We Remember… Today in London’s radical past:

The unemployed try to seize Islington Town Hall, 1921.

On 3rd January 1921, a group of local unemployed organised a march on Islington Town Hall, planning to seize it, and use it as a social centre and meeting/organizing space.

This followed the eviction of the unemployed from the Essex Road Library, (which had been built during World War 1, but was immediately requisitioned as a Food Control office). At the end of the war the economy became depressed, and unemployment rocketed, fuelled by the demobbing of hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen. Local agitations around welfare, reducing overtime for those in work to enable the unemployed to get jobs, and so on, led to the creation of unemployed actions groups. The Islington unemployed were at first granted use of the Library by EH King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, but in December 1920 King called on the police to eject them. The Council cut off the light and water, but to no avail, food and candles and water were brought in. Although held by force for a few weeks, it was then stormed by a few cops early one morning and evicted. King followed this up with a violent attack on the unemployed ‑ the vast majority of whom were ex‑servicemen ‑ describing them as ‘unemployables’ and accusing the organisation of financial dishonesty.’

In response the unemployed group plotted to occupy the Town Hall on January 3rd 1921.

Unfortunately their plans leaked out, and their raiding party, about 500 strong, was beaten off. Having marched on the Town Hall, demanding to see Islington’s mayor EH King; and been told he was not at home, they tried to charge into the building, but large no of cops beat them off… A battle developed in Upper Street, and quite a few marchers were nicked, some were had up for obstruction, or possession of offensive weapons, (lead pipes, daggers, bottles of petrol, and one fire-arm!) Many arrested were from Tottenham and Edmonton, as the local group had called in support from other North London groups. All three of these areas had very large and active unemployed groups, emerging from the strong working class movements that had grown up pre-WW1 (many of who were also active in opposing the war, through groups like the North London Herald League [NLHL].)

The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the local Labour Guardians voted to rescind an increase in outdoor relief (dole paid to unemployed not forced into the workhouse) to which they had earlier agreed.

Among the leaders of the Islington unemployed agitation were Harry Lynch and H. E. Martin, both of whom seem to have been associated with the NLHL; Martin had also been a member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation.

This was the most interesting and radical phase of the post-war unemployed movement. Later in 1921, hundreds of local unemployed groups federated to form the National Unemployed Workers Movement. However, the increasing control of the Communist Party over the NUWM led to a much more hierarchical structure, less grassroots and local control and initiative, and a concentration on national stunts like the hunger marches.

More on this can be found in:

Don’t be a Soldier: The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918, Ken Weller.

• Unemployed Struggles, 1919-1936: My Life and Struggles Amongst the Unemployed. London: Lawrence and Wishart, n.d. [1936], Wal Hannington

We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, 1920-46, Richard Croucher, 1987.

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