Today in London’s radical history: attempted royal assassin James Hadfield escapes Bedlam, 1802.

After his unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to shoot king George III failed to kickstart a wondrous Millennium, (see our earlier post) and his subsequent trial and acquittal on the grounds of insanity, James Hadfield was sent back to his cell in Newgate immediately after his trial, but was escorted to Bethlem Royal Hospital a few months later by the Newgate ‘keeper’.

He had been sentenced to imprisonment in ‘Bedlam’ for the rest of his life. His case led Parliament to pass the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, allowing the law the power to detain people such as Hadfield until “His Majesty’s pleasure be known”. Giving birth to the concept of criminally insane, and eventually of the ‘Special Hospitals’ as we know them today (Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton).

However, two years later, Hadfield and another inmate, John Dunlop, escaped, and Hadfield seems to have got as far as Dover, attempting to flee to France, before being retaken and returned to Newgate. The steward of Bethlem was formally censured by the governors for going in immediate pursuit of him without reporting his absence, or obtaining official permission, but the minute of censure was later obliterated, although it is still legible.

What kind of ‘treatment’ might Hadfield been subject to? Hadfield was returned to Bedlam, where he spent the next 39 years of his life.

During his ‘stay’ Bethlem changed massively. The old regime of simply locking mentally ill (or just strange) people up and charging people to come and poke fun at them had evolved (under head keeper James Haslam) into an allegedly ‘therapeutic’ approach. Haslam thought madness could be cured, rather than being simply an affliction sent by God. His therapy however involved breaking the will of the ‘patients’ through fear, intimidation and violence, before the cause of their problems could be addressed. Some of Haslam’s approach represented a step forward in medical science: the accompanying psychological and physical degradation formed a bridge between the past and the future of mental healthcare… Eventually Haslam’s regime was exposed and a scandal erupted, leading to the closure of the old Bethlem building in Moorfields and a new one’s construction south of the river, in St George’s Fields. However, bad planning and cost-cutting left the new ‘hospital’ cold and damp, and it quickly became overcrowded… It would be the 1850s before new management would usher in some serious advances in care, therapy and rehabilitation…

Hadfield spent much of his time caring for birds and cats, and writing verses – one that has survived is apparently representative of their main subject, the deaths of these pets.

Patients at Bethlem were allowed visitors: in previous eras visiting and even taunting the mad was a popular pastime in polite society. Hadfield was often visited, probably due to the fame attached to his attempt to usher in the millennium by knocking off the alleged king.  One person who visited him was the French socialist Flora Tristan (1803–1844) who recorded the visit in her Promenades dans Londres (1840):

‘He lives in a small room and he is not averse to passing the time of day with visitors.  We had rather a long visit with him; his conversation and his habits denote a sentimental and loving heart, a pressing need for affection, and he has had in succession two dogs, three cats, several birds and finally a squirrel.  He was extremely fond of his animals and was grieved at their deaths; he mounted them himself and keeps them in his room.  These remains of his beloved creatures all have epitaphs in verse which express his sorrow.  Above the verses for his squirrel there is a coloured image of the friend he lost.  I might add that he does a brisk little trade with his feelings, handing out the epitaphs to visitors who in return give him a few shillings’ (tr. Dennis Palmer and Giselle Pincetl, Flora Tristan’s London Journal, p. 163).

One surviving poem of Hadfield’s runs:

“The remains of little Dick my partner dear,
Who, with his vocal lays did aft my Spirits Cheer,
By giving him his food one fatal day,
He in the Cages wire caught his clay,
He flutter’d, trembled, panted, and then down he lied,
I took him up and in my hand he died.
Killed Oct. 3, 1806, James Hadfield”.

Another of Hadfield’s poems, written in his own hand, can be seen at the start of this post… Some of which was lifted from here

James Hadfield died of tuberculosis in Bedlam in 1841.


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


Today in London radical history: Unemployed occupation of Wandsworth Workhouse defeats dole cuts, 1921.

In 1886 a new workhouse was built to imprison the poor of the Wandsworth & Clapham Poor Law Union, in Swaffield Road, off Garratt Lane, Wandsworth, now part of Southwest London, but then in open countryside.

Under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Boards of Guardians were obliged by law to ‘help’ local poor folk unable to support themselves either with ‘outdoor relief’ (a minimum dole) or with ‘indoor relief’ – accommodation and work in the workhouse. In practice the workhouses were made oppressive, cruel and humiliating, to dissuade as many people as possible from applying. Families were split up, food was pitiable and inedible, long hours of grinding work were imposed under often sadistic overseers.

The Poor Law had been brought in because of a widespread concern among authorities and the upper and middle classes that the cost of welfare was spiralling out of control, and a convinced belief that people would rather seek an easy life, ie claiming relief, than work. The Act was therefore designed to make claiming relief so painful, degrading and inadequate that people would rather take any work instead.

If this sounds in any way familiar… There are many parallels between the way the power-that-be in the 1930s were viewing the poor, and discussing the ‘problem’ of the cost of welfare, and how this debate in recent years has also been framed. For an interesting exhibition, put together by the Anarchist Time Travellers, which illustrates the links between the two, see This Way to 1834.

Although there were riots in northern England when the Act was introduced, and a sprinkling of resistance by the working people forced into workhouses throughout the 19th century, all in all, the system worked quite well from the perspective of the rich. Fear and hatred of the workhouses (which became known as ‘bastilles’ for the notorious french prison) grew so that people would rather starve outside than in, and the shame of having to apply to enter became internalised deeply into working class consciousness.

However, in the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.

As an example of the local struggles which gave birth to/characterized the early years of the NUWM: in July 1921, the unemployed in Wandsworth and Battersea were told by the local Board of Guardians they would not receive any outdoor relief, but would all have to apply to workhouse. The Battersea & Wandsworth Unemployed Committee decided that the best was to deal with this was to swamp the Workhouse. 1000 people all applied for tickets to enter, at the same time! Then, in late July, 700 unemployed people, including whole families, took over the building, having marched from Clapham Junction with a bagpiper at their head! (Interestingly, this became a sort of local tradition: I remember in the early 1990s, anti-poll tax and anti-cuts demos in Wandsworth used to march on the town hall with Alasdair from metal-bashing band Test Dept playing his pipes at the head of the procession).

Having occupied the workhouse, the unemployed refused to recognise the authority of the Poor Law officers, and refused to accept the measly food and harsh conditions. As there had been 900 people already in residence in the workhouse, the institution descended into chaos. A massive solidarity demonstration took place outside in support of the occupation. “From the hall of the workhouse speeches were delivered to the demonstrators outside. Then, to the amazement and jubilation of the demonstrators, about 9 o’clock just as it was getting dusk, we saw the red flag run up on a flag mast over the workhouse.” Eventually the embattled Poor Law Guardians withdrew their order and restored outdoor relief on 27th July.

For more on this occupation, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.


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

Today in London’s rebel history: hanging of coalheavers in Shadwell breaks the ‘river strike’, 1768.

For centuries one of the hardest jobs on the London docks was coalheaving: unloading coal from ships to warehouses from where it was sent off to fuel the City and industrial expansion. Much of the works was centred on Wapping and Shadwell. The pay was crap and the job was long and hard. Plus gangs of heavers were often controlled and organised by powerful City merchants and local publicans.

The Wapping and Shadwell coalheavers, many of who were Irish, were organised in gangs, among who were the “Bucks” & the “Brothers”, said by some to be allied to the Irish Whiteboy gangs. So many Irish coalheavers lived in the Cable Street area it was known as ‘Knockfergus’. They went on strike several times in the eighteenth century.

In 1768, at a time of starvation & mass unrest in the country, a coal-heavers strike, over a demand for a 4 pence pay rise, erupted into vicious class violence. fought in & around the taverns of the area, since the heaving gangs were organised from the taverns. Some of the taverns were pro-coalheavers, some were run by ‘undertakers’ (subcontractors), like Metcalf & Green, who were hired by Alderman Beckford of Billingsgate Ward, coal and sugar magnate, powerful West Indies slave owner & trader, and city politician. The undertakers designed methods of work to reduce wages & cut unloading times; the heavers struck.

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

Armed with cutlasses and clubs, the striking coal-heavers besieged the pub until driven off by gunfire from the (now broken) windows. Next day the men returned and attempted to ‘cut [Green] to pieces and hang him on his sign’. Green retreated but retaliated by shooting dead two (or three) of the attackers.

The justices did for the rest, condemning seven assailants to the gallows which had been erected on Stepney Green, but not before Green’s sister had also been brutally murdered (‘torn to death’) in retaliation. Green was charged with murder but acquitted: his witnesses were assaulted.

By May, the masters had decided to refuse the pay rise and engaged sailors to load and unload their coal. This was a very dangerous mistake and when opportunity arose coal-heavers boarded a collier as it unloaded and told the sailors that if they remained on the ship they would be killed. Next day, sailors taking leave from unloading another vessel were attacked. Two were wounded and one, John Beatty, stabbed to death. Violent street fights continued between sailors and striking coal-heavers and two ship’s masters were also severely beaten the following week. Inevitably and with the dull predictability of all bloody reprisals the magistrates and the army were called in, caught the ringleaders and executed them.

The coalheavers sang:

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

The heavers were supported to an extent by Ralph Hodgson, a liberal paternalist Shadwell magistrate. In May, the heavers began stopping coal carts on land, & addressing notices & petitions to wharfingers & other workers. They disciplined scabs.

The strike collapsed but not until the sailors themselves had decided to blockade the Port of London. In May, sailors joined the struggle, striking for wage rise. They raised the red flag: their decision to ‘strike the sails’, literally cut them from the masts, gave the word strike its modern meaning. River shipping was at a standstill. A meeting of merchants at Cornhill gave way on some demands, but a fleet arrived from Newcastle, & its sailors worked as scabs, breaking the alliance.

The government assigned armed ships into the Pool. War broke out in the docks, with scores of deaths.

9 coalheavers were charged with the murder of the sailor Beatty: James Murphy & James Duggan were found guilty: they were hanged at Tyburn on July 11th, & their bodies given to the surgeons to dissect, while a huge crowd mourned outside, keening in Gaelic. On July 26th, seven more Irish coalheavers were hanged at Sun Tavern Fields (just the north of the Highway, where Cable Street now runs), where the heavers held mass meetings. 50 000 people attended, rescue attempts were expected, so troops patrolled Wapping & Shadwell, 100s of constables enforced the event. The terrifying affect of the hanging broke the river workers resolve: troops were kept in the area till September (though two were killed for unloading coal).


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

Today in London rebel history: poachers proclaimed under the Black Act seek revenge, 1725

Continuing the story of poachers on Enfield Chase from July 9th

Edmonton blacksmith William ‘Vulcan’ Gates was proclaimed under the Black Act on July 20th 1725, after game-keeper Henry Best swore evidence that Gates had stolen two deer and fired on the keepers on Enfield Chase on July 9th. The Act’s terms meant a formally ‘proclaimed’ man had to surrender within forty days, and if he didn’t, was considered a felon who could be executed without trial if caught.

Poaching had become more than a way to eat better and make a bit of cash, it was a way of life for many, and had led to a state of perpetual class violence in the area of the Chase. Poachers and keepers shot at each other if they should meet; keepers were sometimes waylaid in the dark and beaten. Gates and his confederates considered Best giving evidence as provocation and were bent on revenge. On July 20th, the same day as he was ‘proclaimed’, Gates showed he had little intention to surrender himself. he and three other horsemen rode into the Chase in search of Best, threatening to shoot him. They failed to find him then, but ten days later, encountered him, and beat him up, breaking one of his legs.

Gates, Aaron Maddocks, (known as an agent for London thieftaker Jonathan Wild), Thomas James, and Enfield labourer and enthusiastic poacher, were certainly three of these men. James was hanged in Kent in early 1726 for horse-stealing. But Vulcan Gates had been picked up and sent to Newgate on another matter, under an alias. Unfortunately he let slip his secret to a prison barber, who dobbed him in for a substantial reward. As a proclaimed man who had failed to surrender, it was necessary only to prove his identity and he was then sentenced to death without a trial. Gates argued that he had never heard of the proclamation as he was out of town, and being illiterate had not read or understood any published version. He denied he had ever gone disguised or hunted armed, and nothing had been proved against him. These not unreasonable legal arguments were swept aside however. In response, Gates decided that if justice wasn’t going to play fair, he was not going to play the traditional role of willing participant in the ritual of hanging, and with other prisoners, barricaded himself in a cell and refused to come out. He was eventually persuaded out by the Sherriff of London and agreed to ride off to be hanged at Tyburn.


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

Yesterday in racist history: queen Elizabeth I tries to banish black people from England, 1596.

NB: There is a dispute about the historical accuracy of the statement ‘Queen Elizabeth did this’… Was it done in her name by officials of her government? Due to pressures of time we haven’t looked into it and will try to do so. Written July 2016 hence Brexity slant; thank fuck that’s all done n dusted eh?


Queen Elizabeth banishes foreigners from England… No, not, the final fulfillment of yer extreme Brexiteers’ fantasies…(But, yeah, similar.) No, the other queen Elizabeth. But it does get onto Brexit a bit at the end…

On 11 July 1596, Queen Elizabeth I sent a letter to City officials: “On Her Majestie understanding that there are of late diver blackamoores brought into this realme, of which kinds of people there are already to manie… Her Majesty’s pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande, and for that purpose there ys direction given to this bearer… Wherein wee require you to be aydinge and assisting unto him as he shall have occacion, thereof not to faile.”

A week later, she issued an edict to “various public officials, including the lord mayor of London, requiring their co-operation in the deportation of sufficient numbers of Blackamoores to defray the costs incurred by the merchant, Casper van Senden, in returning English prisoners from Spain and Portugal.”

Most historians give 1555, when five Africans arrived in England to learn English and thereby facilitate trade, as the beginning of a continual black presence in Britain. It’s difficult to estimate numbers for the black population of London or other towns at the time, due to a lack of public record. There was no tax on the import of slaves, such as operated in other European countries, and the government had a monopoly on the trade of Africans from Guinea as house servants. At that time slaves provided a lifetime of wageless labour for the cost of the initial purchase, and increased the status of the owner. It was 1588 before attempts were made to formalise their presence.

Most black servants were slaves; some were freed men from Guinea, or Moors from north Africa. The Moors had strong ties with Spain, with which Elizabeth was at war, and were Muslims, and they became objects of suspicion to the government.

At the time Elizabeth’s 1596 instructions had little effect, but are seen as having stirred a “sense of racist differentiation and to have begun the development of a vocabulary of discrimination.” If this discrimination was “a religious rather than racist one” (as historian Emily Bartells analyses it), to the queen, there were other factors at work.

The 1590s were a time of great unrest in London, caused by lean harvests and a hungry population. In the 16th century, the ruling classes became increasingly concerned about poverty and vagrancy, as the feudal system – which, in theory, had kept everyone in their place – finally broke down. The dissolution of the monasteries had also destroyed much of the only welfare system that existed to care for the destitute. The elite feared disorder and social breakdown and, blaming the poor, brought in poor laws to try to deal with the problem. Protest over poverty turned to riot several times in London, and in 1595 to near insurrection as several weeks of turbulence shook the capital. Some of this rage emerged as xenophobia and attacks on migrant workers. Mainly these were French or Flemish craftsmen, but the queen may have thought that any groups of foreigners were likely to be a target for trouble. Elizabeth’s orders against Black people were an attempt to blame them for wider social problems.

The 1596 order, however, seems to have had no significant effect. Expressing fear that they might be taking jobs and goods away from English citizens and that ‘the most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel,’ the Queen issued another ineffectual edict, then finally commissioned a Lubeck merchant, Casper van Senden, to cart them off in 1601. ‘[I]f there shall be any person or persons which are possessed of any such blackamoors that refuse to deliver them,’ the Queen wrote, other citizens were to notify the government of their presence.

Despite the Queen’s order, black people were by then well established in Britain’s houses, streets and ports. Ludicrously the idea has been put forward that Queen Elizabeth issued these edicts because she was an opponent of slavery! In fact, her own support of the English slave trade led inevitably to the increase of the Afro-British population: for instance authorising and bankrolling Sir John Hawkins, a man who later added a shackled African to his coat of arms, and his cousin Francis Drake – yeah, that Drake – to compete with the Portuguese and Spanish for this lucrative market. A trade Hawkins had already been pursuing for over thirty years: he and Drake enslaved thousands of africans.

The use of black servants and entertainers by royalty and nobility filtered down to much less affluent households and establishments. As long as black people were seen as fashion accessories, and as long as ownership of them was encouraged their numbers inevitably increased. James I continued the fashion in his more licentious court, where ‘conspicuous fashionable consumption was flaunted, and Negroes, as part of that fashion, became more in evidence’—he had a group of black minstrels and his wife had black servants.

It’s worth pointing out that as well as channeling racism the queen also did a neat bit of business, as she arranged for the slave trader Casper van Senden to transfer the deported slaves as exchange for English sailors in prison in Spain, and failed to pay the slave’ owners’ anything in the way of compensation, You have to hand it to her, she was a master of manipulation. Bartels also suggests that the increasing number of foreigners arriving in London were the result of privateers capturing Spanish ships, and that Elizabeth in fact wished to use their affiliations with Spain as currency in prisoner exchange. Many English prisoners lay in foreign gaols, and the ‘blackamoores’ were her bargaining tools.


Today there are other folk who think that they can turn back time, to some mythical time when Britain was all white people, ruled the waves, and everyone knew their place and had full employment. Without even mentioning how ‘ruling the waves’ was based so heavily on the slave trade mentioned above (a whole other discussion to be had there), the whole idea of this glorious time is dangerous nonsense. The working class people who dream of it had no more control over their lives than now. Some of this longing was one motivation for the Brexit vote, and has been fuelling a sharp rise in racist abuse and aggressive nationalist sentiment around the UK.

But for all those who think leaving Europe will bring rewards to the excluded, abandoned, suffering from decimated industries and bleak prospects – wake up. The most likely political result is a harsher regime further to the right, more austerity, more cuts. To avoid people getting together to fight this, the wealthy need ‘indigenous’ working class people to be blaming migrants, and migrants to be afraid. No golden age will come – you can leave the EU but the global nature of trade, labour, the imbalance of wealth and poverty, the crises caused by war will not disappear.

The only fight over resources is not between native and foreigner – its between rich and poor. We need to be getting together to redistribute the abundant wealth of the world – for the needs of all not the profit of the few.

“the only race that matters is the rat race…”


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

Today in London radical history: locals burn fences in opposition to proposed enclosure, West End Green, 1882.

“Great discontent has not unnaturally been aroused at Hampstead in consequence of the enclosure of so many of its historic village-greens, which, one by one, have disappeared of late years, and are now either built upon by enterprising speculators, or converted into private gardens. West-end green, which is almost the last of these popular spots that had up to the present escaped the progress of annexation, was taken possession of by somebody or other a few days ago and enclosed with a fence.” (The Tablet, 29 July 1882)

“West End Green presents yet a sylvan or at least a somewhat rural aspect, and the wooded slopes of the old town of Hampstead, form a pleasant prospect as viewed from the spacious streets and well-planned dwellings of the more modern portions of Kilburn.”

This late nineteenth century description of West End Green in West Hampstead was out of date almost as soon as it was written (in 1889) – development was paving over the wooded slopes, demand for housing in the capital was high, and there was a lot of money to be made. Hampstead Heath had been saved from development by a long campaign to preserve it as an open space. The 1889 writer fails also to mention that West End Green very nearly lost its sylvan aspect: in 1882, the Green came close to vanishing under yet more suburban housing.

By 1870, conditions for speculative developers were generally favourable. The death of the Lord of the manor Thomas Maryon Wilson the year before had removed a legal restraint on issuing of long leases, and legal changes had made it easier for ‘copyhold’ tenants to enfranchise themselves (turn their basically feudal tenancy, rights and obligations into a modern ownership of land).

In West Hampstead (then known as West End), West End Green and Fortune Green (much larger then than the strip of land that now remains), were the remnant of the wastes’ of the manor. Subject to enough being available for copyholders to dig turf, pasture animals etc, the Lord had the right to grant waste to particular copyholders.

In 1870, Henry Dunnett, a copyholder (and bailiff of the Lord of the Manor) who had been granted to pieces of waste in Fortune Green, sold one piece to John Culverhouse, a general contractor and speculator. Culverhouse had also acquired the copyhold over West End Green, and had been granted the right by the Manor Court to enclose it in 1871; land which he ‘enfranchised’ in 1873. Two years later, intending to sell the land for building, Culverhouse had wooden hoardings set up around it but the local people pulled them down and burnt them.

A debate followed in the local vestry about whether to buy the land for the public, but a price couldn’t be agreed on. In February 1882, unwilling to sell for the price offered by the vestry, Culverhouse sold the land to a Mr Francis T. Fowle, a builder from Shepherds Bush. Fowle set up a much stronger hoarding in 26th June 1882, and began to strip the turf. The builder had reckoned without the popularity of the Green and the strength of local opposition; many residents were against it.

Very early In July, a hut on the green occupied by a watchman standing security over the land was set on fire. The next night a public meeting in a nearby church resolved to oppose the loss of the green, though there were some debates about what form action should take, with one resolute opponent of the enclosure, Captain Notman, urging non-violence: “They were not in Ireland, and it was not worthy of Englishmen to set fire to a man’s hoarding”. There were howls of laughter in response, but some applause was mixed with shouts of “Down With it!” When the meeting broke up, a crowd marched to the Green, and it looked like direct action was on the cards, but Nathaniel Sherry, who lived opposite the Green and had been elected Secretary of the association opposing he enclosure, persuaded those present to ‘abstain from violence’… the crowd dispersed.

However, this respite was only for a few days.

On 17th July 1882, “the habitually law-abiding inhabitants of Hampstead”, assembled on a wet Monday night “to the number of 2,000, armed with axes, crowbars [and a two-gallon oil drum, ed.], demolished the hoarding, and triumphantly consumed the debris in a gigantic bonfire.”

That the crowd had formed from several groups who had converged on the Green from different directions points to a pre-arranged plan, with clever tactics designed to fool both the police and the liberal opponents of enclosure who couldn’t countenance direct action. A solitary policeman on duty, PC Splaine, was caught by surprise; he did arrest several men, who gave him their names and addresses, but he then had to release them, being on his own. That they allowed themselves to be nicked and gave their names suggests the men felt their actions to e in the right, and confident of their legal position. As it turned out, they were justified in this confidence.

The blaze of the burning boards soared high, despite the heavy rain, and was cheered by a crowd of 2000. The voluntary fire brigade couldn’t put out the flames, even when assisted by a large body of police from S Division who turned up, eventually dispersing the crowd by midnight.

When the eight arrestees were hauled up in Hampstead Police Court, they were rapidly acquitted of any charges. The whole episode was a complete victory for the locals.

The hoardings were never re-erected. Eventually the local Vestry (the equivalent of the Council), bought the land in 1885 and re-opened it as a public space. Ten years later they also acquired nearby Fortune Green as an open space, following more local protests when it too was threatened with development (again by John Culverhouse).

Battles against enclosure often had this dual character: a respectable law-abiding opposition and more direct wing, willing to take illegal action. In reality, the complementary activities of these two sides, though sometimes antagonistic, both combined to effect the victory all desired – keeping or winning land for public use. On more than one occasion, these seemingly disparate elements in fact worked together. A useful lesson.

Much of the information herein was obtained from ‘The Fight for Fortune Green’, in Camden History Review, no 10, by Dick Weindling


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

Today in penal history: Kings Bench Prisoners hold mock election, 1827.

“Nothing during the last year excited more curiosity than the Mock Election, which took place in the King’s Bench Prison; as much from the circumstances attending its conclusion, as from the astonishment expressed that men, unfortunate and confined, could invent any amusement at which they had a right to be happy.”

In July 1827, the inmates of the King’s Bench Prison, in Borough, South London, organised a fantastical mock hustings, to elect an MP to represent ‘Tenterden’ (a slang name for the prison) in Parliament. Three candidates were put up, one of whom was Lieutenant Meredith, an eccentric naval officer. “…As I approached the unfortunate, but merry, crowd, to the last day of my life I shall ever remember the impression… baronets and bankers, authors and merchants, painters and poets… dandies of no rank in rap and tatters… all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads…”

All the characteristics of a regular election were parodied. Addresses from the candidates to the ‘worthy and independent electors’ were printed and posted up around the prison; contending parties wrote broadsheets & sang songs attacking their opponents; there were processions with flags and music, to take the several candidates to visit the several ‘Collegians’ (i. e., prisoners) in their rooms; speeches were made in the courtyards, full of grotesque humour; a pseudo-“high-sheriff” and other “election officers” were chosen to oversee the proceedings “properly”; and the electors were invited to ‘rush to the poll’ early on Monday morning, the 16th of July.

“Hitherto it had been a mere revel; but on the latter day the frolic assumed a serious aspect, from the interference of the marshal of the prison.”

Worried about the disorder that might arise (and that the inmates might be enjoying life in a manner non-profitable to him and other warders?!), Mr. Jones, marshal of the prison, put a stop to the whole proceedings on the morning of the 16th. Apparently the proceedings were halted violently, exasperating the prisoners. They resented the language used towards them, and opposed the treatment to which they were subjected; until a squad of Foot-guards, with fixed bayonets, forcibly drove some of the leaders into a filthy ‘black-hole’ or place of confinement.

“The three candidates, and other persons who were active in the election, were for some time kept in close confinement, and a sergeant’s guard was introduced, and remained in the prison all night. The result was pacific; but the conduct of the marshal has been much censured and threatened with a parliamentary investigation.”

Quotes from an account of the Mock Election by Benjamin Haydon, imprisoned in the Kings Bench for debt, July 1827.

Mock elections were all the rage at one time… for many years the Mayor of Garratt elections in South London were the highpoint of the social calendar…


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

Today in London radical history: Yiddish anarchist paper Arbeter Fraint founded, Whitechapel, 1885.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s. Oerwhelmib=ngly the majority of the jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

The famous Arbeter Fraint yiddish newspaper had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, the first socialist paper in Yiddish in London, which was based in Spitalfields. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.

The Poilishe Yidel was founded by Morris Winchevsky, as a socialist paper, written in yiddish, the everyday language of the migrants. It had a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.

16 issues appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of greeners, problems with bosses and landlords…

The precarious nature of the tailoring trade made it tough working: workers endured trade fluctuations, leading to busy times and slack times. In the busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, worked very long hours; in slack times, there was no work, great poverty and hunger. 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets.

The Poilishe Yidel encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English, and continually advised the formation of unions.

The ‘Yidel’, though, suffered a split in October 1884, and Winchevsky founded the Arbeter Fraint (Workers Friend), which was to outshine its predecessor.

Initially started as a non-partisan socialist paper in Yiddish, “open to all radicals…  social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”, the Arbeter Fraint always held a global view of socialism, advocating revolution; but Winchevsky remained committed to the Jewish poor. It was stern in its attacks on religion, constantly denigrating the ancient faith, and parodying religious texts. It also rejected jewish nationalism.

Philip Kranz was appointed its first editor, (until 1889 when as a social democrat he broke with the anarchists and left for New York); gathering a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, obsessed with debunking religion, who wrote anti-religious satires for the paper.

For a while, Kranz, Isaac Stone and other writers in the Arbeter Fraint attacked trade unions, opining (in common with many other socialists of the time) that there could be no real improvements under capitalism, and trade unionism was just soft soap, . Revolution was the only solution and it was imminent… Fairly soon, however, the local realities in the sweating trades forced them to concede the necessity of the Jewish workers getting organised… From 1886 the paper helped in the drive toward unionisation.

Arbeter Fraint went from a monthly to a weekly in June 1886, and came under the control of the Berner Street club (the International Workingman’s Educational Club) off Whitechapel’s Commercial Road, where it was based till the club closed in 1892. Amidst disputes between social democrats and anarchists, the paper moved towards anarchism. Occasionally irregular, with a circulation ranging between 2000 and 4000, the paper grew to have a huge influence in the East End, asdn wider afield, as copies were mailed out to yiddish-speaking jews in Britain, the US and beyond.

The anglo-jewish establishment regularly attacked the paper, denouncing it in print, accusing the writers of not being reals jews, and attempting to bribe the printer and compositors to sabotage it, (supporters collected cash to buy their own press). Partly the better-off and longer established jewish hierarchy feared being identified (by the British upper and middle classes they were so keen to join) with the poor jews of the East End; on class grounds the jewish establishment took a dim view of the radicals they saw as stirring up trouble. For its part, Arbeter Fraint took pot shots at respectable anglicised jewry, in particular attacking the Chief Rabbi, mainly for his refusal to intervene in the issue of the poverty of East End jews and the exploitation (‘sweating’) of poor Jewish tailors by rich Jewish employers.

Gradually the Arbeter Fraint group hardened into a more anarchist position, recruiting several libertarian writers and poets,

They were heavily involved in the agitation among East End jewish tailors that lead to a huge tailors strike in 1889… 6000 tailors struck for a broad range of demands – reductions in working hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours… 120 workshops were idle. The strike was won after much agitation, but the masters started to break agreements immediately, and the organisation that had grown up .

After the demise of the Berner Street club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings in the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included such anarchist luminaries as Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.

Increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who bcame an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…

According to Rudolf Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, mostly tailors: “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”
The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.

Under Rocker’s leadership, Arbeter Fraint and the group around it were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes including a 3 week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered… The effects of this were not totally reversed till the seminal 1912 tailors Strike; when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a strike of West End (mainly non-Jewish) tailors, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel, which brought out 13,000 Jewish tailors. Demands for a 9 hr working day, day work not piece work, higher wages, unionised closed shops, an end to bad conditions at work, were in the end won by the superhuman energy of Rocker and many others, working day and night for the strike, which saw Arbeter Fraint come out as a daily strike sheet. Other Jewish unions supported the strike fully. Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions…

Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group also worked hard to unite Jewish workers and east End dockers (traditionally very anti-immigrant as a rule). The AF group encouraged Jewish working class support for the 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers’ children into their homes during great poverty among the dockers in 1912… Links were made in these years that lasted decades, bearing fruit into the 1930s, the struggle against fascism, and to the Battle of Cable Street…

However the East End Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with the onset of World War 1. Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ throughout the war, as were a number of others. The Arbeter Fraint, from the start opposing the war, was suppressed by the British government. Heavy repression fell on jewish and other workers who opposed the war. And many Jews and other exiles returned to Russia with the 1917 revolution. Of those that remained, many anarchos and syndicalists joined the new Communist Party, enthused by the seeming success of the Soviet regime; others left the movement, emigrated to the USA, or moved to other parts of London. To some extent also, Rocker’s charismatic influence had become all-important to the maintenance of the Arbeter Fraint, and the wider movement, and without him it fell apart.

Much more on the brilliant and inspiring story of the Arbeter Fraint can be read in:

Rudolf Rocker, The London Years.


William Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914.


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

Today in London radical history: Albany community centre gutted by (probably fascist) arson attack, Deptford, 1978.

With racism on the rise in the area in the late 1970s, local community centre, the Albany, was an important focus for South East London’s anti-racists. South East London’s disaffected working class white communities, suffering the collapse of traditional industries, had proved a fertile ground for National Front and other racist groups seeking to persuade them that all their problems came from migrant communities. Racist attacks were frequent, the NF had focused on the area. In August 1977 an NF march in Lewisham had been besieged by 1000s of anti-racists and locals and led to serious fighting between New Cross and Lewisham.

The Albany had hosted more than 15 Rock Against Racism benefits, a three-day ‘All Together Now’ festival, at least one Scrap the SUS laws gig, and an anti-racist theatre show, Restless Natives. It seems this may have made it a target for racists.

On 14th July 1978, the building was destroyed by fire, with a note saying ‘Got You”, signed 88, left on the remains the next day. Anti-racists speculated that the 88 signified something to do with Column 88, a fascist paramilitary splinter. But Greenwich Police refused to take any notice of the note, and ruled that “the fire wasn’t arson, it was either an accident or natural causes.” The cops at that time, being diseased with racist ideas and actual fascist members, usually turned a blind eye to racist attacks when they could get away with it, and could rely on higher ups backing them up, too. Evelyn Street fire station judged that the relatively new lighting circuits had not caused the fire, and thought it had been arson. It was not unusual for racists to use arson against such targets – the nearby Moonshot Club in New Cross had been burned out in December 1977, shortly after local National Front members had discussed ‘taking action’ against it. Three years later in 1981, a fire at a teenage party in New Cross Road killed thirteen young black people (a survivor probably killed himself months later). Widely suspected to be a racist attack at the time, the tragedy was played by the police and ignored by those in power – but sparked rage, protest and organising from south London’s black communities.

Both the Moonshot and the Albany were rebuilt, although the Albany was moved from the trashed site in Creek Road to nearby Douglas Way (a move already planned before the fire). It is still going strong today.

Some more on Albany History


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

Today in policing history: #spycop Bob Lambert sets fire to Debenhams Store, Harrow, 1987.

A few short years ago, Bob Lambert’s star was rising high. Having retired from the Metropolitan Police in 2008, he had built on his reputation as a Special Branch Detective Inspector, an expert on terrorism and how to combat it. He had moved effortlessly into academia and was a hit on the conference circuit, lauded as a mover and shaker in a number of projects both state-funded and grassroots-based, aimed at opposing Islamic jihadism. A darling of liberal opinion.

How the mighty have fallen.

Since 2011, Bob’s reputation has been somewhat on the slide: exposed as a former police spy, an agent provocateur, who had used relationships with several women he met while undercover to beef up his cover story… Later, a head of the same undercover police unit he had served, supervising other spies infiltrating social movements and grieving families. His liberal aura has lost its gloss; he has had to give up some lucrative and prestigious academic positions; he faces serious questions about his past.

Lambert is described as having joined the Metropolitan Police in 1977. He is said to have joined Metropolitan Police Special Branch in 1980, before being recruited to its secretive Special Demonstration Squad sometime between then and 1983.

Set up in 1968 in response to mass protests against the Vietnam War, and funded directly by the Home Office, the purpose of the SDS was to place long term spies in political movements in the UK, to gather ‘intelligence’ which was used to undermine those movements. The SDS spied on several hundred anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-war, environmental and social justice groups, and many more, over 40 years. The work of uncovering the more than 140 former police spies is ongoing.

As part of these undercover operations, agents, including Bob Lambert, had long term intimate and sexual relationships with campaigners and their friends, in the most abusive breach of trust imaginable. This abuse has had a severe and lasting emotional impact on those affected. Lambert has admitted he had four sexual relationships while undercover and even fathered a child before disappearing without trace from their lives.

Bob Lambert was deployed undercover using the alias ‘Bob Robinson’ from at least early 1984 until late 1988. For about 5 years up to 1988, Bob infiltrated meetings and events of London Greenpeace, an organisation which campaigned against nuclear power and war, and on other environmental and social justice issues. He was also actively involved with peace campaigns and animal rights activities and was even prosecuted for distributing ‘insulting’ leaflets outside a butchers shop. ‘Bob Robinson’ first appeared in the animal rights and environmental milieu in north London late 1983 or early 1984. His deployment followed that of the first known SDS officer sent to live amongst animal rights activists, Mike Chitty, who appeared in South London in early 1983.

His infiltration into animal rights circles began with regular attendance at demonstrations, where he made the acquaintance of genuine activists. He soon became a familiar face at protests, and offered to drive people to and from events. He took part in hunt sabotage, protests against businesses associated with animal products, and joined London Greenpeace, an anarchist-leaning group involved in environmental and social issues.

Having established himself on the scene, he took on more responsibilities and a more active role in various campaigns and groups, and “set about befriending campaigners suspected of being in the ALF” [Animal Liberation Front]. He wrote or co-wrote a number of activist documents, including London Greenpeace’s What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? factsheet – which was later subject to a notorious libel suit issued by McDonald’s. Throughout his undercover tour as ‘Robinson’, Lambert implied to activists that he was interested in or already involved in more clandestine forms of political activity, such as that associated with the cells of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

As an activist in an ALF cell, he took part in a co-ordinated clandestine action on the night of 12th July 1987, which saw the burning down of the Harrow branch of the Debenhams department store, using an incendiary device designed to set off sprinklers and destroy fur stocks. Two more branches of Debenhams, in Luton and Romford, were targeted at the same time on the same night. The 1987 attacks, which caused an estimated £340,000 worth of damage on the Harrow branch alone, with £4 million in fire damage and £4.5 million in trading losses across all three, was credited with precipitating the ending of Debenhams’ involvement in the fur trade.

In fact, Bob was acting as an agent-provocateur, encouraging and taking part in the action to ensure the arrests of ALF activists. The other two members of ‘Robinson’’s cell, Geoff Sheppard and Andrew Clarke, were both arrested and subsequently imprisoned. A 2015 “forensic external examination” of SDS-related documents undertaken by Stephen Taylor for the Home Office obliquely references Lambert’s involvement in securing the arrests of Sheppard and Clarke, and indicates that the then-Home Secretary Douglas Hurd complimented the unit on its operation.

Lambert remained deployed in the field as ‘Robinson’ until late 1988. Using the pretext of being under investigation by police for his involvement in the 1987 Harrow Debenhams’ arson – which included a Special Branch raid on the home of his then ‘partner’ Belinda Harvey “to add credibility to Lambert’s cover story” – ‘Robinson’ told Harvey and other friends, including his son’s mother, Jacqui, that he needed to go ‘on the run’ to avoid capture; to some he said that he planned to move to Spain until things quietened down. He then “abandoned his flat and stayed for a couple of weeks in what he called a ‘safe house’”, before spending a farewell week with Belinda at a friend’s house in Dorset in December 1988. With this, he disappeared out of their lives, with a few postcards postmarked Spain and sent in January 1989 the only indication that he still existed.

In reality, he continued to work within the police, rising to become a Detective Inspector in Special Branch, and to head the Special Demonstration Squad. He supervised other SDS agents who spied and lied while infiltrating groups such as London Greenpeace, Reclaim the Streets, anti fascist groups and campaigners against genetically modified crops. His experience in penetrating London Greenpeace and the ALF was used as a model for other agents. He is also directly implicated in police attempts to spy on, smear and discredit Stephen Lawrence’s family’s campaign against the police failures to investigate Stephen’s racist murder in 1993; and implicated in the scandal of SDS surveillance-derived intelligence being passed to private firms organizing blacklist against trade unionists.

After Lambert’s SDS past was exposed publicly by former activists in London Greenpeace in 2011, Lambert eventually ‘apologised’ for his sexual exploitation of women while undercover; but his is not an isolated case. Of some 15 other undercover police agents now identified as spying on activist groups in the last 20 years have, almost all have had deceitful and exploitative relationships with women. Top cops claim these spies were ordered not to form sexual relationships; but in reality supervisors turned a blind eye to what comes very close to rape. Ten women used in this way by police spies have won damages and an apology from the Metropolitan Police as the institution ultimately responsible for this; one is still suing the Met. More cases will surely result as further individual police spies are exposed.

Lambert continues to deny setting fire to the Debenhams Store in Harrow in July 1987. However Andrew Clarke and Geoff Shepherd have launched an appeal against their convictions, on the grounds that the failure to reveal the involvement of a police agent provocateur as central to the ‘plot’ constitutes a miscarriage of justice. Look forward to seeing Bob have his day in court THIS time around. And now the Met’s Professional Standards Department is investigating the 1987 attack. It’s fair to say that while the police top brass will enable some very dodgy practices and cover for you, it will only go so far – if you start looking like a liability, they will hang you out to dry. Sorry Bob. 

These undercover police were not involved in ‘anti terrorist’ operations, they were spying to disrupt and weaken the growing opposition to the domination of our society by the interests of multinational corporations, and attacking community campaigns dealing with police corruption, racist or state violence. Several official inquiries and investigations have been launched into undercover policing, because of the huge public outcry the exposures have created. But its worth stressing that Lambert’s activities – both in terms of spying and of exploiting women for cover and for sex – fit into a pattern, sponsored by the highest levels of the police and the state behind it. He was not a bad apple – the whole barrel stinks.

However, Bob’s exposure has dimmed his post-police career. His part-time posts at London Metropolitan and St Andrews Universities were called into question in the light of his past being brought to light, and in late 2015 he resigned both positions after protests inside and outside both institutions. Tragic.

The upcoming Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing may well also lift some lids off many practices top cops would rather stay hidden…

Much more on Bob’s career can be found here

(from which some of this post was brazenly lifted).

And for more on the fight to expose undercover police in the UK (and beyond):

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Spies Out Of Lives: The campaign supporting women exploited and deceived by spycops

The Undercover Research Group: uncovering undercover police agents, the units they worked for, and the police structures that backed them.


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