Today in London’s housing history: 150 squatters evicted, Hornsey Rise, 1976.

Around 1974, hundreds of squatters moved into empty flats in Welby House, Goldie House, and Ritchie House on the Hornsey Rise Estate, Hazelville Road, North London; then run by the Greater London Council Estate. We found this account of life there, written by one former resident…

“In July 1975 I returned to London from a month of hitchhiking in Ireland. I was full of hippy dreams. Someone I met in Galway suggested I should live at Hornsey Rise, North London, which was reputed to be the largest squat in Europe. It was difficult to find accommodation in London and the political protest of squatting – doing something with the thousands of empty properties – was something I believed in.

On a balmy evening the 14 bus dropped me at the foot of the Rise. Aromas of kebabs and peppers from the Greek restaurants tempted me but I headed up the hill to three blocks of flats – Welby House, Ritchie House and Goldie House.

At Welby House, two Alsatians, tethered to a post, barked and spat. Rubbish, washing machines, old clothes and abandoned cars were scattered around the yard. Banners hung over balconies. The slogans stuck in my mind: ‘Don’t Dump Rubbish!’; ‘Meeting about the Future in the Square Tomorrow’; ‘Stay Cosmic, Meditate’ and ‘Hornsey Rising. Yippee!’

I went up the litter-strewn stairs to my contact address. The flat had been boarded up. A man walked towards me. I’m Graham,’ he said in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘I’m like the local estate agent.’ It was getting dark and I told him I needed somewhere to live. He showed me a flat on that landing. I handed over £5 for the key. In the bedroom I put in the 100 watt bulb Graham had given me and unfolded the sleeping bag from my rucksack.

I went to buy a takeaway kebab and sat by the window enjoying the food. There were sounds of drums and laughter, of The Moody Blues and The Doors, of children playing in the square and people chatting through open windows. I hated the straight world. I drifted into sleep believing that something good was happening.

The next day I collected my Mini van from my mother’s house in Surrey. The following week was filled with preparations for the second year of a philosophy degree. In a nearby squatters’ cafe I picked up a lot of information as we drank coffee, ate wholesome cakes and played chess.

In the three blocks of flats there were about 400 people. Each block had its own loose structure. For example, Welby House had a ‘stash fund’, organised by Ernie, which was to help people out if they were having trouble with social security, or if they needed money for an emergency. People who came looking for a squat were informally vetted, so that anyone who appeared too unhinged would be discouraged. I joined an organic food group and each month we would buy in bulk and sell cheaply. There was a committee, of representatives from each house, who tried to liaise with the council, generate publicity, and make contact with other big squats in Europe.

The flats had been built in 1927 by the GLC on the site of a former orphanage. By the 1970s the flats had few council tenants left. They were squatted en masse in 1974. By the late 1970s, after the squatters had been evicted, the flats were again let. They are now owned by Islington Council and in 2008 planning permission was granted to upgrade all three blocks.

But in the 1970s there was a surprising mix of people living there: students, intellectuals, a group of Italians who, it strikes me now, may have been part of the Red Brigades, ex-soldiers, junkies, anarchists from Paris, acid heads, families, rent boys, a few professional people, older teenagers who were past the age of foster care, a former professional boxer. Of course, there were conflicts but I have never known another place where spontaneous events, friendships and romance occurred so naturally.

One evening I went for dinner at Graham’s where we ate Moroccan stew from a tagine. Another guest, Will, with bushy red hair and a Glaswegian accent, spoke passionately about the London demonstrations in 1968, the Isle of White festival and a commune he was joining in Wales. I believed at that moment that my hippy dream could still happen. It was like a huge, unmade jigsaw – and once complete the world would be magic.

By Christmas 1975 things began to change. Rumours spread of the council’s plans for a mass eviction. Some of the best people left, burglaries and vandalism increased. Someone we all knew as the candyman, who sold cannabis at a fair price, was murdered. I had seen him as a talisman. Ernie ran off with the stash fund.

I held on until mid-January. The place had become frightening. The mass eviction, supported by a small army of policemen, took place a few weeks later…”

(Originally Published in ROOF, the Shelter Magazine, July/August 2009, nicked from Jeremy Worman’s Blog)

Pirate radio station Radio Concord was based in Goldie House at one point…

150 squatters were evicted from the blocks by 100s of police on 30th January 1976.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.


Today in London’s radical history: radical prisoners hold party in Newgate prison, 1826

A tax was first imposed on British newspapers in 1712. The tax was gradually increased until in 1815 it had reached 4d. a copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes.

Increasing the stamp was a deliberate tactic, aimed at restricting the amount and level of knowledge and ideas reaching the working classes.

However, since the stamp was payable on publications defining themselves as ‘newspapers’, so there were ways around it. In 1816 radical journalist  William Cobbett began publishing his weekly Political Register as a pamphlet. And for only 2d – it soon had a circulation of 40,000. John and Leigh Hunt, the publishers of the Examiner, paid the stamp duty but on the front page always called it the “tax on knowledge”.

Other radicals decided to ignore the law. Jonathan Wooler’s Black Dwarf was published unstamped and sold for 4d. Jonathan Wooler used the newspaper to support Major John Cartwright and his Hampden Club movement, campaigning for political reform. Wooler was soon in prison for seditious libel.

After the Peterloo Massacre, Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, and Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, introduced new laws in an effort to reduce the circulation of radical newspapers and pamphlets. They persuaded Parliament to pass the Six Acts, two of which were aimed at destroying the radical press. Under the provision of one of the Acts, all publishers were ordered to deposit a bond with the government as surety against future conviction of seditious or blasphemous libel. The bond was £300 if the publisher was based in London or £200 for those who published in the provinces.

Another of the Six Acts applied the 4d. stamp duty to all journals that sold for less than 6d. Since most working people took home less than 10 shillings a week in wages, this was intended to severely reduce the number of people who could afford to buy radical newspapers.

The stamp duty was also applied on journals that contained any “public news, intelligence or occurrences, or any remarks or observations thereon, or upon any matter in Church or State.” The government announced that it hoped that this stamp duty would stop the publication of newspapers and pamphlets that tended to “excite hatred and contempt of the Government and holy religion.” Good luck with that.

The tax was also applied to all journals that appeared more frequently than every twenty-six days. Radical weekly newspapers were rapidly converted to monthly journals. Examples of this strategy include United Trades’ Co-operative Journal and William Carpenter’s Monthly Political Magazine.

Other radicals such as Richard Carlile ignored the law and continued to publish his newspaper, the Republican, without paying stamp duty. Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol and fined £1,500. But Carlile was made of stern stuff. In prison he continued to write material for the Republican, now being published by his wife, Jane. The publicity created by Carlile’s trial increased circulation of the newspaper dramatically, to the point where it was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times.

In 1821 Jane Carlile was sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel. Jane was replaced by Richard Carlile’s sister, Mary, but within six months she was also in prison for the same offence. From his prison cell Richard Carlile called for financial support in his campaign to continue publishing the Republican. During the next few months over £500 a week was sent to Carlile’s shop in Fleet Street.

Carlile put out a public call for volunteers to sell the Republican. The Morning Chronicle thought that this was bound to fail as “we can hardly conceive that mere attachment to any set of principles without any hope of gain or advantage will induce men (in any number) to expose themselves to imprisonment for three years.” The Morning Chronicle was wrong: people came from all over the country to take on the responsibility, and over the next few couple of years over 150 men and women were sent to prison for selling the Republican. All told, these ‘shopmen’ served over 200 years of imprisonment in the battle for press freedom.

However, imprisonment in Newgate neither ended their struggles nor cut them of from the social movements on the outside. Since the 1790s at least, a “vibrant and eclectic radical milieu” that thrived in the prison. Radical and others prisoners often able to gather to smoke, drink, talk, and even produce publications…

Inspired by the French revolution and homegrown reformist political philosophies. Newgate became “a site of British-Jacobin civility… a salon of radical philosophies.” The more respectable end of radicalism at this time was very much centred on dining, dinner parties where ideas were discussed; as well as discussion clubs in taverns, pubs and coffee houses. Aspects of these scenes were continued and honed inside Newgate.

That this space for radicalism was able to develop was partly due to conditions in Newgate, effectively a state-franchised private prison, with any service and comfort available if you were able to bribe the warder and turnkeys. Many of 1790s radicals were men of independent means, which meant they were able to pay for better rooms, conditions allowances, like visits etc. They also had support from influential Whigs and reformers in Parliament and the City, which brought lenient treatment.

Most were imprisoned for publishing subversive literature, Paine’s works, pro-French addresses, philosophical texts on society and religion, attacks on government and Burke etc… In effect the prisoners formed a ‘prison publishing collective’, which managed to republish Paine, Rousseau, Helvetius and dozens more polemicals, satirical and philosophical works. This period created bonds and links that continued for decades among the former prisoners.

Also, these prisoners were able to receive regular flow of visitors, who not only carried out prison writings and publications, but brought in material from outside ones, helping to integrate the Newgate milieu into outside one. Familiar spaces from outside culture, eg tavern and coffee house, could be re-created inside.

Mind you let’s not forget – all of this operated for those with money or friends with money. Without it, the vast majority of prisoners did languish in crap conditions, crammed in cells, at risk of disease and eating bad food.

Later generations of radicals in 1810 were also to pay for their privilege, if they had the readies. However, by the time Carlile’s shop workers and the unstamped rebels were sent down, conditions had altered somewhat. Influenced by prison reformers John Howard and George Onesiphorus Paul, and the writings of Jeremy Bentham, prison reform had begun, attempting to tackle the notorious corruption, disease rife in jails, and their tendency to reinforce criminality and immorality.

Reformers like Howard, Bentham and Paul were focused on separation, segregation, silence, hard work, and surveillance, as a way to impose order and moral reform… New prisons were built in the 19th century on a different model, with smaller cells, with inmates increasingly isolated and under watch, unable to socialise, access drink and resist. This was seen not only as way of reducing prison’s influence as a university of crime and sink of depravity in itself, but healthier and more uplifting, less likely for disease to spread, allowing for more education and reflection…

This process had started to change conditions in Newgate, and when Carlile’s shopmen arrived, they found life much harder than their predecessors. This was also compounded by the more plebeian origins of many of the shopmen, compared to the 1790s vintage. So instead of getting their own cells and being able to move about freely, receive visitors, carry on with their radical activities, they found themselves mixed in with the general prison population, confined 10 to a cell, fed only “the new prison food allocation, described as the ‘the most wretched stuff’: ‘one pound of bread and one pint of gruel each day’ with six ounces of beef each alternate day. This, they claimed, was no better than ‘dog’s meat’.” They were denied visitors in their rooms, and all visitors were stripsearched.

Ironically, the increasing influence of prison reformers had something to do with this:  “Although reforms were designed to improve the conditions of the most disadvantaged of the prison population, they appear to have had an inverse effect on the treatment of state prisoners. At the heart of reform was an egalitarian approach, which, theoretically, treated all inmates without favour. Tighter controls on prison management now existed, with visiting prison committees and visiting magistrates overseeing the work of the Governor and attempting to stamp out the old prison economies and profit making from prisoners. While the system of classifying prisoners according to the nature of their crime still meant prisoners who were convicted of sedition, blasphemy or libel could be housed in the state side, separation from other classifications of prisoners within the state side was never assured as Newgate became at times breathlessly overcrowded. Furthermore, visiting rights were now regulated and restricted as reformers considered that personal reform and redemption could not be achieved if the prisoner continued to be surrounded by their unsavoury milieu.”

However, accounts of the relative freedom that earlier political prisoners had enjoyed had to some extent passed down as legend to this generation; they saw it as a right , or matter of respect, and they agitated vociferously. Their complaints forced change – prompting an investigation by the magistrates and officials who formed the City Gaol Committee. “Despite finding that the men’s allocated room was ‘not crowded to inconvenience’, the committee determined that the group of radical prisoners ‘should be allowed the use of another room’. The committee also addressed the men’s complaints regarding their lack of proper bedding, acknowledging that ‘horse bedsteads should be allowed to the complainants’ despite the committee’s concern that such a concession ‘might be regarded as a violation of the discipline’.” But the authorities were also worried that the radical ideas about religion and politics the shopmen expounded might spread to other, initially non-political inmates, a reflection of the similar concern about the effect movements for reform and critics of on the outside were having on the emerging working class. Segregating the politicals from the general prison population seemed pragmatic.

Ironically, the attitude of the radicals to the ‘ordinary criminals’ they were forced to bunk with chimed nicely with the authorities’ fear of their ideological contagion sweeping the gaols. The Carlile shopmen saw themselves as a cut above the crims, on another level morally, and bitterly disputed being dumped among them. This would actually change as contact with increased mingling of ‘state’ prisoners and the wider population…

One incident illustrates the continuing solidarity of the radical prisoners in the face of Newgate. On the afternoon of 29 January 1826, the four Carlile shopmen then banged up in Newgate, Thomas Ryley Perry, Richard Hassell, John Clarke and William Campion, all gathered in their ‘state-side’ gaol apartment to commemorate the birth of radical ideologue and icon Thomas Paine (it was also Perry’s birthday). Singing tunes with titles such as The Bravest of the Brave and Lovely Woman Governs All, the four men reported that “the gathering provided opportunity for much ‘hilarity’ and revelry. Assembling their own makeshift tavern, they sat down to an ‘excellent leg of mutton’ with all the ‘expected trimmings’, filled their tankards with wine at the end of each rendition and raised their cups in earnest to toast ‘the immortal memory of Thomas Paine’, ‘Richard Carlile’ and ‘The Female Republicans’. In defiance of their incarceration, they reserved a toast for their adversaries: ‘May our example teach the Government that Imprisonment for opinions is useless.’ In a rare public avowal of the much maligned prison authorities, the men acknowledged that the prison Governor had been kind enough in this instance ‘to allow us to remain together until eight o’clock, instead of being locked up as usual, at this season of the year, at five’. The anniversary of Paine’s birth had become an auspicious day for the radical community in Britain. As the four men celebrated in Newgate, 75 ‘respectable, well dressed’ radicals also met in honour of Paine’s birth at the City of London tavern, where a ‘half-a-guinea ticket’ provided dinner, dessert and wine. Mirroring events in Newgate prison that afternoon, the London tavern assembly raised their glasses to honour the four men—‘freedom of mind’s undaunted champions’. Clearly, the incarceration of Perry, Hassell, Clark and Campion was to prove no impediment to their own participation in this important radical community event. The men were as happy, they reported, as ‘our friends could possibly be at the London Tavern, or elsewhere’. The observance of ceremonies such as the birth of Thomas Paine in 1826 fostered radical camaraderie and a sense of fraternity within the prison, and a shared collective identity both with earlier generations of radical prisoners and with the radical community beyond the prison walls. Like the early generation of radical prisoners, they defied their containment within the prison space by recreating familiar radical spaces such as the tavern. Certainly, their festivities were more solitary affairs than previous radical gatherings in the prison; however, the ability of radicals to subvert the prison regime and routine and maintain contact across time and space with the wider radical community attests to the vitality and adaptability of the new generation of plebeian radicals.”

A great part of this post was extracted from Radical Spaces, Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845, by Christina Parolin. Which is a crackin read.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London radical history: William Stone tried for treason, 1796.

During the French Revolution, when paranoia gripped the British government that something similar could erupt here, those radicals identified as sympathetic to the revolutionary ideals were marked out for surveillance. Their meetings were infiltrated by spies, harassed, banned from pubs; they were arrested and a number were tried for treason.

William Stone was a Unitarian radical accused of being a French agent. He was tried at the Old Bailey, after nearly two years’ incarceration, on January 28 and 29, 1796, for “treacherously conspiring with his brother, John Hurford Stone, then in revolutionary France, to destroy the life of the King and to raise a rebellion in his realms.”

William Stone’s brother, John Hurford Stone, was said to have been present at the 1789 storming of the Bastille, (though he can’t be positively proved to have been in Paris till three years later). He and William worked with their uncle, a coal merchant. John Stone was considered very clever and cultured, and had advanced far beyond the Unitarian doctrines of his family. He joined Dr. Richard Price’s radical congregation in London. In October 1790 he presided at a dinner given by the Society of Friends of the Revolution to a French deputation from Nantes.

In September 1792, John Stone was in Paris, and presided at a dinner of British residents in Paris to celebrate French victories. Thomas Paine was present, as also Irish rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, whom Stone introduced to his future wife, Pamela. He was however later included in a wholesale arrest by the French revolutionary authorities of British subjects in October 1793, though was released after seventeen days. He was again arrested, together with his wife, in April 1794, but liberated next day on condition of leaving France. He could not safely return to England, for his brother was in Newgate on a charge of treason, and he himself was described in the indictment as the principal. He went to Switzerland.

His brother William Stone had been arrested by 1794, but had to wait until 1796 to be tried for treason. The law of conspiracy was developed rapidly by the judges in these years, and in Stone’s 1796 trial, justices Sir Nash Grose and Sir Soulden Lawrence, also on the bench, persuaded Chief Justice Lord Kenyon to accept evidence of conspiracy that he was at first inclined to exclude.

The truth was, however, that William had “urged his brother, “that seditious and wicked traitor, “as Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon) styled him, to dissuade the French from invading England, inasmuch as they would find none of the sympathy they expected, but were doomed to failure. Scott argued, indeed, that by warning the French against a hopeless enterprise William Stone had acted as their friend and as the King’s enemy; but Erskine and Adair, his counsel, urged that if promoting an invasion was treason, warding it off must be the reverse. It must, however, be acknowledged that the collecting of opinions on the chances of a French invasion, however openly done, and however adverse those opinions, was sailing very near the wind of treason. The prisoner, too, had sheltered his brother’s emissary, the Irish Presbyterian minister Jackson; had corresponded with Jackson in Ireland, signing his name backwards way (Enots), and had forwarded to the Government garbled extracts from his brother’s letters; but Lord Lauderdale, Sheridan, and William Smith, M.P., testified that he was merely a weak enthusiast, anxious to give himself airs, yet sincerely desirous of a peace with France. Rogers, called as a witness for the prosecution, and asked as to the prisoner’s loyalty to the King and regard for his country, evasively answered that he had always thought him a well-meaning man, and he was not pressed to say more. The prisoner was acquitted, and, after a fortnight’s detention for debt, retired to France, where he became steward to an Englishman named Parker, at Villeneuve St. George.”

His brother John was unlikely to have been acquitted, for in a document read at the trial he spoke through – out of the French as “we,” and of the English as “you,” thus identifying himself, as Chief Justice Kenyon remarked, with France. In a published letter to Dr. Priestley, he made some caustic comments on the prosecution, incidentally extolled the Girondins, and declared his dissent from Paine’s religious views and his belief in an enlightened Christianity. By November 1796 he had returned to France. He later became a publisher, dying in France in 1818.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s immoral history: ‘Holland’s Leaguer’, notorious Bankside brothel, resists siege by constables, 1632.

Holland’s Leaguer was a notorious 17th-century brothel which stood, near London’s playhouses, on the south bank of the River Thames.

It was run by a famous prostitute named Elizabeth Holland, and its prestigious clients included King James I himself. The ‘leaguer’ – meaning fortress – was a mansion with a moat and drawbridge, near Southwark’s Old Paris Garden. In winter 1631–32, King Charles I ordered for it to be raided, but the prostitutes outwitted the soldiers by luring them onto the drawbridge and plunging them in the moat below. Nevertheless, Holland’s Leaguer was closed later that year.

Holland’s Leaguer had originally been part of the estate known as the Liberty of Old Paris Gardens, later a famous centre of pleasure and wild nightlife.  It lay on the South Bank of the river Thames, In Southwark’s Bankside, an area long famous for brothels, prostitution and immoral goings-on. The Leaguer stood close to the Thames bank; being close to the Swan, Globe, and Hope theatres meant it attracted those attending plays, as well as being popular those who hired a waterman to row them across the river to the waiting women. It was run by a prostitute named Elizabeth (Bess) Holland. Bess was possibly married to a member of the Holland family, big in the Elizabethan underworld.

Opened in 1603, Holland’s Leaguer was the congregating place for all the Dutch prostitutes in London. It sat alongside the river and was described in 1632 as a ‘Fort citadel or Mansion Howse’; fortified by a moat, drawbridge and portcullis. In general most other houses of prostitution at the time were barely different from ordinary dwellings.  But Holland’s Leaguer was exceptional, and claimed to be an island, outside local legal jurisdictions. The Leaguer hired an armed bully or Pandar to deal with disagreeable patrons or intruders who got in without paying.   The place ran on an organized system, forming a sort of community for the women who worked there.  There were garden walks for sauntering and “doing a spell of embroidery or fine work,” (apparently this meant flirting).  The property extended to a summerhouse, which was used for liaisons. The river was used for disposal of awkward customers. Unlike the less decent Bankside stews, Holland’s Leaguer was generally a high-class affair: patrons included King James I and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  It had a business-like atmosphere, good food, luxurious surroundings, modern plumbing, medical inspections, clean linens, and high-class prostitutes. A visit to Holland’s Leaguer and dinner with the top prostitute or ‘queen’, Bess, cost around £20 a head (maybe £1700 today), and this presumably did not include any after dinner activities.

Holland’s Leaguer operated as a female community, in some ways set apart from the rest of society, owned and managed by a woman, which was unusual enough to be controversial, and may have contributed to the attempt to raid the brothel in 1632. Holland’s Leaguer became so popular that in January 1632 it was besieged by soldiers on the orders of Charles I who had ordered it to be closed down. However, when a troop of soldiers arrived, the story goes that Bess lured them onto the drawbridge and let it down, depositing them into the moat. The prostitutes inside then emptied the contents of their chamber pots, which were filled with boiling hot water, on to the soldiers who naturally hastily retreated. Bess evaded the city authorities and despite two summons to the Court of High Commission in 1631, she managed to escape the city and set up shop elsewhere by the end of 1632. She became known widely as “Elizabeth Holland a woman of ill reporte.”  Holland’s Leaguer ran on its own for a few years but eventually closed down and the property sold in the 1680s.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in history: public launch of the Commons Preservation Society, 1866.

Yesterday we recounted here how the 1235 Statute of Merton established a legal basis for the enclosure of common land and ‘waste’ by lords of the manor.

Over the succeeding centuries, enclosure would enrich the landowning classes, but exclude the vast majority of local residents from access to the commons and use of its resources – which were often vital to subsistence and survival for many. This process gathered pace in the 16th century and especially accelerated in the 18th. Huge social change accompanied this expropriation, with many people forced into poverty and destitution, others reduced to no means of survival but selling their labour for a wage. Growing cities were swelled by people looking for work who the increasingly enclosed countryside could no longer accommodate.

At no point in this process was this vast upheaval enacted on a passive population. Resistance was constant, since enclosure threatened livelihoods, as well as breaking long-established customs and traditional elements of people’s way of life, some of which had become elevated almost to a ritual significance. Even before enclosure became noticeable, conflict over uses of land and access to its resources was almost a daily occurrence, as landowners and labourers, villages and others struggled to gain larger share of the pie. Conflicts between neighbouring parishes over shared commons was also not unusual (this squabbling increased over the years as enclosure hit parishes hard).

Opposition to enclosure took many forms – petitioning, legal challenges in court, collective or individual destruction of fences, ditches and gates which had been erected to keep people out; driving animals back onto land where grazing rights had been reduced; marches and demonstrations, riots, and outright armed rebellions.

Until the 19th century, the conflict was largely centred around subsistence – enclosure threatened people’s livings. As the industrial revolution began to transform Britain, factory work, based mainly around cities, was coming to replace agricultural work for what was soon to become a majority of the population. Large sprawling cities grew ever in size, swallowing up countryside, and economic growth and revolutions in transport saw suburbs extending for miles… While people were no longer reliant on open land for survival, access to open space for recreation began to be a vital issue. And in massive overcrowded cities, any parks and commons came to be seen as important ‘lungs’, a breathing space, almost a safety valve to relieve the density.

Many of the great and good of liberal British society started to worry about the loss of green space, especially in London and the big cities. Matters came to a head after the struggle to preserve Wimbledon Common from being sold for development by Lord Spencer (probably the largest landowner in South London, ancestor of Princess Di, from a family of noted enclosers). Spencer’s proposal to sell off part of the Common and make some of the remainder into a park was opposed a by a local committee, who eventually forced his Lordship to sell the common, so it could be re-opened as public land.

Threats to Wimbledon Common, Epping Forest and other commons were to push Parliament into action, and lead to the creation of the Commons Preservation Society.

The immediate catalyst for the founding of the Society was the establishment of a parliamentary committee in 1865 to investigate the possibility of preserving commons in and around London from enclosure. The committee examined the condition of Hampstead Heath, Blackheath, and commons at barnes, Wandsworth, Tooting, Epsom, Banstead and Hackney, and proposed to amend the law to restrict the headlong rush to enclose open land. Having attempted to persuade the committee that all common rights had lapsed on their lands, and fearing legal changes would prevent them from continuing to fence off and sell off their lands, lords of the manor began to rush to get it enclosed before the committee could change the law.

In response George Shaw-Lefevre (later Lord Eversley), a Liberal MP and later minister, called a meeting, which founded the Commons Preservation Society in 1865. The aim of the society was to save London commons for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. Its committee members included such important figures as Octavia Hill, the social reformer, Sir Robert Hunter, solicitor and later co-founder of the National Trust, Professor Huxley, and the MPs, Sir Charles Dilke and James Bryce. Most of the society’s members initially came from the south east, so their interests focused first of all on London.

The CPS’s tactics were very much generally focussed on a respectable and legal approach; they recruited notable liberal reforming figures, identifying local ‘commoners’ where a common was under threat, who could go to court to defend a case. However, strategy and decision making were in the main taken centrally under direction of the Society’s lawyers.

Overwhelmingly the CPS worked in the arena of legal challenges and propaganda, targeted at ‘the right people’. However, they recognised that this was not the only tactic; not only working in tandem with local groups fighting enclosures in other ways, but also, when they felt the law was on their side, even sponsoring direct action themselves. This can be seen in the defence of Berkhamstead Common, Hertfordshire, in 1866, when the Society in alliance with two Berkhamstead Commoners, hired 120 navvies to demolish railings erected to enclose 434 acres by Lord Brownlow.

The combination of the CPS and the Parliamentary committee led to the passing of the 1866 Metropolitan Commons Act, which protected and regulated land in London that could be shown to have been the focus of common rights in the past, whether or not the lord of the manor agreed. This restricted the impetus for enclosure, and was effective in spurring many large landowners to decide to sell land to public bodies instead of enclosing and developing it.

While the CPS’s role in the preservation of vast tracts of open space in undoubted, there was other movements at work, creating pressures which added to the Society’s success. Revivals in radical movements in the later part of the 19th century, saw an increased interest in land – who owned it, how did they get to own it; discussing land reform, redistribution and the effects of enclosure. Radicals, Chartists, secularists, socialists – many from these movements felt that the question of land ownership was a crucial one, and their involvement in struggles over particular open spaces was visible. For instance, radicals were able to gather thousands to take part in riots which destroyed railings around Hyde Park in 1855 and 1866, and local working class meetings formed a part in a number of the fights to preserve spaces like Wandsworth Common and Plumstead Common in the 1870s, both of which involved large-scale direct action and rioting. To some extent individuals in the Commons Preservation Society felt that considered legal activity to preserve commons was necessary partly because more unruly grassroots movements might become more riotous if legal avenues were denied them. Figures like Octavia Hill, a CPS stalwart, also involved in housing reform which helped kickstart social housing, saw such measures as not only good works in themselves, but also necessary to prevent more fundamental – and possibly violent – action from below.

The CPS was never likely to challenge the nature of land ownership, much as it has always worked for legislation to protect open space and people’s access to it. More radical positions have always existed, and been put into practice in land squats, occupations, trespasses… But the CPS always did the boring work that more fiery minds sometimes didn’t have the patience for…

This isn’t to devalue the work of the CPS, but to place it in context and realistically assess the limitations of reform. Landowners who sold land to public bodies were fantastically compensated, and almost all remained large-scale landowners and landlords, and stayed rich. The control of the class who owned the land over the political life of the nation may be less than in 1865, but they still hold a massive influence; though now much of it is through seats on quangos and farming and forestry boards…

The Commons Preservation Society continued to do good works, amalgamating with the National Footpaths Society in 1899, adopting the title Commons Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society. The society promoted important pieces of legislation, including the Commons Acts of 1876 and 1899, and was crucial in getting many commons registered in the last 50 years. Today, its principal task is advising local authorities, Commons committees, voluntary bodies, and the general public on the appropriation of commons and other open spaces. It also scrutinises applications that affect public rights of way. Their name was changed to the Open Spaces Society in the 1980s.

Check out the Open Spaces Society website.

One campaign the OSS have launched recently is Find Our Way. On 1 January 2026—not ten years away—the official (definitive) maps will be closed against the addition of paths claimed on the basis of historic evidence.

The process which path workers all over England and Wales have used since the first definitive maps appeared in the 1950s, and which has steadily extended our freedoms everywhere, will become a dead letter. The ancient legal maxim on which so many claimants have relied, ‘once a highway always a highway’, will be shattered. Unrecorded paths, even if they are still in use, could and often will be lost for ever. It’d down to all of us to help keep them open…

For more on open space, enclosure, and resistance, in the London area… see some of past tense’s previous work:

Stealing the Commons

Down With the Fences

Kennington Park

Rights of Common


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in legal history: Statute of Merton passed, 1235, giving landowners power to enclose common land

“IT was provided in the Court of our Lord the King, holden at Merton on Wednesday the morrow after the Feast of St. Vincent, the 20th Year of the Reign of King HENRY… because many great men of England (which have infeoffed Knights and their Freeholders of small Tenements in their great Manors) have complained that they cannot make their Profit of the residue of their Manors, as of Wastes, Woods, and Pastures, whereas the same Feoffees have sufficient Pasture, as much as belongeth to their Tenements… it is provided and granted, That whenever such Feoffees do bring an Assise of Novel disseisin for their Common of Pasture, and it is knowledged before the Justicers that they have as much Pasture as sufficeth to their Tenements, and that they have free Egress and Regress from their Tenement unto the Pasture, then let them be contented therewith; and they on whom it was complained shall go quit of as much as they have made their Profit of their Lands, Wastes, Woods, and Pastures…” (Statute of Merton)

For uncounted centuries, common lands, forests and wastes provided people with myriad ways of making a living; from collecting wood for fuel, gathering fruit, herbs, and other foodstuffs, to hunting for animals for food, and grazing of livestock. In Saxon times, most land was open to use by all. After the Norman Conquest all land was redistributed to a new ruling class, who introduced many laws to force peasants into serfdom to work for the wealthy, restricted the poor’s access to land, and prevented them from hunting. Many serfs however managed to rent a small plot of land to feed themselves. Overwhelmingly villages consisted of a patchwork of open fields ploughed by different people, paying money or in kind to the landowner.

Over the years resistance opened up many ways for the poor to make a living. Although what we called common land was not ‘held in common’, was always owned by the Lord of the Manor, over the centuries customs and traditions grew up about what people were allowed to take, use and where from… What started at the discretion of the Lords came to be viewed as ‘common rights’.
But despite its name, common land was still rarely, if ever, land ‘held in common’: it was almost always land owned by the Lord of the Manor, on which over time other local people had come to exercise some rights. But these rights often had no legal weight, they were part of an unwritten social contract which had grown up over centuries, been fought over, both in courts and on physical battles between landowners and villagers…

The availability of common land was an important factor in supporting the local economy. All who possessed arable land enjoyed rights of common on the manor waste. But these common rights made it difficult for the acreage of plough land to be increased, since any individual commoner could bring an action against any man who did this. Early in the 13th century there was land hunger and the landlords found it profitable to lease land for a money rent, often to men already occupying customary holdings. These were small assarts carved from the waste and additional to the peasant’s main holding.

The 1235 Statute of Merton is sometimes called the first English Statute. One of its most far-reaching clauses gave authority for lords of the manor to enclose commons and ‘waste grounds’ in their lands, on condition that there was a permanent excess of land beyond the grazing needs of the commoners’ livestock, and other commoners’ entitlements, and that any of their tenants who complained were left with sufficient pastureland left to plough.

This enactment was of benefit to all lords of the manor and this included monasteries and other ecclesiastical bodies. By the terms, simple proof that sufficient pasture for tenants was available would be defence to actions of unlawful dispossession of common land. But this referred to pasture for his own tenants and failed to protect others with pasture rights. The anomaly was corrected in the Statute of Westminster in 1285.

The Statute of Merton was operative throughout the medieval period and hotly debated.

This change to English law had minor effects for 300 years, and the clauses relating to enclosure fell into disuse… But when revived in the sixteenth century, the Statute enabled the wholesale theft of access to the land from the poor.

The terms of the statute were agreed at a meeting at Merton, Surrey (deep sarf London these days), between Henry III and the barons of England in the 20th year of Henry’s reign (1235). As with meeting that produced the Magna Carta twenty years before, the Statute is an episode in the struggle between the barons and the king, with the barons fighting to limit the king’s rights and powers over them. This to and fro was to define much of England’s history in the 13th century.

Amongst its provisions, the statute allowed a Lord of the Manor to enclose common land (provided that sufficient pasture remained for his tenants), and set out when and how manorial lords could assert rights over waste land, woods, and pastures against their tenants. It quickly became a basis for English common law, developing and clarifying legal concepts of ownership.

In the early 1500s, pressure for profit from land rents began to see land being enclosed – fenced off, with smaller open fields being ploughed together into much larger farms. Already in the 1510s this was forcing people off the land and into destitution (as referred to in Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516). The first half of the sixteenth century saw an increasing struggle around enclosure, with some of the aristocracy and rising merchant classes forcing through dispossession and agricultural ‘improvement’, but resistance coming not only from the rural poor, but also from many on the ruling classes, who feared the effect on social cohesion. Well duh.

In January 1550, in Edward VI’s reign, long after the Statute had fallen out of use, it was revived by the regent, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to enable lords to enclose their land at their own discretion. A Tillage Act made reference to the Statute of Merton. Any land that had been tilled for four or more years since 1509 could not be converted to pasture.

(This was in contrast to Northumberland’s predecessor as regent, Edward Seymour, Earl of Somerset, who had taken a strongly anti-enclosure stance.)

Gradually, as capitalism developed, slowly replacing a society of complex vertical social obligations & custom with one based entirely on profit, the impetus was on for landowners to replace traditional land use with intensive agriculture. This demanded the clearing of woodland & the exclusion of the poor from the commons.

Over the next 300 years, enclosure would increase hugely, creating a mass exodus from the best farming land, pushing hundreds of thousands first into marginal lands, wastes and woods, and then into the growing cities. The impetus for enclosure came entirely from the search for greater profits for the landlord classes. Between the 16th & the 19th centuries,the vast majority of the open land, commons or woods in Britain was enclosed for development, usually by rich landowners. Those deprived of their access to and use of common land not only lost traditional ways of making a living, or in many cases ways of topping up incomes as labourers or craftspeople; they were experiencing the change in class relations at first hand, losing everything bar the ability to sell their labour for a wage… “In an increasingly legalistic age, an unwritten agreement counted for little in the face of the new law …”

Propagandists for the process made much of how it improved agricultural efficiency – historians still argue about whether this was even true. But enclosure ultimately made fortunes for the landowning aristocracy; and as much of this money was also later funnelled into industry, it was a huge driver for Britain’s industrial revolution.

But none of this took place without resistance from those being excluded from the land… 100s of battles were fought to keep common lands open in the interest of those who felt they had traditional rights to use them; and if many fights were lost, many were won…

But in truth, the descendants and heirs of those who were granted the land by the kings who took it by force, and of hose who evicted millions to increase their profits, still own most of he land in this country. Until we decide their title to it means nothing…

For more on open space, enclosure, and resistance, in the London area…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s radical history: Italian restaurant workers union hold first meeting of London Italian restaurant workers union launched, 1901.

Ironically as it may seem in these times, in the nineteenth century, Britain was a popular and open destination for political exiles and others forced from their countries for their beliefs, or because of their race or creed…

This was due to a relatively liberal asylum policy, unique then among European countries. A tradition of free access to the country had long roots, linked as it was with the idea of free trade and based on the knowledge of the advantage of learning skills from foreigners. Work that one out Theresa.

Of course this isn’t to say that there had never been discrimination, distrust of and attacks on ‘foreigners’ – there had been and would be again.

But 19th century British government’s largely did not pass any legislation in order to regulate immigration, except under very particular circumstances, so that from 1826 to 1905, apart from a gap due to the revolutions of 1848-50, all migrants, either refugees or not, enjoyed complete free access to the United Kingdom.

British legislation on extradition also made England safer than other countries for political refugees. Indeed, British law did not authorise extradition for discussing political ideas or holding unorthodox opinions. (British policy toward immigration would change completely with the introduction of an Aliens Act in 1905.)

Substantial communities of migrants grew up in London, notable among them political refugees, fleeing from persecution, arrest, imprisonment and sometimes torture and execution in their home countries. Exiles from European countries formed the vast majority – Germans, Italians, French, Russians, Poles often forming the largest groups, and all shades of political opinion among them. Nationalists working against the large empires which then ruled much of Europe (or to unite countries then divided), republicans, liberals and later socialists, communists and anarchists… These colonies often settled in London, for many the first port of call, and having access to work, intellectual life, and usually having groups/communities of their compatriots already established…

The first significant groups of Italian refugees moved to London during the 1820s, as government repression followed the failure of the revolutions in Naples and Piedmont in 1820-21. At this time, Italian refugees together with the Poles were the largest community of exiles in London.

Successive governments, from before Italian unification (when Italy was split into a number of rival states), and after it, put into practice repression in order to repress the activities of various political movements. As Italy became unified, focus shifted from the nationalists and republicans who had plotted unification for years, to the more radical social and political groupings…

By the 1830s, this community of Italian refugees became one of the most active and influential in Europe. Some of these Italians eventually integrated themselves into English life, and obtained important positions within society.

In January 1837, leading Italian nationalist republican, Giuseppe Mazzini, a central figure in 19th century Europe, arrived in London. For thirty years he played a crucial role in Italian refugee and migrant community during the first half of the nineteenth century. These activities were only briefly interrupted when Mazzini left for Italy in order to take his part in the revolutions of 1848, but he was forced to return to his refuge in London after the fall of the Roman Republic, of which he was president, in 1849. The number of political refugees who escaped to the United Kingdom from the European reaction reached probably its height in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolts.

From the 1870s, socialists and anarchists became the most marked out groupings for repression in Italy, the latter especially. This strategy of repression was based on several special measures taken by the different governments in power, both of the Right and of the Left, and carried out by the police and security forces. The most effective measures were preventive detention, which compelled some anarchists to spend many months in jail before trial, laws against the press, and finally, the most threatening among them, the domicilio coatto (forced domicile) and the ammonizione (admonishment). 

During these recurrent periods of severe repression, for the Italian anarchists “the only way to escape […] was to go underground or flee into exile”.

The countries where most anarchists found refuge were France, Switzerland and Belgium, but some of them emigrated to the United States while others established small communities in the Balkans, in the Levant and in South America.

Originally, the laws concerning forced domicile and admonishment were promulgated against common criminals, in particular to fight brigantaggio (banditry), but, after the Left gained power in 1876, they were directed especially against the anarchists. Indeed, the government did not grant the status of political activist to the Internationalists; instead, it regarded them as an ‘association of malefactors’.

Substantial numbers of Italian political exiles grew up in Holborn, Soho and Clerkenwell, the areas where the Italian community traditionally settled. The Italian colony in those years was generally very poor, although their poverty was alleviated by mutual aid due to the existence of a long standing and supportive community. The first Italian immigrants who moved to London for economic reasons, particularly during the period 1840 -1870, were mostly unskilled workers and their activities were mainly itinerant: most of them were organ-grinders, street peddlers, figure makers or ice-cream sellers. At the end of the century, catering became the main sector in which Italian people were employed, particularly in the Soho area. Tito Zanardelli, one of the first Italian anarchists who arrived in London, addressed his propaganda to these categories of workers in 1878.

A significant section of the anarchist community was itself active in the catering trades (a record of anarchists by trade in the late Victorian period lists 4 working as dishwashers, 14 waiters, and 5 cooks). Some of them opened their own restaurants.

The anarchists tried numerous times to organise the workers of the community. During the 1890s a large number of Italians were employed in the catering trade, especially as cooks and waiters who worked in the restaurants in Soho. At the turn of the century, with the expansion of catering services in London, the number of Italian cooks and waiters increased steadily. They lived mainly around Soho and Holborn. The employees in restaurants and hotels were unorganised; they often had to take work under any conditions and were subject to a harsh sweating system. “The German, Swiss, of Italian waiter usually did not receive any wages, but, on the contrary, he had to pay his employer a percentage of 6d. or more in the pound of his gross takings in tips.”

The catering sector became the one of the centres for organised Italian exile politics. However, unions often didn’t last long, and the campaigns were said alter to have “had few tangible results”. The hotel trades and catering were ‘so much fragmented in small units and so often temporary and seasonal’ represented a major obstacle. As with other ‘casual’ or seasonal work, the nature of the job made it hard to maintain consistent organisation (for instance, the tailoring and building trades also found it hard to keep networks alive). On top of this, much of the Italian anarchist migrant community was constantly caught between their lives in London and their orientation towards their homeland, and activists were liable to return to Italy when they could…

In July 1893, leading Italian anarchist exiles Malatesta, Gori, Merlino, and Agresti, referred to the establishment of a new workers’ association in opposition to the Circolo Mazzini-Garibaldi in a letter to the director of the newspaper Londra-Roma, Pietro Rava, and raised the issue of poor working conditions in the restaurants. In 1901, the Italian anarchists announced in their newspaper, L’Internazionale, the first meeting of the Lega di Resistenza fra i lavoratori in cucina in Londra. The meeting was to be held at the headquarters of the Circolo Filodrammatico, at 38-40 Hanway Street. This meeting took place on 20 January, according to the L’Internazionale; several orators spoke in front of a large audience, and a British worker urged the waiters to join the Amalgamated Waiters Society. The meeting ended with the endorsement of a resolution urging the waiters to fight for ‘l’abolizione delle mance e un adeguato salario’. This was “not intended to be another friendly society but focused on economic struggles: reducing working hours, for increasing wages, especially focusing on Italian bosses who “took advantage of the miserable conditions and adaptability of their exploits them.”

L’Internazionale dedicated many articles to the anarchists’ attempt to organise the waiters and dishwashers employed in the restaurants of the capital. The newspaper also published the correspondence of a waiter, Vincenzo Mayolio, who described the harshness of working conditions in restaurants.

I am not sure what happened to this union, but a few years later in 1905, an Italian anarchist, named Bergia, launched a campaign against employment agencies. These agencies were the main way Italian workers in the West End restaurant trade got work (not much has changed in many so-called casual trades, in 100 years, it seems). Bergia opened a rival ‘free employment agency’ based in his own restaurant in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, and called a meeting on December 2nd 1905 for Italian cooks to discuss the formation and structure of a ‘Lega di resistenzia’. The restaurant’s address was also used for the correspondence of the secretary of the Caterers’ Employees Union. Indeed, in order to reach the catering workers, Bergia founded, with the English activist, M. Clark, the newspaper, the Revue. International Organ for the interests of all Employees in Hotels, Restaurants, Boarding-Houses, etc. The articles in the newspaper were written in English, German, and French. The campaign among the Italian waiters gave rise to some results. Inspector Frosali reported that, at a meeting organised at the German Club where the French anarchist, Gustave Lance, spoke about the trade union movement. Another Italian anarchist involved in the organisation of waiters was Giacinto Ferrarone, who, like Bergia, came from the north Italian town of Biella (and signed his articles in anarchist newspapers as Giacomino Giacomini). Ferrarone exercised some influence among Italians employed in hotels and restaurants, most of whom were from Piedmont too. For this reason, in April 1905, he was chosen as a speaker at meetings to campaign for the abolition of the employment agencies. Ferrarone later joined the socialists but continued his organisational work. He promoted the creation of sindacati di resistenza (trade unions) that, in his view, represented the workers’ real interests.

He was also the tenant of the headquarters of the Lega di Resistenza dei lavoratori della mensa, constituted as the Sezione Italian adella Caterer’s Employees Union, at 55 Frith Street, Soho. But his career as a labour organiser for the anarchists or socialists ended abruptly when he left London at the beginning of August 1907, after stealing the funds of the club, Nuovo Sempione, of which he was the secretary.

However agitation among the catering workers continued and in 1909, the mobilisation of workers in restaurants and hotels, led especially by the socialists, resulted in demonstrations against the ‘Truck system’, the system used by employers for sharing tips among their employees. Abolition of all Registry offices and Employment Agencies and a weekly day of rest were the main aims of the protest. In February 1909, the French group and the editors of the newspaper the Revue met at the International Club to maintain the campaign and plan a demonstration in April. The demonstration took place in Trafalgar Square on 18 April.

The anarchists’ involvement in the catering workers’ struggles drew worker into their orbit politically. In the wake of the repression of a popular uprising in Barcelona in 1909, the Spanish authorities executed libertarian educationalist Francisco Ferrer. This led to widespread protests across Europe. In the months following the rising in Barcelona and after Ferrer’s arrest many meetings and rallies were organised in London. They were all well attended. Many Italian waiters and scullery-boys were present.

This post owes pretty much everything to Pietro Di Paola ‘s excellent thesis

later published as The Knights Errant of Anarchy

Another (first-hand) account of organising West End restaurant workers in a slightly later period can be found here.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s blasphemous history: Peter Annet, freethinker, dies, 1769.

“PETER ANNET, a deist, upwards of seventy years of age, was indicted in the Court of King’s Bench, at Westminster, in 1762, for being the author of divers blasphemous remarks on the five books of Moses. The charge being fully proved, he was sentenced to be imprisoned one month in Newgate, and within that time to stand twice in and upon the pillory, once at Charing Cross and once at the Royal Exchange; to pay a fine to the King of six shillings and eightpence; then to be sent to Bridewell and kept to hard labour one year, and at the expiration thereof to find securities for his good behaviour during the remainder of his life, himself in one hundred pounds, and the sureties in fifty pounds each.”
(The Newgate Calendar)

Deism as a philosophy holds that God (or gods) does not interfere directly with human affairs, rejects revelation as a source of religious knowledge, basing their belief in a creator on reason and observation of the natural world.

Deism was popular during the Age of Enlightenment—especially in Britain, France, Germany and the United States— among intellectuals who, raised as Christians, believed in one God but had become disenchanted with organised religion. Many Deists publicly doubted traditional pillars of Christian belief like the Trinity, the truth of everything in the Bible, and the supernatural interpretation of miracles. Many of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions and radicals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries identified themselves as Deists. Deism acted as a staging post for many towards atheism and rejection of religion.

In Britain in the mid-18th century, a number of groups grew up in London to discuss religion, which attracted repression and notoriety as being ‘blasphemous societies’. The best known was the Robin Hood Club, of which Peter Annet was a ‘leading spirit’. Annet bridges a gap between earlier philosophic deists and later propagandists like Thomas Paine and those inspired by him. Annet seems to have been the first freethought lecturer.

Born in Liverpool, Peter Annet trained for the ministry in a non-conformist church, then became a schoolmaster.

Annet was very hostile to the clergy, being a thoroughgoing deist, and his arguments are said to be forcible but to lack refinement. In 1738 he delivered two lectures in London, which contained Deistic assertions, and challenged what he saw as the bigotry of the Methodists and other Christian revivalists. In 1739 he wrote and published a pamphlet, Judging for Ourselves, or Freethinking the Great Duty of Religion, a strong criticism of Christianity, specifically criticising contemporary Christian bishops. For writing this and similar pamphlets, he lost his teaching position, and moved to London.

In London, he spoke as a radical deist and freethinker in a debating society that met at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn, in Essex Street, the Strand. As such he appears in a play, The Robin Hood Society, A Satire, by Richard Lewis (a sometime member of the Society himself), in 1756. But it was his writings, often published anonymously or under false names, that were to get him into trouble…

Peter Annet’s periodical The Free Inquirer which ran for at least nine issues is reckoned to be the first freethought journal. It was later published in book form as A Collection of the Tracts of a certain Free Enquirer.

Annet liked to take on Christian apologists, whether basing their creed on belief in miracles, from personal witness or on the historicity of Biblical evidence. In his Resurrection of Jesus (1744), Annet assailed the validity of such evidence, and first advanced the hypothesis of the illusory death of Jesus, suggesting that Saint Paul should be regarded as the founder of Christianity. In Supernaturals Examined (1747) Annet denied the possibility of miracles.

Annet was fond of publishing critical biographies of biblical figures, examining their lives, moral behaviour and character as recorded in the scriptures. Which given the blood, gore and viciousness of much of the Bible, provided him with plenty of material. He was particularly critical of the character and reputation of King David. A work called A History of the Man after God’s own Heart (1761) is attributed to him [also to John Noorthook]. In it he argued that a comparison of King George II with King David should be interpreted as an insult. The book is said to have inspired Voltaire’s Saul.

Annet also specialised in examining the contradictions and inconsistencies in the bible and asking repeatedly, how could anyone rely on the scriptures when they speak with such double tongues?

Peter Annet is one among seven people listed in the Newgate Calendar as utterers of blasphemy and sedition. In the 1760s, freethinkers were subjected to a campaign of prosecution by the authorities, and Annet’s career had marked him out for attention…

At the age of 68 or 69, he was convicted in 1762 at the King’s Bench, Westminster, of blasphemous libel, specifically ridiculing the holy scriptures. This was related to articles printed in his Free Inquirer in October-December 1761, particularly ’A Review of the Life and Doctrines of Moses, the Celebrated legislator of the Hebrews’. Annet was sentenced to Newgate prison for one month, and to be put in the pillories at Charing Cross and at the Royal Exchange, as well as being fined and sent to Bridewell Prison for one year’s hard labour, and to pay further sureties for future good behaviour.

He was put in the pillory on December 14th 1762, despite being 70. His imprisonment broke his physical health, unsurprisingly, though “his mind [was] as clear, alert and active as ever.”

Some of his associates thought he had gone a but too far in his writings: Oliver Goldsmith, sometime attendee of Robin Hood Club meetings, described him as Having engaged in a “fanatic crusade against the Bible…”

After his release he kept a small school in St George’s Gardens, Lambeth, but his few pupils were eventually removed from his school; due to his notoriety. He also invented a system of shorthand and corresponded with non-conformist radicals like Joseph Priestley.

He died on January 18th, 1769.

Some writings by Peter Annet on Google Books

and at Project Gutenberg


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s radical history: Bethnal Green Chartists in court, for assembling, illegally, armed, 1840.

In 1839-40, the Chartist movement reached its first great peak of strength. Building on decades of agitation for constitutional and political reform, emerging from the ruins of earlier political groupings, but adding in the massive experience of the struggle against the stamp tax on the cheap press, the beginnings of large-scale trade unionism, and the birth of the co-operative movement, Chartism was bringing together millions of working class people to demand a voice in the decision making processes – the vote. Monster rallies took place of thousands, mass agitation was drawing in recruit and spreading ideas in the cities and countryside, a huge petitioning effort was underway to show Parliament the strength of the feeling across the country. To many the pressure for change seemed unstoppable.

But in the wake of the rejection of the first Chartist petition by Parliament in July 1839, the outright refusal of the ruling elites to consider further reform, pressure began to build within Chartism for achieving results by other means. Chartism had inherited from earlier reform movements an inherent division, between those who thought campaigning and mass demonstrations, petitions and ‘moral pressure’ from below could bring change – and others who felt their rulers based their control of society of force, and would not give up even a share of it without being forced themselves. The latter, a substantial minority, were strengthened by the refusal of the state to compromise with polite Chartist petitioning, and also by the rhetoric of Chartist leaders who talked a good fight when they really were not prepared to rise in arms…

After the petition was rejected, plans were set in motion for a Sacred Month, the ‘Grand National Holiday’ of William Benbow revived – a General Strike, in effect. Although agreed and even launched, many Chartist leaders were scared by the implications of leading such a movement, and back-pedalled. The strike fizzled out. In the wake of this the ‘physical force’ Chartists began working in earnest to plan for uprisings to overthrow the government that held them down, going beyond demanding a the vote to conceiving of a working class that could take power itself, in its own interests, dispossessing the classes that lived on their backs. This manifested in the Newport Rising of November 1839, when South Wales Chartists launched a revolt, intended to be part of a wider revolutionary attempt. The revolt was put down and its leaders tried for treason.

But even as the trial of John Frost and the other Newport leaders ended with sentences of death and transportation, in early January 1840, plans for uprising were still being hatched in the north of England. Revolts were planned in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford, but were either foiled by the authorities (often with the help of spies) or failed to gather the support needed. And there were spirits abroad in London, too, willing to arm with the aim of overthrowing the hated government:

“In the metropolis, too, the work of disaffection was apparent. Repeated meetings took place, and schemes of the very worst character were devised; and, on Tuesday the 13th of January, the government received private information that an insurrection was to break out on that night or on the following morning, and that the firing of London in various parts was to be the signal for a general rising throughout the country. Orders were in consequence instantly transmitted to the Horse Guards, for the preparation of a sufficient force to repel any treasonable attack which might be made; and here, as well as at all the barracks in the vicinity of the metropolis, and at the Tower, the whole of the men were put under arms. The metropolitan police-force and the city constables received orders to be ready for immediate action, and the London Fire-engine Establishment — a body of most enterprising and active officers — formed into a fire-police, was placed in readiness to employ their exertions to assist the municipal authorities to suppress the supposed intended conflagration.

            The alarm, which was necessarily spread through the metropolis in consequence of these warlike preparations, however, turned out to be without cause; for although on that night a very large meeting of Chartists took place at the Hall of Trades, in Abbey-street, Bethnal-green, there was no attempt at violence. The conduct of the speakers at this assemblage, indeed, sufficiently showed the extremes to which they desired their followers to go; and a subsequent meeting on the following Thursday proved that they were not quite so harmless as their apologists would have had it supposed. At this convention, held, as it was announced, for the purpose of discussing the existing state of the working-classes throughout the country, upwards of seven hundred persons attended, the majority of whom seemed to be individuals of low rank. At nine o’clock the committee came upon the platform, when Mr. Neesom was called to the chair. After the chairman had detailed the objects for which the meeting had been called, Mr. Spurr, who had on a former occasion taken an active part in the discussions, rose to propose the first resolution. After a few preliminary observations, he contended that the only way to preserve the peace was to be prepared to wage war; and in support of such an assertion he thought it would be well deserving the attention of the meeting to bear in mind the words of a celebrated person, “to put their trust in God, and keep their powder dry,” which was received with loud cheering. On silence being restored, the speaker was about to proceed, but a body of police appearing at the door with drawn sabres, caused the greatest possible confusion. The chairman entreated the meeting not to be disturbed, as it was held on constitutional principles, but in order not to give their enemies an opportunity of succeeding, he hoped there would be no breach of the peace committed. The police then, having blocked up every avenue leading to the room, prevented all present from retiring, and proceeded to search their persons. Daggers, knives, sabres, pistols primed and loaded, and other weapons of an offensive character, were taken from many of them, while upon the floor were discovered others of a like description, evidently thrown away by their owners in order to enable them to escape detection. Twenty-one of the persons who were taken into custody on this occasion unarmed, were detained in the Trades Hall, and eleven others, upon whom pistols and daggers had been found, were removed to safe custody, in order to await their examination before the magistrates. Upon subsequent inquiries taking place, several of them were discharged, while, however, others, with new prisoners subsequently secured and identified as parties to the meeting, were tried and convicted at the Old Bailey Sessions, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.” (The Newgate Calendar).

Chartists would of course continue to agitate, strike and plot revolution for several more years… But if 1848 has often been seen as the highpoint, the moment when radical change could have come, it is possible that in 1839-40 the moment was in reality even closer. Sadly, general strikes, insurrections, plots for uprisings, armed meetings, failed to achieve a working class seizure of power 176 years ago…

But hey, there’s still time…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London radical history: Nicholas Tew interrogated over the printing of Leveller tracts, 1645.

On 15 January 1645, Nicholas Tew, a stationer of Coleman Street in the City of London, was questioned by a Parliamentary Committee investigating an underground press used by civil war radicals and budding Leveller leaders John Lilburne & Richard Overton. Tew’s house had been raided in December 1644 by the Stationers’ Office, responsible for censorship and licensing of publications, who were hard at work repressing the numerous unlicensed presses that had sprung up and were busy spreading all manner of radical political and religious ideas. The English Civil War had begun as conflict between king and Parliament over constitutional questions, religious and economic conflict and the question of where power in the country was vested; but the moderate bourgeoisie and gentry of Parliament had opened a can of worms by appealing to the classes below them in the name of liberty. Whole new groupings were emerging calling for social change and freedom of religious worship, and the privations and sacrifice of the war had spurred thousands on to question why they were fighting for, and beginning to go beyond the limited liberty the victory over the king had won them. The Levellers were the most well known of the political movements that evolved from this ferment.

The son of a London gentleman, bound apprentice to the stationer Henry Bird in September 1629, and freed in October 1638, Tew had emerged from the radical wing of the Baptists; he is thought to have been a member of Thomas Lambe’s independent congregation, which was meeting at Whitechapel in March 1643, Tew was possibly ‘the Girdler at the exchange, who teacheth at Whitechapel at a chamber every sabboth day’). At some point around 1643, he was involved in a dust-up with a ‘malignant’ (pro-Royalist) fellow-stationer, Edward Dobson (printer of several anti-parliamentary tracts), who was nicked for beating Tew.

By 1644 Tew was working as a stationers or printer in Coleman Street, “London’s most notorious radical centre”, a narrow lane running up towards the City of London wall next to the Moor Gate, which opened onto Moorfields. Coleman Street’s tempestuous politics arose from both its position near the City’s edge, and the demographic of its residents (although interestingly, the original London Jewry ran from Cheapside, all the way north, across Lothbury and to Coleman Street. London’s first synagogue was located in neighbouring Ironmonger Lane. Is it possible that this influenced Coleman Street’s long history of religious non-conformism?). Filled with poor craftsmen, Coleman Street and the alleys and courts which branched off it were one of the most notorious centres of radicalism and religious non-conformism, from before the Civil War. Here radicalism and protests against authority had flourished since the 1620s at least; the five members of Parliament famously targeted for arrest by king Charles I in January 1642 were sheltered here, and Cromwell & the Puritan preacher Hugh Peter met regularly in the Star Inn; in 1645 women preached here, against all custom of the time, upsetting the established church hierarchies. The street and alleys teemed with radical congregations: in Bell Alley, off Coleman Street, was a noted centre of the most radical of the civil war religious sects. 1000s flocked here at times to hear radical preachers, including the Fifth Monarchist, John Goodwin, the ‘Red Dragon of Coleman Street’, and Thomas Lamb’s, who headed an Anabaptist congregation, of which Tew seems to have been a member. Lamb was soap-boiler, who preached the heresy that everyone was redeemed by Christ’s death, even pagans and Muslims. Later Fifth Monarchists plotted here against the Rump Parliament: Thomas Venner & other Fifth Monarchists preached in Swan Alley, from where they launched two attempts at insurrection, against Cromwell’s Protectorate, then against the restoration of king Charles II. Tew’s shop was in the heart of the swirling mix of radial religious and political debate which had both helped to give birth to the civil was and been encouraged and leavened by it. (Coleman Street would remain a centre for rebels until at least the 1780s, when Several Gordon Rioters were hanged here, probably as they lived here or emerged to riot from here.)

Tew had been called to answer questions about a tract distributed in December 1644; a single printed sheet, attacking the moderate Parliamentary generals, the Earls of Essex and Manchester, which was ‘scattered about ye streets in the night’, which accused the aristocratic leaders of a betrayal of the parliament and a fraud upon the troops, concluding: ‘Neither of them work, but make work; when they should do, they undo, and indeed to undo is all the mark they aime at. Do ye think greatness without goodness can ever thrive in excellent actions? No, honour without honesty stinks; away with’t: no more Lords and ye love me, they smell o’ the Court.’ Articulating the widespread suspicion that many of the leaders of both the army and Parliament were at best lukewarm about the war against the king, and possibly even in league with him or prepared to make a deal. (Suspicions to be revived and confirmed later in the decade).

An apprentice, George Jeffery, examined by the House of Lords, named preacher Thomas Lambe as one of the distributors of this sheet.’ (Lambe being the preached Tew was associated with) On 17 December, the House was told that the Stationers had found in Tew’s possession ‘divers scandalous books and pamphlets, and a letter for printing; the letter thereof is very like the letter of the libel against the peers’. He was arrested and examined by three Lords, but refused to answer; the committee recommended his committal ‘for his contempt, and that he may be forth-coming’ with information on ‘the authors, dispersers and printing of these books, and what he knows concerning the scandalous libel’.Tew refused to answer questions when hauled in front of Parliament’s Committee of Examinations; accordingly, on 26 December, Tew was ‘committed to the Fleet’ and justices were appointed to examine him. They eventually (on January 17th) extracted a confession from him, that a printing press had been brought to his house, and Richard Overton (who lodged in rooms in Tew’s house) and others he did not know had printed several items…

John Lilburne used the press at Tew’s to print an open letter to his former mentor, & now bitter opponent, the puritan William Prynne, calling for religious freedom of conscience.

Tew also admitted that another book of Lilburne’s, possibly his Answer to Nine Arguments, was printed on the press. But Tew refused or wasn’t able to say who had given him the manuscripts for printing, and he was sent back to his cell in the Fleet. Not till Monday 10 Feb, when Tew petitioned for release, was he bailed.

The same day, John Lilburne was also summoned to be examined by the Committee of Examinations, but walking in Moorfields before the hearing he was accidentally injured, when a pike was run into his eye, so his case was postponed… The seizure of the Leveller press housed at Tew’s shop did not silence them for long; radical bookseller William Larner set one up in his premises at Bishopsgate, which after searches by the authorities, later moved to Goodman’s Fields, Whitechapel.

Nicholas Tew re-appears later, as an activist in the growing Leveller movement in 1647; an initiator, together with William Walwyn and others, of the ‘Large Petition’, a set of demands for constitutional and social reform, the most far-reaching yet articulated by the Levellers and New Model Army Agitators. The petition called for the abolition of tithes and monopolies, of unequal and unjust punishments, the banning of imprisonment for debt and harsh conditions and treatment in prisons, and pressed for the recognition of freedom of religious conscience, freedom of speech and the press, pegging back of the powers of the House of Lords and ending repression and persecution by the Presbyterian Parliament. The Levellers had developed petitioning as one of their main campaigning tools, and had recently managed to collect 10,000 signatures for one calling for the release of Lilburne and other imprisoned radicals who had been jailed by parliament for publishing ‘scandalous’ pamphlets, tracts calling for political reform and denouncing parliamentary repression and wavering in the cause that the civil war had been fought for.

This previous petition had been signed by thousands, despite active interference from some army leaders, and even from independent ministers who had previously been allies or supporters of Lilburne’s campaigns for change. The radicalisation of parts of the movement that had opposed king Charles was opening up splits in previous alliances, as Lilburne and others evolved programs that went beyond religious self-determination towards social change…

By this time Tew had been called to give evidence several times before the Committee of Examinations, and besides Lilburne was a known associate of men like William Browne, a Leveller bookseller, and Major Tulidah, a soldier thought to have been a ‘London agent’ for the Agitators, a connection between the radicals in the City of London and the army.

Besides his arrest in 1645, Tew had also been imprisoned again, ‘most illegally by the present Lord Mayor of London, fetched out of his shop and committed to Newgate, for having had in his custody one of the petitions promoted by the citizens of London. He was also to go to jail in 1647.

Tew was one of a crowd who marched in support of the minister Thomas Lambe, when he was summoned to interrogation by the Committee in March 1647, and was arrested while reading a statement aloud in the Court of requests responding to Parliamentary denunciation of the Large Petition as a seditious libel, and jailed in Westminster Prison. A disturbance followed in which Tulidah and others were dispersed by force. Tew refused to petition the House of Commons for his release and remained locked up, despite further petitions which called for his release as well as for recognition of the right to petition, and restriction of the powers of the reactionary parliamentary committees.

I don’t know what happened to Tew after this, though he may have continued to work as a stationer in Coleman Street till 1660 at least…

Worth reading: Free-Born John, The Biography of John Lilburne, Pauline Gregg.


The British Baptists and politics, 1603-1649Stephen Wright.

And a good short look at Coleman Street


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.