Today in London radical history: recruits & convicts mutiny, Savoy Gaol, 1776.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol…”

The Savoy Palace was built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames (close to the modern Savoy Hotel). Successive Earls and Dukes of Lancaster spent lavishly to make the Palace one of the most opulent in the country. Its occupation by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and then hated head of the government, led to its being attacked by rioters in 1377 and destroyed in 1381 in the Peasant’s Revolt.

After this the palace lay derelict or hardly used until around 1505 when, as one of his last public benefactions, Henry VII set in motion the building of a hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist. Though heavily restored, much of this building remained until 1864 when a fire destroyed virtually everything except the walls. Much of the palace area gradually became a slum, a warren of garrets and crowded courts and alleys, crammed with the poor, lawless and rebellious.

Part of the old Savoy Palace building was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Unsurprisingly the Savoy Prison became a site of fierce resistance, especially for doomed deserters who had nothing to lose by trying to escape. But the barracks itself also saw trouble. In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops. In 1761 over 200 prisoners here mutinied and a considerable battle developed. The Universal Register noted that ‘An unconcerned spectator looking down from the roof was unfortunately taken for one of the rioters, shot and killed on the spot.’  Recruits to the East India Company’s private imperialist militia stationed here also rebelled in 1763.

On 27th February 1776 military prisoners joined up with convicts who had been sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies, and were awaiting transfer to prison ships; together at least 40 mutinied, rioted, and made a desperate escape attempt.

“About eleven o’clock while the piquet-guard was off duty, a terrible mutiny happened among the transports and recruits confined in the Savoy Gaol, when near forty found means to escape, by breaking through a back window near the water-side, and getting over the wall, the tide being down, to the craft on the river. A soldier was now ordered to bid them stop, and on their refusal, to fire. The orders were obeyed, and on his killing the last of them, the rest were secured.” (Annual Register, 1776.)

In the same year as this failed breakout, the army barracks seems to have burned down., but the military prison remained. In1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816 to 20 to make the approach to Waterloo Bridge.


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

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Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey ordered to be burnt for heresy, 1401.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy initially derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, who had criticised the worldly wealth of the church and disputed many of the leading catholic doctrines; other students and clerics took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

However, fierce repression of these ideas by the church authorities, backed by the state, rooted many of the ideas out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

From this, these ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry (and Lollards would attempt to launch an uprising a few years later).

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, the English government passed a new law, the Statute of Heresies Act of 1401, which made burning the penalty for “heresy.”

In 1401, William Sawtrey, a priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, became the first Lollard martyr to suffer the death penalty under this new law. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk on charges of heresy in 1399. Sent to prison, he eventually broke down and gave up his beliefs. His recantation got him released. But it did leave him with mixed feelings. Shortly after his release, he moved to London, and found a job. But he got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

Sawtrey also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince Sawtrey to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities, but Sawtrey refused.

Sawtrey was condemned for eight counts of heresy. On February 26, 1401, Sawtrey’s sentence was issued. Condemned as a relapsed heretic, under the new law, this meant he would be burnt to death. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to be put to death.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401, in front of a crowd of spectators.

His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)

Smithfield, being then a large open space outside the City walls, proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for dirty, unpleasant work and unruly, drunken behaviour. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under in the Smithfield area for centuries.

Smithfield’s fame as a gathering space made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.

But it may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power often had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting. The authorities long had a definite policy of carrying out executions in such areas, partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.

In addition, the streets around Smithfield were known as the haunt of Lollard sympathisers, so executing Sawtrey there also served the practical purpose of scaring them in particular. At least nine more Lollards would be executed at Smithfield in the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries; to be followed by protestants, Anabaptists, and the odd catholic later in the 1500s.


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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Riot at Covent Garden Theatre against ticket price rises, 1763.

“One Way only is left us, to obtain redress, which is, to assemble at the Playhouses, and demand, with Decency and Temper, an Explanation on this Grievance, which, I am certain, cannot be supported; and owes its Establishment to an Opinion, that every Imposition, not openly opposed, acquires the Sanction of prescription.”

‘The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine)

On 24 February 1763 a mob protesting the abolition of half-price admissions stormed the theatre in the middle of a performance of the opera Artaxerxes.

Visiting the eighteenth century theatre was a very different experience to today. Performances were not received in polite respectful silence – far from it. Audiences were often noisy, rowdy, heckled the actors regularly, brought in food, drink and smokes; started fights and even duels, and on numerous occasions, broke out into rioting. “Depending upon one’s definition of a riot there were thirty-six major disturbances in London’ s three major theatres between the years 1730-1780, or more than one every two years.”

According to Professor Richard Gorrie, riots were an integral part of the total eighteenth-century theatrical experience. “London theatre during the eighteenth century was the site of a highly interactive and wide ranging cultural activity and the theatre riot was a prominent, and not unexpected, part of that encounter.”

The riots had a wide range of causes, but the spark that kept provoking disorder was repeated attempts to put up entry prices.

In the early part of the eighteenth century it was customary to sell theatre seats at full-price if you wished to see the entire show (typically a shorter play, the main feature which might be a play or an opera, and possibly several entr’actes). If you only took your seat after the third act of the main attraction, you could generally get in for half-price. This obviously suited those with less ready cash, amongst others. But in late January 1763 the management of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, (the only two theatres fully licensed to show plays), who were effectively running a ticket-pricing cartel, decided to alter this arrangement, and started charging full-price regardless of whatever point in the performance the audience arrived.

In part the aggro that followed arose from a feud between flamboyant and opinionated critic Thaddeus Fitzpatrick the pamphleteer said to be the eminence grise behind the riots) and theatre actor-manage David Garrick, (then running Drury Lane Theatre). Fitzpatrick had criticised Garrick in public and then in print and the latter had satirised him in his plays in return, at first in jest but increasingly bitterly. “Reporters and later historians decided that Fitzpatrick had disrupted the performances at both theatres as a clumsy tactic in this war of wits”. However, this is only a part of the story…

The price changes didn’t go down well with the more plebeian element of London’s theatre audience. Pamphlets were published, and audience members rioted at Drury Lane theatre on January 25th, and a more muted disturbance took place the same night at Covent Garden, which was quickly dispelled when the manager, John Beard, temporarily gave in to the rioters’ demands.

Earlier in the day handbills had been distributed around the various taverns and coffee houses, and other public places, addressed to the ‘Frequenters of the Theatres’; it was a call to arms to protest the new pricing policy.

When the play opened, part of the audience made a great clamour, calling for the theatre managers to appear an account for themselves: “I call on you in the name of the public to answer for your RASCALLY impositions” came the challenge, with the word rascal repeated through the house according to one source.” The theatre next became a sort of parliament… On one occasion the audience were asked to vote on the continuation of the play, but a minority had already started to break up the benches and props… The guard had to be called and the rioters dispersed.

There was clearly a particular concerted effort being made to disrupt performances: there was often much audience traffic between the two theatres during an evening, with boisterous groups of patrons moving rowdily from one venue to the other (though riots generally did not take place simultaneously at both theatres or spread from one house to the other).

However, a month later Beard tried again to implement the new prices. “Once again a handbill was printed and distributed “at all the public places in London:

‘To the frequenters of theatres,
In defiance of the regulation which your resolution and steadiness, lately established at Drury-lane theatre, and in which it was universally understood, that the managers of the other theatre had fully acquiesced, there appeared this day advertised, the opera of ARTAXERXES, with this remarkable notice, viz. Nothing under the full price CAN be taken. It now therefore behooves you, gentlemen, to enforce your decision, and convince the directors of Covent-Garden, that a point once determined by the tribunal of the public, must and shall forever remain a law, subject to no alteration, but by their own authority.

I am gentlemen,
Your Humble servant,
An enemy to imposition.’

However on February 24th, the rioters returned in force to Covent Garden, this time to a performance of Artaxerxes. While women were often a part of theatre riots and generally left or were ushered out only when the situation became violent or destructive, on this occasion it was noted in the press that very few women were present in the first place, perhaps pointing to a more confrontational attitude on the part of the protestors. Beard now refused to back down, and insisted on charging full-price, and in spite of the singers’ best attempts to get on with the opera, the stage was stormed, and the opera stopped. A great noise greeted the drawing of the curtain, and from the beginning of the evening members of the audience demanded that Beard appear to answer their charges. A significant amount of negotiating back and forth took place, with, at one point, someone in the pit declaring that the management “ought to submit in this to the town…”

By 9.30 p.m. when the management were showing no signs of giving into audience demands, the rioters had enough, and started to tear down the chandeliers and the pillars supporting the gallery. They caused £2,000 worth of damage – this at a time when a servant-girl’s annual wage would amount to little more than £4. In addition, several employees of the theatre were hurt. The theatre was dark for four nights.

The Public and Daily Advertiser of the following day contained a statement from Beard with the management’s side of the dispute, arguing that the production expenses of opera justified the change in ticket pricing. Furthermore, after presenting his case to the public, he hoped that no one would think the innovation exorbitant.

The print by L.P. Boitard (see above) to commemorate the Fitzgiggo riot (as it came to be known, taking its name from Thaddeus Fitzpatrick) shows the singers attempting to repel the audience members climbing on to the stage.

The delay occasioned by the extensive repairs gave Beard a chance to temper his stand. By early March Garrick had visited Beard at Covent Garden to see if he was going to insist on full prices as they had agreed in their posted bills. If they were going to remain united, Garrick was prepared to endure another onslaught of protest. However Beard said he had consulted friends who had advised him “to give it up.” With this knowledge, Garrick was prepared to give up the ‘pricing innovation’ as well.

However he was not as quick to drop the charges against the rioters and this rancorous issue was still unresolved at the theatre the following evening. A spirited crowd gathered and once again the orchestra was commanded to play the popular favourites of “Hearts of Oak,” “Britons Strike Home,” and “Rule Britannia.” A clamour followed which precluded any performance and Beard was summoned.

Initially the manager did not guarantee that al1 charges would be dropped, but finally “for the sake of public tranquility” he gave in to the protesters on every point.

Gentle Riots, Theatre Riots in London 1730-1780, Richard Gorrie, is a wondrous read and invaluable reading on the subject…

And London’s theatre audiences would continue to riot in defiance of price rises


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

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Today in London’s rebel history: bread rioters in the East End seize food, 1855.

“Yesterday some bread riots took place in Whitechapel and the mob did a considerable deal of damage to the workhouse…”

There’s this idea that we have progressed from mid-Victorian times, and in many ways this is true. You know, like in gender equality, the NHS, not jailing people for being gay or hanging them for nicking a pint of milk, and trying not to electrocute each other…

And some other stuff. Much of it the result of long social struggles.

However, in some ways, we have regressed since the mid-19th century. De-evolved.

One example of this is the modern unwillingness to riot when faced with extreme provocation. When rational reaction would in fact be to gather as a mob and take it out on some property, and fit a bit of wealth re-distribution while we’re at it.

This is where out ancestors were way ahead of us.

For centuries food riots were a regular feature of life. When poor harvests, shortages, recession or war caused the price of food, particularly staples like bread, to rise, 1000s of the poorest could not afford to feed themselves. Instead of taking this lying down, in many cases people rioted, seizing food they needed from the shops, markets or food transports. A certain ‘moral economy’ operated, so that on many occasions, the crowd would not merely loot food, but would force shopkeepers to sell at the usual lower price.

Other times mobs would just take it without paying.

A poor harvest in 1853, followed by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, fuelled steep price rises in Britain, and heralded a period of sharply rising expenditure. The total number of ‘outdoor’ paupers in Middlesex, for instance, rose by nearly 40 per cent, from 33,869 in 1853, to 47,097 in 1855. London’s riverside districts registered the harshest poverty. The winter of 1854-55 was very severe, and the Thames froze over in February, stopping all work in the docks and river work.

A report in Reynolds Newspaper noted that “there are fewer than 50,000 men out of employ, who have been for several days past subsisting on the scanty relief doled out by the parishes and unions.”

“Tens of thousands of the poor are deprived of employment by the severity of the weather, especially in all vocations connected with the river.”

In early February the St George-in-the-East Workhouse ran out of bread… “Measures have been taken by the Guardians and Police Magistrates to supply the destitute at least with food ; but the number of applicants was so great that the officers could not relieve them fast enough.”

A few days later, as the Whitechapel Workhouse refused to give out any relief, a crowd built up, and ransacked food shops in the area. Bakers’ and chandlers’ shops were plundered of bread and coal. Food riots spread to other parts of the East End, and to Bermondsey in South London.. Meanwhile other parts of the country were also rioting, especially in Liverpool.

“Mobs collected, under the leadership, for the most part, of stalwart and turbulent Irishmen; who, loudly demanding ” bread,” paraded the streets, and pillaged the shops, not only of food but of money. In this alarming state of things, most of the shops were shut ; and a kind of terror prevailed from ‘White- chapel to Hackney. The Police, however, regardless of numbers, rushed upon the ringleaders and arrested many. All day on Thursday, the Magistrates in Stepney, Worship Street, ‘and Southwark—for there was some rioting in Bermondsey—were engaged in dealing with the fellows under arrest, and several were committed for trial. They also received deputations from the inhabitants asking for protection, begging that special constables might be sworn in. The Thames Police Magistrate declined to grant the latter request; but Superintendent Howie was present, and assured the applicants that he had a large and increasing force at his disposal, and that he would be able to maintain order. It was evident that the example of Liverpool had not been without effect, for it was spoken of with zest by the rioters.”

Extra police were drafted in, and some rioters were lifted, and sentenced to 6 months hard labour. Luckily for the authorities a sudden thaw eased conditions on the river, and the riots subsided as fast as they’d arisen…

But the vast overwhelming poverty of many residents of the East End and other parts of London remained a looming menace for the authorities. Dockers marched to the Whitechapel Workhouse in March 1855 demanding bread. Food rioting would break out again in East London and Clerkenwell in 1857, 1861 and 1866… and in Deptford in 1867.

Today the ratcheting divide between rich and poor is increasing pressure again. 1000s cannot afford to feed themselves. Food banks are all very well. But perhaps its time for some backward evolution. Can we rebuild a sense of our own ‘moral economy’ – and start taking back the products of our labour… from those who steal it from us?


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

This week in radical history: British govt forced to resign over its attacks on refugees, 1858. Really.

The UK state unable to deport or imprison asylum seekers because of political pressure from all levels of society? A British government forced from office over the issue? Seems unlikely in 2017… But 159 years ago today the prime minster had just resigned after resistance to minor changes to conspiracy law made his position untenable.

As related in earlier posts (on Italian anarchist exiles, the Communist Club…) nineteenth century London was home to thousands of exiles, mainly from other European countries, and often forced to leave their home countries for their political activities or beliefs.

Bizarrely as it may seem in the current climate, political refugees flocked to Victorian Britain as it tolerated their presence, if often uneasily, and almost never deported them back where they had come from. This was pretty much unique at the time, (and wasn’t to last.)

Interestingly, this was not because there was a recognisable right in the law at the time to appeal for political asylum – in fact it was the absence of law that was significant. The government was unable to extradite political exiles, or imprison them for simply being here, because there was no law that allowed them to do so. At the time there was a consensus that ‘everything is lawful that the law does not prohibit’. Whereas in other nations it seemed to work the other way around – ‘nothing is lawful but what law permits.’ ‘Politicals’ were also generally seen as a different category from say murderers of other crims on the lam. On top of this, ironically, British xenophobia also worked backhandedly in the exiles’ favour: British courts were unwilling to even consider sending them to face what was seen as unfair and arbitrary ‘foreign’ justice. In reality, a weird contradictory mingling of liberal sentiment and suspicion of all foreign institutions at grassroots level in British society made it very difficult for the authorities to make large-scale change to this situation.

Other European countries observed this with disbelief. At first they responded to Britain’s failure to surrender refugees incredulously, concluding that it amounted to a refusal. Surely Britain was sheltering these rebels and radicals to allow them to plot against and undermine other countries, particularly her rivals. Gradually it dawned on them that Britain was in fact incapable of deporting or locking up these undesirables; this resulted in a rash of dire predictions that Britain would soon be destroyed because of this tolerance.

When a government did attempt to make some moves towards altering this legal loophole, they were often not put into practice. In 1848, the government passed an Alien Act, which allowed it to expel any (importantly, only newly arrived) ‘foreigners’, if they threatened the peace and tranquility of the realm. A short-lived panic about a wave of exiled Frenchmen arriving in London as a result of the 1848 French Revolution sparked this major legal change. However, it was never used, and it was not renewed in 1850.

Mainstream British society generally viewed many of the ‘foreigners’ taking shelter on their shores with contempt and disdain, avoiding them if at all possible, but did not call for them to be expelled. However this did not mean they were not under surveillance. In 1850 or thereabouts, Scotland Yard set up a small department to keep tabs on the international political networks holed up here. But the department’s main work seems to have been to re-assure the political establishment that the exiles posed no threat to the realm at all (in weird contrast to later secret police policy, eg Special Branch’s bold mission to inflate the threat posed by radicals and provoke them into arrestable offences, which has continued into our own time.

Later attempts to even tinker with the legal situation were to backfire on them. In 1858, the government attempted to prosecute in Simon Francois Bernard, a political refugee who had been implicated in the plot by Italian nationalist Orsini to assassinate French Emperor Napoleon III. Orsini planted a bomb which exploded under the emperor’s carriage. The attack killed eight people and a horse, the Emperor’s military escort taking the brunt. Estimates of the wounded ran to 150.

Orsini had spent periods in England, and had made numerous contacts with radicals and liberals. Orsini had been a known associate of Italian nationalist leader Mazzini (if latterly estranged); the plot was generally aimed at furthering the campaign for Italian unification – in the hope that the result would be a republican government in France which would help kick the Austrian Empire out of Italy (Ironically, in this the plot was partly successful, in some measure due to Orsini’s last testament, published after his death, which swayed many on France to support the ‘Risorgimento’, and strengthened Napoleon’s already broadly pro-Unification stance).

(Interestingly Orsini’s plot did involve English radicals. He learned about the chemistry of explosives from William Mattieu Williams, whom he met in 1857. More centrally involved were Thomas Allsop and veteran Owenite co-operator George Jacob Holyoake. J. D. P. Hodge, a disciple of Orsini to whom he entrusted the care of one of his children, was also involved, as was Simon François Bernard, an expatriate French surgeon and socialist.)

Allsop arranged for the manufacture of “Orsini bombs” with a firm in Birmingham, and others tested them out in the countryside. Furthermore Allsop provided Orsini with an old British passport under which to travel to France.)

The British government did feel the heat that arose after this failed ‘attentat’ – pressure from France to act against exiled anti-empire plotters became extreme, and British politicians looked for a way to do something without bringing in new laws. The Attorney General suggested extending the Treason law so it covered treason against foreign monarchs, but this was impractical. A new extradition treaty with France was also discussed but dropped, and a new Alien Act was even drafted, but the cabinet was reluctant to approve it, either because it would be very unpopular, or hard to implement, some even disagreeing out of principle.

The only concession to French diplomatic outrage Palmerston’s government felt able to introduce was the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, an alteration of existing criminal legislation, making conspiracy to commit murder abroad a felony, rather than a misdemeanor (which would increase the maximum sentence from two years to life imprisonment). It was clearly a fudge intended to appease continental pressure over exiles, while not pissing off liberal sentiment – who could object to harsher punishments for plots to kill someone, which didn’t even mention foreigners specifically. However, as often happens with attempts to please everyone while doing nothing, even this small gesture was wildly unpopular, both with Liberals and radicals throughout the country. Part of the problem was that the government had to pretend to foreign governments that the bill was a bigger deal than it was, but to domestic opinion that it was no real change. In practice the french were persuaded that it was a real action against ‘incendiaries’; but so were radicals and liberals in Britain, and they were incensed. There is also no doubt that an unhealthy dose of anti-french sentiment (always a card on the table on British politics) played a part too…

A mammoth demonstration was planned for 21st February 1858, to protest the planned bill as it was going through Parliament. and Liberal, and even some Conservative, MPs protested, and introduced wrecking amendments; the reaction left Palmerston’s government no option but to resign, on the 19th.

The incoming administration of Lord Derby did however continue the prosecutions Palmerston had set in motion. Allsop had escaped after the event to America, as Hodge did to Piedmont; Holyoake however escaped suspicion (though shamefully appears to have offered to grass up his mate Allsop for a government reward).

Simon Bernard was an expatriate French follower of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier. It was alleged against him that he had introduced two of the plotters, Pierri and de Rudio. He was arrested, on a charge of conspiracy; but with the change of government he was put on trial for involvement in one of the murders in Paris. Because the death had been abroad, a Special Commission was required. In addition, a publisher, Edward Truelove, and a bookseller, Stanislaus Tchorzewski, were prosecuted for producing and selling pamphlets advocating tyrannicide generally and justifying Orsini’s attack, respectively.

The state trials turned the Orsini affair into a cause célèbre supported by British radicals outside the courtroom. Radical physician John Epps stood bail for Bernard. Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh started a fund for the defence of Truelove, and subscribers included Liberal heavyweights Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, and Francis William Newman.

Bernard was prosecuted by Sir Fitzroy Kelly in a jury trial before Lord Campbell. Edwin James spoke in Bernard’s defence, emphasising the theme that the trial was a result of pressure from ‘foreign governments’. The jury acquitted Bernard, rejecting the tenor of the judge’s summing-up. The evidence was fairly strong that Bernard had played a part in preparing Orsini’s bomb, though he may not have known of the specific target; the acquittal was blatantly a political choice.

In the light of this reverse the government decided prosecuting Truelove and Tchorzewski would be unwise, and the cases were dropped.

The whole business was of mixed parentage, really, part Liberal-Radical defence of the liberty of the exiles, but part snook-cocking at the ‘frogs’ across the channel. It would be inaccurate to trumpet any kind of ‘British values’ as being at the heart of the affair. However, in the 1850s, there was a widespread suspicion of policing in general, and political repression, and a healthy disrespect for the law when it came to resisting both – whether on the streets in this country, or (for a fair proportion, if not the majority) by somewhat more forceful methods as regards other countries.

In these Brexity times, this seems long way off… The legal frameworks which did not exist in 1858 are many and complex now, and the social context very different. Movements of solidarity with political refugees exist, though, and active resistance to deportations, detention and oppression of asylum seekers are growing… Twould be fun if in a couple of years we could reverse things as far as to see Theresa may forced out after some gross xenophobic violation… Let’s get on it…


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

Today in London’s legal history: Kyd Wake found guilty of heckling the king, 1796.

“In the kings bench came on the trial of Kyd Wake, indicted for a misdemeanor in hissing and booing the king as his majesty was going to the parliament-house, on the first day of the present sessions, and likewise crying “down with George, no war,” &c. Mr Stockdale, the bookseller, and Mr Walford, the linen draper, who acted as constables on the day, were examined, and fully proved the facts charged in the indictment; upon which the jury without hesitation, found a verdict, guilty. A great number of person attended on the part of the prisoner; but as they could only speak to his general character, and not to the case in point, Mr Erskine, the prisoner’s counsel, declined calling upon them, reserving their testimony to be offered in mitigation of the punishment, on the first day of next term, when the prisoner will be brought up to the king’s bench to receive judgment…

Kyd Wake, who was convicted at the sittings… of having… insulted his majesty in hos passage… received the judgment of the court; viz ‘That he be imprisoned, and kept to hard labour in Gloucester gaol, during the tem of five years; that during the first three months of his imprisonment, he do stand for one hour, between the hours of eleven and two, in the pillory, in one of the public streets in Gloucester, on a market-day; and that, at the expiration of his sentence, he do find security for £1000 for his good behaviour for ten years.” (Annual Register, 1796.)

The early days of England’s long wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France coincided with a growing movement for radical political reform in Britain. As the 1790s wore on, the war brought hardship and recession, and resentment from the lower orders mingled with calls for political change. There were riots against the activities of the ‘crimpers’, who kidnapped men for the armed forces; food riots, and general tumults against war, the government and the king. In response, the government engaged in charging leading radicals with treason, and targeted printers who published anything questioning the status quo – and anyone caught expressing opposition…

In October 1795, while riding to Parliament in a glass-enclosed royal carriage, King George III became the target of a crowd protesting the war and demanding bread. “Like Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the U.K. throne, and his consort, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, riding to the theatre in the glass-enclosed Rolls Royce, royalty embodies the sovereignty which led to war and hardship.” Kyd Wake, a bookbinder, hissed and grimaced at the King shouting, “No George, No War!” while the carriage windows became subject to a barrage of pebbles and sticks from a hungry and protesting crowd. Wake was sentenced to five years hard labour – a severe sentence for a moment of angry protest. An example was being set. Wake may have had some background of association with reformers and attending radical meetings.

In prison Wake “had his head shaved, and wore the prison dress, consisting of a blue and yellow jacket and trousers, a woollen cap, and a pair of wooden shoes.”

Kyd Wake’s wife made an engraving to raise money to provide extra food for her husband who was imprisoned in Gloucester Penitentiary. This was captioned with Kyd Wake’s plea against solitary confinement:

Five years’ confinement, even in common gaols must surely be a very severe punishment; but if Judges or Jurors would only reflect seriously on the horrors of solitary imprisonment under penitentiary discipline!! If they would allow their minds to dwell a little on what it is to be locked up, winter after winter.. for 16 hours out of the 24, in a small brick cell -without fire -without light -without employment and scarcely to see a face but those of criminals or turnkeys. No friend to converse with when well; or to consult with or to complain to when indisposed. Above all -to be subjected to a thousand insults and vexations, almost impossible to be described, and therefore scarcely to be remedied; but by which continual torment may be, and often is, inflicted. If they would but consider what an irreparable misfortune it is to have a considerable portion of life so wearisomely wasted; they would surely be more tender of dooming any man, for a long time, to such wretchedness. It is a calamity beyond description, more easily to be conceived than explained.

Wake survived his sentence to become a printer again, but died tragically in 1807, being crushed to death between a post and the wheels of a wagon in St Paul’s churchyard. In his obituary it was suggested that he possibly only served two years. A much more reasonable sentence for heckling, methinks… Not.


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

Today in London’s radical history: Eileen House, Elephant & Castle, squatted as anti-gentrification centre, 2013.

“As Self-Organised London Social Space, we have now been squatting Eileen House at 80-94 Newington Causeway in Elephant & Castle for three weeks against welfare cuts, gentrification and the privatisation of space.”

Eileen House – an empty office block at Elephant & Castle which was the subject of one of London’s most controversial planning applications – was occupied by squatters in February 2013.

Then Mayor of London Boris Johnson was due to adjudicate on developers Oakmayne’s plans to redevelop the site of the 1960s office block on Newington Causeway with a 41-storey tower; a plan opposed by the adjacent Ministry of Sound club and other local groups.

The squatters who took over the building, a coalition of collectives calling themselves the Self-Organised London group (SOL), included people involved in the recent local squats at the Colorama buildings in Lancaster Street and the former Holy Trinity Centre next to Archbishop’s Park.

“Residents of Elephant & Castle are sick of having so-called regeneration plans imposed on them by developers, Southwark Council, and now Boris,” said Emma Jennings of SOL.

“These plans for luxury flats and fancy office towers have seen local residents forced to leave the area by their own council, in the case of the Heygate Estate, and by sky-high rents.

“Gentrification and Government cuts to housing benefits are tearing our communities apart – we hope that by taking over Eileen House and returning it to the community, we can provide a space for us to come back together again and organise against Boris and for housing which meets our needs.”

“The past week has shown what a forceful impact squatters, activists and residents can have against gentrification. Our wide range of events and activities covered people’s kitchen, film-screenings, talks and discussions on housing and welfare cuts, an anti-gentrification walk, a Latin American night, live music events, and much more. Instead of being an empty and neglected space on a main road, Eileen House is now buzzing with activity! A big thanks to all of the many locals and Londoners who attended our events in huge numbers, every day! Do continue to visit us, to suggest events, to support us in solidarity!”

Events at the SOL included Spanish-English language exchange, weekly political theatre and tango lessons from Library St London, as well as the new Queer Cinema from London Queer Social Centre.

After 6 amazing weeks of self-organisation, hosting events and supporting communities, Self-organised London was evicted by High Court Bailiffs and Cops in early April. At 4am in the morning, they stormed Eileen House, kicking in the front door of the social centre and causing mayhem. Luckily, the squatters were well prepared; no one got arrested and personal belongings and most of the social centre equipment was safely moved out of the building.

The planning application envisaged the construction of a 41-storey biggie with 335 flats, NONE of them socially rented, not even 20% of them shared ownership. While SOL was trying to provide a space for the public, for the communities of the Elephant, for London activists, Eileen House is now sealed off and inaccessible to the public, awaiting its demolition.

As they said after the eviction: “Another building in perfect condition that is rather left empty for those who have plenty than put to good use for those who have none. To us, it shows once more that the law and state authorities uphold an unjust and absurd system, to the benefit of corporate profit, to the disadvantage of the people.

The collectives and individuals who set up SOL are now taking a break, to organise our homes, to regain our strength. Whatever we decide to do in the future, what networks we form, what projects we start, let’s keep self-organising, let’s keep resisting, let’s keep squatting!

A big, massive and warm thank you to all of you, all of the groups and individuals that made SOL a vibrant and buzzing hub of activities. Thanks for coming along, for donating stuff, for enjoying the view from the roof, for showing support and love. We could not have done this without you.


Struggles against development and gentrification of course continue in the Elephant & Castle/Walworth areas, with the  decanting and ongoing destruction of the Heygate Estate, the so-far only partially successful attempts to empty the Aylesbury of social housing tenants and the massive redevelopment plan for the Elephant area. Once a working class area of densely occupied social housing, Southwark Council is merrily handing the area to developers with the aim of imposing a different ‘social mix’. Code for replacing working class people with a better sort. Tis a dynamic at work all over the city…

Resistance continues.

Check out Southwark Notes 


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

Today in London’s medical history: Rioting Tyburn crowd tries to rescue body of executed soldier from dissection, 1770.

• This was mistakenly entered in the hard copy of the calendar as the 15th February… one day out. Oops.• 

“Thomas Dunk, formerly of Bath, late a soldier in his majesty’s foot guards, now nineteen years old… being tired of the army, he solicited his discharge, determined to work at his trade; which proving very dull, he was easily led on to seek money in an unlawful way, for the supply of his necessities. And at the instance of Thomas Marshal, whom he unfortunately got acquainted with, when a soldier, he, in company with him, committed several robberies, for one of which he suffered.

Soon after his being apprehended, he was sent to Newgate, where he, with several others, formed a design to break the goal open, and set the prisoners at liberty; which they partly executed, and would in a very short time have compleated, were it not for the great attention, and watchful care of the master of the prison, to whom the thanks of the public in general, but more particularly of this city, is justly due, not only upon this account, but for his constant assiduity in discharging every part of his duty with justice to his employ, charity and humanity to the wretched criminals who come within his limits. Neither are his servants and turnkeys unworthy of notice, for their secresy and prudent behaviour till the particulars concerned were detected. Some of whom, notwithstanding the mercy and lenity of our most gracious sovereign, are found to be respites from death, not under confinement only for transportation, but full with sanguine hopes of a free pardon, from the pity and compassion of the best of princes, whose mercy and goodness is universally extended, not to his faithful, true, and loving subjects alone, but to those who, by transgressing both the laws of God and man, have forfeited their title to that life, which no mortal man on earth can restore.

This scheme of a general goal delivery, was first planned and attempted in manner following: while the goal smith was fixing and putting a lock on the door of an uninhabited room, one of the parties (under the pretence of curiosity) took the key to look at, and while the smith was at his work, with one of the turnkeys present, he, without the knowledge or notice of either, quickly took off the impression, by which afterwards a key was made, which admitted him and the accomplices (of whom Dunk was one, whose mother, as he confessed, brought in a small crow or tool of iron, for the said purpose) into this apartment, at convenient and fit times for their design, where they filed and cut almost every bar in the window, through which their escape was intended, and would have been accomplished, were it not for the divine favour and protection of almighty God, who always brings to light the hidden things of darkness, and by just and wise providence doth bring sin to shame and punishment, disappointing the hopes of wicked men, visiting their sins upon them in this present life, that he may deter others from their evil ways, and save their souls in the day of our Lord Jesus.” (John Wood, Ordinary of Newgate, 1770).

“After the execution a great disturbance happened, in consequence of a hearse being placed near the gallows, in order to receive the body of Dunk the soldier, which some of his comrades imagining was sent there by the surgeons, they knocked down the undertaker and after beating his men, drove off with the body along the New Road, attended by a prodigious concourse of people till they came to Gray’s-inn-lane, where they buried the corpse, after first breaking its legs and arms, and throwing a large quantity of unslacked lime into the coffin and the grave.” (Annual Register, February 1770)

From at least 1500s, until 1783, Tyburn was London’s main arena for public hangings. Today Marble Arch occupies the place feared and hated like no other in early modern London.

“Death by hanging, like most kinds o f death in the eighteenth century, was public. Not isolated from the community or concealed as an embarrassment to it, the execution of the death sentence was made known to every part of the metropolis and the surrounding villages. On the morning of a hanging day the bells of the churches o f London were rung buffeted. The cries of hawkers selling ballads and ‘Last Dying Speeches’ filled the streets. The last preparations for death in the chapel at Newgate were open to those able to pay the gaoler his fee. The malefactor’s chains were struck off in the press yard in front of friends and relations, the curious, the gaping and onlookers at the prison gate. The route of the hanging procession crossed the busiest axis of the town at Smithfield, passed through one of the most heavily populated districts in St Giles’s and St Andrew’s, Holborn, and followed the most-trafficked road, Tyburn Road, to the gallows. There the assembled people on foot, upon horseback, in coaches, crowding near-by houses, filling the adjoining roads, climbing ladders, sitting on the w all enclosing Hyde Park and standing in its contiguous cow pastures gathered to witness the hanging. By the eighteenth century this crowd had become so unruly that the ‘ hanging match’ became well known to foreign visitors and English alike as both a principal attraction of the town and a periodic occasion of disturbance.
The efficacy of public punishment depends upon a rough agreement between those who wield the law and those ruled by it. Whipping, ducking and the pillory, like public hangings, depended upon the public infliction of ignominy, execration and shame. As hangings were attended with disruptions, threatened rescues, disorders, brawls and riot, by the time of the eighteenth century order at them rested less upon community consensus in the justice of the sentence or in the manner of its execution than by the force of arms and the spectacular terror in the panopoly of a state hanging.”

By the spectacle and terror of public hangings, the authorities were trying to overawe the teeming disorderly lower classes, to impress on them that rebellion, crime, dissent would end badly, that the power of the state was so great and over-arching that to oppose it was futile.

Although this was the intention, resentment, resistance and subversion from below was constantly undermining the shock and awe of public executions. One notable aspect of this was the struggle to keep the bodies of the executed ‘felons’ out of the hands of the dissecting surgeons.

Eighteenth century anatomists struggled to get hold of bodies to dissect. And more and more hospitals in London were being to train students in dissection. Advances in medicine were sprouting all over the place, resulting in pressure for scientific investigation of the human body.

All of which led to an explosion in the demand for corpses. Legally it was difficult to obtain nice warm dead bodies. By a law passed in Elizabethan times and renewed by Charles II the Royal College of Physicians was allowed the bodies of six executed criminals a year, and the Company of Barber-Surgeons were allotted four, for anatomical dissection. Other hospitals and private medical schools had to rely on illegal and dangerous methods – graverobbing, physically fighting the agents of the Company and the College to grab their corpses; or hanging about outside Newgate Prison on a hanging day, offering to buy the bodies of the condemned. A considerable trade in bodies existed.

“With the advance in understanding of anatomy and the corresponding development of private trade in corpses, we can find in the early eighteenth century a significant change in attitude towards the dead human body. The corpse becomes a commodity with all the attributes of a property. It could be owned privately. It could be bought and sold. A value not measured by the grace of heaven nor the fires of hell but quantifiably expressed in the magic of the price list was placed upon the corpse. As a factor in the production of scientific knowledge, the accumulated rituals and habits of centuries of religion and superstition were swept aside. Bernard de Mandeville, himself trained as a physician, but known mainly for demonstrating that ‘private vices are public virtues’ in The Fable of the Bees, wrote a series of articles for the British Journal in the months before Jonathan Wild was hanged in 1725. Addressed to ‘men of business’, they provide the first utilitarian defence in eighteenth-century England of the dissection of condemned criminals.”

Repeated petitions and complaints from the Royal College and the Barber-Surgeons Company, that they just couldn’t get enough bodies, couldn’t pay enough to compete with their rivals, eventually persuaded the government to legislate to increase their ration. The 1752 ‘Murder Act’ introduced dissection as part of the sentence. This was not only a generous concession to the need for medical advance, but was an attempt to introduce an extra deterrent:

“It is become necessary that some further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy be added to the Punishment.” Provision was made for dissection as an added punishment after death; and for denying Christian burial to murderers.

“The combined demands o  the Physicians and the Surgeons on one hand and the surgeons of the schools and the hospitals on the other produced an intolerable situation to the ‘loose and disorderly Persons’ gathered beneath the gallows’ tree, whose violence against all types of surgeons intensified. Such were the factors causing the disturbances at Tyburn. The relative peace which settled at the gallows after mid-century resulted from the partial satisfaction of the interests of all parties. The Physicians, as appears from their records, ceased to obtain bodies from Tyburn by the third decade o f the century. After 1752 the Company of Surgeons received a regular supply of them.”

From the perspective of the poor, the people who ended up on the gallows, this ignominy was too much. : “the simple, direct desire for a decent Christian burial, with its concern for order, propriety and the peaceful translation of the soul from this life to the next. Hanging removed a man by violence from this life. At least his soul should be allowed to enter the next in peace.”

“So obvious was the need for proper treatment of the dead for the peaceful departure to an afterlife that it hardly needed to be mentioned. Exceptional and unusual beliefs, however, required stating and do survive in the evidence. Some regarded the resurrection of the flesh in ways quite different from those of the Church of England…. The belief that the dead possessed the power ‘to come again’ was the last revenge of the dead upon the living; as such, it provides us with indications not only about the popular conception of death but also of popular notions of justice.”

“No evidence has come to light to show that the Tyburn crowd thought that somehow the dissection of felons impaired the specific powers of the spirits of the dead to return to the living. However, a belief in life after death, especially in the forms which we have described, was connected with beliefs about justice, the law and the value of life. In these cases therefore the added humiliation of the surgeon’s scalpel to the hangman’s noose rendered the injustice of the law all the more loathsome.”

The condemned appealed to friends, family and wider that their bodies should be saved from the agents of the surgeons… Riots, pitched battles and running fights erupted around the gallows and the hospitals, as crowds fought to rescue the corpses of the hanged from the surgeons knife.

Condemned felons appealed for help through “five kinds of solidarities” – their family, personal friends, fellow workers, the Irish and sailors – though these overlapped, of course, and divisions were often transcended in the general passion of struggle.

Samuel Richardson writing in 1740 described a Tyburn riot:

“As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters, and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed . . . and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at.”

This final act of friendship, of family feeling, of workplace or national solidarity, became a matter of honour and pride as well as solidarity. Just as workers, and some masters, joined a friendly society to save against the danger of lay-offs, sickness or death, the struggle against the surgeons reflected “solidarity in the face of death”. Thus “brick-makers came out to defend the bodies of two felons with several years of good standing in the trade against the surgeons, when bargemen came down from Reading to guard one of their own at his hanging, when the Hackney coachmen rallied to keep the body of a fellow coachman ‘ from being carried off by Violence’, or when the small cottagers and market people of Shoreditch surrounded the tumbril of Thomas Pinks their neighbour in the village, ‘declaring they had no other Intention, than to take Care of the Body for Christian burial’ ”.

The Irish, also appealed to each other, and sailors to their fellow seamen, and since the Irish formed 16 percent of those hanged at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, and sailors around 25 percent, these were no idle allegiances.London’s Irish were generally among the City’s poorest, and already disposed to violence and collective disorder; sailors too were usually skint, to the fore in crowd trouble and riotous occurrences, and also hated the medical profession: “For one, hospitals were used as crimping houses [where men were kidnapped for the armed forces] and detention centres for impressed and runaway sailors. For another, the chief killer of seamen was neither combat nor the hazards of the ocean, but diseases (‘ black vomit’ , ‘ague’ , ‘ship fever’ and ‘the bloody flux’) which were made worse by the tetanus and gangrene caused by the ships’ surgeons. Tobias Smollett, who sailed as a surgeon’s mate to the bloody action at Carthagena (1741), ‘was much less surprised that people should die on board than that any sick person should recover’. In eighteenth-century sailors’ slang the surgeon was called ‘crocus’, an elision of ‘croak us’, meaning to ‘kill us’.

On occasions, crowds gathering at Tyburn to rescue the bodies of the hanged threatened order to the point where hundreds of constables and soldiers were mobilised to prevent them.

But it could cost you – “John Miller was captured and incarcerated in Clerkenwell New Prison for attempting to rescue the body of his friend George Ward from the surgeons. John Clark lost his life for trying to save the body of his friend. He had been to Tyburn ,’ he said, ‘ to assist in carrying off the Body of my Friend, Joseph Parker from the Surgeons, and was seen by the Prosecutor.’ ” He was also condemned to hang.

Beyond the simple defence of the bodies of the dead, there was also always the hope of reviving the corpse. “During the first half of the eighteenth century the cause of death at Tyburn was asphyxia, not dislocation of the spine. A broken neck was decisive. Asphyxia, however, could result in temporary unconsciousness if the knot was tied, or the noose placed around the neck, in a particular fashion. incomplete hangings without fatal strangulation were common enough to sustain the hope that resuscitation (‘resurrection’ as it was called) would save the condemned. In the sixteenth century ‘resurrections’ were so frequent and the costs incidental to them so substantial that the Barber-Surgeons ruled that the expenses thus entailed should be borne by those who brought the body to the ‘Thanatomistes’. William Petty in the seventeenth century attained considerable notoriety when he began to anatomize Anne Green, a murderess, and found that she revived under his scalpel.” John “half-hanged” Smith lived ten years after reviving post-hanging in 1709. In 1724, when famous prison escaper and hero of London’s poor was hanged, a crowd attempted to seize his body to save it from the surgeons, amongst whom were a group of Sheppard’s mates who had promised him they would grab his body and attempt to revive him – a plan that failed when during the riot the hall containing his body, obtained by the surgeons, was surrounded by a crowds. However, some ‘gentlemen’ did rescue his body and he was buried (though his resurrection was prevented).

To the modern mind, there does come the occasional complaint, reading the above – rescuing hanged bodies for proper burial is all very well, but why didn’t the crowd do more to rescue the condemned while they were, er, still alive…?

It’s complicated… Apart from the massive armed force often wheeled out to ensure hangings took place – it is also true that numerous attempts to rescue prisoners did take place, more often when people were arrested, or in aiding escape attempts from Newgate and other prisons; easier to achieve than escape on a hanging day. On occasion the crowds did mob the hangman and beat him up, at least once preventing the execution.

However, a complex set of mores was at work; did the majority in the London crowds accept execution in itself? Was a distinction was made between accepting the death sentence as the righteous judgement of the law and the cutting up of their corpses, which was perceived as crossing a line? There seems to be some evidence that this was the case. But the London crowds were never homogenous, and a wide range of opinion thronged the streets, often evolving and swinging one way and another.

As said earlier, many superstitious people may have believed that the spirits of the dead could exact revenge on the living – but the ‘mobility’ were also capable of embodying that spirit of vengeance themselves., on behalf of the deceased:

“Cornelius Saunders, blind from birth, came to London from Amsterdam at the age of ten in 1740. For years he lived from hand to mouth in the outer eastern and northern parishes of London. In the spring and summer he was casually employed by street carters to call out vegetables and greens. He assisted the white coopers in making wash-tubs during the winter and autumn months; not regular work certainly, but it earned him a few pence and perhaps meals and drink. Even a scratch-as-scratch-can existence if implanted in a network of permanent acquaintances and membership in particular neighbourhoods had its own kind of security. He lodged in Lamb Street, Spitalfields, where he did domestic duties in the household of Mrs White, a victualler, in return for a place to sleep and the important perquisite of the empty wooden packing crates. These he supplied to the coopers in the Minories who remade them into wash-tubs, bathing-tubs, casks and household containers. In the summer of 1763, while fetching salmon kits from Mrs White’s basement he came across her cache of savings, some thirty guineas hidden in a shoebox, and stole it. Blind Cornelius Saunders was well known in the neighbourhood ; so the next day when he paraded himself in Moorfields decked in a new suit of clothes and silver knee-buckles, the constables sent out by Mrs White had no trouble in finding him and recovering the money. W e cannot get closer to the resentments bred of thirteen years’ service and dependence which led to this foolish theft, nor to the venomous spite of his benefactress which seems to have informed her day-to-day dealings with him. We do know that to the inhabitants of Spitalfields, Aldgate and the Minories Mrs White’s prosecution at the Old Bailey was far more brutal than the case deserved, where a ducking at the conduit or a thrashing in the street (an extra-judicial and commonly administered direct punishment) would have been more usual. The strength of feeling against this recourse to the justice o f the Old Bailey showed itself in the attempted rescue o f Saunders on the way to Tyburn (it came to nothing) and again after his body was cut down from the gallows. ‘The giddy multitude’ protected his body from the surgeons and then ‘for the purpose of riot and misapplied revenge’ carried it across London to Spitalfields and Mrs White’s house in Lamb Street. ‘ Great numbers of people assembled’, forced open her door, carried out all her furniture and all her salmon tubs, and burnt them in the street before her house. A guard of soldiers was called; but ‘to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, the populace pelted them with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed’ ”.

Much of the above was derived from the classic The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons, Peter Linebaugh, from where the quotes are mostly taken.


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

Today in London’s squatting history: Hackney Social Centre squat opens, Lower Clapton, 2008.

The Hackney Social Centre grew out of meetings through the Northeast Squatters Network, which was working to strengthen solidarity and skill-sharing locally between the squats in north-east London. The decided to occupy the former Chimes nightclub at 231 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, to create a non-commercial social space, planning activities such as free language lessons, a donations-only cafe, a free shop, meetings of local groups, skill-share sessions and a bike workshop – “a place to imagine and build alternative futures for our neighbourhood. This building is a small step, but we make the road by walking.”

After squatting the building, the group faced three weeks of violent attacks and attempted illegal evictions – twice by the owner of the property, and once by the police – before the Hackney Social Centre opened on February 14th 2008.

“We’ve opened in spite of early challenges because we’re tired of yuppie maisonettes forcing up to housing prices, while buildings are empty and affordable housing is eaten away. We’ve opened because we’re set to resist and oppose the threats posed by gentrification, capitalism and the upcoming Olympic Games. We’ve opened because Hackney needs free spaces – spaces to escape the divisions of capitalism and the profit-hungry rat-race… After four weeks in the building we were shocked by two sets of violent attacks – first by purported representatives of Howun Estates Ltd (the company the owns the property) and then by the Hackney Metropolitan Police! The attacks of last week (on the 22nd and 23rd of January) definitely shook the building and its occupants, but have only left us more convicted and committed. Within 11minutes of the first attack nearly 30 members of the local activist community had arrived on the premises. Our network is strong, and we look forward to many many days exploring the potential and possibilities of Hackney’s newest autonomous zone.”

Meetings, a feminist gathering, discussions, film showings, regular meals and benefits, graffiti workshops, open mike nights, practical workshops on many topics, self-defence classes, were just a few of the numerous events the centre hosted in its few months of existence…

The Social Centre’s scheduled eviction was successfully resisted on Monday 21 April by over 60 people – both inside and outside the building.

The Hackney Social Centre was eventually evicted on May 16, 2008, after two unsuccessful eviction attempts in April. Many of the people living at the Social Centre have since returned to their countries, others are still in London, involved in different projects. The Social Centre was a brief but valuable experiment in active resistance and active defence of a large autonomous space in Hackney.

Read more

The centre has since re-opened as the White Hart pub…


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

Today in legal history: six Committee of 100 activists go on trial, for breaching Official Secrets Act, 1962.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as the Cold War arms race increased stockpiles of nuclear missiles across the world, and superpower tensions brought us to the brink of World War 3, movements arose protesting the existence of such irrevocable weaponry and campaigning for disarmament. In Britain, organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament focused on marches, petitioning and demonstrations. However, a more radical wing emerged, dissatisfied with this approach, which launched campaigns of direct actions to blockade and disrupt nuclear missile bases and the government institutions responsible for ‘defence’. First through the Direct Action Committee, from 1957, and through the more high profile Committee of 100, from 1960, this more radical wing of the anti-nuclear movement organised sit-down protests in Whitehall and outside the US embassy, and at missile bases.

Police were ordered to take a hard line against them from the start. Hundreds were arrested on the demos in central London; but the 1961 campaign targeting bases brought fiercer repression.

ON 8th December 1961, six leading activists from the anti-nuclear direct action organisation, the Committee of 100, were arrested as they prepared for demonstrations at Wethersfield NATP base and other nuclear sites. Ian Dixon, Helen Allegranza, Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Terry Chandler and Trevor Hatton were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and remanded on bail.

Their trial began on February 12th 1962.

“Despite the Attorney General’s assertion at the outset that it was not a ‘political prosecution… They are being prosecuted… on account of their conduct which…. Amounted to the commission of a criminal offence,” the trial was above all else a highly charged confrontation between the ideology of the Committee of 100 and the ideology of the state. The contrast between the refusal of the judge to allow evidence relating to the beliefs and motivations of the Committee and the overtly political nature of the prosecution’s case brought into sharp relief the already extant move of the Committee activists towards an anarchist or libertarian socialist analysis.

… Early in the trial the Judge ruled that, whilst the purpose of the accused in going to the base was relevant, their motives of beliefs were not. In his opening statement the Attorney general had outlined three questions for the jury to decide, the last of which was to decide whether the protestors’ purposes were prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State. In his submission, he had added, any interference with the defence system of the country must obviously be so. Mr Jeremy Hutchinson, who acted for all the defendants save Pottle, based his defence on three basic points: that the defendants did not intend to prejudice the safety and interest of the State by their actions; that their beliefs were reasonable and well supported by the evidence; and that their actions were not in fact prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State.

By his ruling that evidence relating to motives and beliefs was inadmissible, and his further statements that any evidence which sought to challenge the defence system of the country, and any evidence about the effects of nuclear explosions, dangers of war, etc., were also to be disallowed, the judge effectively ruled out of order the whole defence case.

The defence case rested ultimately on the moral duty of using non-violent resistance to oppose genocide through nuclear war. Parallels were drawn with Nazism and the Nuremberg judgments. (In the circumstances, Pat Pottle’s achievement in establishing that the prosecution witness, Air Commodore Magill, would, if ordered, ‘press the nuclear button’, was nevertheless a telling point in the defendants’ case.)

In an exchange with the judge, for example, Randle argued:

Every individual must finally decide whether millions of lives are threatened by a particular act, and in that situation I think they have the right to make that decision… There were people in Germany during the Nazi regime who were ordered to commit what have since been defined as crimes against humanity. They would have ben going against the law of their country by disobeying their order. I feel they have a moral duty to disobey that order in that situation.

Judge: As far as I can see it means this doesn’t it, if you disagree with the law you break it?

Randle: Not in general, only in particular situations… Where I think it is flouting basic human rights I will certainly disobey it, and I feel it would be a moral obligation to disobey… I feel that the use of nuclear weapons is always contrary to basic human rights. I cannot see any situation in which they would be justified against human beings.

Randle went on to put forward the Committee’s objective of filling the jails so that the Government ‘would have to face up to the logic of being prepared to commit genocide, If they are prepared to do it against people they must be prepare to do it against us. That is the position we want to put them in.’

There was a conceptual, ideological and cultural gulf between the Attorney-General and the defendants that was unbridgeable. Sir Reginald [Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General] appeared genuinely baffled: ‘What he [Randle] said amounted, did it not, to this: “we have decided what laws we broke, after very careful consideration… And where we see fit, we break the law.” It really is an admission of rather an astonishing character.’

Ultimately the case turned on these rival conceptions – which were fundamental, moral, and political – and not upon legal niceties. The legal smokescreen merely disguised, somewhat ineffectively, the clash of ideologies and cultures. There was never any doubt that the judge would virtually direct the jury to find the defendants guilty. Even so, the jury was out for four hours before entering a ‘guilty’ verdict, and even then recommended leniency. The sentences were harsh… All five men were sentenced to eighteen months in prison and Helen Allegranza to one year.”

Although the six defendants acquitted themselves well in court, the trial had a disastrous effect on the movement. “Not only was the movement deprived of its most able and experienced leaders for a long period, but the deterrent effect of the sentences was certainly a major factor in the Committee’s decline during 1962. The trial brought home to the Committee its inadequacy when faced by the might of the state. It was probably this more than anything else which brought about the demoralisation which… affected the Committee increasingly through 1962 and into early 1963. The trial indicated that the use of Non-Violent Direct Action alone, on the lines advocated and practiced by the Committee of 100, was neither powerful nor sophisticated enough to challenge seriously and in the long term the power of the State.”

Many of the leading elements of both the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 identified themselves as coming from an anarchist or libertarian socialist standpoint, and this influenced their emphasis on direct action, rather than the appealing to the state that had characterised CND. Committee of 100 activists would go on in 1963-4 to investigate and release details of the secret command systems for civil defence, under the name Spies for Peace.

Well worth reading: Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1964, Richard Taylor, from which quotes in this post are taken.

A parliamentary publication on the history of the Official Secrets Act.


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