Today in London’s rebel history: disabled suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst born, Lewisham, 1875.

Rosa May Billinghurst (1875-1953) was born and raised in Lewisham, London. As a child, she contracted an illness which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her condition did not, however, deter her from joining the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union in 1907 or becoming one of its best known militants.

In her youth, Billinghurst and her sister Alice volunteered to work with poor children in the Deptford slums, local workhouse inmates, and prostitutes. Exposure to these injustices may have contributed to her interest in women’s suffrage and inspired her to join the Women’s Liberal Association. When a branch of the WSPU opened in Lewisham, she quickly switched allegiances to this new group, whose political agenda was a better match to her own ideas than the the Liberal platform was.

Lewisham WSPU Banner, www.sheilahanlon.comBillinghurst was a dedicated WSPU member. She organised events and meetings, took part in demonstrations, was a regular in processions, and served as secretary of the Greenwich branch. Without the use of her legs, she relied on an invalid tricycle for the mobility she needed to be a full participant in the suffrage action. Her invalid tricycle was, for the time, a high tech wheelchair modeled on a tricycle and propelled by hand controls.

Billinghurst was a regular participant in the WSPU’s public processions. She attracted public attention by appearing dressed in white and wheeling along with her machine decked out in coloured WSPU ribbons and “Votes for Women” banners. Billinghurst rose to prominence as a recognizable public figure and became known as “the cripple suffragette.”

In addition to being a regular fixture at peaceful protests, Billinghurst was drawn to militant action and demonstrations. In 1910, she participated in Black Friday, leading the police to try to subdue her by knocking her out of her tricycle, pushing it down a side street, removing the valves from the tyres, and restraining her arms. Never easily deterred, she was back a few days later for the next protest, only this time she came prepared to use her tricycle as a battering ram to get through police lines.

The image above, taken by an unknown photographer in 1908, shows Billinghurst in a crowd surrounded by police. She may be under arrest or at a demonstration supporting fellow suffragettes who were incarcerated. She was arrested herself several times, including an incident in November 1911 when she was charged with obstructing police in Parliament Square. These charges were likely justified. Recalling her impressions of Billinghurst, one veteran of the suffrage movement wrote, “I remember hearing startling stories of her running battles with the police. Her crutches were lodged on each side of her self propelling invalid chair, and when a meeting was broken up or an arrest being made, she would charge the aggressors at a rate of knots that carried all before her.”

Billinghurst at a protestBillinghurst’ efforts earned her several prison terms. In March 1912, she took part in the WSPU window smashing campaign, for which she received one month’s hard labour. Doctor Alice Ker who was in jail at the time wrote to her daughters in April that year that “Miss Billinghurst, the tricycle lady, is going out on the 11th and will take this (letter). She is quite lame, wears irons on her legs and walks with crutches when she is out of her tricycle.”

Billinghurst received another eight month sentence for her role in the December 1912 attacks on pillar boxes. This time she took part in the hunger strikes. She was released early following brutal force feeding sessions that left her in poor health and with broken teeth. She wrote and protested force feeding once she was released, publishing graphic accounts of her experience in suffrage journals and inspired Keir Hardie and George Lansbury to raise the atrocities of force feeding in parliament.

In the years after the suffrage era, Billinghurst remained committed to the cause, joining the Suffragette Fellowship and supporting Christabel Pankhurst’s election campaign for The Women’s Party in 1918.

Rosa May Billinghurst is an inspiring example of a suffragette who overcame disability to become an active participant in the battle for women’s emancipation. Her story reminds us that suffrage was a cause that mattered to women of all types, across class, race, ability, nationality and other divides.

(nicked, wholesale, from Sheila Hanlon’s excellent blog: sometimes someone else just said it better orl reddy)


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


Today in London’s literary history: Playwright Christopher Marlowe murdered, 1593, Deptford.

 “Almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheisme, willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both God and His ministers.”

Playwright, poet, genius… he was the leading literary figure of his day. Until his violent death… In the late 1580s and early ‘90s, he had established a reputation as late Elizabethan England’s most original and influential playwright. At the height of his fame, aged only 29, Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford on 30 May 1593.

After his death, and building up in the subsequent centuries, a web of myth and legend has grown up around Marlowe, and his death. According to most historical opinion, he had worked for the state as a spy (recruited when he was at Cambridge: a cliché that would run and run); he was accused, a few days before his death, of holding atheistical opinions, and, it was hinted, he was homosexual. After his death, this picture of him was quickly promulgated, and used to blacken his name (and clear his killers).

Various theories have been put forward as to the circumstances of his death, with suggestions that he was caught up in the power struggles of the Elizabethan secret state, or that he was a freethinker, linked to a network of atheists and proto-enlightenment figures… or both of the above.

Marlowe had been arrested on Sunday 20th May 1593, on a charge of atheism, which was heresy, a serious crime for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. Despite the seriousness of the charge, however, he was not immediately imprisoned or tortured on the rack, as his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd had been. He was granted bail on condition he reported daily to an officer of the Court. But he was killed just a few days later.

Marlowe was stabbed to death in a room that had been hired for a private meeting in a respectable house in Deptford (not in a tavern as the story usually goes), owned by Dame Eleanor Bull, a lady with Court connections. Besides Marlowe three men were said to have been present; Robert Poley: longtime government agent, who carried the Queen’s most secret and important letters in post to and from the courts of Europe; Ingram Frizer, personal servant and business agent of Marlowe’s patron, the wealthy Thomas Walsingham, (cousin of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who had created the espionage service which protected Queen Elizabeth’s life from the on-going Catholic assassination plots. Thomas Walsingham had assisted his illustrious cousin as his right-hand man and was himself a master-spy); and Nicholas Skeres: also part of the Walsingham spy machine.

Since Marlowe also enjoyed both the friendship and the patronage of Thomas Walsingham, (at whose estate, Scadbury in Kent, he was staying at the time of his arrest, having gone there to escape the plague in London), Walsingham therefore can be seen to be connected with all four of these men.

The official Coroner’s Report reveals what was supposed to have happened, but at the time it was not released to the ‘public’. Marlowe was rumoured to have been killed in a tavern brawl: the story was that Marlowe and the others quarrelled about the bill, Marlowe attacked Frizer, and Frizer stabbed him in self-defence.

“… after supper the said Ingram & Christopher Morley were in speech & uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not be at one nor agree about the payment of the sum of pence, that is le recknynge, there; & the said Christopher Morley then lying upon a bed in the room where they supped, & moved with anger against the said Ingram ffrysar upon the words aforesaid spoken between them, and the said Ingram then & there sitting in the room aforesaid with his back towards the bed where the said Christopher Morley was then lying, sitting near the bed, that is, nere the bed, & with the front part of his body towards the table & the aforesaid Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley sitting on either side of the said Ingram in such a manner that the same Ingram ffrysar in no wise could take flight; it so befell that the said Christopher Morley on a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram aforethought, then & there maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger the said Christopher Morley then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch; where-upon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, & sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley so that he could not in any wise get away, in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley; & so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d, gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died; & so the Jurors aforesaid say upon their oath that the said Ingram killed & slew Christopher Morley aforesaid on the thirtieth day of May in the thirtyfifth year named above at Detford Strand aforesaid within the verge in the room aforesaid within the verge in the manner and form aforesaid in the defence and saving of his own life, against the peace of our said lady the Queen, her now crown & dignity…”

With his death now officially recorded, the body of Christopher Marlowe was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas churchyard, Deptford. Ingram Frizer went to prison to await the Queen’s pardon, which arrived with brutal efficiency just twenty-eight days later. On his release, Frizer immediately returned to the service of his master,Thomas Walsingham, in whose service of Walsingham for the rest of his life.

If the whole story seems like a whitewash, well yeah, maybe it was… Three connected spies supported each other’s stories and an official cover-up follows… That wouldn’t happen these days though, eh? Although it is possible that they really did fight over a bill. But, if Marlowe was targeted for assassination, why?

It seems likely that his death, if it was planned murder, was connected to either his alleged work as a spy, or his supposed heretical views on religion, and links to a nebulous group of freethinking intellectuals. Perhaps he was killed because, already under threat of arrest and torture, the secret service who had employed him feared he might reveal something incriminating.

But Thomas Walsingham, to who all four present had close ties, is thought himself to have had links with the circle of freethinkers that grouped themselves around Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry Percy (the “Wizard” Earl of Northumberland), and Ferdinando, Lord Strange, which is labelled today The School of Night. Rumours of atheism, heresy, and black magic came to be associated with this group. In reality, they were, more prosaically, a band of advanced thinking noblemen, courtiers and educated commoners, including mathematicians, astronomers, voyagers who had explored the New World, geographers, philosophers and poets.

They had to meet behind closed doors, and were stigmatised as atheists and magicians, because the Ecclesiastical Authorities feared the spread of interest in scientific discovery, which was undermining accepted teaching, such as about Earth being at the centre of the universe. A most important member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle was the advanced thinker, brilliant mathematician and astronomer,Thomas Hariot. He was in the patronage of both Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland, the latter nicknamed the “Wizard Earl” for his love of experimenting with chemistry for which he had laboratories built into all his houses. These Free Thinkers discussed a wide range of subjects and were avid in their pursuit of all knowledge. Such men, in the eyes of the church, were dangerous. The Earl of Northumberland had at an early age dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge. He was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James I for almost sixteen years on a charge of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot; Sir Walter Raleigh was also eventually jailed, charged, also by King James, with conspiring with the Spaniards. In fact, King James had a paranoid fear of these brilliant men because he suspected them of exercising magical powers, which the superstitious King held in terror. Both were accused of the “vile heresy” of Atheism.

Connection to this group may have led Marlowe to his downfall. He was arrested in May 1593, because he was implicated by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Kyd had himself been picked up on the orders of the dreaded Star Chamber (the high court which dealt with matters of heresy and was the English equivalent of the Holy Roman Inquisition. The only court empowered to use torture to obtain confessions, and operated without a jury, it was the all-powerful legal arm of the most reactionary elements of Church and State), as he had been involved in writing the collaborative play Sir Thomas More, recently rejected by the censor because it contained scenes of riots considered to be inciting, (in the light of apprentices riots that year). Among Kyd’s papers they found incriminating evidence in the form of a treatise discussing the Holy Trinity, which was immediately labelled as “Atheism”. Kyd was racked – under this torture he stuck to his original claim of innocence and claimed this paper belonged to Marlowe, who had been writing in the same room with him and had left it there, and it had got mixed up with Kyd’s own papers “unbeknown to him.”

Kyd was released, a broken man – he died a year later, but not before further blackening Marlowe’s name in an attempt to clear himself, regain this own reputation, and save himself from destitution. Since by then Marlowe was already dead, he was free to slag him off without fear of reply, as a man who was “intemperate and of a cruel heart, the very contraries to which my greatest enemies will say by me”.

After Marlowe’s death Richard Baines, an informer, recounted in a note to the Privy Council blasphemous statements he alleged Marlowe to have uttered, implicating him in the capital crimes of scorning Scripture and the Church, of homosexuality, and of coining (forging coins). According to Baines, Marlowe attacked religion itself, took the piss out of Christ, Moses and other major biblical figures; hinted at a sexual love of men…

Read the full Baines note here – it’s a cracking list which we find it hard to disagree with…

But did Marlowe really say any of it? It is tempting for us, as modern-day atheists, with all our sexual fluidity, to celebrate this image of Marlowe, the gay wit, the freethinking rebel. But most of the beliefs credited to him could just as easily be fabricated, since the only evidence emanates from his enemies. Piling on the accusations is a classic tactic – it is impossible to know how much of it represents what he might have really thought.

On the other hand, we like the sound of him arguing “that the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe.” A remarkably clear statement. Some of the other sayings Baines attributes to him really do smack of someone arguing pissed over a few pints: “Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one  Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man can do more then he… Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest… That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ  and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.”

There is of course, also the inevitable theory, a modern creation, (though pre-dating the internet) that the whole killing was a fake, set up by elements in the secret service, and that Marlowe in fact escaped abroad, to continue spying, and – some say – to write any number of works generally credited to Shakespeare. In the same way as Jim Morrison and Elvis are sometimes still knocking around in secrecy.


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

Today in London radical history: Anarchist Malatesta jailed for ‘libelling’ police spy Belleli, 1912

As mentioned on before on this blog, late-19th and early 20th century London was home to a bustling community of exiles from various European countries, a fair proportion of who were radical activists of one stripe or another, driven from their homes for their political involvement. For many socialists and anarchists living in London, however, fleeing this repression to what was on the face of it a more liberal and tolerant regime in Britain didn’t necessarily mean they escaped surveillance by the police back home.

The active involvement of the exiles in supporting radical and revolutionary struggles from London inevitably meant that the secret services, the political police, of several major European powers had an interest in knowing what was going on in London’s radical circles, and in disrupting and dividing it if possible. Most of the socialist and anarchist groups, clubs, and meeting places were heavily infiltrated by spies of all nationalities. British Special Branch also got in on the act. Since many of the activists were expecting police infiltration, and some of the spying was less than competent, suspicion, paranoia and general distrust quickly became second nature among the exiled left scenes. This is in itself, is of course almost as good as spying on people, to make them think that everyone they know is a spy, especially if they aren’t. Anarchists were particularly targeted by the secret services, especially after some elements of anarchism took a shine to bombings and assassination in the 1880s-90s. The attraction of anarchism to loud-mouthed bombastic nutters, very hard to distinguish from agent-provocateurs, lent itself nicely to a climate of denunciations, accusations and back-stabbing. Which does the police’s job in itself – sabotaging as much effective action as possible.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Italian police had a number of spies among the exile anarchist community in London. (See our entry for May 9th.)

In 1912, in a leaflet distributed to the Italian anarchist community in London, longtime Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta accused Enrico Belelli of being an informer of the Italian government, and challenged him to openly disclose the nature of his means of maintenance.

In April 1912, the Italian anarchists in London published a single issue to protest against Italy’s invasion of Libya: La Guerra Tripolina. Malatesta wrote the editorial for the one-off publication. Shortly after the appearance of this single issue, Enrico Ennio Belelli, a member of the anarchist colony, spread rumours that Malatesta was a Turkish spy. In reply, Malatesta issued a leaflet entitled Alla Colonia italiana di Londra (Per un fatto personale) and circulated it in the Italian colony. In that leaflet, Malatesta explained the reasons why he had ended all relations with Belelli, namely Belelli’s support of the Italian military invasion.

Malatesta challenged Belelli to attend a public meeting to explain where his funds came from and prove that he was not an agent of the Italian police. The publication of this leaflet represented the starting point of one of the most dangerous event that threatened Malatesta’s safety during the years of his long exile in London.

Initially Belelli issued a rebuttal to be printed by Giuseppe Pesci, who provided Malatesta with a copy of it. However, Belelli decided to withdraw the publication and not to distribute the leaflet in which he explicitly accused Malatesta to have taken part in the Houndsditch robbery. Instead, Belelli took proceedings against Malatesta for criminal libel. According to La Gogna, the single issue that exposed Belelli as a spy, Belelli reached that decision after consultation with Inspector Francis Powell of Scotland Yard.

Malatesta’s trial took place on 20 of May 1912 at the Old Bailey, in front of the Common Serjeant. Belelli’s interpreter was Enrico Bojada, the former informer of Inspector Prina. Belelli declared he was a bookseller and to have repudiated anarchist ideas a long time before the trial:

“…I am an Italian and have been trading in England about 10 years. Have known prisoner about 30 years, and have seen him many times since I have been in England… I was a personal friend of prisoner up to about six months ago, when the Italian-Turkish War started. I have sold a lot of books, some very ancient ones. I do not keep books of accounts as I pay in cash. I have no invoices or documents to show that I have sold any books, but I have sold many to various ladies and gentlemen. I make a profit of L250 to L300 a year. I have not banking account. I have not plate on my door showing I am a bookseller. I have two rooms and a Kitchen at my flat, and live there with my wife and six children, and carry on my business from there. I sell my books outside. I keep all my books in my flat. I have at present 700 or 800 francs worth. I may not have a large numbers of books as perhaps only one is a very valuable book…I did profess anarchy at one time, but after I saw that anarchist ideas were not fit for myself or others I gave up anarchy. That is … more than eight years ago, and I very seldom went to any other meetings. I did go to the International Anarchist Congress at Amsterdam in 1907 with prisoner’s brother, who is not an Anarchist, but only as a matter of curiosity… I have never been an Italian police spy, and have never received any money from the Minister of the Interior in Italy. I never sent money to the Anarchist Congress, and have only bought their newspapers; 15s. or 20s. is all I have ever paid towards anarchism in my life… I have never asserted that the defendant had sold himself to the Turkish Government as a Turkish spy. I did not write an article in reply to the challenge of defendant, and never gave such a thing to anyone to print for me… It may be that defendant and I have fallen out in consequence of the war, but my wife broke the friendship off at the time of the Houndsditch affair because the police were calling at my house asking me if I knew persons who participated in the murders… I take defendant’s circular to be an act of vengeance because I put him out of my house…six months ago because he said that whoever killed an Italian was his friend, and my wife would have given him some kicks if he had not gone…

Malatesta confirmed to have been close to Belelli; in fact, Malatesta used to visit him to give arithmetic lessons to his children. Malatesta added that Belelli posed as a bookseller, that in the previous five or six years he never saw him supply books and that Belelli owned only a few books for private use. In the cross-examination, Malatesta stated:

“When I published the circular I said that many people might think Bellili [sic] was an Italian police spy. When I say that he is not doing an honest trade as bookseller I mean to imply that he is getting his money as an Italian police spy. When I say he is a liar, I mean it. When I said I could show how I get every 6d. of my income I meant I was getting my living honestly. I challenged Bellili [sic] to do the same. I have been sentenced in Italy, but always for political offences – never to 30 years’ imprisonment or anything of the kind. I did not go to Bellili’s [sic] house on purpose to say that I disagreed with the Italian over the war. I did not say I was against all the Italians – I am an Italian myself. Bellili [sic] said at the Italian Colony that I wished all the Italian would get killed – or something of the kind – to influence the Italian Colony; but he has failed. Mrs. Bellili [sic] told me that she had a brother, who was a lieutenant in the Italian Army. I used no violent language, but Bellili [sic] was not ashamed to put his wife in the question. I do not like to quarrel with ladies. I did not say that everybody who murdered an Italian was a friend of mine, or that they should be crucified. I was a frequent visitor at Bellili’s [sic] house until his wife insulted me and then I went away. Afterwards I met Bellili [sic] at a shop kept by a friend of mine. I have seen Bellili [sic] on several occasions, but have had no conversation with him. It was in April I issued the circular and had it printed. It was printed in Paris. I had about 500 copies distributed.

Giuseppe Pesci, Giulio Rossi, Alfonso Spizzuoco, Pietro Gualducci, Romeo Tombolesi, Giorgio Antibando, and Enrico Defendi stood as witnesses in Malatesta’s favour, confuting Belelli’s statements. The Common Serjeant refused to accept as evidence a copy of Belelli’s reply to Malatesta. Pesci, nicknamed Bologna, the printer of many anarchist publications in London, stated that he had printed three proofs of the reply to Malatesta that Belelli had handed to him. Spizzuoco and Antibando testified to have been told by Belelli that Malatesta was a spy of the Turkish government. Defendi, Gualducci, Tombolesi, and Rossi denied that Belelli was a bookseller. All of them admitted to have been Belelli’s friends. Ludovico Brida and Giovanni Moroni, to whom Belelli declared to have sold books for a large amount of money, rectified the figure of the purchase to the value of few shillings. The Russian anarchist Chaikovsky testified in Malatesta’s favour as well.

The jury held Malatesta’s allegation against Belelli not substantiated by the evidence available. Therefore, they found Malatesta guilty of criminal libel.

In a contentious decision, the Common Serjeant allowed Inspector Powell of the Special Branch to give evidence after the delivery of the verdict.

“…Prisoner has been known to the police as an Anarchist of a very dangerous type for a great number of years. He has been imprisoned in his own country and has been expelled from France. He has visited Egypt, Spain, France, Portugal, and, I believe, America, in the interests of Anarchy, and wherever he went there was a great deal of trouble. He is known as the leader of militant Anarchists in this country – in fact, in the world. Many of his formers colleagues have passed through this court and had penal servitude for coining. Gardstein, one of the Houndsditch …had been using prisoner’s workshop, or working with him for 12 months. A tube of oxygen that was used on that occasion was traced to prisoner, who stated that he had sold it to Gardstein. That is all that was known. He has never been in the hands of the police in this country, but on one occasion was fined for assaulting a school teacher who chastised his son at school… I do not know much in his favour…”

Clearly opinion in the courtroom was swayed by Powell’s description of Malatesta as ‘an anarchist of a very dangerous type’, who had links with forgers and the police murderers of Houndsditch: his pronouncements also prejudiced the sentence issued to Malatesta by the Common Serjeant.

Three months’ imprisonment; recommended for expulsion under the Aliens Act; ordered to pay costs of prosecutions.

The Common Serjeant’s decision of considering Malatesta as an undesirable alien and to recommend him for expulsion at the expiration of his sentence aroused broad indignation. Articles against the punishment appeared in several newspapers: the Manchester Guardian, The Nation, the Daily Herald, the Star, the Daily News, and the Leader, as well as in Conservative newspapers. Malatesta’s sentence was seen as an attack against the tradition of political asylum, an attempt ‘to repudiate a principle to which all Liberals and most Conservatives are sincerely devoted’.

“An even greater scandal has arisen by the appearance in the court of a detective from the Political Department of Scotland Yard. This man was allowed to enter the witness box after the jury had given their verdict and make an attack upon Malatesta…Malatesta is the victim of the despicable international secret police who wish to destroy the RIGHT OF ASYLUM for political refugees which has hitherto been the glory of Britain. Their victory would be our dishonour. If this plot to deliver Malatesta into the hands of the Italian Government were successful, it would also strenghten [sic] the hands of the enemies of freedom in this country.”

Prince Kropotkin defended Malatesta in a long letter published in The Nation. Kropotkin argued that Malatesta’s case had to be considered in its political aspect. The challenge, an appeal to the judgement of comrades, as the one addressed by Malatesta to Belelli, was a defence against the system of agents-provocateurs that had ‘lately taken an immense development’. Malatesta’s condemnation for libel was dangerous because it rendered impossible any appeal to a jury of honour.

A Malatesta Release Committee was immediately established to launch a protest campaign against the sentence and to stop the deportation order. Initially, the secretary and treasurer was Jack Tanner, but was quickly replaced by Guy Aldred. The official address of the committee was Recchioni’s shop, in 37 Old Compton Street.

In the following weeks the Committee distributed 120,000 leaflets and 100,000 postcards to be sent to the Home Secretary. Rallies were held in Finsbury Park, Peckham Rye, and Regent’s Park ‘for arousing public interest in the dark and low–down tricks of continental political police agents’. A massive meeting was held on the 9 June, the day before the hearing of Malatesta’s appeal. According to The Anarchist at least 15,000 people joined the demonstration. Four processions with bands and banners convened on Trafalgar Square from Highbury, Mile End, Hammersmith and Harlesden. A large number of trade unions and labour organisations participated: dockers, tailors, gas workers, railwaymen, shop assistants, iron and tin-plate workers, etc. Banners of the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party mixed with those of the anarchist groups. Many speeches were given from three platforms, among others by the secretary of the London Trades Council, James MacDonald, the editor of The Syndicalist, Guy Bowman, the Italo-Scottish anarchist James Tochatti, Guy Aldred, Mrs. Tom Mann, and Mrs. Agnes Henry.

The mobilisation demonstrated the deep esteem that Malatesta enjoyed, especially among the people of Islington, the area where he lived. Thousands signed the petition in Malatesta’s favour:

“Islington knows little and cares less about Malatesta’s “philosophical anarchism”. It only knows him as one who will give his last copper to the man who needs it, and who for more than twenty years has worked there, teaching useful trade to boys who would have drifted into hooliganism.”

Rudolf Rocker’s son, Fermin, retained a vivid memory of Malatesta in those years:

“Malatesta was one of the heroes of the movement, a veteran of many struggles on two continents, and his prestige, particularly among his countrymen, was equalled by very few. Oddly enough, there was little in his appearance and demeanour to suggest his exploits as a leader of strikes and insurrections, and to children in particular he seemed the very essence of benevolence… Despite his prominence in the movement, Malatesta lived a life of the utmost frugality, supporting himself as a machinist and metalworker, a calling he pursued in his own little workshop in Islington. Poor as he was, he invariably had a little gift for me whenever he would see me, either a little bag of sweets, a coin or a toy. In this regard he was not playing any favourites, for he had a way with children and was known and loved by all the youngsters in his neighbourhood.”

The Malatesta release campaign was a real tonic for the anarchist movement in London. Demonstrations were held in France as well. The anarchist newspaper, Les Temps Nouveaux, organised a successful meeting in Paris where ‘there was an overflow that would have filled the hall twice over’.The principal speakers were Charles Malato, M.Yvetot, and Dr. Pierro. Two hundred pounds were collected for the fund raised for the benefit of Malatesta. A large open-air meeting took place in Glasgow on Sunday 16 June.

On 10 of June, the appeal of Errico Malatesta against the sentence was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Darling, and Mr Justice Avory. During the proceeding Malatesta ‘lent his bushy iron grey beard upon his white arm and gazed about the court with keen, penetrating eyes. Throughout the hearing he took apparently a deep interest in the proceeding’. Malatesta’s appeal was refused. The motivations for refusing the appeal, apart from the legal questions, demonstrated the judges’ particular perception of the Italian colony:

“He wrote and published in Italian, the native language of a number of people living together as a colony in this country, among them many anarchists… it held up Bellilli [sic] to the hatred of this society, a society of a very peculiar character. If a man in such a society was to be convicted of being a police spy… it followed that that man would be, in a society like that, in a very dangerous position… The Common Serjeant had made perfectly plain that he did not recommended that Malatesta should be deported as an undesirable alien simply because he was an Anarchist… His deportation was recommended on the ground that Bel[elli] being an anarchist, and being accused by Malatesta of being an Italian spy, the accusation was a danger to Bel[elli]. It was probable that in consequence of the libel some crime would be committed, and it was not going too far to say that some assassination might take place and that crime would be produced in this country. The Court, having taken in consideration all the circumstances, could therefore see no reason for revoking that part of the sentence relating to the deportation of Malatesta.

The Manchester Guardian underlined the judges’ contradictions at the Court of Appeal and rested its hopes in the Home Secretary.

On 18 June, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, announced to the House of Commons that he: ‘had decided not to make an expulsion order against Malatesta but he saw no reasons to advise the remission of the sentence of imprisonment’.

Thanks to those mass demonstrations, Malatesta was therefore able to stay in England.

The trial put an end to Belelli’s career as a spy – he had for a while been suspected of being an infiltrator code-named Virgilio. Indeed, Malatesta’s allegations were sound. Belelli was born in the village of Novellara, near Reggio Emilia, on the 15 May 1860. The inaccessibility of prefettura and questura records held at the Archivio di Stato in Bologna, closed for building works for the last two years, made it impossible to consult further documents to determine when Belelli was recruited as an informer by Giolitti. The go-between Giolitti and Belelli was the police superintendent (questore), Vincenzo Neri. Neri had much experience in dealing with spies. It was in fact Neri, at that time a police inspector, who approached Domanico – a noted police spy among the anarchists – in Florence and put him in contact with the Ministry of Interior in 1892. Neri was appointed questore of Bologna in April 1896, but he took office only in the September of the following year. Belelli, after being a socialist, from 1892 became one of the leaders of the anarchist movement in Bologna. Although Belelli could have been a secret agent before Neri’s arrival in Bologna, it is possible to surmise that Belelli’s career as a spy began with Neri’s appointment in that city. Belelli was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for libel in September 1897. In May 1898, Belelli was suddenly released, a decision that completely surprised the prefect of Bologna. Belelli was granted pardon thanks to the good offices of a senator. It is therefore possible to make a conjecture that Neri contacted Belelli while in prison and released him in exchange for his services. In the middle of 1900, Belelli moved to Paris. He was expelled in September 1901, when the Tsar visited France.

Apparently, serious suspicions against Belelli were aroused by the solicitations of the anarchist Siegfried Nacht. Nacht had applied for a position at the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome; the position had been offered to him on condition of interrupting all his contacts with the anarchists. From Rome, Nacht sent 45 lire to Giovanni Spizzuoco, Alfonso’s brother, to clear a debt that he had previously contracted with him. Some time later, Nacht was questioned at the Ministry of Interior about this transfer of funds and was rebuked for continuing to maintain contacts with the anarchists. In consequence Nacht urged his comrades in London to investigate the leak. Spizzuoco claimed that the only person acquainted with the transaction was Belelli, who had changed the lire into pound sterlings. Moreover, Felice Vezzani, from Paris, reported that, according to Belelli’s sister-in-law, Belelli received registered letters from the Ministry of Interior monthly. In any case after Malatesta’s trial, Belelli went back to Reggio Emilia where he died in 1926.

With Belelli’s departure, Virgilio disappeared as well. In fact Belelli was the person who for twelve years signed his reports with that cover name. But although Belelli was in direct contact with the Ministry of Interior he left no traces of Virgilio’s real identity in his correspondence between the Ministry and the embassy or the consulate, which was different from what happened with other spies. However, evidence has since emerged to verify that Belelli and Virgilio were one and the same person.

Today in London’s rebel history: 1400 copies of call for Cromwell’s assassination seized, 1657

“There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes…”

“May it please your Highness,
How I have spent some hours of the leisure your Highness has been pleased to give me, this following paper will give your Highness an account. How you will please to interpret it I cannot tell; but I can with confidence say my intention in it is to procure your Highness that justice nobody yet does you, and to let the people see the longer they defer it, the greater injury they do both themselves and you. To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. ‘Tis then only, my Lord, the titles you now usurp will be truly yours. You will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted, and parliaments have those privileges
they have fought for.”
(from the introduction to
Killing No Murder)

‘Killing Noe Murder: Briefly Discourst In Three Quaestions‘ was a pamphlet distributed clandestinely in England, mainly in London, in 1657, setting out rationally the case for the assassination of then military dictator of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell.

Having risen to power through the 1640s, allying himself with the Levellers and army radicals when he needed their support, then denying their petitions for reform and crushing them; allying himself with the Fifth Monarchist millenarians later, then dashing their dreams of imminent second coming and repressing them… Old Noll had amassed a lot of enemies.

While claimed as the work of one William Allen, the authorship is often disputed, but at the time was attributed to one of three men (or a collaboration of two or more of them): Colonel Silius TitusEdward Sexby or William Allen.

Titus was a royalist plotter, opposing Cromwell on behalf of the exiled “Charles II” (later to become king). Sexby was a former army agitator and leveler sympathizer, who had been a sometime ally and officer under Cromwell, but had become disillusioned with the supreme power Noll had achieved after the dissolution of Parliament by force in 1653. Allen was another ex-New Model Army trooper and a republican plotter.

Sexby, for one, had been planning Cromwell’s death for a couple of years; he had encouraged another old soldier and Leveller, Miles Sindercombe, was arrested in 1657, having taken part in a number of abortive plots to off the dictator. Sexby, later arrested, admitted he had participated, though under coercion in the Tower of London.

However, Titus’ sarcastic style apparently bears strong resemblances to the writing in Killing No Murder (check out the cheeky address to Cromwell in the introduction: “To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it.”

At this point exiled royalists and disappointed ex-civil war radicals, out-manouvered by Cromwell in the late 1640s, were, quite unprincipledwise, ganging together to try to assassinate him. The politics of despair.

Killing No Murder was probably written where it was certainly printed, in the Netherlands. The pamphlet called on those now submitting quietly to Cromwell’s rule to rise up, especially those in the army who had been honest fighters in the civil war and opposed tyranny: “To all officers and soldiers of the army that remember their engagements and dare be honest… For you that were the champions of our liberty, and to that purpose were raised, are not you become the instruments of our slavery? And your hands that the people employed to take off the yoke from off our necks, are not those very hands they that now put it on? Do you remember that you were raised to defend the privileges of Parliament, and have sworn to do it; and will you be employed to force elections and dissolve Parliaments because they will not establish the tyrant’s iniquity, and our slavery, by a law? I beseech you think upon what you have promised and what you do, and give not posterity as well as your own generation the occasion to mention you with infamy…”

It goes on to discuss the rights and wrongs of doing away with tyrants, finding examples and justifications from the bible, from antiquity, and arguing reasonably for Cromwell’s death as a preventive cure for further oppression.

The pamphlet seems to have been smuggled into London by 18 May 1657. The Publick Intelligencer reported on that day that “divers abominable desperate pamphlets” had been scattered about the streets, including at Charing Cross and other places in the City.

Former Leveller John Sturgeon, once a member of Cromwell’s life guard, but now an opponent of the Protectorate) was arrested on 25 May with two bundles of copies on him – about 300 in all. On the 27th St Catherine’s Dock, just east of the Tower of London was searched, and seven parcels, 1,400 copies in all, of the pamphlet were discovered in the house of Samuel Rogers, a waterman. 140 more were found abandoned nearby, on the steps of a local house.

But although 2000 copies had been seized, an unknown number did get circulated. A copy even got thrown into Cromwell’s coach. Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, sent a copy to Henry Cromwell on 26 May:

“There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes. I have made search after it, but could not finde out the spring-head thereof. The last night there was one Sturgeon, formerly one of his highness’s life-guard, a great leveller, taken in the street, with two bundles of them under his arme. The same fellow had a hand in Syndercombe’s buissines, and fledd for it into Holland, and is now come over with these bookes. I have sent your lordship one of them, though the principles of them are soe abominable, that I am almost ashamed to venture the sendinge it to your lordship.”

Thurloe’s assistant Samuel Morland wrote to John Pell at the start of June that:

“There has been the most dangerous pamphlet lately thrown about the streets that ever has been printed in these times. I have sent you the preface, which is more light, but, believe me, the body of it is more solid; I mean as to showing the author’s learning, though the greatest rancour, malice, and wickedness that ever man could show – nay, I think the devil himself could not have shown more.”

Killing No Murder was in great demand, however, whether because of Cromwell’s undoubted unpopularity, or for novelty value. 5 shillings was the going rate for a copy at one point. Copies were scattered in the streets, left in churches, and passed secretly hand to hand.

As modern blogger Mercurius Politicus relates, the pamphlet was an ideal format for distributing clandestinely, being small, cheap, easy to conceal and fold. “So how did Sexby and his accomplices achieve this? The first step was maximise the numbers who could have read Killing Noe Murder had. The pamphlet is 16 pages of quarto, and hence made up of two sheets of paper. Each set of 8 pages would have been printed as follows: the numbers represent page numbers in the final book.

It was printed on cheap paper – possibly ‘pot paper’, which in the 1620s had sold for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, so one ream would have supplied 250 copies of the book. The 2,000 copies confiscated by the authorities would hence have cost at least £1 for Sexby and his accomplices to commission. Of course this does not include printer’s costs: by way of comparison, in 1655 Sturgeon had paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40 shillings for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. This was 8 pages long so a work double the size might have cost 80 shillings, or £4, for 1,000 copies. Assuming on top of the 2,000 confiscated copies that perhaps another 1,000 or 2,000 copies did survive and go into circulation, the whole enterprise might have cost Sexby £12 to £16.

Parcels of the pamphlet would then have been shipped across to London. Thurloe ordered a search of Dutch boats but had no luck in finding which skipper had shipped them over. It seems likely that John Sturgeon was Sexby’s London agent when it came to receiving and distributing copies. He had fled to the Netherlands after being involved in Miles Sindercombe’s failed plot to kill Cromwell earlier in 1657, so probably accompanied the pamphlets over to England from Amsterdam.

When it came to scattering copies about London’s streets, it’s impossible to know exactly how Sturgeon achieved this. However, it seems likely that he drew on radical political and religious communities within London. Sturgeon was a member of the Baptist church of Edmund Chillenden, which met at St Paul’s. In the 1630s, Chillenden had been involved with John Lilburne in distributing subversive puritan literature, and had subsequently been involved in army politics with Sexby. It seems plausible that his church was the centre for a number of London-based Levellers and Baptists whom Sturgeon may have mobilised to help. Someone else arrested along with Sturgeon was Edward Wroughton, a haberdasher who was a member of Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist congregation at Coleman Street. Members of this church were mostly young men and apprentices, who would be likely candidates for dispersing the pamphlet during the middle of the night.  So it’s possible too that a network of congregations played a part in helping Sexby.”

We will never know how many copies of Killing No Murder did get through, but it did have a huge impact. It’s worth remembering that many people would have been illiterate, but one literate person could relate a pamphlet’s contents to many others who couldn’t read. The diatribe became a major talking point and the Protectorate made a strenuous effort to prevent it circulating, and to round up anyone involved with writing, smuggling or distributing it. Sexby was arrested on his clandestine return to London in June 1657, having arrived to try to firm up further plans to send Cromwell to the puritan heaven he so justly deserved. While being held in the Tower of London he confessed that he had written Killing No Murder. He died there in January 1658.

The plots against Cromwell all failed. Moderate opinion had long ago fallen into support for him as a bulwark against dangerous radicalism, and further war or unrest. But Cromwell survived Sexby by barely eight months. After his death the Commonwealth, politically bankrupt and unstable, collapsed into military faction fighting, ended only with the return of the monarchy in 1660. Many of the civil war radicals who had taken part in, or supported, the plots to do away with Cromwell, would go on to intrigue for a republic for decades to come…

Killing No Murder can be read for free here

And the original pamphlet is online here

Mercurius Politicus blog about civil war publishing and more is also well worth checking out.


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

Today in London’s rebel history: Jack Sheppard breaks out from Clerkenwell New Prison, 1724.

In his day he became the most famous name in England, and he remained a folk-hero to the poor for over a century after his death. Jack Sheppard was the prison escaper supreme of eighteenth century England.

Just last week I saw Otherstory’s very fine puppetshow ‘Escape Was One’s Mind’, which told Jack’s story in brilliant and stark theatre (See here to catch an upcoming show).

Born in Spitalfields in 1702, Jack’s father died during his childhood, and his mother’s poverty led to Jack being placed in the Bishopsgate workhouse. Beginning a carpenter’s apprenticeship, he picked up some locksmithing skills, which would stand him in good stead in later years

Maybe a childhood in the workhouse left him with a strong aversion to the bonded labour and confining straits of apprentice life, Jack deserted his master, and joining the swelling ranks of the ‘idle apprentices’ (a group that invoked fear and suspicion in the 18th century), he took to a life of robbery.

Not an especially successful robber, he was imprisoned five times – luckily he turned out to be a breakout artist par excellence, – and escaped prison four times.

These technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority, secured his lasting fame among the working class.

The London trades were undergoing a series of transformations as a result of new technologies and the expanding economy. New machinery was deskilling some, factory methods of organisation were making the protective practices of the Craft guilds obsolete and these were changing the relationship between apprentices and their masters. Depending on their trade and circumstances some masters began to fulfil one or more roles simultaneously – they might be working craftsmen, workshop overseers, shopkeepers, or wholesale suppliers. Equally they might be expanding into factory ownership or begin farming out piecework to home workers – or they could be in the process of declining into deskilled casual labour. So the artisan class was fragmenting and reforming in both upwardly and downwardly mobile directions. Crime was as legitimate a way as any to survive

After deserting his apprenticeship Jack took with enthusiasm to a life of robbery; he was imprisoned five times and escaped four. It was these technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority that secured his long reputation among the working class.

The London trades were undergoing a series of transformations as a result of new technologies and the expanding economy. New machinery was deskilling some, factory methods of organisation were making the protective practices of the Craft guilds obsolete and these were changing the relationship between apprentices and their masters. Depending on their trade and circumstances some masters began to fulfil one or more roles simultaneously – they might be working craftsmen, workshop overseers, shopkeepers, or wholesale suppliers. Equally they might be expanding into factory ownership or begin farming out piecework to home workers – or they could be in the process of declining into deskilled casual labour. So the artisan class was fragmenting and reforming in both upwardly and downwardly mobile directions. Crime was as legitimate a way as any to survive.

After deserting his apprenticeship Jack took with enthusiasm to a life of robbery; he was imprisoned five times and escaped four. It was these technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority that secured his long reputation among the working class.

In the spring of 1723 he aided the escape of his girlfriend Edgeworth Bess from St Giles’s Roundhouse. In April 1724 he ended up there himself; betrayed by his brother Tom (who was hoping to bargain his own release from a burglary charge) and his friend James Sykes, he was lured into a trap and delivered to a Justice Parry. It took him less than three hours to escape. “He was confined in the top floor. He cut through the ceiling, untiled the roof, and with the aid of a sheet and blanket lowered himself into the churchyard, climbed a wall, and joined a gathering throng which had been attracted to the scene by the falling roof tiles.

From then until the end of November the saga of his escapes grew, astounding ever-increasing numbers of people for their daring and dexterity. Arrested again for pickpocketing a gentleman’s watch, Jack was now taken to Clerkenwell’s New Prison. As his common law wife, Edgworth Bess was allowed to join him from her confinement in the Roundhouse. They were locked in the most secure area, ‘Newgate Ward’, and Jack was weighed down with 28lb of shackles and chains. He soon set to work sawing through these and then through an iron bar. Boring through a nine-inch-thick oak bar, then fastening sheets, gowns and petticoats together, they descended 25ft to ground level; only to find they had landed themselves in the neighbouring prison of Clerkenwell Bridewell! Undaunted, driving his gimblets and piercers into the 22ft wall, Jack and Bess used them as steps and hand-holds and made their way over the wall to freedom in the early morning of Whit Monday, May 25th, 1724.

While Sheppard’s later “escape from the condemned hold of Newgate made ‘a far greater Noise in the World’, the London gaolkeepers regarded the New Prison escape as the most ‘miraculous’ ever performed in England, so they preserved the broken chains and bars ‘”to Testifie, and Preserve the memory of this extraordinary Event and Villian.”

Jack spent the next three months of freedom engaging in highway robbery and burglary. He was recaptured after he robbed his old master, Mr Kneebone. Kneebone contacted Jonathan Wild, ‘the thief-taker General’. Wild was both a trainer of thieves and a deliverer of them to the courts, a fence of stolen goods and returner of them to rightful owners; “a complex and parasitic system” that “had in these years become a system of municipal policing.” (Peter Linebaugh) Sheppard always refused to compromise himself by having any dealings with Wild, either for fencing goods or in attempt to gain more lenient sentences in court. Wild pressured Edgeworth Bess to reveal Jack’s hideaway, and, after an exchange of pistol fire, he was captured and taken to Newgate prison. In August he was tried and sentenced to hang.

On the day his death-warrant arrived he implemented his escape plan; dislodging a spike, he inserted himself into a small hole he had worked in a wall and with the help of visitors was pulled through to freedom. He walked through the City to Spitalfields where he spent the night with Edgworth Bess. Sheppard’s latest escape threw the shopkeepers of Drury Lane and the Strand into a panic; Jack took up robbing again, this time from a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet St. But he and his accomplice were recognised so they left London for Finchley Common. They were pursued and soon apprehended – Jack was taken to Newgate once again.

By this time Sheppard was a celebrity and folk hero of the labouring classes; visited by the famous and interviewed by journalists and ballad makers. He offered some lucid comments; when urged by a prison official to concentrate on preparing himself for the afterlife rather than attempting to escape, he emphasised his preference for the tangible, saying ‘One file’s worth all the Bibles in the world.’ He also condemned the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

As his trial approached Jack implemented his escape plan on the 14th October. This amazing flight from Newgate was to make him an enduring legend amongst the working class for over a century afterwards. Freeing himself from his shackles he then worked his way up the chimney, through several locked rooms and eventually on to the roof and over the wall to freedom.

On 29th October Sheppard robbed a pawnshop for some spending money and began a triumphant tour, a defiant spree through his old haunts and hunting grounds. He hired a coach and, with some female companions, toured his own native Spitalfields – he also drove through the arch of Newgate! Defiantly parading himself around the ale-houses and gin-shops, he was recaptured after fifteen days of glorious liberty.

Jack Sheppard was hanged on 16th November 1724 at Tyburn; a cheering crowd, said to number 200,000, lined the route to salute him, to see him try and escape (tools were seized from him at the last minute), and to rescue his body from the clutches of the surgeons who received the bodies of the hanged for dissection.

But the story doesn’t end there… The tale of Jack was retold, re-written, spread throughout the world… In the 1840s plays based on his life were still regularly being performed for working class audiences, and his name was better known amongst many of the poor than that of Queen Victoria.

John Gay seized upon the story, and reshaped it as the ‘Beggars Opera’, in which the figure of Mr Peachum is Jonathan Wilde merged with the corrupt PM Robert Walpole… This stark comparison between the acquisitiveness of the rich and the crime of the poor, was reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill 200 years later as the Threepenny Opera

Jack is almost an archetype, a popular creation, an ideal born out of an 18th century oppositional culture. Out of the class divide, between small number of the very rich, getting richer, and an increasing number of poor and labouring classes, crammed in London, trying to survive by hook or by crook… More and more people were crowding into the city, as enclosure forced people off the land, or coming from desperate poverty in Ireland Scotland or the north, in search of work or a foothold. In the early 18th century, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy in particular enraged people of all classes below them, and the breakdown of traditional relations, the seesawing economy, bred rebelliousness and riotous anger. The mob (more accurately, any one of a number of overlapping ‘mobs’) were easily roused to riot over almost everything. Demagogues, Jacobites, high churchmen, bigots and xenophobes, all sought mob support for their causes; and a very real opposition to the establishment, especially hatred of Walpole, led to numerous outbreaks.

But this was very much a pre-industrial rebelliousness, a turbulent, unruly proletarian street culture, not yet disciplined by the industrial revolution, with the work ethic not yet fully beaten into people and internalised by the likes of the Methodists (and London always had a stubborn lumpen ethos, never totally brought into Methodist respectability even in radical politics, unlike the northern towns where chartism etc flourished).

In parallel though, there was no real sense of a party or movement, no collective organization on a political level. (There were lots of trade combinations, by workers, though illegal and harshly punished). The Government shut down all criticism and opposition, even satire… imprisoning people for seditious libel for questioning or even mocking the political establishment.

So Jack’s rebellion is very individual, never crystalising into anything more collective; and is very much of its time, when the romantic rebel, the daring and stylish criminal could easily become a celebrity hero, like the highwaymen robbing with panache and dying with a flourish.
Although Jack’s story survived into victorian times, it’s likely he would never have become a celebrity in the same way a hundred years later, in an age where temperance and self-improvement had more sway.

But did the pose of romantic hero affect him after he became famous for his first escapes? Did the adoration of the crowd, the prison visits by the rich and leading journalists, painters etc and so on, swell his head? On the other hand, he is presented as being principled and clear-headed – disdainfully rejecting of religion, his refusal to deal with the repulsive gangmaster/fence/grass Wild… he also seems to know that in the end he is doomed, failing to leave London when he had the chance, in fact, doing the opposite, returning to his haunts, driving in a carriage through the outer gate of Newgate… in defiance, almost fatalistic bravado… But where would he have gone anyway? His only support networks being in London’s slums and taverns; he was as good as dead without them anyway.

His escapes from Newgate in particular made him an idol, because this prison was the most potent centre of repression, punishment and death, feared and hated by the lower orders like none other. Only Tyburn, the nagging tree itself, rivaled Newgate as a symbol of the class nature of punishment, law and the whole weight of hierarchical society. (It would be interesting to know which had more sarcastic nicknames among London’s lower classes – slang terms for being hung, and for Newgate itself, were almost numberless). Jack’s two breakouts from Newgate made the authorities look stupid, undermined the fear and terror, which enraged and scared the establishment that relied in the fear that the prison imposed – but delighted the classes subject to the gaol’s hospitality… Was his name shouted, did his ghost walk, as 56 years later, the London crowd burned Newgate to the ground in the Gordon Riots and freed hundreds of its inmates?

Jack Sheppard fascinated Londoners at the time, and since, partly because his story brings together so many crucial elements: he personifies the moral panic of the idle apprentice, the upper class terror of the lower orders, the sheer class hatred of the poor for the rich – and the vicious merry-go-round of crime and punishment, of law made and administered by the propertied, in their interests, against those with nothing.


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

Past Tense have also produced a poster commemorating Jack Sheppard to coincide with Otherstory’s puppetshow, it is available from our publications page.

Today in London radical history: 350 women strike at Trico factory, Brentford, for equal pay with men, 1976

“May 24 was a mild, overcast day with no hint of the heatwave to follow that long, hot summer of 1976. It was the day 400 women voted in West London’s Boston Manor Park, to take strike action for equal pay.” (Sally Groves)

In 1976, one of the most far-reaching equal pay strikes was successfully won at the Trico-Folberth factory in Brentford. An American company that had set up in West London in the thirties, Trico made windscreen wipers and employed both men and women who were in the AEU trade union.

“The best paid jobs were in factories. So I went down the Job Centre and that how I came to work at Trico, towards the end of 1975. I worked on the blades. Arms and blades, assembling arms and blades for the windscreen wipers, but they also made other accessories for the car trade, so it was one of the main employers in the area. It was quite a big factory, I mean 1,600… There had been a night-shift but because of the downturn in the economy around 1975, the company announced that they were going to close the night-shift. The men, five at all, were offered alternative assembly work on the day shift alongside the women. At the end of our 40-hour week, if they achieved the same performance as one of the women they came away with £6 – £6.50 more than the women at the same speed. That was dynamite!”
(Sally Groves)

It began on the 24th May 1976 when all 350 women workers in the factory walked out after the management refused to eliminate the £6 differential between male and female wages, despite the implementation of the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts the year before. Yet in the intervening years the strike has been overlooked in contrast to the Ford women sewing machinists’ strike of 1968 and the Grunwick strike that started three months into the Trico dispute.

“It all came about after the Trico night shift was closed down with many taking redundancy but five male operators opting to be transferred to the day shift where they began to work alongside the women on the assembly lines.
This was the company’s first big mistake. Up to then production workers had been kept gender segregated — an easy means of maintaining cheap rates for women. Now the cat was out the bag. When the women compared their piecework slips with the men they were earning about £6.50 a week less than the men doing identical work on the same assembly line. It was incendiary.
It all coincided with Barbara Castle’s introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 that had finally become law at the end of 1975. This raised expectations that equal pay was now a right.
In the face of the new situation Trico claimed that the men were a “historical anomaly” and suggested their pay be frozen until the women “caught up.” This came to be known as the “red circle” case approach. The women and their union district secretary called it “equal pay in reverse.”

Initially the women were ignored by both the management and male workers inside the factory. However the women persevered and organised a round the clock picket of the factory that resisted numerous attempts from the management to break the strike and lead to violence and clashes with police as the women refused to let trucks and coaches with strike breakers passed the picket line. This gained the women publicity and they began to send contingents around the country to attract financial support for their campaign and to organise the blacking of Trico products.

“The company then made the extraordinary decision — the first in history — to take the case to the tribunal confident it could rely on the loopholes in the new EPA.
Likewise, for the first time in history, the strike committee and the AUEW Southall District decided to boycott the tribunal recognising that their strength lay in collective bargaining to negotiate a settlement. They were not prepared to put their fate in the hands of unrepresentative bodies and legal processes.”

The management attempt to resolve the situation through an industrial tribunal, which was ignored by the women due to the lack of success other women workers had achieved this way.

The women ignored a tribunal decision on equal pay and stayed out on strike for twenty-one weeks, leading to the Great West Road, where the factory was located being dubbed the ‘Costa del Trico’. (Equal pay had not advanced in the private sector since 1945, despite a Royal Commission (1946), although it was introduced in the public sector in 1955).

“The Trico women and the smaller number of loyal men that supported them were totally unprepared for what lay ahead. They soon learnt the need to set up a strike committee and organise picketing rotas which later became 24-hour pickets to battle the mercenary-style convoys — organised by the company in collaboration with the police — that smashed through the picket lines.

Social security offices were occupied by strikers claiming hardship benefit and delegations organised that travelled the length and breadth of Britain raising hardship funds.

“The response was breathtaking with financial and practical support pouring in from hundreds of factories, the miners, Sheffield steel workers, print-workers, public-sector staff, trades councils, constituency Labour Parties, the Women’s Liberation Movement and Working Women’s Charter, even pensioners.
The picket line became a veritable who’s who of the best of the trade union, labour and women’s movement. It was an indefatigable campaign that defied the tribunal decision against the women and they held out until the company finally capitulated and paid the rate for the job.”

After a record breaking 21 weeks, it was announced on Friday October 15th at a mass meeting that the Strike Committee and union officials had negotiated a return to work with the employers conceding all demands and establishing a common payment by results wage, regardless of sex. This marked an important victory for female workers across Britain and placed the question of sexual inequality for working women firmly in the public eye. They served as an inspiration to women from all backgrounds across the country to stand up and challenge their status as second-class citizens, which has left a lasting legacy to this day.

As Trico veteran Sally Groves points out: “Much of the industrial strength of the unions that supported the Trico strikers, whole industries and entire communities have been destroyed since then, especially by Thatcher, with privatisation and fragmentation of our public services carrying on apace under Cameron’s government.
The Trico women would not have been able to achieve their right to equal pay under the draconian provisions of the new Trade Union Act 2016.
At Trico the women as a section of the workforce voted by a show of hands for strike action. Secret balloting has been part of employment law for years but based on a simple majority. The new Act requires over 50 per cent of the entire workforce to vote for strike action for it to proceed.
The vast majority of the men at Trico were hostile to the very idea of equal pay and kept working so the Trico women would now be defeated in a workforce ballot proposed.
Almost certainly our union would have been unable to meet all the requirements regarding picket supervisors under this new Act. Any breaches of the new restrictions can attract criminal charges.
This is frightening stuff for anyone and intended to be so. At Trico many women had husbands who continued working, the “scabs.” Pressures on people to stay away from the picket line will be even greater under the new law.
A proposal to bus in agency workers to replace strikers was not included in the 2016 Act. But it is sinister that the repeal of the ban on employers hiring agency workers to break strikes was announced by the Tory government last year. Their intention remains to bring in this provision at some point. 
The women at Trico were the production workers. If bringing in strike breakers becomes lawful the whole rationale for withdrawing your labour in a dispute is destroyed.
Current equal pay legislation is much stronger than in 1976 but new hurdles are being put in the path even of those taking the legal route, particularly the tribunal fees introduced by the Tories in 2013. This means most workers now face a bill as high as £1,200 to take a case to tribunal.
In face of this I believe our trade union and women’s movement history of struggle is highly relevant today especially for a younger generation often with little knowledge of past working-class campaigns and battles that are filtered out by our media and Establishment.
Trico is a shining example of what can be achieved by ordinary working people, the women and their supporters standing up for their rights and sticking together. With local trade union officials dedicated to their fight the Trico women brought a multinational to heel backed by the organised power of their trade union.”

A fine strike song was written during the dispute:

“Come to the Costa del Trico

Land of laughter and wine
Take care what you do
Or we’ll cut you in two
If you put one foot across this line.

Don’t be tempted, young men
Don’t you tangle with them
For these are not commonplace

Their fury when goaded
Their wrath when exploded
Escapes like a bat out of Hades
Now you have to decide
Whether you are on their side

Cross them once you young men
You won’t cross them again
The notorious women of Trico. OLE!”

Trico closed in 1992 when the company moved production to Pontypool in Wales.

Read a strike bulletin produced during the strike

2019 Update: Sally Groves has published a book, an account of the Trico Struggle.



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

This week in London’s gender-bending history: Chevalier d’Eon dies, Bloomsbury, 1810.

[NB: This should probably have been published on Sunday 21st, but it just wasn’t ready. So here it is, late. C’est la vie.]

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810, depicted above) lived the first half of his life as a man and the second half of her life as a woman. French diplomat, spy, freemason and soldier, D’Éon appeared publicly as a man and pursued masculine occupations for 49 years, although later claimed to have during that time successfully infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by presenting as a woman. For 33 years, from 1777, d’Éon dressed as a woman, claiming to have been female at birth. D’Eon’s ‘real’ gender became a matter of huge speculation at the time, sparking debate, bets and outrage. It was only after D’Eon’s death that doctors ‘settled’ the matter by announcing that the Chevalier/e had male organs. Which is in fact, not a final judgement that would be accepted today as defining the Chevalier/e’s gender.
The Chevalier d’Eon’s story is easy to read as a straight(?)forward case of a person born a man who came to feel they identified as a woman; it has been in fact so read in the light of the struggles, views and ideology of the modern transgender movement. But digging deeper suggests a more complex reality.

From a poor noble family, D’Eon grew up with androgynous physical characteristics, and developed abilities as an actor and mimic. In 1756, d’Éon joined a secret network of spies called the Secret du Roi, (‘secret of the king’), employed by French King Louis XV. Run by the king, kept apart from his government, this operation promoted policies that often contradicted official policies and treaties. d’Éon’s memoirs relate being sent a secret mission to Russia in order to meet Empress Elizabeth and conspire with the pro-French faction against the Habsburg monarchy. Since English and French were then at odds, the English were attempting to prevent French access to the Empress by allowing only women and children to cross the border into Russia. D’Éon claimed he had to pass convincingly as a woman or risk being executed by the English upon discovery. In the course of this mission, d’Éon was said to have been disguised as the lady Lea de Beaumont, and served as a maid of honour to the Empress. (however, recent historical study has found no independent evidence of this; the story dates from D’Eon’s own account, written forty years later.)

D’Éon followed this by enlisting as a captain of dragoons and fighting in the Seven Years’ War, and was then sent to London to first help draft the peace treaty that formally ended the Seven Years’ War (signed in Paris in February 1763), and then remaining as an interim ambassador and spy for the king. D’Éon collected information for a potential invasion – an unfortunate and clumsy initiative of Louis XV, of which Louis’s own ministers were unaware.

However, the arrival of a new ambassador, the Count of Guerchy, sparked a demotion for d’Éon. Humiliated, D’Éon was caught up in faction fighting both in the embassy and at the French court. Having disobeyed orders to return to France, d’Eon’s pension was stopped in February 1764. But d’Eon had learned much about the British press and public opinion, and skilfully manipulated the situation in print to garner local support.

Doing a carefully plotted Edward Snowden, he published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence related to his recall under the title Lettres, mémoires et négociations particulières du chevalier d’Éon in March 1764.

This breach of diplomatic discretion was scandalous to the point of being unheard of, but since d’Éon had not yet revealed all – holding back the King’s secret invasion documents and those relative to the Secret du Roi, thus holding some damaging blackmail material, the king and the French government became very cautious. d’Éon sued Guerchy for attempted murder; Guerchy sued for libel, and d’Éon was declared an outlaw and went into hiding. However, d’Éon had secured the sympathy of the British public: the mob jeered Guerchy in public, and threw stones at his residence.

Guerchy was recalled to France, and in 1766 Louis XV granted d’Éon a pension – basically a pay-off for d’Éon’s silence. D’Éon continued to work as a spy, protected by possession of the king’s secret letters but in permanent political from France.

Despite the fact that d’Éon usually presented him/herself as a man, and wore a military uniform, rumours started circulating in London that ‘he’ was actually a woman. A betting pool was started on the London Stock Exchange about d’Éon’s true sex, but the Chevalier refused a physical examination, saying the process was itself dishonourable, whatever the result should be. The bet was eventually abandoned.

After the death of king Louis XV in 1774, d’Eon negotiated a return from exile while keeping the pension, but was forced to hand over the secret letters, and was ordered to choose a consistent gender presentation (does this suggest that it was the uncertainty or the moving between male and female appearance that was considered threatening? Or that the speculation in itself was causing disorder?). Choosing to live as a woman, she was instructed to only dress ‘appropriately’ in women’s clothing (though the king provided a free wardrobe of fashionable women’s clothes), and to live in ‘internal exile’ from Paris (considered social death for anyone who was anyone). At this point it was apparently accepted in France that she was a woman, who had pretended to be a man in the past.

But the French Revolution eventually brought an end to the pension, and the Chevaliere lived by fighting (in ‘women’s clothes’) in tournaments. She died, bedridden and in poverty in London on 21 May 1810 at the age of 81.

d’Eon’s profile led ‘Eonism’ to become a euphemism for transvestism. More recently a British association for Transvestites, Transsexuals & those close to them was formed under the name of the Beaumont Society in 1966.

Can you baptise your ancestors? One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is that converts are encouraged to retrospectively baptise their long-dead (non-Mormon) ancestors, to adopt them as latter-day saints, er, long after their days had ended. When a Mormon friend first told me this it sent me into a rage – weirdly, more a violent reaction than the constant outrage of how this friend was treated day to day by the Mormon church hierarchy because he was gay. He chose to fight that battle to be accepted, was capable of holding his own, and that was that, (although Mormon theology remains repulsive on sexuality). But re-casting your forebears up to five generations back in the faith you had chosen, ignoring what they really believed or did, seemed to me a violation beyond words. The living can answer back. The dead are somewhat hampered (although I’d love to discover a fourth-generation scion of someone like Lucy Parsons, Dan Chatterton or today’s Tim Minchin trying this trick. Some people’s beliefs transcend their knowledge that their soul is not immortal. Be back to haunt you mateys!)

To some extent, though, anyone who looks backward into the past can fall into this abyss. You can’t always help looking at history through the eyes of now. The tendency to impose your ideas about the world onto your reading of bygone people, movements, events, beliefs, is not only common, but almost inevitable. It takes a monumentally objective viewer to avoid this… And maybe, up to a point, it isn’t desirable… Objectivity is possibly over-rated.

But history is a battle-ground, as much as the present, largely because, as some pontiff (icator) or another remarked,  ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’
For the purposes of the following, the “he” in that sentence is ironically crucial.
And simplifying the past to fit your meme is often linked to attempting to bend others’ views and actions in the present to your own view of the world. From which it is a short step to abusing them if they don’t buy it.

Some transgender commentators today have adopt d’Eon as unambiguously one of their own – as “the first openly transgendered person in Europe”. Apart from the problem of the lack of the words ‘known’, ‘famous’ or ‘remembered’;, which ought to figure somewhere, there is, also, however, a limit to the wisdom of this kind of back-projection.

The ‘truth’ (qu’est-que c’est?) will likely never be known, given the murkiness of the tale: espionage, self-promotion, the peculiarly eighteenth century nature of the celebrity culture that made the Chevalier/e such a public figure (more akin to now, perhaps, than 100 years before or 100 years later).

D’Eon’s motivations for living as a woman appear complex. In the beginning it could have been purely practical: enabling the mission in Russia (if it ever really happened) to succeed. Later the notoriety it engendered definitely helped in d’Eon’s factional struggles within the French diplomatic hierarchy. In the 1770s, when the nature of the true gender of the (then ostensibly male) diplomat began to be whispered about, a certain foppish androgyny and what would once have been called effeminacy became fashionable in many of the ‘right circles’. There is also a suggestion that d’Eon only reluctantly accepted the female pronoun/cement when judgement was laid down in 1775, though it may have suited both the French court and D’Eon, who was possibly politically neutered by it, but also protected by female identity from further agro with rival court factions.

Some of d”Eon’s drive to re-present as a woman seems to have been about religion, funnily enough – as D’Eon aged, she became more observantly Christian; she also came to believe that the male gender was bound up with sin, while women were associated with virtue. Her adoption of a female identity was increasingly a particular kind of female identity – “Amazonian, pious, virtuous; a woman in the mode of… Joan of Arc.” (Bolich). Perhaps an especially French archetype (although, interestingly, some of the English suffragette movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century moved towards a similar position, declaring men to be sinful, sexual, linked to their oppressive position in power over women, who were naturally virtuous and pure.)

In this, there is an interesting parallel with some people transitioning today, who feel the need to adopt the most stereotypical persona they associate with their identified gender – to the bewilderment of many of us who grew up questioning the social construction of gender in the 1980s.

The case of the Chevalier d’Eon is fascinating. But it raises interesting questions which resonate today, and spark further questions: – How much can you rewrite the history of past struggles, events, individuals, in the light of your own present activities, ignoring what doesn’t fit your needs? How much can you denounce movements for social change in the past for not measuring up to your ideals in the present? You might also add – can you attack , and silence, anyone who raises any doubts, or even wants to just discuss about either the primacy or absolute acceptance of your agenda?


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

Today in nautical history: Rum, sodomy & (on the) lash in Greenwich, 1774.

In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a sailor’s life was not a happy one…

Quite apart from the fact that many in the navy had been impressed, ie beaten up and kidnapped by roving gangs of government-sponsored thugs; quite apart from the high chance of death in battle or from disease; not to mention scurvy, chit food often rotten, stale or wormy; apart from the horrific penal system which centred around flogging minor offenders nearly (often not just nearly) to death… Quite apart from all that, they often went unpaid. It was common for pay to be several years in arrears. Sailors were as a result often hungry, angry, and prepared to cause trouble. In all the riots, uprisings and plots from 1626 to 1820, sailors feature heavily, either at the heart of revolt, or said to sympathetic to radical ideas…

Sometimes sailors took to collective bargaining by riot. In May 1774, a newly built warship manned by sailors from Portsmouth and Chatham had been brought to Deptford, home of large naval yards, for fitting out. Unpaid and unfed, some 50 sailors came ashore foraging for food, not, er, planning to pay for any of it. In the market gardens they filled their sacks with cabbages; from the farmers’ yards they grabbed pigs; all was carried off back on board. Someone complained to the authorities and several sailors were captured; five of them locked up in the watch-houses at Deptford Broadway and Greenwich.

The king was conducting a review of troops on Blackheath that morning and the sailors waited till the, guards were gone and the roads clear. Then “about 300 sailors came ashore … armed with handspikes, hatchets, iron bolts, staves and cutlasses and immediately broke down the watch-house at Deptford”. The sailors had found a ready sympathy among the inhabitants of Lower Deptford and by 7 o’clock there were 2,000 menacing people marching towards Greenwich Watchhouse to release the other sailors, “swearing most bitter oaths they would hang in the market place at Greenwich every magistrate and constable they could find”.

At Greenwich they attacked the watch-house but it was strong and they had to rob a butcher for meat cleavers and a blacksmith for hammers before they could demolish it. Meanwhile the people of Greenwich barricaded their shops and houses. Around 10 o’clock a report was spread by a young druggist’s apprentice that Justice Russell was coming at the head of a company of Guards from the Tower. The crowd fled, threatening to return and set the town on fire. The Greenwich people kept watch all night and some of the ladies were apparently in fits of fear. There had been no hangings but it was a dramatic sign of the power of hungry sailors and the volatility of Deptford’s underpaid workers.

An account in the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the five ‘ringleaders’ previously captured were flogged.

The government should really have took note, and made some changes. Because 23 years later, in 1797, the Royal Navy would be paralysed by two huge mutinies, driven by many of the same grievances…


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

Today in London radical history: GH Baskomb encloses Chiselhurst Common, 1876

G H Baskomb was the owner of a windmill built in 1796 on common land on Chiselhurst Common, now Southeast London (though on the northern edge of Kent then).

There are three main areas of Chiselhurst common: by the parish church, the area around the cricket ground and Mill Place; and the largest section which begins in the east by Camden Place and continues between Prince Imperial Road and Bromley Road, across Centre Common Road as far as, and just beyond, Kemnal Road. This last part of the Commons extends down to the High Street: St Pauls Cray Commons lies to the south east of Chislehurst straddling the road to Orpington.

This land was owned originally by the Crown, and later by the Scadbury, Walsingham and Townsend families, who lived at Scadbury and Frognal and held the position of Lord of the Manor. Before the years of development following the arrival of the railways the Commons were regarded as open to the villagers and available for them to use for grazing of their livestock.  Once building started here in earnest, the land became valuable.  Huge swathes of common land in other parts of England were sold off as part of the enclosures, and here in Chislehurst, the Commons were in danger of being ruined by excavations of valuable road building material, and the cutting of turf. But due to the valiant efforts of local residents, the Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray Commons were saved for public use with the passing of the Metropolitan Commons Supplemental Act in 1888.

On 20 May 1876, Baskomb, proprietor of a brick and tile works and part owner of the famous Chiselhurst caves. ordered the pulling down of the windmill, and fenced off the land to sell off for building on. But locals, accustomed to wandering on the common at will, kept pulling the fence down at night, repeating the sabotage every time he put it up. A public meeting threatened legal action against him… Baskomb eventually backed down, and a process began to protect the common for future generations.

Many commons were saved from enclosure, encroachment and development by a variety of efforts – some legal, some illegal. The Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866 was passed in order to assign management responsibilities to boards of conservators and facilitate the control of digging for gravel, and other forms of damage. This Act did not apply directly to Chiselhurst and St Pauls Cray Commons, and so a group of prominent residents formed the Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray Commons Preservation Society and finally achieved the passage of the Metropolitan Commons (Chislehurst and St Paul’s Cray) Supplemental Act in 1888. It is this Act, together with its attached scheme of management, which continues to regulate the management of the Commons. Although the Commons are in private ownership, under the terms of the 1888 Act, responsibility for their management, in perpetuity, resides with a Board of Conservators, now known as the Trustees of the Commons. Under the 1888 Act the Trustees are empowered to make Bye-Laws to protect the Commons. The authority of the Trustees has been further strengthened by the Commons Act, 2006.

Interestingly, in the 1890s, neighbouring landowner, William Willett, (famed as the originator of putting the clocks forward for British Summer Time!) tried to enclose nearby Camden Park. Again locals defeated the idea, finding evidence to prove that custom had established common rights there, enough to persuade a court that it should remain open. Willett’s plan was to build over the whole of the Camden Park Estate. In the end only Camden Park Road and The Wilderness were developed and the Park was maintained as a golf course. Ironically in 1920 an attempt by the owners of nearby Petts Wood to sell the wood was prevented by a campaign organised by locals, who wanted it preserved as a monument to Willett! Not remembering, perhaps, that he was an encloser…

Some local history of the area

More on South London struggles to defend open space against enclosure and development


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

Today in London’s rebel history: released from prison, Oscar Wilde stays with radical vicar Stewart Headlam, Bloomsbury, 1897.

In the mid-1890s, playwright Oscar Wilde was at the height of his fame, lauded for his brilliant, witty theatrical works, poetry, and novels, and his lavish lifestyle and sharp, barbed comments.

But his star was about to crash and burn… Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred (“Douglas”) was to lead to his imprisonement and disgrace.

Wilde was forty years old at the time of the trials; Lord Alfred was sixteen years his junior but no child, at age twenty-four, and certainly not an innocent. They first met in the early summer of 1891. Douglas was a devoted fan of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, claiming that he had read it either nine or fourteen times. Lord Alfred was a slight, handsome, impetuous young man who already had a very difficult relationship with his father. He had homosexual relations with several boys at Oxford and was blackmailed in the spring of 1892. He was especially irresponsible about money, often insisting that Wilde spend lavish amounts on him.

Lord Alfred’s father, the Eighth Marquess of Queensberry (1844–1900), was irate about the relationship between his son and Wilde and sought to discredit Wilde. In February 1895, he left a card for Wilde at the Albemarle Club, addressed “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite,” misspelling the last word. Homosexual activity was illegal in England.

Unwisely, Wilde resolved to sue Queensberry for libel – a fatal decision, since the accusation was true, and Queensberry’s legal team was able to prove it. Wilde’s case collapsed, and he was arrested and charged with sodomy.

The second trial began on April 26. Clarke again represented Wilde, this time without fee. The most dramatic part of the trial involved a poem written by Douglas and titled “Two Loves,” which ends with the words, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” When asked what that might mean, Wilde responded with such eloquence that many in the gallery burst into applause, although some hissed. Wilde alluded to Michelangelo and Shakespeare, among others, as older men who had “deep, spiritual affection” for younger men in “the noblest form of affection.” He argued that such relationships were much misunderstood in the nineteenth century and the reason for his being on trial. One dare not speak the name of this noble love, he concluded, because it was so misunderstood. The speech probably influenced the jury’s inability to agree on a verdict.

The third trial, a second attempt to prosecute Wilde (after the hung jury of the second trial), opened on May 22. Again, friends urged Wilde to flee the country, but he wrote to Lord Alfred that he “did not want to be called a coward or a deserter.” The prosecution benefited from the previous trial and won. Wilde was found guilty of indecent behavior with men, a lesser charge but one for which he received the maximum penalty under the Criminal Law Amendment Act: two years at hard labour.

Imprisoned in several prisons, Newgate, Pentonville, Wandsworth, and finally Reading Gaol, Wilde served two years, colapsing and becoming very sick under the pressure of hard labour. Many of Wilde’s friends abandoned him, and his adoring public shunned the former profit of a decadent age…

One who stood by Wilde however, was socialist clergyman Stewart Headlam. Headlam had found half of the £5000 bail money set for Wilde when he was remanded for criminal trial in 1895, though he did not know him personally. Later, on 18-19th May 1897 Wilde visited Headlam’s Upper Bedford Place house, after release from Pentonville Prison, on his way out of the country. Headlam’s support for such a contraversial figure as Wilde cost Headlam’s Guild of St Matthew many members – he was also threatened by a reactionary mob, and his housemaid fled his house in horror! Headlam was later one of first 24 to receive a presentation copy of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.

From Bloomsbury, Wilde fled to France, where estranged from his family, pretty much skint, he lived in exile, increasingly resorting to drink, and never to return to England. He died in 1900. His grave in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery is worth a visit – last time I was there, it covered in thousands of colourful kisses and wondrous global graffiti tributes. It didn’t then merit a constant security guard prescence like nearby (and much more tedious icon) Jim Morrison’s immortal resting place, but Wilde’s has since apparently had a glass screen erected to prevent the alleged damage the kisses are doing to the headstone.

While Headlam did not approve of homosexuality, his willingness to help Wilde may have been due to the fact that “others close to him had been caught in similar sexual tangles”. Headlam’s own short-lived marriage in 1878 had been to a lesbian, Beatrice Pennington. Headlam’s close relations with other homosexuals included his Eton master William Johnson and his friend C. J. Vaughan.

Headlam may have been vilified for sheltering Wilde: but he was no stranger to controversy, and unafraid of being unpopular. Influenced by the ideas of the christian socialists Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley, (who both taught him at Cambridge), Headlam believed that God’s Kingdom on earth would replace a “competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order.”

Ordained and appointed curate of St. John’s Church, Drury Lane, he was shocked by the poverty there and was determined to do all he could to reduce the suffering of the poor. This led him to clash repeatedly with John Jackson, Bishop of London. He also met and befriended theatre people – actors, dancers etc – then widely shunned as highly disreputable socially (churchgoing theatrefolk often concealed their profession from fellow parishioners). In 1873, moving to St. Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green Headlam found conditions even worse than in Drury Lane. The vicar at the church, Septimus Hansard, was another Christian Socialist.?In sermons, Headlam attacked the wide gap between rich and poor, warned the working class to distrust middle-class reformers(!) and presented Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and the new testament as a ‘Socialist Document’. His socialist political activities, friendship and political alliance with secularists like Bradlaugh and Foote, and vocal support for the theatre, especially ballet got him suspended from the curacy by the Bishop of London in 1878. (In fact the theatre problem was the most offensive to Bishop Temple of London, who seems to have had a special problem with male ballet dancers’ stage attire… don’t ask, I guess!) The Church authorities managed to keep him from preaching in church for many years (apart from when friends lent him their pulpit).

However Headlam toured the country preaching Christian Socialism, advocating a tax on land and the redistribution of wealth to end poverty – denouncing wealth as robbery and inconsistent with Christianity. No dabbler politically, he acted wholeheartedly on his beliefs, his clearly stated aim was to overthrow the establishment and society as then ordered and build the Kingdom of Heaven. Practically he fought for an 8-hour working day, complete education for all kids, nationalisation of the land, fair wages… grassroots democracy in church, bishops elected by parishioners not appointed by the state, and the rich.

In 1886 Headlam joined the reformist socialist Fabian Society, and remained a leading member till his death in 1924; in fact they often met at his house here. In contrast with many contemporary churchmen (and socialists, many of whom expressed puritanical disapproval of popular entertainment) he enthusiastically supported the theatre and opposed ‘puritanism’, His Church & Stage Guild, founded 1879, aimed to break down anti-theatre prejudice in the church and promote theatre as a form of worship. This Guild did link church people and theatre folk, meeting monthly, sometimes in Drury Lane theatre, and fought puritanical attitudes and prejudice for 20 years. Headlam’s support for Wilde grew out of this love of arts and theatre.

Headlam also worked to improve education for the working class,and was elected to the London School Board (the body which controlled public education) in 1888, with fellow socialist Annie Besant. School Boards were one of first places Fabian (and other reform-minded socialist groups’) practical influence was felt. Headlam & other progressives fought years of battles with conservatives over measures like abolition of fees, free school meals special classes for what were then seen as ‘retarded’ children, provision of swimming facilities, keeping class numbers smaller, raising teachers’ wages, building new buildings, requiring proper trade union rates for any contracts, acquisition of pianos for music classes… but especially the role of the church and compulsory religious teaching in schools! In 1897, dominating the Board for the first time, progressives enacted most of their reforms. But the question of Religion in schools so tied up the progressive and conservative factions on that the Board was abolished in 1903.

Elected to the London County Council in 1907, Stewart Headlam remained active in politics until his death in 1924. Personally he was said to be very honest and open, with a strong and magnetic personality; people either loved or hated him. He was also described as being as autocratic and stubborn in his organisations as his friend Bradlaugh was in the Secular movement.


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