Today in London history: Duke of Bedford closes his private road, 1798.

“The Duke of Bedford… has stopped up the road from Southampton-row to Somers-Town. This, though called a private road, and as such, not open to carriages, has been a footway from time immemorial. It is hoped therefore, that the Duke, without waiting for a legal process, will restore that privilege…”
(Annual Register, 29th September 1798)

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion in modern Bloomsbury in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop new London streets and whole neighbourhoods by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the Bloomsbury area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even a genteel bookshop was apparently closely screened before being allowed to open. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century. By 1798 this road was closed off to traffic, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. [The Duke was concerned to enclose not only his exclusive urban estate; he had tried in 1794 to enclose part of his lands in south London, on Streatham Common, so he could profit more from selling the gorse that grew there, and had to back down when locals rioted).

In 1826, gates at the northern edge were erected so as to “shut out the low population” of the working class neighbourhood of Somers Town.

Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets, even main streets like what was then Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way). Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The gates stood at the north end of Gordon Street, half way down Taviton Street, (then called Georgiana Street, after the wife of the sixth Duke) and Endsleigh Street, and Upper Woburn Place, and at Torrington place near the corner of Torrington Square. Lodges built for the gatekeepers can still be seen on the west side of Endsleigh Street.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control. Around 1750 a petition to the Duke from Silver Street, (roughly where Barter Street is now) complained that an alley running behind their street through to High Holborn, was frequented by “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, and called for it to be bricked up at both ends. This area, around the now-disappeared Bloomsbury Market (under the eastern end of present-day New Oxford Street), was increasingly lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: although we couldn’t discover if this petition was acted on, the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. The St. Pancras Vestry, under whose administration part of the Estate fell, became fed up with applying for permission to the Duke to enter the streets for works, cleaning etc. However the two other Vestries covering the area, St Giles and St George’s, defended the gates, mainly because removing them would lower rateable values and increase pavement costs, thus hitting the Vestry and wealthy ratepayers hard in the pocket.

The private road built for the duke’s personal use alone, Woburn Place, led to disputes even with other local nobility. It was originally laid in the 1750s, to connect to the spanking New Turnpike Road (now Euston Road) to the north so the duke could travel between his London pad and his country estates in Bedfordshire. At the edge of his land, however, to reach the new thoroughfare, it had to cross land owned by the Duke of Grafton, who wasn’t keen to allow it to bisect his property. For a while in 1759 there was a mini-civil war between the respective servants of the dukes, with Grafton’s men building barricades with instructions to block anyone coming over the border between the two estates; barriers repeatedly broken down by lackeys of Bedford (the words ‘hoist’ and ‘own petard’ springing to mind), but they settled in the end, with Bedford’s road being permitted to cross Grafton’s estate to meet the Turnpike road.

Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Barring the majority of traffic from a strategically placed area just south of two main London railway stations had become economically anomalous. Even the prime minister complained in 1890 about the inconvenience of having to travel around the estate: “I am a constant passenger of the Great Northern Railway… and I must say that I have never passed the Sacred Gates in going to the Great Northern Station without mental imprecations against the persons who originally set them up and the persons who have since maintained them there.” (Which is interesting – was even the prime minster considered not respectable enough to pass through?)

Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.


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


Today in London’s theatrical history: playing Bottom on a Sunday gets Mr Wilson into trouble, 1631.

The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.

But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.

Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.

One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…

Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity

So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…

Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.

For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”

It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.

Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.

Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.

The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.

Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:

‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:

‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”

Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.

To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.


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

Today in London’s rebel history: ruckus at a Clerkenwell school ends in arrests, 1969.

On September 26th 1969 a mini-riot broke out among pupils at Philip Magnus School, Clerkenwell, after they had got into conversation with some young rebels who were leafleting outside.

One of those arrested relates the events…

“An hour or so after St.Paul’s we went off to a secondary modern school in Clerkenwell, near Kings Cross, where an anarchist friend of ours was a pupil. During the previous school year, after a molotov had burnt a hole in the door of the Head’s study, the head decided to ban boots in the school, an attack on the skinheads in the school, who were in the majority. They responded: boot prints appeared around the school, on the floors and walls and ceilings, drawings of boots were chalked up on blackboards, and finally the Head was presented in assembly with a gigantic papier mache boot. The Head felt compelled to unban the boots. So we longhairs arrive at this skinhead school, shortly after the eviction of ‘hippies’ from Endell St. squat, where the London Street Commune had gone after the eviction of 144 Piccadilly. We stay outside the school, because our friend hadn’t turned up and because a lot of the school seemed to be hanging around outside in a small square just outside the gates. We start the play but amidst cries of “Go back to Endell St!.” and stone throwing from some of the kids, we end it quickly as some of the skinheads start lifting a great big paving stone (we find out later that the Endell St. ‘hippies’ had appeared earlier that day at Clerkenwell Magistrates Court, just around the corner). We hand out leaflets, start talking to the boys about conditions in the school and what we think the education system’s all about. They all want an end to physical punishment, which wasn’t to be abolished in this country until the late 80s (not that humiliating kids in other ways isn’t equally miserable). No one wants school uniforms, but many want a smoking room and everyone wants “proper biology lessons”, which at that time were pitiful (probably they still are, but in a different modern way).

A tall spindly man appears, tells the boys to get out of the square and starts pushing them around. I say, “They’re allowed to be here. Who are you to tell them what to do? They can decide for themselves what to do.” The man, who turns out to be the Head, ignores us and strides angrily away back through the school gates to cries of “Bastard…cunt!”. The boys are more sympathetic towards us. “Let’s burn down the school!”, a couple of them say. Being a bit of Lefty still, I said, “What’s the point? – they’ll only send you to another.” “Shall we occupy the school?” one of them asks. “Yeah – if you want – we’ll help, but it’s up to you” was the gist of our different replies. Then the cops arrive. “Back into school!” the Sergeant orders. I say loudly, “They’re allowed out in lunchbreak. Why should they get back inside?”, (not the kind of mouthy role I’d play nowadays probably, but…)”Because I say so”. “Do you make the laws?”, “No, I interpret them”, “Maybe you bend them a little to suit your own ideas” – I was talking loudly – as much to him as to the boys of the school, performing the rabble rouser a bit.. After resuming ordering the boys about, he hurries after me when I’m a bit away from the others and says softly, “Look here, young Barabas, if ever I see you again I’ll pull off your beard and cut off your hair, you fucking long-haired wierdo.” I reply in a loud theatrical voice so others can hear – “What? Did you call me a fucking long-haired wierdo?”. “Are you calling me names? Are you calling me names?”, says the sergeant, putting on a better show of outrage, and promptly nicks me.

The cops meanwhile threaten everyone with being nicked for obstruction – both us “guerrillas”(it sounds better than ‘street theatre actors’) and the schoolkids, so everyone moves off from the square to a small park up the hill, and start sitting around in groups discussing schools, the cops and so on. A cop comes into the park and, pointing to one of us – Michael, says to the mainly skinhead schoolkids, “Do you want to grow up to be like them – filthy, long-haired, unemployed…? Silence. Michael asks them, “Well, would you prefer to be like him or like me?” “LIKE YOU!” they all shout back, and the cop (us politicos called them ‘pigs’ at the time) storms off.

Eventually all of us get nicked and one of us gets beaten up a bit by the cops. The cops who arrest the last two of us get thumped on the back by some of the skinhead kids. The kids swear and hiss and boo at the cops, some of them fling themselves at the gates round the back of the police station, trying to break them down. Solidarity, unity in anger – one of the best things in the world. Later on, the Evening News came out with the headline “Boys Incited To Burn Down School!”, whilst the Evening Standard said we’d offered the boys drugs and that a hundred schoolboys had chased two hippies and shouted and jeered at them. When the papers appeared, some of the boys were so pissed off they tore them up outside the school. Meantime, we were packed off to Ashford Remand Centre, even though our parents had turned up in court to put up surety for the bail which most of us had been granted (the only one of us that wasn’t was a couple of years older than us, the only one of us who was from a working class background – he went to Brixton for a week before bail was granted). There we were made to have a public cough ‘n’ drop medical inspection and a semi-public bath and then we had to wear prison clothes: my trousers were far too big – I had to permanently hold them to stop them falling down, and my shoes were far too small, cramping my toes. It was only 24 hours, but when it’s your first time in prison and you’ve got no idea how long you’ll be there, and you’ve never known anyone who’s been inside, it was a little worrying, though it was the boredom I remember most, because we were kept isolated for most of the time. I was so naïve, I remember being really outraged at the fact that teenagers were kept in prison without bail for 6 months or more before trial, at which they were often let off.

The leaflet we’d handed out in the four days of our guerrilla theatre actions advertised a meeting at my house on the afternoon we’d got nicked: 12 kids turned up, we didn’t, but the cops did, staying in a van outside, whilst one stood outside the front garden. For several months afterwards, my phone was tapped. The trial was almost 3 months later, and took 3 days. Like the whole of that summer, I suppose it was a kind of revelation for naïve little me. I hadn’t expected such a degree of lying on the part of the cops and hypocrisy on the part of the magistrate, though since then it’s something I take for granted. For instance, so that the Headmaster wouldn’t have to appear as a witness, and to give greater authority to the police, a Chief Superintendant claimed to have been there, and described everything that had happened to the Headmaster, though elaborating with a few extra lies. We were so taken aback by his convincing performance, and perhaps also stressed by the whole trial, that we began to question our own memories – had he been there and we hadn’t noticed? Was it not the Head who’d first remonstrated with us? The whole trial was awash with lies, of course, but the strange thing were the words they put into our mouths, words that had nothing to do with the way any of us would speak – e.g. the Sergeant said I’d shouted from the police car, “Go, lads, and burn down your school – we shall support you”. “Go lads” – like I was some public school prefect.”

Taken from a personal account of activities in this period, including the rebirth of squatting, the London Street Commune, and a series of interventions at schools, which can be found here

There’s a fun text there of an article from the Kilburn Times, relating the trial that ensued from the events detailed above… somewhat differently to the account given here…


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

Today in London’s psychogeographical history: Situationist International‘s fourth conference opens, Limehouse, 1960.

Upon their arrival in the English capital, delegates were set the ‘psychogeographical’ task of locating the British Sailors Society, where the conference was to be held.

The following report appeared in Internationale Situationniste #5 (December 1960)
[Edited from translations by Ken Knabb and Reuben Keehan]

THE 4TH CONFERENCE of the Situationist International was held in London, at a secret address in the East End, 24-28 September 1960, seventeen months after the Munich Conference (April 1959). The situationists assembled in London were: Debord, Jacqueline de Jong, Jorn, Kotányi, Katja Lindell, Jörgen Nash, Prem, Sturm, Maurice Wyckaert and H.P. Zimmer. In fact, to ensure that the proceedings were kept well away from any contact with London journalists or artistic circles, the conference took place at the British Sailors Society hall in Limehouse, “an area famous for its criminals” (Spur #2).

The first session began on 25 September with a debate on the adoption of an order of the day on seventeen integral points, the discussion of three of which was postponed and rescheduled for a later SI debate. Asger Jorn acts as this session’s chairman, a function he performs for the remainder of the conference.

The conference then hears a report by Attila Kotányi; it lasts a only few minutes but is followed by two days of discussion. For Kotányi, the SI is characterised primarily by the appropriation of resources for constructing fields of encounter. Commenting on the definitions he has proposed, he shows that the philosophical concept of dialogue and the encounter as alienation and tragedy, as attempted communication filtered negatively through its means, is an insufficient critique because “we know that, for very different reasons, these encounters don’t produce themselves.” The role of the void, of lost time, in possible displacements can be calculated statistically.

The lack of encounters is expressible by a concrete figure, which could characterise the historical state of the world . . . Following this analysis, our activity must undertake a practical critique of the reasons why there are no encounters (independent of any “progress” of the means of communication, for example); create bases (situationist “castles”) representing an accumulation of the elements of the encounter and the dérive: more concretely, buildings of our own; and facilitate communication — permanent or otherwise — between these bases. This is the minimum requirement for the construction of situations.

Kotànyi proposes that this plan be considered within definite limits, and thus the limits of time: a planning of the time necessary for the installation of this basic network that subordinates other situationist instruments, including the devices of its propaganda and its publications.

The discussion of these perspectives leads to posing the question: “To what extent is the SI a political movement?” Various responses state that the SI is political, but not in the ordinary sense. The discussion becomes somewhat confused. Debord proposes, in order to clearly bring out the opinion of the Conference, that each person respond in writing to a questionnaire asking if he considers that there are “forces in the society that the SI can count on? What forces? In what conditions?” This questionnaire is agreed upon and filled out. The first responses express the view that the purpose of the SI is to establish a program of overall liberation and to act in accord with other forces on a social scale. (Kotányi: “To rely on what we call free.” Jorn: “We are against specialisation and rationalisation, but not against them as means. . . . Movements of social groups are determined by the character of their desires. We can accept other social movements only to the extent that they are moving in our direction. We are the new revolution . . . we should act with other organisations that seek the same path.”) The session is then adjourned.

At the beginning of the second session, on September 26, Heimrad Prem reads a declaration of the German section in response to the questionnaire. This very long declaration attacks the tendency in the responses read the day before to count on the existence of a revolutionary proletariat, for the signers strongly doubt the revolutionary capacities of the workers against the bureaucratic institutions that have dominated their movement. The German section considers that the SI should prepare to realise its program on its own by mobilising the avant-garde artists, who are placed by the present society in intolerable conditions and can count only on themselves to take over the weapons of conditioning. Debord responds with a sharp critique of these positions.

An evening session returns to the examination of the German declaration. Nash speaks against it by affirming the SI’s capacity to act immediately when it comes to social and political organisations. He recommends systematically organising infiltration by clandestine situationist elements into such groups wherever it would be useful. Nash’s proposal is approved in principle by everyone, with a few circumstantial reservations. The debate on the German positions, however, does not end there, returning to its nucleus: the hypothesis of the satisfied worker. Kotányi reminds the German delegates that even if since 1945 they have seen apparently passive and satisfied workers in Germany and legal strikes organised with music to divert union members, in other advanced capitalist countries “wildcat” strikes have multiplied. He adds that in his opinion they vastly underestimate the German workers themselves. Jorn responds to Prem, who has made a distinction between spiritual and material questions, that this distinction to be done away with, that it is necessary “for material values to regain a ‘spiritual’ importance, and for the value of spiritual capacities to be increased only through their materialisation; in other words, it is necessary for the world to become artistic in the sense defined by the SI.” In order to simplify the discussion, which is becoming obscure, and complicated further by certain translations (the dominant language at the conference is German), Jacqueline de Jong requests that every participant declare whether or not they approve of Jorn’s statement. All are in favour of it. Debord proposes that the majority openly declare that it rejects the German theses. It is agreed that the two tendencies separately decide on their positions. The German minority withdraws to an adjoining room to deliberate. When they return Zimmer announces, in the name of his group, that they retract the preceding declaration, not because they think it unimportant, but in order not to impede present situationist activity. He concludes:

We declare that we are in complete agreement with all the acts already done by the SI, with or without us, and with those that will be done in the foreseeable future. We are also in agreement with all the ideas published by the SI. We consider the question debated today as secondary in relation to the SI’s overall development, and propose to reserve further discussion of it for the future.

Everyone agrees to this. Kotányi and Debord, however, ask that it be noted in the minutes that they do not consider that the question discussed today is secondary. The German situationists agree to delete their reference to it as such. The session is adjourned, very late at night.

The fourth session, on the 27th, adopts a resolution on the imprisonment of Alexander Trocchi; and decides on what attitude to take the following night toward the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where Wyckaert is to make a public declaration in the Conference’s name. Everyone is of the opinion that this circle of modernist aesthetes should be treated with contempt. With regard to the Manifesto of 17 May, approved by all, Jorn stresses that for us, “the liquidation of the world of privation, in all its forms” means that the end of privation also involves the freedom to deprive oneself, to refuse every obligatory comfort, no matter what; failing which, the disappearance of privation will introduce a new alienation.

The Conference decides to re-organise the SI by instituting a Central Council that will meet in different European cities at six to eight week intervals. Any member of the SI can participate in the affairs of this Council, which must communicate related information and decisions made to everyone immediately after each meeting; but the essential feature of this institution is that a majority of its members — named by each Conference — may make decisions on behalf of the entire organisation. The federative concept of an SI founded on national autonomy, established by the influence of the Italian section at the time of the group’s founding in Cosio d’Arroscia, is thus abandoned. The clarity of discussions on the SI’s direction within such an organism seems preferable to the arbitrariness of an unchecked de facto centralism — inevitable in such a geographically widespread movement — as it leads to real collective action. Every year, the SI Conference, which remains the movement’s highest authority, must gather all situationists together and, insofar as this is not realisable in practice, it is decided that, as soon as possible, those absent should either submit a precise mandate to the conference in writing, or nominate another situationist to represent them by proxy. Theoretical debates will usually be dealt with at the Conference, while the Council’s primary role should be to ensure the development of the SI’s powers. Between Conferences, however, the Central Council does have the right to admit a new section into the SI, and in this case, can invite a delegate of this section to become a Council member.

The first Council, chosen by the London Conference, is composed of members of the old Editorial Committee of the SI bulletin, plus Nash, unanimously named to represent the Scandinavian countries, and Kotányi, invited to occupy the place left vacant by the resignation of Constant.

The session concludes with the choice of where to hold the next conference. Several proposals are turned down, with the vote settled as between Berlin and Gotëborg, in Sweden. Gotëborg is the favorite.

On 28 September, the fifth session adopts a Declaration on Insanity, presented by the German section, which asserts:

As long as society as a whole is insane . . . we will by all means oppose the definition of insanity and the consequences that it may entail for members of the SI. With modern psychiatry’s criteria for reason and madness being based, in the final analysis, on social success, we refuse absolutely the definition of insanity when it comes to any modern artist.

The conference adopts a resolution transferring the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism to Brussels, with Attila Kotányi named as director.

Kotányi then declares that he will concern himself with the legislative control of urbanism: “All that is currently built is built not on the ground, but on the law,” and failing that, never progresses beyond the stage of maquettes. Jorn talks about establishing a new geometry, for there is an obvious relationship between Euclidian geometry and current legislation. The session ends with a few practical decisions, notably concerning the takeover of UNESCO.

At the Institute of Contemporary Arts the same evening, Maurice Wyckaert closed the conference by reading an official declaration which was, in this instance, not followed by a discussion. As Jorn pointed out to the audience, “the discussion lasted four days; everything is now clear and we are all agreed.” Furthermore, the first translation made by the ICA for the evening was found to be so bad, its meaning altered so much that the situationists refused to take the floor until a completely satisfactory translation had been provided. As the SI occupied the place with enough force, and as time was visibly on their side, the ICA’s officials immediately set about the task, taking around two hours. The audience began to lose its patience, especially during the last hour, but very few people left in the course of this long wait; far more walked out during Wyckaert’s excellent discourse. This was because the text had finally been very well translated.”

We particularly like this eyewitness account of the final night at the ICA though…

“The meeting, from beginning to end, was a parody of a normal ICA evening. Toni del Renzio was the ICA’s chairman that night. He opened the meeting by giving some of the historical background of the Situationist movement. When he mentioned the conference in Alba there was loud applause from the Situationists. At the mention of the ‘unification conference’ at Cosio d’ Arroscia the clapping was terrific, accompanied by loud foot stamping. The ICA audience was clearly baffled by this senseless display of euphoria. Del Renzio then introduced the S.I. spokesman Maurice Wyckaert.
“Instead of beginning with the usual compliments, Wyckaert scolded the ICA for using the word ‘Situationism’ in its Bulletin. ‘Situationism’, Wyckaert explained, ‘doesn’t exist. There is no doctrine of this name.’ He went on to tell the audience, ‘If you’ve now understood that there is no such thing as ‘Situationism’ you’ve not wasted your evening.’
“After a tribute to Alexander Trocchi, who had recently been arrested for drug trafficking in the United States, Wyckaert launched into a criticism of UNESCO. We were told that UNESCO had failed in its cultural mission. Therefore the Situationist International would seize the UNESCO building by ‘the hammer blow of a putsch’. This remark was greeted with a few polite murmurs of approval.
“Wyckaert ended as he had begun, with a gibe at the ICA. ‘The Situationists, whose judges you perhaps imagine yourselves to be, will one day judge you. We are waiting for you at the turning.’ There was a moment’s silence before people realized that the speaker had finished. The first and only question came from a man who asked ‘Can you explain what exactly Situationism is all about?’ Wyckaert gave the questioner a severe look. Guy Debord stood up and said in French ‘We’re not here to answer cuntish questions’. At this he and the other Situationists walked out.”


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

Today in London’s history: Nicholas Amhurst nicked for writing seditious libels in the ‘Craftsman’, 1737.

As we wrote in a previous post, the satirical magazine, the Craftsman, opposed to the corrupt regime of prime minster Robert Walpole, was repeatedly prosecuted by the authorities.

In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act (1737) in the issue of 2 July 1737. This had taken the form of a letter, supposedly from opportunist social climbing poet and actor-manager Colley Cibber, suggesting many plays by Shakespeare and the older dramatists contained passages which might be regarded as seditious, and advocating extending the Licensing Act to include old plays, most notably Shakespeare’s plays, as also seditious and “a danger to good order”. The letter then proposed Cibber be appointed censor of all plays brought on the stage.

This was regarded as a “suspected” libel, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the printer, Henry Haines (who had succeeded Richard Francklin as printer of the journal, after Francklin’s repeated arrests and imprisonment). Printers then could be held responsible for any content in anything they printed, even if it was published by someone else.

Haines was immediately arrested and held on £600 bail, which he could not raise. He was not tried until February 1738, when he was brought “before a special jury and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment”  In the meantime, the Craftsman’s founder Nicholas Amhurst surrendered himself instead, on (September 20th 1737) and suffered a short imprisonment.

A poet and political writer, Amhurst had become a prominent pamphleteer on the opposition (whig) side against Walpole and the Tories. In 1726 he issued the first number of the Craftsman, as a weekly periodical, which he conducted under the pseudonym of Caleb D’Anvers. The paper was aimed mainly towards the overthrow of Sir Robert Walpole’s government; there is some debate about its effects, with most historians agreeing it did little more than preaching to the converted. Nevertheless it reached a circulation of 10,000 copies and was one of the biggest magazines of its time with authors such as Henry Fielding, John Gay and Alexander Pope contributing to it. For this success Amhurst’s editorship was not perhaps chiefly responsible. It was founded, and in the beginning financed, by Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, the latter being a frequent and caustic contributor.

The incident seems to have caused bad feeling between Henry Haines on the one side, and Amhurst and Francklin. Haines published a pamphlet in 1740, with the snappy title of Treachery, baseness, and cruelty display’d to the full, in the hardships and sufferings of Mr. Henry Haines, Late Printer of the Country Journal, or, Craftsman; Who now is, and for above Two Years has been, in close Imprisonment in the King’s Bench, for a Fine of Two hundred Pounds, at the Suit of the Crown, for Printing and Publishing the Craftsman of July 2, 1737, In which he criticised Amhurst and Francklin.

More on the history of the Craftsman can be found here


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

Today in London’s rebel history: Jane Housden & William Johnson hanged, 1714, for killing Spurling, a screw.

Sometimes, open defiance is the only option. And even if they see you, you might as well deny it.

“WILLIAM JOHNSON was a native of Northamptonshire, where he served his time as a butcher, and removing to London he opened a shop in Newport Market; but business not succeeding to his expectation, he pursued a variety of speculations, until at length he sailed to Gibraltar, where he was appointed a mate to one of the surgeons of the garrison. Having saved some money at this place, he came back to his native country, where he soon spent it, and then had recourse to the highway for a supply.

Being apprehended in consequence of one of his robberies, he was convicted, but received a pardon. Previously to this he had been acquainted with Jane Housden, his fellow in crime, who had been tried and convicted of coining but had obtained a pardon, but who was again in custody for a similar offence.

On the day that she was to be tried, and just as she was brought down to the bar of the Old Bailey, Johnson called to see her; but Mr Spurling, the head turnkey, telling him that he could not speak to her till her trial was ended, he instantly drew a pistol and shot Spurling dead on the spot, in the presence of the Court and all the persons attending to hear the trials, Mrs Housden at the same time encouraging him in the perpetration of this singular murder. The event had no sooner happened than the judges, thinking it unnecessary to proceed on the trial of the woman for coining, ordered both the parties to be tried for the murder; and, there being many witnesses to the deed, they were convicted, and received sentence of death.

 From this time to that of their execution, which took place on 19th of September, 1714, and even at the place of their death, they behaved as if they were wholly insensible of the enormity of the crime which they had committed; and notwithstanding the publicity of their offence, they had the confidence to deny it to the last moment of their lives. Nor did they show any signs of compunction for their former sins. After hanging the usual time, Johnson was hanged in chains near Holloway, between Islington and Highgate.”

From the Newgate Calendar.


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

Today in London’s theatrical history: Old Price Riots begin, 1809.

As we commented in a previous post London’s eighteenth/early nineteenth century theatre audiences were often rowdy, unruly, fond of breaking down the supposed line of separation between performer and spectator. They often disrupted plays or actors they took a dislike to, organised themselves to resist attempts to control them and impose order and quiet, and violently objected to any rise in ticket prices…

The most famous struggle that erupted from this disorderly audience was the Old price Riots, which began on 18 September 1809. Over sixty-seven nights of protest at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, often collectively referred to as the OP war, crowds protested against a rise in seat prices, a reduction of the size of the gallery (all working class people could afford), and the increase in the size of private boxes taken by the rich.

The audience divided themselves into the supporters of the cheaper ‘old price’ tickets, the ‘OPs’, and those who supported the management, the NPs.

As the name ‘Old Price’ suggests, the riots were sparked by the dissatisfaction of London’s theatregoers with the new price of admission to the theatre. As had been the case throughout the eighteenth century, these theatregoers believed in the common ownership of theatre prices, and were prepared to act to defend low prices as a matter of principle. “Theatre protest was intertwined with long eighteenth-century multi-class metropolitan political expression and theatre-going in this period was not the passive, solemn experience we take for granted today. In these lively, volatile metropolitan spaces the justification for and exclusiveness of new theatre pricing regimes, the resentment of theatre monopolies, and the suspicion of impositions along class lines had been issues before”… in the 1763 Half-Price Riots at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the 1755 Drury Lane riots against Garrick’s Chinese Festival… 1743, 1750, 1770, and 1776 saw comparable, violent protests at Drury Lane…

Theatre in the 18th century played an entirely different social role than it does today – open to all classes, it addressed them and catered for them… The theatre was hugely popular in late Georgian Britain: every fair-sized town had a theatre; schools, the armed services, different trades, aristocrats and gentry all had their own amateur groups. There was no assumption that visiting the theatre was, or should be, an elite activity. The opposite view, in fact, prevailed – there was a conscious and widespread feeling that it was and should be open to all, and almost that it was a service, that should be open to everyone, rather than being a money-making concern.

The auditorium of a Georgian theatre was encircled with tiers of enclosed seats known as boxes, with a gallery above. The gallery was the cheapest; the first row of the boxes the most expensive. The floor of the theatre was furnished with simple benches and called the pit. The best view of the stage was from here, and it was only later that theatre managers realised that they could put the most expensive seats there and call them the stalls.

Theatre programmes often started at about 6.30pm and could go on until after midnight. The main play was preceded by songs, dances and perhaps a tightrope walker or juggling act, with a shorter play (usually a comedy) at the end. The scenery was spectacular, particularly for pantomimes, and often painted from eye-witness drawings. Tickets were half price if you came at the interval.

In London there were two Theatres Royal: Covent Garden and Drury Lane (the ‘major’ theatres). They were the only two royal patent theatres sanctioned to stage five-act spoken word drama within Westminster, even though, in reality, the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended to the whole of London and its environs. In the 1790s Drury Lane was completely rebuilt and Covent Garden renovated. Both were enlarged to seat approximately 3,000 people.

In December 1808 Covent Garden burned down, with a loss of thirty lives, the destruction of Handel’s organ and much scenery and costumes. Forced to fund an entirely new theatre, the management solicited donations from the rich – including £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland – and borrowed extensively. More space was devoted to boxes for richer patrons, the most expensive private boxes being luxurious with curtains. They hired the top soprano, Angelica Catalani, at an enormous fee to attract wealthier patrons. Prices in the gallery remained the same, but had a restricted view.

While Covent Garden was being built, the other major theatre, Drury Lane, also burnt down (in March 1809). Covent Garden was now the only theatre permitted to perform plays.

A crowd of thousands was waiting to get in to the theatre when it opened on 18 September 1809. Perhaps only a quarter managed to do so. But many were there not to spectate – they had grievances, and were determined to air them. These included “the removal of the cheapest section of the house, the one shilling gallery, to a ‘pigeon hole’ on high; the expansion of private boxes and the enclosure from prying eyes of areas only affordable to the elite; and the cessation of sales of half-price tickets after the third act, a custom that had hitherto opened up the theatre to a multitude – if not the very poorest – of Londoners and made the space egalitarian in its usage.” Added to this, rumours of financial mismanagement and embezzlement, anger that increased prices seemed to be paying for expensive foreign actors as lead players…

When the theatre’s actor-manager/owner John Kemble, appeared on stage, he was received with applause, but when he began to speak he was drowned out by roars, hisses and hoots whistles, shouts, calls, songs, and stamps which continued right through Macbeth.

Magistrates were called from Bow Street magistrates’ office to read the Riot Act, which would have allowed them to force the crowd to leave. The crowd did not disperse promptly, only a few were removed, and, as they had begun, the audience closed their performance with stirring renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia!’ But a debate began as to whether a paying audience could legally be ordered to disperse.

After the disruption of the opening night, Bow Street officers patrolled the corridors of Covent Garden Theatre (this lasted into the new year). Invited in by the Theatre’s doorman, James Brandon, they were tasked with keeping order and removing anyone disrupting the plays.

But the disturbances continued. The OPs arrived with ‘musical’ instruments – frying pans, tongs and a dustman’s bell, and performed the ‘OP dance’, a kind of wild welly dance, on the benches, accompanied by shouts of ‘OP!’ Horns and bells were sounded.

Kemble closed the theatre for six days to allow a neutral committee to decide on the prices. But they supported the new prices, so when the theatre re-opened the OPs returned with banners, placards, songs and chants. Running races along the benches and mock fights were started, and the ‘OP rattle’, (satirically inspired by the rattle watchmen carried) used to drown the actors out.

Policing became a crucial issue. Many OPs were arrested, night after night, and prosecuted privately by the theatre staff… There was a close relationship between the theatres and the Bow Street magistracy. Bow Street had become central to the state’s maintenance of public order and morality, in an era when the French revolution had sown a fear of radicals and of the disorderly working classes had among the British establishment.

Heavy policing and repression of rights became, if anything, more of a central issue as the weeks of Old Price protest went on. By October, the Ops were rioting “not because of an increase in admission price by itself but rather because of a perceived affront to their freedoms and associated customary rights as ‘Free-Born Englishmen.’”

For their part, the authorities began to see the OP riots as more even of a threat than the Gordon riots (according to Attorney General Vicary Gibbs, who intervened to support the Theatre’ position, denounce the OPs as rioters and label the dispute ‘the greatest riots that had every disgraced the Metropolis.)

By early October 1809, anyone found in possession of or using horns or bells within the theatre to be arrested; as was anyone distributing handbills among the audience, and soon, outside the theatre,

OPs repeatedly changed tactics so as to avoid arrest, and, in response, officers amended their grounds for arrest. Arrests in the pit, the corridors, the gallery, the one-shilling gallery, and the private boxes of Covent Garden Theatre continued unabated. As the protest moved into November 1809, men and women were brought before the Bow Street magistrates charged with having caused or incited disturbance, riot, and tumult for singing ‘God Save the King,’ using rattles, blowing whistles, gesturing, walking about, sneezing loudly, and wearing the words ‘O.P’ or ‘N.P.B’ (No Private Boxes) in their hats.

When arrested, men and women were brought to Bow Street, and there the magistrates expressed themselves by demanding bail. Bail ranged from £100 to £500, plus sureties.

With this kind of noise going on throughout the performance, Kemble employed boxers to throw people out. This back-fired however: when the doorkeeper, Brandon, detained a well-known radical barrister, Henry Clifford, he was found guilty of false arrest. This gave the advantage to the OPs, and although Kemble had originally vowed not to give in, by 14 December 1809 he had met Clifford for dinner and agreed peace terms. The following night Kemble apologised for raising the prices, and for employing the boxers. Charges against the rioters were dropped. The OPs had won.

It would be too simplistic to frame the Old Price Riots in terms of class struggle. More accurately “a multi-class rejection of perceived elite chicanery was a crucial feature of the OP war.”

Just as those from every class attended the theatre, so OPs were drawn from all classes. Apprentices, clerks, both skilled and unskilled workers, business and professional men and even an earl’s daughter were among those arrested throughout the two and a half months of riots.’

However the theatre’s location was perhaps crucial. Many of the OPs lived near to the theatre, in Westminster, an area then known for its radical ethos, fond of electing radical MPs and constantly teeming with riotous mobs and home to pubs full of debating reformers…

A common idea of what kind of space the theatre was, and for who, lay at the heart of the riots. “Private boxes, for example, were novel, constructed zones of ambiguity whose mechanics – private, hidden, aloof, seemingly beyond reproach – upset values the OPs saw as central to London theatregoing, to see and to be seen in a public theatre, open exchange, and the equality of all under the law.”

In some ways this aspect reflected the conservative and reactionary aspects of the Old Price campaign. While there was an egalitarian spirit, it was also balanced by a dose of moral judgmentalism – private boxes were opposed as being set up to encourage infidelity. The OP campaign also brought up bilious gouts of anti-semitism and xenophobia – ‘foreign’ talent hired to adorn the Theatre, and the hiring of some jewish boxers to act as bouncers, were seized on and turned into additional outrages to be protested. So in some ways the OPs wanted to be seen, and can be viewed, as patriotic defenders of the status quo – “a multi-class public suspicious of novelty”.


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

Today in London’s dramatic history: Garrick refuses justices’ request to change the Beggars Opera, 1773.

In September 1773, the actor and impresario David Garrick got into a dispute with the Westminster magistrate John Fielding, over Garrick’s plan to shortly begin staging John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (see our previous post). Fielding was trying to persuade Garrick not to put the play on, as the Opera ‘made people laugh at scenes which they ought to condemn’, thus corrupting the morals of the ‘lowers orders’. Writing to Garrick, Fielding suggested changing the ending of the play, proposing that the protagonist Macheath should be hanged instead of being reprieved.

Fielding was keen to censor immorality on the stage – a long tradition in London, where the authorities saw theatres as potential hotbeds of unrest. From Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century the Lord Chamberlain’s office oversaw theatres and regularly closed down plays seen as unruly or immoral. Nor was the widely held view among magistrates and government that the ‘mob’ that gathered to watch plays could easily become a riotous crowd and a political challenge entirely unjustified… Gradually however, the protection of public morality became a bigger concern for the censors.

Fielding claimed that stagings of the Beggars’ Opera had always resulted in a wave of crime and immorality in the city. Critics replied that he had the cart before the horse – John Gay’s Opera was commenting on the state of the world, not responsible for it.

In reply to Fielding, Garrick ‘in return pleasantly remarked, that it did not seem his interest at present to carry conviction to such lengths’…

Commentators of the time were amused by the request, since Fielding himself was thought to be immured in vice, and to tolerate and profit from the bribes from, any number of rackets in the area he nominally policed… As William Augustus Miles pointed out in a letter to Fielding, ‘not endeavouring to suppress the open practice of all manner of vice and immorality in his own neighbourhood, before he made application to Mr Garrick for the suppression of the Beggars’ Opera… considering the uniform practice of your life… your being intrenched up to your very chin in all manner of vice… the request to Mr Garrick was neither decent nor plausible, and what a man, the least conversant with your character, can hear without a mixture of laughter and indignation…. Do you imagine that to expose vice is the same as to encourage it?’

Ironically, although Garrick refused to play Fielding’s game, Fielding could easily have thought Garrick would be up for it, since he was well-accustomed to re-writing famous dramas. He continued the Restoration tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s tragedies to give them happy endings or editing out classic scenes, although he did bring some whole chunks of Shakespeare’s texts that late 17th century playwrights had excised. Garrick also took a dim view of the unruly culture of the theatre-going crowds, who were fond of making a racket, heckling, entering and leaving noisily when they liked, and carrying on in what sounds like a most enjoyable fashion to break down the strict separation of audience and viewer. However Garrick’s attempts to reform the audience – refusing admittance behind the scenes and on the stage and attempted to discontinue the practice of reduced entry fees for those who left early or came late, but these changes resulted in riots. Theatre crowds were made of sterner stuff back then and took no shit when it came to price rises or controls on their behaviour… (We will hopefully come back to this on 18th September).

Fielding’s attempt to censor, or persuade Garrick to censor the Beggars Opera itself inspired drama. Shortly after, an anonymous play was staged in London, called “The Bow Street Opera in Three Acts. Written on the Plan of the Beggars’ Opera”. It featured deeply satirical and scathing attacks on the politics an hypocrisy of the justice system, aimed directly at Fielding, who was portrayed as ‘Justice Blindman’ (he had been blind since an accident at the age of 19), but very much in the style of John Gay, also relating a thinly veiled account of the career of radical demagogue and bogy of the establishment (at least until he joined it), John Wilkes.


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

Today in London’s mental health history: Winston Churchill statue straitjacketed, 2004.

A fibre-glass statue of former Prime minster Winston Churchill locked into a straitjacket was banned from display in London’s Trafalgar Square in September 2004 by the Greater London Authority ‘on grounds of good taste‘ – after Churchill’s family objected, basically.

The statue, commissioned by the mental health charity Rethink, “was intended to illustrate how for hundreds of thousands of others the discrimination surrounding manic depression and other forms of severe mental illness acts like a straitjacket, denying people work and other opportunities to participate fully in society.”

Churchill famously wrote about the ‘black dog’ of depression that haunted him, and numerous posthumous diagnoses have suggested he was bi-polar, his well-known heavy drink problems have been seen as self-medication…

Ironically Rethink’s point was hardly anti-Churchill – they were trying to suggest that suffering from depression had not stopped him from becoming a great prime minister wartime leader, greatest living Briton blah blah etc…

Rethink had the statue driven around Trafalgar Square on September 14th 2004, in spite of the London Assembly decision… It then travelled around temporary exhibitions, before being later erected in Norwich in 2006. On which controversy erupted again, with Churchill’s grandson, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, branding it as ‘absurd and pathetic’ (interestingly, adjectives often attached to Nicholas Soames himself, along with ‘parasitical’ and ‘bloated’).

However, some people with mental health problems were “incensed to have Winston as a pin-up boy for madness. After all, while he might have admitted to his “black dogs” of depression, he wasn’t exactly a mental health advocate, having derided the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes” and believed that the “source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed”.

That’s right, like many movers and shakers of his times, Churchill was an advocate of eugenics. In a memo to the prime minister in 1910, Winston Churchill cautioned, “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”.

When he was Home Secretary (February 1910-October 1911) Churchill was in favour of the confinement, segregation, and sterilisation of a class of persons contemporarily described as the “feeble minded.” He supported the compulsory internment of people he labelled ‘mental defectives’ in labour camps, but thought forced sterilisation a preferable option on grounds of both cost and libertarian grounds (really).

“The improvement of the British breed is my aim in life,” Winston Churchill wrote in 1899; like most of his contemporaries, family and friends, he regarded races as different, racial characteristics as signs of the maturity of a society, and racial purity as endangered not only by other races but by mental weaknesses within a race.

“The phrase “feeble-minded” was to be defined as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, of which Churchill had been one of the early drafters. The Act defined four grades of “Mental Defective” who could be confined for life, whose symptoms had to be present “from birth or from an early age.” “Idiots” were defined as people “so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers.” “Imbeciles” were not idiots, but were “incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.” The “feeble-minded” were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but, if adults, their condition was “so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others.” If children of school age, their condition was “so pronounced that they by reason of such defectiveness appear to be personally incapable of receiving proper benefit from instruction in ordinary schools.” “Moral defectives” were people who, from an early age, displayed “some permanent mental defect coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities on which punishment had little or no effect.”

In September 1910, Churchill wrote to his Home Office officials asking them to investigate putting into practice the “Indiana Law”-dominated by sterilisation, and the prevention of the marriage of the “Feeble-Minded.” Churchill wrote: “I am drawn to this subject in spite of many Parliamentary misgivings… Of course it is bound to come some day.” Despite the misgivings, “It must be examined.” He wanted to know “what is the best surgical operation?” and what new legal powers would be needed to carry out sterilisation.

Concerned by the high cost of forced segregation, Churchill preferred compulsory sterilisation to confinement, describing sterilisation as a “simple surgical operation so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.”

To be fair, many on the liberal left also embraced eugenics… GB Shaw, HG Wells, Labour historian Harold Laski, JBS Haldane, JM Keynes, the New Statesman and the Guardian all went through pro-eugenics phases… Many of them also thought the rights of horrible working class people and suspect foreign types also ought to be restricted when it came to re-production. Socialism meant progress, efficiency, sobriety, proper organisation by the right people, and the weak, morally corrupt and unfit would just have to fall by the wayside as the shining future was built.

More details of Churchill’s beliefs on eugenics


Some retrospective diagnoses of the ‘great man’

Churchill, despite the widespread adoration of him in the UK, is not universally popular… not just warmongering, but obsessed by bloodshed; egomaniacal, fiercely aristocratic, fond of sending in troops against strikers, grandiose and militarily incompetent, misogynistic, racist, anti-semitic…

This article is worth a read


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

Today in London’s housing history: Ivanhoe Hotel squatted, Bloomsbury, 1946.

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing. Demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… As a result there was mass squatting of empty houses, and army camps and depots, around the country.

“Down in Brighton, VE day was celebrated with a merry scrunching of crowbars as dozens of hotels and big houses being kept empty for post-war summer visitors were taken over by homeless people. “Vigilantes” seems a strange name nowadays. I think the idea was that they were vigilantly scouring the streets for empty places and opening them, not letting a single home go unused. They were otherwise known as “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen”. By the beginning of July there were 1,000 people squatting in Brighton alone and the movement was spreading to towns all along the south coast as well as to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. There were big meetings, lots of public support and massive press coverage. Churchill persuaded the press to stop mentioning what was happening – he reckoned it was spreading the idea introduced requisitioning powers (but not duties) for councils to take over empty property and made anti-squatting propaganda part of his campaign in the 1945 election…

The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people. Their way of making the demand was to do exactly that! This phase of the campaign may have been brief, but it struck a chord which lasted…”

From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps, of which there were hundreds around the country:

“People were waiting to see what the new Labour government would do and what use would be made of Churchill’s requisitioning powers. It was soon clear the answer to both was “not a lot”. Meantime, thousands were homeless in a housing crisis so vast that it was on a similar scale to the one we have now!

There was – at least initially- no planning and no politicos involved in this. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other accommodation which was less than brilliant, but a lot better than the conditions many people were having to live in. It was Mr and Mrs Fielding from Scunthorpe who finally got fed up and did the obvious thing. They moved into the officers’ mess of their local disused anti-aircraft battery with their children. Their friends joined them. Others heard about it and came along too. Two other local camps were taken over, and the movement spread, first to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed -the Squatters’ Protection Society. By September, the government reckoned there were 45,000 people squatting in 1,100 camps, but this has to be bullshit. It works out to about 40 people per camp but most occupations were by one or two hundred people at least and some -like the famous “squat city” in Bristol- were nearly a thousand strong. Other places started being taken over -schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing.

Of course, there were mass evictions, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Time after time council workers and even police refused to carry them out or were seen off by sheer force of numbers (which meant a lot more than 40 people!). The government was in a tizzy. That great socialist orator and supposed tribune of the people, Nye Bevan, and others could only trot out the familiar crap about people “jumping the housing queue”. It was just too big and too energetic to repress -though they tried.

Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal… people organised water, furniture, food and child care…

Eventually… the state had to give in and try to absorb and co-opt the movement. Councils started to organise “methodical squatting”. This was exactly the same as the “short-life licencing” of more recent times. “O.K., we’ll let you live here after all -as long as we’re in charge” had become the line adopted by bureaucrats stamping their little feet, by 1947. So most of the squatters got to stay for several years before being eventually rehoused. Councils also started to use the camps themselves for “official” short-term housing, moving in thousands more people. The last of the camps was not closed until 1961. In Oxfordshire, over a hundred families from one of the original 1946 occupations were determined to stay together and were eventually housed in the new village of Berinsfield in 1959….”

“There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer and the camps smaller than in other places. London’s turn came later.” This was in September 1946.

“2 o’clock on a humdrum Sunday afternoon [September 8th]. In a tightly organised operation, squatters seized Duchess of Bedford House, a luxury block of 150 flats in Kensington. Within 10 minutes over. 1,000 people were inside, including 460 families, complete with bedding, water and food. Later that day a further 500 people took over a similar block in Marylebone, as well a big houses in Holland Park, Campden Hill and Upper Phillimore Gardens. On Monday, it was a second block in Marylebone and on Tuesday about 200 people took Fountain Court, another luxury block in Pimlico. Wednesday saw two very big ones done -Abbey Lodge near Regents Park and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury St(later renamed “The Marlborough”, and these days the ‘Bloomsbury’).”

The Communist Party was heavily involved in these London actions, though there has been argument over how dominant they were in the squatting movement nationally, initially they rubbished the early autonomous squatters; they then jumped on the bandwagon when it became obvious how strongly the movement was taking off, tried to take things over and made attempts to repress or marginalise independent activity. Sound familiar? While the squatting in the camps was more the practical meeting of a basic need, the London actions were more political propaganda acts, launching a campaign to force the Government to requisition empty private housing for those in need. It did trigger some squatting of smaller houses in the London suburbs.

The Ivanhoe Hotel, on the corner of Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street, was squatted on Wednesday September 11th. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings. The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.

The Police put a cordon round the hotel; although food and bedding could be thrown in from the outside by supporters, people could not go in or out, so the squat became a siege. There were confrontations between supporters outside and cops, here and at other buildings: horses were used here to disperse large crowds blocking the streets (usually by sitting down). Within a few days five Communist Party members involved in planning the squats had been arrested for conspiracy and incitement to trespass. CP member and squatting activist Johnny Marten was nicked on September 12th for talking to the squatters from outside the hotel: according to the Evening News, “he was then escorted by the police to Tottenham Court Road police Station. Followed by a crowd, some of whom shouted ‘is this what we won the war for?’

On 14th September, a huge rally in Leicester Square, followed by a march, supported the squatters and the demands made by the CP. Later that day, the government’s legal moves became clear as five CP “ringleaders” were arrested and charged with “conspiring and inciting trespass” (they were later bound over). Finally, High Court injunctions were obtained against the squatters and they subsequently left voluntarily in a “general evacuation,’ on Friday 20th September. There were no actual evictions. The squatters mostly went to a “rest centre” organised by the London County Council, from where they were eventually rehoused.

“The role and tactics of the CP have been controversial ever since… Though the CP was prominent, these actions were certainly much more than the “CP stunt” they have sometimes been presented as. Most people involved had nothing to do with the CP, and the whole thing looks much more like an opportunistic attempt to exploit a movement which had already been established by the Vigilantes, the camp squatters and the Squatters Protection Society, and continued long after the London occupations were over. They did, however, show up the allegedly radical socialist government in their true colours and force them to step up the housing programme.”

In many ways the Communist Party bottled it at the crucial point, as Andrew Friend points out:

“It is difficult to judge at this distance the degree to which the Communist Party controlled the organisation of the London occupations. It is clear that having placed itself in a position of leadership it failed to mobilise popular or trade union support and that this must be seen as a major factor in the sudden collapse of the occupations.

During the summer of 1946, trade unionists in several northern towns had blacked work involving the wrecking of buildings as a deterrent to squatting. Direct labour force workers in North London had organised work parties to divert building materials to two squatted camps. Miners in Yorkshire had imposed an overtime ban when mine officials had tried to evict a family squatting in a colliery house. During the week of 9-16 September, officials of the building trades unions were inundated with resolutions supporting squatters, and demanding requisitioning and an end to the black market in repairs. De Havilland workers in West London announced they would strike if force was used to evict squatters. On the day the High Court injunction was granted, the London Trades Council, theoretically representing 600,000 Workers, backed the squatters.

These events show that there was not merely sympathy for squatters among organised workers – the two groups overlapped far more than they do now – but that there also existed the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property. Yet at no time did the CP call for industrial action to get services connected to further the demand for wider requisitioning. This is surprising considering that in 1945 the Communist Party, with a membership of 45,000, was at the height of its influence in the trade union movement. Tactics were confined to organising the Leicester Square demonstration and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and the town halls. This meant that once the authorities’ hard line in defence of property had emerged, the squatters found themselves increasingly engaged in conflict on the authorities terms, whether in the courtroom or behind cordons. When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions. The conspiracy charges had instilled the desired effect of intimidation despite the scale of the Leicester Square demonstration that had been organised at such short notice.”

Apologies to Jim Paton from ASS for ripping parts off his excellent summary of the 1945-6 squatting movement writ way back in 1995.

Some newsreel film of the Ivanhoe Hotel Squatters can be seen here


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