of the Country Journal, or, Craftsman; Who now is, and for above Two Years has been, in close Imprisonment in the King’s Bench, for a Fine of Two hundred Pounds, at the Suit of the Crown, for Printing and Publishing the Craftsman of July 2, 1737, In which he criticised Amhurst and Francklin.

More on the history of the Craftsman can be found here


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


Today in London’s rebel history: Jane Housden & William Johnson hanged, 1714, for killing Spurling, a screw.

Sometimes, open defiance is the only option. And even if they see you, you might as well deny it.

“WILLIAM JOHNSON was a native of Northamptonshire, where he served his time as a butcher, and removing to London he opened a shop in Newport Market; but business not succeeding to his expectation, he pursued a variety of speculations, until at length he sailed to Gibraltar, where he was appointed a mate to one of the surgeons of the garrison. Having saved some money at this place, he came back to his native country, where he soon spent it, and then had recourse to the highway for a supply.

Being apprehended in consequence of one of his robberies, he was convicted, but received a pardon. Previously to this he had been acquainted with Jane Housden, his fellow in crime, who had been tried and convicted of coining but had obtained a pardon, but who was again in custody for a similar offence.

On the day that she was to be tried, and just as she was brought down to the bar of the Old Bailey, Johnson called to see her; but Mr Spurling, the head turnkey, telling him that he could not speak to her till her trial was ended, he instantly drew a pistol and shot Spurling dead on the spot, in the presence of the Court and all the persons attending to hear the trials, Mrs Housden at the same time encouraging him in the perpetration of this singular murder. The event had no sooner happened than the judges, thinking it unnecessary to proceed on the trial of the woman for coining, ordered both the parties to be tried for the murder; and, there being many witnesses to the deed, they were convicted, and received sentence of death.

 From this time to that of their execution, which took place on 19th of September, 1714, and even at the place of their death, they behaved as if they were wholly insensible of the enormity of the crime which they had committed; and notwithstanding the publicity of their offence, they had the confidence to deny it to the last moment of their lives. Nor did they show any signs of compunction for their former sins. After hanging the usual time, Johnson was hanged in chains near Holloway, between Islington and Highgate.”

From the Newgate Calendar.


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


Today in London’s theatrical history: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.


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


Today in London’s dramtic history: Garrick refuses justices’ request to change the Beggars Opera, 1773.

In September 1773, the actor and impresario David Garrick got into a dispute with the Westminster magistrate John Fielding, over Garrick’s plan to shortly begin staging John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (see our previous post). Fielding was trying to persuade Garrick not to put the play on, as the Opera ‘made people laugh at scenes which they ought to condemn’, thus corrupting the morals of the ‘lowers orders’. Writing to Garrick, Fielding suggested changing the ending of the play, proposing that the protagonist Macheath should be hanged instead of being reprieved.

Fielding was keen to censor immorality on the stage – a long tradition in London, where the authorities saw theatres as potential hotbeds of unrest. From Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century the Lord Chamberlain’s office oversaw theatres and regularly closed down plays seen as unruly or immoral. Nor was the widely held view among magistrates and government that the ‘mob’ that gathered to watch plays could easily become a riotous crowd and a political challenge entirely unjustified… Gradually however, the protection of public morality became a bigger concern for the censors.

Fielding claimed that stagings of the Beggars’ Opera had always resulted in a wave of crime and immorality in the city. Critics replied that he had the cart before the horse – John Gay’s Opera was commenting on the state of the world, not responsible for it.

In reply to Fielding, Garrick ‘in return pleasantly remarked, that it did not seem his interest at present to carry conviction to such lengths’…

Commentators of the time were amused by the request, since Fielding himself was thought to be immured in vice, and to tolerate and profit from the bribes from, any number of rackets in the area he nominally policed… As William Augustus Miles pointed out in a letter to Fielding, ‘not endeavouring to suppress the open practice of all manner of vice and immorality in his own neighbourhood, before he made application to Mr Garrick for the suppression of the Beggars’ Opera… considering the uniform practice of your life… your being intrenched up to your very chin in all manner of vice… the request to Mr Garrick was neither decent nor plausible, and what a man, the least conversant with your character, can hear without a mixture of laughter and indignation…. Do you imagine that to expose vice is the same as to encourage it?’

Ironically, although Garrick refused to play Fielding’s game, Fielding could easily have thought Garrick would be up for it, since he was well-accustomed to re-writing famous dramas. He continued the Restoration tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s tragedies to give them happy endings or editing out classic scenes, although he did bring some whole chunks of Shakespeare’s texts that late 17th century playwrights had excised. Garrick also took a dim view of the unruly culture of the theatre-going crowds, who were fond of making a racket, heckling, entering and leaving noisily when they liked, and carrying on in what sounds like a most enjoyable fashion to break down the strict separation of audience and viewer. However Garrick’s attempts to reform the audience – refusing admittance behind the scenes and on the stage and attempted to discontinue the practice of reduced entry fees for those who left early or came late, but these changes resulted in riots. Theatre crowds were made of sterner stuff back then and took no shit when it came to price rises or controls on their behaviour… (We will hopefully come back to this on 18th September).

Fielding’s attempt to censor, or persuade Garrick to censor the Beggars Opera itself inspired drama. Shortly after, an anonymous play was staged in London, called “The Bow Street Opera in Three Acts. Written on the Plan of the Beggars’ Opera”. It featured deeply satirical and scathing attacks on the politics an hypocrisy of the justice system, aimed directly at Fielding, who was portrayed as ‘Justice Blindman’ (he had been blind since an accident at the age of 19), but very much in the style of John Gay, also relating a thinly veiled account of the career of radical demagogue and bogy of the establishment (at least until he joined it), John Wilkes.


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

Rethink severe mental illness today (September 14) defied an official ban to protest at the "last taboo" of mental health stigma and start a debate on how to overcome it.
The charity had planned to unveil a "black dog" statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a straitjacket in London's Trafalgar Square to draw dramatic attention to the stigma surrounding mental ill-health. 
But the statue, emblazoned with a "prejudice, ignorance and fear" sash, was banned. Instead, the statue took to the road and toured central London in defiance of the ban, imposed by the Greater London Authority, which controls access to Trafalgar Square.
Rethink chief executive Cliff Prior said: "Mental illness is the last taboo. People deny it, try to hide it and hide from it. We are determined to break out of the straitjacket and challenge prejudice, ignorance and fear wherever they appear."
Credit: newscast
+44 (0)20 7608 1000

Today in London’s mental health history: Winston Churchill statue straitjacketed, 2004.

A fibre-glass statue of former Prime minster Winston Churchill locked into a straitjacket was banned from display in London’s Trafalgar Square in September 2004 by the Greater London Authority ‘on grounds of good taste‘ – after Churchill’s family objected, basically.

The statue, commissioned by the mental health charity Rethink, “was intended to illustrate how for hundreds of thousands of others the discrimination surrounding manic depression and other forms of severe mental illness acts like a straitjacket, denying people work and other opportunities to participate fully in society.”

Churchill famously wrote about the ‘black dog’ of depression that haunted him, and numerous posthumous diagnoses have suggested he was bi-polar, his well-known heavy drink problems have been seen as self-medication…

Ironically Rethink’s point was hardly anti-Churchill – they were trying to suggest that suffering from depression had not stopped him from becoming a great prime minister wartime leader, greatest living Briton blah blah etc…

Rethink had the statue driven around Trafalgar Square on September 14th 2004, in spite of the London Assembly decision… It then travelled around temporary exhibitions, before being later erected in Norwich in 2006. On which controversy erupted again, with Churchill’s grandson, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, branding it as ‘absurd and pathetic’ (interestingly, adjectives often attached to Nicholas Soames himself, along with ‘parasitical’ and ‘bloated’).

However, some people with mental health problems were “incensed to have Winston as a pin-up boy for madness. After all, while he might have admitted to his “black dogs” of depression, he wasn’t exactly a mental health advocate, having derided the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes” and believed that the “source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed”.

That’s right, like many movers and shakers of his times, Churchill was an advocate of eugenics. In a memo to the prime minister in 1910, Winston Churchill cautioned, “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”.

When he was Home Secretary (February 1910-October 1911) Churchill was in favour of the confinement, segregation, and sterilisation of a class of persons contemporarily described as the “feeble minded.” He supported the compulsory internment of people he labelled ‘mental defectives’ in labour camps, but thought forced sterilisation a preferable option on grounds of both cost and libertarian grounds (really).

“The improvement of the British breed is my aim in life,” Winston Churchill wrote in 1899; like most of his contemporaries, family and friends, he regarded races as different, racial characteristics as signs of the maturity of a society, and racial purity as endangered not only by other races but by mental weaknesses within a race.

“The phrase “feeble-minded” was to be defined as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, of which Churchill had been one of the early drafters. The Act defined four grades of “Mental Defective” who could be confined for life, whose symptoms had to be present “from birth or from an early age.” “Idiots” were defined as people “so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers.” “Imbeciles” were not idiots, but were “incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.” The “feeble-minded” were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but, if adults, their condition was “so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others.” If children of school age, their condition was “so pronounced that they by reason of such defectiveness appear to be personally incapable of receiving proper benefit from instruction in ordinary schools.” “Moral defectives” were people who, from an early age, displayed “some permanent mental defect coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities on which punishment had little or no effect.”

In September 1910, Churchill wrote to his Home Office officials asking them to investigate putting into practice the “Indiana Law”-dominated by sterilisation, and the prevention of the marriage of the “Feeble-Minded.” Churchill wrote: “I am drawn to this subject in spite of many Parliamentary misgivings… Of course it is bound to come some day.” Despite the misgivings, “It must be examined.” He wanted to know “what is the best surgical operation?” and what new legal powers would be needed to carry out sterilisation.

Concerned by the high cost of forced segregation, Churchill preferred compulsory sterilisation to confinement, describing sterilisation as a “simple surgical operation so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.”

To be fair, many on the liberal left also embraced eugenics… GB Shaw, HG Wells, Labour historian Harold Laski, JBS Haldane, JM Keynes, the New Statesman and the Guardian all went through pro-eugenics phases… Many of them also thought the rights of horrible working class people and suspect foreign types also ought to be restricted when it came to re-production. Socialism meant progress, efficiency, sobriety, proper organisation by the right people, and the weak, morally corrupt and unfit would just have to fall by the wayside as the shining future was built.

More details of Churchill’s beliefs on eugenics


Some retrospective diagnoses of the ‘great man’

Churchill, despite the widespread adoration of him in the UK, is not universally popular… not just warmongering, but obsessed by bloodshed; egomaniacal, fiercely aristocratic, fond of sending in troops against strikers, grandiose and militarily incompetent, misogynistic, racist, anti-semitic…

This article is worth a read


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

A photograph of West End squatters holding a candlelit meeting in London, taken by Greaves for the Daily Herald newspaper in September 1946.

This photograph has been selected from the Daily Herald Archive, a collection of over three million photographs. The archive holds work of international, national and local importance by both staff and agency photographers.

Today in London’s housing history: Ivanhoe Hotel squatted, Bloomsbury, 1946.

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing. Demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… As a result there was mass squatting of empty houses, and army camps and depots, around the country.

“Down in Brighton, VE day was celebrated with a merry scrunching of crowbars as dozens of hotels and big houses being kept empty for post-war summer visitors were taken over by homeless people. “Vigilantes” seems a strange name nowadays. I think the idea was that they were vigilantly scouring the streets for empty places and opening them, not letting a single home go unused. They were otherwise known as “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen”. By the beginning of July there were 1,000 people squatting in Brighton alone and the movement was spreading to towns all along the south coast as well as to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. There were big meetings, lots of public support and massive press coverage. Churchill persuaded the press to stop mentioning what was happening – he reckoned it was spreading the idea introduced requisitioning powers (but not duties) for councils to take over empty property and made anti-squatting propaganda part of his campaign in the 1945 election…

The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people. Their way of making the demand was to do exactly that! This phase of the campaign may have been brief, but it struck a chord which lasted…”

From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps, of which there were hundreds around the country:

“People were waiting to see what the new Labour government would do and what use would be made of Churchill’s requisitioning powers. It was soon clear the answer to both was “not a lot”. Meantime, thousands were homeless in a housing crisis so vast that it was on a similar scale to the one we have now!

There was – at least initially- no planning and no politicos involved in this. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other accommodation which was less than brilliant, but a lot better than the conditions many people were having to live in. It was Mr and Mrs Fielding from Scunthorpe who finally got fed up and did the obvious thing. They moved into the officers’ mess of their local disused anti-aircraft battery with their children. Their friends joined them. Others heard about it and came along too. Two other local camps were taken over, and the movement spread, first to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed -the Squatters’ Protection Society. By September, the government reckoned there were 45,000 people squatting in 1,100 camps, but this has to be bullshit. It works out to about 40 people per camp but most occupations were by one or two hundred people at least and some -like the famous “squat city” in Bristol- were nearly a thousand strong. Other places started being taken over -schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing.

Of course, there were mass evictions, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Time after time council workers and even police refused to carry them out or were seen off by sheer force of numbers (which meant a lot more than 40 people!). The government was in a tizzy. That great socialist orator and supposed tribune of the people, Nye Bevan, and others could only trot out the familiar crap about people “jumping the housing queue”. It was just too big and too energetic to repress -though they tried.

Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal… people organised water, furniture, food and child care…

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

“There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer and the camps smaller than in other places. London’s turn came later.” This was in September 1946.

“2 o’clock on a humdrum Sunday afternoon [September 9th]. In a tightly organised operation, squatters seized Duchess of Bedford House, a luxury block of 150 flats in Kensington. Within 10 minutes over. 1,000 people were inside, including 460 families, complete with bedding, water and food. Later that day a further 500 people took over a similar block in Marylebone, as well a big houses in Holland Park, Campden Hill and Upper Phillimore Gardens. On Monday, it was a second block in Marylebone and on Tuesday about 200 people took Fountain Court, another luxury block in Pimlico. Wednesday saw two very big ones done -Abbey Lodge near Regents Park and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury St(later renamed “The Marlborough”, and these days the ‘Bloomsbury’).”

The Communist Party was heavily involved in these London actions, though there has been argument over how dominant they were in the squatting movement nationally, initially they rubbished the early autonomous squatters; they then jumped on the bandwagon when it became obvious how strongly the movement was taking off, tried to take things over and made attempts to repress or marginalise independent activity. Sound familiar? While the squatting in the camps was more the practical meeting of a basic need, the London actions were more political propaganda acts, launching a campaign to force the Government to requisition empty private housing for those in need. It did trigger some squatting of smaller houses in the London suburbs.

The Ivanhoe Hotel, on the corner of Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street, was squatted on September 10th. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings. The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.

The Police put a cordon round the hotel; although food and bedding could be thrown in from the outside by supporters, people could not go in or out, so the squat became a siege. There were confrontations between supporters outside and cops, here and at other buildings: horses were used here to disperse large crowds blocking the streets (usually by sitting down). Within a few days five Communist Party members involved in planning the squats had been arrested for conspiracy and incitement to trespass. CP member and squatting activist Johnny Marten was nicked on September 12th for talking to the squatters from outside the hotel: according to the Evening News, “he was then escorted by the police to Tottenham Court Road police Station. Followed by a crowd, some of whom shouted ‘is this what we won the war for?’

On Saturday 14th September, a huge rally in Leicester Square, followed by a march, supported the squatters and the demands made by the CP. Later that day, the government’s legal moves became clear as five CP “ringleaders” were arrested and charged with “conspiring and inciting trespass” (they were later bound over). Finally, High Court injunctions were obtained against the squatters and they subsequently left voluntarily in a “general evacuation,’ on Friday 20th September. There were no actual evictions. The squatters mostly went to a “rest centre” organised by the London County Council, from where they were eventually rehoused.

“The role and tactics of the CP have been controversial ever since… Though the CP was prominent, these actions were certainly much more than the “CP stunt” they have sometimes been presented as. Most people involved had nothing to do with the CP, and the whole thing looks much more like an opportunistic attempt to exploit a movement which had already been established by the Vigilantes, the camp squatters and the Squatters Protection Society, and continued long after the London occupations were over. They did, however, show up the allegedly radical socialist government in their true colours and force them to step up the housing programme.”

In many ways the Communist Party bottled it at rhe crucial point, as Andrew Friend points out:

“It is difficult to judge at this distance the degree to which the Communist Party controlled the organisation of the London occupations. It is clear that having placed itself in a position of leadership it failed to mobilise popular or trade union support and that this must be seen as a major factor in the sudden collapse of the occupations.

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

These events show that there was not merely sympathy for squatters among organised workers – the two groups overlapped far more than they do now – but that there also existed the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property. Yet at no time did the CP call for industrial action to get services connected to further the demand for wider requisitioning. This is surprising considering that in 1945 the Communist Party, with a membership of 45,000, was at the height of its influence in the trade union movement. Tactics were confined to organising the Leicester Square demonstration and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and the town halls. This meant that once the authorities’ hard line in defence of property had emerged, the squatters found themselves increasingly engaged in conflict on the authorities terms, whether in the courtroom or behind cordons. When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions. The conspiracy charges had instilled the desired effect of intimidation despite the scale of the Leicester Square demonstration that had been organised at such short notice.”

Apologies to Jim Paton from ASS for ripping parts off his excellent summary of the 1945-6 squatting movement writ way back in 1995.

Some newsreel film of the Ivanhoe Hotel Squatters can be seen here


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

9th September 1934:  The English politician Sir Oswald Mosley (1896 - 1980) acknowledges a Fascist salute from female members of the British Union of Fascists at an evening demonstration in Hyde Park, London.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Today in London’s radical history: 150,000 oppose British Union of Fascists rally, Hyde Park, 1934.

In 1934 Oswald Mosley’s small but active British Union of Fascists was increasing its activities. Mosley, an aristocratic ex-Tory MP, then Labour Party minister who had fallen under the spell of Mussolini and Hitler and was determined to rise to a similar power in Britain. He recruited ground-level support from rightwing elements in the middle and working classes, but garnered much financial backing among the aristocracy and capitalist classes. As in Germany and Italy, these elements saw the potential need for fascist organisation to be nurtured, in case it should be required as a bulwark to defend capitalism and class rule against any growing working class movement. Famously newspaper baron Lord Rothermere was an early backer, prompting his Daily Mail to headline with ‘hurrah for the Blackshirts’ (he owned the Daily Mirror at this time too, which also went through a Mosley-adoring phase).

Mosley’s fascism was initially not specifically anti-semitic, but anti-jewish rhetoric grew within the Union after 1933, as nazi sympathisers increased their influence with it. White working class anti-migrant support for the BUF was notable in parts of East London But Mosley’s would-be beer-hall putschists found themselves opposed wherever they reared their head. The anti-fascist movement of the time, centred around (though not exclusive to) the Communist Party, became very active and defeated the BUF on a number of occasions.

A British Union rally at Kensington’s ‘Olympia’ in June had been successfully disrupted by anti-fascists, many of who marched from the East End. Despite a heavy police cordon and violent stewarding from fascist goons, so many managed to get into the hall and sabotage the rally that Mosley was unable to make himself heard. However extreme violence from the BUF stewards used against protesters alienated a number of Mosley’s more genteel supporters; the Olympia rally is often quoted as the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of the crap fuhrer. Rothermere and the Daily Mail hastily backed away from their earlier enthusiasm for a fascist takeover.

Following this, the BUF announced a rally to Hyde Park on 9th September 1934… Anti-fascists determined immediately to “Turn the Fascist Rally into an Anti-Fascist Triumph”. Determined to build on the successful disruption of the Olympia fuhrerfest, the call went out to rally in Hyde Park in opposition to the BUF. On his part, with his supporters increasing their street presence, but also being confronted (and usually routed) wherever they gathered, Mosley threatened to “deal with’ any opposition…

Many trade union organisations and other groups mobilised to bring contingents to oppose the rally. However, the Labour Party and TUC issued a statement calling on workers to stay away from the rally instead of confronting the fash.

In reply the CP pointed to the effects of nazi rule in Germany and suggested that you had to oppose fascism on the street or it would grow to smash all working class organisations (including the Labour and the TUC)…

A well-organised publicity campaign spread the word about the upcoming anti-fascist mobilisation: huge banners announcing the event were hung from scaffolding on the Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet Street, another banner unfurled from the top of the BBC building in Portland Place, showers of leaflets thrown from the roof of Selfridges in Oxford Street and the Post Office in Newgate Street… Live broadcasts by the BBC were interrupted by small groups who grabbed microphones and made short announcements telling people to rally to oppose fascism (before the broadcasts were shut off).

This guerilla publicity and other mobilising brought some 150,000 people out on the day, who marched to Hyde Park. The fascist rally was a fiasco. The BUF marched in 1t 6pm and out again at 7pm, protected by a vast force of police, their speakers in the park having been drowned out by the crowd of antis.

The violence of the Olympia shindig may have alienated a chunk of the upper class support for Mosley, but the BUF’s support would rise again in the later 1930s. They had to be more decisively beaten at the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, and at a number of other rallies. However, it has be to be speculated that some of the need for a strong fascist movement to be kept in the wings was declining. Although the ‘30s saw mass poverty and much working class anger, it was clear that there was little immediate prospect of a revolutionary upsurge in Britain. Also, Mosley had proved himself somewhat inept; scheming would-be backers can put up with a successful Strong Man who uses violence to keep the plebs down, but a Weak Strong Man is just embarrassing.


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


Today in London’s radical history: Crowd force entry to Liverpool Street Station to use it as air raid shelter, 1940.

This week marks the anniversary of the start of the London Blitz in 1940.

When the Blitz is invoked, a crucial part of the myth of Britain, the same images and clichés are reeled out: the black and white photos and old news reels of Londoners clambering out of the dust and rubble, of their devastated homes, smiling for the camera while union jack flags flutter in the wind… the King and Queen visiting the East End… the unity of all classes in the national interest…

It’s unlikely it will be mentioned how the working class of London reacted not by deference or defeatism but by fighting back and not just against the Nazis who had destroyed their Capital, but against the British establishment.

The revolt was on an unprecedented scale, the East End was in revolt, the King, Queen and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill were booed and parts had become a no go area.

Harold Nicholson, Minister for Information recalled in his diary;

“Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End of London where there is much bitterness”.

The bitterness reported by Nicholson was not without substance.

The working class communities of Inner London had suffered badly during the depression of the 1920’s and 30s with its high unemployment and slum housing. Now they suffered the heaviest levels of devastation – large parts of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Poplar, West Ham, Bermondsey, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras & Westminster were destroyed.

The only way to provide anything like adequate protection was to build enough underground shelters to house the majority of the population.

However, the government had failed to pay any attention to the significant air raid precaution agitation preferring to leave such matters to local councils, employers or individuals to do the best they could. Those in the know began to strengthen the spaces under their stairwells, opened up disused cellars and dug up parts of their gardens if they were fortunate to have one. Corrugated iron was in great demand.

The authorities feared that once down in the relative safety of underground shelters Londoners may not return to the surface to carry out vital work. This was called “Deep shelter mentality”.  This abdication of responsibility was masked by a supposed concern about children falling onto the underground track.

The establishment had backed Franco, Mussolini and Hitler prior to the war. The Daily Mail had backed the British Union of Fascists. Churchill had flirted with support for Franco though he later came to dislike his politics. Even the Queen had said of Hitler’s Mein Kampf  “even a skip through gives you a good idea of his obvious sincerity”. The Cliveden set, established by the Astors schemed to turn Hitler against the USSR, which was the most public peace force and supporter of collective security through the League of nations. One Tory MP Archibald Ramsay leader of the pro fascist Right Club, while detained in Brixton prison was asking questions about the number of Jews in the armed forces and resumed his seat at the end of the war.

Just as this establishment were denying working class communities deep shelter safety, they themselves were moving to the suburbs or the country.  London’s exclusive hotels and clubs were busy building deep shelters under their premises.

At the beginning of the War those that spoke out in favour of deep shelters or produced leaflets highlighting the dangers of the Anderson and trench shelters found themselves harassed, arrested and their publications confiscated.

After Dunkirk (June 1940), the German Luftwaffe had concentrated their attacks upon attempts to destroy British air defences, in the Battle that became known as ‘The Battle of Britain’.

However, frustrated at the failure of the German Air Force to secure a decisive knock out, the German command sought alternative targets. Attention turned to attacking Britain’s manufacturing and munitions industries, much of which was based in cities and in close proximity to densely populated residential areas.

On the first night of what became known as the “Blitz”, on 7th September 1940 the first large scale attack against London was launched by the Luftwaffe involving some 364 bombers, escorted by 515 fighters attacked the Capital.

London’s defences were ill-prepared for such an onslaught and as a result large areas of the Capital were destroyed.

On the first night of what became known as the “Blitz” over 2,000 Londoners where killed or injured (436 killed and 1,666 injured). This compared to 250 personnel killed in the armed forces for the whole of September 1940.

“That night the East End burned, the dockside was ablaze………..
it lit up a great part of East and South East London……. It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.” (
Phil Piratin)

“Yesterday, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death –the little streets of London’s East End…..Along the main roads is a steady stream of refugees – men with suitcases, women, with bundles, children with their pillows and their own cot covers – homeless in the heart of London.” (Fred Pateman, Daily Worker, 9th September 1940)

The fires caused by the bombing raged out of control for weeks and merely acted as a beacon to further waves of German bombers. London suffered according to the London County Council a further seventy six consecutive nights of enemy bombing.

The RAF retaliated at the bombing of London by bombing Berlin. Infuriated, Hitler declared to his Luftwaffe commanders,“if they think that they can destroy our cities…….then we shall wipe theirs from the face of the earth….”. Orders were given to air crews to bomb at “random” and thereby the German air force gave up any pretence of attempting avoid civilian areas.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in government prescribed trench shelters but these soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938, “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground” and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

The working class paid for such stupidity. At Kennington a trench shelter took a direct hit, killing 104.

The few deeper shelters, which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses, once deserted, were now full to overflowing. They were poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillip’s shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Somewhere around another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

Many Londoners were forced to “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chiselhurst Caves in the side of the North Downs). Others took coaches into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at a cost of 2s 6d.

By mid November 1940, it was reported that some four out of every ten houses in the London Borough of Stepney had been destroyed or damaged. Many factories suffered a similar fate.

The Government rejected advice about the need for a comprehensive and universal air raid precautions, preferring to leave it to individual councils, employers or individuals to do the best they could. Yet many of the Government’s own appointed observers such as the famous scientist J B Haldane were pressing for deep shelters.

It is unsurprising that faced with whole sale destruction, looting and a lack of support, working class communities took it in their own hands to stop the looting, secure alternative housing, shelter and when Churchill or the Royal Family turned up to show sympathy they were booed and pelted with rubbish..

Meanwhile, the rich secured access to their own private shelters. None was more famous or elaborately decorated than the shelter beneath the Savoy Hotel, which even boasted nurses on standby.

During the early days of the Blitz Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End. Buckingham Palace had been hit, but in reality involved minor damage to out houses.

This was all at odds with the experience of the people in the working class areas of London, who were now being systematically bombed day and night.

A the beginning of the Blitz, the doors to the Underground stations were surrounded by barbed wire and systematically locked by the Police during air raids, in order to stop civilians seeking refuge.

One Kennington resident stated, “The public shelter was horrible, smelly, it had a mouldy slab of concrete for a roof. But you couldn’t go anywhere else as the Oval station was full of barbed wire they wouldn’t let you near it”

Finally, on 8th September at Liverpool Street underground station, with the East End shelters overcrowding due to intense bombing, huge crowds of East Enders forced entry and surged down to the platforms.

Warren Street, Goodge Street and Highgate underground stations were “broken open”… “every inch of stairs, corridors and platforms taken by the people. Working men, women and children of all types and trades, from all parts of London, including soldiers and their families, were and are united in their resolve to share the Tubes”.

At other underground stations crowds of people swept past police guarding the stations and used crowbars to force open the underground station network to thousands of Londoners seeking refugee from the bombs.

The people established shelter committees in order to secure proper conditions such as provisions for feeding and amenities from the authorities.

On Saturday 14th September 1940 to highlight the plight of the people of Stepney, the communist councillor Piratin took fifty workers, including a group of what Time magazine called “ill-clad children” from Stepney and burst into the Savoy Hotel.

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter, stating “ if it was good enough for the rich it was good enough for the Stepney workers and their families”.

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney.

At St Pancras, a picket was organised of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night. In Walthamstow councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families to occupy empty houses. Similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and at Kensington.

Finally, Herbert Morrison the Labour Home Secretary in the War time Coalition was forced to reconsider the issue of the underground being used for shelters and finally allow civilians to use the underground for shelter.

By the end of September 1940 it was estimated that 79 underground stations catering for 177,000 people were being used for shelter at night.

Nicked without apology from here


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

Treason: The Fallen Hero. From Look and Learn no. 549 (22 July 1972). Original artwork loaned for scanning by the Illustration Art Gallery.

Today in London’s insurgent history: radical uprising postponed, 1802

On 6th September 1802, 200 soldiers gathered in several houses near the Tower of London. They were armed, but not in the service of king and country. They were waiting for a signal to size the Tower, as part of a desperate plot for a revolutionary coup d’etat, organised by the remnants of a movement for radical political reform, which had been reduced to an underground network of cells working for an insurrection.

The central figure in this plan, as it was later set out at his trial, was Colonel Edward Despard. As recounted in an earlier post on this blog, Despard was a former soldier, who had become radicalised, after seeing the effects of British colonialism in the West Indies and in Ireland.

His experience of the intermixing of race, class, slavery, and colonial conflict in the Caribbean led to his dismissal as crown representative in Belize, for opposing wealthy planters and slave owners and supporting black and mixed race and lower classes. Marrying an African-american woman in the Caribbean, they arrived in London to appeal for his re-instatement, in time to be drawn into struggles for liberty here.

After ending up in jail for debt, he mixed in Jacobin and democratic circles in London in the 1790s, joining the London Corresponding Society (LCS). As Britain’s war with revolutionary France hotted up, the democratic movement in Britain, which had celebrated the French Revolution and embraced its ideals, was repressed by a government which saw it is a potential fifth column and its ideas as dangerous to the rule of the established ruling classes. The LCS and other reforming groups were driven underground; elements among them made links to the United Irishmen, planning uprising against England’s colonial rule in Ireland.

Some of these former radical agitators planned an insurrection of their own in 1798 to coincide with the Irish rebellion, and Irish, English and Scottish radicals alike sought support from France, in the form of an invasion that would support their efforts to overthrow ‘Old Corruption’.

Colonel Despard was mixed up in these events, though it is uncertain to what extent. He became closely associated with a prominent member of the United Irishmen, William Duckett, who was also a French spy. Through Duckett, Despard became aware of the unfolding plans for an uprising in 1798 in Ireland and the involvement of Wolfe Tone and a potential French fleet of ships. Despard was keen to extend the rebellion to Britain and he negotiated with the United Englishmen, a small secret society with similar ideals to the United Irishmen, to organise an uprising on English soil to coincide with the landing of the French fleet in Ireland.

However, two United Englishmen were captured at the late stages of planning. The large-scale French invasion didn’t happen, the Irish rebellion of 1798 was repressed with thousands of deaths and the English uprising never got off the ground. Both Irish and English movements were hampered by being shot through with government spies; the mass support they were relying on didn’t materialise in Ireland, and possibly didn’t exist in England.

Despard was jailed with other insurgents, spending time in various prisons until March 1801, when a public campaign for his release organised by his wife Catherine and supported by prominent reformers won his freedom. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh identify his spell inside as being the germination of the 1802 conspiracy; in Coldbath Fields Prison he met navy mutineers from the 1797 Nore events, Spencean communists, artisans, Irish rebels…

If on his release he had initially intended to give up his involvement with radical politics (as some assert), his resolve lasted less than a year. Following the rebellion the United Irishmen were reduced to a small centralised military body who had been pushed even further underground than before. One of the most senior members of the depleted Society was William Dowdall. It was Dowdall who convinced Despard to return to London to see if another attempt to ferment a popular uprising in England could be achieved.

When he returned to London he found conditions he thought ideal for a revolution; food shortages were common and there were huge levels of industrial unrest, not to mention huge numbers of disaffected Irish labourers who were bearing the brunt of both of these problems.  Despard met with Irish soldiers stationed in Windsor and London, with Irish and French emissaries as he formed his plot.


The conspirators met in working class pubs around the poor districts of the capital – ‘The Ham and Windmill’ in the Haymarket, ‘The Brown Bear’ and ‘The Black Horse’, in St Giles’s, ‘The Bleeding Heart’ in Hatton Garden, and the Flying Horse in Newington. The core of the movement they expected to rise up in revolt in London lay in the East End, in the almost lawless poor rookeries of St Giles, and in Southwark. Other plotters besides Despard had been involve in the LCS and the abortive plans for an English rising in that year. Involved in the plan, or mentioned as being supportive, were labourers, carpenters, shoemakers, hatters, builders. There were a high proportion of Irish, some of them veterans of the 1798 rebellion. Five thousand workers recently discharged from the wet docks were expected to join the cause: despite a period of intense shipping, they had been rendered either unemployed, as a direct result of hydraulic civil engineering, or homeless, by neighbourhood clearances.

Notably though there were a number of soldiers and sailors – especially soldiers stationed at the Tower and Irishmen “who had served on board the Kings Ships & had been used to Cannon.”

It was alleged that Jacobin guardsmen at both the Chatham and London barracks had enrolled a considerable number of followers, bound to the conspiracy by secret oaths. Papers found on the prisoners gave the ‘constitution’ of their society:

  • “The independence of Great Britain and Ireland
  • An equalization of civil, political, and religious rights
  • An ample provision for the families of the heroes who shall fall in the contest.
  • A liberal reward for distinguished merit.

These are the objects for which we contend, and to obtain these objects we swear to be united.”

Soldiers had been invited to join this ‘Constitution Society’ in order ‘to fight, to burst the chain of bondage and slavery’. The organization (it was alleged) had no fewer than seven divisions and eight sub‑divisions in Southwark alone, with further divisions in the Borough, Marylebone, Spitalfields and Blackwall, principally among ‘day‑labourers, journeymen, and common soldiers,’ discharged sailors, and Irish dockers. It was a paramilitary organisation, with ‘ten men in each company, and when they amounted to eleven, the eleventh took the command’ of a new company. Each company was commanded by a ‘captain’, each group of five companies amounted to a ‘deputy division’, commanded by a ‘colonel’.

The 1797 mutinies of the British fleet showed that “a revolutionary organization in the Army was by no means inconceivable. No less than the Navy, the Army seethed with grievances – as to pay, food and accommodation, the care of dependents, discipline and floggings. The soldiers, who included many Irish, were allowed to don mufti in the evenings and ‘to mingle with labourers and artisans in the London taverns. There were few security precautions, and Jacobin emissaries might easily gain access to the soldiers’ quarters in the barracks… It may seem unlikely today that a Grenadier Guardsman should christen his son ‘Bonaparte’; but such is the case with one of Despard’s associates. The Crown’s allegation that no fewer than 300 soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the Guards, and thirty or forty in the 1st Battalion were involved in the conspiracy may appear far‑fetched; but the six victims who were selected for trial and execution with Despard were all guardsmen, and such an example suggests that the Government was seriously perturbed by the extent of the conspiracy.” (EP Thompson)

While maintaining a regular political organization in London was seen as impossible under the government’s beady eye, Despard mentioned Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, and Chatham as ‘country’ centres where such organisation existed, with which he claimed to be in touch. It has been speculate that the fledgling movement was linked to secret cells of rebellious industrial workers in the north of England (grouped together as the ‘Black Lamp’).

Despard thought that “the people were every where ripe and anxious for the moment of attack.” This is clearly debateable. If Despard was in touch with hungry (and angry) London labourers and craftsmen Irish insurgents, Black Lampers, Jacobins in other cities, the plot was not just the deluded brainchild of an embittered soldier and a few hotheads; but neither was there the mass will to overthrow the power of the aristocracy and emerging capitalism.

Plans for a rebellion on 6 September 1802 were formed, but were postponed. A police spy later claimed that this was because Despard called it off, “he expected some money and news to come from France.” The implication is that this financial support from France (now ruled by an increasingly dictatorial Napoleon, though still the heartland for many radicals at that point) never arrived. Other accounts have Despard holding back those eager to launch the revolution before he thought they were ready; `and urging them to wait for a more spectacular offensive. However, Charles Pendrill, a leading member of the pot, later told another police agent that not enough of the expected forces had shown up on the day: “He admitted that the soldiers were very deeply implicated, and very staunch… the Tower might have been very easily taken at that time, and given up by the soldiers, had they mustered anything like the intention; but the numbers that appeared were too contemptible.” (Narrative of Oliver the Spy).

Instead the conspirators plotted a full scale coup d’état on the day of the opening of parliament in November 1802. The plot involved the assassination of King George III as he travelled to Westminster the seizing of key sites around the city such as the Tower of London and the Bank of England.

But the scheme was foiled. The plan postponed in 6th September was set for November. But on the 16th of November, “in consequence of a search warrant, a numerous body of police officers went to the Oakley Arms, Oakley Street, Lambeth, where they apprehended Colonel Despard, and nearly forty labouring men and soldiers, many of them Irish.”

Fifteen men were indicted for treason, on the grounds that they “did conspire, compass, imagine, and intend” the king’s death. Eleven were found guilty. Although the jury recommended mercy, Despard and six others were executed on February 21st, 1803.


Some good accounts of the Despard Conspiracy, the social and political context and the scenes that it emerged from, can be found in:


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

dulwich college

Today in London’s radical history: Suffragette attempt to burn posh Dulwich College fails, 1913.

“Dulwich College, the famous school in the southern suburb of London, was set on fire in two places at an early hour this morning, and suffragette literature pinned to trees in the neighbourhood with women’s hatpins is accepted as proof that a militant suffragette “arson squad” was responsible for the crime.”

In 1912-13 the militant campaign for women’s suffrage stepped up a gear.

Decade of legal agitation, several years of escalating direct action, harassment of politicians, window smashing and hunger-strikes in prison having failed to shift the weight of the male establishment, the Pankhurst-dominated leadership of the Women’s Social & Political Union prepared to turn to arson.

In July 1912, Christabel Pankhurst began organising a secret arson campaign. Attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. These attempts failed but soon afterwards, a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was badly damaged by suffragettes.

One of the first arsonists was Mary Richardson. She later recalled the first time she set fire to a building: “I took the things from her and went on to the mansion. The putty of one of the ground-floor windows was old and broke away easily, and I had soon knocked out a large pane of the glass. When I climbed inside into the blackness it was a horrible moment. The place was frighteningly strange and pitch dark, smelling of damp and decay… A ghastly fear took possession of me; and, when my face wiped against a cobweb, I was momentarily stiff with fright. But I knew how to lay a fire – I had built many a camp fire in my young days -a nd that part of the work was simple and quickly done. I poured the inflammable liquid over everything; then I made a long fuse of twisted cotton wool, soaking that too as I unwound it and slowly made my way back to the window at which I had entered.”

Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. Others like Elizabeth Robins, Jane Brailsford, Laura Ainsworth, Eveline Haverfield and Louisa Garrett Anderson showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU and Hertha Ayrton, Lilias Ashworth Hallett , Janie Allan and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson stopped providing much needed funds for the organization. Sylvia Pankhurst also made her final break with the WSPU and concentrated her efforts on helping the Labour Party build up its support in London.

In 1913 the WSPU arson campaign escalated and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses being set on fire. Slogans in favour of women’s suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes. The women responsible were often caught and once in prison they went on hunger-strike.

This is the context for the attempt to set fire to Dulwich College on September 5th 1913… for which no-one was ever arrested or convicted.

Is it possible there was a South London suffragette arson squad active in 1913…? St Catherine’s Church on Telegraph Hill, New Cross, had been set on fire in May – there were widespread rumours this was also a suffragette job, though nothing was ever proved. Before that Lilian Lenton and Olive Wharry had been arrested and convicted of setting fire to the tea gardens at Kew gardens in February 1913.

More on the suffragette arson campaign:

Founded in 1618 by actor (and Bankside brothel-owner) Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College is an independent school, which costs £6300 a term or £12-13,000 a term for boarders… If originally founded “to educate 12 poor scholars as the foundation of God’s Gift”, over the centuries it became one of the poshest schools in the London area. It provided a hefty contingent of students to scab during the 1926 General Strike…

It’s now the biggest independent school in the country, which selects boys from the brightest 20 per cent and spends almost £8,000 a year on each pupil. Dulwich College ensures that 95 per cent of its pupils get A-C passes at GCSE and sends 95 per cent of sixth-formers to top universities – 12 or so pupils go to Oxbridge each year.

It’s the preserve of the rich. Compared to local comprehensives it commands massive resources giving the rich kids who attend a leg up to maintaining the class system for another generation. It is funded by the Dulwich Estate, which owns a huge swathe of property over this part of South London, has massive playing fields and top class facilities, but luckily is a charity so avoids a lot of tax. The estate funds Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ (or JAGS), which shared £5,815,840 of moneys from the Estate in the most recent year for which there are figures (to March 31, 2015). These are also registered charities.

Earlier this year a few hundred people gathered in Herne Hill, to demonstrate against the behaviour of the Dulwich Estate. The Estate owns 1,500 prime acres of Dulwich and the surrounding area, including the freeholds on 600 flats and maisonettes and the vast majority of the shops and pubs as well as local amenities. The focus of the demo was the closure of a much-loved toy shop, Just Williams, forced out of business by a 70% rent rise combined with a more general concern about the threat of similar rent rises forcing out other shops. They are likely to be replaced by ones which, to pay those increased rents, and will be prohibitively expensive to shop in. The Estate has also proposed selling off a piece of land used as a play area by children at the local Judith Kerr Primary school for flats, and left a popular pub, the Half Moon, closed and empty for over two years. Now that they finally have a proposal for the pub they seem set to accept, it does not include a live music room, which has been a part of it for decades and which locals want re-instated.

More at:

Maybe we don’t burn it down… but we should definitely take it over… So much that could be cone to share out the resources a bit…


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