South London’s former Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising: during the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500. Interestingly too, Myatt’s Fields Park in the Lambeth end of Camberwell was built in 1887-8 by the unemployed! After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886 the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for doleys. Locals had been campaigning since 1874 for pastureland and market gardens here to be turned into a park. It opened in 1889.
In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.
After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime. Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.
In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.
Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.
“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”
On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.
In 1922, the Camberwell Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc.)announced plans to stop distribution of free milk for babies of the unemployed. On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.
Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Camberwell Board of Guardians. A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue.
Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.” They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”
Not a line that would pick up votes today.
There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times. What their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.
Another interesting snippet on Camberwell unemployed organising…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.