Get your copy of the 2021 London Rebel History Calendar

Something to hopefully entertain through long winter weeks of lockdown and skintness…

the 2021 London Rebel History Calendar has hit the streets…

Oh yes… Past Tense’s annual rebellious calendar: radical, subversive and riotous anniversaries from the streets of the capital – celebrating London’s centuries-long traditions of people fighting for social change, building rebellious cultures, sticking up two fingers to authority, and freethinking…

Unashamedly sceptical of politicos, party politics, opportunists and leaders, we’ve tried to remember the grassroots, self-organised and anti-hierarchical; the diverse communities that have evolved & migrated here, social movements, moments of liberation, love and laughter … but we never forget the soul-destroying exploitation of work, the miserable lash of sexism, racism and all bigotries, or the vicious repression inflicted by the rich and powerful, & the institutions that defend their power over our lives.

But our own histories are here too… events we took part in, stories from our own lives, because history is ourstory, the small actions and events that shape us, just as influential as the ‘great moments of history’.

We love to burrow in the archives: unearthing collective and individual contributions, to those who fought to transform the world for the better. But we’ve also tried to bring a sense of fun, humour and colour to make the calendar (hopefully) beautiful as well as useful.

We collect all the dates, lay the calendar out, print it ourselves on our own risograph printer. Not everyone likes the look of it, but there you go. Some people complain there’s not enough space to write in your
appointments – this is true. Maybe its just not for that.

The Calendar could be winging its way to you for only
£10.00 plus Post and Packing

 

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So – Where can you get hold of a copy?

 

you can buy it online:
in the Past Tense etsy shop
And also on big cartel
Also available from the Past Tense website
And also soon – hopefully – from some of London’s radical and independent bookshops, assuming they are still operating mail order/click and collect, in these covidious times…

We’ll keep you posted on where its being stocked (or check our twitter account

Today in London’s International history, 1977: North Kensington squatters declare the Independent Republic of Frestonia

What with the all the Brexit row inspiring an increased interest in parts of the UK splitting off (eg Scotland  – and probably London next!), we got thinking of previous attempts to secede – including the odd Passport to Pimlico style revolts…

The Unilateral Declaration of independence by some disgruntled residents of the Isle of Dogs in 1970 was not the last attempt of part of London to secede from the U.K…

In 1977 squatters in three streets in North Kensington also declared independence, to call attention to the terminal decline the area was in and protect their housing. All hail Frestonia!

The building of the Westway cut through North Kensington leaving some parts of it a bit stranded. Latimer Road was truncated, Walmer Road was bisected and the area south of Latimer Road was full of empty houses and industrial sites earmarked for development.

The neighbourhood at Freston Road, acquired by the Greater London Council (GLC), had been allowed to deteriorate into such a state of disrepair by the 1960s, that GLC tenants had to be rehoused to nearby accommodation such as Trellick and Grenfell towers. However the houses were neither demolished not left empty – many were squatted.

By the mid-1970s Freston Road and neighbouring streets had become home to a new community; a bohemian mixture of artists, writers, musicians and substance misusers… Some of these gravitated to the area to live cheaply; others saw squatting as a way to build an alternative, more communal way of life. Others were desperate just for somewhere to call home.

The winters were hard, resources were scarce, and there were few amenities  – except what the residents provided themselves. Much of the housing in North Kensington and Notting Hill was in a state of decay and decline then, and squatting was rife… In the early/mid 70s thus area was squat central, and a corresponding eruption of alternative projects and radical developments sprouted in the area.

In 1977, the Greater London Council (GLC) announced plans to redevelop the Freston Road area, the details of which are captured in an edition of the Tribal Messenger (the national newspaper of Frestonia.), after residents collared a young surveyor wandering the street and interrogated him as to the plans:

“This whole area is up for grabs. Tenders from industries wanting to develop here have to be in to the GLC by today.

WE’VE OFFERED TO LEASE THE WHOLE SOUTHERN AREA!

Read on:

Yesterday, Ken of 90 Freston Road [+Josefine saw him too – short-haired young inspector], saw a bloke walking up and down Freston Road with notebook in his hand examining the area. Ken asked him what he was doing, and he said he was from the council, and that the whole area (Bramley Road, Freston Road and Latimer Road) was being leased off by the council to light industries, and that light industries wanting sites here were having to submit offers (tenders) by this Thursday, today, the 22nd.

Eek! Eek!

We phoned up Mr Birlo of the GLC Estates and Valuation Dept (01-633-6861) who was friendly enough, except he confirmed it’s all true. All the houses in Freston Road and 2-16 Bramley Road are affected except, we think, the People’s Hall and the Scrap Yard. What houses in Latimer Road are affected he couldn’t immediately tell us.

So we’ve done the obvious thing and submitted a tender ourselves, asking more or less to be left alone to develop the area ourselves, and offering tentatively £10 per week per house (roughly £20,800 a year). Our tender only deals with Bramley Rd and Freston Road, as apparently Latimer Rd people aren’t so keen to stay and renovate their houses. We didn’t have time to consult anybody – there’s a copy of the letter we sent off express yesterday on the back of this sheet.

We say in the letter to the GLC that several of us are members of a sort of ‘southern branch’ of the Latimer Road Cooperative Housing Association. This was discussed at one meeting. Hope you’ll not mind us jumping the gun you northern L.R.C.H.A. people. (Any Freston road and Bramley Road people who want to join it, try going to see Jan at 351 Latimer Road, she probably knows how to do it. It costs £1, and it may be worth doing as the GLC have already dealt with these in the past.

By the way, could anyone put a report in the Tribal Messenger as to how the L.R.C.H.Association is going? What’s the GLC’s latest position with you etc?)

We asked Mr Birlo what would happen if an industrial company got a lease on our houses. How long till we’d be turned out? Mr Birlo said it could take a long time:

“We’ve got to get lease terms established first. All that’s happening is that offers have to be in by thursday so we can think about them, and so we can talk to those we think ought to be accepted. Then we’ve got to receive drawings of the buildings to be erected, architects’ and builders’ estimates, and we’ve got to have lease documents prepared.”

“What about if they want vacant possession as soon as possible?” Mr Birlo thought this was unlikely as the “date of asking for vacant possession is the date they have to start paying”.

So relax, it could take more than 6 months yet.

Josefine’s just done a bulky Tribal Messenger No 19 with photos and comics. She could only afford 50 copies (£4.50, donations welcome!) so it went only to houses in St Anns Rd, Stoneleigh St, Freston Rd and Bramley Rd. Anyone in Latimer Rd wanting to see a copy will have to come south.

Who’d like to do the next issue? (Message collection say Tues and We 4th and 5th October, for coming out Thursday 6th).

Nicholas, 107 Freston Rd, W.11…

dig it dig it dig dig dig dig”

As former resident Tony Sleep put it: “The GLC decided that it was intolerable having 120 people living in these damp old dirty houses and it would be a much better idea to knock them all down and make us homeless…”

Inspired by a previous visit to the squatted community of Christiania, in Copenhagen, Nicholas Albery, ‘social activist, author and conservative anarchist’, who had arrived at Freston Road in 1976, put forward the notion of seceeding from the United Kingdom, establishing the Free & Independent Republic of Frestonia. Albery chaired a meeting attended by 200 locals. A referendum was held on Sunday, October 30th 1977, resulting in a unanimous vote for secession. Independence was declared the following day.

Unlike in the case of Catalunya more recently, the UK government did not indulge in heavy repression…

Citing a legal loophole, the residents took the collective surname of Bramley, in an effort to support their request to be rehoused as a single family. An application for membership of the United Nations, was submitted, opening:

“We the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia, herewith apply for full membership of the United Nations, with autonomous nation status…”

Within the application were detailed plans for an independent nation, signed by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, David Rappaport-Bramley, ”a very small man who cast a very large shadow”, (best known for his later role as Randall in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits). This was picked up by the media, Rappaport-Bramley made radio and tv appearances, and before long the world was watching.

Martin Young interviewed David Rappaport-Bramley, the Foreign Affairs Minister of the newly declared independent state in London (Broadcast on November 1st, 1977)

David Rappaport

Martin Young: Good evening. Tonight we report the emergence of a new nation state and ask the questions the world will need to answer. Can Hammersmith ever be the same again?

There was a time when Britain could boast she controlled 2 thirds of the world. Now, with devolution on all sides, the one thing the Foreign Office didn’t need was another UDI. Yet now there are rebellious rumblings of revolution from residents of Freston Road in Hammersmith.

Working on the theory that small is beautiful, the 120 residents have declared themselves independent of the London Borough of Hammersmith and indeed of Britain. Overnight they’ve renamed an 8 acre site of near dereliction The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia. And they’ve applied formally for full membership of the United Nations.

When we visited Frestonia this afternoon we faced no customs or passport formalities but it’s still early days yet. 

All 120 residents are involved in running Frestonia. There’s his Excellency Geoff-Gough-Bramley, the Argentinian Ambassador to Frestonia and part-time sign-writer. He’s putting the finishing touches to a sign outside the Ministry of Culture, formerly Champion Dining Rooms. 

Meet the Minister of State for Housing & Construction, unemployed Gordon Gibbs-Bramley. There’s a Minister for the Environment, who’s in charge of the National Frestonian Park and a Justice of the Peace, Carmello di Piazzo-Bramley. There’s even a Minister for Public Health and Street Cleaning; 12-year-old Caroline Yeo-Bramley.

Although Frestonia hasn’t got it’s own currency yet, she has got a national flag, designed of course by the Minister of Propaganda. The Frestonians stood by proudly as their flag was solemnly raised outside the People’s Hall for the very first time. 

Well, with me in the studio is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has come straight from the Frestonian Foreign Office in St Ann’s Road.

Erm, David Rappaport-Bramley, this is of course a very serious political move by your residents. Er, what’s brought about this break with the United Kingdom?

David

Well the basic thing was dissatisfaction with the GLC. They planned to redevelop the area and knock down all the houses and build factories, which is against the wishes of all the people who live within the area.

Martin Young

Have you had a continuing dialogue of meaningful discussions with the GLC?

David

I wouldn’t say it’s been continuing. I’d say it’s been disjointed and er the inhabitants have been dialoguing but the GLC haven’t been listening.

Martin Young

You are of course in some ways an illegal regime since you’re actually squatters in the area at the time. Don’t you think that they might come along to evict you?

David

Erm, well we know we’re going to leave the area shortly but we’re rather proud of squatting the area because this was how Great Britain started; a Norman Conquest. Great Britain was squatted and that’s become the great nation that it is today. 

Martin Young

But supposing they do come along to evict you, which is perfectly within their rights before Frestonia is established. What will you do?

David

Well, if we get our state made legal then there could be a United Nations peace-keeping force coming in to protect us from the GLC.

Martin Young

One thing I couldn’t help noticing in researching into Frestonia today was that everybody’s called Bramley.

David

Yes.

Martin Young

Why’s that?

David

Well, the GLC have promised to rehouse all families and now we’ve formed one big family of 120 people, so we hope to be rehoused all together. 

Martin Young

So, all the Bramleys will be rehoused together.

David

Right.

Martin Young

Seriously, what do you hope to achieve from this very engaging publicity stunt?

David

Right, well there’s been a lot of effort gone into it. Really, it is one big gesture just to show that all the normal paths haven’t worked. The GLC still seem to want to build factories on this land. All the council tenants are united with everybody in the area, that they don’t want it.

Martin Young

Well, it’s an interesting story. I’m sure we’ll be following it. Thank you very much.

David

Thank you.

At its height, a national census identified around 120 Frestonians united as members of the Bramley family.

Some reminiscences from someone who grew up in Frestonia

International relations

Getting stamped with a visa for unlimited entry was a highpoint of any tourist trip to Frestonia.

Playwright, poet, and squatting activist Heathcote Williams-Bramley, who lived in nearby Notting Hill, was appointed Ambassador to Great Britain, (he premiered his play The Immortalist at the National Theatre of Frestonia in 1978).

The Republic issued its own postage stamps, visiting tourists could have their passports stamped with the official Frestonian visa stamp and pick up a copy of the national newspaper, the Tribal Messenger. The Clash recorded parts of Combat Rock at Ear Studios in the People’s Hall on Olaf Street.

The international media were captivated, with coverage from the UK current affairs TV show, Nationwide, and attention from news teams across the United KingdomUnited States, Canada, Spain, Denmark and Japan. The neighbouring UK government were forced to respond and Nicholas Exelby-Bramley (Albery’s pseudonym) received letters from Sir Geoffrey Howe MP, and Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC.

A letter was also sent to the ‘independent kingdom’ of Hay-on-Wye:

The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia

TO THE PEOPLE OF HAY
FROM THE FREE AND INDEPENDENT
CITIZENS OF FRESTONIA
WHO CURRENTLY RULE
THE CORRUGATED WAVES IN WEST LONDON

LOYAL GREETINGS!

The three streets now known as Frestonia since early last year were an open sewer in Dickens’s day: the Jarrow Hunger Marchers in the Twenties asked to visit the poorest part of London and were taken on a conducted tour of the area en route to Speakers’ Corner. It is much the same now the Rat Safari Park is still going strong but we love it! small higgledy-piggedy houses with all the back gardens joined together by mutual agreement. Windmills are planned, the streets are shortly to be turfed, and the new National Theatre of Frestonia is currently the only available venue for the Sex Pistols and much other nameless wildness.

The GLC has forfeited her rights to the property, having callously torn down the surrounding areas to construct jerry-built flash cubes and vertical slums. Frestonia is a giant squat, and since the GLC have a policy of only rehousing families from squats we’ve all changed our name to Bramley after Bramley Road, one of the three streets in Frestonia. “In Frestonia we’re a family. At the moment there’s 123. And we all call ourselves Bramley To fuck up the powers that be!” Ministries in the Frestonian Government of which every citizen is a member from birth include the Ministry of Relativity, the Ministry of Free Labour, and the Ministry of Secrets Not Worth Knowing. Other Ministries are available on request and invention from the British Embassy, 107 Freston Road, W10, Frestonia. Also Postage Stamps denomination 9D… Nine Doleniks: a division of the Frestonian Exchange, which are emblazoned with the Frestonian Coat of Arms: Nos Sumus Una Familia. We are all one family, and you can have your passport stamped with an immortal visa giving permanent entry rights at the Frestonian Embassy, 2 Blenheim Crescent, Portabello Road, Albion Free State.

Sympathetic mutterings have been received from the Danish Embassy, the World Service Authority who issue World Passports, and the Micro Patriological Society of Chicago!

GO WITH THE GLOW AND RENEW THE GLUE!

 

Frestonia 1st anniversary, Freston Road, London W11. Oct 1978


Frestonian Culture

As well as establishing a National Film Institute (which, appropriately, showed Passport to Pimlico and a feature on The Sex Pistols), Frestonia also opened ‘The Car Breaker Art Gallery’ on 14th December 1979. A review in The International Times the following year described the opening:

‘AN OPEN DOOR Art Gallery has just opened in Frestonia, London, and is now operating as one of the onlyexhibitionsites open on a non-commercial basis to more or less anyone who wants to exhibit their work. To be known as the Car Breaker Art Gallery it’s at 4 Bramley Road, London W. 10 (Latimer Rd. Tube) Tel: 01- 221 5092. Someone who normally hates all art galleries reports that the opening exibition was “Better than I feared”. This means it is probably very good.’

The gallery played host to some interesting exhibitions – including a joint exhibition by Giles Leaman and Martin Piper entitled Splotches in Space (1980) and street art, including:

‘…a whale on Stoneleigh Street, created for Ken Campbell’s production of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and an urban Vietnam Apocalypse Now re-enactment. The latter… consisting of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ at 2am, floodlights, bicycles, LSD and gloss paint.’ (Vague 2010)

Car Breaker Gallery also hosted an exhibition by Brett Ewins, who designed the 2000AD comic strips Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. This attracted 2000AD fan Jo Rush to migrate to Frestonia, who – while staying at The Apocalypse Hotel (a graffiti-covered shopfront that housed around half a dozen punks) – formed the Mutoid Waste Company, creating sci-fi inspired sculptures out of scrap metal. Mutoid came to play a pivotal role in the emerging warehouse scene in the eighties and nineties, collaborating with sound systems like Sprial Tribe to build vast mechanical beasts and cyberpunk structures at raves throughout the UK. After creating a huge skull out of a burned-out bus and a centaur from old engine parts, Rush took his creations to Glastonbury and before long became a regular part of the festival (building iconic monuments such as Car Henge). In 2007, Pip Rush (Jo’s younger borther) and Bert Cole brought their own creation – a fire spitting spider called Arcadia – citing Frestonia’s ‘mutoid tradition of hi-tech hedonism and scrap metal sculpture’ as their inspiration (Barry 2015).

The Republic announced its intention to:

“generate our own power supply… [and] our own national radio station, which will in no way interfere with the broadcasts of neighbouring nations.”

Industry

Part of the agreement regarding the rezoning of Frestonia included accommodation for light industry, so that the craftspeople could continue to live and operate workshops in the area.

Nicholas Albery envisaged a craft village, perhaps inspired in part by the Findhorn Ecovillage, under development in Moray, Scotland around the same time.

Nick’s ambitions sought simply to provide basic amenities for craftspeople who might need space to run, for example, a lute workshop. As resident and Co-Op Secretary (’77-’78), Freddie Venn recalls, these humble plans were charged as frivolous.

As a Friendly Society the Co-op could only raise up to a million pounds. The NHHT came in with 6 million, and a vote decided that they would take over, bringing in their own designers etc.

Venn disagreed with the decision and resigned her post in protest.

As she puts it, “To this day one can see the ‘super expensive workshops’ to qualify for the zoning of the  time opposite us alongside the People’s hall.”

 

Bramleys Housing Co-Operative

Following international press coverage, the residents formed the Bramleys Housing Co-operative in order to negotiate with Notting Hill Housing Trust for the continued residence and acceptable redevelopment of the site.

The Co-operative worked with the Notting Hill Housing Trust to build quality homes for the residents who wished to stay. The furore forced the GLC to negotiate and eventually the Bramleys Housing Co-operative was formed, assisted by local lawyer Martin Sherwood, giving the residents a voice in development plans for the area.

Although concessions were made, the site was redeveloped to make safe, livable homes for the residents, many of which live there to this day, along with the generations that followed.

Some residents were unhappy with this loss of independence and moved away but, according to Tony Sleep (a photojournalist who documented Frestonia), ‘everybody realised that we had to become more formal, more organised… more responsible perhaps. Less anarchic’ (Kerr 2014). There was also increasing issues with drinking and drugs: ‘the residents of Frestonia [had] developed a strong social fabric and complex cultural life before it fell into decline to the crime, drugs and social problems that gradually infiltrated the community’.

Today, Bramleys Housing Co-operative still manages the properties which were built on the Frestonia Site by Notting Hill Housing Trust, and its members live as a close-knit community. Some are the descendants of original Frestonians, although there has been a significant influx of new residents.

Large new office developments (also named ‘Frestonia’) were built on adjacent sites, and these are now occupied by the headquarters of high-street retailer Cath Kidson, as well as Monsoon Accessorize and Talk Talk.

But does the Republic still exist? The United Nations never responded to the application, nor was the notion ever officially dismissed. Some conclude that the Republic of Frestonia is “as much a reality now as it was then. And the spirit in which it was formed serves as a reminder that, faced with oppression, anything can happen when we work together as a family.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s loads more here

 

 

 

 

Today in London’s policing history, 1798: the Wapping Coal Riot

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, the UK’s earliest organised police force proper, launched their first patrols of the crowded waters of the River Thames, based at a HQ at Wapping New Stairs.

The new force was at first privately funded, and had been launched by Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and statistician. Colquhoun had made his name and money in the lucrative commercial trade in Virginia, and later made more cash trading linen. When the American Revolution broke out, Colquhoun took the side of the British government against the rebellious colonists, and helped fund a Glasgow regiment to contribute to the war effort.

The British defeat saw him relocate back his energies to Britain. Colquhoun was interested in statistics, and collected economic data, which he used to lobby the government on behalf of the employers in various industries, particularly cotton and muslin (his background in textile dealing had made him a lot of contacts). He wrote numerous pamphlets and treatises promoting legal reform and changes in business practice – usually in the interests of powerful employers. Colquhoun was increasingly in political and government circles, and he aspired to a government position. In the late 1780s he was appointed a Magistrate in the East End.

The London docks were then the East End’s major industry; vast amounts of cargo were unloaded here, from all over the world. This was how the capital was supplied with food, cloth, sugar, raw materials… anything to supply what had become the most powerful and richest city in the world.

But there was a major problem for the dock owners and traders whose goods travelled through them – theft. Merchants were losing an estimated £500,000 worth (million in our money) in stolen cargo annually from the Pool of London on the River Thames. Many ships were unloaded on open docks or on the open river, accessible to looting; however, organised or individual theft by dockers, sailors and other workers was responsible for large amounts of disappeared cargo. There were any number of ways of making items vanish for resale on the many East End markets. The authorities had relatively little manpower to exert any force to prevent or detect theft or track missing goods down.

In 1797 Colquhoun, John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace and master mariner, and utilitarian philosopher of repression Jeremy Bentham collaborated on a plan to remedy the losses to thieves. Harriot and Bentham drew up a proposal for a new police force on the docks, and Colquhoun went to work to lobby the West India Planters Committees and the West India Merchants to fund the new organisation, and applied to the government for permission to operate. The merchants stumped up £4,200 (about £543,000 in today’s moolah), and the state agreed to a one-year trial of the embryonic force. On 2 July 1798, the Thames River Police began operating with Colquhoun as Superintending Magistrate and Harriot the Resident Magistrate.

The very idea of a police was considered an affront by many in England; English folk of various classes held it outraged ‘the liberties they held dear’. Some in positions of power and wealth also thought the idea of a government-controlled police force ( as it existed in France) would be an expensive burden on the public purse. Colquhoun cleverly re-framed the political debate on policing, drawing on his economic statistics to try to demonstrate show that a police dedicated to crime prevention was not only “perfectly congenial to the principle of the British constitution” but also had potential to be cost effective.

The new force began with about 50 men, whose job was to police more than 30,000 workers in the river trades. Of these workers Colquhoun claimed a third were known criminals and “on the game”.

Whether these figures were reliable, the new river police inevitably received a hostile reception from the riverfront workers. For many of the workers on the docks, lighters and ships, and in the warehouses, a little bit of lightfingeredness supplemented what was usually low and irregular pay. Most of these jobs were casual, badly paid, seasonal; survival for these men and their families was generally a matter of daily worry. Meanwhile huge profits were being made on the tobacco, food, sugar, coal and myriads of other imports. The merchants at the top lived in luxury the dockworkers could only imagine. The temptation to help yourself to some of the profits passing through your hands had grown by tradition and struggle into a perk of the job. A lot of cracking down on ‘theft’ took the form of changing (or enforcing tighter interpretations of) perks and traditional right to take offcuts, spilled goods etc, which workers had established over decades of struggle and negotiation. Workers fighting to extend those perks ,and bosses pushing to restrict the, was part of a constant war between workers and employers; the creation of the river police could only be seen as an attack on a part of the workers’ income. And the London dockworkers were often prepared to fight to protect their interests.

The embryonic Thames River Police was organised very differently from what we might think of as a modern police force. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers – dockworkers enlisted to also police the job. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) – they were mostly employed patrolling the dockside. The rationale behind employing workers to police their workmates was that a considerable amount of crime, committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London, could be prevented if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in ‘lumping’ cargoes off the ships. ‘Lumpers’ employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty – and they were paid above the usual rate. These men were seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. A clever process of internalising policing into the mentalities of workers, setting some workers to spy on others.

The River Police was aimed not only control of the mass and endemic nicking of goods arriving at the docks, but also breaking any form of organisation by the workers. It was paid for by the bosses, and expected to serve their interest, and workers getting together was on its radar as part of the ‘crime’ it had to keep an eye on. Colquhoun was a magistrate, and the East End magistrates had powers over labour and wages; they set wage levels, and even had a hand in organising the trade itself, for instance organising coalheaving gangs. Rival views as to how this was to be interpreted had played a crucial and divisive part in the 1768 ‘river strike’– a cataclysmic strike for higher wages that had ended up in pitched battles, murder and hangings… Alderman William Beckford, an East End magistrate, had backed gangs of scabs collected to fight strikers and smash the strike; Beckford was also a major importer of goods through the docks. The same men were employers, law enforcers and politicians, and use these connections to their own profit, and to attack working people on a multitude of levels – as well as being slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies. Beckford, for instance, was known as the ‘king of Jamaica’ for the size of his plantations, and was determined to protect the profits from his goods from the Caribbean that came through the docks.

Like Beckford, Colquhoun was deeply involved in both the East End dock trades and the Atlantic triangular trade. Historian Peter Linebaugh identifies Colquhoun as a crucial product of, and contributor to, the economic and social power networks that drove the Atlantic trades.

“He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximise profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. In the 1790s he criminalised custom. He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labour who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organised political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations.” There was a direct link in terms of goods arriving from Caribbean and the interests of planters, shippers, etc, in seeing maximum of profits from them and less ‘attrition’ by working people. The West India merchants and planters were major contributors to the funds raised to pay for the new police.

Transport of coal was at the heart of the docks, and theft of coal a crucial battleground. Houses, industry, offices – coal was vital for heating and came into the docks on a colossal scale. Possibly more than any other commodity, coal was ripped off by the dockworkers, often on an individual scale. Coalheaving was dirty, hard and backbreaking work, paid badly. As the 1768 strike had shown, the coalheavers were often the most volatile group of workers, with a potential for collective action and violence.

Coal was also to cause an early battle between the dockworkers and the new River Police. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the ‘coal markets’, selling of nicked coal from the docks, which were openly held in the streets of Wapping.

On the evening of 16th October 1798, three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court, which was attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman’s boy, all accused of theft of coal (in fact of having coal in their possession and giving no reasonable explanation as to why), and were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, some friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers, was met by his brother, James, who said “Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?” Charles said “Yes, I have.” James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said “Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!”

Constable Richard Perry later testified: “I opened the door to let Charles Eyers out, when there was a voice cried, you b-y long thief have you paid the money? I saw there was a riot going to be, and I shoved the door of the office to immediately: then there was another voice said, here goes for the forty; with that the fan-light of the door was instantly knocked all over me, I suppose with a stick, they could not have reached it without; I went into the Magistrate’s room, and immediately the next light was beat, shutters and all, into the office, by large stones, I suppose twenty pounds weight, such stones as the streets were paved with; they then proceeded to the next light, that was beat in also with great stones.

– Q. Was the street quiet at this time?
– A. No, there was crying and shouting, and a great noise, and saying they would have the b-y Police-office down; they then proceeded to the third window, and beat that in also, and a large stone came in, which took me over the shoulder, and passed Mr. Colquhoun, the Magistrate.”

Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd – some reports reckoned it at around 2000 men – had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. There was talk of burning down the police office, with the police inside.

The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

The police inside the office secured the building. When a large stone smashed through a window, officer Perry took a pistol and fired a shot into the crowd, that shot killed a rioter (who was never identified at the trial). The crowd seemed to quieten and withdraw slightly. Perry asked the magistrates to leave the building where he obviously felt at great risk. Having gone into the street, Colquhoun read the Riot Act to the crowd, ordering them to disperse. They did not.

Gabriel Franks, a master lumper employed by the Marine Police Office (later described as ‘not a sworn constable but occasionally assisting in the Office’) was apparently drinking in the nearby Rose and Crown pub. Hearing the commotion, he made his way to the police office with two other men named Peacock and Webb, and asked to be admitted, but was told that nobody was being allowed in or out of the building. Franks returned to the main street, possibly to observe the disturbance and gather information and evidence. He told Peacock to keep tabs on one particularly active rioter, whilst he himself went off, telling peacock he would try and secure a cutlass for their protection. However, someone obviously recognised Franks as a Police Office agent, as according to Peacock, about a minute after Franks walked off, a shot rang out from the direction of the Dung Wharf, and Franks cried out that he had been shot. The shooting from inside the Police Office that killed the rioter and the shot that killed Franks apparently happened in quick succession.

Franks did not die immediately. He lived on for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness. During this time Franks was questioned about the shooting, but had no idea as to who had fired the shot. The actual identity of the person who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shot was never discovered; however, the motive would clearly seem to be hatred of the Marine Police, Franks being known as someone associated with the police office.  He might have been deliberately singled out as he walked towards the Dung Wharf, or, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could it have been friendly fire – ie was he killed by a shot from inside the Police Office? Witness Elizabeth Forester later tried to persuade the court that both Franks and the unnamed rioter had been killed by the one shot fired from the police office, but her evidence was discredited by the court. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any other evidence of rioters carrying or using firearms.

Failing to identify anyone who might have really shot Franks, the authorities plumped for a blatant frame-up on the loosest of justifications. James Eyers, whose behaviour at the court was the initial spark that kicked off the riot, was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Gabriel Franks.

No one produced any evidence to suggest that Eyers had actually fired the fatal shot, or even seriously tried to suggest he had anything to do with the shooting. The prosecution’s case was that his actions in starting the riot, therefore he was responsible for Franks’ death, under the law of ‘common purpose’ (today this might come under the ‘Joint Enterprise’ concept). This was conveniently also useful in removing an obvious opponent of the Marine Police and setting a grim example to the coalheavers that resistance to policing would reap the harshest of rewards. Eyers greatest crime, the judge freely admitted, was that he had called for the Police Office to be torn down, “in breach of the peace, and in open violation of the laws of the land, in the pursuit of a very wicked purpose, namely, the demolition of the house in which the Magistrates administered the justice of the country, and the destruction of the Magistrates themselves…”

Eyers was convicted of murder on the 9th January 1799, and sentenced the following Monday morning to be hanged.

Despite – or because of – the riot and resulting deaths, the success of the police force in reducing theft on the docks was enough to guarantee the Marine Police’s future. After its first year, Colquhoun reported that the force had “established their worth by saving £122,000 worth of cargo and by the rescuing of several lives”.

The government passed the Marine Police Bill on 28 July 1800, transforming it from a private to public police agency – making official the police as a centralised, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. Colquhoun later published a book on the experiment, The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. It found receptive audiences far outside London, and inspired similar forces in places in other countries, notably, New York City, Dublin, and Sydney.

Historians of policing credit Colquhoun’s innovation as a critical development towards the creation Robert Peel’s “new” police three decades later. Along with the Bow Street Runners, the Marine Police Force was eventually absorbed by the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century. Colquhoun’s utilitarian approach to the problem – using a cost-benefit argument to obtain support from businesses standing to benefit – allowed him to achieve what previous magistrates had failed – for instance the Bow Street detectives. Unlike the stipendiary system at Bow Street, the river police were full-time, salaried officers prohibited from taking private fees.

The Marine Police Force continues to operate at the same Wapping High Street address. In 1839 it merged with the Metropolitan Police Force to become Thames Division; and is now the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

This week in London radical history, 1831: riots break out as House of Lords reject the Reform Bill

The long campaign for reform of the British political system went through many phases, especially in the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1832 a powerful agitation for political change revived, following a decade in which post-Peterloo repression and a measure of economic stability had left pressure on this front relatively quiet. This period marks an almost unique phase in the evolution of the franchise, as the middle and working classes formed a brief alliance, a broadly shared goal – parliamentary representation for unrepresented towns.

A cartoon satirising upper class opposition to reform.

During the 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars, an upsurge of reform movements had been frustrated by government repression, leading to outbreaks of mass violence such as the Spa Fields Riot, attempts at insurrection like the Pentrich Uprising, vicious official responses like the Peterloo Massacre, and clandestine plots such as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Following these turbulent years, many radical energies instead went into the free thought ideas of Richard Carlile, into Owenite socialism and co-operation, into the ‘war of the unstamped press’. After 1830, though, campaigns for political reform grew up again, to become more powerful than even previous waves of battles for reform.

Many reform associations and political unions were launched, often by veterans of the 1816-20 reform wave. Many who had been seen as ultra-radicals then had become solidly liberal and respectable, seeking moderate reform and representation for newly-confident manufacturing towns, as well as free trade. In Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, for example, Whig-liberal merchants and manufacturers (predominantly from Dissenting religious backgrounds) had become increasingly wealthy and influential economically, because of massive growth in industries like textiles; they posed a more serious challenge to the power of the Tory-Anglican local elites, in a way that they had been unable to do in the 1790s or 1810s.

The early 1830s saw three main phases of agitation:
– the initial formation of political unions across the country, to support the introduction of Earl Grey’s first reform bill in March 1831;
– a wave of meetings, petitions and riots following the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill on 8 October 1831,
– finally, the tumultuous passage of Lord John Russell’s reform bill from March to the ‘days of May’ in 1832.

By 1830 two major constitutional changes affecting the franchise had already been made by the Tories: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had prevented members of non-conformist protestant churches from voting or holding office, and the passing of Catholic Emancipation, removing bars on Catholic participation in public life. Both these pieces of legislation were put through parliament by the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government with the assistance of Robert Peel, his leader in the House of Commons.

But after being re-elected prime minister in 1830, the Duke of Wellington made a speech early in November pledging not only not to introduce any measure for parliamentary reform but also to oppose any reform proposals. This enraged reformers:

“The Duke of Wellington made a speech in the Lords, and declared against Reform. I hear he was hissed, and hurt by a stone. I heard this evening that a very unpleasant feeling was rising among the working classes, and that the shopkeepers in the Metropolis were so much alarmed that they talked of arming themselves.” John Cab Hobhouse (diary entry, 4th November, 1830)

London saw an upsurge in pro-reform demonstrations, which erupted into rioting.

Wellington was forced to resign shortly after. Earl Grey formed a Whig ministry which pledged to introducing a Reform Bill and he asked Lord John Russell to prepare the legislation. On 1 March 1830 the Bill was presented to the House of Commons, passing its second reading by only one vote at the end of the month. The government was then defeated on an amendment to the Bill and Grey resigned. This led to more rioting. The ensuing general election was fought solely on the question of reform and saw the return of the Whigs with a massive majority. Grey took this to be a mandate for continuing with the reform proposals.

Since the first Bill had not passed through all the required stages of debate and vote, committee and discussion by the time the parliamentary session had ended in the summer of 1831, Russell had to introduce a new Bill in the new session. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill.

Reform Bill rally, Birmingham

However it was defeated by forty-one votes in the House of Lords on 8 October 1831. The House of Lords was dominated by the Tories, led by the Wellington; the Lords deliberately rejected the Bill because the legislation included curtailing the power that the Lords previously had exercised over the election of MPs.

The defeat of the Bill was greeted with dismay across the country: “On the morning of the 8 Oct. 1831 I was compelled to go down to Gravesend by the Steamer and thence to Chatham. Before I started I obtained in the City a copy of the Sun Newspaper published at half past 6 o clock, fringed with black, and announcing the loss of the peoples bill in the house of Lords by the frightful majority of 41. Never shall I forget the excitement which prevailed in the breast of every one at hearing the news. The morning papers were not out, the boat was crowded and the passengers were conversing in groups on the deck on rumours which had reached their ears. I was the only person on board who possessed anything like an authentic account, and, when the paper with a black border was seen in my hand, the passengers rushed towards me, I was instantly mounted on a chair and compelled to read the debate through from beginning to end. The excitement, the disapprobation, and approbation of the several speakers were as energetic as they could have been had they been the actual spectators of the scene which the report described…” (Mr Powell)

According to the Westminster radical tailor, moderate activist (and Home office informant) Francis Place, it spurred an immediate agitation in the capital:
“Meetings were held on the Saturday (October 8th) in many of the Metropolitan Parishes and many more were called for the Monday. The Parish of Mary-le-bone had taken the lead respecting parliamentary interference for the regulation of vestries, and had succeeded in inducing a considerable number of parishes to appoint deputies to confer together in their mutual interests, the persons who in that parish had assembled frequently appointed a committee to watch over their interests and this committee now considered themselves a political committee in respect to the reform bill. They assembled and being joined by a considerable number of the inhabitants they issued the following notice.

The Lords have rejected the bill. England expects every man will do his duty.

The parishioners of Mary-le-Bone will assemble at the Horse Bazaar at twelve o’clock on Monday next, to address the King, support his ministers and consult on the present state of affairs. Pursuant to a resolution passed at two preparatory meetings, the inhabitants are desired to devote Monday next solemnly to these objects, to suspend all business and shut up their shops.”

This call out became a huge demonstration on Monday 10th October, demanding reform, which marched in procession from Whitehall to Hyde Park:

“Long before the time appointed the capacious square of the Horse Bazaar was not only filled but an immense number of persons—said to amount to 30,000 could not gain admittance. A call became general to adjourn to Hyde Park and it was announced that Mr Hume who had agreed to take the chair would meet them there. An orderly procession of the people immediately took place and an immense number, estimated at 50,000 congregated in the open space north of the Serpentine River. They had come nearly a mile to this spot and had waited some time when two gentlemen on horseback rode among them and told them that Mr Hume thought the meeting would be illegal if held out of the Parish and as Mr Maberly had granted the use of a piece of ground in Regents Park they requested the meeting would assemble there as speedily as possible. ‘If any thing,’ observes the Chronicle (very justly)

could have cooled the ardour of the people, who however proved themselves as ardent as patriotic, it was this demand upon their patience after waiting above an hour at the Bazaar, and dragging through the Park for an hour more; but nothing daunted they proceeded in good humour, to the Regents Park and arrived there between one and two o’clock. Several waggons were placed at the lower part of the grounds and the assembled multitude which before the chair was taken must have amounted to 80,000 persons formed themselves on the rising ground into a sort of semi-circle and the wind being in their faces, the majority could hear the proceedings.

Mr Hume took the Chair..

Large Placards were exhibited, one was ‘Englishmen – Remember it was the Bishops—and the Bishops only whose votes decided the fate of the Reform Bill’

The other was—

‘England expects that every man will do His Duty’

Mr Hume—said it was no ordinary occasion which had called them together, and in the great and important measures they were about to discuss, every man from the King to the Peasant had a deep interest. He knew they would act peacably and orderly, and would not despair, as long as they had a Patriot King, a liberal ministry, and a majority in favour of the measure. They would tell the petty pitiful majority of the house of Lords that they had rights as Englishmen as sacred as their own and that an oligarchy which had usurped their rights should be compelled to relinquish their tyrannical power which they had so long exercised against the people. He respected the words of Lord Grey that he would stand by the people and the King so long as the King gave him his confidence, said he reposed confidence in his sincerity, and though ministers had not been so active in promoting the bill as they ought to have been, he hoped they would profit by experience and not coquet with the Tories, since it was vain to expect the tories could be induced to approve of measures favourable to the people. He said there must be either reform or revolution (immense cheering and cries of we will have it). It was because in case of a revolution the working and useful classes would be the greatest sufferers that he wished to effect a reform by constitutional means and hoped to avoid such a revolution as the Duke of Wellington wished should take place. He knew the people would not be drawn in to commit acts of violence (no—no) they would protect the property of the country (we will).”

Among those who had organised the procession were the leaders of the National Union of the Working Classes, the London-based radical organisation. 

Place estimated that around 70,000 people attended, many wearing the white scarves emblematic of manhood suffrage. Although these were impressive numbers, they compared poorly with larger a demonstration in the following days at Birmingham, drawn too from a smaller population.

The procession of October 1831 was mainly composed (it seems) of ‘shopkeepers and superior artisans’, and remained peaceful.

However, rioting broke out in London later in the week:

“It was in allusion to the rejection of the Reform Bill in the month of October 1831 by the House of Lords, that the popular feeling was most strongly exhibited. Many of the newspapers, which announced the result of the division in the House of Lords, were put into mourning, and a feeling of the deepest and most melancholy foreboding soon spread itself throughout the country. The fate of the Reform Bill became speedily known, and on the Monday following (10th) marks of unequivocal sorrow and disgust exhibited themselves. In the metropolis circulars were distributed in every parish, calling meetings; all business appeared suspended; and the shops in all directions were either partially or totally closed. Mourning flags were exhibited from the houses, accompanied by placards, in which the bishops, who had formed a considerable portion of the majority against the bill, presented a source of prolific censure. In King-street, Seven-dials, the effigy of the Duke of Wellington was burned; and, in Tottenham-court-road, a placard was exhibited at a shop, announcing that arms might be had, to be paid for by instalments. On the part of the government, every precaution was taken for the preservation of the public peace. Troops were marched into London, and stationed so as to be ready to be called into immediate activity in case of necessity; ball-cartridges were distributed, and everything was done which prudence could suggest for the maintenance of order. Numerous meetings were held in the course of the week, at which the most enthusiastic determination was exhibited; and every means was adopted by the people to throw disgrace and discredit upon those by whom their wishes had been opposed. The Duke of Wellington, and other noble peers who had distinguished themselves by their opposition to the bill, were roughly greeted, and were pelted on their way to the House of Lords. The Duke of Cumberland was also nearly receiving much ill-usage from a mob assembled in the Park.

On Wednesday (the 12th of October), the king held a levee at St. James’s Palace, at which an immense number of addresses was presented. The trades’ unions assembled in vast mobs in the neighbourhood of the palace, accompanied by their flags and other insignia, and some violence was done by the mob. The residence of the Marquis of Bristol, in St. James’s-square, was made the object of an attack by them. Many of the windows were dashed in, and a considerable quantity of valuable effects destroyed; but fortunately there were many well-disposed persons in the vicinity, by whom the police were assisted, and the rioters dispersed. The mob, however, had been no sooner driven from here, than they proceeded at once to the residence of the Duke of Wellington, Apsley House, Piccadilly. This was, in turn, made the object of an assault even more severe and determined than that of the Marquis of Bristol. At about half-past two o’clock in the day, several parties were seen to approach the residence of his grace, and the foremost of the gang threw a few stones at the windows, and sent forth the most horrible yells. Some of the servants belonging to the establishment came forward and presented pistols at the mob assembled; but this only served to increase their anger. A volley of stones was instantly hurled at their supposed assailants; and a cry being raised of “They are going to fire on us — now let us go to work,” an instant attack was commenced on the mansion. Stones flew in showers on the house, and not a dozen panes of glass were left undemolished, while many valuable pictures inside were utterly ruined, and the furniture was destroyed. The police at first were in small numbers upon the spot, but a reinforcement having arrived from the Vigo-street Station-house, a vigorous attack on the mob was commenced. The employment of their staves, and the determination which was exhibited by the constables, served, in a very material degree, to drive away the assembled crowd; and, of those who were taken into custody, all were of the lowest class — showing that their object was rather mischief or depredation, than the assertion of a principle, or the maintenance of a right. At about seven o’clock in the evening, a new attempt to get up a riot was made by a mob of two or three hundred persons, who were met on their way through Piccadilly towards St. James’s Palace; but a speedy stop was put to their proceedings by the police, who had assembled in large bodies to repel any such new effort as might be made.”

However, the trouble in London was piecemeal at best compared with the response to the defeat of the Reform Bill in other parts of the country. Serious rioting took place in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby.

Rioting in Bristol, October 1831

Rioting took place in Bristol after the arrival of anti-reform judge Charles Wetherell in the city for the annual assizes on 29 October. Wetherell’s carriage was attacked and civic and military authorities lost control of the situation. There followed two days of rioting and looting in which much of the city centre was burned and prisoners freed from the jails. The riots were brought to an end on 31 October by which time £300,000 of damage had been caused and up to 250 casualties incurred.  A dozen people were killed and hundreds wounded or arrested. The Bristol riot was probably the most violent and widespread outbreak of working class violence in 19th century British history…

At Derby violence also broke out, after apparent provocation by “indecent and insulting ebullition of joy manifested by a party of those who were opposed to the Reform Bill. The bells of the churches had been tolling during the whole of Saturday evening, the news having reached the town by express at an early hour on that day, and a number of persons, amounting to a considerable crowd, having assembled at the coach-offices, awaiting the arrival of the London coaches, in order that their fears might be set at rest, they were assailed with laughter and other uncalled-for insults by their political opponents. The consequence was a retaliation on their part, which terminated in an attack upon the houses of those who had made themselves unpopular by their conduct. The windows of many of these houses were demolished, and the persons of some of their owners subjected to violence; but at length a considerable number of the rioters were taken into custody. This served only to increase their anger, and an attack being made upon the jail, the whole of the prisoners were liberated. The mob in turn were assailed by the keeper of the prison and his assistants, with fire-arms, and the result was that three of their number were killed. The soldiery were then called out, and tranquillity was at length with some difficulty restored.” The Jail in nearby Markeaton was also attacked.

Rioting also broke out in Nottingham on 9 October upon learning of the defeat of the bill. This was initially directed solely against the private houses of known opponents of reform. On 10 October a public meeting turned to violence, the attendees marched on Colwick Hall, home of John Musters, which was damaged. The next day the mob burned Nottingham Castle, home of anti-reform peer Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle, who was away at parliament. Lowe’s Silk Mill in Beeston was burnt on 11 October, the same day the riots ceased. The Duke was able to gather yeomanry and his own tenants to successfully defend his residence at Clumber Park.

There were other violent incidents: the Manchester Chronicle noted that since the Manchester meeting, ‘symptoms of disorder and tumult have been manifested each evening in the vicinity of New Cross, by the assemblage of numerous bodies of men’. On the Friday evening a crowd ‘demolished the windows of the residence of Hugh Hornby Birley Esq, Mosley Street’ and the cavalry were called to suppress the riot. Birley, had been hated seen his involvement in the repression at Peterloo 12 years before.

There was also agro in Carlisle, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter, Bath and Worcester.

After this truculent response to the defeat of the Bill, Earl Grey was reluctant to provoke more division by ask parliament to discuss the issue of reform yet again; but Thomas Attwood and other leaders of the Political Unions organised a huge campaign to demand the passing of the legislation. Grey tried to defuse the situation by agreeing to the introduction of a third Reform Bill.
This third Bill again passed the Commons, and proceeded to the Lords on 26 March 1832. The Lords threatened to reject it again, so Grey resigned on 9th May 1832. Wellington attempted to form a ministry but was could not gain the support of leading tory MPs, including Robert Peel. King William IV sent again for Grey, who agreed to resume office but only on the condition that the king would create enough new Peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the passage of the Bill.

Whilst the politicians argued and bargained, there was further rioting. The Duke of Wellington eventually recognised the necessity of the Bill passing, and ordered the Tory Lords either to vote for the Bill or to absent themselves from the session when the vote was taken. Over two hundred Tory Lords didn’t turn up for the vote and the Bill passed through the House of Lords on 7 June 1832.

Although the legislation is often referred to as the “Great Reform Act” its terms – although far reaching at the time – were really quite moderate, and did not satisfy the huge demand for change that had been building for decades. A. L. Morton, the author of A People’s History of England (1938) argued that the most import change was that it placed “political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class followers.” Voting in the urban boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10; there were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. After the  Act, still only one in seven adult males had the vote. It added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales – an increase of about 50%. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority. Nor were the constituencies of equal size – another crucial demand for many reformers. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.

Caricature of the political situation in May 1832: John Bull (representing public opinion) helps Earl Grey against the Duke of Wellington and King William IV.

It has been suggested subsequently that Britain was close to revolution during the reform crises of the early 1830s, both in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘days of May’ of 1832. Could a British revolution anticipated the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune?

Contemporary commentators thought the country was on the tipping point. Edward Littleton, then a Whig MP, commented in his diary that the country was “in a state little short of insurrection”,while the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith later described a “hand-shaking, bowel-disturbing passion of fear”.(which should really be the bottom line for how the ruling classes should always be reacting to working class collective action…) Fears among the wealthy that a general uprising was imminent, triggered a rush of gold withdrawals from the Bank of England in May 1832.

This fear was apparently shared by the Queen, whose “fixed impression, is that an English revolution is rapidly approaching, and that her own fate is to be that of Marie Antoinette” Sadly not. Some historians agree: E. P. Thompson wrote that “in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘Days of May’ Britain was within an ace of revolution” and Eric Hobsbawm felt that “This period is probably the only one in modern history … where something not unlike a revolutionary situation might have developed.”

The more radical elements in the country had denounced the limited range of the Reform Bill from the beginning, and until

the winter of 1831-2, some had refused to engage in agitation around the Bill; lecturers in Carlile’s Rotunda labelled the Bill a ‘trap’ designed to split and betray the radical movement. The Poor Man’s Guardian ridiculed the whole Bill. But as the diehard reactionary establishment resisted any reform, it pushed the country to the threshold of mass upheaval, and the radicals became drawn in. The Poor Man’s Guardian adjusted its tactics and published a special supplement featuring extracts from Colonel Macerone’s Defensive Instructions for the People (a manual for street-fighting). By early 1832, National Union of the Working Classes ultra-radicals like William Benbow and Julian Hibbert were preparing for an armed struggle.

The Midlands and the north were in ferment: “Walk into any lane or public-house, where a number of operatives are congregated together,” wrote John Doherty “and listen for ten minutes to the conversation . . . In at least seven out of every ten cases, the subjects of debate will be found to bear upon the appalling question of whether it would be more advantageous to attack the lives or the property of the rich…”

In May 1832, during the ‘eleven days of England’s apprehension and turmoil’ which preceded the final passage, of the Bill through the Lords in May, Francis Place held his breath, anticipating uprising if the Bill did not pass and Wellington returned to power. On the evening of the day when it passed, he returned home and noted:

“We were within a moment of general rebellion, and had it been possible for the Duke of Wellington to have formed an administration the Thing and the people would have been at issue… There would have been ‘Barricadoes of the principal towns – stopping circulation of paper money’; if a revolution had commenced, it ‘would have been the act of the whole people to a greater extent than any which had ever before been accomplished”.

That none of the crisis points of the Reform Bill saga did lead to revolution, or even to any sustained revolt or uprising, probably boiled down at least in part to the unwillingness of a majority of reformist leaders to push that far. A large part of the Radical tradition (of which William Cobbett was the leading spokesman) was deeply constitutional, committed to peaceable methods of achieving change. The organised radicals prepared to use more direct tactics were in a minority. Whether or not riots could have been extended into insurrections if a more vocal leadership had been out there, in the various parts of the country, is unclear. Beyond a handful of cities the willingness of local populations to take to the streets was also limited. 

The spectrum within the reform movement, ranging from Parliamentary Whigs through middle class radicals to the NUWC, could bring temporary unity in demonstrations but little agreement as to methods and even ultimate aims. But leaders like Thomas Attwood wielded immense influence, and the middle-class Radicals cleverly assembled a program of reforms that offered a compromise which strengthened both the State and property-rights.

Influential radicals like Francis Place were as much concerned to prevent the NUWC and ‘extremists’ from gaining more traction and followers as they were to see the Bill pass. Place spent much effort undermining the NUWC and bolstering the National Political Union, by as underhand methods as he could get away with (including informing to the Home Office on radicals he considered ‘dangerous). How much did some of the moderate leaders exploit the threat of uprising and working class violence to get what they wanted, never intending to support anything wider?

But the adaptability of the British establishment was also a factor. The ability to cut the sails and compromise just enough to split the reform movement, to absorb and buy off the middle classes while giving nothing to the masses, marked the UK’s elite out of from the more rigid continental regimes. The ruling class bent so as not to break. Even the ultra-reactionary Wellington could see by May 1832 that some reform was inevitable.

The Reform Act left the many working class activists who had been arguing, agitating and rioting for change hugely disappointed. Unsurprisingly, many of the middle classes who had benefitted from the Act did not continue to campaign for an extension to the franchise. The growing working class political movements – radicals, Owenites, co-operators, trade unionists – reacted by beginning to rebuild their own movements for political reform, which was to give birth to Chartism.

Today in radical herstory, 1899: working class Suffragist Jessie Craigen dies

Jessie Craigen (c.1835-99) was a working-class activist and public speaker in the earlier phases of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. Craigen’s background was relatively unusual, in a movement which was at the time dominated by middle and upper-class activists. She was also a freelance (or ‘paid agent’) speaker in the campaigns for Irish Home Rule and the cooperative movement and against vivisection, compulsory vaccination, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

 Her background is somewhat obscure. Her father was said to be Scottish, possibly a seafarer, who died when she was an infant; her mother was sometimes described as an Italian actress, and she was described in a newspaper of 1866 as a ‘Scotch lady’, though a few years later she claimed to have been born in London.

As a child, after her father’s early death, under her mother’s influence she apparently appeared on the stage from the age of four, which may have helped her acquire the skills and the confidence for her later career in public speaking.

She began in the late 1850s giving readings from plays and recitations, before moving onto delivering orations at temperance meetings, and was described on one such occasion in 1861 as a ‘clever Quakeress’ Craigen moved around the UK, living variously in Retford, Nottinghamshire and Bristol in the 1870s and ‘80s. She made a living as a paid ‘Lecturer on Social Subjects’. 

By December 1868, she was addressing suffrage meetings. A newspaper reporter wrote in 1869 at Alnwick, Northumberland, that her talks were well attended, but added with typical male snobbery, that this was because a lady lecturer was a novelty, and he recalled Dr Johnson’s comments on the subject,
… a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Even by the standards of late nineteenth century England this was misogynistic, as well as increasingly inaccurate.

“The earliest published reference so far found regarding her association with the suffrage movement refers to a series of meetings she held at the end of 1870, in the north of England.  Such speaking tours were a recent innovation, for few suffragists had yet found the courage to undertake public speaking of such a kind and on this scale. She was not, however, a regular employee of the suffrage movement, nor, at this point, did she take direction from any suffrage society. This was work which she herself initiated and managed, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, accompanied only by her dog, Tiny. During these tours she held impromptu, outdoor meetings as she saw fit, and collected petitions which she then sent to London headquarters, requesting only the occasional five-pound note to cover her living expenses. By such means, she was able to reach audiences not usually addressed by the middle-class leadership of the movement during its set-piece public meetings in the halls of the larger cities.” (Sandra Stanley Holton)

She is recorded as speaking on behalf of women’s rights between 1868 and 1884. Her main supporters were the radical suffragists Priscilla Bright McLaren, Lilias Ashworth Hallett and the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman, all part of closely knit family and political networks which were highly influential in Liberal circles.

Although the womens’ suffrage movement had largely arisen from individuals of the well-to-do classes, a number of these had come to realise the necessity of gaining support from the working classes.

Feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, Helen Blackburn described Jessie Craigen as a ‘strange erratic genius’ who spoke with a tone like a ‘mighty melodious bell’, recalling that she planned and carried out her tours by herself, travelling all over the kingdom from John O’Groats to Lands End, accompanied only by a dog. Blackburn also attributed Craigen’s renown as a speaker to her ‘magnificent voice’, with which she was able to gather audiences and hold them riveted, ‘from miners in Northumberland… and fishers in Cornwall… to agricultural labourers in the market-places of country towns’… “Lecturing always in the open air, at the pit’s mouth, in market places”, her method was to hire a bellringer to attract an audience and then “mount on a chair, a cart, or barrel” to speak. She found her audiences “amongst the miners in Cornwall, the agricultural labourers of Dorsetshire, the colliers of South Wales, the factory hands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the miners of Durham and the north”. She became one of the first advocates for women’s suffrage – if not the first – to be arrested for publicly speaking out for the cause.

Descriptions of Jessie Craigen focus relentlessly on her appearance, and all agree that by conventional standards of beauty dominant at the time (and today) she was not physically attractive (unsurprisingly few accounts of men spend anything like a similar amount of time calling attention to their physical attractiveness…) Jessie was called ugly, short, stout, and badly-dressed in old and unfashionable clothes. However, pretty much everyone agreed that she was a fantastic public speaker.

The early Marxist writer and politician Henry Hyndman wrote (in his usual patronising posh way):

“Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways. Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak…She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag. Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long… In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together.”

 By 1879 Craigen was appearing on platforms with the principal figures of the suffrage movement. She had, at this point, been taken up by a network of radical suffragists, formed by the kinship and friendship circles of women of the Bright family. An upsurge in suffrage campaigning began at the end of the 1870s in anticipation of a new Reform Bill, she organised meetings in the market squares and outside the local works of the small towns and villages of the north, in preparation for a major demonstration in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester in February 1880. Lydia Becker reported to Priscilla Bright McLaren a meeting that Jessie Craigen organised in one of the poorest wards in Manchester. It attracted an audience of some 600-700, “all poor working women”, who responded to the suffragists in ways to which Lydia Becker was quite unaccustomed: “If my eyes had been shut I should have fancied it was men who were cheering and clapping; the applause was as hearty and strong as at a men’s meeting”. This contact with working women took on something of a conversion-experience for Lydia Becker: “to see them look at me – oh, it was really sacred – awful; it was as if I received a baptism”.

On 3 February 1880 Craigen spoke at a ‘Great Demonstration of Women’ in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, alongside such luminaries as Mrs McClaren, Lydia Becker and Josephine Butler. One eye-witness recalled it as “a night never to be forgotten”. The dense crowd wishing to take part was almost entirely of women, some of whom were said to have walked 10, even 20, miles to attend. An overflow meeting had to be organised nearby, with Margaret Bright Lucas presiding, and even then thousands, it was claimed, were turned away. Priscilla Bright McLaren chaired the main meeting and reminded her audience that they were present in a hall built “in the cause of freedom”. Jessie Craigen’s contribution came at the end of the meeting, when she roused the audience to new heights of enthusiasm, “sending forth a voice that pealed like a sonorous bell over the vast multitude … till every one had risen from their seats in one united burst of cheering”.

Subsequently, she became one of the attractions in a series of major demonstrations which was organised in each of the larger cities around the British Isles by Priscilla Bright McLaren and her friend, Alice Scatcherd.

Craigen was also associated with the beginnings of the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874, forming a women’s union among the jute-workers of Dundee which survived for several decades. She also helped organise opposition for the Contagious Diseases Acts among working-class women, and she remained active on animal rights until the end of her life.

Coming from a very different social backgrounds to many of the speakers and organisers she was associating with seems to have caused awkwardness; women like Craigen, who took payment for her lecturing, were generally looked down on and considered on the same terms as personal servants by the middle-class activists who dominated the suffrage movement. Class position was everything at the time, and the attempt of suffrage activists to break down barriers barring women from playing a part in public life did not mean that similar barriers for the working class were necessarily intended to also be challenged. Sandra Stanley Holton observes that Craigen “entered a movement formally committed to autonomy and self-realisation for women, yet met among some there with destructive expectations as to her own emotional and political subordination.” Her middle class allies found Craigen’s attitudes to money embarrassing – ie , they did not need to struggle to survive financially as she did – but her need for money also made her more dependent on wealthy backers. Her unconventional appearance led to her being increasingly seen as a liability by women who wanted their movement to present a more respectable and conventional face. 

The problems with her appearance reflect the superficial demand for a woman to present as attractive and well-dressed and to dismiss her if she does not conform to that – not exactly a dead dynamic today, but all-consuming in her era. Jessie Craigen was ‘unladylike’ – “large, ungainly, and, by the standards of many in the suffrage leadership, she dressed unsuitably. She was unrestrained in her expression of passions, both political and romantic.”

However, her undoubted abilities as a speaker and affinity with the ‘lower orders’ meant she was a valuable asset to the movement. The tension between these two perceptions of her led to what seems like farcical attempts to give her a makeover: certain of her middle-class sponsors attempted to spruce up her appearance, and it was to this end that she was kitted out in stately silk dresses and lavender kid gloves during her brief heyday as a suffrage speaker.” Others, however, felt that adopting these accoutrements would alienate the very plebs Craigen could appeal to,  making them feel she wasn’t like them (so presumably her shabby appearance should be encouraged? It’s difficult to know which group to feel greater contempt for here.)

In the early 1880s, Jessie Craigen was also heavily involved in the Ladies National Association, in the campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation which allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were also active in opposition to these laws, on the grounds that they in effect legalised prostitution under police control. The opposition was based on a blending of morality – prostitution was sinful and should not be condoned by the law – and concern for the women involved, as the Acts opened them up to abuse and exploitation by male policemen. Their campaign was ultimately successful, and the Acts were repealed after three years of operation. Its basis in moral superiority aside, the campaign was one of the fist widespread successful political campaigns organised by women in Britain.

In 1881-2 Craigen formed a romantic friendship with the feminist and suffragist Helen Taylor, the daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill and stepdaughter of liberal theorist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Taylor was heavily involved in the Irish Land League, often hosting Irish MP and activist Charles Parnell to her home, and she drew Craigen into this movement, to the point where Craigen dropped out of the suffrage movement for a while to work on Irish causes. Visiting Ireland, she in fact began to espouse more radical views on Irish freedom than Taylor, and the pair fell out (this seems to have been partly due to Taylor’s outrage that Craigen was thinking and acting independently from her influence…)

In the 1880s the women’s suffrage movement suffered splits and splintering of forces. Jessie Craigen was involved in fierce arguments as to whether married women should be included in the proposals for women to get the vote under the upcoming Reform Bill. More cautious and moderate elements suggested leaving married women out of any proposals; Craigen and other ‘radicals’ demanded married women not be excluded. Although with her involvement the radicals largely carried the day, in te end no women were enfranchised under the Reform Bill at all.

The movement’s failed to win any measure for women’s right to vote under the Third Reform Act of December 1884 led to a sharp decline in activity. Jesse Craigen’s position, as a paid agent speaker, became more difficult and she gradually faded from the women’s rights scene.

She continued to protest on behalf of other causes however, contributing an article to the Nineteenth Century Review against proposals to build a Channel Tunnel, and when speaking at an anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination demonstration in Chelsea, in April 1894, she was described (in the usual misogynist terms) as ‘a stout, elderly lady of dark complexion, with a stubby beard and a strong moustache…’  The mingling of  the anti-vaccination movement and animal rights sentiments here is interesting –progressive social views could also merge into quackery and anti-scientific hokum… However, of course, these days, such crossovers have died out. Oh wait…

The Local Government Act 1894 had created a system of urban and rural district councils, and had permitted women to be councillors. By this time Jessie Craigen was living in Ilford in East London. In December 1894, she stood as the only woman candidate in the election for Ilford Urban District Council, on behalf of the Women’s Liberal Association. She was unsuccessful, coming fourteenth out of seventeen candidates.

She died in her lodgings 2, Grove-villas, Ilford Lane, Ilford, Essex on 5 October 1899: local newspapers described her as a ‘well-known old maiden lady’ and ‘miser’, who had shared her house with fifteen dogs. Her obituary in the Zoophilist declared that “as a woman of the people, she exercised a great influence over the working classes… We shall miss her courageous and outspoken advocacy… her racy and eloquent speeches”.

Despite Jessie Craigen being a well-known figure in her time, no known photographs or even drawings of her survive; a reflection on her class background as much as her sex. Many lesser-known activists from more affluent backgrounds, and many more men, were recorded for posterity.
This lack of any pictorial record led illustrator Kate Taylor to do some sketches of how Jessie may have looked.

A point that Kate Taylor makes in her appreciation, “People who don’t fit a certain mold rarely make history books, no matter how much heavy lifting they do” is interesting and pertinent. Jessie Craigen spread the idea of women’s suffrage extremely effectively, to many people, using the skills and talents she had evolved; however, one undoubted aspects of the ethos of a large part of the ‘suffragist’ movement was a kind of cult of beauty. Great emphasis was placed in the art, imagery and pageantry of the movement on classically beautiful figures, expressing also a myth of feminine purity and radiance: mirrored by the vicious anti-suffragette propaganda which generally caricatured activists as ugly, overweight shrieking harpies with twisted features. Whether unconsciously influenced by the male depiction of them as ugly or not, much of the mainstream message of the suffrage movement was focussed on beauty. Jessie just didn’t fit the notions that many in the movement were trying to project, despite the attempts to pretty her up. She lived a bit too early for the later suffragette photo-art and tableau used in their printed propaganda – she probably wouldn’t have been allowed in. Were her unrespectable origins – part proletarian but even worse, part bohemian theatre (horror!) also a reason for her part in the movement herstory to be played down? Orthodox accounts of the movement, generally written after some women achieved the vote in 1918, barely mention her. Many of these also leave out or play down the importance of figures like Mary Wollstonecraft – too radical, in both her personal life and her revolutionary ideals, to fit in to the respectable image many in the suffrage movement wanted to build for feminism. Maybe, as Kate Taylor writes, they felt she “her “masculine” appearance gave critics evidence of what women would become if they gained the right to vote: unladylike, messy, unrestrained.”

Jessie Craigen’s name is recorded on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.

Sandra Stanley Holton’s essay on Jessie Craigen is well worth a read.

Today in London’s military history, 1759: army recruits mutiny on the Savoy barracks

As covered in earlier posts on this blog, part of the old Savoy Palace building  – built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames  – was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

Whether recruited into the British Army (either voluntarily or pressganged) or into the East India Company’s own private militia, many of those billeted in the Savoy – fodder for Britain’s constant wars of imperial expansion  – quickly came to regret signing up, and the barracks were the site of regular mutinies and revolts in the 18th century.

In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops:

“About eight o’clock in the evening, the recruits in the Savoy mutinied: a guard was sent to quell them, who as first were ordered to fire only with powder; the recruits returned the compliment by throwing brickbats, which knocked several of he soldiers down; they were then ordered to fire with ball, which wounded several of the recruits, and put a stop to the fray. But unhappily one Jones, belonging to the third regiment of foot guards, getting upon the leads of the prison to see the affair, and looking down, was taken for one of the prisoners by the sentinel, who immediately shot at him, and the ball went through his head, and killed him on the spot. Nine of the men were dangerously wounded, and eighteen more of the put in irons.” (Annual Register, 1759)

In 1761 over 200 (possibly military) prisoners held in the Savoy mutinied, and a considerable battle developed.
1763 saw a revolt by East India Company troops stationed here.

In 1776 there was another mutiny.

In 1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816-1820 for the construction of the approach to the new Waterloo Bridge.

 

 

Today in London striking herstory, 1995: Hillingdon Hospital cleaners strike against casualisation

‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’

The Hillingdon Hospital Strike began on October 1st, 1995 when 56 domestic and catering workers were sacked by private contractor Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.

The strike continued for five years.

On October 30, 2000, UNISON shop steward Malkiat Bilku led her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations, having also won maximum compensation for unfair dismissal.

The women were ‘outsourced’ in 1986. In September 1985 at the civic centre, the District Health Authority had voted to privatise the Hospital cleaning service, with the loss of 213 jobs.

Hillingdon was one of the first private contracts after St Helier, Hammersmith to be forced through by the Tory government.

This had not taken place without any resistance – for instance a One Day strike organised by COHSE and NUPE had taken at Hillingdon Hospital on 23rd May 1985, in protest at the hospital’s privatisation programme and in support of strikers at Barking hospital.

Hillingdon Hospital Management had put a vote to domestic staff – asked them either to lose their bonus or be privatised. The staff voted overwhelmingly against cutting their bonus.

After privatisation, some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital found themselves employed not directly by the NHS, but by private contractor ICC Hospital Services Ltd. ICC took over the contract from February 1st 1986.

A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ said Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.

In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.

Greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.

Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ said Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’

In May 1995, Pall Mall announced that they were bringing in multi-skilling, intended to cut wages by what amounted to £40 a week, and change working conditions.

The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.

The membership had voted for action, but the union officials did not call a strike, so the strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995.

The strikers had to battle with the trade union leaders for nine weeks to force them to make it official. UNISON organised a national demonstration on October 21, 1995 and Hillingdon strikers went along.

They fought to place themselves at the front of the march, as they were leading the fight in the NHS against the privateers, defying the stewards, who tried to physically remove them. At the rally in Kennington, the demonstration demanded that strike leader Malkiat Bilku be allowed to address them, which she did.

There were many demonstrations and marches that the strikers participated in. They organised two lobbies of the UNISON headquarters to demand their strike be made official. At one, where the NEC was meeting, the strikers occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.

Finally on November 17 1995, the UNISON Industrial Action Committee was forced to make the strike official. At the 1996 National Delegate Conference, a resolution was carried unanimously which said that the Hillingdon strike would be supported by the union until the remaining 53 strikers won their jobs back on their old terms and conditions.

But the trade union leaders resisted all calls for national action to win the Hillingdon struggle, while boasting that the strike had stopped Pall Mall cutting wages in their other NHS contracts. The irony being that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall had been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves.

The strike remained official until January 16, 1997, when UNISON declared that the strike was over and told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get and further, that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.

They did allow a ballot but, as far as they were concerned, the strike was over!

Everything was being rushed through as a general election was coming in May, and they wanted the struggle out of the way so as not to ‘embarrass’ Labour. However, the strikers rejected the offer, insisting that they would continue until they got their jobs back and the Industrial Tribunal must proceed as well.

On January 16, the strikers lobbied the UNISON head office again where they found two rows of police armed with batons guarding the door of the head office.

At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to fight back, continue their strike, and defy the UNISON leadership.
They would not return until they had won back their jobs, on the old terms and conditions.

A conference was called to announce their intention and in spite of the SWP and others, insisting that the strikers must accept the UNISON decision and call off their strike, the Conference overwhelmingly supported the strikers’ decision to continue their strike.

The strikers continued unofficially; they toured the country tirelessly for the next 18 months, winning huge support everywhere and raising enough money to pay £100 weekly strike pay to all the strikers.
They attended every demonstration and challenged Bickerstaffe and TUC General Secretary John Monks if they were there.

Just one month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of UNISON voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign – a donation which was stopped by the UNISON leadership. They also tried to stop other branches and districts making donations.

Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada – a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades – took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketting outside the hospital, and refusing them entry. The strikers were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued (despite racist taunts directed at them from passers-by).

On the second anniversary of their strike, on October 1st, 1997, 3,000 people marched through Uxbridge, to a rally, on a working day, with a number of trade union leaders and MPs speaking at the rally.

In January 1998, the strikers won their appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal by Pall Mall would now be heard.

Then at the UNISON conference in Bournemouth in 1998, in the last five minutes of the Conference, overcoming all the objections of Standing Orders and the attempt by the union’s bureaucracy to delay the resolution, the vast majority of the Conference voted for the emergency resolution which called to make the Hillingdon strike official again and restore their full membership.

The strike was once more back to being official, with national negotiations by the union to ‘ensure reinstatement’.

Then at their Employment Tribunal, Pall Mall admitted that they had wrongfully dismissed the hospital workers. Granada was left to meet the unfair dismissal claims.

The Tribunal ruled that the maximum compensation must be paid to all the strikers and that the employers should restore them back into their jobs at the hospital. Although this was carried, Granada did nothing. There were pickets of the Granada HQ to demand they take the workers back.

But Granada challenged the ruling and organised an appeal against this decision. Once again at the Employment Tribunal, Granada was defeated and the decision upheld. The strikers were paid maximum compensation and they also won the right to their jobs back at the hospital.

Every cynic said this would never happen but on October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, to the first day back at her job after five years. She was subsequently elected as UNISON shop steward.

In 2004, she stood for the leadership of UNISON challenging for the position of General Secretary and received 30,000 votes.

Today in London financial history, 1613: North London’s New River opens – the earliest PFI?

Water, Moral Economy and the New River

North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London.

Looking backwards, the development of piped water supplies, to replace wells and medieval conduits seems to us like an incontrovertibly progressive move. But not everyone was in favour at the time, especially those whose livelihoods were affected…

The digging of the New River subverted existing ‘moral economies’, which operated around water, its availability, and how it was delivered to where it was needed; undermining existing assumptions about the distribution of this vital resource, expectations shared by people from differing classes of society, with forms of exchange based on hard cash only. The New River’s creation was integral to the rise of capitalism, as it was then beginning to replace older forms of class relations – in fact how the river was financed was influential in that process.

But just as capitalism always finds ways to exploit natural resources, opening up markets and avenues for profit where none had previously existed, so the New River itself, and the shareholders’ dividends, were subverted, by locals who lived along its banks. Despite the New River Company’s determination to maintain control over its product – water – the new waterway was ‘unlawfully’ used during its whole existence, for the washing of clothes and bodies, for pleasure and as the centre of a disorderly social life.

…Nor any drop to drink…?

Water has always been a precious commodity, in London as everywhere else. For centuries, until the late Middle Ages, London had relied on supplies from the river Thames, smaller rivers like the Fleet or Walbrook, or from springs (of which a number could be found near to the City), or wells sunk into nearby areas of loam.

From the thirteenth century, as London began to grow rapidly in size and importance, these supplies became insufficient to support the increasing population and industry. Both the Thames and its main tributaries, especially the Fleet, running just to the west of the City wall, became also more and more polluted, since they served as both water supply AND drainage solution all in one. At any given point in the rivers, one lot of folk would be drawing water to drink, wash, clean, cook, while another would be emptying faces and urine, household waste, dead animal parts, blood, washing their clothes and themselves; there was also the dumping of refuse from ships in the Thames, run-off from the gutters in the streets… For centuries London authorities attempted (with varying success) to impose an effective control of this process, legislating as to what could be dumped, where, who was responsible for building toilets, regulating fines for littering the streets, polluting the streams, etc. In the fourteenth century the king, via the City officials, had issued a proclamation banning anyone from chucking rubbish, muck or human/animal waste into the Thames, the Fleet, and other City streams: “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river . . . and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people.”

That so many orders were issued and fines imposed suggests they were often flouted; it’s also true that people had little alternative but to discharge waste into the rivers. There was no separate sewage system – until the mid-19th century.

The Walbrook, a small river which ran through the centre of the City, was the object of repeated clean-up campaigns and laws against dumping. These regulations though were often contradictory. By the early fourteenth century, individual toilets were built all along its banks, the stream acting as a sewer. Around 1345, those people caught with such facilities were forced to remove them. But by 1374, the authorities recognised people’s right to install privies over the Walbrook – only they were forced to pay for the right to do so, and later, as long as they dumped no other refuse into it. Eventually, however, all latrines over the stream were again abolished.

The Walbrook gradually disappeared under London as it grew and grew: by the seventeenth century, the Walbrook was completely hidden underground.

The official solution was to cart all such pollutants out of the city (and dump it elsewhere?!) or to places where it would be put in “dung boats”. Rakers (medieval bin-men) and gong-fermers (who cleaned cess-pools and gutters) bore the brunt of this enriching work.

On top of this, for the Thames, and the Fleet in its lower reaches, those drawing water had to be careful to take it at the right time in the ebb and flow of the tide; otherwise water used for cooking, ale-making etc could be too salty. One medieval complainant recorded that “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt.”

Although the freedom of water had its place in moral ideology, (see below), there were always entrepreneurs ready to try it on for a quick buck. In 1343, residents living along the streets leading to the Thames tried to close the streets and extract a toll from everyone going to the river for water.

As a result of these issues, the Great Conduit was built (construction began in the mid-13th century). Pipes connected the spring at Tybourne with the Great Conduit House in Cheapside, from which the water flowed through pipes for a distance of a mile or more. At the terminus, the water was stored in a larger cistern equipped with cocks or taps for dispensing the water.

Later several other conduit systems were built, all fed by a natural spring, which supplied a cistern or tank, from which pipes were gradually dispersed the water to another conduit in the city.

Free as Conduit Water

These water conduits, so important to daily life before piped water, had become practically and symbolically central to the areas in which they were situated. They were places people had to go to, especially the poor, who could obtain no private water supply. They became centres of gossip, rumour, meeting points, where collective feeling and strength could become action and protest and riot could arise. A neighbourhood’s common interest was expressed here – collective sanctions against local ‘offenders’, petty crims and moral transgressors were often enacted around the conduit. The importance of water made the conduits representative of the moral economy of a neighbourhood. On top of this, water itself was subject to moral community constraints – it was seen as something that should be freely available: “free as conduit water” was a popular expression. Like bread, it was viewed as an essential; collective opposition to its commercial exploitation was common, and from this came regular direct action to maintain everyone’s recognised right to access to it.

They were also resorts of the young (especially young apprentices) and of women, as carrying water was seen their work. Apprentices resented being forced to carry water; but apprentice culture also built initiation rituals and bonding, mythology around the conduit. Women also clearly found conduits to be places to meet each other, discuss and maybe find common cause; Mark Jenner suggests this represented an alternative power centre maybe in some way, though counter to that, you’d have thought any piped water supply in their home would probably have made their work easier – if only in terms of less carrying to and fro. It has been claimed, though, that the increase in piped water supplies changed the nature of women’s work… piped water led to higher expectations of domestic cleanliness, which would have had a knock on effect on women’s domestic work. (A thorny question, to be sure; one contemporary feminist critic – this writer’s other half – ridicules the idea that lugging water from a tap in the street, no matter how many other women you might meet there, is in any way empowering. However… what makes actual work lighter can change the socialising rituals associated with traditional ways of doing that work… Obvious improvements can sometimes lead to, for instance, an isolation emerging from having a washing machine in your home, where the communal laundry might have meant meeting others, getting to know people, discussing, looking out for each other, and so on…)

The conduits became places with their own ritual – their inspection by city officials became heavily ritualised and potent. Punishments for various crimes were also often carried out near to conduits, and they were used as landmarks for giving directions, orienting you in the City.

Cockney ****in’ Tankards

Water was provided to individual households by water-carriers, sometimes known as “cobs,” which were paid to deliver water from the river or from conduits to customers. Some hawked water through the streets, in a large tankard on their shoulders; others would lug two 3-gallon wooden tubs hung from a yoke over their shoulders. The London tankard bearers or water carriers were an organised force, a fraternity who had their own guildhall in the 1490s, though they had to sell it in 1560 when the fraternity split between freemen and non-freemen. The ‘cobs’ campaigned actively around access to water and their right to carry it… sometimes using violence to maintain their rights, as they saw them, but rooting this firmly in an accepted moral framework.

Around 1600, a water bearers’ petition to Parliament reckoned the number of them and their dependents at 4000.

The petition called the authorities’ attention to some of the failings of the conduit system:

“. . . most of the water is taken, and kept from the said conduits in London by many private branches and cockes, and laid into private dwellings, being suffered also to runne at waste, to the general grievance of citizens, and all others repairing to the same…”

The water bearers complained of a number of specific cases of illicit connection to the conduits, which not only made the supply scarce but also deprived the cobs of part of their traditional livelihood. Apparently water scarcity at the conduits was leading to disputes between the carriers, jostling to fill their tankards before others in the queue:

“At the conduit striving for their turn_              
The quarrel it grows great_        
That up in arms they are at last_              
And one another beat.”

Where There’s a Quill…

The wealthy could obviously get around the hassle of collecting water from conduits (apart from the fact that they’d send their servants!). By the sixteenth Century those who could afford it usually paid water bearers to collect it for them – those who didn’t have their own wells could often pay to have a private pipe or ‘quill’ branched off the supplies to the City conduits. These big users would however often be targeted at times of water shortage, accused of hogging the flow of water or wasting it on frivolous pastimes… Private quills could be cut off by City officials, due to moral pressure exerted by the lower orders.

Beyond the class distinctions that caused obvious resentment, commercial and industrial users of water were also accused of misuse, or overuse, of the precious liquid… After much dispute, the City authorities decided to enforce peace at the taps, by appointing keepers of the conduits, whose main duty was to guard against water being hogged by commercial interests. In the early fourteenth century, an order was issued making brewers, cooks, and fishmongers pay for the water they used, at the discretion of the keeper of the conduit. (This presumably was a classic recipe for bribery, but there you go).

If the rich could, largely (though not always) legally, obtain an authorised quill, having running water piped direct to your home was so desirable that Londoners illegally tapped the conduits. In 1478, a man was brought before city officials and charged with having diverting water from a conduit where it passed his house into his private well. He was found guilty, and the nature of his punishment reflects the moral constraints on water use, which were expressed partly in the legal code, as well as informally. The culprit was “placed on horseback, with a vessel shaped like a conduit on his head. At each of the city’s conduits he was required to proclaim his crime while water from the vessel dripped over his face.”

…There’s A Riot

In 1547, during a time of water supply problems, two girdlers were imprisoned for gathering a crowd at the Cheapside Standard and issuing seditious words on the subject of water and how it was distributed. In 1561, an alleged plot by young men and water bearers to start a water riot, aimed at the destruction of the private quill of Lord Paget, which was popularly believed to have caused the Fleet Street conduit, to which it was connected, to dry up. The riot was prevented by local aldermen (the City of London councillors).

Gradually the moral economy around water distribution was eclipsed by new waterworks. The way these works were dreamt up and financed reflected the growth of capitalism and industrial development in sixteenth century England; technical innovation driven by increased need, population and industrial growth, combined with private finance and investment, in a manner relatively new to London.

As London’s size and population expanded, the city authorities grew more and more worried about how to balance the demand for water with its supply. But even more than today, the expense of beginning on large public works projects was huge, and they were reluctant to commit to such cost and effort. However, they were more amenable to allowing private individuals who were interested in making a profit to take the risk. “Capitalism had arrived in the water supply business.”

In 1574, Dutch hydraulics engineer Peter Morice was granted a lease of the northernmost arch of London Bridge, where he placed a water-wheel, designed to raise water, which was then pumped uphill to nearby parts of the City. The city’s water carriers complained about the scheme, which obviously affected their trade. The wheels also faced early design problems, but gradually became more effective, and Morice was granted a lease on two further arches. Water was lifted to the conduit house in Leadenhall Street, by 1582, then Old Fish Street, and other areas of the city. The wheels could turn both ways (to work with the ebb or flow of the tide), and supplied up to 52 pumps, forcing anything up to 132,120 gallons an hour to a height of 120 feet. Later a competitor called Bevis Bulmer set up a pump engine at ‘Bygot House” (roughly where the Millennium Bridge is now).

An artists impression of one of the water wheels that operated under the arches of London Bridge

Even these hugely innovative (and very profitable) developments were increasingly inadequate for London’s demand for water, however. Hence the New River.

Cash Flow

The New River was built by Hugh Myddleton & Partners, begun in 1609, and finished in 1613. It brought water from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire, to reception ponds in Islington, from where it was piped into the City. The Company had difficulty in getting investors to support them; many thought it a bad risk financially. Various landowners along the route of the River also opposed the river being cut through their property. This opposition actually stalled the progress of the river for two years between 1610 and 1612.

King James I at New River Head – coming to check on his investments…

However, after an approach from Myddleton, king James I bought a half-share in the Company (and any prospective profits), which influenced other potential investors, cowed any prospective complainants (after all, who wanted to take on the king?). James also leaned on Londoners, backing up the New River Company’s slightly heavy-handed approach to increasing income: “attempts were made to put pressure on the citizenry to take New River water; and a letter was sent to the city asking the corporation to use its authority to require compulsory purchase of the new water supply”!) Even then, it took twenty years for the number of Londoners connected rose high enough to make a profit for the Company.

By 1638 the New River was supplying 10 per cent of water to houses in the City of London’s jurisdiction. Customers paid a yearly rent for access to water, £1 a year in 1629. This was, however, beyond the means of many even middle-income households.

But by the end of the 17th Century many people were purchasing water from new capitalist water companies… this had arisen during the century as demand increased. Hugh Myddleton’s Company rose to become an important economic force in London. In 1695, the three companies with largest capital were the East India Company (the world’s first multi-national), the Bank of England, and the New River Company. The New River Company existed as a private utility until 1904, when the whole of London’s water supply passed to the Metropolitan Water Board. But the Company continues to exist as a property company, managing its considerable land holdings.

“poor men and women that used to get their Bread”

These innovations didn’t go down well with water bearers. The Mayor and the Lord Chancellor had assured them they would still have plenty of work, but in 1592 they were said to be ‘unruly’, protesting their poverty and lack of work. In 1621 the Water bearers complained again to City officials, this time about the New River, after there was a shortage of water at the City conduits.

On Midsummer Day 1654, water bearers of the ward of St Leonard Eastcheap conducted a mock funeral to mourn the absence of water at the conduits.

They were still agitating in 1682: a petition was sent to aldermen about neglect of the conduits. In the same year “poor men and women that used to get their Bread” as water carriers were described as destitute. Clearly they were losing the battle: piped supplies were taking over and the conduits were being run down. A financially stretched City had totally privatised water supplies and resources for five miles around London. In 1693 the City leased ponds and springs at Hampstead, Hornsey and St Pancras to a consortium. The following year ponds in Dalston, Marylebone and Paddington were leased.

In 1698 tankard bearers of St Giles Cripplegate petitioned the water should be restored to the Conduits. But the conduits were on their way out. In 1730 many were demolished as a nuisance and obstruction, probably to allow building and expansion of the highways, but perhaps also to prevent undesirables gathering there (see below).

Many people, however, even some of those who could afford to buy from the New River Company, refused to do so; the old conduit system and paying water bearers to carry water had been strongly linked to charity and vertical social bonds of cohesion. Many bearers were ex-servants, charity cases, the disabled, the very poor; water carrying was in some ways a ‘make work’ scheme, a complex mix of charity and moral obligation. The idea of a water conduit was even used as a symbol for charity in literature. Taking New River water meant severing these bonds, and even many middle class householders were reluctant to do this; not just because of the unruly water bearers, but because they genuinely felt it was breaking with a tradition worth maintaining. In the early years, under pressure from this morality, Myddleton’s Company had to set up standpipes in the street for water bearers to use.

But for many people, in the City and surrounding areas, piped supplies were still totally out of the question due to poverty. The moral economy of the water supply survived into the 1820s; sympathy to water carriers and preference for carried water as against piped supply was grounded in notions of a communality, in which the conduits had become symbolic social symbols.

As the tankard bearers died out, the rituals of conduit culture were taken over by other groups – the spaces they had occupied were colonised by other collectives. For example, by the 18th Century, the Conduit of upper Cheapside had become the haunt of chimney sweeps. This was partly because it was a good place to tout for business, but also a symbolic reversal. The sweeps had overturned the milkmaids old rituals for Mayday and taken them over in an ironic reversal of cleanliness, ruralness and purity associated with milkmaids to ‘filthy urban waste’; placing themselves next to the ‘cleansing waters’ may have been a similar ironic move.

‘Very little prejudicial to navigation”

The New River also managed to alienate the users of another water course – the nearby River Lea. By 1619, the year of the Company’s incorporation, the number of tenants had increased to over 1,000 and the water provided by the springs was insufficient. It was decided to tap the Lea by diverting part of its water into the New River. A dam was built for the purpose in the Lea. But the Lea was an important waterway for trade goods to reach to London, and from the Thames inland to Essex, Hertfordshire and even further. The river bargemen were understandably upset, and they had a long history of fighting for their rights, often violently. Claiming the dam was an obstruction, but also that the Lea’s water-level had dropped as a result, making navigating it harder, they protested by removing these dams; they were however quickly rebuilt. This dispute though rumbled on for decades; around 1667 another dam between Hertford and Ware erected to divert water into the New River was sabotaged by bargemen. In 1670 the king appointed a committee (which included architect and city planner Christopher Wren) to look into the matter and make a final ruling. This proved a knotty problem, as the Lea barge trade kept food and beer prices in London low by bringing corn and malt in from surrounding counties (and had in fact braved the recent 1665 plague to keep the ailing citizens fed); bit the New River’s water supply was also now indispensable.

In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, this committee came down firmly on the fence, on the one hand claiming their investigations had ascertained that “the pipes drain off from the navigable river (Lea) about one part of thirty parts, which seems to us very little prejudicial to navigation and which could not abate the river half an inch”, but also recommending that two jetties (instead of a dam) be built to divert water, and the Company’s pipes be reduced in size. But this pleased neither side. It may have been that the bargemen were also backed by the powerful London brewers, who relied on their cheap malt supplies, and probably had grudges against the New River Company over the amount they were charged for their water… (This dispute was actually still being debated sixty years later).

In fact, the Committee identified the culprits for the problems of navigating the Lea as being local millers who had deepened their cuts to take more water out of the Lea than they needed, and would charge to let some of this water back into the river when there were complaints about the level.

“Every stream had its mills, most commonly for grinding corn but also for fulling cloth, or in more highly industrialised areas than the Lee for tilt-hammers and for operating the bellows of blast furnaces. A artificial cut was made from the river to bring the water to a water-wheel, and in an effort to ensure an adequate supply of water at all times, the mill owner usually built a weir across the river to hold back the water and form what amounted to an artificial reservoir.

The centre of the weir was made of planks held in place by beams, which could in theory be removed when a boat needed to pass, in practice the miller was reluctant to remove the barrier and so lose his precious water, especially in times of drought. Rather than planks, some weirs had a single pair of swinging gates or one vertical one; they were known as staunches or flash-locks.

Weirs obviously constituted a barrier to free navigation but they could also confer benefits. In its natural state a river passes through alternate shallow rapids and deep quiet pools in high summer these shallows provide insufficient water to float a barge. It is just at these places that mills were usually built because they gave the sharp fall necessary for the working of the wheels. The mill weir which held back the water and forced it into the leat leading to the wheel also deepened the water upstream for some distance which was helpful to navigation. When a barge approached from below, if the miller felt so inclined he could open the weir and let a rush of water through sufficient to float the boat over the shallows. This was termed a “shoot” or “flash” for which the watermen paid the miller a fee.

It is not surprising that a continuous war was fought between the fishery owners and millers, and the watermen who required an unimpeded passage.” (The Navigation of the River Lee, (1190 – 1790), J.G.L.Burnby and M.Parker, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society Occasional Paper New Series No. 36, which recounts several centuries of disputes around navigation and other water uses in the Lea, including much trouble with the New River Company.)

Snow Justice

Of course, looking backwards, piped water supplies were a step forward in terms of public health. But until the nineteenth century, most of London’s working classes and poor were never able to afford a piped connection, and many continued to use conduits out of necessity. In the days before a proper sewerage system this could lay people open to all sorts of water-born diseases, as John Snow found, when he identified the Broad Street conduit, polluted by a local cesspit, to be the origin of a cholera outbreak in 1854 (as well as his comparative study, the year after, of cholera instances in London areas which took some of their water supply from the Thames, and those that moved away from this, which was in many ways more influential in the long term). This discovery not only helped develop understanding of cholera as a disease spread by contaminated water, not miasmas or bad air, but was also pioneering in how statistics and mapping were used to nail down the outbreak’s centre, and was massively influential in the growth of public health and the birth of the science of epidemiology.

Ironically medical journal The Lancet was a major force in doctors’ reaction against these discoveries, initially ridiculing Snow’s findings. Founding editor Thomas Wakley, in many ways a progressive and pioneering doctor (as well as being a radical MP and a supporter of Chartism) thought Snow was obstructing his attempts to clean up foul-smelling industries and improve London’s health. Wakley shared the general belief in miasmas as the cause of cholera and other diseases, and he denounced Snow and questioned his findings as non-scientific. In time Snow was vindicated. The Lancet in fact published such nonsense in its attempt to undermine Snow, and such a curt and ungenerous obituary when he died, prematurely, in 1858, that it had to belatedly apologise.
Very belatedly.
In April 2013 in fact!

Something In the Water

Piped water supplies may have gradually become more acceptable socially, but age-old fears about the vulnerability of settlements and their water supplies persisted. Poisoning the wells was a charge levelled successively at Jews, nobles, foreigners of all descriptions in times of crisis, especially in the late Middle Ages, times of upheaval, social change, war… Piped water supplies in some ways concentrated this fear on new areas of threat. The New River’s importance in London’s growth and daily existence focussed some of this sense of vulnerability.

Possible threats to the water supply led to rumour, paranoia, and often official panic. Rumours spread that Catholic agitators (the major bogeymen of English society for a couple of centuries) had secretly turned off the stopcocks on the New River, just before the 1666 Great Fire. This was only one of the many allegations about the starting and spreading of the Fire: both Catholics and Dutch protestant immigrants were variously blamed, and victimised, at the time, and to this day the Monument to the Fire still displays the sign blaming it all on the papists. And during the (in origin anti-catholic, though subsequently generally anti-establishment) Gordon Riots in 1780, the military was ordered to protect the New River and London Bridge waterworks after rumours that those damn papists were at it again and planned to sabotage the supply. Troops were stationed at New River Head, at Highbury Frame (the embankment built in Highbury to carry the River across a dip in the land: roughly it ran in an arc from the junction of Somerfield Road and Queens Drive, to the junction of Riversdale Road and Wyatt Road, and was know locally as the ‘Boarded River’), and Bush Hill Frame (in Enfield, where the River crosses Salmon Brook).

But alternatively, there was a contemporary claim that Gordon rioters, not catholics, tried to cut off water supplies from the New River: “… in the midst of horror and confusion, there was an attempt to prevent the extinction of the flames by cutting off the water of the New River…”
(Lord Loughborough’s Charge to the Grand Jury in trials of Gordon Rioters, 10th July 1780, Session House, St Margaret’s Hill.)

According to a report in the Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 55, 1851, “a panic has sometimes been occasioned by a report that the New River was poisoned, as it happened during the excitement occasioned by Lord George Gordon’s riots; all the water was then for a short time red; this, on examination, was found to have arisen from a quantity of refuse madder, thrown in from a dye-house.”

In 1803, at a time of great fear of French invasion and/or radical revolution/uprising, “persons employed to supply the Metropolis with water… are mostly Irish and… have been heard to declare that in the case of invasion or insurrection they should… assist the enemies of this country by preventing the supply of water in cases of fire.”

[This kind of paranoia didn’t die out in the 19th Century: in the 1960s, sections of the media, especially in the US, became obsessed by the idea that subversives, terrorists or radical hippies could paralyse society by dumping loads of LSD in reservoirs, and that plans had even been made to do so… For some of the story behind this, it’s worth checking out this article.]

Cuttinge the bankes

Once established, the new River gradually became a part of the culture of the areas it passed through, in many ways, not all of them legit. The River’s wooden pipes fanned out from New River Head, across the fields and into the City and its outlying suburbs. For some distance the pipes ran on the surface, sometimes overhead. Tapping both these pipes, or digging channels from the River itself, to underhandedly supply your gaff with water for free was common. Similarly, at a time when most houses, especially those of the lower classes, had no water supply of their own, washing both yourself and your clothes in the River was an obvious solution – it was right there, after all, open to be used. The old moral economy, of water as a free right that belonged to all, revived, and people took free advantage.

“(There are) many abuses and misdemeanors daylie committed and onn in and upon said river (“New River”), by lewde and ill-disposed people, in cuttinge the bankes and letting out the said water, to the inconvenience and prejudice of tennantes, casting in dogges and filth, and lettinge in sewers and other fowle and unclean water, to the annoyance of the said water; breakeinge and carreinge away the bridges, vaultes and rayles standinge in upon the river, taking and carryinge water out of the said river in lickquer cartes, tubbs or barrells, and stealing branches and cockes from the pipes, together with many such abuses and annoyances . . “.

It’s uncertain from the above complaint how much of this was people lifting water for their own use, and how much was vandalism, or using the New River as they had the old London rivers – partly as supply and partly as a sewer.

“Persons Trespassing By Bathing”

But another area of conflict between the River’s owners and its immediate neighbours in pre-suburban North London was its popularity for free and disreputable pleasure-time. Swimming in the River was popular, and associated with not only rowdy picnics but a spot of al fresco sex as well.

A watch-house on the New River, built to house the New River Company’s private security guards hired to deter skinny-dippers… Still standing today.

Already a year after its opening, the New River Company had to pay two labourers to keep swimmers – and dogs! – out during the Whitsun holidays. In 1728, the schoolmaster at Enfield, Mr Davies, was warned to stop his Boarding School pupils from bathing in the River, being warned that “Sundry persons have been lately committed to the New Prison for the same.” By 1770, despite the many notice boards “affixed to posts on different parts of the River about Islington… to prevent persons trespassing by Bathing, or otherwise…”, unofficial use of the river had grown to such proportions that the following proclamation was issued: “Whereas a great Number of idle and disorderly persons have assembled together in the Fields between Islington and Newington and parts adjacent and have by bathing and washing themselves in the New River broke down the banks and done other damages to the said river and have also in a most atrocious and indecent and illegal Manner committed many other offences highly injurious to the property of the Company and to the Public in General. This is therefore to give Notice that the said Company are determined to prosecute with the utmost Severity of the Law, all such persons who for the future shall be found so offending.”

A 40-shilling reward was offered for reporting of those caught and charged, and occasional bathers were nicked, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the skinny-dipping, as eleven years later an advert was inserted three times on the front of the Daily Advertiser, offering rewards for dobbing in offenders, and the fee had risen to £2. The Company claimed that bathers were destroying the banks, widening the river to a dirty lake in parts, and disturbing the riverbed, polluting the water.

Bathing was common not only in the River itself but in the reservoirs and ponds it fed. In 1783, householders near Battle Bridge (modern Kings Cross), whose houses were fed by the West Pond at New River Head, above Amwell Street, complained that their water was running “thick and unclean” which they blamed on the large numbers using the Pond as an open air bath. In response the Company Board ordered a brick wall built around the pond. On the section of the River behind the Angel, between Colebrooke Row and Duncan Terrace, the respectable folk living by its banks threatened to sue the Company if the didn’t do something about “a set of Worthless Rascals who are always, especially on Sunday, Washing their nasty rotten Hides in the New River Water near the City Road… a great abominable shame for a rich Company to suffer such indecency.”

“Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency”

The final insult seems to have been the flaunting of nakedness, especially in open view of nice middle class homes. In 1809, John Tyre of Islington was had up at the Middlesex Sessions at Hicks Hall (the old County Court in St John Street, Clerkenwell, itself located close to New River Head); after having gone bathing in the New River, he had allegedly gone for a run, naked, across Highbury Fields, in front of the ultra-posh houses in Highbury Place. He was found guilty of Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency – and sentenced to two months in Newgate Prison.

Such stiff sentences did little to curb the enthusiasm for bathing in the river, though, as in 1830 a report claimed that 800-1000 people were using the river to bathe or swim in every summer. Long term, the only way to reduce the endemic bathing problem was for the Company to supply water free to new public Baths, and to imprison the water in pipes and re-route it underground in places. The River was also fenced in severely in some places. Illegal angling was also a problem: the fishing rights for the whole length of the River were retained by the Company, who granted permits to landowners and the local worthies; however poaching of fish by undesirables was widespread.

This article is greatly indebted to From Conduit Community to Commercial Network: Water In London, by Mark Jenner, in Londonopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London.

 

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LETS DIG UP THE NEW RIVER

Since the nineteenth century, large sections of the New River have gradually been re-routed underground, covered over by the growth of suburban streets. Much of its length is still open, and can be walked… Much more flows through pipes, or even runs above ground but is fenced off. The author of this pamphlet lives on one such stretch, where the River runs beneath a green pathway down the middle of the wide street. In my neighbourhood, the river dives and resurfaces, flitting between a secret conduit and a landscaped narrow green promenade.

Capitalism, a powerful engine driving England’s developing industrial society, played a big part in the development of the New River. Without a doubt the risks taken by capitalists objectively allowed some of London’s most important and useful features to be built. Others were built despite capital and property interests, pushed through by enlightened or foresighted local authorities, or philanthropists and private charitable institutions. Undeniable social progress, over the last few centuries, came about for a myriad web of reasons, including the drive for profit, genuine ideologies of humanitarianism and compassion, or of political conviction of the rights of working people, or a fear of the potential of the poor rising in revolt.

But capital’s needs, the drive for profit, can only produce social progress as long as it’s profitable, as long as it coincides with hard cash… It’s also easy to see how we have benefitted from some developments, long term; but for the people who lived through the actual ‘progressing’ sometimes it made their lives rapidly worse – witness the water bearers in the New River story, but on a wider scale, the industrial Revolution in England was instrumental in the destruction of myriad ways of life, forced people into factories, or workhouses, drove down life expectancy for decades, and robbed working people of security and all the fruits of their labour bar a pittance. Progress in Britain also came at the expense of mass slavery for Africans, pillage and plunder of resources all over the world, the near-destruction of whole races and species of animals. We have to go beyond ‘progress’ based on wealth and profits, to a world where all of us have free access to resources, more than just to survive, but to flourish and prosper. All of life ‘free as conduit water.”

At past tense we have long floated and battled the rapids, as part of currents that saw the possibility of a post-capitalist existence… We have long fought the forces that push all of us towards dealing only with each other through money, competition, getting ahead, the forces that rob us of our time and pay us a grudging fraction of what we earn for them… Against that we build human relations, the needs of people, our creativity, the potential we have to live totally differently to the daily grind.

But a change in society to us doesn’t just mean a bland change in economic relations; we also dream of altering the physical space around us – for use, yes, but also for beauty. The places we live, the space we inhabit, the environments around us where we work and play, are there to transform. We love to walk the banks of the canal from Limehouse to Brentford, the banks of the smaller streams that feed the Thames, the Thames banks themselves. For decades we’ve watched these banks transformed, to some extent opened for all to wander, but lined also with the increasing developments designed overwhelmingly for the rich. We walk the Thames now, yes, from Deptford to London Bridge, but at the sufferance and under the eye of the yuppie towers and ever-multiplying high-rise penthouse playgrounds. It seems a city increasingly beyond our control, rented to us part-time at extortionate rates – because they need us to run the place, make it work; but more and more they see us like the rats that carried the plague.

All this we want to change – all of existence should be free, creative, shared and open to all… Not hipster bars by trendy New Riversides, fake edge for rich kids playing at living in Hackney (until they can turn it into another reprint of whatever suburb they crawled out of)… but a freely running stream for freely dancing folk.

It’s not just landscaped paths we want… wildness is being bred out of the city, green spaces being built on unless they’re protected, or fought for… But the half-wildernesses and empty spaces, demolished buildings left to tumble, the Bricklayers Arms or Beckton after they were knocked down, and before the new estates, were claimed by people and opened up as unofficial playgrounds… In some ways this made for wilder and more fun spaces. The banks of South London’s Wandle, for instance, were more fun to wander when the path was half-wild, half overgrown factories falling down, part-reclaimed by weeds, parts where you had to scramble and trespass. The ordered council walks are probably better for baby-buggies though, and open space is a playground for dodgier elements too, who have to co-exist with kids… So it’s a toss-up, always, a negotiation about who gets to use space, who it’s for… It’s hard to consensus use of space.

We would like to see the New River open throughout its length, not only dug up, but navigable. We desire to drift by dinghy or home made raft, from Wood Green to Angel, stop off and picnic drink by its banks, run naked through Highbury like John Tyre, go skinny-dipping where the River crosses Salmon Brook.

Obviously for this to happen would means the re-instating of the River at points where roads now run… In some places where gardens or allotments grow… Some people living and working, growing there might object. Perhaps the New New River we foresee would only some about in a radically different North London, where roads and cars would be less important, in a social system where work could be transformed too, where time wasn’t driving us always to some other place for the purposes of earning enough to get by… Some of us have wandered almost every mile of the rivers of London, those on the surface and those stretches lost or buried. For some reason waters and waterways call to us, pull us along their ever-onward meandering. Maybe its cause we’re two-thirds water ourselves; though ways that are lost always have a special urge for some humans. For years a vision of a new London, teeming with canals and opened up lost rivers, new waterways and other paths, has haunted us. Snatches of the New River have been part of the inspiration for this – the stretch from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, or … You can walk there, and think: London should be filled with paths like this, in every area there should be hidden paths and secret ways, dark water and willows barely weeping, kids fishing for the one fat carp that has ate the rest. They are in some ways an answer and a rebuttal of the ever-growing M25-ising of the city, as interesting and alternative space is ironed out, everything that is not for profit is slowly dried out and drained of its moisture. We have fought that process for years, a war that continues. Currently we’re losing.

Beyond that, we have stood on Holborn Viaduct and day-dreamt a Fleet river estuary re-flooded, with boats wandering up as far as the Apple Tree pub, to share a pint with some Mount Pleasant postal-workers. Or going further – the streets of the City flooded for ever, with the banks and transnational corporations long fled, new canals linking their abandoned sky-scrapers, squatted and turned into vertical playgrounds for kids (whole floors hollowed out for adventure slides and zip-wires), allotments on the 33rd floor of the Gherkin, open to the wind and weather. All of London one vast waterway, not even as stinking as Venice in the Summer (OK, so we’ll have some gong-ferming to do). The new waterways in fact could be the arteries and veins of new social networks.

But if this vision seems a long way off, remember the thousands who always reclaimed the New River in defiance of the Company. Who says we can’t dig up the hidden stretches ourselves, even if no great social change seems like it’s round the corner? Gates are there to be opened and fences climbed…

 

 

Today in radical history, 1982: a day of action during the Nurses’ Strike

‘Nurses Are Worth More’: The 1982 Health Workers’ Dispute

An account by Dale Evans, NHS worker

The 1982 pay dispute was the largest strike in the history of the NHS and greatest show of solidarity across the trade union movement since the 1926 General Strike. Unfortunately this complex and often contradictory dispute that coincided with the Falklands/Malvinas War has been forgotten. Historians of trade unionism and the Thatcher era have not recorded it. This is not hard to understand, after all nurses and other women health workers rarely count in the arena of male dominated trade unionism; their disputes – because they lack ‘industrial muscle’ are hardly noticed. But the 1982 health service pay dispute is a great story. It was a strike that involved the workforce of the single largest employer in the whole of Europe, lasted for several months, challenged new anti-trade union legislation, gained enormous public support, received solidarity action from across the trade union movement and was the largest pay dispute of the Thatcher era.

Background to the 1982 dispute

From the beginning of the NHS in 1948 nurses’ pay was regularly falling behind comparable occupations in other sectors. Nurses found themselves campaigning to catch up as their salaries were eroded by government policies on wage restraint and post war price inflation. In 1974 the Halsbury enquiry into nurses’ pay awarded them increases of between 20 and 40 per cent. The severe inflationary period of the 1970s quickly undermined the gains of 1974 and a further enquiry – the Clegg commission of 1979 – awarded nurses 9% plus additional payments. The new Tory government of 1979 implemented the Clegg awards. However, by 1982 continuing inflation and limited public sector pay increases had left the nurses’ pay lagging behind again.

There were other paternalistic and structural reasons for successive governments not taking the remuneration of nurses seriously. Nursing was overwhelmingly staffed by women and nursing was viewed as an extension of caring for a family, that is not a professional occupation. Nurses’ pay was viewed as secondary income for families where the main income was provided by men. However nearly one third of nurses were single, and in places where the economic recession of the early 1980s hit hardest nurses became the main family wage earner. The NHS policy making mechanisms were dominated by doctors and their interests came first. On a structural level the NHS was expanding. Between 1976 and 1983 the number of nurses increased by 16% to nearly 400,000. At the same time the hours worked by nurses also decreased hence increasing the overall wage bill. In 1950 they worked 48 hours per week, by 1982 this had been reduced to 371/2. Successive governments fought to contain the costs of the NHS by restricting pay increases to nurses and other non-medical employees in the NHS, by far the largest section of the NHS workforce. By 1974-75, nurses real income had increased by only 9% since the beginning of the NHS. From this peak the real value of nurses went into decline and by 1982 had decreased by 18% since the mid-1970s.

In order to redress the decline in pay for nurses and low pay for other NHS workers the unions argued for a 12% increase across the board for the 1982 pay round. However, the Tory government had already announced that public sector pay increases would be limited to 4%, but by March Norman Fowler, the Secretary of State for Social Services, issued a statement that more money was available for nurses, midwives, and the allied health professions (radiographers and physiotherapists etc.) and that an offer in the region of 6% would be made. All other non-medical staff (that is porters, cleaners, ambulance personnel, clerical staff) were to receive the 4%. To what was an obvious provocation, the health service unions had to respond.

Beginnings of the Dispute

The trade unions responded to the offer with derision; one NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) official denounced the offer as an ‘unacceptable prescription which will do nothing to alleviate the problem of low pay affecting thousands of health service workers’.

In 1981 health service trade unions affiliated to the TUC had formed the TUC health services committee under the chair of Alan Spanswick from the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE). The 1982 date for the pay round was April 1; for the first time in NHS all staff except doctors were to receive their annual pay increase from the same date. This gave the unions an organisational advantage in being able to organise and negotiate for all employees on the same basis from the same date. The unions believed that their claim of 12% for all NHS staff was reasonable. The rejection of this claim by the government quickly led to industrial action by the TUC affiliated unions.

All the unions were conscious of the fact that public support for their campaign was paramount; they had no wish to alienate the public as they believed the public workers’ dispute had done in 1979’s ‘winter of discontent.’ Although an all out strike was discussed most action in the course of the dispute consisted of work stoppages by nurses and nursing auxiliaries, porters, cleaners and other staff that would not endanger patients. This was the course taken by COHSE and NUPE and the other TUC unions. The first days of action took place in May. These actions were varied across the country. In some places the NHS only offered emergency services on these days, in other areas staff worked by only performing limited duties.

At a local level unions officials received support from other public sector workers. As the summer progressed the Scottish miners came out on strike in support of the day of action. By the end of June sympathy strikes had taken place with miners, shipyard workers, factory workers and staff from government and council offices all taking part. Examples of this solidarity action came from all over the UK. Shipyard workers joined a demonstration by health workers in Glasgow, 77 schools in Nottinghamshire were affected, swimming pools in Yorkshire were closed, stoppages occurred at some of the major power stations in Yorkshire, council workers in Hackney and Tottenham also took action. By July 750 hospitals had only emergency cover. In Wakefield 4 hospitals did not have any services at all on days of action. Further solidarity action saw seamen stop a ferry leaving Felixstowe for 2 days. All of this action was in breach of the 1980 Industrial Relations Act that outlawed secondary action by one group of workers in support of another. However in August the Electricians Union managed to stop the Fleet Street printing presses rolling with a 24 hour stoppage. Sean Geraghty, the shop steward involved. was fined £1300 for contempt of court after ignoring an injunction banning the stoppage. Hundreds of health workers demonstrated in his support on the day of his hearing.

In spite of the stoppages and inconvenience to patients the dispute was widely supported by the public who perceived that the nurses were being given a raw deal. Of course patient care was compromised as waiting lists soared and operations were cancelled but this did not undermine public support.

Divisions between the unions

Outside of the TUC affiliated health service unions were the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) who represented 180,000 nurses, and other smaller unions such as the midwives, health visitors and those representing the allied health professions. These organisations were also professional bodies as well as trade unions. As professional bodies they had a regulatory role over members, provided education, and set professional standards just as the BMA (British Medical Association), and the Royal Colleges do in medicine. For these reasons the RCN did not sit easily with trade unions affiliated with the TUC, COHSE and NUPE, which had 135,000 and 80,000 nurses in their membership respectively and were also the unions representing tens of thousands of other NHS workers. This split between TUC affiliated bodies and non-affiliated unions such as the RCN was to prove crucial in the conduct of the dispute, and its final resolution.

The RCN argued that because of the public support shown for the nurses’ cause it was not necessary to engage in industrial action. Indeed its president Trevor Clay later wrote:

‘The nurses had the high moral ground through balloting at a time when the government were lambasting other unions about their lack of balloting and unrepresentative activity.’

During the days of action members of the RCN worked normally, because strike action would have been in breach of its rules (Rule 12). The RCN had only become a trade union in 1977 and in 1979 its membership had rejected the opportunity to join the TUC. A debate in 1982 concerning amending Rule 12 came to nothing.

Throughout the dispute the RCN acted independently of the TUC health unions, often meeting ministers and engaging in talks without any acknowledgement of the need for greater unity. The RCN only paid lip service to supporting non-nursing NHS staff but made it apparent that it wanted a settlement whereby porters, clerical staff and nursing auxiliaries would receive a lower pay rise than qualified nurses. Unlike the TUC unions it was willing to support the government’s idea of establishing a permanent pay review body (PRB) for nurses that would be similar to that already set up for doctors. The PRB would annually compare nurses’ pay with other sectors of the economy and make recommendations to the government.

The RCN wanted to have its cake and eat it. Its President Trevor Clay genuinely believed that its position of no strike action and talking to the government whilst constantly balloting the membership of the RCN on various matters was the most productive way to settle the dispute. This of course allowed the government to split the campaign effectively into two camps, those for and those against industrial action. Norman Fowler’s statement to the House of Commons on 18 October 1982 clearly thanked the RCN for continuing to work and lambasted the TUC unions.

COHSE and NUPE felt that the RCN was only gaining advantages with the government because of the strength of their action. Without industrial conflict the RCN would not have been invited to the negotiating table. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of NUPE, diplomatically expressed the differences:

‘I think that the RCN line ….has been that whilst they are still talking there is still hope. I don’t wish to drive any more wedges between ourselves and the RCN. It’s fine to say that whilst we are talking there is still hope, but less people would be hurt if we all threw our weight behind the industrial campaign to get proper talks.’

For both COHSE and NUPE it was a matter of principle that all the health service workers received 12%. They had major concerns about low pay in the NHS that they felt the government should address. These unions had a different approach to striking. COHSE’s 1982 conference rejected an all-out indefinite strike and supported the call for extra days of action with emergency cover only. NUPE’s conference on the other hand voted in favour of an indefinite strike with only basic emergency cover. COHSE’s position was strongly influenced by the winter of discontent. After that the union had drawn up a code of conduct for disputes whereby its members were expected to provide emergency cover and ensure that the dignity and welfare of the patients is paramount. Both unions rejected the idea of the government’s PRB, as both unions believed in annual pay negotiations based on the principles of collective bargaining.

During the course of the dispute the RCN balloted its membership on two offers both of which were rejected by the membership. From the views of the membership its seems clear that the RCN wanted to extricate itself from the dispute as quickly as possible. The members of one RCN branch wrote to the Nursing Times:

We find it distasteful that you [Dame Catherine Hall, an RCN negotiator] held a press conference without first referring the detail of your discussions with the secretary of state to the RCN labour relations committee for a vote….There is no mention in your misrepresented statement of referral back to the membership.’

And another member complained

‘I have just received my RCN News. Cutting through the waffle it seems that the College is attempting to sell us out for an extra 11/2p in the pound.’

Such was the divergence of views that the RCN issued a leaflet in which it fully defended its position against the accusations levelled against it.

The government also exploited the split to argue that the TUC unions had a political agenda, that is that the strike was not about health service pay but was to undermine recent trade union legislation and re-establish the former power that the unions supposedly enjoyed. On the 21 September the Health Minister Kenneth Clarke said:

‘The TUC hopes to smash the cash limits of the National Health Service in order to end pay restraint in the public sector and prepare the way for bigger claims for miners and others this winter. They are taking secondary action in order to challenge the Government’s legislation and defend their old immunities above the law.’

This lack of unity and the government’s endorsement of the RCN’s position undermined the strength and purpose of the TUC unions after the largest day of action on 22 September.

22 September 1982

22 September saw a huge show of solidarity for the NHS dispute right across the country; an estimated 2.25 million people took part in one form or another. In London 120,000 demonstrated, Aberdeen 12,000, Edinburgh 10,000, Liverpool 20,000, Norwich 2,000, Derry 3,000 – and these were just some of the many demonstrations that took place all over the country. Strikes were evident in many hospitals with only emergency cover provided. Some ambulance crews walked out and refused to provide emergency cover.

Secondary support for health workers was also very significant, 80% of the mines were closed as were 43 of 65 docks. Fleet Street workers stopped the publication of the national newspapers and many local newspapers were disrupted as well. There was some disruption to television programmes broadcast by Granada and Ulster TV. Local government services were affected with many schools being closed for part of the day. Supporting strike action was also taken by car workers at Ford and Vauxhall, and Post Offices were closed.

This day was an undoubted success and was the high point of the whole dispute for the TUC unions. Such enthusiasm would be difficult to repeat and the time for indefinite strike action had passed. The RCN was still talking to the government and seeking a way to end the dispute. And the government, very much buoyed by it victory in the Falklands/Malvinas war, took a hard line, proclaiming that the day of action had changed nothing. As many nurses pointed out the government could always find money for wars but not for funding the health service.

The fact that this historic day of action had failed to move the government left the unions in a quandary: what to do next?

The end of the dispute

Attempts to organise further days of action petered out. The dispute dragged on with only a few local actions occurring. COHSE called a delegates’ conference for 14 December to discuss the possibility of an all-out strike. In reality the split in the nursing profession between the RCN and the TUC unions had undermined the possibility of further action. Most of the action had been carried out by the other health workers. As one participant commented:

There was considerable resentment among the ancillaries about the nurses. The press had gone on about the nurses this the nurses that. The cleaners knew that they had stayed solid for months. Most of the nurses had crossed the picket line time after time. The cleaners felt used’.

Many of the nurses did however recognise the contribution to the dispute by other NHS workers:

‘The ancillary workers are helping us by taking action, as well as themselves…

Nurses do not have the power to fight the government on their own, they need other workers’.

By December the RCN was effectively leading the dispute with most of the discussion centred on the establishing of the PRB, which the TUC unions still rejected. The government improved its offer to 12.3% for nurses over 2 years with 7.5% to be received in the current year, and the promise of a pay review body for 1984. The RCN put the offer to its members, 80% of whom accepted. NUPE and COHSE tried to scupper the deal by recommending to its members 6.5% for the coming year without any conditions for future years. The membership rejected this. NUPE and COHSE also found themselves outvoted in the TUC health services committee where each member (14 in all) had one vote even though NUPE and COHSE represented the majority of health service workers between them. Furthermore the RCN and the other professional bodies such as the Royal College of Midwives had a slender majority on the national negotiating committee, the Whitley Council. NUPE and COHSE had been effectively outmanoeuvred. Ancillary staff received a 10.5 % deal over 2 years, receiving 6% in the current year. Both pay deals were only backdated to July even though the date for a new pay rise was the 1 April. No doubt this was an extra punishment for a workforce that had fought for a living wage.

Aftermath

The conservative government won the 1983 general election and the PRB was set up. Nurses were awarded between 9 and 14% in 1985 and 8% the following year. Work done by ancillary workers (porters, cleaners) were increasingly privatised with two thirds of contracts awarded to private contractors by the end of 1984. This section of the workforce was reduced by 40,000 by 1988. COHSE’s membership had peaked at 231,000 in 1982 had fallen to 218,000 by 1988. The RCN membership which had been 162,000 in 1979 reached 282,000 in 1988.

Sources used

The Times

The Guardian

Marxism Today

New Statesman

Nursing Mirror

Nursing Times

Christopher Hart, Behind the Mask: Nurses, their Unions and Nursing Policy, London 1994

Jonathan Neale, Memoirs of a Callous Picket, London, 1983

Trevor Clay Nurses, Power and Politics, London, 1987

Mick Carpenter, Working for Health: the History of COHSE, London 1988

COHSE (Britain Health Service Union) blog 

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Lifted from ‘The NHS is 60‘, a collection of radical articles on health, working in the health service and the history of the NHS, published in 2008 by the Radical History Network of North-East London

According to the COHSE history blog,

“Wednesday 22 September 1982 was one of the largest acts of solidarity in the British trade union history, with millions on strike and a national rally in London with 120,000 taking part. There were demonstrations in the following towns (not full list)

Aberdeen 12,000

Inverness 1,000

Elgin 500

Lerwick 400

Oban 100

Stornaway 500

Dundee 10,000

Edinburgh 10,000

Kirkcaldy 2,000

Glasgow 20,000

Dumfries 1,000

Newcastle 5,000

York 1,000

Sheffield 10,000

Barnsley 1,000

Leeds 6,000

Hull 4,000

Chesterfield 3,000

Manchester 2,000

St Helens 2,000

Liverpool 20,000

Bolton 2,000

Blackpool 400

Wigan 5,000

Leek 300

Coventry 2,000

Gloucester 500

Hereford 400

Swindon 1,000

Milton Keynes 1,200

Cambridge 2,000

Colchester 1,000

Braintree 100

Norwich 2,000

Kings Lynn 300

Harleston 500

Fakenham 100

Southampton 1,500

Bournemouth 1,000

Eastbourne 500

Yeovil 1,000

Belfast 3,000

Derry 3,000

Armagh 300

Ballymena 200

Enniskillen 350

Swansea 1,000

Aberystwyth 200

Rhondda 500

There were also many rallies/marches in London eg in Hackney and Hillingdon.”

All this week in London consumer history, 1800: Bread rioters force the City’s Corn Exchange to close

In 1799, 1800 and 1801 widespread rioting broke out throughout England. Most of these were food riots, provoked by scarcity and soaring prices during Napoleon’s continental blockade of Britain. The cost of a loaf of bread was at an all time high of 1 shilling 9 d. High grain prices meant hikes in the cost of bread – and many of the poor and labouring classes lived off a diet in which bread played a major part. Bread price rises were always likely to cause riots – and prices did depend on the quality of harvest. A bad harvest harbinged social disorder.

Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793. In order to keep the army and navy fed, much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government. In addition the war led to difficulties importing grain into Britain, (due to blockades and disrupted harvests on the continent) which also raised the price.

A series of poor harvests in the mid 1790’s and severe weather also devastating affect; much of this was caused by unpredictable weather. Crops were either left rotting in the fields by freezing wet Winters, or scorched by unbearably hot summers.

Enclosure also had a huge impact: for many who in the past might have had some measure of self-sufficiency, owning a couple of animals they could graze on common land, for instance – these options had been restricted as access to common land had been drastically cut back in the mid-late 18th century. Many of the rural or semi-rural poor now bought much more of their food.

Bread had increasingly become the major part of the diet of the majority of British population, especially among the poor and working classes.

And the price of food was crucial in people’s daily life: anywhere between 40 and 80 percent of income was spent on bread.

Beyond this – high grain prices led to a negative impact on the economy generally. As spending on bread came first, expenditure on most other products rose and fell depending on what spare cash people had after feeding themselves. High grain prices, high bread prices, led to drastic reductions in consumer spending in other areas, which had a knock on effect on the wider economy.

So in the late 1790s-early 1800s, there was a general economic crisis. Gold was scarce—so scarce, from the normal price of £3 17s. 6d. per oz., it had risen to £4 5s., “at which price it was a temptation, almost overpowering, to melt guineas”. The cost of living increased: food was scarce and expensive ”and, as very few people starve in silence, riots were the natural consequence.”

Control over bread prices was in fact a regular fact of life. The weight of a penny loaf had also been set to reflect the local cost of wheat (this was a concession to popular feeling after a previous wave of food riots in 1757).

More widely, the ‘Bread Assize’ was supposed to regulate the cost of a loaf of bread in different areas, to prevent the cost soaring too high for the poor to afford. The Assize was administered locally, as prices and wages varied across the country; particular attention was always paid to London, not only as the largest market for bread, but because of the greater potential for disorder in the capital if bread became scarce or unaffordable. The Assize was very much about preventing social unrest. But administering it was complex, especially as it regulated only the price of bread, not grain. Any suggestion of assizing flour prices as well came to nothing. In effect, authorities subsidised bakers to keep bread prices low; but the system was criticised for being confusing and arbitrary, and for encouraging profiteering and hoarding by grain merchants, millers and bakers. Nationally, government policy was generally to allow market forces to regulate the markets, and by 1800, the Assize system was being abandoned in many areas, including London, though other local authorities continued to attempt to keep bread prices down for several decades into the 19th century.

The government attempted to address the problems caused by grain dealers allegedly profiting from high grain prices – mainly they were pushed into action by popular clamour. Laws were passed or existing rules revived, against “Forestalling and Regrating”, (ie, buying up and hoarding produce in order to sell it later when prices were higher), granting subsidies to merchants who imported oats and rye, and also allowing beer to be made from sugar to free up grain for bread making.

Legal action was in fact taken against those accused of profiteering:

“This day one Mr. Rusby was tried, in the Court of King’s Bench, on an indictment against him, as an eminent corn-factor, for having purchased, by sample, on the 8th of November last, in the Corn Market, Mark Lane, ninety quarters of oats at 41s. per quarter, and sold thirty of them again in the same market, on the same day, at 44s. The most material testimony on the part of the Crown was given by Thomas Smith, a partner of the defendant’s. After the evidence had been gone through, Lord Kenyon made an address to the jury, who, almost instantly, found the defendant guilty. Lord Kenyon— ‘You have conferred, by your verdict, almost the greatest benefit on your country that was ever conferred by any jury.’ Another indictment against the defendant, for engrossing, stands over.
“Several other indictments for the same alleged crimes were tried during this year, which we fear tended to aggravate the evils of scarcity they were meant to obviate, and no doubt
contributed to excite popular tumults, by rendering a very useful body of men odious in the eyes of the mob.”
(Annual Register, July 4, 1800)

However, calls for the government to set grain prices, or to allow local authorities to set them in the interests of peace, were resisted. The government of the era was overseeing the rapid replacement of any vestiges of paternalism in the interests of social cohesion, in favour of a strict laissez faire approach to prices and wages. The Duke of Portland, Home Secretary at the time, over-ruled local authorities who were willing to settle prices locally to appease anger.

Crowds sometimes took the punishment of forestallers into their own hands. (A case at Bishop’s Clyst, Devon, August, 1800 is featured in ‘Hints to Forestallers, or A Sure Way to Reduce the Price of Grain!’ an illustration by Isaac Cruikshank).

Crowd action to enforce what they saw as ‘fair’ prices for bread and other food stuffs reflected what EP Thompson identified as a ‘moral economy’ – the idea that a consensus existed on the cost of staple foodstuffs, broadly encompassing different social classes, on the basis that the essentials of life should be available and affordable. Moral economy was often enforced unofficially by collective action – eg crowds taking over markets or shops, and making the merchants reduce prices to a level felt to be reasonable. Prior to the industrial revolution, Thompson identifies the moral economy with a widespread system of social paternalism, which meant that authorities sometimes colluded with or turned a blind eye to such collective action, or even enforced price levels themselves, in the interests of keeping social peace. The rise of laissez faire capitalism in the last decades of the 18th century reflected a determination in parts of the ruling elites to do away with paternalism, and to allow the power of ‘market forces’ to determine prices and wages, in the interests, of course, of the wealthy. But the memory of the attacks on the wealthy in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain, can also be seen in the strong line increasingly taken with crowds in the 1790s.

In August and September several riots protesting the scarcity of corn, and the high price of provisions, took place in Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Coventry, Norwich, Stamford, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Worcester, and a number of other areas. The form these generally took was that markets were invaded, and a crowd would force the farmers and merchants to sell their provisions at a low price, or at least one considered fair.

There were the usual suggestions of some mysterious organisation being behind the riots. Several riots and consumer’s “strikes” were advertised in advance by handbills, on a scale which argues organisation by committees with access to the printing-press. Radicals had been circulating inflammatory handbills calling for demonstrations; the City was awash with revolutionary graffiti.

In September 1800, the riots spread to several parts of London. 2000 demonstrators forced the closure of the Corn Exchange for 6 days, and targetted corn dealers seen as responsible for high corn prices.

For six days there were tumults, starting at the Corn Exchange, in Mark Lane, (off modern Fenchurch Street) but spreading to other areas.

Overnight on 13th-14th September, two large written placards were pasted on the Monument, the text of which read:

“Bread will be sixpence the Quartern if the People will
assemble at the Corn Market on Monday.
Fellow Countrymen,
How long will ye quietly and cowardly suffer yourselves to
be imposed upon, and half starved by a set of mercenary slaves and Government hirelings? Can you still suffer them to proceed in their extensive monopolies, while your children are
crying for bread?
No! let them exist not a day longer. We are
the sovereignty; rise then from your lethargy.
Be at the Corn
Market on Monday.”

Small printed handbills with similar messages were distributed around poor neighbourhoods, “and the chance of a cheap loaf, or the love of mischief,” led to a two thousand-strong crowd gathering in Mark Lane the next morning. They began by hissing the grain dealers and corn-factors going into the market, but this progressed to jostling the dealers and pelting them with mud. For some reason Quakers came in for particularly rough treatment. They also began breaking the Exchange windows. The Lord Mayor of London went to Mark Lane about 11 a.m., to plead with the crowd that their actions would make no difference to bread prices; however, they only hissed and yelled at him, “Cheap bread! Birmingham and Nottingham for ever! Three loaves for eighteen pence,” the Mayor ordered the Riot Act to be read, and the constables charged the mob, who dispersed. [The reference to Birmingham and Nottingham was a reminder of the bread riots that had recently taken place there.]

Mark Lane Corn Exchange, the main grain market in London for 240 years

The Lord Mayor returned to the Mansion House. But as soon as he had gone, the riots began again and the Mayor had to return.

When the evening fell, the riots broke out again in force. A mob assembled, which routed the constables, and broke the windows of several bakers’ shops. When they gathered procured a
quantity of wood the civic authorities intervened to prevent them starting a fire (always feared in the City). The Lord Mayor enlisted a number of companies of the Volunteers, the militia set up among the middle classes to resist an anticipated French invasion (though they mainly saw action repressing meetings of radicals and reformers) – in this case from the Tower Ward and East India House Volunteers. They were joined by part of the London Militia.

These troops blocked both ends of Mark Lane, at Fenchurch Street, and Billiter Lane, and then charged the crowd and dispersed it – some down Lombard Street, some down Fish Street Hill, and over London Bridge, into the Borough. Then peace was once more restored, and the volunteers went unto their own homes.

That was not the end of the trouble that night – the crowd that had been pushed into the borough took the chance to visit the house of Mr. Rusby (6, Temple Place, Blackfriars Road)
described above as being prosecuted for ‘forestalling and regrating’. They raided his house and ransacked it, though he had escaped by the back way into a neighbour’s house. The crowd dispersed before a party of mounted troops and Militia arrived.

On the next day the riotous population were “in a ferment, but were kept in check by the militia and volunteers.”

Whether through fear of the rioters or not, the price of wheat did fall on Monday 15th, by ten and fifteen shillings a quarter. London’s Court of Aldermen issued a statement claiming that if the mob hadn’t rioted, it would have fallen still lower, as merchants were afraid to bring their corn to market (the old line that ‘market forces will sort it all out…):

“Combe, Mayor.
“A Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen held at the Guildhall
of the City of London, on Tuesday, the 16th of September, 1800.
“Resolved unanimously—That it is the opinion of this Court,
from the best information it has been able to procure, that, had
not the access to the Corn Market been, yesterday, impeded,
and the transactions therein interrupted, a fall in the price of
Wheat and Flour, much more considerable than that which
actually took place, would have ensued; aid this Court is
further of opinion, that no means can so effectually lead to
reduce the present excessive prices of the principal articles of
food, as the holding out full security and indemnification to
such lawful Dealers as shall bring their Corn or other
commodities to market. And this Court does therefore express
a determination to suppress, at once, and by force, if it shall
unhappily be necessary, every attempt to impede, by acts of
violence, the regular business of the markets of the Metropolis.”

A butcher was tried and convicted at the Clerkenwell Sessions, on September 16th, for “forestalling the market of Smithfield on the 6th of March last, by purchasing of Mr.
Eldsworth, a salesman, two cows and an ox, on their way to the market.” His brother was also convicted.

Rioting resumed around the Mark Lane Corn Market, however, on both the 15th and 16th, in response to which, the Lord Mayor issued another Proclamation;
“Combe, Mayor.
“Mansion House, Sept. 17, 1800.
“Whereas the peace of this City has been, within these few
days, very much disturbed by numerous and tumultuous
assemblies of riotous and disorderly people, the magistrates,
determined to preserve the King’s peace, and the persons and
property of their fellow-citizens, by every means which the
law has intrusted to their hands, particularly request the
peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants of this City, upon the
appearance of the military, to keep themselves away from the
windows; to keep all the individuals of their families, and
servants, within doors; and, where such opportunities can be
taken, to remain in the back rooms of their houses.

“By order of his Lordship.
“W. J. Newman, Clerk.”

Angry crowds were by now targeting not only markets and known merchants, but also houses where they suspected food was being hoarded. As usual at such times, rumour and Chinese whispers abounded.

On the morning of the 18th of September, crowds gathered in Chiswell Street, opposite the house of a Mr. Jones, whose windows they had demolished the previous night, and proceeded to attack a house opposite, at the corner of Grub Street. This was the house of a Mr. Pizey, a
shoemaker, a friend of the said Jones, on whose behalf Pizey was storing some barrels of salt pork. Rumours had spread that this was being hoarded for profiteering purposes, and “the mob began to mutter that “it would be a d-d good thing to throw some stuff in and blow up the place.”
Pizey sent messengers to the Mansion House, and the Worship Street office, and a force of constables was sent to Chiswell Street. The crowds dispersed.

On the 18th of September King George III issued a proclamation “strictly commanding and requiring all the Lieutenants of our Counties, and all our Justices of the Peace, Sheriff, and
Under-Sheriffs, and all civil officers whatsoever, that they do take the most effectual means for suppressing all riots and tumults, and to that end do effectually put in execution an Act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of our late royal ancestor, of glorious memory, King George the First, entitled ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous
assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”” [Meaning the 1715 Riot Act, which allowed soldiers to be ordered to shoot down crowds if they did not disperse when ordered to do so by a magistrate.]

That night, however, rioting began again. Ignoring the threat of the Rot Act, crowds gathered in Bishopsgate Street, then marched up Sun Street, through Finsbury Square, where they scattered a force of constables sent to halt them, and continuing down Barbican into Smithfield, Saffron Hill, Holborn, and Snow Hill.  At Snow Hill they broke two cheesemongers’ windows; they then swept through Fleet Market, breaking and tossing about everything moveable, and smashed the windows of another cheesemonger. From Fleet Street they turned up Ludgate Hill, smashing all the lamps on the way, and marched back into the City via Cheapside (where they apparently targeted the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence), Newgate Street, St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and Barbican to Old Street. Here they dispersed for the night. “From Ludgate Hill to Barbican, only one lamp was left burning, and of that the glass was broken.”
Soldiers apparently marched in the mob’s wake all night trying to catch up with them but never managed to quite make it…

It’s worth mentioning that towns close to the city were also affected. On the 18th, apparently, an ‘Incitement to riot’ occurred in Kingston-Upon-Thames: Radicals allegedly distributed cards calling for cheap bread in Kingston pubs.

Riots continued on the night of the 19th of September; though not on the same scale as the previous days.

The 20th saw the final day of the tumults, this time centred in Westminster rather than the City. A crowd met in Clare Market, off the Strand, and marched for a while, but after some skirmishes with ‘the St. Clement Danes Association’ (another volunteer militia?), they dispersed at the approach of the Horse Guards. Another group met in Monmouth Street, St. Giles’s, but the Westminster Volunteers, and cavalry, dispersed them. Shops closed very early. This seems to have been the end of these food riots in central areas of London.

The 20th also saw a Food Riot in Woolwich Kent, to the southeast of London.

It is worth noting that the price of a quartern loaf was lowered under the London Bread Assize in the week following the riots.

Riots continued outside the capital. In some places the riots were put down by force, in others the price of bread was lowered. What was worrying to the authorities, however, was that the crowd in many areas was no longer divided between “Jacobin” and “Church and King” factions  – radicals and supporters of the status quo – who had been notable opposed to each other a few years earlier:

“What scarred the Gentlemen the most was to see the Union of parties their being no 
painites nor no such song as God save the King to be heard.”

Politics aside, hunger had the potential to unite the lower orders – always terrifying to those in power.

The dying down on the riots in September was not quite the end of crowds gathering in London on the issue in 1800.

In November handbills were circulated calling upon “Tradesmen, Artizans, Journeymen, Labourers, &c., to meet on Kennington Common” on Sunday, the 9th of November, with an aim to  “petition His Majesty on a redress of grievances.”

This meeting was prevented by a show of military strength. The Privy Council, sent orders to police offices and the different volunteer corps, to hold themselves in readiness in case of
emergency, and the Bow Street patrol were sent, early in the morning, to take up a position at the Horns Tavern, Kennington, to wait until the mob began to assemble. Small crowds attempted to gather, but were continually chased away by the Bow Street patrol, aided by the Surrey Yeomanry, the Southwark Volunteers, and the whole police force from seven offices, together with the river police.

The scarcity of corn still continued down to the end of the year. It had been a bad harvest generally throughout the Continent, and little imported corn arrived in England.

Government attempts to mitigate the shortages continued, though they were all a bit farcical: a proclamation on December 3rd exhorted all persons who had the means of procuring other food than corn, to use the strictest economy in the use of every kind of grain, abstaining from pastry, reducing the consumption of bread in their respective families at least one-third, and upon no account to allow it “to exceed one quartern loaf for each person in each week;” and also all persons keeping horses, especially those for pleasure, to restrict their consumption of grain, as far as circumstances would admit.

The government also introduced the ‘Making of Bread, etc. Act 1800, also known as the Brown Bread Act or the Poison Act, to prohibit making bread with any other kind of flour than wholemeal flour. Although aimed at increasing the amount of flour that could be made from a given weight of grain, this Act was very unpopular. It was claimed by many at the time that the coarser wholemeal mixtures of flour often made people ill; many said to be pretty nasty. Mixed bread was likely to be subject to adulteration than white bread – to increase profits, millers were known to dilute flour with all sorts of other substances including alum and chalk.

The Brown Bread Act immediately result in more trouble – at Horsham in Sussex, “a number of women… proceeded to Gosden windmill, where, abusing the miller for having served them with brown flour, they seized on the cloth with which he was then dressing meal according to the directions of the Bread Act, and cut it into a thousand pieces; threatening at the same time to serve all similar utensils he might in future attempt to use in the same manner. The Amazonian leader of this petticoated cavalcade afterwards regaled her associates with a guinea’s worth of liquor at the Crab Tree public-house.”

With such resistance, the Act was repealed less than two months after its passing.

It’s easy to see that the pre-incarnations of Iain Duncan Smith and Hancock were at work, too, as another measure adopted at this time was the so-called Stale Bread Act, a government instruction to bakers not to sell bread until at least 24 hours after baking, as staler bread fills you more, so people would eat less. (This was amended to 48 hours in London for a while). It was impossible to enforce although the Government tried very hard to impose it. There were fines for bakers who broke the law and rewards for members of the community who snitched on them. This was accompanied by a suggestion to promote other foods such as vegetables and herring… The Act also quickly led to complaints and the Act lasted for only one year.  The decades that followed saw people driven into more desperation as food shortages and unemployment caused dreadful suffering amongst the poor of Britain.

(Interestingly, a century later in WW1, very similar issues of lack of supply due to war, high bread prices, and mass discontent – which had led to food riots then too – caused the government to repeat the Stale bread Act, in the Bread Order of 1917.

Bread prices continued to be a focus of debate and anger. Napoleon’s continental blockade increased the difficulty of importing grain. Britain’s increasing industrialisation also had a corresponding effect on demand, as well as accelerating the decrease in subsistence.

This would be aggravated from 1815 by the passing of the Corn Laws, tariffs and  trade restrictions on imported grain, designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers (in effect the large landowning interests who dominated Parliament). The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, initially by simply forbidding importation below a set price, and later by imposing steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. The Corn Laws, too, provoked rioting from enraged plebs

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A couple of books worth reading:

The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: A Social Sketch of the Times
By John Ashton.

Also Bread and the British Economy, 1770–1870
By Christian Petersen, Andrew Jenkins