Today in London’s rebel history: John Guy hanged for poaching, under the draconian Black Act, 1725.

Denied the right to hunt game in the forests of the rich; driven from enclosed land to the margins and struggling to get by; at the mercy of food shortages and price rises… Is it any wonder large numbers of the poor took to poaching? Many saw taking a deer from the lands of the wealthy as a right. And as the rich employed more and more keepers and guards to protect the game they occasionally hunted, the poachers increasingly went armed, and prepared to shoot back at keepers prepared to shoot or arrest them. At times in the eighteenth century, in the forests and parks, the struggle took on the character of a war. In the early 1720s, with a heavy economic depression hitting the poor hard, and resentment of the wealth of the landowning classes growing, the war over deer-stealing became headline news.

A succession of shootings led, in 1723, to a Parliament of the very wealthy passing the Black Act, the most draconian legislation ever brought in in England. The Act was so-named as its main measures were aimed at repressing the ‘Blacks’, armed poachers who went disguised with  ‘blacked’ up faces to steal deer.
Under the Black Act, any offender who was armed and with a blacked face, armed and otherwise disguised, merely blacked, merely disguised, accessories after the fact or “any other person or persons” was found in a forest, chase, down or Royal Park, they could be sentenced to death. Similarly, it was an offence to hunt, kill, wound or steal deer in these locations, with the first offence punishable by a fine, and the second by penal transportation. Other criminalised activities included fishing, the hunting of hares, the destruction of fish-ponds, the destruction of trees and the killing of cattle in these locations – the latter also punishable by death. An offender could also be executed if he set fire to corn, hay, straw, wood, houses or barns, or shot another person. The same penalties applied to attempting to rescue anyone imprisoned under the Black Act, or attempting to solicit other people to participate in crimes that violated it. In total, the Act introduced the death penalty for over 50 criminal acts.

Around London Enfield Chase, Richmond Park, and to the west, Windsor Great Park, were among the main targets of the poachers. “They went into the park on foot, sometimes with a crossbow, and sometimes with a couple of dogs, being armed always, however, with pistols for their defence. When they had killed a buck, they trussed him up and put him upon their backs, and so walked off.”

Probably the first Londoner hanged under the Black Act was John Guy, from Teddington, then on the fringes of southwest London.
“JOHN GUY, of Teddington, was indicted for hunting and killing certain Fallow Deer, the Property of Anthony Duncomb, Esq ; in his Paddock or Pk, after the 1st of June, 1723,viz. on the 1st of September last. It appearing from the Evidence of Charles George the Keeper, and others, that this Prisoner and one Biddesford (who was killed in the Pursuit) were standing arm’d in the Park, and three Deer near them worry’d and kill’d; that in their flight they turn’d upon the Pursuers, and threaten’d to shoot them with their Pistols if they did not desist and leave them, together with other Circumstances, he was found guilty of the Indictment. But his Conviction was very much contrary to his Expectation; and after Sentence was pass’d upon him, tho’ he was far from denying his Guily, he was also far from believing he should suffer Death: So that altho’ he seemed to have a true and thorough Notion of Religion and of his Duty, he nevertheless appear’d Indolent and Remiss, till the Warrant for Execution left him no hopes that he should escape the Law. Before he died, he with many Tears lamented his Distress, and express’d the dangerous Condition of his Soul.”
(Newgate Ordinary’s Account, 30th April 1725.)

Guy’s companion named in this account, here called Biddisford, was probably John Berrisford, “Jack the Wheeler’, a London wheelwright, and famous deer-stealer, who had been ‘proclaimed’ under the Black Act in March 1724, after being involved in a fight with keepers on Enfield Chase. The account of Guy’s arrest may refer to an incursion into Richmond Park, in August 1724, when Jack the Wheeler was mortally wounded, and died in Kingston Gaol. Either that, or the affray in Duncombe’s lands took place on the same night.

Hangings such as Guy’s inflamed the hatred of the poachers; and of many also who supported them against the unjust and unequal laws that punished the poor on behalf of the rich. Keepers who arrested or identified poachers were assaulted, targeted, beaten up; there were attempts to kill them.

After a long campaign of legal reform, the Black Act was repealed in 1823.

The Story of the Black Act, and the poachers war against the keepers, can be read in EP Thompson’s ‘Whigs and Hunters’.


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


Today in London’s sporting history: 1000s invade pitch at FA Cup final, Wembley, 1923.

April 28, 1923: West Ham and Bolton contested the first FA Cup Final to be played at Wembley Stadium.

The 1923 final on April 28 was the climax to English football’s most famous cup competition – but it began with scenes of chaos after a huge pitch invasion.

Bolton won the game 2-0, but the final is remembered by many for the vast crowds who took to the pitch before kick-off.

Three-and-a-half hours before a ball was kicked, thousands upon thousands of fans swarmed into the stadium and out onto the pitch. According to the FA, 125,000 supporters were expected to turn out though, such was the fervour to attend the cup final at the newly-opened stadium, it’s estimated that the actual number was closer to 300,000. That said, the attendance for the game is still officially listed as “just” 126,047.

Mounted police had to clear people from the playing surface before the match could get going. Even then crowds packed the touchlines to watch the match…

An image of one officer atop a light-coloured horse was one of the defining images of the final, with many remembering the day as the ‘White Horse Final’.

West Ham manager Charlie Paynter actually partially blamed Billy the horse for his side’s defeat, claiming that, “It was that white horse thumping its big feet into the pitch that made it hopeless. Our wingers were tumbling all over the place, tripping up in great ruts and holes”.

There’s some great photos of the day here


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

Today in London’s radical history: Spitalfields silkweavers win laws to protect their wages, 1773.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the silkweavers of London’s East End were well known for organizing collectively to defend their interests; often using violence if they had to. Their methods of struggle took a number of forms over the several centuries that the trade was strong in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Most often the journeymen weavers would be pitted against the masters, usually trying to keep wages high, exclude men working for less than the agreed rate, and sabotaging masters who paid too low… At other times organized violence was used to smash machine looms and threaten those using them, as the looms were seen as also lowering wages; in some ways the silkweavers foreshadowed the later struggles of the Luddites.

The 1760s had seen silkweavers fighting a constant violent war to keep their wage levels up, which had ended in riots, secret clubs of weavers engaging in sabotage and extortion, responded to with executions, military occupation of the area, and murder of informers. Most accounts of the struggles of the weavers end with the hangings of the ‘cutters’ in 1769… But ironically, following on from this catastrophic defeat, the silkweavers were about to win one of their biggest victories.

Although as a result of the battles of the 1760s, wage levels for silkweaving were fixed between masters and workers, nothing obliged the masters to keep to them. In 1773, further discontent broke out. Handbills circulated, addressed to weavers, coalheavers, porters and carmen (cartdrivers), to ‘Rise’ and petition the king. Silkweavers met at Moorfields on April 26th, incited by another handbill that read “Suffer yourselves no longer to be persecuted by a set of miscreants, whose way to Riches and power lays through your Families and by every attempt to starve and Enslave you…” Magistrates however met with them, and persuaded them to disperse, promising them a lasting deal.

This materialised in the form of the Spitalfields Acts. The first Act, in 1773, laid down that wages for journeymen weavers were to be set, and maintained, at a reasonable level by the local Magistrates, (in Middlesex) or the Lord Mayor or Aldermen (in the City). Employers who broke the agreed rate would be fined £50; journeymen who demanded more would also be punished, and silk weavers were prohibited from having more than two apprentices at one time.

The Act of 1792 included those weavers who worked upon silk mixed with other materials, and that of 1811 extended the provisions to female weavers.

However the Acts also correspondingly imposed fines on the journeymen for attempts to combine together… The Spitalfields weavers did manage to form a Mutual Aid Society, a Friendly Society in effect, in 1777: “some Mutual zealous, spirited and virtuous men proposed to form Aid themselves into a Society in the year 1777, or thereabouts. Society, for mutual assistance should any of their masters oppress them or refuse to abide by the prices for work authorised by the Justices according to Act of Parliament. The Society or Committee was known by the name of the Union, and was held for many years at the sign of the ‘Knave of Clubs’, in Club Row, Bethnal Green… it took the form of a Committee of delegates from each of the Benefit Clubs and Friendly Societies which were so numerous among the Spitalfields weavers.”

Its aim was “To secure the price of labour in the broad silk weaving trade, and to defray the expenses of law should any master or journeyman transgress the provisions of the Act of Parliament passed in 1773.” Run by an elected Committee and a paid secretary, met regularly at an appointed “House of Call,” in order to receive reports from the trade and weekly subscriptions from the membership, who paid a penny a week. This was the first of many attempts to form a united society of weavers, that all foundered after a shorter or longer existence, over the next hundred odd years, which according to most accounts achieved little for their members, due mainly to the decline in the East London silk trade. (Unions in silkweaving in other towns met with more success.)

The Acts did enable peaceable bargaining between masters and workers: “In 1795 a Committee, consisting of delegates from the Union of Journeymen and from a Trade Society which the masters had formed, met and agreed on a general rise of prices. They also decided the rates for newly introduced works of silk mixed with other materials which had by the Act 42 George III, Cap. 44, been brought within the scope of the original Act. This list the justices sanctioned…”

The Spitalfields Acts were renewed several times until 1824. Opinion at the time as to their effect on the local silk industry was sharply divided: in the 1810s/1820s they were the subject of a pamphlet war and verbal exchanges in the newspapers. Historians also disagree. On one hand wages were not reduced to starvation levels across the board, as had happened before. On the other it was claimed they had a negative effect on the weavers and industry; some manufacturers upped sticks and moved to other silk manufacturing towns (Macclesfield, Norwich, Manchester, Paisley and Glasgow among them); the Acts were confined to the County of Middlesex, so they shifted to where they could pay cheaper wages. It did sometimes mean that some men would be working at full rates, while others would have been laid off by masters unable, or unwilling, or who didn’t have enough work, to pay the proper rate; a slump in the trade between 1785 and 1798 forced thousands of weavers completely out of work. Although things were better between 1798 and 1815, the post-War recession bit hard; at a public meeting held at the Mansion House on 26 November 1816, for the relief of the weavers, the secretary stated that two-thirds of them were without employment and without the means of support, that ‘some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.’

The writers of some pamphlets attacking the Acts claimed that the interference of the magistrates ensured that all work was paid the same rate, machine-woven silk just as hand-woven; this, it was suggested, was handicapping masters, preventing any incentive for technological improvement… The same old argument, which again can be heard today every time workers combine to try and win higher wages – small businesses can’t afford to pay a living wage, it’ll cripple them and hobble the economy, the state should abolish as much regulation and red tape as possible; the market will set decent wages by its own mechanisms… We all know what happens when the market takes over…

By conscious and collective class struggle, the weavers forced the stare, at least locally, to guarantee a measure of living standards. Obviously the interests of the authorities was partly in social peace; but the ruling elites were divided at the time as to the merits of paternalist intervention in industry, or laissez faire, allowing manufacturers carte blanche to exploit where they would, regardless of the consequences for the workers. Rival factions in the magistracy and London merchant classes could even enter in semi-alliance with rebellious workers or sponsoring strike-breaking gangs, as in the Wapping coalheavers and sailors dispute of 1768.

But it’s also true that the gains for the weavers were partial; some workers were protected; others my have starved; and the local nature of the struggle meant that manufacturers were able to up sticks and transfer mechanised weaving elsewhere, eventually contributing to the doing-in for the Spitalfields silk industry. Limited gains are worth celebrating, but now, even more so than then, capital is always mobile, seeking ways to undercut our achivements; especially if we sit back. You have to keep pushing out the boundaries – or else they will push you back. Although there were some communications and solidarity expressed between silkweavers in different cities in the 1760s, over the next few decades the masters were able to move operations without a concerted movement to resist them. We have to be more mobile, more international, even, than them, to even resist the erosion of the little we have – never mind seizing more…


One major result of the Acts, at least between 1773 and 1824, seems to have been an end to weavers’ riots and cuttings… or any strikes at all. It is argued in pamphlets in the 1820s that the Spitalfields weavers were also diverted from radical, reforming and revolutionary politics, especially in the 1790s and 1810s when other similar groups of workers were widely attracted to such ideas. For instance, no or few weavers were supposed to have taken part in the widespread food rioting of 1795. Local anger may have also been diverted in 1795 by the opening of London’s first ever soup kitchen in Spitalfields. Its founder, Patrick Colquhoun, stated that the aim of doling out free food was to prevent the poor being attracted by revolutionary ideas at the time of the French Revolution & widespread radical activity; he was a clever theorist of controlling the troublesome workers with repression and paternalism hand in hand, and was also instrumental in forming the Thames River Police, an important forerunner of the Metropolitan Police.

Whether the weavers were bought off completely is debatable though, as they were also said to be a significant element in the London artisan radical scene in the 1790s: including the London Corresponding Society and its more conspiratorial offshoots. However it may be relevant that when Leicester framework-knitters met London trade unionists in 1812 during the Luddite upsurge, the Londoners pointed out how the workers in London weree all organised, ‘combined’, “the silkweavers excepted, and what a Miserable Condition are they in.” The Acts may have exerted some quietist influence on Spitalfields workers, keeping them from coming together again in their own interest, with the magistrates claiming to be acting for them. By 1812 certainly the silkweavers of London were allegedly involved in abortive conspiracies for an uprising with Luddites and others – they and tailors were in fact said by government spies to be the chef London end of a nebulous revolutionary organisation…(although this was possibly invented by spies to justify their pay, and eagerly believed in by authorities and manufacturers as a justification for repression.) Later Fergus O’Connor was to call the Spitalfields weavers “the originators, the prop and support of the Chartist movement.”

So if it is the case that some weavers were skint while others worked, the Acts may have worked to reduce militancy and split the weavers movement. It’s also a factor, that although the rebelliousness of the weavers pushed the local state to step in and acts as an arbitrator, in the end this disempowered the workers. By the time the Spitalfields Acts were withdrawn, the immense pressure the organised weavers could put on the masters had been dispersed, replaced by a reliance on the Magistrates; this collective power couldn’t, as it turned out, be rebuilt when it was needed.

As we said above, the division over the Acts reflects a split in attitudes to workers militancy from the autorities: whether to pacify them and reduce trouble, or condone the reduction of wages regardless, and savagely repress any resistance. Sir John Clapham noted that many masters supported the Acts, because they ensured that “the district lived in a state of quietitude and repose.”

In the 1770s the paternal idea of a local state intervention to keep the peace in everyone ‘s interest prevailed, but in the harsher times of the laissez-faire 1820s they were an expensive anachronism. Manufacturers may well have moved their business out to areas with less of a rebellious tradition however, whether the Acts had existed or not.

It is certain that Repeal of the Acts in 1824, under the ‘progressive’ Whig program of economic liberalisation, was very unpopular among weavers (an 11,000 strong petition was got up in 3 days against repeal, and there were demos at parliament) and resulted in widespread wage cuts and extreme poverty. The trade was sabotaged. But the fight had seemingly largely gone out of the weavers… Although there were some strikes, loom-cutting and window smashing, it was ineffective.
The East End’s silk weaving trade went into a serious decline in the mid-nineteenth century, although remnants lasted into recent times… But the collective power of the silkweavers of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green deserves to be remembered.

This post is largely an excerpt from the past tense text: ‘Bold Defiance’


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar


Today in London’ rebel history: Striking Coalheavers battle scabs on ships, Wapping, 1768.

For centuries London’s economy was dependent on the burning of coal. But being as not that much coal was hewn in the Brixton hills… hundreds of thousands of tons of coal used to arrive in the London docks every year.

The job of unloading coal from ships was dirty, grueling and knackering. The coalheavers of Wapping and Shadwell were famous for their heavy drinking, hard-living and potential for violence. They were also prone to a spot of collective direct action… Organised through lodges known as the “Bucks” & the “Brothers”, they went on strike several times in 18th century. Many of the coalheavers were Irish, residents of Irish-dominated areas like ‘KnockFergus’ in Cable Street.

The struggles of the coalheavers for better wages and conditions climaxed in the huge ‘river strike’ of 1768. At a time of starvation & mass unrest, movements for political reform were sparking riots in support of John Wilkes, and class struggles were erupting everywhere (most notably among the Spitalfields silkweavers).

A coal-heavers strike, over a demand for a 4d pay rise, erupted into vicious class violence: fought in and around the taverns of Wapping and Shadwell, since the heaving gangs were organised from the taverns. Some of the taverns were pro-coalheavers, some were run by ‘undertakers’ (subcontractors), like Metcalf & Green, who were hired by Alderman Beckford of Billingsgate Ward, rich coal and sugar magnate, one of the most powerful West Indies slave owners & slave traders; also a leading City of London politician. The undertakers designed methods of work to reduce wages & cut unloading times; the heavers struck as a result.

Metcalf and Green gathered scab labour at taverns; the pubs became the major theatre for the war. The Bucks met at the Horse & Dray (probably in Garnet Street) & the Brothers at the Star on Wapping Wall, and the Pewter Dish (on the river, probably where King Edward Memorial Park is). The Ship & Shears was gutted in February. The King of Prussia, on Wapping High Street ,was gutted in March.

Metcalf was keeper of Wapping’s Salutation Inn, which was destroyed by rioting coalheavers in February 1768. Green organised scab labour from his Roundabout Tavern (in Gravel Lane, now Garnet Street), which was attacked with gunfire in April: a coalheaver & a shoemaker were killed.

Armed with cutlasses and clubs, the striking coal-heavers besieged the pub until driven off by gunfire from the (now broken) windows. Next day the men returned and attempted to ‘cut [Green] to pieces and hang him on his sign’. Green retreated but retaliated by shooting dead two (or three) of the attackers. The justices did for the rest, condemning seven assailants to the gallows which had been erected on Stepney Green, but not before Green’s sister had also been brutally murdered (‘torn to death’) in retaliation.

The heavers were supported to an extent by Ralph Hodgson, a liberal paternalist Shadwell magistrate; to some extent a struggle in the City authorities between paternalism and laissez-faire capitalist ‘progressives’ was being played out, with the coalheavers as proxies.

Green was charged with murder but acquitted: his witnesses were assaulted. In May, the heavers began stopping coal carts on land, & addressing notices & petitions to wharfingers & other workers. They disciplined scabs. Also in May, sailors joined the struggle, demanding a wage rise, raising the red Flag, & ‘striking the sails’ (cutting them from the mast, giving the word ‘strike’ its modern meaning). River shipping was at a standstill. A meeting of merchants at Cornhill gave way on some demands, but a fleet arrived from Newcastle, & its sailors worked as scabs, breaking the alliance.

The coalheavers sang:

Five pounds for a sailor’s head
And twenty for a masters.
We will cut the lightermen’s throats
And murder all the meters.

By May, the masters had decided to refuse the pay rise and engaged sailors to load and unload their coal. The government assigned armed ships into the Pool. War broke out in the docks, with scores of deaths. Heavers boarded the Thames and Mary in Shadwell Dock in May & threatened to kill any sailor who carried on unloading. As sailors began to unload coal on the next day, Whit Sunday, at Shadwell Dock, a riot broke out – & a young sailor was fatally wounded. 9 coalheavers were charged with his murder: James Murphy & James Duggan were found guilty: they were hanged at Tyburn on July 11th, & their bodies given to the surgeons to dissect, while a huge crowd mourned outside, keening in Gaelic. On July 26th, 7 more Irish coalheavers were hanged at Sun Tavern Fields (just the north of the Highway, where Cable Street is), where the heavers held mass meetings. 50 000 people attended, rescue attempts were expected, so troops patrolled Wapping & Shadwell, 100s of constables enforced the event. The terrifying affect of the hanging broke the river workers resolve: troops were kept in the area till September (though 2 were killed for unloading coal), ships were protected; attempts were made though, to increase wages & reform the hiring systems of the port of London.

Magistrate Hodgson lost his seat on the bench for his paternalist approach to the heavers: repression was the order of the day.


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

Today in London’s military history: radical Mutiny in Whalley’s regiment, Bishopsgate, 1649

The class tensions thrown up on the Parliamentarian side during the English Civil War came to a head in 1649. The political and religious radicalism that had bubbled up had become a threat to the leaders of the puritan revolution. As ever, the radical bourgeoisie had aroused the aspirations of the lower orders to persuade them to fight for them, but wanted to cut short the relationship when they had achieved their limited ends (it’s not you its me – we just don’t want the same thing any more). Cromwell and the army ‘grandees’ (senior officers) had made alliances with the Levellers, the army agitators, needing their support first against king Charles I and then against the moderate Parliamentarians. But they were determined to keep a lid on the demands from below for a wider voting franchise, and an increased share in both the products of their labour and of control over their own destinies… Many were also sick of the fighting, and opposed the intention of Cromwell and Army leaders to ship more regiments to Ireland to defeat rebellion against English rule there.

The Army leaders began to impose measures to hamstring the radicals.
In February they banned petitions to Parliament by soldiers. In March 1649, John Lilburne and other Leveller leaders were arrested and held in the Tower of London. Also in March eight Leveller troopers went to the Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, Lord Thomas Fairfax, and demand the restoration of the right to petition. Five of them were cashiered out of the army.

In opposing the invasion, the mutinous soldiers reclaimed the constitutional liberties outlined in the Leveller engagements at New Market, Triploe Heath, and the 1647 Putney Debates. Although a good number of mutineers vowed that they would fight if given their arrears, many others sided with a comrade who asked, “Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder men, to make them (the grandees) as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England?” Another author, a soldier who had joined the Levellers, foresaw the same carnage and concluded, “We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent, Christian blood.” The invasion of Ireland would proceed, but not before the government made violently clear that the days of army democracy were over.

In April 1649, lots were drawn to select regiments for service in Ireland. The soldiers were told that they would not be compelled to go, but any who chose to remain in England would be dismissed from the Army. Three hundred infantrymen of Colonel Hewson’s regiment threw down their weapons and declared that they would not go to Ireland unless the Leveller demands were granted. They were promptly cashiered without arrears of pay. Discontent at their treatment spread rapidly through the Army.

On 24 April 1649, around 30 troopers under Captain John Savage, in Colonel Whalley’s regiment, refused orders to leave the City of London for a rendezvous at Mile End Green. They felt this order was in order to remove them from Leveller agitation in central London; their anger reached fever pitch. Whalley’s regiment were known for their independent character and often took up their grievances with parliament; Whalley was no Leveller, but he fully supported his men. (Whalley would become one of the ‘regicides’who signed the death warrant of Charles I).

The mutineers seized the regimental colours, took over the Bull Inn at Bishopsgate, then on the City of London’s northern edge, and refused to obey their officers’ orders, including those of Colonel Whalley himself. It was not until Fairfax and Cromwell arrived on the scene the following day that they finally backed down. Fifteen soldiers were arrested and court-martialled, of whom five were to be cashiered after riding the wooden horse. This was a common military punishment, basically a straight, narrow, horizontal pole, twelve feet long, sometimes with a sharpened upper edge to intensify the cruelty. The soldier was set astride this board, with his hands tied behind his back. Often a heavy weight was tied to each foot, as was jocularly said, “to stop his horse from throwing him.” There are reports of punishments lasting three days.

Six soldiers were sentenced to death. In a gesture of reconciliation, Cromwell pleaded for mercy and all were pardoned except for Robert Lockier (or Lockyer), a former Agitator within the regiment, who was believed to be the ringleader of the mutiny.

Lockyer had joined the New Model Army in 1642 and served with Edward Whalley’s regiment. As such it is very likely that he served at some very important battles such as Edgehill,  Gainsborough, Marston Moor and Naseby; and helped to capture both Bristol and Banbury. He was known as one of the Agitators, the radicals elements who had made alliances with the Levellers, and fought for the English Revolution to bring real social change to the lower orders.

Lockier was executed by firing squad in front of St Paul’s Cathedral on 27 April 1649. Like the funeral of Colonel Rainsborough the previous year, Lockier’s funeral occasioned a massive Leveller-led demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing ribbons of sea-green — the Levellers’ colours — and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats. This was the largest political demonstration of the civil war years.

Another mutiny followed almost immediately at Burford, also quickly put down with force and executions. The months of April and May 1649 marked the climax of radical influence, but also the beginning of the decline of real possibility, the end of the prospect of the english revolution being pushed further.


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

Today in London’s radical history: Police kill Blair Peach during anti-fascist demo, Southall, 1979.

A long post: we make no apologies for that…
Never forget.

Southall and the death of Blair Peach

In April 1979, the events of the general election were overshadowed by fighting between the police and the largely-Asian population of Southall near Heathrow in West London. The background to the events lay with the decision of the far-right National Front to hold an election meeting in Southall.

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the New Commonwealth. The National Front’s candidate, John Fairhurst, had stood in nearby Hayes and Harlington in the two 1974 elections. He wasn’t standing in Southall in the hope of securing a high vote, but because the NF thought putting up a candidate there would get them publicity. On 23 April, 2875 police officers were deployed (including 94 on horseback) to protect the NF’s right of assembly, 700 protesters were arrested, 345 of whom would be charged, 97 police officers and 64 members of the public were reported to have been injured, and one demonstrator, Blair Peach, was killed.

Three years earlier a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. Prominent local anti-racist activist Balwindar Rana remembers reading about the NF meeting in the Ealing Gazette, ‘The news spread like wildfire. People felt very angry and insulted.’

On 18 April, residents met with the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to ask him to ban the Front’s meeting. Rees declined. Instead, the Metropolitan police was instructed to keep the NF meeting open. On Sunday April 22, the day before the planned NF meeting, five thousand people marched to Ealing Town Hall to protest against the Front, handing in a petition signed by 10,000 residents. Local workplaces also agreed to strike in protest against the Front, including Ford Langley, SunBlest bakery, Walls pie factory and Quaker Oats.

Monday April 23 was St. George’s Day. Local shops, factories and transport closed at 1pm, as the demonstrators had requested and several local factories with mixed or majority white workforces voted to strike. Anti-fascist demonstrators aimed to hold a sit-down protest on the roads around the town hall and there were rumours that the police aimed to get round it by smuggling National Front members into the building long before their 7.30 meeting, even before the sit-down began at 5 p.m. According to one young Asian interviewed by the BBC, ‘We had to do something, the young people – we don’t want a situation like the East End where our brothers and sisters are being attacked every day.’

By one or two o’clock, ‘There were young people milling around. A bus went past, with skinheads on, making v-signs. Some of the young Asians started to fight the skinheads, and the police responded by fighting the Asians. Soon they were charging down the streets.’

By 3.30 in the afternoon, the entire town centre was closed, and the police declared it a ‘sterile’ area, meaning that it was free of anti-racists. Heavy rain began to fall. Large numbers of people found themselves on the wrong side of police barricades. The tension rose, reaching its peak at around 6pm.

‘The police used horses, they drove vans into the crowd, fast to push us back. They used snatch squads. People rushed back with bricks, or whatever they could pick up.’ The whole area was now in chaos. The links between the protesters had broken down: individuals ran into the park to hide from the cops, or took shelter in local homes.

The police decided to close down the ‘Peoples Unite’ building, which anti-racist demonstrators were using as their headquarters. Those inside were given ten minutes to leave. Police officers, formed up along the stairs, and beat people as they tried to escape. Tariq Ali was in the building, bleeding from his head. Clarence Baker, the pacifist manger of reggae band Misty and the Roots, was hurt so badly that he went into a coma. The building itself was so badly damaged by the police action, it had to be pulled down. Officers with batons smashed medical equipment, a sound system, printing and other items.

At least three protesters suffered fractured skulls. Others were beaten until they lost consciousness. Caroline, then an active member of the Anti-Nazi League in Ealing, spent the night driving between Southall and Heathrow: ‘Many of the Asian kids that the police arrested, they beat them up for a bit, and then they took them out of London. They dropped them in the middle of nowhere, on the side of motorways, nowhere near telephones or anything. These young kids were confused, crying. The police just wanted to humiliate them.’

Perminder Dhillon describes her memories of the day. ‘Around ten, many of us gathered to watch the news at a restaurant where Rock Against Racism and Indian music had been blaring out all evening, drowning out the National Front speakers inside the town hall. Their heads still bleeding, people saw the Commissioner of Police, the Home Secretary, and other “experts” on the black community condemning the people of Southall for their unprovoked attack on the police! As usual, only pictures of injured policemen were shown – nothing of the pregnant women being attacked and the countless other police assaults.’

Blair Peach, a 33-year-old teacher, was somewhere in this crowd on the Broadway. After the bus had passed, the police made concentrated efforts to clear the area, bringing in more officers, including Special Patrol Group officers in vans. Some protesters tried to escape by heading down side streets. Most of these led the demonstrators away from trouble, but Beachcroft Avenue, a narrow residential road, just led onto another road, Orchard Avenue, which returned to the main road near the town hall and the heaviest concentration of police numbers. At about 7.45 Peach and the four friends who’d gone with him to the demonstration decided to leave the Broadway and turned into Beachcroft Avenue, which was not blocked by the police. Peach and Amanda Leon, who had agreed to stick together, were behind the others. Leon told the inquest that she heard police sirens and saw a row of police officers with shields and truncheons. She then saw a police officer hit Peach on the head from behind with a truncheon. She too was hit on the head but by a different officer. The papers released with the Cass Report show that, according to the police, six demonstrators received head injuries on 23 April, three of them (Peach, Leon and an unnamed Asian man) on Beachcroft or Orchard Avenue.

A local resident, Balwant Atwal, told the inquest that at about 7.30-8 p.m. she saw blue vans coming down Beachcroft Avenue: ‘They were coming very fast − as they came round Beachcroft Avenue, they stopped. I saw policemen with shields come out − people started running and the police tried to disperse them. I saw police hitting. I saw a white man standing there … The police were hitting everybody. People started running, some in the alley, some in my house … I saw Peach, I then saw the policeman with the shield attack Peach.’

In her account, which was accepted by Cass, Peach was just turning the corner from Beachcroft to Orchard Avenue when a police officer with a shield in his left hand and a truncheon in his right hit him. She then saw Peach sit down, and a police constable, later identified as James Scottow, go over to him. Peach was leaning against a wall and Scottow, who said he thought Peach was hiding from the police charge, shouted at him to move on. (A police internal investigation found that, given the ‘confusion and general tension’, Scottow had not neglected his duty towards Peach.) Peach was taken into 71 Orchard Avenue by the Atwal family, who let him lie on their sofa and gave him water. An ambulance was called at 8.12 p.m. Peach was admitted to intensive care with a fractured skull, and, despite surgery, died just after midnight.

Anna’s daughter Miriam was attacked on the same road:

‘They were going home. The streets were covered in glass. Then they heard a siren. Someone shouted “run”. They ran into a side alley, then into this garden. They’d already seen what the SPG was up to. Six officers with truncheons got Miriam in a corner and hit her. She’d never known anything like that. When they stopped, they said, “We’ll be back for you later.” She had blood everywhere. One local Asian family took her in, and offered her sugary tea. Later she went to the St. John’s Ambulance. She still gets pains from where they hit her.’

In the aftermath of Southall, the papers swung overwhelmingly behind the police. The Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph all covered the story as their front-page lead. The headlines included, ‘BATTLE OF HATE. Election Riot: Police Hurt, 300 arrested’, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’, ‘300 HELD IN RIOT AT NF DEMO’, and ‘300 ARRESTED AT POLL RIOT’. One edition of the Daily Mail went furthest in deliberately confusing the racists and the anti-racists, proclaiming, ‘RACE RIOTERS BATTLE WITH POLICE ARMY’. The press depicted a mix race group of young anti-racists as violent, aggressive thugs – as much a threat to society as the real criminals of the National Front.

But for the vast majority of Southall residents, and thousands in communities increasingly under attack from the police and racists, the murder of Blair Peach became a symbol of the unjustified use of police violence. Fifteen thousand people marched the following Saturday, in honour of Blair Peach, with Ken Gill speaking, from the TUC. Workers at SunBlest bakery raised £800 for Peach’s widow.

For the next week, protesters were everywhere, flyposting, speaking, organising, discussing the lessons of the police riot. The police were around, in very large numbers, but they did not dare to stop people from organising. It was almost as if the police were shamed by the enormity of what they had done.

Rock Against Racism brought out a special leaflet, Southall Kids are Innocent, ‘Southall is special. There have been police killings before … But on April 23rd the police behaved like never before … The police were trying to kill our people. They were trying to get even with our culture … What free speech needs martial law? What public meeting requires 5,000 people to keep the public out?’

For eight weeks, Peach’s body was left unburied, while people paid their respects. Queues formed outside the Dominion Theatre, where his body remained. According to one source, Peach’s death had ‘particular reverence for the predominantly Sikh Punjabi community, both as a white man who chose to assist them and thereby defend their right to reside in the country, and as an enemy of tyrannous oppressors whose struggles with the Sikhs are still talked of and remembered in popular bazaar calendar art.’ 10,000 people attended his funeral.

The inquest into Peach’s death was a masterpiece of whitewashing even for the relatively authoritarian approach of the era. The coroner, John Burton, was determined to close off lines of inquiry that would be implicitly critical of the police. He regularly interrupted lawyers acting for Peach’s family, sowing confusion everywhere and acting as if his primary business was to divert attention from the only credible explanation for Peach’s killing: that he had been hit on the head, whether accidentally or deliberately, by a member of the Special Patrol Group, the only police officers on Orchard Avenue at the time. He refused the request of Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury (though this was reversed by the Court of Appeal)

Burton also refused to let the jury or Peach’s family see the Cass Report into the events, which had already been completed. At the same time as seeking a jury, the family sought a judicial review of the coroner’s refusal to disclose all the statements and interview notes that underpinned the Cass Report. This application failed, on the grounds that the statements were the property of the police, and natural justice could not help Peach’s family to obtain them since he was accused of nothing, and justice could only succeed in protecting him from allegations, not in helping to identify how he had died.

Burton also tried to muddy the waters by suggesting that there were two alternate theories of Peach’s death – that a left-wing ‘fanatic’ had struck Peach on the head in order to create a ‘martyr’ (a regular practice of us lefties everywhere, you’ll find); or that he had been killed by the police. Burton failed to mention that this was the central finding of the investigation into Peach’s killing carried out by the police themselves.

No-one else had suggested that anyone else had killed Peach. Ten people had seen police hit him over the head. One distinguished pathologist Professor Mant, commented on the damage done to Blair Peach’s skull, with an instrument that had not pierced his skin. He concluded that the murder weapon was probably not a truncheon, but more likely a cosh, or possibly a police radio.There was also a considerable weight of circumstantial evidence, including a raid in June 1979 on the lockers of the SPG officers who had been at Southall which found a number of offensive weapons, including a leather-covered stick, two knives, a very large truncheon, a crowbar, a metal cosh and a whip. Since the medical evidence seemed to suggest that Peach had been struck by a weapon other than a baton the raid was relevant – it was relied on by Peach’s family in their application for a jury.

There was no rational basis on which to deny that Peach had been killed by a police officer. The only matter which should have been in dispute was whether the killing had been lawful; in other words, whether the officer who killed Peach had had a lawful reason for striking him – namely, self-defence or to restore order. The theory the coroner was pressing on the jury was that the violence of other demonstrators elsewhere in Southall was so outrageous that it justified any degree of retaliatory force. But not a single police witness had suggested that Peach or the people around him had done anything to justify the officers’ charge.

On 27 May the following year, the inquest jury reached a verdict in Peach’s case of death by misadventure. This was a huge blow to Blair’s family and his partner Celia Stubbs. But the jurors had not been given access to all the relevant information. Soon after Peach’s death, Commander John Cass, chief of the Metropolitan Police’s Complaints Investigation Bureau, carried out an internal inquiry into the killing. It was a substantial piece of work: Cass was assisted by thirty police officers, the inquiry took 31,000 hours of police time, and, including interview transcripts, the complete report was 2500 pages long. It found that Peach’s killer was one of six police officers, with one clear principal suspect, and that three of the six should be prosecuted for attempting to frustrate the investigation. Counsel for the police and the coroner both had access to the report but went out of their way to conceal its findings from everyone else involved in the inquest. The Cass Report was suppressed; the coroner dismissed the idea that police had killed Blair before the inquest was over, and fired off racist and right-wing attacks on any witnesses who said they had seen officers hit him. The Home Office also suppressed some of his letters with regard to the inquest on the grounds that if anyone read them, it would bring the office of corner into disrepute.

Two papers, the Sunday Times and the Leveller, published leaks naming the officers that had travelled in the van that held Peach’s killer. They were Police Constables Murray, White, Lake, Freestone, Scottow and Richardson. When the lockers of their unit were searched in June 1979, one officer Greville Bint was discovered to have in his lockers Nazi regalia, bayonets and leather covered sticks. Another constable Raymond White attempted to hide a cosh. No officer was ever prosecuted.

On 13 June 1979, Peach was buried. Ten thousand people joined the procession. Another ten thousand marched through Southall again in memory of Blair Peach the following year. A school was named after him and further memorials have been organised since.

The Cass Report wouldn’t be published until 2010, a year after Ian Tomlinson died, having wandered into the protests against the G20 summit and been struck on the leg and pushed to the ground by a police officer. Tomlinson’s death encouraged Peach’s family to ask again for the Cass Report to be released. Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, agreed to do so. The inquest into Tomlinson’s death resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, which made possible the criminal prosecution for manslaughter of PC Simon Harwood. (He was acquitted.) The finding of death by misadventure in Peach’s case made any prosecution impossible, despite there being a strong argument for a second inquest. The High Court can order one, as it did on the Hillsborough disaster. Of that case Lord Judge, then lord chief justice, held that ‘it seems to us elementary that the emergence of fresh evidence which may reasonably lead to the conclusion that the substantial truth about how an individual met his death was not revealed at the first inquest, will normally make it both desirable and necessary in the interests of justice for a fresh inquest to be ordered.’ This statement is clearly applicable to Peach’s case.

As of December 2009, the Crown Prosecution Service was reviewing the internal report and said it would advise police as to whether further action should be taken. Here the sound of people holding their breath in West London? Me neither.

The reports into the death of Blair Peach were published on the Metropolitan Police website on 27 April 2010. The conclusion was that Blair Peach was killed by a police officer, but that the other police officers in the same unit had refused to cooperate with the inquiry by lying to investigators, making it impossible to identify the actual killer.

The Metropolitan Police report stated that an SPG policeman, identified as Officer E, was “almost certainly” the one whose assault killed Peach. Alan Murray, at the time an inspector in charge of SPG Unit One and now a lecturer in Accounting and Corporate Responsibility at Sheffield University, has admitted that he believes himself to be Officer E, but has denied killing Peach. Murray was described as “young and forceful” by the report, lied to investigators, and refused to participate in identity parades; to this day he wears the beard which it is suspected he originally grew to impede identification in case he were compelled to do so.

Thirty-five years later it might seem that things haven’t changed much. There have been many further deaths: Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a member of the Territorial Support Group, the successor to the SPG. More than 750 people died in police custody between 1994 and 2013, but there have been barely a dozen inquest verdicts of unlawful killing and just eight prosecutions, some of multiple officers – none succeeded. The rules about the use of truncheons are looser now than in 1979: then they were to be used only in ‘extreme’ cases, and were not to be aimed at the head; now the Association of Chief Police Officers says batons may be used to ‘protect officers, demonstrate that force is about to be/may be used, [or] facilitate dispersal and/or arrest … The level of force should be reasonable and proportionate’ (although some forces have published local guidance which is more prescriptive). Alfie Meadows was hit on the head with a truncheon in 2010 during demonstrations against student tuition fees and had to have emergency surgery. Police bloggers claimed, as the coroner had in Peach’s case, that Meadows had been hurt by another protester, not a police officer. Meadows was charged with public order offences and, following a first trial which ended in a hung jury and a second trial which was aborted after repeated delays, was acquitted at a third trial two and half years after the original incident.

Some of this post is stolen from an article by David Renton


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

Today in London’s radical history: last issue of German anarchist paper Die Autonomie appears, 1893.

Die Autonomie  ( London) November 1886-1893, was a German-language anarchist paper, produced in London. It was associated with the group of anarchists around the Autonomie Club, and advocated anarchist-communism. The main movers in the paper’s creation were Josef Peukert and Otto Rinke. Like hundreds of other German socialists and anarchists, they had been forced to flee Germany by fierce state repression; many other leftwing activists had been jailed. However there were still brave individuals and groups prepared to carry on organizing and spreading ideas in Germany, and many of the exiles maintained regular contact, and carried out printing of materials to be smuggled into Germany. Many German exiles fled to London, where tolerance of migrants and of leftwing ideas made for a somewhat easier life. London was host to large migrant French and Italian anarchist groups as well.

Die Autonomie was largely a successor to an earlier paper, Der Rebell (work out what that means!), which had been produced by Peukert and Rinke together with Emil Werner.

Peukert had become involved in distributing the legendary anarchist paper, Freiheit, published by Johann Most, but became increasingly critical of Most. During the 1880s he became the leader of a radical fraction who were believers in the concept of Propaganda of the deed, and which espoused total decentralization of the anarchist movement and a communist economics based on the principle ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’. But these anarchist-communists fell out with the anarcho-collectivist wing, who took their inspiration from Bakunin; in London these were grouped around Victor Dave.

The paper was mainly intended to be smuggled into Germany, since the London German exiles were still principally concerned with events and propaganda there. Although the German police made great efforts to repress all socialist publications, and to stem the flow of illegal publications brought in clandestinely from abroad, the exiles found many sympathisers willing to risk prison (and death) to convey copies into Germany. Berlin Police President Von Richtofen wrote that the police had been able to confiscate few copies of die Autonomie, and neither were they able to arrest anyone for smuggling it into the country. However, they swere abler to put pressure on the British police, who hounded anarchists, especially foreign ones; the exiles suffered severe harassment. Another aspect of the anarchist scene at the time was its penetration by numbers of police spies, sponsored both by the English police and by the police from the home countries of the various exiles. Suspicion, paranoia were rife, but in many cases, justifiably.

The Autonomie group became embroiled in a deadly feud with Dave’s group, partly around personal jealousies and partly due to political differences. As a result Peukert’s group had been expelled from the anarchist club in Whitfield Street, Fitzrovia, by Dave’s group, and had set up a new club of their own in nearby Charlotte Street (they later moved to new premises in Windmill Street, off Tottenham Court Road.) But these disputes were to become further inflamed because of Peukert’s friendship with Theodor Reuss. Victor Dave did not trust Reuss, accusing him of being a police spy. Reuss was expelled from the English Socialist League, (of which Dave was a member), but Peukert refused to believe the accusation. Both sides were flinging accusations at each other of being informants, traitors and worse. The episode severely damaged the reputation of Peukert, and also Dave, and led to splits that beset the anarchist movement in Europe, England and America. However, the rumours about Reuss proved to be true: in 1887, Peukert went with Reuss to Belgium, where Reuss passed information to the police leading to the arrest of Johann Neve, a major organiser for the smuggling of anarchist propaganda, arms and explosives into Germany. Neve was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, where he died, or was killed.

Police raids on anarchist clubs, notably on the Autonomie Club in February 1894, hysterical press campaigns, and some mob violence against anarchist meetings, largely broke up what had been a growing anarchist movement in the early 1890s. Peukert left for the USA, where he continued to feud with Johann Most and would become influential on a whole new strand of anarchists.

There is more on this story in:
John Henry Mackay, The Anarchists
John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse, the Lost History of the British Anarchists.
Hermia Oliver, The International Anarchist Movement in late Victorian London.

Interestingly, die Autonomie left a legacy on later anarchist traditions in London, in that it was largely reading the paper that Rudolf Rocker’s became converted to anarchism. Although he had already encountered anarchist ideas as a result of his contacts to Die Jungen in Berlin, his adoption of anarchism did not take place until the International Socialist Congress in Brussels in August 1891. He was heavily disappointed by the discussions at the congress, as it, especially the German delegates, refused to explicitly denounce militarism. He was rather impressed by the Dutch socialist and later anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, who attacked Liebknecht for his lack of militancy. Rocker got to know Karl Höfer, a German active in smuggling anarchist literature from Belgium to Germany. Höfer gave him Bakunin’s God and the State and Kropotkin’s Anarchist Morality, two of the most influential anarchist works, as well as the newspaper die Autonomie. Rocker would go on to be a mainstay of the East End Jewish anarchist movement, which would become strong and influential in East London in the years immediately prior to World War 1.


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

Today in London’s rebel past: London Apprentices march to demand restoration of holidays banned by puritans, 1647

The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

So when the puritan regime that had taken control of Parliament during the English civil war years began to impose a leaner and more moralistic society, it didn’t go down well with the apprentices…

In 1647, having largely beaten king Charles I in the war, Parliament declared that it was planning to ban all of the old public holidays – Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, Saints Days and the like. Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. Not only were they all relics of the old catholic church, idolatrous expressions of what the puritans saw as worldly heresy, but they also encouraged immorality of all kinds, and could easily end up in riots or insurrections. (In fact a repression of such popular culture was in swing throughout all of Europe, catholic and protestant). An ordinance in 1644 closing down many of the festivals had been implemented previously, to limited effect and some resistance.

On April 20th 1647 a march of apprentices took place, from Covent Garden to Westminster, to protest at the plan. They petitioned Parliament to replace the banned holidays with a day off of their own.

However Parliament pressed ahead, issuing the Ordinance on June 8th: “Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”

The apprentices threatened a mass meeting; at a time when the captive king was negotiating a peace with the parliament, but some of the moderate elements at Westminster were plotting with him, and the New Model Army was threatening to march on London. More disorder from the apprentices wasn’t what Parliament needed at this time. They partially caved in, granting “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”…

But the apprentices were not a homogenous mob. Different political opinions were distributed amongst them, although certain trades often adhered to strand of ideas, and some wards were known for particular politics.

The discontent of the apprentices left some of them vulnerable to manipulation by agents of the royalist party, poised to exploit popular agitation against the government. Although in the early days of the civil war thousands of apprentices had taken up the parliamentary cause, some were now willing to side with the king. One faction was pressing for the king’s return to power, albeit with a negotiated settlement of some of the original grievances that had led to war. In July, a mass meeting of apprentices and watermen pledged to support the king. This, together with threatening clouds of royalist intrigue, led to the New Model Army’s march on London in late July and August:

“This occasioned a great tumult, which originated in Moorfields, and agitated the metropolis for a couple of days. It is said that, but for the vigorous action of Fairfax, the Government would have been overthrown. The people mastered a part of the trainbands, seized their drums and colours, beat up for recruits, then forming into something like military order, they surprised Newgate and Ludgate in the night, and seized the keys. The rioters divided into two parties: one marched upon Whitehall, but were discomfited en route; the other ranged the city, possessing themselves of ordnance, arms, and ammunition. Prompt measures were, however, taken at a council of war, and Fairfax, entering the city at the head of two regiments, put several to the sword, took many prisoners, and dispersed the rest.”

The puritans were to press forward with the repression of festivals, however, banning much of the pageantry associated with Christmas; however riots and disorder continued to disrupt their purse-mouthed prudery…


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

Today in London radical history: Expulsions of strike leaders from TGWU sparks dock strike, 1950.

‘The principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ said Labour leader Clem Atlee on July 26th 1945, the day before Labour took office after its historic landslide in the khaki election. The received wisdom runs thus: the generation that had been through World War II, following on from the desperate times of the 1930s, elects a radical Labour majority which resolves to act on behalf of the working class and transform society in the interests of the producers of the wealth… Among the gains that follow, the NHS is born, the skeleton of the welfare state is built into protection for all, from cradle to grave, crucial industries are nationalized.

Of course there is a kernel of truth here. But as much as some of what was created then has become a vital part of our lives, the radicalism of the ’45 Labour government very much had its limits. They were determined that the reforms they were set on implementing would go only so far; and that they would set the pace, change would be undertaken FOR the workers, not BY them. Those groups who pushed for things to be taken too far would be reined in. Many of the Labour leadership had been part of the wartime coalition government, and were well accustomed to using the apparatus of state repression when necessary. It didn’t take them very long to begin using it against the workers they claimed to be acting on behalf of, when demands for a tiny bit more of the pie didn’t fit their plans.

Not long at all – less than a week, in fact. Within a few days of being elected the Labour government sent troops in to the Surrey Docks, London, to help break a dockers’ ‘go-slow’ which had been going
 on for ten weeks. In the following six years the army was to be used to break strikes tens of times – often in the docks, a major venue of struggle in the late ‘40s.

At the same time, the hierarchy of the Transport & General Workers Union were attempting to keep down militancy, keep men at work, and control activists and unofficial leaders it considered as too radical. Often an alliance of union leadership, employers and government representatives would be mustered against the dockers. But when the T&G leaders proved incapable of controlling the workers and keeping their demands to a ‘reasonable’ level, the soldiers would be wheeled in. This hardened the union leadership’s resolve to expel ‘troublemakers’, as a union that can’t guarantee control over its membership starts to become redundant in the eyes of capital and the state.

MAY 1949 saw the most vicious piece of strike breaking in the whole history of the Labour Government. The Canadian Seamen’s Union was involved in a strike against wage cuts. On May 14. the ‘Montreal City’, which had been worked across the Atlantic by a blackleg crew provided by the International Seafarers’ Union, (an organization affiliated to the American Federation of Labour and having very few members on Canada’s Eastern seaboard.)arrived at Avonmouth. Dockers refused to unload the ‘black’ ship. On May 16 the employers threatened to penalise the dockers for this refusal. This brought out all Avonmouth dockers, in a lightning strike. The employers then said they would hire no labour for other ships until the dockers hand-led the ‘black’ ship. The strike had become a lock-out.

On May 22, 600 Bristol dockers came out in solidarity with the Avonmouth men. Three days later lockgate men and tugmen in Avonmouth also came out in support, refusing to handle ships until the Avonmouth dockers were allowed to work again. They were promptly suspended. On May 27, the Labour Government sent troops to unload a banana ship in Avonmouth. Crane drivers promptly refused to work alongside the troops.

The same day a ‘black’ ship was diverted from Avonmouth to Liver-pool. Merseyside dockers refused to handle her and 45 of them were suspended. One thousand Liverpool dockers then joined the strike. On May 30, 1,400 more dockers in Liverpool came out. The Avonmouth men instructed their ‘lock-out Committee’ to seek support from other ports.

On June 2, troops began unloading all the ships lying in Avonmouth dock. About 11,000 dockers had by now joined the strike. On June 6, merchant seamen manning the ‘Trojan Star’ refused to sail her out of Avonmouth because the lockgates were manned by troops. Other seamen also joined in. On June 14, the Avonmouth dockers returned to work. But the struggle had meanwhile flared up in London where employers refused to hire labour for newly arrived ships unless the ‘black’ Canadian ships ‘Argomont’ and ‘Beaverbrae’ were unloaded. By July 5, over 8,000 London dockers were on strike.

On July 7, troops were moved into various London docks to unload ships. Drivers of meat haulage firms and fruit and vegetable firms said they would not carry goods unloaded by troops.

On July 8, the Labour Government announced it would proclaim a State of Emergency on July 11. The only effect was to ensure that Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen also joined in. Over 10,000 dockers were now on strike. On July 12 the Government started pouring blackleg troops into the docks. Another 3,000 dockers came out. The Executive of the Lightermen’s Union told their members not work alongside the troops.

The Labour Government had got itself into a thorough mess. It now started issuing Emergency Regulations. It set up an Emergency Committee, headed by a former Permanent Under-secretary at the Home Office, Sir Arthur Maxwell, to run the docks. It is not known if Sir Arthur was later issued with an honorary membership card from Transport House … for services rendered.

By July 20, over 15,000 men were on strike. They only returned to work on July 22 when the Canadian Seamen’s Union, having obtained certain concessions, withdrew their pickets from certain ships and announced that they were terminating their dispute, so far as Britain was concerned.

When the strike was over, the T&G hierarchy determined to discipline some of the unofficial leaders of the strike.

In MARCH 1950, the Transport & General Workers Union bureaucrats expelled three dockers from the union because of the active part they had played in the Canadian Seamen’s strike a few months earlier. A mass meeting of dockers was called by the Portworkers Defence Committee, an ‘unofficial’ rank-and-file body. On March 26, a ban on overtime was decided. The ban was temporarily withdrawn on April 3, but when, on April 18, the appeals of the three expelled men were rejected a protest strike started in the Royal Group. By April 21, 9,000 dockers were out. Mass meetings called for a ballot of portworkers to decide whether the action of the union leaders should be upheld. On April 24, the Labour Government moved troops into the docks. This worked like a charm: a further 4,500 dockers joined the strike.

The London Dock Labour Board then made threatening noises. All those who didn’t report for work by May 1st would ‘have their registrations cancelled’ (i.e. would be expelled from the industry). On April 29, a mass meeting decided to return to work and to fight the expulsions through the branches.

Well worth a read: The Labour Government vs. The Dockers 1945-1951.


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

Today in London’s radical history: anti-nuclear sitdown in Whitehall, 1961

The Committee of 100 formed in 1960, with the aim of stepping up protest against the use, testing and development of nuclear weapons. The Committee’s first demonstration, announced by Committee luminary Bertrand Russell, was to be a four-hour sit-down outside the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall on 18th February 1961, timed to coincide with the arrival of nuclear warship ‘Proteus’ in the Clyde.

The Committee had resolved only to go forward with the demo if they had a guarantee that a sizable number of people would take part. To this end they attempted to get anti-nuclear activists to pledge to take part and sit down, risking arrest for obstruction. A minimum of two thousand pledged was agreed on – although a number of the organisers seriously doubted this would be reached. By 21st January only 500 had pledged, and there was talk of calling the sitdown off…. But in the event 2000 did pledge to take part by Feb 11th, and on the day, over 2000 participated in the sitdown protest, with another 3-4000 supporting. This was a large event for the anti-nuclear movement. Bertrand Russell attached a notice to the door of the MoD, demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain, an calling on people everywhere to “rise up against the monstrous tyranny… of the nuclear tyrants, East and West.”

On the day the police backed off, and there were no arrests. Press reports were largely sympathetic. However, a build up of support for the Committee, and a sustained campaign of direct action over the summer, led to a hardening of attitudes. At the next sitdown in Trafalgar Square there were mass arrests…


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