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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So don’t go nicking our holidays, poshos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The program for the Conference ran as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No! Over our weightless bodies!

See you in Space!

Read some of the historic record of the London AAA conference

Watch some footage

Some of this post was simply stolen from here

Thanks to John Eden

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

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

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

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

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

So who was Wat Tyler?

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

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

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

John Tiler’s house was visited by assessors, who

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the reply:

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

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

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

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

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

Read William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London’s anti-war history: women’s rally against the Boer War, 1900

Although she was a British citizen, Emily Hobhouse was later awarded an honorary South African citizenship because of her courageous and sacrificial actions, which exposed the cruelty of the concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).

Emily was born 9 April 1860, and raised in St. Ive, in East Cornwall. Her father was a Church of England pastor for 51 years. Her mother was the daughter of Sir. William Trelawney, a Member of Parliament for East Cornwall. After her mother’s death, Emily cared for her father until his death in 1895.

Then she travelled to the United States to undertake welfare work amongst miners in Minnesota. Her engagement to John Carr Jackson was broken off in 1898, and she returned to England. Emily was involved in social actions and was a member of the Women’s Industrial Committee. As the Anglo Boer War broke out October 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee. As Secretary, she organised protest meetings against the war.

During the Second Boer War (October 1899- May 1902) Great Britain attempted to impose its control over South Africa by invading the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, inhabited mainly by the descendants of Dutch settlers, known as ‘Boers (meaning farmers). Britain already controlled the Cape Colony, and the Colony of Natal.

Although the British forces with their superior military might overran the ‘Boers’ (after some initial reverses), the latter reverted to guerrilla warfare, merging into the civilian Boer population. The British government responded by setting up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities. This allowed the British mounted infantry units to systematically track down the Boer guerrilla units.

Public opinion in many countries was largely hostile to Britain, and in Britain and its Empire the Boer War aroused significant opposition, especially outrage at the concentration camp policy.

In April 1900 Emily and her friend Kate Courtney organized a women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, under whose auspices they then called a women’s protest meeting at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, London, for 13 June 1900. On the platform appeared a pantheon of Liberal and radical figures – Lady Mary Hobhouse, the Countess of Carlisle (president of the Women’s Liberal Federation and the North of England Temperance League), Mrs SA Barnett, Mrs Bryce (chair of the Women’s National Liberal Association), and Mrs Frederic Harrison. Emily herself had previously been excluded from a Liberal conference in Manchester which discussed the wrongs of the Boer War which enraged her. “We [female Liberals] longed to protest… it occurred to me that women, at least, might make a public protest without rousing undue criticism.”

Opponents of the Boer war were being fiercely denounced by ‘patriots’ as traitors, anti-British, and public events such as rallies being held against the war were often attacked by jingoistic crowds.

In organising the Queens Hall protest Emily Hobhouse was attempting to both counter and take advantage of women’s formal exclusion from political life. It is generally held that the rally, and Hobhouse’s subsequent campaign against the British concentration camps in South Africa, had a significant impact on the development of the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, in 1902, the Women’s Liberal Federation, who had played a part in the Boer war protest movement, moved towards support for women’s suffrage.

Emily Hobhouse went on to spend much of the next two years campaigning against the British concentration camp policy, and organising aid for the Boers, especially interned women and children. Learning in the Summer of 1900, that hundreds of Boer women that had become impoverished and driven from their homes, she launched the South African Women’s and Children’s Distress Fund and travelled to South Africa to deliver aid to the Boer women and children, who were suffering because of the war.

Arriving in Cape Town, in late December 1900, she began to learn of concentration camps in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene and elsewhere. As Martial law had been declared over large parts of the Cape Colony, she needed the permission not only of Lord Milner, but of General Kitchener, to visit these camps. Because of her persistence and perseverance, she finally received permission to proceed only as far as Bloemfontein.

Emily described arriving at the concentration camp outside Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901: Two thousand people had been dumped on the slope of a kopje with inadequate accommodation, massive overcrowding of ten to twelve people in a tent, no soap, inadequate water, no beds, or mattresses, scarce fuel, extremely meagre rations, and (the actual quantity dispensed, fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.) all kinds of sicknesses festered in the camp, including: measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid. Almost every tent housed one or more sick persons. When she requested soap for the inmates, she was told by the authorities that soap was “a luxury!”

Emily went beyond Bloemfontein to investigate other concentration camps. When informed by the Administrator of the Orange River Colony that she showed “too much personal sympathy”, Emily replied: “That was the precise reason why I came out to show personal sympathy and to render assistance in cases of personal afflictions.”

Emily published a “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies”, relating the result of the policy: Children were dying at a rate of 50 a day in these overcrowded and unhygienic camps. As Emily wrote: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty to keep these camps going is murder to the children the women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety, seems to lift them beyond tears the nurse, underfed and overworked coping with some 30 typhoid and other patients a six month baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee A girl of 21 lay dying on a stretcher The mother watching a child of 6, also dying. already this couple had lost 3 children in the hospital. like faded flowers thrown away a splendid child dwindled to skin and bone a baby so weak it was past recovery it was only three months, but such a sweet little thing it was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon, they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out.
“To me it seemed a murdered innocent. In an hour or two after, another child died. At Springfontein a young lady had to be buried in a sack it is a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the state, large uncomfortable communities of people, whom you call refugees, and say you are protecting, but who call themselves Prisoners Of War, compulsorily detained and detesting your protection. Those who are suffering most keenly and who have lost most, either of their children by death, or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those re-concentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience and never express a wish that their men should be the one’s to give way. It must be fought out now, to the bitter end.

“It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost, hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared about them and their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I have fought my way here, if only for that reason.”

Emily Hobhouse campaigned tirelessly against the concentration camp system, the war carried out against Boer women and children, the scorched earth campaigns, burning of farm houses, poisoning of wells, slaughtering of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and destruction of food supplies. Her reports helped to spread news of British military policy and contributed to an outpouring of revulsion in England, which did lead to pressure on the government to improve conditions in the camps. One of the first successes of Emily Hobhouse’s campaign was that soap began to be issued amongst the meagre rations and conditions began to improve in the camps.

She received scathing criticism and hostility from the British government and many in the media upon her return to Britain. However, the opposition leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced the methods of barbarism and forced the government to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims.

However, Emily Hobhouse was not allowed to be part of the commission, and upon her return to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and was deported. But her reports continued to circulate. She moved to France to write the book: The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, which mobilised even more outrage and action. The Fawcett Commission confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s reports.

In spite of fierce opposition from the British newspapers supporting the government’s war, Emily continued to address public meetings about the plight of women and children in South Africa. There is no doubt that the initiatives and energetic actions of Emily Hobhouse shortened the war and saved countless lives. She also gave hope to mothers who had lost all hope.

Emily Hobhouse’s courageous campaign to speak up for the forgotten Boer women and children, who had been brutally treated, played a major role in undermining popular British support for the war. It also forced the government to offer massive concessions to the Boer forces.

She returned to South Africa in 1903 to set up Boer home industries, teaching young women spinning and weaving. Through her efforts, 27 schools were established in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. She travelled to South Africa again in 1913 for the Inauguration of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, but had to stop at Beaufort West, due to ill health.

Emily was also an avid opponent of the First World War and vigorously protested against it. Through her efforts thousands of women and children starving in Germany and Austria, because of the British naval blockades, were fed by the support she was able to channel to them.

Emily Hobhouse’s remains are buried in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein.

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

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Today in London radical history: a mutiny halts royal army’s move against Kentish rebels, 1450.

England, 1450. A hundred years of war against France was grinding to a halt through lack of funds and a succession of defeats at the hands of the French. Parliament refused to raise any more money for a government it distrusted. The cloth trade from City of London guilds was prevented from exporting to Flanders for fear of the French ships invading. The loss of trade and tax revenues crippled chances of recovery. (Any resemblance to possible Brexit scenarios is purely coincidental.)

Throughout 1450-1, a number of revolts broke out, mostly in the south of England, against king Henry VI’s regime. Henry being a somewhat daft religious twat with a tendency to go mad, his government was generally run by a clique of aristos, often bossed by whoever could get the favour of his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, who made up for her husband’s bewildered wandering through life by being ruthless and single-mindedly dynastic. But the ruling class elite was split by vicious rivalries and enmities, and Richard Duke of York, the king’s cousin and effective heir to the throne, was often popularly held up as an honest geezer who would sort out problems in the kingdom and give the French a good hiding if only he was in charge. Trouble was the queen and her mates thought he was on the make, and distrusted him, and he was elbowed out of the centres of power. (For more, read your Shakespeare).

But Richard of York had a lot of support, especially among the lower orders. The most significant revolt in 1450, Jack Cade’s Kentish rebellion, combined a demand that York be included in the government, with a number of other economic complaints. As with many medieval revolts, the removal of ‘the king’s evil counsellors’ was a central plank: as in 1381, the naivety of many of the lower orders enshrined in a belief that the king was good, ordained by God, but the nobles, churchmen and advisors surrounding him were corrupt and were robbing the poor, mismanaging affairs, and ballsing up the ever-popular war effort.

Kent (as usual in the middle ages) was a particular centre of unrest – not only were they plagued by French raiders, but in 1450 the county sherriff was notoriously crooked. Private armies loyal to aristocrats were roaming the country doing as they liked. Huge parts of the county were also being fenced off for private hunting grounds for the king and his mates…

To some extent Cade’s rebellion was a sort of prelude to the Wars of the Roses; the rebels’ support for the Duke of York mishmashed in with anger about austerity and a patriotic fury…

In June 1450 the commons of Kent gathered on Calehill Heath, north of Ashford, and hailed Jack Cade as their leader. 1000s marched on Canterbury, and then on London. They camped on Blackheath, echoing the much larger Peasants Revolt nearly 70 years earlier, but initially withdrew south into the Wealden Forest as a royal army approached.

Jack Cade and his army retreated into the impenetrable forests of the Weald, and possibly unwisely, the Royal army followed, only to be lured into an ambush, on June 11th, and beaten by the rebels in a minor skirmish; the royal army commanders and a few of their soldiers were killed. Cade marched his forces back to to his camp at Blackheath.

This defeat was initially most significant because it prompted mutiny in the royal army. A number of the soldiers apparently voiced approval of Jack Cade’s demands, and a rowdy meeting demanded the heads of Lord Say, the former Treasurer, Lord Dudley, and other royal commanders. Lord Say, was well known and extremely unpopular in Kent, as was his son-in-law, William Crowmer, the Under-sheriff of the county. The mutinous soldiers then marched back to London, and began rioting and looting when they got there. The mutiny scuppered the attempt to repress the revolt and in effect opened the way for Cade’s rebels to march on the city…

In July Cade’s men entered Southwark looting houses and burning, and the rebels spent several days in the City, managing to capture Lord Say and William Crowmer and beheading them, but eventually pissing off the initially sympathetic Londoners by their random violence. The revolt fizzled out after a fierce battle on London Bridge, and a general pardon was issued, cleverly including most but not Jack Cade, who in the end was caught and killed.

It’s unclear whether the royal army mutineers suffered any comeback for refusing to fight against the rebels.

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

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Today in London’s festive past: impromptu street party after ‘Stokefest’ event, Clissold Park, 2007

In the 1990s, Church street, Stoke Newington, used to host a midsummer fair, every year in early June. The whole street was closed to traffic, there were bands, stalls, food, stages, sound systems and all sorts of other entertainment. “Some of the finest musicians around performed on the street, particular flowing out from the vortex jazz bar, now just a gap in the street. and if you got too hot or needed a rest from the crowds, there was the picturesque overgrown Abney Park cemetery in which to find shade and rest.”

However, although Stokey then still had a sizeable working class population many west Indian, south American and numberless other communities, as well as lots of squatters, housing co-op residents and other down at heel types, gentrification was at work in the area. London N16 was slowly being taken over by the middle class in a big way, so that these days it’s impossible to walk down Church Street for pop-up artisan cakeries and shops selling artistically labelled sticks for £17 or baby clothes that’ll set you back the best part of a week’s wages.

While the middle class like a street fest as much as the next socio-economic strata, Hackney Council decided that shutting the street and allowing people to hang out and enjoy themselves was making the place look messy and risking disorder riotry and other unruly pleasures. Which had gone on a little bit to be fair but no more than your average night out in any town centre. After much muttering and risk assessment shuffling, in 2003 the Festival was moved into neighbouring Clissold Park and renamed ‘Stokefest’. As a concession to its origins the day usually started with a parade along Church Street, ending in the park. Sound systems, several stages, playgrounds and story-telling etc still made it a fun day out. Clissold Park itself then had a good recent history of grassroots self-organised festivals like the Hackney Homeless Festivals and an alternative Lesbian & Gay Fest in the mid-90s…

Although moving the party to the park did change the spirit somewhat, (the narrow lane that is Church Street made it more fun and felt weirdly less confined than in a large open space), Stokefest did continue for a few years, but you always felt that the power-that-be had their eye on closing the fun down. Much as the long-mooted idea of moving the Notting Hill Carnival into Hyde Park is widely derided, not only because people see it as a first step to total abolition.

In 2006, Hackney Council ‘forgot’ to apply for the licence necessary to stage the festival at its usual time in June, and it had to be postponed till September. This was put down to bureaucratic bungling, and Hackney was its least competent at this point, but you got wonder if they hoped the festival would just die naturally.

But in 2007, the festival went head, and even ended with an impromptu street party (admittedly a small one…):
“Those of us who are nostalgic for the street parties of the 1990s – long ago pronounced dead – were pleasantly surprised when a street party broke out in North London’s Highbury New Park last Sunday (10th June 2007) at the end of the Stokefest festival. 

Around 8pm the festival in Clissold Park started to wind down, and the police closed the exit on Green Lanes opposite the White House pub. This could possibly have been to stop the Rythmns of Resistance samba band getting in, so they did a set on the green in front of the housing estate at the corner of Highbury New Park, with much dancing and football kick-abouts. When they finished, the large truck with posters advertising the forthcoming Secret Garden Festival fired up their soundsystem, and with a bit of ineffectual arm-waving from some yellow-jacket community cops, started off down Highbury New Park, squeezing through the traffic calming features and roadworks, with a couple of hundred party people bouncing after them, some on bikes.

To the tune of Blue Monday and Underworld’s Born Slippery, they partied down Highbury New Park, with some punters dancing on top of garden walls. Some punters, wineglasses in hand, appeared to have come out of parties in local back gardens, and the lady who asked me where they were going seemed quite good natured about the giant sound system having woken her baby up.

About half way down the long Highbury New Park road, the truck attempted to turn, gave up, and then punters lay down in front of the truck in the road and demanded “More music!” as the sound system crew pleaded, “We’ve got to be back in Brighton tonight!” Some very efficient crowd control was carried out by a man with a megaphone wearing a tall black top hat with a peacock feather in it, who somehow talked the crowd into getting out of the way and letting them drive off at speed (without the sound system on) in the Brighton direction after about half an hour or partying. An improvised on-street percussion workshop followed as darkness fell.

Apart from the opening minutes, there was not a cop in sight. Street parties like this are the sort of thing we’re not supposed to be allowed to get away with anymore in our modern 21st century surveillance world with lots and lots of public order police. But it happened.” (Matt Salusbury)

This wildcat shindig may have narked cops and council into determining to take Stokefest by the scruff and shake it like a cheeky kitten. The council had already laid down that 15,000 people was the maximum number allowed in a park event; now they ruled that any event over 300 people had to be fenced in. The organisers already kept publicity to a minimum so as to not attract too many over the 15,000 arbitrary limit.

So in 2008, Stokefest was again confined to the park, but cops and council fenced off a small area designated for the festival, (leaving most of the park outside this cordon) and to tightly control those entering; police corralling everyone through a tiny entrance/exit, and aggressively searching any group of young black youth… This created a claustrophobic and aggravated atmosphere, with a fair amount of angry exchanges and some shoving. To be fair as usual with such approaches, funneling people through narrow gates and penning them in, many of us are not going to feel especially sunny. The day ended with some minor skirmishing and recriminations.

With the fence on the cards again for 2009, the Stokefest organisers decided that they couldn’t carry on, issuing this statement:

“Clissold Park has a premises license permitting events with a maximum capacity of 15,000 people in one portion of the park. For years we’ve had to stick to extremely limited print marketing runs and media-feature blackouts in order to get permission from Hackney Council to run the event; this has made it extremely difficult for our producing partners to solicit sponsorship to pay for their areas. Additionally, Hackney Council’s Parks and Licensing Departments, alongside Hackney Police Licensing Department, has developed an outdoor events policy stating that any event over 3,000 capacity must be completely fenced in. This is not an altogether unreasonable policy in itself, and is only there in principle to negate any potential risks of having lots of us all having a great laugh in one place at the same time. Unfortunately we, as the organisers of Stokefest, cannot bring ourselves to organise a free community festival inside a great big steel box! It just doesn’t feel right. We feel sure that the atmosphere will change, the essence of what we all collectively had would be diluted, and our memories of the fun we had would be tainted by the security systems, ridiculous entry conditions and a general lack of freedom. “

So Stokefest was no more. Other free festivals in London (and wider afield) had already gone the way of the dodo; meanwhile large-scale commercial events, also involving fencing off large parts of parks, but charging huge amounts to get in, have increased dramatically. Not 2 miles away from Stoke Newington, Finsbury Park has hosted as many as eight such dos, with big chunks of the space shut off for several days of the year. Councils are skint, and are attempting to recoup some of the money lopped off their budgets by national government with any lucrative scheme going… Bit annoying for those of us with little cash who like parks to be free and open. Stokefest was TOO free, clearly, not enough money flowing into Town Hall coffers.

As was pointed out at the time of Stokefest’s demise: “There’s also a wiff of conspiracy around Hackney council’s sabotage: one of the alternative events that Stokefest’s organisers recommend, tongue perhaps in cheek, is the new Free Range festival, which takes place in, would you believe it, Clissold Park, this September. The catch? A £25 ticket.”

Nowadays Stoke Newington Church Street is very genteel, and Clissold Park has been re-worked to cater more for the bourgy elite edging out the less wealthy of the area. Some of us grumpy disreputable types still hang out there and annoy them; but you do feel a bit like an uninvited guest at a garden party sometimes.

Thanks to Matt Salusbury, Peter Marshall and Johnny Void who I shamelessly nicked some of the above from nicked without even asking…

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Postscript: A tiny intro to Stoke Newington’s radical history:

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists (like Newington Green, see later on), due to its being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. The area was a hotbed of defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War; when the monarchy was restored they took to assassination plots and abortive uprisings.

Colonel Henry Danvers lived in Stokey; a parliamentary officer in the Civil War, by 1661, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republicans in 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, establish a republic and redistribute property. Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!

In 1685 Danvers led 5th monarchists, who planned to riot in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Had 500 men promised, but they failed to appear, Danvers fled abroad. Others fled to Monmouth, whose army contained many former Levellers, and other radicals; they were beaten at the battle of Sedgemoor.

The religious dissidence that characterized this are lasted into the nineteenth century. Hence the dominance of Abney park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried; some of the most interesting being chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… On the other hand the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of the supreme vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation. For all their charitable work, these god-bothering music-manglers were widely hated by the homeless and poor for their pressing of the bible; in the 19th century there was even a ‘Skeleton Army’ founded to oppose them (although some mystorians have suggested this was a plot by the publicans to get back at the Starvation Army for their message of avoiding the demon drink). The Booth graves are just by the entrance on Church Street, on a sunny Sunday it’s traditional to go and dance wildly on their graves, singing blasphemous songs, like the anti- Sally Army IWW song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, or ‘Banging in the Nails’ by the Tiger Lilies…

From the 1960s, Stoke Newington was home to a growing afro-Caribbean community, which like most black communities in the inner cities faced battles with racism, from organized rightwing groups and institutions, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up en masse for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots here in 1981, numerous campaigns and protests, and the organized resistance against racist murders, police harassment, most notably through the brilliant Hackney Community Defence Campaign. Some cops did get sacked in the end, but others were just moved elsewhere, and wholesale assault was tweaked around and made to look nicer.

In parallel with this, run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting in the area from the 70s onward. Thousands of houses were occupied to live in, and various larger buildings used as social centres, punk venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creation was built on squatting. Too many places to list; but in July and August 2013 two radical history walks explored some of this amazing recent past in the area; we are hoping to provoke the authors to set these walks out for some form of publication… keep in touch.

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s, though a gradual gentrifying of the area since the 70s has infested the area with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. If a freak earthquake swallowed the area, the Guardian, BBC and Channel Four News/Dispatches would grind to a halt, so many journos and media b-list celebs now cluster here. Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class and poor, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

There’s lots more on Stokey past at the excellent The Radical History of Hackney blog, which makes past tense look like shamateurs…

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

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Today in London’s penal history: Gordon Rioters burn down the Kings Bench Prison, 1780.

“The Kings Bench Prison burnt, with the houses adjoining, after being previously evacuated by the prisoners, who were allowed to remove their effects..”
(A plain … narrative of the late riots in … London, Thomas Holcroft)

“I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”  Report of the words of Thomas Haycock, a tavern-waiter in St James, 1780.

The Gordon Riots of June 1780 began initially as a rabid protestant demonstration against the prospect of catholics being given a few civil rights. Although rioting at first targeted catholics, within hours this overflowed into a general insurrection of London’s poor against parliament, the rich, the prisons, and all authority. Six days and nights of disorder paralysed the city, driving the wealthy into flight, while their houses were looted. Crowds roamed the city; rather than one ‘mob’, there were many, some expressing bigotry and racism in their targets, others pure class hatred. Judges, ministers, MPs, Lords were made examples of, but also catholic chapels, irish and Italian communities… A rowdy potlach of festival and uprising, pogrom and party… Which fascinates and repels, as it did at the time.

Among the most positive aspects of the Riots was the wholesale sacking of pretty much every prison in London, Westminster and Southwark. Prisons were hated like almost no other institution by the London poor and labouring classes, who recognised what prison was – the big stick and holding cell, designed to keep them in fear, discipline them, direct them towards death or transportation…

Among the Southwark prisons attacked and trashed by the crowd during the first week of June was the Kings Bench,

Dates back to the early 14th century, this prison was originally intended to hold prisoners facing trials in the King’s Bench Court.  At first sited on the east side of todays Borough High Street, overcrowding and maltreatment led to a new prison being built in the 1750s, on the edge of St George’s Fields (on the west side of Borough High Street).

By this time the vast majority of its inmates were incarcerated for debt. In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year. A creditor could have someone who owed them money jailed, and an inmate was typically required to repay the creditor in-full before being released. People often languished for years in a debtors prison – since they had to pay for the costs of their ‘stay’ first, then the debt second, they might never be released… Debtors prisons were feared and hated by many Londoners, and not only the very poor…

The new Kings Bench prison consisted of 224 rooms with eight large state-rooms and a chapel. Since prisoners who were solvent could pay a sum of money to the keeper, in exchange being allowed their liberty anywhere within the area the prison “rules” operated (even to take up a separate residence), the Kings Bench included amenities for the enjoyment of the better off.  Those with less money were able to purchase a “day pass”.  In 1776 one Mr Smith observed that “Many prisoners … occupy rooms, keep shops, enjoy places of profit, or live on the rent of their rooms a life of idleness, and being indulged with the use of a key go out where they please, and thereby convert a prison into an alms-house for their support.” A coffee-house, two pubs, shops selling meat and vegetables formed part of the grounds. 120 gallons of gin and eight butts of beer were said to be drunk in the Kings Bench per week.

For inmates with money, it was “the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England.”  But only a third of prisoners lived “in the rules”, the remaining two thirds lived within the prison walls.  By the early nineteenth century, the keeper received £3590 per year:  £872 from the sale of beer and £2,823 from income derived from “the rules”.

The old Kings Bench had been attacked & burned by the revolting peasants in 1381 & during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. In 1649, after a bill for the relief of prisoners committed for debt (an important demand of Levellers & other reformers of the time) was rumoured to have been defeated, a number of prisoners rioted & tried to break out. And only a few years before the Gordon Riots, radical darling John Wilkes had been held here after ‘libelling’ the king; his supporters attacked and set fire to the new Kings Bench in an attempt to rescue him. Daily riots took place around the jail for weeks till he was released; most seriously, the ‘massacre of St Georges Fields’ saw soldiers fire on pro-Wilkes rioters in May 176, killing several.

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On 7 June 1780, at the height of the Gordon Riots, the Kings Bench was stormed and burned out by a huge crowd. It seems they announced their intentions in advance; as with several of the attacks on prisons in this week, this was partly to give warning to allow inmates time to ready themselves and any possessions to escape once the attack started.

“It is impossible to give any adequate description of the events of Wednesday. Notice was sent round to the public prisons of the Kings Bench, Fleet, &c. by the mob, at what time they would come and burn them down… As soon as the day was drawing towards a close, one of the most dreadful spectacles this country ever beheld was exhibited. Let those, who were not spectators of it, judge what the inhabitants felt when they beheld at the same instant the flames ascending and rolling in clouds from the Kings Bench and Fleet Prisons…”

The attack became as much a rollicking, desperate, defiant party:

“5 persons smoking and drinking on top of the prison, while the lower part was alight, perforce jumped for their lives; they were all received on blankets held out by people below. The furniture of the prison offices was burnt before the doors.”

Southwark’s other penal institutions also fell to the mob that week: “Borough Clink was burnt to the ground and never rebuilt; the Southwark New Prison was emptied of prisoners, the Marshalsea attacked but saved by the military, the roundhouses in Borough High Street and Kent Street pulled down and fired. And on the last night of the riots, 8-9 June, it was said that twenty spunging houses, private prisons for debtors, were destroyed in Southwark.”

Thousands of prisoners legged it as the London prison system fell before the anger of those who mostly felt the touch of its withered hand… Though large numbers would be retaken over the following months; many easy to capture because they stayed in London, unwilling or unable to flee further.

In the days following the riots, recaptured prisoners and rioters were held in sheds in the Kings Bench grounds. All the London gaols still standing were filled, rammed with arrested rioters and recaptured escapees. All were heavily guarded by soldiers, as were the sheriffs’ offices in the City and those police offices that had escaped destruction.

The Kings Bench was swiftly rebuilt, and remained open for another 90 years, closing in 1869 when the imprisonment of debtors was mostly ended.

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

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Central London Squatting History Walk

Thursday 15th June

back by unpopular demand – Come see a slice of Central London squatting history;
• See the square where squatters and tenants half succeeded in fighting off the encroachment of office blocks,
• See the hotel which ex-soldiers and others occupied in 1946,
• See one of the Really Free School buildings from the recent struggles against cuts and the privatization of education and knowledge,
• See places that were homes to hundreds, alternative bookshops, women’s centres, the starting places for wholefood empires ……

meet Tolmers Square,  London, NW1 6 for 6.30, Thursday 15 June 2017.