Today in Metropolitan Police History: turn that racket off! 1969

Maybe not exackerly radical, but… allus good to see the blue lobsters make fools of themselves…

30th January 1969: The Beatles performed on the rooftop of the Apple offices at Savile Row, London; police turned up and try to put a stop to the gig.

The Beatles had wild discussions of how to end their film Let it Be with a climaxing live performance – everywhere from the QE2 to the Pyramids, was discussed, but in the end they decided on what became their infamous final gig – a surprise performance on the roof of the Apple Records building at Savile Row.

The Beatles played tracks including “Don’t Let Me Down”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Dig A Pony” and “Get Back”. The police arrived to halt the proceedings, but the band continued to play. Despite their protest, no arrests were made, and the performance continued for 42 minutes.

Ringo said “It was a memorable day for me – we were doin’ what we did best – making music. But I am still disappointed the policemen didn’t drag me off me drums!”.

As the gig progressed, crowds gathered in the streets below and on the surrounding rooftops for what must have been one of the greatest lunch break treats of all time. But not everyone was pleased to see the biggest band in the world playing a free gig. Stanley Davis, the wool merchant next door, is supposed to have said: “I want this bloody noise stopped. It’s an absolute disgrace.” Other reactions of passers-by are captured in the Let It Be film and range from the elated (“Fantastic!” “Fabulous!”), to the buttoned-down (“This type of music has its place”) and the topical (“It’s nice to have something in this country for free at the moment”).

With traffic beginning to back up on the street below, the police at nearby West End Central Police Station (located at 27 Savile Row) were called. Mal Evans had set up a hidden camera in the reception area of the Apple building that later captured their arrival.

The third take of Get Back sees the police arrive on the roof. Lennon and Harrison’s amplifiers are switched off just before the first chorus, before kicking back in just in time for the solo. Paul’s soul preacher ad-lib arrives towards the end of the track: “You’ve been playing on the roofs again, and you know your Momma doesn’t like it, oh she gets angry, she’s gonna have you arrested!” A cheer from Ringo’s wife Maureen then prompts a deadpan “Thanks, Mo” from McCartney. These outtakes can be heard on the Anthology 3 version of Get Back.

The rooftop concert was a short and sweet reminder of The Beatles at their live best, although not everyone was happy with the end result. As Ringo recounts in The Beatles Anthology: “I always feel let down about the police. When they came up I was playing away and I thought, ‘Oh great! I hope they drag me off.’ We were being filmed and it would have looked really great, kicking the cymbals and everything. Well, they didn’t of course, they just came bumbling in: ‘You’ve got to turn that sound down.’ It could have been fabulous.”


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


Today in London’s radical past: the Beggars’ Opera premieres, satirising the rich, 1728

The Beggar’s Opera was a three act ballad opera written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. The lyrics of the airs in the piece were set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

The Beggar’s Opera premiered at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on 29 January 1728, and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in British theatre history up to that time. The work became Gay’s greatest success and has been played ever since; it has been called “the most popular play of the eighteenth century.” In 1920, the Opera began an astonishing revival run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, which was one of the longest runs in history for any piece of musical theatre at that time. The Beggar’s Opera had a wide influence on later British stage comedies, especially on nineteenth century British comic opera and through to the modern musical.

The piece satirised Italian opera, then very popular in London, especially with the upper classes. Instead of the grand music and themes of opera, the work uses familiar tunes and the characters were ordinary people. Some of the songs were by opera composers like Handel, but only the most popular of these were used. The idea being that the audience could hum along with the music and identify with the characters.

The story satirised politics, poverty and injustice, focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society. Lavinia Fenton, the first actress to play the Opera’s leading female character, Polly Peachum, became an overnight celebrity. Her pictures were in widely sold, verses were addressed to her and books published about her. After appearing in several comedies, and numerous repetitions of The Beggars Opera, she ran away with her married lover, Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton.

Eat your heart out George Lucas: Long before star Wars revolutionised modern film merchandising, the Beggars’ Opera’s success spawned an associated industry of keepsakes and mementos, ranging from images of Polly on fans and clothing, playing cards and fire-screens, broadsides featuring all the characters, and the rapidly published musical score of the opera.

Inspired by an idea of Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope on 30 August 1716 asking “…what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?”, their friend, Gay, decided to write a satire on a pastoral opera. Originally, Gay intended all the songs to be sung without any accompaniment, adding to the shocking and gritty atmosphere of his conception. But a week or so before the opening night, John Rich, the theatre director, insisted on having Johann Christoph Pepusch, write and arrange music for the Opera.

Besides taking the piss out of the passionate interest of the aristocracy in Italian opera,  at the same time Gay caricatured the leading Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. The opera also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, comparing low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic and bourgeois “betters.” The play is sometimes seen to be a reactionary call for libertarian values in response to the growing power of the conservative Whig party. It may also have been influenced by the then-popular ideology of Locke that men should be allowed their natural liberties; these democratic strains of thought influenced the populist movements of the era.

The Opera’s anti-hero, Macheath, has long been thought to be modelled on the famous thief and gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, who had gone to the gallows in 1724, after breaking out of almost every London prison, and becoming a hero to the lower classes (and remaining a legend and inspiration for a hundred years.)

The Beggar’s Opera was met with widely varying reactions. Its popularity was documented in the Craftsman newspaper with the following entries:
“This Week a Dramatick Entertainment has been exhibited at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, entitled The Beggar’s Opera, which has met with a general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it has made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich.” (3 February 1728)
“We hear that the British Opera, commonly called The Beggar’s Opera, continues to be acted, at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn Fields with general Applause, to the great Mortification of the Performers and Admirers of the Outlandish Opera in the Haymarket.” (17 February 1728).

Two weeks after opening night, an article appeared in The Craftsman, the leading opposition newspaper, ostensibly protesting at Gay’s work as libellous and ironically assisting him in satirising the Walpole establishment by pretending to be taking the government’s side:
“It will, I know, be said, by these libertine Stage-Players, that the Satire is general; and that it discovers a Consciousness of Guilt for any particular Man to apply it to Himself. But they seem to forget that there are such things as Innuendo’s (a never-failing Method of explaining Libels)… Nay the very Title of this Piece and the principal Character, which is that of a Highwayman, sufficiently discover the mischievous Design of it; since by this Character every Body will understand One, who makes it his Business arbitrarily to levy and collect Money on the People for his own Use, and of which he always dreads to give an Account – Is not this squinting with a vengeance, and wounding Persons in Authority through the Sides of a common Malefactor?”

The commentator notes the Beggar’s last remark: “That the lower People have their Vices in a Degree as well as the Rich, and are punished for them,” implying that rich People are not so punished.

Criticism of Gay’s opera continued long after its publication. In 1776, John Hawkins wrote in his History of Music that due to the opera’s popularity, “Rapine and violence have been gradually increasing”  because the rising generation of young men desired to imitate the character Macheath. Hawkins blamed Gay for tempting these men with “the charms of idleness and criminal pleasure,” which Hawkins saw Macheath as representing and glorifying.

In 1729, Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, set in the West Indies: Macheath, sentenced to transportation, has escaped and become a pirate, while Mrs Trapes has set up in white-slaving and shanghais Polly to sell her to the wealthy planter Mr Ducat. Polly escapes dressed as a boy, and after many adventures marries the son of a Carib chief.
The political satire, however, was even more pointed in Polly than in The Beggar’s Opera, with the result that Prime Minister Robert Walpole put pressure on the Lord Chamberlain to ban it, and it was not performed until fifty years later.

In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote a popular new musical adaptation of the work in Germany entitled Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). This followed the original plot fairly closely (although the time is brought forward over a hundred years) but the music was almost all new, with Brecht’s satirical words expressing his stark class politics. From the Threepenny Opera, the famous song Mack the Knife has entered popular 20th century culture.


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

Today in London’s past: Derek Bentley hanged, 1953.

19-year-old Derek Bentley was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 28 January 1953 for the murder of PC Sidney Miles, despite not firing the shot. Last-minute appeals for clemency were rejected. He was granted a posthumous pardon in July 1998.

Bentley had been sentenced to death on 11 December the previous year, for ‘killing’ PC Miles during a bungled break-in at a warehouse in Croydon – although his co-defendant, Christopher Craig, fired the fatal shot. As Craig was still a juvenile in the eyes of the law he escaped the death sentence and was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

On the night of 2 November 1952, Christopher Craig, 16, and Derek Bentley, 19, tried to break into the warehouse of confectionery manufacturers and wholesalers Barlow & Parker on Tamworth Road, Croydon, England. When police turned up, the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drain pipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley. Bentley broke free and was alleged by a number of police witnesses to have shouted the words “Let him have it, Chris”. Both Craig and Bentley denied that those words were ever spoken.

Craig, who was armed with a revolver, opened fire, grazing Fairfax’s shoulder. Nevertheless, Fairfax arrested Bentley. In his pocket Bentley had a knife and a spiked knuckle-duster, though he never used either. Craig had made the knuckle-duster himself and had recently given both weapons to Bentley.

More officers turned up, a group was sent onto the roof. The first to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles, who was immediately killed by a shot to the head. After exhausting his ammunition and being cornered, Craig jumped some thirty feet from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist when he landed on a greenhouse. At this point, he was arrested.

The trial took place before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Goddard, at the Old Bailey in London between 9 December 1952 and 11 December 1952. Craig was under 18, and so could not face the death penalty. But a cop had died, and the pressure was on for someone to pay… Bentley was illiterate, had learning difficulties and was easily influenced; Craig had been the instigator of the robbery.

Bentley’s defence was that he was effectively under arrest when PC Miles was killed; however, this was only after an attempt to escape, during which a police officer had been wounded. As the trial progressed the jury had more details to consider. The prosecution was unsure how many shots were fired and by whom and a ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Craig could have hit Miles if he had shot at him deliberately: the fatal bullet was not found.

English law at the time did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development, though it existed in Scottish law (it was introduced to England by the Homicide Act 1957). Criminal insanity – where the accused is unable to distinguish right from wrong – was then the only medical defence to murder. Bentley, while suffering severe debilitation, was not insane. Under joint enterprise law, the decision to rob the factory together made Bentley guilty of the killing as well, whether or not he had made any decision to kill anyone or fired any shot himself.

Bentley was convicted on the basis of police evidence. Three officers told the court they had heard him encourage Craig to shoot by shouting “Let him have it”, though both Bentley and Craig denied this. Pressure was likely put on Bentley to confess, as leaning on the vulnerable is a fine old police tradition.

After just 75 minutes deliberation, the jury found both Bentley and Craig guilty of PC Miles’s murder. Bentley was sentenced to death with a plea for mercy on 11 December 1952, while Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure (he was released in 1963).

There were protests against Bentley’s execution: there was said to be big public support for a reprieve. A crowd of up to 300 gathered outside the Houses of Parliament the night before, chanting “Bentley must not die!” The demonstrators then marched to the Home Office and later to Downing Street. A large crowd gathered outside Wandsworth jail on the day of the hanging. Some sang hymns; others booed when a prison warder came out carrying a glass-covered board containing the execution notice. Two people were arrested and later fined for damage to property.The crowd eventually dispersed in the early hours of this morning after handing in a petition at Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s home.

A deputation of some 200 MPs had petitioned the home secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, but Fyfe said he could not see any reason for intervening in the case.

Derek Bentley’s family, mostly driven by his sister Iris, campaigned for more than 40 years for a pardon. Questions about the ballistics evidence had always been raised. The bullet that killed PC Miles may not have been fired by Craig at all; it possibly even came from an armed policeman’s weapon.

Eventually, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal set aside Bentley’s conviction for murder 45 years earlier. Though Bentley had not been accused of attacking any of the police officers being shot at by Craig, for him to be convicted of murder as an accessory in a joint enterprise it was necessary for the prosecution to prove that he knew that Craig had a deadly weapon when they began the break-in. Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill ruled that Lord Goddard had not made it clear to the jury that the prosecution was required to have proved Bentley had known that Craig was armed. He further ruled that Lord Goddard had failed to raise the question of Bentley’s withdrawal from their joint enterprise. This would require the prosecution to prove the absence of any attempt by Bentley to signal to Craig that he wanted Craig to surrender his weapons to the police. Lord Bingham ruled that Bentley’s trial had been unfair, in that the judge had misdirected the jury and, in his summing-up, had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict. It is possible that Lord Goddard may have been under pressure while summing up since much of the evidence was not directly relevant to Bentley’s defence. It is important to note that Lord Bingham did not rule that Bentley was innocent, merely that there had been defects in the trial process. Had Bentley been alive in July 1998 or had been convicted of the offence in more recent years, it would have been likely that he would have faced a retrial.

Another factor in the posthumous defence was that a “confession” recorded by Bentley, which was claimed by the prosecution to be a “verbatim record of dictated monologue”, was shown by forensic linguistics methods to have been largely edited by policemen. Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then”, and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language, as evidenced in court testimony. These patterns fitted better the recorded testimony of the policemen involved.

British Justice. Makes you proud eh?


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

Today in London’s rebel past: king Charles sentenced to death, 1649

“This court is in judgment and conscience satisfied that he (the said Charles Stuart) is guilty of levying war against the said Parliament and people… he hath been and is guilty of the wicked designs and endeavors… unnatural, cruel, and bloody wars, and therein guilty of High Treason and of the murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damage, and mischief to this nation acted and committed in the said war and occasioned thereby…

“For all which treasons and crimes this court doth adjudge that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.”

On January 1st 1649, the Rump Parliament passed an ordinance for the trial of king Charles I, on charges of subverting the fundamental laws and liberties of the nation and with maliciously making war on the parliament and people of England, by instigating the English Civil War.

Parliament reversed the previously accepted definition of treason, by declaring that it was treason for a king to wage war upon his subjects. The House of Lords refused to pass this ordinance, but the House of Commons declared itself to be the supreme authority in the land with powers to pass laws without the consent of the King or the Lords. (Two months later the House of Commons would abolish the House of Lords completely, along with the monarchy.)

The trial began on January 20th 1649, before a specially convened High Court of Justice, in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster. 135 commissioners were nominated to sit in judgement on the King, but fifty refused to take part, and others dropped out once the proceedings had begun. (In the end only 58 signed the death warrant.) Although the court hearings were open and public, strict security measures had to be enforced: soldiers were stationed to control the crowds, guards posted on the roofs, and cellars were searched. President of the court, John Bradshaw wore a steel-lined bullet-proof hat in case anyone attempted to assassinate him.

The king refused to answer the charges, and refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Court. He considered his authority to come from God, which put him above the law, not answerable to parliament, or any worldly judge. Parliament however posed an opposite view of the basis of kingship, founded in the nation as a commonwealth of the people. If there was a sacred reciprocal bond between king and subject, it was a contract, binding both in responsibility, which Charles Stuart had broken.

On January 25th, the depositions of thirty-three witnesses against the King were read out in a public session, giving evidence of the King’s personal participation in the wars, his approval of various atrocities, including the torture of prisoners, and demonstrated his intention of stirring up and continuing the conflict. The next day, the commissioners drafted the sentence, condemning Charles Stuart as a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the Commonwealth of England”.

On 27th January, the court held its final session. Bradshaw gave a 40-minute address to the prisoner, asserting the parliamentary position that even a king was subject to the law, and that the law proceeded from Parliament. By making war on his own people, he had forfeit his right to their allegiance. Declaring Charles guilty of the charges against him, Bradshaw ordered the sentence of death to be read out. Charles was not allowed to speak and was led away from the court to await his execution, which took place on the 30th of January.

It’s easy now to not recognise the revolutionary nature of this event… It was the first time a head of state had been put on trial. Asserting that kings were not ordained by God, but were only made by, and were accountable to, their subjects; putting the king on trial for betraying that trust – these were truly ground-breaking ideas and acts. Parliament was at this time attempting to hold the English Revolution to what it saw as a more moderate course than pressure from many of the radical movements which had grown up during the civil wars; to some extent it was pushed into the execution of the king by the widespread anger against him in the country. It was also true that the army had become a powerful force in its own right in the preceding years, and the constant presence of soldiers in the court served to remind everyone of this. Interestingly, some of the radicals opposed putting the king to death. Leveller leader John Lilburne, for instance, held it to be a mistake; the institution of monarchy should be held to account, but the parliament as it then stood was not representative of the people, as the leveller agitations for an increase in the franchise had been defeated by Cromwell and the army grandees. Lilburne felt the king’s trial should be postponed until after a new parliament had been elected under a widened democracy. Lilburne, despite fighting in the civil war, feared that the power of the army was now paramount and threatened the liberties for which he and others had fought.

Of the ‘regicides’ who signed the king’s death warrant, those that survived the Commonwealth were arrested, faced rigged trials and nine (plus four other leading republicans) were themselves put to death at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The bodies of Oliver Cromwell and others already dead, plus some of their relatives, were dug up and hung in chains at Tyburn. Nineteen other signatories were imprisoned for life. Seven escaped Charles II’s revenge, fleeing to Europe; three ending up in the American colonies, where they lived in hiding or under assumed names, and were never arrested, despite being searched for by the king’s agents.


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

Today in London’s radical history: BT workers strike, 1987

26th January 1987: About 117,000 British telephone engineers began a nationwide strike, called by the National Communications Union after British Telecom rejected a union demand to reinstate engineers suspended during a dispute over pay and working conditions. Management said there will be no change in its pay-raise offer, ranging from 5% to 5.8%. The union demanded a 10% increase, with a number of productivity strings attached, including ‘flexible working hours’ (the ability of management to impose work on people for a wider ranging working day), Saturday as a normal work day, and abolition of the ‘9 day fortnight’ (restricting the maximum number of days in a fortnight workers could be made to work).

The context to this was BT’s determination to reduce staff numbers: proposals had been made to lose 70,000 jobs over the next five years. British Telecom formed the communications network privatized by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government two years previously, a jewel in the 1980s privatisation program that partly fuelled the boomtime of financial capitalism in the UK in the late 80s. Productivity deals aside, BT workers were actually very productive at the time (calculations at the time suggested each worker in fact produced an average of £9000 annual profit for the recently privatised firm).

A root cause of the strike was the huge profits the newly privatised network had been making: pre-tax profit was over 1 billion in 1986, and BT’s workforce, 85 percent of whom were shareholders, decided to demand a bigger share of the proceeds.

One group of workers demanded a “flexibility deal” of about 4.5 percent. Other workers wanted rises on top of this, and Telecom’s management decided to resist these calls for sharing the takings…

At the outset of the strike, stoppages had evolved from a refusal to work overtime ban in support of pay claims. When workers refused to go back to work when ordered, strikes broke out in various areas. Telephone engineers, demanding a 10 percent pay rise, refused to work: phone repairs went undone. Later BT clerical workers, who process BT’s telephone bills, went on a three-day strike in support of the engineers. It’s worth noting that workers staffing the City of London phone networks were not ordered to work overtime (profits being made here meant strikes could not be afforded…?)

The wildcat beginnings of the strike progressed, as an East London National Communications Union branch decided to strike in support of by then over 20,000 BT engineers who had been ‘stood down’ for refusing to work overtime. The union leadership initially told them the strike was unconstitutional, but faced with workers’ determination actually called a full strike the next day.

The strike caused widespread disruption to telephone services, and threatened BT with heavy financial losses if no early end to the dispute – over pay and working conditions – was found. There was solid support for the strike (80% had voted to strike in a secret ballot). In some areas management accused ‘hotheads’ of sabotaging equipment, with cables severed & public telephones removed. In Rotherham emergency services were maintained, after the phone system developed faults, by emergency vehicles touring the streets.

The initial effect of the stoppages was to cause a moderate amount of disruption to phone traffic, especially at first between London and other cities. Later international calls were affected.

At one point, the newly computerized City of London, venue for vital financial transactions, appeared to be in danger of suffering major communications failures.

Telecom managers said that although a big effort had been made to modernize the network since privatization, trade union activity in BT remained intense. Privately, they said that a program of cuts in manpower had been only partly successful. The company’s initial hard line was regarded as a test of privatisation backed by the anti-union stance of the government. BT was dead set on its ability to push through post-privatization measures that would produce ‘more efficient’ practices – ie reducing its workers’ autonomy and squashing unionisation.

For more on this story, see here


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



Event : The Routes and Locations of an Émigré North London Bookseller and Anarchist

hi folks

this event looks like a cracker…


Charlie Lahr and Family:
The Routes and Locations of an Émigré North London Bookseller and Anarchist

Wednesday, 27th January 7.30pm

Charlie Lahr came to London from Germany  in 1905 and settled – or better unsettled – in Muswell Hill, including for a time Alexandra Palace, where he was interned. An anarchist and a book publisher, he was involved in various bohemian circles, and appears as a idiosyncratic character  in many memoirs and histories of the period. His wife, Esther, a Jewish anarchist, moved from the East End cigarette factories to running the bookshop, as well as working in the large asylum Colney Hatch and giving soap box speeches.

This illustrated talk by Esther Leslie explores the lives of the Lahrs and their relations through two world wars. It draws on the recently published memoir Yealm by Sheila Lahr (Unkant, 2015)

Venue: Bruce Castle Museum
Lordship Lane, Tottenham, N17 8NU. Tel: 020 8808 8772
Nearest Tube: Seven Sisters

Buses: Lordship Lane / Wood Green
Tottenham Bus: 243 / 123
Mainline: Station: Bruce Grove


Haringey Council
Bruce Castle Museum and Archive Service, Lordship Lane, Tottenham , N17 8NU Tel. 020 8808 8772


Today in London’s rebel past: Dynamite Saturday, 1885

Ay ay, this is starting to look like we are crap, and don’t now our arse from our elbow… possibly true… Turns out this was the 24th, not the 25th  as we stated in the calendar. So we’re posting it up today… We should be checking our facts better. Or maybe put it out to tender.

So, ‘Dynamite Saturday’, 24th January 1885: Three bombs exploded in London, in the House of Commons chamber, in Westminster Hall, and in the Banqueting Room of the Tower of London. Two police officers and four civilians were injured.

Two men were sentenced to penal servitude for life as a result.

These actions were part of an intense bombing campaign by Irish nationalists, known as Fenians, mainly funded by Irish emigrants in the US, looking to end the centuries long colonial rule of Britain over Ireland. The nationalist movement had a long tradition of clandestine organizing, but the superior force of the British state was usually able to defeat it. The Fenians based themselves in the tradition of insurgent republicanism which had given birth to the united Irishmen of 1798, the Young Ireland groups who attempted an uprising against British rule over Ireland in 1848. The widespread starvation in Ireland during the famine of the 1840s, exacerbated by the inactivity of absentee landlords, both stimulated mass emigration to the United States and Britain, and created new impulses of republican sentiment. But attempts to organise rebellions in 1867 in Ireland and in British-controlled Canada failed, and the movement was beset by splits and police spies.

However some among the Fenians believed in the ability of political violence to force the British political establishment to consider the Irish question. As veteran Fenian John Devoy said, at the height of the Fenian dynamite campaign, no serious consideration of Irish political grievance could be won from Britain unless it was ‘wrung from her fear’.

The aftermath of the Clerkenwell explosion was a major factor in their thought here: in 1867, Fenians had tried rescue imprisoned leader Colonel Ricard O’Sullivan Burke from London’s Clerkenwell Prison. “Their plan had been to penetrate the prison wall with gunpowder explosive to enable Burke’s escape. Using too much gunpowder, however, they had blown down some sixty yards of prison wall, killing twelve people and injuring over one hundred others. While the Clerkenwell explosion was not an act of terrorism but a bungled rescue attempt, contemporaries recalled how ‘terror took possession of society’… Against this background of rising terror, Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, had publically remarked how the explosion had convinced him to address the Irish question, by means of his declared mission to pacify Ireland. This would effectively result in the disestablishment of the minority Anglican Church of Ireland and the introduction of Gladstone’s first Land Act.” (Shane Kenna)

From this the Fenians observed how an act of political violence had forced the Government to begin to think about concessions on the “Irish question”.

A new campaign of bombing targets in England, mainly government and other significant buildings, railway stations, gasworks and the like.

“For the first time in history, Fenian bombers had the real ability to transcend national boundaries and, using innovative techniques such as employing explosive timers and detonators – they revolutionised the concept of terrorism, changing it from one of irregular attacks against political elites to a sustained campaign designed to establish public terror in order to coerce policy makers. … It had evidently been influenced by the pervasive Fenian belief in the ability of political violence to coerce British political elites to consider and address Irish grievances. This had been graphically represented in the aftermath of the Clerkenwell explosion when the Prime Minister had been seen to be coerced into yielding ground on the Irish problem…” (Shane Kenna).

The nationalist ideology held the lives of ‘enemy civilians’ in scant regard, of course, as is usually the way… From the Clerkenwell explosion it might have been worth noting how the indiscriminate destruction of surrounding houses and deaths and injuries of residents was an important factor in losing Irish nationalists widespread sympathy in Britain’s working class movement…

The bombing campaign of the 1880s, in the end, failed to terrorise the state effectively (although it did serve to bring into being the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, formed as the Special Irish Branch in 1883, to counter the Fenian threat.); perhaps it did contribute to the Liberal Party’s growing resolution to work out some form of solution to the problem of British occupation and Irish resistance.

The Fenian strand continued, mostly based in the US, and was to contribute to the Irish nationalist movements of the twentieth century, the creation of Sinn Fein, the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

For a good brief account of the motivations, historical background and strategy of the Fenians:



Today in London’s insurgent past: the ‘Royal Family’ storm the Westminster Gatehouse, 1749

[Note: in the paper copy of the London Rebel History Calendar the date of this event was wrongly entered as 24th January 1746, instead of 1749]

On 23rd January 1749, Governor of Cork, MP, General James Sinclair was robbed of his watch, which he discovered as he was on his way to ‘pay his compliments to the prince of Wales upon his birthday’. Two Irishmen, Thomas Tobin and William Harper (aka Jones), associated with a gang who with a powerful sense of irony called themselves the “Royal Family’, were arrested for the theft, and locked up in the Westminster Gatehouse, a local prison, located next to Westminster Abbey, on Broad Sanctuary.

The next evening, the 24th, either ten or twenty (depending on different accounts) men armed with pistols and cutlasses attacked the Gatehouse. One of the men had visited Harper/Jones earlier that day, and had pried open the bars of a window to facilitate the evening attack, when the gang came equipped with pistols, cutlasses and sticks or clubs. The keeper and a screw were nearly blinded by powder from pistols being shot, while two other men defending the prison were stabbed.

Freeing Harper, (although they were unable to rescue Tobin, as he was chained to the floor, and a party of guards interrupted their cutting him free), “they were off in Triumph and swore they would make a second Visit with Blunderbusses.”

The authorities offered a £100 reward for the men’s capture… John Bryan, a bricklayer working in Covent Garden, grassed up twelve of his former accomplices, several of who were hanged for the attack. Those arrested included

  • James Field, former sailor, a bouncer and boxer, from Dublin. His reputation was so heavy that although he had a number of warrants out for his arrest, “the Officers were afraid of him, and if they met him in the Street, they pass’d him by without Notice”; • Joseph Dowdall, born in Wicklow, who lived by picking gentlemen’s pockets in Covent Garden;
  • Garret Lawler,
  • Thomas Masterton, another pickpocket, and burglar;
  • `Thomas Quinn, who had prominent in the ‘Liberty and Ormond’ riots in Dublin…

Brought up amidst a plebeian culture in Dublin strong in disorder, resistance to authority, favouring mutilation and violent revenge against informers, constables and bailiffs, these irish proles brought to London some of the powerful bonds of loyalty to each other and hostility to the law. The gang which rescued Harper were based at an irish pub, the Fox, in Drury Lane, one of London’s rookeries, centre of a ghetto of the poor, casual workers or crims. A house which ‘harboured nothing but thieves and highwaymen’, the Fox the base from which many of their operations were carried out,

Some of these men had been associates for only three or four months, while others had known one another for many years. Outside and against the law, London’s criminal subcultures built up support networks, swore oaths to defend each other and rescue each other from capture if possible, and even evolved self-organised welfare benefits, friendly societies paying out to the dependents of the imprisoned and hanged… Since the law itself was administered to the poor with vicious measures – mutilation, branding, hanging for numerous petty offences, transportation, self-interest and necessity created solidarity among the lowest…

Although, sadly, many of the Royal Family ended up dobbing each other in when pressure was put on them… tut tut.


A prison dating from 1370, originally built to hold church and lay offenders against the Abbot of Westminster and the Bishop of London’s jurisdictions, the Westminster Gatehouse had been raided by the lower orders before: broken open in the Peasants Revolt June 1381, like all the London, Southwark and Westminster prison, all its inmates had been freed.

It’s also possible that this was the Westminster prison, where Leveller Nicholas Tew was imprisoned after Leveller/Agitator disturbances accompanying petitions to Parliament in March 1647.

In May 1651, a group of ranters were jailed here.

The Gatehouse was demolished in 1776.

Some more of the story of the ‘Royal Family’ can be read at:


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

Today in London’s radical past: A bread riot in Deptford, 1867.

You can’t live by bread alone… but we can have more than the crumbs from their tables…

In January 1867, at a time of high unemployment, with people going hungry, some folk in Deptford, in south-east London, revived the old tactic of the bread riot.

On the 23rd, parish officers from St Paul’s parish had been distributing bread to the needy, and a large number of people were clustered around their depot at Mary Ann’s buildings… When the bread ran out, and the announcement was made that there would be no more that day, the crowd got angry, and marched down Deptford High Street. They looted one baker’s shop of all its loaves; a second baker gave away everything in fear of his windows getting smashed. A third bakery was attacked near Deptford Broadway.

Police Commissioner Richard Mayne sent detachments of ‘A’ Reserve – mounted police – with one Chief Superintendent Walker in charge, who cleared the street, but the next day, crowds gathered again, and the bakers closed up shop.

This time the butchers were also attacked, one of whom saved himself by waving a cleaver at the crowd. Another was pushed aside by one ringleader who proclaimed to the assembled crowd, ‘There you are; walk in and help yourself.’ The crowd duly did so without the police interfering. A tobacconist was then burgled…

The crowds then marched off to the Greenwich Union Workhouse, to petition the Poor Law Guardians meeting taking place there. Police maintained a strong presence in the streets that evening, and the day after that, the crowds were not much in evidence. However five tons of bread were given away free that day, so ends achieved, you might say…

The bread riot has a long history. At times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival. Although the kind of moral economy that selling bread at a price considered fair, was bound up with pre-capitalist society – which were being superseded by the growth of capitalism, of social relations based solely on profit and wage labour, clearly as late as the 1860s, hungry people considered that such a staple should be freely available, and were prepared to enforce that if charity wasn’t gong to meet their needs. In Deptford, they didn’t bother with negotiating a fair price – they just took what they could…

Once the disturbances calmed down, local businesspeople and magistrates were quick to vindicate local people. ‘The hardworking individual classes took no part in this disgraceful movement’, and J. J. Barker of the Council made it clear that non-locals caused all the trouble (those pesky outside agitators again!).
A convenient whitewash would thus save High Street business. That notwithstanding, sentences for those caught were harsh and clearly motivated by personal animosity towards ‘bolshie’ indentured apprentice boys. On 25 March the magistrate Mr Traill handed down a sentence of three weeks on ‘bread and water’ to fifteen-year-old William Yarnell, an apprentice of a Mr Russell of New Cross who had accused him of being ‘obstreperous’ and being ‘a perfect terror’. The actual offence was the careless leaving open of a door!

Worth a read: Jess Steele, Turning the Tide: A history of Everyday Deptford.

E.P. Thompson , The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (Past & Present No. 50 (Feb., 1971), pp. 76-136). It’s online at:

In a strange echo of these events, between 2002 and 2004, an empty bakery in Deptford High Street was squatted and used as a social centre, named, with terrible humour, Use Your Loaf. Among many other social, political events and more, it was at Use Your Loaf that the South London Radical History Group, a project closely tied to us here at past tense, began its life in 2003:


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


Today in London’s rebel past: letterbomb sent to MP, 1972.

An explosive letter was sent to MP at House of Commons, on January 22nd, 1972.

Well we couldn’t find out much about this… saw it on a list of ‘incidents’, but haven’t found out much more. There was alot of armed activity going on at the time, what with the IRA and the Angry Brigade, doing their thang. We’re not into representative democracy, MPs can kiss our sweet backsides, but we aren’t generally in favour of letterbombs, bit too indiscriminate, and you can’t really blow up a social relationship.


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